Friday, April 29, 2011


Meryl, here's a role where you won't have to
suppress your boarding-school accent...
Nine down, one to go, to you Miss Kilgallen (and why hasn't someone done a movie about Ms. Dorothy? Seems like a natural part for Meryl Streep...are we just tired of JFK conspiracy stories??) and we have reached the 1948 squad for the Showdown.

This is yet another odd corner of the baby boom, featuring a catcher who didn't like to catch, a first baseman who didn't like to throw, a third baseman who waddled, and an outfield that is somehow shifty and shiftless all at once.

In its own baksheeshy, careening way, it's a fascinating roster, filled with fakers, phonies, and the occasional taciturn "take it for the team" type, a cross-section of what increasingly collided on the baseball field if not (quite yet) in America as a whole.

They haven't got a chance in the Showdown, but they will make Big Hair and Plastic Grass author Dan Epstein skip a heartbeat or two as he contemplates their louche-like lapse into seventies-dom:

C: Earl Williams, Steve Yeager, John Ellis, Buck Martinez
1B: Steve Garvey, Chris Chambliss, Willie Montanez
2B: Toby Harrah, Lee Lacy, Dave Cash
SS: Dave Concepcion, Bill Russell
3B: Ron Cey
OF: George Foster, Mickey Rivers, Dave Kingman, Ron LeFlore, Ron Blomberg, Mike Jorgensen

Mickey Rivers: the "Anti-Yogi"...
Right from the start you know that there's just a dollop or two too much "shake-n-bake" with Mickey Rivers at the top of the batting order. Mick the Quick doesn't inspire a lot of confidence with his low OBP (.327), despite some reasonably impressive seasons once he'd been shipped to the Big Apple along with fellow 48er Ed Figueroa for Bobby Bonds and became a most unlikely fixture in the Yankees' brief return to dominance during the late 70s.

Toby Harrah, given those powder-blue pants by the
randomly capricious "Day-Gloizer."
He's also part of a semi-dubious fraternity that we've taken to calling the "Run, Don't Walk Boys"--players who have more stolen bases than bases on balls. As with everything, Mick has one foot in the club and one foot out of it--all while managing to be a kind of anti-Yogi: the man whose weird quips are scurrilous as opposed to endearing.

In fact, Mick's presence provides the inspiration to go Day-Glo again, bringing some visual panache to a set of players who pale in comparison to their 60s brethren. Not that Toby Harrah wasn't a fine player--in fact, from several vantage points it can be convincingly argued that he is the most accomplished member of this squad. But he's just not, er, colorful we decided to fix that for you.

It's the old "bat your real leadoff man second" trick--and hey, it worked for the Big Red Machine, so what the heck??

George Foster
The 48s take a conspicuous tilt to the right with their next five batters. Trying not to create an odd on-off pattern in the OBP progression, we've chosen to bat George Foster third, on the theory that his big homer numbers (second highest lifetime total on the team and the highest peak seasons) will translate into more runs than any other approach. A guy like Foster reminds us that astonishing accomplishments can come from those who look like they are going to be washouts: the terrible trade that the Giants made over the 1971-72 off-season didn't look like any great shakes going into 1974, when Foster had hit just .260 in AAA with 15 HRs. For once, it took the Giants a few years to look really stupid--but not nearly so stupid as the Mets, who traded for him just as he was ready to fall off a cliff...
The short answer to the question: yes.

Following Foster is the squad's resident phony, Steve Garvey. A model of bruisingly boring consistency during his peak years (1974-80) with the Dodgers, Steve eventually degenerated into a just-a-bit-too-sleazy version of Ronald Reagan, who despite his many other faults never wound up as the subject of bumper stickers that extolled his prowess at parallel impregnation. One has to give Garvey props for being a terrific post-season hitter (.338, .910 OPS), but the problem is that there ain't gonna be no post-season for this team.

Ron Cey--a master of looking the other way...
He will be followed in this lineup by the man who always seemed just slightly ashamed to be in the same infield with him--the wizard of waddle hisself, Ron Cey. Whatever amount of mixed blessing that might be part of the sabermetric thrust and parry, one just moment of clarifying perspective can be found in the calculations that demonstrate the superiority of the quiet, unassuming Cey to the glib, glad-handing Garvey. It can all be boiled down to one stat: Cey has more than twice as many walks (1016) as Garvey (479). In a way, Cey functions as both an RBI man and a second leadoff man in the 48s' batting order. Not that it will probably matter all that much, but he can just do more for you without making a spectacle of himself.

Past Cey, we move into "tools players"--no, not those track-star nightmares that some scouts "project" into greatness despite the fact that many of these guys often don't seem to know which end of the bat is which, but ballplayers who happen to be tools.

And one of the game's biggest tools (in fact, encompassing virtually every dictionary definition of the term) is Dave "Kong" Kingman, whose consistency in alienating fans and insiders alike was well-nigh unprecedented.

He can be seen as a kind of pioneer of the world we now inhabit, where entire cottage industries can be built around jerkdom. Indeed, his impassive expression in our photo (snapped by the great New York photographer Sylvia Plachy), almost makes one long for a Kong autobio entitled "The Zen of Jerk."

Don't call him Pearl:
Earl Williams

Following Kong, we have another king of self-absorption, the plastic not-quite-fantastic Earl Williams. The seventies seem to be a unique time for flameouts--the extreme example of this phenomenon being represented by Joe Charboneau, who went from Rookie of the Year to dead meat in just barely over twelve months--but it's undeniably rare for a player to peak at age 22 and just bounce down the ladder one rung at a time until they are drop-kicked into a dumpster. 

That's what happened to Earl, who found no takers when he pulled a Bette Davis and advertised that his services were available after burning every bridge that he'd driven across in the preceding six years.  Day-Glo isn't quite enough to capture the rosy world that was punctured for Williams when no one picked up the telephone.

Dave "Immaculate" Concepcion
One more odd shading follows, in an attempt to capture the strange half-light occupied by longtime Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion, who came up as Venezuela's answer to Mark Belanger and actually learned how to hit. He was a quintessential Astroturf fielder, a type of player now clearly threatening to go the way of the dodo bird, so the "artist" has tried to "render" him in a kind of semi-translucent haze. Going into 1973, after his first three years in the majors, Concepcion's OPS+ was 58, and while no one knew that at the time, no one needed it to question whether he was going to be in the big leagues for any great amount of time, glove or no glove.

He doubled his OPS+ in '73 (is that some kind of record?) and spent another fifteen years with the Reds, remaining useful even after the entirety of the Machine fell apart.

While there are some other talented players floating around on the 48s roster, it really looks as though this team is going to be one that doesn't platoon.

That batting order, in black and white:
"Hough as in rough," the 48s' analogue to "Veeck as in wreck"

1. Rivers, cf
2. Harrah, 2b
3. Foster, rf
4. Garvey, 1b
5. Cey, 3b
6. Kingman, lf
7. Williams, c
8. Concepcion, ss

You've got a good defensive catcher in Steve Yeager, oodles of mediocre versatility in Bill Russell and Lee Lacy, and a whole lotta left-handed hitting on the bench with Chris Chambliss, Ron Blomberg and Willie Montanez. You just don't quite enough firepower to overcome another weak-kneed pitching staff...

Doc Medich rendered in Rudy May pale
Day-Glo: practicing his already
questionable bedside manner...
Let's face, a team whose staff ace is Charlie Hough might possess some kooky charm, but the baseball field is neither high society nor Hollywood. Hough rhymes with "rough," and that's what opposition hitters are all too often going to be on the 48s starters.

Gary Nolan...basically
going to get broken.
Doc Medich? For goodness' sake, the tall, well-spoken one got into some post-career fracas over false prescriptions, and he's all that and more as a #2 starter in this league.

Gary Nolan? Some flashes of real brilliance there, but far more fragility and inconsistency. Ed Figueroa had a blip of a peak. Doug Rau had one of the most graceful deliveries one could hope to see, but he was the #4 guy on the Dodgers' 70s teams and has no "step-up" potential.

The bullpen, like so many of these teams, will have a lot of potential for fun, what with big-innings guy Bill Campbell, Aurelio "Senor Smoke" Lopez, "la lob" lefty Dave LaRoche, Randy Moffitt (aka Billie Jean's little brother), and swing man Jim Barr. But the same caveat that we've mentioned at least twice previously needs to be put out there: these guys might not be able to get into the game until it's already too late.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


We are still struggling to get truly detailed pinch-hitting records in place. While this data has always been one of the most prominent of "orphan children" in the overall context of baseball information, the good news is that the recent publication of box scores and game logs dating back to 1920 (at bb-ref) and to 1918 (at Retrosheet) at least makes it possible to assemble some details.

A full look at the overall performance characteristics for pinch-hitting in the pre-WWII era will have to wait (team-by-team stats), but several of the more prominent "bench kings" can be given some face time here.

By and large, the top "pinchers" in the time when offense spiked were those folks who had some issues with the glove. In 1930, of course, everyone hit, and though run scoring did slack off somewhat it was still an above-average proposition.

Smead Jolley, who like Babe Herman denied that he'd ever been conked on the
noggin by a fly ball. "It hit me on the shoulder," he insisted.
The most colorful of these types were "Sheriff" Dave Harris and Smead Jolley. These two were part of a breed of defensively challenged sluggers who began to appear in the mid-to-late 20s as the live ball penetrated into the minors. (Jolley absolutely terrorized the PCL from 1926-29, including two years in which he amassed more than 500 total bases!) As with any such development, a certain amount of overspecialization occurred and players who really needed the DH rule four decades before its adoption had twilight careers in major league ball.

Jolley is the most remembered of these, due to a series of tales about his spectacular ineptitude in the outfield. (Bill Nowlin summarizes these in Smead's SABR biography.) Given how well he could hit, it's a bit surprising that some team didn't think to keep Jolley around as a pinch-hitter after he had proved all-too-suspect in the field.

1931 was a fine years' worth of pinch-hitting for ol'Smead, however. (It's also odd that so many of the players in this odd-man-out category were truly odd as well--often the most colorful of all the hick/cracker types who were legion in the game at this time.) Despite its inherent statistical insignificance, Jolley's five consecutive pinch-hits (four of which were doubles) make for an oddly thrilling feat (though not quite as protracted as the fictional one we chronicled in the previous post). In a world with an increasingly saturated media presence, Jolley's five straight pinch hits would warrant a goodly amount of airplay. (For the year as a whole, he was 14-for-30 "in the pinch.")

Dave Harris, who anticipated (sort of...) the Bob Marley and the Wailers
song "I Shot the Sheriff" by claiming that he'd really only been "the deputy"...
Most, though, these players performed for also-ran teams. No good team would have anything to do with Jolley after his defensive lapses, but Dave Harris got a shot with a still-solid Senators squad in 1930 after  doing a bit more low-key job of tearing up the PCL the year before (.366, .599 SLG). It's almost astounding to note that Harris was first brought up that year by the White Sox, who'd already splurged for Smead. The Sox kept Carl Reynolds in center field to keep the two from colliding with one another; in early June, they sent Harris to Washington.

Bibb Falk
It's easy to forget that the Senators were a solid franchise in the 1924-1933 time frame, but they were a canny (if cash-poor) organization led by another solid old-time baseball man (Clark Griffith). Dave Harris played extremely well for them, and was a dangerous pinch-hitter (40-for-129 lifetime). While he wasn't quite as spectacular as Jolley, he did have two occasions in '32 where he had three consecutive pinch-hits, and he wound up 14-for-43 on the year. He lost his hitting prowess midway through the Senators' last pennant-winning season the next year, and was back in the minors by 1935.

Red Lucas
Another category of player who'd find himself in a part-time role is the aging veteran. Bibb Falk, who was traded away by the White Sox in 1929, suddenly found himself in an outfield jam-up in Cleveland the following year. He adapted well to pinch-hitting that year (13-for-34), including a game-winning pinch homer against the Yankees on July 20th. Though Falk was "only" 31, he would play only one more season in the big leagues and would eventually become the longtime baseball coach for the University of Texas.

Over in the NL, Red Lucas had a nice sequence of yearly pinch-hit totals from 1929-31: 13 in '29, 14 in '30, and 15 in '31. 1930 was Red's best year at the plate: he hit .336 and slugged his only career pinch-hit homer (a slap hitter, he had just three lifetime jacks). As discussed in an earlier segment, Lucas held the record for pinch hits and pinch-hit ABs for more than twenty years after his retirement in 1938.

Sam Leslie
Sam Leslie was a big, left-handed hitting first baseman who was lusted after by several NL teams due to the lofty batting averages he posted while on his way up to the big leagues. When he made it to the New York Giants, however, he found himself blocked by Bill Terry. (Hard to dislodge someone who was the last NL batter to hit .400, as Terry did when he hit .401 in 1930). John McGraw kept Leslie around as a pinch-hitting specialist (something he'd done some years earlier with Mel Ott) and Sam set a record in 1932 with 22 pinch hits. The next season, with Terry firmly in command as McGraw's replacement, Sam was finally sent across town to be the Dodgers' first baseman, but the Giants brought him back in 1936. He was 2-for-3 as a pinch-hitter in the World Series that year. (Harry "Peanuts" Lowrey tied Leslie's single-season pinch hit mark in 1953.)

The team in the early thirties with the deepest crop of pinch-hitters, however, had to be the 1930 St. Louis Cardinals. The complex (and often aleatory) platooning practiced by manager Gabby Street didn't seem to be doing much for the team--going into August the Cards were just a .500 team. But the lofty hitting in the league that year leveled out the competition, so that they weren't that far from first place (only 10 games out). They proceeded to win 44 of their last 57 games, the fourth best such performance in baseball history. And they had a raft of good pinch-hitters on their bench, depending upon whom Street wasn't playing: on any given day, you'd have George Watkins (.373), Ray Blades (.396), Showboat Fisher (.374), Gus Mancuso (.366), Ernie Orsatti (.321), or Jimmie Wilson (.318) available to hit from the bench.

George Puccinelli, achieving "International (League) dominance" in 1935...
Oh, yes--and George Puccinelli. "Pooch" was another one of those defensively-challenged sluggers who would have thrived in the age of the DH: a look at his minor league fielding statistics will clue you in on why he spent most of his career in places like Hollywood, Rochester, and Baltimore (when the O's were in the International League). Puccinelli had a lifetime minor league SLG of .582; in 1935, he hit 53 homers at Baltimore and Connie Mack decided that he had to ignore Pooch's reputation and give him a full shot. (He didn't hit well enough to hold a job on a team that finished 53-100.)

But in 1930, Pooch had a "featured bit" role with the Cardinals. Called up in July (after hitting .396 in the Three-I League...) when the team was in its doldrums, Puccinelli made his third pinch-hit appearance on July 21st vs. Brooklyn. The game was tied 5-5, in the top of the eighth when "Pooch" hit a three-run pinch homer off Watty Clark to give the Cards an 8-5 lead. There were a total of three pinch-hit HR hit in this game: Jim Bottomley and Harvey Hendrick hit the other two--with Hendrick's three-run blast wresting victory for the Dodgers, who prevailed by a score of 9-8.

After sitting around for ten days, Puccinelli got a pinch-hit assignment on August 3. The Cards had jumped out to a 4-0 lead over the Reds, but Cincinnati had chipped away and now trailed 5-4. Pooch blasted a two-run homer off Jakie May to give St. Louis a 10-4 lead and kickstart a long, hot summer of sizzling baseball for the Cards. All in all, Puccinelli was 4-for-8 off the bench and while he was "just"  9-for-16 for the year (!!) when St. Louis blitzed its way into the post-season, the Cards thought enough of his performance to add him to their World Series roster.

The next spring, however, Pooch got things ass-backward and screwed himself by dropping three fly balls during a spring training game. It cost him a shot at a big league job that year, and it clearly affected his play. He moped through the '31 season in the minors, hitting under .300 for the first time in his career: 'twas something of a Rubicon for him.

Monday, April 25, 2011


How small is the sample size that might tell us something about the quality of team performance? We know  that the fixation on the first five-ten games of the baseball season has led to a good deal of silliness (though probably not all that much more than the subject of baseball in general...), but just what number of games played can provide a viable framework for some type of predictive vantage point?

We need to drive this idea beyond some of the usual "big number" perspectives. So, to get the ball rolling, let's use the 2011 Boston Red Sox as a jumping-off point. Some folks were doing some "jumping off" when the Sox began the year 0-5, 2-9--and finally 2-10 before reversing course and winning eight of their last nine games. They are now at 10-11 and lots of folks--even those who know all about small sample sizes--are breathing sighs of relief.

Can we get some kind of handle on the Red Sox now that they've righted themselves? Can these small units of the season--let's just bite the bullet and decide to use eleven games as the measure--provide us with a different kind of glimpse into team performance?

The answer: yes, to a much greater extent than is currently believed. The table at the right shows us what the Red Sox' basic data is for the first two eleven-game units of the 2011 season (yes, I know we don't quite have a complete grouping in the "game 12-22" set: try not to let that bring your blood to a boil--at least not yet). What we see in the basic stats is that the Sox' reversal is predominantly in pitching: their hurlers got pummeled in the first 11 games (6.5 runs/game) but have shut down the opposition in the second 11 (2.3 runs/game).

What we want to know about those two eleven-game performances is: how extreme are they in context of the entire set of eleven-game units? Now we're going to "cheat" and use only sequential eleven-game units: 1-11, 12-22, 23-33, etc., with an overlay at the end of the year (152-162) that partially repeats the last sequential eleven-game unit (144-154). Purists will want to argue that we should count all the intermediate eleven-game units, but having looked at this it seems clear that we can get something useful from the 450 sequential measures.

So--how extreme were these? Looking at the 2010 data, we can see that the Red Sox' runs allowed (RA)  in games 1-11 (6.5) would have ranked 441st in MLB last year. Stopping time a game early for the 12-22 unit, we can also see that the Sox' RA for this group (2.3) would have ranked seventh best. So--literally from the bottom ten to the top ten in adjacent 11-game units: that's one of the most extreme reversals you're ever likely to see.

OK, so far so good, but what does that mean in terms of overall performance within a year? Is a great eleven-game performance from a pitching staff indicative of a higher rate in reaching the post-season? Or  is that simply random?

To test that, we gathered up all of those 450 sequential 11-game measures for each major league team in 2010 and broke them into four categories: the first quartile is 11-game units where the teams averaged 3 runs allowed (RA) or less over that number of games. The second: 11-game units where the RA is 3.01-4. The third: 11-game units where the RA is 4.01-5. The fourth: where the RA is 5.01+.

And we sorted them by team, classified teams into three groups: playoff teams, other teams at .500 or higher, and teams under .500. Each team has fifteen 11-game units (see above for the caveat), and as you can see, the World Champion Giants had the most 11-game units where they allowed 3 runs or less per game, with five.

As you can see, all playoff teams had at least one such 11-game unit: as a whole, they had more than 50% of those 11-game performances in 2010 (21 of 39). Such units represented 18% of their total number of 11-game groupings--a figure that is more than twice as frequent as is the case for non-playoff .500+ teams, and more than four times as frequent as teams with an overall losing record.

In fact, what seems to distinguish playoff teams from their competitive also-rans is the ability of their pitchers to have at least some such high-performance streak during the year. Of the seven "also-ran" teams (.500+ but no playoffs), only two of these teams didn't have a single such high-performance unit in 2010:  the Red Sox and the Blue Jays.

So the good news for the Sox is that, barring some kind of meltdown in game 22, their pitchers will have demonstrated an ability to string together a truly dominating performance cluster, something that seems to correlate well with reaching the post-season. Despite their agonizingly slow start, they've now done something that they weren't able to do all of last year.

There is a more comprehensive way to view all of the aspects of 11-game units (involving looking at the runs scored data), but that will have to wait just a bit. For now, let's just note that the Red Sox have actually done more than simply reverse course--they've signaled that they just might be ready to give all the other teams in the AL East a real run for their money in 2011.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Roy Hofheinz, trapped in a silly
sixties layout
Forty years ago this season Brock Hanke and I dreamed up a baseball travesty and invited our friends to be its cast of characters.

This conflation of silliness and pre-sabermetric savvy was centered around a fictional team that displaced the Houston Astros due to some obtuse impropriety of their owner Roy Hofheinz (who, despite being a Judge, was a good bit more like Frank McCourt than anyone is likely to admit).

For Bowie Kuhn, this decision to not only take over a franchise (and yes, that does echo in the wake of Bud Selig's pre-emptive strike on the Dodgers as he does everything he can to cover up the much bigger mess that is the New York Mets) but to award it to two smart-aleck kids would change the face of the game in ways that can't be measured even with the most robust set of regressions at the disposal of today's hyper-geeks.

This team--called, for no good reason, the San Antonio Trotters, and who played their first nine seasons inside a jack-legged, reconfigured Alamo ("there is no sacrilege too egregious," Hanke intoned with his trademark rhetorical flourish, "that we won't attempt to twist around the necks of those who are mindless lockstep with tradition")--was supposed to be a laughingstock.

What the Trotter brain trust did to the Alamo was almost as
unconscionable as the folks who strip-mined the banking system
in 2008, but at least in doing so we created an interesting ballpark
with more crazy angles than a pinball machine...
In a fit of infantile cheek, the brash young owners of the Trotters assembled an improbable collection of has-beens, never-weres, and strictly-unmentionables to populate their roster, and settled down to see if they could "top" the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, a team they'd only recently become acquainted with via their access to the first edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia

Hanke, who likes to downplay his math whizzery, was quickly able to construct a baseball simulation game that used a deck of playing cards to drive it, and we were off to the races.

At first, all seemed to be proceeding according to plan--the Trotters lost sixteen of their first twenty games.
Charles Oscar Mule, when finally freed from the hand that fed him,
proceeded to terrorize the National League for fifteen years

What we didn't know, of course, was that our youthful commitment to the execrable was subject to corruption--and the agent of that apostasy would be our most absurd addition to the roster: Charley Finley's mule, who was shipped to us by the maverick owner in what now can be seen more clearly as a passive-aggressive act of fealty (Hanke always surmised that Finley, a notoriously cheap type, had simply tired of buying oats for the beast).

As we kept playing, we discovered that the Mule was turning into a four-legged version of Babe Ruth. And that the two of us, thrust onto the field via Hanke's varation on Strato-matic cards in deference to our youthful ballyard fantasies, were starting to resemble solid major league hitters.

Jerry May, for whom we were willing to defy logic
Several of my favorite suspect players who'd been appropriated to fill out the roster, catcher Jerry May and second baseman Dick Green, began to mysteriously defy the odds of the "factors" created for them (May hit over .300 for the first half of the season, and Green was matching the Mule homer for homer). We added a couple of fictional pitchers who projected to be something other than the rag-armed has-beens and AAAA players we'd previously collected.

Before we knew it, the Trotters had won 54 of their next 86 games and they were actually in the pennant race.

It all fell apart on us in August. When I came back a couple of weeks early for school, we had a marathon weekend session in the steamy kitchen of my new off-campus apartment where we played a month's worth of games. Despite our desire to see the Trotters take it to the NL West, the cards betrayed us: the team went 6-24 for the month. We were forced to admit that we were neither fish nor fowl--while the Trotters were colorful and crazy, in the end they were just mediocre.

1972 WOULD BE different, but no less improbable. The Trotters would have a youth movement unlike any seen before or since. Two impossibly young and talented middle infielders arrived to displace the detritus we'd been playing, and we carved out a respectable bullpen that would not repeat its unbelievable 8.18 ERA over the final two months of '71. Yours truly would become a version of Ty Cobb who could walk like Ted Williams. The Mule remained the Mule (and we survived a series of lawsuits from Finley, who wanted to get the beast back and put him in center field for the A's. The Mule's reply was short, but eloquent: "Nay!").

Possibly our favorite unintended excursion into surrealism began in '72, as the Trotters simply tore the heads off their opponents and cruised to a 102-51 record (capped off by sweeping the A's in the World Series). One of our more eccentric friends, Abb Vaughn, sat in with us as we played several games one evening early on in the season. Abb was a young African-American whose circumstances had left him far removed from the "ghetto" culture that had begun to take hold; we loved having him around, because he confounded everyone who encountered him. He paid a heavy price attempting to find a place to fit in over the subsequent course of his life, but for a time he'd found a welcoming group of misfits.

Once he saw the infantile glee that surrounded our ongoing travesty, Abb decided that he wanted in. We turned him into a pitcher--not one who would a starter, but one of those middle relievers who twenty years later would spread like crabgrass across the rosters of major league teams.

Abb made his debut on April 22, 1972 (exactly thirty-nine years ago today, for all you hysterians out there). It was the fifth inning, with one out. The score was 4-2 in favor of the San Francisco Giants. Abb got the first man (Willie Mays, who would shortly be traded to the Mets) to pop out, but Bobby Bonds doubled in a run, making in 5-2. The next batter, Dave Kingman, hit one to deep center, but the Mule (a four-legged version of the young Andruw Jones), galloped back to the fence and hauled it in--a sight that everyone should see for themselves at least once in their lives.

In the top of the sixth, the Trotters scored five runs (the scoresheet preserved for this game shows three consecutive doubles from Hanke, Malcolm and the Mule as the centerpiece of the inning) to take a 7-5 lead. Abb retired Ken Henderson to start the bottom of the sixth, but gave up a double to Fran Healy (!) and a triple (!!) to Dirty Al Gallagher (!!!) and was promptly yanked from the game.

The Trotters managed to strand the tying run, however, and held on to win, 7-6, giving Abb the victory in his very first appearance.

And an odd sequence kicked in. Abb would win each of his next two appearances in a similar manner, being the beneficiary of the Trotters' ability to rally from deficits. Three relief appearances: three wins. He was present for the third one, and we joked that it would be all downhill from here, and that he should consider retiring.

What was interesting, however, is that Abb never lost a game that year. A mop-up man on a good offensive team has a little seam in things where he can vulture wins. Abb seemed to inhabit that seam. We never decided to take him out of the middle relief role, though we did have him start a few games now and then--he started five games for the Trotters in 1972, including a memorable (and improbable) 4th of July complete game win over the defending World Champs--the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He wound up the year 6-0.

The Big Red Machine: not able to survive the Trotters' spin cycle...
The next year he did one better, and went 7-0. As we added a more sophisticated scheme for injuries to the game, Abb became one of its casualties. He would appear in fewer games in '74 and '75 combined than he had in his first season, but he continued to avoid taking a loss.

Still, he won five more games in those seasons, most memorably a one-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds in August of '75, when the Trotters were actually in a real dog-fight for the NL West. (As you might surmise, the impact of the Trotters on the history of baseball would have been to erase that Big Red Machine from existence. We didn't miss them much, of course.)

So over the course of four seasons, pitching in the shadows of a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a baseball dynasty, Abb Vaughn was 18-0. You can imagine what a curiosity such a situation would have been, how sportswriters and fans, pundits and pipsqueaks would have lapped up this archest of anomalies like so much bread pudding.

Abb wasn't spending much time with us by 1976, and we didn't find time to play out the next seasons for a couple of years, as love lives and other, more serious projects took up our time. When we got back to it, however, we found it odd that Abb's own personal demons in those years were matched by the fate the game had dealt out to him--injuries and exile to Japan.

And that's where the story gets strange. Brock decided to create a program that could simulate and summarize the game results so that we wouldn't have to play out all the games if it wasn't convenient. (These were the days of mainframe computers, big honking things that have about one-millionth of the computing power that the average laptop has today.) He decided to test the program by creating a Japanese League populated with the Americans who were over there at the time--Americans real and otherwise (which, of course, included Abb). Naturally, we had visions of Abb setting the Japanese League on its ear: his best pitch, described by Hanke as an "invisible nothing ball," would surely prevail over there. After all, the guy was 18-0.

When we got the computer printout of the results, however, we were stunned. Over the course of two simulated, summarized seasons, Abb had a) been injured three times and b) had posted a combined record of 1-13!

It got weirder. Brock used a revised version of the same program to recreate stats for the Trotters' minor league teams (we wanted to have the minor league numbers for the growing gaggle of players we'd run through the Trotter grinding machine, as there was some talk of putting out a book about them). When we looked at Abb's minor-league numbers, we discovered that though he'd pitched pretty well in the minors (3.22 ERA), he had compiled a won-loss record of 2-18!

So, essentially, the deck of cards that we'd used to play the game loved Abb, and wouldn't let him lose; the computer, however, loathed him and wouldn't let him win!

King Carl, wondering why silly upstarts such as
Brock Hanke and myself can't leave well enough alone
We decided to stick with the deck of cards.

Abb returned to the Trotters in 1980. He didn't pitch very well, and he was the last man on the pitching staff. But he didn't lose, and somewhere in the midst of yet another dominant Trotter season (the team would frequently put up seasons resembling those achieved by the '98 Yankees and the '01 Mariners), he was again in the right place at the right time--twice.

He was now 20-0.

We then recalled that the record for the most consecutive wins over multiple seasons was 24 (set by Carl Hubbell in 1936-37). Brock suddenly ran into Abb, whom neither of us had seen for a couple of years. He told him about the anomaly. Abb, at what might have been his lowest ebb, said that he thought it best to retire rather than lose. But we were headstrong: we wanted him to go after Hubbell's record.

Of course, the next season (1981), the preseason injury screening took yet another bite out of Abb, landing him on the disabled list until early June. He made one mop-up relief appearance on June 8th--and was promptly on the outside looking in, because the players went on strike a couple of days later. As we sweated out baseball's first protracted work stoppage, Brock and I decided that we were going to put Abb into the starting rotation--spotting him against lesser opponents--in an attempt to get him past Hubbell.

Warren Cromartie
In late August, we resumed the season, but the injury screening again hammered Abb and put him on the fifteen-day DL. "How can a deck of cards be haunted?" Hanke wondered. "These cards are haunted!"

"Guess they don't want Abb to lose," I replied.

He came off the DL in early September, and we decided that he was going into the rotation for the rest of the year--or, at least, until he lost.

First up, the Montreal Expos. (Remember them?) They were a good team in 1981, headed for what proved to be an aberrrant preview of the present-day post season. Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Warren Cromartie (probably the major league player who looks most like Abb).

Fittingly, Bill (Spaceman) Lee was Abb's mound opponent.

A reasonable approximation of
how Jill Lorenz looked when we
saw her playing softball in 1972:
the girl was a gamer...
Abb gave up two hits in the first, three in the second, but the Trotters' sleek DP combo of Rick Scott and Jill Lorenz (yes, a girl--er, woman: we saw her play softball as an 18-year-old and were smitten in more ways than one) got him out of both jams without any scoring. The Trotters, coasting a bit due to the fact that they (and not the Dodgers) had "won" the first half of the season, were slow to get started against Lee, but they still had the Mule: he flicked his front fetlocks (just how does a Mule hit, you ask? If you have to ask, you're probably better off not knowing...) and deposited one over the left-field wall at Stade Olympique. (Yep, a switch-hitting Mule, to boot.)

Abb has given up six hits in five innings but has a 2-0 lead. The Expos make their move in the sixth: the top of the order racks him up for four hits and three runs. We bat for him in the top of the seventh, sweating bullets. Is it too late? Have we done in the streak?

Two outs in the top of the ninth, still down 3-2. Catcher Chris Byrd facing Woody Fryman. Byrd's been in a terrible slump, just two hits in his last thirty at-bats. The gods smile down again on Abb: Chris jacks his first homer since the resumption of play. Tie game. The Trotters eventually win in the twelfth. Abb is still undefeated.

Home on 9/11 (of course, it would be another twenty years before that date would have its fatal resonance) against the Giants. Vida Blue is on the mound against Abb. The Giants have an interesting collection of players (Joe Morgan, Jeff Leonard, Jack Clark, Darrell Evans) but they're back in their Jekyll-Hyde personnel syndrome, surrounding these guys with the likes of Enos Cabell and Johnnie LeMaster.

The cards are hot--Abb has them nine up, nine down--and the Trotters score three in the third and two more in the fourth, knocking Blue out. Our overactive imaginations conjure a scene at the Alamodome (of course we had the city build it--how can you not be tainted by the company you keep?) where the fans have nicknamed Abb "Blackjack" Vaughn as he goes for #21. (So what if it took him parts of eight seasons to do it? Records are made to be made up!)

Abb goes seven, gives up just three hits and no runs. Stefanie Band (yes, another girl--who else is going to room with Lorenz?) and Jeff Ellwood, long-time stalwarts in the Trotter pen, close it out. Blackjack!

Five days later, we're in San Diego (Abb's rotation slot has been set up to get him a couple of starts against the lowly Padres, a team he's always handled well). There are no butterflies in anyone's stomach when the Trotters knock Steve Mura out in the first inning. Abb's "disappearing nothing ball" again proves elusive, with only Gene Richards making solid contact (three out of the Padres' six hits). Abb lowers his lifetime ERA against the Padres to 1.95 with a six-hit shutout; Hanke and I hallucinate headlines, beginning with "22 AND COUNTING" (and going downhill from there).

An extra day off slips Abb in against Atlanta back at home. The Braves counter with Gaylord Perry, still in the hunt for his 300th win.

Jimmy Rollins: what Rick Scott would be like if he actually existed...
The Braves reach Abb for two runs in the first as his control deserts him (two walks in one inning, after just three in 24 IP previously). San Antonio knots the score in their half of the first--a two-run shot from the aging-but-still-magnificently-improbable Mule. Double plays bail Abb out in the third and fifth. But in the sixth he gives up consecutive doubles to Claudell Washington, Bob Horner, and Chris Chambliss, and he's again out of the game, down 4-2. Sweat and bullets back in play, right on schedule. Jaws are tight at the card table...

Yes, we just love to put these two guys' faces in front of you.
Bottom of the ninth, one out, still 4-2 Braves. Gene Garber on the mound. Speedster Al Lewis pinch-hits and bunts for a hit. Hanke goes to the bench again and puts himself up to hit. He draws a walk. Star shortstop Scott (think Jimmy Rollins as a lefty swinger but a notch or two better) comes up and hits a Texas leaguer down the right field line. Washington swoops over and tries to backhand it--and misses, crashing heavily to the ground. The ball takes a funny hop and bounces down the right field line. Washington has trouble getting up to chase after it, and Scott is off to the races. He scores on an inside-the park homer. Another win for the Trottskys and Abb, who once mockingly sang a song about Joe Stalin's intimate member, is off the hook again, spared from the gulag of defeat.

Two starts left, and there's still a shot to tie the consecutive wins record. Five days later, it's the Padres again. Hanke has a gleam in his eye as he flips the cards the way he did when he turned them in 1973 for Don Lee, the old broken-down fastballer who we'd demothballed and turned into an unlikely ace. Abb retires the first twelve in order--but so does Padre starter Juan Eichelberger. The Trotters get a hit in the fifth, loading the bases, but can't score. Abb walks Broderick Perkins in the fifth and Ozzie Smith in the sixth, but after seven innings he still has not allowed a hit. (The deck still loves him.)

The Trotters' fiery leftfielder, Jean-Claude (Base) Canard, slashing away in pursuit of his second batting title, triples in two runs in the bottom of the seventh. Will it hold up?

The tension is palpable as Hanke shuffles the cards. He turns them over with a steely grimace. Eighth inning. One out. Two out. Jerry Turner bats for Tim Flannery. Strike three!

Crissakes, you can't lift a guy when he's throwing a no-hitter! But I suggest it to Brock anyway, if only to break the tension. The Trotters go out 1-2-3. Still just a two-run lead.

Joe Lefebvre, the Padres' leading HR hitter (with eight--it's been a bleak little year down in San Diego) bats for Eichelberger. He reaches for a pitch and chips one out into no-man's land between Scott, Canard and the Mule. Canard makes a last-ditch dive--no! He can't make the catch. By the time he scrambles up to get it, Lefebvre has hustled into second. Hanke frowns. "Should've shuffled 'em one more time," he says.

Abb gets Ozzie on a strikeout, but Juan Bonilla singles to left. "Time to pull him?" I ask. Today, the answer is surely yes, but this was 1981. Abb pitches to Gene Richards--who slaps out an opposite-field double. Only Canard's speedy cutoff keeps Bonilla from scoring the tying run.

Abb is yanked, and Jeff Ellwood--the Trotters' version of Mariano Rivera--comes in. The winning--and streak-breaking--run is at second base. Ellwood, who hasn't changed expression since he first appeared for the Trotters on April 22, 1971, proceeds to fan Ruppert Jones and induce a pop-up from Terry Kennedy.

Abb is now 23-0.

We almost skipped the last start: it was getting a bit too freaky. As reality and fantasy merged, parted, and merged again, we finally relented: both of us tethered around the wacky argument that it would "look bad in the press" if Abb was held out. Of course, we didn't consult Abb--why should we let a real person get in the way?

So, with King Carl in his gun sights, Abb did a Daffy Duck-like doubletake and found himself on the mound at Dodger Stadium on October 3rd. The two teams were neck-and-neck in the second half standings: unlike what happened in real life, the Dodgers needed to win in order to secure a playoff slot.

It didn't start well at all. Ken Landreaux, Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, Rick Monday and Pedro Guerrero all got hits off Abb and took a 3-0 lead after the first. Abb settled down after that, giving up only one hit over the next four innings, but the Trotters were stymied by Bob Welch and it was still 3-0 after five.

But the Trotters load the bases in the sixth and Hanke brings himself off the bench to pinch-hit. He hits a bases-clearing double to the alley in left-center, tying the score at 3-3. Woo-hoo! But we leave Abb in to hit for himself (as it turns out, in addition to defying the won-loss odds, Abb is an improbably good hitter, with a lifetime average just under .250). Welch, glaring back at Hanke, snaps off two nasty curves and Abb is out on strikes.

"Take him out NOW?" I say. "Nope" Hanke says back. "Would've batted for him if we were gonna do that." I remind him that he's the one who wanted to "let things lie until 1982." He replies that I convinced him otherwise and there'd be no going back, no cop outs.

Bottom of six. Abb makes a good play on Steve Sax' bunt, just nipping him at first base.

Landreaux walks.

Dusty Baker steps up, takes a ball, then whacks one up the middle. Out of the deck follow two deadly cards--the ones that when they occur in such a sequence bring forth a strange note of panic, as both of us contemplate the eerie connection between The Game As We Play It and the bizarre mythopomorphism in Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association, a novel too close to our own mindspace for comfort whenever we have gone into "The Trotter Zone."

Two jokers, appearing in the precise order that spells catastrophe.

As it gets laid out by the cards, Baker's line drive hits Abb on the knee and ricochets wildly. The ball is actually retrieved (as the last sequence of cards spells out) by catcher Chris Byrd, in foul territory near the third-base dugout). Abb goes down in a heap and has to be carried off the field with a broken kneecap.

The normally reliable Stefanie Band comes in and gets Steve Garvey (whose baby she never carried, despite rumors to the contrary), but Rick Monday picks out one of her stiff-hipped sliders and sends it over the right field wall. It's suddenly 6-3 Dodgers, Abb is on a stretcher, and his win streak is on life support.

But these are the Trotters, and before you can say "Aw s**tf**k" third baseman Paul Yamada clubs a homer to make it 6-4. They load the bases with two out in the eighth: Lorenz slaps a liner to left, but Baker--who's already done enough damage--runs it down.

Steve Howe comes in to close things out for the Dodgers in the ninth. With one out, the Mule walks. Howe picks him off, but Garvey botches the throw in a rundown and the Big Guy (507 lbs.) is safe at second. Tommy Lasorda throws out the rule book and intentionally walks Canard. Incredibly, Howe picks him off and the Mule whinnies in disgust. I say to Hanke: "you and that deck are a dangerous combination..."

The Trotters send up a young farmhand named Kerry Willerton, yet another "girl" who would soon enough be the Mule's replacement in center field but who was just getting her feet wet in the big leagues.  (Strangely enough, no one thought to give the Trotter gals any drug tests: the results might have been surprising.) Kerry took a couple of pitches; swinging 2-0, she lifted a foul fly that Guerrero could not hold onto at the railing. Thus reprieved, she then proceeded to smash Howe's next pitch into the Dodger bullpen to tie the score.

Off the hook--one more time! Relief cascaded like a waterfall around the card table.

The Trotters eventually lost the game, 7-6, but Abb's streak remained intact. In 1982, the cards were merciful. They told us that Abb's knee injury was serious enough to affect his pitching motion. Our gentle, borderline bipolar friend took his "invisible nothing ball" and disappeared.

When Abb Vaughn was told this story some twenty years later, he smiled and said: "How many times did you guys have to turn over the cards to get it to work out that way?"

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Of course I love Sam Fuld. He is the Elisha Cook Jr. of baseball, someone always in danger of becoming buried treasure.

He is just a bit out of focus because he is so focused, in the way that a particular dark-haired and slightly wild-eyed man whose features play toward comedy even when he's being serious (Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld).

He plays baseball with steely, cerebral abandon, a throwback to an age when such players could keep their jobs for a decade because their minds could will it to be so.

Sam has been up and down for several years now, but he's remained visible despite spending most of last year with the Cubs' AAA farm club in Iowa. When Lou Piniella managed the Cubs, Sam was treated as though he were the team's pet poodle despite the fact that in his limited playing time, he posted a .400+ OBP.

Sam seems smaller than he actually is (5'10", 180 lbs.) and he's also a diabetic, all of which could have kept him from making it to the big leagues. It didn't. But it has taken some serendipity to provide him with a chance to show his stuff for an entire season.

Sam's good fortune came in two stages. First, he was included in the Matt Garza trade this past winter, part of the player package that the Cubs sent to the Tampa Bay Rays. Second, he got a chance to start when Manny Ramirez "left the building" after the first week of the season.

They added a Superman cape to this photo of Sam in
action. (Yes, he made the catch...)
So far, Sam has made the most of it. He was a one-man wrecking crew against the Red Sox, slamming four extra-base hits against them as the Rays finally put on their hitting shoes en route to a 16-5 win. Operating as Tampa Bay's leadoff man, he's stolen seven bases and is currently hitting in the neighborhood of .350. He has also hurtled through the air to make several spectacular catches, becoming a one-man highlight reel.

One thing Sam isn't doing right now is drawing walks. In the past, he's proven to be a patient hitter, with a BBP anywhere between 12-15%. He's going to need to add that back into his offensive toolchest, because he isn't likely to sustain his current level of hitting.

Keep your fingers crossed that Sam stays healthy and gets his shot to show us what a full season's worth of his style of play will be like.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Carlton Fisk (l) and some members of the '73 Red Sox help
Thurman Munson (center) "do the limbo"...
80% of the way to the start of what promises to be a wild and wacky "alternate universe" simulation, and when we look at the 1947 team we immediately see that this squad is all-too-heavily invested in the tools of ignorance. Good gravy--a single squad with Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson and Cliff Johnson? What the heck can be done to get these guys enough playing time? Virtually can probably platoon Johnson at first and give Bench time at third base, which will open up some playing time for Fisk, but Munson is (sorry to say it...) off the radar.

Here's the roster:

C: Bench, Fisk, Munson, Johnson
1B: Darrell Evans
2B: Wayne Garrett, Bill Stein
SS: Roger Metzger, Fred Stanley
3B: Richie Hebner, Don Money
OF: Ken Singleton, Jose Cruz, Amos Otis, John Lowenstein, Bernie Carbo, Larry Hisle

There will probably be some complex platooning here, something like what you see in the chart at the right. It's clear, however, that the 47s pretty much have to carry all those middle infielders so that they can simply pinch-hit for their second basemen as often as necessary. (That way Munson can get at least 200 PAs during the season.)

In keeping with our unorthodox batting order practices, the 47s are going to lead off with Ken Singleton.  Earl Weaver gave this idea a shot in 1975, and it worked well for the Orioles (though they wound up in second place in the NL East that year). Singleton's lifetime .388 OBP is the fifth highest of all players born in the 1940s. There's enough power further down the lineup to make this a safe move.

Amos Otis
Jose Cruz
Amos Otis and Jose Cruz will spend time in the #2 and #3 slots--they have similarly shaped stats (though Cruz draws more walks). When Singleton is not on base, Otis and Cruz will be able to do some baserunning, and their moderate power is going to keep pitchers honest.

The 47s have the luxury of playing Larry Hisle against lefties. Hisle is an almost completely forgotten player, but he had some big years for the Twins and Brewers before injuries curtailed his career. Hisle's 1976 and 1977 seasons are more productive seasons than any individual years posted by Otis or Cruz.

Cliff Johnson eyes a lefty pitcher...
There will be solid power hitting in the #4 and #5 slots. Bench will bat fourth, with Darrell Evans and Cliff Johnson batting fifth in a first base platoon. Don't quite cotton to the idea that this semi-obscure utility player should push a great power hitter like Evans to the bench against lefties? Check out their SLG and OPS against lefties:

Johnson .514 SLG, .905 OPS
Evans .399 SLG, .744 OPS

Trust me, you will not regret this move.

Richie Hebner: from grave-digger to
garden troll...
Batting sixth, we'll have a shake-and-bake style platoon, with Richie Hebner playing third against righties and Fisk taking the slot and doing the catching while Bench plays third. We gain about 90 points of OPS by sitting Hebner down against lefties.

This is not something to be
found in your grandmother's
on-deck circle...
Given the truly absymal offensive alternatives available to the 47s at shortstop (Metzger and Stanley), it is really a no-brainer to shift Don Money from third base. He was good enough to play there when he was young, and one can always shift him to third (where he's a more accomplished fielder than anyone else the 47s can throw out there) in the late innings. If the team is going to get enough offensive firepower, it's going to have to make this move. Money will bring a solid bat to the #7 slot.

As we noted earlier, the 47s will have the opportunity to do some massive pinch-hitting in their #8 slot. They can actually afford to bat for their entire keystone platoon (Wayne Garrett and Bill Stein--that's Bill, not Ben...!) with Munson et al and still have Chicken Stanley available for some late-inning leather (hmm...methinks there might have been a late 70s porno flick with that title, featuring any one of several "early blooming overachievers" who gave the grotesquely gifted Ron Jeremy a heart rate far too dangerously elevated for someone with one--and only one--sharp edge).

So here's the batting order with all of the platoons (L/R):

1. Singleton rf
2. Otis cf
3. Hisle/Cruz lf
In the starting rotation: Nolan Ryan...and a whole lot of very little else.
4. Bench 3b/c
5. Johnson/Evans 1b
6. Fisk c/Hebner 3b
7. Money ss
8. Stein/Garrett 2b

These boys will score, with or without that leather nun. But once again, we see a team in the showdown with spotty pitching. Yes, you have Nolan Ryan on this squad--and you're probably going to have to give him 40 starts, given that the rest of the rotation includes the likes of Joe Coleman, Steve Stone, Larry Gura and Bob Moose.

One can quickly envision how this is likely to go. Ryan will put up numbers that look similar to his first breakout years with the Angels--let's say 19-16. The other four chimps here look like 8-13, 9-14, 10-13, and 8-12 types: add all that up and you have 54-67. That looks like a recipe for about 70 wins.

You do have a good bullpen here, with some solid depth and an ability to rack up a sizable number of innings just the way the 43s have. Gene Garber is one of the game's most underrated closers, and the 47s boast the two skinniest late-inning aces of all time in Kent Tekulve and Tom Hall.

But the problem is that the horses will too often be out of the barn before it's even possible to think about closing the door. Frankly, this team's chances to reach .500 probably rest on a manager pushing Ryan for 44-45 starts and yanking the Big Steerhead in the seventh half the time so that a) the bullpen can save a few more wins for him and b) his arm stays attached to his body for the entire season.

So--an interesting team, top-heavy with catching talent, a squad that is made for someone with a serious jones for overmanaging. What's really interesting is that, so far as I can tell, we haven't got a major or a minor-league manager on this squad. Who's going to do all that overmanaging?

Here are a few possibilities, from the list of people born in 1947:

Is this the future face of Tim Lincecum??
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Gregg Allman. Paul AusterDavid Bowie. Albert Brooks. Ry Cooder. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Billy Crystal. Sibyl Danning. Robert Englund (aka Freddy Kruger). Dick Fosbury. Erica Gavin. Sammy Hagar. Tommy James. Elton John. Ted Lange. Rula Lenska. Jeff Lynne. Ellen Malcolm (no relation). Peter Noone. Sara Jane Olson. Camille Paglia. Iggy Pop. Dan Quayle. Mitt Romney. Salman Rushdie. Arnold Schwarzenegger. O.J. Simpson (via special furlough program). Alan Thicke. Cheryl Tiegs. Loudon Wainwright III. Tippy Walker. Bob Weir.

A legend in his own mind, just like Larry Bowa...

This probably has to be a College of Coaches kinda thing here, which sorta kinda means that the 47s are becoming the Chicago Cubs of the Birthyear Showdown. I think it comes down to two choices, reflecting the odd schizophrenia inherent in the second year of the Baby Boom--either Iggy Pop (the Billy Martin of rock'n'roll) or The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (the Larry Bowa of psychobilly). Let's face it, fringe teams need to be managed by lunatics.