|Wednesday, February 6
February 2002 Archives
By Rob Neyer
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 27
No, I'm not talking about Bobby Valentine's prediction that Rey Ordonez is going to hit like Ernie Banks; that happens every spring. I'm talking about the huge number of foreign-born baseball players who've been assigned new birthdays in the last two weeks.
This is nothing new, of course. As I've written before (and as Murray Chass wrote, only somewhat inaccurately, in The New York Times last Sunday), "baseball ages" have a long tradition.
When Hall of Famer Rube Marquard reached the majors in 1908, he said he was 18 years old, and maintained that fiction for the rest of his life. He was really 21.
When Yankees great Tommy Henrich reached the majors in 1937, he said he was 21; he was really 24.
When Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto were just getting started on their Hall of Fame careers, both shaved a year off their ages.
That's four well-known players, and all of them were using birthdays that would have surprised their mothers. So how common were baseball ages, back in the day? To find out, I went back 50 years, to the 1952 edition of The Sporting News' Baseball Register. Back then, the Register contained biographical and statistical information on 400 major-league players; essentially, everybody who'd played in 1951 and was expected to play again in 1952.
I checked all 400 of them, entering their birthdays according to the Register into an Excel file, and then entering their birthdays according to the latest edition of Total Baseball. From there, of course, it was a simple matter to see how many players were lying about their ages in 1952, along with how much they were lying.
Anyone care to guess how many of those 400 players had different birthdays in 2001 than they had in 1952?
I asked the expert in biographical research -- Bill Carle, chairman of SABR's Biographical Research committee -- to guess. He guessed 25.
Sorry, Bill. Not even close. Of those 400 players, 94 of them -- 23.5 percent -- had different birthdays then than they have now.
Aside from Rizzuto and Reese, well-known players off by one year include Alvin Dark, Dom DiMaggio, Walt Dropo, Ferris Fain, Ralph Houk, Dutch Leonard, Roy McMillan, Pete Reiser, Al Rosen, Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn. Well-known players off by two years include Bobo Newsom, Hank Sauer, Birdie Tebbetts and Virgil Trucks.
No type of player was immune to the Year Monster, who sucked a year or two -- temporarily, most of the time -- from many scores of professional baseball players over the years.
But it's also true that even 50 years ago, players from other countries were the most likely to invent birthdays. Of the 400 players in the 1952 Register, 10 were born in Spanish-speaking countries. Here are their reported birth years, then and now:
Then Now Difference Luis Aloma 1923 1923 - Bobby Avila 1926 1924 +2 Francisco Campos 1926 1924 +2 Chico Carrasquel 1928 1928 - Sandy Consuegra 1920 1920 - Connie Marrero 1915 1911 +4 Minnie Minoso 1922 1922 - Willie Miranda 1926 1926 - Julio Moreno 1923 1922 +1 Rafael Noble 1922 1919 +3
So where 23.5 percent of the group of 400 were using fake birthdays, 50 percent of the Spanish speakers were lying.
That's one group. Another is "black players born in America." There's no scientific basis for describing anyone as "black," but in this context I think it's fair to consider a player black if he'd have been considered the first of his kind, had he arrived in the majors before Jackie Robinson.
Actually, the Register makes it easy, because back then they actually listed each player's "ancestry," so all you have to do is look for "American Negro." Anyway, there are 12 American-born black players in the '52 Register, and here are their then-and-now birth years:
Then Now Difference Roy Campanella 1921 1921 - George Crowe 1923 1921 +2 Larry Doby 1924 1923 +1 Luke Easter 1921 1915 +6 Monte Irvin 1919 1919 - Sam Jethroe 1922 1918 +4 Sam Jones 1925 1925 - Willie Mays 1931 1931 - Don Newcombe 1926 1926 - Satchel Paige 1908 1906 +2 Jackie Robinson 1919 1919 - Suitcase Simpson 1925 1925 - Hank Thompson 1925 1925 -
Five out of 13, which isn't far off the average for the complete group of 400 players. However, what's striking here -- and in the chart of Spanish speakers -- is the degree of the discrepancies. Historically, most players who've invented birthdays simply shaved one year. But most of the Spanish speakers and the American blacks figured if they were going to fib, they might as well get their money's worth.
As I mentioned above, 94 of the 400 players lied about their ages. Here's a breakdown:
Years Number of Changed Players 1 57 2 26 3 5 4 5 5 0 6 1
You might be wondering, as I did, how 94 truths were discovered in the last half-century. According to Bill Carle, "A lot of times, it's the obituary. I'll find out a player died, the obituary will say he was x years old, and it doesn't agree with what I've got. A couple of years ago, there was a guy named Carl Swanson, he died and it came out that he was three years older than we thought."
However, most of the "Old 94" confessed long ago. Some of them revealed their true birthdays when Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen, beginning in 1959 sent every living player a questionnaire. And others apparently came clean because they wanted to get their pensions as soon as possible.
Still, all this brings to mind a thought ... I hate to sound crass, but old baseball players are passing from this earth nearly every day. That "94" is likely to grow, and eventually I suspect we'll learn that more than 25 percent of the ballplayers of the early 1950s were dissembling about their birthdays.
It's highly unlikely, though, that we'll ever see a flood of new birthdays like we've seen in the last two weeks. And in Friday's column, I'll explore at least a few of the issues raised by this recent flood.
MONDAY, FEB. 25
The conclusion? "Sandberg might not be an All-Star this year ... but he should be a solid performer."
Not a bad prediction, actually. Sandberg didn't make the All-Star team, but he did finish the '96 season with 25 homers and 92 RBI, which ranked him second on the club in both categories (behind Sammy Sosa).
Looking at the article today, though, the methodology was seriously flawed, for two reasons. One, I looked at only six players from the past, because the study was restricted to old superstars. Worse, three of those six players missed time -- four years for Hank Greenberg, three for Billy Herman and Luke Appling -- because of World War II. What I didn't realize then, but sheepishly understand now, is that those three aren't really relevant to the discussion. For one thing, missing two (or five) seasons probably isn't the same as missing one season. And for another, those players all had a big advantage, in that when they returned to baseball after the war, most of their peers had also spent time in the service; it was essentially a level playing field.
So I've come up with a new list, 10 good players who missed a season for whatever reason. Below are those 10 players, along with their OPS totals in the seasons before and after the missed season:
Before After Change Jackie Jensen 863 742 -14% Tony Conigliaro 860 748 -13% Rico Carty 730 951 +30% Rico Carty 1037 780 -25% Eric Soderholm 780 850 + 9% Andre Thornton 796 675 -15% Bruce Bochte 788 678 -14% Dave Winfield 927 790 -15% Ron Gant 855 940 +10% Ryne Sandberg 702 760 + 8% Andres Galarraga 991 895 -10% Moises Alou 981 1039 + 6% Average 869 815 - 6%
Seven of the 12 players suffered OPS drops of at least 10 percent. Five of the 12 players improved, but only Rico Carty improved by more than 10 percent (and that was in 1969, a hitter's year compared to what had come before), and he made up for that with a 25 percent drop two years later after another missed season. Add it all up, and as a group the players declined by nearly six percent (5.8, to be somewhat more precise).
The real message here should probably be that we shouldn't generalize, because our sample size is still small, and anyway players miss seasons for different reasons. But we would expect players to decline after missing a season, if only because they're two years older (and perhaps still suffering from whatever knocked them out in the first place).
Mo Vaughn is 34 years old, he didn't take a single swing in anger last year, and anyway the truth is that he's never been that good away from Fenway Park. So I think it's likely that he will not match his production in 2000, when he hit 36 home runs and posted an 863 OPS for the Angels.
Of course, as I've mentioned before, Vaughn doesn't have to post an 863 OPS to constitute an improvement over Todd Zeile, who was at 732 last season. Zeile is significantly better with the glove, but his performance at the plate in 2001 simply wasn't acceptable for a major-league first baseman.
Fortunately for the Mets, they're counting on more than just a great comeback from a portly 34-year-old first baseman. They're also counting on a fair amount of help from Jeromy Burnitz and Roger Cedeno and Roberto Alomar. It's an old team -- and getting older by the day, what with Timo Perez and Rey Ordonez recently tacking on a couple of years -- that could blow up if a few guys get hurt and the starting pitchers aren't consistent. But it's also a talented team that could win 95 games if a few extra things go right. Going into the season, the battle between the Mets and Braves looks like the most interesting pennant race out there.
FRIDAY, FEB. 22
Upon arriving at spring training yesterday, Batkin informed Monarchs general manager Dullard Draib that he'd spent most of the last five years playing for the Mile High Mountaineers, whose home ballpark is the best hitter's park in the sport's long history. What's more, Batkin also admitted to Draib that he has the plate discipline of Eric Gregg, and will draw only 25 or 30 walks per season.
"I'm proud of the kid" -- who's actually 34 years old -- "that he'd have the guts to come in here and tell me, face to face, that he just can't hit, rather than wait for it to come out on the Internet, or maybe even in a newspaper," Draib said after his meeting with Batkin. "A lot of players would have just kept on letting us think they're good, and that they deserve the money that we're paying them."
In recent years, the growing popularity of the Internet has made it more difficult for crummy hitters to be considered good hitters. "Punky told me that he never actually told anyone he could hit," Draib said. "But he grew up in Saskatchewan, and the scouts there told him, 'Look, if you want to get signed, you need to smile and nod when someone asks you if you know what you're supposed to do with the wood stick. Swing hard and run fast, and nobody'll know the difference.'"
And so for years now, Batkin has been discussed in baseball circles as a good-hitting shortstop, even though the actual evidence for that claim is something less than scanty. Batkin says, "It's not the player's fault when this happens. If they want to say I can hit, and then pay me like I can hit, what am I supposed to do? I thought about just giving the money back, but my agent convinced me that that would hurt my family. And the family of my Mercedes salesman."
It's been rumored that the cash-poor Monarchs would like to trade Batkin, who will draw a hefty salary in 2002 despite "losing" his recent arbitration case, and Draib was asked whether the recent revelations will affect the shortstop's attractiveness to other teams.
"No, I don't think so. Just because a player isn't nearly as good as we thought, that doesn't change his value in my mind, and I don't think it will change anybody else's mind. If it turned out he'd been playing the last few years in Little League or something, that might be a problem. But the major leagues is the major leagues."
Draib said that major-league teams have taken steps in recent years to avoid thinking that mediocre players are good players. For example, some front offices have installed computers. And some teams have also lifted their prohibition against mentioning any hitting statistics other than batting average, home runs, RBI and steals.
Draib is willing to go only so far, though. "I'm all for computers, and one of these days I'm going to use one myself; I signed up for a course at the community college, and I'm gonna start on that as soon as I can convince our owner to pony up for the tuition. But when you start talking about those newfangled statistics -- your 'walks' and your 'on-base percentage' -- well, that's where I get off the train. Those are the toys of men who never played the game. Not that I played the game, but I pretended to when I was a kid, so I think like a player. And we'll stick with the traditional stats. They were good enough for Connie Mack and Casey Stengel, so I guess they're good enough for us."
TUESDAY, FEB. 19
When I noticed that, I thought, "Gosh, that's got to be pretty rare, doesn't it?"
Why so rare? Aside from the obvious reason -- even without any outside influences, a particular team just isn't likely to lead in such two such important-yet-divergent categories -- there's something else. And that something is a huge outside influence: the ballparks. There's a very good reason the Rockies have 1) led the National League in home runs four times in the last seven seasons, and 2) never allowed the fewest home runs in the National League.
You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that most teams that lead their league in homers play in small ballparks, or that most teams that allow the fewest home runs play in large ballparks. And so it follows that few teams would be able to accomplish both feats.
And it would also follow, I think, that teams that can do both would be very good teams. But have they been? And how rare have they actually been?
Below are the last 10 teams to lead their league in most home runs hit and fewest home runs allowed:
HRH HRA Record Finish 2001 Giants 235 145 90-72 2nd 1994 Indians 164 97 66-47 2nd 1994 Braves 137 76 68-46 2nd 1993 Braves 169 101 104-58 1st 1988 Mets 152 78 100-60 1st 1975 Pirates 138 79 92-69 1st 1959 Braves 177 128 86-70 2nd 1957 Braves 199 124 95-59 1st 1953 Indians 160 92 92-62 2nd 1951 Indians 140 85 93-61 2nd
The teams were good, but they weren't quite as good as I thought they'd be. There certainly aren't any bad teams in the bunch -- as you can see, not one of them finished below second place -- but only two of them might be considered great (the '88 Mets and '93 Braves), and neither of those clubs even reached the World Series. In fact, only one of the 10 teams reached the World Series, that being the 1957 Braves, who beat the Yankees in a seven-game thriller.
I should note that we're really talking about only seven teams, because six of the teams in the chart are really three teams: the early-1950s Indians, the late-1950s Braves, and the mid-1990s Braves. All three clubs featured fine hitters and excellent starting pitchers for a number of seasons.
Since we're talking about the Giants, did you see what Dusty Baker said about Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who drew only 22 unintentional walks in 123 games last year?
"I don't want to put any undue pressure on him," Baker said. "I want him to play like Shinjo can play. We want him to be Shinjo. Everyone wants the leadoff man to walk more. Not everyone is a walk-type person."
First, can we all agree to never use the term "walk-type person" again, unless we're making fun of the silly things that baseball managers say?
No, I didn't bring this up because I wanted to make fun of Dusty Baker. I bring this up because an observant reader noticed something odd about Shinjo.
Want to guess what Benard's OBP was in 2001?
Shinjo slugged .405 last year. Want to guess what Marvin Benard's lifetime slugging percentage is?
If you're looking for an eerie coincidence, you've found one. (Or, more accurately, I have.)
That is eerie, Paul. It's also worth noting that while Benard's career slugging percentage is indeed .405, Benard's career on-base percentage is .347, 27 points higher than Shinjo's career mark.
So are the Giants crazy to even bother with Shinjo? I don't think so. Shinjo battled a quadriceps injury last season but Shinjo is reportedly completely healthy at this moment. Good news, made only slightly less good by the fact that it's been a nagging injury for Shinjo over the last three seasons, and figures to nag Shinjo again.
It should also be noted that Shinjo is two years younger than Benard, that Giants hitting coach Gene Clines has done some very nice things over the years, and that by all accounts Shinjo is significantly better than Benard in center field.
Still, one fundamental fact remains: unless Shinjo and/or Benard improves by quite a lot over last season, every day the Giants are going to have one of the worst center fielders in the National League.
FRIDAY, FEB. 15
Let's assume that the Expos are playing their last season as a franchise. If you're running the club, wouldn't you pull out all the stops and try to compete for a postseason berth? Yes, perhaps in the abstract, but the Expos? Yes, the Expos. Are the 2002 Expos really all that different from the 2001 Minnesota Twins?
Entering 2001, the Twins featured a rotation that included Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays, but they also featured a lineup that had ranked 13th in the American League in run production the previous season.
Entering 2002, the Expos feature a rotation that includes Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas and Carl Pavano (or if you prefer, Tomo Ohka), but they also feature a lineup that ranked 14th in the National League in run production last season, despite the presence of Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro.
Is it really out of the question for the Expos to do what the Twins did? Well, yeah, it probably is. While what the Twins did last season was admirable, it also was unlikely at the time and unlikely to be repeated. The Expos lost 90 games last season, and they're probably going to lose between 90 and 100 again this season.
But what if they are in contention come July? Montreal's farm system is generally bereft of top-shelf talent (big surprise), but if the Expos are within shouting distance of first place on July 31, and it's their last season anyway, then shouldn't they happily trade away their best minor-league prospects for some help? Shortstop Brandon Phillips is one of the best middle-infield prospects in the game, but won't be ready to play well in the majors until 2003 or later. So what good is Brandon Phillips doing the Expos at this moment? In fact, why wait until July? Why not trade every warm body in the minor leagues for major-league talent in March? Also, why should Frank Robinson worry about the long-term health of his fine young starting pitchers? After all, they might belong to some other team in 2003.
OK, now let's assume that the Expos are going to survive, either in Montreal -- not as remote a possibility as you might think -- or somewhere else, with the District of Columbia being the most likely destination. Then you run the team for the future. If they're going to stay in Montreal and subsist on a shoestring, then you have to think about trading Guerrero and Vidro before they exit as free agents. If they're going to move to Washington, presumably under the aegis of new, well-heeled owners, then you stick with the great players you've got, and essentially run the franchise as you'd run any other franchise with a real future.
So if you're Expos general manager Omar Minaya, how do you decide between all of these scenarios?
The answer is, you don't because you can't. Omar Minaya won't make more than one or two meaningful decisions all season, because to make a meaningful decision you have to have at least a faint idea of what's going to happen a few months down the road. So Minaya will show up at the office every day, Frank Robinson will make out his lineup before each game, and the Expos will take the field 162 times, just as they always do.
But the Expos are, at this moment, a franchise in name only. A team without a soul.
Wayne Huizenga, frustrated by his failure to extort a new ballpark from the taxpayers in Florida, sold the Marlins to ...
John Henry, who, frustrated by his failure to extort a new ballpark from the taxpayers in Florida, bought a big piece of the Red Sox and sold the Marlins to ...
Jeffrey Loria, who, frustrated by his failure to extort a new ballpark from the taxpayers in Quebec, just can't wait to own a team that desperately needs a new ballpark.
I suppose there's a punch line here, but I'm not sure that this joke even needs one.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 13
Just a quick question from your Monday column, in which you wrote,
"Beginning in 1938 the Phillies finished in eighth place five straight seasons, and their best record in those seasons was 50-103. After the fifth last-place finish in 1942, the National League took control of the Phillies (after which a lot of strange things happened that I won't get into today)."
I am not familiar with the Phillies of this era, other than the fact that they were laughable. But I'm not aware of the "strange things" that you mentioned. Could you provide the reader's digest version of the story? You've got me curious now.
From 1933 through 1942, Philadelphia Phillies owner Gerry Nugent traded, or sold, or traded/sold Dick Bartell, Curt Davis, Dolf Camilli, Bucky Walters, Claude Passeau and Kirby Higbe. Some of those names may not be familiar to you, but all of these players became stars, or continued to perform as stars, after leaving the Phillies. And it's safe to say that of the players the Phillies received in return, none performed in kind.
There were others, too, involving players who were not stars and did not become stars, but were nevertheless good players. Typically, Nugent would trade one or two good players for three or four bums and $45,000.
But Nugent wasn't some greedy leech, profiteering from the sweat of his ballplayers and the tears of his team's fans. As Fred Lieb later wrote, "Gerry Nugent was no millionaire ... he was selling players to stay in business, for despite the fat checks, he and his wife were going deeper and deeper into the hole with their baseball inheritance."
At that time, the National League was composed of eight teams. In the first 10 years of Nugent's ownership, the Phillies finished in eighth place six times; four times, the Phils vaulted all the way up to seventh place.
After yet another last-place finish in 1942, the rest of the league had had enough. Early in November, the NL owners met to consider the situation, and they agreed on one thing: Nugent wouldn't be loaned any more money. A month later, the owners met again, but their only solution was to tell Nugent to find a well-heeled local buyer.
He couldn't find one. And so on February 9, 1943, the National League owners got together once more, and this time they purchased the Philadelphia Phillies. The purchase price included the assumption of approximately $300,000 in debt -- more than a third of which was owed to the league itself -- along with approximately $25,000 to buy out 2,600 shares of stock owned by Nugent and others.
The National League owned the Phillies for just over a month. On March 15, a syndicated headed by New York lumber magnate (and ex-Yale baseball player) Bill Cox purchased the Phillies for approximately $250,000.
Parenthetically, I should mention an interesting story that's been widely told about Nugent's sale of the Phillies. In "Veeck as in Wreck," one of the greatest baseball books ever written, Bill Veeck claimed he tried to purchase the Phillies from Nugent, with the intention of stocking the club with "Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Luke Easter, Monte Irvin, and countless others in action and available ..."
I made one bad mistake. Out of my long respect for [Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain] Landis I felt he was entitled to prior notification of what I intended to do. I was aware of the risk I was taking although, to be honest, I could not see how he could stop me. The color line was a "gentleman's agreement" only. The only way the Commissioner could bare me from using Negroes would be to rule, officially and pubicly [sic], that they were "detrimental to baseball." With Negroes fighting in the war, such a ruling was unthinkable.
Great story, and like a lot of Veeck's stories, it serves to make him look like a saint, and everybody else like a sinner. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on how you look at it -- there is, if anything, just a tiny shred of truth in it. Just looking at the players who were supposedly available to Veeck, future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin was serving in the military and Luke Easter wouldn't even begin his professional baseball career until 1946.
But that's just one problem. As David Jordan, Larry Gerlach, and John Rossi proved in their exhaustive article about Veeck's claims in "The National Pastime" (Number 17, Society for American Baseball Research, 1998), the entire story is a fabrication. The only source for the story was Veeck himself, who had much to gain from its propagation. And the scores of other baseball figures on both sides of the issue who would have been involved? Not a single word from even one of them in the 60 years since.
And as Jordan et al observe, when Veeck did buy a major-league team (the Indians) after the 1946 season, he didn't rush to sign black players. He signed one (Larry Doby) in 1947, two in 1948, and three more in 1949. The Indians were integrated faster than any other American League club, but these were not the actions of a man who later claimed an eagerness to open the floodgates. In fact, in 1946 Veeck told Cleveland Jackson, a black newspaper editor, " ... in my opinion, none of the present crop of Negro players measure up to big league standards."
It's true that Veeck did discuss with Nugent the possibility of purchasing the Phillies. And it's possible that Veeck considered stocking the club with black players, if such a purchase actually happened. But talks between Veeck and Nugent never became serious -- it seems that Veeck simply couldn't meet Nugent's asking price -- and there never was any action by Landis or Frick to block Veeck from buying the Phillies, or doing anything else.
Getting back to reality ... So Bill Cox buys the Phillies, and one of the first things he did was hire Bucky Harris to manage the club. Harris was known as "The Boy Wonder" back in the mid-1920s, when as player-manager he led the Washington club to a pair of American League pennants. Harris had managed in 17 seasons since then without winning a pennant, but ... well, once a baseball man, always a baseball man.
And Harris did a great job. After 92 games, the Phillies' record stood at 38-52, which may not sound like much until we remember that the Phils finished 42-109 the season before. But those 92 games were all Harris would manage, because Cox fired him. At this point it's difficult to know exactly why, but the general consensus holds that Cox wanted a manager who would take his phone calls at any point during the day, night or early morning. And Bucky Harris wasn't that manager.
So on July 28, Harris was out, and former National League pitcher Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons was in. Cox wasn't completely rid of Harris, though. Shortly after getting dumped, Harris called a meeting of Philadelphia sportswriters and dropped a bombshell: "He's a fine guy to fire me ... when he gambles on games his club plays."
Commissioner Landis, of course, was something of a stickler for the rules about betting, and at that time the rules called for permanent banishment of any baseball player, manager or owner who bet against or for his own team. Cox claimed that he had placed the bets before he knew there was a rule against it, but Landis wasn't having any of it; on November 23, 1943, after owning the club for less than a year, Cox was permanently banned from the game.
It should be noted that hiring and firing Harris wasn't the only change that Cox made. He also changed the team's name, from Phillies to Blue Jays. The new name appeared on the club's stationery, and a blue jay patch briefly appeared on the jersey sleeve. However, "Phillies" never left the front of the jersey, the fans never bothered with the new name and while "Blue Jays" lasted longer than Cox, it was gone by 1945.
With the departure of Cox, Robert M. Carpenter, a partner in the duPont corporation, ponied up approximately $400,000 to purchase controlling interest in the Phillies. And that might have been the best thing that ever happened to the club. Carpenter put the franchise on solid financial footing, and he appointed his son, Robert Jr., as president. In turn, Robert Jr. appointed Herb Pennock as general manager, and just seven years later the Phillies won their first National League pennant since 1915.
And so in 1955, when a Philadelphia baseball team picked up and moved, it was the storied Athletics of Connie Mack and Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Cochrane, and not the Phillies, who had relatively recently been the biggest joke in the game.
MONDAY, FEB. 11
Having read your column about the tendency of .700 teams to "regress to the mean," I wonder if you've ever checked how that tendency applies at the opposite end of the scale. Do gruesomely bad teams tend to improve numerically to the same degree?
Just curious, as a follower of a poor team.
Ah, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They're all that keeps me from worrying that the Royals will become the American League's biggest joke. Anyway, the Devil Rays have never been "gruesomely bad," as the franchise record for losses in a season is just 100. Still, it's an interesting question. And before punching numbers into an Excel file, I'd like to conduct a thought experiment ...
If we assume that all teams tend to regress to the mean -- and I think we actually know that they do -- then we might also assume that great teams and gruesome teams would decline and improve to essentially the same degree.
It seems that a gruesomely bad team would typically make more changes for the next season than would the great team. On the other hand, the great team is presumably more able, due to greater resources, to make positive moves. Considering all that, I'm going to hypothesize that terrible teams improve more than great teams decline, but just slightly.
OK, now the numbers. The chart below lists the last nine teams to lose at least 65 percent of their games, along with their records the following season:
Year 1 Year 2 Team Record WPct Record WPct 1976 Expos 55-107 .340 75- 87 .463 1977 Blue Jays 54-107 .335 59-102 .366 1978 Mariners 56-104 .350 67- 95 .414 1979 Blue Jays 54-108 .327 67- 95 .414 1979 A's 54-108 .327 83- 79 .512 1988 Orioles 54-107 .335 87- 75 .537 1988 Braves 54-106 .338 63- 97 .394 1996 Tigers 53-109 .327 79- 83 .488 1998 Marlins 54-108 .333 64- 98 .395 487-965 .335 644-811 .443
If there is one lesson here, it's that it's apparently easier to go from gruesome to respectable than from brilliant to pedestrian. Three of these teams were quite decent just one season removed, and another -- the 1988 Orioles -- was in the running for a division title until the season's final weekend.
More to the point, just as every .700-plus team declined significantly the next season, nearly every .350-minus team improved significantly the next season; the only exception was the 1977 Blue Jays, who improved by only five wins in 1978.
The chart below compares these teams to the plus-.700 clubs in last Friday's column, with their average records normalized to a 162-game season:
Records Year 1 Year 2 Change Great 115- 47 100- 62 - 15 Gruesome 54-108 72- 90 + 18
One thing about this study: it's not truly symmetrical. A better comparison might have been .700-plus teams against .300-minus teams, but there hasn't been one of those since 1962.
Looking at the last five sub-.300 teams, though ... the '62 Mets improved by 10 games (40-120 to 51-111), the '52 Pirates by eight games (42-112 to 50-104), the '45 Phillies by 23 games (46-108 to 69-85), the '42 Phillies by 20˝ games (from 42-109 to 64-90) ... and then you've got the '41 Phillies, who actually declined by one percentage point, from 43-111 (.279) to the aforementioned 42-109 (.278).
An entertaining book could be written about those Phillies teams, by the way. For some reason they're not often remembered as one of the all-time worst, but the Phils of the late '30s and early '40s may have been the second-worst team of the 20th century, better than only the early-'60s Mets. Beginning in 1938 the Phillies finished in eighth place five straight seasons, and their best record in those seasons was 50-103. After the fifth last-place finish in 1942, the National League took control of the Phillies (after which a lot of strange things happened that I won't get into today).
Getting back to the original question, yes, terrible teams almost always improve substantially the following season. And while this doesn't necessarily apply to the Devil Rays, who weren't historically terrible in 2001, I do think they'll be better, too. While it certainly seems unlikely that they'll do what the 1989 Orioles did, there's no reason to think the Rays can't improve by five or 10 games in 2002.
FRIDAY, FEB. 8
I hope you'll pardon the lengthy chart below; one of my New Year's resolutions -- actually, my only New Year's Resolution -- was to run fewer charts in my column this year, but sometimes they can't be reasonably avoided.
Year 1 Year 2 Team Record WPct Record WPct 1902 Pirates 103- 36 .741 91- 49 .650 1906 Cubs 116- 36 .763 107- 45 .704 1907 Cubs 107- 45 .704 99- 55 .643 1909 Pirates 110- 42 .724 86- 67 .562 1927 Yankees 110- 44 .714 95- 59 .617 1931 Athletics 107- 45 .704 94- 60 .610 1939 Yankees 106- 45 .702 88- 66 .571 1954 Indians 111- 43 .721 93- 61 .604 1998 Yankees 114- 48 .704 98- 64 .605 984-384 .719 851-526 .618
A few observations about these nine teams:
Actually, we don't need to invent The Law of .700, because we've already got something that's just as good: Regression to the Mean. Essentially, everything gets pulled to the middle. It's true of baseball teams and just about anything else you can think of, and it goes a long way toward explaining why no .700-plus team has improved the next year.
I remember, gosh it seems like only five years ago, that the Yankees were coming off a season in which they won 114 games. And there were serious-minded people -- I'm not kidding around here -- who suggested that the Yankees would be even better in 1999. And why not? They swapped David Wells for Roger Clemens (coming off two straight Cy Young Awards), and they'd have a full season of Chili Davis in the DH slot! Of course, what this "analysis" ignored was that as great as Clemens was, he unlikely to match Wells' 18-4 record (he went 14-10 with a 4.60 ERA). What it ignored was that Chili Davis was 39 years old and couldn't beat Luciano Pavarotti in a footrace. And most of all, what it ignored was that teams that win 114 games don't get better.
Interestingly enough, the Mariners won nearly 72 percent of their games last season, which almost exactly matches the composite winning percentage of the nine teams in the chart in Year 1. In Year 2, those same teams won 62 percent of their games, which is about what I think the Mariners will do this season. Actually, I think they'll do a bit worse, due to the age of their lineup and the question marks about their starting rotation. I think they'll drop to something like 95-67 ... and successfully defend their American League West title.
But it's no sure thing. If the A's can pick up another hitter between now and Opening Day -- "Would you like some Jack Cust with your lineup, sir?" -- the M's are going to have a good fight on their hands.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 6
Before I try to explain why they're so good for pitchers, let me first try to convince you that they are good for pitchers. And the simplest explanation is simply that pitchers with low strikeout rates are rarely successful for long. Or for short.
One of the few pitchers able to achieve great success with a low strikeout rate was Mark Fidrych. In 1976, when he went 19-9 with a league-best 2.34 ERA, Fidrych struck out only 97 hitters in 250 innings, or 3.5 per nine innings.
That's an almost absurdly low figure. I entered career stats for every Hall of Fame pitcher whose careers began in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s. There are 15 of them, and they can be broken into four (somewhat arbitrary) groups. At the bottom of the list, with 5.04 strikeouts per nine innings, is Jim Palmer. This seems a little weird, as Palmer was considered a power pitcher, but his strikeout rate dropped quite a bit over the last seven seasons of his career.
Anyway, six of the pitchers struck out between five and six hitters per nine innings: Palmer, plus Catfish Hunter, Whitey Ford, Phil Niekro, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. Five of the pitchers struck out between six and seven hitters per nine innings: Don Sutton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning and Tom Seaver. Two of the pitchers struck out (slightly) more than seven hitters per nine innings: Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson. And two pitchers struck out more than nine hitters per nine innings: Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, of course.
All of that is probably more information than you need; here's everything boiled down to the important stuff ... the pitcher with the lowest strikeout rate in the group of Hall of Famers was Palmer, with five strikeouts per nine innings. Fidrych’s strikeout rate in his great season was 30 percent lower than Palmer's career rate.
Another way to look at this ... Instead of focusing on pitchers with Hall of Fame careers, what about pitchers with great seasons? I entered the single-season stats for every American League pitcher who finished No. 1 or No. 2 in ERA in the 1970s (AL only, because the DH presumably has an effect on strikeout rates).
That results in 20 pitcher seasons and 13 pitchers (Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter, Bert Blyleven and Ron Guidry appear twice, Palmer three times). As a group, the pitchers struck out 5.87 batters per nine innings. And at 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings, Fidrych is still the low man on the totem pole. But at least he's got some company this time, in the person of Tommy John, who finished with the second-lowest ERA in 1979 despite striking out only 3.6 hitters per nine innings. By that point in his career, T.J. was 36 years old and his left elbow was stuck together with cold cuts and chewing gum; earlier in his career, before the injury, his strikeout rates were generally right around the league average.
And here, finally, is why strikeouts are important ... If you don't strike out at least a moderate number of hitters, you have to do everything else almost perfectly. Here are the pitching lines for Fidrych and John in the aforementioned seasons:
IP HR BB SO The Bird, 1976 250 12 53 97 Tommy J., 1979 276 9 65 111 Totals 527 21 118 198
Great control, and an amazing ability (or something) to limit the number of home runs. But there are very few pitchers who can maintain those successes. In fact, Bill James argues, in his latest book, that the odds were very long against Fidrych enjoying a distinguished career, even absent injury, because no post-1950 pitcher who began his career with that sort of strikeout rate amounted to much of anything.
(As it turns out, in addition to giving up very few home runs and walks, Fidrych also allowed just a .250 batting average on batted balls in play, which is pretty phenomenal, and not a rate he'd have been likely to maintain over a number of years.)
So why does a pitcher need strikeouts? Why can't he simply throw the ball over the plate and let the enemy hit weak grounders and pop-ups all day long? Because baseball doesn't work that way. The great majority of pitchers -- yes, even Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson -- don't actually have much effect on batted balls in play. As we've seen in past columns, even the greatest pitchers will generally allow a .300 batting average on balls in play that aren't home runs.
Randy Johnson, though, doesn't have to worry about anybody hitting .300 against him. Hitters batted .330 against him last year when they managed to put the ball in play, but they had a devil of a time putting the ball in play, and actually batted .203 against Johnson.
Of course, there's only one Big Unit. But for every pitcher on the planet, every strikeout is one less chance for the hitters to get a hit.
Getting back to the original question, what's different about hitters and pitchers? Essentially, it's this: Many hitters are able to compensate for high strikeout rates with other positive things, like home runs and walks. But very few pitchers are able to compensate for low strikeout rates. The math just doesn't work for them.
Before I let you go, just wanted to touch on a few things quickly:
Or as reader John Wells writes,
Aren't these the same owners who voted twice in the 1990s to expand? Aren't two of those expansion franchises two of the least profitable in all of baseball? And aren't two of them prime candidates for contraction, legal issues notwithstanding? I can think of nothing more hypocritical, fraudulent and unethical than to expand the league for the benefit of expansion fees, then turn around just a few years later and call for contraction as the "inevitable" result of having too many teams. I'd love to see the greedy owners sued for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and corporate mismanagement. What a mess.
Couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't try.
Or maybe the teams should simply demand documentation that doesn't look like it was concocted by a bunch of little boys in a tree house.
I'm not naive. I know that this particular instance won't stop, won't even delay for a single second, the next team from selling out. But it's good to see the beast bite back, if just this once.
MONDAY, FEB. 4
Well, as it turned out, a number of readers weren't actually convinced that strikeouts aren't really so bad. The following is just one of many I received in the same vein ...
Reading your column on strikeouts and the Milwaukee Brewers got me thinking ... I agree with you that strikeouts probably aren't as important as many general managers think they are. But I can't help thinking that they're a little more important than you think they are. You say the Brewers didn't score many runs because they had very few walks. This may be naivete on my part, but doesn't a large number of strikeouts suggest a lack of strike-zone judgement? And further, doesn't a lack of strike-zone judgement result in very few walks? And if so, are these not just two sides of the same coin?
There are days, I must admit, when I wonder if I've done all I can do, that anyone who wants to know the basics already knows them, and anyone who doesn't isn't ever going to.
And then I read a bunch of e-mails like this one, and I realize that there are still plenty of fans with open minds out there, but somehow they just haven't gotten the word yet.
What I'm getting at here is that strikeouts don't result in few walks, and in fact one can make the case that strikeouts are a necessary evil.
There are three basic hitting skills: making contact, hitting for power, plate discipline. Very few hitters in the history of the game have been able to combine great degrees of all three skills. Just off the top of my head, Ted Williams is the only name that comes to mind. Mantle at his best. Babe Ruth hit for great power and drew a ton of walks, but he did strike out a lot (for his time). Ditto for Barry Bonds. Joe DiMaggio hardly ever struck out and had great power, but generally drew "only" 60 or 70 walks per season.
I'm probably missing an exception or three, but it's generally true that hitters, even the great hitters, have to make compromises. Tony Gwynn probably could have hit 25 or 30 homers per season (rather than seven or eight), maybe drawn 75 walks per season (rather than 50 or 60) ... but then he probably wouldn't have won eight batting titles, would he?
Last season, Sammy Sosa struck out 153 times. That was actually a good year for him, as he'd averaged 172 strikeouts per season from 1998 through 2000.
And you know what? Only a lunatic would have told Sosa to stop striking out so damn often. He's turned into a superstar who hits 60 home runs and draws 100 walks per season, which makes him one of the great hitters of our time.
Let's see, who else ... Jim Thome led the American League with 185 strikeouts last season ... and he also hit 49 homers and drew 111 walks. Most managers can live with the K's. Other hitters among the 2001 strikeout leaders were Troy Glaus, Mike Cameron, Jeromy Burnitz, and Richie Sexson; productive hitters, all.
My point -- in case I haven't already hammered the thing to death -- is that while strikeouts certainly aren't good in themselves, they often come with the territory if you're going to be a good hitter. As hard as pitchers throw these days, and as much as the game is geared toward power, most productive hitters are going to 1) take pitches until they see one that looks good, and then they're going to 2) swing real hard. And so you get your walks (good), your home runs (better), and yes, your strikeouts (not nearly as bad as some people think).
In response to last Friday's column, Dean Taylor -- who's been more civil to me lately than I deserve -- stressed to me that his biggest problem wasn't the strikeouts per se; he was concerned because the Brewers had four consecutive hitters -- Geoff Jenkins, Richie Sexson, Jeromy Burnitz, and Jose Hernandez -- who accounted for so many of the strikeouts.
Here's the basic lineup the Brewers featured last season, with a relevant numbers:
OBP Slug K/162 White .343 .459 122 Loretta .346 .352 73 Jenkins .334 .474 185 Sexson .342 .547 182 Burnitz .347 .504 157 Hernandez .300 .443 197 Belliard .335 .453 104 Blanco .290 .334 112
This isn't perfect, because Belliard actually batted in the No. 1 and No. 2 slots more than anything else. But it's the best we can do. Anyway, what's striking here is how similar the Brewers were. No, I don't mean the strikeouts. I mean the on-base percentages, as six of the eight regulars finished with virtually identical OBP's. I still maintain that the problem wasn't strikeouts, but OBP. Because while it's true that only two Brewers had horrible OBP's, it's also true that no Brewer had an outstanding OBP. You can live with players in the middle, but you've got to have a couple of guys with great ones to bring up the average. And as I hope I demonstrated earlier, there are players who combine high strikeouts and high OBP.
Also, if having those four high-strikeout guys batting consecutively made a difference, statistically, the Runs Created formula wouldn't work for the Brewers. But it did work. It worked almost perfectly.
I should note, too, that since batting order isn't particularly important, the high-strikeout guys didn't have to bat consecutively; if all those strikeouts in a row were a problem, then manager Davey Lopes should have broken them up.
And finally, it's been suggested -- not by Dean Taylor, but by readers -- that while a huge number of strikeouts might not have much discernible statistical impact, it might have a negative impact on the team's morale. Well, maybe. But in 1927, one free-swinging (or was it patient?) team led the American League with 605 strikeouts. They were the New York Yankees, and morale was probably pretty good as they won 110 games and swept the World Series.
Well, that was a nice tidy conclusion ... and I haven't mentioned pitchers once, even though pitchers were supposed to be the subject of today's missive. So tune in Wednesday, when I'll try to avoid any further digressions ...
FRIDAY, FEB. 1
A few days ago, I talked to Brewers GM Dean Taylor about Eric Young. It was a pleasant conversation, significantly more fun than my recent chat with another famous Milwaukeean. We spent most of our time discussing what Young brings to the Brewers. He'll bring some speed to the lineup, of course, and by all accounts he'll also be a positive influence in the clubhouse. And if he can get his on-base percentage back above .350 ... well, all the better.
Eric Young brings something else to the table, though: contact. The Brewers struck out 1,399 times last year, absolutely destroying the single-season record previously held by the 1996 Tigers (1,268). Jeromy Burnitz contributed 150 of those strikeouts, which is one of the reasons he's no longer a Brewer. Meanwhile, Eric Young is one of the most difficult players in the league to strike out; last year, only 45 times in 603 at-bats. The Brewers also picked up Lenny Harris, who can't really hit but does have the virtue of a low strikeout rate.
I pointed out to Taylor that strikeouts really aren't a big deal, and he agreed with me ... to a point. He agreed that for most teams they're not that important, but that an immense number of strikeouts affects run production in a fundamentally different way. And never having studied the issue, I had to allow for the possibility that he's right.
But if Dean Taylor is right, if massive strikeouts have some sort of multiplicative (my word, not his) effect, wouldn't that show up somewhere?
I made two lists: one list contained high-strikeout teams, and the other contained low-strikeout teams. The list of high-strikeout teams includes the last 12 major-league teams that struck out more than 1,175 times in a single season. The list of low-strikeout teams contains the last 10 major-league teams that struck out between 800 and 850 teams in a 162-game season.
The high-strikeout teams averaged 1,202 strikeouts.
Clearly, there's a big difference between the teams in the two groups.
Next, I plugged the stats for all of those teams into the Runs Created formula. For those of you who don't know, Runs Created is a method with which we can closely estimate the number of runs that a team will score, given its hitting statistics. The original formula was quite simple and accurate, even though it didn't consider strikeouts at all. The inventor of Runs Created, Bill James, did eventually incorporate strikeouts, but the formula only works with strikeouts if strikeouts are given a very small negative value; so small, in fact, that it's really not worth the trouble of including them in the equation.
Nevertheless, if we assume that Runs Created is generally accurate -- and I can assure you that the method works -- but that for some reason it doesn't work for high-strikeout teams, then we would expect to see high-strikeout teams score fewer runs than predicted by the formula, right?
Further, we might expect to see a difference in the formula's accuracy when predicting the runs scored by the high-strikeout teams and the low-strikeout teams.
Runs K's Expected Actual Low-K 832 779 764 High-K 1207 772 773
In a study of 13 high-strikeout teams, the Runs Created formula predicted the group's run production almost perfectly. And as you can see, for all practical purposes the formula worked equally well for groups of teams at both ends of the strikeout spectrum. There simply isn't any evidence, at least not here, to think that there's some subtle interactive effect of multiple strikeouts.
One thing I didn't mention earlier: I left the 2001 Brewers out of the study, because they were so far off the charts. So it's possible that Taylor is right, and that the Brewers are simply the first team in history that's racked up enough strikeouts to actually make them important.
Well, the Runs Created formula looks at the Brewers' statistics and, using the same (tiny) value for strikeouts that it uses for every other team, predicts that the Brewers would score 732 runs.
They scored 740.
And they scored only 740 runs not because they struck out too often; they scored only 740 runs because they didn't walk often enough. The Brewers finished 12th in the National League in walks ... and 11th in the National League in runs scored. And if you don't think there's a relationship between walks and runs, you're probably reading the wrong column.
So why are strikeouts such a boogieman in the minds of baseball men (and broadcasters, and fans)?
The problem with strikeouts isn't that they hurt your team, it's that they hurt your feelings, because they're memorable. I remember very few specific things about my unspectacular career as a Little Leaguer, but one thing I do remember is striking out to end my team's season. If Tony Lazzeri had flied to right field with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, nobody would remember. But he struck out, so we do remember.
A general manager will watch nearly all of his team's games, either at the ballpark or on TV (the manager, of course, sees all of them). You see enough strikeouts, they'll make you crazy, and Dean Taylor saw nearly 1400 strikeouts last year. If he hadn't witnessed the strikeouts, but instead simply saw the 1399 in a line of type on a stat sheet, he probably wouldn't be worried nearly so much about them.
The Brewers traded Jeromy Burnitz, who walked 80 times last year. That's not good. But they did sign Matt Stairs, who walked 52 times in a part-time role. That's good. Unfortunately, the Brewers have also added Eric Young and Alex Ochoa and Lenny Harris, none of whom walk much. But those guys don't strike out often, either. And sometimes I wonder if baseball men would be better off if they didn't watch so much baseball.