Archive for May, 2011

Comparing Across Eras

May 30, 2011

Nap LaJoie

I have to admit I’m guilty of something. It’s a small thing, not exactly a sin, but I still do it. I’m guilty of trying to compare players across eras. We all do it. We compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. We compare Lou Gehrig to Mark McGwire. We compare Honus Wagner to Derek Jeter. Baseball statisticians have come up with stat after stat that attempts to compare players. Some of them take the time to try to figure out how the eras differ and then try to factor that into the equation. Some of those do a fairly good job of it, and others stink up the joint when they try. So here’s a look at some of the factors that I think have to be considered when trying to compare players across eras.

1. Segregation. This one should be obvious and I have no idea how you factor it in. How much does Lefty Grove not having to face Josh Gibson change Grove’s overall numbers? Got me, coach. And of course it works the other way too. How much does Satchel Paige’s inability to face Babe Ruth in meaningful competition change Paige’s numbers? Again, got me, coach. I think it is important to recognize this is a problem. I simply have no idea how you fix it.

2. Roster sizes. I don’t want to hit this one too hard. If you have Babe Ruth on your team, you’re going to play him a lot. But roster sizes do matter, at least some. The smaller the roster, the less a manager can rest a player and that can create end of season slumps that might not occur on teams with larger rosters.

3. Rules changes. I tend to harp on the pitching change to 60’6″ as a watershed in baseball, but there are a lot of major rules changes that make it difficult to compare players. How would Cy Young do pitching at 50 feet? Well, we actually know he did quite well for a few years, but we don’t know what that means for someone like Walter Johnson. Pud Galvin never pitched a big  league game at 60’6″. Could he have been successful there? Don’t know and don’t know how to figure it out. There are other problems like ball and strike count, stolen base rules, etc. My guess is that some of them can be accounted for by looking at before and after stats and seeing how much change occurs (sort of like figuring out how much expansion changes things), but I don’t know you can account for every situation, particularly the mound. I also know this is a much greater problem in trying to factor in 19th Century players.

4. Equipment. How good was Honus Wagner in the field? A look at his basic fielding  stats shows he was OK, but nothing special. Some of the newer stats begin to show us just how good he was, but many of the older ones don’t take the difference in equipment into account. When you’re playing shortstop with a glove that looks a lot like my winter gloves, you’re not going to put up fielding statistics that equal those of players with modern gloves.  Take a look at modern catching equipment versus the gear of players as recent as Ray Schalk (of 1919 fame). Fielding statistics have gotten better over the years, but much of that is  artificial, brought on by equipment changes. Same for batting. Moderns bats are a far cry from the table legs used by guys at the turn of the 20th Century. There’s a wonderful picture of Nap LaJoie that I stuck in above. Take a look at the bat. Now think about a modern bat. Tell me that one factor doesn’t affect stats.

5. Fields. Modern baseball parks are a far cry from early parks. I’m not talking about the distance to fences, that’s easy to factor in. What I’m talking about is the general condition of the playing surface. Wagner talked about picking up a  ball and watching a cloud of  dust, a handful of pebbles, and the ball all going toward first at the same time. Don’t know how many times that actually happened, but it’s not going to happen at all today. Those uneven fields created more errors and also made normal chances more difficult. I think you can determine the best fielders of the era, but to compare them to modern fielders is difficult enough without worrying about the condition of the playing surface in 1910.

6. Going off to war. Really cuts down on your playing time and is specific to time and place.

Most of what I’ve talked about so far is generally known, and I think statisticians have made good-faith efforts to factor in those things. How much success they’ve had is another question. I don’t know that Win Shares or WAR or anything else adequately accounts for these things, but it’s evident that they are trying. It’s the following two items that I think have been vastly underappreciated by people who try to compare players.

7. Medical advances. You do know that if Tommy John never has the surgery named for him that he never enters a Hall of Fame discussion, don’t you? If that surgery were available in 1935, maybe Dizzy Dean wins another 100 games (or maybe something else goes wrong and he doesn’t). Modern arthritis treatments might give Sandy Koufax another twenty win season. My point is that medical advances change the ability of players to compete just as changes in bats and gloves and fields do the same. I don’t know that anyone has considered this. I also don’t know how you would factor it in, but I think it should be noted at some point.

8. Salaries. Back when I was collecting baseball cards the info on the back sometimes told you what the guy did in the offseason. Most players had to have a “real” job to make ends meet. Most of those jobs weren’t going to enhance your baseball skills. A guy like Richie Hebner dug graves. That might keep him in shape, but didn’t particularly help his batting eye. An old Cardinals pitcher named Ray Washburn sold insurance. Checking  actuary tables probably didn’t hurt his eyesight too much, but I’ll bet it didn’t help his throwing motion. With modern salaries making it less necessary for players to have a “real” job in the offseason they have more time to hone their baseball skills, thus making them better players. This doesn’t mean they all do it in the offseason, only that the opportunity is there for modern players, an option that wasn’t as readily available in 1960. Again, I’m not sure how that’s factored in, but it probably should  be noted.

So the next time you decide to see if you can figure out which was better, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, don’t forget to factor in a bunch of things that don’t always show up in the stats. There are others that I didn’t mention above (like advances in training methods), but these will do for starters. Have fun.

Mathewson’s Walks

May 26, 2011

It’s amazing how quickly we forget. Now I know it’s been a hundred years since Christy Mathewson pitched (well, 95) but it seems like he’s fallen off the edge of the world reputation-wise. I guess that’s true of most Deadball players not named Cobb, but it’s still a shame. If people know anything at all about him it’s that he won a whole bunch of games (373) a long time ago. But as impressive as that number is, I have another Mathewson number that is even greater, at least to me.

The number is 848. That’s the total number of men Mathewson walked in a 17 year career. That works out to 49.8 per season. If you leave out his rookie and final years (the only seasons he doesn’t pitch 100 innings), it’s 54. In his rookie season Mathewson walked 20 and struck out 15, the only season he’d walk more men than he struck out (Hey, anybody can have a bad rookie campaign). Between 1907 and 1914 inclusive he pitched 2597 innings and walked a total of 307, or 38.4 a season. In each season he led the NL in fewest walks per games, except in 1910 when he came in second to George Suggs  (Cincinnati) 1.62 to 1.70. In 1913 he walked .62 men per game. Bert Humphries of Chicago was second all the way back at 1.19. Greg Maddux, known for never walking a batter, has numbers similar, but not better.

One hundred years ago in 1911 Mathewson threw 307 innings and walked 38 men. That’s great, but it’s not even his best. In 1912 he pitched 310 innings, walking 34. His 1913 line reads 306 innings and 21 (count ’em, 21) walks, while 1914 shows 312 innings and 23 walks (guess those extra six innings must have gotten to him). In 102 World Series innings he gave up 10 walks (half of them in the 1912 Series). In the 1905 Series when he had three complete game shutouts, Mathewson walked one batter (Socks Seybold in game three).

These are great numbers to me because they go right to the heart of what a pitcher does. He keeps the other team off base. There’s frequently nothing you can do about a “seeing-eye single”, but a walk is the pitcher’s fault (unless it is intentional, and intentional walks aren’t well documented in Mathewson’s era). Mathewson, by walking almost no one, is doing one of the things most necessary to keep his team from losing a game, he’s minimizing the number of men on base by not making bad pitches.

I’m aware that knowing this isn’t going to suddenly return Christy Mathewson to the limelight. It’s been too many years for all but the most diehard fan to care, but it’s still worth noting. Heck of a pitcher, wasn’t he?

The End of the World

May 23, 2011

"The Gods of the Copybook Headings with Terror and Slaughter Return."-Rudyard Kipling

Well, I see the end of the world didn’t occur this weekend. Frankly for my blogging purposes I wasn’t too worried about it. Being something of a sinner myself, I figured anyone goofy enough to read me with some regularity wasn’t going to be “raptured” anyway so there’d still be a lot of sinners sitting around reading things like this. I did begin to ask myself what I would do if I knew the world really was ending. Specifically, I wondered where would I go to face the end.

The answer was, unsurprisingly, Cooperstown. My son and his family live reasonably close, so we could get the entire family together for one last good time together. I’ve never gotten there and would really like to see it before I head off to that big diamond in the sky, assuing I’m skyward bound. Also I know a number of other baseball junkies like me would head there too, so we could all get together for one last big game on Doubleday Field. Maybe I can even play. So what if I make an error, it’s not like it’s the end of the world or anything. Bet I might even meet a few of you there.

So let’s make a pact. Next time we’re sure the world is going to end by second comings, asteroids, fire, flood, famine, etc. let’s all meet up at Cooperstown for one last big blast. I’ll even use my credit card to get us in. What the heck, I’m not going to have to pay it off anyway.

A Franchise Best

May 20, 2011

Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Senators (and the Homestead Grays)

The loss of Harmon Killebrew and SportsPhD’s comment about Killebrew being the greatest Twins player got me to thinking. In some ways SportsPhd is right, but if you look franchise-wise (in other words all the way back to 1901) the answer has to be Walter Johnson. So that brings up the question of an All-Twins/Senators team. The slash is there to remind everyone that for much of their history, the Twins were in Washington. So I decided to figure one out for myself and share it with a breathlessly waiting world. Now I’m no Twins expert so I’m willing to admit that this list is probably flawed. It fact, it may be greatly flawed. It was also put together quickly with only a couple days reasearch. So you might want to take it with the proverbial grain of salt. But, it’s my best shot on short notice.

Now the caveats. This is a little easier because I decided to look for only a starting lineup plus a rotation and a manager. If you try to put together a 25 man roster you notice just how weak the Twins/Senators have been at certain positions (like thrid base). That’s actually fairly common. Try it with your own favorite team and see how quickly you start asking yourself “Do I really want to put this guy on the team?” Because the Senators were formed in 1901 there is no need to discount 19th Century players. Also, you’ll notice that the Twins have more players making this team in a shorter period than the Senators. Frankly, the Twins have been better than the Senators, so I’m not concerned with the percentages here. Feel free to come up with your own players and disagree with my selections.

Infield: Almost from the beginning, first base was the biggest hurdle for me. There have been a lot of good Twins/Senators first basemen: Joe Judge, Mickey Vernon, Kent Hrbek, Justin Morneau. None of them are really at the very top of any chart concerning great first basemen. OK, that means none of them are Lou Gehrig, but none of them are particularly close either. Ultimately I went with Hrbek because he was a solid first baseman, his 3-2-3 double play in game 7 of 1991 was one of the greatest plays by a first baseman I ever saw (and the Ron Gant body slam was a play for the ages) and he could hit well. I’m fairly sure that Morneau is probably (“fairly sure” “probably”, how’s that for certitude?) better, but until he can stay healthy and put in enough years I have to go with Hrbek. Second, short, and third are all fairly easy with Rod Carew, Joe Cronin, and Gary Gaetti being obvious picks.

Outfield: I was able to pick a left, center, and right fielder without having to double up on right fielders and drop a left fielder or some such thing. Kirby Puckett in Center Field is an obvious choice and for me Tony Oliva gets right field over Sam Rice. Yeah, Rice has a longer career, but Oliva’s is better, but over a shorter period of time. Old time Senator Goose Goslin get left field for this team. Did you know that Goslin is the only player to appear in every Washington Senators World Series game?

Catcher/DH: You know this is going to be Joe Mauer don’t you? If you think I need to justify that, you haven’t been paying attention to the American League. DH is where I put Killebrew. He wasn’t much of a fielder, but was best at first. I thought long  and hard about him there and if I was certain I was leaving out a great player, I’d move Killebrew to first. 

Starters: Of course this list begins with Walter Johnson, but you guessed that already, right? It’s amazing how far the drop from the team’s best pitcher to its number two is when Johnson is your number one. The rest of the list is good enough, but somehow just completely pales when compared. It’s also a little strange to see such an uneven list when you try to find five starters. I went with (alphabetically) Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, Camilo Pasqual, Johan Santana. I have some reservations about both Pasqual and Santana. Pasqual’s numbers don’t look all that great if you just stare it them, but if you recall how awful some of his teams were, he gets better quick. And Santana just wasn’t there very long, but when he was  he was great.

Relievers: If the quality of starters is uneven, Twins/Senators relievers are amazingly good. There’s a long tradition of quality relievers going all the way back to Clark Griffith and the early years of the franchise. I took Firpo Marberry because he was one of the first truly great relievers and went with Rick Aguilera as the other one. I sort of miss putting in Jeff Reardon or Joe Nathan, but I like the other two better.

Manager: Tom Kelley was easy for me. Bucky Harris won in 1924, lost in 1925. Cronin was in charge in the 1933 loss, and Ron Gardenhire hasn’t won yet. So Kelley’s two wins are double anyone else in franchise history.

As a rule I’m not a big fan of these kinds of lists; there are just too many variables for me, or anyone else, to consider all of them. You inevitably leave off someone you shouldn’t and look like a total fool (trust me, Idon’t need a lot of help with that anyway). They are, however, kind of  fun.  So remember that when you look this over and go “What was he thinking?”  or rather “Was he thinking?”

The Killer

May 18, 2011

Harmon Killebrew

It seems like I’m writing an inordinate number of posts that deal with the death of a player from my younger years. I guess you’ve heard about the death of Harmon Killebrew by now. He was a player of my youth, but I associate him more with my coming-of-age years than with my younger years.

Killebrew was one of those “bonus babies” that came up in the 1950s. The rule was that if the guy got a bonus he had to remain on the big league roster for two years before he could go to the Minors. The idea was to discourage teams from putting out large amounts of money for unproven kids. What it meant in practice was that the signing of one of these guaranteed that fans saw the player getting his Minor League education in the Majors. Some of those could be painful to watch. I guess that Killebrew and Sandy Koufax were probably the most famous “bonus babies” of the 1950s. Both hit their stride in the 1960s (although Killebrew had a good 1959) and intertwined in 1965.

Killebrew came to the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) in 1954, rode the pine in ’54 and ’55, then split time between Washington and the minors the next three years. His Major League numbers weren’t very good. He had 57 hits in 254 at bats (.224) with 30 RBIs and 11 home runs. The 11 homers in 57 hits was pretty good but he walked only 23 times and  struck out 93 times. Additionally he was wretched in the field. They tried him at second and third with no success. He could catch the ball and had OK range, but he had a “God Knows” arm (“God Knows where the ball is going when he lets it loose”). he spent his career wandering from third, to left, to first and was honestly best suited for the DH role, which didn’t come into the AL until too late in his career.

Like I said, it was painful, but it did pay off. In 1959 he became the fulltime third baseman and began his assault of American League pitching. He hit all of .242, but led the league in home runs. Over the course of his career he would lead the AL in home runs six times, peaking at 49 twice. He also led the league in RBIs and walks three times each, in OBP, slugging and strikeouts once each, and picked up the AL MVP Award in 1969. In that same year, baseball adopted its modern logo. Killebrew is supposed to be the model for the logo.

In 1965 he helped lead the Twins to their first pennant and the fourth overall for the franchise (1924, 1925, 1933 in Washington). He faced fellow bonus baby Koufax in the Series. The Twins lost, but Killebrew hit .282, had an OPS of .873, and hit one home run (off Don Drysdale, not Koufax). The Twins also got to the AL playoffs in 1969 and 1970, losing to Baltimore both times. He hit a buck-25 in 1969, but had two homers, four RBIs, and a .273 average in 1970.

By 1972 he began falling off. He had miserable years in 1973 and 1974, was traded to Kansas City in 1975 and finished up a Royals teammate of George Brett. He was 39. The Hall of Fame brought him inside in 1984.

For his career he hit .256, slugged .509, had on OBP of  .376, and OPS of .884 (OPS+ 143). He had 573 home runs, 1584 RBIs, scored 1283 runs, and ended up 1559 walks to 1699 strikeouts. His career home run percentage is fourth all time.

There were two knocks on Killebrew as a hitter. First his batting average was only.256. With that average he produced 2300 runs,. Nine times he had 100 or more RBIs; he scored 90 or more runs seven times and 89 once. He managed to do all that while hitting .256. Tell you what, I’ll take the runs and RBIs, you can have the average.

Second, during his career and since his retirement there was a perception of Killebrew as a big lug who struck out a lot, kind of a latter day Ralph Kiner (which is wrong about Kiner too). For his career, Killebrew struck out exactly 140 times more than he walked. If you look at his productive years (1959-1972) the number drops to 24 (or 1.6 per season). I can give up 24 strikeouts for 500 home runs. If we’re going to complain about his strikeouts, we need to also remember his walk totals. He led the AL in strikeouts only once, in walks many more times.

My memories of Killebrew are mixed.I remember little of him as the “bonus baby”. I don’t recall a single Senators game I saw or heard, so I don’t know if I ever got to see or hear about him in the 1950s. I remember him as the fearsome slugger of the 1960s. No one I ever saw swung the bat harder more consistently than Killebrew. Roy Campanella had the hardest swing I saw, and Glenallen Hill scattering the fans on the rooftops across from Wrigley hit the hardest ball I ever saw, but Killebrew did both with more consistency than either. I swear even the homers that barely trickled over the fence seemed like he’d hit them a ton. He was awkward in the field, but graceful with a bat. I never particularly rooted for the Twins, but both he and Tony Oliva were personal favorites of mine.

So It’s Rest in Peace for the Killer. He was a great ballplayer, apparently an even greater man. All of us are poorer that he is gone. I offer up one simple prayer, “Don’t have too many more of these postmortem posts for me to write for the rest of this year.” Deal, Lord?

Can’t Catch a Cold

May 16, 2011

The other "Babe"

The Brooklyn team of the late 1920s and early 1930s was known more for comic relief than for playing baseball. They had, in Dazzy Vance, one really good pitcher. They also had a handful of decent hitters. But they may have led the National League in boneheaded play. For that they were nicknamed “The Daffiness Boys.” If one player stood out as the poster boy for the team, it was Floyd “Babe” Herman.

Born in 1903, Herman arrived in Brooklyn in 1926, hit .319, and became a fixture. In 1927 he hit .272, then began reeling off .300 seasons with regularity, peaking in the offensive explosion season of 1930 with an average of .393 (second to Bill Terry). He walked more than he struck out, had decent power (peaking at 35 homers in the inflated air of 1930), had OPS numbers ranging from the lower eights to over a thousand, and drove in a lot of runs. He hit for the cycle three times.  In other words he was a pretty fair hitter in the greatest hitting era in 20th Century baseball history.

In 1932 he went to Cincinnati for a year, then on to the Cubs for two. While at Cincy he led the league in triples, his only league leading number. Chicago shipped him to Pittsburgh, who sent him back to Cincinnati. In 1937 he played 17 games for Detroit and was through at 34. World War II got him back to the big leagues in 1945 when he played 37 games for Brooklyn as a 42-year-old pinch hitter. For his career he hit .324, slugged .532, with an OBP of .383, giving him an OPS of .915 (OPS+ of 141). He had 2980 total bases spread over 181 home runs, 110 triples, and 399 doubles. He had 1818 hits, scored 882 runs, and knocked in 997 RBIs. Again, not a bad hitting career.

Of course it was his fielding that caused the problems. He was dreadful. He had a decent arm twice coming in second in the NL in assists. He simply couldn’t judge the ball or catch it, which is a minor problem for an outfielder. He was so awful it led one writer to complain that Herman “couldn’t catch a cold.” A teammate said Herman only wore a glove because the team required it. A great story about him is that on being told by his bank that someone was impersonating him he told the manager “Hit him flys. If he catches them, it ain’t me.” Accused of  being hit on the head with a fly ball, his defense was that it was the shoulder, not the head, that was hit.

He also was noted for not paying a lot of attention while at the game. Balls went over his head while he was absorbed in his own thoughts (what they were is anybody’s guess). On 15 August 1926 he hit a gapper for a double that he tried to turn into a triple. The problem was that the bases were loaded, one man scored, the second stopped at third, the third guy stopped at third. So did Herman. Pirates third baseman Pie Traynor got the ball, tagged all three and flipped the ball to the umpire. His comment is supposed to be “Here, you figure it out.”  The papers said that Herman “doubled into a double play.” In his defense, the runner on third who scored turned out to be the winning run. Twice he’s supposed to have stood at second admiring a home run long enough that the guy who hit it passed him on the base paths creating an out and negating the home run.

My favorite Herman story goes like this. He took his son with him to a game in Brooklyn. With the game over, he showered and bummed a ride home with a buddy. About halfway across Brooklyn it dawned on our intrepid hero that there were only two people in the car. They went back to Ebbets Field and found the kid helping the groundskeepers.  The kid was safe and Mrs. Herman’s comments are not recorded. BTW the son went on to teach High School math (obviously he took after Mom).

Herman did some scouting after his retirement. He never got much support for the Hall of Fame and never seemed to complain much about it. He died in 1987 and is one of the people interviewed in the great The Glory of Their Times.

Calls of a Lifetime

May 11, 2011

The one and only Vin Scully

You know what I miss about modern baseball? No, it isn’t the great pitching, there’s a lot of that around. It isn’t the wonderful fielding, take a look at “Web Gems”. It isn’t the hitting, these guys can hit. What I miss is the men who used to call the games.

I miss Mel Allen. I miss Red Barber. I miss Russ Hodges. They were the main men in New York baseball when I was very young. They knew how to describe a game in vivid words that painted pictures of the game, of the field, of the players, and of the fans. Allen had sheer joy, Barber colorful use of words, Hodges wore his emotions on his sleeve. In fact, Hodges gave us all one of the single greatest calls of a lifetime with his 1951 “The Giants Win the Pennant” repeated a thousand times. Go to You Tube or somewhere and just listen to the joy and astonishment in his voice. Don’t look at the picture, just listen to the voice. You know what happened if you just listen.

Of course there were others. Dizzy Dean was a world to himself. Half the time I didn’t understand him (and neither did anyone else except for maybe Mrs. Dean) but who cared; he was wonderful. Jack Buck was understated and almost emotionless sometimes, and that was a wonderful tonic to the “rah, rah” types that drove me crazy. And nobody ever knew how to simply shut up and let the crowd do the talking than Buck.  Joe Garagiola knew more about baseball than most people could learn in a 1000 years. Both were out of St. Louis (And isn’t it amazing how many great play-by-play guys have come out of St. Louis?) so I got to hear them a lot. Ernie Harwell could describe a play better than anyone I ever heard. Bob Prince was a little too much for me, but his love for his Pirates was so obvious you let it slide sometimes. And Curt Gowdy could announce anything and have you impressed.

There aren’t a lot of them left. You still hear Jay Randolph on an occasional Cardinals broadcast (see what I mean about St. Louis) and there is not, nor has there ever been, anyone quite like Vin Scully. Take time someday and just listen to the man. Even his non-baseball talks are a treat to the ears.

Now it’s not that the new guys are bad, they just aren’t quite as good. Too many of them simply call a game and don’t describe it. I guess that’s television and the idea that you can see for yourself what’s going on. But you know what? I miss the old guys who knew you had to describe a game as well as call it.

20 Greatest Baseball Games

May 9, 2011

Jack Morris, 1991

Don’t know if anyone but me has been following MLB Network’s 20 Greatest Games series. It’s a series that let fans vote and experts decide on the 20 best baseball games of the last 50 years. It begins with Richardson’s catch to end the 1962 World series and goes through last year’s no-hitter in the playoffs. They had about 50 games you could vote on and then they’ve been doing a two-hour special with Bob Costas and a couple of the players left from the game. They show the game (or at least most of it) and talk to the players about what happened, how it felt, what they thought, what perspective they’ve gained over the years, etc. All in all, it’s a pretty good series. It shows at 7pm Eastern time on Sundays and if you’ve missed the ones they’ve already done, I’m sure they’ll reshow it. The list is pretty standard, the focus is on playoff and World series games, and there aren’t a lot of surprises in it. And because it’s limited to 50 years, the film is pretty good (and Don Larsen is left out).

Last night they walked us through the second greatest game of the last 50 years. It was game 7 of the 1991 World Series. For you who don’t know, that’s the 1-0 10 inning Twins over Braves thriller that capped the greatest World Series I ever saw. They had Jack Morris and John Smoltz, the two starting pitchers, as guests and both were a lot better than I thought they’d be, especially Smoltz. Next week they’re doing the greatest game of the last 50 years. The hints make it obvious that it’s game 6 of the 1975 World Series, Fisk’s “body english” home run.

I think they have the two games reversed. I saw both and 1991 was better in a couple of ways. First the score in 1975 was 7-6 with 24 total hits,  nine walks, and an error. That’s too much offense for a truly great game. Frankly, if offense makes great games, people should love game four of the 1993 Series. The final was 15-14 with 32 hits and 14 walks; runners all over the place. I don’t know anyone who thinks it was a particularly great game (unless, I guess, you’re a Toronto fan–they won). I also remember the 1975 game was not particularly crisply played and ultimately became famous because one cameraman kept his camera focused on Fisk so fans could see him “push” the ball fair. If I had to pick a game I saw involving Boston that I thought was the greatest of the last 50 years, I’d go with either the Buckner wickets game (which is a top five for this show) or the “Bucky bleepin’ Dent” game which also made the list.

But compare the 1991 game. Both teams went ten innings, scored one run, there were 17 hits, no errors, 7 walks (three intentional). There were base running blunders (Hello, Lonnie Smith), a couple of great double plays (Lemke unassisted and a 3-2-3 that was utterly special). There was great pitching, good strategy, some wonderful catches (including a superb one-handed job by Terry Pendleton). All in all I simply consider it a superior game to the one in 1975. And not least because Jack Buck’s “The Twins are going to win the World Series” is one of the great calls of all time. I’ll also never forget Twins manager Tom Kelly hugging Braves outfielder Ron Gant. Pure class and great acknowledgement of how great a game and Series Kelly had just witnessed.

Anyway, feel free to disagree. But don’t fail to watch next week. Hopefully you can find the rest of the set sometime soon.

El Senor

May 6, 2011

 

Al Lopez calling out for a pizza at Chicago

Between the coming of Casey Stengel in 1949 and the end of the Yankees Dynasty in 1964, the Bronx Bombers won every American League pennant except two. Those were the 1954 pennant won by Cleveland and the 1959 pennant won by Chicago. Know what those teams had in common? Well, the both featured Early Wynn on the mound. They also had Larry Doby, although Doby, a center piece in 1954 only had a few games with Chicago in 1959. They also had Al Lopez as their manager. Between 1949 and 1964 Lopez was the only non-Yankees manager to win an AL pennant.

Lopez was from Florida and got to Brooklyn for a three game cup of coffee at age 19 in 1928. He settled in as the Dodgers’ front line catcher in the 1930s, playing a career high 140 games in 1934. Early on he earned the nickname “El Senor” (roughly, “The Man”). He stayed with Brooklyn through 1935, then went to Boston (the Braves not the Red Sox) and Pittsburgh before finishing up with Cleveland in 1947, the year before they won the last pennant before the Yankees dominated the next 16 years. For his career he hit .261, slugged .337 with an OBP of .326 for an OPS of .663 (OPS+ of 83). He hit 51 home runs, 206 doubles, and 1992 total bases. He scored 613 runs and knocked in another 652. By the time he was through he had caught more games than any catcher in Major League history, a record that lasted into the 1980s. As a backup catcher for the latter part of his career, he was considered especially knowledgable about the game and considered an exceptional handler of pitchers. I’ve discovered that backup catchers, particularly aging ones, frequently get labeled as knowledgable and a handler of pitchers. I’ve never known if that was true or simply way of justifying keeping a low-cost player who wasn’t going to appear in many games around.

For Lopez it was apparently true. In 1951 he took over managing the Cleveland Indians. In 1950 the Indians finished fourth. With essentially the same roster, Lopez guided them to second in his rookie year as manager. They stayed there the next two years, then swept to a pennant in 1954. They set an AL record with 111 wins (not bested until 1998). But there was a flaw in that stat. They beat up on the second division teams and had only moderate success against the second and third place teams. Of course in the World Series you don’t get to play a second division team and Cleveland was swept by the Giants led by Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes.

Lopez stayed with Cleveland through 1956, never finishing below second. In 1957 he jumped to Chicago and again guided the White Sox to a second place finish (you starting to notice a pattern here?). The Sox were also second in 1958, then won their first pennant since 1918 in 1959. They lost the World Series in six games. The White Sox dropped to third in 1960, fourth in 1961, and fifth in 1962 before bouncing back to second in 1963. They stayed there until Lopez’s retirement after the 1965 season.   He remained retired until Chicago brought him back in 1968 for two short stints (they fired a manager, had Lopez replace him as interim, then fired the new guy and had Lopez finish out the season). He managed 17 games into 1969 then retired permanently. For his career he was 570-354 for a .617 winning percentage. Between his debut in 1951 and 1959 his teams never finished lower than second. He had three years outside the top two slots, then finished second three more times. In fifteen full seasons Al Lopez teams finished lower than second three times. That’s quite a feat in the American League when you are never the Yankees manager. He made the Hall of Fame in 1977 and died in 2005 at age 97.

I have, in previous posts, be critical of managers. I’ve said I have little idea how to judge the effect of a manager on a team. Given the talent of the 1927 Yankees I could have won a few games as manager (write in Ruth and Gehrig a lot and pitch Hoyt and Pennock a bunch). I could have eked out a few wins for the 1930s Yankees (pitch Ruffing and Gomez, bat DiMaggio and Gehrig three and four). Heck, I could have even managed the 1962 Mets to 140 or so losses (instead of 120). Talent seems to matter most. But somehow Lopez is different. He wins every time. Yep, he has good talent, but he also wins with weaker teams like the mid-1960s White Sox. In 1954 he acquires Hal Newhouser from Detroit, shifts him to reliever and gets one last good year out of the future Hall of Fame pitcher. Obviously I like Lopez a lot and think he made a major difference to his teams. For most of his career he was overshadowed by Stengel, which is too bad.

Go-Go

May 5, 2011

Minnie Minoso, Jim Landis, Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox in 1959

There are those times I look at a baseball team and wonder, “How the heck did this team win?”  Sometimes it’s obvious, other times obscure. For a good case of obscure I give you the 1959 Chicago White Sox, the “Go-Go Sox”.

First, a brief review of the players is in order. The infield consisted of, from first around to third: Earl Torgeson, Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, and Bubba Phillips. During the year both Torgeson and Phillips had problems and by the World Series Billy Goodman was doing the bulk of the work at third while Ted Kluszewski had come over from Pittsburgh to hold down first. The outfield consisted of four players doing the bulk of the work: Al Smith, Jim Landis, Jim McAnany, and Jim Rivera (I always wondered how “Al” got into that mix). The catcher was Sherm Lollar. Norm Cash did much of the pinch-hitting work and stopgapped at first, Johnny Callison was the other outfielder, and Sammy Esposito did the back up work at second, short, and third.

How’d they do? well, they ended up sixth in runs (in an eight team league), sixth in hits, fourth in doubles, dead last in home runs, sixth in batting average, seventh in slugging, and sixth in OPS. The did finish first in steals and triples, and third in OBP. They ended up with an OPS+ of 91. Lollar led the team with 22 home runs and had the team high of 451 in slugging, a .796 OPS, and an OPS+ of 118. Aparicio led the American League in steals (56), and Fox hit .306, led the team in OBP (380), had 191 hits, and won the AL MVP award.

OK so the hitting wasn’t all that great so it has to be the pitching, right? Well, sort of. The team finished first in ERA and saves, runs and earned runs, which is good. It’s ERA+ was 155. But they gave up a lot of hits and were fifth in walks and fourth in strikeouts, which isn’t so good. In total, those aren’t bad numbers, but they are, at best, a mixed bag. The starters who gave the team these numbers were Early Wynn who led the team in wins and strikeouts and picked up the Cy Young Award that season (there was only one Cy Young Award in 1959). Bob Shaw, Dick Donovan, and the immortal Barry Latman completed the right-handed starters, and Billy Pierce was the sole lefty among the regulars. The bullpen was pretty good, especially for the era. Turk Lown led the team in saves (which wasn’t a stat yet), with Gerry Staley right behind. Ray Moore and lefty Rudy Arias were the only other pitchers with more than 25 games.

All this, plus a league leading  fielding  percentage, got them a five game victory over Cleveland, manager Al Lopez’s old team. I’m not sure how much credit goes to Lopez. He’d been there three years, finished second twice, then broke through. But then the Chisox had finished third the year before Lopez arrived.

They got to the World Series, won game one, lost the next three, won game five, then lost the Series in six games to a Los Angeles team that, frankly, wasn’t a lot better than they were. Kluszewski had a great Series hitting .391, driving in 10 runs, hitting three home runs, and tying (with Fox) for the team lead in hits with nine. Wynn and Shaw both won a game and Wynn led both teams with 19 strikeouts, but  posted an ERA over five. By way of trivia, game five had the largest crowd in World Series history (The LA Coliseum will do that for you), so more people watched the Sox win a World Series game (1-0) than any other team.

It was the high point for them. By 1961 they were back to fourth and didn’t make a World Series again until 2005. Today they are noted mostly for having “invented” the modern running game. In doing so they showed both leagues the advantages and disadvantages of that style game. Aparicio had 56 steals, but scored only 98 runs, and had the second lowest OBP of the starters. Those 98 runs would have led only two other teams in the AL, sixth place Baltimore and seventh place Kansas City (and he would have tied for the lead with last place Washington). But their defense, of course, was that they won. Other teams tried it, a few succeeded, but the power game coupled with good pitching still dominates.

As the above should tell you, I’ve never been a big fan of this team. Aparicio and Fox were good up the middle and Wynn had one last good season, but there’s not a lot else going for them. Kluszewski is old, Callison will hit his stride with Philadelphia. Cash will have a good year in 1961 but will do it with Detroit. All in all, I rate them one of the weaker teams to win a pennant in the modern era.

An aside before anyone asks. Minoso, pictured above, was with Cleveland in 1959. He came to Chicago in 1960. The picture is of the fielding awards ceremony in 1960 (making the date of the caption wrong—sorry).