Saturday, November 27, 2010


Here's a surprise: not only does it appear that no one has answered this question, but it seems that no one has bothered to look at it at all. (Who says nature abhors a vacuum?)

Jose Lopez: putting the turkey back into Turkey Day?
Perhaps it's because the concept is too recondite (yes, we need that fancy word for "obscure" here). It could also be that "being born on Thanskgiving Day" is far less of a fixed proposition than being "born on the Fourth of July," or Christmas, or (thanks to recent events) on 9/11.

Being born on Thanksgiving Day is a kind of fluke thing that happens to folks whose natal day occurs between November 22-28, and even once it happens, that birthday only rarely falls on Thanksgiving Day from that point forward due to the vagaries of the calendar. (It doesn't quite have the "puff of smoke" quality that goes with being born on February 29th, of course, when one's birthday simply disappears for three years.)

Lots of baseball players were born between November 22 and November 28, but only a precious few were actually born on Thanksgiving Day. There are barely more players born that day that one can count on the fingers of both hands (even if you happen to be Antonio Alfonseca): the most recent of these is Jose Lopez, born November 23, 1983. (We won't spoil the caption by repeating its punch line here.)

It's a bit tougher if you are Ricky Ledee, however. Though it's possible that such never really becomes even a minor issue for the journeyman outfielder, the fact remains that Ledee's natal day (November 22) was one of several Thanksgiving Days to coincide with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (For the record, Thanksgiving Day occurred on November 28th in 1963.)

Walt Weiss: Doing the Mashed Potato over second base
Yes, I know you're thinking, this can't be the answer, because if it is, I'm going to get hold of Malcolm's email address and stuff his in-box with everything I can get my hands on...and you'd almost be justified in doing so. (Kindly remember the admonition in this blog's very first post: "I won't if you won't.") So are there any players with substantial careers whose birthdays happened to fall on Thanksgiving Day?

Well, there's Walt Weiss. He played nearly twice as many games as Ledee (1495 as compared to the Yankee Dipper's 855.) Heck, Walt was actually an All-Star once (though I think it was an injury replacement). Perhaps the only reason to keep mentioning Walt is the fact he was actually born on the Thanksgiving Day that occurred six days after the tragedy in Dallas. No one ever called Walt "Mr. November."

Billy Rogell, with the secret ingredient for great
Turkey Day stuffing: old shoelaces
We are only barely moving up the food chain with our next player. Billy Rogell (born November 24, 1904) was pretty much the Walt Weiss of the 1930s--like Walt, he played shortstop for a successful team but deserved only a smidgen of the credit for that team's success. Rogell actually batted fifth for the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers in 1934, and drove in 100 runs despite hitting only three homers and fashioning an OPS+ that was slightly below league-average. (Would you believe that Hank Greenberg actually batted behind Rogell in the Tigers' batting order for most of 1934? Would you believe there's actually a ballplayer named Maxwell Smart??)

Fortunately, Rogell is nowhere near the best player born on Turkey Day (doubly fortuitous, as otherwise this post would need a snarkier title). We edge closer to the mashed potatoes and gravy with our next player. He didn't play shortstop, possibly due to a complete absence of foot speed. That's right, he was a catcher. (Tommy Lasorda, not otherwise known for his one-liners, rules the roost with this observation about him: "If he raced his pregnant wife, he'd finish third.") But the teams he's managed have finished first more than they've finished third, and he's only had three teams finish below .500 in eleven years.

Mike Scoscia, thankful for not winding up in the
hospital from yet another home-plate collision
Have you got it? Yes, it's Mike Scioscia, born Thanksgiving Day (November 27th) in 1958. It sure seemed that Mike was around longer than Weiss or Rogell, but he played fewer games than those guys--probably because he had all those stints on the DL after being laid out in a home-plate collision. Perhaps the most astonishing stat in his career data: he actually had 12 lifetime triples.

All right--this is getting just a little stale...there must be something better than this, right? Something that makes wading through all this verbiage at least semi-palatable? Could there actually be a Hall of Famer born on Thanksgiving Day in order to redeem this rickety concept? (And not Lloyd Waner, either.)

Well, yes. There is a Cooperstown inductee who needs to have the phrase "Born on Thanksgiving Day" added to his plaque. (And it ain't Little Poison: he was born March 16th.)

It's Lefty Gomez. (Yes, there's a faction of you out there whose response is, "That's not a Hall of Famer, that's Lefty Gomez!" But Frankie Frisch et fils put ol' Goofy in the side door in 1972, so why add to the already-rampant noise pollution?) His Turkey Day birthday was November 26, 1908.

Lefty Gomez, displaying a shoe that also doubles as
a Thanksgiving carving knife...
Despite his short career, Lefty was a pretty darned good pitcher, with two ERA titles and four 20-win seasons. He led the AL in strikeouts and shutouts three times. The Hall is not rotting from within because Lefty has a plaque in Cooperstown--there are other reasons for that.

And let's face it: Lefty's wit is probably what got him into the Hall. He was a funny fellow. The one-liners abound. For example, his response when Joe DiMaggio, who'd told the press that he hoped to play center field so well that they'd all forget Tris Speaker, let a Hank Greenberg line drive go over his head for a triple: "Roomie, if you keep playing Greenberg that shallow, you're going to make them forget Lefty Gomez."

There's some karmic thing at work here, methinks. A universe willing to work against its own entropy allows such random felicities as Lefty being a Turkey Day birthday boy--instead of, for example, Ty Cobb, or Hal Chase--or Jose (Have Needle, Will Travel) Canseco. Let's all be thankful for even this smallest of favors, eh?

Monday, November 22, 2010


We know that, in general, hitters decline from age 30 onwards.

We know that for every exception there are dozens who prove the rule.

But we don't know exactly how the decline phase behaves over time.

So, for fun, we're going to noodle around with small player subgroups from a variety of single years, where we can look at players who are the same age and take a more detailed look at the aging patterns they display.

Our first year: 1908.

Why 1908? It's the lowest of the low in terms of offense in the deadball era. This is the trough of hitting performance in all of baseball history. Though it's not relevant to the parameters of the study being made, the fact is that 1908 just happened to have two of the most exciting and controversial pennant races in baseball history, particularly in the National League (does "Merkle's Boner" ring a bell? Does the name Pavlov ring a bell??).

We're looking at hitters who were aged 32 in 1908. That gives us a felicitously "unlucky" number of players in the sample: thirteen. We'll look at several of them in a bit more detail, but here are the thirteen (listed in descending order of their career OPS+): Elmer Flick, Charlie Hickman, John Titus, Charlie Hemphill, Ed Hahn, Johnny Kling, Freddy Parent, George Browne, Joe Yeager, Frank Isbell, Germany Schaefer, Pat Moran, and Billy Gilbert.

Our first chart shows the summary of the "aging process" as fixed by the boundary between age 32 and age 33. We see the career plate appearances up to and including the age 32 season, followed by the number of plate appearances in the age 33 season until the end of the hitter's career. That's followed by the OPS+ as of age 32, compared with the OPS+ for the seasons age 33 until career's end.

As you can see, our thirteen players (one Hall of Famer, one colorful good-hit, no-field type, one unsung hitter, nine journeyman, and a future manager) got 82% of their career plate appearances by the end of their age-32 season. That's a percentage that we'll be able to track when we examine future "yearly classes" of players as we move forward in time.

Before we look at the details of the career patterns for these players, let's provide some background for them.

Elmer Flick, almost traded even-up for
Ty Cobb in 1907
Elmer Flick
One of the least known of all the members of the Hall of Fame, Flick played right field for the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia A's, and the Cleveland Naps from 1898-1910. He only played in 1483 games, and was inducted into the Hall by the Veterans Committee in 1963. His lifetime OPS+ (149) is extremely impressive, but his career bypassed the traditional "decline phase" and substituted a kamikaze dive. In 1908, a severe gastrointestinal malady sidelined Flick and hastened the end of his big league career. Only 32 when his career unraveled, he packed a lot of offensive firepower into the front end of his career, with seven seasons where his OPS+ was higher than 150.

Charlie Hickman
"Piano Legs" Hickman would have been a DH if the AL had put that rule into effect as early as the 1900s. His defensive lapses were the impetus behind a series of trades that caused him to play for a total of seven teams in twelve years (1897-1908). Hickman wasn't a patient hitter, walking less than 4% of the time, but he hit .361 in 1902 and finished second in homers three times. The man could hit, but when he stopped doing so in 1908 (at age 32) there was no place for him to hide.

John Titus
John Titus, known as "Silent John", had an
odd "toothpick habit...."
"Tight Ass" Titus, as he was known to some of his teammates because he was exceptionally stingy with a dollar, was a late-blooming outfielder, arriving with the Phillies at age 27 in 1903 and producing consistently solid hitting and defense over the next eleven seasons. Virtually unknown outside the world of specialty baseball researchers, Titus quietly put up a sweet little career: he also continued to hit well into his late 30s. Allan Wood's SABR bioproject entry for Titus has a series of enjoyable anecdotes about him: among other things, he was probably the last player to wear a handlebar moustache until Charlie Finley started paying the Oakland A's to wear facial hair in the early 70s (though he's clean-shaven in our photo.)

Charlie Hemphill
Hemphill's career did not begin auspiciously in 1899: the rookie began the year with the St. Louis Perfectos but found himself palmed off to the Cleveland Spiders in the middle of the season. (The Spiders, in case you don't know, are the all-time worst franchise in baseball history, going 20-134 in 1899 as a result of a "franchise manipulation" that turned the Spiders into baseball's ultimate "uncompetitive team.") After a year in the minors, Hemphill returned to have a workmanlike career  playing center and right for four AL teams (Pilgrims, Browns, Naps, and Highlanders) from 1901 on. His best year: 1908.

Ed Hahn
Hahn's chief claim to fame was playing right field for Fielder Jones's "Hitless Wonders," the 1906 Chicago White Sox, who upset their crosstown rivals in the World Series. Hahn was a hitless wonder that year, batting only .227, but he could take a walk, finishing second in the AL in bases on balls in 1907. Brock Hanke likes to talk about players who have a small window of major league time that begins in their late 20s (Hahn's rookie year was at age 29) as players whose teams are "skimming the cream" off their careers, and Hahn was definitely one of those. His hitting just fell apart at age 33--.181 in 1909, .113 (!!) in 1910.

Johnny Kling, with the mother of all bottleneck bats
Johnny Kling
Kling was the starting catcher for one of the greatest baseball dynasties of all time, the 1906-08 Chicago Cubs. An extremely accomplished billiard player who won the World Championship in the 1908-09 offseason, he missed the entire '09 season--and the Cubs missed him, finishing second. Kling returned in 1910, and the Cubs made it back to the World Series. He was fondly remembered: the early BBWAA gave him a respectable amount of support in the early Hall of Fame voting even though he essentially stopped hitting after the '10 season.

Pat Moran
Catcher Moran would retire in 1914 and immediately become a successful manager, taking the Phillies to the World Series in his first try in 1915. He's best known for being the manager of the 1919 Cincinnati Reds, whose post-season triumph that year was "aided" by the Black Sox. Moran died young, or he might have gone somewhere else and continued his pattern of taking his team to the World Series in his first year as manager.

Pat Moran (second from right), managing the 
1919 Cincinnati Reds
The rest of these guys--George Browne (played RF for McGraw's pennant-winning Giants in 1904-05); Billy Gilbert (weak-hitting SS/2B for McGraw's Giants from 1903-06); Frank Isbell (infielder for the White Sox from 1901-09, hit .308 in the '06 World Series); Germany Schaefer (infielder for the Tigers and Senators whose hitting bloomed in 1910-11); and Joe Yeager (infielder for four teams from 1898-1908)--are the anonymous supporting cast type. These guys tend to have only one or two "career year" upticks.

Our chart shows that, with the lone exception of Titus, the best hitters here got established early in their careers. The sections highlighted in yellow point to the "iambic" or "serpentine" development pattern that's fairly common in young players. (We'll be keeping track of this feature, if only to pass the results back to Brock Hanke, who's been waiting for a way to obtain some more empirical data about these matters.)                        

Career data for the thirteen hitters aged 32 in 1908
It also shows that it's age 30 when player usage peaks for these guys, and that the number of plate appearances in 1908 for this group begins to nosedive. You can see the "selection bias" coming into play at age-34, when most of the bad hitters have retired; and earlier at age 24, when Flick and Hickman have excellent seasons but there's no one else with any significant playing time.

I was more than a bit surprised at the number of late or delayed starts in this group, and that Flick (whose presence in the Hall of Fame makes it seem that he had a "short career") is the player here with the most lifetime plate appearances.                                                        

Saturday, November 20, 2010


After there was the Baseball Abstract, and before there was the Big Bad Baseball Annual, there was Brock J. Hanke, who took over Bill James's book from 1989 to 1994 and gave it a format that was the template for all of the baseball annuals that followed. Brock and I have known each other for four decades, and that's always been all to the good, through much thin and too little thick--or possibly the reverse. He was willing to put some of my most shameless stuff into print, and has been willing to take the heat for it with unfailing good cheer.

He also anchored the player comments secitons of all the editions of BBBA, bringing a rigor combined with low-key humor that kept the heavily orchestrated chaos that surrounded him from taking over.

It's his birthday today, and we wish him nothing but the very best.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Here in the interstice between Cy Young Award announcements, it might be worth a few moments to trot out a little method for ranking the candidates.

It's always struck me that relying on any single statistical measure--whether "advanced" or dinosaur-like--is the quintessence of what I've taken to calling "Baseball Stalinism" (and you know what those initials spell). Hence a method that incorporates a series of new and traditional "metrics" (a word that really deserves to die a horrible death...) is going to be preferable.

With that, here's how what I'm calling "Weighted Cy Young Award Points" works. We have seven categories (as you'll see on the tables delineating the results for AL and NL 2010 below):

--Wins Above Replacement (WAR): as taken from
--Wins (W): be still, faint of heart!
--Winning Percentage (W%): see above...
--Adjusted Earned-Run Average (ERA+): as taken from
--Adjusted On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS+): the batters vs. pitcher version
--Win Efficiency (WEff): WAR measured against batters facing pitcher (BFP) totals
--Innings Pitched (IP): for durability...

Before anyone raises the now-popular objection about W and W%, understand that these categories are weighted. Despite the pronouncements of many, there is no reason to completely dismiss these stats: they continue to tell us something. They simply don't tell us as much as other stats, however. That's why in the "WCYAP" method, they have the lightest weighting.

We weight WAR and ERA+ the most (four), OPS+ and IP next (three), WEff next (twice). W and W% are both single-weighted. (The weightings are displayed on the diagrams below, and color-coded just for "fun.")

Why bother with a stat such as Win Efficiency? Well, pitchers whose WAR is achieved in fewer BFP have  added another type of value to their team that isn't really accounted for anywhere else, and after looking over the historical stats, it just made sense to include it here.

Let's look at the National League first.


Remember, a "5" actually means that the pitcher is first in the category, while a "1" means that they finished fifth.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that there are "bonus points" awarded for the number of categories that a pitcher ranks in the "top five." As you can see, only two NL pitchers made it into the top five in all seven categories (Halladay, Wainwright).

The results here indicate that Jimenez and Johnson were closer to Halladay than the voting results would tend to indicate. I'd have little or no problem casting a ballot based on the results shown above.

Now let's go to the American League.


I was surprised how well the system graded Buchholz, but he shows up well in the heavily weighted stats, which allows him to gain ground on the competish. Nevertheless, the method taps Felix Hernandez as the top pitcher in the AL during 2010. What the method shows is that the accomplishments in the AL were spread around a good bit more this year than they were in the NL.

One minor drawback here is that we can't use the method all the way back in time: OPS+ data is not available (at least not yet) prior to 1950. But I can live with that if you can.

Our results here don't produce any real "award controversy." (Aw, shucks.) But possibly we can walk away with a more nuanced look at how the various stats can be combined to produce a ranking that takes into account as many perspectives as possible. As we used to say at BBBA, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished...


"In the midst of this carnage and hypocrisy, we are miraculously afforded the opportunity to watch the lapidary skills of a most intricate managerial artist as he creates shadings of infinitesimally differentiated reds culled from the copious spillage of blood he is given as his primary (often his only) raw materials."

More than a book, a way of life...
--Who was C.O. Jones talking about in this passage from BBBA 2001? Hint: he's a manager who'll still be in the dugout in 2011.

"Ex-Expo farmhand, rumored to have attitude problem, has outside shot to become Dodger Dog."


Stumbling over this book in a dark corner of my garage (a festively haunted "found" space filled with the overflow of an all-too-obsessive life...), I was amused to re-discover, nearly ten years on, the plaintive outpourings of that stripped-down, multi-voiced "last stand." We'll revisit some of the linguistic hijinks (and the low-bridge moments, too) in mercifully small doses.

Third time is the charm department: Ron Johnson pulls the ripcord a few years in front of baseball's biggest betrayal...

"So what lies ahead for the Expos? How can I put this?"

Monday, November 15, 2010


Nearly spilled my Coke Zero all over my laptop; for some inexplicable reason, that made me think of Denny McLain. (As many of you know, one of Denny's claims to notoriety stemmed from a classical addiction to Pepsi-Cola; legend states that he could polish off a case of the stuff in a single day.)

No, don't know why the reason for that brand-name reversal: neural lesions, probably. But anyway, given Denny's Pepsi propensity it's a freakin' miracle that the last 30-game winner and organ-playing ex-con is still with us. (He probably kicked the Pepsi habit while he was behind bars, anyway.)

Our hero, sometime before he lost the "Pepsi challenge"...

But it's that word--reversal--that keeps McLain in one's mind. There's something compelling about reversal: it's the extremity of it, the sheer mind-numbing cosmic shoulder shrug that makes fate random and vice-versa. Nobody--except for Bernie Madoff, possibly--flew higher and crashed back to earth with such a resounding bitch slap.

So in honor of that vagrant thought, here's a look at the very beginning of Denny's big league career. The date was September 21, 1963, just two months before JFK's fatal day in Dallas, and only a few weeks ahead of the Dodgers' shocking sweep of the Yankees.

Denny (all of 19 years old) had spent most of the summer on a tour of the Detroit Tigers' farm system, with a combined 18-6 record across A, AA, and AAA affiliations. He was a tad wild (a tad over four walks per nine innings) but his fastball crackled. Bill Freehan, who caught him in the Tigers' bullpen before the game, later said that the young Denny had the loudest fastball he'd ever heard: "Nobody made the seams of a baseball scream the way Denny did when he was young. It was like the ball was tearing itself apart."

September 21st was a dull Saturday in the American League in 1963: the Yankees, despite Mickey Mantle's foot injury, had lapped the rest of the league and were coasting toward the World Series. The Chicago White Sox, developing one of the "pitcher's decade" most effective (and most unsung) ensembles under Al Lopez, had recently been eliminated from the pennant race en route to the first of three consecutive second-place finishes.

Fritz Ackley, in uncharacteristcally good company...
With zilch on the line, Lopez matched Tiger manager Chuck Dressen by tapping untried right-hander Fritz Ackley, the late-blooming "king of the monobrow" (already 25) who'd stumbled around for nine years before mastering a change-up. With a matchup of pitchers both making their debut, the fans decided to stay at home polishing their spittoons: less than five thousand clicked through the turnstiles at Tiger Stadium that day.

They missed a good game. In the top of the first, McLain had trouble finding the plate, falling behind 3-0 and ultimately walking Mike Hershberger. He quickly made amends, however, by picking off the White Sox leadoff hitter, and then fanning Don Buford (playing 3B in his pre-Oriole days) and journeyman outfielder Gene Stephens.

Ackley matched McLain in the bottom of the first, and the two pitchers kept things scoreless through four. Denny picked Buford off to end the top of the third; Ackley upped the ante by picking off a sleeping Dick McAuliffe to snuff out a Tigers' rally in the bottom of the inning.

In the fifth, the White Sox took a 1-0 lead on Buford's run-scoring triple, but McLain had a surprise up his sleeve. Perhaps taken aback when pitcher Ackley had punched out a single off him in the third, McLain practiced extreme payback by hitting a home run with one out in the fifth. (It would be the only tater of his big league career.)

Ackley, a bit rattled, then proceeded to serve up a second consecutive homer to Tiger leadoff hitter Billy Bruton. An inning later, Detroit would push across an unearned run to lead 3-1.

Charlie Maxwell, still with us at age 83, and
blissfully unaware that his strikeout was
the last out of Denny McLain's first win

In the eighth, McLain weakened: he walked Hershberger, and Buford followed with a single to right. With runners on first and third, Gene Stephens hit a slow dribbler into no-man's land between the mound and the third base line: McLain fielded it and threw wildly to first, pulling Norm Cash off the bag. Hershberger scored, cutting the Tigers' lead to 3-2, and two batters later Tommy McCraw's sacrifice fly tied the game.

Fortunately for McLain, Norm Cash didn't waste much time in breaking the tie: the slugging first baseman blasted a home run off Jim Brosnan to give the Tigers a 4-3 lead. Denny didn't waste much time himself in the ninth, striking out pinch-hitters Grover (Deacon) Jones and Charlie Maxwell to wrap up his first major league win.

All in all, he'd struck out eight, walked four, and he'd done two things in a single baseball game that he'd never do again:

a) hit a home run; and
b) pick off two runners in the same game.


House rules:

1) I won't if you won't.

2) If you don't know the reference, don't complain: look it up.

3) We all gotta go sometime.