Sunday, January 30, 2011


Too embroiled with the Noir City 9 film festival for a lengthy post, but here's one more slice of the Hall of Fame pie using "superstar seasons" (years where hitters produce an OPS+ of 160 or higher) as a sort of "probabilistic barometer."

First, some facts: there have been 641 hitter-seasons since 1871 where an OPS+ of 160 or higher has been achieved.

As the chart shows (yeah, I got a little carried away with the coloring...), these seasons cluster toward younger players. Almost two-thirds (64.8%) of all 160+ OPS+ seasons occur when the hitter is age 29 or younger.

A side issue that might be of interest is whether there are times when there are more "older hitters" in the mix of "superstar seasons." That might tell us something about artificial aging patterns over the past 15-20 with regards to the still-raging 'roids issue. There were more of these players in the first decade of the 21st century than at any other time in baseball, so it's a topic that will deserve some additional scrutiny. We'll get back to that in a later post.

This post is only about "superstar seasons" and Hall of Fame residency. Let's look at the hitters with at least three 160+ OPS+ seasons in their careers. We've identified the Hall of Famers by listing their names in bold type.

Out of a total of 248 hitters with at least one "superstar season," 86 of them are in the Hall of Fame. (Of course, there are many hitters in the Hall who didn't have such a season--mostly players at the left end of the defensive spectrum.)

As is often the case with Hall of Fame voting, the further down we go from "quantity of peak", the murkier things get in terms of who's in and who's out.

Ross Barnes
From this list, however, it's immediately apparent that keeping Barry Bonds out of the Hall of Fame--which seems like a likely scenario at this point in time--is going to be the biggest, fattest omission in the history of meritocracy.

Harry Stovey
A few names from the distant past pop up via this sorting mechanism. The greatest middle infielder in baseball's early days, Ross Barnes, is technically ineligible for the Hall due to career length, but he clearly dominated the game in the 1870s. For historical completeness, Barnes ought to be in.

Likewise, Pete Browning and Harry Stovey, the two dominant hitters in the 1880s, have their cases strengthened considerably via the lens of "superstar seasons."

Pete Browning
80% of the eligible hitters with six to nine "superstar seasons" in their careers are in the Hall of Fame. As is so often the case, my man Dick Allen is one of the folks on this list who's still on the outside looking in. Mark McGwire may be there to keep Dick company for awhile.

A bit under 40% of those with three to five such seasons have been enshrined.

This is just one lens for examining the achievement of hitters, but again it helps delineate where the grey areas in Hall of Fame voting tend to cluster.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Bert Campaneris, venting because he's
not going to have a starting job on the 42s
Before the men of the Greatest Generation were swept off to war, they did a little procreatin'. More than a little, in fact, because in 1942 they hatched a whole heckuva lotta baseball babies. This birthyear team is highly populated and loaded with talent--even if virtually all of its hitting talent swings the lumber from the right side.

Catchers--Jerry Grote, Randy Hundley, Jack Hiatt
First basemen--Dick Allen, Mike Hegan, Ramon Webster
Second basemen--Jim Lefebvre, Ike Brown, Hal Lanier
Shortstop--Jim Fregosi, Bert Campaneris, Don Kessinger
Third basemen--Tony Perez, Bob Bailey
Outfielders--Jimmy Wynn, Willie Horton, Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Alex Johnson, Mickey Stanley, Jesus Alou, Richie Scheinblum

Out of these twenty-two possibles, only four aren't RHB (Lefebvre and Scheinblum switch-hit, plus Hegan and Webster). So the bench will have a couple of guys who are a bit wan with the bat just to get some kind of platoon advantage. You can probably get away with Campaneris as the utility player (but has there ever been anyone with more plate appearances and a lower OBP? yeesh...but he could sure throw a bat when he put his mind to it!!). But at least that way you can keep Hal Lanier down on your taxi squad, hitting endless balls off a batting tee in search of a viable swing.
This Ike Brown...

...not this Ike Brown.
The imp in me wants to keep Ike Brown on this squad, though, despite his short career. Not only can Ike play a lot of positions for you (first, second, third, and the OF), but he can be Willie Horton's roommate, which bunks together two guys whose names have been linked with notoriously politicized African-Americans.

Be all that as it may, the 1942 squad has some serious lumber in the middle of its lineup. I think I'd try to front-load the lineup a la Gil Hodges with his '69 Mets and put Tommie Agee in the top slot. Agee is not a classic leadoff hitter in any sense, but he had some pop in his bat and good speed--though his base-stealing skills were a bit variable, if spectacular (see below). The 42s are lacking true leadoff man, especially in comparison with the 40s and 41s, who were overloaded with them.

Of course, Agee's exploits in the 1969 World Series add a bit of a rosy tint to those retrospective lenses. We'll room him with his real-life best friend Cleon Jones (even though Cleon is gonna have to be the fourth outfielder on this squad).

The Houston Colt .45s All-Rookie squad, put on the field once and 
once only on September 27, 1963. Back row: Brock Davis (LF), Aaron Pointer
(RF), Jimmy Wynn (CF). Middle row: Glenn Vaughan (3B), Sonny Jackson
(SS), Joe Morgan (2B), Rusty Staub (1B). Front row: Jay Dahl (P), Jerry
Grote (C). Three great players and two solid major-leaguers...
To get a bit more getting-on-base-ability higher up in the batting order, I think it's best to put Jimmy Wynn in the #2 slot. While Wynn is known mostly for his power, he had plenty of speed in his early years and he drew 100+ BB in six seasons, one of only four players born in the 40s with at least that many (Joe Morgan, eight; Mike Schmidt, seven, Wynn and Gene Tenace, six).

One can legitimately argue that Wynn was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1974 (he finished 5th in the voting).

Those two will set things up nicely for the Crown Prince of the 42s lineup, the one and only Dick Allen. Dick's nickname ("Crash") testifies to his impact both on and off the field, and that's been rehashed so much over the years that it would be tiresome to revisit it here. But what is so often forgotten about Allen was how hard he played the game: "Crash" was not simply a name evoking what happened when his bat met the ball, but what happened to him as he played the game on the field with a coldly reckless abandon.

Hitting behind Allen is Tony Perez, a man often referred to as the "Heart and Soul of the Big Red Machine." (You are free to ponder the metaphorical incongruities of that phrase for yourself.) Tony should post some nice RBI totals for this squad, but he's not anything close to an elite hitter. He wound up in Cooperstown thanks to a fine peak from 1969-73 (150 HRs, 144 OPS+) and six seasons of part-time play into his mid-40s that padded his total of games played.

Tony Perez slamming a homer off
Bill Lee in the 1975 World Series
His value to the 42s will be increased somewhat by the fact that he'll be playing third base. (Oddly enough, the WAR fielding data suggests that Tony was actually getting better at third base when the Reds decided to move him over to first base in 1972. Go figure.)

Willie Horton: surprisingly fragile slugger
Behind Perez there is more power. Willie Horton (again, not to be confused with the notorious criminal and lightning rod of the 1988 presidential campaign) was a fixture in Detroit for more than a decade. Unfortunately, he was also something of a statue in left field for most of those years--though, even with that, he also managed to get injured a lot.

Jim Fregosi: surprisingly solid
in his younger days
Willie wasn't able to play 120 or more games in a season in any of his age 27-31 seasons, and a few wags back in the mid-70s suggested that he'd been the silent force behind the DH rule, since it was such a natural role for a man who didn't enjoy having to move around in the outfield. (The 42s will have a solid replacement for Willie if and when he gets carried off on his shield in Cleon Jones.)

Originally I was going to bat Jim Fregosi second, but it ultimately made more sense to get Wynn's OBP higher up in the batting order. People tend to forget just how good a player Fregosi was for the Angels from 1963-70; he tends to be remembered mostly for being the washed-up guy for whom the Mets gave away Nolan Ryan.

When one looks at the shortstops born in the 1940s, very few of them (Rico Petrocelli, Denis Menke) can get anywhere close to Fregosi's offensive output. While he doesn't have the defensive reputation accorded to several of his contemporary flyweight-hitting SS (Mark Belanger, Eddie Brinkman), he was no slouch with the glove in his early days.
Who knew Ed Sullivan was so short?? Here are six of the members
of the 1965 Dodgers on that "really big shoe" right after they'd clinched
the NL pennant: from left, Don DrysdaleWillie Davis, manager Walt
Alston, Sullivan, Lou Johnson, Jim Lefebvre, Ron Perranoski.

In the seventh slot, there's short-career switch-hitter Jim (Frenchy) Lefebvre. The good news for the 42s is that Jimmy was a better hitter left-handed, so that would give them a bit of a boost since they'd probably see as many RHP as possible given the tendencies of their lineup. Lefebvre looked as though he might be a star in 1966, but the word on the street was that he just didn't have the dedication to elevate his game, and by the early 70s he was in Japan. He's carved out an admirably odd career in baseball ever since, but somehow the general impression seems to be that he's managed to underachieve.

Looking over the catchers available for the 42s, I was surprised to discover that Jerry Grote actually had better overall offensive statistics than Randy Hundley. It was also a bit of a shock to see that the WAR fielding numbers pegged Grote as being inferior defensively to Hundley. I don't think it's going to be a crucial matter either way, but for purposes of setting up the team I went with Grote as the starter. There's some temptation to keep short-career "walking man" Jack Hiatt (16% BBP) as the backup, but that's just for fringe value. I mean, jeez, these guys are literally locked into the #8 slot...

Dave McNally: "sure,
I'm better than Koosman...well,
I sure played for a better team!"
Fergie Jenkins: tough to lick
1. Agee, cf
2. Wynn, rf
3. Allen, 1b
4. Perez, 3b
5. Horton, lf
6. Fregosi, ss
7. Lefebvre, 2b
8. Grote (or Hundley), c

I love that lineup, actually, despite its right-leaning bias. It projects to 755 runs, a good bit better than the 41s and pretty close to what's projected for the 40s.

Now wait until you see the pitching staff.

"Sudden" Sam, who was
suddenly no good after he
passed the 200-bar limit...
Starting pitchers: Ferguson Jenkins, Jerry Koosman, Dave McNally, Sam McDowell, Jim Lonborg
Relievers: Ron Reed, Cecil Upshaw, Grant Jackson, Chuck Taylor, Mel Queen
Swing man: Fred Beene (!)

Waiting in the wings: Steve Blass, Pat Dobson, Fred Norman, Fritz Peterson, Tom Phoebus, Jim Roland, Jim Rooker

Cecil Upshaw, whose "dunkin'"
career was henceforth
limited to the donut shop
The quality and depth of this pitching staff is quite probably unparalleled in the 1940s birthyear showdown. There are twenty-game winners (Dobson, Peterson) and World Series heroes (Blass), who can't even crack the team. I think this is the only example of a fully-loaded major league-level 40-man roster in the entire decade.

Fred Beene: even smaller
than he looked...
The relief pitchers may or may not make your socks roll up and down, but they're better than you might think. Not quite up to the snuff of the 41s, but they'll do all right so long as Cecil Upshaw stays away from the basketball court. Grant Jackson was a solid lefty set-up guy once he found his niche in the bullpen. And they got the Mighty Mite, Fred Beene, the pocket-sized swing man. (No, I'm not completely serious when I suggest that the 42s bring up the Texas-born Beene, who sports a 70s "prequel" resemblance to both Jerry Seinfeld and Michael C. Hall, but he's just one of those fun fringe guys who deserve some ink.)

All things considered, the 42s are going to be a force when we finally get around to playing the simulated games. I wouldn't bet against them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Whatever happened to the "politics of
glory," anyway??
It's clear now that the rubicon in sabermetric discourse occurred back in 1994, when Bill James's Politics of Glory came out. The peregrinating, multi-tracked, myth-shattering muckraking style that Bill put into play in PoG has cast a deep shadow, not only on those who've followed him into the fray, but on his own work.

And that's still the case today. "Neo-sabermetrics", which turns around the Socratic method and replaces it with post-modern mockery while continuing to present itself as what it once was, stems in large part from Bill's multi-leveled efforts in PoG

Bill James: big.
And though Bill has since recanted some of the biggest howlers in the book, the fact is that despite his still-astonishing energy and creativity, the adage about new tricks and old dogs is as hard to defeat as those damnable hands of Father Time.

Lee Smith: bigger.
Bill doesn't think Lee Smith, the big, raw, man's man reliever of the 80s and 90s, is a Hall of Famer. That's his gut impression. He tells us that in his latest set of essays at his web site--Bill James Online (subscription required: and, yes, even though I love to disagree with him, I'd pay twice as much to read him)--where his essays on the 2011 Hall of Fame voting are chock full of the meandering narrative tropes that he first put on display in PoG. Dave Studemund at The Hardball Times calls this "classic James"--but we'd be really be better off seeing it as a return to the "mannerist" phase in PoG, where the digressive narrative technique (not lost on any of those who've followed in his wake, of course...) can be both bracing and delusory.

The problem is bigger than Bill James (6'5") and Lee Smith (6'6"). It's about relief pitching and its "value" in the game. What vexes James--and all those who've followed him into the wilderness of conflating their value models with the variable "science" of meritocracy--is that relievers are gaining an advantage out of proportion with their actual worth in terms of Hall of Fame voting.

The quote from Bill that gets closest to addressing the issue is as follows:

If a certain set of players is given an advantage, by the role that they play, we typically adjust for that advantage in evaluating the player.   If a player is allowed to bat an unusual number of times with runners in scoring position, driving up his RBI count, we adjust for that when we evaluate him.   If a home run hitter plays in a home run park, if a pitcher pitches in a pitcher’s park, if a starting pitcher pitches for a team that scores a lot of runs, we adjust for that—but where do we adjust for this?

Rollie Fingers--did that moustache
bamboozle the BBWAA??
Bruce Sutter--was his
enshrinement a mistake?
Bill is trying to analogize between "park factors" and "context" and how relievers have come to be used.  Over the past twenty-five years, the save statistic has become something akin to an end unto itself, and has mushroomed in a manner that some might analogize to the rise in home runs that began in the mid-90s. What emerges from Bill's hand-wringing is a forceful cop-out: he doesn't think that we know enough about how to contextualize saves, so he wants to shut the door to the Hall of Fame on closers until we sort it out.

Hoyt Wilhelm: making the Hall of Fame
while barely breaking a sweat...
But what's clear is that we're dealing with folks on one edge of the Hall of Fame spectrum--the group that thinks all the toothpaste has been squeezed out of the tube by a "long march" of bumbling BBWAA writers. Bill and others following in his footsteps see that certain relievers--Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter--represent hasty selections to the Hall of Fame. (Oddly, Rich Gossage and Dennis Eckersley are rarely targeted by "reliever revisionists.")

The first question: is this even true? James is willing to concede Mariano Rivera due to Mo's brilliant ERA+ and his integral association with an insanely dominant team, but his argument is curiously bound to modern times. The BBWAA started out by enshrining Hoyt Wilhelm, which made eminent sense in terms of quality and longevity (if not "value", that pesky term that, in this area at least, seems to trip up the most seemingly agile of minds). As the fearless proponent of a trick pitch who purveyed it into a brilliant but wayward 21-year career, Wilhelm had singularity on his side.

Where Wilhelm isn't singular, however, is in how he was used as a reliever. There is a continuum of what we can call "closer usage" that remained reasonably constant from the 1950s until the early 1990s. Teams entrusted closers with more outs then. In fact, the average number of games where closers recorded four or more outs in order to earn a save actually peaked in the mid-1980s (yes, right about the time that Lee Smith and Dan Quisenberry came into their own, taking over for Sutter and Fingers).

What the chart tells us is that all saves are not created equal, and that those relief pitchers whose careers occurred prior to 1990 worked harder and longer for their saves. It's actually quite an astonishing sea-change in usage when you look at it: the number of saves where the closer goes more than an inning just halves itself over the course of five years.

So Trevor Hoffman (601 saves), Rivera (559), John Franco (424) and Billy Wagner (422) have benefitted from this change in usage. But did Smith (478)? Let's take a look at a table that will show us the actual number of multiple-inning saves recorded by top relievers.

Looking at it this way, it doesn't seem as though Fingers and Gossage and Sutter were such terrible selections for the Hall, does it?

And there's Lee Smith, sitting in the #4 slot.

Meanwhile, Rivera has clearly been the most relied-on closer in his time frame: the Yanks have used him in multiple-inning appearances a good bit more often than what the prevailing school of thought would want you to believe. And look at Hoffman and Wagner--well down the list.

Don't get me wrong: I still personally believe that closers with 400+ saves are Hall of Famers. It's a reasonable threshold, a solid "counting stat" signifier of quality and longevity in the way that 3000+ hits and 500+ homers are (or, apparently, used to be).

There are only five such players in baseball history.

And, you know, there aren't a whole hell of a lot of closers breathing heavily at the door. Aside from Rivera and Wagner, there are no other closers with 300+ saves currently active. The youngest active pitcher with the most saves is Francisco Rodriguez (268 saves, 29 years old in 2011).

Sure, he could go on a rampage and notch 150 saves in the next three seasons. But that would still make him only the sixth pitcher to crack 400 saves.

No, the problem here is that Bill James (and his progeny) find themselves stuck in the molasses of their value models when it comes to closers. While their arguments about the interchangeability of relievers sound good, the fact remains that even with the potential "misuse" of a widely reviled counting stat, we don't have a glut of relievers to put into the Hall. They are not the folks contributing to the anxiety concerning the next five years of Hall of Fame balloting.

Lee Smith's induction into the HOF will not cause the earth to spin off its axis.

The fact is that Bill's analogy is a weak one, and his lack of clarity on this issue is due to the problem of the value model getting in the way of common sense. The Hall of Fame is not meant to be the perfect research project, no matter how hard the numbers cadre tries to twist it into that via their equation-laden ideology. We need that damn Occam's Razor again. (We need that a lot, it seems.)

I think Bill should rethink his position on this just as he's done before. Because I believe that an old dog and a new trick are not necessarily separated by an excluded middle. Because sometimes common sense actually works!

Monday, January 17, 2011


Omar Vizquel: saying no prayers
for the "Wing of the Amazing..."
NO "Wing of the Amazing" for me. No thanks, Rob Neyer. A "Hall of Fame for players not good enough to be the Hall of Fame" is nothing more or less than meritocratie maudit, a kind of "meta-slumming" on a topic already as squeezed out as a month-old lemon rind.

"Surely you meant me, Hal
Instead of the backhanded handclap for current guys who are merely the latest to defy old age (Omar Vizquel, Jamie Moyer), why not give readers a look at some old-time players whose long-ago achievements were part of a fascinating shift in strategy and player usage? Yes, these fellas have fallen into the "dustbin of history" (danka, Leon Trotsky): maybe it's time that we dive in and bring 'em back alive.

"...not my dad, Bolshevik
pinch-hitter deluxe
Leon Trotsky."
JUST over a hundred years ago, baseball started to become far less fixed in terms of in-game strategy. Sure, there had been amazingly rapid changes in the rules of the game in the forty years from the formation of the first professional leagues, but it was only in the first decade of the twentieth century that roster sizes began to increase, and the use of platooning and pinch-hitting began to emerge from what previously had been a slavishly uniform set of in-game practices.

The first player with ten pinch hit at-bats was Ducky Holmes, a man more infamous for an anti-Semitic slur at Giants owner Andrew Freedman than anything else. The year was 1896. Pinch-hitting was just getting out of the barn, and this was reflected in the names of the spare-part players who found themselves put up as the first "replacement players": the man who set the early record for pinch-hits in a season (6), also in 1896, was veteran catcher Doggie Miller. Macmillan's Baseball Encyclopedia, which after forty-odd years of baseball reference materials being slung out like so many well drinks by a hyperactive bartender is still the most convenient source for pinch-hitting data, shows Miller going 6-for-9 while "pinching" that season. That performance didn't help him stay in the big leagues, either.

Duke Farrell, in the early days
before he discovered his love
for clotted cream...lifetime
pinch-hit average: .390.
And his pinch-hit record lasted all of one season. Duke Farrell, known to some baseball fact-mongers as the catcher who threw out eight of nine runners attempting to steal (May 11, 1897), had another improbable feat that year. Namely, he collected eight pinch hits in fourteen at-bats, setting a record in each of these statistical categories. Farrell had an amazing run as a replacement hitter, going 22-for-48 before hanging on a year too long: he went just 1-for-11 as a pinch batter in 1904, bringing his lifetime pinch-hit average below .400 as a result.
Sammy Strang, utility
man for McGraw's World
champion Giants in 1905:
15-for-46 lifetime as PH.

Farrell still held these records when he retired that year, but in 1905 Ike Van Zandt, more famous as a baseball suicide, received 18 pinch-hit at bats for the St. Louis Browns. (He had only four hits, alas.) That same year, New York Giants manager John McGraw began his pioneering work as an in-game strategist by deploying switch-hitting utility man Sammy Strang as a pinch-hitter. Strang matched Farrell's 1897 season with an 8-for-14 performance, and the Giants won the pennant. (This was the second pennant-winning team in three years to have a league leader in pinch hits. The first? The 1903 Boston Pilgrims, with third-string catcher and future manager Jake Stahl going 5-for-11 in replacement at-bats.)

Dode Criss: the first player to
have more than 40% of his
plate appearances as a PH:
35-for-147 lifetime.
Two years later Jack Hoey, a spectacularly non-descript left-handed outfielder, had one of those logic-defying seasons that post-modern baseball "historiology" considers simply shruggable. Relegated to the bench by Boston Americans manager Jimmy Collins in 1907 after a listless rookie season, Hoey went 8-for-18 as a pinch-hitter, but finished the year at just .219 (21-for -96). For all you former slide-rule virtuosi out there, that means he hit just .167 (13-for-78) as a starter. Was that Hoey--or Hooey??

In 1908, the year that featured two nail-biting pennant races, pitcher Dode Criss became the first truly "modern" pinch-hitter, establishing at-bat and hit totals for replacement hitting that would become commonplace in the 1950s. Criss was 12-for-41 off the bench for the Browns in '08, and he was almost as good in '09 (7-for-24) He'd have two more "heavy use" years before fading out of the big leagues.

Why was this guy Monkee-ing
around as a pinch hitter?
11-for-64 (.172) lifetime...
1908 was also the year of "Merkle's boner", and the man who lent his name to that celebrated moment, Fred Merkle, had one of the first "bad pinch-hit years" in baseball history (the baseball equivalent of a "bad hair year"), going just 2-for-16 off the bench for the Giants. The first "bad pinch-hit career" can't be pinned on Merkle, however: that dubious honor must go to Jack Clements, baseball's only left-handed catcher with more than 1000 games played, who was a woeful 2-for-28 lifetime (.071) in the pinch.

Beals Becker: that split-handed grip doesn't
seem to have been the ticket to PH glory:
18-100 lifetime...
For a merely small sample size, there's Davy Jones, platoon outfielder on the Detroit Tigers from 1906-12. In '08, Davy found himself underwater, hitting just .207 and going 3-for-21 as a pinch hitter. (The Tigers won the pennant anyway.) One wonders why the hell manager Hughie Jennings kept sending him up there in those spots: Jones was just 2-for-23 over the next three years.

Meanwhile, in New York, John McGraw kept searching for a reliable pinch-hitting specialist. Catcher Chief Meyers got the nod in '09 and did well (8-for-24), but the late-bloomer became a regular the next season. Beals Becker took over in '10 and '11, but he was a bust, just 8-for 56 (.143!) as a pinch-hitter. (Strangely enough, he'd become a regular on the Giants the next season, mostly due to yet another feud between McGraw and the eternally wayward Mike Donlin.)
Ted Easterly

In 1912, however, pinch-hitting reached a new plateau. For the first time, three batters managed to slap out ten or more replacement hits in a season. Catcher Ted Easterly broke Criss's record with 13 pinch hits, but most notably, the season produced the first instance where both pennant-winning teams had significant pinch-hitters.

Moose McCormick
With Donlin gone, the Giants brought back Moose McCormick, who'd filled in tolerably well in '09 during another of Turkey Mike's drink-besotted world tours. Like Christy Mathewson, McCormick was a graduate of Bucknell, and when McGraw low-balled him on his contract in '10 he simply went to work in the steel industry for a couple of years. He came back more than a bit too portly to play the outfield, but he turned into a dangerous pinch-hitter for the Giants in '12 (11-for-30, with eight RBIs off the bench). This was a Giants team that won fifty-four of their first sixty-five decisions and coasted to the pennant.
Olaf Henriksen, still the only major leaguer
who was born in Denmark--so naturally his

nickname is... "Swede"!!

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox, beginning a string of World Series appearances built on one of baseball's most impressive agglomerations of young talent, rode the arm of Smoky Joe Wood (34-5) and the bat of Tris Speaker (.383, 188 OPS+) to an even better won-loss record than the Giants. Tucked away on their roster was a 24-year-old Danish-born outfielder, Olaf Henriksen, who'd not hit much at all in the minor leagues but got a chance to play regularly in August 1911 due to an injury to right fielder Harry Hooper--and who proceeded to flirt with .400 for the better part of a month.

Jake Stahl took over the Red Sox in 1912 and made Henriksen into a pinch-hitter. (Stahl probably recalled how Jimmy Collins had used him on the 1903 team, and made Olaf over in his former image.) While the raw numbers don't look all that astonishing (6-for-25), Olaf also walked 12 times during his "replacement at-bats," resulting in an OBP of over .500.

Both McCormick and Henriksen had their moments in the 1912 World Series, one that New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro chronicled colorfully in his 2009 book, The First Fall Classic. McCormick had five pinch-hit appearances in the Series, which is still a record. In Game Two, his sacrifice fly in the tenth inning gave the Giants a 6-5 lead, but Mathewson couldn't hold it and the game was eventually called after eleven innings with the scored tied 6-6. Henriksen saved his heroics for Game Eight, when he came to the plate against Big Six with the Red Sox trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh and manager Stahl the runner at second base. He slapped a double down the left field line to tie the score: the Sox would eventually take advantage of Fred Snodgrass' tenth-inning error to win, 3-2.
Ham Hyatt, who'd have held the
PH record longer had he not been
sent back to the minors in 1916...

In 1913, pinch-hitting stepped forward again, with four batters knocking out ten or more replacement hits. Doc Miller set a new record with 20 pinch hits, one that wouldn't be broken for twenty years. Ham Hyatt had 15 pinch hits and would leave the major leagues in 1918 with a career total of 57, a record that wouldn't be broken until 1931, when Red Lucas and Bob ("Fats") Fothergill would both surpass it.

Fothergill was actually too good a hitter to be relegated to a pinch-hitting role, but at 5'10", 230 lbs. he was a significant defensive liability, and we're still roughly fifty years ahead of the DH rule during his career heyday. He's also the first great purely right-handed pinch-hitter: all of the other guys we've mentioned batted from the left side.

These are the forgotten, neglected heroes, fringe hitters who will never find their way into Cooperstown, and who aren't likely to show up on Neyer's "Wing of the Amazing" radar, either. Pinch-hitting statistics prior to 1950 remain the orphan child of the historical record; unless you have one of the McMillan Baseball Encyclopedias or a copy of Paul Votano's Stand and Deliver, this data is simply inaccessible. (And Votano's book, while a fine place to start, is by no means definitive.) This is one topic where the two leading purveyors of detailed historical stats ( and have dropped the ball. The post-modern analyst would argue that this is a marginal area, that hitters pay a steep penalty in performance when they pinch-hit...while much of that is true, there are those hitters who've beaten the long odds involved in coming off the bench to hit. These folks are truly amazing, and fully deserve their own "wing." (We'll examine more of them in upcoming posts.)

Monday, January 10, 2011


For years--beginning somewhere between the publication dates of Bill James's first Historical Baseball Abstract (1985) and his epic, dyspeptic Politics of Glory (1994)--I've had a nagging suspicion that the "ado" about the Hall of Fame that has paralleled the rise of political extremism in America is, in fact, very much about relatively little.

"Small Hall" proponents have urged that the Hall of Fame downsize by
relocating from its current location to the more "modest" Kingfisher Tower--
an idea strongly supported by the rowboat concessionaires at Lake Otsego...
The problem, though, was developing an approach to quantify just what the actual amount of turf was being fought over in this surreal little variant of the seemingly endless American "culture war." Reading the escalating vitriol (and witnessing that the real-life effects of such recriminatory behavior can produce actual criminal acts, such as the Gabrielle Giffords shooting) one would think that the fate of the known universe is bound up in who is "in" or "out" of this rustic little institution just a stone's throw from picturesque Otsego Lake in idyllic (but notoriously reactionary) upstate New York.

After tinkering around for awhile, however, I think I've found a way to demonstrate just what is at stake in baseball's version of the Thirty Years' War (sorry, linked to it once before: you're on your own).

Lungs of steel Linda Ronstadt, who didn't
serially date and dump a gaggle of big league
pitchers like Alyssa Milano... She just two-timed
the two-time Governor of Calfornia...
Caveat: the method described below is applicable only for batters. We'll stipulate that pitchers march to the beat of a different drum, and promise to take that matter on once we've been successful in getting right-wing blowhards to agree that "regulation ≠ Marxism". (So, in other words, don't hold your breath...)

Simply stated, the concept is what we can call breadth of peak. How long was a hitter able to sustain a continuous level of first-rate performance over a serially-measured time frame?

Let's define terms. "Serially-measured time frame" is understood to be six years, in which the hitter has had at least 2500 plate appearances. To make it "continuous", the six years are consecutive. "First-rate" performance over those six consecutive years is defined by league-relative on-base plus slugging (OPS+)--see the discussion of "Occam's Razor" a bit further back in our blogolalia as to why this measure was chosen--and the minimum value of that OPS+ for each six years is 130.

When we do that, we see that there are very few mystery guests in the pantheon of "peak" greatness. (This is one reason why it's much easier to create projection/prediction systems for hitters.) Truly great hitters tend to stay great--sure, they have some ups and downs over individual seasons, but the serial rollover of six-year "peaks" or "swatches" creates something close to a bell-curve distribution in terms of age, as the chart at right demonstrates.

All in all, there are 321 hitters from 1901 to the present who've had at least a single six-year "peak" (or career "swatch" of 130 or higher. The total number of such six-year "peaks" is a bit under two thousand (1861 to be exact).

The fellas with the most such peaks (see table at left) aren't going to surprise anyone. The only surprising name on this chart is Jack Clark, another great hitter whose career seems a bit too short for enshrinement by traditionalists and statheads alike. (Mein Gott!!--is this consensus, or mere ko-inky-dink?)

As you might expect, the greatest hitters tend to have both the most number of these six-year "peaks" over the course of their careers and the highest average OPS+ values. These are the type of hitters that Joe Posnanski would have referred to in his "Willie Mays Hall of Fame" essay had he not decided to go for the 2011 "armpit-scratching reductio ad absurdum" award (gonna be tough to top you, Pos; but trust me, I'll give it my best shot as the year goes on). There are only a handful of players with ten or more six-year "peaks" whose average OPS+ over the course of those high-level "peaks/swatches" is below 140. Can you look at the list on the left (above) and eyeball for yourself?

(Aw, they are:

10--Boog Powell, 138; Dwight Evans, 134.
11--Bob Johnson, 138; Tony Gwynn, 135.
12--Dave Winfield, 137; Rafael Palmeiro, 137.
13--Billy Williams, 136.

Players in bold type are in the Hall.)

Now, as you can see, players with a large number of six-year "peaks/swatches" but lower than a 140 OPS+ average over the full span are not universal choices for the Hall of Fame. What seems to be the primary separating factor for these players is the length of their careers. Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn have counting stats (3000 hits) working for them; Billy Williams had thirteen "swatches above 130", and it simply seems that when you get to that level, you get to go in Cooperstown's front door. Unless your name is Jack Clark, that is.
Jack Clark and his family tree

So we are beginning to get a sense of where the "grey area" lies (and without resorting to the more complicated and still-problematic Wins Above Replacement method). Hitters with fewer than ten six-year "peaks" over 130 OPS+ can still get into the Hall, of course. They either get in because they play the most demanding defensive positions (shortstop, second base, catcher, and to some extent center field and third base), or they simply get in by mistake. But outside the frabjous Frankie Frisch fiasco in the late 60s-early 70s, there have been far fewer of those than is commonly thought.

Looking quickly at the "average of six-year peaks" chart (above, on the right), we see that, again, there are very few players here who aren't in the Hall of Fame. Dick Allen and Mark McGwire have the highest peaks of anyone currently eligible for the Hall who's not enshrined (and are the only players with average peaks over 150 on the outside); as you probably know, neither Dick nor Big Mac were able to generate a lot of good will amongst the BBWAA membership. (Bill James probably did more damage than he'll ever quite understand with his infamous "If that's a Hall of Famer, I'm a lug nut" comment about Allen in PoG; he's since retracted it--sort of--but for fifteen years the mainstream media could conveniently point to James's gasbaggery as justification for shunning Allen. Until Dick's situation is rectified, it'd still be appropriate to send lug nuts to Bill c/o the Red Sox. You never know, one of his wheels might fall off and they'll come in handy.)

The simplest way of looking at this, however, might still be to look at a population distribution all the players who've had at least one (but no more than twenty) six-year peaks of 130+ OPS+. If the pattern holds, there should be a linear descent of HoF inclusion from most to least. The complete distribution is shown at the right; the summarized findings (in various ranges) are on the left. As you can see, the data is highly linear and the grey area is nicely identified. In a coup for our hopes of a commercial tie-in with America's most glaringly ubiquitous convenience store, players with 7-11 six-year "peaks" have almost exactly a 50-50 chance of being enshrined in the Hall of Fame. (OK, the actual figure is 48%; the extra 2% got siphoned off by Jonah Keri.)

Would the Hall of Fame be any more
or less problematic to anyone if
Sherry Magee was enshrined in it??
There's that odd glitch at ten, which fits into a "neither fish nor fowl" theory of meritocratic exclusion. The players in that group who aren't enshrined (Allen, Evans, Powell, and deadball era outfielder Sherry Magee) all have short enough careers that their counting stats seem lacking. None of these guys would be an embarrassment to the Hall of Fame.

What this shows us is that the traditionalists (who don't seem to grasp the concept of league-relative performance) and the statheads (far too many of whom have fallen into lockstep with the WAR "run-win" model and extend its precepts to draw falsely nuanced lines in the sand depending on their aesthetic preferences) are really battling over a small number of hitters.

The WAR model/method articulates and enumerates concepts about positional adjustment issues (why shortstops generally don't hit anywhere close to what outfielders and first basemen do), but for the most part the BBWAA has found a way to incorporate some variant of those ideas into their selection process.

Looking at this data, one can only conclude that elections, whether in the political system or elsewhere, produce mouth foam at ever-increasing levels across American society. Let's sign off with an entirely different observation: the statheads who bemoan the length of time that it often takes for some candidates to achieve enshrinement in the Hall have, so far as I can tell, never acknowledged that from a business standpoint (and Bill James was exceptionally clear throughout PoG in reminding the reader that the Hall of Fame is a business...) it makes more than a little bit of sense to spread out the induction process over time. Whether it's an unwritten, whispered instruction to the BBWAA writers as they are brought over into the "dark side" (take that, Murray Chass!!) or if it's simply the serendipity of a chaotic election process, the result is the same, and it's probably beneficial in the long run.

"Breadth of peak" shows us that consistency and constancy over time, both on the field and in the practice of everyday life, will eventually produce a reliable type of certainty. It won't be perfect--nothing is. But the more we can understand and articulate what the grey areas are--in baseball and in all types of human interaction--the more we will be able to work through them with the least amount of divisiveness and animosity.

(We'll revisit some other artifacts of this "breadth of peak" study soon, as they point out some other intriguing features of the game that are woefully underexposed.)