Friday April 02, 2021
Three Things I'd Change About Baseball
The great joy of Miggy vs. the sour idiocy of Manfred.
The 2021 baseball season started yesterday, and from Miggy's homerun in the snow to the Mariners' eighth-inning comeback against the Giants (which our closer gave back on four pitches in the ninth), there was much joy in Mudville, particularly after last year's pandemic-shortened, fan-free season. But a few things could still use fixing. I'll start with the easy one first.
3. Opening Day should never be April 1. C'mon. April Fools Day? You look like clowns.
2. Help a brother see his local team. Being cable-less forever, I bought the MLB.TV package yesterday and watched some of Blue Jays vs. Yankees, Minnesota at Milwaukee, Atlanta-Philly, Arizona-San Diego, etc., etc., and onto the west-coast games of ChiSox-Angels and Astros-A's. After the 'Stros put away Oakland 8-1, there was still one game going but I didn't watch it. I couldn't watch it. It was my team, the Mariners, playing the Giants at the park two miles from my home. But of course your local team is blacked out in your MLB package so you don't get to see them. I guess I'll have to investigate Xfinity-free ways to watch the M's. Or maybe I'll just root for the Angels. Either way, MLB needs to work on this.
1. Kill the “ghost-runner on second in extra innings” rule right now, bury it deep and salt the earth around it. I've been watching baseball since about 1969, more than 50 years now, and I can't think of a more idiotic, infantilizing rule change. The DH is genius in comparison. The ghost-runner rule takes a problem that isn't a problem—extra innings—and tries to speed up the result, because ... because that's all baseball commissioner and nonfan Rob Manfred can think of doing with the game. He wants to make sure baseball appeals to non-baseball fans. As for baseball fans? Apparently he doesn't give a shit. Does any other professional sport do this? “Hey, they keep tying, how do we end this fast?” In football, basketball, hockey, you keep playing overtimes like men until someone wins. Yes, there's soccer, and the idiocy of penalty kicks, but one shouldn't follow soccer's idiotic example here. And remember, soccer is long, low-scoring and the most popular sport in the world. Long and low-scoring doesn't have to mean unpopular, Rob. Stop trying to fix the thing you think is the problem that isn't the problem. Imagine if in the Borg vs. McEnroe tie-breaker that just kept going and going and going, the USTA decided, “Oh, we can't have that, this hugely popular thing that's got everyone talking about and watching our sport. Now: How would we solve this if it was first-graders involved?” Yesterday, four games were decided with the ghost-runner rule and to me they already have asterisks. And it mostly went my way! The Yankees lost because of the ghost-runner, the Mariners won. But I stopped watching the Yankees game when it went into extras and I refused to pay attention to how the M's game—which I couldn't watch because 2)—turned out. The great joy of the day turned sour. I was stunned when I realized this was still a thing; that this temporary, pandemic-season innovation was going to be permanent. I felt like Don Corleone gazing at the corpse of Santino. Look what they're doing to my boy.
Worse, they're not done.
OK, make that four things I'd change about baseball: #FireRobManfred.
Thursday April 01, 2021
Opening Day 2021: Your Active Leaders
SLIDESHOW: Didn't we just do this like six months ago? To be honest, I didn't think they'd be able to pull off the 2020 season, but nice work, everyone. Having October baseball gave some sense of normalcy, and was very, very appreciated. That said, as a result of the truncated season, I expect little movement on our Active Leaders chart. But let's take a spin anyway. Early warning: You're going to see a lot of Angels.
BATTING AVERAGE: A year ago, Miggy was ahead of Jose Altuve by the barest of margins, .3146 to .3145, then hit just .250. But he's still on top? Right. Because Altuve hit just .219. Currently, only nine active players have BAs over .300 and most of them, like Miggy and Jose, seem to be heading south. Three years ago, Joey Votto was hitting .313; now it's .304. Two years ago, Buster Posey was at .308; now .302. One of the guys on the rise is DJ LeMahieu, which is odd in itself. When he left the hitters' paradise of Coors, he was at .298; after two years in the Bronx, he's suddenly at .305. BTW: Miggy's .313 is the lowest by an active leader since ... ever.
ON-BASE PERCENTAGE: Joey Votto's .419 is 18th all-time but he's been dropping fast the past few years, while No. 2 Mike Trout (.417) has been rising—though even he, last season, had an OBP below .400 for only the third time in his career. Expect these two to change positions soon. Third place isn't close: Paul Goldschmidt at .392. Active players with career OBPs above .360? Just 20. It's a small club.
SLUGGING PERCENTAGE: Here's a smaller club: Only 16 active players have career slugging percentages above .500, but only one of those, Mike Trout, is above .550—and he's way up there at .582. He'll get some competition, one imagines, when players like Aaron Judge (.558) and Juan Soto (.557) get their qualifying 3,000 plate appearances. Until then, it's his and no one's close.
OPS: Same deal. Seven active players have an OPS above .900, and only Trout is above .940—and he's at .9996! That's eighth all-time, behind only the gods: Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Bonds, Foxx, Greenberg and Hornsby. (OK, the gods and a couple of assholes.) Among actives, the distant second-place finisher is Joey Votto at .936.
GAMES: Only eight players in baseball history have ever played 3,000 career games (Rose, Yaz, Hank, Rickey, Ty, Stan, Eddie M., Cal), but Uncle Albert needs just 138 to join them. Could he do it if this is his final year? Maybe. He played in 131 games in 2019, the last full MLB season. The active runner-up is Miggy at 2,457.
HITS: Four active players have more than 2,000: Albert (3,236), Miggy (2,866), Cano (2,624) and just barely making the cut, Yadier Molina, with the Stanley Kubrick-ready 2,001. (Apologies to Arthur C. Clarke.) Can't imagine Miggy won't make the magic 3k threshold but here's an indication of how hard it is to get there: Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball for 10 years ... and he's at 1,380.
DOUBLES: Last July I wrote: “Pujols is seventh all-time with 661, and just 8 more would put him past Brett and Biggio into fifth place.” So guess how many doubles he hit in 2020? Yep: 8. He's now fifth all-time, with no real chance at fourth (Ty Cobb: 724). But applause, please. How many players in baseball history are top 5 all-time in doubles and homeruns? Doublechecking ... doublechecking ... Yep, just Albert.
TRIPLES: The second-saddest thing about the active leaders in triples is that there's rarely any movement. By the time you become an active leader, you're old enough that you tend not to hit many more triples. Actives leader Dexter Fowler, with 82. hit zero last year, one in 2019, zero in 2018. No. 2 Brett Gardner (69) hit one last year, no. 3 Dee Gordon (54) hit zero. Among the four-car pileup at No. 4 (Andrus, Blackmon, McCutchen, Trout, all with 48), Trout had the most: 2. So what's the saddest thing about the active leaders in triples? Fowler's 82 is the lowest for an active leader since 1883, when a dude named Tom York had 80. The most exciting play in baseball is getting rarer all the time.
HOMERUNS: We should get the 28th member of the 500 HR Club this season. Miggy is sitting on 487 and hit 10 last year in a third of a season, so a full season, God willing, will put him over. He'll be the first since David Ortiz in 2015. After him, though, it's cloudy. Edwin Encarnacion has 424 but as of this writing no one's signed him. Nelson Cruz has 417, still hits a ton, but he's going to be 41 in July. Does he have 83 more in him? I could definitely see Giancarlo (312, age 30) and Trout (302, age 28) making a run later this decade. BTW: Albert passed Willie Mays last year. He's at 662.
RBIs: Along with passing Willie Mays' 660 last season, Albert drove in another 25 to pass Cap Anson (2,075) and A-Rod (2,086) for the third-most RBIs in baseball history (2,100). He needs another 115 to pass Babe for second place and 83 beyond that to pass Hammerin' Hank (RIP) for No. 1. There are only three active players who have half the RBIs he has: Miggy (1729), Cano (1302) and Nellie Cruz (1152). What did MC Hammer sing? Can't touch this.
RUNS: Albert's less godlike on runs scored with 1,843 or 16th all-time. Two more and he passes Biggio; 15 beyond that, Mel Ott; 23 beyond that, Tris Speaker. Among actives, it's the usual suspects—Miggy (1,457), Cano (1,257) Votto (1,041)—and then we get an unusual one. Any guesses as to the active player with the fifth-most runs scored? Wouldja believe him?
BASES ON BALLS: Albert's way less godlike here. He's got six years on Joey Votto and only a 114 walk lead: 1331 to 1217. When Albert goes, it'll be Joey's. I used to think Albert had a greating batting eye, because his OBP was so high, but I think pitchers were just scared of him. Now they‘re not. In St. Louis he averaged 89 walks per season; with the Angels, 40. His IBBs in St. Louis: 23 per season. With the Angels: 7. That said, career, he's still walked more than he's struck out: 1331 to 1304. That's rare.
STRIKEOUTS: Chris Davis has 1,852 career Ks, 15th all-time, but Justin Upton is right on his tail (1,841) and he's getting more plate appearances: 200+ more over the last three seasons. There was a time when the active leader in K’s was a sure HOFer: Mantle, Killebrew, Stargell, Jackson, Schmidt. Now it's just as likely to be a Chris Davis or Justin Upton.
STOLEN BASES: I miss stolen bases. I also miss Dee Gordon. As I write this, he's not technically “active” since the Reds cut him the other day, but I assume he'll be picked up by someone. If it's not Dee and his 333 steals, then it's Billy Hamilton and Elvis Andrus with 305, followed by Brett Gardner with 270. Roman Quinn is supposedly the fastest man in baseball but he doesn't steal much—even though he hasn't been caught stealing since 2018. KC's Adalberto Mondesi led the Majors last year, and by a lot, with 24, which would be about 65 over a full season. Last player to steal 70 in a season? Jacoby Ellsbury, 2009.
GROUNDED INTO DOUBLE PLAYS: Albert's next GDP will be his 400th career, which is the all-time record by far. Cal Ripken is second with 350. Will Miggy pass Cal, too? He's currently sixth all-time with 321. Cano is currently 16th all-time with 284. It's one of the few stats where active players thrive.
DEFENSIVE WAR: Officially, Andrelton Simmons had a 0.0 dWAR last season but his career number still went down: from 26.7 to 26.6. His dWAR over the last three seasons (5.1), as he's struggled with ankle injuries, is basically what he did in 2017 (5.0), but for perspective Baseball Reference ranks his 2017 as the third-greatest defensive season in baseball history—after Terry Turner in 1906 and Art Fletcher in 1917. Second to Andrelton on the actives list is Yadier with 25.4. They‘re also the only actives > 20. Then it goes Kevin Kiermaier (16.0), Lorenzo Cain (15.5) and Brandon Crawford (14.9).
WAR FOR POSITION PLAYERS: Which of these guys is going into the Hall? No. 1 Albert (100.8) is a no-brainer, as is No. 2 Mike Trout (74.5). Yes to No. 3 Miggy (69.6), no to Robinson Cano, sadly (69.1) for his PED problems, and I assume yes to Joey Votto (62.0), but not on the first ballot. Evan Longoria (56.7) could get over 60.0 but way doubtful he'll get in the Hall: never top 5 in MVP voting, never led the league in any hitting category. I was surprised at the next one: After only seven seasons, Mookie Betts (45.4) has the seventh-most bWAR for an active position player. He's on his way. Also surprised at No. 10: Brett Gardner (43.0). What a grinder.
WINS: Last July I wondered if Justin Verlander, at 225 career wins, could make 250, writing: “He led the Majors last year with 21, and another year like that and he's a cinch. But he's 37 and the cliff can come fast.” Not sure if this is the cliff or a cliff, but he started one game, won it, then was gone. Elbow injury. Then Tommy John surgery. We won't see him again until 2022. Second among actives is Zack Greinke (208), then Jon Lester (193). This is how hard it is to win 250 nowadays: After 13 years of sustained excellence, both Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw are still 75 away (175). They'd need another six years at the same level to do it.
ERA: Clayton Kershaw's 2.43 is tied for 35th all-time, and the only post-WWII pitcher ahead of him is a non-starter: Mariano Rivera (2.21). Jacob deGrom's 2.61 is 57th all-time and the only post-WWII pitchers ahead of him are Mo, Kershaw and Hoyt Wilhelm. That's the rarefied air they're in. The rest of the top 5 actives are: Chris Sale (3.03), Kyle Hendricks (3.12) and Corey Kluber (3.16).
STRIKEOUTS: Verlander has 3,013 Ks against only 851 walks. Back in the day, the only pitcher with > 3,000 Ks and < 1,000 BBs was Fergie Jenkins. In the last two decades, he's been joined by Maddux, Shilling, and Pedro. Could JV make it an even five? Then it goes Scherzer (2,784), Greinke (2,689), and Kershaw (2,526). Their BBs for the interested: 641, 676 and 585, so they could all join, too. Then look at deGrom: 1,359 Ks/284 walks. That's not 3:1; that's nearly 5:1.
BASES ON BALLS: JV's 851, followed by Jon Lester's 837, followed by Francisco Liriano's 816. The last time the active leader had fewer than 851 BBs? When Walter Johnson had 845 in 1920.
INNINGS PITCHED: At the start of last season, Verlander needed just 18 IP to become the 137th pitcher to reach 3,000. He got six of them before the elbow. Zack Greinke is only 49 behind him at 2,939, which means Greinke seems likely to be the 137th. King Felix has 2,729 IPs but he just opted out of his O's contract and seems done.
COMPLETE GAMES: Every year of the 20th century some pitcher threw double-digit CGs. Every year. Then the calendar flipped and the CGs just disappeared. It's like in John Updike's “Rabbit Is Rich” when the ‘70s turn into the ’80s and disco just goes POOF. In the 21st century, only two pitchers have thrown double-digit CGs: C.C. in 2008 (10) and James Shields in 2011 (11). Now it's barely a stat. Verlander is the active leader with 26, then Kershaw at 25. If you counted the top 100 active leaders they would have 478 CGs total, which is 271 behind Cy Young.
SHUTOUTS: As recently as the ‘90s the active leader (Nolan Ryan) had 60+. As recently as the 2000s the active leader (Roger Clemens) had 40+. Now it’s Clayton Kershaw's 15, and he hasn't thrown one since 2016. Then it's Ervin Santana (11) and Adam Wainwright (10). Last season, 12 shutouts were thrown—two by Trevor Bauer. That's actually better than in 2018 when the league leader was a bunch of guys tied with one.
SAVES: Craig Kimbrel is on top here (348), but he's gone from lights out to out of the closer role. Last season he didn't give up a run in his final eight appearances and he still wound up with a 5.28 ERA, so you can imagine what he had to claw back from. Kenley Jansen is second (312), while No. 3 Aroldis Chapman (276) seems in a similar position to Kimbrel: He lost the closer spot, too. But who knows, right? The Mets' Edwin Diaz lost the closer role in 2019 but got it back again last year, saved 6 and posted a 1.75 ERA. His 141 saves are eighth-best among actives. He just turned 27.
WAR FOR PITCHERS: Which of these guys is going into the Hall? Yes to Verlander (72.3), maybe to Zack Greinke (67.1), hell yeah to Clayton Kershaw (67.0), while No. 4, Max Scherzer (60.4), is an interesting case. His bWAR says not yet but everything else is another hell yeah: black ink 51 (avg HOFer: 40), gray ink 181 (avg. HOFer 185), HOF Monitor of 154 against a likely HOFer of just 100. Dude started out slow and then BAM. No. 5, Felix Hernandez (50.4) will have to settle for the Mariners HOF. Long live the King.
EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): And exit music for Albert? If so, next year's list will be a whole helluva lot different. Be safe, everybody. *FIN*
Monday February 01, 2021
Assessing Dustin Pedroia's Hall of Fame Chances, and Subsequent Digressions
When I heard that Dustin Pedroia had announced his retirement from Major League Baseball after several painful seasons trying to recover from a knee injury brought on by a suspect Manny Machado slide, I went to his stats at Baseball Reference, wondering how close he comes to being a Hall of Famer.
Turns out: kinda close by some measures, way off by others.
If your measure is “Hall of Fame Monitor,” a Bill James concoction which focuses on likelihood of entry, with 100 meaning a good possibility and 130 a cinch, Pedroia is a 94. By other Jamesian measures, it's not that close. Black ink indicates how often someone led the league in a offensive/defensive category. An average HOFer is 27; Pedroia was 11. Gray ink is the same but in top 10 rankings. Average HOFer is 144; Pedroia was 70. His bWar is 51.6, below borderline, which is about 70. His percentages are good, particularly for a second baseman (.299/.365/.439), but his counting numbers are low: 1,805 career hits, 394 doubles, 922 runs scored. I do like that he walked almost as much as he struck out: 654 to 624. He was scrappy, tough, beloved.
He also won Rookie of the Year (in 2007) and MVP (in 2008), which made me wonder how often someone's won both trophies and not made the Hall. Here's the answer:
|Willie Mays||1951||1954, 1965||Y|
|Johnny Bench||1968||1970, 1972||Y|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||1982||1983, 1991||Y|
|Albert Pujols||2001||2005, 2008, 2009||n/a|
|Mike Trout||2012||2014, 2016, 2019||n/a|
Of the 14 eligible names, five didn't get in, though Rose would have if not for gambling, and Dick Allen might get in shortly, via the Veterans Committee. Munson died young, tragically, spent 15 years on the ballot, but never topped 10% of the vote. Lynn, with a career bWAR similar to Pedroia's (50.2, and an .845 OPS), lasted two votes before falling off. Canseco, a semi-buffoonish symbol of the early roid years, didn't last that long.
Then I noticed something: Why are there so many more recent combo ROY/MVPs?
In the 50+ years between the first Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and the end of the century, there were only 14 ROY/MVPs. In the 21 years since, there have been nearly as many: 11. One wonders why. Have advanced stats helped pick better players for the ROY, who are then more likely to become later MVPs?
There used to be longer pauses, too, between the two awards. To be exact, there was a 10-year pause: McCovey won in '59 and '69, Rose in '63 and '73, Carew in '67 and '77, Dawson in '77 and '87. Add in close calls (Cepeda, nine years; Allen, eight years), and it seemed most early honorees took a while to come up to the MLB level. Now it's zip-zip. The 21st century honorees average 2.36 years to get there, vs. 5.42 for last century's players. Again, one wonders why. Better training earlier?
Anyway, Ryan Fagan of Sporting News thinks Pedroia could make it, given how early his career ended, and compared with other Hall of Fame second basemen. Wouldn't mind. Always liked him.
Sunday January 24, 2021
Henry Aaron (1934-2021)
The greatest season-ending cliffhanger of my childhood was not “Who Shot J.R.?” from “Dallas” but the finale to the 1973 regular baseball season when Hank Aaron finished one homerun shy of Babe Ruth's hallowed 714 mark. I was 10.
In my fifth grade class, my friend Dan and I were resurrecting a stapled-together magazine we'd done in third grade called “Kids Life,” and in the first issue in the fall of '73 I wrote a two-page article on Henry Aaron. Here it is, mistakes and all:
Hank Aaron By Erik Lundegaard
Hank is closing up on Babe Ruth's 714 HR's. Hank ended this season with 713, one short of Babe Ruth. Near the middle of the season, some pitchers were going to try to let Hank Aaron get his 715th HR off of them. When Aaron broke into the majors he batted cross handed. When Aaron hit his 700th HR of his career, he didn't even get congratulations from Bowie Kuhn. Hank leads every player All-time for total bases. Not many people thought Hank would break Ruth's record until 1971. Aaron has also led the NL in batting twice. (1956-1959) Hank has only led NL in HR's 4 times. Aaron has also been MVP once. Aaron hit 40 HR's at the age of 39. Aaron gets most of his power from his wrists. No wonder opposing pitchers call him Bad Henry
Most of the information must've come from biographies I'd read (“Hammerin' Hank of the Braves”), general baseball books (“Heroes of the Major Leagues,” “Baseball Stars of ...”), as well as “Baseball Digest,” my off-season Bible. The cover headline, meanwhile, was taken from the Bill Slayback song, “Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry,” which I believe played on “Game of the Week” a few times in '73. I loved it. Even without YouTube I could sing you the chorus:
Move over, Babe, here comes Henry
And he's swinging mean
Move over, Babe, Hank's hit another
He'll break that 714
It's interesting I don't mention race in any of the above, because I knew he was getting hate mail and death threats. The newspapers talked about it. “Peanuts” talked about it. Did the first glimmers of America's racist history come to me through baseball? “Dad, why don't they want Rod Carew to get married?” “Why were there no Black players before Jackie Robinson? ”Why do people want to kill Hank Aaron?“
That was the worst part of the cliffhanger: Not the six months between seasons—an eternity when you're in fifth grade—but the question: Would Hank Aaron live through it? We weren't the only ones asking. According to biographer Howard Bryant, Aaron ”believed he would be assassinated in the offseason. He had received enough letters to convince him so. He received death threats from 1972 to 1974—all for doing what America asked of him.“
Dan and I wound up making about 30 issues of ”Kids Life“ that schoolyear, and as I look over them I can see my different passions flowering: now football, now Marvel Comics, now politics. But always baseball. That spring I did a special BASEBALL! issue, with the exclamation point of the logo a fat baseball bat, and on the cover, via my older brother Chris, a sketch of a baseball-clad Richard Nixon, not long for the presidency, swinging and missing. The issue included an in-depth, two-page quiz, predictions for the '74 season, and another bio. Or the same one.
Hank was born on February 5th 1934 in Mobile Alabama. When Hank was in High School, he playd for a black team and he batted cross-handed. So his manager made him change but when his back was facing the dugout he would swich hands. Either way he batted great and helped the Braves to win the World Series in 1956 [sic] and in 1958 he lead them to the pennant but they failed to win the Series. Aaron has been underrate al lhis life until about 1970. He has become a great athlete. The chances for him to break Ruth's record are 99 to 1 his favor.
Was I only reading about Henry Aaron during that long Minnesota winter? He's in the quiz, too (”EASY QUESTIONS: Who is no. 44 for the Braves?“) and in the crossword puzzle (”Where Aaron was born“).
For the curious, Aaron hit No. 713 in the second-to-last game of the '73 season, after which he came up five more times. He didn't exactly wilt under the pressure, going 4-5 with four singles—a good reminder that along with the homerun record, he retired with the second-most hits in baseball history (he's now third) and the most total bases (he's still first—by a long shot). My favorite baseball factoid: If you turn all of Hank Aaron's 755 homeruns into strikeouts, he would still have more hits than Babe Ruth and fewer strikeouts than Reggie Jackson. Astonishing.
Once the '74 season began, he didn't make us wait long. It was like he wanted to end it as soon as possible:
He couldn't have done it better. He tied the record on his first swing (six years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated), then broke it the following Monday, at home, and on national television, so all of us could watch. I remember being very excited, and then very, very embarrassed when the two white college kids ran onto the field to pat his back. At first, I think I thought they were going to attack him. Dude was getting death threats, dudes! When it was revealed to be just back pats, that felt awful, too. It's his moment, not yours! But apparently he didn't mind. He was mostly worried about the trouble they would get into. He's been reunited with them a few times since. He was always gracious about it.
Did something break in him during that time? He was coming off a 40-homer season, and he hit seven in April; but then the cliff: just 2 HRs each in May, June and July; four in August, three in September. He'd hit at least 20 homers every season since 1955, and he did it again in '74 but just barely. He hit No. 20 on the last day of the season and in his last at-bat in an Atlanta uniform. That off-season, he was traded to the Brewers and the city where he'd started, Milwaukee, where he hit 12 in '75 and 10 in '76. I got to see him hit No. 738. He made 755 a magical number.
In a way he made 713 a magical number—at least to me: that long winter when he was sitting on it, when I was reading and regurgitating his story, it became imprinted on me. I remember a game at the Kingdome in '96, '97, when someone either asked me for the time or I noticed it, but out loud I said: ”7:13.“ And then as a joke: ”Time for a homerun.“ The next pitch, Alex Rodriguez hit one into the left-field bleachers and the guy in front of us turned around and stared at me like I was Nostradamus. I shrugged. ”713. Hank Aaron. C'mon.“
But yes, something in him broke during that long winter. From his New York Times obit:
In the early 1990s, he told the sports columnist William C. Rhoden of The New York Times, ”April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball.“
”It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,“ he said. ”My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won't go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.“
Former baseball commissioner Bartlett Giamatti once said that baseball is designed to break your heart, but it's not always baseball. In the scheme of things, it's rarely baseball.
Henry Aaron died late last week at age 86. I got the news something was wrong via Joe Posnanski's Twitter feed. Just this cry:
Encomiums and remembrances have been pouring in ever since. This morning my friend Ben sent me Douglas Brinkley's piece in the Times, about what Aaron meant to him, about his final interview with him in November—just before the election. You can sense his gentleness. I like what he says about Jimmy Carter. And they go over it all again: the inspiration of Jackie Robinson, leaving to play Negro League Baseball with $2 in his suitcase, the '57 World Series, the 714 chase and the pain of it. They talk about friends who have passed and how hard it is to process. ”It's sad,“ Aaron says. ”But I guess in some ways, you know, you come here, and you have to leave. God doesn't expect you to stay all the time."
Tuesday January 19, 2021
Don Sutton (1945-2021)
How often does a player wind up in the all-time top 10 in a statistical category without once leading the league? Seems like it would be a rarity. Yet Don Sutton, who never led the league in innings pitched, is seventh all-time in that category—behind only Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Walter Johnson, Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and Gaylord Perry.
He did this the way he played baseball—by being very good for a very long time. His first season was 1966, his last 1988, and from '66 to '85 (ignoring the lockout-shortened '81 season), he never threw fewer than 200 innnings nor more than 300 innings in a season. He won 15 or more games a dozen times, but 20+ only once. His ERA was never over 5.00, never under 2.00. His best bWAR was 6.6 and he was only negative once, his last season, and just barely: -0.1. No Cy Young Award, not even a second-place finish, and a so-so postseason career. But he led the league in ERA once, starts once, strikeout-to-walk ratio three times, and WHIP four times. He was Ol' Man River; he just kept rolling along.
“I never wanted to be a superstar, or the highest paid player,” he told Baseball Digest in 1985. “All I wanted was to be appreciated for the fact that I was consistent, dependable, and you could count on me.”
He was and you could: Only two players in baseball history started more games: Nolan Ryan and Cy Young. Only 13 players won more games, only nine pitched more shutouts, only six struck out more. Strikeouts is another of those categories he never led the league in but finished in the top 10 all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Sutton, born in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper, died Monday night in Rancho Mirage, Calif., age 75.
Monday December 28, 2020
Phil Niekro (1939-2020)
I got the news from Joe Posnanski on Twitter, which seems appropriate. One of the great mini-bios Posnanski wrote for his “Baseball 100” series—soon to be a book—was about Phil Niekro (No. 83), and his father, and Phil's attempt to win his 300th game on the last day of the 1985 season when his father was in the hospital. Exactly. Louis B. Mayer would've killed for that story.
Here's an excerpt:
“My father was a coal miner in Eastern Ohio,” Niekro explained. “Three shifts. That thing I remember most was him coming back from the coal mine, and I wouldn't even recognize him. I mean, he was just ... black. All black. All I could see was his teeth.
”He would come home and the first thing he would do was come up to us on the front porch. Me and (my brother) Joe would be waiting for him. He'd have his lunch bucket with him, and he opened it up, and there was always something for us. There was a Twinkie in there or a banana. He would give me half. He'd give Joe half.
“And then, before anything else, we'd go into the backyard. We'd play catch, just me and my Dad. Joe would set up on the porch and watch us. We'd play catch until it got dark. Then, when it was dark, when it was over, we'd go and have dinner. Then he would go to the stove and heat some water, pour it into the tub, and he took a bath. I remember how black that water was after he was finished.
”Then my Dad would go lay down on the couch, and he'd fall asleep listening to the Cleveland Indians.“
By bWAR Niekro is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. His 97.0 would rank him the 11th greatest, just behind Christy Mathewson, and ahead of Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and Pedro Martinez. Growing up I never would've thought it. I still don't, to be honest, and neither does Poz, since he has all those guys ahead of Phil on his list. Niekro was a five-time All-Star, never won a Cy Young, and it took him five tries to make the Hall, which, in the modern era, has to be a record for a 300-game winner. (Close. It ties him with Don Sutton.) I don't think I saw him pitch much. His team, the Braves, didn't make the postseason in the 1970s, and so weren't on TV a lot, and of course never played my Twins at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. He was just a guy on a baseball card. An old guy even then. He was a good pitcher whose younger brother Joe was good, too. They were like the Perrys, and you could have a nice argument over which pair of brothers were better. The Niekros won more games (539-529) but the Perrys got the Cys (2 for Gaylord, 1 for Jim, 0 for the Niekros). By bWAR, it's the Perrys by a nose: 131.4 to 125.7. There are other measurements.
Phil only made the postseason twice, 1969 and 1982, and got one start each time. In '69, he lost to the Mets, the eventual World Series winner, and in '82 he got a no decision in a team loss to the Cardinals, the eventual World Series winner. He was another great player who never had a chance at a ring.
Horsehide Trivia, from SABR, sent out this In Memorium quiz yesterday. For baseball fans, these aren't true quizzes, since we know the answer, but a way to honor the man.
Q: Which Hall of Famer's pitch was so effective that it actually became his nickname?
- Hint: No other pitcher won more games after the age of 40 than he did.
- Hint: He, together with his younger brother, racked up an amazing aggregates of 539 wins, the most by any two or three brothers combined in major league history.
- Hint: His brother's sole career home run came at his expense.
- Hint: His total of 24 years pitching in the majors places him in very select company and no pitcher with his specialty pitched longer or tallied more games, innings pitched or strikeouts.
- Hint: During his time in professional baseball, he witnessed the administrations of seven different U.S. presidents. In fact, he holds the record for most years pitching with one National League team.
- Hint: No slouch on defense, he won five Gold Glove awards.
- Hint: He was five times an All-Star and although he didn't win a Cy Young Award, he received consideration for the award in five separate seasons.
- Hint: He said ”Mr. Baseball“ turned his career around.
- Hint: One of his childhood friends is a Hall of Famer in another sport.
The nickname is ”Knucksie“; Bob ”Mr. Baseball" Ueker turned his career around by encouraging him to throw the knuckleball even though it made Uek, the catcher, look foolish; the childhood friend was John Havelicek.
Here's Poz's tweet. Amen to it.
Tuesday December 08, 2020
Dick Allen (1942-2020)
He was the badass of baseball when I was a kid. He held the title before Reggie, who held it for a while. I believe he was also the the highest-paid player for a time. Baseball Ref has him at $200-$250k in 1973, which seems about right for highest-paid back then. I vaguely remember my 4th grade math teacher breaking down his salary to a per-game payout, and eventually to a per-second on the field payout. How much did Dick Allen make every second he was on a baseball diamond? This. It was a math lesson but it was also a vague ethics lesson. As in, “Who could be worth so much money?” Even then, though, the ethics felt shoddy to me. We didn't do this with others, just with this man playing a boy's game. A Black man. A Loud Black man. Made me feel uneasy, though I could not articulate why.
If he was highest paid he was worth it. Look at that '72 season with the ChiSox. Led the league in HRs, RBIs, walks, slugging percentage. Led the Majors in OBP and OPS and OPS+. Nearly won the triple crown. His .308 batting average was 10 points behind Rod Carew, with Lou Piniella at .311 between them. But he wasn't a unanimous MVP. Three votes shy. One writer went with Joe Rudi of the division-winning (and eventual World Series-winning) Oakland A's as his No. 1 pick. I assume the guy thought, “Well, Rudi's team won, his batting average is close to Allen's, Rudi's the better fielder.” But that misses so much. Two other sportswriters chose pitchers, and neither was the pitcher that won the Cy Young that year—Gaylord Perry. I suppose Mickey Lolich wasn't a bad choice but he led the league in just one category: homeruns allowed. The other sportswriter went with the Yankees' Sparky Lyle, who had a good season, led the league in saves, but he was still a relief pitcher. Lyle didn't even get any first-place votes for Cy Young. He finished third for MVP and seventh for Cy. Odd.
Allen was the 1964 Rookie of the Year, the NL counterpart to my man Tony Oliva. That's a helluva rookie class, though neither man is in the Hall. Allen's advanced-numbers Hall of Fame case is about as on-the-cusp as you can get. His bWAR is a bit low (58.8 vs. 68.4 for an average HOFer) but everything else is right there. Black ink? Meaning times leading the league? Average HOFer is 27; he's 27. Gray ink, which includes top 10 appearances? Average: 144. Allen: 159. HOF Monitor? Likely HOFer: 100. Allen: 99.
I get the feeling he didn't get in before not only because they didn't break down the numbers this way, and not only because his career counting numbers weren't eye-popping (351 HRs, 1,848 hits), but because of who he was. The Loudmouth. The guy who wrote things in the dirt with his bat. I get the feeling that all of that will actually help his case now—as will his career batting line: .292/.378/.534. How many guys with a .900+ OPS over 15 seasons aren't in the Hall? Hell, maybe he should get in just for that Sports Illustrated cover. This is the badass I was talking about.
If you want more on Dick Allen's story, his turbulent career, the abuse he endured, and the horrible history of the Philadelphia Phillies when it came to integrating the game, Joe Posnanski is your man.
Wednesday December 02, 2020
A True Big Leaguer
Joe Posnanski is doing another baseball countdown over at The Athletic. This time it's the 100 best players not in the Hall of Fame—but who maybe, possibly, could or should be. He's doing the first 70 in 10-packs and then taking 30 to 1 individually. So far he's done two 10-packs that have included the likes of ... Oh hell, here they are, in countdown order: Juan Gonzalez, Fred Lynn, Rocky Colavito, Albert Belle, Jimmy Sheckard, Quincy Trouppe, Fernando Valenzuela, Darrell Evans, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker (that's 100 through 91), Frank Howard, Al Oliver, Willie Randolph, Lance Berkman, Paul Hines, Ron Guidry, Wally Berger, Doc Gooden, Elston Howard and Orel Hershiser (that's 90-81). Fun stuff. I'm waiting to see where Tony Oliva lands.
This was part of the Hershiser bio:
Hershiser actually had a decent first year on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2006. He got 58 votes — 11.2 percent of the vote — and that's not a bad starting point. He had a good case — he had some legendary achievements, he was so good in the postseason, and everybody likes him. One of my favorite baseball stories is the one Pedro Martínez tells about the day he got sent to the minors by the Dodgers. He was literally pulled off the bus. As he stood there stewing and near tears, Hershiser walked off the bus and handed Martínez a signed baseball. On it, he had written: “You're a true big leaguer, I'll see you soon. Orel.”
Friday November 20, 2020
Very bummed about the PED-revelation and year-long suspension for Robinson Cano. I guess even in our 50s we remain kids and want our baseball heroes to be clean and upstanding rather than what we know the world to be: problematic.
A short synopsis of my history with the man: Ignored/worried about him as a Yankee, counseled against the Mariners signing him for too long and too much money, wrung my hands when they did exactly that, dug him as a stellar talent on our team, empathized with his struggles with acid reflux, shook my head over his first suspension for a diuretic/PED masking agent, worried that we would trade him and Edwin Diaz during the 2018/19 off-season, wrung my hands when we did exactly that. I didn't want him to come and didn't want him to go. I guess I like stasis? No, that's not right. He grew on me. I was hoping to see him hit 3,000 at the Nei-House.
Now it looks like he won't hit 3,000 at all. He had 2,376 hits after his age-34 season in 2017, but he's only gotten 248 hits over his last three seasons, for a total of 2,624. He lost half a season to the diuretic, hit poorly in 2019, and this season, while PED-fueled, was a blip. Wait, make that 248 hits over four seasons. He's not playing in 2021. The next time he'll have a chance to get an official hit, he'll be 39 years old.
It's all a bit sad. Among active players, Cano is currently third in hits (81st all-time), third in doubles (28th all-time), seventh in batting average, fourth in bWAR (68.9).
I like this graf from Tyler Kepner's semi-obit in the Times:
If Cano had accepted [the Yankees' seven-year deal after the 2013 season], the deal would have just expired. Instead, he wisely took advantage of a bad team's desperation to be relevant. The Mariners splurged on Cano for 10 years and $240 million, and could hardly believe their luck when the Mets took the second half of the deal off their budget — and gave up the franchise's best prospect, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, for the privilege.
All that is exactly brutally right. Still sad.
Sunday November 15, 2020
Who Led the 1970s Twins in Homers?
I think I started out looking at who led the Twins in bWAR various years, then wondering how often was it Harmon Killebrew (twice: 1961 and '67), or Tony Oliva (three times) or Rod Carew (four). Who's done it the most? Believe it or not, Chuck Knoblauch, five straight years from 1993 to 1997. Then my focus narrowed to the team I grew up on, the 1970s Minnesota Twins. And eventually it led to this question:
Harmon Killebrew led all of Major League Baseball in homeruns in the 1960s with 393 longballs—meaning, obviously, he also led the Twins in that category. So who hit the most homeruns for the Twins in the 1970s?
I'll start out by saying the 1970s was not a great homerun decade for Minnesota. We had three seasons in which the team leader didn't even hit 20:
- 1973: Bobby Darwin, 18
- 1975: Dan Ford, 15
- 1978: Roy Smalley, 19
Anyway, here are some of the biggest homerun hitters for the Twins in the 1970s:
- Tony Oliva: 88 (six seasons)
- Larry Hisle: 87 (five seasons)
- Bobby Darwin: 70 (four seasons)
- Dan Ford: 57 (four seasons)
- Rod Carew: 57 (nine seasons)
- Roy Smalley: 51 (four seasons)
- Craig “Mongo” Kusick: 44 (seven seasons)
None of them, though, are the answer. The answer is ... Harmon Killebrew, who hit 113 homeruns in his five 1970s seasons with the Twins—before Calvin let him go and Killer played his final sad season in light blue for the Kansas City Royals. Those homers obviously aren't included here. Neither is his final homerun, #573, September 18, 1975. What's special about that one? He hit it at Met Stadium off the Twins' Eddie Bane in the second inning, and it proved the difference in a 4-3 Royals win. And that was that. He appeared in four more games for KC, went 1-10 with two walks, and retired.
Touch 'em all, Killer.
Monday November 09, 2020
Leading the League in Doubles, Triples and Homers: 2020 Update
Now that that's over (kinda), my mind is free enough to be curious enough to see if this year's shortened baseball season helped us come any closer to having a player who has led the league in doubles, triples and homers at some point in their career. Reminder: the last guy to do this was Johnny Mize in the 1940s. So a long time ago.
And the answer is ... kinda sorta. But not really.
I did this as a weekly quiz for SABR a few months back and we included this proviso at the end:
There are only three active players who've led the league in more than one extra-base hit category. None are likely candidates to complete the trifecta:
- Miguel Cabrera: homers and doubles two times each; hasn't hit a triple since 2016
- Albert Pujols: homers twice, doubles once, hasn't hit a triple since 2014
- Nolan Arenado: homers three times, doubles once, his career-high in triples was 7 in 2017, which tied for fifth-best in the NL. Last year he had 2.
Active players who might have a shot at this include Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Juan Soto and Mike Trout, but they all share one thing: They've never led the league in any of the three categories.
Guess what? Though Betts led the Majors in bWAR, and Soto in OBP and slugging, none of these four led the league in any of the extra-base hit categories in 2020. However, someone has joined Cabrera, Pujols and Arenado as a leader in two of the three.
Here are the 2020 league leaders in each:
- AL: Cesar Hernandez, CLE
- NL: Freddie Freeman, ATL
- AL: Kyle Tucker, HOU
- NL: Trevor Story, COL; Trea Turner, WSN; and Mike Yastrzemski, SFG
- AL: Luke Voit, NYY
- NL: Marcell Ozuna, ATL
Spot the two-fer guy? Look again. Hint: I would've had no clue.
It ain't Ozuna. He led the league in homers, ribbies and total bases, but those are the first time he'd led in anything. Voit just led the AL in homers, and ... same. Tucker's practically a rookie; he only had 144 plate appearances, spread out over two seasons, before this year, so no. As for the NL trifecta, all tied with four triples each. You'd think maybe Story for homers, considering how he began his career, but his career high of 37 in 2018 was one behind teammate Arenado. And no for Turner or grandson Yaz.
Which leaves our doubles guys. And it turns out that, yes, Freddie Freeman has led in one of the extras before. But it was doubles in 2018. Which leaves only Cesar Hernandez, who, yes—really yes this time—led the NL in triples with 11 in 2016. Which is amazing. So all he needs to complete the trifecta is dingers ... which probably won't happen. Kid is 30, he's got 49 career homers with a season-high of 15 in 2018.
Nevertheless, he does join Cabrera, Pujols and Arenado as the only active two-fers in the extra base categories. Nice things can happen even in years like this one.
Tuesday October 27, 2020
Who Has the Most World Series Losses?
In other news, I find myself oddly rooting for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2020 World Series. I should be rooting for the Tampa Bay Rays, the no-money, no-name squad that are massive underdogs and have no World Series titles to their name. In contrast, the Dodgers have some of the biggest names in baseball (Mookie, Cody, Clayton), the second-highest payroll of 2020 (to the Yankees), and six World Series championships.
True, their last title was in 1988, the Kirk Gibson World Series, which happened 10 years before the Rays organization, then known as the Devil Rays, was even born. More important, here's something else the Dodgers have that the Rays don't:
More World Series losses than any team in baseball history.
I don't know why, but I've never looked at the World Series losses before. Like everyone, I count wins. I count rings, pennants, postseasons. But over the weekend I half-wondered about this hapless squad: Do the Dodgers have more World Series losses than anyone? More even than the Yankees, who have been to the World Series twice as often?
Turns out: Yes. Before this year, the Dodgers of Brooklyn and LA have been to the Series 20 times but won it only six, meaning, for those who learned their math at Burroughs Elementary in Sexy South Minneapolis, that they lost it 14 times. They're 6-14. The Yankees have lost it a lucky 13 times; they're 27-13. The only other team in double-digit WS losses is the Giants of New York and San Francisco: 8-12.
For the curious, here's how the original 16 teams stack up when sorted by winning percentage:
I guess this could provide some solace to fans of the Pirates, for example. Sure, they haven't been to the World Series since 1979; but they haven't lost a World Series since 1927.
Whatever happens to the Dodgers this year, though, won't move them much in the standings. If they lose Games 6 and 7, they'll be tied with the Phillies for the second-worst World Series Winning Percentage (WSWP). If they win, they'll be tied with the Braves and Indians. That's what victory would mean to the Dodgers overall: a tie with the Indians. Not exactly glamour territory.
So anyway I'm rooting for the Dodgers.