erik lundegaard

Baseball posts

Saturday January 24, 2015

Ernie Banks (1931-2015)

Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks missed his 84th birthday by a week. He was born January 31, 1931, and died yesterday, January 23, 2015, on my father’s 83rd birthday.

Has Banks’ legacy been reduced to three words? “Let’s play two!” he’d say, and mean it. Maybe it was 10 words: “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame: Let’s play two!” Those aren’t bad words to be remembered by. Most Americans want to be cool but engaged is better. Enthusiasm is more fun.

He was at the end of his career when I first began watching baseball, and in the other league from my Minnesota Twins, but I knew he was the last guy to hit 500 homeruns before Harmon Killebrew did. Banks was ninth in baseball history (in May 1970), Killebrew 10th (August 1971). Banks would stop at 512.

He never went to the World Series; playing for no other team than the Cubs will do that to you. He was probably the greatest player never to make the World Series until this latest round of great, bereft players: Rod Carew (Twins, Angels); Ken Griffey Jr. (Mariners, Reds). My guys.

I’ve spent part of the day looking over Banks’ lifetimes stats at BaseballReference.com. He remained thin and lanky to the end but apparently was never fast. He got caught stealing (53 times) more than he stole (50). His lifetime batting average wasn’t great (.274), nor his lifetime OBP (.330). His lifetime slugging percentage didn’t quite topple from its lofty perch (.500).

If he was a revelation at shortstop, a power-hitting, Gold-Glove MVP, he was a mediocre first basemen during the second half of his career. Here’s his line at short: .292/.355/.562 with 264 homers. And at first: .259/.307/.447 with  207 homers. Joe Posnanski’s written about this before—in a piece in which he declared Banks the 55th greatest player of all time.

How many times did he live up to the quote and play two? Someone must know. In his last season, 1971, the Cubs played the usual number of doubleheaders but Mr. Cub always sat out one of the games. Too old anymore to play two. His last real doubleheader was on July 4, 1970, just before the All-Star break, against Roberto Clemente’s Pirates. Banks went 1-4 and 1-5. The Cubs lost the first, won the second.

His last game in the Majors? Sept. 26, 1971, a Sunday. Banks batted fourth. In the 1st inning, two quick outs followed a leadoff single; then Banks singled and Ron Santo followed with a single to plate a run; Banks went to second. After a walk loaded the bases, Don Kessinger grounded out, stranding Banks at third. In the 3rd, Banks drew a walk around several outs, and would never get on base again. Grounder in the sixth, infield popup in the eighth. Cubs lost 5-1 to the hapless Phillies. The Cubs played another series in Montreal but Banks didn’t. He ended his career in the friendly confines.

In 1977, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 83% of the vote. Besides the inaugural Hall of Famers (Ruth, Cobb, Mathewson, Johnson, Wagner), and the special cases (Gehrig, Clemente), Banks was just the eighth man in baseball history to be elected to the Hall on the first ballot. Last year, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama—just the ninth baseball player to receive that honor.

Here’s the first reference to Banks in the New York Times. It’s from Sept. 1953:

 First mention of Ernie Banks, New York Times

Here’s the last.  

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Posted at 03:38 PM on Jan 24, 2015 in category Baseball
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Wednesday January 07, 2015

Who Was the Greatest Player Not Elected to the Hall His First Year?

To coincide with this year's Hall of Fame voting, ESPN.com has unveiled its “Hall of 100,” which, title aside, is a list of the 125 greatest players in baseball history, regardless of PEDs or PYOBs (Place Your Own Bets). But they try to get you to click on the article by touting one of their “controversial” picks: Derek Jeter in 31st place—ahead of Bob Gibson, Roberto Clemente, Ken Griffey, Jr., Nolan Ryan and Pete Rose. 

Yeah yeah. A bigger Yankee oddity for me? They put Mickey Mantle 9th and Lou Gehrig 11th. Mantle ahead of Gehrig? Not sure I'd go there. 

Otherwise it's the usual suspects: Ruth, Mays, Bonds, Williams, Aaron, Cobb, Clemens. Which means, according to ESPN.com, Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher of all time. Walter Johnson is second. 

But that's not what I want to talk about, either. As I looked over the list, I began to wonder who was the first player on it who wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer. PEDs aside.  

Count 'em down:

  1. Babe Ruth, inaugural class, 1936 (95.1%)
  2. Wllie Mays, 1st year, 1979 (94.7%)
  3. Barry Bonds: PEDs
  4. Ted Williams, 1st year, 1966 (93.4%)
  5. Hank Aaron, 1st year, 1982 (97.8%)
  6. Ty Cobb, inaugural year, 1936 (98.2%)
  7. Roger Clemens: PEDs
  8. Stan Musial, 1st year, 1969, (93.2%)
  9. Mickey Mantle, 1st year, 1974 (88.2%)
  10. Honus Wagner, inaugural class, 1936 (95.13%)
  11. Lou Gehrig, special winter meeting vote, 1939
  12. Walter Johnson, inaugural class, 1936 (83.6%)
  13. Greg Maddux, 1st year, 2014 (97.2%)
  14. Rickey Henderson, 1st year, 2009 (94.8%)
  15. Rogers Hornsby, fifth year, 1942 (78.1%)

And there's your answer: Rogers Hornsby. The Rajah. From 1920 to 1925, he simply led the league in batting each year. Oh, and OBP. And slugging. And OPS. Across the board, a clean sweep, every one of those years. He led the league in batting seven times, and twice won the Triple Crown. His batting average is the second best all-time (.358), his OBP is the 8th best (.434). And he received, as percentage of HOF votes, 45, 26, 17, and 64, before finally getting the 78% that put him in. 

Think about that the next time you feel your spouse is hard to please. 

People complain about the Hall and the BBWAA now but look at the Hall and the BBWAA back then. Look at those percentages. More than 6% of voters thought Ted Williams wasn't a Hall of Famer? More than 5% with Willie Mays? 

Willie Mays?

Here's the thing: Williams' number, given the times, was actually quite a compliment: He was only the second player, after the inaugural class, to garner more than 90% of the vote. The first had been Bob Feller in 1962. Meaning no player from 1936 to 1962 received more than 90% of the vote: not Joe DiMaggio (88%), Hank Greenberg (84%), nor Bill Dickey (80%). And none of those guys went in on the first ballot, either. It took DiMaggio three tries, Dickey seven tries, Greenberg eight tries. 

In fact, in the 23 years between Gehrig's special election and Bob Feller's induction, the only player to get in on the first ballot was Met Ott in 1951: 87%.

That's not just tough, that's crazy tough. Or just crazy. 

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Posted at 07:33 PM on Jan 07, 2015 in category Baseball
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Saturday December 13, 2014

When Lou Gehrig's Last Season > the Mariners Last Season

It's really wrong to write about this. I admit that up front. But onward.

While reviewing the movie “The Theory of Everything,” about physicist Stephen Hawking, I looked up the numbers of Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse” for the 1920s and '30s NY Yankees who set an MLB record for most consecutive games played and then became the first famous person to die of the moto-neuron disease that afflicts Hawking, and that, of course, bears Gehrig's name. Back in the 1960s, Hawking was given two years to live but he lives to this day. I thought that was astonishing, and I wanted to get my years right when I compared. Because didn't Gehrig stop playing in 1939? Yes, when he was diagnosed. And didn't he died in 1941? Yes, two years after diagnosis. The same timeframe Hawking was given. Yet Hawking lives.

Then I became distracted by baseball stats. 

Gehrig is one of the great hitters in baseball history. Being a member of the lifetime .300/.400/.500 club (average/OBP/SLG) is exemplary, but Gehrig was a member of the .300/.400/.600 club. Only six players in baseball history have slugging percentages over .600 but Gehrig's was way over, at .632. It's third all-time—behind only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

So I traced the downward trajectory of this great hitter.

In 1936 he won the MVP award and led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS. In 1937 he led the league in OBP and OPS. In 1938 his numbers dropped precipitously. For the first time in a full season, he batted under .300 (.295), and for the first time since 1926 his OPS was under 1.000 (.932). In three years, his homerun totals had gone from 49 to 37 to 29. He only hit 3 in September 1938—his last off of Dutch Leonard on Sept. 27. It would be the last one he ever hit. 

Was he already feeling the effects of the ALS that would take his life? Was it age? Some combo? Because by spring 1939, he was definitely feeling it. Something was wrong. He knew it. And on May 2, 1939, after only four singles in 8 games, he famously took himself out of the lineup. His stats for the season: .143/.273/.143.

Then it hit me. A .273 OBP? Nobody wants that, particularly Gehrig, whose lifetime OBP is .443  (fifth all-time); but, under the circumstances ... that's not ...

I mean, didn't the Mariners have players last season who had lower ... ?

We did. We had eight guys with OBPs worse than Lou Gehrig's when he was afflicted with ALS:

  • Corey Hart: .271 (68 Games Played)
  • Austin Jackson: .267 (54 GPs)
  • Chris Denorfia: .256 (32)
  • Mike Zunino: .254 (131)
  • Abraham Almonte: .248 (27)
  • Jesus Montero: .235 (6)
  • Stefen Romero: .234 (72)
  • Jesus Sucre: .213 (21)

Two things to note about the above: backup catcher Jesus Sucre had 61 at-bats and drew zero walks. Zero. .213 batting average, .213 OBP. He shouldn't be on the team. 

And the second guy on the list, Austin Jackson, was actually our leadoff hitter after we acquired him midseason from the Tigers. Jackson leads off because he's speedy and old-school managers like speedy guys up front, but also perhaps because he's shown a talent for drawing a walk, and new-school managers know it's good to have a high-OBP guy up front. But a .267 OBP isn't it. We'll see if, at 28, he can bounce back. 

Anyway, I don't want this to be a thing. I don't want this to be an OBP version of the Mendoza line. Because it's remarkable that Lou Gehrig managed 4 hits and 5 walks in 8 games in 1939. But it is an indicator where the M's troubles lie. Only one of these guys, Zunino—who could at least catch well and crunch homeruns—was a regular. But added together, they played 411 games. Essentially 2.5 of the nine men in our lineup, or 27%, had OBPs lower than Lou Gehrig when he had ALS.

And not to put any added pressure on anyone, but you know how many times Gehrig struck out in his 33 plate appearances in 1939? Just once.

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Posted at 10:18 AM on Dec 13, 2014 in category Baseball
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Thursday October 30, 2014

The 2014 San Francisco Giants Were Never the Story; They Just Got in the Way of the Story

The American League Champion Kansas City Royals, 2014

“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”

I might as well get this out of my system.

After the Kansas City Royals lost Game 7 of the World Series to the San Francisco Giants last night, I posted various tempered vitriol on the usual social media sites, such as:

Congratulations to the San Francisco Bumgarners, winners of the 2014 World Series!

And:

Well, at least I won’t have to listen to Joe Buck for another 11 months.

But it was the comment below that resulted in the most backlash:

Here's something the San Francisco Giants and its fans never understood: No matter what, they weren't the story. They could only get in the way of the story. So congratulations for getting in the way of the story.

Many were confused. People who should know better, to be honest. So for them I’ll add this: Think of all the baseball movies about an underdog team of rag-tag losers who suddenly band together and eke out win after win on their way to the championship. Now think of  all the great baseball movies about the championship team that smoothly wins its third title in five years.

This year, the Kansas City Royals were a great story. A team that hadn’t tasted the postseason—even a wild-card spot—in 29 years winning one improbable game after another with speed, luck and a helluva great bullpen. They were a bunch of young guys who began to believe when no one else would. And they cut a swath through the postseason like Terrance Gore cutting a swath from first to second. In a way, it doesn’t matter that they came up 90 feet short. It doesn’t matter that they ran into the thick sweaty wall of Madison Bumgarner. It’s the Royals we’ll remember.

People are talking up a Giants dynasty now. Sure, why not. Three in five years. But year by year, dynasties are never a story. Remember that great Yankees team from 1950? Or was it ‘52? Hey, what about 1951? They won it all that year, too. But that was the year of the New York Giants great August/September comeback, punctuated by Bobby Thomson’s improbable three-run homerun in the bottom of the 9th in the Polo Grounds on October 3 to give the Giants a 5-4 win and the National League pennant. The Yankees wound up winning the World Series that year but they were a footnote. They weren’t the story; they just got in the way of the story. See Don DeLillo and “Underworld.” See “Pafko at the Wall.” See Roger Kahn and this quote from: “The Boys of Summer”: “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”

So once more with feeling: Congratulations to the 2014 San Francisco Giants. May its fans glory in its triumph. But they weren’t the story; they just got in the way of the story. 

See you next year.

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Posted at 09:31 AM on Oct 30, 2014 in category Baseball
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Wednesday October 29, 2014

The 19th Game 7 of My Lifetime

There have been 37 World Series Game 7s, but most (20) came in that 36-year sweetspot between 1955 and 1991. During that time, more than half of World Series played (55%) went to Game 7.

Before 1955? There'd been 12 in 51 years, so less than a quarter (23%) went to Game 7.

Since 1991? Five in 23 years, or 22%.

I've been alive for 19 of them and have probably watched a dozen. I'll be watching tonight, rooting for the Royals. 

Certain odds are in their favor. The last time the visiting team lost Game 6 (which would've given them the title) and then won Game 7 (which did) was the Big Red Machine in '75—after Fisk's homerun at Fenway in Game 6. Devastating loss but the Machine didn't care. It kept on going, right into the next year, when it swept both a good Phillies team in the NLCS and a noisy, Billy Martin-led Yankees squad in the World Series.

Game 7s, in general, tend to be won by the home team, but this appears to be a recent phenomenon:

Year Home team Game 7 Winner
2011 St. Louis St. Louis
2002 Anaheim Anaheim
2001 Arizona Arizona
1997 Florida Florida
1991 Minnesota Minnesota
1987 Minnesota Minnesota
1986 New York (NL) New York (NL)
1985 Kansas City Kansas City
1982 St. Louis St. Louis
1979 Baltimore Pittsburgh
1975 Boston Cincinnati
1973 Oakland Oakland
1972 Cincinnati Oakland
1971 Baltimore Pittsburgh
1968 St. Louis Detroit

Anyway, I'm glad it's here. Nothing like a Game 7. But go Royals. 

Kansas City Royals AL pennant winners

More of this tonight? Recent history says yes, the San Francisco Giants and their fans say no. 

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Posted at 07:47 AM on Oct 29, 2014 in category Baseball
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