Thursday, March 31, 2011


Take your guesses now. Is it all a random crapshoot? Do teams that eventually go on to be in the post-season play coin-flip baseball on Opening Day?

Those of you who'd like to tally up the entire Opening Day results by team are directed to this link at BB-REF, where Forman and Co. have made it possible to look at the first day results for all teams going back to 1919.

Our slice is but a subset of that data, but it's kind of interesting. Do teams that wind up in the post-season do better on Opening Day than also-rans? Or is it, as noted above, simply a coin-flip proposition?

It turns out that the aggregrate winning percentage for post-season teams on Opening Day is: .595 (195-133). The charts break out the team-by-team totals.

Note that the Giants and Dodgers have both played exceptionally well on Opening Day when they have a postseason-bound team. Last year, the Giants knocked off the Astros, 5-2, in the season opener--and went on to win the World Series. In 2009, when the Dodgers won the NL West, they opened the year with a 4-1 win over the Padres.

Too bad for both of them that they faced each other on 2011's Opening Day.

And who won this year's matchup of post-season Opening Day stalwarts? Final score just in: Dodgers 2, Giants 1.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Yes, I ran an image for The Killers in the previous post to get the flavor of film noir into the mix, since 1946 is the beginning of the six-year boom for dark movies in America. (Fear-mongering and America's real national pastime, co-optation, put the fizzle to the sizzle as fast as you can say HUAC!)

It's also the beginning of the baby boom--the post-war era's ongoing paean to fertility--and, as you might expect, the 46s have a surfeit of bodies. (Naturally, none of them quite measure up to Ava Gardner's, but a double-cross is far more damaging, base-out wise, than a mere double play. Consider The Killers, with more flashbacks than the number of hurlers on a post-modern pitching staff, to be the quintessential look at a "busted hit-and-run play".)

Pete Seeger: not quite the "banjo hitter"
we had in mind, but welcome nonetheless.
(Thanks to Tom Nawrocki for the image.)
The roster:

Catchers--Gene Tenace, Joe Ferguson, Bill Sudakis, Johnny Oates
First basemen--Al Oliver, Bob Watson, Nate Colbert
Second basemen--Ken Boswell, Art Howe
Shortstop--Frank Duffy, Marty Perez
Third basemen--Billy Grabarkewitz, Bob Robertson
Outfielders--Bobby Bonds, Bobby Murcer, Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Ken Henderson, Willie Crawford

The players in bold are the ones we're gonna keep at the outset: we don't need to keep both banjo-hitting shortstops. Duffy is the better defender, so he stays and Billy Grabarkewitz can fill in as necessary. The biggest point of exposure for this team is the lack of a two-way player at third base: the 46s are gonna have to close their eyes and play Bob Robertson there, and replace him in mid-game a good bit with either Grabs, Art Howe or Bill Sudakis.

Tough choice for the last OF slot, too, but we'll go with Ken
Henderson due to two factors: switch-hitting, and the capability of playing CF.

The 46s will be leading off Bobby Bonds and playing him in left field, despite the fact that he didn't play there much. (Bonds, Murcer and Reggie were all primarily right fielders, though the two Bobbys had some time in center. You could really just move these guys around as you saw fit.)

I used to be skeptical about Bobby's birth year, but subsequent revelations about his drinking habits make it clear that his sudden decline at age 34 was probably a cumulative effect of that behavior. Bonds Sr. (as he's become known) was the prototype for the post-modern slugger, with a swing-from-the-heels style that produced record-setting strikeout totals.

Gene Tenace hitting one of his four homers
in the 1972 World Series
Just to give Bobby the maximum chance to run wild on the basepaths (he and his son--y'all know who his son is, no??--are 1-2 in stolen bases for hitters with more than 300 HR), we're going to bat a man with six 100-walk seasons in the #2 slot behind him. Yes, that's right, it's Gene Tenace (birth name: Fiore Gino Tennaci), who used to smirk when he heard his name pronounced "tennis." From a sabermetric stance, Gino is hard to beat: his walk-to-hit ratio for his career is .93, which is a numerical palindrome of the historical ratio for all hitters (.39). Needless to say, he's not your typical #2 hitter.

If anything, however, his pitch-taking skills might up his walk totals even further (if you take a look at the data we presented a few posts back about Jim Gilliam's stats when batting with Maury Wills in stolen base mode).

Exemplary baseball historians that y'all are, you probably know that two members of the 46s were traded for each other. It was a big deal at the time, the type that never happen any more. And it was two Bobbys--Bobby Bonds for Bobby Murcer.

I'll confess to having something of a soft spot for Murcer, though it's true that his pretense at being "the next Mickey Mantle" rests solely on his ability to hit at Yankee Stadium. (Over his career, Murcer hit 4.6 homers per 100 PA in the Bronx, just 2.7 per 100 PA elsewhere.) His peak years as a hitter (1971-73) were awfully good: his 160 OPS+ ranked him fourth behind Willie Stargell, Dick Allen, and Hank Aaron. He faded very early, and it's likely that the Yankees' move to Shea Stadium in 1974 in order to renovate the fabled but now-abandoned "House That Ruth Built" hastened his decline. Still, we'll bat him third on this squad in hopes that he'll catch some of that youthful lightning in a bottle.

Behind Murcer in the 46s lineup we have an entirely different breed of Yankee slugger, a man who never lost his home run stroke, and never misplaced his ego. Yes, it can be none other than Reggie Jackson, whose swing was one of the most ferocious and whose mouth was one of the most rapid and most combustible. Reggie is more fondly remembered in his A's incarnation--a driven, relentless, intense competitor who hadn't quite found his "true voice" and was still playing world-class defense in right field. Naming a candy bar after Reggie always seemed gratuitous; they should have named an urban renewal project after him.

Two members of the 46s go head-to-head:
Bob Watson and Joe Ferguson
Al Oliver, professional hitter
In the fifth slot we are back to an interesting platoon situation. The 46s have three robust hitters who primarily play first base: Nate Colbert, Al Oliver, and Bob Watson (though Oliver actually has more games in CF). Colbert's career got derailed early, in part because the Padres traded for Willie McCovey and tried to turn Nate into an outfielder, so he's the odd man out here. It probably makes sense to just platoon Oliver and Watson, as both these guys have sizable platoon advantages.

Bob Robertson, 10/3/71:
the day he hit three homers
in an NLCS game
Dropped into the sixth slot is another career flameout. Bob Robertson was actually the most impressive of the three young (22-23 year old) hitters that the Pirates had on their roster in 1970 (the other two were Oliver and Richie Hebner), and all of these guys kept on chooglin' in 1971, when the Bucs won the World Series.

The Pirates thought that Robertson would become the next Ralph Kiner: back and knee maladies would soon turn him into Ralph Kramden instead. (He literally looked twice as old in early '72, making only 12 hits in 107 ABs though mid-June.) Though he would recover his home run stroke to some extent, Robertson was never able to hit for a decent average again and quickly became a part-time player.

For the life of me, I simply cannot recall Ken Boswell
ever being able to get this high off the ground...
The big problem for the 46s isn't just Robertson's quick fade: it's that they just don't have any actual third basemen to play. Robertson played a total of sixteen games there in his career, and the only other choices available are Billy Grabarkewitz (a one-year wonder in 1970) and Bill Sudakis. Platooning the two one-time Dodger kids might be an option: we will leave it to the player-manager to sort it out.

Art Howe: right place,
right time...
At the bottom of the order there are
middle infielders:
and this is where the 46s have to trust their man in charge--Art Howe, whose managerial career is a study in extreme contrasts. (That career also gives rise to the hope in every man that he might yet find himself, if only once, in the right place at the right time.) Howe will probably decide to be modest and create a platoon at second between himself and Ken Boswell. Of course, he might get greedy and try to take over the starting job at third base. (I don't think so: if he does, Reggie will crush his spleen.)

As noted above, Frank Duffy is the shortstop, a standard-issue 70s good field-no hit infielder who will not disgrace anyone--except, of course, those who remember that he was part of not one, but two of the very worst trades in the 1970s (the Giants inexplicably coveted Frank enough to part with George Foster; not satisfied with that move, they waited a year, then packaged Frank along with some guy named Gaylord Perry in order to acquire Sam McDowell).

In addition to the folks we've mentioned, there are three guys on the bench with some pop in their bats: Joe Rudi, who'd be starting on three or four other birth-year squads; Ken Henderson, a perfectly serviceable center fielder with decent power and good strike-zone judgment; and Joe Ferguson, Tenace's backup behind the plate and versatile enough to play first and the outfield.

The 46s have some good pitching, including Hall of Famers at the top of the rotation and the bullpen, but these members of the Hall seem to be tainted in some eyes. Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers are often cited as two recent BBWAA mistakes: regardless of whether this is true or not, they will be solid if not spectacular. Hunter is joined by a blue-collar corps: Mike Torrez, Paul Splittorff (bearing a scary resemblance to Frank Duffy), Larry Dierker, Ken Forsch, and the inimitable Bill Lee (who really ought to be on the same team with Dock Ellis).

Behind Fingers in the pen you have some crumbly-cheese characters: Pedro Borbon (a man with an alarmingly low K/9 rate: looking back at his stats, one has to wonder how the hell he did that for so many years), Skip Lockwood, Danny Frisella, and Dyar Miller. There are no lefties here, which could mean bullpen duty for Spaceman Lee.

For this squad, Rollie may just want to lose the moustache and try to blend in...
The 46s look to be another also-ran team, despite what looks like some solid 1-5 hitting. In fact, I've got a sense that we might be looking at our tenth-place team right here.

Perhaps Art Howe will want to call up Johnny Oates and let him take it on the chin as the manager. Looks like a case of wrong year, wrong birthyear showdown.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Tim Marchman: in sepia we trust...
Tim Marchman, writer and depth-blog scholar with tentacles in as many publications as it's possible to have fires where irons can reside (if only to keep the flame in his pipe eternally lit....), tossed out a tripartite book review at the Wall Street Journal--may I not be struck by lightning for uttering that three-word blight against mankind--which circles all sides of the soup bowl regarding the need for baseball to both centralize and democratize its information technology issues.

Try not to grimace when Tim is pushed into the "formal" mode by the editorial simians who seem to leap from the Journal to the Times in the most deadening of locksteps:

Anyone who learned about the game by reading Bill James and later consuming books like the annual Baseball Prospectus preview (to which Mr. Keri was a longtime contributor) has surely rued one odd effect of the triumph of their work within the sport: It seems that every time a sabermetrician does something really original, he is hired on by a team, with his work soon receiving a big stamp reading "proprietary" on it. Mr. Keri delivers a winning account of how the Rays came to hire Josh Kalk, a physics professor and former writer for with a knack for wringing insight out of the Pitch f/x camera systems that MLB has installed in stadiums during recent years. These record the location and speed of pitches from the time they leave the pitcher's hand to the time they cross the plate, and are used on MLB's website to provide virtual broadcasts of games. When you glimpse how Mr. Kalk uses it to study arcane aspects of throwing a ball 60 feet at high velocity, you will mourn the amount of talent sequestered in front offices, doing interesting work out of public view.

More to the point, we mourn the fact that baseball, just like the United States government in the hysterical years after WW II, did not see fit to re-invent its "mutual aid" deployment of technical advisors into a cluster of true "think tanks." By not doing so, a whole segment of industrial innovation became irredeemably wedded to free-market forces, and have brought us to the parlous state of affairs where innovation and co-optation are joined at the hip.

Now, of course, baseball is a whole hell of a lot smaller than the shards of the military-industrial complex, and it has a crucial advantage with respect to the government: it really is a monopoly, though it likes to pretend that it isn't. But since it is, it (ironically enough) has more latitude to impose rules and regulations over its minions. Instead of practicing their inverse omerta and waving their hands in imitation of haves vs. have nots, baseball owners should simply pony up a wad of cash to fund a centralized information technology development function, complete with a public on-line presence and a publishing program.

"Field f/x, schmield f/x--all you bright boys are going to wind up
in a slowly growing pool of blood in your mother's basement..."
What Tim isn't quite grasping yet is that Josh Kalk should be working for major league baseball, the monopoly that can impose a "think tank" on the members of its cartel. Neither he nor any of the other "bright boys" (who've been lucky enough to miss out on a destiny-filled date with the more zaftig of the two gun-toters in The Killers) should be getting direct deposit from the provinces. All of these guys, including Bill James, need to be kicked upstairs, if only to ensure that there is truly a level playing field.

Siegfried--tanned, rested and
 ready to become the next commissioner...
Will this destroy entrepreneurialism? We think not. There are always "bright boys" who get a leg up on technology. But the plain fact of the matter is that much of what's being done for baseball is second-order innovation, applications as opposed to cutting-edge hardware. What baseball needs to do is to identify the folks who can simply ask the right questions, and let them direct a centralized, open source approach to analysis.

It's time to keep the revolution from not being televised. Ironically, that means making a deal with the Godfather. And since the one we have is little more than a glorified used car salesman, it's going to be a bit longer before such a "socialist" concept can gain any traction. 

Until then, chaos (or is that KAOS??) will continue to reign...

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Stolen bases have been given a mild version of the bum's rush over the past twenty years as isolated power has become the game's "unified field theory" during our "revenge of the nerds" era. Our sixty-year chart (at left) shows the ebb, flow, and ebb or stolen base rates, and the slow but steady increase in success rates.

As a result, few remember how electrifying it was when Maury Wills made his assault on the stolen base record mid-way through the 1962 season. (What's astonishing to contemplate is the fact that the stolen base record was only 96, given that the rate of stolen bases per game was so high back in the deadball era. What's easy to forget is that on-base percentage was low in that time frame, and triples were the power hit, not the speed hit, so more attempts to get into scoring position were needed in order to score runs.)

It wasn't quite that bad--at least not yet--in 1962, when Wills struggled out of the starting gate, hitting just .233 in April. The Dodgers were loaded with hitting talent that year (Tommy Davis and Frank Howard came into their own, pushing Duke Snider and Wally Moon to the bench), and at first it didn't seem as though they were going to need a speed-oriented approach to scoring runs.

Before there was Maury Wills,
there was Bob Bescher.
Wills stole 19 bases in May, however, and he was suddenly on pace for 80 steals (the NL record at the time was 81, set by Bob Bescher in 1911). But even in late August, there was no real thought that Maury was going to make a run at Cobb's record. He had 69 steals in 129 games--notable, but not record-threatening.

What happened, of course, was that Maury stole 35 bases in the next 36 games. As the rest of the Dodger hitters took a nosedive in September, Wills (.361 for the month), Tommy Davis (.364 with 25 RBI en route to a league-leading 153) and Frank Howard (9 HRs) did their utmost to keep things on an even keel.

Suddenly that September, there was Maury Wills
coming at you from every conceivable angle...
From September 6-10, Maury stole 13 bases in five games (!!) to rocket past Bescher and put Cobb's mark in his gun sights. Another steal on the 11th brought him to 90 and forced Commissioner Ford Frick to contemplate the "separate record" clause that he'd imposed the previous season when Roger Maris was threatening Babe Ruth's home run record. Frick first intimated that Wills was in the same boat, but students of the record book stepped forward and pointed out that Cobb had played 156 games in 1915, the year he'd set the record. Wills stole two bases in game 156 to slip past Cobb, just as the Dodgers were in the process of losing six out of their last eight games to fall into a tie with the San Francisco Giants on the final day of the regular season.
That rosy glow around Stan
Williams was lost forever when
he walked in the pennant-winning
run to the Giants on 10/3/62...

Maury did everything he could in the third playoff game to bring the Dodgers home victorious--he went 4-for-5 and stole three bases, including two in one inning against Juan Marichal in the bottom of the seventh, coming in to score on a wild throw to third. The Dodgers led 4-2 going into the ninth, but everyone knows why Stan Williams was sent packing over the off-season...

A certain type of analytical question looms over Wills's achievement in 1962. While the numbers crowd respects Wills's incredible proficiency at swiping bases that year (104 out of 117, just a tad under 90%), they are hard-pressed to see the value of the performance, since value models seem to give more credit for reaching base on errors than they do for stolen bases (an odd little fillip in their scheme). So we've taken it upon ourselves to follow in the footsteps of the Grand Poo-Bah of Retrosheet (David Smith), who was the first to study the nuances of Maury's high-octane years with the Dodgers.

So here are a few facts gleaned from a steal-by-steal examination of Wills in 1962. His 117 "stolen base events" occurred across 75 games, during which the Dodgers posted a 55-20 record. (That means they were 47-43 when he didn't try to steal.) However, in September/October, the Dodgers were only 11-8 in such games--which may be more indicative of the team's collective slump down the stretch than anything else.

It's a well-known fact that players' performance splits are dramatic when we compare what they do when their teams win or lose. Even with that, it's rather astonishing to note that Wills hit .387 in the games in which he had some kind of stolen base action, as opposed to just .234 in the games where he didn't.

Packed into those games is a bases created average of .780 (133 total bases plus 97 net extra bases on steals plus 30 walks, for 261 bases created in 336 plate appearances).

Of course, we need to remember that this same average is only .330 in the 90 games in which Maury didn't steal a base, lest you think he really was the NL MVP in 1962.

Still, Maury's base-stealing antics were so electrifying that he sparked the revival of the speed game that reached its peak in the late 80s.

One other analytical notion has surrounded the stolen base ever since play-by-play data became a big-ticket item (and lest you forget, this happened back in the 80s). What is that? Simply, there is a thought that basestealing disrupts the man at the plate and is likely to compromise that at-bat in terms of overall performance.

There doesn't yet seem to be a definitive answer, though some of our old pals (Doug Drinen) studied some aspects of this back around the turn of the century. What we can tell you (as shown in the table above at left) is that the hitters who batted for the Dodgers while Wills was involved in stolen base actions had a loss of batting average and power, but a big rise in on-base percentage.

Johnny Podres and Jim (Junior) Gilliam: the more you look
at this picture, the less sense it makes...
The aggregate batting line above works out to .202/.374/.286. (That's a .660 OPS). The man who did most of the hitting when Wills was running was Jim (Junior) Gilliam, a man who knew how to work the count in all situations and was not particularly affected by taking pitches in order to give Wills a chance for the optimum moment to steal bases. Gilliam's line: .230/.437/.307.

The rest of the hitters didn't fare so well: 5-for-32 (.156), but you can see that familiarity might tend to breed greater success. Willie Davis, the only other man to have more than five at-bats with Wills in running mode, had passable success (.235/.278/.412). Those with less than five at-bats were just 1-for-15 in such situations.

Also interesting, but not necessarily indicative of anything, is the fact that Dodger hitters did pretty well in the first five innings when Wills ran (.273/.394/.400), but crashed to earth from the sixth inning on, going just 2-for-29 (.062).

I'm still wondering if Wills's 35 steals in 36 games is some kind of record (Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock, just to name two, seem like good bets for having topped it), but let's leave that for another time. For now, let's just think back to a point in history when there were only two super powers in the world and in baseball, and enjoy the odd confluence of a late-blooming player with marginal big-league talent standing the game on its end. Here's to you, Maury.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Dock Ellis: born too early to be the Olympics' undisputed king of curlers...
We're into the back half of the 40s birthyear teams now, and this team is just plain mystifying. They have a terrific #1-#3 in their batting order, the starting rotation isn't too shabby, and they have some truly unique individuals on the roster (Dock Ellis, Jay Johnstone), but the rest of these guys...yeesh. We'll let player-manager Davey Lopes figure it out, but we are not expecting miracles here.

Your roster:

Entering the picture: Dave Lopes, who didn't
make it to the majors until the age of 27
C: Dave Duncan, George Mitterwald
1B: Rod Carew
2B: Dave Lopes, Ted Sizemore
SS: Larry Bowa, Hector Torres
3B: Bill Melton, Jerry Kenney
OF: Reggie Smith, Rick Monday, Hal McRae, Ralph Garr, Bobby Tolan, Jay Johnstone, Tony Conigliaro

As we saw with the 44s, the 45s might be better off platooning their cleanup hitter. (Is this a 60s thing? We're going to have to investigate this.)

Anyway, Lopes is clearly going to lead himself off, where he is clearly well-qualified, with good OBP, great base-stealing skills, and plus power for a guy batting #1. Davey has a pretty pronounced platoon split, but he's not so pathetic against RHP that he needs to be platooned. He will mash lefties, however.

Batting behind him is the type of player we just don't have any more: a non-power hitting superstar. Who's that? Why, Rod Carew, of course. The chances of seeing anyone like Carew on a baseball diamond seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird, but feel free to keep a candle lighted in the window just in case.

You've got a lot of versatility with Carew in the #2 slot, as his career splits indicate that he's at his best with men on base.

And the man following him in the lineup might just be the most underrated hitter of his decade: Reggie Smith. (In the 70s, Reggie's 142 OPS+ ranked him fourth among all hitters with 4000 or more plate appearances, behind Willie Stargell, Reggie Jackson, and--Carew.

The young Reggie Smith
Borrowing for the moment the parlance of the girlie mags, that's a nicely stacked top of the lineup.

Later in life, Tony C. became a different kind
of swinger...
As noted at the top, however: that's the good news. If you implement this 1-2-3- punch, things are going to go downhill fast lineup-wise. You're going to have to platoon your cleanup hitter, and you're going to have a problem with your center field defense.

Offensively, however, the platoon might be a very good one: Rick Monday was very effective against RHP, while Tony Conigliaro could hit the bejesus out of lefties--at least he could when he had full sight in his left eye.

A place where the man-embrace does
not lead to the event horizon at the top
of Brokeback Mountain: Dave Duncan (r)
and Rollie Fingers clinch as the A's win
the 1972 World Series...
Could you bat Hal McRae cleanup? Yes, you could: in fact, that is the batting order slot that McRae appeared in the most over his career. He's a little light overall in home run pop (191), but Hal is a much more solid hitter than what we tend to remember.This might be one of those lineup situations where you bat McRae fourth and Monday fifth against righties, and bat Tony C. fourth and McRae fifth against lefties.

No matter how you sort that out, short-career Bill Melton is your sixth batter. As a hitter, Melton looked like a keeper at age 25 (he led the AL in HRs that year--1971), but injuries and lack of conditioning caused him to fade quickly.

The "Larry Bowa bobblehead":
certainly a harbinger of a
thousand heated arguments...
Behind Melton it gets dicey fast. Dave Duncan and George Mitterwald are pretty much the same player (though Sean Smith's WAR system really doesn't like Duncan's defense). Dave is of course much more famous as a pitching coach than he is as a player, and I'm sure he prefers it that way. One of the great mysteries about Mitterwald is why the Twins traded him (after his best season for them, in 1973) straight up for a catcher three years older than he was (Randy Hundley).

And finally, last but certainly least, we have Larry Bowa, whose harrowing transformation from nice-guy shortstop to the odds-on favorite to win the managerial mouth-foam sweepstakes in a cakewalk is, well, downright harrowing. And just wait until you see him hit...

Ralph "Roadrunner" Garr: caught short
The bench is pretty thin if you figure Conigliaro for a platoon player. The best overall player not in the starting lineup is Ralph Garr, but he's not going to beat out McRae in left. You've got Jay Johnstone, good for some laughs, slotted as a pinch-hitter deluxe--but it turns out that he only hit .227 in pinch-hit situations during his career. The middle infield replacements (Ted Sizemore, Jerry Kenney) are non-descript. The operating word for the bench is blah.

Here's that batting order:

1. Lopes, 2b
2. Carew, 1b
3. Smith, rf
4. McRae, lf
5. Monday/Conigliaro, cf
6. Melton, 3b
7. Duncan, c
8. Bowa, ss

Jim Palmer, demonstrating the reason why
his nickname was "Cakes"...
On the pitching side of the ledger, things are a bit better. You've got two Hall of Fame starting pitchers to anchor the rotation in Jim Palmer and Don Sutton (though Seaver and Carlton they ain't). The back end of the rotation contains some quality pitchers, but each of them (Rick Wise, Andy Messersmith, Ken Holtzman) for one reason or another never quite matched up to the level of talent that many thought they possessed.
The 45s might actually need five Don
Suttons on the staff to make up for
what looks to be a thin bullpen...

And, of course, there's Dock Ellis. Dock's "signifying" persona was one of the more interesting phenomena of the 70s and it's an open question as to whether he's preferable to Wise for the last slot in the rotation. There's also Dave Boswell, who blew his arm out after a 20-win season at age 24.

The 45s are top-heavy with starters, and have a thin, non-descript bullpen (Tom Murphy, Dick Drago, Horacio Pina, and Dick Woodson). This is going to be a problem.

I'm figuring it's 80% that this team finishes with less than 75 wins, and it's even money that they don't break 70. The 45s are not going to live up to the legacy of their birthyear, which produced V-E Day and V-J Day.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Back here we gave you a look at how the 1995-2010 time frame affected the record book for hitters (using both basic single-season counting stats--hits, runs, doubles, triples, homers, RBI, total bases, walks, extra-base hits, runs created--and single-season rate stats--BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, ISO). The effect on the record book was considerable, but patterned in an interesting way.

Now we are going to do the same thing, but we are going to pretend that we are writing all this seventy-five or so years ago, in 1935. (Imagine what the world would have been like if folks in 1935 could have had their own blogs. H. L. Mencken with a blog? A most daunting proposition... )

In the earlier version (or should we say the later version...), we compared the record book after the 1995 season with the record book as it stands after the 2010 season. In this version (which was written later about times that were earlier...), we compare the record book after 1919 with the record book as it stood after 1934.

This time frame, conveniently enough, encompasses the first major sustained offensive surge in the liveball era. (We will, conveniently enough, ignore the 1893-1897 offensive "spike" as being sparked by major rule changes beyond alterations in the baseball--and we can do what others in the present day do with respect to other essentially irrelevant issues, which is to blame the president. So nuts to you, Grover Cleveland.)

As with our last batch of record book comparisons, we'll order them in terms of the least amount of change (as measured by the ∆  column, which measures the rate of change in 1934 from the 1919 baseline, which is set at 100).

The five stats that changed the least in terms of record book thresholds from 1995 to 2010 were: runs, hits, triples, BA, and OBP.

Four of these are also the stats that changed the least from 1919 to 1934. Those four: runs, triples, and batting average.

Note, though, that the rate of change for these stats is markedly higher than the analogous rate of change for these stats from 1995 to 2010. Whereas the later stats move only a few tick marks (from 1-23% according to the measure), the same stats from 1919 to 1934 move from around 20% to 70%.

That means that the comparative rate of change in these stats is much higher in the 1919-1934 period than was the case in 1995-2010.

Some of this is explained by the passage of time, of course. Even with nearly four times as many hitters, the increasing quality of play tends to dampen the ability of players to reach elite levels in single-season performance. It only stands to reason that such feats were easier in the 1919-1934 time frame, since there had only been forty-plus years of baseball records (and fewer seasons yet with at least 154 games) at that point in time.

So we will see some massive shifts in these data points as we move forward.

Before we move on, though, let's note that triples are the stat (or "event") that has been on the steepest extinction gradient, and that steep slope of descent comes into being in the 1920s. While there are still a lot of triples being hit in that time frame, the incidence of "high-threshold" single-season performance goes into freefall.

The next group of stats were in what we called the "moderate change group". In 1995-2010, the stats that resided in that group were: BB, OPS, and SLG. The grouping for 1919-1934 is somewhat different: hits, doubles, BB, and OPS.

Now even these "moderate change" groups in the 1919-1934 time frame wind up producing new single-season records in these stats (George Sisler sets the hits record that stood for eighty-plus years; Babe Ruth sets the BB and OPS records that stood for nearly eighty years; Earl Webb sets the doubles record that still stands).

This change group is registering between 260% change in the lowest "elite threshold" to nearly 500%. Kind of mind-numbing to think of that as "moderate change," but there you go.

On to the "pronounced change group." In 1995-2010, the three stats that were in this group were the ones that various incarnations of baseball analysts have valued, rightly or wrongly, as a shorthand for overall contribution toward offense: RBI, TB, and RC (runs created, in case you've been in asynchronous orbit for the last three decades).

For 1919-1934, this threesome is right back in this change level, but with a special guest: SLG.

It kind of makes sense that SLG would be more pronounced in that time frame: HRs, which as we're sure you've noticed haven't shown up as yet (meaning that they're in the "high change" group) go up so far so fast that elite SLG levels go through the roof. This is precisely the point of the transition to the modern game, and looking at the record book in this fashion captures its magnitude more dramatically than any other set of measures.

Finally, onto the "high change" group (which, in this context, might best be called the "massive massive massive change group"--though the focus group was somewhat queasy about double repetitions...). In 1995-2010, this group contained the following stats: doubles, homers, ISO, and extra-base hits.  Back in 1919-1934, doubles had dropped out of this change level, leaving only "the big three": homers, extra-base hits, and ISO--the three fastest ways to add to what Eric Walker called the "power factor": total bases divided by hits.

Moon in the seventh house: also the schematic
for the various "cut fastball" angles. A zodiac
is only as good as its seams...
In order for us to see any kind of distribution pattern at all, we've had to drop the HR threshold down to 20. (We didn't go below 40 in the 1995-2010 data.) A similar, but less dramatic need to drop the threshold occurs with XBH (down to 75 from 85). The known universe of these stats goes through something analogous to a red shift. It was the dawning of an age (regardless of whether or not the moon was in the seventh house).

It's interesting to see where some of the "gaps" in the thresholds reside. Some of the distributions are orderly (check out HRs), while in ISO there's Babe Ruth (bringing across the three .400+ ISO seasons) and everybody else. Ruth, of course, strides across this era like a colossus, in much the same way that Barry Bonds did in the past fifteen years.

So the record book literally had its seams unstitched in 1919-1934, except for triples. If we had the level of information available to us now back then, there certainly would have been a congressional investigation into the sinister, subversive, downright unAmerican destruction of the "inside game," and the old-timey traditionalists would be depth-blogging the bejesus out of us even as we rush to put the period on the sentence.

That would be hard to take, but what's harder to live with is the 99.9999999% certainty (sorry, we get paid by the number of numbers to the right of the decimal place just the same way that Repoz at BTF gets paid by the number of posts his high-fat links generate...) that we will never see a serious challenge to two offensive records that blend power and speed: doubles, and--of course--triples.

Ubu: "Hola! Say, I know second base is
around here somewhere!!!"
Can anyone even imagine what it would be like to have a hitter heading into September with 30 triples? 60 doubles? That these records are held by non-descript players (Chief Wilson, Earl Webb--two used car salesmen...) only increases the charm of these orphaned accomplishments. As astonishing as the changes in the record book have been, we need something beyond astonishing: we need something anomalous, absurd.

Ubu Roi: 69 doubles!