By In Stuff

Pushing Back Time

Jack Nicklaus always said that he loved hearing a competitor complain about the conditions at a golf tournament. He loved it because that meant he could cross that guy off the list. The greens are too choppy? Boom — you can’t win. The rough’s too high? Boom — you can’t win. The fairways are too narrow? Boom — you can’t win. The golf course is unfair, the wind is coming from an unfamiliar direction, the crowd control is not what it should be, the course is set up for long hitters, for left-to-right players, for right-to-left players, for great putters*, the course is set up for high scores or low scores … the way Nicklaus figured it, they were all playing under the same conditions which, by definition, meant it was fair. It’s always fair. To Nicklaus, every complaint was just a preemptive excuse.

Nicklaus’ Law: If you’re complaining before the thing even starts, you ain’t winning.

*I remember talking about the Masters once with Johnny Miller, and he kept referring to it as the “United States Spring Putting Championship.” I thought this was a very funny line, though it is probably telling that Miller never won a Masters. He finished tied for second three times.

I thought about Nicklaus’ Law again this week when I read that Derek Jeter has been working on shortening his stride and speeding up his bat — these adjustments mean to get him back on the fastball again. I thought about Nicklaus’ Law this week while reading that Tiger Woods’ much-talked about swing changes finally clicked when he was playing a practice with John Cook. He looked like his old self again, Cook gushed.

And so we introduce a corollary to Nicklaus’ law — we will call it Steve Carlton’s law:

You cannot adjust your way out of getting old.

You can go back through recent history and find quote after quote after quote from 30-something athletes who believe they have figured out a way to fight off age. They have figured out a way to delay the end. And here’s the thing: Their adjustments don’t only sound reasonable, they sound positively believable … hey why CAN’T YOU just shorten your stride a bit to make up for lost bat speed? Why CAN’T you just rework your golf swing to make up for an aging body that is no longer as flexible and reactive as it once was? Why can’t you use your experience to be a good quarterback or point guard after the body begins to lose some of its life. It just makes sense. The mind is sharper than ever. The experience level is higher than ever. An adjustment here and there should fix the problem of the years, or at least put off the problem indefinitely.

Look: I sincerely hope both of these guys, Jeter and Woods, beat their age for a long, long time. I root hard for them. Derek Jeter is one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history, he was at the center of the greatest baseball moment of my life (his game-winning homer in the 2001 World Series), he has been a class act and pro’s pro and I would be thrilled to see him play well for many more years. Tiger Woods is simply the most extraordinary competitor I’ve ever seen, any sport, he has made golf exciting and commercial and fun, and I would love to see him win 10 more major championships and leave behind the sad personal drama of his recent life. I always root for great athletes to fight off the inevitable end.

But here’s the thing: Steve Carlton’s Law is unbreakable. It is, on occasion, BENDABLE for a little while. But only on occasion. And only that.

We call it Steve Carlton’s law because no athlete of the last 50 years fought harder to fight off the effects of age. Carlton had all sorts of new-age and mystical training techniques. He would run a lot (at a time when pitchers often said their main form of exercise were 12-ounce curls), and he did all sorts of Martial Arts exercises, and he was probably most famous for moving his arm around in a barrel of rice. He felt certain that all this work, and the mental drive he had for fighting off age, would allow him to pitch effectively until he was at least 48 years old. And he DID win his last Cy Young when he was 37 and pitch effectively at 39 … both pretty extraordinary achievements when it comes to age-postponing.

But then he turned 40. And he was done. Few in baseball history have ever raged as hard against the dying of the light. Carlton played for five different teams after he turned 40 — and though he went 16-36 with an 84 ERA+ over those years, he STILL did not believe he was done when baseball mercifully retired him. His last career start was for the Minnesota Twins, and it was against the Cleveland Indians, and he gave up nine runs. He felt sure he still had something left. All he needed to do was make a couple of adjustments.

Carlton is just one of the more obvious examples of this phenomenon. Muhammad Ali, after he was destroyed by Larry Holmes, believed that he had simply lost too much weight too fast and he needed one more embarrassment — a terrible loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas with a cowbell ringing between each humiliating round. Jim Palmer tried to come back at 45 because he felt sure he had figured out a way to defy the years — it took him only one spring training start to see the light. Mark Spitz at 41 had convinced himself that age was, as Satchel Paige family said, merely mind over matter (“If you don’t mind, it don’t matter”) and he tried to qualify for the 1992 Olympics. He could not even swim fast enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Yes, time is unbeaten. And it seems to me that when you start hearing great athletes talk about these magical elixirs to beat time, or training techniques that can beat time, or little adjustments that can beat time … well, I get a little sad. Because if Derek Jeter is getting old, if Tiger Woods is getting old, that means I’m getting old too.

We’ve covered this at some length with Tiger. People want to believe that golf allows players to stay great well into their 40s … which can be true but mostly isn’t true. Yes, every now and again a golfer like Mark O’Meara or Vijay Singh will emerge in their 40s. Yes, every now and again a full-fledged old golfer will have a magical week — like Watson at Turnberry (though, sadly, he did not win). But the average age for major winners since 1970s is 32. Golfers rarely win major championships after age 36. Time can steal a golfers nerve, putting steadiness, consistency for four days and audacity on Sundays. Something may have clicked in Tiger Woods’ swing, and he might indeed start winning consistently again. Like I say: I hope so. But I don’t think so. I think the decline has begun.

It’s even clearer to see the decline in baseball. If you go to Derek Jeter’s Baseball Reference page you can find 10 players who compare pretty well to him through age 36.

1. Robbie Alomar. A Hall of Famer. Took a significant drop as a player after age 33. Never had even an average offensive year after that. Played his late game at age 36.

2. Craig Biggio. A future Hall of Famer, I believe. Got 3,000 hits. Developed some power late in his career — hit 24 homers as a 38-year-old, and a career high 26 at 39 — which increased his value somewhat. But he could no longer get on base, and he was a defensive liability.

3. Frankie Frisch. The Fordham Flash is in the Hall of Fame. He retired at 38 with the realization he could no longer play. He had not been a great player for five or six years by that point.

4. Ted Simmons. An odd match to Jeter … I don’t think a shortstop can really compare to a catcher. Still, Simmons was a mostly ineffective player after age 33, which I suspect is a big reason why people have not taken his Hall of Fame case as seriously as they might.

5. Robin Yount. Hall of Famer moved to center field as 29-year-old, and he had some of his best years out there. He stopped hitting at Hall of Fame level at 34 and he retired at 37.

6. Charlie Gehringer. Another Hall of Famer, he walked a lot in the latter part of his career to increase his value. But he was done at 38, and retired at 39.

7. Johnny Damon. He is about seven months older than Jeter, and is now facing many of the same challenges. He is on his third team in three years.

8. Cal Ripken. People will tell you that the streak wore Ripken down. Maybe it did. But Ripken’s career arc seems pretty much in line with the norm. He had his best year at 30 and had flashes of brilliance — but no brilliant seasons — after that. He retired at 40, but he was not really an everyday player after age 37.

9. Alan Trammell. Should receive a lot more Hall of Fame consideration, in my opinion, but probably won’t get more because he was effectively a part-time player after age 32. Injuries wrecked the last few years, and he retired at 38.

10. Pete Rose. And finally … the ageless wonder. But even Rose was never really a great player after age 35. He did hit .331 at age 38, and he led the league in doubles at 39. Rose was driven to hit, and then driven to break Ty Cobb’s hit record, and there wasn’t much that could stop a driven Pete Rose. He was, in the words of my friend Scott Raab, a “brick-bodied mother …” and late in career he became a manager and kept inserting himself in the lineup. In other words: Rose was unique to baseball history.

So where does this leave Jeter? He is undoubtedly driven. He is undeniably focused. He is undeniably great. He is undeniably baseball brilliant. He could develop power like Biggio, or increase his walks like Gehringer or simply bludgeon his way forward like Rose.

But he is also undeniably coming off his worst offensive season. He hit 21 points below his previous low. He slugged 35 points below his previous low. He slugged a startling and anemic .317 on the road.

Jeter’s offensive troubles last year are not hard to identify. He swung at more pitches outside the strike zone than ever before (28.2% — Jeter’s percentage at his best was closer to 15%), which seems to me a guy whose bat has slowed to the point where is guessing more. He also made more contact with those pitches than ever before (69.2%), which is not really a good thing. That led to a lot of weak ground balls. A LOT of weak ground balls. He hit 3.6 times as many ground balls as fly balls, and that ratio led all of baseball by a lot … followed by the not especially inspiring offensive cast of Elvis Andrus, Skip Schumacher, Juan Pierre and Michael Bourn.

Will shortening the stride and trying to make the stroke quicker reverse that trend? Will it allow Jeter to crack more line drives over a long season? Well, these are exactly the reasons why we watch sports because sometimes unpredictable things happen. But it seems unlikely to me. Derek Jeter did not come up with the idea of shortening the stroke to help catch up with the fastball. Great aging players have been trying to shorten their strokes for as long as there have been great aging players. Rod Carew was an artist with the bat — and he had a thousand different batting strokes. he stopped hitting .300 at age 37. Mike Schmidt is almost certainly the greatest third baseman in baseball history — he stopped hitting home after age 37. One of the smartest baseball players ever, Al Kaline, was essentially a part-time player after 36.

This is not to say Derek Jeter can’t squeeze out some more good-to-great years. It’s to say that the odds are against him. Once the decline begins, it rarely pulls back its choke hold. Nicklaus used to say that when he saw someone griping, he saw someone who was not going to win — almost without exception. I would say when I see a great athlete in his mid-30s talking about magical adjustments that will allow him to return to his younger self, I see someone who is closer to the end than any of us would like to admit.

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By In Stuff

Thoughts in a bookstore

Before the literary world was taken over by iPads, Kindles and Nooks, I would go to bookstores all the time. I probably went two or three times a week — no exaggeration — and sometimes, like when I was finishing my book about Buck O’Neil, I went even more. Now, I don’t go very often. To be honest, I don’t go at all. It’s too easy to buy books electronically from a recliner. It’s too easy to have a book delivered (with free shipping). I keep saying that I will start going to bookstores again, but I don’t know that I will. Times change. The world changes.

But this week, I did go to a bookstore and wandered around. And this is what I thought about.

Here’s something I’ve noticed: Every bargain books section in every bookstore in the country has an entire shelf dedicated to bird watching. Illustrated Birds of North America. A Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic’s Field Guide of Birds. And, of course, The Complete Guide to Birds of the World, which, if you think about it, should really be everything you need.*

*Complete Guides are another specialty of bargain book sections. In the next row, there’s a bargain book called “The Complete History of the World.” It’s only $9.99. I don’t know why book stores don’t just put that book right in front of the store… and eliminate every other superfluous non-fiction book in the store.

Back to birds: I admit that I’m not especially interested in identifying birds. The only bird I ever really wanted to identify was the one that kept swooping down and threatening to attack me while I was trying to mow my lawn a couple of years ago … and that was only for the police report. But I know that there are many people who enjoy identifying birds, studying them, watching them and so on. My question is this: Why are these books always in the bargain section? The big book store owners — Robert Barnes, Charlotte Noble, Frank Borders, Sally Booksamillion — have certainly done numerous studies that suggest these bird books sell best when situated in a bargain book section and slapped with a “$5.99” sticker.

But why? Are there really people who are impulse buying these bulky, coffee-table books about birds? Are there really bird watchers who had looked hard at A Field Guide to the Birds of North America at full price and almost bought it but then decided: “Nah, I’ll wait for it to go on sale?” Were these books EVER at full price?

I’ve come up with two theories about why there are always bird books in bargain sections:

1. The big book sellers have come to realize from their data that bird watchers are, by their nature, the sorts of people who walk through the bargain sections of book stores.

2. The big book sellers know that the people who are buying these books are people looking to stock their waiting room tables … and they’re happy to buy impressive-looking bird books at discount prices.

* * *

Ricky Martin has an autobiography out. It is called “Me.” I wonder how he came up with that title. I wonder what title finished second.

I posed this question to the people of Twitter. My favorite was a response from brilliant reader Nelson. He figured the runner-up title was: “Book.”

* * *

The thing that constantly strikes me as I walk through bookstores is that every book in there, every single one, was published with the dream of selling many, many copies. All the mysteries with vaguely the same looking cover, all the books that will help you grow your money, the books with 1,001 dirty jokes (these would include John Updike’s novels), the books about how Democrats and/or Republicans are trying to destroy your way of life, the books about true crimes that seem so strange they could be fiction, the books about fictional crimes that feel so real they could be true, the sports books about baseball in the 1950s or how to shoot 80, the guide books marketed to self-aware idiots and dummies, the quirky history books, the books by once famous people (Roseannarchy?), the novels with grand ambitions, the novels with someone who looks like Fabio on the cover, the graphic novels, the children’s books, the books about the future and all the books that tell you how to be a better parent/gardner/investor/photographer/iPad user/sports fan/Jersey Shore viewer … all of them were published because someone out there believed that people would buy them.

As someone vaguely resembling an author, I feel for these books. As I walk through bookstores, I fight constant urges to buy books I would never read … I just want to help them out, spring them from book jail. I will rearrange books so that an ambitious novel that took a half a lifetime to complete or a deep history of philosophical thought will not find itself stuck next to “Britney Speaks Heart To Heart.” I turn some of my favorite books so that their cover shows and I hope that cover might be enough to stop some a hurried shopper — not unlike the way Claudette Colbert stopped a car by showing some leg in “It Happened One Night.”

The books that strike the most emotion in me are the ones I find in the wrong section. There are only two possibilities: One that the book was misfiled, which I find is unlikely. The second is that the book was almost bought. Some buyer had this book about Mark Twain or The History of Salt or The Pint Man or a book about the great Buck O’Neil and decided at the last minute to abandon it in the computer books section or in the section with all of the fancy journals that people buy as gifts.

The idea of these books almost being bought and then abandoned always leaves me surprisingly sad.

* * *

Mitt Romney has a new book called “No Apology.” I was not aware that people were demanding apologies from Mitt Romney, but apparently he will not give them the satisfaction.

I first see the Mitt Romney book in the “New Releases” section with all the other new books that have grand hopes of gracing the New York Times best-seller list. Later, I see “No Apology” again … in the bargain books section. Here it is selling for $5.98. This feels like some sort of grand mistake, but apparently it is not because there are a half dozen there, all marked down. It is, the first straight to bargain section book I can ever remember.

Maybe the title refers to the publisher’s official stance about people who paid full price.

* * *

The only logical reaction when you walk into the diet section of a bookstore is to appreciate that there are many, many ways to lose weight in only 60 days. And there are many more being devised while I write these words. By Tuesday, there will be at least a half dozen new ways.

I’ve actually read a few diet books, both because I am overweight and also I’ve long been preparing for the bestseller I plan to write someday soon: “The Sportswriters Diet.”

The amazing thing to me about diet books is how viciously they attack other diet books. I’ve read all the David Sedaris books, and not once do I recall him writing a sentence like: “Other humor writers will tell you that boogers are funny. They are entirely wrong. For the first seven chapters, I will show you the scientific evidence why booger jokes do not have any effect on the section of the brain that attends to humor.”

But sentences like this FLOOD the diet books. What everybody else is telling you is ALL WRONG. … THEY tell you to cut down on carbs/fat/protein/caffeine/cheese/breakfast cereals with cartoon characters on the front … THEY tell you to exercise until you puke, until you throw up, until you vomit, until you lose consciousness … THEY tell you to cook with olive oil or not to cook with olive oil, to count calories but don’t calorie count, to avoid all sources of carbs without losing healthy carbs though there are no healthy carbs … but WE will tell you why all the stuff THEY tell you inevitably and inexorably will make you gain 50 pounds and hate your family.

It is not easy to lose weight. I know this. We all know this. I’m in the midst of another weight loss program right now, and I’m in those heady days when I’m losing weight and feeling good about things and imagining the After Photo. But I’ve been here before, many of us have been here before … there’s a lot of time between now and the After Photo. And it seems to me that the millions of diet book authors might come to some kind of consensus that would help those of us. Calories? Carbs? Fat? Fiber? What the heck should we do?

And stop yelling at us.

* * *

How much weight did Gandhi lose during his 21-day hunger strike?

* * *

I love the section of “staff recommendations.” I remember someone in the business once telling me that the big bookstores will fake those recommendations — that they will tell staffers which books to pick. I’ve since been told that this isn’t true. I don’t have an leaning on the subject. I have noticed that the staff recommendations at bookstores across the country tend to be very similar. The recommendations always seem to include one Toni Morrison book, one classic by Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, a Bukowski, Burroughs or Palahniuk (recommended by the store rebel), a recent translation, and an Oprah book club selection. This doesn’t have to be planned. This could be because people who work in bookstores tend to have similar tastes.

I remember at one bookstore — in Arizona, I’m pretty sure –someone on the staff recommended The Bible. I thought that was great, and I wondered if anyone saw that and thought: “Well, I haven’t heard too much about this book, but I’ll buy it based on the recommendation.”

* * *

One thing I learned after writing my books is that you have no chance to sell any quantity of books in the big bookstores unless those books are placed on a table in front of the store. It’s called placement, I guess, and it’s extremely important. Books that never get on one of those front tables are apparently doomed, and so publishers will do many things to get their books placed in front — on the “New Arrivals” table, on the “Stuff We’re Reading” table, on the “Critically Acclaimed” table, on the “Dean Koontz” table.*

*Damn, Dean Koontz has written a lot of books. So have Janet Daily, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Robert Ludlum … I feel like such a writing pretender.

I have little doubt that the “front of the store table” theory is based on countless amounts of sound research. And the theory itself seems sound. You would expect that people looking to browse for books are likely to stay near the front of the store and see what new and interesting books have been put out for them.

I bring all this up because once again I’m in the front of the store looking at the books on the front tables … and NOBODY ELSE is here. The bookstore is actually pretty jammed. People are milling around the fiction, the diet books, they are wandering through the kids section, there is one or two people in every aisle and a bunch in the history section. But nobody is up here with me browsing through the new books.

I have no idea what it means. But it is something I have noticed before. I actually like looking at the new books tables, seeing what’s out there, what the publishing houses are pushing, what member of the Jackson family has decided to write a new book, what political commentator has decided to lash out, what new thing authors think I’m doing wrong now … but I almost never run into anyone else looking at these books. I almost never see anyone actually buy these front table books.

I’m sure that this is just selective memory … I have no doubt that people do most of their shopping on the front tables, and that the only way to really sell a book is to have it in front of the store where people can find it, and I desperately hope that my next book will get the place of honor on that very first table in the front of the store, the one usually reserved for books about why the sitting president is evil, books about why the sitting president in misunderstood, or vampires.

* * *

They closed down the coffee shop in the bookstore where I’m walking. This upsets me. I can only remember one time in the last two or three years when I ordered coffee in a book store, and that was in Los Angeles when I was trying to kill an hour because I had arrived some place WAY early. This seems to me one of the dangers of living in Los Angeles, by the way. There is no telling how long it will take you to get through traffic, and so it seems to me you will always find yourself very early or very late.

In any case, drinking coffee in bookstores is not really a part of my life … but I like knowing that I can. And more, I like the smell of coffee, and the murmur of conversation, and the variety of people you see sitting at tables. The bookstore feels a bit dead to me without all that, with that corner of the store having gone dark.

* * *

The checkout line in bookstores alway seems to end about 20 feet away from the actual cashiers and their registers. You have to stand at this distance for reasons I do not quite know, and then you have to wait for them to point at you and go: “Next person in line,” like they are bakers and you are ordering wanting to order a cake. And when they do finally grant you an audience, you get to stagger that final 20 feet past a startling array of oddball items — artsy magazines, writers’ journals, Monopoly games featuring streets in your hometown, videos of movies that came out 17 years ago, Harry Potter candy, more bargain books (“The Complete History of Rock ‘N Roll”), fancy bookmarks, maybe a couple of current best sellers, a few in season books (“For Valentine’s Day put the spark back in your love life”), and, most of all, tiny pocket books.

I always stop to look at the pocket books. They fascinate me. I fully understand why people make them, and why people buy them. They make for great little gifts. You have pocket books for parents … for siblings .. for teachers … for Star Wars fans … for people who like knock knock jokes … for bird lovers … for cat lovers … for dog lovers … for sports lovers … for love lovers … for people who like to quote The Wire … for pretty much every single person you know. It’s manipulative, sure, but when we buy gifts aren’t we sometimes looking for something a little bit manipulative. “Hey, I really don’t know you at all, but I remember you once telling me you liked Mini Coopers. Well here’s a little book with a whole bunch of photos of Mini Coopers.”

What fascinates me, though, is not the concept of pocket books but the idea of actually reading one once you leave the story, Sure, it’s easy to read in the store … you pull it out, open it up, flip through it. But how would you actually read one of these at home? Are you really going to climb into a recliner, lean back, and pull out a book roughly half the size of a regulation box of Good & Plenty? Are you going to turn the pages, one by one, laugh at a little joke, then turn to the next itty-bitty page? And where will you keep the book when you’re done? Can you have a tiny little bookshelf with a bunch of these books, a miniature library of pocket books — not unlike Seinfeld’s closet of socks on those little hangers that they’re sold on?

I always expect — but almost never get — any real interaction with the checkout person at one of the big book stores. Sometimes, they will recognize me or my name, which is not my favorite thing but it’s fine and anyway that’s not the kind of interaction mean. What I mean is that they will almost never say something like “Oh, I read this book and loved it,” or “If you like this book you should read this book” or even “Oh, I’ve really been meaning to get to this book I’ve heard great things.” I will get this often at my favorite Independent bookstores, like Rainy Day Books in Kansas City, but not at the big ones. They will cash out the book, ask if I have a rewards card, spend way too long trying to find my rewards card on the computer, and then ask if I want a bag.

I don’t know why I expect more. When I buy stuff at Target, I never expect — but often get — a cashier who wants to tell me how good the movie is that I’m getting or that the shampoo I’m buying made her boyfriend’s hair turn a little green. I don’t expect supermarket people to review my bread choices, and I don’t expect the Best Buy person to tell me that the new Radiohead sounds just like the old Radiohead, or whatever.

Still, there’s something strangely disappointing about not getting any reaction at all to buying books at a store. I can’t exactly say why. Maybe it’s because I still think of books as magical, as something that connect us. If you saw the same movie that I saw, well, big deal. Shell out $10 or $15 or $20 or whatever it costs to see a movie in a town near you, and you see the movie. You saw The King’s Speech, I saw The King’s Speech, we both liked it, whatever. Neither of us worked too hard.

You go into a store and buy Bruce Springsteen, Cee Lo Green, REM, Postal Service, Ella Fitzgerald, David Wilcox and the Gaslight Anthem just like I would … that’s great, we obviously share musical tastes, but that’s not a relationship. There’s no commitment. We just like some of the same sounds.

But to read a book … it’s an effort. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes understanding. And if you read all the way through The Power Broker, and found it rewarding and fascinating, we are probably pretty similar in some ways. If you read Then We Came To The End, and loved it, we are probably pretty similar in some ways. If you find yourself almost daily diving into some new place in Bill James New Historical Abstract and just reading happily, we are probably pretty similar in some ways.

Connection. That seems to be the thing that books can offer that is a little bit different from anything else … a way to bridge that gap, a way to cut the space between us. Sometimes when I’m in a bookstore, I will see someone I don’t know looking at a book I loved, and I want to run over and shout: “You don’t know me but please buy that book! I don’t know you, but if you are the kind of person I hope you will love it!”

Of course I don’t ever do that. And nobody ever does that to me. Not even the person at the checkout counter.

* * *

One thing the checkout counter person does ask is if I want to buy a book for a child. I’m not entirely sure of the particulars of this program — I’m not sure if she is asking me to buy a book for a single child, or for a school, or for some kind of organization like “Reading Is Fundamental” that hands out books to children.

If I could buy a book for every child it would be the beautiful children’s book “Some Dogs Do” by Jez Alborough. It is a book about a dog name Sid who finds out one day that when he gets really happy he can fly. He announces this at school, where all the other dogs mock him and call him a liar and laugh at him. He finds himself depressed, until he comes home and finds a secret. And, finally, there are the beautiful final words.

Do dogs fly?
Is it true?
Some dogs don’t.
And some dogs do.

I love that book for so many reasons … but mostly I love it because it’s about the power of imagination. And this happens to be the same reason I love bookstores.

* * *

I was in this very bookstore once when Buck O’Neil called me. This was in the last few months of Buck’s life, and it was also in the last few months of me writing my book about Buck. I had not written a book before, and I had no idea how to do it. I still don’t, but I knew even less then. So I would go to bookstore five or six nights a week, and just wander around, try to soak it all in. I would pick up books and read first paragraphs. I would read last paragraphs. I would try to feel what form my book should take. I don’t know know that I figured it out, but I think I learned a lot trying.

In any case, I remember everything very specifically about the night Buck called. I had just walked out of the sports section, and I was wandering over to fiction when my phone buzzed. I don’t think Buck ever called me on my cell before … I can remember being surprised he even knew my cell phone number.

He had called mostly to ask a favor. A couple of days before, there had been an election to add Negro League players and contributors into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The committee essentially was given free reign to add as many people as they wanted, and they took advantage of their freedom by adding an astounding 17 people. It was a free-for-all. All of the 17 were dead, long dead, decades dead. And more or less the one viable person they did not add was probably the one person the Hall of Fame wanted honored when they put together the committee in the first place: My friend Buck O’Neil.

Buck played well in the Negro Leagues, managed brilliantly in the Negro Leagues, scouted the Negro Leagues and spent more than half his life fighting to keep alive the memory of the Negro Leagues. It was a shock when he was not inducted, and, to his friends and fans, an insult. Tears mixed with fury. Buck, of course, handled it with the beautiful grace that marked his life. On the day of the inductions, he introduced the 17 new inductees and led people in song.

The favor was classic Buck. He wanted me to thank people for all the support after Hall of Fame day. He wanted them to know he never felt more loved. This was five years ago, almost to the day, and I told Buck that I would certainly let everybody know how he felt. Then there was a long pause. I was walking by the S authors in the fiction section. I remember seeing Salinger. And then Buck said this:

“You know … a few weeks ago, a guy asked me: ‘Who is that white boy who is following you around all the time?'”

I had followed Buck for a year, from New York to San Francisco, from Chicago to Houston, from Atlanta back home to Kansas City. I had heard him tell story after story — sometimes word for word — and I had heard him sing, and I had watched baseball games with him, and I had shared many meals with him (ALWAYS with desert) and I had hugged him many times. I had listened again and again to his peaceful words. I had no idea how to turn all that into a book, how to make people feel the spirit of Buck, how to make people hear the music of Buck, I had no idea. I only knew that I had to do it, that this was as important as anything I would ever write. This is why I wandered around bookstores at night.

“What did you say?” I asked Buck.

Another pause. There’s a certain light in a bookstore that I have come to love. It’s bright enough to make the words clear, but dark enough to keep your head from throbbing. I was standing still then, right next to Steinbeck’s “Winter of Our Discontent.” I remember thinking that I had not read it.

Buck said: “I told him, ‘Can’t you tell? That’s my son.'”

Five years ago. Buck died that October. You want to know why I went to the bookstore? I went for Steinbeck’s “Winter of Our Discontent.” It wasn’t there. They said they could order it, but the sad thing is that those days are gone. I can order it myself.

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Messing with numbers

I woke up this morning, my oldest daughter was a sick, my youngest daughter wanted to argue that purple and red are a perfect match for school clothes, my wife had another tax question, and I wondered who would make up the baseball All-Star Team of my lifetime. I suppose that’s too long a sentence for a epigraph, but I’d say that sentence more or less encapsulates the absurdity of my life. I live in a sitcom that nobody would watch.

When the various family dramas were worked out, I sat here at this computer and started to work out the question: Who would make up the baseball All-Star team of my lifetime?

I was born in 1967. My first blurry memories of baseball come from 1972. That year, I went to my first game (I remember nothing except that Gaylord Perry pitched), and I watched my first World Series game (I remember nothing except for the yellow uniforms the Oakland A’s wore). My first sturdy memories come from 1975, when I was 8, when the Reds were amazing (someone should write a book about that team) and when I first became acutely aware of the differences between players. For instance, I very clearly remember going to a game at old Cleveland Municipal and seeing Don Hood pick off a batter. “He’s good at that,” my father told me. Sure enough, he WAS good at that — he had seven pickoff that year. So, I learned that some pitchers are good at picking off baserunners (Don Hood was also good at wild pitches). I also saw Buddy Bell hit a home run … for a while it seemed whenever we would go to a game we would see Buddy Bell hit a home run.*

*I’m pretty sure that the game in question was this one, a Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. Everything about it fits into my memory, including that it was a Sunday. My father worked in the factory six days a week, so almost every game we attended was a Sunday.

Anyway, that just puts the timing on things. I was wondering who would make up the all-time team from 1967 to now … with a heavy emphasis on players performances after 1975, the players I remember best.

People, surprisingly often, ask why I love sports numbers so much. There are probably a lot of different answers, but one of them is that I have the kind of goofy mind that wakes up with dumb imaginary questions like who is the greatest defensive left fielder ever or who had the best arm in NFL history or could the NBA’s all-time fourth team beat the NBA’s all-time best team?*

*Let’s say the all-time NBA team looks like so:

G: Magic Johnson
G: Michael Jordan
F: Larry Bird
F: Bill Russell
C: Wilt Chamberlain

And the No. 2 all-time team looks like so:

G: Oscar Robertson
G: Jerry West
F: Tim Duncan
F: Elgin Baylor
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

And the No. 3 all-time team looks like so:

G: Bob Cousy
G: Kobe Bryant
F: Lebron James
F: Hakeem Olajuwon
C: Shaq

And the No. 4 all-time team looks like so:

G: Isiah Thomas
G: John Havlicek
F: Julius Erving
F: Karl Malone
C: Moses Malone

Now, obviously those are not my top four teams — I picked those names off the top of my head. You can mix and match, add or subtract, throw in a Bob Pettit or a Charles Barkley or a John Stockton or whoever. The question is if you put those four teams on the floor as is, would the No. 1 team definitely be the best? It looks like that to me … but what if Chamberlain and Russell don’t mesh? What if Jordan can’t play with Magic? What if the old timers turn out to not be able to play with the kids?

And how would this team compete against those teams?

G: Chris Paul
G: Dwayne Wade
F: Kevin Durant
F: Kevin Love
F: Dwight Howard

These are the stupid things that I think about.

So I wake up wondering about these things. There is no right or wrong answer to them — it’s like when I asked Bill James how he thought Babe Ruth would play in today’s era and he said: “Fortunately, I don’t have to think about that.” But I then go to the numbers to kind of explore those things. The weird part is that I’m not really looking to the numbers for ANSWERS to the question. I mean, deep down, I don’t really care who makes up the baseball All-Star team of my lifetime. I would imagine off the top of my head the team looks like this:

1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Joe Morgan
SS: Alex Rodriguez
3B: Mike Schmidt
LF: Barry Bonds
CF: Ken Griffey
RF: Reggie Jackson
C: Johnny Bench
DH: Frank Thomas
SP: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson.
Multiple inning closer: Dan Quisenberry.
One inning closer: Mariano Rivera

And if I look at the numbers … well, I’ve looked at the numbers enough — Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Win Shares, etc. — that I know they will back me up on this. They might suggest that Pujols hasn’t done quite enough to surpass Jeff Bagwell or Rod Carew just yet, or they might push for Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter since they played shortstop longer than A-Rod or they might try to nudge me into finding a place for Pete Rose on the team. But generally speaking the numbers won’t tell me much …

… but the awesome thing about sports numbers is that they always take me in unexpected directions — and 2,500 word blog posts. For instance, by looking at the numbers I was able to come up with a Top 5 or so at each position. This is the best consensus I can find using those three numbers — Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Reference WAR and Win Shares — and my own best judgment.

First base:
1. Albert Pujols
2. Jeff Bagwell
3. Rod Carew
4. Eddie Murray
5. Jim Thome
Just missed: Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire.

Second base:
1. Joe Morgan
2. Lou Whitaker
3. Craig Biggio
4. Roberto Alomar
5. Bobby Grich
Just missed: Ryne Sandberg, Willie Randolph.

1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Cal Ripken
3. Derek Jeter
4. Robin Yount
5. Barry Larkin
Just missed: Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell.

Third base
1. Mike Schmidt
2. George Brett
3. Wade Boggs
4. Chipper Jones
5. Scott Rolen
Just missed: Darrell Evans, Graig Nettles.

Left field
1. Barry Bonds
2. Rickey Henderson
3. Pete Rose
4. Manny Ramirez
5. Tim Raines
Just missed: Carl Yastrzemski, Jose Cruz.

Center field
1. Ken Griffey
2. Jim Edmonds
3. Andre Dawson
4. Reggie Smith
5. Kenny Lofton
Just missed: Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams.

Right field
1. Reggie Jackson
2. Dwight Evans
3. Tony Gwynn
4. Larry Walker
5. Dave Winfield
Just missed: Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Ichiro Suzuki.

1. Johnny Bench
2. Carlton Fisk
3. Ivan Rodriguez
4. Gary Carter
5. Mike Piazza
Just missed: Ted Simmons

1. Frank Thomas
2. Paul Molitor
3. Edgar Martinez
4. Harold Baines
5. David Ortiz
Just missed: Don Baylor, Hal McRae

There are some quirks with positioning … I wasn’t really sure what position to put Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Reggie Smith, Jim Thome, Robin Yount, A-Rod and a few other players. I tried to put them where they best fit, even if it didn’t exactly fit with where they played the most. Pete Rose defensively seemed best in left field — it’s where he put up his best Total Zone numbers. Molitor played more games in the field than at DH, but he really had his best years as DH. Hey, it’s my team, and it’s my life. Andre Dawson was at his best as a center fielder.

Anyway, this is roughly what the numbers showed me … and then comes the fun part. What do these numbers say? It seems to me that they say some pretty interesting things. We talk a lot about number and the Hall of Fame here, but I would like to think we’re not REALLY talking about the numbers or the Hall of Fame but are instead talking about baseball, and how players are remembered.


For instance, Lou Whitaker is simply not remembered as a great player. That’s just reality. Players of his time, fans of his time, sportswriters of his time … they just didn’t see him that way.

But the numbers say he WAS a great player. Here is a Fangraphs chart I’ve shown before, Whitaker compared to Robby Alomar and Ryne Sandberg. You will notice that in career value, Whitaker tops both of them. The thing that seems to hurt Whitaker’s baseball reputation is that Sandberg had two or three seasons that were better than Whitaker’s best. Alomar probably had two seasons that were better than Whitaker’s best. Because of this we have a clear vision of them as greater players than Whitaker.

Whitaker’s thing was his consistency — he had 15 what I would call very good seasons. Alomar had 11. Sandberg had 7.

Consistency doesn’t necessarily excite the masses.


Bobby Grich has a different problem. Grich’s three best seasons were almost certainly better than the three best of Sandberg or Alomar (or Whitaker, for that matter). He might have been the best player in the American League from 1974-76.

His problem is nobody from 1974 to 1976 realized this because he hit .263 over those three years, and batting average was where baseball analysis began and ended. You can’t hit .263 and be a great hitter, everybody knew that then. Many people still know that now.

Grich was a brilliant defensive second baseman, he hit with some power, he had a bit of speed, and though nobody noticed, he walked 100 times or so a year, got hit by some pitches, and was among the Top 10 in on-base percentage each season. There used to be a saying among Dominican player that you don’t walk off the Island. That may or may not be true. But you definitely don’t walk into the Hall of Fame or into baseball people’s imaginations.


Where we draw the Hall of Fame line … I find that endlessly fascinating. I suspect the Top 5 catchers on the list — and catcher was the only position where all the statistics I used spit out the same five players — will make the Hall of Fame. But the unanimous choice for sixth-best catcher of my lifetime, Ted Simmons, got almost no support and was bounced from the ballot after one appearance. I’m not saying this is wrong: I think all five of those guys were better than Ted Simmons. It’s the abruptness off it that’s jolting.

But maybe the Hall of Fame line is right there between Gary Carter and Ted Simmons.

Corner outfielder vs. Center field

You clearly have a better shot at the Hall of Fame as a corner outfielder than you do as a center fielder. Nobody could argue the point. There have been 13 Hall of Famers in my lifetime who played predominantly one of the corner outfield positions. By WAR (since 1967):

1. Rickey Henderson
2. Reggie Jackson
3. Tony Gwynn
4. Carl Yastrzemski
5. Dave Winfield
6. Willie Stargell
7. Hank Aaron
8. Jim Rice
9. Roberto Clemente
10. Frank Robinson
11. Billy Williams
12. Lou Brock
13. Al Kaline

Barry Bonds will join this group sooner or later. Down the road, I’d bet Ichiro will get inducted. MannyBManny will tough to keep out. I hope Tim Raines will join this group. More on Gary Sheffield in just a moment.

But first: How many center fielders from that same time frame were elected to the Hall? Three.

1. Willie Mays
2. Andre Dawson
3. Kirby Puckett

It isn’t just the difference in numbers. I don’t remember Willie Mays — he’s not really of my era. So it’s down to two. Andre Dawson — Tom Tango convinced me — should be remembered as a center fielder, and I honor him that way. But he did play more right field than center. And Kirby Puckett had a short career and many think he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. None of the statistical systems I used had Puckett as one of the 10 best center fielders of my lifetime.

Now, Ken Griffey will go in and probably pretty close to unanimously. But no one else on the list of best center fielders is likely to go in. I guess we will see how Jim Edmonds is received as a Hall of Fame candidate, but I have not sensed much buzz or excitement about him.

Center field is a much more demanding position than left field. We understand this instinctively. And yet when WAR shows Jim Edmonds above Dave Winfield or Andruw Jones (Andruw Jones!) above Billy Williams or Kenny Lofton above Jim Rice, people tend to think the stat must be horribly flawed. And maybe the stat is horribly flawed, I’m not here to argue that.

Still: At some point we might get the concept that center field defense offers much more value than left field defense, and that a player’s contribution to winning baseball games is the sum of many smaller contributions. I think center fielders, especially great defensive center fielders, deserve a little more consideration than they’re getting. It seems to me that of the other tough defensive positions — the Top 5 catchers are going to the Hall, the Top 5 shortstops will go to the Hall, at least four second baseman look to be Hall bound, at least four third baseman look to be Hall bound. But as it looks right now, only two center fielders from my Top 7 seem likely to go to the Hall. Maybe this is because there just haven’t been many great center fielders in my life. Or maybe we underrate the position.

Sheffield and the Hall of Fame

All of this leads to Gary Sheffield. He officially retired on Thursday, I guess, though he didn’t play at all in 2010. He was a scary hitter. We sometimes joke around about how often people call a hitter “feared.” But if any hitter of the last 44 or so years was truly scary to face, it was Sheffield with the way he waved that bat around, the absolute look of pure hate on his face, his almost magical ability to hit the ball wherever it happened to be thrown, his eagle eye … all of it led to a gut-wrenching experience for pitchers.

The guy just obliterated mediocre pitchers:

— Jamey Wright: .519 average, 6 homers in 27 at-bats.
— Bruce Chen: .481 average, 5 homers in 27 at-bats.
— Kent Bottenfield: .458 average, 3 homers in 24 at-bats.

But he cranked against great pitchers too, especially if they happened to be left-handed. He hit .389 against Jamie Moyer. He slugged .629 against Tom Glavine. He hit .474 against Kevin Brown. He got only 19 appearances against Roger Clemens but he hit .611. I’ll repeat that. He hit .611. He slugged .537 against Pedro.

Point is, the guy was scary. And you look at some of his numbers — 500 homers, 140 OPS+ — these are Hall of Fame numbers.

But getting back to the point of the last section: Corner outfielders hit. That’s what they do. They are, in most cases, not fast enough, gifted enough or good enough defensively to play one of the key defensive spots. Sheffield was by the numbers and reputation a poor defensive player who had to be moved off third base after he made 34 errors in 1993 and his outfield defense wasn’t much to speak of either. So you would think that for Sheffield to be considered one of the great players in his era, he had to outhit just about everybody.

But did he? Bonds was a better hitter. MannyBManny was a better hitter. I think Bagwell was a better hitter, Thome was a better hitter … I would argue that Edgar and Larry Walker were better hitters too.

For a long time, when someone would ask me if I thought Gary Sheffield was a Hall of Famer, I would say that I hadn’t studied it but my first thought was: Yes. But after looking a bit, I’d say that my second thought is: No. I think, all things considered, there were at least five right fielders of my lifetime who were better players. Dewey got very little Hall of Fame support. Larry Walker has a long, uphill climb. I’d say Sheffield has a long line ahead of him.

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Behind the back page

My Point After in Sports Illustrated this week is about the Cleveland Cavaliers and the rather remarkable way that the city has tolerated the longest losing streak — and perhaps the least competitive team — in NBA history. Here are a few thoughts behind the column.

It is always fun to go back to Cleveland. The temperature was 9 degrees when I landed, though nobody around seemed to notice. This is a beautiful part of my memory of growing up in Cleveland — by February, the weather has been so absurd for so long that you no longer even think about it. There’s no complaining. Nobody talks weather. It’s just cold, and it will always be cold, and there’s snow everywhere, and there’s more snow coming, and there will always be snow on the ground, and it will never melt, it will never ever get warm or green ever again. That’s why spring always felt like a beautiful surprise. There is no better season on planet earth, I am convinced, than spring in Cleveland (or Buffalo or Detroit, etc). The best weather days in my memory was always that first semi-warm day of Cleveland spring when I could wear tennis shoes outside and I felt like I could jump four feet in the air.

I was coming back home to see how the city was taking the collapse of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs had the best record in the NBA the last two years. And this year, when my plane touched down, they had lost 25 games in a row, the longest losing streak in NBA history, one of the two longest in the history of American professional team sports. What struck me about the losing streak was how uncompetitive the Cavs had been. They had not forced even a single overtime game during the losing streak. They had lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 112-57, then two nights later they lost by 22 at Utah, and the night after that they lost by 28 at Denver. They were as overmatched as any NBA team ever.

This was, of course, the nightmare scenario. When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, everyone understood that the Cavaliers were about to have a great fall, one that would baffle all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. But nobody knew for sure just how bad that would be. The Cavaliers started off by beating Boston, and after 16 games they were 7-9, and at that moment it seemed like they had at least an outside chance of being a lousy-but-not-too-lousy team that would play hard and beat the dregs of the NBA.

And a few days later, LeBron James and the Heat came to Cleveland, humiliated the Cavs in front of a passionate crowd, and nobody was left with any illusions after that.

“The problem,” former Cavs star (and one of my childhood heroes) Jim Chones said, “is that we have a lot of guys on this team who didn’t understand what he did. They didn’t appreciate how hard he worked. They thought they were pretty good, and didn’t realize that he was the one making them look pretty good.”

Chones said this without hesitation — though as you can see Chones went to sometimes comical lengths to not say the name “LeBron James.” The Cavs utter collapse isn’t entirely about James. Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal were contributors, and they left too. Anderson Varejao was almost certainly Cleveland’s second best player, and he got hurt during the losing streak. But the collapse is ALMOST ENTIRELY about James. And everybody around the team and the city knows it.

Then again, I didn’t go to Cleveland to write about LeBron James. I went to see how my city was handling once again having the worst team in the NBA … and so soon after having one of the best. And what I found, I must admit, surprised me.

The city seems to be handling it just fine. More than that … Cleveland is sticking with this team in a way that seems kind of remarkable.

“I think it’s impossible to say that that Cavs fans haven’t been exceedingly tolerant of this team,” says Peter Pattakos, a Cleveland lawyer who writes the Cleveland Frowns blog. I really wanted to go to Peter on this one because he often has a different take on these things. In this case, we really seemed to sense the same thing. Cleveland can be a savage sports town. Cynicism comes with the weather. But there’s something about this Cavaliers team that seems to capture the hope of the city.

“Just compare to the Browns of recent years,” Peter says. “This is unquestionably a football town first, and folks were ready to run Eric Mangini only a few weeks after he got here in ’09 even though everybody knew it was an obvious rebuild year with the roster in tatters. There’s nothing close to the same feeling toward Byron Scott and the Cavs here, and they have to be setting some kind of record for ‘losingest team with the best attendance’ or something like that.”

At last check, the Cavaliers were third in the league in attendance. Now, certainly a lot of that was due to the LeBron hangover. But they were also seventh in TV ratings, which tells you something. And Cavs president Len Komoroski told me that they are well into the upper half in merchandise, which is certainly not all just leftover Lebron momentum.

More, the fans at the games don’t boo much. Hardly at all. I was there for the Cavaliers-Pistons game last week, and it was one of the saddest displays of pro basketball I have ever seen. The Pistons were on the second of back-to-back games, they were on the road (where they had won just six times all year) … and the Cavs were never even in the game. You almost never see an NBA game where one team doesn’t make at least one serious run or take the lead in the fourth quarter or something.

But the Cavaliers played … here’s the rather astonishing phrase that comes to mind: Arrogant basketball. They played as if they thought this game was in the bag. They had lost TWENTY FIVE GAMES IN A ROW, and they played as if they were overconfident, as if the Pistons were an easy win. It was staggering. The loss was so embarrassing that even Byron Scott, who had been a pillar of bland “just get me through this season” stability, flashed some temper. “I’m mad as hell,” he said, and though he didn’t finish it off with an “and I’m not going to take it anymore,” it was something.

But the fans pretty much took it all in stride. The signs were almost all of the “We’re with ya!” variety. There were only a smattering of boos at the end, and even that was barely a smattering. There was a lot of cheering, even when the game was clearly out of reach. A friend remembered one Cleveland Indians game at the old stadium where fans halfway through started cheering for the Detroit Tigers because it had gotten that ridiculous. I can remember Browns games where the fury toward the home team was so intense that you would NEVER have known these were actually Browns fans. My school bus driver every Monday after a Browns loss would spend the entire ride screaming about how much he hated the Browns, meaning of course that he loved them. That’s Cleveland.

But the Cavaliers are drawing a different emotion from the fans. Before the game — and I found this amazing — Nicki Minaj’s “Blazin'” played over the sound system. Of course, I did not know the name of the song, I had to use my Shazam app. But the reason I even used my Shazam app was because I heard the words: “As long as I’m in the game, you’ll never win.” That really seemed a strange thing to play at that moment. Then I looked up the lyrics and saw this in there.

Before the storm comes the calm.
Hope you can take the heat, like LeBron.

Am I wrong? That seems like a very strange thing to play before the Cavaliers go out to try and break a 25-game losing streak. But, nobody seemed to mind. The timeout entertainment mostly seemed to revolve around rewarding people who had renewed their season tickets. Nobody seemed to mind. The Cavaliers played dismal, uninterested basketball. Nobody seemed to mind.

“I think that part of that is definitely due to Clevelanders being good sports fans generally, but that most of it is due to what we’ve been through with LeBron,” Peter says. “To the latter, it’s not just the bad feelings that many folks have toward LeBron, because even if LeBron would have been lost to injury, or something more ‘natural’ than the Decision, it’s still hard to let go of something as special as what the LeBron era was here for the last seven years.”

I think that’s right. I think in part LeBron made himself the enemy when he went on television and snubbed the city that loved him, and if LeBron is the enemy then the players wearing Cavaliers uniforms — no matter how bad they might be — are the allies. “Like family,” former Cavs star Campy Russell told me, and I think that’s probably pretty close to right. We all have family that, in one way or another, are like the 2010-2011 Cleveland Cavaliers.

But I think there’s something else. The LeBron years were fun. The last two playoffs were frustrating, but in general LeBron was brilliant and Cleveland was the center of basketball for a few years. Fans got to watch one of the greatest players ever at his peak for a few years — an Akron native, no less — and the scene in the arena was as wild and wonderful as anyplace in Cleveland in the last 50 or so years.

LeBron’s decision turned those years into mud for many … but that impulse of being in the middle of it all, that hunger for championship basketball, that doesn’t go away. Cleveland, I really believe, is a city of realists. Miracles happen elsewhere. Worst to first happens elsewhere. You’re not going to wake up one morning and find that a foot of snow in the driveway has miraculously melted. The only way for this Cavs team to again compete for a championship is to land a couple of stars in the next couple of drafts. And the best way for that to happen is for this Cavs team to lose spectacularly. Which is what they’re doing.

I did not get a good feel for where the LeBron anger is at now. My sense is that, unlike the Art Modell anger which never stopped boiling, the LeBron anger is only at about medium-high. I’m sure it will pick back up during the playoffs, but as mentioned I’ve long thought of Cleveland as a town of realists. Think it’s cold today? Wait until that blizzard hits next week. The Browns are starting over again. The Indians look pretty dismal. The Cavaliers lose 26 in a row.

“You know what’s true about Cleveland,” an old friend of my said. “It makes you tough.”

I think that’s right. And because of that I don’t think Clevelanders will exactly FORGIVE LeBron. But maybe over time, those years of LeBron playing his heart out, rosin flying, the warmth of the arena making the blizzard outside go away, maybe all that will feel like good memories again. Maybe over time, these Cavaliers — who seem committed financially and structurally to do everything to become a great team again — will rebuild into a special team.

Maybe it’s just another long winter. Two days after I watched the Cavaliers lose their 26th in a row, they beat the Clippers at home in front of a pretty rowdy and hopeful crowd. The officiating seemed a tad one sided in that one, but hey, whatever it takes to break an absurd losing streak. Two days after that, in case anyone had forgotten just how bad the Cleveland Cavaliers are without LeBron, they became the first team all year to lose to the Washington Wizards at home. They were losing by 22 at halftime in that one.

“We just need a go-to scorer,” Jim Chones told me. “And a guy who can set up the offense. And we have to keep them off the glass. And we need to play smarter. We’re really pretty close to turning this around.”

* * *

Postscript: Just watched the Cavaliers beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a rather shocking development — yes, the Lakers team that had beaten them 112-57 earlier in the year. The Cavaliers played inspired basketball, particularly Ramon Sessions (32 points, eight assists, three steals) and J.J. Hickson on the glass (9 offensive rebounds), and Kobe Bryant played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play — 8 of 24 shooting, seven turnovers, looked completely out of sorts — and the thing just kept kind of going and going, the crowd getting more and more into it, the Lakers looking more and more uncertain. It doesn’t change anything important, of course. But it was nice for a night.

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Cashing In Without The Yankees

Well, it looks like the expected is happening — the Cardinals and Pujols will not reach a deal, Pujols will spend the year not talking about his contract, and then the best player will become a free agent. After that, there are many possibilities.

One common thought about the Albert Pujols negotiations — handled ably here by Mark Kriegel — is that his efforts to get a huge deal will be badly hindered because the biggest of the big market teams are already locked in at first base. This mostly means: No New York Yankees. I’ve had that thought myself. The Yankees, of course, have Mark Teixeira at first base (8 years, $180 million). The Phillies will have Ryan Howard playing first base no matter what happens to his game* — his 5-year, $125 million contract doesn’t even START until next year. The Red Sox have the absurdly young (and thus absurdly affordable for one more year) Adrian Gonzalez and though he apparently has not signed a once-reported extension, the common feeling is that Gonzalez-Boston seems a good fit.

*That Howard contract still blows my mind. Ryan Howard the last three years — we can now put this in three-year increments — hit .269/.350/.541. He was TENTH among first basemen in WAR over those three years, closer to Lyle Overbay (Howard’s 9.7 WAR to Overbay’s 9.1) than Joey Votto. He’s 31 years old, he had an injury-plagued 2010, he has mostly stopped walking, his strikeout numbers have always been huge, his numbers are on clear descent and he has a history of being unable to hit lefties. I’m going to beat the rush and preemptively call that the worst contract in baseball.

Anyway, the thought is that without those three big spenders in the mix — OK, let’s be honest, without the New York Yankees — Pujols’ options for the big money are dramatically limited, perhaps even doomed. The thought is that to get a record breaking contract, which seems to be what Albert Pujols wants, you need to have the Yankees to drive up the price.

As mentioned, I’ve had that exact thought. But then I remembered something.

The craziest contracts in baseball history have almost NEVER been given out by the New York Yankees.

Think about this for a moment. What are the craziest contracts in baseball history? You could start, I suppose, with Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year $275 million deal if you want. The Yankees did give that one out. But that deal was a direct descendent of the truly insane 10-year, $252 million deal that Tom Hicks gave A-Rod before going broke. The Yankees just ended up holding the bag on that one. Hicks was trying to get attention, apparently with money he really didn’t have, and after A-Rod had big years and the Rangers still stunk the Rangers and basically were just looking anywhere and everywhere to abandon that contract. Not long after, the Rangers found themselves in bankruptcy court.

The craziest deals? San Francisco’s deal with Barry Zito comes to mind. Toronto’s deal with Vernon Wells comes to mind. The Cubs deal with Carlos Zambrano … the Angels deal with Torii Hunter … the Nationals deal with Jayson Werth … the Cardinals deal with Matt Holliday … the Mets deal with Jason Bay … the Dodgers deal with Andruw Jones … the Rangers deal with Michael Young … the Rangers deal with Chan Ho Park … the Cubs deal with Alfonso Soriano … the Royals deal with Gil Meche or Jose Guillen … the Angels deal with Bartolo Colon … the Mets deal with Carlos Beltran … the Dodgers deal with Jason Schmidt … the Orioles deal with Miguel Tejada … Philadelphia’s deal with Ryan Howard. …

Some of these worked better than others, of course. I’m not saying these were all bad deals or that they were all ill-advised. Baseball talent costs a lot of money. And I’m not discounting that the Yankees have some doozies too — A.J. Burnett, Jason Giambi and so on. The Mark Teixeira deal could be a real albatross when the Yankees are paying him $22.5 million a year in 2014 and 2015 and 2016.

But when it comes to breaking the bank, it seems to me that the Yankees might get too much credit — or blame — for driving the market price. A friend who once sold luxury cars told me that the most likely person to overspend for an absurdly expensive car is not the richest guy in the room but the one who LONGS to be the richest. A look at the amazing Cot’s Baseball Contracts page gives a fascinating look at the highest paid players (based on average annual salary) in baseball history at each position.

NOTE: I’m putting the team that gave the player the gigantic contract.

Starting pitcher:
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia. ($24 million per)
— The Phillies have two of the top four of all time, with Roy Halladay on the list as well.

Relief pitcher
Mariano Rivera, Yankees ($15 million per)
— The best ever in the town that made him famous; Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge gets $12.5 million per.

Designated hitter
Travis Hafner, Cleveland ($14.25 million per)
— The cash-poor Indians gave a designated hitter more than $14 million a year. Injuries and age have wrecked him, but even so this was a dreadful signing from the start.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota ($23 million per for eight years)
— The feeling in Minnesota was that the Twins HAD to sign their hometown hero. I wouldn’t argue with the thought, but it’s the “HAD to sign him” impulses that give us some remarkable contracts. The second richest contract was Jorge Posada with the Yankees, but it’s for $10 million a year less.

First baseman
Ryan Howard, Philadelphia ($25 million per)
— The Yankees gave Teixeira what looked to be a break-the-bank deal. Maybe that played a role in Howard’s contract, but now Howard’s deal is the standard Albert Pujols’ folks are salivating over.

Second baseman
Dan Uggla, Atlanta ($12.4 million per year)
— I originally thought Uggla had signed the deal with Florida before he was traded to Atlanta. He did not. That’s an Atlanta deal. … Robinson Cano figures to destroy this deal.

Derek Jeter, Yankees ($18.9 million per year)
— He’s making $17 million per year now. Troy Tulowitzki is signed for 10-years, $158 million. The Rockies can only hope it works out as well as the Jeter 10-year deal worked for the Yankees.

Third base
Alex Rodriguez, Yankees ($27.5 million per year)
— This it the deal that Pujols reportedly is looking to eclipse.* Our own Jon Heyman reports that the Cardinals offered an eight-year deal worth more than $200 million (but, apparently, less than $240 million). If that’s true then … well, already some people are saying it’s not true. Who really knows?

— Here’s something that will give you an idea of just how much money we are talking about here: Pujols reportedly asked for a 10-year, $300 million deal. The 10 years sound ludicrous — it really IS ludicrous when looked at specifically — but I think the point is that Pujols wants the $300 million to break A-Rod’s full package deal, which was worth a total of $275 million. The 10 years is just to make it happen. I’m sure he’d take $300 million for six years if they wanted to give that to him.

How gigantic a package are we talking about here? Well, someone asked if the Cardinals could make an offer so that Pujols’ last five years would be included in the contract. In other words, could the Cardinals offer Pujols a five-year deal that, added together with the last five years of his current contract, would total $300 million and get him the record he seems to crave (without having to stretch out for 10 more years).

OK — do you know how much money per year the Cardinals would have to pay Pujols the next five years to make that happen? Take a stab in the dark. … Pujols the last five years — including this year which is a club option year — will have made $84 million. To get him to $300 million, the Cardinals would have to offer him a 5-year, $216 million deal — or $43.2 million per year.

I’d take that.

Left field
Manny Ramirez, Dodgers, ($22.5 million per year)
— The Red Sox’ Carl Crawford deal (7 years, $142 million) is really more lucrative. … Special mention must be given here to Houston for the 6-year, $100 million deal they gave to Carlos Lee. I’m not even sure you could call the contract a “disappointment” because that would suggest that the Astros thought Lee would play better than he has. Lee is, by the numbers, an abysmal outfielder and was when the Astros signed him. He was 31 when he signed the deal. He hit .300 the first three years of the contract and drove in 100 runs before descending into the abyss last year. So I’d say he has absolutely lived up to whatever the Astros could have expected. Now, he has still two more years left on the deal and he’s turning 35 and he’s coming off a year when he was one of the worst players in baseball. That contract was historically atrocious the day it was offered … and history has simply played out.

Center field
Andruw Jones, Dodgers ($18.1 million per year)
— The Angels Torii Hunter got $18 million per year, but his was a five-year deal compared to Jones’ two years. The funny thing about the Torii Hunter deal is that according to all parties, he was just about to sign with the Kansas City Royals when the Angels swooped in with the biggest money package offered to a center fielder since Ken Griffey. So it was the KANSAS CITY ROYALS who drove up the price. … Vernon Wells also got $18 million per year from Toronto.

Right field
Ichiro, Seattle and Jayson Werth, Washington ($18 million per year)
— That Jayson Werth contract alone should tell you that you don’t need the Yankees to get an absurd deal. The line from Citizen Kane fits here: “It’s no trick to make an awful lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.”

And I think that’s where I stand now: If Albert Pujols and his people are determined, at any cost, to get that $300 million deal, I think they have at least a fair shot of getting it. Fangraphs does a nice job breaking down Pujols’ projected value, and some other people do as well, and their figures generally show that it’s unlikely for Pujols to be worth that much money if you look at aging patterns and so on. But here’s the thing: He’s the best player in baseball. He’s widely acknowledged to be the best player in baseball. There are a lot of owners out there who would like to say that the best player in baseball plays for their team.

I also think Albert Pujols still means more to the St. Louis Cardinals than he does to any other team. I don’t know how much the Cardinals offered, and I don’t know if there are bad feelings between the two sides now, and I don’t know where Pujols’ head is when it comes to playing the rest of his career in St. Louis. But I think once all that fades, the Cardinals will be in the bidding process. And I think that the money will be flying, even without the Yankees cash in the whirlwind.

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Pujols and the Cardinals

A couple of months ago, I wrote that the Derek Jeter negotiation with the New York Yankees, while entertaining in its own voyeuristic way, was a lot like a comfortable movie. We always knew how it would end. They two sides could fight, there could be some raw feelings, they could be tension, there might even be a moment when a breakup seemed inevitable. But no breakup was possible. Derek Jeter needed the Yankees. The Yankees needed Derek Jeter. The fans needed them together. Just like Harry and Sally, Jim and Pam and The Eagles reunion tour, there were no alternate endings that made any sense at all. Jeter and the Yankees HAD to end up together.

The Albert Pujols-St. Louis Cardinals negotiation seems similar. The Cardinals need Albert Pujols. And Pujols, whether he fully appreciates it or not, belongs with the Cardinals. Baseball fans would like them to stay together (except those who would like to steal him away). It seems like the same thing, but it isn’t the same at all. Pujols and the Cardinals could break up. More and more it looks like they WILL break up. The reason is obvious and a story almost as old as love. The reason is money.

See, in the Jeter situation there was never any doubt that Jeter was worth a lot more to the Yankees than anyone else. Sure, Jeter is probably the most famous player in baseball. He’s probably the most widely respected player among people inside the game. He’d offer a ticket boost, I suppose, and a bit of local buzz. But Jeter is turning 37 years old this year, and he’s coming off a season that suggests he’s in decline, and he still wants to play shortstop though time clearly ticks on him playing baseball’s second-most demanding defensive position.

So, what is a 37-year-old shortstop worth, one who hit .270 and slugged .370 while playing half his games in one of the American League’s great hitter’s parks? What is he worth if his name is not Derek Jeter? Marco Scutaro put up roughly the same year in 2011, he’s a couple years younger, he’s getting $6 million in 2011. And please: I am not comparing Marco Scutaro’s history to Derek Jeter’s — Jeter is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the four or five best hitting shortstops in baseball history. I am simply trying to estimate a player’s worth. Baseball insiders suggested that Jeter, based on his age and pure performance projections might have been worth a two-year, $17 million deal.

But, of course, Jeter was worth MUCH more than that to the Yankees. He’s worth much more to them because of his history with the team, his respect within the clubhouse, his ability to thrive in New York, his work ethic, his constant professionalism and so on. Do the Yankees believe Jeter still has enough left to rebound offensively and play a reasonable shortstop for the next three years? I’ll bet there’s a pretty wide difference of opinion on that within the organization. But with everything else involved, the Yankees are really the only team in baseball that had the impetus to bet big money on a Jeter comeback. The Yankees gave Jeter a three-year, $51 million deal. I’d guess no other team would have given him half that. But it made sense for the Yankees. Anyway, the Yankees have more money than Midas.*

*I don’t mean King Midas. I mean Midas, the brake repair company.**

**Have you ever thought how strange it is that their slogan is “Trust the Midas touch?”

The Pujols-Cardinals relationship has some of the same general characteristics of Jeter-Yankees. From the Cardinals side, it should be pretty obvious to everyone how important it is to sign the best player in the game. We don’t have to go into too much detail on that. For fun, we’ll give you the start of some charts to gawk at:

All-time records through first 10 seasons:

1. Albert Pujols 408
2. Eddie Matthews 370
3. Ralph Kiner 369

1. Ted Williams, 1,273
2. Albert Pujols, 1,183
3. Joe DiMaggio, 1,146

1. Joe DiMaggio, 1,277
2. Al SImmons, 1,275
3. Ted Williams, 1,261
4. Albert Pujols, 1,230

Runs Created
1. Ted Williams, 1,552
2. Albert Pujols 1,506

Wins Above Replacement
1. Ted Williams 86.2
2. Albert Pujols 83.8
3. Mickey Mantle 78.8
4. Willie Mays 76.3

OPS+ (min. 5,000 PAs)
1. Ted Williams 190
2. Ty Cobb 182
3. Lou Gehrig 181
4. Rogers Hornsby 180
5. Albert Pujols 172
(tie) Stan Musial 172

Yes, the Cardinals side of the negotiations is pretty plain.

From the Pujols side: He’s obviously the biggest star in one of America’s great baseball towns. The fans love him, he loves the fans, there is a connection there that happens very rarely in baseball. It is happening for Jeter in New York. It happened for Brooks Robinson in Baltimore. It happened for Johnny Bench in Cincinnati. It happened for George Brett in Kansas City. Before George Brett’s last game, he famously kissed home plate at Kauffman Stadium while a full stadium cheered, and I guess I’m naive enough to think that sort of thing does matter. Brett has told me many times that he remembers that moment as vividly as his biggest home runs. What does a player have after his playing days? Money, sure. Rings, if he’s lucky. Opportunities, maybe. But as much as anything: He has memories.

That’s not to go all mushy and say that a player should do what he can to stay with one team all his life. That’s dumb. It doesn’t make sense for the vast, vast, vast majority of players. Most will get traded or low-balled or mistreated … that’s a part of business and part of the game. Most players will have to leave to get what they are worth, to get a better opportunity, to not be taken for granted.

But for someone iconic like Pujols, a player on his way to making a case as the greatest hitter in baseball history, a player who has all the love of a city that lives and breathes baseball, well, sure, he has a chance to be one of the most beloved players ever in the game.

I can’t say I know Albert Pujols well, but I suppose I know him a little, and I think he understands fairly well what it would mean for him to stay in St. Louis. There’s no way for a man at 31 to know what he will know at 50, after the cheering has faded, after the fame has congealed, but I do think he has a sense of history, of relationships, of how special it would be to play his whole career in St. Louis and to become a part of the city’s history, not unlike someone else who is being honored today. More on that in a second.

But I also think that Albert Pujols feels under-appreciated. Why? I think that is part of his story. In high school, he was not even named first-team all-Kansas City by my former newspaper. He was constantly charged with being older than he claimed. He was not drafted. He went to Maple Woods Community College. He was drafted in the 13th round and was lowballed. He often says one of his hardest years was his first year in pro ball, when his family had no money, when few believed him. This is part of his baseball history, it is part of his life history, and it is having the strength and faith to work through all these things that helped Albert Pujols become the player he has become. He was driven to prove something to all those who doubted him. The doubters mostly have gone away. But I suspect that hunger and that feeling to prove them wrong has not.

Baseball, like life, often rewards people for leaving. Think about the biggest pay raises you have received in your life. They probably came when you went to another job, or at least when you were OFFERED another job. I don’t know if familiarity breeds contempt, but it certainly breeds apathy. Albert Pujols, for putting up 10 of the greatest seasons in baseball history, has been paid roughly $85.5 million by the Cardinals. Fangraphs calculates his value over those 10 years at roughly $285.5 million. That’s a pretty big gap.

Of course, this is because baseball is set up so that Pujols got less than a million each of his first three years, and then he signed a team friendly seven-year contract that turned into eight years when the Cardinals happily picked up his option for the baseball bargain price of $16 million this year. See, Pujols has already shown great loyalty to St. Louis.

Anyway, the reasons are not relevant. By baseball standards, Albert Pujols has been ludicrously underpaid. It feels absurd to say that someone can get SIXTEEN MILLION DOLLARS a year and be ludicrously underpaid, but we can’t let ourselves get lost in the numbers. We are not talking about real money. We are talking baseball money.

Players who will get paid more than Albert Pujols in 2011*
1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Cliff Lee*
3. Joe Mauer
3. C.C. Sabathia
4. Johan Santana
5. Mark Teixeira
7. Carl Crawford*
8. Roy Halladay
9. Miggy Cabrera
10. Derek Jeter*
11. Ryan Howard
12. Torii Hunter
13. Ichiro Suzuki
14. Vernon Wells
15. Barry Zito
16. Jake Peavy*
17. Matt Holliday
18. Carlos Beltran
19. Alfonso Soriano
20. A.J. Burnett
21. John Lackey*
22. Jayson Werth
23. Carlos Lee
24. Jason Bay

*And by getting “paid more” I mean they have signed contracts that pay them more than $16 million per year. Technically Cliff Lee will get paid less this year, but only because his 5-year, $120 million deal is backloaded. Same with Carl Crawford’s 7-year, $142 million. Derek Jeter’s is backloaded with an $8 million player option. Peavy will get paid at the end. John Lackey got much of his money up front.

Players who deserve to get paid more than Albert Pujols in 2011:
1. (Crickets sounding)

So you cannot blame Pujols for believing that the Cardinals have gotten one heck of a deal for 11 years. Maybe you don’t buy Fangraphs $200 million difference in value, but certainly the difference is $100 million. And you cannot blame Pujols and his agents for thinking that to come back to the Cardinals they ought to give him market value PLUS pay the minimum $100 million for services rendered. When you look at it that way, a 10-year, $300 million deal doesn’t sound quite as crazy.

So you say: “No, it doesn’t work that way. He got paid plenty by the Cardinals.” But it doesn’t matter what you or I say. It only matters how Pujols and his people feel. If the Cardinals want to sign Pujols, they have to deal with this sort of math. To Albert, I do believe, money equals respect. And that’s where the difference comes between Pujols-Cardinals and Jeter-Yankees. Because, at the end of the day, Jeter had no other viable options. No other team was going to offer him even half of what he wanted. But Pujols … yeah, there will be plenty of action on free agent Albert Pujols. Maybe nobody will offer a soon to be 32-year-old man the 10-year deal he wants … but never bet against the uncontrolled impulses of rich men searching for a place to spend their money. Someone paid $151.8 million for this Jackson Pollock painting:

So don’t tell me that no one will pay $300 million for perhaps the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Yes, this is different from Jeter’s deal. Pujols, I believe, wants to break the bank, wants to be paid more than any player in the history of the game. And if he pushes hard enough, if he sparks the interest of the right teams (the Cubs?)* he just might get there.

*A friend of mine, Jeff Gordon at the Post Dispatch, wrote something kind of silly last week. He wrote that the Kansas City Royals might be the best place for Pujols after St. Louis. This is largely because Pujols went to high school in Kansas City, still has connections the city, the Royals have a lot of free payroll and a desperate need to make a splash … all sensible enough thoughts, I suppose. He tended, however, to overlook one rather key point: Jeff, have you lost your mind? The Royals don’t have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball by mistake. The Royals have a low payroll because they have low revenue, and they have a not-lavishly rich owner who carefully watches the bottom line (the man ran Wal-Mart, for crying out loud), and they are attempting to build through their loaded farm system and the jewel of that farm system is a first baseman named Eric Hosmer. David Glass told my friend Bob Dutton: “There’s little justification in giving anybody a $300 million contract. You might as well give them the franchise.”

Sign Pujols? Glass paid $96 million to buy the Royals in 2000. It was more than he wanted to pay.

So, there is a real possibility — not a trumped up possibility but a real one — that Pujols will leave St. Louis even though it’s in just about everybody’s best interest for him to stay. It’s certainly in the Cardinals best interest. It’s in baseball’s best interest to have Pujols as the centerpiece of one of its proudest franchises. It’s in Pujols best interest to play his last years in a place that loves him and will forgive his inevitable decline (rather than get booed somewhere for the $30 million he no longer deserves).

Today, Stan Musial receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I’m proud of the tiny role I played in making that happen. Musial was one of the greatest players in baseball history, and he was one of the great role models of American sports history. And he came to represent his city of St. Louis. There have been many famous people to come from St. Louis, from all walks of life, but there is something about sports that captures our imagination, and so for a half century when people thought of St. Louis, they thought of the Arch, and they thought of Stan the Man Musial.

Albert Pujols can be that man for the next half century. Again, I don’t know his mind, but I do think he would like that, I do think he would like to represent something larger than baseball, would like to represent community and connection and stability and faith and all those things. I do think, all things being even close to equal, he would like to play his whole career for the St. Louis Cardinals. I hope he does. I think a lot of us hope he does.

But the ending isn’t written yet. Pujols has options. There are a lot of rich owners out there.

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Interesting Gold Glove Choices

It has long been accepted — and for good reason — that the worst choice ever for Gold Glove was Rafael Palmeiro in 1999. To argue against Raffy is to be arguing for belligerence sake … the man played 28 games at first base that year and 135 games as a designated hitter. A blunder of that magnitude — giving a guy a gold glove when he played barely a month’s worth of games at a position — cannot be topped … unless they decide to give a Gold Glove to someone who played 27 games in left field or an Oscar to Marisa Tomei for her light comedic turn as Joe Pesci’s girlfriend.

Still, there is something that has bothered me about the heaping abuse rained down on Palmeiro and the voters for that blunder … and it’s simply this: Palmeiro WAS a good defensive first baseman — or at least he was widely viewed as one when he played. He won the Gold Glove in 1997 and 1998, and to little objection. He seemed mobile and alert at first base; his Total Zone numbers are quite good. Bill James judged him to be a Grade A fielder. So, yes, he was a comical choice in 1999. But it was really a case of his good defensive reputation outlasting his defensive usefulness. People just hadn’t noticed that he got old (at least defensively). That’s an old story: A lot of good defensive players won Gold Gloves after they stopped being good defensive players. Palmeiro is just the most obvious of the group.

And so, while I think it’s virtually impossible to argue that there has ever been a less deserving choice than Palmeiro in ’99, I also think that there have been a lot of, er, “interesting” choices. That’s the word of the day: Interesting. Some choices are interesting because, best I can tell, they did not seem to be especially good at fielding. But other choices are interesting because I might have expected them to get more recognition, based on their defensive reputations.

Who is the worst defensive player to win a Gold Glove? Though that’s not what this ended up being about, I do have someone in mind — you will have to read down. First, though, I probably should say that I don’t think it is Derek Jeter. When I teased this column on Twitter, more than half of the people who responded assumed that when I said “worst Gold Glove winner,” I was talking about Jeter. I suppose this is because his defense has been much maligned in places like, um, this blog. I do think Jeter is the strangest FIVE-TIME Gold Glove winner because several advanced defensive stats suggest he is mailbox immobile and that ground balls hit two steps to his left or right will always look like line drives in the box scores in the morning paper.

But a lot of people — a lot of people who play and watch baseball for a living — believe Derek Jeter is a good fielder. Are they wrong? Maybe. But maybe the numbers are off. For a long time, people thought .300 hitters were good based on them being .300 hitters. In any case, for me the worst Gold Glove winner has to be someone who is universally viewed as a poor fielder. I don’t see that as the case for Jeter. Many people will continue to insist that Jeter’s a fine defensive player who stays on his toes, makes smart plays, is the best in the game at slow rollers he has to charge (he’s always had great numbers on those plays), and is an every day shortstop who doesn’t make many mistakes.

As long as there’s a white-hot argument revolving around Jeter and his defense, I don’t think he could possibly be the answer.

For this exercise, I look only at the players who won one — and only one — Gold Glove. It seems to me that if a player won multiple Gold Gloves then there are some people who believe that player to be excellent defensively. But one Gold Glove, well, yeah, that could have just been a mistake. There have been, by my quick count, 96 players who have won a single Gold Glove in their careers. Some of them — like Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Zimmerman — are young and active you would expect them to win more.

So, here I list off the positions, the players who won only once (and there might be a couple of players missing … let me know if I missed any), and then some of those interesting choices that struck my mind:

Catcher: Ten catchers have won the Gold Glove only once.

Joe Torre (1965); Randy Hundley (1967); Carlton Fisk (1972); Jody Davis (1986); Mike LaValliere (1987); Sandy Alomar (1990); Kirk Manwaring (1993); Jason Varitek (2005); Russell Martin (2007).

An interesting choice: Carlton Fisk.

Well, anyway, it shocked the heck out of me. Fisk won the award his first full season, 1972, and growing up a baseball fan at that time I remember that he sure had a reputation among announcers and writers as a great defensive catcher. But not only did he never again with the Gold Glove, he was supplanted by Thurman Munson, then Jim Sundberg, then Lance Parrish — of those, really only Sundberg had the reputation as a defensive genius. It’s pretty clear that the coaches and managers simply did not view Fisk as a special defender.

An interesting choice: Joe Torre.

He would later have a strong reputation as a decidedly bad defensive catcher … and he would have his famous 1971 season as a third baseman. Torre’s playing career made him a borderline Hall of Famer, and I suspect it was his defensive reputation as a catcher that has kept him out.

First base: Nine first basemen have won the Gold Glove only once.

Mike Jorgensen (1973); Chris Chambliss (1978); Mike Squires (1981); Mark McGwire (1990): Will Clark (1991); Jeff Bagwell (1994); Doug Mientkiewicz (2001); Kevin Youkilis (2007); Carlos Pena (2008).

An interesting choice: Will Clark

The people always seemed to think that Clark was a defensive wizard — he certainly LOOKED incredibly smooth out there. Everything about Clark’s game seemed graceful. To my mind, he had the most beautiful swing of his time. And though I can’t say I saw Clark play a lot, I have memory after memory of Clark making some great scoop at first base, or making a diving play. But rating a players’ defense by feel tends to lead you to overrate players who look good like Clark. Bill James ranked him as only a C+ fielder, and his numbers suggest he was pretty good when he was young but lost it as he got older.

An interesting choice: Mark McGwire.

He must have been a reasonable first baseman because he only played 37 games at DH in his career. In fact, since the DH rule went into effect, only four players have hit 500 home runs while playing fewer than 2% of their games at DH.

1. Barry Bonds, 762
2. Alex Rodriguez, 613
3. Mark McGwire, 583
4. Mike Schmidt, 548

Over the same time frame, seven players with 500 homers played at least 10% of their games at DH, and three — Jim Thome, Reggie Jackson and Frank Thomas — have topped 20% at DH.

In any case, Bill James ranks McGwire as the worst defender to win a first base Gold Glove.

Second base: Thirteen second basemen have won the Gold Glove only once.

Frank Bolling (1958); Charlie Neal (1959); Ken Hubbs (1962); Glenn Beckert (1968); Doug Griffin (1972); Davey Lopes (1978); Doug Flynn (1980); Jose Lind (1992); Robby Thompson (1993); Chuck Knoblauch (1997); Mark Grudzielanek (2006); Dustin Pedroia (2008); Robinson Cano (2010).

An interesting choice: Davey Lopes.

Davey Lopes was, at times, a great offensive player. He certainly was a great offensive player in 1979 when he walked 97 times, hit 28 homers, stole 44 bases (while being caught four times) and scored 109 runs. That was his best offensive year, but he had darned good offensive years in 1974, ’75, ’77, ’78, and his last full year in 1983. Defensively, though, his reputation was kind of muddled. I could imagine being surprised that Lopes ever won a Gold Glove. And I could imagine someone else being surprised that he won only one.

Bill James thought Lopes — almost by default — deserved the Gold Glove in 1977. That year Joe Morgan won his fifth in a row. The following year, he probably did not deserve it — Manny Trillo probably should have won it. But Trillo won in ’79. Sometimes the Gold Glove seems on time delay.

An interesting choice: Ken Hubbs.

At second base (and shortstop) you will find a handful of fairly obscure players — Charlie Neal, Doug Griffin, Jose Lind — who were viewed for a short while as defensive wizards.

You probably know the story of Ken Hubbs, though to be honest it hasn’t really been told very often. He was a kid from California who in 1962, at age 20, was named the starting second baseman for the Chicago Cubs. He was tall for a second baseman at the time — 6-foot-2 — but smooth. He had almost no power, and he struck out a ton (he led the NL with 129 strikeouts his rookie year) but at least he hit a pretty empty .260 and he looked good enough in the field to win the Gold Glove and the Rookie of the Year. The next year, his average tumbled to .235, the rest of the numbers tumbled with them, and the voters decided that they had to be out of their minds to give their award to a second baseman not “Bill Mazeroski,” and the next five years they gave the award to Maz.

After the 1963 season, Hubbs decided to take on his own fear of flying by taking flying lessons. He got his pilots license in January, and a month later was caught in a storm and crashed into Utah Lake. He was just 22 years old when he died. He is the only second NL baseman other than Bill Mazeroski to win a Gold Glove between 1960 and 1967.

Third base: Nine third baseman have won the Gold Glove only once.

Jim Davenport (1962); Ken Reitz (1975); Aurelio Rodriguez (1976); George Brett (1985); Kelly Gruber (1990); Scott Brosius (1999); Travis Fryman (2000); Mike Lowell (2005); Ryan Zimmerman (2009).

An interesting choice: George Brett

Brett was widely viewed as a dreadful third baseman in his younger days because he had an erratic arm and so committed a lot of errors (26 in 1975 and 1976; 30 in 1979). In Kansas City, the word was if you were sitting behind first base you needed to stay alive on grounders to third — more than one person wore a helmet to games. But the errors — and Brett’s general humbleness when it came to his own defense — probably masked the fact that he was really a good defender. He got to everything, was a very smart and driven player — he has a positive defensive WAR every year from 1975-80.

The late 1970s in American League was really a golden age for defensive third baseman — Brooks Robinson was at the end but still widely respected, Graig Nettles was terrific. Buddy Bell was terrific, Aurelio Rodriguez had the greatest arm I’ve ever seen for a third baseman, Doug DeCinces could really pick it — and that probably made people look down on Brett’s defense. He could have won a Gold Glove in that time, but didn’t. By the time he won it in 1985, he was an elder statesman and the award felt a bit like a lifetime achievement award (he was a full-time first baseman by 1987) but people in KC say he was a defensive marvel that year when he almost singlehandedly carried the Royals offensively to the World Series.

An interesting choice: Ken Reitz.

He was a smart and solid player but not exactly a defensive whiz. The year was 1975, the coaches and managers apparently did not yet know how good Mike Schmidt was defensively. They figured it out, and Schmidt won the next nine Gold Gloves.

Shortstop: Seventeen shortstops have won the Gold Glove only once.

Ernie Banks (1960); Ruben Amaro (1964); Leo Cardenas (1965); Jim Fregosi (1967); Dal Maxvill (1968); Bud Harrelson (1971); Ed Brinkman (1972); Butch Metzger (1973); Rick Burleson (1979); Robin Yount (1982); Alfredo Griffin (1985); Ozzie Guillen (1990); Jay Bell (1992); Neifi Perez (2000); Cesar Izturis (2004); Michael Young (2008); Troy Tulowitzki (2010).

An interesting choice Neifi Perez.

I remember in 2001, when the Royals made their doomed Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez trade, some people were calling it a “swap of Gold Glove winners.” Well, they had both won Gold Gloves in 2000, but the idea of Jermaine Dye and Neifi Perez being “Gold Glove winners” would soon become kind of comical, Dye because he lost whatever speed he might have had* and Neifi Perez because he was apparently on a mission to become the worst player in baseball and he was not about to let competent defense stand in his way. By the numbers and by reputation, Neifi Perez seemed to be a pretty good shortstop in 2000. And with Coors Field somewhat masking his nightmarish offensive game, he seemed to be a pretty good everyday player. The Royals sure as heck fell for it. In 2002, for Kansas City, he was the worst player I have ever seen.

*In 2000, I remember a coach telling me: “Watch when Jermaine Dye gets on first base. They will ALWAYS throw over even though he’s absurdly slow.” Sure enough, it did seem that pitchers did often throw over to first base though Dye did not steal a single base all year. The coach, as you probably guessed, was making a point about how there is racial profiling in baseball.

An interesting choice: Michael Young.

Well, here you go: I don’t want to kick a man while he’s trying to get traded, but I think Michael Young’s Gold Glove at shortstop in 2008 is probably the most bizarre in the award’s odd history.

By the numbers, Mike Young was a pretty dismal defensive second baseman from 2001 to 2003. His defensive reputation was OK, I guess, but it wasn’t great. He certainly did not win a Gold Glove, nor do I remember his name really coming up much. In 2004, he switched to shortstop to replace the departed A-Rod, and I remember there being real questions about how he would handle it. Well, he had his first really good offensive year (he had 200 hits in 2003 and hit .306 but he had a 97 OPS+). In 2005, he won a batting title. And he stayed at shortstop. My clear recollection when I talked to people around the game is that people viewed him as “an offensive shortstop,” meaning that he was out there because of the bat. At best, people would say he was wrestling the position to a draw.

And then suddenly, almost inexplicably, he won that Gold Glove in 2008. As far as I know, nobody thought he was a good defensive shortstop — not the traditionalists, not the advanced baseball thinkers, not the fans*.

*According to Tom Tango’s Scouting Report — and this is voted on by fans — Young was rated a 48 defensive player, with 50 being league average. His first step was rated a 28. And that seems about right to me.

I call it almost inexplicable, but I’m pretty sure I can reconstruct why it happened — Derek Jeter had won the award three times in a row from 2004-2006, and the voters were taking a lot of heat over it. The advanced numbers numbers consistently showed Jeter to be a well-below-average defender, maybe even the least productive in baseball. The inside baseball people mostly chose to stick with Jeter and rip the numbers because Jeter has a much higher approval rating than numbers. But after a while you could sense that it was beginning to dawn on sheepish coaches and managers that, at the very least, Jeter was not a GREAT defensive player.

So, it seems to me like they looked for someone else. This wasn’t easy because there has not been a great defensive shortstop in the American League in some time. In 2007, they gave the award to Orlando Cabrera, which was kind of a weird choice. And in 2008, they gave the award to Young.

At the time, the pick was just weird. But seeing what has happened since then has turned it into legendary. Just months after he won the award the Rangers decided to move him to third base to play rookie Elvis Andrus at shortstop. This year, they decided to move Young off third base and sign soon-to-be-32-year-old Adrian Beltre to an enormous five-year, $80 million deal.

From Gold Glove shortstop to DH in two years … I’d say that’s probably unprecedented.

After Michael Young won the award, the voters decided they might as well just start giving it to Derek Jeter again.

Left field: Nine left fielders have won the Gold Glove only once.

Frank Robinson (1958); Norm Siebern (1958); Jackie Brandt (1959); Wally Moon (1960); Willie Wilson (1980); Dusty Baker (1981); Rickey Henderson (1981); Carlos Gonzalez (2010); Carl Crawford (2010).

An interesting choice: Willie Wilson.

Willie Wilson was a great left fielder. A truly great left fielder. He really might have been the fastest player ever to play in the Major Leagues, which allowed him to get to balls that nobody else could have reached. And his one defensive weakness, his arm, was pretty well masked out there. He had enough arm and enough accuracy to get 10 to 14 assists a year out there, most of them at the plate or on some runner trying to sneak into third base. As his teammate Frank White said, he made up for his arm with his quickness and the aggressive way he would charge balls.

But Willie Wilson as at best an average center fielder, maybe even subpar. The arm was a serious detriment to him there, and though he had remarkable speed he was much better in more of a closed environment. I think Willie Wilson is a great reason why when they give out the Gold Glove they should give it out to THREE OUTFIELD POSITIONS. Yes, center fielders are almost always the best overall defenders, just like shortstops are almost always better fielders than or first basemen. But Willie Wilson was the best defensive left fielder of his time, and should have won more Gold Gloves because of it.

An interesting choice: Carlos Gonzalez

CarGo was a terrific hitter in 2010 … but it’s sort of strange that the voters decided to give him a CarGold Glove. The Rockies moved him around like a utility player. He played all three outfield positions, and all three of them about the same amount of time (63 games in left field, 58 games in center, 40 games in right). His plus minus, Total Zone and UZR all suggest he was subpar in center and right and only pretty good in left field. Odd choice.

But you know what I only just noticed? The Gold Gloves in 2010, in the American League at least, for the first time since the early ’80s had a left fielder (Carl Crawford) a center fielder (Frankie Gutierrez) and a right fielder (Ichiro). The National League had two center fielders (Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino) and Gonzalez who played all three positions. We are so close to doing what I just talked about in the Willie Wilson section; so close to giving Gold Gloves BY INDIVIDUAL OUTFIELD POSITION. That, of course, would be great. I don’t think CarGo was the best defensive left fielder in the NL, but in only left field he was probably as good a choice as any. I would have dropped Victorino and chosen Jay Bruce to win the right field Gold Glove.

An interesting choice: Dusty Baker

He was 32 years old when he won his first and only Gold Glove. From what I can tell, he was certainly no better a fielder than he had been the first nine years of his career. But he did hit .320. Sometimes a good defense is a good offense.

Center field: Seventeen Sixteen center fielders have won the Gold Glove only once.

Vada Pinson (1961); Bill Virdon (1962); Mickey Mantle (1962); Vic Davalillo (1964); Tom Tresh (1965); Reggie Smith (1968); Bobby Murcer (1972); Rick Manning (1976); Juan Beniquez (1977); Rick Miller (1978); Bob Dernier (1984); Darin Lewis (1994); Ellis Burks (1990); Mike Cameron (2006); Nate McLouth (2008); Matt Kemp (2009); Franklin Gutierrez (2010).

An interesting choice: Tom Tresh.

He played a lot of centerfield in 1965, replacing the Mick out there, and there seems little to suggest he played it exceptionally well. He played almost no center field after 1965. Tresh was an amazingly adaptable player — moving from shortstop to the outfield and back to shortstop in a fine career that began with a Rookie of the Year award. He was a good player in ’65 — he slugged .477 and posted a 124 OPS+. The Gold Glove was certainly an effort to reward that season and his versatility. But it was one of the odder choices of the 1960s.

An interesting choice: Nate McLouth.

I wrote above that Michael Young has a case as the most bizarre choice in Gold Glove history. Nate McLouth would be one of the five nominees. He was odd because, on the one hand, most non-Pittsburgh casual baseball fans probably had never heard of him, and on the other, the advanced stats like John Dewan plus/minus (minus-37) and UZR (minus-12.3 runs) suggested he was a much better candidate for being moved from center field, by force if necessary. It is indeed a rare thing for a relatively obscure player with terrible defensive numbers to win a Gold Glove. The guy usually has something going for him.

The numbers suggest McLouth was markedly better in 2009 — not great but much better — before regressing badly both at the plate and in the field in 2010. McLouth was a very good player in 2008. He led the league in doubles, slugged .497, stole 23 bases, scored 113 runs. But his defense had little, perhaps even nothing, to do with his good year. The coaches and managers were undoubtedly wildly split on their third outfielder and the voting system is badly flawed and he was given a Gold Glove. Then everybody had to defend it, which made people sound even more ridiculous. It was just a bad pick.

Right field: Twelve right fielders have won the Gold Glove only once.

Jackie Jensen (1959); Roger Maris (1960); Tony Oliva (1966); Al Cowens (1977); Ellis Valentine (1978); Sixto Lezcano (1979); Jay Buhner (1996); Shawn Green (1999); Jermaine Dye (2000); Jose Cruz (2003); Bobby Abreu (2005); Jeff Francoeur (2007).

An interesting choice: Ellis Valentine.

The best right field arms I can remember seeing — so this would be just after Roberto Clemente — are as follows:

1. Ellis Valentine
2. Dwight Evans
3. Jesse Barfield
4. Cory Snyder
5. Ichiro Suzuki
6. Dave Parker
7. Andre Dawson
8. Dave Winfield
9. Vlad Guerrero
10. Jose Guillen

This is obviously not a scientific study but simply from memory. The last two — Vlad and Hosey — had bazookas for arms but they often had no idea where the ball was going. I loved watching Winfield throw the ball but it took him like a half hour to go through his motion. But to me, at least in the bright yellow sun memory of childhood, Ellis Valentine’s arm was like myth. It will never be topped.

Bo Jackson is not on this list because despite his crazy strong arm he only played 63 games in right field.

An interesting choice: Jay Buhner.

Every now and again, a player will be rewarded by the Gold Glove voters by looking “solid” out there. Jay Buhner was almost certainly not a good defensive outfielder. He has negative defensive WAR numbers every year from 1990 until he retired in 2001. According to Bill James defensive statistics, he ranks as a D+ outfielder. His range factor was below league average every year, often staggeringly so.

But Jay Buhner did not make errors … and he looked solid. If you have two players, and one looks sturdy under a fly ball, while the other looks shaky, it doesn’t really matter to the mind that both caught the ball. The sturdy player LOOKS like the better fielder. And this is even true if the shaky player is much faster and turns many more fly balls into outs. I think this, as much as anything, is why we should keep trying to find defensive statistics that work. Because the mind plays tricks on us. And while Jay Buhner was an extremely likable player. he should not have won a Gold Glove.

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Posts to Come

I wish I could say I spent the last week or so recharging my batteries and getting myself ready to go for spring training. But the truth is I probably did as much writing the last week as I usually do, maybe more. But, for whatever reason, most of it was fruitless writing. I have about 10 incomplete projects just staring at me. I have a friend who, when I get into this mode, will bark at me Marty Schottenheimer’s advice: “Focus and finish.” I have no trouble focusing. I will, on occasion, run into trouble finishing.

In any case, because I have a series of posts that are about 2/3 done, I can give you yet another list of Posts To Come. And these come with the same assurances that all my “Posts to Come” teasers come with: There’s a very good chance I won’t finish any of them.

Then again, I might. Here’s our tentative list:

— A look at the most “interesting” Gold Glove winners ever.

— The meaning of 30 home runs.

— A Chuck E. Cheese birthday party.*

*What is Chuck’s middle name?** Edward? Edgar?

**And why did Charles Schwab start going with the “Chuck” name. Is he supposed to be more informal now?

— A review of the iPad.

— The 32 greatest defensive players in NFL history.

— The 32 best sports books.

— A detailed look at hitters at home and on the road.

— Pujols, St. Louis, and the importance of being a legend.

— Behind the back page … returning to Cleveland.

— Oscar predictions.

— Another interview with a guy who got more hits than anyone ever.

— The all-time team by 20 year eras.

— Thoughts on the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

— The best mainstream acting performances of the last 25 years.

And so on. Vote for your choices below. You can also write in your requests for spring training stories, if you have any such requests.

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Looking at Hall of Fame Pitchers

So, here’s something fun: I broke down the pitchers in the Hall of Fame by the year they were born. This idea was loosely based on a comment made by Brilliant Reader Disco*.

*Talk about a great name for a band … Brilliant Reader Disco.

My idea, though, was more to get a sense of what historically makes a Hall of Fame pitcher. That is to say: Where must a pitcher rank in his era to be a Hall of Famer?

But as I did this, what I think I’ve found is that this is probably the wrong question. It seems to me that when it comes to the Hall of Fame, pitchers are not compared to other pitchers of their era but, instead, to pitchers of all eras. The standards for pitchers in the Hall of Fame are not always easy to follow — and there are some glaring exception. But, in general, they are pretty consistent. Lots of wins. Good ERA. Maybe some strikeouts.

The round numbers — 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts especially* — tend to override everything. Every eligible pitcher with 300 wins or 3,000 Ks since 1900 is in the Hall of Fame. And the players coming with 300 wins or 3,000 Ks will all sail into the Hall of Fame with the possible exceptions of Clemens (and any other pitcher deemed to be PED stained) and Schilling (who has 3,000 Ks but only 216 wins which makes him borderline).

*I’ve thought of something that might or might not make sense, but it seems to me that the magic numbers in baseball all are based on 15 years of excellence. All of them. Think about it:

300 wins = 15 years of 20 wins.

3,000 strikeouts = 15 years of 200 strikeouts.

3,000 hits = 15 years of 200 hits.

By this thinking, 450 home runs probably should be the standard (15 years of 30 homers is 450) but that’s not a good round number like 500. Anyway, 500 is 15 years of 33.3 homers which might be a better standard of yearly excellence than 30 homers a year.

Thinking about it this way might make it easier to shift our expectations per era. For instance, if you are one of those who still likes wins as a standard (and if you are … why are you reading this?) then you would probably concede 17 or 18 wins probably stands for excellence now since almost nobody wins 20. A So maybe your standard could be 255-to-270 wins. A 15-win per year look would make the standard 225 career wins.

Then, you might think that because hitters strike out more than ever, 200 strikeouts per year is no longer good enough. Maybe you move the strikeout total to 225. That would make our excellence standard 3,375 Ks.

This is really mostly something to think about with home runs. We all know that home runs became much more common in the Selig era. For numerous reasons, a 33-homer season no longer represented excellence. Maybe for the era we raise the level to 38 homers — that would be 570 homers, which is actually one more than Rafael Palmeiro hit. If you raise it to 40 homers per year, that’s 600 as a standard.

Just something kind of goofy to think about.

Sorry. Back to pitchers. I’m about to give the most amazing fact you will read today, maybe the most amazing fact you will read this week assuming that you stay shut in your house and turn off all communication methods. Are you ready for this? Because this thing absolutely blew me away. Are you ready? Here we go:

Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born 1900 or before: 31.
Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born after 1900: 31.

Think about that now. We are talking about 1900 here. There are exactly as many people in the Hall of Fame born in the 50 or so years leading up to 1900 as in the 110 years since. It’s crazy, right?

Of course, this is partially an optical (or auditory?) illusion. Nobody born in the last 50 years is in the Hall of Fame yet, for obvious reasons — their time has not come up yet. So it’s kind of a trick … after all it’s not quite as impressive to say:

Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born 1900 or before: 31
Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born between 1901-1960: 31.

Still, this isn’t JUST an optical illusion. It’s also an illusion of context. There seems little question to me that men who pitched mostly before the end of Deadball in 1920 are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame (just like high average 1930s hitters are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame). Before 1920, teams hit many fewer home runs and scored many fewer runs … so ERAs were low. Pitchers started every third of fourth day, and they tended to pitch deep into games … so win totals were high. It’s obviously easier to go fast on a bicycle when going downhill. Hall of Fame voters tended to give credit for that speed to the cyclist rather than the hill.

There are eight pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born before 1870 — Old Hoss Radbourn, Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, Clark Griffith, Kid Nichols, John Clarkson, Amos Rusie and Pud Galvin. I’m not here to talk about how good these pitchers were because, surprising as this may seem, I did not see any of them pitch. But it’s clear that they played a very different game from the baseball we think about now. And it’s also clear that there is only one starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame born between 1951 to 1960, and it took one hell of an effort to get Bert Blyleven voted in.

For fun, I thought I would go through the decades of birth years and show you the Hall of Famers, some of the more prominent players who were left out, and maybe a thought or two about what it might mean. And for additional fun, I’ve included the pitchers who are in Baseball Think Factory’s excellent Hall of Merit:*


(7) Old Hoss Radbourn, Cy Young, Clark Griffith, Kid Nichols, John Clarkson, Tim Keefe, Pud Galvin.

Hall of Merit (9): Radbourn, Young, Griffith, Nichols, Clarkson, Galvin, Keefe, Al Spalding, Bob Caruthers.

Comment: Spalding is in the Baseball Hall of Fame too but listed as an “executive.” From 1871-76 he went 251-65, which doesn’t really mean what it looks like since the game was very different then but still looks impressive. Bob Caruthers went 218-99 in a 9-year career that twice included 40-victory seasons. Tim Keefe won 300 games just between 1880-1890 — he won 32 or more every year from 1883-1888.*

*Made a mistake here … put Keefe in the wrong category. All seven of the Pre-1870 Hall of Famers are also in the Hall of Merit .. plus Spalding and Caruthers.

A touch surprising to me that there are actually more Hall of Merit pitchers born before 1870 than Hall of Fame pitchers.

(9) Amos Rusie, Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, Three Finger Brown, Rube Waddell, Vic Willis, Iron Joe McGinnity, Addie Joss, Jack Chesbro.

Notable absentees: Jack Powell, Noodles Hahn, Sam Leever, Deacon Phillippe.

Hall of Merit (6): Rusie, Mathewson, Plank, Brown, Waddell, McGinnity.

Comment: This decade and the next make up the heart of the era we now think of as Deadball. Not surprisingly, most of the really weak Hall of Fame pitchers will be born from about 1870 to about 1900. The weakest of this decade’s group is probably Jack Chesbro, who is basically in the Hall of Fame because of one season, 1904, when he started 55 games, completed 51, and went 41-12. He did not win 200 games despite that 41-win season and his 2.68 ERA sounds better than it was — his ERA+ of 111 is certainly good but not great.

Vic Willis never led the league in wins, but did twice lead the league in losses, including 1905 when he went 12-29 for the spectacularly bad Boston Beaneaters*.

*Though his teammate, the rather spectacularly nicknamed Kaiser Wilhelm, went 3-23 that same year.

Addie Joss is a fascinating case. He only pitched nine seasons, which technically does not even meet the minimum Hall of Fame requirement of 10 years. He squeezed a lot into those nine seasons, including a perfect game (on supposedly just 74 pitches) and a remarkable 1908 season where he had a 1.16 ERA. The veteran’s committee elected him in 1978, some 68 years after he threw his final big league pitch.


(7) Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Red Faber, Ed Walsh, Stan Coveleski, Chief Bender, Rube Marquard.

Notable absentees: Jack Quinn, Eddie Cicotte, Urban Shocker, Dolph Luque.

Hall of Merit (5): Johnson, Alexander, Faber, Walsh, Coveleski.

Comment: Well, in this 10-year period we might have the best pitcher in the Hall of Fame (Walter Johnson) and the worst (Rube Marquard). Marquard had three strong years in a row, from 1911-13. He won at least 23 each year, and overall went 73-28 with a 2.51 ERA. It was not a historic three years, but it was darned good. The rest of his career? He went 119-131 with a 97 ERA+. How did he get into the Hall of Fame? Well, I’m guessing a bit here, but it seems that his star turn in Lawrence Ritter’s incomparable “The Glory of Their Times” played a huge role. Marquard was funny and thoughtful and charming in his interview, and he had three good years, and at various times in history baseball’s veteran’s committee seemed determined to put in their favorite people into the Hall of Fame.

Marquard had three nice years, but even with them he was an average pitcher at best. When people say there must be at least 50 pitchers not in the Hall of Fame who were better than Rube Marquard, they are probably underselling it.


(8) Lefty Grove, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Eppa Rixey, Waite Hoyt, Burleigh Grimes, Herb Pennock, Jesse Haines, (also Babe Ruth).

Notabe absentees: Dolf Luque, Carl Mays, George Uhle.

Hall of Merit (4): Grove, Lyons, Vance, Rixey.

Comment: We’ve got some doozies here — Jesse Haines, Herb Pennock, Burleigh Grimes, Eppa Rixey, Waite Hoyt — it’s like a Who’s Who of Questionable Hall of Famers. Only three of these players (Grove, Lyons and Vance) were voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers. The rest were veteran’s committee choices and, frankly, they cloud the whole idea of what really is a Hall of Fame pitchers. A Small-Hall — someone who thinks standards should be really high — would have none of the five in. A Big-Hall person might think to include Rixey and Hoyt, the former because he was a good pitcher who lost a peak year fighting in the Great War and two more trying to regain his game, the latter because he told good Babe Ruth stories.

Lefty Grove has a case as the greatest pitcher in baseball history.


(4) Carl Hubbell, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Dizzy Dean.

Notable absentees: Wes Ferrell, Tommy Bridges, Bobo Newsom, Mel Harder, Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons.

Hall of Merit (3): Hubbell, Ruffing, Ferrell.

In many ways, Red Ruffing has gotten a bad rap. People tend to include him on the worst Hall of Famers list, largely because of his pedestrian-looking 3.80 ERA. Two things:

1. His ERA was somewhat better than it looked — his career 109 ERA+ is better than a handful of big league pitchers even if his actual ERA is the worst in the Hall of Fame. He pitched in a big-time hitters era.

2. Most of that high ERA was compiled in the first half of his career, when he mostly played for dreadful Boston teams. From 1934-47, he went 176-89 with a 3.38 ERA — that’s a sparkling 123 ERA+. He was a truly great pitcher after he turned 29, and he lost two-plus years to World War II or he certainly could have won 300 games. As is, he won 273. Throw in his excellent World Series record (7-2, 2.63 ERA, big part of six World Series champions) and he has a much better Hall of Fame case than generally expressed* — his place in the Hall of Merit should remind people of that.

*People with a sense of history will sometimes use Ruffing’s Hall of Fame election (on his 18th ballot including run-offs) as a good comparison for Jack Morris. I don’t think that’s the right comp to use. Ruffing, it seems to me, was a markedly better pitcher with a better peak than Morris.

Only four pitchers from this 10-year era made the Hall of Fame, and as mentioned Ruffing has been a much criticized pick. Two others — Dizzy Dean and, to a lesser extent, Lefty Gomez — don’t really measure up historically as Hall of Famers either because they had brilliant but brief careers.

Dean from 1934 to 1938 went 102-43 with a 142 ERA+. Gomez from 1931-37 went 133-64 with a 134 ERA+. Those few years really make up almost all the value of their careers. Short bursts of brilliance would probably not impress the voters now. It didn’t really impress the voters then — Dean, despite being one of the most famous players of the time, needed 10 ballots before the writers voted him in. And Goofy Gomez never got more than 46.1% of the writer’s vote.

Which tells you that what Doc Gooden needs — Gooden was 91-35 with a 135 ERA+ from 1984-88 — is a little myth-making, a few mentions of his cute nickname, and a benevolent veteran’s committee.


(3) Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon.

Notable absentees: Dizzy Trout, Virgil Trucks, Sal Maglie, Allie Reynolds.

Hall of Merit (3): Feller, Wynn, Lemon.

Comment: Found so many cool things doing this rather pointless exercise — but probably nothing cooler than finding that only three big-league pitchers born from 1911-1920 made the Hall of Fame, and all three pitched predominantly for the Cleveland Indians of the 1940s and 1950s.


(5) Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Hal Newhouser, Whitey Ford, Hoyt Wilhelm.

Notable absentees: Billy Pierce, Bob Friend, Curt Simmons, Lew Burdette.

Hall of Merit (6): Spahn, Roberts, Newhouser, Ford, Wilhelm, Pierce.

Comment: I hope you have been looking at the notable absentees of each decade … there are some very good pitchers there. But I suspect that there probably are not too many pitchers you think should be in the Hall of Fame. Among players born from 1870 to 1920 or so, probably the only non-Hall of Famer with any spark of Hall of Fame momentum is Wes Ferrell, whose numbers are a victim of historical context. His 4.04 ERA does not seem good enough, but his 117 ERA+ suggests that he was one of the best pitchers of his time. And, of course, Ferrell was a famously good hitter (for a pitcher).

Billy Pierce has a strong Hall of Fame case that has been widely and enthusiastically ignored. He was, I think, the best pitcher in the American League in the 1950s — and if there had been an American League Cy Young award he probably would have won it at least twice*. He only won 211 games in his career, and his 3.27 ERA, while good on its own, doesn’t really do him justice (his 119 ERA+ is better than Steve Carlton or Nolan Ryan). The Hall of Merit recognizes his excellence.

*Though which two years he would have won it are up for debate. He was, by WAR, the best pitcher in the league in 1955 and 1958. But he won 20 games in 1956 and 1957. Depends on which voters we are talking about.


(7) Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax.

Notable absentees: Luis Tiant, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich, Larry Jackson.

Hall of Merit (7): Niekro, Perry, Gibson, Drysdale, Marichal, Bunning, Koufax

Comment: Notice how the pitcher numbers go up now — we are now dealing with pitchers who came of age in the second great pitcher’s era, the 1960s and ’70s.

Not to keep bringing up Jack Morris — he will make one more appearance before we’re through here — but it’s quite striking how similar his case is to Mickey Lolich. They were both predominantly Detroit Tigers, they both played on good Tigers teams that won one World Series, they both had career 105 ERA+. They both won more than 200 games, though Lolich’s 217 is not as impressive as Morris’ 254. They were both workhorses, with Morris completing 175 games and Lolich 195. And they both had extraordinary postseason performances — Morris’ highlight being Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Lolich’s highlight being the entire 1968 World Series when he won three times with three complete games.

Interesting enough, both of them started about the same in the Hall of Fame voting. Morris got about 22% of the vote his first year, Lolich got about 20%. They progressed at about the same pace for a while. In their fourth years of voting, Morris got 26.3%, Lolich 25.5%.

And then, their paths diverged. In 1989, big-winners Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Kaat all hit the ballot at the same. And suddenly Lolich’s 217 wins didn’t look so hot. He and the grimly unlucky Luis Tiant (with his 229 career wins) both tumbled dramatically in the polls. They both dropped to 10.5%. Lolich never again got even 11% of the vote.

Morris, meanwhile, jumped to 33.3% in his fifth year, and he has steadily climbed to 53.5% of the vote this year.


(8) Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers.

Notable absentees: Tommy John, Rick Reuschel, Ron Guidry, Vida Blue.

Hall of Merit (7): Seaver, Ryan, Carlton, Jenkins, Sutton, Palmer, Fingers,

Comment: Lots and lots of wins in the 1960s and ’70s — there are four 300-game winners in the lot.

Unquestionably, the shakiest Hall of Fame choice of pitchers born in the last hundred or so years was Catfish Hunter. He really had EVERYTHING go right for him as a Hall of Fame candidate.

— He pitched at the perfect time — when hitting was almost non-existent. His career 3.26 career ERA looks good, but his 105 ERA+ does not. That’s because teams did not score runs then. Take 1968. Hunter went 13-13 with a 3.35 ERA in ’68, which looks darned good to the naked eye. But clothe that eye with just a little bit of perspective and you see that the nobody hit in the American League in 1968, and Hunter pitched in an extreme pitcher’s park in Oakland. His ERA+ was 84, which is terrible. He actually had a negative WAR. With that perspective, you can see that Hunter was probably the worst pitcher in the league to throw 200 innings.

— He had a high profile. He was a very good pitcher for three years — 1972, 1974 and 1975 — and probably a below-average pitcher the rest of his career. But, the Oakland A’s won the World Series two of those years, and as I missed before the third was his first year as a high-profile free agent with the Yankees. This made his good years look even better.

— He was wonderfully likable, not only as a man but as a pitcher … he was extremely efficient, didn’t strike out or walk too many, came after hitters (even if it meant giving up a homer or three), threw a lot of innings. As Bill James wrote once, he didn’t make things any harder than they needed to be.

— He had a great nickname.

— He retired at precisely the right time so that he beat the rush of great pitchers to hit the ballot in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hunter made it into the Hall in 1987.

There is no question, based on all 62 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, that Catfish Hunter does not meet the Hall of Fame standards set by the voters. Writers voted him in because they liked him or because they were blind to the context of the time or because he just felt like a Hall of Famer in the gut. Hunter was a likable enough soul that nobody should feel too bad personally about him being in the Hall.

The negative is that Hunter’s name can be used to make the case for almost anybody, really. There are 150 pitchers in baseball history with a higher WAR than Hunter’s 32.5. Nobody wants Catfish Hunter to be the Hall of Fame standard … except, of course, when it comes to their favorite pitcher.

Do you know, by the way, which of the notable absentees has by far the highest WAR? That would be Rick Reuschel. In fact, Reuschel’s 66.3 WAR is the best for ANY eligible non-Hall of Famer. It’s a career that you might want to review. He probably should have won the Cy Young in 1977 too.


(4) Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Bert Blyleven.

Notable absentees: Jack Morris, Dave Stieb, Frank Tanana, Dennis Martinez, Mark Langston, Orel Hershiser.

Hall of Merit (4): Eckersley, Gossage, Blyleven, Stieb.

Comment: Let’s be blunt about it — it’s hard to imagine that there was only one Hall of Fame starter born from 1951 to 1960. That’s just a difficult thing to wrap our minds around. It’s even more stark because Blyleven really belongs to the decade before — he was born in 1951, and he came up when he was just 20. This gap — perhaps as much as anything — I think drives the Jack Morris for Hall of Fame talk.

There’s just a gnawing belief, one that makes a bit of sense, that SOME starting pitcher has to represent this general time period in the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Merit chose Stieb, whose basic numbers (176-137, 3.44 ERA, 1669 career Ks) do not do him justice. He was, by WAR, the best pitcher in the American League in 1982, ’83 and ’84, and he was second best in the bookend years of 1981 and 1985. He had the Hall of Fame misfortune of wasting some of those years on terrible teams, and the Hall of Fame misfortune of spending just about his entire career in Canada where he often went unnoticed, and the Hall of Fame misfortune of having his greatness obscured by bland won-loss records. His 123 ERA+ is right in line with the better Hall of Famers.

The now-majority of Hall of Fame voters have instead backed Morris, who has the most wins of the 1980s, a reputation as a gritty competitor, and that famous Game 7. The problem with Morris, as has been brought up endlessly, is that he was not especially good at preventing runs from being scored. His career 39.3 WAR ranks 12th among pitchers born in this decade, behind such decidedly non-Hall of Famers as Tom Candiotti, Bob Welch, Frank Viola, and Mark Langston. He also ranks 65th in WAR among all non-Hall of Famers.

We don’t want to keep doing Morris comparisons because he doesn’t ever come out looking especially good in any of them. But almost any way you look at it:

— Orel Hershiser had four seasons better than Jack Morris’ best season.
— Dave Stieb had five years better than Jack Morris’ best season.
— Mark Langston had four seasons better than Jack Morris’ best season.

And so on. None of these pitchers received much Hall of Fame support, not even a high profile guy like Hershiser. Morris was not a Hall of Fame pitcher, not by the general standards, but there is an understandable desire to fill what feels like a gap. It’s hard to concede that we had a strange little eight or nine year drought where there was not a single Hall of Fame starting pitcher born.


Nobody in yet.

Hall of Fame near certainties (6): Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Mariano Rivera.

Serious Hall of Fame contenders (3): Trevor Hoffman, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling.

Notable absentees: Kevin Brown, Bret Saberhagen, Jamie Moyer, David Wells, Kenny Rogers, Chuck Finley, Dwight Gooden, Jamie Moyer, David Cone.

Hall of Merit (2): Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Brown.

Comment: And suddenly there are A LOT of terrific pitchers — including four (Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Rivera) — who have a case as the greatest ever at what they did. This decade was so pitching rich that the voters brushed off a pitcher with a 127 career ERA+ (Brown) and barely glanced at a two-time Cy Young winner (Saberhagen), and shook their heads sadly at perhaps the best young pitcher in the history of baseball (Gooden). None of them were even close to making it to a second ballot.

If I had to guess, I would guess that all three of my serious Hall of Fame contenders will eventually make the Hall of Fame, though I think Mussina and Schilling will have a harder time than Hoffman. So I think nine from this decade will get into the Hall of Fame. Is nine too many for a decade? I don’t think so. There were at least seven worthy candidates born between 1941 and 1950, and the game has expanded pretty dramatically so that there is a much larger pool of players to choose from, and there are more teams and more opportunities to show excellence.


Nobody in yet.

Hall of Fame near-certainties (2): Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay.

Hall of Fame contenders (6): Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Mark Beuhrle.

Others to watch: Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Adam Wainwright, Jon Lester, Justin Verlander, etc.

Comment: I have been surprised how often I have found myself in discussions about whether or not Roy Halladay is already a Hall of Famer. The discussions are surprising because he’s pitching great and is signed for three or four more years, and there’s no reason to believe that he’s going to leave the stage any time soon. That said, I still say if he retired tomorrow, yes, he should be a Hall of Famer. His impressive but somewhat spare 169-86 won-loss record should not obscure that he has been the best or second best pitcher in his league six or seven times. He has been a force of nature for a long time now. Maybe Dizzy Dean should be in the Hall of Fame and maybe he shouldn’t be, but what Dizzy Dean did for five years, Halladay has done for 10.

I should say that I didn’t even want to put the Hall of Fame contenders in a list, but I thought Pettitte deserved to be up there … and Santana and Sabathia are well on their way. Hudson is a great case (and one of my favorite pitchers). Go look him up. You might be surprised how terrific he has been.

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By In Stuff

Pettitte Junction

My colleague and friend, the excellent Joe Sheehan, has an article up at SI making a Hall of Fame case for Andy Pettitte. My sometimes colleague, the excellent Tim Marchman, has as an article up about why Andy Pettitte absolutely is not a Hall of Famer.

I have been mired in Super Bowl hype the last couple of days and have not had a chance to write about the retirement of Pettitte yet, and don’t really have much new to add to all that has already been written. But two questions about the retirement do interest me.

1. Is that REALLY Sergio Mitre listed as the Yankees No. 5 starter on their website?

2. What role should the postseason play in the review of players career?

The Mitre thing just blows my mind. The New York Yankees, for the fourth straight year, will have a team payroll of more than $200 million. Only one other team in baseball history has ever had even a $150 million payroll, and that was last year’s Red Sox (at $162 million). And that’s all fine, we understand, the Yankees have more money, they spend more money. But how do you spend $200-plus million for four straight years — about $50 million more year year than any team in baseball history — and find yourself penciling in Sergio Mitre as your No. 5 starter?

Of course, I don’t think Mitre will be their No. 5 starter. And I don’t think Ivan Nova will be their fourth starter. I think they’ll scrounge up a Kevin Millwood or something in free agency, they’ll pick up some overpriced contract, they’ll change their thinking on Joba Chamberlain, they’ll have one of those reclamation projects — Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon or Mark Prior — as a five-inning starter for the first couple of months, something will happen. And then during the season they’ll swoop in for some high-priced guy who is healthy and pitching well again like Johan Santana or Jake Peavy or Tim Hudson or something.

Still, mark it down: In early February, 2011, the mighty New York Yankees had listed as their fifth starter a 30-year-old pitcher with 13-29 record and a 5.27 career ERA who had not started 20 games in a season since 2007. And maybe for one moment, Yankees fans might have understood just a little bit what it is like year after year after year to root for the Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals.*

*Though Mitre might be the No. 2 starter for the 2011 Royals.

The postseason question has interested me for quite some time. It seems to me that when it comes to the postseason we really have two clashing but clear thoughts:

1. Postseason games are much more important than regular season games.
2. Postseason performances tend to be widely ignored in much of our baseball analysis.

Here’s what I mean: None of the awards we give out consider the postseason. The MVP, the Cy Young, the rookie of the year, the manager of the year, Gold Gloves … all of these are based entirely on the regular season. The numbers players put up in the postseason are not added to career totals. Ask a baseball fan how many home runs Babe Ruth hit, and they will tell you 714 without an instant of hesitation. But he actually hit 729 home runs — 15 of those in the World Series. It’s fascinating that almost anyone would tell you that those 15 home runs Ruth hit in the World Series were the most important of his life, but they do not count for his career statistics.

But, hey, as Karl Malone once explained to an international journalist who asked why a basket is worth two points — “That’s just the way we do it here, my man.” And I do think that people want the postseason numbers and regular season numbers separated. It doesn’t feel FAIR to include postseason numbers into the career because, after all, Mickey Mantle played in 65 World Series games while Ernie Banks played in zero. Was that Ernie Banks’ fault? Isn’t it bad enough that Banks had to go his whole career without playing in the postseason without comparing his career numbers to someone like, say, Manny Ramirez who has hit 29 homers in 111 postseason games?

Then again … what’s fair about baseball and careers? Is it fair that Banks played half his career in the pitching-intensive 1960s while Manny played in the free-for-all Selig Era? Is it fair that Dale Murphy’s body basically fell apart on him at age 30? Is it fair that Minnie Minoso had to start his career in the Negro Leagues? Is it fair that the remarkable Pete Reiser has to miss three war years just when he seemed on his way to become the best young player in memory and then kept running into walls? Fair, in some ways, has nothing to do with it. Stuff happens — injuries, trends, good teams, bad teams. You can only play your own career.

Look: In many ways, Chuck Finley and Andy Pettitte had the same career. They were both tall and lanky and left-handed (Pettitte’s 6-5, 225, Finley 6-6, 220). They made almost the same number of starts — Finley started 467 games, Pettitte started 479. They both won 200 games. They had almost exactly the same ERA (Finley was 3.85, Pettitte 3.88) but Finley got more time in the pitcher-friendly 1980s and spent much of his time in pitcher-friendly stadium in Anaheim and so his ERA+ is slightly less (Pettitte’s ERA+ is 117, Finley’s 115).

Finley struck out more (2,610 to 2,251) but Pettitte was the better control pitcher (962 walks to Finley’s 1,332). Pettitte kept the ball in the ballpark (263 homers allowed to Finley’s 304) but Finley pitched more than twice as many complete games (63 to 25).

Pettitte’s aWAR — that’s the average Wins Above Replacement between the dueling Baseball Reference and Fangraphs models — is 58.5.

Finley’s aWAR is 57.5.

Point is there really isn’t much at all separating the career value of Chuck Finley from the career value of Andy Pettitte. And then you look year-by-year at some of the goofy things people look at — Finley was a five-time All-Star, Pettitte a three-time All-Star; Finley got Cy Young votes only once, Pettitte got votes five years; Pettitte led the league in wins once, Finley led the league in complete games and innings once; Finley finished Top 5 in strikeouts six times, Pettitte led the league in starts three times, Pettitte won 20 twice, Finley finished second in ERA twice and threw more than three times as many shutouts — and you really can’t help but think there just isn’t much separating the two guys. An argument for one offers a perfectly reasonable counter-argument for the other. Two players are never interchangeable, but Chuck Finley and Andy Pettitte seem just about interchangeable.

But are their careers really interchangeable? Of course not. Nobody — and I mean NOBODY — thinks Andy Pettitte and Chuck Finley were even similar. This is largely because Andy Pettitte spent most of his career playing for the great New York Yankees teams, and Chuck Finley spent most of his career playing for the not great at all California Angels. Finley’s first full year was 1988, his last with the Angeles was 1999, and in those years the Angels never finished higher than fifth in the league in runs scored and finished 10th or worse eight times (they finished dead last in runs scored four times).

Pettitte’s Yankees meanwhile, led the league in runs scored five times, were second in runs three more times, and never finished 10th.

These different circumstance meant that Andy Pettitte had a much more noticeable career. Playing for the high scoring Yankees meant that Pettitte — pitching basically like Chuck Finley — put up a 240-138 career record. His .635 winning percentage is 10th among pitchers who have made 400 starts.

Finley’s 200-173 record looks pedestrian by comparison.

And, of course, the Yankees made playoffs just about every year (the Houston Astros made the playoffs two out of Pettitte’s three years). Pettitte started 42 postseason games while Chuck Finley started four — all four in his late 30s after he was really done as a good pitcher.

Pettitte pitched in the postseason exactly as he pitched in the regular season — his 19-10 record fits perfectly into his career record, his 3.83 ERA fits perfectly into his career ERA, he had some superb performances and some less-than-superb ones just like he did throughout his career. He never threw a postseason shutout — never in fact threw a complete postseason game (thanks Mariano) — but he was awfully good against Florida in Game 2, and Atlanta in Game 5, Oakland in Game 4 and so on.

Chuck Finley got one Hall of Fame vote in 2008, and if anyone even noticed it was to ask WHY he got even that one vote.

Meanwhile, I think Andy Pettitte will get serious Hall of Fame consideration. I’m not saying he will get in. I don’t know, five years is a long time to build or break a reputation. But he will get 10,000 times the consideration Finley did, almost entirely, it seems, because he played for a great team that scored runs for him, and because he got to do his thing in the postseason a lot.

Is this fair? I think about this a lot, and more and more I think it’s the wrong question. No two careers are like. If Jim Rice had played in Houston and Jim Wynn had played his home games at Fenway Park, if Jim Kaat had played a whole career with the Earl Weaver Orioles defense behind him and Jim Palmer had played for the White Sox and Twins, if Jim Bunning and Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Jimmy Key all played musical chairs with their careers, if Jimmy cracked corn and I didn’t care, well, there’s just no bending your mind around all these Jimnastics. There’s no way to know if Chuck Finley would have been able to do what Pettitte did in New York. And there’s no way to know how Pettitte would have done in Finley’s cleats.

We only know what happened. Sure, we will try to dig through the hype and misunderstandings and myths to find true value, but it is also true that you can also find yourself going in circles chasing after might-have beens. There is a simply reality here. Andy Pettitte pitched for a great team and so won almost two-thirds of the games he pitched. And Pettitte won 19 game in the postseason.* With the extra waves of playoffs, postseason baseball has become more important than ever. My sense is we do need to think about a better way of incorporating postseason performance into our Hall of Fame thinking.*

*Just got this email from Bill James: “We DO under-rate post-season performance for the Hall of Fame; I am certain we do. It’s one of those problems we just haven’t figured out how to think about yet, because it’s really a new phenomenon, that players have so much bulk in post-season numbers.   But. . .a guy wins 16, 18 games in post-season play, that’s got to count as 30, 40 wins in regular season, at least, right? … Back to where we started. ..we really don’t know how to think about this.”

Here’s my thought on Pettitte at this moment, just after he retired: I think when you take it all into consideration, he was was one of the ten best starting pitchers of his era. It seems to me that you can break down the 10 pretty easily.

— Greg Maddux
— Roger Clemens
— Randy Johnson
— Pedro Martinez

I put these in no particular order … they’re all slam-dunk Hall of Fame players. Obviously there is the PED issue to deal with but as players, they are the four Hall of Fame locks, four of the best to ever pitch a baseball.

5. Tom Glavine

He’s a lock too. He won 300 games and won two Cy Youngs. He’s a touch below the Top 4, but he will go and I imagine he will go first ballot.

6. John Smoltz

He’s a weird one because he spent four years as a closer. But in a way I think that will help him — Eckersley coasted in first ballot because he was a good starter and a dominant closer. Smoltz was a dominant starter and (for a short time) a dominant closer. I think he’s in and comfortably so. So that’s six. The last four, to me, are all borderline guys and I don’t have a good sense what order to put them in.

— Mike Mussina
— Curt Schilling
— Kevin Brown
— Andy Pettitte

Each of the four has plusses and minuses in his case:

Mike Mussina
Plus: Won 270 games (most of the four), was a superb pitcher for a long time, finished off his career winning 20.
Minus: Never won a Cy, didn’t win 300 or strike out 3,000, often overlooked or viewed as a good but not great pitcher.

Curt Schilling
Plus: Greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history, staggering postseason record, memorable performances, dominant seasons, outspoken personality.
Minus: Never won a Cy Young, only 216 wins, spotty and inconsistent career, outspoken personality.

Kevin Brown
Plus: Career 127 ERA+, twice led league in ERA, could be considered best pitcher in his league multiple times.
Minus: 211 wins, never won a Cy Young, not especially well liked, PED connection.

Andy Pettitte
Plus: Consistent winner on highest profiled team of his era, sterling winning percentage, several excellent postseason moments, legendary pickoff move.
Minus: Never won a Cy Young, often seen as good but not great, PED connection, highest ERA and lowest WAR of the group.

Brown has already come and gone from the ballot — he got just 12 votes, fewer than half of what he needed just to stay on the ballot. So he got no support. It’s hard to imagine Kevin Brown getting absolutely no Hall of Fame support and Pettitte getting into the Hall, when you look at just three numbers:

Pettitte: 479 starts, 3.88 ERA, 58.5 aWAR.
Brown: 476 starts, 3.28 ERA, 71 aWAR.

But that’s not how voters look at things. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, agree or disagree, voters tend to look at careers as entities. Kevin Brown’s entire case simply did not persuade voters. Why? Could be lots of reasons. He pitched lousy in the World Series, he had some health issues that kept his numbers down, he was prickly and unlikable, he had a PED connection, he simply didn’t make it through the ballot numbers game — there were undoubtedly many reasons people did not vote for Kevin Brown.

Pettitte’s career will get him a more thorough look. Even though admitted to PED use, he was generally very well liked. People thought he played with dignity and class. He was the one starter who was there in 1996 when the Yankees won the World Series, in 1998 when they made their case as the greatest team ever, in 2001 when they played in that marvelous World Series, and in 2009 when they won again.

Then there were those postseason performances. I was just watching an NFL Films Top 10 list about Franco Harris. You know Franco built a reputation through his career as a guy who would run out of bounds to avoid contact, a reputation he did not really deny. His feeling was that there were times to take on tacklers for an extra couple of yards and there were (more) times not to take on that extra punishment. He was not afraid to admit that a postseason game meant more than a regular season game, that gaining an extra couple of yards in the Super Bowl was worth the pain, but gaining an extra couple of yards against Cincinnati in November was probably not.

And you know what? His postseason performances sort of back him up. He was the feature back in 17 playoff games and ran for 100-plus yards five times, scored 17 touchdowns. In his four Super Bowls, he scored five touchdowns. He, of course, scored one of the most famous touchdowns in postseason history when he made the immaculate reception. He raised his game.

It’s pleasant to think that baseball players can do that too — that pitchers can raise them game for the postseason, that hitters can raise their game for a big at-bat, and this gets into all sorts of questions about clutch hitting and the nature of pitching that we probably don’t want to discuss this many words into this ridiculously long piece. But whether or not a player can consistently be BETTER in the biggest moment is not as relevant here as whether or not a player can be GREAT in the big moment. Andy Pettitte because of the nature of his career was placed in a lot of big moments. And he was often great. Does this alone make him a Hall of Famer? No, of course not. Is it part of his case? Absolutely.

All of which leads us back to the beginning: How much of a role should the postseason have as we review a player’s career? I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t know how much Jack Morris’ Game 7 should add to his Hall of Fame case. Some think it makes him a clear cut Hall of Famer despite his career shortcomings. Some think it’s just one part of a long career, a debit to his account but not enough to get him to the goal. Some think it’s just one great game and must be judged as just one great game.

Who’s right? Nobody. And everybody. A lot of people think Jack Morris belongs in the Hall. I suspect many of those same people believe that Pettitte belongs too. It’s all how you look at it.

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