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I’m developing a sports podcast called Can’t Win 4 Losing. It’s about losing, in all its forms and varieties. As Leo Tolstoy might have said, every champion is the same. Every loser is a loser in their own way. Can’t Win 4 Losing will tell their stories.
And that means all of our stories, because who among us has not taken an L? Can’t Win 4 Losing will launch in Fall 2017, but in the meantime, below is a brief audio trailer. It would help me and the show a lot if you would listen and write a review on Soundcloud, as well as following or liking the CW4L feeds on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
A judging controversy has erupted in the NBA in the wake of the Los Angeles Lakers’ win over the New Jersey Nets in Los Angeles Sunday night. The Nets outscored the Lakers 108-102, but the judges awarded the Lakers the win on artistic merit.
While basketball judges never address the public or media about their decisions, observers of the sport speculated that the decision may have been influenced by the presence of Jason Collins in the Nets’ lineup. Collins, who came out as gay before the season, made his Nets debut in the game, becoming the first openly gay athlete in the four major professional sports leagues in the United States.
“For many people, Jason being the first out player to get into a game is a great moment,” said longtime basketball analyst Scott Hamilton, “but the judges are old-school. They’re conservative and they don’t like change. They may be looking at Jason as an outsider they don’t want as part of their club.”
Collins wouldn’t speculate on the effect his sexuality might have had on the judging: “I can’t say why the judges made the decisions they did,” he said. “They can, but they won’t. That’s just the way it goes.”
But Hamilton and his broadcast partner, Sandra Bezic, were both quick to note that there may have been other factors at play.
“The Lakers have a way of connecting emotionally to the audience, making them feel like they’re really part of the performance, that the Nets just don’t have,” Bezic said. “They just play to the crowd so beautifully and bring them along on this wonderful ride. It’s captivating.”
And, Hamilton added, the Lakers put their best fashion foot forward. “As much as we all might hate to admit it, costumes do count. The Lakers have the beautiful white and yellow and purple outfits that are bold and flattering and exciting. The Nets wear black with white trim. It’s a classic look, but really they’re just kind of drab when you get right down to it. The judges notice that.”
Nets rookie coach Jason Kidd said he was angry with the decision, but kept his emotions in check in front of the media. “It looked to me like we won that game,” he said quietly at the postgame press conference. “The judges saw it a different way and we have to live with that, but I think this sport has a lot of work to do. My guys went out there and played better, but they don’t get the win. It’s not right.”
Not surprisingly, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t see it that way. “I thought we were clearly better,” he said. “You heard the crowd. They know.”
“Honestly, casual fans see the Nets scoring more points and losing and they think it’s all fixed,” Hamilton said. “But if you know the sport inside and out, if you really know what you’re looking at, you see things differently. Obviously the Nets scored more points. But that doesn’t mean they should win. That’s basketball. That’s what makes it so great.”
The sports meets pop culture part of the Internet jumped on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski this week for not understanding what time travel is. I disagree with the consensus that Gronk is wrong about what time travel is, but I found the dust-up fascinating as a journalist, not as a physicist, which I am decidedly not.
Gronk has a media reputation as a bro’s bro, a good-natured, fun-loving lunkhead. The iconic Gronk momentcame after the Patriots won the AFC Championship Game in January 2012: An ESPN Deportes reporter asked him, in Spanish and then English, if he would be celebrating the victory, and Gronk said, “Si. Yo soy fiesta.” That moment becoming iconic is another blog post.
This week Pats radio announcer Scott Zolak asked Gronkowski what superpower he’d like to have. He said he wished he had a time machine, so that “I could just be like, ‘I want to be in Florida right now,’ and then boom, I’m in Florida.”
Boom. The snark was unleashed, including by my outfit, Bleacher Report. Here are some headlines:
Here’s Deadspin’s Samer Kalaf:
Gronk doesn’t understand how time works. Or maybe he doesn’t know what a plane is. Either way, it’s concerning. Does he know what happens when he gets on the big metal bird to go to away games?
Clearly the consensus view of this situation is that if you’re in Boston and then you instantaneously show up in Florida, that is not time travel. It’s just travel. Several people took the time to patiently spell this out to me on Twitter. Zolak helpfully informed Gronk that he was talking about a “transporter,” not a time machine. Keep in mind neither of these things exist.
I think that’s a valid viewpoint, but what’s interesting to me is that it’s a viewpoint, a perspective. It’s a way of looking at the world, specifically a way of thinking about time.
I believe it’s not the only valid way of thinking about time. It’s not how I think about time. I think that if you have a machine that does nothing to change the distance from Boston to Miami Beach—Gronk means Miami Beach when he says “Florida,” don’t you think?—but reduces the time it takes to cover that distance from several hours to zero seconds, your machine is very much about time. I think it’s fair to say that a plane is a kind of time machine.
If you don’t agree, I don’t want to debate the point. I’m just saying there are different ways of thinking about “time.” Your way of thinking about it is cool with me.
From all the evidence—the articles and the amen chorus in the comments section and on social media—the people who don’t look at time the way I do don’t think of their point of view as a point of view. They think of it as a fact. What Gronk talked about? “That’s not a time machine.” Fact.
That’s where I get interested as a journalist, because as a journalist, I was taught to be “objective,” which is to say without bias. I, like many, have long since rejected this practice, the purpose of which is for journalists to claim they have no bias. NYU professor and media thinker Jay Rosen calls this “the view from nowhere.”
See the parallel? You can’t not have a bias. How you think about something as seemingly fundamental and fact-based as how time works can be affected by who you are and what culture you’re a part of. “That’s not a time machine” might sound pretty weird to anyone who hadn’t grown up hearing that air travel had “shrunk the world.” As opposed to, say, “slowed down the clock.” I’ve been hearing about how “the world is much smaller now,” thanks to faster travel and communication, for as long as I can remember.
I’m not saying the consensus view—”That’s not a time machine”—is incorrect, in the way that 2+2=47 is incorrect. I’m saying it’s an opinion, a viewpoint, not a factual statement. It’s like saying “A true friend is someone who wouldn’t let you root for the New England Patriots.” A valid way to look at the world. Just not a fact.
But the snarkosphere treated “That’s not a time machine” as a factual statement, because the default way of thinking about time in Western culture in 2013 is so ingrained, so agreed-upon, that it feels to most people in that culture like the only way to think about time.
What else in our consensus worldview is like that? What other opinions and points of view do we think of as facts? That’s a central question in journalism, and one I believe every journalist should be asking all the time: Is that a fact, or an agreed-upon viewpoint?
It’s the first day of school for my kids, so I have a math quiz for you:
In the past, the school the kids attend has started its day at 8 a.m. There were always a certain number of kids who came scrambling in every morning at 8:05. Their parents tended to say things like “We just can’t get there at 8.”
A note: San Francisco doesn’t automatically send kids to neighborhood schools, so most of those who don’t get to school by school bus are driven there by parents or others, even in the upper elementary grades.
This year, the start of the school day has been moved up 10 minutes, to 7:50. Here’s the quiz: If those kids were habitually five minutes late when the day started at 8, how many minutes late will they be now that school starts at 7:50?
An 18-year-old Moto-X racer named Meghan Rutledge lost a gold medal at the X Games this weekend when, leading the race, she celebrated prematurely, pumping a fist during the final jump. She crashed on landing and finished out of the medals. I saw the video on The Big Lead.
This reminded me of a similar incident in the 2006 Winter Olympics, when snowboard cross racer Lindsey Jacobellis did essentially the same thing, with a similar result, though Jacobellis was able to recover in time to win the silver medal. Another difference is that, at least according to the video, Rutledge appeared to have been crestfallen, while Jacobellis, at least publicly, shrugged off her error, saying she was just having fun, and that’s what snowboarding’s supposed to be all about.
I wrote about Jacobellis’ crash for Salon, and that section of my June 21, 2006, column is pasted below. I would just link directly to it, but Salon’s permalinks from that time don’t work anymore.
A few days earlier, I had written about how the X Games athletes, including Jacobellis, had brought a breath of fresh air to the Olympics: “They bring their laid-back culture to the Games, downplaying the importance of medals at every opportunity, and they present a refreshing contrast to the Type-A zealots who make up so much of the elite athlete population.”
I wonder if that’s less true now, seven years later. Rutledge certainly didn’t seem to be shrugging off her defeat in Jacobellisian fashion. But that might just be the difference between two individual personalities. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from it. I just wonder, and that’s all I’m going to do, because I find X Games-type sports to be boring, so I’m not interested enough in the answer to research it.
Here’s what I said about Lindsey Jacobellis in 2006. Note how the basis of the column is the old-school publishing model that had me waiting from Friday until Tuesday to write again:
So I think Lindsey Jacobellis is my kid. I’m going to get one of those DNA tests.
I think the American snowboard cross silver medalist is my own spawn because she created the most talked-about moment of the 2006 Olympics mere hours after I’d published my column Friday morning, with my next one not due until Tuesday. Thanks a lot, kiddo.
This is exactly what my kids do. I mean my other kids. They have a knack for falling ill at 5:01 p.m. on the Friday of holiday weekends. And the longer the holiday, the weirder the illness and the more necessary a doctor.
On Labor Day or Memorial Day weekend, they’ll just get an ear infection, maybe a little stomach flu. But give them a four- or five-day weekend and they really go to work. Green spots, Linda Blair cranial 360s, spontaneous combustion.
Jacobellis — Mother and I call her “Linds” now — only had a three-day weekend, so she didn’t really go for it, as the boarders say. She didn’t declare for the NFL draft or move to Washington and change her name to the Lindsey Nationals.
But her last-minute showboat that cost her a gold medal — if you don’t know what I’m talking about at this point, I’d like to borrow your copy of the current Cave and Garden Monthly — was immediately the talk of the Olympics, except in this column, and will go down as one of Turin’s signature moments.
On the same day, Sweden beat the United States in the greatest upset in the history of women’s hockey, and it took a back seat to Jacobellis blowing a gold medal in a sport that most people had never heard of a week earlier.
As we’ve seen in the chatter that’s gone on over the last four days, Jacobellis’ fall will be a cautionary tale for some, an illustration of what happens when you count your chickens, when you try to show up beaten foes, when you self-aggrandize.
For others, it will be an inspiring example of youthful exuberance trumping ambition and competitiveness, of living life to the fullest, consequences be damned, of eating dessert before dinner, painting your nails with white-out for the prom.
Lindsey Jacobellis grabbing her snowboard and falling has become one of those Rorschach tests. What you think of it says a lot about who you are. What I think of it is she must be my kid.
As I sat around over the three-day weekend, not writing columns, listening to my children sniffle and cough, I was amused watching the commentariat and the bloggers try and fail to come up with parallels from sports history for Jacobellis’ screwup.
Leon Lett’s premature touchdown celebration in the 1992-season Super Bowl was cited most often, but everyone seemed to agree there’d never been anything quite like what Jacobellis did, costing herself victory by showboating.
Everybody forgot about Billy Conn.
Conn, the light heavyweight champion, gave up his belt and challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight title in 1941. Conn outboxed the bigger champ for the first 12 rounds of the 15-round bout and had a big lead. All he had to do was keep doing what he’d been doing for three more rounds and he’d win the heavyweight championship.
But he went for the knockout in the 13th. Not enough to win, he had to do it with flair. Get some style points. Sound familiar? Louis put him to sleep before the next bell.
I’m sure that story’s been used to warn many a youngster not to get cocky, but I’ll always remember Conn being asked on the fight’s 50th anniversary what he’d do in that 13th round if he had it to do all over again. I’m paraphrasing from memory: “If I had it to do again, I’d probably do the same thing,” he said. “What the hell’s the difference?”
I love that attitude. Why not go for it? The good thing about being Lindsey Jacobellis’ dad — I think — is that I won’t have to teach her to think that way.
In honor of Rembrandt’s 407th birthday, here are all the references I have made to him in my writing. Or at least all of them that I could remember or find. All of this is from the Salon column.
They’re s’mores, is all they are. A little circle of graham cracker with marshmallow on it, surrounded, smothered — no, embraced — by a slightly brittle shell of dark, luscious chocolate. Enrobed. That’s the word. The chocolate is poured over the cookie, you see. The cookie isn’t dipped into the chocolate like some common thing. Therefore, says Nabisco, “Mallomars are an enrobed product.” They’re just s’mores, like you make at cookouts. And a Rembrandt’s just a painting, like you make in kindergarten.
—Mallomar memories, 2/27/01
My grandmother loved this story, a love letter to Mallomars, which my grandfather, who died in 1968, loved.
I know that sounds silly. A Randy Johnson fastball equals a Rembrandt painting equals a Shakespeare sonnet equals a Kobe Bryant dunk. I can enjoy Rembrandt as much as the next guy. Love what he could do with a dead peacock. But if a tackle-breaking run through the secondary by a tailback gives me the same pleasure, fills me equally with wonder, inspires me in the same way that a Rembrandt painting does, what difference is there? Rembrandt was just as meaningless last Sept. 12 as Emmitt Smith was.
Sports and 9/11, 9/11/02
A little strange on its own but I think it more or less makes sense in the context of the argument I was making. This was the first anniversary of 9/11, and there were some mini-controversies over sportsball people using words like “warrior” or phrases like “let’s roll” when talking about other sportsball people. Some people thought of this as insulting to the memory of the dead, or to soldiers then just launching a decade’s worth of post-9/11 wars. My point was that we couldn’t live in a state of heightened sensitivity and mourning forever, that we had to get back to our normal lives, which we were doing, and that was a victory. And part of our normal lives is watching and talking about sports, which are exactly as important as we let them be. On Sept. 12, 2001, they weren’t important at all, to anyone. A year later, they were important again—if we wanted them to be. And each of us is free to assign importance to a sporting event, according to our tastes and feelings, just as we are to a Rembrandt painting, which, without the importance we’ve given it as a society, is just colors splashed on a canvas.
I wonder if Cubs fans, deep in their heart of hearts, really love this.
The Cubs are losers again, beaten 9-6 by the Marlins Wednesday in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. But they aren’t just losers. They are artists of loss, maestros of defeat. They are to losing what Jascha Heifetz was to the violin, what Rembrandt was to still lifes, what Jennifer Lopez is to overexposure.
—NLCS Game 7 story, 10/16/03
Readers and friends who were Cubs fans hated this, thought I didn’t understand the first thing about being a Cubs fan. I maintain to this day that it’s just about the truest thing I’ve ever written.
And they’re playing the Braves, whom they beat last year, and who are to losing in October what Rembrandt was to painting faces.
—MLB playoff preview, 10/4/05
“They” were the Houston Astros, who did, in fact, beat the Braves in that series. But that doesn’t mean I was right. The preview was set up with a “they will win because” section for every team. I did pick the Astros to go to the World Series, though, and I was right about that. I had them beating the Angels. They lost to the White Sox.
I’m thrilled to be a part of the new ebook The Hall of Nearly Great, an anthology that celebrates the careers of those who are not celebrated.
It’s amazing how quickly very good players can become largely forgotten figures. I’m a pretty big baseball fan and something of a student of baseball history, and it’s not uncommon for me to stumble across some player I’ve never heard of from the decades before I started watching, only to realize that, holy crap, this guy was a six-time All-Star!
And now I’m old enough to be amazed that people in their 30s have never heard of guys I grew up thinking of as very, very good players. If a player doesn’t make the Hall of Fame and doesn’t become a manager or broadcaster, he’s headed for the “Who?” file. You watch: In 25 years, you’ll be able to say the names of terrific players like Ryan Zimmerman, Jake Peavy, Yadier Molina, Corey Hart and Dan Haren, to name just a few, and people in their 20s who love baseball will give you blank stares.
“The Hall of Nearly Great” is meant to celebrate some of those guys. From the promo copy:
It’s not a book meant to reopen arguments about who does and does not deserve Hall of Fame enshrinement. Rather, it remembers those who, failing entrance into Cooperstown, may unfairly be lost to history. It’s for the players we grew up rooting for, the ones whose best years led to flags and memories that will fly together forever. Players like David Cone, Will Clark, Dwight Evans, Norm Cash, Kenny Lofton, Brad Radke, and many others.
Including Ron Cey, the subject of my chapter. Cey was a six-time All-Star, and I have long thought of him as the best player about whom I’ve never heard a single “what about him for the Hall of Fame?” comment kicked around on barstools or message boards. For most of his career he was overshadowed by teammate Steve Garvey, who was not as good a player as Cey, and by Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman of all time, whose career stretched over almost the exact same years as Cey’s.
It’s an honor to be among the 42 great writers who wrote this book. The list includes a bunch of friends, e-friends, co-workers and acquaintances: R.J. Anderson, Tommy Bennett, Craig Calcaterra, Cliff Corcoran, Chad Finn, Steven Goldman, Jay Jaffe, Jonah Keri, Will Leitch, Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, Rob Neyer, Marc Normandin, Jason Parks, Jeff Passan, Joe Posnanski, Emma Span, Cecilia Tan, Wendy Thurm, Jon Weisman and Jason Wojciechowski.
Here’s what official MLB historian John Thorn says about “The Hall of Nearly Great”:
Fans love to argue about who are the greatest players. In this splendid book some of the game’s top writers give a nod to players who have no plaques in Cooperstown, but were undeniably great. “Let us now praise famous men … all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
You can buy “The Hall of Nearly Great” for immediate download for $12 by clicking the image above or right here. It is an ebook available in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats, suitable for reading on a computer, iPad, Kindle, Nook, other e-reader, or smart phone, and it is DRM-free.
The wife, the kids and I were watching the cute game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and all of a sudden some kind of game theory/philosophy seminar broke out.
The contestant, a woman named Stephanie, had reached the final question, worth $1 million. She had earned $500,000 by correctly answering the previous question. If she got the million-dollar question wrong, she would walk away with $25,000.
She could see the subject of the final question before deciding whether to answer it, and she could walk away at that point with the $500,000. But once she saw the question, she had to answer.
The subject was music. Stephanie looked disappointed, but she also said she’d taken violin lessons for 10 years. She was 25 years old, I guessed and a post-show Google search confirmed. Her name is Stephanie Wambach. She’s from St. Louis, where the wife and I used to live—and which requires that I say she went to Marquette High School. And she went to the wife’s alma mater, Indiana University. This is all foreshadowing, in a kind of lame way.
Here’s a clip of the last few minutes of the episode, uploaded to YouTube in 2007.
Stephanie had mostly breezed through the answers, on questions ranging from second- to fifth-grade level, struggling only a little and using just one of her three “cheats.” “Fifth-grade level” makes these questions sound easier than they are. They’re not rocket science, but fifth-grade questions aren’t pushovers. If you’re not familiar with the subject, or don’t remember it from fifth grade, you’re sunk. One of the fifth-grade questions Stephanie had answered asked what country Sweden shared its longest border with.
Now she thought over whether to go for the $1 million on the music question or “drop out” with $500,000.
“You have to go for the million,” I said to the wife. Oh, no, said the wife. You have to take the half-million. “If she gets it wrong she’d be giving away $475,000,” the wife said. That’s how the host, Jeff Foxworthy, had phrased it as Stephanie struggled with her decision: “If you answer the question incorrectly … you give back $475,000.”
That comment seemed designed to push her toward not going for the million, which struck me as odd, since a contestant winning the million bucks would be a home run of a moment for the show. Foxworthy should have been all Dr. Evil: “Think about it: A MILLion dollars,” as if $1 million were a lot of money or something. But he explicitly said he wanted to “talk about the downside.”
“She’s not giving back anything,” I said. “She walked in empty handed. The floor for her, the worst thing that can happen, is she walks out with $25,000. That’s a pretty damn good floor. She’s ‘giving back’ $500,000 by not trying for the million.”
And there you have it. Two fundamentally different ways of looking at risk.
The wife: How can you live with herself if you’d “given back” $475,000 by getting the last question wrong.
Me: Any time I can bet $475,000 of house money to win $500,000, I’m putting the money down as if it weren’t mine—which it isn’t. I never really “had” dollars 25,001 through 500,000 any more than Stephanie “had” dollars 500,001 through 1 million.
Get the last question wrong and the consolation prize would be $25,000. I’d live with myself just fine. I’d walk out thinking, “Losing stinks, but it was the right bet.” And if the same situation came up again, I’d do the same thing.
Stephanie opted out. Interesting: A male person close to her had been in the audience the whole show holding up a sign that said “Go for the $1 million.” Is this a gender thing? Sample size of two so far. The guy, a friend, later wrote a blog post about it.
Foxworthy asked Stephanie if she wanted to see the question and she quickly said, “No!” That followed from her first decision. She didn’t want to risk feeling terrible if she knew the answer, even though, given her decision, she must have thought there was a good chance she wouldn’t know the answer. Wouldn’t it have felt great to know she’d made the right call?
Fortunately, she quickly changed her mind, since it’s hard to imagine the show not revealing the question. She said, “All right, fine,” I think in response to shouts from the audience. Foxworthy revealed the question: “In the 1720s, what man composed a series of violin concertos known as ‘The Four Seasons’?”
When Foxworthy, reading the question off a video display, got to the word “man,” Stephanie put her hands on her head and gasped, “Oh my God!” Then she crumpled onto the podium. She recovered quickly, took it well, flashing a smile. Foxworthy had her look into the camera and say what I gather is the show’s tag line, but she customized it:
“I guess I’m not smarter than a fifth grader,” she said, “but if I woulda answered the question, I would have been!”
I think that’s right. Even if her answer had been wrong.
“Here’s the irony of Coors Field: It undoubtedly helped players put up ENORMOUS numbers. And at exactly the same time, it undoubtedly made those numbers look like mirages. Todd Helton’s career numbers are .324/.424/.555 which are absurd. And you get the sense that if he had put up significantly WORSE numbers but played his whole career somewhere else, his career might be valued higher.”
Todd Helton has been a puzzle for me for a long time. Early in his career, when he was putting up crazy numbers, especially when he chased .400 in 2000 and ended up leading the league in hits, doubles, RBIs, average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and total bases, it seemed to me that people didn’t talk about Coors Field enough. Although in retrospect, the fact that he only finished fifth in the MVP vote that year with those crazy numbers says that I wasn’t the only one thinking his numbers were out of whack because of Coors, even though it felt like I was.
But, as with Larry Walker, who appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, it’s hard to get a handle on just how good Helton really has been. It’s probably harder for Helton than for Walker, because we got a glimpse of Walker in the wild. Helton has only played in Colorado, while Walker played in Montreal for six years at the beginning of his career and St. Louis for a year and a half at the end.
Is Joe right? Would Helton be valued higher if he’d played his entire career elsewhere? I decided to try to figure out what that career might have looked like so far.
Here’s the raw data: In his career, Helton has hit .324/.424/.555 with 333 home runs in 1,930 games. That .300/.400/.500 line is sometimes called the magic ratio, and it pretty much means you’re a really good hitter.
At Coors Field, Helton has hit .356/.454/.628 with 204 home runs in 977 games. Everywhere else, he has hit .291/.392/.481 with 129 home runs in 953 games. You can see the difference right away. No magic ratio away from Coors. In addition to hitting 75 more home runs in only 24 more games, Helton has also hit 26 triples at Coors and only nine on the road.
If you just doubled Helton’s road stats, he’d be a pretty fair player. A first baseman with a career line of .291/.392/.481 and 258 home runs through age 36 is nothing to sneeze at. Then again he’s likely not a five-time All-Star who’ll probably get some Hall of Fame consideration. Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, which measures how likely a player is to be enshrined, not how deserving he is, has Helton well above the level of “likely.” It doesn’t take ballparks or era into account, just raw stats.
But it’s not fair to just double Helton’s road stats. Players on other National League teams get to come into Coors Field for road games, after all. A player in the N.L. West would have 11 chances a year to hit at Coors under the current scheduling system.
So I decided to try to see what Helton might look like if he were just the player he is on the road, but he got to play some road games at Coors. Helton has played more games at Dodger Stadium then any other road park, 103, so to give him the benefit of the doubt, let’s give him 103 road games at Coors Field, hitting at the same rates he’s really hit there, and then turn the rest of his home games into road games, where he’ll hit at the same rate he’s always hit at on the road.
Make sense? No? Good.
By playing only 103 games at Coors, Helton loses 874 games off his total, so we’ll extrapolate his 953 real road games into (953+874=) 1,827. That is, we’ll multiply his totals by 1.91710388. And then we’ll shrink his 977 Coors games down to 103 by multiplying his totals by 0.10542477. Then we’ll add those two together to get the 1,930 games of the new, non-Colorado Rockie Todd Helton.
We’re back from the commercial and we’ve done the math and here’s what Helton looks like: .298/.399/.496, with 269 home runs. Again, that’s a pretty good player. There are Hall of Fame first basemen who have similar numbers through age 36, though all with more home runs, and we’re still not accounting for era.
For example, Willie Stargell, through age 36, had hit .282/.360/.529 with 388 home runs. More power, especially home run power — the non-Rockie Helton would have 498 doubles to Stargell’s 356 — but less getting on base. Then again, Stargell played in the second deadball era. His career at that point had been 1962-76, when scoring straddled four runs per team per game. In Helton’s era it’s touched five runs and has always been above 4.5 until the last two years. Stargell’s OPS plus through age 36 was 148. Helton’s is 137. Keep in mind OPS plus accounts for ballpark too.
Here’s something off-topic but incredible that I discovered about Stargell. Through his age 36 season, his triple-slash line was, again, .282/.360/.529. Here it is for the rest of his career, which was six more seasons: .279/.362/.529
I looked for other players who had a similar stat line to non-Rockie Helton and I found one. Kevin Youkilis. Through his age 31 season, Youkilis’ career line is .294/.394/.497 with 112 home runs in 791 games. He got a late start to his career and has only been a full-time player for five seasons, and who knows what he’s going to look like at 36, but if you’re looking at that non-Rockie stat line of .298/.399/.496 and trying to figure out what that looks like in real life, it looks something like Kevin Youkilis, so far, with the caveat that Youkilis plays in a pretty nice ballpark for hitters too.
Which is why this whole business of making this kind of adjustment for one player and then comparing him to everyone else, unadjusted, is a rabbit hole and kind of stupid. But it’s my rabbit hole and my kind of stupid. And by the way Youkilis does not have much of a home-road split. He’s 22 points of OPS better at Fenway Park than elsewhere. Helton is 209 points of OPS better at Coors Field than elsewhere.
Helton’s career OPS of .979 has him 11th all time, immediately behind Rogers Hornsby, Manny Ramirez and Mark McGwire and immediately ahead of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Heady company. The non-Rockie Helton’s career OPS of .895 would have him 72nd all time, still pretty good, but in a much different crowd. He’d be behind Bill Terry, Chick Hafey and Mickey Cochrane and ahead of Chase Utley, Hal Trosky and Youkilis.
Terry was a first baseman who’s in the Hall of Fame, though he played for the ’20s-’30s Giants, so he had a leg up. Hafey was an outfielder who’s in the Hall of Fame, though he had similar help by playing for the ’20s-’30s Cardinals. Trosky was a first baseman who had a short career in the ’30s and ’40s. He was never even an All-Star.
And don’t forget we’re giving Helton a little benefit of doubt by giving him 103 games at Coors Field. If Coors were in a different division from Helton’s home team, he’d have played a lot fewer games there. He’s played about 40 games in most non-N.L. West cities, with a low of 39 in Cincinnati’s two parks, Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ballpark. If we do all that same math for Helton only playing 39 games at Coors Field, we get a .292/.394/.484 line with 265 home runs.
There’s a better way to look at all this. I mean, it would be a strange world indeed if there were not a better way to look at all this. Baseball-Reference has a stat called “Neutralized Batting,” which converts a player’s stats to show what they would have been if the player had played only 162-game seasons — which Helton, as a post-1961 player, did anyway — in a league with historically average offense and in a neutral ballpark. In other words, it attempts to strip away park and era effects.
Helton’s neutralized career line: .301/.399/.514 with 295 home runs in 1,930 games. Very similar to our non-Rockie Helton and very similar, at least in terms of the rate stats, to Kevin Youkilis so far.
Getting back to Joe’s sense that if Helton had put up worse numbers but played his whole career somewhere other than Denver he’d be valued higher, a good question would be: Is Youkilis, at this point, valued higher than Helton? I don’t mean at the moment. Youkilis is in his prime and Helton is in bad decline. But I mean in terms of historical value.
I don’t know the answer to this question, and I don’t know that this little thought experiment has gotten me much closer to getting a handle on just how to value Todd Helton’s career. If you like Wins Above Replacement, Helton has 58 WAR, which puts him in fringe Hall of Fame company, ahead of Stargell, Terry and recent inductee Andre Dawson, to name a few, but also about three wins behind Keith Hernandez and Dick Allen, who are not in.
He’s also nine wins behind Larry Walker, who was named on only 20.3 percent of the ballots this year, and 12 behind Jim Thome, who’s still playing but is probably a lock because he’s hit 589 home runs so far.
It requires more thinking, but at the moment I think that the neutralized, non-Rockie Todd Helton would be a guy with a Hall of Fame case, but not a strong one, and I don’t think he’d get too far with the BBWAA voters with his home run total, which would be likely to end up not far above 300, and his batting average only around .300.
Because I believe the non-Rockie Helton’s stats represent the real Helton better than his real stats do, I obviously think the real Helton has a legitimate but not particularly strong Hall of Fame case too. I have a feeling he’ll get a little more love from the writers than the non-Rockie Helton would, especially if his batting average stays up around .320 and he gets close to 400 home runs. But barring a late-career revival that gets him to 3,000 hits — he probably needs five more solid seasons, which don’t appear to be in the cards — I think he’ll fall well short.
Early in Helton’s career I thought the baseball world overrated him, and while I think I was right about that, looking back, I think I underrated him. Now, to the extent that I can figure out what the baseball world is thinking, I think the baseball world and I have met in the middle. We look at Helton about the same way. He’s been a very good player, a face of a franchise kind of player, but not an all-time great. If he’s been undervalued because of people discounting his inflated numbers at Coors, it hasn’t been by much.
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