Comments on Nate Silver’s fine Hall of Fame piece are hiLARRYous. So so so New York Times. Even after Nate carefully explains that:
A) The Hall of Fame has been letting in fewer players than historically usual lately because, while the writers have been voting in about their usual number, the Veterans Committee, which at times has thrown the doors open wide, has essentially stopped functioning.
B) Because of the Veterans Committee’s former generosity, huge numbers of players from the 1920s and ’30s are in the Hall, about twice as many as from any other era, despite the fact that …
C) at the time, there were about half as many teams as there are now, and the player pool was maybe one-fifth the size it is today.
So, just to review, there are twice as many teams, drawing players from a population five times larger, which should mean that the level of play is much higher — obviously true if you just watch a few games from the good old days — and about half as many players are making the Hall of Fame as made it from that earlier era.
And the New York Times commenters sniff: It’s terrible how they’ve lowered the standards! They just let anyone in there now! Sniff!
The elitism just drips. A few choice samples:
“Too stringent”? Au contraire. Over the last couple of decades they have admitted so many bums that it defies description. If anything, the standards should be tightened. There are perhaps six active players who should EVER be considered.
We’ve dumbed down America and now you want to water down what makes a true athlete great. They should measure up or not be considered!!!! That’s the problem with America continually relaxing standards and codes.!!!!
The statistical look at the question is entirely misdirected. There have been a handful of standout players in the game, something less than 50 in total.
i thought the hall was for extraordinary accomplishments not just very good …the hall is so diluted these days.
When Mickey Mantle hit a home run he ran around the bases with his head down so that he wouldn’t embarrass the pitcher on the other team. He did that 536 times. He got into the Hall of Fame on his first vote. How many of the guys that make fools of themselves jumping around today deserve to get in on their first vote? There are only so many people who have the Right Stuff for the Hall of Fame and their number doesn’t enlarge just because more people are playing the game.
I could go on but you get it. The very idea. Why they’re letting rabble into the Hall of Fame now, Lovey. Absolute rabble!
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Image lifted from an NBC video without permission. Will remove on request
Clete Boyer’s name appears on the screen as “Cletis” as he comes to bat with one out in the top of the third following Vern Law’s slick backhand stab of Johnny Blanchard’s comebacker. Boyer suspects his bat is broken, beats the handle on the ground to confirm it, and trots — trots! — back to the dugout to replace it. I have never seen a major league player trot on his way to get a new bat. They walk.
Boyer’s quick pace gives me just enough time for a quick Clete Boyer bat story, because I’m pretending that I’m not using the pause button liberally here.
I am not sure I’m remembering this right, but I think the first bat I ever owned, a black 26-ouncer, was a Clete Boyer signature model. Boyer was winding his career down with Atlanta during the years I was coming into baseball consciousness, 1970 and ’71, so while I remember the bat being a new model, I’m reasonably sure it was picked up at a discount.
Because of that bat, I always had kind of a soft spot for Clete Boyer, even though I don’t remember ever seeing him play. I don’t mean a soft spot, really, but his name had some meaning for me. I also had, for some reason, a first baseman’s mitt when I was very young, and it was a Mike Hegan signature model. Mike Hegan! How did he ever get his name on a mitt? I don’t have any soft spot for Mike Hegan, though I probably wouldn’t recall his name today if I hadn’t had that mitt.
Clete grabs a new bat and walks back to the plate without any elaborate on-deck-circle ritual of rubbing it down with just the right amount of pine tar and rosin. Announcer Bob Prince speculates that Boyer could have been “just changing bats and fiddling around a little bit” to give Bobby Shantz more time to warm up in the bullpen, since the pitcher’s spot is up next. But Shantz has been warming up since the top of the first, and if Boyer were trying to kill time he probably wouldn’t have trotted to the dugout to fetch his new bat.
Boyer pops out to Bill Mazeroski in shallow center field, and that brings up a pinch hitter, Hector Lopez.
A striking thing about watching this game from 1960 today is that almost everybody’s white. Of the 18 men in the starting lineup, only Roberto Clemente was not Anglo. Elston Howard, who was black, would have been the Yankees starting catcher if he hadn’t gotten hurt, but that’s still a couple of overwhelmingly white lineups.
Both teams used 25 men in the 1960 World Series, and six of them were minorities. Aside from Clemente, Howard and Lopez — a Panamanian who is black enough to have been considered the first black manager at Triple-A when he took over in Buffalo in 1969 — the rest of the 12 percent minority population consisted of two African-American Pirates reserves, outfielder Joe Christopher and infielder Gene Baker, who would combine for three plate appearances in this Series, and Yankees lefty reliever Luis Arroyo, who had pitched two-thirds of an inning in Game 5.
Contrast that with the 2010 World Series, when the Giants and Rangers used a combined 47 players, and 26 of them — 55 percent — were minorities. I’m not a census taker or anything, so maybe my count’s off a little if someone’s not what he appears to be, but that’s a pretty striking difference, almost five times more non-white players in the 2010 World Series than in 1960.
I think it’s easy to get into thinking about history in a shorthand way that doesn’t get at what really happened. Every American schoolkid knows that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and baseball was integrated from that day on. And every baseball fan knows that integration hardly happened overnight. The Boston Red Sox, the last team to field a black player, didn’t do so until 1959, as everyone who’s heard the name Pumpsie Green knows.
But it goes beyond that. The Red Sox were an embarrassment by the end of the ’50s for their refusal to have any black players on the club, but it’s not like they were that far behind everybody else. The Pirates had integrated in 1953, but here they were seven years later with two blacks and a dark-skinned Puerto Rican. Howard integrated the Yankees when he came up in 1955, and now five years later they had two blacks and a light-skinned Puerto Rican, Arroyo. Not exactly a melting pot.
Some teams were quicker than others to truly integrate. You can’t write the history of the National League in the 1960s without talking about how the Dodgers and Cardinals dominated in part because they were more eager than other teams to sign black players. In this same year, 1960, the Dodgers had a majority-black starting lineup, with five African-American everyday players: Johnny Roseboro, Charlie Neal, Maury Wills, Jim Gilliam and Tommy Davis.
But for the most part, and certainly in this Series, baseball in 1960, 13 years into the “integration” era, was still a pretty white game.
Here’s Lopez, tossing away his second bat. He started a lot of games at third base in 1960, especially when Boyer was hurt in April and May. He also spent some time in left field and played a few games at second base, where he’d played a lot early in his career in Kansas City. But by this time, at 30, he was about done with that. He would play two more games at second the rest of his career, which lasted until 1966.
His playing career that is. Lopez managed Panama in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He was 79 at the time. He looked about 55.
He has an exaggerated stance, hunched over and closed, like he’s going to aim to right field. He does whack a couple of fouls that way. He’d been a pretty good hitter with the A’s, once hitting 22 home runs, and would be a solid fourth outfielder/utility type in his Yankee years. In 1960, his first full year in New York, he’d hit .284 with nine home runs and a 115 OPS-plus in 131 games.
Now there goes the no-hitter as Lopez bangs one through the left side of the infield for a base hit, the first of the game off of Vern Law. Bobby Richardson, at the top of the order, hits a line drive to left that hangs up for Bob Skinner, who puts it away for the third out. Still 4-0 Pirates.
Shantz takes over on the mound for the Yankees. The lefty had somehow won the American League MVP with the fourth-place A’s in 1952 and then led the league in ERA in 1957 as a swing man for the Yanks. Mel Allen talks about how a sore arm had limited him since that MVP year, but he’d settled in as an effective reliever. He would spend 1961 with the Pirates before bouncing from the Astros to the Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies over his last three years.
He gets Bob Skinner on a grounder to first, and then Rocky Nelson gets a nice hand as he comes up. He hit a two-run homer in the first inning. Here he hits a rocket down the right-field line, foul.
“It will be interesting to note the duel between Shantz and Rocky Nelson,” Prince says, “for Nelson has a greater lifetime average against left-hand pitching than he does against right-hand pitching. He says it’s because he waits longer on the left-hander and can pull him a little better on occasion.”
Well, that’s interesting. Casey Stengel, sitting in the Yankees dugout, is the master of the platoon, but I had not expected to hear the TV announcer of the 1960 World Series talk about a guy’s platoon splits. And what a counterintuitive story Prince tells, the lefty-swinging Nelson hitting lefties better than he hits righties. Could this be?
Unlike a viewer in 1960, I have the Internet and can answer that question while Nelson waits for Shantz’s next pitch.
The short answer: Nelson did not hit left-handed pitching better than he hit right-handed pitching. In his regular-season career to that moment, Nelson’s batting average against righties was .266. Against lefties: .214. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t hit lefties better than righties. He hit lefties so little he rarely faced them. Nelson had 1,409 plate appearances in the big leagues to that point in his career, and 84 of them had come against left-handed pitching. That’s 6 percent. By way of comparison, Yogi Berra, a left-handed hitter who hit lefties pretty well, faced a left-hander in about 28 percent of his big-league at-bats.
So Nelson was no lefty-killer, but maybe Prince was just talking about 1960. Sure enough, Nelson had a better batting average against lefties than against righties in 1960, .368 to .293.
But he achieved that .368 average in 19 at-bats! He was 7-for-19 with a double. If two of his singles had been turned into an out — a bad hop here, an at’em ball there — he’d have hit .263 against lefties and Prince would have had nothing to talk about. Instead Prince is passing on Nelson’s pontifications about what makes him such a good lefty-on-lefty hitter because of his flukey success in 19 at-bats toward the end of a career in which he hit .188 against left-handed pitching. The next year, his last, Nelson, all waiting longer on the lefties and pulling them and everything, went 0-for-10 against them.
See, kids, this is how it used to be. Before the Internet, before Bill James, TV announcers and newspaper reporters — and ballplayers and managers — would say stuff like this, and we’d just have to take their words for it. Now, we can fact check their asses. It might take 50 years, but we can figure out the truth.
Nelson, ducking out of the way of sweeping curve after sweeping curve, works Shantz for a walk. Of course he does, because after all that you knew he wasn’t going to make an out.
Clemente comes up. Prince, the Pirates announcer, does a funny thing. He pronounces his name close to correctly — “Clementay” — and then quickly corrects himself to an anglicized pronunciation: “Clumenty.” The right fielder hits a slow grounder to Bobby Richardson, who starts a nifty 4-6-3 double play, Tony Kubek making the relay. Clemente, who is fast, is out by a step and the third inning is over, the Pirates leading 4-0. Are the Yankees really going to go down this quietly?
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Hector Lopez WBC photo by Reuters. Used without permission. Will remove on request.
Mickey Mantle leads off the second for the Yankees. Was he just trying to drag a bunt there? You’ve got to be kidding me. The Pittsburgh fans think it should have been a strike but it’s a ball.
Mantle is a 28-year-old 10-year veteran with 320 home runs. I’m trying to picture someone like him today trying a drag bunt in the seventh game of the World Series, down 2-0 in the second inning. Of course there isn’t anyone like him today, not really. Most other days either.
The only active players who are among Mantle’s top 10 most similar players through age 28 are Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones. Now, Andruw Jones at 28 was a very different Andruw Jones than the marginal big leaguer he’s been for the last four years. His age-28 season was 2005, the year he hit 51 home runs. It also happened to be the last year he played in the postseason. I can’t remember him ever trying to bunt his way on, which doesn’t mean he didn’t. He did have a sacrifice bunt in the 1999 NLCS.
Pujols put down a sacrifice bunt in an interleague game against the White Sox on June 16, 2001. It was the 67th game of his career. He’s played in 1,555 games since then, including postseason and All-Star Games, and we’re still waiting for sacrifice number 2.
Ken Griffey Jr., recently retired, is also in Mantle’s top 10 most similar through age 28. He actually was sort of like Mantle, a power-speed center fielder, and he did bunt occasionally, so maybe it’s not so strange to see Mantle try to bunt. The Mick had one or two sacrifices most years up to this point, 13 total, but he’d only have one more, in ’61, and he never sacrificed in the World Series. But he knew how to bunt, and of course he was very fast.
Even though I know he was fast, I think of him more as a slugger than as a fast guy because he hit all those homers and he was so famous for hitting them so far. And, largely a product of the era he played in, for all his speed he didn’t steal that many bases. He swiped 138 in his career, which at the time was a lot. He was in the top 10 in the American League in steals seven times and the top five three times, even though his career high was only 21. He also stole at an 80 percent clip. But still, when I think Mantle, I don’t think of a guy who’d try to drag bunt his way on. This may have a lot more to do with my ignorance of Mantle than with anything else.
Mantle gets back in there. It always strikes me, watching old games, how casual the batters look. Here’s Mantle, an all-time great slugger, with that prodigious strength, and he just sort of stands there, waves the bat, waits for the pitch. It’s such a contrast to someone like Pujols, who looks like 230 pounds of coiled spring as he waits.
I wonder what they would have made of Gary Sheffield if he’d showed up in 1960, menacingly twitching his bat in that way he did. Today’s hitters are all pigeon-toed and twisted, crouched and curled. They know what they’re doing. It’s the state of the art. It’s just funny to see these old-timers walk up there, settle in, calmly set themselves.
Mantle flies out to Bill Virdon in right center and here comes Yogi Berra, swinging two bats as he steps into the batter’s box. He’s actually swinging two sticks as he stands there and shares a laugh with the Pirates catcher, Smoky Burgess. He peels one off and hands it to, I guess, the bat boy, out of frame. There’s another thing you don’t see anymore, a guy carrying two bats to home plate. In fact, you never see guys swinging two bats in the on-deck circle. They swing one weighted bat, or some weighted bat-like object. Lead pipes were popular for a while. I used to swing two bats at a time as a kid. Fat lot of good it did me.
Smoky Burgess is a familiar name to me, so much one of those old baseball names that I’m a little surprised to see him here in 1960, so recent. Offhand I would have thought he was a 1920s guy, and that’s without even confusing him with Smoky Joe Wood, who was actually a teens guy. I quick trio to the BR Bullpen reminds me why I know Burgess: He’s the guy who held the record for pinch hits that, for a good stretch of my youth, Manny Mota, the Dodgers’ pinch-hitting specialist, was chasing. Mota eventually broke Burgess’ record of 145 career pinch hits in 1979.
Lenny Harris broke Mota’s record and ended up with 212, which is a record that will probably never be broken because with teams carrying so many pitchers, nobody can afford to carry a pinch-hitting specialist anymore. The active leader in pinch hits is Matt Stairs, who’s about to turn 43. He has 99.
Berra has that same slightly closed left-handed stance Mantle has, bent slightly at the waist, leaning over the plate. I’ve seen both of them play in a rebroadcast game before, the Don Larsen perfect game, but one difference between that broadcast and this one is the main camera. In 1956, most of the action was viewed from behind home plate and up, a press-box view. In this game, the main camera is the same center field view that’s used today. So you get a little better peak at the hitters’ stances, though you get less of a sense of how much Berra moved around before he swung. He’d literally walk around in the box as he started his swing.
He swings at a bad one here, down and away, and hits a bouncer to the left side. Pirates third baseman Don Hoak scrambles to his left, smothers it awkwardly on his hands and knees, springs to his feet and fires to first to get the slow-footed Berra. It’s a nice play. I instinctively wait for the three replays, and of course they don’t come.
“Here’s the Moose,” Bob Prince says, not mentioning Benito Mussolini, whom Bill Skowron’s boyhood friends named him after. Hey, same batting stance as Mantle and Berra, only from the right side. Skowron yanks his head out, toward the third base dugout, as he swings. He hits a low-and-away pitch foul to the right, and I have no idea how he reached it. Skowron was one of the 10 best hitters in the American League in 1960 by OPS, OPS-plus and offensive WAR, but it looks like he has no chance up there. He grounds out to shortstop Dick Groat on an easy play.
Burgess leads off the bottom of the second and Prince says he’s “known to his teammates as ‘the little round man.'” People complain about the deterioration of baseball nicknames, how colorful monikers like “The Dominican Dandy” and “Old Aches and Pains” have been replaced by unimaginative coinages of the A-Rod, K-Rod, Juan-Gone variety. But so far in this one we’ve got a guy named for a dictator and “the little round man.” Not too impressive.
Then again, “the little round man” is a nickname for a guy named Smoky, whose real name was Forrest. Why would a guy named Smoky need another nickname? Did his teammates say, “Smoky just sounds so formal. Why don’t we call him ‘little round man.'” And how did that work? Did they actually walk up to him and say, “Hey, little round man, can I have some of your sunflower seeds?”
The little round man, who has a similar stance to Mantle and Berra, only slightly open instead of slightly closed, whacks one inside first and down the line. Roger Maris makes a nice play to field the ball in Forbes Field’s very short corner — 300 feet down the line — and holds Burgess to a single.
Prince describes Maris fielding the ball “brilliantly” and says, “Ladies and gentleman, that’s all great credit to Roger Maris. Normally, that’s a double.” But Burgess played five and a half years in Pittsburgh and I’d bet folding money he never had a double on a ball like that. A fast runner would have had to bust it to make second. Burgess had no chance, even if Maris had been a lot more leisurely. This was Prince’s home field. Did he really think a slow-footed catcher would routinely get to second on a sharply hit ball into the corner 300 feet from home plate?
Casey Stengel’s headed to the mound, lineup card in hand, and he and Bob Turley talk to each other without looking at each other. Stengel’s seen enough, though, and he summons Bill Stafford from the bullpen. Stafford’s one of the boys who was warming up in the top of the first, and as he walks in — we haven’t reached the brief era of the “bullpen car” yet — Prince asks Yankees announcer Mel Allen to talk about him.
He’s 22 and was brought up from Richmond late in the year when the Yankees staff was struggling, Allen says. He mentions Stafford’s 3-1 record, mostly as a starter, but not his fine 2.25 ERA in 60 innings. Stafford would win 14 games each of the next two years. He would eventually be sent to Kansas City, that graveyard for unwanted Yankees, in a deal that also included Roger Repoz, who I mention just to mention. Repoz was an Athletic only briefly before moving on to the Angels, where he would be one of the first ballplayers I knew about.
Stafford faces the crouching Don Hoak, author of that scrambly play on Berra’s ball in the top of the inning. Stafford’s wild, throwing three straight balls and looking annoyed with himself. The fourth one misses, but it looks like not by much. Hard to tell as we were on the upstairs, behind the plate camera for that one. Two on, nobody out, Pirates up 2-0, and Casey looking worried on the top step. Bobby Shantz and Ralph Terry are working furiously in the bullpen as Bill Mazeroski steps up.
Remember that name, not to give anything away.
Maz bunts Stafford’s first pitch in the air down the first base line. It lands fair but Stafford and Clete Boyer let it roll foul. Prince praises their “very smart execution” but doesn’t mention whether Mazeroski should have perhaps taken a strike instead of bunting at the first pitch, given that Stafford, a 22-year-old rookie, had just come into the game and walked the first hitter on four pitches.
Maz bunts again on the next pitch, this time a bouncer down the third base line. It looks to me like it’s going to go foul again, the last bounce much closer to the line than the second to last, the ball looking like it’s got some serious english on it. But Stafford has pounced off the mound sharply and he cuts in front of Boyer, makes a barehand pickup just before the ball bounces onto the dirt and, falling backward across the foul line, throws to first. Safe! The bases are loaded with nobody out. “And Casey’s beside himself,” Prince says. Maybe he thought that ball was going foul too.
Stengel charges out of the dugout. He’d been booed last time he emerged and he’s booed again. He gives Stafford a lecture, looking right up into his face this time and resting his index finger on Stafford’s chest as he speaks.
Vern Law is the hitter. For a pitcher, he’s no slouch with the bat, a lifetime .195 hitter with eight home runs at this point, and he’d had 17 hits that season, a career high to that point. He takes one, misses one, fouls one on a check swing. Virdon waits in the on-deck circle — on one knee, with two bats. Law hits a comebacker. Stafford jumps to spear the one-hopper and start a 1-2-3 double play. The crowd is silent.
Prince had just mentioned that the Pirates hadn’t had many chances to KO the Yankees in one shot in the Series, and now the double play had put a big damper on this chance. But Virdon could still make it a 4-0 game with a hit. Virdon fouls one off to the right, another to the left. Stafford works from a windup. The 0-2 pitch is inside, and then Virdon lofts a soft liner toward right center. Maris charges but has to play it on a short hop, which he bobbles. Two runs score and Virdon slides into second. Hit and an error.
MLB Network shows Virdon, in the theater in Pittsburgh watching the game in 2010, smiling and shrugging. Back in 1960, Groat grounds out to Boyer on a check-swing grounder to end the inning, but the damage is done.
“We were up 4-0 and it felt pretty good,” Mazeroski says in a contemporary interview, “but by a long shot it didn’t feel like we had won this game yet. There was still a lot of game left to play, and, you know, you’re never comfortable with any lead. I don’t care if it’s a 15-0 lead. You’re never comfortable with that many innings to go.”
I don’t know, Maz. Four to nothing after two with the Deacon on the mound? I like your chances.
I’m live blogging the recent rebroadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series on the MLB Network. Except it’s not live. I recorded the game and I’m watching it at my leisure several weeks after the broadcast. It might take me a few weeks to watch it.
And I’m pausing it a lot to write. And rewinding. And at least at the beginning, I’m ignoring the part with Bob Costas and some of the players from the ’60 Series — and Franco Harris and Michael Keaton, natch — at a theater in Pittsburgh, watching a tape of the game.
But this is definitely a blog. Oh look, it’s starting.
What a weird pregame show. It’s just Mel Allen giving the batting orders Where’s Jeanne Zelasko waxing poetic? Where are the movie tie-ins?
The starting pitchers appear to be warming up in front of the dugouts, not in the bullpens.
Bob Prince, the Pirates’ announcer, is doing the play by play at the start. I remember him from my childhood. I didn’t hear him a lot, of course, in those prehistoric non-Internet days, but the Pirates were a powerhouse then, and it was still a tradition for postseason teams’ announcers to appear on the national TV broadcasts during the playoffs, so I got to hear him once in a while on NBC. I’d be lying if I said his voice was familiar, but I was always conscious of him because my best friend was named Robbie Prince, and Robbie’s dad was Bob Prince.
Mr. Prince was an exterminator, and since we lived on the Westside of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air were in his orbit, so he was, at least part of the time, an exterminator to the stars.
The Princes were from rural Texas, and whenever the relatives came to visit, which they did a lot, we’d all pile into the Princes’ gigantic maroon — I want to say it was a Chrysler New Yorker but it was some kind of land shark with black seats and the permanent smell of cigarettes, and there’d be the four Princes, me and however many relatives, up to about four adults, all piled in — we’d all get in there and Mr. Prince would drive us over to Beverly Hills and Bel-Air and point out the houses he worked at or the ones he just knew. Lucille Ball’s house, Bob Hope’s. Buddy Ebsen.
It was fun except that Mr. Prince had a strange way of driving. He wouldn’t keep his foot steady on the gas. He’d gun it and coast, gun it and coast. People like to joke about how those old ’60s family sedans were like big boats, but we’d actually start to get seasick driving around on flat, straight streets. Robbie and I, all tangled up in Texas Prince knees and elbows in the backseat, couldn’t look at each other or we’d burst out laughing, which might make us throw up.
This driving issue was about the only negative thing about Mr. Prince. He would call you “boy,” only it sounded like this: “bwah.” And when he’d get really worked up during a game and start talking about Jethro Pugh, fearsome defensive lineman for his beloved Dallas Cowboys, he was an orator of the first rank. You might not know that the Cowboys signed Jethro Pugh when they saw him catching polecats with his fists and eating them alive on the spot, but I learned it.
Anyway, I always had a soft spot for Bob Prince of the Pirates because of that.
In the top of the first inning, we see Bill Stafford and Bobby Shantz of the Yankees warming up in the bullpen as the Yankees bat, though Bob Turley is the starting pitcher. “This alerts you to the possibility of a lot of thinking on the part of Mr. Stengel. They go for broke today,” Prince says. “Turley will start, but Shantz and Stafford will be ready.”
I have long wondered why teams don’t do this routinely in elimination games. It’s one game for all the marbles, and if your starter doesn’t have it, that might be evident right from the start. But without anybody warm, you might have to suffer through three or four more batters before a reliever’s ready. It could be the difference between being down 1-0 and 5-0. I suppose it might offend the sensibilities of the starter to have someone warming up before he’s even thrown his first pitch. What, you don’t have faith in me, Skip?
I have faith in you, I’d say. I also have two guys warming up in the bullpen, you feel me?
As Roger Maris bats with two outs and nobody on, Mickey Mantle sits on one knee in the on-deck circle. It’s a classic pose, but nobody does that anymore. Everybody stands up and swings a bat or a weighted bat. Players used to sit on one knee all the time. Wonder where that went.
Yogi Berra’s in left field, of course. He’s a part of this game’s famous climax, watching Bill Mazeroski’s home run go over his head. Elston Howard had taken over the catcher’s job from Berra that year, starting 80 games behind the plate to Berra’s 53, with Berra starting another 33 games in the outfield. Howard was out of this game, having broken his finger the day before, but instead of putting Berra behind the plate, Stengel went with Johnny Blanchard.
Can you imagine a team carrying three catchers on its World Series roster today, even if one of them habitually played the outfield? With teams carrying 12 or 13 pitchers, there’s barely room for two catchers. The Yankees, like the Pirates, had a 10-man pitching staff in this World Series.
Stengel evidently wanted Blanchard’s left-handed bat in the lineup against the righty Vern Law. His outfield options if Berra caught were right-handed: Hector Lopez and Bob Cerv, two men who had come off the Yankee shuttle from the Kansas City A’s and, together with Berra, manned left field that year. Lopez and Cerv had hit pretty well, better than Blanchard. But Stengel went with the platoon advantage.
Prince says that “the Yankees have another catcher available to them if they’d like to use him, Dale Long. I don’t know if he has his left-handed catchers’ mitt with him, though.” It sounds like a joke, but Long, a power-hitting, left-handed first baseman, did catch in two games, a total of an inning and two-thirds, for the Chicago Cubs in 1958. He was the first left-handed thrower to catch in the major leagues since Jiggs Donahue in 1902, which I mention only so I could type the name Jiggs Donahue. It wouldn’t happen again until 1980, and now it hasn’t happened since 1989, according to the Hardball Times.
A two-out walk to Bob Skinner and the game has its first base runner. Skinner is very tall, listed at 6-4. We see him held at first by Moose Skowron, who looks like an ordinary-sized man. He’s listed at 5-11, 195.
Now, at this point, I thought I had a story about Moose Skowron but I don’t. It’s a story, and it’s a story about a guy named Moose, but it’s not about Moose Skowron.
I was on the field doing interviews during batting practice before an A’s-Angels game in Oakland in the late ’80s. I worked for KALX, the radio station at Cal, and it was a thing there to get famous people, any famous people we came across in all walks of life, to do station ID’s for us. You know, to say, “This is Joe Celebrity, and whenever I’m in Berkeley I listen to 90.7 FM, KALX Berkeley.” If I recall, if we could get them to say “KALX” and “Berkeley” in a row, we could use it as a legal ID at the top of each hour.
One guy had gotten a jailhouse interview with Charles Manson and he got Manson to do an ID. “Hey, it’s your weird old Uncle Charlie,” Manson had begun. I think it ran once, but people were offended so it got yanked. Spalding Gray did one in which he said that he was sitting in the studio in Berkeley, “a loving city, the only city in the world where people put up flyers that say, ‘Kitten found.'”
So I’m there with my tape recorder and I see a rumpled guy come out of the Angels dugout wearing brown slacks and kind of a loud shirt, chomping on a cigar and carrying a briefcase. He looked like a hustling insurance salesman. No, he looked like a guy playing a hustling insurance salesman in an episode of “The Rockford Files.” It was Joe Torre, then a broadcaster for the Angels.
I stopped him and asked him if he’d do a station ID for us and he said sure. He couldn’t have been nicer. Just a friendly guy. I explained what I needed and he grabbed the microphone and said, “Hi, this is Joe Torre, National League MVP, 1971, and when I’m in Berkeley …” I thought, nice guy, but what a cheeseball. I felt a little bad for him. Failed manager, still talking about his MVP from almost 20 years earlier. Like winning an MVP would get old. I was young and stupid. He ended up doing OK for himself, I hear.
Right after that a big moose of a guy comes lumbering out of the Angeles dugout. This is the moose part of the story. He’s older, a coach. I say to myself, “Who’s that moose?” He walks by me and I see the name on his back: Stubing. It was Moose Stubing, a big moose of a guy who used to be a coach for the Angels. Sometimes, a nickname just fits.
I was thinking it was Moose Skowron, who I had mixed up with Moose Stubing. Their nickname is where the resemblance ends. Stubing had a cup of coffee while Skowron was a fine player for many years. Also, Skowron was no moose. He got the nickname as a kid because his pals thought his haircut made him look like Mussolini. I think I’d have insisted, at some point, that people just call me Bill, wouldn’t you?
Rocky Nelson, the Pirates cleanup hitter, who had a career year at the age of 35 that year, hitting .300 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs, but somehow ending up as the cleanup hitter in a World Series Game 7, has an odd batting stance, which Prince talks about. Nelson, a left-handed swinger, stands almost like a fencer, with his front foot pointed toward the pitcher. Prince says he adopted the stance to learn how to pull the ball.
Maybe that was the mystery transformation in 1953 that this article about Nelson in, again, the Hardball Times refers to, when he suddenly became a power hitter. In any event, what a story this guy was. He’d played in parts of eight seasons between 1949 and 1960, for the Cardinals, Pirates, White Sox, Dodgers, Indians, Dodgers again, Cardinals again and Pirates again. He’d never appeared in 100 games and had only twice put up a league-average OPS. And here he was hitting cleanup in the seventh game of the World Series.
Not to give anything away but he’s going to be involved in one of this incredibly famous game’s most famous plays much later, but for now, it’s 2-and-0. Turley drops a nasty curveball on the inside corner. Nelson has a long look and then another at home plate umpire Bill Jackowski — “from North Walpole, New Hampshire,” Prince says. He tosses his bat up and catches it, shakes his head and climbs back in.
“There’s a drive, deep right field, way back she goes aaaaand you can kiss that one goodbye!” Nelson sprints around the bases and gets handshakes and pats on the back in the dugout. Slapping five was almost a decade away, high fiving almost 20 years in the future. The home run brings Casey Stengel to the top step of the Yankees dugout. “Right there,” Prince says as Stengel’s Number 37 is centered on the screen.
Roberto Clemente, looking impossibly young and skinny, though at 26 he’s hardly a child, steps directly toward the third base dugout and checks his swing as Turley’s first pitch, a rainbow curve, drops over the middle of the plate. Clemente was an awful lot of fun to watch. Turley, the 1958 Cy Young winner, looks like he’s aiming slop balls up there.
Whenever I watch games from the old days, I’m struck by how the pitchers look like they’re working in a 50-and-older league, flipping up all manner of here-hit-this pitches without appearing to break a sweat. Anybody who wonders why pitchers used to routinely throw complete games and almost never do anymore need only watch one game from the black-and-white-TV era to find the answer. The contrast to today’s max-effort pitchers, with their electric stuff zipping toward the plate, is startling.
Why teams didn’t score 30 runs a game off these guys is a mystery to me, though. Well, it could have had something to do with the hitters swinging 42-ounce tree trunks, I suppose.
Clemente pops out to Bobby Richardson to end the first inning. Pirates 2, Yankees 0. I think that should hold up behind Vern Law, don’t you?
* * *
The wife just asked what I was doing. I laughed and said, “You’re going to say I’m crazy.” I explained the story of the 1960 World Series Game 7 and how MLB had rebroadcast it, and I told her I was watching it and writing about it. “Oh, that’s good,” she said.
“So I’ve written 2,400 words,” I said.
“And I’ve just watched the first inning.”
“Are you on speed? Are you doing meth?”
“I told you you’d say I was crazy.”
“I didn’t say you’re crazy. I said you’re on drugs.”
A Facebook friend asked, in light of last week’s post headlined “For the want of league average, greatness was missed,” what the signing of Cliff Lee means to the Phillies. That is, “I would be interested to see if the numbers project them as a rotation for the ages,” he wrote.
Well, I think yeah. The numbers clearly project them as a rotation for the ages. Whether they’ll be one, who knows. Joe Posnanski talked to Bill James about that question. Jayson Stark huddled with Leo Mazzone and Davey Johnson and compared expectations of the 2011 Phillies staff to the greatest rotations since World War II.
Go read them if you want to read something smart about the 2011 Phillies starting rotation.
But what I wondered — and what I thought my Facebook friend asked on first reading his question — is whether adding Lee to the 2010 Phillies rotation would have made it one for the ages.
You’ll recall that, with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and half a season of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies’ rotation was quite good, a close third in the National League by ERA. The problem was the rest of the starting staff: Kyle Kendrick, Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer, all of whom pitched poorly, plus a few decent spot starts from J.A. Happ, Vance Worley and Nelson Figueroa.
Replacing Kendrick, Blanton and Moyer’s 78 starts with league-average pitching would have dropped the Phillies starters’ combined ERA from 3.55 to 3.22, which would have been the lowest in the N.L. since the already legendary 1998 Atlanta Braves starters put up a 3.06. But what if we just replaced one of those guys with Cliff Lee? Would that be enough? How does adding one great pitcher to a staff that’s half elite and half poor compare to replacing the poor half with average pitchers?
Kyle Kendrick would have been the odd man out if Lee had signed with the Phillies before 2010, so what happens if we replace his 177 and two-thirds innings and 4.81 ERA in his 31 starts with Cliff Lee?
But what numbers do we use for Cliff Lee? We can use his actual 2010 numbers with Seattle and Texas. He made three fewer starts than Kendrick but tossed 34 and two thirds more innings, thanks to his astonishing average of 7.58 innings per start. We can add three starts of similar pitching to Lee’s total to match Kendrick’s 31 starts. That would bring him up from 212.1 to 235 innings. Either way, because the difference is so small, substituting Lee’s numbers for Kendrick’s we’re left with an ERA of 3.26 for the Phillies starters.
That’s for the ages, all right, also the best since the ’98 Braves, but not as good as the 3.22 we came up with by using all league-average starters in place of the three Phillies’ non-aces.
Adjusting for the American League’s higher run-scoring environment wouldn’t change much because the A.L. didn’t score that much more than the N.L. this year. The N.L. ERA of 4.02 was 97 percent of the A.L.’s 4.14. For starting pitchers the N.L. ERA of 4.07 was 95 percent of the A.L.’s 4.27. Using either multiplier to take a few earned runs away from Lee, we get the Phillies starters’ ERA down to 3.23.
What about adjusting for ballpark? Lee made six home starts in Seattle, where Safeco Field is a pretty extreme pitcher’s park, and seven home starts in Texas, where the Ballpark is favorable to hitters, though not to the same extreme. Despite its reputation and early history as a hitter’s haven, Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia has played as roughly neutral the last few years, according to both Baseball-Reference.com and “The Bill James Handbook.”
Happily for me, because I wouldn’t be able to figure it out anyway, it doesn’t look like there’s any way transferring Lee’s 2010 numbers from Seattle and Texas to Philadelphia would lower his ERA by much because of park factors.
Maybe we should look at the ever-so-brief time when Lee actually pitched in Philadelphia, in the second half of 2009. He started 12 games and had an ERA of 3.18 in 79 and two-thirds innings. If we take those same numbers and extrapolate them out to Kendrick’s 31 starts, we’d have a Phillies starting ERA of 3.30.
Well, listen, it looks like any way I know how to slice it — which, let’s be clear, probably leaves out a lot of really smart ways of slicing it — replacing Kyle Kendrick with Cliff Lee would have had pretty much the same effect on the starting rotation’s ERA as replacing Kendrick, Blanton and Moyer’s starts with league-average performance.
That’s interesting, isn’t it?
But what about cost? Lee is awfully expensive. Which costs more, picking up an elite player to go with two poor ones or replacing three poor ones with average players? That’s an easy one to answer. I don’t know.
But we can compare the actual guys we’re talking about. Lee’s new contract will reportedly pay him an average of $24 million a year, so let’s use that figure. With Lee as a starter for the 2010 Phillies — making his 2011 salary — the other full-season starter would have been Blanton, with Moyer probably filling a spot for half the year till the Oswalt trade.
Cot’s Contracts says Blanton signed a three-year, $24 million deal before the 2010 season, with annual salaries of $1 million in 2010, then two years of $8.5 million, plus a $6 million signing bonus. I’d call that $7 million for 2010. Moyer made $8 million, various online resources tell us.
So Lee, Blanton and Moyer would cost $39 million in our imaginary world, $35 million if we could jettison Moyer and his contract upon getting Oswalt.
The four starting pitchers who straddled league average ERA in the N.L. this year were Bronson Arroyo and Derek Lowe below it — that is, better than average — and Barry Zito and Randy Wolf above, all veteran guys, meaning they’re expensive. Zito’s got a ridiculous contract, so let’s use the other three as our league average guys to replace Blanton, Moyer and Kendrick. Arroyo made $11 million in 2010, Wolf $9.25 million and Lowe $15 million. The three of them cost $34.25 million together.
We only need two and a half of them, so if we could get away with only paying half to one of them our total would be somewhere between $27.8 million and $30.6 million. Less, but not a lot less, than the $35-$39 million we’d have paid for Lee, Blanton and half a year of Moyer.
Close enough that I’d rather have Lee, even if the overall ERA is going to be similar. Having four elite starters would come in pretty damn handy in the postseason.
I realize this is some whack cipherin’ I’m doing here. I have no idea, really, how adding Cliff Lee to the 2010 Phillies would have affected that staff. And there are all sorts of ways to get both poor pitching and league average pitching a lot cheaper than by paying Blanton, Moyer, Arroyo, Wolf and Lowe to do it — the next two ERAs above Wolf’s, for example, belonged to Jonathan Niese and Randy Wells, neither of whom made $430,000
But it’s fun to think about, and I do think that while I certainly haven’t proved anything, it’s a reasonable assertion that replacing one poor pitcher with an elite pitcher like Cliff Lee has about the same effect on a staff’s overall performance as replacing three poor pitchers with league-average performers. I’d love to see someone who can really make a spreadsheet sing study that.
What I think that person would find: Those league-average guys, they’re pretty good.
The really fun thing about poking around in baseball numbers is the same as the really fun thing about watching baseball. If you do it enough, then no matter how long you’ve been doing it you still see things all the time that you’ve never seen before. You still get surprised.
Or, as Bill Cosby used to say at the beginning of “Fat Albert”: If you’re not careful, you might learn something.
When I was poking around recently looking for illuminating factoids to hold up my side of a learned confab about the value of league average players, which I wrote about here and here, the most surprising thing I found wasn’t about league-average players, it was about replacement-level players.
I’m not going to tell you that they’re “pretty good” too, but they’re better than I thought. I bet they’re better than you thought.
Replacement level is a mathematical construct that represents a baseline against which all players can be compared. It’s the level of play expected from the least valuable players who are still good enough to play in the majors.
So, to put it another way, if you had a team full of replacement-level players, you would have a contender for the worst team of all time. Baseball history tells us that the very worst teams of major leaguers are going to win just under 50 games. Occasionally teams actually win even fewer. In the last half century the 1962 Mets won 40 and the 2003 Tigers won 43, but those totals probably included some bad luck. Their Pythagorean winning percentages — what they figured to have won and lost based on how many runs they scored and allowed — had the Mets winning 50 games and the Tigers 49.
A good way to think about it is that replacement level is what’s expected from a player who can be acquired at little or no cost: called up from Triple-A, plucked off the waiver wire, picked up in a trade for a player to be named later, that sort of thing. It describes the bottom layer of players who are good enough to play in the big leagues. But there isn’t some clear demarcation line between big leaguers and minor leaguers. At any time there are plenty of guys at Triple-A who are just as good as many big leaguers. The circumstances just haven’t broken right for them to be in the majors at the moment.
But just because replacement level is the lowest level of play teams can expect from a big league player, that doesn’t mean they’ll get it. There are always some guys who perform below replacement level. Their Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is a negative number.
That can happen for a number of reasons. A guy who’s shown himself to be capable of perfectly good play has an extended slump or a down year. A rookie who was thought to be ready isn’t. A veteran who was thought to have something left in the tank doesn’t. A marginal player, a replacement-level guy, who has a string of bad luck — an unusual number of hard-hit balls right at people, let’s say — will end up below replacement level, even if his actual talent level is still the same.
Consider the Giants starting rotation, which we’ve been talking about around here lately. The Giants’ signed Todd Wellemeyer in the offseason for $1 million. Fangraphs does the math every year and figured out that this year teams paid, on average, about $4 million to free agents for each marginal win, or win above replacement. The minimum salary is $400,000. So the Giants were expecting Wellemeyer to be a little bit, a very little bit, better than replacement level.
He’d been 2.3 wins below replacement in 2009 with the Cardinals, using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, but he’d been a 2.3-win player in 2008 and the Giants were hoping for a rebound.
They didn’t get it. Through June 10 Wellemeyer made 11 starts and a relief appearance and had an ERA of 5.52. He struck out 6.3 batters per nine innings, but he also walked 5.4 and gave up 1.8 home runs, both staggering figures. He was a half a win below replacement, which is kind of an accomplishment in only a little over a third of the season. WAR is a counting stat, and by the end of the season only seven National League pitchers had accumulated -1.5 WAR or worse.
Wellemeyer went on the disabled list for two months with a quad injury, made one relief appearance in August and was released.
In 2008 the Giants had a guy whose first 11 starts were almost identical to Wellemeyer’s in 2010. He had an ERA of 5.53. He was barely striking out five batters per nine innings, and walking as many as he struck out. But he didn’t go on the disabled list or get released. He made 21 more starts. At the end of the year his ERA was 5.15, and he’d been 0.6 wins below replacement. That’s because his name was Barry Zito, he’d been a good pitcher for half a decade in Oakland and he was a year and a half into a seven-year, $126 million contract.
The Giants also got negative WAR numbers this year from Bengie Molina, who was washed up but keeping the chair warm for Buster Posey; from Ryan Rohlinger, a journeyman minor leaguer who was forced into 18 plate appearances worth of duty by injuries; from Mark DeRosa, who tried unsuccessfully to play through a wrist injury. There are a lot of ways a guy can get to a sub-replacement performance.
But here’s the thing I found that really surprised me, as I finally roll around to the point of this sub-replacement-level blog post. I’ve always thought of replacement level as basically the bottom of the major leagues, the worst you can play and still be a big leaguer. I think if you’d asked me I’d have acknowledged that it’s actually the worst you can be expected to play and still be in the big leagues, and that there’s a difference between that and the worst level at which some players actually play.
What I didn’t realize was how big a difference. Because there is a lot of sub-replacement play in the big leagues.
In the major leagues in 2010, 24.5 percent of all innings were thrown by pitchers who ended the season with a negative WAR. Almost one out of every four innings. More than two innings of every game, on average, were tossed by sub-replacement-level pitchers. Every team had at least 100 innings thrown by sub-replacement guys, and if you throw out the Twins’ 103, every team had at least 140 innings. Only the Giants, Twins and Rockies averaged fewer than one of every nine innings thrown by sub-replacement pitchers.
The Diamondbacks got 816 and a third innings from pitchers who were below replacement level for the year. That’s more than half.
Meanwhile, sub-replacement hitters accounted for 18.4 percent of all plate appearances not made by pitchers. Almost one in five times a guy walked to the plate in the majors this year, he was a guy who would end the season with a negative WAR. That’s about seven plate appearances per team per game, and remember we’re not talking about pitchers hitting.
In 2009 the numbers were almost exactly the same: 18.5 percent of all plate appearances and 25.2 percent of all innings were by sub-replacement players, guys who ended the year with a negative WAR.
So it’s misleading to think of a replacement-level player as the bottom of the league, because a whole big pile of players isn’t even that good. Almost a quarter of the league does not play as well as the guy who is supposedly “freely available.”
I didn’t know that. I wasn’t careful. I learned something.
I tend to follow up a reasoned debate like the one that inspired me to write about the value of league average performance by diving into stats to find facts to back up my view. And if I find them, I obnoxiously pepper my interlocutor with them via e-mail.
This time, searching for ways to get across the idea that league-average performance is pretty damn good, I stumbled across something that I think illustrates the point beautifully.
Before I get to that, I want to make clear that this league-average is pretty good business is nothing like an original thought of mine. It’s sabermetric gospel. As Jay Jaffe pointed out on Twitter, it’s fundamental Bill James observation #2. In the 1988 “Baseball Abstract,” James wrote: “Talent in baseball is not normally distributed. It is a pyramid. For every player who is 10 percent above the average player, there are probably twenty players who are 10 percent below average.” I don’t think you can really understand roster construction without understanding this point, and a whole lot of people understand roster construction just fine.
But a lot don’t, even among some pretty hardcore baseball fans — and writers.
So I decided to look at the pitching of the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants, the National League’s best regular-season team and its champion, both of which had very good starting pitching. One of the things that got me thinking about these two teams was a line in a national story about the Giants late in the season that mentioned them having “the best rotation this side of Philadelphia.”
As a Giants fan, this struck me as odd because there’s no way I would have traded the Giants’ five-deep rotation for the Phillies’ three stars and pray for rain. At the time, the Giants’ worst pitcher was Barry Zito, who had been struggling since early August after pitching well for the first four months of the season.
And this is where I’ll tell you that the league-average guy my friends and I were arguing about was Barry Zito. Except for his terrible 2008, when his ERA ballooned to 5.15, and he really was legitimately that bad, Zito has been a roughly league-average pitcher for his four years in San Francisco.
In 2007, the National League ERA was 4.44, but for starting pitchers it was 4.64. Zito’s was 4.53. In 2009, N.L. starters had a 4.30 ERA, the league ERA was 4.20 and Zito’s was 4.03. This year, Zito’s 4.15 ERA was a bit higher than the league ERA of 4.03. Starting pitchers’ ERA was unusually close to the overall figure, 4.05.
The problem is, Zito is a terrible guy to use to illustrate the idea that league average is pretty good because Zito makes a ridiculous $18 million a year on a seven-year contract. Of course he’s a terrible disappointment. He hasn’t lived up to that deal, but then, almost no one could have. It would have been an insane deal even if Zito were a better pitcher than he’s ever been.
Also, Zito got to a little worse than league average in 2010 by pitching beautifully for four months, then pitching horribly for two. He had a 3.35 ERA through his first 23 starts, and then for the rest of the year, starting Aug. 11, he had a 6.66 in 11 starts and a relief appearance. He was dreadful. Not the best poster boy for “pretty good.”
But you have to count the good four months. Overall, Zito was an important part of a terrific staff. The Giants’ starters combined for an ERA of 3.54, second best in the league behind the Cardinals’ 3.50. The Phillies were right behind the Giants at 3.55. But look how they got there.
The Giants got 34 starts from Jonathan Sanchez, 33 each from Zito, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, 18 from Madison Bumgarner and 11 from Todd Wellemeyer, the only one of the bunch who didn’t pitch well. Here were their ERAs as starters — Zito had the one relief appearance and Wellemeyer had two:
The Phillies got 33 starts each from aces Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and 12 from Roy Oswalt, another elite guy who came over in a midseason trade from Houston. The rest of the starts were Kyle Kendrick 31, Joe Blanton 28, Jamie Moyer 19, J.A. Happ 3, Vance Worley 2 and Nelson Figueroa 1. Their ERAs as Phillies starters:
The Giants got 44 starts from pitchers whose ERA was below the league average of 4.02, although 33 of those were by Zito, who had the lowest below-average ERA in the league. In other words, Zito was the best below-average pitcher in the N.L.
The Phillies, though, got a whopping 78 starts — almost half their season — from Kendrick, Blanton and Moyer, none of whom were as bad as the Giants’ Wellemeyer, but all of whom were well below league average. And the Phillies still almost matched the Giants and were third in the league in starting pitcher ERA.
But look what would happen if you replace that trio’s 464 innings with league average pitching: The Phillies starting ERA would drop to 3.22. There hasn’t been a team anywhere near that figure this century.
And what was standing between the Phillies, with their trio of elite starters, and that historically great rotation? It was the lack of two and a half league-average starters, three for half the season before they got Oswalt, and then two for the second half.
If the Phillies had managed to have, say, Bronson Arroyo, Derek Lowe and Zito, the three pitchers who straddled the league-average ERA, instead of Blanton, Kendrick and Moyer, they’d have had a starting rotation for the ages.
And all the stories about that great rotation — and there would have been a lot of them — would have focused on Halladay, Hamels and the midseason pickup, Oswalt. Arroyo and Co. would have gotten a mention, but they’d be lesser characters, just keeping the mound warm for those two days between Oswalt and Halladay.
But we know better, don’t we? It would have been Arroyo, Lowe and Zito, three league-average guys, who made the group historically great. After all, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt were actually there in 2010, and the Phillies rotation wasn’t great. It was only very good — third best in the league.
With league-average starters the rest of the time, instead of poor but not Wellemeyer-ishly terrible starters, they would have been the best rotation since the mid-’90s Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves.
Some friends and I were having a nice discussion the other day about how good a certain baseball player has been over the last few years, and it gave me occasion to dust off one of my favorite concepts: A league-average player is a pretty good player.
No way, one friend said. League average is average. That’s not good.
The word average is one reason this is such a tough concept to get across, I think. We say something — a restaurant, say, or a TV show — is “average” when we mean it’s not that good, not worth going back to or going out of our way for.
And if I gave you a list of average players in any given league, by whatever measure, sure enough, you wouldn’t be thrilled. Using the blunt instrument measures of ERA for pitchers and OPS for hitters, the closest thing to league-average starting pitchers in 2010 were Derek Lowe and Doug Fister, while your league-average hitters were Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Note that I’m throwing out pitchers hitting, because they’re just a different species.
Lowe, Fister, Rodriguez and Pena are not the kinds of players who sell tickets on their own, at least not the 2010 versions of them.
But just because someone isn’t thrilling doesn’t mean he isn’t valuable. Players who can put up average performance in significant playing time are valuable because they’re pretty rare. As much as league-average guys fail to inspire awe, there aren’t that many of them. An average player is better than most other players in the league.
You need a few elite players to contend for the championship, but if you can plug a league-average guy into a position, you’re not just treading water. You’re ahead of the game at that spot.
Here’s what I mean. Not counting pitchers hitting, there were 645 players who made at least one plate appearance in the majors in 2010. Only 95 of them qualified for the batting title with an OPS at or above the league average for non-pitchers. That’s 16 percent of all position players, but they accounted for 35.4 percent of the non-pitcher plate apearances, 37.2 percent of the hits and 48.8 percent of the home runs.
Those numbers don’t change much if you consider players at their position. Ninety-nine players qualified for the batting title while putting up at least a league average OPS for their position. That is, an American League first baseman putting up a .788 OPS or an N.L. shortstop putting up a .713
The same thing happens with pitchers. Of the 635 men who threw a pitch in the majors in 2010 — including the odd position players who tossed an inning or two — 60 of them qualified for their league’s ERA title with a league-average or better ERA. That’s 9.4 percent of all pitchers, and they accounted for 28.3 percent of all innings pitched.
These guys — able to sustain average or better performance over significant playing time — are hugely valuable. They account for a disproportionate amount of the league’s production. But I hear what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Am I really still reading this?”
Wait, that’s not what you’re saying. You’re saying, “But you’re talking about average and above, Mr. Man. You’re giving average players credit for the production of elite players.”
OK, so let’s remove elite players. Of course, elite is a slippery concept, but I think I’ve got a decent working definition: League average OPS, plus 10 percent. If you do that for each position, you get 50 elite players, about three per league per position.
If you just look at everybody vs. the overall league average, you get 23 American Leaguers who beat the league OPS of 736 by 10 percent and 27 National Leaguers who beat the league OPS of .746 by 10 percent. Remember, we’re throwing out pitchers’ hitting totals in both leagues, though that moves the needle only a bit in the A.L. So that’s 50 elite players. I’m comfortable with a definition of elite that yields 50 position players. You? OK, let’s use that group.
There were 95 hitters at or above league average in 2010. Taking out those 50 elite players, we’re left with 45 who had an average or better OPS, but were not elite.
Those 45 average or better but not elite players made up 5.4 percent of all non-pitchers. But they accounted for 15.4 percent of all non-pitcher plate appearances, and 16.1 percent of the hits and 16.8 percent of the home runs by non-pitchers.
When we’re talking about players who were league average or better but not elite, we’re still talking about the narrow top of the pyramid.
Know why? Because league average is pretty good.
There aren’t many guys who can be league average over sustained playing time. Having a bunch of them on your team is going a long way toward being a good team, because the alternative to that league-average guy is rarely an elite guy. It’s almost always a below-average player. After all, a majority of the players in the majors are below average.
I didn’t want to mention the name of the player my friends and I were calmly debating because he’s a problematic example of the value of a league-average player. I think you’ll see why when I tell you who he is in the next post, when I’ll put a couple of names to this concept that I think will illustrate the point beautifully.
Another example of why putting our faith in the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media because they are the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media is not the brightest idea.
Here is a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “Hitting Baseballs, Just Not as Far: Giants and Rangers Win With Contact Hitting, Bunts and Baserunning; the ‘Lost Arts.'” The piece, by Matthew Futterman and Brian Costa, explains that the Giants and Rangers have gotten to the World Series via “the kind of aggressive baserunning and timely, intelligent situational hitting and bunting that younger fans, the ones who came of age during baseball’s era of jet propulsion, have rarely seen.”
“Jet propulsion” refers to the home-run-happy steroids era, “a time when the chief ingredient of a winning team was a pack of happy oafs whose job was to hit the baseball into the next Congressional district.”
To prove their point, the Journal writers — well, they wave their arms around a lot.
The numbers tell the story rather starkly. Last year, the teams in the World Series — the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, ranked first and third in the majors in home runs. The Rangers and Giants rank No. 10 and No. 11.
San Francisco was 17th in runs scored and 13th in slugging percentage this season. But they ranked fifth in strikeouts and third in sacrifice bunts in the National League and fourth in all of baseball in sacrifice hits. [Snip: A couple of quotes from Cody Ross and Brian Sabean, respectively, about how the Giants take good swings and “know how to compete.” ]
Texas was only ninth in slugging percentage, but the team had the most sacrifice bunts in the American League, the second-most sacrifice flies and the fourth fewest strikeouts. The Rangers were also seventh in the majors in stolen bases.
So how well does a certain ranking in runs scored or slugging percentage or sacrifice flies or stolen bases correlate with winning? We don’t get much of a clue, except that the Yankees and Phillies were first and third, which is actually wrong. They were first and tied for second. The Phillies tied for second with the Rangers, who didn’t make the playoffs. In 2008 the Phillies were second in homers and went to the Series, where they played the Tampa Bay Rays, who were tied for ninth.
In 2007 the Boston Red Sox, 18th in home runs, beat the Colorado Rockies, 15th, despite both teams playing their home schedule in homer-friendly parks. In 2000, the height of the supercharged steroid era, when major leaguers hit more home runs than in any other year in history, the World Series pitted the Yankees, 10th in homers, and the New York Mets, 12th.
We’re really in a new era here, where you don’t have to lead the league in homers to make the World Series! Like you did in 2009!
But don’t listen to me. Here’s Cybermetrics, “the sabermetric blog of Cyril ‘Cy’ Morong, professor of economics at San Antonio College,” responding to the Journal piece by pointing out that all that sacrificing and stealing and not hitting home runs and so on is not resulting in any extra runs or wins for either the Giants or the Rangers.
Using these crazy things called history and math, Morong shows that teams that get on base and slug at the rates the Giants and Rangers do tend to score about as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year. And he points out that, given their pitching — a concept the Journal barely nods toward, though it’s basically the whole story for the Giants — teams that score as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year can be expected to win just about as many games as they did.
In other words: “There are no extra wins due to using ‘lost arts.’ In fact, they have done well by some combination of hitting for power and getting on base and generally preventing their opponents from doing so. This is a time honored way of winning.”
The Journal piece concludes with a quote from Giants president Larry Baer, who is a business man, not a baseball man: Baer “said there is more passion for this team than any in his 18 years with the organization. ‘It validates that this game is an art and not a science,’ he said.”
Except it doesn’t validate that. The team’s popularity might validate that marketing is an art, or that a city’s passion for a team involves some strange, hard-to-fathom alchemy. But there’s plenty of science involved in the baseball.
The Giants would do well to understand that science a little better. If they did, they wouldn’t owe Barry Zito — not good enough to make the postseason roster — $64.5 million over the next four years. They wouldn’t owe Aaron Rowand — worthy of eight plate appearances in 15 postseason games — $24 million over the next two years. The people who do understand the science and root for the Giants screamed their heads off over both of those signings.
The Journal could do a better job of it too. You know, like some blogger in his mother’s basement an economics department in San Antonio.
It’s true, as many in the national media have written, that this year’s National League champion San Francisco Giants have captured the imagination of the city in a way that the Barry Bonds-led teams straddling the turn of the century did not. It’s easy to love a champion, but San Francisco had already fallen hard for this Giants club before the regular season ended. It’s one of those love-affair years.
But it’s revisionist history to say that the teams of the late ’90s and early ’00s were not beloved by the fans because the fans didn’t like Barry Bonds. I can’t put it any more simply that this: San Francisco fans absolutely loved Barry Bonds. There was no ambivalence at all.
It was the writers who didn’t like him. For all the negative talk about him, he was a garden variety beloved superstar before the steroid revelations. And by that I mean the smoking gun of the BALCO case, which broke in the 2003-04 offseason, not the rumors and accusations that had flown around Bonds for a couple of years before that.
And even after BALCO, it was a very small percentage of San Francisco fans who gave a flying damn about Bonds and steroids. A vast majority of the outrage and worry came from the media — and of course fans in other cities. Everyone is always very, very concerned about steroid use by the visiting team.
Even when Bonds was chasing Henry Aaron’s career home run record, by which time there was no doubt that Bonds, in addition to all the other aspects of his toxic personality, was a user of illegal drugs intended to enhance performance, relatively few Giants fans were troubled in the least by him. I should know because I was one of those who were troubled, and the meetings were not crowded.
Here’s my pal Gary Kamiya writing in Salon the year before the record-breaking homer:
If Barry hits it at home and I’m lucky enough to be there, I’ll be screaming like God had just opened the seventh seal. And I’ll be doing that even though I’m 99 percent sure Barry cheated — and I don’t approve of cheating.
I won’t be alone. There will be 40,000 screaming Giants’ fans around me experiencing the same non-asterisked rapture, and several hundred thousand more fans throughout Northern California.
No, Barry Bonds did not keep San Francisco from loving the Giants team that went to the World Series in 2002 or the playoff teams in 1997, 2000 and 2003. Those teams were loved just fine. But not as much as this year’s team.
I think it’s the natural course of things that some versions of a team are more beloved than other versions. Some years, it clicks. This Giants team is led by enormously likable players — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Buster Posey and, to a lesser extent because he didn’t play well, 2009 revelation Pablo Sandoval. On top of that, it has an Island of Misfit Toys makeup — led by Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and Pat Burrell — that fans in any city are going to love when it works. Plus, the team was involved in an exciting three-way playoff race.
The only other time I can remember this kind of feeling around the Giants — non-fans talking about them and excited about them while the season was going on — was in 1993, when Barry Bonds was a newly signed free agent, a local kid, the superstar son of a former Giants star. The pennant race with the Atlanta Braves that year was out of this world, and the Giants had probably the best team they’ve ever had in San Francisco.
If Barry Bonds had started doing steroids that year and word had got out about it, that team would not have been any less loved in San Francisco. I’m sure of it.
Every playoff year can’t be a love-affair year. Most of the time when the home team is good it’s just regular old fan excitement going on. But once in a while, everything clicks and a team stands a city on its ear. That happened with the Giants this year. It happened in 1993. It didn’t happen in the playoff years in between, but not because San Franciscans couldn’t root for Barry Bonds.
All that ambivalence San Francisco felt about Barry Bonds that you’ve been reading about: I don’t know whether it’s projection or faulty memories. But I do know this: It’s fiction.