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Interesting Gold Glove Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting choice: Carlton Fisk.

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

An interesting choice: Joe Torre.

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

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

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

An interesting choice: Will Clark

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

An interesting choice: Mark McGwire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting choice: Davey Lopes.

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

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

An interesting choice: Ken Hubbs.

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting choice: George Brett

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

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

An interesting choice: Ken Reitz.

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

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

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

An interesting choice Neifi Perez.

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

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

An interesting choice: Michael Young.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interesting choice: Willie Wilson.

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

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

An interesting choice: Carlos Gonzalez

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

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

An interesting choice: Dusty Baker

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

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

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

An interesting choice: Tom Tresh.

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

An interesting choice: Nate McLouth.

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

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

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

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

An interesting choice: Ellis Valentine.

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

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

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

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

An interesting choice: Jay Buhner.

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

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

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Posts to Come

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

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

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

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

— The meaning of 30 home runs.

— A Chuck E. Cheese birthday party.*

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

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

— A review of the iPad.

— The 32 greatest defensive players in NFL history.

— The 32 best sports books.

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

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

— Behind the back page … returning to Cleveland.

— Oscar predictions.

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

— The all-time team by 20 year eras.

— Thoughts on the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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

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

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Looking at Hall of Fame Pitchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

300 wins = 15 years of 20 wins.

3,000 strikeouts = 15 years of 200 strikeouts.

3,000 hits = 15 years of 200 hits.

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

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

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

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

Just something kind of goofy to think about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— He had a great nickname.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nobody in yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nobody in yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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By In Stuff

Pettitte Junction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finley’s aWAR is 57.5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Tom Glavine

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

6. John Smoltz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Next Great Quarterback

DALLAS — Let’s start with a few numbers: Over the last 20 years, there have been 46 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Of those, the majority (28) were Top 10 picks. And 12 of those 28 were No. 1 picks overall.

Which is to say something you already know: Teams have invested a whole lot of money and time and effort to find the next great quarterback. All but four teams — Dallas, Kansas City, Miami and New Orleans — have spent first round picks on quarterbacks in the last 20 years. Cincinnati alone has spent three Top 6 picks on quarterbacks.

So, teams are trying to hard find the future. And, to be blunt about it, mostly they’re failing. You know how many of those 46 quarterbacks have been named first team All-Pro? One. Peyton Manning. Just 10 have played in multiple Pro Bowls, but even that’s deceiving because the Pro Bowl is quirky and doesn’t necessarily point to great success. Vince Young has played in two Pro Bowls, and nobody would consider him to have been an especially triumphant draft choice.

Every time a team drafts a quarterback in the first round, especially in the Top 10 or so, they place the team’s future on young shoulders. You don’t draft a quarterback that high to get a backup or an ordinary player. These quarterbacks are all gifted, obviously.They all have good arms. They are mostly big, all strong or fast or both, all winners. They are handled differently, of course — some get thrown into their careers right away, some sit on the bench and learn for a while — but they are given the best instruction, training and coaching available.

And, most fail and fail rather spectacularly. We tend to focus on the No. 1 overall picks (and some of them like JaMarcus Russell and Tim Couch and were disastrous, others like Alex Smith and David Carr not too good), but perhaps an even better gauge is to look at the No. 2 and No. 3 picks over the last 20 years.

— Rick Mirer (No. 2 pick in 1993): Disaster.
— Heath Shuler (No. 3 pick in 1994): Disaster.
— Steve McNair (No. 3 pick in 1994): Good quarterback, led Titans to Super Bowl.
— Ryan Leaf (No. 2 pick in 1998): Beyond disaster.
— Donovan McNabb (No. 2 pick in 1999): Very good quarterback, led Eagles to Super Bowl.
— Akili Smith (No. 3 pick in 1999): Disaster.
— Joey Harrington (No. 3 pick in 2002): Not a disaster, but close enough.
— Vince Young (No. 3 pick in 2006): Bright spots, but overall a disappointment.
— Matt Ryan (No. 3 pick in 2008): Looking good.

So, that’s nine quarterbacks taken with the second and third picks — a spot where you would figure NFL scouts would NEVER miss — and four are undeniable disasters, another two are big disappointments.

This is the challenge of drafting quarterbacks in the NFL. Nobody seems entirely sure what traits it takes for success. This is a league where one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade wasn’t drafted (Kurt Warner), another was generally thought too small (Drew Brees), and a man making his case as the greatest quarterback ever was not taken until the sixth round (Tom Brady). This is actually pretty consistent with NFL history — finding the best quarterbacks has always been more art than science. Joe Montana wasn’t taken until the third round. John Unitas was taken in the ninth round by Pittsburgh and released. Warren Moon wasn’t drafted at all and had to go succeed in Canada before given a shot to start his Hall of Fame career.

But, yes, it does seem in today’s world — with the quarterback position so specialized and so dangerous and requiring skills that are not easily named or isolated — that predicting a quarterback’s success is harder than ever.

Which leads to another question: What does Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers have that others don’t?

* * *

Aaron Rodgers was the 24th pick of the 2005 NFL Draft. You might remember that was kind of a strange year. The two big quarterbacks coming out that year were Alex Smith from Utah and Aaron Rodgers from California, and they really seemed to be about equal as prospects in the mind of NFL scouts, at least for a while.

Alex Smith was 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, good arm, played in Urban Meyer’s spread offense, which was really built along the lines of the old Bill Walsh West Coast offense.

Aaron Rodgers was 6-foot-2, 223 pounds, a bit stockier than Smith, big-time arm, played for quarterback guru Jeff Tedford and led California to a 10-1 season, though California could not quite put the ball in the end zone against USC at the end of the game to make it an undefeated season.

Both quarterbacks were viewed as smart. Both were viewed as competitive. Both had great talent and great college coaching. Smith was a few months younger, a little bit bigger, and came from a system that, perhaps, made it just a little bit easier to visualize how he might play in the NFL. One of the difficulties of drafting quarterbacks is that some college systems make quarterbacks look great — think Houston when high first round picks Andre Ware and David Klingler went there — but those same quarterbacks look like pale imitations in the tougher and largely gimmick-proof NFL. Truth is, Jeff Tedford’s quarterbacks had a history of looking great in college, not so much in the NFL. Five of his quarterbacks had been taken in the first round. Of the five, Trent Dilfer, by far, had the best NFL career and with all due respect Trent Dilfer was not a great NFL quarterback. This probably hurt Rodgers.

In the end San Francisco decided to pass on the somewhat local Rodgers and take Alex Smith with the first pick. They threw him out there for seven starts his first year, and he threw 11 interceptions and one touchdown pass. He has not been especially healthy or especially effective since, and the 49ers have not had a winning record since.

Rodgers then fell all the way to the 24th spot in the draft, where he was taken by an aging Green Bay team with an aging legend of a quarterback, Brett Favre. This is another thing about the NFL Draft … whispers begin circulating about players and suddenly their stock just falls. This happened with Dan Marino in 1983 when he fell all the way to No. 27, three picks after the Jets took Ken O’Brien. Rodgers’ stock kind of plummeted without anyone rally knowing why.

Right after the Packers took Rodgers, the Washington Redskins took Jason Campbell, a 6-foot-5, 223 pound quarterback from Auburn.

The point being that there seemed nothing that separated Aaron Rodgers then — certainly nothing that NFL scouts and coaches seemed to see.

But there WAS something. There had to be something. It now looks like Rodgers might be the best young quarterback in the NFL. The guy across the field from him on Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger, has his case, and Phillip Rivers puts up huge numbers in San Diego, and there are a bunch of young quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford who still have promising and unforeseen futures.

But if you had to pick one young guy, 28 or younger, you would probably pick Rodgers. Passer rating isn’t a great statistic, but it says something that his 98.4 rating is second best ever for players in their first six years in the NFL, and No. 1 was a guy named Otto Graham. And Rodgers is putting up his numbers outdoors, in often terrible weather, for a good team, and he has done this under the added pressure of having to replace Brett Favre.

He has also been brilliant in the playoffs this year. He was breathtaking at Philadelphia, eluding defenders (“Aaron Rodgers is probably as good as in-and-out-of-the-pocket quarterback as there is in football,” his coach Mike McCarthy said after the game) and throwing three touchdown passes without an interception. In Atlanta, indoors, he was even better, just about perfect really, he hit 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdown passes, again without an interception. The next week in the snow of Chicago, he looked human — especially in the second half — but he also looked in control.

So, why him … what does Aaron Rodgers have that so many of the brilliant young prospects lacked?

When you listen to the quotes about him, you wonder if even now anyone really knows.

“I think he was prepared mentally and physically,” Packers GM Ted Thompson says. “He’s a good leader and a good teammate.”

These words mean just about nothing. Quarterbacks who are taken in the first round have all prepared all their lives to play quarterback in the NFL. Just about all of them are considered good leaders and good teammates in college.

“He stayed true to his craft and very true to his fundamentals,” Mike McCarthy says. “He’s an expert of the offense. He has the ability to run the whole offense, if needed, at the line of scrimmage.”

Yes, the old “He knows the offense” thing. But again — why does Rodgers have a better grasp of the offense than, say, Jason Campbell does? When Brady Quinn came out of Notre Dame, then Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson told me that in all his years of interviewing players, Quinn most impressed him. His makeup was off the charts. His ability to understand schemes was unquestioned. Brady Quinn, taken two years AFTER Rodgers, was the third string quarterback for the Denver Broncos and did not play a single down.

“It is just his decision making,” Packers quarterback coach Tom Clements says of Rodgers.

“He’s such an efficient quarterback,” Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu says.

“He’s an amazing, amazing, amazing leader,” Packers tight end Andrew Quarless says.

“He’s seeing the field,” Steelers linebacker James Harrison says. “He’s reading things out. He’s getting the ball to his people. He’s the hottest thing going right now.”

And so on … you can go to person after person and ask why Aaron Rodgers made it when others did not and they will almost always speak in generalities, in cliches, about leadership and field presence and efficiency. And there’s no doubt truth in all of what they say, but that doesn’t make it easier to find the next Aaron Rodgers.

Maybe that’s just how it has to be … because maybe what separates Rodgers is something ineffable, something that cannot be scouted. A couple of former NFL quarterbacks now say that Rodgers has the perfect throwing motion, but coming out of high school Rodgers did not get a Division I scholarship offer and ended up going to Butte Community College. He played well enough there to impress Tedford, who brought him in and worked constantly with him. What blew Tedford away, he has said many times, was how much the kid wanted to learn about playing quarterback. He wanted to know everything. He worked and worked and worked on his motion until it was, well, good enough to someday be called perfect.

He then went to the Packers and sat behind Brett Favre for three years. This has been listed as one of the reasons for his success — “He was able to sit and watch and learn,” Thompson says — but other quarterbacks have been eased into the league without great success. What seems to have separated Rodgers is that he never stopped wanting to improve, never stopped trying to pick up any hint he could find find wherever he could find it, never stopped searching for ways to make himself better as a leader or as a passer as a teammate. The quarterback position in the NFL takes so many physical and cognitive skills — accuracy, arm strength, maneuverability, mental dexterity, the ability to make quick and precise decisions, physical toughness, nerve — that there probably is no way to find anyone who meets them all.

So the key might be finding someone with a limitless ambition to improve. Listen to Rodgers on leadership:

“I learned a lot about how to motivate guys (in junior college). As a young 18-year old, you’re trying to be the field general to guys who have been there and done that – had life experiences, been in the work force, been in jail, been in the military, had leaders before.”

Listen to Rodgers on preparation:

“I spend a lot of time each week, just making sure I’m ready to play the game. I want my teammates to know I’m the most prepared guy on the field. That’s film study, that’s also studying the game plan and that’s practice.”

Listen to Rodgers on his perfect motion:

“Since high school I’ve been blessed to work with people who really understood how to coach the position. And in college, I think I got the best of the best with Coach Tedford. We honed fundamentals, we talked about the mental aspect of playing quarterback and I really think that time with him was invaluable.”

What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.

That is a lot tougher trait to scout than arm strength and how much a player can bench press.

* * *

Before this season began, Aaron Rodgers went to Mike McCarthy and asked him to put photographs up of the Green Bay Packers championships in the team meeting room and leave an empty space up there for the 2010 team. It’s fair to say that nobody who plays for Green Bay is unaware of the team’s history. Lombardi and Starr and Nitschke are not underrepresented in Green Bay. And it’s also fair to say that everybody who played for the Packers in 2010 wanted to win a championship.

Still, Rodgers thought it might be good to have a little bit of that history in the meeting room and an empty space to get the players thinking big. How much did this have to do with the Packers being here? I would estimate 0.0%. But that’s not the point. Maybe it did help crystallize the goal in a few players minds. Maybe it inspired a whole bunch of guys. We can’t really know.

What we can know is that this is how Aaron Rodgers thinks … he is looking for every edge. He is thinking always, every single day, about becoming a great quarterback for a great team. And maybe that’s how he emerged from the huge casting call of talented young men who wanted to be the next great quarterback. It’s like he has never stopped auditioning.

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How I May Improve It

A few people have asked me to every now and then write a little bit about writing. So, I’ll try to do that, and I’ll begin with my favorite movie line of the last year.

* * *

“Don’t provoke me. You will find yourself in that pit.”
“Lucky Ned Pepper has warned you that if you molest me in anyway he will not pay you. He means business too.”
“I fear he has no idea of paying me. I believe he has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.”
“He promised he would meet you at the ‘The Old Place.'”
“Keep still. I must now think over my position and how I may improve it.”
— True Grit, Charles Portis

My friend Tommy Tomlinson has talked lately about writing a book about writing. I very much hope he does it, though I won’t tell him that because I have been trying to convince ANOTHER friend to write a book about sportsmanship for years now, and it seems he’s less likely to write it now than he was when I started the convincing. So we’ll leave Tommy to his own muses.

But I hope he writes it because, bluntly, most of the books on writing I have seen are pretty awful. No, wait, that’s not quite fair. I’ll put it another way: Most of the books on writing I have seen don’t speak to me at all. They seem to focus on tricks or rules or shortcuts. These are the very things that made me believe, throughout my childhood up through my first couple of years in college, that writing is a horrible chore that a person must endure, not unlike a weight-loss diet.

It’s going to hurt. There’s nothing we can do about that. But read this book, and we’ll make it hurt as little as possible.

I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think writing — the REAL stuff — hurts at all. I think it is, as Woody Allen once wrote, as much fun as you can have without laughing. I don’t think I’m alone. You can tell by the proliferation of blogs on the Web that a lot of people love to write. They may not love to write briefs or reports or reviews, but give a person something her or she is passionate about, something they know a little bit about, and it’s natural — it’s HUMAN — to just start communicating about it. Writing, talking, gesturing … it all comes from the same place.

I remember when our air conditioning went out, I was talking with the guy who came out to fix it. Nice guy. And for some reason, I asked why he used the screwdriver he used. Well, he went into a five-minute soliloquy about screwdrivers, how they feel in the hand, how he had found this one in a bargain bin near the front of a Lowe’s and he picked it up and just KNEW that it was the one for him, not unlike the way wizards pick wands in “Harry Potter.” He didn’t say the Harry Potter bit, but he was almost using J.K. Rowling’s words. He explained how easily the thing twisted in his hand, how his hand never cramps up, how he didn’t like using electric screwdrivers because of the way they could strip the screws (or something), and anyway he liked the FEEL of the screws coming loose, on and on. It was fascinating, I thought.

A few minutes later, he was telling me: “I just don’t know how you do that writing thing. I could never do that.”

Only he could. And he did. Writing, to me, is about reaching inside yourself. And that, I think, is what many of the books about writing get wrong for me. They are about the form. And they are not enough about the words.

I’ve known Tommy for more than 20 years, and we’ve talked about just about everything — life and death, sports, life and death in sports and so on. As you might guess, we’ve talked endlessly about writing. But as I think about it, we have not talked often enough about words, how they fit together, how they can spark emotion, how some words make us angrier than other words, how some words make us laugh harder than other words, how some can reach down through our throats and grab the heart.

The conversation at the top of this post is pulled from Charles Portis’ enjoyable book “True Grit.” The book, which has now inspired two movies, is told from the perspective of an older woman, and it is about the time when she was 14. If you have not read the book or seen either movie, this might have a spoiler in it … I don’t think so but if you would really like to see the movie and you would rather not know anything, you can stop here.

I’ll try to keep it pretty basic. True Grit is the story of the girl who wants to have the man who killed her father brought to justice. For this, she turns to a drunken and haunted old marshall named Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original movie (he won his only Academy Award for the portrayal) and played by Jeff Bridges in the most recent version, directed and written by the Coen Brothers.

In the scene above, the girl finds herself face-to-face with Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. He is, in all versions, a stupid and contemptible man, and he speaks in a stilted, unnatural, ultra-literal way. You can see it in the scene above. Read aloud his lines. “I fear he has no idea of paying me. I believe he has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.” Read it again in as many different accents you like. To me, the words just plink off key against the ear. Dialogue, for me, is like this throughout the book.

I do not know if:

1. The author intentionally makes the words stilted and unnatural because the perspective of the book is from an old spinster remembering her childhood and this is the only way she knows how to remember these conversations.

2. This is simply how dialogue is written in Western adventure books — I must admit that have not read many.

3. The dialogue is just kind of supposed to be ultra-literal and somewhat unrealistic to make a point.

I suppose there could be other reasons too. In any case, after a while when you read the book the dialogue begins to feel natural because everyone talks this way. But then you come to the final line in the above section — and that is probably the most strained line in the whole book.

“Keep still, I must now think over my position and how I may improve it.”

Nobody talks like this. The line is so strained, in fact, that they simply left it out of the original True Grit. The original, I think, is really a pretty hokey movie. though watching it again I got to see the young Dennis Hopper and the young Robert Duvall (not to mention a fine little role for the late John Fiedler, who was omnipresent on TV in the 1970s though I remember him best as Juror No. 2 in 12 Angry Men). The movie, in retrospect, seems designed to win John Wayne his Oscar, and it did that. Anyway there were many seemingly awkward lines in it, but they did not use the “I must now think over my position” line. I simply don’t think they saw a way to make it work.

That’s something about words … they have to sound or read as authentic or they have no power at all. I remember going to see the original “Wall Street” with a friend, and there was the closing scene, what was (you would think) supposed to be a somewhat dramatic scene where Bud Fox was coming face to face with the abyss and all that. And suddenly he says: “I’m going to jail Dad, and you know it.” And those words in that moment were so ridiculous that my buddy and I both started laughing hysterically and could not stop.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, we went to see the new True Grit a few weeks ago. Josh Brolin plays the wicked Tom Chaney in this movie. And, in a rather amazing if brief performance, he plays Chaney as a pure simpleton, someone who says precisely what is happening in his mind. He has no filter … so much so he barely seems aware that people can actually hear what he is saying. It really is a brilliant turn.

So when this Tom Chaney says those same words — “I must now think over my position and how I may improve it,” it comes out brilliant. It suddenly has so many layers. I didn’t see many movies this year — we never do anymore — but I did see Social Network and Toy Story 3 and a few others and for me this was the best movie line I heard all year.

When I got home, I wrote on Twitter that the Coen Brothers amaze me with what they do with language. They just invent a whole new way of talking that sounds ALMOST like how people really talk, but not quite. You can see this in Fargo, in Raising Arizona, especially in The Hudsucker Proxy and Millers Crossing. The Coen Brothers dialogue tends to be something between conversation and poetry. Mamet conversations are like that too.

When I wrote that, several people wrote in to argue that the Coen Brothers didn’t do anything with language in True Grit, that they basically used the dialogue of the book. This is absolutely true. But that’s not as easy as it seems. It isn’t just the words. It is how you hear them. It is how you set them up. It’s how you make them fit together. The dialogue above, from the book, well people can argue about the point behind it, but to me it sounds ludicrous. The Coen Brothers, though, heard the music of the conversation, and they put that music on the screen, and the words soared.

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Running the football (Pittsburgh Add)

Got into a minor but annoying little Twitter snit after my story on Pittsburgh ran. The large point of the Pittsburgh piece (I hope) was not that the Steelers run the ball a lot, but that they stand for the same things that they’ve always stood for, one of these things being a power running game. This seems pretty obvious to me.

But a few people wrote in to rather bluntly deny this. They say that Pittsburgh is now a passing team and has been for more than five years. They say that I completely missed this development. And this would not be surprising … I miss many developments. But in this case, though my original point was not that Pittsburgh is a running team, I feel pretty sure that I’m right that Pittsburgh is still about running the football.

Start here: In today’s NFL, every team is a passing team. The rules make it so. In 2010, every single team in the NFL gained more yards passing the ball than running. Same was true in 2008* and 2007. Every year, the vast majority of teams gain more passing than rushing.

*We skip 2009, because the Jets actually gained more rushing than passing that year.

So what makes a running team? I would suggest a running team is the kind of team that runs the ball more often than other teams. The last five years (which is the time frame we’re talking about), only two teams in the NFL — the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens — ran the ball more than the Steelers. That would seem to qualify them as a running team. Six years ago, the Steelers ran the ball more often than any team in the NFL.

The last five years, only the San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills have thrown the ball FEWER times than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The last five years, only the Atlanta Falcons (50.4%) have run the ball more often as a percentage of plays than the Pittsburgh Steelers (50.3%).

All of this seems to suggest to me pretty strongly that they still believe in running the ball in Pittsburgh. Of course, show people those numbers and they quickly point out that they are skewed because the Steelers are ahead all the time and are running out time in the fourth quarter, and that’s why it LOOKS like they run the ball a lot.

But is that right? I don’t think so. The most successful teams of the last five years are New England and Indianapolis. They were two of the top seven in pass attempts that last five years. The Patriots ran the ball 45.7% of the time, the Colts 42.6%.

In fact if you look at percentages, over the last five years the Eagles, Packers, Rams, Saints and Colts have thrown the ball most often and four of those five teams have had a lot of success. The Falcons, Steelers, Panthers, Titans and Jets run the ball most often and, collectively, that’s not as impressive a group.

Also: It seems to me that part of being a running team is exactly this: You try to take leads and pound the ball down people’s throats in the fourth quarter.

Yes, the Steelers have been throwing for more yards than ever before. Ben Roethlisberger set the team record last year by throwing for 4,328 yards last year. But it seems to me that’s more about the times than about any change in philosophy. Pittsburgh this year, as Brilliant Reader Dustin pointed out, ran for 920 more yards than opponents, which tied them with the New York Jets for highest differential. Which sort of gets to my point: Run the ball and stop the run. It’s timeless. They come for your heart in Pittsburgh.

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The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Steelers)

Think about the Pittsburgh Steelers for a moment. Close your eyes if you like. What do you see? It’s a pretty clear image, isn’t it? You see those black and gold uniforms. You see howling defense. You see a running back powering through the middle, maybe led by a bruising fullback. You see a big and sturdy quarterback who doesn’t so much throw the ball as muscle it down the field. You see those golden Terrible Towels spinning throughout the stadium. You see those black helmets, with the single golden stripe, and the Steelers logo — a white circle, the word “Steelers,” and the three astroid shapes taken from the logo of U.S. Steel — on one side of the helmet, always one side.

Now think about something else: Think if you can name a single other team in American sports that has stood for exactly the same thing for the last 40 years.

My first thought was the New York Yankees. They are our most enduring team. Only, no, they’re really not. The Yankees were blah in the early 1970s, then they went through the turbulent and successful Bronx Zoo years, then they went through the bloated 1980s and early ’90s, and only when Joe Torre and Derek Jeter arrived on the scene at the same time did the Yankees become the team we think of today. That was 15 years ago, and 15 years is an eternity in sports. But the Steelers have been doing their thing for 40.

The Boston Celtics? People might forget that the Celtics went through a two-decade lull when they did not reach the finals and went through eight consecutive losing seasons. Alabama football? No, any Alabama fan will tell you the Crimson Tide has gone through many different phases and adjustments since the Bear passed on. North Carolina basketball? The Tar Heels have been numbingly consist, but even they went through a trying and confusing period in the years after Dean Smith stepped down.

Think about all the rise and falls in sports over 40 years. The Kansas City Royals were a consistent power from 1976-85. The Green Bay Packers had a 20-plus year lull after Lombardi when they hired five coaches, started eight main quarterbacks and made the playoffs twice. The Montreal Canadians have not won a Stanley Cup in approaching 20 years.

One team that has been consistent over 40 years is the Los Angeles Lakers. They have been good almost every year. But even they have changed personalities, from Jerry West to Magic and Showtime to the Shaq Attack to Kobe’s World. They Lakers are not a testament to constancy as much as they are a testament to changing with the times, the way only the best organizations can.

But the Steelers are something else. They don’t change with the times. They bend time to their own personality. If someone had gone into a coma in 1974, the first year the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and then come to consciousness in 2011, he would not recognize much of our world. He would be left breathless by the role of computers and high definition television and 24-hour news channels and the advances in medicine and the look of cars and these magical devices called cell phones. But he would recognize the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’ve had concussions,” Pittsburgh’s Steelers linebacker James Harrison said this week at the Super Bowl. “It wasn’t bad enough to where I needed to come out of the game. I’ll put it like this: If you don’t tell them, they don’t know unless you get knocked out and you’re sitting there wit h your arm stuck in the air.”

Yes, the man definitely would recognize the Pittsburgh Steelers.

* * *

Let’s try putting a few numbers out there just so we can get a little perspective. The Steelers, after years and years of incompetence and buffoonery, made the playoffs in 1972 under a fourth-year head coach named Chuck Noll. The team had eight consecutive losing seasons leading into 1972, and nobody outside Pittsburgh (and few in it) really thought Noll knew what he was doing. But by ’72, the team that would win four Super Bowls was more or less in place. The quarterback was the young Terry Bradshaw. The running back was the talented and mercurial Franco Harris.* The defense was built around Mean Joe Greene and Jack Ham.

*Harris’ college coach, Joe Paterno, best summed up Harris when he said that when you told other players to run through a brick wall, they’d run through that brick wall. If you told Franco to run through a brick wall, he’d feel the thing for cracks.

Two years later, the Steelers would draft Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster — four Hall of Famers — in the first five rounds and would start winning Super Bowls immediately.

OK, since 1972, the Steelers have rather famously won six Super Bowls, and they are playing in their eighth Super Bowl on Sunday. They have made the playoffs 25 out of 39 seasons. They have been Top 9 in defense 28 times, and No. 1 in fewest yards allowed seven times. they have had six different backs run for 1,000 yards, not including Frank Pollard who ran for 991. They have had many different quarterbacks, but in some ways they’re all just attempts to reincarnate the big, strong, right-handed power-thrower Terry Bradshaw.

Bradshaw: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds.
Mark Malone: 6-foot-3, 223 pounds.
Bubby Brister: 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.
Neil O’Donnell: 6-foot-3, 228 pounds.
Tommy Maddox: 6-foot-4, 220 pounds.
Ben Roethlisberger: 6-foot-5, 240 pounds.

This list does not include Kordell Stewart, who did not really fit into the Steelers mold, though he had running back Jerome Bettis to bruise defenders and a savage defense to intimidate offenses and terminate drives, so everyone sort of put up with the whole Slash experiment for a while. Anyway, at least he was right-handed. Imagining a left-handed quarterback in Pittsburgh is like imagining Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Red Sox.

The consistency has been overwhelming. The Steelers too went through a championship lull — they did not win a Super Bowl between 1979 and 2005 — but even so they also never changed. Chuck Noll coached out his years, trying unsuccessfully the last decade or so to rebuild the Steel Curtain he had built in the 1970s. The team never got too bad, but never got too good again either. Then Bill Cowher came in and nothing really changed except results. The Steelers were still about the same things, about great defense, about power running, about big quarterbacks who could throw the deep ball. Only they started making the playoffs consistently again.

Cowher had a couple of lulls in his career too — and there was even a time (during the Kordell Stewart years) — when he will admit losing a little bit of touch with what had made the Steelers great. He got back to it and started making the playoffs again and won a Super Bowl.

When Cowher stepped down, Mike Tomlin stepped up to coach and he has said that he really didn’t talk with Cowher. He had to be his own man. But being his own man meant building a team just like Cowher’s teams, just like Noll’s teams, teams so Pittsburgh that they should film their games in the static-filled color of 1970s television.

“A study of history is a window into the future,” Tomlin says. And this: “You can learn so many lessons, formally and informally, from the experiences of those who have come before us, particularly the 1970s Steelers.”

This sort of consistency is not just breathtaking … it’s unique. Let’s face it: Times change in sports. Styles go out of style. Look along the side of the road in football and you can see discarded relics, the wishbone, the option, the run and shoot, the flex defense, on and on and on. Don Shula survived to become the all-time winning coach not because he stayed the same but because he changed, because he coached the exceptionally boring power game offense of the 1972 Dolphins and the high-flying, throw every-down free-for-all offense of Dan Marino. The America’s Team Cowboys that won in the 1970s little resembled in style or substance the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys of the 1990s.

But the Steelers are the Steelers are the Steelers.

* * *

So, now we have to ask: Why? The Steelers are not immune to the many changes in the league, the rule changes, the salary structure changes, the passage of time. Why have they been able to power through all that and stay the same? There is talk about stability. The Steelers have only had three coaches over the 40 years. The team has been owned by a Rooney the whole time. And that undoubtedly plays a role.

But there’s something else, too. I think it has something to do with the city of Pittsburgh. Yes, I tend to romanticize rust-belt cities, having grown up In Cleveland. I don’t think cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Buffalo are any better than anywhere else. But they’re just as good.

And, I guess I believe, there really is something about growing up in harsh winters and blue collar neighborhoods with houses crammed next to each other that affects your perspective. In 2009, I went to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh — and as I’ve written before the Kittanning Firemen’s Band playing at halftime. They weren’t in any noticeable uniforms. They just played. That to me said Pittsburgh. There was no desire for some B-list rock band that once had a hit. Frankly there was no desire to have an A-list superstar who wanted to get a little TV time. There was no need for Pittsburgh to put on airs. The Kittanning Firemen’s Band was plenty good.

There’s something about people knowing who they are … this is part of the wonder and magic of the Green Bay Packers too. The Steelers’ owner is Dan Rooney, who of course is the son of Art Rooney, who owned the team for the four Super Bowl years. He is Pittsburgh through and through. He lives a low-profiled life in Pittsburgh. The Steelers players say he shows up to practice pretty much every day. “I think there are a lot of teams in the NFL that don’t see their owners at all,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. “We see him every day. I get to give him a hug every day. He gets to yank on my beard — Dan Rooney calls me Santa.”

“Well, it’s blue collar in Pittsburgh,” Keisel continues. “Pittsburghers lean on each other. They care about each other. We care about the city. … (Rooney) is one of us.”

It’s easy to let this sort of thing get blown out of proportion — everyone wants to believe they live in a special place, and every place is special if you get to know it. Pittsburgh is a great town and a great football place but so is Kansas City and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Seattle and Detroit and their teams have not won a Super Bowl in more than 40 years.

What seems different is that Pittsburgh really does seem to love its Steelers exactly the way they are. They don’t want the Steelers to change. It’s so rare for a city and team to be in harmony, for them to value the same things, for them to see each other and see themselves all at once. When Nebraska and Oklahoma football became passing teams, it was jarring for fans, but they mostly accepted this as part of the changing times and the price of being competitive. Steelers fans have never made that bargain. It helps that the team wins … but Pittsburgh has not won every year. They just haven’t shown up after a losing season suddenly running some goofy spread offense or playing some soft bend-but-don’t-break defense.

In the end, it’s about running the ball hard, it’s about sacking the quarterback, it’s about blocking up front, it’s about making receivers afraid to catch the ball over the middle, it’s about rolling around in the pocket and making a play. Lots of teams actually want to play this way. But in Pittsburgh, you HAVE to play that way because that’s the way the Steelers have played for a long time. And that’s what the fans expect. They don’t want it to change. The interesting thing is that Pittsburgh as a city has made changed dramatically. The city has largely moved away from steel and now focuses a lot on technology and banking. The downtown has a different look. Many people don’t realize this, but there is not a single steel mill left in the actual city of Pittsburgh.

That means that the Pittsburgh Steelers have changed even less than Pittsburgh itself. And, best I can tell, that’s exactly how people in Pittsburgh want it.

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Books on a Snowy Day

Tuesday, we got hammered with one of those biblical snowstorms that was so awesome I saw the spirit of Bullet Bob Hayes running around with his hands in his pockets. And the snowstorm got me thinking about getting a few new books. I used to rummage around bookstores several times a week, and must admit that with the Kindle App on my iPad I don’t do that nearly as often anymore. Instead, I go to my iPad, find books, and click on the “Buy with one click” button. It’s not quite as satisfying, but it’s much less time consuming giving me more time to, you know, write blog posts about infomercials and putting statistics.

In any case, there was no thought of going to a bookstore in the blizzard, so I did something I don’t often do: I sent out a recommendation call. I sent out a Tweet to the people who follow me asking for a single book recommendation … and I said I would buy the five books that struck me. This led to an avalanche of responses that I have still not made it all the way through. But I bought five books. They are as follows:

1. The End of Baseball, by Peter Schilling Jr

2. In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent

3. Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Hecht

4. The Greatest Show On Earth, by Richard Dawkins (which actually led me to buy a sixth book, Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson, about the Scopes Trial).

5. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

I will have to let you know how these are … but what struck me was how many people wanted to recommend good books. And, I have to admit, another thing that struck me was how many of these good books I had already read. I am a heavy reader — not just in weight* but in number of books — but it seems that there is a community of us who are reading and loving many of the same books. And so, I made Twitter a promise that I would mention a few of the recommended books that I have read and loved here on the blog.

*I am on a diet again. My weight has bounced up and down the last few years but, as they say, it has trended up. The problem I have is I think the problem a lot of people have … I have a hard time fitting healthy eating into my goofy schedule. If I’m at home, like I have been for a couple of weeks, I can eat well. It’s a controlled environment. But on the road, I simply fall down. I eat at terrible times, I eat instantly gratifying food, I love my french fries and pizzas and pastas. You would think I would learn from the weight-losing master, my brother, but basically he eats a lot of cauliflower (which I cannot abide) and has a lot more willpower than I do. In any case, I’m trying to keep a notebook on “MyNetDiary” and going with some kind of calorie counting thing and I’m hitting the road today so we’ll see if this sticks any better than the others.

I have long thought it might be good to do a book club type of thing on here, and maybe we still could. For now, though, here are a few of the great book nominations, and a thought or two about them:

@Fielding99 The Pitch That Killed, by Mike Sowell. Best sports book ever written.

— Never like to say any one book is the best anything … but I loved this book about the Carl Mays pitch that killed Cleveland’s beloved Ray Chapman.

@geogavino The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff. Story of journeyman catcher and OSS agent Moe Berg.

And this one about Mo Berg. Loved this so much that one year for the Kansas City Star baseball section I wrote a story about Berg that was spread out over the whole section, one sentence per page.

@keithlaw Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

— Keith was one of several to recommend this book, which I read and loved though it is not really in my genre wheelhouse. It’s a novel about two very different magicians and there’s some occult in there and some great footnotes and, well, it’s just a wonderful reading experience.

@J_Townsend3 How about (John) McPhee’s Levels of the Game?

— There are so many different kinds of writing that I like. But if I could write like anyone, I think that I would like to write like John McPhee (which is kind of funny since I suspect I’m on the other side of the writing spectrum). His work is so spare. So precise. Levels of the Game is about a single tennis match between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe, and it’s tempting to say it’s about something more. And, of course, it IS about something more. But, at heart, it really is about a single tennis match. McPhee is an artist who doesn’t write like an artist, if that makes any sense.

@Ajtrader1 Reading Bill Bryson’s “At Home”. It’s fascinating and he’s an incredible writer.

— I have read everything Bryson has written because I love his work so much. I liked At Home, though I thought it dragged a bit at times. My favorite is one I picked up at Heathrow Airport on my first trip to London called “Made In America.” It is about the English language in America but it really is about American history and it’s very funny and charming. I also loved his “The Lost Continent,” where he travels around America in car, a very funny and scathing book, that I think (though I’ve never asked) inspired the equally wonderful “Road Swing” by Steve Rushin.

@MonicaDien Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

I love chess books. I think this comes from my father — chess books were basically the only books he would read when I was growing up. Of course, he read books like “100 Classic Openings” and “The Endgame of the Grandmasters.” I prefer books with a touch more plot. I really liked Endgame, but have to say my favorite chess book was Mortal Games, by Fred Waitzkin (who wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer) about his relationship with Gary Kasparov. I’m realizing, of course, that I’m speaking to a pretty small subgroup or readers here.

@frampton54 Haven’t seen “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan on your list of recommendations

— I’d say this is probably the book that has been most recommended to me through the years, and it makes me feel unworthy because I didn’t love it. I read it years ago, when it first came out, and didn’t love it. Then so many people recommended it that I picked it up again a few years ago and started to read it and didn’t love it. Now, the recommendations keep coming in and I think I should try again — so many people cannot possibly be wrong. I isn’t that I disliked it, but it just didn’t blow me away like it has for so many. I just downloaded it to my Kindle. I’ll give it another run.

@tjd2001 James Ellroy’s American Tabloid – if you like it, it’s the first part of a trilogy, so lots more to enjoy.

— Ellroy used to live in Kansas City. Every now and again, I’m in the mood for something that tears away everything and is just page after page of pure and joyful cynicism. Sometimes, this will lead me to reading Deadspin or Matt Taibbi or P.J. O’Rourke or Christopher Buckley or Joe Queenan, but they’re purportedly writing about things that are actually happening. Sometimes I just want Ellroy’s alternate universe.

@stephapstein devil in the white city by erik larsen. reads like fiction, but it’s just incredibly well-researched.

— Great book. And it reminds me once again, if you haven’t yet ordered Bill James book Popular Crime, you will want that the day it comes out. It looks like it too will be available on the Kindle.

@matthewmu “The Things They Carried” Tim O’Brien

— Last year, on a story, I worked with a photographer who had gone to Vietnam with Tim O’Brien. He said there was a moment when they were by the water when O’Brien suddenly had a flashback to some tiny detail about how bullets hit water and the bubbles they form. We are so lucky, as human beings, to have people who think the way Tim O’Brien think and can share their angles with us. “In the Lake of the Woods,” is another masterpiece in my mind.

@mvtpr Have you read david sedaris? me talk pretty one day had me laughing out loud all the time…

— He’s hilarious, I probably laughed out loud (not fake LOL but real laughing out loud) fifty times during Me Talk Pretty. It’s so hard to be funny in print, I think. I tend to prove this daily.

@David Zeller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

— Life altering.

@mlw26 An oldie but a goodie, The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Really anything by Tom Wolfe. He has way with word.

— So glad someone recommended this. It’s one of the five best books I’ve ever read. Above I said that I would love to write like McPhee. And it’s true. But if I could ever write a non-fiction book 1/10th as good as “The Right Stuff,” I would likely collapse from overachievement.

@jon_s_garelick What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. The most enlightening book on American politics I’ve ever read.

— Me too. Breathtakingly good. To see someone write something that difficult, that well, it’s staggering … like watching an 800-page tightrope walk over America.

@royalsauthority Count me among those who have read The Power Broker. Outstanding book.

— I had tweeted that I was sure that Mike Vaccaro, Michael Schur and I were the only three people on earth to read every single page of The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro. It is about how Robert Moses basically built New York. Of course, I was joking — the joke is that the book is about five million pages long. But I would say this: I would definitely be friends with anyone who read every page. Because it’s pure genius. And it’s a commitment.*

*Someone, I can’t remember who, was telling me that they tried to make it into a movie. That would be some achievement. The movie could be as great as The Godfather. Or it could be an unmitigated disaster. I guess it won’t happen.

@midwestspitfire Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. A new classic.

— Again, SO GLAD someone recommended this. I read it the same time I read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” I liked Kavalier, which of course got enormous press and eventually won the Pulitzer for Fiction. Buit I loved Carter Beats the Devil. Just loved it.

Somewhat unrelated: Ann Patchett’s “The Magician’s Assistant” is breathtakingly good.

@mkud44 forgot last night, but if you loved The Shadow of the Wind, definitely check out The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox.

I’m never going to get through all these books, so I’ll end with this one. I cannot find the original nomination for The Shadow of the Wind, but I responded that not only have I read it but I got to talk at some length about it with Carlos Ruis Zafon, the author.

It was kind of a fluke — my favorite bookstore “Rainy Day Books” offers me recommendations quite often and they recommended “The Shadow of the Wind.” Said the author would be coming to town. So I read it, and loved it about as much as any book I can remember reading. It’s about books and mystery and forgotten pasts, you know, all the good stuff. Then Zafon came to town so I went to see him. About 12 people showed up. So I got to spend an hour talking with him after the event, he was incredibly nice and thoughtful. I wrote a column about the book. And, not long after that, the book became a sensation in America. I’d like to take credit for this. I cannot recommend The Shadow of the Wind more highly — if I could I’d buy it for each and every one of you.

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Puttering Around With Putts

With the Midwestern blizzard doing its thing outside — and this is the worst I’ve seen since I was a kid in Cleveland — I find myself yet again thinking about golf. It’s better than thinking about how my efforts to clear the driveway have been made utterly pointless by another wave of blizzard.

Gary McCord said something kind of interesting over the weekend. I like Gary. For one thing — and I’m not sure how many people know this — he has made some money in his life doing close-up magic. That is magic that you do right in front of the audience, no more than a few feet away. You probably know that I love magic, and the close up stuff is my favorite kind … I mean, sure, I like the grand illusions, the Vegas stuff, but more than anything I would love to sit down at a table with Ricky Jay and watch the master at work. McCord showed me a few things. He was good.

Anyway … McCord said that last year Bubba Watson missed one putt from three feet. One. This seemed to me to be quite impressive. Wow! Just one missed putt! But, the more I thought of it, the more I realized that I had absolutely no context whatsoever to know if this was great or not. For instance, if I told someone who knew nothing about basketball that I once made 123 layups in a row, that person might think this made me one of the great basketball player in the world. What is a three foot putt? How crazy is it for a guy to go a whole year and miss only one.

As it turns out … it’s really not that big a deal. Professional golfers on the tour last year made 99.2% of their three-foot putts, and this included the lamentable Joe Durant who missed 15 of them. Fourteen golfers missed one or fewer three-footers on tour last year — and yes, two guys (Greg Chalmers and Padraig Harrington) didn’t miss any. In 2009, four guys didn’t miss a single three-foot putt (and Greg Chalmers only missed once). Basically, every year there are 15 or so golfers who miss one or fewer 3-foot putts. It’s a nice achievement. But it’s probably not as great as it sounds.

Looking this up, however, gave me he opportunity to look a bit at putting stats. Golf stats really are quite incredible … in this way the game is a lot like baseball. Every single thing is charted. Everything. Distance. Successes. Failures. How people do from the sands … from the fringe … from the rough … from 75 yards away … from 225 yards away … from the center of the fairway and on and on and on. On the putting page alone there are 88 different statistical categories, everything from total 3-putts from greater than 25-feet to one-putt percentage in Round 3 of a tournament.

Of course, the way my goofy mind works these statistics are like pints of Ben & Jerry Chocolate Fudge Brownie … I’m helpless against them. I’ve actually always wondered how often PGA golfers make putts of a certain length. Maybe you have too (probably not, you’re smarter than I am). Well … it’s snowing bullets out there so I have nothing else to do: Here you go. These are the numbers of the 192 golfers on the Tour who in 2010 actually played enough to qualify for the chart. One quick thing — the distances are a little bit misleading. By the PGA calculations, a 10-foot putt is actually longer than 9 feet and NO MORE than 10 feet. So a 9 1/8 foot putt would qualify as a 10-foot putt, but a 10 1/8 foot putt would not. Got it? I know, confused me too.

OK, so here we go:


Tour players make 99.2% of them.

Comment: An average PGA golfer who plays regularly on the tour might miss one of these every five or six tournaments. Some, as mentioned, won’t miss one all year. A 3-foot putt for these guys is about as big a lock as there is in sports. It’s more certain than an extra point (98.9% in 2010). Obviously some three-foot putts are much trickier than others. If you put these guys on a level green, or have them putting uphill all the time, they probably would make just about 100% of them. As it is, they’re pretty close to perfect.


Tour players make 90.9% of them.
Best in 2010: Padraig Harrington made 97 of 98.
Worst in 2010: Jeff Grove missed 19 of 78.

Comment: At 4-feet we’re still way ahead of a free throw. Harrington did not play that many tournaments on the tour, so his numbers are smaller than some others. Among those who played a lot, Jeff Quinney made 190 of 195. Golfers will miss 4-footers every now and again, though I’ll bet golfers who win tournaments don’t miss them that week.


Tour players make 80.2% of them.
Best in 2010: Paul Casey made 45 of 48.
Worst in 2010: Justin Bolli missed 20 of 51.

Comment: Paul Casey and Padraig Harrington were No. 1 and No. 2 when you consider all putts inside of five feet. I think golfers consider it a real failure when they miss a putt five-feet and in, kind of like an NBA player blowing a layup. Six feet — well, that’s when we start getting into the tricky zone.

6-foot putt

Tour players make 69.7% of them.
Best in 2010: Brian Gay made 74 of 85.
Worst in 2010: Steve Lowery missed more than half of his 6-footers — missing 29 of 57.

Comment: Yes, there seems to be a big gap between five foot putts (which are actually between 4 and 5 feet) and the six-footers. A golf pro once told me that this is the “body height” difference. He seemed to believe that if the distance of the putt was less than your height, it felt like an easy putt, and you tended to putt with confidence (and confidence is so important in putting). But, he said, if the putt is longer than your height, it weighs on the mind. I have no reason whatsoever to believe in this theory. But it is interesting.

7-foot putt

Tour players make 59.3% of them.
Best in 2010: Pat Perez made 52 of 63
Worst in 2010: Vijay Singh, poor guy, missed 31 of 53.

Comment: I once got into a fascinating discussion with Jack Nicklaus about why older golfers, in general, tend to lose their putting touch. Well, actually, now that I think of it, he was having the discussion with someone else, but I somehow wound up connected to it. I don’t remember his answer word for word, but he seemed to think that the older we get the less confident we get about everything. I suppose it’s true. On the positive side of sports, we call it “knowing your limitations.” This is why experience generally teaches quarterbacks not to try to squeeze the ball into double coverage and outfielders not to crash into walls for balls they’re not going to catch. But knowing your limitations is not a great trait in golf. Every 7-foot putt you miss is another one you have to try not to think about when you line up for a 7-foot putt. Nicklaus’ answer was in greater detail … I should see if I could get him to tell me that whole theory again.

8-foot putt

Tour players make 50.6% of them.
Best in 2010: Jeev Mikha Singh made 29 of 44
Worst in 2010: Vance Veazy missed 30 of 45.

Comment: I would say the 8-foot putt is the perfect middle ground. Any putt less than 8-feet, tour golfers will make more often than they miss. And any putt longer than 8-feet, tour golfers will miss more than they make. That’s a good thing to know when watching on television.

Phil Mickelson has had quite the history with 8-foot putts. In 2004, he led the tour by making 71.4% of his 8-footers. And, of course, he was regarded as one of the best putters in the world. In 2005, he was tied for 34th — still good. In 2006, he was 112th and made just 52%. Down another percent in 2007. He made just 49% of them in 2008. He made FORTY percent in 2009 — that was 174th on Tour. And last year he was at a still miserable 43.4%. And now everyone knows that Mickelson can be shaky on those mid-range putts. This does not seem to have had much effect on Mickelson’s overall results — he has done just fine since 2004. But it’s strange that he simply has lost his touch on these sorts of putts.

9-foot putt

Tour players make 45.5% of them.
Best in 2010: Retief Goosen made 23 of 34
Worst in 2010: Omar Uresti missed 35 of 47

Comment: Goosen is a marvelous putter. Of course, the only putt of Goosen’s I recall is the tiny little one he missed in at the U.S. Open Tulsa, forcing everyone to stick around one more day for a playoff.

10-foot putt

Tour players make 41.3% of them
Best in 2010: Alex Prugh made 28 of 44.
Worst in 2010: Greg Owen missed 22 of 28.

Comment: The best from 10-feet in 2010 was also Paul Casey … he made more than 90% of all his putts 10-feet and in. Retief Goosen also made more than 90%. Identifying the best putter from 10-feet in will generally give you a pretty good idea of who is playing well, or anyway who has a real chance of appearing on a Titleist commercial. Among the leaders in this category since 2002: Jim Furyk (twice), Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods.

10-to-15 foot putt

Tour players make 29.9% of them
Best in 2010: Bo Van Pelt made 90 of 239
Worst in 2010: Lee Janzen missed 149 of 188.

Comment: When you get out to 10 or 15 feet away, the gaps between the players is not that wide. The best made a little more than 37%, the worst a little more than 20%. Being the best in 2010 saved Bo Van Pelt about 19 shots above average over the whole season, which is certainly important but it’s less than a shot per tournament. And it cost Janzen about 22 shots.

The question — and it is posed in an interesting way in the new book Scorecasting, is this: How hard are golfers TRYING to make their longer putts? The issue is risk management: How many golfers are willing to really take a run at a putt and risk knocking in 5-feet by and risk the three-putt?

15-20 foot putt

Tour players make 17.9% of them
Best in 2010: Ian Poulter made 18 of 59
Worst in 2010: Cliff Kresge missed 82 of 90

Comment: I follow Ian Poulter on Twitter and gave him a mention in this week’s back page, and I also mention Banksy: My thoughts on the remarkable “Exit Through the Gift Shop” will be coming soon*.

*I hope … depends on if I can actually make it out of Kansas City for Dallas at any point. Other posts potentially coming: The 32 greatest defenders in NFL history, my favorite movie line of the year, why Mike Tomlin fascinates me (by being throughly un-fascinating) and, of course, my iPad review.

20-25 foot putt

Tour players make: 12.5% of them.
Best in 2010: Michael Sim made 17 of 80.
Worst in 2010: Mark Calcavecchia missed 39 of 40. When putting goes …

Comment: From 20 to 25 feet, the best golfers in the world on the best courses in the world are about a 1 in 8 chance of making it, about the same odds you have right now of picking up two dice and rolling a total of five. You could do it on your first try, certainly, and maybe again on the second, but if they are fair dice you won’t role five very often. Think about this the next time that you see a golfer miss a 22-footer and groan like “How did I miss that?”

25-plus foot putt

Tour players make 5.5% of them.
Best in 2010: Paul Stankowski made 24 of 238.
Worst in 2010: Garth Mulroy missed 184 of 187.

In 2002 the great Miguel Jiminez tried 76 putts from 25 feet or longer. He made one. He still smoked cigars and raced cars and live his full life so I doubt he let those misses bother him too much.

In 2007, Phil Mickelson made just five of 205 putts of 25-feet or longer.

In 2010, Boo Weekley actually made the most long putts on tour — he made 33 of them. Unfortunately for him he also tried 346 of them, one of the highest totals on tour. Gotta get it a bit closer to the flag. Nobody, the numbers show, is THAT good a putter.

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