Thursday, October 14, 2021

THE TWO TEAMS THAT PLAYED EACH OTHER THE MOST IN A SINGLE SEASON...

 ...will not be the 2021 Giants and Dodgers, despite what will turn out to be an even two dozen games that they've played against each other this year. 

That total ties the number of games played between the Dodgers and the Braves (still in Milwaukee) in 1959, where the two teams played 24 times (including a two-game playoff). But it's not the all-time record for most games played by two teams in a single season. That total (including post-season play) is 26--held by the Yankees and Red Sox, who did this in 2003 and 2004 thanks to two seven-game Championship Series.

But what about the most games played by two teams in a regular season? Clearly we wouldn't be writing any of this if it simply turned out to be those 1959 Dodgers and Braves. (The Dodgers, by the way, won 14 of the 24 contests played between those two teams that year.)

Have you got it? Yes, it happened exactly 70 years ago--1951, to be exact--when the Dodgers and Giants played 25 games against each other: 22 as regularly scheduled, and three more in a playoff series memorable for Bobby Thomson's walk-off home run.

That game capped an incredible comeback run by the Giants, who'd been 13 games behind the Dodgers as late as August 11, 1951--and who were still six games back as late as September 14th, at which point they won 11 of their next 12 games to wind up in a tie.

But the story of the Giants-Dodgers head-to-head competition in 1951 is as riveting and unusual as the playoff series itself. We examine some aspects of those 25 games in what follows.

First, the Giants got off to a terrible start in 1951, in large part due to losing their first five meetings with the Dodgers. At that point in the season they were 2-12 and nursing an eleven-game losing streak. (The Giants had blown leads in each of their three games vs. the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds on April 20-22, and lost two more at Ebbets Field before getting off the schneid thanks to a six-run first inning against two forgotten Dodgers--Chris Van Cuyk and Earl Mossor--en route to a 8-5 win.)

They would not win another game in Ebbets Field until September.

In late June, the Giants had turned around their season and entered a three-game series with the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds only 5 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. This series was an odd premonition of what would occur at the end of the year, with a similar "rubber game" on June 28th that the Giants won 5-4 thanks to a three-run homer--by Monte Irvin, however, not Bobby Thomson, which turned around the score in the bottom of the eighth, not the ninth. Consider it a practice run for what would happen three months later...

However, the Giants then proceeded to get their hats handed to them six times in a row at Ebbets Field--in a three game series on July 4-5 (including a doubleheader sweep on the 4th) and again on August 8-9 (including another doubleheader sweep on the 8th, made especially frustrating in the second game of that twin bill, where the Giants had rallied from a four-run deficit in the late innings only to lose in the tenth inning). In the game on the 9th, they'd blow a 5-3 lead and wind up losing 6-5 despite drawing a total of 15 walks in the game--and having Whitey Lockman thrown out at home trying to score the tying run in the top of the 9th.

At that point the Giants' record against the Dodgers overall was 3-12, and 1-8 in Ebbets Field. After that bitter 6-5 loss, they were 12 1/2 games out. Two days later it would reach 13, at which point the Giants would embark on a sixteen-game winning streak, including a sweep of the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in three tightly contested games, won by the Giants by scores of 4-2, 3-1, and 2-1 (that last one being a memorable duel between Sal Maglie and Don Newcombe, with what proved to be the winning run coming on a Newcombe wild pitch).

At the beginning of September the Dodgers returned to the Polo Grounds for a two-game series and were routed each game (8-1 and 11-2), led by the unlikeliest player ever to hit five homers in two games: Giants right fielder Don Mueller, who hit three in the first game and two in the second. The Giants were now suddenly just five games back.

A week later the Giants were back at Ebbets Field, where they (of course) lost, a 9-0 rout, with Newcombe shutting them out on just two hits. The next day, September 9th, was pivotal, however: Irvin hit a two-run homer off Ralph Branca in the fourth, and Maglie made it stand up, scattering eight hits and four walks in a 2-1 win that was sealed by a game-ending double play with the tying run on third base. Without this win, the Giants would've come up short despite their 12-1 season-closing drive.

Going into the playoffs, the Dodgers had won the season series 13-9 thanks to that 9-2 cushion at home. They'd suffer an uncharacteristic loss in Game 155 when Irvin and Thomson hit homers off Branca and Jim Hearn allowed only a second-inning homer to Andy Pafko--sounds like a 2021 game, doesn't it--and the Giants scored a precious third win at Ebbets, 3-1. The Dodgers drubbed the Giants 10-0 in the second game behind Clem Labine in the first of two at the Polo Grounds. (The second game you may dimly remember due to its containing what is still called The Shot Heard Round The World.)

Not a catch-22, but a catch-24...
The head-to-head breakouts of hitting stats in for the two teams, separated into performance totals at each ballpark (excluding the three playoff games), show that the Dodgers were tigers (Tigers?) at the plate in Ebbets vs. the Giants that year, hitting 21 HRs in eleven games and combining for a .306 team average (that includes the pitchers, whose stats aren't shown). The Giants, led by the unlikely long-ball assault from Mueller, hit 17 HRs at the Polo Grounds; more crucially, their pitchers limited the Dodgers to a .206 team batting average, which helped them to win seven of the eleven regularly scheduled contests in '51.

Twenty-year old rookie Willie Mays was not a major presence in these games, though that would change soon enough: after hitting just .197 in all 19 games (including the three playoff games) against the Dodgers in '51, he'd return from the Army in 1954 to club 10 HRs in 22 games against Brooklyn, hitting .378 as the Giants turned around their season series with the Dodgers, going 13-9 against their crosstown rivals en route to a five-game cushion in the pennant race. And there was something about a catch, too--not a catch-22, though, just a catch--you might have heard of it...

Monday, October 4, 2021

POST-MORTEMS FOR OUR "MINUTIAE"...

We'll look at baseball's 2021 run scoring patterns in a post later in the month, but for now let's wrap up several of the "minutiae" that we've presented intermittently over the season.

The M's win! (the Pythagorean lottery only...so sorry!) Hell, a team whose Pythagorean won-loss record works out 76-86 has no real chance of lighting up the post-season, so the Mariners' shot at entering the playoffs would've been a fluke anyway. As it turned out, the 2021 M's are officially the luckiest team ever, having won 14 more games than Daddy Pythag says should be the case.

That does leave the question of what team that made it all the way to the World Series had the most Pythagorean luck. Of course, we have the answer to that and a bit more: here are the eleven (11 as in seven-eleven, for those of you who blow your dough blowing on dice...) luckiest teams to play in the Fall Classic. As you can see in the column at the far right of the table, seven of the eleven teams were defeated by their less-lucky opponents.

This year's luckiest playoff team? After a long stretch with the Red Sox in the lead, it turns out to be the Yankees (+6.46, for those of you who crave extra precision). Next: the Cardinals (+5.27), then the Giants (+4.13) before we get to the Red Sox (+3.55).

More interesting, perhaps, are the playoff teams (or near-and-yet-so-far teams) at the other end of the luck spectrum. The White Sox (-4.36), the Astros  (-5.68) and the Braves (-6.02) all played a good bit under their Pythagorean projections. The biggest underachievers, however, were the Blue Jays (-7.82), who projected to win 99 games but came up one win short of a post-season tumble.

Austin Adams quietly hits...the road. After setting a record (of sorts) with by completing a "double Dunkin" run of 24 HBPs, the burly Padres reliever found himself collecting splinters down the stretch as San Diego collapsed in September (7-21). Do not be surprised if Adams is elsewhere in 2022...

The fate of those "fat pitchers"... We will spend more downtime in the off-season refining our search for all the "chunky chukkers" in MLB, since there is clearly a "coverage gap" in this all-important area. (We need to keep tabs on all the guys with "gut hang"...)

Of the two showcased at the end of July, lefty Nestor Cortes Jr. had the more successful run, becoming a steady member of the Yankees rotation down the stretch. In 12 starts from July 28 to the end of the year, Cortes fashioned a 3.31 ERA, with the Yanks going 8-4 in those games. He struggled a bit with the HR ball, but who didn't in 2021?

His righty counterpart Paolo Espino was not so successful for the depleted Nationals, but they gamely kept him in the rotation despite a poor August (7.36 ERA) and he perked up a bit in September. It's another story of dogged perseverance for Paolo--the only man named Paolo to play in the big leagues--he finally stuck for a full season in the majors at the age of 34. Never overpowering even when young, Paolo will probably remain in the majors for a couple more years because he demonstrated versatility (pitching better in relief before being thrust into the rotation), but he probably won't get another such stretch as a starting pitcher (snif!).

The "smallfry" renaissance fizzles a bit: So the short folk did not, in fact, create an oasis of tiny excellence as we'd hoped might be the case previously. Cedric Mullins' slump in September dropped his OPS+ down to 135, pushing him off our list of tiny 140+ achievers. The man who managed to make it for the smallfry is Jose Ramirez of the Indians (probably the last time we'll use that embattled nickname in the semi-present tense...) who had a fine year (36 HRs, .536 SLG) and posted a 141 OPS+.

Other well-known smallfry final OPS+ numbers are as follows: Mookie Betts 128 (injury-prone season), Jose Altuve 127 (31 HRs), and--in ~440 PA, a surprising, unsung season from the A's Tony Kemp (5'6", 160 lbs.) at 126, easily the best year of his career. All in all, it was a solid showing from the little big men, but it fell short of what we'd been hoping for back in July.

The 50+-HR-a-month club grows a bit more: That total moved upward again in '21, as five teams clustered up over that line in September (we'll cover the "hot" month a bit later when we return to MLB run scoring levels/patterns...), bringing the all-time total of 50+ HRs-in-a-month incidences to 90. The 60+-HR-a-month club moved up to three all-time when the Blue Jays slammed 66 in September, placing them second all time behind that insane Yankees performance in August 2019 (74).

Sunday, September 26, 2021

OF LUCK AND LATITUDE

We were reminded that the 2021 Seattle Mariners are poised to be one of those "backward" teams that occasionally surface out of the smooth surface of common sense, baseball division. With just a handful of games left in the season, the M's were assured a winning record despite scoring fewer runs than their opponents.

And, according to the Pythagorean Won-Loss projection (a tool Bill James developed before he signed on with the Red Sox and slowly deconstructed his toolbox), it's not just one of those wispy, "just over the line" type of things--where they go 82-80 and score ten fewer runs than the opposition. As of the other day, the M's "luck" number (as opposed to their "lucky" number) was 13--according to Pythagoras (last seen with a ball and chain as opposed to a bat and ball) the M's have won 13 more games than they "should" have based on their runs scored/runs allowed ratio.

So we thought it would be of interest to determine just how extreme this divergence actually is. Are the M's in the top fifty of teams who've defied gravity in this manner? Fortunately, the folks at Forman et fils (you know them as Baseball Reference dot com) have continued to compile this data, thus permitting us to refresh our memory.

Which definitely needed refreshing, because as it turns out the M's are close to making baseball history. The chart of the "luckiest" teams (actual wins minus "Pythagorean wins" = "extra wins via luck") shown at left indicates that the M's are #2 in the entire history of the game with respect to "luck." (And stop the presses: the M's 14-1 loss to the Angels last night has currently pushed them ahead of the 1905 Detroit Tigers in this category...if you are willing to believe that wins, whether real or theoretical, can be measured using numerals on the right side of the decimal point.)

If one stops to think about it, you won't be surprised to discover a number of pennant-winning/post-season teams showing up on this list. The 1905 Tigers represent the recessive counter-trend, a bad team lifted into mediocrity via good fortune. But of the twenty-four teams since 1901 whose "luck" has rounded up to a total of at least ten extra wins over a season, a total of nine have been post-season teams--most recently (and most spectacularly) the 2016 Texas Rangers, who won 95 games despite scoring only eight more runs than their opponents that year. 

The M's aren't going to make the post-season this year, but they just might end up with the all-time "lucky" number, which is at least a kind of consolation prize. But another look at the chart reveals that the M's 2018 team also ranks extremely high in this rarified corner of the baseball world: the 2018 team ranks eighth all-time in terms of "luck,", with an LQ ("luck quotient") of 11.56  And the 2000 edition of the M's is in 22nd place at 9.83. Is there something about the weather patterns in that latitude region that clusters these events in such a way that one franchise would reach the top echelon of this list three times within twelve years? Look the list over, and you'll find no other team with more than two appearances on it.

So what is the likeliest reason for this "luck"? Most of the teams here had very good to outstanding records in one-run games. In fact, the 2016 Rangers hold the all-time record for highest WPCT in one-run games (.766, or 36-11). The 2012 Orioles were the former holder of this record (29-9, or .763), breaking a record that had been held for over a hundred years by the 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates (33-12, .733). 

Following up on the teams listed here will provide the baseball wanderer with a series of intriguing reasons why/how these teams managed to overachieve. Sometimes it's a vulturing bullpen, with more wins in relief; sometimes it's an unusually lucky record in extra-inning games. Whatever it is, it's almost never reproducible: the closest we can find in the database are those two D-back teams, each with LQs over 11 within two years of each other.

We'll look at "unluck" sometime during the post-season, and provide an update as to whether the '21 M's set the record for baseball's luckiest team. Stay tuned...

Sunday, September 19, 2021

WILL SCHEDULE STRENGTH DETERMINE '21 POST-SEASON PARTICIPANTS?

Here's just a quick look at the data relevant to the question posed in the title...we've included Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Houston because they are all still in the hunt for a favorable slot in the post-season, as opposed to grabbing a wild-card slot. 

It's been a fluid year, and despite whatever misgivings one might have about the state of the game on the field, the higher quantity of teams still in the hunt for the post-season does mitigate those concerns, as the emphasis shifts to specific teams and their need to win.

Here is the data, with the explanation for the color coding following below:

Dark orange represents home games against teams still in the playoff hunt.

Light orange represents home games against teams no longer in the playoff hunt.

The darker shade of blue represents road games against teams still in the playoff hunt.

The lighter shade of blue represents road games against teams no longer in the playoff hunt.

When one eyeballs the color coding, what emerges is that the Red Sox, who've been floundering for much of the second half of the season, seem to clearly have the easiest set of opponents, even though they are playing the most road games. The problem for them, though, is that they are not an especially good road team.

The teams with the toughest remain schedule appear to be the A's and the Padres, with the Yankees next. The Rays are right there with them, but Tampa has a 7 1/2 game lead and a fold now would be something akin to the phamous phold by the Phillies back in 1964.

Speaking of the Phillies, they still have a chance to overtake the Braves, who've lost four in a row going into today's games. One senses that only one of the two NL East teams will make the playoffs. In the NL Central, the Cards have opened a lead, but they have a tougher remaining schedule than the Reds. These two teams are likely vying for the somewhat dubious chance of playing either the Giants or the Dodgers in the wild-card "bakeoff" game.

The team not yet discussed: the Blue Jays. They have a reasonably favorable schedule, and their team has been coming together more consistently than any of the others in the AL East. They have what people like to call an "exciting young club," and Vlad Jr. looks like a chip off the old block. 

No predictions here, but if rooting from knee-jerk underdog mode, one might hope for a finish like this:

AL HOU-CHW-TBR wildcard OAK-TOR

NL SFG-MIL-PHI wildcard LAD-STL

(We flipped a coin between CIN and STL, and our pal Brock Hanke--born, raised, and all-life resident in St. Louis, intercepted the coin in mid-air.)

Your mileage may vary, of course. Regardless of how it turns out, a baseball September of anticipation is something to savor. With so much other unwanted uncertainty, here at last is some suspense that we can actually enjoy: go for it.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

THE "UNHITTABLE" AUSTIN ADAMS & MORE SLOWLY DEVELOPING BASEBALL EXTREMITIES

It's a truly bizarre story that will certainly be mainstream by the time you read this: Padres reliever Austin Adams, possessor of an "unhittable" slider, is on the brink of the most astonishingly extreme seasonal record in baseball history.

Earlier today, Adams hit three batters during a relief appearance against the Dodgers (in a game the Padres lost, 8-0). That brings his total number of HBPs in 2021 up to 23 and counting, which apparently ties the "liveball era" (1920-) record for HBPs in a season. (The record since 1901 is apparently 27, but is much higher than that when you go back into the nineteenth century, when some pitchers accounted for 80% of a team's IP in a single season).

The first staggering fact about Adams' 23 HBPs is that they have come in just 48 IP, a ratio that is so elevated from the pace of any other pitcher with similar HBP totals that it beggars comparison. (OK, OK: let's think about the wheelbarrow as opposed to a rocket ship...that should be about right.) 

The second staggering fact is that, until 2021, there was little or no indication that Adams would suddenly corner the market in plunking batters. Without a doubt, he's been wild at every stop on his way to MLB: he had a lifetime 5.8 BB/9 in the minors. He'd hit 32 batters in 340 minor league innings. But prior to this season, he'd hit just 2 batters in 42 lifetime IP since making the majors in 2017.

As noted, Adams' slider, which now seems to be spinning out of control at a rate exceeding even the diligent overreach of the Statcast crew, is "unhittable." Of course it is: he's hitting so many batters that nobody can take an actual swing against him. 

Right now, Adams is on the cusp of another unthinkable record: he might actually wind up with more hit batters than hits allowed. His totals are now officially in a dead heat--23 apiece. 

Our first guess is that he's another victim of the Spider Tack™ crackdown: without enough "stick-um" to center his "eccentric, high-spin slider," he's simply at sea right now. But his '21 game logs don't really support this idea--his HBPs have been coming at a regular interval throughout all the months of this season: it's not as if he's just suddenly hitting everyone he faces in a parallel variant of "Steve Blass Disease." Of course, now that he has entered the record books and will be receiving national attention, this might mushroom further...we'll just have to see how it plays out.

The Padres, in a September tailspin that's put their post-season chances in jeopardy, are likely to make Adams' appearances a good bit more scarce. (Today's appearance came in a game where San Diego was already down 7-0.) But team rosters are tighter in September than has been in the case in the past, so they may not be able to just sit him down. Stay tuned...

Extremity (and its diabolical cousin, extremism) seems to be radiating itself ever more insistently into people's lives, and Adams' sudden case of target practice is merely a surreal reminder of that fact. In most cases, extremity/extremism takes time to build up (and this is a good time to remind Ben Lindbergh that he's still wrong about his dismissal of the "frog in pot" syndrome--it's called metaphor, Ben!)...and once allowed to fester for a foothold, it can explode into a forbidding level of prominence. To take a Jackie Robinson quote out of context: "baseball has done it!"--and we're here to show you just another example of that, so you can see what the "heroes and villains have done done" this time.

Those enamored with those pesky Three True Outcomes often overlook that the rise of the phenomenon applies more to one segment of that troika than the others. Namely, strikeouts. How the "frog and boiling water" metaphor applies here can be measured is by counting how many hitters are allowed to play at least semi-regularly while amassing a staggering percentage of strikeouts per plate appearance. 

As hard-throwing relievers proliferate and their percentage of inning pitched increase, strikeouts have soared. While there is a small sliver of hope that the rate of this increase has finally slowed, it's still instructive to see what has happened to the game's attitude toward hitters who swing from their heels with ever-increasing abandoned and rack up K/PA ratios that would have stupefied even 1960s-70s ballplayers, much less "inside baseball" ideologues like Ty Cobb

Striking out in a third of one's plate appearances for any batter with more than 200 plate appearances in a season simply didn't happen for 111 (that's one hundred and eleven) years after the founding of the National League (1876). It first occurred in 1987, when Bo Jackson struck out in 36% of his plate appearances. We won't provide you with a list of all those who've followed in Bo's footsteps since '87, but we will note that there are now two hitters--Miguel Sano and Joey Gallo--who've struck out in at least a third of their plate appearances in every single one of their years in MLB. They won't be the last...

The chart at left shows how the frog got into the pot, and how the water got incrementally warmer over time. And the data shows that we are getting closer and closer to a boil, particularly as the game went all-in for "launch angle" and other related "home run derby" approaches to hitting.

The frog is still in the pot, but the cat is out of the bag. Even if things plateau in the next several years, it's highly likely that the numbers of such high K/PA guys will continue to grow, and we'll see somewhere over 100 such seasons in the upcoming decade. This cautionary prognostication is a reminder that extremity (and extremism) is hard to get rid of once it's been given a toehold.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

W(H)ITHER OHTANI?

So Shohei Ohtani now has 40 HRs...the last coming on August 18th (as he also continued to make a strong case for the MVP Award by throwing eight strong innings, improving his '21 won-loss record to 8-1). 

It's the dual thing that's truly special, of course, but the Angels--missing Mike Trout for more than three months due to a calf strain that has apparently taken on epic proportions--aren't going anywhere in the pennant race. Thus the media is still making a bigger to-do over Ohtani's HR total, even though (as we will see) it is only mid-pack in terms of "per-game pace" since the end of the dubious century and the beginning of the downright rotten one.

Don't misconstrue (or, as Marvin Milkes used to say to Jim Bouton, "misconscrew") what we're saying: Ohtani's HR pace is impressive. The chart below, however, takes a good bit of the gasbaggery out of the  lingering heavy breathing. As you'll see, Ohtani is tied for fourteenth on the list of 21st century HR leaders as of August 18th. 

We gathered up all the leaders from 2000-2019 and 2021, including the folks below Ohtani (in order to provide total context) and added in their final HR totals for the year in question. The hitters who hit 50+ HRs in these years have those totals shown in bold type: 13 of them made it across that line.

The average % of HRs added from August 19th to the end of the season for this group works out to 19%. If Ohtani matches up with that average (a rare feat: as you can see, the %'s are all over the place), he'd wind up with 49 or 50 HRs for the year.

Perhaps a more useful mode of assessment, however, is to look at the Angels' remaining schedule and examine how Ohtani has done against the teams he'll be facing. The Angels have seven games left with the Astros, and six each with the Mariners and the Rangers. It turns out that these teams are three of the four teams Ohtani has struggled with the most in '21: he has an aggregate batting average of .213 against them (though he has hit a total of nine HRs against them, over a total of 36 games).

If he matches that HR pace in those 19 games, he'd hit 5 more homers against them. That leaves 21 more games on the schedule, with Ohtani's biggest opportunity coming up in the next 7-10 days, when the Angels will face the pitching-strapped Orioles at Camden Yards, where they've given up nearly two HRs a game this year. If there is any place where Ohtani is going to redeploy his prolific home run stroke, Camden Yards is it. (We will be very interested to see if Joe Maddon decides to push back Ohtani's next start, which is scheduled for that series: doing so would allow him to concentrate on his hitting and permit him to take his next turn on the mound at home, where conditions are more favorable.)

If Ohtani could hit four HRs in Baltimore and match his pace in the games against the Astros-M's-Rangers, he'd had 49 HRs with 18 more games still unaccounted for. That would be the scenario that would give him a very good chance to push his total into the mid-50s and fully justify all the heavy breathing we've been surrounded by since his magical six weeks before the All-Star break, when he hit 18 HRs in 34 games. As we always like to say at this point: stay tuned...

Saturday, August 7, 2021

SNAPSHOT: TOP HITTERS IN 2020-21 & WHERE THEY PLAY

We are just at the point where the number of games played this year, when combined with the abbreviated 2020 season, gets us to totals that approximate a full season...so we thought it would be a good time to take a look at the top 125 hitters in baseball over that time frame. (We are using OPS+ as the measure here.)

A few notes are in order. First, it is highly unlikely that there has ever been another time when four hitters aged 23 or younger were in the top ten, as is the case right now (Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr.). Second, Shohei Ohtani (who has been pitched to with increasing care since the All-Star break and is currently in a tailspin) does not show up at the top of this list when his 2020 performance is taken into account, suggesting that we are seeing either a prolonged hot streak and/or a career year. (Time will tell.) Third, Brandon Belt--kicked around by his fan base for years--has benefitted from the dimension changes in his home park and is taking advantage of it in a belated career surge. Fourth, comparisons between Mike Trout (suddenly fragile) and Bryce Harper (suddenly consistent) are almost becoming valid again. Fifth, the players whose names are shown in lighter blue than the rest are all members of the Los Angeles Dodgers. How in holy heck did they manage to get Trea Turner in that deadline deal? 

That last note prompts us to look at from where all of these players (and the 99 others on the wall we are not showing you lest you start taking them off the wall and force your fellow readers to break into off-key song) are currently collecting their paychecks (some meagre, some incredibly bloated). The Dodgers have six fellows in the Top 26 (per the above chart), and eight overall--not including a guy (Cody Bellinger) who won an MVP Award in 2019. If their bullpen wasn't snakebit (1-12 in extra-inning games), things would be a bloodbath. Hell, they might still be a bloodbath...

Add up the totals in the last three columns on the right and you'll get a general sense of which teams have the best offense. The Giants, transformed into an extra-base hit juggernaut this year (will it last? we think not...) are even better than this presentation suggests, given that Buster Posey (160 OPS+) is just under the 300 PA threshold needed to appear on this list.

There's an intriguing surprise for Motor City fans who've been waiting for at least half a decade for signs of life in their beleaguered Tigers. When we focus in on the top two tiers of top hitters (covering the folks in the Top 70), we see that the Tigers have developed a cluster of young swingers who might just be helping to lead them out of the wilderness. The list of the top number of hitters in the Top 70 by team goes as follows: Dodgers 8 (!!), Giants 4, Yankees 4, Padres 4, Blue Jays 4...Tigers 4.

It's a slender thread, but it is a thread. We'll see if it frays, or turns into a stitch. In the meantime, folks in Detroit can take solace that they are not living in Dallas, where the Rangers have no hitters in the Top 70, or even in the Top 125, now that Joey Gallo has been shipped off to New York. Though Joey did not personally spurn his fan base in Big D, his departure could result in many of his fans switching their daily allegiance to his close relatives Ernest & Julio, who will at least help them drown their sorrows...

Friday, July 30, 2021

THE FAT BRIGADE FIVE YEARS ON: ROLY-POLY MOUNDSMEN ARE STILL HOLY...

If you have the gut(s) to read the back pages of this rag, you will know that we are enamored of obscure, overweight pitchers. You know: the stocky, portly types who look like their uniforms are going to burst at the seams if they make the wrong move at just the right time. 

These are the guys who clearly have sub-standard "stuff" in an world where the burgeoning variants of Ye Olde Big Unit are malevolently prevalent, capable of casting shadows over home plate while standing on the pitching mound. These fellas struggle to make the cut even in the "disposable diaper culture" of interchangeable "last men" who scratch and claw for the twelfth (or even thirteenth) slot on a pitching staff, clinging to life by a hangnail. 

They are all about 5'10" or 5'11" and weigh in between 215-230 lbs. Most of their major league careers are perilously short and self-liquidating, since that body shape doesn't (shall we say...) inspire confidence. Many are Latino, and we risk charges of stereotyping when we tell you that in their street clothes they are indistinguishable from the guys driving all those gardeners' trucks in the verdant suburbs of the increasingly clotted "land of the free." 

Yes, all of these guys have guts--but they have the guts of cat-burglars. It goes with the territory, for they know that if things go belly-up, they have an excellent chance of actually driving around in those gardeners' trucks sooner than later. And you can't blame them for wanting to postpone that for as long as possible...

Some time ago we rhapsodized (briefly, for the reasons stated above...) about two of these wobbly warriors: Erasmo Ramirez and Vidal Nuño. That was back in 2016--and a few things happened to intervene with ongoing coverage of these two and their lo-fi high-wire act. Both men are still pitching; Erasmo is still in the big leagues, with the Tigers--the fourth team he's been with since we wrote about him in 2016. 

Vidal--as is often the case for penny-wise/pound-foolish pitchers--had his best year in 2018 with the Rays, and hasn't been back to the big leagues since: he's been on the lam to Mexico at least once in the intervening years, and currently has an unsightly bulge of an ERA while surfing on a hangnail with the Dodgers' AAA farm team in Oklahoma City. 

We wish them well, but wishing and hoping is probably not going to cut it for this duo. But fear not: we've located a new duo with all the defining characteristics of this raggedy archetype, including the happy congruence of a lefty-righty combo. And these two estimable avatars of avoirdupois are--as of this writing, at least--actually starting for their two teams, as was the case for Ramirez and Nuño back in the day.

The lefty is Nestor Cortes Jr., pitching for the Yankees. Nestor is sort of the Benny Profane of the Yankees, their version of a human yo-yo, who keeps coming and going and coming back again, having made side trips to the O's and M's only to wind up back in the Bronx. A slop artist with a series of tricky delivery points, and a toe-tapping delay tactic that must be seen to be believed, Nestor has parlayed his entire arsenal of chicanery into a (tenuous) slot in the Yankees' starting rotation, where he currently has a 1.93 ERA.

Nestor is 26, and while one can legitimately surmise that he's overachieving, he is a bonafide prospect (his lifetime minor league ERA, including several stops at AAA, is 2.57). Things are less certain for our new-but-old righty, 34-year old Paolo Espino. Here is the more typical story that applies to one of these chunky fireplug guys: it took ten years for Espino to make it to the big leagues, doing so only after two teams (the Indians and the Nationals) gave up on him. Ineffective for two teams (Brewers and Rangers) in his 2017 debut, he bounced around some more, finally hooking back up with the Nats, where a series of injuries to big-name (and much, much taller) pitchers opened a path for Espino in 2021.

Paolo is a good bit more susceptible to the long ball than Nestor (he gave up three HRs in a recent start against the Orioles, of all people) but overall he has pitched well for the Nats, posting a very solid 3.08 ERA. It must be said that his best outings as a starter (8 GS thus far) have been against the weakest hitting teams in the NL (Pirates, Mets, Marlins); but with Max Scherzer now in Los Angeles, it appears that he'll at least be given enough rope over the remainder of the '21 campaign. 

We'll be rooting for him--and for Nestor, too: it's what we do. (And so should you.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

SO HOW ARE THE SMALLFRY DOING THIS YEAR?

The topic of players whose height is 69 inches or less is one we've touched upon briefly in the past; a full-scale study would be useful and entertaining, but it would not refute the common wisdom that small players face an increasingly uphill battle, even in baseball. We limit ourselves in what follows to position players--pitchers who are 5'9" or shorter are scarcer than those proverbial hen's teeth that writers seem compelled to bring up whenever they confront anything that appears to be dwindling.

So we'll focus on the present-day here, with a light dusting of historical data, leaving the 100+ page essay with its recondite rediscoveries for a later time. We'd noted previously that shorter-stature players were making a comeback from what looked like a road to extinction in 2012-13: the emergence of 5'9" Mookie Betts and his (still singular) season of radiance in 2018, along with the continuing presence of 5'6" Jose Altuve, has made the "not very tall" observation made by the impossibly leggy Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep a bit less pejorative in these otherwise parlous times.

Betts and Altuve have been joined in by Cleveland's Jose Ramirez as a troika of pint-sized competence; all three are continuing to perform creditably thus far in '21, where they've been joined by seven other short-stature players whose OPS+ currently exceeds league average.

Among those seven other smallfry is Cedric Mullins, who has become a consistent bright spot for the otherwise dismal Baltimore Orioles (28-57 as of this writing) by adding power to his speed-and-defense skills. Mullins just completed one of the finest monthly performances in recent memory, hitting .380 in June with a .720 SLG: while he was overshadowed by the 13 HR-fueled 1.300+ OPS of 6'4" Shohei Ohtani, it's not impossible to argue that Mullins actually had a better month, given his defense (a series of highlight-reel catches in CF) and speed (7-for-7 in SB). While Ohtani foregrounds his pure physical skills and his unique two-way excellence, one can argue that Mullins is currently the more well-rounded player--and all of this in someone who stands just 5'8".

If Mullins can sustain a solidly above-average offensive performance in the second half of '21, he could become just the 158th "smallfry hitter" since 1901 to achieve a seasonal adjusted OPS (OPS+) of 140 or higher. He'd join another smallfry Oriole centerfielder, Al Bumbry, who achieved this feat back in 1973. (Bumbry, however, did it as a platoon player, amassing just 395 plate appearances that year: Mullins is within striking distance of that number in early July and figures to be an everyday player on a team that needs every at-bat they can get him.)

As the historical chart (presented in our patented "decade-year"-style table) demonstrates, "smallfry excellence" (if not "smallfry-ism" itself) became endangered a long time ago and has remained a rare occurrence since the mid-1930s. With Mullins, Ramirez, Altuve and Betts (who, somewhat surprisingly, has only had one season--2018--where he's exceeded a 140+ OPS) all in the running, this could be the biggest year for "not very tall" hitters since 1953, when Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Hank Thompson and Gene Woodling all had OPS+ values higher than 140. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished...