erik lundegaard

Baseball posts

Saturday January 04, 2020

Joe's Top 100: 91-100

Joe Posnanski is counting down his top 100 baseball players of all time. Yes, I know, but this time he means it.  

He tried such a list earlier in the decade, and I think he lasted to about No. 32 (Grover Cleveland Alexander), then tried another last year, which tanked after No. 88 or so (Carlos Beltran). But now he's doing it on the site, “The Athletic,” and I get the feeling he was commissioned for it. I also get the feeling he's already finished with it. It's supposed to be 100 players in the 100 days leading up to Opening Day. Smart! Fun! Anyway I get the feeling he's more or less done. 

He's already up to No. 83 but here's #s 91-100 compared with his previous lists:

100 Ichiro Suzuki 96 59.4
99 Mike Mussina NEW  82.8
98 Carlos Beltran /88 69.6
97 Roberto Alomar 82 67.1
96 Larry Walker NEW  72.7
95 Tony Gwynn 75/94 69.2
94 Roy Campanella 66 37.0
93 Ozzie Smith 77 76.9
92 Bullet Joe Rogan 89 n/a
91 Mariano Rivera 95 56.2

It's an interesting mix. The highest-ranking player from his first list is Campy, who had been No. 66 a few years ago. Tony Gwynn and Ozzie Smith also took dives. The highest bWAR among them all is a new one, Mike Mussina, followed by Ozzie, who earned most of his on defense. We get one Negro League player—Bullet Joe Rogan—who, I admit, I don't know much about. It's obvious Joe's doing more than WAR here. I think in a way he's writing about who he wants to write about. He's including who gives him joy. 

I‘ll do these in 10-player increments and include any thoughts I have. Right now it’s tough to tell who's been cut entirely. Paul Waner? Ron Santo? Mostly I just want him to finish. For his sake as much as ours. 

Posted at 12:19 PM on Saturday January 04, 2020 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Friday January 03, 2020

Don Larsen (1929-2020)

Larsen, the imperfect man, in the midst of perfection. 

I'd say he was among the least likely to do it, but then the history of baseball is made up of the triumph of least-likely guys: Bill Wambsganss, Pat Seerey, Gene Tenace, Bucky Dent, David Freese.

And Don Larsen.

He made his Major League debut for the lowly St. Louis Browns on April 18, 1953, and by mid-August his record was 2-11 with a 4.78 ERA. Not auspicious. Then over his next five starts something clicked, and he went 5-0 with four complete games, two shutouts, a two-hitter, and a 1.83 ERA. That string of victories probably helped save his career, but it didn't save the Browns, who moved to Baltimore the following season to become the Orioles. 

In ‘54, Larsen actually had a worse season, going 3-21 with a 4.37 ERA and more walks than strikeouts (89/80). His losses led the league. It was the only time he ever led the league in anything.

So after two seasons, he was 10-33. He was known as a heavy drinker and partier. His career should’ve been over.

Instead, he got a gig with baseball's most successful franchise, the New York Yankees, and did something no one in baseball history had done before or probably ever will. How did that happen?

Well, for starters, the ‘54 Yanks won 103 games but lost the AL pennant to the Cleveland Indians, who won 111. Apparently Yanks management, good guys all, blamed its aged pitching staff for winning “only” 103 games, so it went shopping for youth. And as part of a 17(!)-player trade with the O’s, the main prize being pitcher Bob Turley, Larsen was tossed in. Why did the Yankees even want him as a toss-in with a 3-21 record? Because in five starts against the Yanks, he pitched four complete games, won two, and his ERA was a respectable 3.00. Casey Stengel liked what he saw. 

Until he didn‘t. Larsen had a rocky start to the ’55 season, was sent to the minors, returned, rallied, went 11-4 with a 2.82 ERA the rest of the way, and was tapped to start Game 4 of the 1955 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. And that's when ... No, not yet. Spotted a 3-1 lead in the 4th, Larsen gave up a homer, a single and a homer, and was pulled after walking the leadoff batter in the 5th. A few days later, the Dodgers won their first World Series.

‘56 for Larsen started similar. So-so until September, then he went 4-0, with 2 CGs, one shutout and a 0.52 ERA. (He seemed to do better late: His career September record reads like a Cy Young season: 21-11, 3.01 ERA.) Tapped again to start in the World Series against the Dodgers, he again floundered. In 1 2/3 innings, he walked four, struck out nobody, and left with the bases loaded. The Dodgers won, 13-8.

So at this point, Don Larsen is meh pitcher who can’t rise to the occasion. And that's only half of it. Nobody pitched perfect games anymore. I mean nobody. There'd only been three in the 20th century, two by pitching greats during the dead-ball era (Cy Young and Addie Joss), and none since 1922. Certainly none in the World Series. God, no. There hasn't even been another no-hitter in the World Series, before or since, and the only other no-no in the postseason was Roy Halladay's in the 2010 NLDS against the Reds. 

It just wasn't done. 

Which brings us to October 8, 1956. I‘ll let Joe Posnanski pick it up from here:

On this day, this perfect day, he wanted to be one heckuva pitcher. The Dodgers first batter, Junior Gilliam, just looked as strike three went by. So did the Dodgers second batter, Pee Wee Reese. Something indescribable had come over Larsen, something almost mystical. The day before, after Game 4, Larsen had driven back to the Bronx with a friend — probably the sportswriter Arthur Richman, though the identity wasn’t revealed in the papers — and rather suddenly said, “I got one of those crazy feelings that I'm gonna pitch a no-hitter tomorrow.”

“A four-hitter will be good enough,” the friend said.

“Nope,” Larsen responded. “It's gonna be a no-hitter, and I'm gonna use my ghoul ball to do it.”

Larsen was a devoted, almost obsessive, comic book reader at the time, and he had grown convinced that he had his own superpower and that was the ability to throw a pitch called a “ghoul ball.” He never fully explained what the ghoul ball did. But whatever it was, he certainly had it going on that perfect day. ...

But mostly, Larsen didn't need Ghouls. He was in control. The perfect day was mostly Don Larsen and Yogi Berra playing catch. Larsen got to three balls on just one hitter all game. “He was uncanny,” said home plate umpire Babe Pinelli, who poetically happened to be calling the last game of his 22-year career.

“I never saw him pitch like that before,” Berra said. “He never shook off one sign. He hit the glove wherever I put it.”

The last out of the perfect day was perfect in itself — Brooklyn's Dale Mitchell watched strike three go by. It was as if, to the very end, the Dodgers could not quite believe what Don Larsen was doing. Nobody else could either. Yogi Berra leaped in the air and raced toward the mound and jumped into Larsen's arms.

“The imperfect man pitched a perfect game yesterday,” the New York Daily News wrote.

“I hope my Ma saw me,” Larsen told reporters.

How big was this feat? Larsen didn't pitch again in the Series but he won the MVP. Has any other 1-0 pitcher won a World Series MVP? Yogi Berra actually set a new World Series record with 10 RBIs, while hitting 3 homeruns, and with a .360/.448/.800 slashline. He also caught the perfect game; he called the perfect game. And the MVP still went to Larsen. And maybe deservedly. Did Game 5 break the Dodgers? They scored 25 runs in the first four games, and just one thereafter—a 10th inning run to win Game 6. But they were shut out in Game 7.

Larsen's best years were with the Yankees. With them he went 45-24; with everyone else 36-67. After the ‘59 season he was traded to the Kansas City A’s, in one of those bullshit Yankees/A's trades of the ‘50s, when the A’s were like a little minor league farm system for the Yanks. The A's got Larsen, a past-his-prime Hank Bauer, “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, and Norm Siebern. The Yankees got two throwaways and Roger Maris, who would win the AL MVP the next two years in a row, while breaking Babe Ruth's single-season homerun record in ‘61. Larsen, with the A’s, would go 1-10 with an ERA over 5.00.

But he hung on. He pitched for five more teams, pitched in the World Series again, for the ‘62 Giants, in relief against the Yankees, and won Game 4. After retiring in 1967, he became a paper-products salesman in California. In 2012, he sold his perfect-game uniform to pay for the college educations of his grandkids.

He hung on in life, too. Mickey Mantle once said, “Don was easily the greatest drinker I’ve known, and I‘ve known some pretty good ones in my time.” Yet he lived to be 90. He died on New Year’s Day in Hayden Lake, Idaho.

Of his perfect game, Larsen once said, “Goofy things happen.” Also this: “Everyone is entitled to some good days.”

Posted at 03:58 PM on Friday January 03, 2020 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Saturday December 14, 2019

The State of Baseball, 2019

Posted at 09:53 PM on Saturday December 14, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Thursday December 12, 2019


It's December, the country is in the hands of a baby tyrant and a propaganda-spewing cabbal of right-wing idiots, but at least the photo below makes me smile.

When I was a kid in the late 1960s, we did paper drives for school—meaning we pulled our wagons from home to home in our south Minnneapolis neighborhood, asking for old newspapers, then brought them back to the garage to bundle in twine—and I was OK at the asking, but in the twining I was forever distracted by the photos of Twins players like Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Cesar Tovar. I wanted to cut them out of the papers and pin them to my wall. They didnt have to be stars. Rich Reese was good enough. It just made me feel good, seeing the photos.

This is like that. Decades later, at nearly 57, I pin it to my wall. 

Some Harmon Killebrew stats:

  • He hit more homeruns in the 1960s than anyone in baseball (393). That's right: More even than Hank Aaron (375) and Willie Mays (350). It was a Decade of the Pitcher and yet Harmon's homerun total is the fifth-most for any decade—after Babe Ruth in the 1920s (467), Alex Rodriguez in the 2000s (435), Jimmie Foxx in the 1930s (415) and Mark McGwire in the 1990s (405). These days, homeruns are flying out at a crazy pace, but the most homeruns anyone hit in the 2010s is 347 by Nellie Cruz. That's great, but it's still a superlative season away from Harmon's total. Again, Harmon did this in the Decade of the Pitcher.
  • He was the first player elected to the All-Star game at three differen positions: 3B (first time in 1959), LF (in 1964), and 1B (first time in 1965). The LF entry is the one that throws me. Killer played left field? But yeah: From 1962 through the 1964 season, he was almost exclusively a left fielder. Barely a glimmer of it before (six games total through the ‘61 seasaon), and barely a glimmer after (20 games from 1965 until retirement after ’75). To me, he was always 3B-1B. Then just 1B. Then DH. Then a KC Royal. Then retired. Then a Hall of Famer. Eventually. 
  • When he retired he had the fifth-most homeruns in baseball history—after Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and Frank Robinson. Even after the homer-happy juiced-ball, juiced-players era we‘re in, he’s still 12th all-time, and four of the guys ahead of him (McGwire, Sosa, A-Rod and Bonds) are a little suspect.
  • He was supposedly scouted by a U.S. Senator, Herman Welker (R-ID), who told Senators owner Calvin Griffith about this Idaho kid hitting over .800 in semi-pro. Griffith sent someone to check him out, then signed him for $50k. Others in the running? Boston Red Sox. 
  • Is this the one good thing Welker did? He was a staunch defender of Sen. Joe McCarthy to the end, and was one of just 22 Republicans who voted against censuring McCarthy for his “red scare”/“lavender scare” tactics. Welker also allegedly threatened to “out” the son of Sen. Lester C. Hunt (D-WY) as a homosexual unless Hunt agreed to retire or refused to run for office again. On June 19, 1954, Hunt killed himself.
  • Crap, back to this bullshit. It never goes away, does it? I guess it's always there. It's a forever battle. 
  • Let's end on an upbeat note: It seemed a rare game I went to at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, where Harmon Killebrew did not hit two homeruns. He did that 45 times in his career, but how many could I have seen? I should crunch the numbers on that sometime. On another day when I need it. 
Posted at 07:24 AM on Thursday December 12, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Friday November 29, 2019

The Most Unbreakable Record in Baseball History

A few years back, one of the great baseball writer-thinkers (Bill James or Rob Neyer, I forget) posted on Twitter his thoughts on what he thought was the most unbreakable record in baseball history: Rickey Henderson's 1406 career stolen bases. Second place, after all, was Lou Brock with 938—essentially 2/3 of the way there. No baseball record holder, he suggested, was so far ahead of the second-place finisher.

True, but that's not the answer to me. Players are still stealing bases. Not at the rate they once did, but enough. If you take the top 5 active players in stolen bases, for example, their total (1689) surpasses Rickey by a good deal. Last season, there were 2,280 total stolen bases in the Majors. It's something that's still happening. It could catch fire again. 

Triples, I think, are a better answer for most unbreakable baseball record. The career leader is “Wahoo” Sam Crawford with 309. And whlie the second-place finisher is within 5% of him (Ty Cobb, 295), no post-WWII player is close. Stan Musial is closest at 177, then Robert Clemente at 166. They‘re even farther back than Lou Brock was to Rickey.

That said, if you take the top 5 active players in triples and total their numbers, you get 353—way past Wahoo. And last season there were 785 triples in the Majors. It’s something that's still happening.

I‘ll cut to the chase. The most unbreakable record in baseball history is Cy Young’s 749 complete games. It's not even close. 

Sure, someone (19th-century pitcher Pud Galvin) managed to get within 100 of him (646), while one post-WWII pitcher managed to get within half of him (Warren Spahn, 382), but it's all irrevelant. Complete games have all but dried up. If you take the top 5 active players in complete games and total their numbers you get ... 136. Not even close. And that's with C.C. Sabathia, who's pretty much retired, leading the way with 38. So how about the top 10 total? 208. Top 25? 402. I‘ll cut to the chase again. If you take every active pitcher with at least 2 complete games you wind up with 108 pitchers and 662 complete games—about 90 shy of Cy.

Let’s do the other one now. If you total every complete game in the Majors in 2019, you get ... 43. You‘re about 1/17 of the way to Cy. How about every complete game in the last five years? That nets you ... 331. Still not even halfway there yet. You have to go back more than eight years, into the 2011 season, and total every complete game thrown by every pitch in the Majors, to equal Cy Young’s career record 749. It's just something that isn't happening anymore. 

Anyway, that's my answer to the most unbreakable record in baseball. Willing to listen to other arguments.

Posted at 02:09 PM on Friday November 29, 2019 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard