By In Stuff

My Mother’s Basement

“It won’t be long before we get the first wave of nonsense from stat-crazed dunces claiming there’s nothing to be learned from a batting average, won-loss record or RBI total. Listen, just go back to bed, OK? Strip down to those fourth-day undies, head downstairs (to “your mother’s basement and your mother’s computer,” as Chipper Jones so aptly describes it) and churn out some more crap. For more than a century, .220 meant something. So did .278, .301, .350, an 18-4 record, or 118 RBIs. Now it all means nothing because a bunch of nonathletes are trying to reinvent the game?”

— San Francisco columnist Bruce Jenkins

When I was a kid in Cleveland, we had this unfinished basement where I spent a lot of my time. That probably explains my nuttiness as well as anything. It was down there that I used to put together absurdly involved sports recreations. In one of my favorite scenarios, I would put laundry baskets on each side of the basement — it was a thin rectangle of a room with yellow brick walls and a concrete floor and two three tiny windows on the left wall near the ceiling — and I would act out one-man plays of entire Cleveland Cavaliers games. I can remember being fascinated then that the Cavaliers had three guys on the team named Jim — Jim Chones, Jim Cleamons and Jim Brewer — and in my basement scenarios the three Jims were amazing. They could do anything. No matter how far behind the Cavaliers were — and I usually had them fall behind by 20 or 25 — the Jims ALWAYS brought them back. The Jims did the hard work. Then, my finisher of the day — usually Austin Carr or Bingo Smith, but sometimes Campy Russell or Footsie Walker — would come in to put the other team away. Needless to say that the Cavaliers were unbeatable in my mother’s basement.

More often, I would throw hardballs against the walls and field grounders. In these exercises, I was almost always Buddy Bell. I may have mentioned a time or two that Duane Kuiper was my hero, and he was — I spent pretty much every baseball game of my childhood pretending to be the Kuip — but the basement was for Buddy Bell because I loved watching him make that long throw across the infield. He had an amazing arm, I thought. I would spend hours and hours and hours in my mother’s basement throwing a hardball against the brick wall while pretending to have the arm of Buddy Bell.

I often would practice swinging the bat down in the basement. I tried many different times to invent a pitching-hitting game that would allow me to recreate the pitcher-hitter tension — and every now and again I would come up with a reasonably interesting thing, like one where I would throw a tennis ball against the wall, wait on the bounce, and then swing the bat — but it wasn’t quite realistic enough, and I wanted realism. So more often I simply would imagine pitches coming in. If you saw me down there, you would see a little boy with thick glasses swinging the bat over and over and over again for no apparent reason. In my mind, though, I would swing the bat at imaginary pitches thrown by Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver or Catfish Hunter. I was at my best in those moment. In actual Little League baseball games, against real young men throwing as hard as they could from 40 feet away, my nerve was shaky, and my form was a blend of tentative aggression and blatant fear, but in the basement my stance was balanced, and my swing was pure, and I hit everything on a line — exploding fastballs and filthy sliders and back-breaking curves, everything. No pitcher alive or dead could ever throw anything by me in my mother’s basement.

I shot jump shots against the stairs in my mother’s basement. If I could land the ball so it dropped on the top step, that counted as a basket. If I shot it too soft, the ball hit a lower step and ricochet unpredictably. If I shot the ball too hard, it would bang the door and make a loud sound and inspire my mother to scream and threaten. But if I shot it just right, the ball would settle up there nicely and then hop down happily, like a child skipping into Disney World.

I had another game with those stairs — I would throw a tennis ball up there and then try to prevent it from slipping past me for a goal. In this scenario, I was former NHL goalie Bernie Parent. I had just read Bernie Parent’s biography — creatively named “Bernie!” — and it was (improbably, now that I think of it) the first full sports biography I ever read. I loved every word of it, and while the thrill of reading it played its small part in making me want to write I couldn’t put that together then. So for a while I misunderstood that thrill and had the rather ill-considered goal of becoming an NHL goalie. My entire childhood I never once went skating, not even once, and so the closest I ever came to that temporary dream was kicking away and blocking tennis balls rolling down stairs in my mother’s basement.*

*Years later, as a columnist for the Cincinnati Post, I was given the chance to be a goalie for a practice with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Two memories remain. One was a player “warming me up” by flipping 70- or 80-mph wrist shots off my pads. I remember this well because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I was not nearly quick enough to move out of the way or catch the puck or any of that. So he just kept hitting my pads with the puck, again and again and again, until he asked: “You warmed up?” I had not moved.

The second memory was of the photo in the paper the next day … I was in goal and the puck was clearly pictured right beside my head, an excellent timing shot by the photographer. But the most arresting part of the photograph is that I am looking straight ahead, and am obviously completely unaware that there is a puck up by my head. I mean COMPLETELY unaware. I probably lifted my glove hand about 6 seconds later. No, I was never going to be a goalie.

I flipped baseball cards in my mother’s basement. I read books in my mother’s basement. I dreamed of becoming someone in my mother’s basement. I invented games, learned how to throw a spiral (with a Nerf ball, but still), perfected my between-the-legs dribble (sort of), played marathon games of Monopoly and generally became the person I became in my mother’s basement.

I’ve always liked and admired the work of Bruce Jenkins. But the top quote is so annoying and bizarre and convoluted and maddening … how could anyone fighting for the integrity of resplendently crappy stats like batting average, wins and RBIs call ANYONE ELSE a “stat-crazed dunce?” Why are people who hate advanced stats so interested in the underwear bloggers wear?

And the whole statistical line — .220 used to mean something, 18-4 used to mean something — is just whacked. Sure, it means something. I don’t think anyone would say there is NOTHING in batting average, wins or RBIs. Other stats just mean more. In 1973, Jimmy Wynn hit .220. He had a better year than Willy Taveras, who hit .278 in 2006, and a better year than Randall Simon when he hit .301 in 2002. Only four pitchers in baseball history have gone 18-4, and they all had good years, though I suspect most would agree that Mark Portugal’s 1993 wasn’t as good as Roger Clemens’ 2004. Anyway Roger Clemens’ 2005 was better than all of them and he went 13-8. As for RBIs … I would hope that George Brett’s 118 RBIs in 1980 might carry a little more weight in the mind than Dante Bichette’s 118 RBIs in 1997. Neither was as dominant a year as Barry Bonds in 2002 or 2004 — two of the more remarkable years of the last 50 — and he didn’t get to 118 RBIs either time.

Also … the nonathletes line at the end is nonsensical. Does Bruce think that athletes invented batting average and RBIs? Does he think Walter Johnson sat at home and devised the archaic rules to define a pitcher’s win? Lou Gehrig said “we ought to give an RBI to the guy who drives in a run?” I never stop being amazed by how much people who hate stats because they’re “flawed” quote so much more obviously flawed stats.

More than anything, though, I have to ask: How could Bruce really think that one of the biggest cliches of our time — the blogger in the mother’s basement cliche — was invented by Chipper Jones? This is like suggesting that the knock-knock joke was originated by Dermonti Dawson.

No, Bruce, that bit is ancient, and it’s dumb, and consigning the person you disagree with into their mother’s basement is just admitting you’ve run out of arguments. Anyway, it’s wrong. My mother’s basement was a wonderful place. It is, in so many ways, where I became a man. I visit there often in my mind. I’m usually wearing pants.

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Guest Post: Year of the Pitcher?

You probably already know about my obsession with the juicing and deadening of baseballs. I am not a conspiracy theorist by trade — that’s my wife’s department — but I remain utterly (and, I admit, bizarrely) convinced that the commissioner of baseball can dramatically influence the game by having the composition of the baseball changed even slightly. More than that, I remain convinced that commissioners HAVE dramatically influenced the game.

But, to even things out, I also believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

In any case, I think that nothing — not steroid use, not harder bats, not higher mounds, not widened strike zones — can so clearly and overwhelmingly impact offense like changes in the baseball. I believe that’s how the home run year of 1987 happened. I believe that was an important part of the offensive spike after the 1994 strike. There are numerous other smaller examples. I’m not saying — and, in all seriousness, do not really think — that this was always a masterminded plot. But whatever the reasons, I think that in baseball if you want to explain a rather sudden and shocking shift … check the baseball first.

So, naturally when Brilliant Reader Chuck sent along a theory about how he thinks 1968 might not have been the year of the pitcher as much as it was the year of the mushy baseball, well, it was like sending a hare-brained plot to Oliver Stone.

And so, I reprint it here. Please discuss:

* * *

I think I found something remarkable in looking through the split data from the late 1960’s. What got me interested was this quote from a Sports Illustrated article in early 1969:

“Last week Pitcher Jim Hannan of the Senators revealed yet another facet of this strange spring training. “In 1968,” he said, “the balls were softer than they had been before. Ken McMullen … used to sit on the bench and squeeze the horsehide up into a lump on the outside of the ball. Nine of every 10 balls I picked up seemed to be soft. Heck, one day an umpire pushed on a ball and the horsehide came up so that he could hold it between his fingers like a pendant on a chain. This year the balls feel much, much harder.” 

In compiling home run data for the NL in 1967 I noticed this strange split in the percentage of homers per batted ball:

1st half: 2.77%
2nd half: 2.03%

That’s a pretty sizable drop. In 1966, it was 3.10% in the 1st half, 2.82% in the 2nd.

Digging a little further revealed a turning point for this NL homer rate in ’67:

April 2.56%
May 2.64%
June 2.99%
July 2.60%
August 1.82%
Sept/Oct 1.89%

Wow. That looks to me like something happened to dramatically reduce homers either at the beginning of August that season or somewhere in the back end of July.

In 1968, that low rate resumed:

1st half: 1.94%
2nd half: 1.95%
April 2.37%
May 1.69%
June 2.04%
July 1.72%
August 2.03%
Sept/Oct 2.00%

Were 1967-1968 the Years of the Deadball, rather than the Year of the Pitcher?

In the NL, the drop in the homer rate from the first 4 months of 1967 (2.72%) to that of the last two months (1.86%) was an enormous 32% drop. 

The average rate from 1966 through July of 1967: 2.87%
The average rate from August 1967 through 1968: 1.92%

Again, that is a drop of 33%, and it seems to me it did not happen gradually, from pitchers just becoming more dominant on their tall mounds and with their big strike zone, but from a change in the quality of the baseball that appeared in July or August of 1967.

Here is the rate of doubles and triples per batted ball over those periods:
1966-July, 1967: 5.70%
August 1967 – 1968: 5.18%
A drop of 9% in doubles+triples.

But the rate of singles was not affected like that:
1966 – July, 1967: 21.44%
August 1967 – 1968: 22.08%.

The singles rate rose just a bit, by 3%. It was the extra bases, particularly the homers, that dropped off the table.

In 1969, things snapped back to their former shape for homers.

Per batted ball:
1st half: 2.77%
2nd half: 2.58%

April and September were low that season, but the middle four months of 1969 were in line with the previous NL rate, around 2.90%. 

* * *

What about the AL homer rate?
1966: 3.04%
1967: 2.68%

1967
1st half: 2.92%
2nd half: 2.45%
April 2.71%
May 3.08%
June 2.95%
July 2.78%
August 2.40%
Sept/Oct 2.27%

Again, a sizable drop occurred either in August or partway through July, 1967. 
April – July: 2.90%
August-Oct: 2.34% 
A drop of 19.3%. Somewhat lower than in the NL, but noticeable.

The AL in 1968 had a home run rate of 2.48% overall.

1st half: 2.64%
2nd half: 2.34%
April 2.58%
May 2.75%
June 2.39%
July 2.69%
August 2.31%
Sept/Oct 2.24%

The AL in those same time frames as the NL:

1966-July 1967: 2.98%
Aug.1967 – 1968: 2.44%

The AL had a drop of 18% during the same period, less than the NL drop of 33%, but still a good-sized one.

In 1969, again, things went right back to the previous AL homer rate:
1st half: 3.11%
2nd half: 2.82%

* * *

So what might have happened in 1967?

From the following link to Rawlings’ history:

“Rawlings had … six manufacturing plants–four in Missouri and two in Puerto Rico–when it was sold in 1967 to Automatic Sprinkler Corp. of America. This conglomerate made the company a division under its prior Rawlings Sporting Goods name.”

It seems a remarkable coincidence that a change in home run rates should come in the same year that the ball manufacturer changes ownership. As yet, I’ve found no smoking gun for if or why there may have been a lapse in quality control. But I do think that MLB’s changes to the strike zone and mound height in 1969 may not have come about had the power rates not plummeted in 1967-68.

The rate of strikeouts had only gone up marginally in the NL over these years.
1966: 16.7% ( K / (ab+sf) )
1967: 17.1%
1968: 17.2%
1969: 17.6%

They actually ROSE in 1969, after the lowering of the mounds and return of the old strike zone.

In the AL the K rate went up in ’67, but actually much more so in the 1st half of the year, not the 2nd.
1966: 17.4%
1967: 18.2%
1968: 17.8%
1969: 16.4%

From 1966 through July, 1967, the AL strikeout rate was virtually the same as for the end of ’67 through 1968. 

In case you’re wondering about parks changing during this time, I looked at data on ballpark fence changes. 

In the NL the average right field foul pole distance went out by just a foot in 1967. In ’68 it went out another foot in both the left and right foul poles, but not the alleys. 1969 was when some parks brought distances in, shaving a few feet off the power alleys and center field. From 1963 through 1967, distances had actually DEcreased substantially. The average NL power alleys had come in by 7 feet in left and 4 feet in right.

In the AL, a foot was shaved OFF the power alleys in 1967, and each moved in a couple more in 1968. Home runs SHOULD have been getting more plentiful. In 1969 4 feet more came off the alleys and center field.

The “year of the pitcher” wasn’t about pitchers increasing their domination with strikeouts. It was a sudden drop in power in both leagues, much more so in the National League, that led to so many fewer runs being scored in the back end of 1967 and through 1968.

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Zero Intentional Walks

So I was thinking about one of the coolest statistical anomalies in baseball history — that Roger Maris was not intentionally walked a single time the year he hit 61 home runs. I first heard that stat, nerdily enough, at a baseball card show. There was some kind of trivia contest going on, and one of the questions was, “How many times was Roger Maris intentionally walked the year he hit 61 home runs?”

Bizarrely, my guess was 61. Well, how would I know? I was like 14.

In any case, once I realized it was zero — and once I realized that the REASON it was zero is because, of course, Mickey Mantle hit behind Maris, I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever heard. I knew, of course, about Mickey Mantle but only in that vague, historical way that my daughter knows that Elvis was once kind of popular. My father had told me Mantle stories, and I’m pretty sure I knew that he hit long home runs, that he was a switch-hitter (which meant you would never intentionally walk the guy in front to get a lefty-lefty or righty-righty matchup) and that had as good a baseball name as anyone ever. But it was after I heard that stat that Mantle grew in my mind, became something larger, a force of nature. As a kid, I LOVED books like “The Boy Who Only Hit Homers” and “The Boy Who Never Struck Out” and “The Boy Who Went To Visit Dr. Frank Jobe” and all those. When I heard the stat, Mantle became for me, “The Man You Never Wanted To Pitch To.”

Amazing that a silly little stat about intentional walks could do that for a boy.

Later, I looked up Maris’ 61-homer season and found out all sorts of cool things about it. For instance, he actually began the year hitting BEHIND Mantle — he hit fifth in the lineup in seven of the first nine games. He was hitting so poorly then, they moved him to SEVENTH in the lineup. On May 2nd, he had one home run. He was hitting .212 and slugging .308. He picked up a little and on May 17 was more or less moved full-time to the No. 3 spot just in front of Maris. He celebrated by hitting homers four games in a row. He actually hit 19 homers in his first 30 games in the No. 3 spot.

In any case, I was thinking about this, and because I’m like this I started to wonder if anyone else has ever hit even 35 home runs and not been intentionally walked in a season. Turns out, it has happened five different times.

Tony Armas (1983)
Hit 36 home runs without an intentional walk.
Main batters who hit behind him: Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Yaz.

Comment: Funny thing, but while the Red Sox seemed convinced that Armas was actually helping their offense in 1983 — he was in the cleanup role all year and (after all) he did hit 36 homers and drive in 107 RBIs — every other team seemed fully aware that he was not. Armas’ on-base percentage that season was a looks-like-a-misprint .254. He had an 85 OPS+. His WAR was minus-1.4. He was actually KILLING the Red Sox, and they were the only ones that did not seem to realize it. They just kept throwing him out there, day after day, smack in the middle of their lineup. Yes, those RBIs can trick you. Meanwhile, there was no way any manager in his right mind was going to walk the 1983 Tony Armas to face the young Boggs, the middle-aged Dewey or the aging Yaz.

Armas was markedly better in 1984, and he was intentionally walked nine times that year.

Geronimo Berroa (1996)
Hit 36 homers without an intentional walk
Main batters who hit behind him: Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, Jason Giambi.

Comment: Actually many different batters hit behind Berroa — he moved all around the lineup that year — and it seems his lack of intentional walks had less to do with who was hitting behind and more to do with a complete lack of respect. Berroa was actually quite a decent hitter from 1994-97, but he did strike out a lot, and he hit into double plays, and managers apparently felt pretty comfortable pitching to him. The following year, he was intentionally walked four times.

Andruw Jones (2000)
Hit 36 homers without an intentional walk
Main batter who hit behind him: Chipper Jones.

Comment: OK, see, this was the thing I was looking for … I was trying to find players who were so good, so dominant, so fearsome that no matter what the situation and no matter how good the hitter at the plate, managers would absolutely not pitch around anyone to get to them. Mantle was obviously that good. So was Chipper Jones. Andruw Jones was a terrific player in 2000. He hit .303, crushed 36 homers, stole 21 bases, played insanely great defense — Baseball Reference actually ranks him third in WAR behind only Todd Helton and Barry Bonds.

But as good as he was, nobody wanted to pitch to Chipper Jones for that five year run from about 1998 through 2002. As a switch-hitter, he too blunted any matchup-advantages. And he just seemed to hit EVERYTHING hard. Chipper was equally great at the plate from 2005 to 2008, by the way, but he was older, and he was injured quite a bit, and he did not seem invincible like he did in his younger days. The young Chipper — you just didn’t mess with the guy. And managers didn’t.

Carlos Quentin (2008)
Hit 36 homers without an intentional walk
Main batters who hit behind him: Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Paul Konerko.

Comment: I think this was a bit of a different thing from all the others on the list … I just don’t think people believed in Quentin. His first two seasons in Arizona he hit .230/.316/.425. He struck out almost three times as often as he walked. The Diamondbacks essentially gave up on him. And so when he went to Chicago and killed the ball that year, I think managers were like: “Oh yeah, that won’t last.”

It did last for the season and by the end, maybe people started to believe. But in a way they were right … Quentin (because of injuries, perhaps) has not been nearly as good since 2008.

Alex Rodriguez (1998)
Hit 42 homers without an intentional walk
Main batter who hit behind him: Ken Griffey

Comment: Here is the golden one. Who was SO scary a hitter that managers simply refused to walk A-Rod? And, yes, A-Rod was absurdly good in 1998. He had been absurdly good for three years. He was INCREDIBLE as a 20-year-old in 1996, leading the league in hitting, runs and doubles. He was plenty good as a 21-year-old in 1997. And in 1998, he hit .310/.360/.560 with 42 homers, 123 runs, 124 RBIs, 46 steals and a league-leading 213 hits. He led the league in WAR. Oh, everyone knew all about A-Rod.

But, much like Mantle, much like Chipper, managers were not going to walk anybody to face Ken Griffey in the 1990s. Griffey mashed 56 homers in 1998, just like he had in 1997, and he did it with such style and grace … and I really do believe that plays a part in the managers’ mindsets. I mean, sure, 56 homers is 56 homers. But there was something about Griffey that seemed classical and legendary even before he WAS classical and legendary. He always felt like a player out of time — he was Buck O’Neil’s favorite player, the one who reminded him sometimes of Willie Mays, sometimes of Ted Williams, sometimes of Oscar Charleston, sometimes of Turkey Stearnes …

In any case, managers intentionally walked A-Rod TWO TIMES in more than 2,000 plate appearances from 1996-1998. That was the power of the young Ken Griffey Jr.

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Carrying A Team

While looking up Darrell Porter’s career for the recent Royals Hall of Fame post, I came across George Brett again. This happens every so often — George’s career is endlessly fascinating to me. And I realized that George could have won four MVP awards in his career. I’m not saying he SHOULD have won four, but he certainly could have … there’s a strong case to be made for all four. I should tell you that this post, by the end, is not specifically about George Brett … it’s about the best offensive players on World Series teams. But it will take a few paragraphs to get there.

George Brett won his only MVP award in 1980, of course. It’s one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. My first ever book idea was actually to write about Brett’s 1980 season … and how close he really came to hitting .400. I’d love to revisit that someday.

Anyway, the only stunning thing about Brett’s 1980 MVP is that he did not win it unanimously. He actually did not come especially close to winning it unanimously — he had 17 of the 28 first place votes. Reggie Jackson got five first place votes and Goose Gossage got four. Brett’s teammate Willie Wilson got one. It’s true that Brett missed some games with injuries, but it seems to me that hitting .390/.454/.664 should probably get you the unanimous vote. How ANYONE could have thought there was a more valuable player in the American League — and four thought it was a reliever who threw 99 innings — is beyond me.

Anyway, he did win that one. He could have won three others. Brett could have won it in 1976 — the year he led the league in batting average (.333), hits (215) and triples (14). He had the highest WAR for any every day player, and the Royals made the playoffs for the first time, and he was spectacular. Yankees catcher Thurman Munson won that year, and I’m always one to give catchers extra credit, but his .302/.337/.432 line doesn’t exactly jump off the page. Munson did drive in 105 RBIs, largely as a result of having Mickey Rivers and Roy White hitting ahead of him. I think that’s a miss by the voters.

Brett could have won it in 1979. He again led every player in WAR. He again led the league in hits and triples. He finished third in the MVP voting, behind Don Baylor and Ken Singleton. I certainly understand why Baylor won — we all know that many MVP voters have an RBI fetish and Baylor drove in 139 runs for an Angels team that finally broke through and won the division title. I think Brett had the best year.

Then, of course, there’s the famous 1985 MVP vote, which leads to the real point of this post. I have long thought that no player in baseball history singlehandedly carried an offense to a championship the way Brett did in 1985. It is, I admit, kind of a tricky concept. It led me to do a little research, which I think is interesting … I’m not promising any great revelations, but it’s interesting.

First, the 1985 MVP vote. Don Mattingly won the MVP over Brett in ’85. Its not hard to understand why. You look at their basic numbers — and in 1985, few looked beyond the basic numbers — and it’s pretty clear cut:

Mattingly: .345, 35 homers, 145 RBIs, 211 hits.
Brett: .335, 30 homers, 112 RBIs, 184 hits.

If you look beyond those core numbers, though, you will see that Brett had a clearly better year than Mattingly:

Mattingly: .371 OBP, .567 SLG, 107 runs. 6.4 WAR, 32 Win Shares.
Brett .436 OBP, .585 SLG, 108 runs, 8.0 WAR, 37 Win Shares.

The 65 points in on-base percentage is the most decisive of those advantages. That Brett also outslugged Mattingly and played a more demanding position just clinches his better year. Mattingly had a wonderful season, but it seems his 145 RBIs were the biggest reason he won … and the fact that he spent the entire year hitting second or third behind a guy named Rickey Henderson (who scored 146 runs) might have had a whole lot to do with it.

In fact, I think Henderson was probably the most deserving choice for MVP in 1985. But, of course, nobody was looking at OBP or leadoff hitters in 1985 and Mattingly, believe it or not, won the vote more decisively than Brett did in 1980 — he got 23 votes to Brett’s five.

Anyway, that’s been much discussed. The thing that struck me more than anything about George Brett’s 1985 season is JUST HOW BAD the Royals were as an offensive team. The only other player on the team to manage even a .325 on-base percentage was Hal McRae. I’m about to give you the most fun statistic you will hear today … I feel pretty sure about this. In 1985, the entire Royals offense — we’re talking about all 20 players who got at least one plate appearance — put up an 8.9 WAR. OK? That means all the every day player combined were worth 8.9 wins above replacement.

George Brett alone was 8.0 wins above replacement.

It’s OK to gasp.

I felt certain that no World Series team has ever been so dominated by one every day player. But feeling certain of something and having it actually be true are two different things, so here is what I did: I looked at every World Series winner since the end of World War II. And I looked to see how much of the offense their best player contributed. I wanted to make this as easy as possible, so I used Baseball References “Runs Above Replacement” as my guide. The results are kind of fun, I think, so let me give you a couple of quick points about Runs Above Replacement (RAR):

— The average World Series champ since World War II has scored about 248 runs above replacement. The highest was the 1998 Yankees with 410 RAR. The lowest, as you might imagine, was the 1985 Royals with only 91 RAR (the second-lowest was the 1995 Braves with 119 RAR).

— The average RAR for the best player on a World Series champ is about 61. Mickey Mantle in 1956, his Triple Crown year, had 122 RAR. I didn’t go back before 1946, but I suspect the biggest total for World Series winner in all of baseball history belongs to Babe Ruth in 1923, when he had 128 RAR. The lowest RAR leader for a World Series team was Ryan Klesko with the 1995 Braves — he led the team with only 28 RAR.

Now, a look at the list since 1946:

2010 Giants: Aubrey Huff 44 out of 157
2009 Yankees: Derek Jeter 62 out of 364
2008 Phillies: Chase Utley 56 out of 188
2007 Red Sox: David Ortiz 61 out of 254
2006 Cardinals: Albert Pujols 69 out of 196
2005 White Sox: Paul Konerko 35 out of 148
2004 Red Sox: Manny Ramirez 50 out of 273
2003 Marlins: Pudge Rodriguez 41 out of 201
2002 Angels: David Eckstein 45 out of 288
2001 Diamondbacks: Luis Gonzalez 71 out of 156
2000 Yankees: Derek Jeter 70 out of 220
1999 Yankees: Derek Jeter 94 out of 256
1998 Yankees: Derek Jeter 78 out of 410
1997 Marlins: Gary Sheffield 42 out of 192
1996 Yankees: Bernie Williams 50 out of 192
1995 Braves: Ryan Klesko 28 out of 119
1994 Nobody
1993 Blue Jays: John Olerud, 77 out of 278
1992 Blue Jays: Roberto Alomar 60 out of 244
1991 Twins: Kirby Puckett 37 out of 223
1990 Reds: Barry Larkin 37 out of 168
1989 A’s: Carney Lansford 49 out of 219
1988 Dodgers: Kirk Gibson 59 out of 186
1987 Twins: Kirby Puckett 53 out of 174
1986 Mets: Keith Hernandez 44 out of 309
1985 Royals: George Brett 77 out of 91 Runs Above Replacement
1984 Tigers: Alan Trammell 50 out of 289
1983 Orioles: Cal Ripken 71 out of 241
1982 Cardinals: Lonnie Smith 48 out of 175
1981 Dodgers: Ron Cey 31 out of 160
1980 Phillies: Mike Schmidt 72 out of 229
1979 Pirates: Dave Parker 60 out of 233
1978 Yankees: Graig Nettles and Willie Randolph 45 out of 254
1977 Yankees: Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson 45 out of 270
1976 Reds: Joe Morgan 91 out of 354
1975 Reds: Joe Morgan 98 out of 322
1974 A’s: Reggie Jackson 63 out of 262
1973 A’s: Sal Bando 76 out of 309
1972 A’s: Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi 47 out of 238
1971 Pirates: Willie Stargell 69 out of 332
1970 Orioles: Boog Powell 52 out of 273
1969 Mets: Cleon Jones 58 out of 183
1968 Tigers: Bill Freehan 57 out of 255
1967 Cardinals: Orlando Cepeda 59 out of 262
1966 Orioles: Frank Robinson 80 out of 274
1965 Dodgers: Maury Wills 35 out of 214
1964 Cardinals: Ken Boyer 49 out of 225
1963 Dodgers: Jim Gilliam 51 out of 240
1962 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 82 out of 274
1961 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 115 out of 304
1960 Pirates: Don Hoak 45 out of 256
1959 Dodgers: Wally Moon 43 out of 157
1958 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 95 out of 309
1957 Braves: Henry Aaron 68 out of 271
1956 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 122 out of 336
1955 Dodgers: Duke Snider 81 out of 339
1954 Giants: Willie Mays 79 out of 196
1953 Yankees: Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle 48 out of 310
1952 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 61 out of 296
1951 Yankees: Yogi Berra 46 out of 286
1950 Yankees: Phil Rizzuto 62 out of 321
1949 Yankees: Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich 45 out of 272
1948 Indians: Lou Boudreau 85 out of 266
1947 Yankees: Joe DiMaggio 59 out of 308
1946 Cardinals: Stan Musial 90 out of 274

A few thoughts:

— Most of the players who led their offenses to World Series victories are either in the Hall of Fame, will go to the Hall of Fame or merit serious consideration. There are 55 different players who led their World Series teams in RAR. Of the 55, 19 are already in the Hall. Barry Larkin will go in next year so that’s 20. Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Pudge Rodriguez are Hall of Fame locks. That makes 23. I suspect Manny Ramirez will get in, so that’s 24. It’s too early to tell about Chase Utley, but I think he certainly has a shot with a few more good years.

After that, I think Alan Trammell deserves serious consideration, so does Gary Sheffield and Ken Boyer. David Ortiz will be an interesting if he has three or four years left in that bat. Many people think Keith Hernandez, Dave Parker, Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson and Bill Freehan have deserved more consideration than they received. Point is most of the players on the list are considered among the best to play the game, which makes it a fun list.

— Yes, it is really true that David Eckstein led the 2002 Angels in RAR. It’s important to note that RAR is a counting stat, meaning that getting the most plate appearances really helps and Eckstein came up 702 times that year. But he also got on base — his .363 OBP was well above average and he led the league in getting hit by pitch — and he is compared to other shortstops rather than players at every position. So he was really quite valuable.

— I’m thoroughly blown away by how overrated AND underrated Derek Jeter has been through his career. I’m not sure there’s another player who has quite that combination of hype and underappreciation. My friend Seth Mnookin tackles the subject in this month’s GQ (in full disclosure, I’m quoted in it). But it’s really staggering both how stunningly over-glorified Jeter is and yet how little respect he has received in the MVP voting.

Jeter was probably the most valuable player in baseball in 1999. I mean, you certainly could make an argument for Pedro Martinez, and it really is hard to compare pitchers and hitters. But among hitters, I don’t think there was anyone in baseball more valuable. Jeter hit .349, scored and drove in 100-plus runs, posted a .438 on-base percentage, all while playing 158 games at shortstop. I mean that is a seriously fabulous year. He was very clearly the best player on the best team, and for the second year in a row. He tied with Manny Ramirez for highest WAR among position players. And he’s Derek Jeter, much admired, much beloved, much respected Derek Jeter …

And he finished SIXTH in the MVP voting. He got one first place vote. I mean, seriously, how the heck does that happen? Bleepin’ Rafael Palmeiro got more first place votes than Jeter, and he was a designated hitter in an insane hitting park. The Jeter conundrum baffles the mind.

Finally we get to the final point … nobody, and I mean nobody, is even close to 1985 George Brett when it comes to carrying an offense. Here are the Top 10 percentages — that is the percentage of RAR by one player:

1. George Brett, 1985 Royals, 84.6%
2. Luis Gonzalez, 2001 Diamondbacks, 45.5%
3. Willie Mays, 1954 Giants, 40.3%
4. Mickey Mantle, 1961 Yankees, 37.8%
5. Derek Jeter, 1999 Yankees, 36.7%
6. Mickey Mantle, 1956 Yankees, 36.3%
7. Albert Pujols, 2006 Cardinals. 35.2%
8. Stan Musial, 1946 Cardinals, 32.8%
9. Lou Boudreau, 1948 Indians, 32.0%
10. Derek Jeter, 2000 Yankees. 31.8%

Nope. Nobody close. This is because Brett was so good and the Royals offense was so bad. Whatever the reason, though, it is I believe a season unique to baseball history.

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Why We Have Halls of Fame

We have a couple of Royals inspired posts today to go along with my story in this week’s Sports Illustrated about the exciting future of the Kansas City Royals. We start with the sad promotion that is “Fans voting for the Royals Hall of Fame.”

* * *

Sometimes, I think people complete miss the point of Hall of Fames. I am talking specifically here about the Kansas City Royals. But this really could refer to almost anyone. It seems to me that a Hall of Fame is about celebrating something — a sport, a team, a a culture, something. The most famous (and in my opinion, best) of these is the Baseball Hall of Fame because of its history and mythology and remarkable flexibility. By flexibility, I mean that people tend to think the Baseball Hall of Fame is exactly WHAT THEY WANT IT TO BE.

That is to say there are people who believe that, say, Bert Blyleven’s election somehow diminishes the Hall of Fame. This is ridiculous, of course. The Hall already has many pitchers with inescapably inferior careers, pitchers like Rube Marquard, Jesse Haines, Jack Chesbro, Catfish Hunter, Chief Bender, Vic Willis, Eppa Rixey, Bruce Sutter and at least a dozen others who you probably have never heard of.

There are people who believe that, say, Jeff Bagwell doesn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer when the Hall already includes Rick Ferrell and Chick Hafey and Freddie Lindstrom and Jim Bottomley and George Kell and Chuck Klein and a host of other players (including the last two every day players voted into the Hall Jim Rice and Andre Dawson) who, if you judge them in context, were not the player Bagwell was.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has that sort of grip on our culture … it doesn’t just pay tribute to greatness, it DEFINES greatness. Jim Rice became a different player in baseball history when he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Dwight Evans is a different player in baseball history because he was not. That’s the power of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Most Hall of Fames don’t have that particular power. They are around to help us celebrate, say, great Polish athletes or the people who made a difference in agriculture or, specific to our discussion, the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals have a proud history. The franchise began in 1969, the same year as the San Diego Padres, the Montreal Expos and the Seattle Pilots (who a year later became the Milwaukee Brewers).

The Royals were a cutting edge organization from the start, headed by a forward-thinking owner in Ewing Kauffman who had no connection whatsoever to baseball tradition and so was perfectly happy to try new things. In those early years, the Royals opened up the famed Baseball Academy in Florida. They brought in community members to sell season tickets. They made a series of fabulous trades that brought in, among others, Amos Otis, Hal McRae, John Mayberry and Fred Patek. A quick comparison of the early years of those four expansion teams will tell you just how far ahead of the curve the Royals were in the early 1970s:

Expansion teams overall record from 1969-1977:

Kansas City: +48 games
Montreal: -204 games
Seattle/Milwaukee: -250 games
San Diego: -338 games

It wasn’t just that stark overall difference in record. None of the other three teams had a single winning record until 1978 (Milwaukee). The Royals had already had four winning records and been the playoffs twice by then, and they probably had the best team in the league in 1977 (though they lost to the Yankees in a five-game series).

Like I say, a proud history. From 1976-85, the Royals reached the postseason seven times, won two pennants and a World Series. They developed one of the premier players of the generation in George Brett — more on him in the next post — one of the great defensive second baseman ever in Frank White, and perhaps the fastest man to ever play baseball in Willie Wilson. Things took a bit of a nasty turn after 1985, but even so the Royals drafted and developed Bo Jackson, Bret Saberhagen, David Cone, Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and so on … even when the organization fell apart in the 1990s and 2000s, there was this certain pride that trailed back to the days when Kansas City represented all that was good about the game.

Unfortunately — and I say this with sadness — the Royals also lost their way, not only on the field but off. They went cheap, canceling the popular banquet in town, moving away from the Royals Lancers (those community people who sold tickets), once deciding not to have the players wear authentic Negro Leagues uniforms on Negro Leagues Day because, best I could tell, the uniforms were too expensive. I have this theory that when you stop acting major league, in many ways, you stop BEING major league, and the Royals definitively stopped acting the part. There was a “poor me” vibe about the franchise that wasn’t exactly anybody’s fault — the Royals HAD been pushed into a situation where it was extremely difficult to compete — but it was discouraging to watch. For years, I watched good baseball people try to break through this defeatist culture, but they could not, and the Royals were in this cycle of both losing and irrelevance for a long time.

Dayton Moore — and this is what I focus on in my SI piece this week — changed the culture but in a crafty and quiet way that many people did not fully notice. He hired a bunch of good people and spent a lot of money building a farm system. The reason people often didn’t notice — and I include myself in this — is that the Royals continued to LOOK like the same team at the big league level and continued to make some of the small decisions off the field. Moore’s two-prong plan was to make the major league club respectable while he built the infrastructure for future excitement. The infrastructure thing seems to be working brilliantly. But he failed miserably on the first plank. His managerial choice, Trey Hillman, flopped quickly and decisively. His free agent choices were often disastrous on several levels. His talk about the process proved an easy punch line while the team never got any better.

And … the Royals continue to just do what I consider to be dumb things on the public level — things that once again suggest the Royals are small-time. They tried for a while to promote the perfectly adequate left-fielder, David DeJesus, as a Gold Glove candidate. This bugged the heck out of me, not only because it was futile — left fielders almost NEVER win Gold Gloves, and if they do they have to be better than David DeJesus — but because it reeked of small-time. Who cares if your left fielder wins a Gold Glove? How does this help anyone? Who gets excited about something that ridiculous?

They had a public break with Royals Hall of Famer Frank White. Now, Frank is a friend of mine and the situation is more complicated than a simple paragraph can explain. But the main point is that Frank White is from Kansas City, and he was a fabulous second baseman, and he has been loyal to the organization, and I suspect it would not have taken much money at all to make sure that the rift didn’t go public and become an embarrassment. Again … small-time.

There are a lot of other examples, but I don’t think I can come up with a better one than the voting that is going on right now for the Royals Hall of Fame (hat-tip, The Pitch through Baseball Primer). You might recall what I said at the top … Halls of Fame are supposed to celebrate the greatness of a team. The Royals Hall of Fame should celebrate what the Kansas City Royals have been about.

And then .. they do this poll where they ask fans to vote for the next Royals Hall of Famers. So far, so good. But some of the players on the list, frankly, are so embarrassing that it really makes you wonder if the Royals understand the point at all.

Take a look:

Brian Anderson
Career with Royals: 12-15, 5.44 ERA, 245 1/3 ip, 306 hits, 46 homers, 102 Ks, 68 walks, 1.518 WHIP.
Best season: 2003 when he went 5-1 with a 3.99 ERA down the stretch

Comment: Brian was absolutely one of my favorite people … just a great guy, a funny guy, a thoughtful guy. I guess he’s doing some announcing work with Tampa Bay, and my sense is that he can be a big, big star in the announcing game. But as a Royals pitcher … he was dreadful. He will tell you he was dreadful. He pitched pretty well down the stretch in 2003, but after that he was so bad that, as he himself said, they could have called up any random guy from A ball, and the kid could not pitch worse. He was probably hurt but the point is … if someone was making up a joke Royals Hall of Fame, Brian Anderson would be on the list. And, knowing BA just a little bit, I’d guess he would probably vote for himself for that joke Hall of Fame.

* * *

Kevin Appier
Career with Royals: 115-92, 3.49 ERA, 1,843 ip, 1,671 hits, 138 homers, 634 walks, 1,458 Ks.
Best season: 1993, 18-8, league leading 2.56 ERA, 238 ip, 186 Ks, 179 ERA+, led league in WAR, finished third in Cy Young and probably should have won it.

Comment: Here’s a true Royals Hall of Famer. He’s one of the three best pitchers in team history … and when you consider an entire career, I’d say that he’s almost certainly the best starter in Royals history. Here are the Top 5 Royals pitchers by WAR:

1. Kevin Appier, 44.1
2. Bret Saberhagen, 37.3
3. Mark Gubicza, 35.6
4. Dan Quisenberry, 25.2
5. Dennis Leonard, 24.0

There are about four or five starters — Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Larry Gura, Charlie Liebrandt — who were all very good and about the same level. Zack Greinke was great for one year and parts of others. Saberhagen is one of the best young pitchers in baseball history. But Appier lasted for long enough that I think he’s the Royals best overall starter and one of the better pitchers of the 1990s.

* * *

Al Cowens
Career with Royals: .282/.329/.404 in 3,042 PAs, 45 homers, 374 RBIs, 373 runs.
Best season, 1977: .312/.361/.525 with 32 doubles, 14 triples, 23 homers, 112 RBIs, 98 runs, won gold glove, second in MVP balloting. Finished 10th in WAR.

Comment: It was kind of a one-year career. At least it was a good year.

* * *

Al Fitzmorris
Career with Royals: 70-48, 3.46 ERA, 1098 ip, 1,075 hits, 66 homers, 391 Ks, 359 walks.
Best season: 1974, 13-6, 2.79 ERA in 190 innings, 4 shutouts, 4.7 WAR.

Comment: Al is a good friend, and he holds the team record for winning percentage. He actually began his career as an outfielder, and he will tell you that he had pretty much nothing as far as stuff goes. His 391-359 strikeout-to-walk suggests he’s not just being overly modest. But Al kept the ball in the ballpark, and he stayed in games, and I would say he got the most out of his ability. It’s a career that Royals fans should remember fondly.

* * *

Jason Grimsley
Career with Royals: 10-21, 1 save, 3.94 ERA, 253 ip, 247 hits, 19 homers, 116 walks, 196 Ks.
Best season: All the same — four seasons had WAR of 1.5, 1.4, 1.4 and 1.5. ERA bounced around but his value was pretty much the same throughout for four terrible teams.

Comment: Come on. I mean, no offense, but Jason Grimsley? For the Royals Hall of Fame? The only thing that I can really remember about Grimsley the ballplayer was that he could not finish saves. He seemed to have some kind of mental block about it. He would look thoroughly dominant in the seventh or eighth inning. Then, ninth inning, blow up. I know, I don’t usually buy into this sort of thing but with Grimsley it seemed real — scouts said he gripped the ball harder in key situation and threw too hard so that his fastball lost movement. It seemed as reasonable a theory as any other because the guy saved one game in four years.

On the personal side, I do have one story. Jason was a gruff guy, and he had some weird things happen to him (once, I recall, a plane crashed into his house) and of course he had the PED connection that made his name somewhat famous. But one spring training, I brought my oldest daughter Elizabeth. She was probably 1 1/2 or so, and I left her with my wife for a while. When I came back, I saw a Royals player in full uniform, sitting in the dirt playing with Elizabeth. Yes. Jason Grimsley.

* * *

Bo Jackson
Career with Royals: .250/.308/.480 with 109 homers, 81 SBs in 2010 PAs.
Best season: In 1990, he hit .278/.342/.523 with 28 homers in 456 PAs.

Comment: I actually think there’s a good reason to put Bo Jackson into the Hall of Fame though he wasn’t a great player. He was, after all, a phenomenon. And it is true that in 1990 the light seemed to be turning on, and without the injury there really is a chance that Bo would have turned into a fabulous baseball player. Certainly no player in baseball history ever maxed out the more exciting tools — speed, power and arm — quite like him.

Again, Halls of Fame are there to celebrate the team. I think the memory of Bo Jackson does celebrate the Kansas City Royals.

* * *

Mike MacFarlane
Career with Royals: .256/.327/.439 with 103 homers in 3,150 PAs.
Best season: In 1993, he hit .273/.360/.497 with 20 homers and 27 doubles. Two other years led league in HBP.

Comment: Here’s a guy I could endorse for the Royals Hall … not because he was a great player, but because he was a good one for a long time for the same team. MacFarlane played 11 years for the Royals, and you might know that he was the player who inspired Bill James to rank every position 1 through 100 in the New Historical Abstract. Bill and a friend were watching MacFarlane play, and Bill said: “I’ll bet he’s one of the 100 best catchers ever.” The friend disagreed. In the end, Bill did indeed rank him in the Top 100.

Anyway, I cannot argue that Mike MacFarlane was a great player — he was not. But he was a big part of the Royals for a long time, and I certainly think that there’s room for a very good 11-year catcher in the Royals Hall of Fame.

* * *

Darrell May
Career with Royals: 23-37 with 4.81 ERA, 527 1/3 ip, 158 walks, 330 Ks.
Best season: In 2003, went 10-8 with 3.77 ERA and 4.9 WAR.

Comment: Darrell May … kind of unbelievable that the Royals would put him on this list. May had one useful season with the Royals which he followed up with a disastrous one. I remember him mainly for the way he was always jogging, and for the one time he complained that things were going so bad he could not even get a no-decision.

* * *

Brent Mayne
Career with Royals: .244/.305/.322 with 20 homers in 2200 plate appearances.
Best season: His total WAR with Royals was -0.5 so he never really had a best season.

Comment: I never fully realized just how bad an offensive player Brent Mayne was. No, I mean, it’s kind of shocking to me. I remember Brent being impossibly slow — we once asked Royals manager Tony Pena if he could beat Mayne to the mound running from the dugout, and Pena said: “I will not answer that.” Then he smiled and said: “By 10 feet,” and ran out to the field.

Anyway, Mayne was a really bad hitter. But he was a really nice guy, and to this day I get emails from him, though I will admit the emails are titled “Brent Mayne’s The Art of Catching” and I think he sends them to lots of people. I thought Mayne was a pretty decent defensive catcher, though his defensive numbers are not too stellar. Anyway, his latest tip — I don’t think he would mind me passing it along — states that a catcher must communicate.

* * *

Jose Offerman
Career with Royals: .306/.385/.419, 78 stolen bases over three seasons.
Best season: 1998, best season overall, hit .315/.403/.438, led league in triples, won himself a startlingly big contract with the Boston Red Sox.

Comment: Really? They’re asking fans if they want to put Jose Offerman in the Royals Hall of Fame? See, this is the lack of self-awareness I’m talking about. Offerman goal in Kansas City was to put up some numbers so he could sign a big contract — not an unworthy goal, but it’s hardly something you build exhibits around. He put up those good numbers in 1998, though it was the kind of season that reminds me of something someone once wrote about Kevin McReynolds: “He had 85 RBIs, and even the most passionate Mets fan probably doesn’t remember a single one of them.” Offerman’s year earned him that fat contract with Boston, and good for him — but you don’t embarrass yourself by putting the guy on the Royals Hall of Fame ballot later.

* **

Darrell Porter
Career with Royals: .271/.375/.435 over four seasons with the Royals.
Best season: 1979, could have won the MVP, hit .291/.421/.484 with 20 homers, 112 RBIs, 101 runs scored.

Darrell Porter had one truly great season with the Royals — probably not enough for the team Hall of Fame, though I’d let voters decide — but looking up Porter’s career reminded me that George Brett could have won four MVP awards. And this reminder led me to write an excessively long and winding interlude which I split off as a separate post to be put up later today … about the best offensive players on World Series teams.

* * *

Joe Randa
Career with Royals: .288/.340/.428 over 8 seasons with the Royals.
Best season: 1999 (.314/.363/.473) or 2003 (.291/.348/.452).

Comment: Another solid player who was good for an pretty long time … if you want, you can make the MacFarlane argument for him, though I think Mac goes in first.

* * *

Kevin Seitzer
Career with Royals: .294/.380/.394 with 33 homers in 6 seasons.
Best season: 1987 when he got 207 hits and hit 15 homers as a rookie. Hit .323/.399/.470 that year. But 1988, though his numbers look down (.304/.388/.406), his year was almost as good.

Comment: He looked like he had a chance to be a very good hitter after those first two seasons, but things kind of tapered off after that for him. It’s a shame because few have ever worked harder on learning the art of hitting than Seitzer. He is now the Royals hitting instructor, and whether or not he gets the team hitting he can always take solace in the fact that he worked with me on my hitting before my appearance at Royals fantasy camp a few years back. And believe it or not former Royals players STILL talk about how surprised they were by my play (though, admittedly, this was probably because they fully expected me to hit myself in the head with the bat).

* * *

Scott Service
Career with Royals: 11-12, 4.73 ERA in 3 seasons.
Best season: 1998 went 6-4 with a 3.48 ERA, 4 saves, 95-34 K to W. Followed that up with a fantastically awful season, a 1.712 WHIP, 13 homers in 75 innings, 6.09 ERA.

Comment: OK, this might be the worst one. It’s a battle, but this might be it. Scott Service. I cannot even conceive of who came up with the idea of putting Scott Service on the Royals Hall of Fame ballot. I’m sure there was some rule they used, something like “every player with three years experience with the Royals automatically goes on the ballot” or whatever. I don’t care. Scott Service was an occasionally useful pitcher who played for nine different teams and had a career 0.3 WAR, which makes him only the second most valuable player of his era actually named Scott Service (though the other spelled it “Servais.”).

* **

Michael Tucker
Career with Royals: .257/.335/.422 in 4 seasons.
Best season: None, but had a memorable three week stretch during the 2003 season when he hit .382/.453/.671 with five homers and carried the Royals when they desperately needed him to. Drove in 19 runs and scored 18 more in that 22 game stretch.

Comment: Then again, this might be the worst one. Now, I will admit up front that, unlike pretty much every other player on this list, I did not like Michael Tucker. Well, more to the point, he didn’t like me. He once yelled me out of the clubhouse for some vague offense to his literary sensibilities. He was hardly the only one who lit into me through the years, but I would say he was the only one who ever did it for reasons that were never exactly clear. Anyway, in four years with the Royals, Michael Tucker managed to be one win better than a replacement player.

* * *

John Wathan
Career with Royals: .262/.318/.343 with 21 homers in 10 year career, all with Royals.
Best season: 1980 when he hit .305/.377/.406 in 126 games. In 1982, his only other year when he got 500 PAs, he hit .270/.343/.328 but set record for stolen bases by a catcher with 36.

Comment: There are just mismatches in life. John Wathan was a fast and athletic catcher. The allowed him to set that quirky record for most stolen bases by a catcher, but it did not allow him to be an every day player for very long. There are expectations for catcher — and Duke (as they called him for his dead on John Wayne impression) did not hit for power and for much of his career he was ASTONISHINGLY free swinging.

No, I mean it’s really astonishing. In 1978, he came up 203 times and walked THREE TIMES. And one of those was intentional. He was a well-liked player who became the Royals manager and has been involved with the team ever since his retirement. One of the real good guys. But I don’t think he would see himself as a Royals Hall of Famer.

* * *

U L Washington
Career with the Royals: .254/.316/.347 in 8 seasons.
Best season: 1982 hit .286/.338/.412 with 10 homers in 487 PAs. Stole 40 bases the next year.

Comment: U L Washington in the Royals Hall of Fame? No, I can’t see it. The toothpick, though? Definite yes.

* * *

Kris Wilson
Career with the Royals: 14-9, 5.32 ERA, 4 seasons.
Best season: None. Only positive WAR season was 2000, when he threw only 34 1/3 innings.

Comment: Well, sadly, it ends with Kris Wilson. I have rarely rooted harder for a player than I did for Kris. He was a bulldog of a guy, a force of nature really, someone who I really thought deserved to have better stuff than he had. He worked so hard, cared so much, wanted it so badly. He pitched fearlessly, with command of his stuff, and I so wanted it to work out for him. Unfortunately, his stuff just wasn’t good enough, and he hung around for four rough seasons only because the Royals were terrible and everybody liked him. If there was a Hall of Fame for athletes who deserved better, Kris would be first ballot. But putting him on the Royals Hall of Fame ballot just makes me kind of sad.

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Inspiration and Perspiration

Got a great little lesson about stats, life and Tiger Woods last week. Well, it might not actually be a lesson about life or Tiger Woods, but it is definitely a good lesson about stats.

I recently posted a long and rambling thing about a few of the hitting stats that I find interesting. I don’t like all of them, certainly do not like them all equally, but what I like about advanced baseball statistics are that they can get you thinking about HOW you might try to measure something. How would you go about trying to measure a batter’s hitting ability? A pitcher’s ability to prevent runs? A defender’s ability to play his position? These are complicated questions with many, many layers of questions within them. It’s fascinating for me to see some of the more thoughtful statistical minds attack all these questions.

Well, I mentioned in there a very interesting statistic called wOBA, invented by my e-migo Tom Tango. This stat gives a well-thought out value to everything an offensive player does. I won’t go into any more details here except to point out two seeming quirks of wOBA, two quirks I touched upon in the original story.

Quirk 1: A reached on error is worth more than a single.

According to the wOBA chart I included, a single is worth .90 while reaching on error is worth .92. This seems interesting.

Quirk 2: A hit batter is worth more than a batter walking.

A non-intentional walk is worth .72. A hit-batter is worth .75. Again … interesting.

Before I explain to you why these things are so, I should say that I came up with my own theories about why these things might be so. And before I tell you my absurd theories, I should say that baseball fans all decide how much they want to believe in things that they cannot see. That is to say that everyone will choose to believe how important leadership is for a baseball team, how significant and varying is the ability to perform in the clutch, how big a part mental qualities like self-doubt and unbreakable confidence and experience and guts and heart and all that play in the failures and successes of players.

I think there is a sliding scale — some people think these intangibles mean EVERYTHING in baseball, some think these intangibles mean almost NOTHING in baseball, and most people fall somewhere in between. We can call this the McCarver Scale. McCarver — and most other color commentators, to be fair — tend to think intangibles are pretty close to 100% of the game.* And so I’d say I score 12% on the McCarver scale. Maybe 8%. I think those qualities like veteran leadership and competitive nature do play their part in the game.

*Or, anyway, that’s how they talk on TV.

But I think — and this is just my theory — that things like that are almost always overstated because a part of us WANTS these things to matter more than they do. We WANT (many of us) to believe that players who drive in a lot of runs have some special talent for hitting with runners on base. We WANT (many of us) to believe that pitchers who win a lot of games have special talent for winning games no matter what everyone else on the field does.

And, hey, I have these same prejudices. That’s how Tiger Woods gets in. Every realistic instinct in my being tells me Tiger Woods is done as the best golfer in the world. Done. I really don’t think he will ever get back up to the top. I’ve been over my reasons a dozen times at least — he’s 35 years old (and probably even older in golf years since he has been playing, since he was 3), he’s had major knee surgery, he can’t find a swing that fits his current body, he has been trampled by the culture he created, and there are many very talented young golfers who grew up with Tiger Woods as their standard of excellence and are not intimidated or unfamiliar with his greatness. I am now at the point where I would be thoroughly surprised if Tiger Woods reached the top again. To tell the truth, I would be less surprised if Tiger Woods fell off the world golf map entirely.

I THINK that … but every time Tiger Woods plays, I again hold my breath. This past week, he’s playing at Doral and I held my breath. And here’s why: Part of me so respects Tiger Woods’ competitive nature that I cannot help think if he WANTS it bad enough, if he GETS ANGRY enough, if he FOCUSES HARD ENOUGH, then he can will himself back into the greatest golfer on earth. I may believe logically that such thoughts are silly or naive or flat misguided, but I still have those thoughts. I can’t help it.

Then Tiger Woods is tied for 31st at Doral and I remember reality again.

Then Tiger Woods shoots six-under on Sunday and I again hold my breath for the next time. That’s pure emotion. And it colors the view.

Similarly, when I saw those quirky baseball numbers above — about reached on error and hit-by-pitch — I could not help but immediately pin the reasons for the difference to something mental and vague and ambiguous. For instance, when I saw that a reached-on-error had a slightly higher value, my thought was that this might be because reaching on error has a negative impact on the the defensive team’s psyche. The pitcher’s ticked off that the defense let him down, the defenders let down slightly because they know they should be out of the inning, the batters have a little more confidence because they have been given a second life. I figured this was the reason a few more runs are scored.

And when I saw that hit batters are worth more than batters who walk, I had almost the exact same thought. I figured the MENTAL reaction — anguish on one side, a little added fury on the other — leads to scoring a few more runs.

In both cases, my theory was completely wrong and the real answers both (1) make more sense and (2) do not rely on creative accounting.

For the reached-on-error issue, Tom Tango explains that reaching on error is worth slightly more than a single only because these will include occasional errors where the hitter ends up on second or third base. Grounder to third is thrown away, that means a runner goes to second, and that’s the extra value. That’s it. That’s the whole difference. There is absolutely no other detectable difference.

As for the hit-by-pitch, the reason it is worth more is because it happens at more random times than walks. A pitcher can have some control over a walk. He might be more likely to walk someone with first base open, for example. But a hit-by-pitch is a much more random act. Only a small, small, small percentage of HBP are purposeful. As such, they tend to lead to slightly more runs.

Of course, the numbers we are talking about are so small that nobody could possibly just notice them. That’s the thing about baseball numbers. Someone who hits .296 gets hits on 29.6% of his at-bats. Someone who hit .302 gets a hit 30.2% of his at-bats. If someone gets 184 hits in 622 at-bats, he hits .296. If someone gets 188 hits in 622 at-bats, he hits .302. The difference is four hits over a WHOLE SEASON. That’s fewer than one hit a month. You simply could not notice that unless you were charting it.

By charting it, you get those batting averages which tell you, decisively, which guy got more hits. But the more you chart, the more you take a little bit more myth out of baseball. Charting baseball basically proves that the tiny things that have become part of the mythology of baseball, well, they might exist, maybe, but only as tiny things. Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It’s a good quote, but he was pretty wildly overestimating. It’s probably closer to .0001% inspiration.

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Stones

When I was in Japan a few years back to write a story about former Royals manager Trey Hillman, I woke up in the middle of the night with a kind of crazy back pain. I wrote a bit about it — and how Bruce Springsteen’s “Girls in their Summer Clothes” helped save me. But the thing is I never really knew what happened that night. I figured that it had something to do with how hard the bed or something. The funny part is that I was talking about it with Dave Owen, brother of Spike, who was Trey’s bench coach in Japan. And Dave said: “Well, at least it wasn’t kidney stones.”

And I said: “Well, that’s good to hear. I was actually worried that it was kidney stones.”

And he said: “Oh, if you have kidney stones, you will know. Worst pain of my life.”

Sunday morning I started feeling a bit of back pain. I will not take you through the awful next couple of hours except to say that soon a little bit of back pain turned into quite a bit of back pain turned into quite a lot of back pain. There were other symptoms I’d rather not describe. But the back pain was the thing and after a little while I decided I better go see a doctor. We happen to be in Florida, which made things a bit more complicated.

We went to a nearby doctor, and we sat in the waiting room for about 20 minutes. It’s fair to say that things did not get better at that point. I will explain the symptoms just slightly for effect … I could not sit down so I walked across the room and grunted like a madman. People were holding on tight to their children. I twice had to go to the bathroom where I unloaded comical vomiting sounds that could be heard pretty much throughout Tampa, which was bad since we are in Orlando. At that point, I told Margo that we probably should go to the emergency room because it was possible that an alien was trying to emerge from my stomach.*

*I have little doubt that scene was inspired by a bout of kidney stones.

I actually did not tell Margo that exactly. What I said was “URRUEOJOFHGHHH!” There was no light joking going on during the intensity phase of this thing. When my daughters were saying, “Are you OK, Daddy,” I wanted to say, “Oh, yes, don’t worry, Daddy will be fine, I apologize to you both for delaying our spring vacation.” But what I said was “URRUEOJOFHGHHH!” No comedian, not even Louis CK or Chris Rock, could work the kidney stone wing of the emergency room.

That’s where we went … to the emergency room next, where I got to sit in a waiting room that held roughly the population of the Fox River Cities. I certainly do not want to make any comment whatsoever on the health care debate — we all know that I try to avoid politics — but I will say that after having to wait more than three hours to get anyone to even look at me when it felt like an alien was coming out of my stomach … you can finish the thought.

After waiting an hour I went up to the front to give them what I considered a rather alarming bit of news about what I had done in the bathroom. They alerted me that there were only 10 people in front of me. Ten. This is not a joke.

The one thing they did keep doing was asking me to rank my pain, 1 to 10 — one being “pain free” and 10 being “the worst pain you have ever felt in your life.” They repeated that exact phrase at least a dozen times: “Rank your pain 1 to 10, one being pain free, 10 being the worst pain have ever felt in your life.”

Nothing at that moment felt funny at all, but if you think about it this is really a funny question to ask someone. The pain, seemed to me, to be A LOT. I mean, we all know I’m kind of a statistical guy — I have another baseball stat post ready to go for later today — but I really didn’t have any great way to rank the pain beyond “A LOT.” On the one hand, I didn’t want to seem like a wimp. On the other hand, I wanted them to give me a pain killer that would knock me unconscious, if necessary. Sure, if I’d had my computer with me, I could have tried to whip up a little formula for POPC — pain over paper cut.

But in that setting, without a calculator around, I didn’t really have any reference point. I could not remember the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. It could have been one of my many accidents as a kid. It could have been the feeling after I had my adenoids removed. It could be the time I slipped on the ice, fell back on concrete stairs and was sure I had paralyzed myself.

But this pain had one strong advantage over those in that I was feeling it RIGHT THEN. And that was my feeling. I wanted to say, “Compared to all the pain I am feeling right now, this pain is really the most excruciating. The time I cracked my head open on the window sill when I was 8 does not really hurt now.”

I decided to go with 5 on the pain scale at first, which was convenient because before the day was done I would say the pain doubled, which would have made it 10. Of course, I never said “10.” The highest I ever went was “7 or 8,” which made me feel tough, but perhaps did not reflect the urgency of the situation. I was in the emergency room for more than 12 hours. They gave me three different kinds of pain killer. The first was morphine and it did nothing — the worst pain I felt all day happened after I took it. The second worked a little bit better. The third knocked out the pain, though I suspect this was not so much because of the pain killer but because the kidney stone moved.

The pain killers and intensity of the pain turned me kind of loopy I guess … I know at some point I started telling a doctor why I wear a fedora on my photo on the back page of SI.* Mostly I drifted in and out of some kind of weird sleep with crazy dreams. One, I distinctly remember, involved Cameron Diaz and popcorn.

*That’s a conversation I wish I remembered because, frankly, I don’t really know why I do wear a hat.

There’s plenty more — I guess I was so dehydrated that it took them eight shots and three nurses to draw blood, which would normally have really bothered me but compared to the back pain that was like nothing. I know you don’t care about it. I don’t even care about it. At about 2 a.m. they let me go with prescriptions for half the medicines in the place. I was pretty much pain free at that point, though I don’t think the kidney stone has passed. I feel OK now, a bit tired, but without pain. I took a cab back to the hotel so not to wake up the family, and when I went into the cab the driver said: “How are you doing today?”

I said: “Well, it was kind of a rough day.”

He said: “You need to be positive. You will get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow will be a great day.”

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My Guide to Stats: Offense

Last week, I made a mistake on Twitter. That’s a pretty common sentence, I suspect. In this instance, I was talking about how I will almost certainly (and, I suspect, stupidly) buy the iPad 2 within the first couple of days, and I said that this is because I’m a “technology geek.” I meant this as self-mockery. I meant geek in the textbook definition of the word, geek being “a person with eccentric and unhealthy devotion to a particular interest.” The trouble is, geek has taken on new definitions in 2011 America. Best Buy has a Geek Squad. It is often said that the Geeks — Bill Gates and that Facebook Guy being the most obvious examples — are taking over the world. Computer geeks are viewed as the kinds of people you want as friends, or at least friends when your computer screen turns bright purple.

Geek has come to mean “somewhat socially inept but incredibly brilliant person when it comes to one subject.” Well, I’m not that kind of geek I don’t know squat about technology. I just like buying the overpriced latest thing. It is why my wife and I owned what I have to believe was the third or fourth DIVX machine ever built (or, certainly, one of three or four LAST DIVX machines ever built), it is why I have about 50 stupid and pointless gadgets stacked around my house, it is why the other day I made a specific run to the Verizon store so I could spend a half hour looking at the new XOOM tablet even though I ALREADY HAVE an iPad and ALREADY DECIDED I’m going to get the new one as soon as possible. I have an unhealthy obsession for buying new technology though I know absolutely nothing about it. There’s no word I know for “Dumb Geek.”*

*Deek?


* * *

I bring this up because I have been at spring training in Florida for a while, and I thought it would be a good time to explain again some of the sabermetric baseball terms that I use quite often in these blog posts and the baseball theories that I am fascinated by. But I need to first make it clear that I am not a sabermetrician. I’m not even an amateur sabermetrician. I know quite a few of these people, and I can tell you that my own efforts to add anything of any worth to the sabermetric community have been comically inept, and my own understanding of some of these sabermetric principles is pathetically simple and probably only about 40% right.

Mozart’s genius was that he could create the brilliant music.

Salieri’s genius was the he could hear the brilliance of the music.

I’d say that I enthusiastically but barely even know what Salieri’s talking about.

But here we are, and it’s baseball season, and I do write a lot about BABIP and WAR and John Dewan’s plus-minus, and OPS+, and I do often mock wins and RBIs and batting average, and while this doesn’t get me within three European countries of Cuttingedge, it’s all I’ve got. Just remember — like it would be possible for you to forget — I’m not a baseball geek. I’m like a dumb baseball geek.

* * *

What’s the matter with batting average?

I have to admit that it stuns me when I hear prominent baseball executives and scouts publicly quote a player’s batting average like it means everything. LIke they will say: “This guy hit .305 last year, so he obviously had a really good year.”

Look there’s a very good chance that if the guy hit .305 last year he had a really good year. But as Bill James has said, ranking someone by batting average is like being a movie critic who ranks movies after only watching the first two-thirds. Hal Morris hit .309 in 1998 and, though he remains one of my favorite people, I must say that he was almost useless. Felix Fermin hit .317 for Seattle in 411 plate appearances in 1994, and was out of baseball within two years. Juan Pierre hit .327 in 2001 and led the league in stolen bases and was a thoroughly unhelpful offensive player. We can go on and on.

The problems with batting average are so obvious that it seems kind of stunning that we have overlooked them for more than 100 years. It probably says something about how once we all get going in one certain direction, it’s hard to change course. I think we would all agree that the goal of a big league baseball team is to win games. On the offensive side, this revolves around scoring runs. On the defensive side (including pitching) this revolves around preventing runs. If you score more runs, you win. If you score fewer runs, you lose. This is baseball at its simplest.

So how does batting average tell you almost ANYTHING you really want to know?

I’ve made the point before about how batting average SEEMS simple, but it is really one of the most advanced stats we have if you consider “advanced” to mean “bizarrely complicated and obtuse.” WAR and xFIP have NOTHING on batting average.

How do we figure batting average? Well, start with a players’ number of plate appearances. That would be the number of times the player comes to the plate.

Now, subtract the walks. No, seriously, just subtract those. We don’t care about those.

Now, subtract the hit-by-pitches. Get rid of them.

Now, subtract the times that the player hit a fly ball that allowed a runner to tag up and score from third base.

Now, subtract the times the batter bunted a runner from first to second base, or second to third, or third to home but still made an out. Do not subtract the plate appearance if the batter successfully made it to first base. Do not subtract it if he hit a hard smash that accomplished PRECISELY THE SAME THING as a bunt. Do not subtract it if he hit a check-swing dribbler that was KIND OF like a bunt but did not seem from the press box to be a purposeful bunt.

Remember to include the times he reached base but only because of a defensive blunder.

OK, you have that number? We call those “at-bats.” Now, what you want to do it take the number of hits and divide those by at-bats. What is a hit? Any time someone hits a ball that allows him to reach base. No, we don’t care what base he reaches. Double … triple … home runs … they’re all just “hits” when it comes to batting average.

Of course, if the batter gets on base because of a defensive error, that doesn’t count as a hit. That counts as an out. Even though he didn’t make an out. How do we determine if the defensive player made an error? Someone in the press box we call the “official scorer” will watch the game and make the determination based on whatever he happens to be thinking at that moment.

OK, now you divide the hits by at-bats. And that is your hits percentage. We call it batting average even though it is not an average of anything. And the person with the highest average will be named the batting champion, even if we have to carry out the division to five or six or seven decimal points. The team with the highest batting averages will be listed on top of the charts even if they scored 200 runs less than another team.

It seems at least possible that there’s a better way

* * *

Why isn’t OPS+ instead called “Special Ops?”

The two most basic statistics that seem to best define hitting are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I don’t think I need to explain them here, but I will. On base percentage is times on base divided by plate appearances. It is basically “the percentage of time the batter did not make an out.” It is not exactly that — there are a few quirks revolving around errors and sacrifice hits — but it’s pretty darned close. Of all of the basic offensive stats, OBP is probably the most important because, as has been said many times, baseball doesn’t have a clock. Outs are the clock. In football, you get 60 minutes to score as many points as you can. In the NBA, you get 48 minutes. In baseball, you get 27 outs. Every out is one more step to the end. A batter’s job is largely to not make outs, and on-base percentage measures that.

Slugging percentage is total bases divided by at-bats. It is a good measurement of how much power a player offers. If a player gets 187 hits in 623 at-bats, he’s a .300 hitter. If they are all singles, his slugging percentage is .300. If they are all home runs, his slugging percentage is 1.200. And his slugging percentage can be anywhere in between.

In 2008, Justin Morneau got 187 hits in 623 at-bats. That’s a .300 average.

In 1958, Nellie Fox got 187 hits in 623 at-bats. That was a .300 average then too. By batting average that was exactly the same offensive season.

Morneau though hit 47 doubles to Fox’s 21 doubles. Fox actually hit more triples, 6-4, but Morneau hit 23 home runs and Fox hit, um, zero. Justin Morneau had a .499 slugging percentage. Nellie Fox had a .353 slugging percentage.

Because those are the two basic stats that seem to tell us most about the players, there have been several efforts to mash them together. Bill James multiplied them and then multiplied that by plate appearances to come up with what he called “Runs Created,” which is still a great way to judge the raw offensive contributions of a player.

Last year’s Top 5 in runs created:

1. Joey Votto, 144
2. Albert Pujols, 142
3. Miguel Cabrera, 141
4. Jose Bautista, 139
5. Josh Hamilton, 134

The more famous effort to mash on-base percentage and slugging percentage is simply adding of them together, a sum which we have come to call OPS — (On-base percentage Plus Slugging percentage). The 2010 leaders in OPS are the same as the leaders in runs created, only in different order:

1. Josh Hamilton, 1.044
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1.042
3. Joey Votto, 1.024
4. Albert Pujols, 1.011
5. Jose Bautista, .995

There are several problems with OPS, one of them being that apparently you should never add together two fractions that have different denominators (on-base percentage works with plate appearances; slugging percentage works with at-bats); another is that on-base percentage is actually much more important when it comes to scoring runs than slugging percentage is but in OPS actually counts for less (because on-base percentages are usually smaller). But I think OPS, even with its flaws, is a pretty good way to measure offensive contribution, certainly better than batting average, and its become pretty popular, and if that’s our best shot to get out of the batting average dark ages then I am all for it.

Adjusted OPS+ is an offensive number I might quote more than any other — it is OPS adjusted to include context … specifically the park the player hit in and the time when he hit. OPS+ is a great stat, I think, a single number that tells you so much about what the player’s season really means.

In 1995, Andres Galarraga hit .280 with 31 homers and 106 RBIs.

In 1908, Ty Cobb hit .324 with 4 homers and 108 RBIs.

Galarraga had an OPS of .842 built largely on his .511 slugging percentage.

Cobb had an OPS of .842 built largely on his .367 on-base percentage.

Who had the better year? You will probably assume it was Cobb. You may even assume it’s not close. But OPS+ tells you — Galarraga didn’t even have a GOOD offensive year. He had a 97 OPS+ … 100 is average. He didn’t walk. His slugging percentage was largely a function of the offensive time when he played and the absurd Coors Field ballpark where he played.

Cobb meanwhile LED THE LEAGUE with a 169 OPS+. He, of course, played during deadball, when runs were at a premium. This was especially true in 1908, when Cobb led the league with a .475 slugging percentage, when only two other guys hit even .300, when only two guys scored even 100 runs and Cobb’s 108 RBIs led the league by TWENTY-EIGHT. The thing is most people do not know the history of baseball well enough to know that run scoring was ESPECIALLY bleak in 1908, and soon enough few will remember the insanity of the early days of Coors Field.

But if you put it like this …

Cobb in 1908: 169 OPS+ (led league)
Galarraga in 1995: 97 OPS+ (below average)

… you will know very quickly that there is no comparison between Cobb’s season and Galarraga’s season.

And, I don’t know why we don’t call it Special Ops. That would be awesome.

* * *

WPA? Is that a new deal?

One of the coolest stats out there is WPA, which stands for Win Probability Added, which is a name that I don’t think helps the cause much. There are certain words that scare the bejeebers out of people. Linear Weights were like that for me. I would see anything mashing those words together — “linear” and “weights” — and I would kind of freak out. For years, this prevented me from reading or thinking too much about the great work of Pete Palmer and others even though the concept of linear weights — giving values to various offensive things — is really not complicated at all.

Win Probability Added is not only an offensive stat, but I’m including it for offense … the concept is that at every point in a game, each team has a certain chance of winning. Take the Pittsburgh-Milwaukee game of July 20th last year. The game started and obviously both teams had exactly a 50% chance of winning.

Milwaukee did not score in the top of the first. At that point Pittsburgh’s chance of winning moved up to 55%, and Milwaukee’s dropped to 45%.

Pittsburgh promptly scored nine runs. Yeah, nine. Each of those runs obviously increased the Pirates chances of winning the game. For fun, here is a quick chart only of the runs:

— Pedro Alvarez grand slam (Pittsburgh 4-0)
Chances before the home run: 64%
Chances after the home run: 86%

— Lastings Milledge scores on error (Pittsburgh 5-0)
Chances before run: 88%
Chances after run: 91%

— Jose Tabata hits two-run double (Pittsburgh 7-0)
Chances before runs: 92%
Chances after runs: 96%

— Delwyn Young hits run-scoring double (Pittsburgh 8-0)
Chances before run: 96%
Chances after run: 98%

— Neil Walker hits run-scoring double (Pittsburgh 9-0)
Chances before run: 98%
Chances after run: 99%

In the top of the second, Milwaukee scored three runs. This moved their winning percentage up from one percent to 5%. Alvarez homered again moving Pittsburgh’s percentage from 95% to 97%. And so on. It turned out that this was a wild game and at one point Milwaukee cut the lead to 10-9 on a Ryan Braun homer — when Braun hit that homer, the Brewers winning percentage jumped from 14% to 30%.

This is a simple concept to understand when you only talk about scoring runs. Its quite easy to understand the math when you say that the Yankees up 2-1 in the eighth have a better chance of winning than the Red Sox down 2-1 in the eighth.

What gets a little bit tougher is to realize that EVERY PLAY increases or decreases a team’s chance to win the game. If the Red Sox leadoff hitter in the eighth draws a walk, the Red Sox chances go up. If that is followed up with a single, so that there are runners on first and third, Boston’s chances chances go up yet again. If Joba Chamberlain then strikes out two, the Red Sox chances go down. If a single scores the tying run, the chances go up. And so on. Every play, from the first to the last, changes the percentages, sometimes in an almost unnoticeable way (a one out groundout in the third) sometimes in earth shattering ways (a game-winning walk-off grand slam).

What WPA does is add up all the percentages. It doesn’t only do this for hitters — it does it for pitchers and fielders too. But for now, we focus on hitters. WPA simply adds up how much a hitter changes his teams chances to win. It adds up EVERYTHING. The clutch hits. The key strikeouts. And more, much more, the mundane at-bats that our minds simply cannot keep track of.

Here were the Top 10 in WPA in 2010 by Fangraphs:

1. Miguel Cabrera, 7.42
2. Joey Votto, 6.85
3. Josh Hamilton, 6.25
4. Albert Pujols, 5.38
5. Adrian Gonzalez, 5.11
6. Jason Heyward, 4.82
7. Shin-Soo Choo, 4.59
8. Matt Holliday, 4.10
9. Delmon Young, 4.06
10. Jose Bautista, 3.93

Tom Tango is quick to point out that WPA is not a great way to evaluate the TALENT of a player, but it’s a good way to evaluate HOW MUCH THAT PLAYER CONTRIBUTED during the year. That may sound odd, but it gets another point about fairly obvious point about offense that I should make here, a point about clutch hitting.

The baseball community has long celebrated players for their ability to lift their game when the chips are down, when the moment is bleak, when the game is on the line. And the sabermetric community has for a while now scoffed at the notion that players CAN consistently lift their games in the clutch moments. The baseball community builds its case on waves of emotion and selective memory. The sabermetric community builds its case on the fact that so far nothing has been found in the numbers to suggest that players, no matter how good, no matter how celebrated for their heroics, are capable of predictably and reliably being better in the biggest moments.

So statistically, if you want to judge the talent of a hitter, you would not use WPA — would not use a statistic that rates some at-bats as being much more important than other at-bats. But if you want to judge a player based on how much he contributed to the team, there are few stats better suited for that than WPA.

* * *

Wascally BABIP.

BABIP stands for “Batting Average on Balls In Play” and it’s a different kind of stat from the rest here. It doesn’t tell you much about how good player is. It migt tell you how hit lucky he has been … and how likely he is to improve or fall off in the future.

To figure BABIP, you take all the balls in play and subtract the home runs. Then you figure the batting average. It’s really simple. Last year, batters hit .297 on balls in play. The number stays right around there. The year before it was .299. The year before it was .300. The year before that it was .303.

So it’s always around .300. Players who hit a lot of line drives will have a higher BABIP, of course. Joe Mauer has a career .344 BABIP. But in general, BABIP can swing wildly from one season to the next, and a lot of it appears to be Crash Davis luck — hitting one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail.

Last year, Josh Hamilton had an abnormally high .390 BABIP. The year before that it was .319. His line drive percentage was almost exactly the same. He popped out more. But he hit many more ground balls, and those ground balls went through, and that was a big contributor to his massive season.

Is that repeatable? There’s is a lot of dispute about that. Some think Hamilton is due for a big drop-off in 2011. Others think he will have a huge season. It’s just something to think about.

wOBA wOBA!

We will include one more stat because it is prominent in a stat I will come back to in the end, WAR. The stat wOBA looks scary because any word where you make the first letter lower case and the rest upper case is scary. It doesn’t matter how harmless or happy the word really is. Look:

eLMO

bABY

fARVE

wOBA stands for Weighted On-Base Average. And as they say over at Fangraphs, this is the statistic that realizes that every time you reach base, it’s worth SOMETHING.

Here is an approximation of what each thing is worth:

Non-intentional walk: .72
Hit by pitch: .75
Single: .90
Reached base on error: .92
Double: 1.24
Triple: 1.56
Home run: 1.95

Funny, isn’t it, that reaching on error is worth just a touch more than a single, or that getting hit by a pitcher is worth a touch more than a non-intentional walk. I’ll have to look more closely at that. Anyway, you multiply all that out, divide by plate appearances and, voila, you have wOBA. An average wOBA should be about an average on-base percentage — .330 or so. Last year Josh Hamilton led the American League with a .447 wOBA. Joey Votto led the National League with a .439 wOBA.

How did they get to these numbers. If you are really interested, you can read this and then look around the Internet. But the larger point is that these weighted numbers do a pretty amazing job of estimating runs scored. And it’s worth remembering one more time that scoring runs is, in fact, the goal of the team at the plate.

OK, I have no idea if I will ever have the strength to do part two, but if I do it will be on pitching.

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Quick Update

Got a bunch to say — about baseball stats, about the Tremendous writer’s retreat we just finished, about the subject of my favorite ever sports event, about the iPad 2, about the 32 best players in baseball, about my favorite day in the NBA, about something that is still secret — but I’m running in so many directions at the moment that I’m not sure how or when I’ll get to any of it.

In the meantime, through a series of misunderstandings, I ended up downloading William Hazlitt’s “Lectures on the English Poets Delivered at the Surrey Institution.” I assume that this is a classic because I was able to download it for free, but I must admit I knew nothing whatsoever about it or Hazlitt or really English Poets. I am reading it now and I am shocked to report that … it’s is absolutely wonderful and mind-blowing.

Two quotations — the first a bit longer — about poetry, but really about writing, but really about life:

“Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry; contempt, jealousy, remorse, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry. Poetry is that fine particle within us that expands, rarifies, refines, raises our whole being: without it ‘man’s life is poor as beast’s.’ … The child is a poet, in fact, when he first plays hide-and-seek, or repeats the story of Jack the Giant-killer; the shepherd-boy is a poet, when he first crowns his mistress with a garland of flowers; the countryman, when he stops to look at the rainbow; the miser, when he hugs his gold; the courtier, who builds his hopes upon a smile; the savage, who paints his idol with blood; the slave, who worships a tyrant, or the tyrant who fancies himself a god.”

The second quotation is the best description I have ever heard of blogging.

“It is the perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have, and of which we cannot get rid in any other way, that gives an instant ‘satisfaction to the thought.’ This is equally the origin of wit and fancy, or comedy and tragedy, of the sublime and the pathetic.”

If I ever thought something as awesome as “the perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have,” I’m pretty sure my life would be complete. Though I did write that thing about Snuggies.

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The Joy Of Rooting Against LeBron

The bitterness, if it ever was really bitterness, has subsided for me now. I know it hasn’t for everyone. I know that my friend Scott Raab still regularly unleashes “Careful … hot plate” Tweets against the man he calls “The Whore of Akron.” The book will be coming out soon. I know a few friends back home in Cleveland who still refuse to say his name, who will refer to him only (and rarely) as “traitor.” I have one friend, a lifelong NBA fan, who in the last couple of weeks says he has simply given up on professional basketball; he says it’s no fun if the players can simply demand trades and choose friends to play with like it’s a high-priced pickup basketball game.

“I’m not saying that I’m right,” he says (he’s a lawyer). “The players have every right within the rules to do what they’re doing. I’m just saying that it’s no fun for me as a fan anymore.”

Well, obviously everybody had their own take on the LeBron James saga — his bizarre final playoff series in Cleveland*, his 2010 Lebron James Recruitment Tour, his fateful Decision (powered by ESPN) to take his talents to South Beach, the Cleveland backlash led by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and his Comic Sans font rant and so on — and I wouldn’t tell anyone how they should feel about it. Some thought LeBron was a traitor. Some thought he was smart to leave Cleveland. Some will never forgive him. Some will never forgive his accusers. Most people are in the hazier middle ground.

*I asked one NBA deep insider about that final series between the Cavaliers and Celtics, the one where it certainly appeared like LeBron James and the Cavaliers quit. He shrugged and said something curious. He said: “It will make one hell of a 30-for-30 series someday.”

As a born and raised Clevelander, I was taken aback that LeBron James didn’t feel the same connection to the city that that the city felt for him. I thought the whole Decision Show — though it supposedly did earn some much-deserved recognition and money for the Boys & Girls Club — was a farce, and a slap at my hometown, and just a poor public relations choice by a 25-year-old man who I suspect has been told of his own infallibility too many times. I don’t know if the reaction would have been different had he handled things a different way. But I think it’s at least possible. And, I think LeBron’s self-image is too far gone for him to even understand that there was a classier way to take his talents to South Beach.

But all that is in the past, and I mean it when I say I no longer feel any resentment toward LeBron James — if I ever really felt any resentment. In fact, I have come to a whole different place. I love watching LeBron James play basketball again. My feelings surrounding him have turned back to joy. I LOVE rooting against LeBron James.

I don’t mean this in a mean way. I mean it quite literally. I truly love watching Miami Heat games and rooting for them to lose. Thursday night, I passed the kids off to my wife, got a Diet Coke, and settled in front of the TV to watch an NBA game. I cannot TELL you the last year I did that for a regular season game. Sure, I watch plenty of pro basketball games, but only to keep up or to pass the time. Regular season NBA games are not events for me, not ever. But this was an event, a Thursday night game between Orlando and Miami. LeBron has done this for me. In the weirdest way, he has made me care.

I think rooting against players and teams is a big and underrated part of being a sports fan. Growing up, I Clemenated* the Pittsburgh Steelers … the Dallas Cowboys … the Oakland Raiders … the Boston Celtics … the New York Yankees … the Montreal Canadiens … the Edmonton Oilers (I know, how can you Clemenate Gretzky? But I was a New York Islanders fan).

I Clemenated Kevin McHale … Terry Bradshaw … Robert Parish … Mickey Rivers (Mickey Rivers? Hard to explain) … Roberto Duran … Drew Pearson … Jim Palmer … Ken Anderson … Sixto Lezcano (but only because I would get his baseball card in EVERY pack) … John Elway, of course …

*Clemenate: (KLEM-a-nayt), verb, to hate an athlete (or a team) in an entirely healthy, fun sports way (rather than hating them in a crazed, stalking, loaded gun, insane sort of way).

Somewhere along the way, I think that overpowering emotion of despising certain teams and certain players has faded somewhat for all of us. Oh, sure, people still Clemenate the Yankees or the Cowboys or the Lakers or certain players. But it’s just different, especially for players. I will never forget that for a long time I really, really, really, really, really disliked the pitcher Jack McDowell. For one, I thought he was tragically overrated — his Cy Young win in 1993 was an all-time joke. In my view, there were at least five pitchers in the American League better than him, starting with Kansas City’s Kevin Appier, whose ERA was three-quarters of a run better, and continuing with Seattle’s Randy Johnson who became the first American Leaguer not named Nolan Ryan to strike out 300 in more than 20 years. There were others. McDowell won the Cy Young because he won 22 games. And he won 22 games because the White Sox scored a boatload of runs for him. In eight of his wins he gave up four or more earned runs in non-complete games.

So, I didn’t like him because I thought he was overrated and because of other stuff too — I couldn’t stand that “Black Jack” nickname, and I didn’t like the way he carried himself, and there was just something about him set me off as a fan. As a reporter, later, I actually enjoyed him and a friend who knew him well speaks highly of him and so on. But I never disliked him PERSONALLY. It never had anything to do with that. I disliked him as a fan, and when you are a fan, I think you are allowed to dislike anybody you want. I know I’ve had many fans ask me about a certain player, and when I say, “Oh, he’s a good guy,” they recoil and say, “No, I can’t stand that guy I don’t want to hear anything good about him.” That’s part of being the joy of fanhood. I Clemenated Jack McDowell.

And then … McDowell signed with my childhood team, the Cleveland Indians. Well NOW what? This is more and more likely all the time, with all the player movement in sports, you can Clemenate a player and he can end up on your team, you can Clemenate a team and your favorite three players might end up there next week, it’s all so fluid, and it’s all so temporary. My buddy Chardon Jimmy cannot stand Ben Roethlisberger — it’s not even the personal stuff, he despised Roethlisberger long before anyone knew any of that. He cannot tolerate the way he plays.

“But if he was playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, you’d love him wouldn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” Chardon Jimmy said because he’s Bengals fan and an honest man.

LeBron James’s decision freed me from all of these shackles. I can root against him without hesitation, without restriction, without concern. And it’s WONDERFUL. It has made this NBA season so much more interesting for me than any season in years. LeBron James is absolutely one of the best players I have ever watched, he’s extraordinary, he’s like a shape-shifter — one minute he’s Magic Johnson, the next he’s Karl Malone, the next he’s a runaway train like Shaq on the fast break. It’s thrilling to root against someone that great.

And that Orlando-Miami game was as fun for me as any game in years. You know Miami built up a 24-point lead and I thought — “Ah well, you win tonight LeBron.” Only then, Orlando started coming back. I’m a college basketball fan first, and as a college basketball fan it’s difficult to remember that enormous deficits in the NBA are not insurmountable. I was working out on the treadmill with the sound down as Orlando slowly began to chip away at the lead. It seemed pointless at first. Only then they cut it to under 20, and soon it was 15 or 16 and after a way it was 13 or 11, and that’s when I thought: “Hey, NBA teams come back from 11 down all the time.”

The fourth quarter was magical. Orlando went on an 18-0 run. Miami looked completely lost and disorganized and discouraged. All year, the best teams have beat up on the Heat. All year, Miami has lost close games. I don’t know if there’s any real trend here or if this is just one of those statistical flukes that don’t mean much — but their record against great teams and in close games fits my image of LeBron’s Heat as classic bully. The Heat can (and do) crush and humiliate terrible teams, but when a good team actually stands up to them, suddenly their flaws — no point guard, shaky inside defense, on-again-off-again chemistry between James and Dwyane Wade — pop out like junior high school acne, and they do not know quite what to do.

That’s certainly oversimplifying things, but the numbers are hard to overlook:

Record against teams with:
0-.200 win pct: 3-0 (20.3 margin of victory).
.201-300: 11-0 (14.7 margin of victory)
.301-400: 7-1 (10 margin of victory)
.401-.500: 8-1 (7.2 margin of victory)
.501-.600: 11-6 (4.35 margin of victory)
.601-.700: 4-2 (6.5 margin of victory)

.700-better: 0-8 (-8.25 point margin of victory)

There are four teams with a .700 winning percentage right now — Boston, San Antonio, Dallas and Chicago.

Then there’s this:

Record in games decided by 5-points or less: 5-12
Record in games decided by 15 points or more: 14-3

There was always something that felt to me … well, I guess the word is “unsubstantial” about LeBron’s Superfriends vision. The way he talked, the things he said, it seemed to me he did’t just want to “win a championship.” He wanted to do it easy. He wanted an instant championship, just add water, and then maybe win another two or three or five more. That attitude just rubbed me wrong. It’s not easy. It’s NEVER easy. It took the Oscar Robertson 11 years and a young teammate named Alcindor to get his title. Is LeBron James a more dominant in his time than Oscar Robertson was in his? Jerry West and Elgin Baylor — two of the all-time greats — played together for 12 years without winning a championship, and they didn’t win one until Wilt Chamberlain joined in not to mention Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. And that was in a different NBA, an NBA that wasn’t as deep, wasn’t as spread out, wasn’t as important on the American sports scene … point is it’s plain HARD to win a championship, I think LeBron James believed he had outsmarted the system.

Miami has two of the best players on planet earth and a third in Chris Bosh who is pretty darned good and it would be absurd to overlook them. Then again, let’s not kid anybody, the Heat are in no danger of being overlooked. Everybody’s watching. LeBron James went there in the most public free agent move ever to build a Superteam, the sort of team that would leave everyone standing in pure awe. And Superteams do not to go 5-12 in games decided by five points or less.

The last few minutes of that Orlando game were pure bliss for me. Orlando plays a high-risk, high-reward game that would drive me a bit nuts if I was a Magic fan, but when Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson are making three-points, whew, they are not beatable. Everybody was making three pointers in the second half. And absurdly, after being down 24 just minutes earlier, Orlando built up a seven-point lead. At that point, I figured James or Wade would take over. But … no. Wade made two free throws in the fourth quarter. James didn’t score at all.

With eight seconds left, Miami needed a three-pointer to tie. Chris Bosh ended up taking that three, which might tell you something right there. After a flurry and a rebound by Mike Miller, the ball was kicked out to LeBron James who was wide open for a three. He missed. And Orlando beat the Heat, who at that moment had lost three times in four games. This led to much speculation about how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are getting along on the court. This has led to much speculation about the coaching situation. Ah, the joys of South Beach talents.

Friday night, Miami played San Antonio, and I watched excitedly again. This game offered a different kind of fun. San Antonio outclassed Miami. It was mind boggling and wonderful. The Spurs embarrassed the Heat in the first quarter and led 36-12. The Heat made a reasonable second half comeback and trailed by only 12 at the break leading the announcers to suggest that Miami was still in the game. Miami was not in the game. The Heat’s halftime adjustment appeared to be: “Stop guarding them.” By the middle of the fourth quarter, San Antonio led by 31, and the camera kept cutting to Miami coach Erik Spoelstra because, let’s be blunt, he’s going to get fired really soon unless things get better pretty fast. The old line has never been more true: You can’t fire the players.

In the end, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Heat come playoff time. I think Boston, Chicago or Orlando in the East is pretty capable of taking them out, and I like that Atlanta team a lot, and the Knicks sent a message the other day if that matchup somehow happens. But I also think that with James and Wade, the Heat could rise up and play a much higher level of basketball. You can’t discount the possibility. Announcer Mark Jackson kept saying of the Heat “They’ll be fine,” whatever that means.

And they might be fine. I don’t think so … but I don’t know. Some people say, “They might not win this year but they’ll definitely win next year or the year after that or the year after that.” We’ll see. That’s the beauty of this. That’s the beauty of competition. In the end, LeBron James gave me a surprising and great gift, something I never expected after The Decision. I don’t feel any ill feelings about him at all. I think he’s a wonderful player. I treasure his years in Cleveland, when he singlehandedly made the Cavaliers matter again. And I love watching him play again. True, I love watching him play so I can root wildly for him and his team to lose. But, you know, love is love.

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