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Monday, January 28
Updated: January 30, 2:10 PM ET
 
January 2002 Archives

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 30
Chris Singleton isn't a bad player, but one can't help but be a little amused at Syd Thrift's claim that "Chris Singleton is a .300 hitter ..."

Chris Singleton is 29 years old, and his career batting average is .283. His career on-base percentage is .319, which means that Thrift would have been nearly as accurate if he'd instead said, "Chris Singleton is a .300 OBP guy ..."

Singleton is expected to serve as the Orioles' new leadoff man.

And then there's Pokey Reese, who's not a bad player, either. But one of the most fundamental principles of baseball is that if you don't have a lot of runners on base, you're not going to score a lot of runs. And Reese, like Singleton, simply doesn't reach base often enough to score a lot of runs.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Robert Dvorchak writes today that the Pirates "have filled their biggest need and benefited from the shifting fortunes of the free-agent market ..."

P-G columnist Bob Smizik writes today, "It's a brilliant stroke for General Manager Dave Littlefield and a substantial commitment to bettering the team by owner Kevin McClatchy."

In fairness to Smizik, he does note, "A downside is Reese is a free swinger who does not draw a lot of walks." Unfortunately, Smizik also reports, with not even a skeptical wink, "The Pirates believe Reese, who will be 29 in June, can regain his offensive touch, which made him a solid top-of-the-lineup hitter ..."

Uh, right. Reese's career-best OBP was a lofty .330, which came when he was 26. He's actually improved his walk rate (very slightly) since then, but his batting average has steadily sunk, and it looks likely that Reese was simply a little lucky in 1999. Teams always think they can "fix" players like Reese, but is there any sort of reason to think the Pirates are capable of fixing anybody? Last year the Bucs drew 467 walks, fewest in the National League, and there's ample evidence that "improve plate discipline" falls somewhere between "renew subscription to The New Republic" and "send check to The Sierra Club" on manager Lloyd McClendon's list of priorities.

Look, this isn't a terrible thing for the Pirates. Everything you've heard about Pokey Reese's glove is true; he really is the top defensive second baseman in the game. He does have some pop in his bat and he is a brilliant base stealer, in terms of quality if not quantity. Does Pokey Reese make the Pirates better than they were a year ago? Given the "production" the Pirates got from their second basemen in 2001, he probably does. So paying Pokey Reese $5 million over two years is nothing like giving $14.5 million to Pat Meares or $9 million to Derek Bell (two of former GM Cam Bonifay's more unfortunate brainstorms).

On the other hand, the Pirates' biggest problems last year did not include defense at second base, or team speed. The Pirates' biggest problems were pitchers who didn't strike anybody out and hitters who didn't get on base. Pittsburgh pitchers struck out 908 hitters, fewest in the National League. Pittsburgh hitters combined to post a .313 on-base percentage, lowest in the major leagues.

This offseason, Littlefield traded his 2001 strikeout leader (Todd Ritchie), but in return received three pitchers from the White Sox with good strikeout ratios. They've still got a long ways to go, but there is reason for optimism about the Pittsburgh moundsmen.

But Pokey Reese is the only hitter added to the lineup this winter, and Reese's career OBP (.308) is even worse than the Pirates' team mark last year.

It seems to me that if you've got a limited amount of money to spend, you must first identify your team's No. 1 weakness, and then direct at least some portion of your limited funds toward that weakness. Dave Littlefield has put the Pirates on the line for $5 million without addressing the club's biggest offensive shortcoming, and so the acquisition of Pokey Reese looks good only in comparison to the organizational idiocy that came before it.

MONDAY, JAN. 28
Aside from the scintillating news that Barry Bonds is excited about the prospect of playing at Yankee Stadium this season, there has not been much baseball news lately. Which is, perhaps, why I spent more than a few minutes thinking about Chad Hutchinson.

You following this story? In a nutshell, after pitching in the minor leagues for four seasons, without much success, Hutchinson just signed a contract to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.

In 1995, the Atlanta Braves used their first-round draft pick (26th overall) on Hutchinson, a pitcher who had just graduated from Torrey Pines High School in Encinitas, California. He didn't sign with the Braves, however, opting instead for a scholarship to Stanford, where he starred on the diamond and the gridiron. Hutchinson started at quarterback for the Cardinal as a sophomore and junior, passing for more than 4,000 yards.

After his junior year, the St. Louis Cardinals (with an s) drafted Hutchinson in the second round, and he signed to play professional baseball. He did well that first summer (1998), posting a 3.05 in eight Class A starts. Since then, though, he's had his problems. A year ago, he opened the season on the major-league roster, but was hammered in four innings and quickly dispatched to Triple-A Memphis. That was a complete disaster, as Hutchinson walked 104 hitters in 98 innings and posted a 7.92 ERA.

And now he's going to play football instead.

ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli suggests that Hutchinson has opted "perhaps for the best offer over the best opportunity," meaning Hutchinson took more money from the Cowboys than his other suitors, the Bears and Redskins. But Hutchinson is apparently making the right choice by switching to football.

Hutchinson turns 25 in a few weeks, and his career stats as a professional above Class A look like this:

Innings  Hits  Walks  K's   W-L    ERA
  311     289   257   342  15-24  6.24

Hutchinson won 15 games in his last season at Stanford, and now he's won 17 games (including two in Class A) in four seasons as a professional. Can anybody blame the guy for thinking that maybe baseball's not his game?

In recent years, how many 25-year-old pitchers with this record of abject failure eventually pitched well in the major leagues? I don't know, but I suspect that the number isn't large. By the time Mike Mussina -- another Stanford product -- turned 25, he'd already won 36 games for the Baltimore Orioles. Mussina's not your average big-league starter, of course, but still ... a 6.24 ERA is what it is. Hutchinson may throw lightning bolts, but even lightning bolts aren't effective when they're not delivered in the vicinity of the strike zone.

You know, it's generally accepted that if an amateur athlete has a choice between going pro in football or baseball, he should pick baseball because the money's often better and the injury risk isn't nearly as great. I'm not so sure that's true, either, at least not for pitchers. In my various projects over the years, something I've learned over and over again is that young pitchers break. There have been literally hundreds of pitchers who performed like stars at 20 or 21 or 22 ... and never did so well again.

It's difficult for most of us mortals to imagine what it's like to have professional talent in one sport, let alone two. But there are actually humans with that sort of talent walking around, and at some point they have to make a tough choice (unless they're Bo Jackson): which sport do I play? And if I were a great two-sport athlete at Stanford, I would find a great scholar on campus and ask him for a little advice. Knowledge is power.

FRIDAY, JAN. 25
Continuing my recent habit of writing more about the Brewers than I'd written in the previous five years, here's a note from an interested fan ...

    Rob,

    I'd just like to share a comment made by (Davey) Lopes regarding Glendon Rusch and lefties in general.

    "The history of left-handers is they develop late," Lopes said.

    My question for you is, is Lopes correct? Do lefties really develop later than righties?

    Thanks for your time,
    Jason Schreiber

Jason pointed me to the article containing Lopes' quote, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And Lopes' opinion -- that's all it is, of course -- falls under the heading of "Things Baseball Men Say Without Actually Checking" (someday I'm going to make a list of them, but I'll need a three-month sabbatical). Actually, some baseball men are more specific than Lopes; it's often said, or it often used to be said, that "left-handers don't find themselves until they're 26."

Which wouldn't do Lopes or Rusch any good, because Rusch was 26 last year and didn't exactly find himself. Come to think of it, maybe that's why Lopes was so vague. Anyway, this motion probably became popular because of Sandy Koufax ...

 
Koufax         W-L    ERA 
Ages 19-25    54-53  3.94 
Ages 26-30   111-34  1.95 

Pretty powerful stuff. But when you base an assumption about a group of players on one or two members of that group, you're probably going to be wrong. Should we assume, because Jose Cruz and Luis Gonzalez both played better in their 30s than their 20s, that Astros left fielders will generally do better in their 30s?

Probably not. Anyway, nothing magical happens for left-handers when they turn 26, or 27 or 28. Bill James studied the issue and ran a chart including data for every left-handed pitcher born between 1920 and 1939 (The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1983, page 211). The lefties posted a .505 winning percentage from ages 23 through 26, and a .507 winning percentage from ages 27 through 30.

I think that Glendon Rusch is a pretty good pitcher, too, that 5.00 career ERA notwithstanding. But unlike Lopes, I don't think it's got anything to do with the age of his leftiness.

  • Trolling through ESPN.com's Rumor Central ... The Baltimore Sun reports that the Orioles would very much like to reacquire B.J. Surhoff. Why does that surprise me? After all, Surhoff's only 37 and he can't hit, so he'll fit right in with Syd Thrift's youth movement. ... Wouldn't it be fun to see David Cone pitching for the Yankees again? Let's see, he's 39, Clemens is 39, Wells is 37. If there's one thing that could kill the Yankees in 2002, it's the possibility of a bunch of guys suddenly showing their age. ... Yes, it would be silly for the perpetually-rebuilding Tigers to sign free agent Kenny Lofton to a long-term deal. But on a happier note, apparently GM Randy Smith understands that Pokey Reese doesn't have much value unless he's playing shortstop. Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, on the other hand, wants Pokey to play second base. As Reds GM Jim Bowden so painfully discovered, a guy with a .300 OBP and moderate power will hurt you, even if he is the best defender in the league. ... Not to rag on David Bell, but last summer when I wrote that he really wasn't anybody's idea of an All-Star, he had a lot of defenders. And after a long process in which the Mariners attempted to deal Bell this offseason, they finally found a taker in the Giants. In return, the Mariners got infielder Desi Relaford from San Francisco. Getting back to Bell, the truth is that corner infielders with .300 OBP's shouldn't be in the lineup every day, but Bell's going to make everyday money after he takes the Giants to arbitration. He's a nice little player who can help somebody in a limited role, but his strong showing in the All-Star balloting was a testament to the idiocy of the system rather than his skills.

    TUESDAY, JAN. 22
    Monday's big trade was a three-team, 11-player deal, but with all due respect to Messrs. Harris, D'Amico, Sweeney, and the pair of minor leaguers, this one really boils down to five players and a few bucks:

  • the Mets get Jeromy Burnitz and some cash,

  • the Rockies get Todd Zeile, Benny Agbayani and some cash,

  • and the Brewers get Glendon Rusch and Alex Ochoa.

    The Rockies get some cash from the Mets to help pay Zeile; the Mets get some cash from the Brewers to help pay Burnitz.

    You've heard of a trade that supposedly "helps both teams"? Well, this one just may help all three teams, at least on paper.

    For the Mets, Burnitz and Roger Cedeno are pretty clearly an upgrade over Agbayani, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Timo Perez and Matt Lawton in the corner outfield slots. Just adding the 2001 stats for all of those players together, we get this:

                     OBP   Slug    
    Old Corner OF   .331   .386
    New Corner OF   .343   .452
    

    Big bump in slugging percentage. Not so big bump in on-base percentage, mostly because Cedeno drew only 36 walks last year and so posted a .337 OBP. Still, I think we should expect more production from the Mets outfield this season, especially if we assume that Jay Payton simply can't be as bad in 2002 as he was in 2001 (which, it should be said, is not a particularly safe assumption).

    For the Rockies, Zeile fills a gaping hole at third base. Granted, he's 36 and coming off a poor season, but (1) Coors Field may do wonders for his swing, and (2) the Rockies were supposedly considering Shane Halter for the job.

    And now the Brewers ... in my very last column, I wrote some pretty awful things about Milwaukee GM Dean Taylor, but I like this deal for the Brewers. Alex Ochoa is, of course, a pale substitute for Burnitz, though some analysts do think he'll bounce back from a lousy 2001 campaign. The guy I really like here is Glendon Rusch. Here are his first- and second-half numbers from last season, courtesy of Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster:

               ERA   H%            
    1st Half   5.56   40  
    2nd Half   3.86   32  
    

    I would imagine that you understand the ERA column, but that other might not be familiar. "H%" is hits allowed per balls in play -- that is, every batted ball that doesn't go over the fence -- and Rusch's first-half figure is off the charts, while his second-half figure is essentially normal. And the difference between the two figures goes a long way toward explaining the difference between Rusch's first- and second-half ERA. It wasn't that he pitched all that differently, it's just that for three months a lot of balls were falling in, and then for the next three months a lot of balls weren't.

    But wait -- you're saying, all over the world because the Internet knows few national boundaries -- 40 percent of the balls in play were hits because Rusch was making fat pitches, which got ripped for line drives!

    Well, maybe. But probably not. I wrote extensively about this almost exactly a year ago -- January 24 and 26, 2001, to be precise -- so I won't delve deeply into the discussion now (though if you missed it the first time, those columns are still available in the January 2001 archives).

    Suffice to say, a pitcher really doesn't have much control over how many balls in play become hits, home runs notwithstanding. I know that's counterintuitive and you don't believe me, so let me try something here ... You would expect, wouldn't you, that a relatively low percentage of the balls in play against the very best pitchers would become hits? Here are the hit rates against the top five ERA qualifiers in the National League last season:

                  ERA  H%
    R Johnson    2.49  33
    C Schilling  2.98  31
    J Burkett    3.04  28
    G Maddux     3.05  29
    D Kile       3.09  31
    

    And you would expect, wouldn't you, that a relatively high percentage of the balls in play against the worst pitchers would become hits? Here are the hit rates against the bottom five ERA qualifiers in the NL last year:

                  ERA  H%
    D Mlicki     6.17  31
    M Hampton    5.41  31
    D Neagle     5.38  32
    C Reitsma    5.29  31
    L Hernandez  5.24  33
    

    True, the average hit rate for the high-ERA pitchers is very slightly higher than the average hit rate for the low-ERA pitchers, but 1) the difference is, again, very slight, and 2) there is of course a selection bias here. That's a fancy way of saying that if you make a list of pitchers with low ERAs you're very unlikely to find among them a pitcher with a high hit rate, for the obvious reason.

    Anyway, I hope it's obvious that the pitchers with the high ERA's did not give up a high percentage of hits on balls in play. Dave Mlicki, who had the highest ERA among qualifiers, gave up a lower percentage of hits on balls in play than did Randy Johnson, who had the lowest ERA.

    More to the point, that 40 percent hit rate off Rusch in the first half of the 2001 season may have killed his ERA, but it really didn't have anything to do with how well he actually pitched. And so rather than getting a 4.63 pitcher -- that was Rusch's ERA last season -- what they're really getting is something like a 4.00 pitcher ... which means Rusch is the new ace of the staff. And it also means that the deal -- trading an aging slugger who makes a lot of money for a young pitcher who doesn't -- could work out nicely for Dean Taylor and his team.

    And don't forget, last year Taylor swindled the Cubs out of Ruben Quevedo. Come to think of it, Taylor is operating a lot like his mentor, John Schuerholz: good with pitchers, not so good with hitters. And while that philosophy works pretty well when you can afford the best pitchers, it doesn't work so well when you can't. Which is why the 2002 All-Star Game is going to be the highlight of baseball in Milwaukee for a number of years.

    FRIDAY, JAN. 18
    Back in our own universe, Lou Difruscio writes,

      I despise the Mets, but I just saw a refreshing quote from GM Steve Phillips. When asked about the advisability of adding another high-strikeout hitter (such as Burnitz) when he already has one in Vaughn, Phillips offered a detailed answer: "I don't look at strikeouts in a vacuum. I tend to look more at on-base percentage and slugging percentage rather than strikeouts. To me there are players who don't strike out much but who are not as good an offensive player as guys who do strike out. Strikeouts by themselves are a problem. Strikeouts paired with an adequate number of walks are not as much a problem."

    Couldn't have said it much better myself. Strikeouts are a negative, but they're a relatively small negative, and with many players the strikeouts are more than balanced by walks and home runs. It's no coincidence that of the 10 major leaguers with the highest OPS total last season, six struck out more than 100 times (and a few of them struck out a lot more than 100 times).

    And while it's certainly too early to say that Steve Phillips really gets it (or at least part of "it"), the quote above suggests that he probably does. And this has led a number of readers to ask me, "If Steve Phillips gets it" -- the Mets aren't generally considered one of the sabermetrics-friendly organizations -- "does this signify a sea change all around the majors?"

    Well, there's no question that baseball executives use terms like "on-base percentage" and "slugging percentage" more than they used to. But lest anyone think that objective analysis is rapidly taking over the game, I present to you Commissioner Bud's own wonderful team, the Milwaukee Brewers.

    Wednesday, Brewers GM Dean Taylor spent $5 million on a two-year contract for Eric Young, even though he already had a perfectly good second baseman in Ron Belliard.

    In the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Drew Olson wrote, "Belliard, whose 2001 season ended two months early due to a severe ankle sprain, was given several chances to win the leadoff job but never established himself. Battling weight problems for the second straight year, he hit .264 last year with a .335 on-base percentage."

    Great. Belliard isn't the leadoff man the Brewers thought he would be. So their response is to replace the .335 OBP with a .333 OBP? That's right, friends. Last year, though he battled weight problems and didn't establish himself in the leadoff slot, Belliard's OBP was higher than Young's (if only slightly).

    Still, Taylor says, "Eric is a quality, proven leadoff hitter. He is a guy who knows how to get on base and will be a valuable part of our club in 2002 and beyond."

    Uh-huh. Belliard has now been a regular for three seasons. Here's how his numbers compare to Young's over that span:

               OBP  Slug  Steals
    Young     .357  .385    136
    Belliard  .358  .419     16 
    

    When you consider Young's huge edge in steals, it's apparent that he has been somewhat more productive than Belliard ... but when you consider that Belliard is better with the glove and he's eight years younger, it's apparent that Belliard is, at this moment, the more valuable property of the two, in real life if not in Dean Taylor's fantasy world.

    What does that eight-year age difference mean? It means that we might expect Young to get worse, and Belliard to get better. But don't take it from me; take it from people who are a lot smarter than me. Here are the averages of the 2002 projections for Young and Belliard that appear in the STATS Major League Handbook and Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster:

               OBP  Slug  Steals
    Young     .345  .378    36 
    Belliard  .352  .437    10 
    

    So Belliard's likely to hit for more power and get on base more often. And you're going to throw him away over for Eric Young, and pay Young $5 million in the process?

    You know why the Brewers like Eric Young? Because he steals bases, and because he's old ... er, I mean because he's a veteran. A Proven Veteran.

    "We had a lot of interest in 'EY' as an organization," Taylor said. "We were interested in him not only as a player, but as someone who is going to be a quality influence in the clubhouse."

    Ah, the last refuge of a desperate man: acquiring players because they're going to exert a quality influence in the clubhouse. I don't believe that I've ever been in a clubhouse with Eric Young, but it strikes me as a bit strange to trumpet the leadership qualities of a player who's been in the big leagues for 10 years and played in the grand total of four postseason games.

    As reader Ed Tsunoda points out, it's quite likely that Davey Lopes had something to do with signing Young, as Lopes probably sees a lot of himself in Young. Both came up with the Dodgers, both played second base, and both continued to steal bases prolifically into their middle-30s. However, acquiring a player because he's like you probably isn't the best evaluative method.

    The Brewers are essentially doing what crummy organizations have always done: they're blaming their own good young players for the faults of the franchise. It's one of the classic blunders, right up there with "Never get involved in a land war in Asia."

    Dean Taylor is not the problem, nor is Davey Lopes. Oh no, it's the 26-year-old second baseman who slugged .453 last season. Jeez, if I were smart enough to figure that out for myself, maybe I'd be running a baseball team instead of pecking out my little internet columns.

    Getting back to the question that you've probably forgotten by now ... No, I don't believe that objective analysis will dominate baseball anytime soon. Yes, there are baseball executives out there who buy into the program. But there aren't many, and it will take the better part of this decade for those executives to establish themselves, and send their disciples out into the world.

    In 2010, even in 2015, there will still be at least a few Dean Taylors running major-league franchises. But not nearly so many as there are now. And Dean Taylor himself won't be one of them.

    WEDNESDAY, JAN. 16
    The following transmission came to us from an alternate universe very much like our own ...

    TRI-CITY, N.J. -- The Tri-City Excelsiors may be coming off yet another last-place season in the Continental League, but Excelsiors Vice President of Baseball/Public Operations/Relations Dubb Elspeeck thinks he's found a cure for what ails his team.

    Actually, Elspeeck thinks he's found two cures. Today he unveiled new uniforms that incorporate black into the team's traditional red scheme, and he announced that the club would move the Excelsior Field (at Trenton Lots) fences 20 feet closer from the plate. This latter move came as something of a surprise, given that the E's just moved the fences 20 feet farther from the plate a year ago.

    Questioned about this reversal, Elspeeck said, "When we pushed back the fences last year, we figured it would help our pitchers, but unfortunately our stats guy -- who's no longer with the club, by the way -- forgot to mention that our hitters might have some trouble with the new distances. Plus, for some reason the new layout made our guys dizzy."

    Indeed, after hitting 109 home runs at Trenton Lots in 2000, the Excelsiors hit only 58 homers at Trenton last season and finished with a 24-56 home record.

    Excelsiors manager Buddy DeFeet was on hand for the twin announcements. When asked about the ballpark changes, DeFeet said, "We didn't respond to the farther fences the way I hoped we would. It's a question of discipline and desire; you've got to want to hit the ball that far, and our guys just didn't want it bad enough."

    "Some would have us leave the fences where they are," Elspeeck commented, "and instead try to develop or sign or trade for better players, players with more power and better eyesight. Well, that sort of thing may be fine for the other clubs, but here in Tri-City we prefer the quick fix, something that can be accomplished in a few days with nothing more than some crude architectural plans, a dozen men in coveralls, and the second-best power tools that money can buy. Our fans deserve nothing less."

    And it was with the Tri-City fans in mind that Ellspeeck and the Excelsiors unveiled their new uniforms, which look quite a bit like their old garb, with two exceptions: after more than three decades of uniforms containing only red and white, black will be featured for the first time, along with a darker shade of red.

    "A lot of people think that fans care mostly about winning, but our market surveys have found that winning is overrated," said Ellspeeck. "It turns out that the kids today are interested more in the uniforms than the standings. And everybody knows that black sells, whether it's movies, music, or batting-practice jerseys. Of course we believe in tradition, but every once in a while it's good to spice things up a bit."

    With E's players Damon Rutherford, Royce Ingram, Bran Maverly and Matt Garrison doing the modeling, the Excelsiors showed the new uniforms they will wear in 2002:

  • The basic home white uniform has some minor changes, including a black outline around the script "Excelsiors" that will cause the uniform to show up better on black-and-white televisions, which club officials think will make a comeback in the coming years.

  • The road uniform will feature a sleeveless look, with a black vest, black undershirt, and mandatory black batting gloves (even for players who don't normally use batting gloves).

  • The alternate home jersey features dark red shoes and socks, black pants, a dark red jersey, and a cap with a black bill and dark red crown.

  • Most strikingly, the club's alternate road Tuesday uniforms will be all-black: black shoes, black socks, black stirrups, black pants, black belt, black jersey, black cap, little black button on top of the cap. Asked if such a monochrome look might violate a league rule, Elspeeck replied, "Uh, maybe. But I loaned the Commissioner three bucks for lunch last week and he still hasn't paid me back, so I think we can probably get an exemption."

    Rutherford, the club's prize pitching prospect, modeled the new home jersey, and he thinks that other teams might be surprised, and perhaps even terrified, when they face the new-look Excelsiors this spring. "Maybe it's just me, but I already feel meaner, and I think a lot of the other guys will, too. You know, tougher."

    Manager DeFeet considers himself a traditionalist. An old-school, no-nonsense, gruff-but-lovable sort of manager. But when asked about the new uniforms, DeFeet -- who has guided his club to a 137-510 record in his four-season tenure -- said, "Every morning and every evening, I get down on my hand and knees, and I thank the Good Lord and Babe Ruth that I'm still allowed to actually wear a baseball uniform. Any baseball uniform. So if they tell us to hang barrels from our shoulders with tire rubber, I'll be first in line."

    When a reporter pointed out that, elsewhere in the league, the Missouri City Monarchs have added black to their uniforms and the Charm City Cormorants are moving their fences in this season, Ellspeeck said, "I would rather not comment specifically about moves that other clubs have made. But purely on a hypothetical level, I would say that neither modifying uniforms nor pointlessly altering ballpark dimensions can, by themselves, make up for a complete lack of direction in the front office. It's only with a combination of such things that a franchise might achieve success without good hitters and pitchers."

    MONDAY, JAN. 14
    I'm not going to write an entire column about today's Oakland-Texas trade, because I'm sure it will discussed again in the Athletics Hot Stove Heater, due in just a few days at this fine web site. But summing up the deal in six words ...

    Billy Beane has done it again.

    Not enough? OK, how about this ...

    In acquiring Carlos Pena, the Athletics have vaulted from being great candidates for a disappointing season to being great candidates for unseating the Mariners atop the American League West.

    OK, so it's not nearly so cut-and-dried as that. But the difference between playing Carlos Pena and, say, Scott Hatteberg at first base is something in the neighborhood of four wins, assuming of course that Pena develops as most of us think that he will. You probably already know that Pena has been outstanding in the minor leagues. But you may not know just how those numbers translate to the major leagues. Well, here are the Major League Equivalent (MLE) Statistics for Pena's last two seasons, as published in the just-published (and indispensable) "Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster":

          Level   OBP  Slug
    2000    AA   .391  .512
    2001   AAA   .372  .513
    
    Those numbers, for the uninitiated, are supposed to represent the level of Pena's major-league talent; his minor-league numbers in those seasons were, of course, even better. And from those MLE's, we can assume that Pena will, if given a chance to play, do something roughly similar; maybe a bit better, given that he's only 23 and figures to improve.

    If the A's are going to compete for a postseason berth in 2002, they need to replace some of the runs they lost when Jason Giambi departed for the bright lights and the big payoff. But as every baseball fan this side of Timbuktu knows all too well, the Athletics operate under severe budget limitations, which means that if the A's are going to have great players, they're going to be great young players. And Pena, unlike any of the players the A's sent to the Rangers, has a good chance to be a great player.

    Joe D and Teddy Ballgame
    Occasionally a column subject comes along that simply won't die. Following last Friday's discussion of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak vs. Ted Williams' 16-plate appearance on-base streak, I received a couple hundred messages in response. I'm only going to print one of them, however, because virtually all came to the same conclusion ...

      Dear Rob,

      I am a Statistics Professor at the Polytechnic University of Barcelona, Spain. I will gladly run the math for you, but let me just start by telling you that Ted Williams' feat of reaching base 16 consecutive times is almost 10 times more likely than Joe D's 56-game streak. Which means that for every 56-game hitting streak, we'll see 10 streaks of 16 bases reached consecutively. So we should wait for nine more streaks of 16 before we can hope to see another one of 56. Or to put it another way, the number of times a player (with the OBP of Ted Williams) would have to reach base consecutively to achieve a feat more impressive than Joe D's 56-game streak is 20. A player might reach base in 19 consecutive appearances, but DiMaggio's record would still be the more unlikely.

      I know you enjoy the math, so here it comes ...

      For Ted Williams it's easy to figure. He has a lifetime .482 on-base percentage, which means he reaches base in 48.2 percent of his plate appearances. For consecutive plate appearances, the probability of reaching base in 16 of them is then (.482)^16, which is equal to .000008487. This means approximately 8.5 times out of a million.

      But how about Joe D? Let's see. Batting average is not relevant here because it counts hits per at-bats, and we know that many plate appearances don't count as at-bats. So we have to add at-bats, walks, sacrifice flies and hits, and hit-by-pitches to find plate appearances. This makes 7,671 plate appearances for Joe D in 1,736 games, an average of 4.41878 plate appearances per game. In those 7,671 PA, Joe D has 2,214 hits, which makes a ratio of hits per PA equal to .28862. This means that Joe had a hit in exactly 28.862 percent of his plate appearances. Or that he did not have a hit in 71.138 percent of his plate appearances. How many games did Joe D go 0-fer? Would have to dig further in the web to find out, but the theoretical probability of Joe going hitless in a game is (.71138)^(4.41878)=0.22206. Theoretically he went hitless in 22.206 percent of his games. I would be curious to see how close this is to the real value.

      Anyway, this means that the probability of Joe having at least a hit in a game is 1-.22206=.77794. For 56 games this makes (.77794)^56=.00000078159. This means that out of a million streaks of 56 games he could play, Joe would have a hitting streak in 0.78159 of them. So not even one in a million ...

      So here it goes. Like you, I also believe we will have to wait quite a long time for another streak like Joe D's. And that's without taking into account the media pressure that the poor soul would have to endure when his streak reaches 45 games. I believe it may happen but it won't be for a very long time.

      Anyway, love your column, it's one of the things that lets me follow baseball over here in Spain -- that and satellite TV. Bye!!

      Jose Burillo

      P.S. All numerical data obtained from Baseball-Reference.com.

    Thanks for the message, Jose! And for the rest of you, there's a lesson here: If you want to have one of your missives printed in this space, your best bet is to move to Europe and acquire tenure at a large university.

    FRIDAY, JAN. 11
    This week, and maybe next week, and perhaps the week after, I'm taking a break from Baseball Circa Early 2002 and all of its obvious problems. The offseason is dreary enough, both literally and figuratively, without fixating on the arrogance of millionaires three times per week. With that in mind, here's an e-mail concerning two of my favorite subjects ...

      Rob,

      I don't have a copy of the book on hand, but there's a bit in Stephen King's Four Past Midnight (in the story "The Langoliers"), in which he claims that the odds of DiMaggio's feat occurring pale in comparison to the odds of Ted Williams reaching first base 16 consecutive times, as he actually did.

      How does the math work on these type of things? Don't you have to factor in an insane number of variables? Anyway, I don't know who's come closest to DiMaggio, but Pedro Guerrerro reached base 14 straight times in 1985.

      If King is right, might Guerrerro's streak actually be more impressive than DiMaggio's? I know it doesn't sound more impressive, but is it?

      -- KR

    As it happens, I do have a copy of Four Past Midnight on hand, and here's the passage from "The Langoliers" to which you refer:

    Well, let me tell you what may be the most amazing statistic ever recorded in a game which thrives on statistics. In 1957, Ted Williams reached base on sixteen consecutive at-bats. This streak encompassed six baseball games. In 1941, Joe DiMaggio batted safely in fifty-six straight games, but the odds against what DiMaggio did pale next to the odds against Williams's accomplishment, which have been put somewhere in the neighborhood of two billion to one. Baseball fans like to say DiMaggio's streak will never be equaled. I disagree. But I'd be willing to bet that, if they're still playing baseball a thousand years from now, Williams's sixteen on-bases in a row will still stand.

    I love Steve -- as we in the authorin' biz call him, especially when we're trying to impress people who aren't in the authorin' biz -- and of course he's a huge baseball fan, but sometimes he's not real good with the details. And here, King (or, at least the character doing the speaking) is wrong. I'm afraid that I'm not smart enough to run the math, but consider this: both John Olerud and Barry Bonds have streaks of reaching base 15 consecutive times. And if we've had two streaks of 15 and one of 16, then it's awfully hard for me to believe that a streak of 14 -- Guerrero's number, as you note -- is really more unlikely than a 56-game hitting streak.

    Speaking of which, I received a number of e-mails from intelligent readers who don't quite believe that a 56-game hitting streak is as unlikely as I, by way of Stephen Jay Gould and Ed Purcell, suggested Monday that it is.

    Well, the more I think about it, the more I think that I will not see another player hit in 56 straight games, not even if I live to be 100.

    Look, one of the things that indicates the vulnerability of a record is how close someone else has actually come to breaking it. Nobody's come close to DiMaggio. The second-longest hitting streaks in major-league history were 44 games, by Wee Willie Keeler in 1897 and Pete Rose in 1978.

    Think about that. They've been playing major-league baseball for about 125 years, and the second-biggest batting streak is less than 80 percent as long as the biggest.

    And what about Ichiro? Everyone agrees that he's the best candidate to break DiMaggio's record; he hits for a high batting average, he leads off, he doesn't walk much ... and oh yeah, just last season he put together a 23-game streak, which led to a fair amount of wild-eyed speculation.

    Maybe it's just me, but was that 23-game streak really so impressive? Ichiro fell one game short of tying the Mariners' franchise record of 24 straight, held by ... the immortal Joey Cora. Ichiro also hit in 21 straight games later in the season, which means that if you put together his two biggest streaks ... he'd have tied Keeler and Rose, still a dozen games behind DiMaggio.

    Joe DiMaggio was, of course, one of the greatest players ever (if not ever "Baseball's Greatest Living Player," as he was billed for so long). But while The Yankee Clipper's amazing streak certainly stands as a testament to his greatness, it's also a monument to staggering improbability. I would dearly love to see Ichiro Suzuki, or anyone else, hit in 57 straight baseball games.

    But I don't think that I will.

    WEDNESDAY, JAN. 9
    Monday in this space, I ran a couple of decades-old lists of records that supposedly would never be broken; of course, a number of those records have been broken, which made the list-makers look a little silly. Still, I've had to resist the temptation to make my own list, especially because so many of you are apparently interested in such things.

    My resistance was successful, but that doesn't preclude a discussion of the issues that underlie the discussion of the vulnerability of various records.

    Most Hitting records are vulnerable, which is obvious because so many of them have been broken in recent years.

    On April 23, 1999, Fernando Tatis drove in eight runs in one inning, and it's unlikely that anyone will break that record in the near future. To do so, a hitter would have to come to the plate three times in one inning and average three RBI per plate appearance. Well, since 1900 only six players have come to the plate three times in one inning. So you'd need a convergence of luck and skill that is highly unlikely.

    We discussed DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in Monday's column; given that hitting streaks are essentially a function of probability, we might reasonably argue that if Major League Baseball continues forever, then of course someone will hit in 57 straight games. Perhaps, but I don't think that Major League Baseball will last long enough for it to actually happen.

    Among the major "most" records, my buddy Jim Baker argues that Owen Wilson's single-season triples record -- 36 in 1912 -- is about as impregnable as a record gets. A few notes about that record:

  • No other player in major-league history hit more than 31 triples in a season.

  • No other player since 1900 hit more than 26 triples in a season.

  • No player since 1950 has hit more than 21 triples.

  • In 2001, Cristian Guzman led the major leagues with 14 triples, which represents only 39 percent of the record.

    There's been a huge shift in the nature of triples. Today, triples are a speed stat. Guzman is fast, of course, and the last two players to hit more than 20 triples -- Willie Wilson and Lance Johnson -- were both exceptionally fast. But early in the last century, triples were a power stat. Among the players who hit 20 triples in a season were sluggers Sam Crawford, Paul Waner, and Frank "Home Run" Baker, all of them possessed of great strength but not great speed. It's just that the ballparks were so big and the outfielders played so close (because the ball was dead), that if you hit the ball hard it would roll for quite some time, and it would take a while for an outfielder to retrieve it. So you had a lot of triples and a fair number of inside-the-park home runs, too.

    Now, though, the ballparks are small, the ball is lively, and outfielders sometimes set up just a few feet shy of the warning track. No matter how hard you hit the ball, you have to be fast to get a triple; Mark McGwire hit six triples in his career, and only one in the last 13 years. But if you can hit the ball hard and you're fast, you're still not going to triple all that often; Barry Bonds represents perhaps the greatest power/speed combination in history, yet he's got only 71 career triples, or about twice as many as Owen Wilson racked up in one season.

    So I think Jim is right. Wilson's record is safe, at least until they start building ballparks with fences 450 feet away from home plate again.

    Among the Pitching records, virtually every record involving victories and complete games looks completely impregnable.

    Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, the greatest pitchers of the last 25 years, are barely going to clear 300 career victories. So how is anybody going to top Cy Young's 511?

    Clemens and Maddux and Randy Johnson have combined for 108 shutouts. So how is anybody going to match Walter Johnson's 110?

    Clemens and Maddux and Johnson and Pedro Martinez have, between them, completed 333 starts. So how is anybody going to equal Cy Young's 749 complete games?

    I could ramble on like this, but I've probably already belabored the point. Having said all that, though, let me say this, too ... I am not convinced that all of those durability-based pitching records are invulnerable, because I am not convinced that somebody won't someday figure out a way to "engineer" a pitcher who can throw 325 innings per season for 20 seasons. No, it's not going to happen in the next decade or two, but who knows what sports science will be able to do in 2050?

    As I suggested Monday, while the Baserunning records look secure now, that doesn't mean they always will. At some point, it's going to be considered desirable to return some sort of balance between power and speed to the game. Bill James has proposed a rule limiting the number of times a pitcher can throw to an occupied base, and if such a rule were instituted -- I believe that it should be -- then we would almost certainly see a dramatic increase in stolen bases.

    MONDAY, JAN. 7
    There are few things more satisfying than mocking the foolishness of our predecessors, and so it was with great delight that I recently ran across an article titled "Baseball's Unbeatable Records," written by George Vass, that originally appeared in the May 1970 edition of Baseball Digest.

    Vass came up with 10 records, which he divided into two categories: "impregnable" and "vulnerable."

    THE VULNERABLES
    1. Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961.
    2. Sandy Koufax' 382 strikeouts in 1965.
    3. Rube Marquard's 19 straight pitching victories in 1912.
    4. Johnny Vander Meer's successive no-hitters in 1938.
    5. Maury Wills' 104 stolen bases in 1962.

    As you probably know, three of these records have fallen since 1970. Mark McGwire broke Maris' record, Nolan Ryan broke Sandy Koufax's record, and Lou Brock (and later Rickey Henderson) broke -- Maury Wills' record. Marquard's record still stands, though Vass was right; it's vulnerable. Of Vander Meer's "record," Vass wrote, "This one is sure to be tied, but that the record will ever be surpassed is unlikely."

    I agree. Enough pitchers have come close to throwing consecutive no-hitters -- Ewell Blackwell in 1947, most notably -- that we shouldn't be shocked if it does eventually happen.

    THE IMPREGNABLES
    1. Rogers Hornsby's .424 batting average of 1924.
    2. Hack Wilson's 190 runs batted in, in 1930.
    3. Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played.
    4. Jack Chesbro's 41 victories in 1904.
    5. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak of 1941.

    Of Gehrig's streak, Vass wrote, "It is impossible that anyone should break this record ... Untouchable because -- unlike most records -- this is one that no player today would even attempt to surpass."

    At that moment, Cal Ripken was nine years old.

    Vass' other "impregnables" still stand, though of course one wonders if he considered the possibility of Coors Field when he wrote that Hornsby's and Wilson's marks would stand forever. It's worth noting that in nine seasons of existence, the Rockies still haven't featured a truly great hitter, a Mike Schmidt or Barry Bonds or Jeff Bagwell or Mark McGwire. If somebody like that spent a few years of his prime in Colorado, it's hard to predict what might happen.

    I do think that DiMaggio's streak is vulnerable, though the odds are of course highly against any one hitter, no matter how great, actually doing it. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in "Bully for Brontosaurus," Nobel laureate Ed Purcell

    calculated that to make it likely (probability greater than 50 percent) that a run of even 50 games will occur once in the history of baseball up to now (and 56 is a lot more than 50 in this kind of league), baseball's rosters would have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or 52 lifetime .350 batters over careers of 1,000 games. In actuality, only three men have lifetime batting averages in excess of .350, and no one is anywhere near .400. DiMaggio's streak is the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports.

    The italics are mine. And the amusement was mine last summer, when it was actually suggested that Ichiro Suzuki had a legitimate shot of matching DiMaggio.

    Three years after Vass' article, ex-Commissioner Ford Frick's book, "Games, Asterisks, and People" was published. Therein, Frick listed his "ten marks that I believe will never be bettered."

    1. Denton (Cy) Young's pitching record of 511 games won during his lifetime career.
    2. Charles Radbourne's record of 60 pitching victories in a single season. Set with Providence in 1884.
    3. Charles (Kid) Nichols's feat of winning 30 or more games per season through seven consecutive seasons.
    4. Walter Johnson's lifetime record of 3,508 strikeouts.
    5. Lou Gehrig's record of 2,164 consecutive games.
    6. The record of 100 or more RBIs for 13 consecutive seasons, also held by Lou Gehrig.
    7. Ty Cobb's record of 4,191 lifetime hits.
    8. Joe DiMaggio's record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games.
    9. Babe Ruth's lifetime record of 2,056 bases on balls.
    10. Don Larsen's perfect World Series game. This one may be matched some day, but it will never be beaten. You can't beat perfection.

    Hard to argue with those first three, because it's hard to imagine that pitchers will ever again start 40 games in a season, let alone 50 or 60. (And if you're wondering why Frick credits Radbourne with the single-season record for victories, while Vass credits Chesbro, it's because Vass considered only post-1900 statistics.)

    But Walter Johnson's strikeout record? It's been 29 years since Frick's prediction, and Johnson now stands eighth on the all-time list, far behind leader Nolan Ryan (5,714) and also behind five other pitchers who were active in 1973.

    Lou Gehrig's record ... we already went over that one. I'm not sure where Frick found 2,164; just a bizarre typo, maybe.

    Gehrig's "record" -- that word is being stretched here -- of 13 straight seasons with 100 RBI still stands, and in fact nobody's really come close. Among current players, Rafael Palmeiro's and Sammy Sosa's seven-year streaks (1995-2001) are the longest. Albert Belle had recorded nine straight seasons before injuries forced him into early retirement. That doesn't mean the record can't be busted, but it's obviously not going to be easy, in part because we can expect any particular 13-year period from this point forward to include one or two serious interruptions due to labor squabbles.

    Cobb's record for career hits, on the other hand, was of course busted. As was Ruth's walks record, just last season by Rickey Henderson. And no, it's not likely that any pitcher will throw two perfect World Series games.

    So many records have been broken in the last three decades that writers don't often make these sorts of lists any more. I suppose it's hard to see anybody challenging Henderson's stolen-base records soon, because the game doesn't currently encourage prolific basestealing. But what if you had a great speedster with a .375 on-base percentage? With catchers not particularly valued for their arms these days, there's no reason in the world why somebody couldn't again steal 100 bases. You'd just need the right player and the right manager.

    None of this is meant to hurt George Vass or Ford Frick. Vass, still working, has forgotten more about baseball than I'll ever know. And Frick's book, though a bit stiff, is actually pretty good, at times both wise and prescient.

    Before we leave Mr. Frick -- remember, this is 1973 -- here are a few more words from his book ...

    ... But fans can take heart in this. Once the mistakes are rectified and the errors corrected - a matter of a few years - baseball will be set for a long run. Clubs will be able to concentrate on developing championship teams, unhampered by political pressures and economic threats. Fans will once again peacefully turn to the sports pages to study the box scores without the blaring headlines of franchise movements or rumors of baseball's economic bankruptcy to stir their temper and send their blood pressure rising. Won't that be a happy day!

    FRIDAY, JAN. 4
    In the latest Baseball Weekly, Bob Nightengale writes, "With negotiations set to begin this week, owners have abandoned the idea of a salary cap, sources say. Instead, the owners will ask the players to allow a much greater revenue sharing plan among the large-market and small-market clubs."

    Bob's sources are significantly more forthcoming than mine, but Thursday's report from the Associated Press suggests much the same, though the AP says the owners will put both a luxury tax and a minimum team payroll on the table, too.

    It's heartening to hear that the owners won't push a salary cap, because as one of our ex-Presidents used to say, "That dog won't hunt." Still, the players are going to fight against greater revenue sharing and the luxury tax, and the negotiations will be as ugly as usual.

    In the meantime, there are two very good reasons why Bud Selig and the other owners shouldn't talk about how much money they're losing.

    One, not many (any?) fans lose a lot of sleep over how much money incredibly wealthy men might have lost on their hobby. And two, they're not really losing as much as they say they are.

    When I spoke to the Commissioner a few weeks ago -- and yes, I'm going to milk that conversation for all it's worth -- he took particular umbrage at my suggestion that he and the other owners have been something less than honest over the years. In fact, Selig challenged me to come up with just one example of their perfidy.

    I couldn't do it.

    Not because there's any shortage of examples of perfidy, but because I'm not great at thinking clearly and then speaking under pressure. But Mr. Selig really wasn't interested in anything I had to say, anyway.

    However, today if I were sitting across the table from Commissioner Bud and he promised me an hour of his attention, I might bring up the Florida Marlins and Wayne Huizenga.

    As I'm sure you remember, just four years ago the Marlins won the World Series. What happened next ... well, here's a look at the Marlins over a two-season span:

     
             W-L       Payroll 
    1997    92-70    $52 million 
    1998    54-108   $15 million 
    

    As I'm sure you also remember, Huizenga owned the Marlins then. Almost immediately after his club won the World Series, Huizenga announced that despite the franchise's success, he'd lost $34 million in the process.

    So Marlins fans were treated to one of the most precipitous declines in the history of the game.

    And the sad thing is, there wasn't any reason for it. As noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has convincingly argued, Huizenga quite likely made money in 1997.

    How? Huizenga owned Pro Player Stadium. Zimbalist estimated that the Marlins collected $16.5 million in revenue from luxury suites and club seating ... but all $16.5 million went not to the Florida Marlins, but rather to a separate business entity called Pro Player Stadium.

    Same for the stadium naming rights.

    Same for parking.

    Same for advertising and merchandise within the ballpark.

    Same for concessions.

    Huizenga owns Sportschannel, which broadcast Marlins games. And as you might expect, the Huizenga-owned Sportschannel paid below-market value for the rights to broadcast baseball games played by the Huizenga-owned Marlins.

    There was a bit more creative accounting, but in a nutshell, the Marlins were actually profitable in 1997. And we're not just talking about a few bucks here, either; Zimbalist concludes, "In short, if the Marlins financial statement is adjusted for related-party transactions and bloated costs, what appears to be a $29.3 million operating loss in 1997 becomes instead an operating profit of $13.8 million ..."

    So why did Huizenga slash the payroll, and then sell the club to John Henry not long afterward?

    I'm not a mind-reader, but it's been said that Huizenga was upset because the citizens of Miami-Dade County hadn't ponied up a few hundred million dollars for a new ballpark, and eviscerating his team was a form of revenge. It's also been said that Huizenga dumped salaries in order to maximize the value of the franchise, because he wanted to sell the franchise once the massive five-year tax break expired.

    Like I said, I'm not a mind-reader. But Huizenga's actions represent the very worst about baseball these days. First he spent his way to a championship, then he destroyed his team and lied about the reasons for doing it.

    So next time Commissioner Selig asks me for one example of a baseball owner being something less than truthful, I'll relate to him the wonderful case of Wayne Huizenga and his phantom "losses." Now, I know what Selig would say: "I can't do anything about the past. That was then, this is now."

    Fair enough. But does anyone really believe that when Huizenga sold the Marlins, the last of the dishonest owners exited the game? Gosh, I sure don't believe that. Because what you and I regard as dishonesty, many owners simply consider good business.

    I honestly don't understand why Bud Selig cares what you or I think, but it's apparent that he does. And if he cares what we think, he shouldn't say one more word about how much money he and his cronies are losing, because we don't believe him. And even if we did believe him, we're too busy paying our rent to worry about it.

    Commissioner Selig should, when he's got a microphone in front of him, talk about two things and two things only: competitive balance, and the high cost of attending a baseball game. Those are the only winning issues that he's got, and he should stick to them.

    And if you're reading this, Bud, I'll be sending you a bill for my fees as a consultant. I lost a lot of money last year, and I've got to recoup those losses somehow.




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