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Diary of a Losing Team: Brutal Honesty

I’m fascinated by these Domino’s Pizza commercials. You have seen them, I assume. The basic plot line is that the guy who is running Domino’s has come to accept that the pizza sucks. And he promises to do something about it.

And so, the commercials somewhat sheepishly show a photo someone sent in of the pizza he received with cheese stuck to the box (“Unacceptable!”). They offer up past customer reviews that makes their pizza sound like manilla folders with Ragu on top. They talk about how basically the company had ripped off the American public for many years by giving them gawdawful substandard pizza. But now things are going to change.

I’m fascinated by this advertising turn. I always thought Domino’s marketing strategy was: “We all know our pizza is not great, but hey it’s cheap, and we’ll get it to you fast, and let’s face it, there’s at least a 50-50 shot you’re a college student who would be eating Ramen Noodles anyway so what do you care?”

But now, well, they talk about how they were betraying customers with bad pizza, and they won’t do that anymore, they are going to make a better pizza with fresher ingredients (somehow for the same low price). I was intrigued enough that we ordered Domino’s pizza a few weeks ago. Now, to me, it t was — as we used to say in North Carolina — pretty much exactly the same.* But, I’ve heard from numerous others who had a much better experience, and they say the new Domino’s pizza is much better than it was before. As my youngest daughter once said when I was trying to convince her that her food was, in fact, not too spicy: “We all have our own appetites.”

*We like qualifying our qualifiers in North Carolina — it’s very different to say “I might do that,” vs. “I could do that” vs. “I might could do that.”

But again, it’s the ad strategy not the pizza itself that interests me. I think most people like the ad. I obviously liked it enough to order the pizza again. I think most people like the fact that Domino’s was so refreshingly honest about the suckitude of its pizza … and whether it’s “refreshingly” honest or “opportunistically” honest is not our discussion point. It’s jarring when a company comes at you that hard, tells you they’ve been terrible, apologizes, says that you deserve better. I thought the BP commercials, the ones showing the various cleanup efforts, were pretty effective in that way too. This is probably the strategy that baseball steroid users should have followed.

All in all, this is the new era advertising flow chart.

1. We suck.

2. We know that we suck.

3. We promise to get better.

4. You deserve it.

Now it’s just my opinion, and I’m certainly no expert, but I don’t think the Domino’s thing will work, not long term, not unless they have a second phase planned out. This brief “We’re not good but we’re trying harder” phase apparently has worked short term — sales and stock prices jumped. And I think the initial shock of the campaign was strong. But sooner or later — and I think we’re kind of at that point now — people are going to want to stop hearing about how bad the pizza is and how bad the service is and that you’re going to try to do better. Sooner or later, you have to go that next step.

Of course, this all has made me think about the Royals because that’s how my stupid mind works. This is a team that has been three years away from success for, um, about 15 years now. The message has always been more or less the same for those 15 years: Help is on the way! Things are going to get better! Look at those minor league stars! Look at these exciting mid-level free agents! Just hang tight! We’re almost there now! Give us three more years, and then you’ll see something really special.

Three years away. Three years away. Three years away. It’s like the Vegas Walk — no matter how much you walk, the buildings never get any closer. The story never changes … at least it never changes for the fans. The Royals have had six different managers the last 15 years so for THEM the message always seems new. The Royals have had three GMS the last 15 years and for THEM the message always seems new. Last year, Royals manager Trey Hillman made an ill-conceived comment about how people didn’t understand what they were trying to do. I know why he said it … because this was the first time he had gone through this Royals rebuilding “give us three years” strategy.

But this was about the 10th time the fans had been through it so they understood perfectly, better than he did. They had seen it for more than a decade. They had heard all about “getting them to play the game the right way” and “building team chemistry” and and “teaching ’em how to win” and all that stuff. They had heard it and heard it and heard it and after a while, no matter how true it may be, the words just stop meaning anything.

The Royals, from what I can tell, really have built themselves a fabulous minor league system. The great Jim Callis over at Baseball America says that they’re favored to be ranked as the No. 1 farm system in baseball in next year’s BA Prospects book. The money and energy they have spent building that system seems like it is really close to paying off. It actually looks like the real deal. It really does look like the Royals could be a fun team in a year, two years and, yes, three years.

But how can you convince fans that THIS TIME it’s real? People have heard it all before. After all, the Royals were BA’s organization of the year in 1994 … and it has been pain ever since. The Royals have had prospects — some like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney and Zack Greinke have even become stars. The Royals have had good ideas. They Royals have had sensible plans. But nothing has worked. We’re at the point now where even Zack Greinke — who was a key figure in one of those Royals “three years away” plans — doesn’t want to go through another rebuilding process.

And so there seems nothing the Royals can really say now, nothing that will break through the walls of defeatism and the layers of doubt that they have built up for all these years. When they say, “We just ask the fans for patience” and “We know we’re on the right track,” and “It will take time, but we’re going to win here” … what the fans actually hear is “Blah blah blah, fresh new kicks, and pants blah blah blah You gotta like that now you know you wanna dance blah blah blah.”

But what if the Royals went the Domino’s route? What if they went for the bluntest of blunt honesty. Supposedly the Minnesota Timberwolves are trying this now … but they don’t have the extensive bad history the Royals do. What if the Royals featured a commercial with Dayton Moore going, “OK, look, let’s not kid anybody. It’s been bad around here. Really bad. Embarrassing, really. We know that. Neifi Perez, anyone? Juan Gonzalez? Mike Jacobs? Yeah, we’ve made a few mistakes around here. You deserve better than that, Kansas City baseball fans.

“But we’ve heard you. What we’re going to do now is play our guys. No more trying to fool you with Rick Ankiels. No more trying to convince you that every good young player we ever get is the next George Brett. No more Kyle Farnsworths. No more dumping our best players for 50 cents on the dollar when their contract comes up. That’s over.

“No, from now on we’re not going to change the plan every time we hit a speed bump. No, we’re not going to treat our promising young players like we don’t like them, not anymore. No, we’re not going to rush our favorite prospects to the big leagues before they’re ready. No we’re not going to bring in these middling thirty-something free agents who were pretty good four years ago. We’re going to build this thing by scouting better, developing better, spending money to acquire talent and by staying strong. We’re going to do that because you deserve it.”

Hey, I think people might embrace that kind of honestly … that is if the Royals actually DO get better. That’s the second part of the plan. Because in the end, brutal honesty might get people to try your pizza again. But if it still tastes like manilla folders with Ragu on top, they won’t get fooled again.

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LJ’s Many Carries

You may have seen that Larry Johnson was released by Washington last week, and there are rumors that he might be signed as a quick fix in St. Louis now.

Larry Johnson was one of the greatest running backs I ever saw. That was mainly the end of 2004 and all of 2005. In 2005, he ran 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns. He had a great offensive line blocking, but he was still a force of nature, a near unstoppable blend of power and speed. I wrote at the time that he was awfully similar to the great Jim Brown, and I actually heard from two of Brown’s former teammates, who agreed.

Now, five years later, he’s out of a job. No doubt Larry brought some of his pain on himself with the way he lived his life. He has made his share of mistakes — on the town, on Twitter, etc.

But I wonder how much his career was bludgeoned by the little fact that that in 2006, the Chiefs ran Johnson an NFL record 416 times. I wrote at the time that backs who were used THAT MUCH tended to fade quickly. Look at the backs who have gotten 400 carries in an NFL season.

1. Larry Johnson, 416, 2005

— Never again gained even 900 yards, was released less than three years later.

2. Jamal Anderson, 410, 1998

— Started only two games the next year. In 2000, he ran for 1,024 yards and a blah 3.6 yards per carry. After three more games, he retired.

3. James Wilder, 407, 1984

— Wilder did carry the ball another 365 times the next year; he was some kind of resilient (though not especially effecting — 3.8 yards per carry in 1984, 3.6 in 1985). But after that his rushing yards dropped to 704 to 488 to 343 to 244.

4. Eric Dickerson, 404, 1986

— An exception to the rule … sort of. Four times in Dickerson’s career, he ran the ball 375 times or more. Only one other back has done it more than once — go ahead and guess. Dickerson still had one more great season, and a couple more good seasons after ;his 400-carry campaign.

5. Eddie George, 403, 2000.

— George was never a big yards-per-gain kind of back. But after his 400-carry season, he averaged 3.3 yards per carry for the rest of his career.

Running backs, it seems to me, only have so many carries in them. The burst that makes a great running back is slowed just a tiny little bit with every carry — like sands in the hour glass.* There are some who have more sand in their hourglass. Emmitt Smith led the league in carries three times — he was a freak (but he was also a different back after he turned 27 than he was before). Walter Payton led the league in carries four years in a row and was still a great older back. Jim Brown led the league in carries six years, and never relented.

*So are the Days of Our Lives.

But it’s also true that none of them carried the ball 400 times in a regular season. Jim Brown only once carries the ball 300 times. Larry Johnson never looked the same to me after 2005. His line did deteriorate, as did the team around him. And his head was clearly clouded — there was a holdout in there too. Still … I tend to think all those carries took their toll.

The only other player besides Eric Dickerson to get 375-plus carries in a season more than once is … Ricky Williams. I wouldn’t have guessed that. He had 383 and 392 carries in back-to-back seasons. The first season, it should be noted, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry. The second, he averaged 3.5.

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Missing Marmol

You may or may not know this — I didn’t until brilliant reader Hard_8 alerted me on Twitter — but Chicago’s Carlos Marmol is having one of the greatest strikeout seasons in the history of Major League Baseball. It’s obscene, really. Marmol has struck out 131 batters in just 73 innings this year. That’s 16 Ks per nine innings. Nobody in baseball history has ever been within a strikeout of that:

Best strikeouts per nine (min. 50 ip)

1. Carlos Marmol, 2010, 16.00

2. Eric Gagne, 2003, 14.98

3. Billy Wagner, 1999, 14.95

4. Brad Lidge, 2004, 14.93

5. Armando Benitez, 1999, 14.77

Even when I was a kid and knew even less about baseball than I do now, I always got a thrill by comparing a pitcher’s strikeout total to his innings pitched. I remember when I got my first Herb Score baseball card — picked it up in a baseball card shop when I had this idea of collecting every Topps Indians card ever made — and saw that he had struck out 245 batters in 227 innings. And that really set my imagination going. How good would a pitcher have to be to strike out more than one major league batter per inning? It’s a miracle, really.

And when Score did it, well, it kind of was a miracle. He was the first full-time starter to do it. Technically Bob Feller was the first to do it when he was 17 years old in 1936. But he only threw 62 innings that year, and while it’s remarkable that a 17-year-old kid could come off the Iowa farm and strike out 76 batters in 62 innings. Feller struck out 150 in 148 2/3 innings the next year.

Bob Turley in 1953 struck out 61 in 60 1/3 innings. And a man named Bill Bailey struck out 131 batters in 128 innings in 1914, but that was in the old Federal League.

Anyway, Score was the first to do it over a full season, 200-plus innings pitched, and he did it in back-to-back years, 1955 and 1956.

It became fairly common after Score, for overpowering starters to strike out a batter an inning. Sandy Koufax became the first qualifying starter to strike out 10 per nine innings in 1960. Sam McDowell struck out 10.7 per nine in 1965. In the 1960s, starters like Jim Maloney, Bob Veale, Luis Tiant, Don Wilson and Sonny Siebert all averaged a strikeout per inning in their best seasons.

In the 1970s, Nolan Ryan (7 times), J.R. Richard, Frank Tanana and Tom Seaver all did it.

In the 1980s, Ryan, Dwight Gooden, Mike Scott, Roger Clemens, Mario Soto and Mark Langston all did it.

In the 1990s, a bunch of guys did it — Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, David Cone, Clemens, Curt Schilling, Hideo Nomo, Kevin Brown, John Smoltz, Darryl Kile and, yes, one more time, Nolan Ryan.

And in the 2000s, 22 different pitchers have thrown 200 innings and struck out more than a batter per inning.

So, striking out a batter an inning it’s not a rare thing anymore. And it’s basically a requirement for relievers now. Hard-throwing relievers have pushed the strikeouts-per-nine numbers into the stratosphere the last 50 or so years.

10 Ks: Ryne Duren struck out 10.35 batters per nine in 1958.

11 Ks: Dick Radatz struck out 11.02 batters per nine in 1963

12 Ks: Tom Henke struck out 12.26 batters per nine in 1986

13 Ks: Rob Dibble struck out 13.55 batters per nine in 1991

14 Ks: Rob Dibble struck out 14.02 batters per nine in 1992

Then there was Gagne getting within .02 of 15 strikeouts per nine in 2003.

And now there’s Marmol striking out SIXTEEN batters per nine innings. He’s an interesting story — he started off as a no-hit catcher and outfielder. Well, I guess the no-hit part came later. When he was 18, he hit .295 with no power for the Cubs Rookie League team, which really isn’t bad for an 18-year-old. The next year, however he hit .236/.250/.309, which is bad, especially when you consider he looked utterly overmatched in a brief tryout in Class A ball. The Cubs were apparently not entirely down on him as a hitting prospect, but they thought his great arm showed more promise and moved him to pitcher. He struck out 74 in 62 innings in Class A. The Cubs were sold.

What seems to make Marmol so ridiculously unhittable is his odd semi-sidearmed motion that apparently makes the ball very difficult to pick up before it’s right on the hitter. Oh, he throws plenty hard — 94-to-98 mph on his good days — and his dominant pitch is his slider which perhaps more than any other pitch in baseball looks like a fastball until you’re halfway through your swing and miss. The awesome Fangraphs site shows that hitters miss Marmol’s pitches 59.4% of the time when the ball is out of the strike zone, which is the highest percentage among relievers in baseball.

Miss percentage when ball is out of strike zone among relievers:*

1. Carlos Marmol, 59.4%

2. Billy Wagner, 58.2%

3. Carlos Villanueva, 55.6%

4. Jonny Venters, 52.6%

5. Joel Hanrahan, 52.5%

*It’s worth noting that when hitters swing at Mariano Rivera’s pitches, they usually make contact. Not GOOD contact, mind you, but contract. Even on pitches outside the strike zone, hitters who swing connect more than 75% of the time.

Well, his strikeouts are down this year, but this trend is not actually new. It’s been a a couple of years since Rivera has gotten a lot of swinging strikes. His continued dominance seems to come from his Svengali-like talent for getting hitters to get themselves out.

But perhaps more impressive than Marmol’s ability to get hitters to swing and miss when the ball it out of the strike zone is his ability to get hitters to swing and miss when the ball is IN the strike zone.

Miss percentage when the ball it in the strike zone among relievers:

1. Carlos Marmol, 26.3%

2. Octavio Dotel, 24.9%

3. Tyler Clippard, 24.6%

4. Matt Thornton, 23.8%

5. Takashi Saito, 22.7%

Remarkable. When Marmol throws a strike, and major league hitters swing, they will flat miss more than a quarter of the time. It’s the highest miss percentage for a reliever in five years.*

*I just have to share this with you: In 2004, hitters swung and missed at Brad Lidge strikes almost 42% of the time. And if the ball was out of the strike zone, forget about it, they missed more than 70% of the time. I have no doubt that Brad Lidge, that one year, was one of the most unhittable pitchers in the history of baseball.

Strikeouts are a tricky thing. For instance, you probably know that Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has been disastrously bad lately. His last seven outings, he has given up 14 hits, 11 earned runs, he has blown two saves and his ERA is 13.50. BUT he has also struck out 15 in 7 1/3 innings. How do you explain it? Joe Sheehan points out that he has been unlucky — the batting average on balls hit in play is a ridiculous .650. A couple of Brilliant Readers offer the theory that his split fingered fastball — probably his most effective strikeout pitch — has been fine while his fastball command has not.

But the point is Papelbon, these last few games, is striking out batters at an absurd rate, and he’s pitching terribly. It’s hard to figure. Marmol, meanwhile, his last seven outs have been strikeouts. Seven times this year, every out he has gotten in an appearance have been strikeouts. He has struck out three or more in an outing an 20 times — a simply astonishing number for a relief pitcher. No reliever in baseball is even close.

And he has been comically good the last month. He has not given up a single run. He has struck out 23 in 14 innings. The league has batted .064 against him over that stretch — and all three hits have been singles.

And yet, Marmol hasn’t exactly had a legendary season overall. You know about his last month. You know about the strikeouts. He has allowed only 39 hits per 73 2/3 innings, and he has only allowed one home run, and you get 10 Cubs brownie points if you know who got the home run*. You would think this would make him just about invincible.

*Pittsburgh’s Jeff Clement.

But he has not been invincible. And you know why? Well, the main point seems to be simple control: He has walked 50 batters, and he has hit seven more. It is funny the contortions people will go to to prove that a walk is not as good as a hit. It’s not — in certain situations. But a walk is still awfully good for a hitter. It’s MOSTLY as good as a single. Marmol’s lack of control has probably been the key in him blowing five saves. His WHIP ranks a mediocre 12th among closers with 25 saves, and before the great last month his ERA was 3.39 (even now his 2.69 ERA ranks 10th among closers). It’s like the little ghost on the old CIncinnati Reds scoreboard used to say: “Walks Will Haunt.”

Still, this is a remarkable year for Carlos Marmol because of the strikeouts. Think about it this way: 59% of the outs Carlos Marmol has gotten this year are strikeouts. Crash Davis once said strikeouts are fascist, and maybe they are. And maybe Carlos Marmol’s nickname should be “The Dictator.”

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Ode To Quiz

This is going to be an essay about Dan Quisenberry. It is something I plan to read at the last Quisenberry Golf Tournament for the Harvesters food bank, which will take place Monday at the Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe, Kansas.

The tournament has been going on for 17 years, which is pretty remarkable stuff for a charity golf tournament in today’s world. It’s even more remarkable because Quiz did not start the tournament until he had been retired from baseball for three years. And it’s even MORE remarkable because Dan passed away a dozen years ago (has it really been 12 years?), and the tournament has continued all this years thanks almost entirely to the heroic efforts of Janie Quisenberry Stone, who has worked so hard to keep it going.

The tournament has raised almost $900,000 through the years — enough, the Harvester people calculate, to provide 4.5 million meals to those who desperately needed them.

Every community, of course, has its own charities, its own challenges, its own daily heroes who try in big ways and small to make things better. Dan and Janie have been a couple of those daily heroes. If you have a moment and a few extra dollars, I would ask you to consider helping out Harvesters. OK. Now the essay, which is about baseball.

* * *

“There has never been a pitcher who made fewer mistakes than Dan Quisenberry.”

— Bill James in the New Historical Baseball Abstract.

Dan Quisenberry threw the first career wild pitch on a Saturday night in 1979. It was his 10th big league game. Kansas City was playing Baltimore, and the Royals were leading by four runs, and Quiz entered the game with the Orioles’ star Eddie Murray on second base. Quisenberry’s wild pitch moved Murray to third base. A single by Lee May scored Murray. Quiz finished the game without much more trouble. In the ninth inning, he coaxed Terry Crowley into hitting a double play grounder. It was already the fifth double play ground ball he persuaded a batter to hit. When it was all said and done, Quiz would persuade 130 batters to hit into double plays. And he would throw four wild pitches. Four.

Dan Quisenberry hit the first batter of his career on a Friday night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1980. Quiz was, by then, 27 years old and fully formed as a submarine-style pitcher. It had not been an easy transition. He had gone undrafted after a fine but not especially noticeable career at the University of La Verne. Something turbulent bubbles inside people like Dan Quisenberry, something that tells them they are destined to do something high above their most obvious talents. Dan was a pitcher who could not throw hard. He knew this better than anyone else. He called his fastball Peggy Lee after her song “Is That All There Is?” But he also once told the writer Roger Angell: “I’ve always felt that when I throw it something wonderful is going to happen.”

His college coach recommended him to Kansas City, and Quiz signed with the Royals for — he always said — $500 and a bag of chewing tobacco. He then proceeded to pitch unbelievably well in the minor league, and I used the word “unbelievably” literally here. Nobody believed it. He pitched in Class AA Jacksonville, Fla. four years in a row, though his ERA there was 1.88. The numbers did not match the eyes. They never did in Quiz’s baseball life.

He was a sidearm pitcher then and also when he finally got the call to the big leagues in 1979. His manager, Jim Frey, famously took him out to a bullpen session and asked him to throw fastballs and curves. Frey’s decidedly profane scouting report after that disastrous tryout was that Quiz could throw neither. But Frey then did one of the great favors of Dan’s life — he got Quiz together with a submarine pitcher named Kent Tekulve during spring training. Tekulve taught Quiz how to throw submarine style. Quiz took the style, added a couple of wrinkles, and in 1980, Quiz had a great season. He won 12 games, led the league in 33 saves, helped pitch the Royals to their first World Series appearance. He hit his first batter on August 1 — he came into the game with the Royals winning 4-3, and he plunked a White Sox hitter named Jim Morrison. He stranded Morrison though and in the ninth, despite giving up a triple, he held the White Sox scoreless and the Royals won. Quiz would hit only six more batters the rest of his career.

Quiz gave up his first home run on a Monday in August of 1979. It was in Milwaukee. He gave up that first home run to a man who would become a nemesis, Ben Oglivie. Many years later, when Quiz had stopped pitching and started writing poetry, he took some time to write what he called “An Ode to Ben Oglivie.”

i heard you were a quiet man

could do a times crossword in 15 minutes

yet you seemed nervous at the plate

waving, wiggling that bat

a puppy’s tail

held high by sinew-strong arms

Quiz gave up that first home run in 1979, and he would give up others, like the one he gave up to Reggie Jackson that, he said after the game, was “still burrowing its way to Los Angeles.” But here again, he did not give up many home runs. Quiz gave up just 59 home runs in more than 1,000 innings pitched. He kept the ball low, and made the ball sink lower. In the checkered history of closers — among the 40 men who saved 200 games or more — only Mariano Rivera allowed fewer home runs per nine innings.

Quiz allowed only 65 stolen bases in his career — and 17 of those came in his final year, 1989, when he had run out of tricks and no long had the same good feelings when he threw the ball to the plate. He fielded his position well — he had 245 assists in his career, which, by comparison, is 100 more assists than Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter had in his career. Of course, Sutter was a strikeout pitcher and Quiz was not. You made do with what you have.

Quiz walked his first batter on a July day in Comiskey Park in 1979. The batter he walked was Claudell Washington. And it was an intentional walk. His second walk came four days later, at home, against Baltimore’s Ken Singleton. That too was intentional. His third walk was his first unintentional one — against Toronto pinch hitter Tony Solaita.

And over a long career, 1,043 innings worth, Quiz walked just 162 men. You have to go back more than 80 years to find a pitcher who walked so few per nine innings, but even this is deceiving because Quiz walked 70 of his batters intentionally. We don’t have intentional walk numbers of Cy Young or Deacon Phillipe or Babe Adams — the only three men who walked fewer per nine innings than Quiz. But it’s fair to assume that they did not intentionally walk many. And it’s fair to assume that Quiz’s one unintentional walk per 11 innings is, by far, the best walk ratio in the history of baseball. Quiz was, I believe, the greatest control pitcher of all time.

Which brings us to the point: So Quiz didn’t walk people. He didn’t hit batters. He didn’t give up home runs. He was never slow off the mound covering first base, and he hit the catcher’s mitt where it was held, and when he gave up his inevitable hits (after all, he did not have a fastball or curveball) he held those inevitable runners close at first base. What does it add up to mean? Well, it will sound hopelessly corny, but I believe it: Inside all of us is something possible. It isn’t something easy to see — and you can be sure most people won’t see it. There’s a good chance nobody will see it. People do not, cannot, often see much beyond what’s obvious, I think. That’s baseball. That’s life. If you are a pitcher who throws 99 mph, people can see that. If you are a pitcher who throws Peggy Lee fastballs, no, it’s asking too much for them to see the possibilities. It isn’t that they’re rooting against you. They simply cannot see. Maybe, if you are lucky, someone who loves you will see what you see.

Dan Quisenberry saw the possibilities. For Quiz to become a good big league pitcher without a fastball — and a good big league pitcher is all he ever really wanted to be — it was not enough for him to be good at what other people would call “little things.” He had to be better at those little things than anyone. He could not walk anyone. He could not give up home runs. He could not hit batters or allow runners to advance on wild pitches or give away stolen bases. Batters hit his pitches and often hit them hard, there was nothing he could do about that. He did not have anything more to give away. “Have I told you about my agreement with the ball?” he asked Roger Angell. “Our deal is that I’m not going to throw you very hard as long as you promise to move around when you get near the plate. Because … I want you back.”

I believe Dan Quisenberry was as good as some pitchers in the Hall of Fame, better than some too.

Five times he led the league in saves. Four times he finished Top 3 in the Cy Young balloting. His 2.76 ERA, compared to the pitchers’ ERA of his time, is one of the best totals in baseball history. Whether this makes him a Hall of Famer is the decision of many other people. Quiz was on the Hall of Fame ballot for only one year, though his near-perfect performance comparable Bruce Sutter would get voted into the Hall of Fame. People still have a hard time seeing.

You know, Bob Uecker had a funny line about how anybody with ability can play in the big leagues … but to last as long as he did with his lack of skills was a triumph of the human spirit. It’s a funny line, but it’s true too. For Sandy Koufax, for Johnny Bench, for Willie Mays, for players like them to become great meant fulfilling the potential that everyone saw in them. Sure, it took hard work, dedication, strength of mind, all those things. But Dan Quisenberry found a ballplayer inside himself that others could not see no matter hard hard they glared. It may or may not make him a Hall of Famer, but it makes him one of the great ones. No player in baseball history got more out of his own talents.

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Jordan on Shatner

This is a little bit late, but if you haven’t read this bit of brilliance — Pat Jordan on William Shatner — then you have missed out on a bit of joy in your life.

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Joe Blogs Changes

Well, I have been thinking about how to make this blog make sense. As you know, I hope, the Curiously Long Posts is alive and well over at Sports Illustrated. And for a little while, for reasons that were not always entirely clear to me, I was running a mirror blog where I was essentially printing the same posts in two places.

Then, of course, my blog got hacked and I believe I was able to take it down before it handed out malware to every Snuggie loving sports fan in America.

So, now I have this easier-to-maintain blog … which seems somewhat without a mission. I started out with the same Curiously Long Posts concept — again reprinting stuff on the SI blog — but I’m thinking now that this would make me a lot like the awesomely impressive WordGirl villain and criminal “Lady Redundant Woman.”

So, I’m going to try to give this blog its own character … we will see how that develops over the next few weeks. I don’t know exactly how that will go, but I’m considering:

1. Guest posts.

2. More links.

3. More of a mix of shorter and longer posts.

Like I say, we will see. As you know, we here at Joe Blogs* are not always especially good at follow-through (I’m telling you, the iPad review is coming! It’s coming soon!). But, this is the plan.

*Joe Bloggs, you may know, is — well let’s let Wikipedia explain: — “commonly used as a placeholder names in United Kingdom, Irish, Australian and New Zealand teaching, programming, and other thinking and writing.” I vaguely knew this, which was why I was calling the site “Joe Blog.” I added the “s” to the name and changed the subtitle. Oh, yeah, things are changing now.

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Nolan and Ichiro

This is going to be about Ichiro Suzuki, and so you may find it strange that it begins with Nolan Ryan. I think the comparison will make sense by the time we’re done here, but frankly I’m a bit worried about something. I’m worried that people will think I’m making judgements about Ichiro and Ryan, about the way they play the game, about their CHOICES in baseball. I’m not. I don’t even know that they have actually MADE choices. This probably doesn’t make any sense to you at all. Maybe it will. Well, we will just dive in and see where this thing goes.

Let’s start with an odd question: Was Nolan Ryan (compared with the greatest pitchers in baseball history) better at striking out batters or better at walking them?

An odd question, yes. Ryan, you probably know, is the all-time record holder in strikeouts with 5,714. Only Randy Johnson, in baseball history, is within 1,000 strikeouts of Ryan. Nobody is within 800 Ks.

Ryan, you probably know, is also the all-time record holder in walks with 2,795. Only Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro are within 1,000 walks. Nobody is within 950.

So what record is more impressive, if impressive is the word to use? Well, by quick-and-dirty percentages, the walk record is far more impressive. Ryan struck out 17% more batters than No. 2 Randy Johnson, which is amazing. But he walked 53% more batters than Steve Carlton, which is off the charts. To give you an idea just how remarkable that is, look a this:

— Wayne Gretzky holds the NHL record with 2,857 points.

— Mark Messier is second with 1,887 points.

That means Gretzky has scored 51.4% more points than any player in the history of the NHL. That also means that the gap between Gretzky and anyone else when it comes to points is SMALLER than the gap between Ryan and anyone else when it comes to walks.

Look at this:

— Jerry Rice holds the NFL record with 22,895 receiving yards.

— Issac Bruce is second with 15,208 yards.

That means Rice has gained 50.5% more receiving yards than any player in the history of NFL. And yes, that gap too is smaller than the gap between Ryan and any other pitcher in walks.

Ryan is simply untouchable as a walker. Yes, he was amazing at striking people out — especially considering that hitters didn’t strike out as much in the era when he pitched — but there are other people in the “greatest strikeout pitcher” argument. Johnson, after all, struck out 10.6 per nine innings, more than one strikeout per game higher than Ryan. Pedro Martinez had a significantly better strikeout rate. Sandy Koufax’s career was much shorter, but once he figured things out — the last eight years of his career — his strikeout rate was virtually identical to Ryan’s. Walter Johnson led the league in strikeouts 12 times when hitters didn’t strike out. You certainly could argue that Ryan was the greatest strikeout pitcher ever, and you would have the hammer stat of “career strikeouts” as your closing argument. But there IS an argument.

But when it comes to walks — no argument. None. If Bobby Witt or Johnny Vandemeer had managed to hang on a bit longer, maybe they could be in the discussion. But for pitchers with enduring careers — 2,500 innings or 150 wins — Ryan is all alone. His 4.67 walks per nine innings is epic. He averaged a full walk more per nine than any pitcher in the 300-win club. Only Feller and Bobo Newsome, among pitcher who won 200 games, walked more than 4 batters per nine, and neither are within a half walk of Ryan.

OK, but, those are just numbers. What do they mean?

Well, I think this means something pretty obvious: Nolan Ryan pitched a certain way, and never really stopped pitching that certain way. He pitched for the strikeout. Always. Now, here’s where I want to again make the point about choices. I don’t know that this was a choice on Ryan’s part. I’m not sure that Ryan (as many people have suggested) COULD have pulled back, induced more contact, sacrificed some strikeouts for better control. The theme that surrounded Ryan, as Bill James pointed out in the New Historical Abstract, is that he never compromised, never gave in, and people disagreed whether this was being true to himself and his craft (the majority opinion) or bullheadedness that prevented him from being a greater but less noteworthy pitcher (the minority opinion). Again, I really don’t know. Maybe Nolan Ryan DECIDED to pitch that way. Then again, maybe he HAD to pitch that way.

The reasons why Ryan pitched the way he did — by choice or by need — are not really material here. The point here is that Ryan was quite possibly the best ever at two pretty significant (and related) pitcher things:

1. He was probably the greatest strikeout pitcher ever.

2. He was probably the hardest pitcher ever to hit.

Those two things could have made Ryan the best pitcher in baseball history. But they didn’t. No pitcher in baseball history has given up fewer hits per nine innings (6.55). And yet, when you look Ryan’s walks and hits per inning — his WHIP — he suddenly jumps up to, well, take a guess. Go ahead. Where do you think Ryan ranks in WHIP, remembering that he’s No. 1 in hits per nine innings pitched.

I suspect you guessed low. Try 265th. Marty Pattin had a lower WHIP than Nolan Ryan. Bill Swift had a lower WHIP than Nolan Ryan. John Smiley had a lower WHIP than Nolan Ryan. And so on.

No pitcher struck out more batters. But then you add in the walks. You throw in his remarkable skill at throwing wild pitches — his 277 is 50 more than second-place Phil Niekro. You throw in his preposterous inability to prevent runners from stealing bases — Ryan’s 757 stolen bases allowed are BY FAR the most allowed; that’s 200-plus more than Greg Maddux, who is second on the list. You throw in his general struggles with fielding his position. No good pitcher in baseball history did the big things better; but perhaps no good pitcher in baseball history did the little things worse. And that is how a guy most would call the most unhittable and greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history ends up with a bland 112 ERA+ and ends up over an astonishingly long career allowing more runs than any pitcher in history except Niekro.

Because of all this it’s hard to really define Ryan as a pitcher. He’s the most extraordinary pitcher who ever lived, I think. But I also think he’s not especially close to the best.

Which leads us to Ichiro. I would say that Ichiro Suzuki, even with his career still going and even though he spent his first few years in Japan, is already the greatest singles hitter in the history of Major League baseball. At this point, I’m not even sure there’s a runner-up.

You already know all about Ichiro’s hit exploits. He is:

— The first player in baseball history to get 200 hits in eight, nine and now 10 consecutive seasons.

— About to lead the league in hits for the seventh time — and his other three big league seasons he finished second.

— The only player in baseball history to get 675 plate appearances and hit .300 10 years in a row (Lou Gehrig was close but one year he fell just three plate appearances short).

Let’s put it this way: Ichiro came to America when he was 27 years old. At that point, he had 1,278 hits in Japan. You cannot count those hits in the Major Leagues, of course, but I’d say if anything, 1,278 hits is probably FEWER hits than he would have had he started his career here. Anyway, for fun, let’s give him those 1,278 hits.

He doesn’t turn 37 until October, so that means that through his age 36 season, he has had 3,510 professional baseball hits. Here’s how that would rank in baseball history.

Hits through age 36:

1. Ichiro, 3,510

2. Ty Cobb, 3,453

3. Hank Aaron, 3,110

4. Robin Young, 3.025

5. Pete Rose, 2.966*

*Put it this way: When I talked to Pete for The Machine, he flat told me: “Hey, tell Ichiro he can even count his hits in Japan. I don’t care. He ain’t getting to 4,000 hits” Yep, Pete was a big man then. But Ichiro has had something like 700 or 800 hits since then, and I now see interviews with Pete singing a different tune about how — COME ON! Japan is Triple A baseball! You can’t count those hits! You’ve got to be KIDDING ME! What do you want to count my hits in MACON?

That little change sums up Pete Rose the man just about as well as anything else.

So, you know what kind of hit machine Ichiro has been. Well, you should also know that 81% — EIGHTY ONE PERCENT of his hits — have been singles. If that sounds high, well, yeah, it’s historically high. We’ll get to that in a minute. Ichiro is a singles man. He has four of the Top 10 singles seasons in baseball history, and half of those Top 10 seasons were in the 19th century.

If you start in 1901, the Top 5 singles seasons look like this:

1. Ichiro, 225 (2004)

2. Ichiro, 206 (2007)

3. Lloyd Waner, 198 (1927)

4. Ichiro, 192 (2001)

5. Wade Boggs, 187 (1985)

He has led the league in singles every single season he has been in the big leagues. Every single year. And not only has he led the league, he has DESTROYED the league.

2001: Led league by 53 singles (Shannon Stewart runner up).

2002: Led league by 18 singles (Derek Jeter).

2003: Led league by 14 singles (Michael Young)

2004: Led league by 73 singles (Young)

2005: Led league by 5 singles (Jeter)

2006: Led league by 28 singles (Jeter)

2007: Led league by 48 singles (Young)

2008: Led league by 36 singles (Orlando Cabrera)

2009: Led league by 13 singles (Jeter)

2010: Leads league by 18 singles (Juan Pierre)

He is simply untouchable as a literal-sense “hitter.” He is the Nolan Ryan of hits. He is the Nolan Ryan of singles. Like with Ryan, you cannot help but feel awe watching the man perform. He’s absolutely amazing.

But, wait. Amazing is one thing. How GOOD an offensive player is Ichiro? And this takes us into more complicated territory. Because, like Ryan, it seems that Ichiro does big things a lot better than he does little things. Ichiro is probably the best at hitting ’em where they ain’t since the speaker of that quote, Wee Willie Keeler. But that’s not all there is to being a great offensive players, is it?

No. It’s not. Yes, Ichiro he has 200 hits every single season — he’s leading the lead for the seventh time — but do you know how many times he has led the league in times on base?

Once. That was 2004.

In fact, except for 2004, he has never finished second or third in times on base either. His 260 hits in a season is a record, of course, but his career-high 315 times on base actually ranks in a tie for 58th all-time, just one ahead of Chuck Knoblauch’s 1996 season and one behind Mo Vaughn’s 1996 season.

And, more, that’s the ONLY time Ichiro has gotten on base 300 times in a season. His next best was 290 times on base in 2007 — and that ranks in a tie for 257th all-time (tied with, among others, Bobby Abreu in 2006, Tony Phillips in 1996 and Bernie Williams in 2002 — and those were not the career high seasons for any of the three).

The big reason for the gap is that Ichiro doesn’t walk. He just doesn’t. He’s led the league in hitting twice and finished second twice more. But he’s never led the league in on-base percentage, only once finished in the Top 5, one three times finished in the Top 10.

His .376 on-base percentage is certainly good, but he’s hitting .331 — it’s almost all batting average. Put it this way; There are 25 players in baseball history with 3,000 or more plate appearances and a batting average of higher than .325. Twenty five super-high average players. Ichiro Suzuki has the lowest on-base percentage of any of them.

He is walking one time in 16 plate appearances. That’s just an extremely low number, especially for a good hitter.

So he doesn’t walk. That means that while his hitting is historically great, his on-base percentage is not. Among players with 3,000 or more plate appearances, his on-base percentage is tied for 131st.

OK, well, what about those hits? Well, as I mentioned, 81% of his hits are singles. Even among those relatively light-hitting players, that’s really high.

Here is the singles percentage for some players you might consider light-hitting greats:

— Ichiro, 81%

— Tony Gwynn, 76%

— Pete Rose, 76%

— George Sisler, 75%

— Wade Boggs, 75%

— Ty Cobb, 73%

Ichiro’s singles percentage is higher than Ozzie Smith’s. It’s higher than Jason Kendall’s (yes it is). It’s higher than Luis Aparicio, Bert Campaneris, Bill Buckner and Kenny Lofton. It’s not the all-time mark — other very good hitters like Richie Ashburn and Stuffy McInnis and Lloyd Waner have a higher singles percentage. But in fact, those are probably the ONLY three good hitters who have a higher singles percentage — maybe Maury Wills, depending on how good a hitter you think he was.

So, what’s wrong with a single? Nothing. But it ain’t a double. Ichiro’s .430 slugging percentage is certainly low for a .331 hitter, especially in today’s big-hitting era. Jef Cirillo slugged .430. Hal Morris slugged .433.

So, mainly what Ichiro gives you are lots of singles — line drives, hard grounders up the middle, bloops, bleeders through the infield, high-choppers. Are these aesthetically pleasing? Absolutely. Are these valuable? You bet. Are these more valuable than walks? Yes, of course, well, somewhat. But do a barrage of singles without many walks put Ichiro in the luxury line of hitters with Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera or Josh Hamilton or Robinson Cano or those sorts of guys.

I’d have to say no.

And the numbers would say no even more forcefully. This year, Ichiro does not rank in the Top 50 in batting runs according to Fangraphs.

In 2009, Ichiro ranked 36th.

In 2008, he did not rank in the Top 50.

In 2007, he ranked 31st.

In 2006, he did not rank in the Top 50.

in 2005, he did not rank in the Top 50

IN 2004, he ranked 20th.

And so on. His career OPS+ is 117, which ties him for 367th all-time and ranks lower than, among others, Mickey Tettleton, who hit 90 points lower.

I hear from people in and out of baseball all the time that Ichiro could be a different kind of hitter if he wanted. He could take some points of the average and hit with more power. He could muscle up and hit 25 homers a year. He could attack pitchers differently and draw 100 walks a season. Like I said at the top I have no idea if this is true.

What I do think is that Ichiro Suzuki is one of most dazzling and unforgettable hitters I’ve ever seen. I get a jolt every time I see him step to the plate. And of course here we’re only talking about his hitting — he’s an amazing base stealer and base runner; he’s an awesome outfielder with a terrific arm. I love watching Ichiro Suzuki play baseball. He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer, no doubt in my mind.

Still, as we try to look honestly at his career, we are left with two questions and two seemingly conflicting answers:

1. Is Ichiro Suzuki one of the greatest hitters in baseball history? Absolutely.

2. Is Ichiro Suzuki one of the greatest offensive forces in baseball history? No, probably not.

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32 Great SI Covers

Well, 7,000 plus words and 32 great Sports Illustrated covers are up on my SI Blog. Hope you enjoy. I’m very tired.

I might need to change the subtitle of this site to “Posts Never Longer Than 300 Words!”

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32 Flukiest Home Run Seasons

This list goes along with the piece I did about Jose Bautista and the meaning of 50 homers.

* * *

So, I came up with a formula to determine the 32 flukiest home run season. I would tell you the formula except I kind of forgot how I did it. I know I incorporated the player’s average homers per 162 games and the player’s second highest home run season and things like that. I would give a hat tip to my friend Bill James, who helped me come up with the formula, but I suspect Bill would not want to be considered an accomplice to this mathematical crime.

Anyway, here’s the list:

32. Duane Kuiper, 1977 (1 homer)

Comment: Kuiper, my favorite player ever, has never come out and explained his power surge of 1977. He, hit 0 homers the year before, and 0 homers the year after and, frankly, 0 homers in the other 3,753 plate appearances of his career. So what happened in 1977? I prefer to believe he was clean.

31. Willie Montanez, 1971 (30 homers)

Comment: This is the way to do it: Get your fluke season out of the way early so that everybody keeps waiting for you to do it again. Montanez hit 30 home runs as a rookie — he was runner up in the Rookie of the Year balloting to Earl Williams — and he never again hit more than 20. While most players start by hitting line drives and then developing power, Montanez was the other way around. As a rookie he hit .255 with those 30 homers, and the next year he hit .247 and led the league in doubles. But the next three years he hit .300 and his home run power plunged — he hit 28 homers COMBINED from 1974-76.

Then again, was there ever a cooler defensive first baseman than Willie Montanez? Those behind-the-back moves? Awesome. It was like the Globetrotters Meets The Mets.*

*Though, Montanez only played with the Mets for 268 games … that’s strange. I always pictured him with the Mets.

30. Wally Joyner, 1987 (34 homers)

Comment: Joyner had the fortune — and odd misfortune — of coming into his own in that crazy home run season of 1987. That was his second year, he mashed 34 homers for the Angels, built up his Wally World legend, it was a lot of fun. But it also gave the impression that Joyner was a home run hitter, and he wasn’t. He was a good player, defensively solid, got on base, hit a lot of doubles, but he only once more hit 20 homers in a season and the rest of his career had a whiff of underachiever, which probably wasn’t fair. The 34-home run season was out of character.

29. Felix Mantilla, 1964 (30 homers)

Comment: Fenway Park was good to Mantilla. He had never hit more than 11 homers in a season when in ’64 he mashed 30 — 19 of them at home. The next year he hit 18, which was still out of character, and then he was traded to Houston for Eddie Kasko. He hit six home runs for the Astros and his career was over.

28. Bill Hall, 2006 (35 homers)

Comment: The career is still going, and so he could fall off the list. But I sense that 35 homer season in 2006 will always stand out. Hall has power; this year he has hit 17 home runs in part-time duty for the Boston Red Sox. The question is will he ever again get 600 plate appearances in a season?

27. Cy Williams, 1923 (41 homers)

Comment: Sometimes the fluke has less to do with the player and more to do with the conditions. Cy Williams was a legitimately great home run hitter. He led his league in home runs four times. But it was a different era. In 1915, during Deadball, he led the league with 12. And in 1920, as the league was emerging from Deadball, he led with 20. So while his 41 homers in 1923 stands out — he never hit more than 30 in any other season — and while a big part of that season was the home run heaven that was the Baker Bowl (he hit 26 of his 41 homers there), there was nothing fluky about Cy Williams himself. He was a legit power hitter for his era.

26. Andre Dawson, 1987 (49 homers)

Comment: Everything about the 1987 season felt fluky, including the MVP Award. That was basically the one year over the last 50 years when National League MVP voters decided to ignore the guidelines as they had long followed them and choose an MVP from a losing team.* Much has already been written and said about how overrated in some ways Dawson’s 1987 season was — he had a .328 on-base percentage just as a starting point — but the larger point is that it was very much out of character for the Hawk. He was a vicious line drive hitter whose second highest home run total was 32. That season was a combination of Wrigley Field (where he hit 27 home runs), the juiced ball and a compelling story line (Dawson famously signed a blank contract after being unfairly blackballed by owner collusion).

*Best I can tell, the last NL MVP from a losing team was ALSO a Cubs player — Ernie Banks in 1959.

25. Rich Aurilia, 2001 (37 homers)

Comment: That remarkable 2001 season — .324/.369/.572, a 146 OPS+ — came out of nowhere. It wasn’t only the spike in home runs. His Wins Above Replacement that year was 6.5 — that’s MVP territory. His WAR the rest of his career combined was 3.7.

24. George Foster, 1977 (52 homers)

Comment: Nobody is entirely sure why home runs jumped so absurdly in the National League in 1977. The league as a whole hit 500 more homers in ’77 than ’76, and the total would drop by more than 300 in 1978. Strange. Foster was a very good power hitter who finished second in the MVP voting to Joe Morgan in 1976, but his 29 homers in 1976 was a career high. Then, suddenly, he hit 52 — the only player between 1966 and 1989 to hit 50 homers.

When Foster hit the 52 homers, it did not feel like a fluke. It felt like we were seeing the emergence of a truly great home run hitter, a modern day Killebrew. In retrospect, we were not, at least not over a long stretch. The next year, Foster hit 40 homers to lead the league, and the next year he hit 30 in only 121 games. He was, for those four years — 1976-79 — the best power hitter in baseball, I think. After that, though he was still a very good hitter for Cincinnati, his home run power began diminished. And that, of course, is when the Mets gave him a lot of money to spend the decline phase of his career with them.

23. Barry Larkin, 1996 (33 homers)

Comment: This isn’t scientific, but I covered Barry at that time … and I’ll tell you that Larkin in the early to mid-1990s gave the distinct impression that he could do anything. Absolutely anything. I’m not saying he’s the BEST player I’ve seen because he’s not Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds or a few others. But I think there’s a difference between being the best and being the most adaptable. With Barry, like I say, you got the feeling that if he wanted to just start flying, he would take off. The only other player I covered on a regular basis who gave that impression was the young Carlos Beltran.

Larkin, because he played shortstop, was probably even more amazing. Whatever he wanted. Make amazing defensive plays? Check. Make every routine play? Check. Steal bases? Check. Draw walks? Check. Be a clubhouse leader? Check. Be a great interview? Check (if he felt like it). Whatever he wanted, he could do, if he was healthy, if the mood struck him. So, though I appreciate the absurdity of the premise, it just felt to me that in 1996 Barry Larkin decided he wanted to hit home runs. And he hit 33 of them, stole 36 bases, won the Gold Glove, had an even better year than he did the year before when he won the MVP. And once that was proven, he moved on and never hit more than 17 homers in a season again.

22. Ival Goodman, 1938 (30 homers)

Comment: Another Cincinnati Reds player, our third in a row. Goodman’s specialty was triples — he led the league with 18 as a rookie, then led the league with 14 his second year, then hit 12 his third year. Then, suddenly, he hit 30 home runs for the Reds — he had never hit more than 17 in a season. He would never hit more than 12 after that.

21. Brook Jacoby, 1987 (32 homers)

Comment: That was some year, 1987. It seemed to me — a semi-young Cleveland Indians fan — that Jacoby arrived in 1987. He hit .300, banged those 32 homers, walked 75 times, all as a third baseman. I was psyched. I thought the Indians had themselves an every-year All-Star. Didn’t happen, of course. Jacoby would have a couple more pretty good years, but he never hit more than 14 home runs in a season after ’87.

20. Tommy Harper, 1970 (31 homers)

Comment: Here were Harper’s home run totals in the four years leading up to 1970: 5, 7, 6, 9. Of course, those four years were smack dab in the heart of the pitcher’s era, and things did loosen up a big in 1970. Harper as player was not a big man — 5-foot-9, 165 — and his game was built around speed (he stole 73 bases in 1969). But he did have some strength, and did hit double digit homers in five other seasons. In 1970, he became only the fifth man to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases.

19. Joe Kuhel, 1940 (27 homers)

Comment: Conditions again … Kuhel had decent power, but he spent the early part of his career in the hitter’s dungeon of Griffith Stadium. He never hit more than 16 homers in a season. He came to Chicago, though, and Comiskey Field suited him better. He still hit most of his home runs on the road (15 of the 27) but at least he could hit SOME homers at home. From 1930-37, he hit a total — a TOTAL — of 13 homers at Griffith Stadium.

18. Terry Steinbach, 1996 (35 homers)

Comment: OK, this one’s strange. If someone had asked me “Was Terry Steinbach a home run hitter?” I would have said “Yeah.” I would have just instinctively put him in that catchers-with-power group, you know, Lance Parrish, Mickey Tettleton, that group. But you know what? He really wasn’t in that group. He had the huge home run season in 1996, but he never hit more than 16 home runs in any other year.

17. Adrian Beltre, 2005 (48 homers)

Comment: I’m actually a bit surprised this season didn’t rank higher on the system. Beltre has shown again this year that he does have quite a lot of power — he leads the league this year with 45 doubles and he has 28 homers — but for him to hit 48 home runs while playing half his games in Dodger Stadium, well, it’s just absurd. Only Shawn Green among Dodgers has hit more. And the 23 home runs Beltre hit at home that year ties him with Gary Sheffield in 2000 for the most any player has hit in Dodger Stadium in a season.

16. Wade Boggs, 1987 (24 homers)

Comment: Boggs hit .363/.461/.588 with 24 homers in 1987. Boggs hit .366/.476/.490 with five homers in 1988. Which was the better offensive year? According to oWAR — offensive WAR — it was extremely close but it was 1988. He led the league in runs, doubles and walks that year, and each run was worth more because scoring was down more than 1,000 runs across the American League. … Boggs only hit double digit homers in one other season, and that was with the Yankees in 1994, when he was 36 years old.

15. Willard Marshall, 1947 (36 homers)

Comment: The ball just flew out of the park for Marshall that year — especially at the Polo Grounds where he hit 25 of his 36 homers. He hit homers in three consecutive at-bats against Cincinnati in a July game, which at the time tied a National League record. He hit two homers against Pittsburgh in a June game. It was a good year. He never before and never again hit even half as many home runs in a season.

14. Tommy Holmes, 1945 (28 homers)

Comment: An easier one to explain — Holmes was a good big league player, who was playing in a war-torn league where most of the regulars were fighting in World War II. Holmes simply outclassed the league. That year he set the NL hitting streak record by hitting in 37 consecutive games, a record that would not be broken until Pete Rose did it more than 40 years later. He led the league in doubles, home runs, slugging and OPS+. He had 224 hits. And — this is almost unbelievable — he only struck out NINE TIMES all year. His 28-to-9 homer-to-strikeout ratio is by far the best in baseball history. By far. By a million miles. Nobody else in baseball history who struck out less than 10 times managed to hit 10 or more homers.

13. Hack Wilson, 1930 (56 homers)

Comment: Wilson was a terrific power hitter who led the league in homers four out of five years ending in 1930. The one year in that he did not lead the league, he hit 39 home runs which was his career high up to 1930. So that power, once he went to Chicago and played for Joe McCarthy (who he credited for rescuing his career), was very real.

Still: That 56-homer year was still shocking and out of character (as was the 191 RBIs, still the record). Wrigley Field was very good to him; he hit 33 of his homers at home. As a comparison, that is more home runs at home than Roger Maris hit in 1961.

12. Chico Fernandez, 1962 (20 homers)

Comment: Sometimes, things are hard to explain. Chico Fernandez, a light hitting shortstop from Cuba, had never hit more than six home runs in a season. And after 1962, he hit a total of two home runs. But that one year, he banged 20.

11. Tillie Walker, 1922 (37 homers)

Comment: Another context-based fluke. Tillie Walker had real power. He led the league in homers in 1918 — it just happened to be that you could lead the league in homers with 11 in 1918. He was not a big man, but he had pop, and as the game came out of Deadball, his home run totals rose. His 37 homers in 1922 was by far the most of his career (he hit 23 the year before) but he did not lead the American League in home runs (even though Ruth was injured that year and only played in 110 games). That’s because the endlessly fascinating Ken Williams hit HIS career high with 39 home runs. That was the year Williams became the first man to have 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season — nobody else would do it until Willie Mays did in 1956.

10. Barry Bonds, 2001(73 homers)

Comment: I have little doubt that if managers had actually pitched to Bonds in 2002, 2003 and 2004 he would have had more 60-plus homer seasons. As it turns out, except for 2001, Bonds never had even a 50-homer season.

In 2004, Bonds’ absurd dominance — however it was achieved — really did make a mockery of the game. He was intentionally walked 120 times. I’m willing to bet we will never see anything like that again in our lifetimes. Bonds’ at-bat-per-homer in 2001 was a comical 6.5 — and nobody, not even Bonds himself, has ever been close to that. Nobody else has even managed a homer every 7.0 at-bats. The only players in baseball history to have a homer even every 9.0 at-bats are: Bonds (four times), Mark McGwire (four times) and Babe Ruth (once).

9. Jay Bell, 1999 (38 homers)

Comment: Bell had made his bones as a perfectly fine hitting shortstop who played solid defense and played the game hard in Pittsburgh. From 1990-96, he averaged 11 homers a season, and it was pretty clear that was exactly who he was — a good-fielding shortstop who would play smart and give you 11 home runs a season. He came to Kansas City and though he pretty clearly was unhappy about it, he had his best offensive year. He mashed 21 home runs in what was then a kind of absurd home run ballpark (they had moved in the fences). It was very good for him. He signed a big money deal to play in Arizona and he muscled up and he had his massive 38 home run season in ’99. To give you an idea about the time, those 38 home runs tied him for 16th in baseball.

8. Roger Maris, 1961 (61 homers)

Comment: It has been well-reported that many Yankees fans treated Maris abominably during his home run chase in 1961. Their feeling was that Maris was having a fluke season, and a fluke season should not force the great Babe Ruth from the record books. It’s awful that Maris — a good man and a good player — had to deal with that, but ask yourself this: Would we really be any different now? The truth is that Maris WAS having a fluke season. He never hit 40 homers in any other season, and he only twice hit 30. He was a good player who had a charmed home run season (he was at least as good in 1960, but without the home runs). What if, a good player in the midst of a fluke season had broken Maris’ record? What if Jay Buhner or Ben Oglivie or Dwight Evans or Kevin McReynolds had been the one to hit 62 home runs in a completely out-of-character season? I don’t think they would have been treated quite like Maris — the Ruth connection in New York made it much more emotional in 1961 — but I also don’t think people would have liked it much.

Now, of course, it has changed. The whole home run record has changed. People despise Bonds enough that if someone like Jose Bautista or Dan Uggla came along and hit 74 homers, well, there would be ugly suspicions because that’s the time we live in. But, in the end, most people probably would be happy to get Bonds out of there.

7. Wally Moses, 1937 (25 homers)

Comment: Moses was a small and fast outfielder (he stole 56 bases at age 32) and he stung the ball for extra bases — he led the league in doubles and triples in two separate years during World War II. But the 25 homers was one of the all-time flukes. He never before and never again again hit double digit homers.

6. Bert Campaneris, 1970 (22 homers)

Comment: He hit two homers in 1969. He hit five homers in 1971. That more or less describes his career. Where that 22 homer season in the middle came from … nobody knows. And you have to understand that up that before Campy, only 12 shortstops in baseball history had hit more than 20 home runs in a season.* So it was quite the thing, and still inexplicable. His next-best home run season was eight.

*In case you are wondering: 33 different shortstops have done it since. Cal Ripken did it 12 times.

5. Jose Bautista, 2010 (49 homers and counting)

Comment: The system actually ranks Bautista’s season No. 1, but for reasons I explain in my other story, I don’t think it’s fair to put him at No. 1 just yet. We have to see how his career progresses from here. I think it IS fair to say that no home run season — not even the Top 4 flukes — has ever come from out of the blue quite like this one.

4. Ned Williamson, 1884 (27 homers)

Comment: Well, 1884 is undoubtedly the flukiest home run season ever. Or anyway, it is in Chicago. Bill James sent me his own list of the 10 flukiest home run seasons, and four of the Top 10 played on the Chicago Cubs in 1884 (Fred Pfeiffer, Cap Anson and Abner Dalrymple joined Williamson). I left the other three off for reasons that will become clear, but I’ll include Williamson because — you probably know this — his 27 home runs was the official record in baseball until Babe Ruth broke it by hitting 29 for the Red Sox in 1919. Ruth then obliterated the record with 54 in 1920.

Williamson became the first player to hit three homers in a game in 1884 — and three other players on his team did it that same year. But it was all a farce. Williamson (along with Pfeiffer, Anson and Dalrymple) all played for the Chicago Cubs, who played that year in Lakefront Park. Right field was only 200 or so feet away. It was so close that up to 1884, any ball hit over that fence was called a ground rule double. But that year, Anson decided that everything hit over the fence would be considered a home run. And Anson, as we know, had the power to make up his own rules then — hell, he was as responsible as anyone for keeping African Americans out of professional baseball.* So, for that one year, balls that went over the fence were home runs. The Cubs hit three times more home runs than any other team in the league, and Williamson set a record that would take 35 years to break. The Cubs moved to West Side Park the next year.

*Though, in some ways, I think Anson has gotten too much blame for the banning of black players. Yes, Anson was a virulent racist who spoke loudest. But America at that time was unlikely to accept black players in the Major Leagues. If it hadn’t been Anson, it almost certainly would have been someone else.

3. Luis Gonzalez, 2001 (57 homers)

Comment: Of the 25 players who have hit 50 homers in a season, only four did not hit at least 40 in another year. Two have already been mentioned — Roger Maris and Hack Wilson, who topped out at 39 in their next-best season.

Then there’s Luis Gonzalez. Before he turned 30, his career high was 15. Then, he hit 23 for the Tigers in 1998 and he was traded to Arizona for Karim Garcia. Yes, Karim Garcia. His next three years, he would hit 26 homers, 31 homers (his second highest total) and finally 57 homers in that remarkable 2001 season when the Diamondbacks won the World Series. After that, it’s like he went into the cool down pool — he hit 28 homers, 26 homers, 17 homers, his super powers were wearing down. People have for some time now whispered about Gonzalez and a connection to steroids — whispers that Gonzalez has angrily denied. There’s no stopping people from believing what they will believe*, but Gonzalez was a class act as a player, and while this is a hackneyed phrase that has lost its meaning, well, there is no proof that he used performance enhancing drugs.

*On Twitter, someone sent me a message about Jim Thome saying something along the lines of: “I cannot wait for the day when this fraud is exposed as a steroid user.” I can’t help but feel sad for that kind of person. I don’t know, can’t know, if Thome or anyone else used steroids. I’ve never seen a steroid needle. But to root for one of the game’s great people to be exposed — to basically want to throw a party for a wonderful player’s downfall — well, I don’t see what joy sports can bring to you if you think like that.

2. Brady Anderson, 1995 (50 homers)

Comment: The Luis Gonzalez comment is even more true here. Anderson never hit more than 24 homers in any other season. It should be said, though, that Anderson had legitimate power. He hit double digit home runs for nine straight years, and averaged more than 30 doubles a season over that time. He hit the ball hard. But the 50 homers, yeah, that does stand out.

Here’s an odd thing I didn’t know about that season: Brady Anderson actually hit 31 of those 50 home runs AWAY from home. He hit 10 of those homers in 12 games in Kansas City and Texas.

1. Davey Johnson, 1973 (43 homers)

Comment: Put it this way — in 1973, Johnson hit 26 of his 43 home runs in Atlanta, the launching pad, that probably doesn’t surprise you. That year, the Braves became the first team to have three players hit 40 home runs in a season — Johnson (43), Darrell Evans (41) and Hank Aaron (40). The Braves hit 118 home runs at home.

But this might surprise you: Those 17 home runs he hit on the road were more home runs than he hit in any other FULL SEASON, excepting 1971 when he hit 18.

Johnson’s 43 homers were the most ever hit by a second baseman, and believe it or not that is still true. Only three second basemen have ever hit 40 homers. Ryne Sandberg hit exactly 40. Rogers Hornsby hit 42. Johnson hit 43. For some reason, I just always thought Jeff Kent had done it — but he topped out at 37. Johnson’s 1973 is is the most bizarre home run season in baseball history, I think.

But then everything about Davey’s baseball career is kind of bizarre. Look at his managing career. He managed one of the best teams in baseball history, the 1986 Mets, led them to 100 wins against in 1988, and he was shoved out just a little more than a year after that. He went to Cincinnati where I covered him — he was very kind to me — and led the Reds to back-to-back first places (one of those was in the strike year of ’94) and the NL Championship Series. He was shoved out. He went to Baltimore and guided the Orioles to a 98 win season. He was shoved out — resigned the day he was named A.L. Manager of the Year. He went to Los Angeles, the Dodgers had a losing season (the first for Davey) and then he guided the Dodgers to rebound year where they won 86 games. And he was shoved out again.

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By In Stuff

Taking nominations …

With the awesome SI cover this week. I’m taking nominations for the best SI cover ever. We’ll post the winners. It will be great!

Drop your nominations in the comments section below.

(I should have said this at the top — swimsuit covers are not eligible).

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