Thursday, February 6, 2020


If you sometimes feel that the reaction to malfeasance becomes disproportionate to the crime itself, you'd be living in the bizarro world that has been growing up around us for roughly a quarter of a century.

In politics, it began with the troika of Gingrich, Starr and FOX News, along with "Medal of Freedom" winner Rush Limbaugh, doing what Don Herzog so aptly termed "poisoning the minds of the lower orders" and creating a festering undercurrent of white working class resentment that found expression in myriad forms of self-righteousness.

Still semi-oblivious to this are the fractious Democrats, whose policy pronouncements have always veered precipitously into finger-wagging while all the while finding ways to moralize while hair-splitting.

Which of course eventually gets us to the Orange Menace and zombie politics, which thrives on caricature, exaggeration, and outright falsehood--three related behavioral gradations of self-righteousness whose practice leads to a uniquely American brand of holier-than-thou nihilism.

And in the little world of baseball, that's where we've been at since the steroid era, a time when offense (already criminally out of control...) was unleashed in a way that allowed a select group of hitters to focus on home runs in a way that shattered previous records. It's hard to tell which was worse to the reactionary media that rose up against these players--the "cheating" (which cannot be quantified in any meaningful way) or the outsized nature of the record-breaking itself. Being in the thrall of a foaming-at-the-mouth reaction, of course, they were unable to clearly articulate anything resembling a rational position.

But it's left a culture of outrage that is now in the hands of younger, ever-wonkier bloggers, including many who want to seize upon the social and political aspects of baseball's less-than-exemplary practices and its most feeble ex-post-facto policing mechanisms. And that brings us to those cheatin', trash-can bangin' Houston Astros, whose crime and punishment will be forced to linger amongst us in a Dostoyevskian haze for an indeterminate time (or, perhaps, until another ballplayer, like Harry Chiti, becomes his own "player to be named later").

Yes, the Astros cheated. And they came up with a consummately silly (but somehow uniquely appropriate to the times) method of doing so. But in the midst of those in the media who are dead-set on employing their variation of holier-than-thou nihilism to this incident so that it will linger in the air like a foul stench indefinitely, we want to remind them that they're behaving just like those who harangued about steroids.

Worse, they have done downright lousy work in quantifying the results of the Trashtros' cheating, which has reached an ongoing fever pitch because Houston won the 2017 World Series (despite no evidence of the "bang a gong" method being employed in the post-season that year). Folks have rolled through the videos of 2017 Houston home games and have apparently located the at-bats where sign-stealing was transmitted via the blunt edge of the "trash phenomenon." Jayson Stark and Eno Sarris did synchronized cartwheels around the Astros' "alarming" improvement in strikeout percentage (K%) in The Athletic, ultimately crashing into each other and collapsing in a heapin' helpin' of inhospitable bet-hedging.

In tandem with the Iowa caucus snafu, the actual value of the Astros' malfeasance is being magnified to keep in place a set of principles that are often oversimplified and misapplied. The media prefers to frame things in ways that force the individual to view those actions/results/conclusions in a highly straitened forms: that the "disaster" of the Iowa caucus might actually lead to a more useful political process is simply too far down the road for them to contemplate. The bandwagoneers in the baseball media who are still stomping on the Trashtros want punishment, not reform--but they can't even recognize that there are forms of punishment that could be far more inhibiting to future transgressors.

What they really don't want to find out, however, is that the Astros' cheating was not actually very effective. (Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus hints at this, but this isn't the desired narrative when an entire culture descends into a punitive psychology.)

But we're here to tell you that the Astros' cheating, at least as manifested in 2017, was not very effective in terms of actual wins and losses. The table (at left) makes this abundantly clear: these are the Astros' homestands and road trips broken up into individual units.

The top group features all the home stands after the initial "bang a gong" experiment on May 28 (the emergent Trashtros scored eight runs in that game, but they did it against the Orioles, who had a 5.38 road ERA in '17). The Astros hit better in these games than in their five earliest homestands, and struck out a bit less--but these games produced the weakest winning percentage amongst our four categories (just 28-23).

The odd thing to be found in the data is that the correlation of run scoring and K% is pretty random. K% and WPCT correlates in the way that the semi-ersatz analysts expected, but it only does so in road games--where the Astros were apparently not cheating. Even there, the correlation between run scoring and K% is all over the map. (Note that we organized the road data in ascending order of K%--which also helps to show the random nature of R/G and team batting average.)

Being the semi-focused full-service diatribists that we are, we also fashioned a scatter chart that
captures the intersection of R/G and K%. Since such a chart can't quite capture the third dimension (WPCT), we color-coded some of the data points on the scatter chart to indicate how random the results really are. The orange-colored diamond-shaped symbols represent the homestands or road trips with the very best WPCT; the yellow-colored symbols show the ones where the Astros had < .500 records in homestands/road trips (only two); the white-colored symbol is the homestand where they played .500 ball despite hitting .303, scoring 6.7 runs per game, and having a low K%. So, as you can see, the results are all over the map...even when we move beyond this highly granular level, there are no correlations between sign-stealing, run scoring, and WPCT.

So are we suggesting that since there was much ado about nothing--both by the Astros and by those whose thirst for inflicting punishment upon them has yet to be slaked--that there should be a collective shoulder-shrug? No, of course not. Any instance of cheating needs to be rooted out, investigated, evaluated, and punished. The third step in this process seems to have been a) sidestepped by MLB and b) exaggerated and caricatured by a bloodthirsty media (which includes the neo-sabe types who used to decry the moralizing nihilism of the steroid reactionaries). With that third step belatedly emerging, and telling us that the Trashtros were essentially chasing their tails, we are left with the lingering residue of resentment and ill-feeling that permeates 21st-century America and is far more destructive to the national fabric that a small group of jock-strapped jackasses with a hair-brained cheating scheme.

We still prefer the penalties we suggested--restrictions that impact and impede the teams' ability to compete on the field in actual games. "Fixing the past" is pointless: informing cheaters that their future will be filled not only with scorn, but with impediments that will redress their efforts to create an unfair advantage, is the only way to introduce truly effective preventive measures.

(To which we say: calm down, and wise up. And quit poisoning the minds of the lower orders: we're going to need them to rise up one day, and do the right thing. This is not the way to make that happen, kiddies...)

Monday, February 3, 2020


David Pinto has taken the bit in his teeth and has charged backwards in time with gusto, taking the Day-by-Day Database further into the past--now providing us with the ability to search all the way to 1937 (as of this morning). More kudos to David for doing so, as it will give us much more to chew on.

And we'll get chewy here this year by presenting fairly detailed leader boards using the 3-month slice approach that's been previewed here in the past. This will be accompanied with the all-time leader lists (as exemplified in the recent post about highest HR totals in a 3-month slice).

We begin at what's currently the beginning: 1937. (David may yet go further back: we'll keep an eye on him and do a mid-course correction if he continues to forge further into the past.) Here we have the leaders across both leagues (combined together) for the first three months of the year (4/1-6/30):

In case you're straining to remember: yes, this is Joe Medwick's triple crown season with the Cardinals, where he winds up hitting .374 and leads the NL in twelve statistical categories (left to right across your dial: G, AB, R, H, D, HR, RBI, BA, SLG, OPS OPS+, TB). The relative paucity of power in the NL at this point (significantly lower R/G average in this time frame than the AL) gave "the other Joltin' Joe" the chance to lead the league with just 31 HRs. (Medwick was not a prolific long-ball hitter, finishing with just 205 lifetime homers.)

Over in the AL, Hank Greenberg is recovering from his mostly-MIA season in '36 with a year that will eventually produce 103 extra-base hits and a mind-numbing 184 RBI. (We'll see more evidence of that in subsequent 3-month slices in 1937). Speaking of the real Joltin' Joe (yes, DiMaggio), he will also pick up the pace as the year progresses, winding up with the HR crown (46, easily his highest season total). And, as you'll see, his extreme free-swinging days (carried over from his rookie year) will soon come to an end.

This three-month window also represents "the last hurrah" for Paul Waner as a truly dominant hitter. In the second half of '37, "Big Poison" retains a healthy-looking BA, but his OPS slips under .800 as age (he's 34 in this year) finally catches up with him. His young teammate Arky Vaughan (25 this season) will get hurt a bit later in the year and fade into his least productive season since his rookie year (1932).

Zeke Bonura had his most productive year in 1937, and his pace here would lead one to believe that the slow-footed slugger from N'awlins would have a 150+ RBI year for sure, but Bonura got "cute" in August and stole home in a game against the Tigers, severely injuring his groin in the process. He didn't return until late September, winding up with 100 RBIs for the year.

Finally, these three months represent the temporary, fleeting stardom of Gibby Brack--who claimed to be 24 (he was really 29)--in his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He would hit .209 from July 1 to the end of the year, and found himself with the lowly Phillies the following year, playing his last game in the majors in 1939.

More soon. Once again, kudos to Mr. Pinto--you will never be rear-ended at this site, David!!