Sunday, December 17, 2006

Book review #9

You know Babe Ruth and Gehrig and Murderers Row....
The Whiz Kids, the Cardinals and the 69 O's....
But do you recall, the worst baseball team of all?

Cleveland's 1899 Spiders,
played some lousy baseball games
And if you ever saw them
You would hide your face in shame

All of the local papers
Used to like and them call them names
Misfits, Orphans and Forsakens
Were some of the most tame

OK, enough attempts at rewriting the Rudolph lyrics. If you want to read good writing about a really bad, bad team, it is a moral imperative that you pick up a copy of Thomas Hetrick's Misfits!: Baseball's Worst Team Ever.

Hetrick's book follows the 1899 season where the Spiders were on the wrong side of a baseball syndicate formed by the Robison brothers. The Robisons were owners of both the St. Louis and Cleveland franchises. Following the 1898 season, the Robisons moved the majority of the talented players from Cleveland to St. Louis and put the lesser players with the Spiders.

The Spiders finished with a 20-134 record, 84 games out of first place and 35 behind the next closest team in the standings. The St. Louis Perfectos thwarted the syndicate plan by finishing 5th in the league.

A season full of hapless ballplayers struggling through game after game could be taken lightly. The Keystone Kop nature of their play would be easy to mock. For the most part, though, Hetrick takes the high road and applauds the valiant efforts, futile as they may have been, that the Spiders made.

Besides its coverage of the worst major league team in history, Misfits! also provides insight into the conditions, among them the syndicate ownerships in the league, that led to the formation of the American League two years later.

This is a splendid book that belongs in any baseball fans library. It was originally printed by McFarland Press and copies of this clothbound edition can be costly. Hetrick, however, has started his own publishing company, Pocol Press, and has reprinted the book in softcover.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Are strikeouts overrated?

I have to take some time away to fully assimilate the in-depth analysis of Cal Ripken's Hall-worthiness my compatriot provided yesterday. While I do that I wanted to share some findings. I realized that the Kansas City Royals strikeout leader last season was Jimmy Gobble. He K'ed an incredible 80 (EIGHTY!!!!) batters last season.

Surprising, to me, is that six teams in non-labor stoppage seasons since 1990 have done the same thing:

2003 Cincinnati Reds led by Paul Wilson's 93
2000 Anaheim Angels (Scott Schoeneweis 78)
1997 Oakland Athletics (Steve Karsay 92)
1996 Oakland Athletics (Carlos Reyes 78)
1993 St. Louis Cardinals (Bob Tewksbury 97)
1992 Detroit Tigers (Frank Tanana 91)

Here are those respective teams' winning percentages starting with the Royals of last season and following chronologically: .383,.426,.506,.401,.481,.537,.463.

You'll also note that none of the above pitchers had much success in the following seasons.

There are two reasons that a team doesn't have a guy strike out one hundred batters. Either they don't have pitchers good or healthy enough to throw enough innings to accumulate 100 K's or they don't have someone with enough talent, either in power or command, to get that many. Or both.

For a team to succeed, they need to have a strikeout guy or at least someone with enough innings to get the opportunity. Look at what it took to get to the postseason for these teams:

1992 Tigers: It took fourteen years for the Tigers to make the postseason after their strikeout dearth. Needless to say everyone from the 1992 Tigers is long gone. The Tigers young pitching is what many people feel is what carried them to the playoffs this season. Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander struck out 100+ at just age 23 while Nate Robertson got his hundred at age 28. Ancient wonder Kenny Rogers fell one short and young ace reliever Joel Zumaya missed by three.

1993 Cardinals: Donovan Osborne struck out 100 the year before and would not again until 1996, the first year the Cardinals reached the playoffs after the 1993 strikeout dearth. He would be joined by homegrown product Alan Benes who struck out 100 in his first full season with the team. His brother Andy and Todd Stottlemyre, both acquired during the pre-season also joined the hundred strikeout ranks giving them four pitchers in all.

1996 and 1997 Athletics: In 1999, the A's narrowly missed the playoffs. They had developed a pitcher in the minors by the name of Tim Hudson who led the team in strikeouts with 132 in his first major league season. The A's also got 100 from Gil Heredia, a fellow who had never had an opportunity to be a full-time starter until 1999 at age 33. The A's acquired Kevin Appier from the Royals to help make the playoff push. In 2000, all three struck out 100 as the A's reached the playoffs.

2000 Angels: Kevin Appier played a part in the quickest turnaround of this group of teams. The Angels acquired him from the Mets for Mo Vaughn before the 2002 season. Appier joined longtime Angels pitchers Ramon Ortiz and Jarrod Washburn in striking out 100. To this day I look at the 2002 Angels and wonder how the hell they became World Champions that season.

2003 Reds: They still suck. But they have Homer Bailey coming up. They have Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. They might have some success.

2006 Royals: Gil Meche, Royal Savior. Everyone else on this list developed at least one pitcher who became an anchor of the staff. Who will that be on the Royals? Luke Hochevar?

Just some findings, no serious analysis. Take from it what you will.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What name rhymes with shoo-in?


If I may quote Marvel scribe Stan Lee in the form of cigar chomping Nick Fury, without his Howling Commandos, "Nuff said."

That was easier than bullseyeing womp rats in my T-16 back home.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Seventh Ring of Baseball Hell?

Here are the stats of two players as they played from the ages of 29-35:

Player 1:
Batting average greater than 0.296 every year
Averaged 86 runs per year
Averaged 95 RBI per year
Averaged 37 doubles per year
Averaged 17 home runs per year
Had two seasons of slugging over 0.500
Had 61 SBs
Seven-time all-star

Player 2:
Batting average greater than 0.298 every year
Averaged 95 runs per year
Averaged 118 RBI per year
Averaged 38 doubles per year
Averaged 29 HRs per year
Every season a slugging over 0.500
Had 105 SBs
Four-time all-star
Hit for the cycle
Member of 30/30 club

Player one is a hall of famer - Kirby Puckett. Player two is eligible for the first time this year, and I doubt he gets the requisite 5% to stay on the ballot - Dante Bichette. Why? He has two major prejudices working against him - playing in Colorado, and not putting up large career numbers. I would argue that he receive serious consideration though, for like Puckett, both of these things were beyond his control.

The key part of the above numbers are toward the end for both players - number of all-star selections. Puckett was a popular player, with a winning smile and the love of the major media. Bichette was a player that was aided and abetted to his numbers like a common criminal in the rarefied air of Denver. Did Kirby get points taken away for playing in a hitter's park with no weather effects (like snow during April)? No - because people liked him. Dante just faded into the background like a 13-year-old at his first junior high dance.

If you want another example of the bias - look at the MVP voting. Only four times in those years did Bichette get votes for the MVP - he did finish 2nd once, but finished 14th, 20th and 21st the other times. Puckett got MVP votes five times, finishing 2nd once, 7th three times, and 21st once. Is there really that big of a difference in their numbers to warrant that big of a difference in perception of value? Yes, defense plays a part on Puckett's value - but is it really that big of a part? Puckett had 58.4 fielding win shares for his career. Bichette had 34.1 for a difference of 24 win shares or 8 wins over 12 full years for both - less than a win per year.

If I may put words in the voter's mouths - Bichette's numbers were not impressive because he was SUPPOSED to put up huge numbers in Colorado, therefore it didn't mean anything. Strike one against Bichette.

Strike two is circumstance. Puckett got points for ending his career prematurely - injuries beyond his control. Same with Sandy Koufax. Hank Greenberg (and others) got points for not being able to play during wars. Members of the Negro Leagues deservedly got points because of the social rules which prohibited black players in the Major Leagues until Jackie Robinson busted through like a comet. What happens when you don't get a chance to start regularly until you're 29? Is that a player's fault?

Who did Puckett replace in the Twins outfield in 1984? Darrell Brown. Who was in front of Dante his first three years with California? Devon White. Chili Davis. Tony Armas. Claudell Washington. Dave Winfield. All multi-year veterans (or hot prospects) that GMs and managers have always played before young, unheralded players. It's the way of baseball. Like an injury, is that the fault of a player?

Bichette proved that given the chance he could put up Baseball Hall of Fame numbers. Unfortunately for him, he did it in a place that doesn't get any respect (Colorado) and at an age when he didn't get a chance to continue earning respect (29-35). Unfortunately, that's strike three, and he won't get another at-bat for the Hall.

The Baines of our existence

For the first time in its 67 year history, the Baseball Hall of Fame is coping with the concept of player specialization and the criteria to be applied when assessing their qualifications to Hall of Fame induction. Last year Bruce Sutter became the first pitcher who was used exclusively in relief to be admitted to the Hall’s ranks. This season, another position takes center stage as a bevy of players who were designated hitters now are becoming eligible for induction.

The designated hitter (DH) is a very modern baseball creation. It was first instituted in the American League in 1973 in an effort to increase offensive output and thus, fan interest. By replacing the pitcher, usually the weakest hitting member of the lineup, with a player with greater offensive talent, fans would be able to see more runs score and theoretically have someone with a good chance of making a hit in every spot of the lineup. Purists of the game have argued that the designated hitter takes away the symmetry of the game. Before the DH, all nine players in the field also had a chance to bat. If one struggled in one facet of the game they could make up for it when they took the field or came to bat. There have been other arguments against the DH (encouraging beanball wars, causing injury to pitchers by having them pitch longer than they normally would since they cannot be removed for a pinch hitter) but there is no proof that these arguments hold water.

Although there continues to be those who would like the designated hitter to be eliminated, the position has remained for over thirty years and the DH was brought to the National League in 1997 upon the addition of interleague play. With the DH a permanent fixture of the baseball scene, it would be expected that those who perform well in the role would be accepted for their successes. Unfortunately this has not been true. The baseball writer community has seen fit to slight designated hitters as one-dimensional. This has been borne out in the Most Valuable Player voting and looks as if it will be a factor in the Hall of Fame voting as well.

This is unfortunate as there a number of great players who are on the Hall of Fame ballot who served significant time as a designated hitter. Among the players who were designated hitters, Harold Baines is the premiere candidate. No one in baseball history has played more games as a designated hitter than Baines’ 1652.

Baines falls a tad short on the numbers that are considered “automatic” induction into the Hall of Fame. He had 2866 hits, less than five percent off the magic 3000 mark. He had a career .289 batting average. His 386 home runs are impressive but not so much so as if he had added another fourteen for an even four hundred. But longevity is key to becoming a member of the Hall of Fame. Fully one-third of the players who have played 20 season in major league baseball are in the Hall of Fame. Voters are impressed by the accumulation of counting stats and the best way to achieve that is by playing a long time. Baines accumulated some impressive totals during his 22 seasons as a big leaguer.

Every Hall of Fame eligible player who has hit 350 homers, 450 doubles and 1000 walks is in the Hall of Fame with the exception of Dwight Evans and Harold Baines. Those who are in are Aaron, Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Williams, Reggie Jackson, Foxx, Kaline, Murray, Musial, Ott, Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson and Winfield. His Win Share total of 307 places him among the top 200 players of all-time.

Some of those players mentioned above played as a designated hitter (Murray, Jackson and Yastrzemski). But among Hall of Famers, only Paul Molitor has played more than 1000 games as a designated hitter. He did not become a full-time designated hitter until he had spent considerable time as a third baseman and an outfielder. It is likely that despite Baines’ totals, he will be frowned upon because of his role as a designated hitter. With any luck, though, voters will begin to view these “specialist” roles with an open mind and Baines will find his way into the Hall of Fame.