Friday, January 16, 2015

THE ART OF BASEBALL HISTORY AND ITS PRACTITIONERS

GOOD news and a wonderful discovery are what's prompting us to dig out of our mid-winter baseball lethargy and fire up another exercise in "blogolalia."

The good news is that Terry Cannon and his minions at the Baseball Reliquary are now ensconced in a permanent home. Later today, at Whittier College, the Institute for Baseball Studies will get the proverbial bottle of champagne cracked over its doorknob and there will be a physical location for those  enamored in the art of baseball history to visit in search of whatever form of baseball enlightenment they profess to seek.

You are all encouraged to visit the Institute's Facebook page and join their community. As you'll see, there's no shortage of content to be found there--and when you arrive at the Institute, you'll find a key resource that automatically makes them into a destination: the papers of peerless baseball historian Paul Dickson.

This is truly the beginning of the next phase in the life of the Baseball Reliquary and its associated activities on behalf of "the art of baseball history."

IN the midst of this, that "wonderful discovery"--a singular blog presence that embodies "the art of baseball history" in ways that parallel--and, perhaps, augment--the work of the Baseball Reliquary.

Artist/designer/historian Gary Cieradkowski, in a humble, unassuming way, has staked a claim as one of the great practitioners of the "art of baseball history" with his Infinite Baseball Card Set. The blog is an ongoing creation of a very unusual, highly eclectic collision of baseball lore and Gary's own immense skill as an artist/poster designer.

Thus far, there are 184 entries in
what could indeed be an infinite baseball card set--where hidden lore and the romance of early baseball (when it was a good bit more liberated from the mass-media manipulation that has come into being over the past half-century) can blissfully coexist.

Cieradkowski combines history and art in a uniquely entertaining way: his love for the lore and for the odd details of individual lives and unusual events is exactly what "the art of baseball history" is all about. He is mining territory similar/adjacent to what "reformed sabermetrician" Craig Wright has been doing so well for many years, but the added dimension here is the visual accompaniment. The cards (and Gary's baseball poster art) all straddle a fine line between referencing baseball's primordial "design sense"--the pre-Art Deco conventions of early twentieth-century commercial photography and his own bold-but-subtle updating of that style, as can be seen in two examples of his poster work.

Hours of entertaining forays into unknown stories, or unusual takes on familiar ones, can be found at the blog. (His most recent entry, tracing the story of the mysterious pitcher who made it safe to be mysterious--Fred Mitchell "Mysterious" Walker--is a full meal disguised as a treat.)

Even though it's criminally old-fashioned to say so, it really ought to be a book--a big, bright book of baseball love that can sustain and console the desolate baseball fan during the winter interregnum.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

WE CAN ALL REST EASY FOR ANOTHER YEAR... (4 IN THE HOF)

The lingering talk of a massive BBWAA clusterf*ck is going to have to drift into other topics: today's Hall of Fame voting results plowed through three first-time candidates (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz) and elected Craig Biggio (who missed in '14 due to a couple of hanging chads), while putting Mike Piazza (just under 70% of the vote) in position to appear on the Cooperstown dais in 2016.

This year's election was the first time in sixty years that the BBWAA enshrined four players on a single ballot. The four who made it in 1955: Joe DiMaggio, Dazzy Vance, Ted Lyons, Gabby Hartnett.

We are still astonished at the across-the-board support for Smoltz, who by rights should be drawing support somewhere between Curt Schilling (who wound up with 39% of the vote this year) and Mike Mussina (25%). As noted earlier, we can only conclude that a narrative of success penetrated the collective unconscious of the voter population (cynics may wish to issue an apology to Carl Jung on my behalf).

No movement, vote percentage-wise, for the two greatest
players not in the Hall of Fame.
Smoltz is, of course, deserving, but he really must be seen as one of the more curious anomalies in the often-vilified BBWAA voting process.

For 2016, we anticipate two inductees: Piazza and first-time candidate Ken Griffey, Jr. Enough ballot clearance might also permit Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell (each with about 55%) to make significant strides with BBWAA voters.

There was very little movement in the voting percentages for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and it remains clear that the Hall of Fame's action to slice off ballot time is indeed an odious effort to remove them from view just as soon as possible.

But, hey! Congrats to the new inductees. We suggest that those who wish to honor them in person this summer do so, but refrain from spending any money at the Hall of Fame itself. The organization deserves to be punished as much as the players deserve to be honored.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TALES OF TWO-DIMENSIONALITY part 249d: EXTINCTION OF LOW-POWER WALKMEN

Two quick data items to illustrate the impact of the inexorable, long-term, continuing transition toward a two-dimensional game glutted (and, increasingly, glutted strategically) by an over-emphasis on the long ball.

First, the source data for these. It's a series of extractions from the Play Index at Forman et fils, capturing all of the players with a three-year walk percentage (abbreviated BBP) of 12.5% or higher. (There have been just over 2600 instances of this since the three year period of 1900-1902 through the most recent, which, of course, is 2012-14.)

One of the things that protects the three-dimensional aspect of baseball strategy is that players can have characteristics that are seemingly contradictory in nature. In other words, things that might seem mutually exclusive--speed and power--can co-exist. Often these mutually exclusive characteristics do become truly and irrevocably separate: power and speed are well-known to separate by the age of a player, for example.

But they still tend to co-exist to at least some extent. Which is how the game perpetuates some semblance of three-dimensionality.

Another such area of "semi-mutual exclusivity" is low power and the ability to draw walks. As the game morphed into a version of itself where home runs were much more frequent, changes in how walks and low power co-existed came about. Our patented "telescope chart" (at right), which puts yearly data into a grid organized by decades, shows what happened with respect to "low power" hitters with well-above-average walk totals.

The shocking part of this chart is found at the bottom, where you can see that such hitters have literally disappeared from the game.

These players were always a rather small minority (the overall average for players with 12.5+% BBP and an isolated power average under .100 now resides at about 13% of all such hitters with a 12.5+% BBP), but even into the nineties these players continued to exist.

That is no longer the case--and this trend actually pre-dates the offensive downturn of the most recent years.

So perhaps some of our "pundit pals" who scoop up so many of our ideas (without giving proper credit from where they come from, by the way...) will be ready to mount the barricades with this one, given that it can fit into a meme about baseball is going back to the "second deadball era" (specifically, 1966-71, as captured by the "zeroes" on the above chart).

All that makes for a good headline, but it doesn't get at the fact that all this is a most interesting and baffling backfire for a sport suddenly inundated with "metrics" and "analysis." We have a lot of trouble keeping our food down when confronted with that first term, but we are (despite whispers to the contrary) not against the second term, particularly if it could be used for some long-overdue self-reflection on the part of its most flamboyant purveyors.

Our second data item: a more specialized look at how even more elite "walkmen" (the term we coined back in the nineties for glorious anomalies such as Max Bishop, Roy Cullenbine, Eddie Yost, Ferris Fain, and a few other folks who didn't hit with power but managed to take walks at a rate equivalent to the most feared power hitters) have inexorably been requiring an increasing level of isolated power in order to achieve ultra-high walk totals. (For this chart, players need to have a three-year average BBP of 15% or higher.)

Dave Magadan, attempting to explain to a young fan just what has
happened to all the low-power walkmen. 
As the arrow and the ovals demonstrate (see chart at left above), the power axis for walkmen has continued to climb. One wonders if it can go any higher before the game really starts to lose some of its second dimension along with its third.

Notice, also, down in the lower right corner of the chart--the complete absence of any sub-.100 ISO hitter with 15+% BBP. No one has done that over a three-year period since 1995-97.

Who was that last low-power "walkman"?

Why...Dave Magadan, of course. (Doesn't everyone know that??)

Monday, December 29, 2014

TALES OF TWO-DIMENSIONALITY part 249c: BASERUNNER ADVANCEMENT AVERAGES

A quick one as we work up another, more elaborate "tale of two-dimensionality"...

Ever wonder just how often baserunners go from first to third on a single? Score from first on a double? Score from second on a single? Or are you the type that would rather focus on individual data, a la TOOTBLAN?

Not that TOOTBLAN isn't worth some of your time. However, there's more to baserunning than just how often players get thrown out. (This is another area where Bill James pushed folks down a particular path only because the data was suddenly so easy to compute...he's had more than his alotted share of these moments.)

What we need are some benchmarks. Forman et fils take us part of the way with their presentation of baserunning advancement data; they decided to lump all advancement together, though, despite having enough detail in the three separate advancement categories mentioned above.

So we decided to provide that detail--and, while we were at it, graph the changes that it has undergone over the past thirty years.

By collecting, collating, and averaging these three advancement categories, we can see if things like run-scoring levels, increases in home runs, etc. are having an effect on how often baserunners take extra bases.

And our chart at right suggests that it's a kind of "split decision" (you know, the ones that make boxing fans suspicious). It turns out that there's been a noticeable decline in the percentages for going from first to third and from second to home on a single (red line and purple line respectively).

Going from first to home on a double, however, has gone through some downs and ups but is currently quite close to the frequency that was in place back in 1982 (remember, these are four-year averages, and "1982" refers to the years 1979-1982; "2014" refers to the years 2011-2014).

(Note that these figures are the decimal equivalents of percentages: .700 at the top means 70%, etc.)

So what's causing it? High run scoring? Complacency? More aggressive outfield play? The vagaries of globalization?? Hard to say. But it's clear that baserunning has become more conservative over time. Whether consistently lower run-scoring levels will eventually affect these trends is something about which we'll simply have to "wait and see." The trend lines are pointing slightly up. We can only hope, of course--the fact of the matter is that this is another indicator of the game's creeping rapprochement with two-dimensionality...and it really would be a good idea to reverse the trend.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

EARLY HALL OF FAME VOTE ASTONISHMENT

We are too busy with other things to push much of the usual "new content" out at this time (and for some time to come), so we will "go topical" for awhile, as circumstances permit.

We won't be trying to do much with the Great Off-Season Upheaval, at least not at this point, since all signals are that we are still in the midst of it and anything more than a single-team spotlight (as was the case in our most previous post) would be woefully premature.

Which leads to the topic of this post--which is also woefully premature. But it's an interesting snapshot in time that we can return to later, so here goes.

Thus far, in the voting reported by Darren "Repoz" Viola (Baseball Think Factory's long-time punmeister), who has of late been joined by young Ryan Thibs (actually, we have no idea how old Mr. Thibs may be, but his tone is so earnest and eager to please that one wants him to be young if only to bolster a lingering--if endangered--set of received stereotypes), the early Hall of Fame results contain one exceptionally astonishing result.

What's that? "That" is John Smoltz. Earlier we'd written that Smoltz deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, but that his career as a whole doesn't create a compelling case for him to rise above other already-on-the-ballot pitchers who are working their way through the player logjam. Our specific comparison was Curt Schilling, whose career parallels Smoltz's in many ways--including a stellar post-season record.

But, in the early going, Smoltz is exceeding 85% of the vote. (Schilling, who received 29% of the vote in 2014, is also polling much better in the early going, and it is looking like we might have a "year of the pitcher" in the immediate ruckus surrounding last year's reprehensible change in ballot eligibility length.)

So what is the reason for this unexpected ballot strength? All "objective" measures don't account for it. Our guess is that Smoltz is receiving a big boost for having been with one of baseball's most historically successful franchises (the Braves, who appeared in every non-canceled post-season from 1991-2004).

Even more than Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Smoltz is identified with the Braves due to his longevity with the franchise. His stint in the bullpen from 2001-04, after recovering from an arm injury that cost him the entire 2000 season, seems to have added lustre to his resumé, as did his late-career success once returned to the rotation (44-24, 135 ERA+ from 2005-07).

All of that, as impressive as it is, does not translate into a first-ballot induction. At least not in our book. That is why we are astonished by what we're seeing thus far. (We suspect that Smoltz will ultimately fall short of enshrinement this time round--but, then again...) It is a reminder that other factors beyond the individual achievements (however those may be measured) will occasionally take charge in a voting process that is, at best, only semi-rational.

Friday, December 12, 2014

RED SOX GO BLUE COLLAR IN OFF-SEASON MAKEOVER

After their "Latin land grab" (Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval), the Boston Red Sox have moved from the world of elite free agents into the demimonde of tontons flingueurs--a phrase that an inebriated Frenchman might hurl at the parade of slightly shopworn pitchers who will now apparently populate the Boston starting rotation.

Now pitching for the Red Sox....Lino Ventura???
(The English translation of tontons flingueurs, by the way, is "crooks in clover" and refers to a team of semi-inept heist artists who stumble into a job that literally materializes at their feet...and that's just about what's happened in terms of the Sox rotation, which looks like a random laundry list come to life.)

It's going to be a "blue collar" staff (instead of "blue chip," which would have been a good description of the Phillies "Phour Aces" awhile back, before the two Roys--Halladay and Oswalt--turned into pumpkins) and that is, in fact, a lot more refreshing than loading up on the type of heavy, four-course meal that often just grinds away at your digestive system, leaving you more bloated than a beached whale.

The Sox ace is still Clay Buchholz, the man of many on-mound mood swings, but we're sure that Bill James (in his wise but crotchety counsel) is convinced that Clay will morph back into form now that he's turning 30. (There are so many conflicting reports about how to assess and project starting pitchers that one's head could spin right off one's head, but Bill is probably right, at least in this case.)

Behind him now are Joe Kelly, coughed up by the Cardinals in the John Lackey trade; Rick Porcello, on hand from the Tigers in exchange for the sullen (or so they say...) Yoenis Cespedes; Dixie-fried southpaw Wade Miley, acquired from the Diamondbacks; and Justin Masterson, another enigmatic righthander who will try to disprove Thomas Wolfe's infamous maxim.

All in all, this doesn't look to be any better or worse than what the Royals trotted out last year on their way to that improbable trip to the World Series, but they had a bullpen that was beyond "blue chip." The Sox don't have that component in place--at least not yet--and that's something they'll need to address if they expect to contend with these guys as the basis of their starting rotation.

But we do love the "blue collar" move here, as it signals some intriguing combination of creativity and desperation, and we prefer our Red Sox experience (both with the team and with its uniquely obnoxious fan base) to be one based on roiling anxiety and inchoate currents of dread. So...onward into that uncertain dawn...and remember that you can always bleach the snot out of those blue collars if need be.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"GOLDEN ERA" VOTERS NEED TO AVOID "GOLDEN GOOSE-EGG"...

Some of our absence here of late is due to an incredibly hectic schedule in other phases of life--yes, folks, there is more to existence than the vagaries of horsehide...

...and some of it stems from the rhythms of baseball's off-season timing as it has morphed over the past couple of decades, with its less predictable (in fact, downright lumpy) event patterns. Much of our commentary in this time frame would be dangerously indistinguishable from the pseudo-speculative drivel passing for analysis in the four billion corners of the blogosphere--and while we would unquestionably be more cunning and prescient than 95% of the bandwidth-clog available to plague your synapses, it's just not worth the effort when so many other, more effective ways of amusing yourselves to death are so readily accessible...

Of course, we've still got plenty up our sleeve, and we promise to get back to unraveling it soon enough...but, for now, let's check in with a quick rejoinder to the silly sub-faction of what used to be called the "Veterans Committee" in the (ahem...) Hall of Fame voting process.

Yes, they're b-a-a-ck. Tomorrow (about twelve hours from now, in fact) the results of the "Golden Era Committee" (sounds like they should all be dipped in something, now, doesn't it?) voting process will splurt itself out into public view, much like the sound of a 99.99% empty toothpaste tube excreting its final effluvium onto an unsuspecting toothbrush.

Ten men have been propped up for disappointment, dismay, or deafening silence (for those candidates who are already dead and gone...) at the hands of sixteen guys in search of an easy way out. The names of those ten men, in alphabetical order:

Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Bob Howsam, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant, Maury Wills.

(The four names in bold, BTW, are those folk who've been honored already by our friends at the Baseball Reliquary, whose membership inducted Messrs. Allen, Minoso, Tiant and Wills into their Shrine of the Eternals.)

Now, our view, remaining consistent with the notion that "fame" is equal parts excellence and notoriety, thus demanding the widest of all reasonably possible nets to ensnare players and other forms of baseball ligan, is that five of the folk listed above have claims for Cooperstown.

Those five: Allen, Boyer, Hodges, Minoso, Tiant.

Why not the other five?

Quickly:

(Howsam) No GMs should be on this ballot--apples/oranges. There should be a separate process for them.
(Kaat) Fits the definition of a "compiler," and is without any other compelling narrative.
(Oliva) Peak is not high enough or long enough.
(Pierce) Not enough peak, overly unbalanced home/road performance.
(Wills) Too much of a one-trick pony.

Of this group, Hodges and Minoso received the most votes from the "Golden Boys" previously.

How many votes will each of these guys get this time? Include us out of that particular masturbatory manifestation. All we'll say is that it will be close for Minnie and Gil, but it will be no cigar for Tiant (a damned shame, too, since no one looked more jaunty with a stogy than ol' Looie, and we'd love to see him light one up on the dais...).

We will hope that Allen will get seven or eight votes this time, signaling that at least some of the silly, sanctimonious hypocrisy and "received lugnut-ism" that so many have inherited from the single most reprehensible set of sentences ever written by Bill James will at last dissipate into the ether...but we won't hold our breath--or yours, either. [EDIT: In fact, we harbor suspicions that Howsam is on the candidate list primarily as a means to insure that this voting body will have a "safe" choice, one that bypasses any controversy concerning the merits of those who actually played on the field.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

DID WE SAY WE WOULDN'T WRITE ABOUT THE HALL OF FAME ANYMORE?

Yes. We did.

Um, no. We didn't.

What we said (back in late July, when the craven folks who run the HOF changed their voting procedures) was that me, you and ten-plus million dogs named Boo (the perfect appellation in this instance, n'est-ce pas?) should boycott these mofos until they rescind this rule.

Just as folks today want to send a message to the cloistered world of uber-wealthy white greedocrats that the justice system actually pay lip service to its own procedures (cough-Ferguson-cough), those of us who want to protect the principles of fairness should make sure that we give these holier-than-thou, pompous pariahs a battering at the cash register.

That said, we did not say that we would cease and desist with respect to the results of Hall of Fame balloting--effed up as it now is.

Sorry to dash any hopes out there. (Or, alternatively, sorry to interrupt your sleep...)

We'll keep this brief. We dodged Whisky Jack, at least for now. There is nothing egregious on the ballot in that way, at least not for awhile (we'll let you figure out who the next Whisky Jack might be on your own).

There are too many worthy players to put on a 10-man ballot (wonder if the HOF chimps would be brazen enough to decrease that as well? Don't put anything past these guys...), which forces us (and you, and Boo, and the journalistic demimonde who actually get to vote on all this) to create a tactical ballot.

That means, as noted previously, leaving off Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who will probably have to wait into their late sixties before they finally get the call.

With that doubly reluctant double omission, we get down to the folks that go on the ballot:

New eligibles: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez.

No-brainers here.

The other guys that should go in this year (but only one will): Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell.

That's right: just Biggio, who barely missed (two votes) last year. Clearing the decks here with two worthy guys somehow still caught up in the 'roids rage idiocy--Piazza and Bagwell--would be the way to go, but as Mike O'Hara (Orson Welles) says in The Lady From Shanghai: "It's a bright, guilty world." (Actually, he could have left off the first adjective in that assertion...)

The "movie star...and the rest!" (figure out that reference without Google, and win a free used cigar!): Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling.

Folks will want Alan Trammell here. He's worthy, but no amount of effort will get him elected (14th year, 20% of the vote last time). Sammy Sosa is tainted, Gary Sheffield has a strong enough case of "Dick Allen Disease" that he will struggle to stay on the ballot.

Some folks think John Smoltz will rise up the ballot in short order and join his Atlanta amigos in 2016/17. We would like some of what they are smoking. Smoltz has 95% of the case that Schilling has, but--just like birth order in family dynamics--he's coming on board behind a candidate who is a better (and older, more established) version of what he is. Figure on 15-20% for him at this point, and no real traction until Schilling rises up the ballot (which will take a few more years). He belongs, but given the new reprehensible rule, he (like many others) may have to go in via the side entrance.

Folks will think we are stubborn about Edgar Martinez, and they're half-right. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be leeway for non-numeric considerations in this type of voting. Not that Edgar isn't qualified numerically. He's just the victim of a lot of overthinking by bright folks who should know better. Even in a jammed ballot, room must be made for players who bring an inestimable aesthetic dimension to the baseball diamond. Edgar managed to do that as well or better than anyone despite rarely taking the field. He did so as the most interesting batter of his generation to watch while at the plate (and if you don't think so, you aren't watching enough baseball).

Only a few players make the batting process into something intensely cerebral, and do so in a way that radiates across an entire stadium. Edgar is one of those select few. There will a spot for him on our HOF ballot until the bitter end.

There it is. Nothing more needs to be said until the votes have been counted. Of course, that won't stop anyone, now, will it?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

ALL-TIME ASTRAL TEAMS (aka ZODIAC LEAGUE)/12: SCORPIO

We wrap up the Zodiac League previews with a stinging proviso--that the Scorpio "A" team is sitting on a starting rotation that is as deadly as the scorpion's tale itself.

Sometime soon--when we are not editing a movie, planning a film festival, or putting the finishing touches on our new office space--we will consolidate all of the info regarding the Zodiac League, and get ready to actually play it. Will our off-the-cuff predictions be worth a pitcher of John Nance Garner joy juice?

(Oddly enough, John Nance Garner--FDR's first vice president--was born on November 22.)



The Scorpio "A's" (that's "A-team," not Athletics, in case you're arriving here for the first time...) aren't sitting especially high in hitting. Here is their projected batting order:

Bid McPhee, 2b; Bill Terry, 1b; Stan Musial, lf; Ken Griffey Jr., cf; Ed Delahanty, rf'; Roy Campanella, c; Pie Traynor, 3b; Rabbit Maranville or Bobby Wallace, ss

Lineup slots 2-6 are pretty solid (Bill Terry is a bit better than most people think, and Campy should drive in a lot of runs), but the edges are a bit fuzzy.

But the pitching--particularly the starting rotation--will give you goose bumps.

Starters
Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling

Relievers
Willie Hernandez, Bob Stanley, Al Holland, Joe Page, Jim Brewer, Mark Eichhorn

In the immortal words of Hughie Jennings (not on this team...): "Ee-yah!"



The "B" team is more "balanced" in that its pitchers are just about as spotty as its projected batting order:

Toby Harrah, 2b; Rick Monday, cf; Gary Sheffield, rf; David Ortiz, 1b; Ralph Kiner, lf; Vern Stephens, ss; Ned Williamson, 3b; Deacon McGuire, c

The "A" team could use Stephens, but the rules are that we go with the Hall of Famer on the "A" team (unless there are none for any particular defensive position). The "B" team, which doesn't have to follow that rule, thus gets a badly needed break.

Here's the pitching:

Starters
Jim Bunning, Carl Mays, Dwight Gooden, Jim Kaat, Dave McNally, John Candelaria

Relievers
Rawly Eastwick, Armando Benitez, Pete Richert, Gene Garber, Jeff Nelson, Joe Hoerner

There is a lot of pitching depth in Scorpio-land, certainly more than any other astrological sign. The "A" team is seriously loaded, and it will be very interesting to see how they do.

All we need do now is set the controls for the heart of the sun...