Archive for June, 2011

What have you done to my team?

June 29, 2011

As anybody who reads stuff here with any regularity knows, I’m a diehard Dodgers fan. I remember all the way back to when the letter on the cap was a “B” and I’ve been proud to admit my team loyalty. I’m not sure that last part is still true.

I saw an article on ESPN that listed the ten worst owners ever and put Frank McCourt second to Harry Frazzee, of sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees fame. They’re wrong. There are all those 19th Century owners who ran two franchises and gutted one to make the other a potential contender. Take a look at the 1899 Cleveland Spiders and tell me that guy wasn’t a first-rate jerk of an owner. But they aren’t wrong by much. McCourt is destroyed one of the true flagship franchises in baseball. I’d rank them second to the Cardinals in the National League (but not by much) and behind only the Yankees in the American League.

Of course McCourt has had a lot of help. His wife is a real jewel. She wants “diversity” in the front office, not competence. The scouting bureau isn’t anything to write home to mom about either. Those guys  they went out and drafted are the best they can do? God help my team. Jim Varney’s old “Ernest” character could have done better (at least “Ernest” would have been trying to do the right thing).  Bud Selig wanted Fox out so badly, he endorsed McCourt (at least tacitly) and now Selig wants to be  seen as acting in the best interest of the game?  Gimme a break. Actually I’m rooting for Selig in this one. The idea of taking the front money from the Fox deal and using it for a divorce (God, where’s Tammy Wynette when we need her?) instead of for players is so awful that I think Selig got this one right. And that’s how bad this situation has become, I’m now praising Selig.

I have no idea what’s going to ultimately happen in this mess (is “mess” too nice a word for this?), except that somebody new is going to take over my team. Hopefully, he (she–why not a woman?) will know what he’s doing. Frankly he/she can’t do any worse, at least I don’t think they can.

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A Dozen Things You Should Know About Frank Grant

June 27, 2011

Frank Grant while at Buffalo

1. He was born in 1865 in Massachusetts and named Ulysses Franklin Grant. Being black and born immediately after the Civil War, it is possible he was named for Union General U.S. Grant, but that can’t be confirmed, at least as far as I can determine.

2. His parents were both from Massachusetts and freemen, an unusual combination for 1860s America. Both were alleged to be of mixed race, which in 1860s American made them “colored” (bet you can guess which color).

3. He was 5’7″ and weighed 155 pounds, making him big for a middle infielder of the era.

4. He joined the Eastern League’s Meriden, Connecticut team in 1886, one of three black players in the league (Moses Fleetwood Walker and George Stovey were the other two). He hit .316 over 44 games, most at second base (although he pitched three times going 0-1). The team disbanded in July and Grant ended up with Buffalo, playing in Olympic Park at the Northeast corner of Richmond and Summer Streets (I know some people in Buffalo and thought they might like to know the location of the park.).

5. Race was already becoming an issue. He was refered to by his own team as either “Spanish” or “Italian” in order to lessen the problem. As an aside this seems to be a subterfuge as late as the early 20th Century when John McGraw hired at least one black player and called him an “Indian.”

6. In May 1887, Grant hit for the cycle. That same season, the International League (Grant’s league) voted to ban the hiring of more black ball players, but “grandfathered” Grant and the handful of blacks already in the league. Most leagues began banning black players about the same time and didn’t bother with the “grandfather clause.”

7. In 1888 Grant held out for a salary of $250 per month (not bad pay in 1888), which is great chutzpah considering the just completed vote on race. He got the money and ended up playing 84 games and hit .346.

8. In 1889 he joined the Cuban Giants, one of the first Negro League teams. The Giants wandered in and out of the minor leagues for the next several seasons. Grant stayed with the Cuban Giants off and on into 1891, when he signed with the Gothams, another black team. He went back to the Cuban Giants in 1892 and remained there through 1897. This kind of team jumping was fairly common among Negro League players of the era. And here I’m using “negro league” in a more generic sense, rather than refering to the more well established leagues that begin in the 1920s.

9. The end came at age 38 after the 1903 season. At the end of the season he participated in what some refer to as the first Negro League World Series (it isn’t generally credited as such). His team lost.

10. He’s credited with inventing shin guards in order to keep white players from ripping up his legs when they slid into second base. Unfortunately, a couple of other black players (Bud Fowler is one) are also credited with the invention. I have no idea who really did it.

11. He died in 1937.

12. The Hall of Fame selected him for enshrinement in 2006, one of several Negro League players brought in at the same time.

As is usual with black ballplayer who spent their careers in the Negro Leagues, stats are hard to come by. That’s especially true for 19th Century players who only had options in the black leagues or the minors. There’s not much in the way of statistical information on Grant, but there seems to be a consensus that he was among the finest black players of the century, if not the finest (it’s usually a fight between supporters of Grant and supporters of Fowler with a smattering of Walker fans thrown in). Second base was a weak enough position in the 19th Century anyway (except for Nap LaJoie at the very end of the century), so some people make the case for Grant as the best second baseman of the century. Maybe, but I’d like to see a little more statistical information before I buy off on that.

The Yankees Way at Second

June 24, 2011

Some teams seem to stockpile players at one position. Take a look at the Giants and their history of great pitchers as an example. For the Yankees there are three positions like that: Center Field, Catcher, and Second Base. I recognize they’ve had some pretty good players at other positions, but when you have Ruth and Gehrig it’s such a fall off to whoever you pick as the second best guy at the position that you tend to overlook the other players in right field and at first. A while back I did a look at the Yankees center field history, so in keeping with a look at second base, here’s a brief look at the quality of Yankees second basemen since 1921.

When the Yankees won their first pennant in 1921 the second baseman was Aaron Ward. He was a decent player, hitting .300 that year with five home runs. He’s most famous for making the final out in the Series by trying to reach third on a ground out to second (the first time a World Series ended on a double play). He stayed in New York through the 1922 pennant and the first championship of 1923, got hurt in 1924, didn’t bounce back well in 1925 and yielded his place to Tony Lazzeri in 1926.

Lazzeri is the first of the Yankees Hall of Fame second sackers. He’s most famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) for striking out with the bases loaded in game seven of the 1926 World Series (he led the American League in striking out in 1926 with 96). He went on to be a key player in the Murderer’s Row Yankees of 1926-32 and in the first couple of years of the 1936-42 Bronx Bombers. He hit well, was OK in the field, and had a decent World Series record (4 home runs, 19 RBIs in 30 games). In 1938 he was sent to Chicago where he helped the Cubs to a World Series (against the Yankees). He went o-2 in two pinch hit tries.

The Yankees replaced him with their second Hall of Fame second baseman, Joe Gordon. As good as Lazzeri had been, Gordon was better. He hit better, had more power, and was a considerably better second baseman. He won a controversial MVP in 1942, slumped in ’43, then went off to war in 1944 and 1945. He was back in New York in 1946, did poorly, and went to Cleveland the next season. As with Lazzeri, he helped his new team to a pennant, although in took a year (1948) to get to the top. And unlike Lazzeri’s Cubs, the Indians won.

Snuffy Stirnweiss took over for the war years, remaining through most of the 1940s. He was terrific against wartime pitching, not so great postwar. Jerry Coleman replaced him. Coleman was a good glove, no stick player who held the job until Billy Martin arrived.

Martin is much more controversial today than he was when he played for the Yankees. He had a great 1952 World Series, beating the Dodgers pretty much single-handedly (if only he coulda pitched). He stayed at second through the bulk of the 1950s, giving way to Bobby Richardson in the late 1950s. Richardson was another Coleman. He was a good second baseman and hit well enough to eventually lead off for the Yankees through the first half of the 1960s. He hit well, but as a leadoff hitter he was problematic. He never walked and on a team that relied on power over speed, had no power.

As with the rest of the Yankees in the last half of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the second basemen were not players particularly worth remembering (unless you’re a relative). That changed with Willie Randolph. Randolph played the position well, hit well, ran the bases well (again without stealing a lot of bases), and was a critical member of a Yankees revival that lasted into the mid-1980’s. His later stint with the Mets as a manager has damaged his reputation to some degree, but as a player he was very good. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, maybe shouldn’t be, but was a truly fine player.

The Yanks went into another funk that lasted into the middle 1990s. They picked up a  number of good players, drafted some others, and went on to become the formidable force they are today. One of the pickups was Chuck Knoblauch. He hit well, gave them a leadoff hitter with some power, decent speed, and until he forgot how to throw the ball, a pretty fair second baseman. He was replaced by Alfonso Soriano, who ended up in Chicago and in the outfield for a reason. Robinson Cano is the new guy and he’s a throwback to the Lazzeri/Gordon years of a second baseman who can hit and hit for power. I hate to jinx the guy, but he may end up being the best Yankees second sacker ever.

There’s a brief rundown of Yankees second basemen in their glory years. It’s a fairly formidable list. I can think of very few teams that boast two great second basemen. The Yanks have that many, plus a number of above average ones and one current player who may surpass them all. No wonder New York wins a lot.

The Loser Wins

June 23, 2011

Bobby Richardson

For a long time baseball had no World series MVP. It seems the people in charge thought that fans were bright enough to figure out who did the best job in the Series. You had the advantage of being able to watch or listen or read accounts of the games and make your own choice as to who you thought was the MVP of a particular World Series. All that changed in 1955 when MLB decided to pick a Series MVP. Johnny Podres of Brooklyn won the first. Of course fans can still argue among themselves if the “experts” got it right, but there is now an official MVP. They have a lot in common, those MVPs, but being on the winning team isn’t one of them. The 1960 MVP played for the losers.

The 1960 World Series is primarily noted for Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s World Series winning home run leading off the bottom of the ninth in game seven. But Maz wasn’t the MVP. Neither was anyone else on the Pirates. The winner was Bobby Richardson, the other second baseman.

Richardson came to New York in 1955, and by 1957 was taking over as the regular Yankees second baseman. He hit in the mid-.200s, had no power, could run a little, but didn’t steal many bases with the power-laden lineup around him. He was a good enough second baseman, but not really stellar. Later in his career he improved and won several Gold Gloves.

 By 1959 he was the everyday second sacker and had moved into the seventh or eighth position in the order. His average improved and his OBP finally got to .300. He didn’t strikeout much (which is good), but didn’t walk much either (not so good).  In 1960 he hit .252 (his career average is .266), had 115 hits and 35 walks, and scored all of 45 runs. His OBP was .303. So far he was a run-of-the-mill middle infielder who hit low in the order most of the time.

The 1960 World Series was his coming out party. He exploded against Pirates pitching. He hit .367, slugged .667, had an OBP of .387, for an OPS of 1.054. He had a home run in game three, scored eight runs in five of the seven games (missing four and five), had two doubles and two triples, and led both teams with 12 RBIs (a record for the Series). By game seven he was  leading off for New York, and would continue to do so for much of the rest of his career. His stats are MVP numbers, but Mazeroski hit the home run and the Pirates won game seven and you gave the MVP to a winning player. They gave Richardson the MVP anyway. It’s still the only time a player on the losing team has won the World Series MVP (it’s happened a couple of times in the earlier rounds of the playoffs, but not in the Series.).

Richardson went on to have a solid career with New York, retiring in 1966. For his career he had an OBP of .299 (which is terrible for a leadoff man), slugged all of  .335, and ended up with an OPS of .634 (OPS+ of 77). He scored 643 runs in 1412 games. Not great numbers, but a  solid career. He went on to coach some in college. But he’s always going to be known for one World Series and one bit of trivia. I guess that’s not bad for a  player.

Keystone

June 20, 2011

When I was growing up second base was frequently refered to as the keystone, a word you don’t hear much today. That had to do with the fact that you could score fairly easily from second on a clean base hit (unless Roberto Clemente was in right field), so second was the base everyone wanted to be standing on. I think that kind of mentality helped lead to the increased running game of the 1960s. I don’t know how much emphasis should be put on it, but I think it helped. 

I’ve always been a bit surprised at how hard it is to define a second baseman. When I was a kid there was a saying that went around about how you decided who played each position. The catcher was the smartest, the pitcher had the most control, the right fielder the best arm, the center fielder was fastest, the shortstop the most agile, the third baseman the quickest, the first baseman the best catcher, the second baseman had the quickest feet, and the other guy played left field. I’ve seen and heard various versions of this over the years, but they all seem to bring second base down to feet (as opposed to short and third which imply something just a little more than feet). That seems to indicate that either the ability to turn a double play is paramount or that they can get to the ball quickly.

Of course none of that has a thing to do with how well you hit the ball. And second base seems to be unable to define just how important that is to the position. For a number of years in the Nineteenth Century, second was primarily a fielding position, then in the early Twentieth it became more of  a hitting position, back to a fielding position for a few years in the late 1920’s, then back again to hitting in the 1930’s, and so on for the entire history of the professional game. In the mid-1980’s it was considered a fielding position which seems to have led to the silly idea that Cubs’ second baseman Ryne Sandberg should hit second and first baseman Mark Grace should hit third (instead of the other way around).

Sandberg/Grace is merely one example of the problem. What I want to do over the next few posts is to look at second base. I want to trace its evolution (and frequent return to its roots) and look at some of the people who made the position what it is today.  We’ll see how it turns out.

The Original “Goose”

June 17, 2011

Goose Goslin as a Senator

Use the name “Goose” around a modern fan and the odds are you’ll get one of two responses: “who?” or “Gossage.” Frankly, I’d probably respond with Gossage too. But way back there was another “Goose” who was good enough to make the Hall of Fame. As I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with the Washington Senators/ Minnesota Twins recently, I thought I might introduce you to “Goose” Goslin.

Leon Goslin was born in New Jersey in 1900. He was good enough to play for his  local factory team, both pitching and playing the field. It got him a job with the Minor League team in Columbia, South Carolina in 1920. The team made him an outfielder. In 1921 the Senators signed him for $6000. He made the club late in the season, hitting .260 with a home run and six RBIs. By 1922 he was the regular left fielder.

This is as good a time as any to get to the “Goose” nickname. There are at least three stories. One says that Goslin was fairly inept in the field when he came up and would run around the outfield chasing the ball with his arms flapping like a goose. The second says that his large nose, known colloquially as a “honker” (a noise geese make) got him the nickname. The third, which is the one I favor, is that it simply was a natural to go with Goslin. Whatever the reason, it stuck for the rest of his life.

He played well in both 1922 and 1923, leading the team in home runs in ’23 and the entire American League in triples. In 1924 the Senators made the World Series for the first time. Goslin, playing all seven games, hit .344, led the league in RBIs, had an OPS of .937, and hit for the cycle on 28 August against New York. The Senators won the Series in seven games, Goslin hitting .344 (the same as his regular season average. I wonder how often that happens?) with three home runs, seven RBIs, and an OPS of 1.000. They were back in 1925, this time dropping the Series in seven. Playing all seven games again Goslin had three home runs, hit .308, and had six RBIs. His OPS? 1.072. For the regular season he led the AL in triples and had 200 hits for the first time.

The Senators slipped in 1926 but Goslin continued to perform well into 1930 when he was traded to St. Louis. He was having trouble getting along with manager Walter Johnson, a conflict he could never win in Washington. Freed from cavernous Griffith Stadium,  Goslin had a career high 30 home runs (37 for the season, a season noted for a juiced ball), dropped back to 24 the next season and further down to 17 in 1932. That got him a trade back to Washington (Johnson had just been fired), which promptly went out and won its third AL pennant. Although on the downside of his career, Goslin contributed a .297 average and 65 RBIs. In the World Series he played all five games of the loss to the Giants, hitting .250 with one home run. It was Washington’s last World Series and Goslin had the distinction of being the only Senator to play in all 19 of the team’s World Series games. He also logged every inning.

Goslin hadn’t gotten along with Johnson’s replacement, Joe Cronin, so he (Goslin) went to Detroit in 1934. There he teamed with Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, and Gee Walker to form the Tigers “G Men” (a play on the currently popular nickname for FBI agents). Again, Detroit promptly went out and won the AL pennant. Goslin hit .305, had  100 RBIs, and an OPS of .826. In the Series he hit .241 with two RBIs and the Tigers lost in seven to Dizzy Dean and the “Gas House Gang” Cardinals.

The Tigers were back in 1935, winning the pennant with Goslin contributing nine home runs, 109 RBIs, an OPS of .770, and a .292 average. This time, taking on the Cubs, the Tigers won the Series (their first ever) with Goslin hitting .273, having three RBIs, and driving in the Series’ winning run in game six. Again he played each game. It was to be his last Series. For his postseason career he hit .287, had an OPS of .836, hit seven home runs, had 19 RBIs, scored 16 runs, and had 37 hits, while playing all 32 games in the Series.

His last good year was 1936. He hit .300 for the last time, had 125 RBIs and 24 home runs. His OPS was .930. He also managed the first home run off phenom Bob Feller. He had a bad 1937 and was released by Detroit. He was 36. Washington brought him back for one last fling in 1938. he hit a buck .58 and was done. He managed a couple of undistinguished seasons in the Minors, then retired to a farm in New Jersey. He farmed, ran a boat business, and made the Hall of Fame in 1968. Death came in 1971.

For his career, Goslin hit .316, slugged .500, had an OBP of .387, totalling .887 for his OPS (OPS+ of 128). He had 2735 hits, 248 home runs, 173 triples, and 500 doubles for 4325 total bases. He had about two walks for every strikeouts and managed 176 stolen bases in a low stolen base era. His black ink number is 10, but his gray ink number is 200. In an end of century list, the Sporting News named Goslin the 89th greatest player of the century (probably too high).

I remember putting together my own list of greatest left fielders one time years ago. I had Goslin third (Williams and Musial) because Bonds and Henderson had not yet become the stars they became and because I was still fascinated by a player hitting .300 (which still is good, just not as good as I used to think). Bill James has him 16th in his historical abstract. My guess is that Goslin sits somewhere between. He helped his team, both Washington and Detroit, win. It can’t be pure coincidence that he gets traded to two teams who just then manage to win pennants (he’s a missing piece, not the prime reason for winning). All in all he’s a player I like and think should be remembered. I have no problem with him being in the Hall of Fame.

And I love the picture of him that I placed at the head of this comment. His hat is cocked, he stands confident and looks very self-assured. Kind of like to see that in a ball player.

The Other Winner

June 15, 2011
Mogridge

George Mogridge

The other day I did a post on how teams fared home and away in World Series play. In doing so I noted that Walter Johnson was one of two pitchers to win an away game for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise in the World Series. The other winner was George Mogridge. I asked “who”? I decided to find out who he was. Here’s what I found.

Mogridge was born in Rochester, New York in 1889. He spent time in the Minors pitching until he hit the Major Leagues in August 1911 as a left-handed starter. Initially with the White Sox, he went 3-6 in 1911 and 1912, had about a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio, a 4.00 ERA (which is huge in Deadball Era Baseball), and gave up more hits than inning pitched. All that earned him a return to the Minors, where he stayed until 1915, when he got a second chance, this time with the Yankees. He was 48-57 at New York with an ERA in the middle twos (which is at least more reasonable in the era. He now had more innings pitched than hits, but his strikeout/walk ratio began to even out (278 strikeouts, 200 walks). His best year was 1918 when he went 16-13 and led the American League in saves (a stat not yet invented). In 1917 he threw the first no-hitter in Yankees history (against Boston). All that got him sent to Washington in 1921.

He was 68-55 for the Senators, seeing his ERA rise to the low threes in the new “lively ball” era. His strikeouts to walk ratio got worse (284 to 273) and he reverted to giving up more hits than he had innings pitched. He won 18 games (a career high) in both 1921 and 1922, won 16 in the World Series season of 1924, then was 3-4 when he was traded to the St. Louis Browns in 1925. He spent the rest of that season in St. Louis, went to the Boston Red Sox in 1926 and finished his career in Boston mid-season 1927. He finished the year as manager of the Rochester minor league club, then retired at age 38. He died in Rochester in 1962.

For his career, Mogridge was 132-133 with a 3.23 ERA over 398 games. He struck out 678 and walked 565, giving up 2352 hits over 2266 innings. In other words, a thoroughly mediocre career.

His only World Series appearance was in 1924 against the Giants. He pitched in two games, went 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He struck out five, walked six, and 12 innings gave up seven hits and five runs. He was the winning pitcher in a game 4 victory (7-4) at New York, going 7.1 innings and giving up three of the runs (two earned). He walked five and struck out two in his winning effort. It was the only game Washington won on the road in the Series (Johnson won his road game in 1925).

So there’s George Mogridge. As I said above, a thoroughly mediocre pitcher, but one that has a claim to fame, the first Yankees no-hitter, and is the answer to a trivia question (the only Senators/Twins pitcher not named Walter Johnson to win a road game in franchise history). Actually that’s not a bad legacy for a 132-133 pitcher.

Home Field Advantage

June 13, 2011

Dome, Sweet, Dome

I’m something of a hockey fan. I watch a little when I get the chance and I’ve really enjoyed this year’s Stanley Cup. So far the home team has won each game. That makes for a real “home field advantage” (or ice in this case). I’ve watched a lot of sports over the years and I’ve noticed that the so-call “home field advantage” is kind of an uneven thing. It seems to me that it holds for hockey pretty well, less well for both football and basketball, and is something of a joke in baseball. I’ve always found  that a little strange. Baseball, after all, is the only one that doesn’t have a standardized playing surface. In every hockey match the ice is the same length and width. Same in football and basketball. But in baseball outfields differ greatly. So you’d  think that would give a team used to the outfield an advantage, wouldn’t you? And that doesn’t even begin to address the idea of a domed stadium versus open-air parks.

I decided to test this just a little, without trying to determine why. I went back to 1961 with the first expansion since 1901 and began looking at who won games at home and away in the World Series. Because the pre-World Series playoffs didn’t begin until 1969, I concentrated strictly on the Series. I also determined I wasn’t going to take the time to go through every team. So I picked five teams that played about the same number of World Series’ in the period: the Giants, Mets, Red Sox, Reds, and Twins. Here are the results.

Giants: The Giants appeared in four World Series (1962 and ’89, and 2002 and 2011) winning one (2011). They played 11 games at home, twelve on the road. Their record was 5-6 at home and 5-7 on the road. No advantage either way for them, they do equally poorly at home and away. And to be fair, there are two parks involved as the Giants home field.

Mets: The Mets appeared in three World Series (1969, 1973, 1986) winning two (’69 and ’86). They played 10 games at home, nine on the road. Their record was 7-3 at home and 4-5 on the road. A definite advantage for the Mets to play at home, but  one game under .500 is not a bad record on the road.

Red Sox: The Red Sox appeared in five World Series (1967, ’75, and ’86, and 2004, ’07) winning two (2004 and 2007). They played 15 games at home, 14 on the road. Their record was 9-6 at home and 8-6 on the road. Both are winning records, but are almost exactly alike. There seems to be no advantage for Boston to play either location.

Reds: The Reds appeared in six World Series (1962, ’70, 72, ’75, ’76, and ’90) winning half (1975, ’76,’ and ’90). They played 15 games at home, 16 on the road. Their record was 7-8 at home and 10-6 on the road. Cincinnati actually benefitted by playing on the road. Like the Giants, the Reds’ World Series games occur in two different parks.

Twins: OK, you knew there would be a kicker didn’t you? This is it. The Twins make three World Series (1967, ’87, ’91) winning two (1987 and 1991). They played 12 games at home and nine away. Their record is an  astonishing 11-1 at home and 0-9 on the road. Tell me the Metrodome didn’t make a difference? And again, there are two parks involved. BTW the lone home loss was game 7 of 1965 when they lost a three-hit shutout to Sandy Koufax. Things like that happen.

The Twins number is so outlandish, I decided to check something else. Between 1901 and 1960 the Twins were the Washington Senators, who just happened to also make it to three World Series’ (1924, ’25, and ’33), winning one (1924). They played 10 games at home, nine on the road, with different results. They were 6-4 at home and 2-7 on the road. For anyone curious, the only Senators/Twins pitchers to win a World Series game on the road were George Mogridge (who?) and Walter Johnson. Bet you had the second one figured.

Now this is  only a partial sample and I’m willing to admit that a fuller look might yield different results. But it seems that “home field” isn’t all that big a deal in the World Series (unless you’re the Twins). So maybe making “home field” reliant on the All Star Game isn’t such a big deal either.

The MLB Draft

June 10, 2011

Normally, I pay very little attention to the MLB draft. It seems to be much more of a crapshoot than either the football or basketball versions. An inordinate number of high choices don’t pan out and an equally inordinate number of stars come from the gazillionth round. It also goes on forever. Didn’t they start it about 30 minutes after Opening Day? Basically I have one rule about the draft: if a team drafts a left-handed high school pitcher in the first round, write “Bust” beside his name immediately. But this year is a little different. I noted three stories worth passing along.

1. In the 6th Round the Padres took Valparaiso outfielder Kyle Gaedele. Name strike a bell? Turns out he’s the great-nephew of Eddie Gaedele. That name strike a bell? Gaedele was the midget (can we use that word now?) that Bill Veeck signed to bat one time in1951. Gaedele walked, was taken out for a pinch runner, and had his contract immediately voided by MLB (which apparently had no sense of humor, even with “Happy” Chandler as commissioner). It was a heck of a stunt, ranking up there with the exploding scoreboard, also a Veeck innovation. Eddie Gaedele makes for a great footnote in baseball. Here’s hoping his nephew makes the big leagues and follows in his great-uncle’s shoes, if he can fit them on his feet (sorry, couldn’t resist the gag).

2. In the 33rd Round the Texas Rangers picked outfielder Johnathan Taylor of Georgia. Taylor was a prospect who was injured in an on-field collision back in March. He ran into a teammate while trying to catch a ball (BTW the teammate was also picked by the Rangers). Taylor is paralyzed from the waist down and is probably never going to be able to walk again. Classy move by the Rangers.

3. Along the same lines, the Astros picked Buddy Lamothe, a  reliever from San Jacinto College in the 40th round. Lamothe was injured in a swimming accident and, like Taylor, is also paralyzed. Again, classy move by a team.

Now I think both the last two points are classy (as I said above) and this is certainly no knock on either team or the players chosen, but doesn’t it point out a problem with the MLB draft? If you can spend a pick on a paralyzed player, then maybe there are too many rounds of the draft and teams are reduced to marginal prospects in the latter rounds. I think it’s too long, but I acknowledge that occasionally good players are found really low in the draft (see Mike Piazza).  I’m glad the guys were chosen, but it tells me that baseball needs to work on fixing up the draft. Thoughts? I mean other than I’m a spoilsport.

The Winningest Pitcher in the last 100 Years

June 9, 2011

Warren Spahn in wind up

On this date in 1911 Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 11th game for Philadelphia, 4-1 over Cincinnati. It made him 11-2 for the season. It also meant that at the end of the day he would go on to win 362 games for the rest of his career. That means as of today no pitcher has won more games in the last 100 years (9 June 1911 to right now) than Warren Spahn.

Somehow Spahn gets overlooked in the roll-call of great pitchers. Even if you restrict it to left-handers he tends to fall short of the top rung. I suppose there are a lot or reasons for that. He did pitch so long ago that only a few geezers like me even remember him and that enormous leg kick of his. He was never very flashy. He went out day after day season after season and won 20 games with regularity and nobody noticed. Milwaukee, and earlier Boston, were not hot spots for Major League baseball when he pitched. OK, Boston was a big deal but it was a big deal for the Red Sox, not for the Braves. He also tended to be overshadowed by his teammates. He had Johnny Sain in Boston, then came Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron. Even Lew Burdette overshadowed him for a while as a pitcher. But Spahn was always there and always winning.

Spahn had a cup of coffee with the Braves before World War II, went off to war, won a Purple Heart, then got back to the Majors in 1946. He won eight games. The next time he won less than 14 was 1964. In 1948 the Braves got to the World Series for the first time since the “Miracle Braves” of 1914. He teamed with Johnny Sain to form a formidable one-two pitching punch (“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” was the mantra), but Boston lost to Cleveland in six games. In 1957, ’58, and ’59 the Braves were again in contention, winning the Series in ’57, losing it in ’58, and losing a best of three playoff series to Los Angeles in 1959. In 1961 he won 21 games at age 40, including his second no-hitter, proving that some players do actually get better with age without the use of steroids.  Spahn had a miserable 1964. He was traded to the Mets and then to the Giants for his final year. After retirement he coached and managed in the minors, occasionally pitching a game for his team. That put off his Hall of fame induction to 1973. He died in Oklahoma in 2003.

What Spahn did was win and eat innings for his team. Between 1947 and 1963 inclusive he won 342 games (an average of 20 a season). He led the National League in wins eight times, in winning percentage once, innings pitched four times, in complete games nine times, in shutouts five, in strikeouts four, and picked up two ERA titles. In all of that his peak number of wins was 23. In other words Spahn was winning consistently every year, not just putting together a great year followed by a weaker season, then dropping in another great year a season or so later. Between 1957 and 1961 he never won more than 22 games nor less than 21. For his career he was 363-245 (.597 winning percentage) with 2583 strikeouts, 1434 walks, an ERA of 3.09 (ERA+ of 119) and a 1.195 WHIP. He even picked up 29 saves along the way. All while facing 21,547 batters. In the World Series he was 4-3 with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks, and ERA of 3.05 (almost dead-on his regular season average) and 1.071 WHIP.

He also had a decent sense of humor and was something of a philosopher. He gave up Willie Mays’ first home run. In later years Spahn said he took full responsibility for Mays’ career. If he’d gotten him out, maybe Mays would have ended up back in the Minors and National League pitchers would have been spared a lot of grief. He is also supposed to have come up with the comment to the effect that hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing (I’ve seen that quoted a couple of ways, so it isn’t in quotation marks.). Not a bad philosophy for a pitcher.

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about which left-hander was the greatest. Lefty Grove gets a lot of support. So do Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. Sandy Koufax enters some discussions, as does Carl Hubbell. But Spahn almost never does. The others were each, in their own way, more spectacular, but none was more consistent than Spahn.I know it’s fashionable to downplay the “win”statistic, but back in the 1950s (the bulk of Spahn’s career) it meant more. Pitchers completed more games, regularly pitched more innings, certainly started more games. Those make the win a more important stat in the era than it is today. And Warren Spahn has more of them than anyone else in the last 100 years.

Someone, at least, finally recognized Spahn’s greatness. In 1999 the Warren Spahn Award was initiated recognizing the best lefty in baseball. Randy Johnson won the first one (actually the first four) and Spahn was there to hand it to him. I always thought that was nice of them.

Warren Spahn Award trophy