Monday, June 29, 2009

Pitching Debuts

For the fourth time this season yesterday, the Brewers faced an opposing pitcher making his major league debut. And, for the fourth time this season yesterday, the Brewers lost a game in which they were facing a pitcher making his major league debut.

Called up only a couple of days ago, Ryan Sadowski pitched a strong, six-inning, four-hit game in his debut, leaving the game only after being hit in the leg by a Ryan Braun drive up the middle. The Giants went on to win the game 7-0 and Sadowski's pitching line earned him a game score of 63. It was a solid performance, and one that Sadowski should be very proud of. It should be interesting to see how his career progresses from here after that start.

Now, Sadowski's performance isn't likely to be anything that I'll be telling my kids about in 20 years, but he got me wondering: what does a solid first game mean, career-wise? What was the best ever major-league debut, and who pitched it? Do all Hall of Famers come out strong, or are there some clunkers in there too? We tend to make a big deal about big debuts, so I thought it might be nice to look a little deeper into it.

Using the Play Index over at Baseball-Reference - still one of the best tools on the internet - I was able to learn that the best ever start in a major league debut belonged to Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. On July 10, 1960, Marichal, the strikeout leader in the Pacific Coast League, was called up from Tacoma to join the big club. He made his debut a little over a week later, on July 19. From the game story the next day:
"The 5-10 right-hander who was the strikeout king of the Pacific Coast League until he was recalled from Tacoma with an 11-5 record, had a perfect game for 6 1-3 innings Tuesday night for San Francisco. An error by Eddie Bressoud let the Phils' Tony Taylor reach base.

Marichal lost his no-hit bid when pinch hitter Clay Carlymple singled with two out in the eighth. The newcomer struck out 12, only three short of the record that the Dodgers' Karl Spooner set in his first start in 1954.

No other National League pitcher in modern days, since 1900, has thrown a one-hitter in his first start. Charles Jones of Cincinnati pitched a no-hitter in his major league debut in 1884. Two American Leaguers have broken in with one-hitters, Addie Joss of Cleveland and Mike Fornieles of Washington."
Marichal's line on the night looked like this: 9 IP, 1 hit, 1 walk, 12 strikeouts, and no runs, for a game score of 96. As a pitcher, you just can't ask for more than that in your debut. The fact that it was a Hall of Famer who was able to do it in his debut seems almost accidental. The next best debut belongs to the Karl Spooner mentioned above, who struck out 15 but walked 3 and gave up 3 hits in his first start for a game score of 93. Milwaukee's Steve Woodard had the third best debut of all time in 1997 with a game score of 91, while Pedro Astacio's debut game score of 87 was the 6th best ever.

To find the next certain Hall of Famer on the list, you have to drop all the way down to John Smoltz, whose debut earned a game score of 71 (tied for 90th best debut ever). There are a few other names between Smoltz and Marichal, including Luis Tiant, JR Richard, and Josh Beckett, but none of them are Hall of Famers and, outside of Tiant's game score of 86, none of them had substantially better games than Smoltz.

On the flip side, there are countless pitchers with terrible debuts. Pitchers whose names will forever be forgotten. But there are also plenty of Hall of Famers in that camp. Using the Play Index again, this time to get low game scores in major league debuts, there's one name that jumps out in particular: the recently (though, unofficially) retired Tom Glavine.

On August 17, 1987, Glavine made his first start as a Brave, but could not get out of the 4th inning. By the time they pulled him, Glavine had given up 10 hits, 5 walks, and 6 runs while striking out only 1 for a middling game score of 13. From the game story the next day:
"Tom Glavine, the 21-year-old Braves starter, was making his major-league debut. The rookie from Boston was a high school hockey star and was drafted in the fourth round in 1984 by the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL.

Monday night, Glavine must have felt like he was killing a perpetual two-man power play. Baseballs were whizzing past him to the outfield like slap shots from the point.

Before the first inning was over, the Astros had put five runners on base and scored twice. By the time, Glavine was knocked out in the fourth inning, he had faced 35 batters. Fifteen had reached - 10 on hits and five on walks - and the Astros had built a 6-0 lead for [Mike] Scott."

Of course, that one game was not the best example of what Tom Glavine could do. He would, after all, go on to make 681 more starts and win 305 of them. There were no doubt a few more clunkers in those 20+ years of starts, but they were the exception. In the end, Glavine's Hall of Fame talent would shine through.

That's just how it is when looking at any given day. Baseball is such a fickle sport that, depending on the weather or the travel or the makeup of the lineup or one of a dozen other possible factors, a player can go from brilliant to terrible in just one start. We do a disservice, then, to the players when we put so much emphasis on this one start or that one start. A strong debut could easily show the player to be the next Juan Marichal, but it could also mean they're the next Pedro Astacio. Conversely, the weak debut could show signs of them being either the next Jeff Mutis or Tom Glavine. The only way to know for sure is to let them play a few more games (or even a whole career) and see what happens. Debuts may be nice to get excited about, but they just don't mean enough in the long run. Instead, we need to focus on the player as a whole and determine what they bring most to the table.

Still, it's hard not to get excited when someone dazzles in their first start, even if we already know that it doesn't necessarily mean anything. The 13,000 people who were at Marichal's debut in 1960 probably still talk about it to this very day. There were over 42,000 people at Sadowski's big league debut yesterday and, while it's unlikely that we witnessed the birth of a star, history shows us that you never really know.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pitching Twice Your Age

Yesterday, Bill over at The Daily Something discussed Tuesday night's matchup between the 46-year old Jamie Moyer and the 23-year old David Price. The most interesting aspect of the game to Bill seemed to be the fact that Moyer is literally twice Price's age, at least when you're looking at seasonal ages. This is what Bill had to say:
"I don't think baseball-reference or retrosheet can do this yet (I could be wrong), but I'd really like to know how often one starting pitcher in a game has been twice the (seasonal) age of the opposing starting pitcher. I bet you could find a bunch of them just by looking at the last few years of the likes of Moyer, Ryan and Johnson and the first few of Feller and Newhouser. But anyway...I'd like to know, but not enough to actually go looking."
Well, if there's one thing I like to do, it's check out random queries like that, so I thought I'd give it a try. Using the games found in the Retrosheet database (all 100,000+ of them), I found the seasonal age of each game's two starting pitchers and found the difference in the two pitchers' ages. From there, it's plenty simple to find the games where one starting pitcher was at least twice the age of the other starting pitcher.

As of the end of the 2008 season (so Tuesday's game between Moyer and Price isn't counted here), there have been only 86 games in the Retrosheet era where one pitcher was twice the other's age. Not surprisingly, the list is dominated by a few men (after all, it's not like there are dozens of 40-year old pitchers in the league every year), but none more so than Phil Niekro. Of the 86 games, the elder Niekro brother is responsible for 25 of them. Nolan Ryan appears on the list next most often, with 11 games.

The games with the biggest difference in ages between the two pitchers are:
Largest Difference in Age Between Two Pitchers
(Older Pitcher at Least Twice the Age of Younger Pitcher)

Date......Older Pitcher..Seas Age..Younger Pitcher...Seas Age..Difference
9/25/65...Satchel Paige.....58.....Bill Monbouquette....28.........30
9/8/85....Phil Niekro.......46.....Jose Rijo............20.........26*
5/9/86....Phil Niekro.......47.....Joel Davis...........21.........26*
5/3/86....Phil Niekro.......47.....Joel Davis...........21.........26*
5/30/86...Phil Niekro.......47.....Juan Nieves..........21.........26*
6/25/65...Warren Spahn......44.....Larry Dierker........18.........26*

* Sorted by difference in actual age, largest to smallest

I should have guessed that the Satchel Paige game would sit at the top of the list. When the oldest pitcher to ever pitch in a game is 58 years old, then it's to be expected that he would account for the largest difference in age between starting pitchers. Beyond that game, which is really a unique event and outside of the standard flow of the season, the September game between Phil Niekro and Jose Rijo becomes the game with the biggest age difference between starters.

The game did not go as you might expect, with a young phenom fireballer facing the ancient knuckler. Rijo could not get out of the 2nd inning, giving up 6 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks (though he did strikeout 3 of the 5 batters that he retired). Niekro, on the other hand, went six full innings before being taken out in the 7th after walking the leadoff hitter. Overall, he gave up 4 earned runs on 4 hits and 5 walks (with 6 strikeouts thrown in there). Niekro's Yankees beat Rijo's A's 9-6 that night.

The next six spots on the list have an age difference of 25 years; they all belong to Phil Niekro. You can see the full list of the games here (only the games shown above are sorted by difference in actual age).

And, just to finish off the topic, here is the full list of pitchers who show up on the list more than once. As I said before, it's pretty top-heavy with the same names. The Phil Niekro number is pretty incredible, but I also like how his brother Joe shows up a few times too. What an interesting pair of brothers.
Phil Niekro......25
Nolan Ryan.......11
Warren Spahn......7
Jamie Moyer.......5
Joe Niekro........4
Charlie Hough.....4
Gaylord Perry.....4
Tommy John........3
Roger Clemens.....3
Randy Johnson.....3
Murry Dickson.....3
David Wells.......2
Steve Carlton.....2
One last thing: this list only shows those pitchers who were twice the age or older of their opponent. There are a number of other games where one pitcher was 20 or 21 or even 22 years older than his opponent but wouldn't show up on this list because the opponent was, for example, 24 years old. The first example of that doesn't show up until you get down to the 23-year age differences (where, once again, it's a 48-year old Phil Niekro facing a 25-year old Joe Johnson).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The "Wild Card" DH

Looking through some of my older preview guides, I came across this interesting article. Written by Phil Collier, the "new president of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America", in the 1980 Street & Smith's preview guide, the article explores a few of the "new ideas" that were being tossed around baseball at the time, including the possibility of re-aligning the divisions along a geographical line to reduce travel costs and the idea, championed by Padres owner Ray Kroc, of opening the season with a series in Japan. The main focus of the article, however, was on a new idea to extend the seven-year-old DH rule:
"The next innovation in baseball may be the brainchild of the commissioner of the sport, Bowie Kuhn.

The American League, unhappy that the designated hitter rule is employed only every other year in the World Seris, is pressuring the National League to adopt the DH. The NL has consistently voted against it.

However, Kuhn is hopeful the NL might look favorably on his proposal for a 'wild card' DH. Here's how it would work:

A 'wild card' DH could be substituted for any hitter in the lineup and could be used three or four times a game, at the manager's choosing."
That's right: Bowie Kuhn was proposing, effectively, that the NL allow teams to use a pinch-hitter whenever they wanted without removing that pinch-hitter from the game. The pinch-hitter, then, could be used at only the most opportune points in the game and could be used to substitute for any batter in the lineup.

Imagine that: two outs in the 2nd inning, bases empty, the pitcher coming up - let him bat for himself. But one out in the third and your left-handed hitting number-seven hitter coming to bat with two on, no outs against a lefty pitcher? Send in the right-handed DH!

Of course, it's a ludicrous suggestion. Giving each team that much power would alter the flow of the game much more drastically than taking only the pitcher's bat out of the lineup. Offense would most certainly increase, but to what levels? They had their ideas at the time:
"Kuhn's plan would open up the sport and increase run production, something the commissioner seems to favor.

The 'wild card' would prolong the careers of some of the National League's older hitters, such as Willie McCovey, for example, and doubtless would have the support of the Major League Players Association.
Under Kuhn's 'wild card' DH proposal, it is conceivable that a 'wild card' might emerge to threaten the major league record Hack Wilson set in 1930 when he drove in 190 runs."
I don't know if Hack Wilson's record would be easily challenged even in this very pro-hitter setting (stats guys better than me might need to take up that challenge), but I have no doubt that the balance would shift even more than it is today. I can't imagine the pontificating that the anti-DH crowd would do with such a rule in place, though. If you think that their railing against the current DH setup is something...

Thankfully, the idea never took hold. The owners voted on expanding the DH to the National League in August 1980 (no word on what the specific details were), but it was soundly defeated, with only the Braves, Mets, Cardinals and Padres voting in favor of the expansion. It's a fascinating "what-if" scenario, though.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Losing the No-Hitter

Over this past weekend, I got an email from my brother asking me to look into something for him. The question was interesting - as were the results - so I figured I'd share them all here. First the email:
"I'm just about finished with Jane Leavy's excellent biography of Sandy Koufax. In it she mentions in passing that Koufax took no-hitters into the 7th inning 9 times - not including his 4 no-hitters. I'm wondering if anyone else ever went into the 7th inning with a no-hitter 13 times in their career. Nolan Ryan did it at least 7 times. Do you think you can use your impressive research skills to find this answer? I wouldn't even know how to begin to research this."
If what the biography claimed was true and Koufax did indeed take nine different no-hitters into the 7th inning before giving up a hit (on top of his 4 full-game no-hitters), then that's pretty impressive, especially considering Koufax's short career and his even shorter peak. But was the biography right? And, as my brother asked, was there anyone who ever did it more?

I assumed that a list like this would be around somewhere but, even after asking the guys on the SABR mailing list, I wasn't able to find it. So I decided to do the research myself, using the Retrosheet database. This would limit the results to games since 1954, but it would have to do. This is what I found.

Koufax did take no-hitters into the 7th inning or beyond 6 different times before giving up a hit (not the 9 times the book claimed). He did not pitch his first game of the like until 1961, when he pitched three. With his four no-hitters, that means that he had 10 different games in his career where he pitched at least 6 innings of no-hit ball. This puts him 3rd on the list (since 1954, at least).

The two ahead of him are not at all surprising. Number two is Randy Johnson with 11 near no-hitters, two of which were broken up in the 9th, and two no-hitters, one of which was a perfect game. The number one pitcher on the list is, of course, Nolan Ryan. Ryan's record is astounding, though. Besides his seven no-hitters, he also had 24(!) no-hitters brought into the 7th before being broken up. Of those 24, a full 5 of them were broken up in the 9th inning (all with 1 out). Eleven others were broken up in the 8th inning.

The top 10 looks like this (see the full list here):
Player.........Near NH..Full NH..Total
Nolan Ryan.......24.......7.......31
Randy Johnson....11.......2.......13
Sandy Koufax.....6........4.......10
Don Sutton.......8........0........8
Tom Seaver.......7........1........8
Ken Holtzman.....6........2........8
Dean Chance......7........1........8
Roger Clemens....7........0........7
Gaylord Perry....6........1........7
Sam Jones........
David Cone.......
Dave Stieb.......
There are also an additional 7 pitchers (including Steve Carlton, Early Wynn, Luis Tiant, Tim Wakefield, and Pedro Martinez) who pitched into the 7th inning six different times before giving up their first hit.

An interesting note: of Dave Stieb's six "near no-hitters", four of them were broken up in the 9th inning (and three of them were with two outs in the 9th). Besides Ryan and Stieb, the only other pitchers to lose a no-hitter in the 9th inning more than twice are Pedro Martinez and Tom Seaver, who each did it three times (Pedro actually lost one of his in the 10th inning). That's some illustrious company. Just think how differently we would view Dave Stieb if he had gotten that final out in those three games...

That's about all I could find. Koufax's total is plenty impressive, despite the author getting the details wrong. Considering he pitched those 10 games in only six years and 223 games, it's a big number, essentially doing it twice a year. Ryan's number is just preposterous, though. I wish I could see the totals for the pre-Retrosheet era. I highly doubt that Ryan's record would be bested, but it would be nice to see how many times Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson took no-hitters into the 7th. Still, it's a pretty good list to have.

(EDIT: Imagine that! It looks like this is pretty timely, considering Barry Zito carried a no-hitter into the 7th inning yesterday before giving up a home run to Andruw Jones. Oh, and the numbers above should be accurate through 2008. If Randy Johnson, for example, has added to his total this year, it wouldn't be reflected.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Opening Tropicana Field

Earlier this week, Craig over at Circling the Bases (and of ShysterBall fame) linked to a study that set out to determine the potential costs of modernizing Tropicana Field. The results showed that it would cost close to $500 million to completely revamp the stadium and, even then, with its retractable roof and upgraded seating, the Trop would still "remain a subpar facility with substantial design flaws." It's a shocking finding for a stadium less than 20 years old, and Craig took them to task over it:
"According to the consultant's report, the seats are too narrow and are often facing the wrong direction, views of the field are obstructed throughout the stadium, the concourse is too narrow and dead-ends, which interrupts traffic flow and prevents fan socializing/drinking in common areas, the press box sits where club seats should live, there aren't enough bathrooms, there isn't enough storage, and the design of the place makes life hard for the cleaning crews. All of that before even mentioning the stupid catwalks.

What kills me in all of this is that the Trop is not some artifact of the late industrial revolution when people were small and discomfort was an accepted part of life. It was designed and built in the mid-to-late 80s. I realize that was the stone age as far as ballparks are concerned, but I'm pretty sure that basic things like ergonomics and the benefit of good sight lines had been discovered by then. What's more, unlike the long gone but not-lamented multiuse stadiums of the 60s and 70s, the Trop -- while capable of being used for other events -- was built with baseball specifically in mind and thus didn't need to make nearly as many compromises in quality and comfort that it did. Simply put, there's just no excuse for the disgrace to baseball that is that park."
It's a fair comment and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the same thing when I heard the results. So it made me wonder, what was the reception like for Tropicana Field when it opened? Did people see these same faults that are so apparent to us today, or did they see only the features, the perks?

The park officially opened on February 28, 1990, as the Florida Suncoast Dome. The $110 million facility was a long time in coming, with the initial conversations about the park having started in 1977. Using the Google News Archive, I was able to find the St. Petersburg Times issue from the day of the opening, including the "special section" that was inserted in the paper. You can find the start of the section here (it's best viewed in the "Fit to Height" mode). The cover of the section (page 44 of the newspaper) says, fittingly, "It's OPEN!"

The special section is filled with advertising and articles about the construction and potential uses for the stadium. The articles are all very optimistic, though the excitement is understandably tempered by the fact that this baseball stadium was opening without a baseball team. Because of that, the stadium builders had prioritized other sports during construction and the dome was not actually baseball-ready when it opened. From the "Stadium is Pitched for its Versatility":
"There is a certain irony in that $110-million has been spent on the Florida Suncoast Dome to outfit it for just about every sport except the one for which it is designed: baseball.

But there is a reason behind that apparent madness: No baseball team is available."
Among the other sports that the stadium was hoping to attract while the city waited for a major league ball club was NCAA basketball (including purchasing an NCAA-approved court and installing appropriate lockers) and NHL hockey. In fact, Tampa did succeed in attracting an NHL franchise before baseball showed up. The Tampa Bay Lightning played in the dome from 1993 to 1996. The irony in that is that hockey was the sport that seemed least likely:
"Although there has been talk of a National Hockey League franchise in the dome, [Bob] Rose said that is unlikely in the near future.

'I think the stadium, which is truly one of the most versatile in the country, is not fully equipped for ice events,' Rose said. 'It is not part of the initial phase of the building. However, certainly an ice show or ice hockey can be played in the building. But there is some added expense. So I cannot say we have been aggressively pursuing hockey.'"
Still, the dome was first and foremost a baseball stadium, and the special section addressed that fact the most. Even on the dome's opening day - which is generally the day for wide-eyed hope - it did not inspire much poetry. From "Leaning Toward Practical" (no direct link; you can find it on p. 47):
"The Florida Suncoast Dome is a practical design dictated by function and economic considerations. It is not ornate, harking back to another era with adorned columns supporting classical arches. Nor is it a sandlot, a sentimental stage set for Field of Dreams or The Natural. This dome was built for Florida baseball, not the spring training variety, but for the boys of summer needing refuge from the sweltering heat."
But, as I said before, the stadium was not yet complete as a baseball field. The article "With Baseball Comes Renovations" (p. 49) did a good job in listing what still needed to be done:
"City officials like to say the Florida Suncoast Dome is a multipurpose arena. But its main purpose, the reason it was built and the reason elected officials have hung their political careers out in the breeze is for one purpose and one purpose only.

Baseball. Major League Baseball.

That is what the dome is designed for, that is what the Pinellas Sports Authority was formed to bring here and that is what most of the effort is going to go for once the building is complete."
The list of still-needed renovations was pretty substantial:
"The stadium needs about another $30-million worth of work to be ready for baseball. That money will go for:

Artificial turf....
Locker rooms. The locker rooms that have been finished so far are primarily for basketball.
Executive offices....
Luxury suites....
Stadium Club....
Centerfield scoreboard and video display. This is the monster scoreboard with bells, whistles and lights and such. The trend is to bigger and bigger boards with elaborate video potential. The SkyDome in Toronto, for example, has a video screen that is 115 feet wide and 34 feet high and produces a picture as clear as a good home television set."
So what was ready? The seating bowl and the field itself, which only raised more questions. From "The First Pitch Will Tell How It Plays" (p. 49):
"What kind of stadium will the Florida Suncoast Dome be for baseball?

It's too early to say.

Until artificial turf is purchased and installed, we won't know how fast a track it will be and how high the balls will bounce.

And until balls are flying around in the dome stratosphere, we won't know how the air conditioning affects the wind patterns.
Of the 26 parks now in use, the Florida Suncoast Dome probably compares closest to Royals Stadium in Kansas City. The architects who designed the Suncoast Dome participated in the design of the Royals' ballpark. Other parks with similar dimensions include Anaheim Stadium in California and Shea Stadium in New York."
The "unique" features of the dome were not unnoticed:
"There are some unusual features. The dome roof is sloped and is made of translucent material. Neither is expected to affect play.

The roof slopes from 225 feet high at its peak over second base to 85 feet at the centerfield wall. It was designed that way to reduce heating and cooling costs, and designers are confident balls will not bounce off it."
The two biggest quirks of Tropicana Field that we know of today are the low roof and the "rings" hanging below the roof. Both are unique to the Trop in how they play, with the rings being some of the biggest nuisances in baseball. Of course, like all stadium "quirks", the rings were originally thought to be an interesting feature of the field. If you read through the special section, you'll find more than one reference to the dome being "the largest cable-supported domed stadium in the world". There is no word on how likely it is for a batted ball to strike the rings.

As for the seats that Craig and the study complained about above:
"For the fans who will fill the 43,000 seats, the view will be good because most of the chairs face the outfield walls."
Oh, and apparently the fact that the dome was filled with mostly "armchair seats" (from the "Olympiad" series of Hussey Corp., if you were wondering) instead of aluminum benches was worth highlighting.
"During most of the planning process, aluminum benches were to make up all but 14,000 of the stadium's seats. But the city changed those plans in 1988 after Major League Baseball officials told them armchaair seats would improve their chances of attracting a team. Today, the stadium has about 4,600 aluminum bench seats and about 38,000 armchair seats."
Maybe things have changed a lot in twenty years. No one would ever consider putting 30,000 seats worth of benches in a stadium these days.

Reading through this special section, it's pretty clear that while the opening of the dome was a time for celebration and optimism, that excitement was more about the event itself and what it could mean for the St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay area in the future and not about the particular stadium itself. With a baseball team still uncertain, the practicalities of generating revenue from a $110 million project took precedence over the fine-tuning of the park. Though the stadium was "built with baseball specifically in mind", as Craig said, these issues certainly caused some compromises to be made. And, as with all domes, the focus of everybody's wonder was the structure itself. The builders had a lot of leeway when it came to all the extra amenities. Plus, when your main competition as a building are the Kingdome and the Astrodome, there isn't exactly a lot of incentive to fancy up the place. I think it's safe to say that the bar was not set very high.

It was only three short years later, though, that Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened, forever changing how a ballpark is judged. Today, with Jacobs Field and AT&T Park and PNC Park and all of the other new stadiums, Tropicana Field feels that much older and out-of-date, almost a dinosaur of the past. If the dome seemed merely "functional" and unimpressive upon its debut, then there really is no hope for it now. Hopefully, the new stadium, if and when it finally goes through, will have taken these lessons to heart. After all, Tampa, of all cities, should know what it's like to be stuck with a poorly designed stadium for decades. It'd be a shame for that to happen again.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

All-Star Roster of Video Game Stars

Thinking back on baseball growing up, I was reminded of all of the various baseball video games that were out at the time. Unlike sports games today, where a new title is released on an annual basis (think Madden NFL 10, NBA 2K9, MLB: The Show, etc.), the sports video game world back then was a little more hectic. There weren't any established companies like EA, and games seemed to come out whenever they wanted to.

What made that schedule interesting, though, was the steady stream of player endorsed games. Sure, these were generic games with generic titles (Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball, Nolan Ryan's Baseball), but they weren't trying to be the end-all, be-all of the baseball gaming world. Instead, they were hoping to sell a certain number of copies based on the player's name, and go from there, though some did try to push the envelope in their gameplay or graphics in an attempt to gain traction.

As I was thinking about these games, it occurred to me that there were probably enough different games out there with enough different endorsers to field an entire All-Star roster of video game stars. I set out to do just that, looking for endorsers from each position on the field. The only rule I set myself for this was that I was looking for games that the player endorsed as their own rather than games in which the player appeared on the cover of a perennial franchise. That rules out games like MVP Baseball or MLB 2K9. I'm only interested in the specific player-endorsed games, and the constant renewal of cover boys on these franchises just doesn't fit into that.

With that said, I present to you the:

All-Star Roster of Video Game Stars

Catcher: Mike Piazza's Strike Zone
About the Game: Mike Piazza leads off our list with his 1998 video game for the Nintendo 64. This is one of the most recent examples that we'll find, and, as such, it has a few more features that most of the other games do not. Licensed by Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Players' Association (MLBPA), the game offered players plenty of options.

The Nintendo 64 never found its way into my house, so I never really got a chance to play Mike Piazza's Strike Zone. It sounds like a pretty standard N64 baseball game of the time. More importantly, though, it represents the only instance that I could find of a catcher-endorsed video game. I guess being a good-looking Italian guy in Los Angeles had its perks when it came to endorsements like this.

First Base: Frank Thomas' Big Hurt Baseball
About the Game: This 1995 SNES game from Acclaim featured the Big Hurt and his colleagues in the Players' Association, but was not licensed by MLB. The screenshots tell me that it was a pretty good looking game for its day, but I can't really say how it played. It claims to be a sim game, which must've set it apart from most of the games of the day. It has a great name, though. "Big Hurt" has got to be one of the best nicknames of the last generation, and it was brilliant marketing to use the nickname in the title.

Second Base: Ryne Sandberg Plays Bases Loaded 3
About the Game: The Bases Loaded franchise is one of the earliest and most successful baseball franchises. Many people like me remember playing these games in the late '80s between teams like Omaha, Hawaii, and Texas and starring such luminaries as Freida, Norkus, and Oko. The first two games had generic ballplayers on the cover but, for the third one, Jaleco went all out and got Ryne Sandberg to endorse the game. It then became "Ryne Sandberg Plays Bases Loaded 3". He also endorsed the SNES version of the game with "Ryne Sandberg Plays Super Bases Loaded".

I know I said that I'm not looking to add the EA Sports-like "cover boy" players to this list, but there are two things at work here: 1) there are no other second basemen to put in Sandberg's place and 2) the situations are slightly different. With the Bases Loaded games, they weren't switching cover boys from one year to the next. Instead, they took an already established game and added Sandberg to it (and only for 2 of its 8 iterations). It's a small distinction, but a notable one.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball
About the Game: Cal was my favorite player as a kid, so you'd think that I'd have been all over this game. You'd be wrong, though. First, it came out early in the SNES run, and, in my house, we were always 3 or 4 years behind when it came to video game systems. Plus, from what I understand, the game wasn't all that good, so it was neither all that easy to find nor all that desirable in the first place. With no MLB or MLBPA licenses, the game looks to have been incredibly generic. It's no surprise that a sequel was never made.

Third Base: --none--
About the Game: This is the only positionthat I failed to find a player for. I suppose I could claim Cal Ripken Jr. as a third baseman and then use Derek Jeter Pro Baseball 2005 as my shortstop pick, but that seems to be cheating. I tried searching for games with third base stars from the 1985-1998 time period (George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, etc.), but I came up with nothing. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

Left Field: Bo Jackson Baseball
About the Game: Let's all take a minute to remember just how incredibly big Bo was for the first few years of his career. When you remember that, it makes perfect sense that he would get his own baseball game. Released for the NES in 1991, the game tried to give the player some advanced options, including different pitch types. I had never actually heard of the game before today, so I have no first hand knowledge of how it played. From what I can tell online, though, it was a little clunky, as you might expect for an original Nintendo game.

From the original packaging:
"Bo Jackson Baseball is the most complete baseball game ever available for your NES! If you've played the others, you know that some have a little of this and some of that - but never everything a real baseball fanatic needs in only one Game Pack... until now. Because Bo knows exactly what you're looking for in a baseball game."
Center Field: Ken Griffey Jr.'s Winning Run
About the Game: Probably my favorite game on this list, Griffey's Winning Run was the second of four games for the main Nintendo systems. The game was licensed by MLB (but not MLBPA) and looked pretty fantastic for a SNES game. The pitches and game play could go a little over the top, but it was usually a fun playing experience. The game came out in 1996, soon after Seattle's exciting finish to the '95 season. The name was a reference to Griffey's big play in Game 5 of the '95 ALDS.

Right Field: Reggie Jackson Baseball
Other Possibilities: Sammy Sosa High Heat Baseball 2001
About the Game: The earliest game found on this list, Reggie Jackson Baseball was released for the Sega Master System (ie, the system before the Sega Genesis) in 1988. Jackson played his last game in 1987, so one can only assume that he signed on to the game before he knew that it would be his last season and that Sega, being Nintendo's distant competitor, was looking to sign any big name to their catalog of games. The screenshots show a game very similar to other 8-bit offerings, but with better sprites. My favorite thing about this game is the title screen.

Pitcher: Roger Clemens' MVP Baseball & Nolan Ryan's Baseball
About the Game: These days, Clemens and Ryan seems to be lumped together as hard-throwing Texans who pitched well into their 40s. It's a valid comparison, but probably not one that would've been made when these two games came out. The Clemens game was released for the NES in 1991, while Ryan's game came out on the SNES in 1992. Neither game featured MLB or MLBPA licenses. They also both offered substandard playing experiences from what I've read. The two Texas hurlers do fit this list rather well, though.

Manager: Earl Weaver Baseball
Other Possibilities: Tommy LaSorda Baseball, Tony La Russa Baseball
About the Game: A very early entry into the baseball genre (it's a computer game released in 1987), Earl Weaver Baseball is still looked on with extreme fondness today, due to its incredible detail and flexibility. From the game information page linked above:
"Earl Weaver Baseball...was the first baseball game released on any gaming platform to feature full statistics tracking and player customization abilities. You can edit existing players' statistics, create new players, or trade between teams. Team attributes and entire leagues can be edited, and stadiums modified or created from scratch with unique characteristics.
[The game's] graphics are severely outdated, but the game has one of the most flexible baseball game engines available on any gaming platform. Thanks to the customization options, the game has depth comparable to modern baseball games. After more than 15 years, and in an age of nearly photo-realistic 3D graphics and gigabyte processors, some aspects of Earl Weaver Baseball's custom gameplay are still astounding."
Overall, I think we did a pretty good job here. The roster that we come up with proves to be a pretty formidable one, with the biggest weakness being an aging Reggie Jackson. I'd take that roster any day of the week.

I'm actually surprised that I didn't find more games, though. I expected to have to choose between two or three endorsers at most of the positions, but that just didn't pan out. Either I didn't look for these the right way, or I was just plain wrong. So which is it? Do you know of some other games that I missed that would either fill in the roster (still need a third baseman!) or would be a better fit? And, of the games that I never played (most of them), were any of them good? Did I miss out?

Whatever the case, this list has made me nostalgic. I might just have to find an emulator somewhere and see what I can do with some Bases Loaded. I'll probably just end up hitting those ridiculously long singles off the wall with Freida. That's what always happened. Freakin' Bases Loaded...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's It Going to Take?

One more thought on this whole steroids thing:

I posted this question yesterday afternoon in the Sosa thread over at Baseball Think Factory, and I really think it's worth pondering:
Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Fred McGriff, and Edgar Martinez (and Robin Ventura, Andres Galarraga, Ellis Burks and Ray Lankford, to a lesser extent) all played their last game in 2004, so they likely had to take this test. What happens if names on the list keep coming out randomly like this and one of these guys is named only a week before the HOF voting? Or what happens if they get elected and then their name gets "leaked" the day before the inauguration?

Is this a worst-case or best-case scenario?
Larkin, Alomar, McGriff, and Martinez. That's the list of potential Hall of Fame players who were likely tested in 2005 that will be voted on first (this coming December/January, I believe). How are HOF voters going to look at them, especially if the names on this list are still shrouded in secrecy?

Personally, I think the best-case scenario (in this admittedly crappy situation) is one of these players getting elected into the Hall and then, shortly thereafter, getting outed as being on the list. That way, the writers/voters will have no choice but to face head-on the reality of steroid users in the Hall of Fame. Sure, the Jay Mariottis of the world will rail against it and "boycott" the ceremony, but, overall, the weight and reality of it will be good for the sport.

The worst-case scenario, though, would be the opposite: one of these players getting outed as being on the list only a week or two before the voting takes place. In that instance, the emotions and drama of the revelations would still be high (as they are today with Sosa and as they were in May with Manny and in February with A-Rod) and there would be more than a good chance that the player would not even receive the 5% support that he needs to stay on the ballot. In short, he might not even be able to receive the McGwire treatment. That would be a bloody shame because, at some point, the steroid users are going to be admitted into the Hall and, when they do, players like McGwire will finally start getting fair elections. If they're not on the list, though, like the player in this hypothetical situation, then they won't get that chance to be elected and would instead have to wait until the Veteran's Committee, 15 or 20 years later.

The sad thing is, it's probably going to take something like these two scenarios to get the Hall voters to face reality. I just hope it's the better of the two.

Steroid Controversy? Again?!

I was all set yesterday afternoon to write about something else, something interesting and non-steroid related, and then the news about Sammy Sosa and his positive test from the "anonymous" survey broke. And now it's impossible not to write something about Sosa. This is the third superstar to be busted for steroids so far this year, and I've learned by now that there's no use in writing about something else in the day or two to follow because no one is going to read it. Now maybe Sosa is different, since a) he is no longer an active player and b) so many people seemed to have written him off as a user years ago. I don't know, but I doubt it. If there's anything that we've learned in the last few years, there's nothing more that writers like to rail against and bloviate about than ballplayers' steroid use.

Which is all well and good, but it's not for me. Yes, the Sosa and Manny and A-Rod stories are all rather fascinating and each are incredibly layered in their own unique ways and, yes, it is worth exploring all of those layers. At some point, though, when the entire blogosphere is busy dissecting the story from every little angle it can think of, the overwhelming negativity becomes too much. Because, let's be clear, this is a negative story. You can put any kind of positive spin on it that you want, but we're still talking about cheating players and diminished memories. And while it can be healthy to address these issues, it is never healthy to wallow in them.

Instead, I like to focus on the positive issues. It's why I wrote this "A-Rod, Aaron and Snoopy" piece a few months ago, and why I never really said much about the Manny suspension. There are a lot of stories out there that we can follow on a daily basis, and I'm always afraid that, by choosing to follow the negative ones, we'll end up jading ourselves about something that's supposed to be fun and supposed to bring us joy. It just doesn't seem worth it.

When the A-Rod story broke in February, I did a little post about the MVP winners of recent years who have admitted to using steroids during their MVP season. There are four of them (Canseco, Caminiti, Giambi, and A-Rod), which is probably four too many. On top of that, there are those players, like Sosa, who have either been implicated or found out to be users, but only outside of their MVP campaigns. It's a big list (Tejada, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, etc). After talking a little about the MVPs, I said this (sorry for quoting myself... I just can't think of a better way to express my opinion):
"Steroids have been part of baseball for 20 years now, apparently, and it's not something that anyone is too happy about. For better or worse, we need to figure out a way to fit this reality into our perception of the world. Sadly, these four "convicted" MVP winners are already proof enough that we have been rewarding the use of steroids for decades. How, then, can we blame anyone looking to compete in that environment? What's more, how can we as fans allow ourselves to simply wipe away the last 20 years of baseball? We may have played a part in all of this - we did buy all those tickets once the balls started flying out of the park - but the game isn't only about the home run record. It's about what we get from it - the experience of going to the park, cheering for our team, slapping palms with friends and strangers, sharing our passion with our kids - that keeps us coming back.

There are countless moments that I can remember as a fan from the last 10 or 15 years - from flying up to Seattle's new Safeco Field to see Cal Ripken play for the first time in my life, to meeting certain special people for the first time outside the ballpark, to seeing Craig Counsell catch a ball that bounced off the Miller Park roof during Game 4 of the NLDS - that tell more about why I love baseball than any one Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez home run ever will, and those memories needn't be wiped away in an ill-advised wish to "clean the slate." Certain aspects of the game need to be reviewed and placed into proper perspective, but our enjoyment of the sport and the joy that we have received from it should not just be thrown away. We are more than the home run, and that shouldn't be forgotten."
I still believe that. I just hope people start remembering it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Best Ever College World Series Field

Last year in Omaha, the Fresno State Bulldogs made a run for the ages on their way to the College World Series Championship. With the Bulldogs being my hometown team, this was pretty exciting for me. Fresno isn't exactly known for its championships, and the path that the team had to take to the crown was far from easy. Immediately after the Bulldogs clinched the victory, I went online to the CWS website and ordered myself a pretty spiffy hat commemorating the title.

As good as the championship was for a native Fresnan like myself, though, I can't honestly believe that the 2008 Fresno State Bulldogs will go down in history as the best college team ever. It's just too much to ask out of a long-shot champion. But what about the full 8-team field from last year? How will they be looked at in the future? Was it filled with Hall of Famers? All-Stars? Or were there only a handful of marginal major leaguers in Omaha last year?

We'll have to wait and see before we can answer that question conclusively. Thankfully, though, we don't have to wait to answer that same question for years past. What, then, was the year that featured the best major league talent in the College World Series?

Normally, I'd answer this question by running some numbers in a database and comparing things like Hall of Fame selections and Win Shares. I was unable to find a list of College World Series rosters that was in a database-friendly format, though, so it wasn't that easy. Instead, I started looking through Wikipedia. If you go to a specific year's CWS page - for example, the 1980 College World Series - you'll find details on the All-Tournament Team for that year and a list of "notable players" on those rosters. Under the assumption that Wikipedia editors aren't going to miss obvious talents like Chipper Jones or Frank Thomas, I've decided to use those "notable players" as my basis for this comparison. It's a fairly subjective measure, I know, but the choice is clear enough for it not to matter too much.

From 1980 through 1999, the best College World Series field is clearly from the 1983 CWS. That year, the CWS featured players like Dave Magadan, Calvin Schiraldi, Chris Sabo, Mike Aldrete and Pete Incaviglia. All were decent major league players, but they weren't the big draw of the year. Alongside them, there were three future Hall of Famers playing: Barry Larkin, from the University of Michigan; Barry Bonds, from Arizona State University; and Roger Clemens, from the University of Texas. Not a bad group of guys.

In that 1983 College World Series, Roger Clemens' Longhorns won the title, beating out Dave Magadan's Univeristy of Alabama. In the semifinals, Barry Bonds' Sun Devils lost to Alabama while Barry Larkin's Wolverines were taken out by Texas. With those kind of stars playing in the final pairings, it must've been a great weekend.

There have been a few other years since 1980 where the College World Series field featured strong talent (1985 featured Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro and 1997 featured Tim Hudson, Pat Burrell, Lance Berkman and Troy Glaus) but none of them can lay claim to the three Hall of Famers that we saw in 1983. It makes you wonder if there are three Hall of Famers sitting in Omaha today, just waiting for their shot (and, considering the fact that only one of the three HOFers from 1983 made the All-Tournament team, it could be seemingly anyone).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Draft Surprises

A lot of fun stuff happened last week in the baseball world - at least I assume so, though the Brewers did go 1-5 on their homestand - but the highlight of the week was definitely the draft and Stephen "Anchorman" Strasburg. Long seen as the cream of the crop, the Strasburg pick has generated more than the normal amount of virtual ink due to his blazing fastball and the expected demands of his agent, Scott Boras. So when the Washington Nationals drafted him as the number one overall pick last week despite the warnings of a possible $50 million signing bonus, it was big news.

Website after website and newspaper after newspaper went through the history of the draft and profiled the past pitchers who were drafted number one overall - Ben McDonald, Andy Benes, Brien Taylor, etc. - to see how they fared. Normally, that kind of thing is right up my alley but with so many others already doing the work, I wasn't sure what more I could add.

I couldn't just let the draft go by without some sort of comment, though. There's just something interesting about the draft, especially years after the fact. I know that draft reviews are pretty common in other sports, especially the NBA and NFL, but the crapshoot nature of the MLB draft and its widely spread talent pools just doesn't really lend itself to that kind of analysis. Still, looking back and seeing that Albert Pujols was drafted in the 13th round or that Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd, it makes you wonder who in this year's draft could come out of nowhere to become the steal of the draft.

With that in mind, I decided to take a look at the history of the draft to find the best players to come out of the later rounds. First, though, I had to decide what is meant by "later rounds". With 60 or so rounds in the draft, it's tempting to use, for example, the 30th round or below. In reality, though, that is dropping the bar too low. Yes, there are a few shockingly good players drafted after that, but those are even bigger exceptions than you think.

To be fair, then, I grouped all players drafted after the 10th round into ten-round groups, or "decades". For example, Round 13 draftee Pujols would be in the same "Round 11-20" decade as Round 20 draftee Ryne Sandberg. Others might be placed in a "Round 21-30" decade or a "Round 31-40" decade, and so on. The notable players drafted in each decade are listed below along with some notes.
Rounds 11-20
Players with 200+ Win Shares: 20
Notable Players
Player..........Rd....Career WS
Jim Thome.......13......350
Ryne Sandberg...20......346
Jeff Kent.......20......344
Andre Dawson....11......340
Nolan Ryan......12......334
Kenny Lofton....17......290
Albert Pujols...13......286
Don Mattingly...19......263
Bret Saberhagen.19......193
It only makes sense that the highest round "decade" would have the most number of star players, but the actual number is still pretty surprising. Besides the players listed above, others with 200 or more career Win Shares are Steve Finley, Dave Parker, Jack Clark, Brian Giles, and Orel Hershiser. There are also an additional 18 players with between 15o and 200 career Win Shares, including Jermain Dye and Trevor Hoffman. With five or six Hall of Famers including some in the conversation as the best ever at their position, it's not a bad list.
Rounds 21-30
Players with 200+ Win Shares: 7
Notable Players
Player..........Rd....Career WS
Brett Butler....23......295
Mark Grace......24......294
John Smoltz.....22......288
Ken Griffey.....29......259
Jorge Posada....24......228
Roy Oswalt......23......143
Jason Bay.......22......119
Although not as impressive as the Round 11-20 group, this is still a pretty solid group. Others not listed above are Dusty Baker, Richie Sexson, Darren Daulton, and Darryl Kile. That's one certain Hall of Famer, one likely Hall of Famers, and a couple other players with multiple All-Star appearances. I suspect any front office would be ecstatic with that kind of production from a 20th round draft pick.
Rounds 31-40
Players with 150+ Win Shares: 2
Notable Players
Player..........Rd....Career WS
Kenny Rogers....39......211
Raul Ibanez.....36......150
Mark Buehrle....38......137
Robb Nen........32......120
As we go further and further down the list, the numbers are going to dwindle. It's only natural. With that said, we still see 37-year-old bust-out star Raul Ibanez and Mark Buehrle in this list. If Joe Posnanski (and some others) is right and Buehrle really does go on to win 300 games, then we might be talking about this pick in the same way that we talk about the Piazza pick.
Rounds 41-50
Players with 150+ Win Shares: 3
Notable Players
Player..............Rd....Career WS
Keith Hernandez.....42......311
Brad Ausmus.........48......166
Eric Young..........43......160
Orlando Hudson......43......111
Jason Isringhausen..44......101
"I'm Keith Hernandez!"
Rounds 51-60
Players with 100+ Win Shares: 2
Notable Players
Player..........Rd....Career WS
Jeff Conine.....58......196
Marcus Giles....53......112
Gabe Kapler.....57......59
This is probably the weakest group of this study so far, with Marcus Giles and Gabe Kapler being the second and third most prominent players drafted in it. Jeff Conine, though, was a good player for a pretty long time. As a 58th round draft pick, you can't get much better than that...
Rounds 61+
Players with 100+ Win Shares: 2
Notable Players
Player..........Rd....Career WS
Mike Piazza.....62......327
Al Cowens.......75......138
...unless, of course, you're Tommy Lasorda and you're drafting the nephew of a family friend of yours out of a Miami-area junior college in the 62nd round. The Mike Piazza pick is still the most astounding draft pick in professional sports history (I'd guess, at least). Turning a throw-away family favor into the greatest offensive catcher in MLB history is very impressive, and is something that's significance I don't think anyone will ever truly grasp. The Al Cowens pick is pretty good, too. A 75th round draft pick, Cowens won a Gold Glove as the Royals' rightfielder in 1977 and finished second in the MVP voting that year (which is, coincidentally, as high as Piazza ever finished in MVP voting).

These are the exceptions to the rule, of course. For every Keith Hernandez or even Raul Ibanez, there are maybe 30 or 40 Travis Baptists or Chris Wakelands. What's most remarkable about this, then, is how it shows how good clubs are at drafting talent at the beginning of the draft. In the full history of the draft, there have barely been 120 players drafted after the 10th round who have been able to put up more than 100 career Win Shares. Considering how many players are drafted after the 10th round every year (50 rounds * 30 teams in 2009 = 1500 players), that is not a great percentage. That means that the other 400+ players with 100 or more career Win Shares since the draft began were all drafted in the first 10 rounds. While that may not be a high percentage, it is still about 4 times better than the late rounds. Maybe that's not the most earth-shattering finding out there ("Oh, great! Teams can usually notice the good players soon enough to draft them in the first 300 picks!"), I know, but it's something worth acknowledging. It doesn't make finding the Mike Piazzas and John Smoltzs of the draft any less exciting, though.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Long At-Bats

There was a fantastic discussion between Bill James and Joe Posnanski over at Sports Illustrated the other day. In it, they talk about the value of a walk, and how so many people seem to misunderstand it. There are a couple of really interesting facts thrown into the discussion, as you might expect, but it was this passage that struck me the most:
"Bill James:... so Weaver intentionally walks Brett, bringing up Amos Otis with the bases loaded.

Stoddard's first two pitches miss, and it's 2-0. From that moment on, Amos Otis was GOING to walk. A walk wins the game; Stoddard has poor control, Amos is up 2-0. ... he's taking a walk. A long, long battle ensues, Otis fouling off pitch after pitch, the crowd roaring on every pitch. Must have been 9, 10 pitches. It's what makes baseball, baseball. Finally Stoddard misses outside, and the Royals win the game.

So I'm driving home, and, being a young wannabe sportswriter, I'm think how I would write up this classic confrontation ... should I start off by second-guessing Weaver's strategy in making the game rest on Stoddard-vs.-Otis, in a situation in which a walk will win the game, rather than McGregor vs. Brett in a situation in which it won't? Or should I talk about the heart-pounding drama of it?

So you know what the lead was in the morning paper? 'Amos Otis won a game for the Royals for the Royals Tuesday night by doing nothing more than the 34,913 fans who paid to watch the contest.' WHAT? WHAT?"
Now that's a great story. Not only does Bill tell it well, but it illustrates his point perfectly. For certain people, that batter-pitcher matchup and the challenge of getting on-base without putting the ball in play is what they live for, and you can see that in Bill's story.

I don't have much to say about the paper's reaction to the at-bat - that's just how things are, I'd say - but I did find the nature of the long at-bat intriguing, so I decided to take a little deeper look at it. Using the Retrosheet database, I pulled out all at-bats that had pitch sequence information (as detailed as the Retrosheet files are, we still cannot replicate pitch-by-pitch data for the majority of seasons) and then broke down the at-bats with 10 or more pitches. This is what I found:

In the Retrosheet era, there are over 12,700 at-bats of 10 pitches or more (though only 4,700 of them are 11 pitches or more). The majority of these at-bats are from 1988 and later, since that's when the pitch-sequence information becomes available. There are a handful of at-bats from earlier years, but it's nowhere near as complete.

In those 12,000+ at-bats, players have a batting line of .235/.425/.403, which makes perfect sense. By the time you get that far into the at-bat, the strikeout or walk becomes increasingly more likely, as does the possibility of a hard-hit fly ball of some sort. That would explain the low batting average, high on-base percentage, and relatively high slugging (or, more precisely, the high isolated-power). In raw numbers, these ten-plus pitch at-bats have ended in: strikeout - 2,784 times; walk - 3,138 times; home run - 339 times; and some other out 4,453 times.

If we cut that down to the ~4,700 at-bats with eleven or more pitches, the line increases to .247/.437/.430. The raw numbers for those at-bats are: strikeout - 1,026 times; walk - 1,165 times; home run - 131 times; and other outs - 1,596 times.

So which batters have the most long at-bats? From the data that Retrosheet can give us, the answer is easily Todd Helton. As of the end of 2008, Helton had 59 at-bats of 10 or more pitches (and 24 at-bats of 11 or more pitches). Scott Rolen is close behind him with 50 at-bats of 10 or more pitches (and 23 at-bats of 11 or more). Johnny Damon, Rafael Palmiero, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Roberto Alomar all have 46 or more at-bats with 10 or more pitches.

Finally, I thought it might be interesting to see who, in the Retrosheet-pitch-sequence-era, sees the most pitches per at-bat. Obviously, this list will change pretty wildly depending on the minimum number of plate-appearances. Using 2,000 mimimum plate-appearances (approx. 3 years' worth), the list looks like this:

Most Pitches/At-Bat (Min. 2,000 PAs)
Rickey Henderson.....7,960 PAs....4.29 P/PA
Kevin Youkilis.......2,334 PAs....4.25 P/PA
Mickey Tettleton.....4,908 PAs....4.24 P/PA
Brad Wilkerson.......3,850 PAs....4.23 P/PA
Bobby Abreu..........8,034 PAs....4.22 P/PA

If we lower the minimum some to include players with about 1 years worth of plate appearances (~600 plate appearances), the list expands to include:

Most Pitches/At-Bat (Min. 2,000 PAs)
Jayson Werth.........1,659 PAs....4.45 P/PA
Reggie Willits.......740 PAs......4.36 P/PA
Jack Cust............1,313 PAs....4.31 P/PA
Rickey Henderson.....7,960 PAs....4.29 P/PA

Kevin Youkilis.......2,334 PAs....4.25 P/PA

I have to say, I love how high Rickey shows up on this list, even with 8,000 plate appearances. It just goes to show you how perfect of a leadoff hitter he was. I might have to look at these numbers again sometime to see if I can pull anything else interesting out of them. I don't know what I expected to find when I started poking around with the numbers, which might show in the scattered nature of this blog post, but I thought it'd still be good to share what I found. You can't win them all, I guess, but it's always good to learn from your findings.

Still... Rickey. Quite the guy, eh?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Less Than "All-Stars"

There's still five weeks until the All-Star Game, and already there's plenty of discussion about the Midsummer Classic. In fact, the discussion is already a couple of weeks old, and seems to be focused mainly on Manny Ramirez.

When the initial All-Star voting results were announced, friend of the blog Jason, from It Is About the Money, Stupid, decided to start the Vote for Manny! blog. The site is meant as a statement against the conflicting nature of the All-Star Game - on one hand, it's an exhibition for the fans (why else allow fans to vote for the starters, or require one player per team to be on the roster?), but on the other, it's a very meaningful game, with World Series home field advantage on the line. In Jason's own words:
I do not want to see Manny in the All Star Game. Are we clear on this? I started the "Vote For Manny" site to illustrate the joke that the voting, the "this time it counts"/World Series home field advantage rule, the mandatory representation, the still-soft PED rules...has become. I want to see the best players selected, not the most popular.
One of the more prevalent criticisms of Jason's "movement" is that, by voting Manny to the All-Star team, voters will be preventing someone more deserving, like Raul Ibanez, from making the team. It's a fair observation, and one that Jason is aware of. He addressed that topic today:
There's the rub: Many people felt that a vote for Manny would be taking the spot away from a player --like Ibanez-- who otherwise deserved to start (or make the team). Big kudos to the fans in Philly who got out and voted like mad. They launched Ibanez from 6th to 2nd last week, and up to 1st in this week's tally. Totally deserved, too.
But he also noticed something interesting:
So, my Philly friends, how do you reconcile the fact that you also voted for a shortstop who is hitting just 0.222 with and OBP of 0.261, three HR and just ten SB? Doesn't the vote for Rollins fly right in the face of "a more deserving player does not get to play in the ASG"? Isn't that hypocritical, silly, contradictory?
Jason goes on to say that he actually *likes* having the fan vote and having a one-player-per-team minimum, but all of that seems to fly in the face of "this time it counts" nature of the game today.

I can't say that I disagree with any of that, and I'm not sure I have a solution to it (outside of dropping the home-field advantage thing entirely). What I can say, though, is that these poor fans' selections - like Rollins - have been around for years and years, and would probably never go away as long as the fans have a vote. I took a look back at the All-Star starters for the last 25 years (non-pitchers, since fans only vote on the position players) and did my best to sort them into good and bad seasons. From there, I took the worst players looked at each player's 1st- and 2nd-half splits. The All-Stars with the worst first-half at each position are below. I guess you can call it an:
All-Star Roster of the Crappiest All-Stars
C: Benito Santiago, 1992 - .250/.281/.365, 84 OPS+ [Hometown Hero, San Diego]
1B: Steve Garvey, 1984 - .285/.308/.364, 90 OPS+ [Legendary]
2B: Steve Sax, 1990 - .270/.322/.321, 81 OPS+
[Legendary: Roberto Alomar, 2000 - .267/.336/.419, 90 OPS+]
3B: Cal Ripken, 2001 - .240/.270/.324, 56 OPS+ [Legendary]
SS: Ozzie Smith, 1994 - .240/.309/.323, 67 OPS+ [Legendary]
OF: Lenny Dykstra, 1995 - .262/.347/.672, 81 OPS+
OF: Vince Coleman, 1988 - .275/.326/.374, 100 OPS+ (45 SBs/14 CS)
OF: Hideki Matsui, 2003 - .299/.356/.449, 113 OPS+
Before I compiled the list, I expected to find three different types of bad selections: Legends (the players, like Cal Ripken, who was elected to start the All-Star Game because of his legendary career moreso than his current season), Hometown Heroes (the players, like Benito Santiago in 1992, who was elected to start the All-Star Game in his home ballpark), and Other (any other bad selection, usually based off of the players' popularity or his team's popularity, like being elected to start the All-Star game a year after his team was in the World Series).

While these categories definitely exist, they were a little harder to find than I expected. In fact, I initially tried fielding an All-Star team for each of those categories, but I couldn't. A few of the positions - outfield and first-base, mostly - were just too strong year-in and year-out. You can see that in the list above. Other than Lenny Dykstra, the outfield slots just aren't that bad. Coleman at least had 45 steals at the All-Star break that year, while Matsui was hitting .300. They may be borderline All-Stars, but they're nowhere near as bad as some of the other choices were.

Even knowing all of this, I still like the exhibition nature of the All-Star game. It's nice to have a say in who plays, and it's even better when your players get selected. Obviously, the fans don't get it right every year, but that is most certainly the exception instead of the rule, and one that I'm willing to live with. It's still the best All-Star game in pro sports, and I look forward to watching it every year. The home-field advantage is an interesting twist that adds to its significance, but I don't think it should last. As Jason points out with his Vote for Manny! blog, you should not have an exhibition game - that is designed to be fun and strictly for the fans - mean something significant. And, while it won't keep me from watching and enjoying the game, it would be nice to see the rules changed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Sometimes the End is Unexpected

Since 1979, when Willie Mays was elected into the Hall of Fame (with 94.7% of the vote), there have been 31 Hall of Famers selected on their first ballot. Many of these players were able to retire under their own terms, but not all of them. Like Tom Glavine this week, or even Sammy Sosa two years ago, more than a few recent first-ballot Hall of Famers played their last game with no idea that it would be their final appearance in a Major League Game.

With the uncertainty left in Tom Glavine's career - and with Sammy Sosa's "retirement" speech earlier this week giving us yet another reminder of how sudden the end can come - I thought it might be interesting to look at how other Hall of Famers ended their careers.

Joe Morgan
On September 30, 1984, Joe Morgan ended his career as an Oakland Athletic, his fourth team in five years, when he was lifted for a pinch-runner after doubling in the 1st inning. From the AP report the next day:
"Baseball veteran Joe Morgan ended his career without fanfare, or even a farewell, as he slipped out of the ballpark while the A's closed their season with an 8-2 win over Kansas City.

After a first-inning double Sunday, he left the field to a standing ovation from 23,028 fans. His action spoke louder than words, because Morgan made no statement following the game."
Tom Seaver
Fellow Fresno, CA-native Tom Seaver played in the final game of his career on September 19, 1986, as a member of the Boston Red Sox. He started the season in Chicago, but was traded to Boston in late June. Seaver left the game that September due to a pulled muscle, fully expecting to be back in a couple of weeks. It wasn't until June 1987 that he finally called it quits. From the game story the next day:
"Seaver was forced to leave the game after four innings with a pulled calf muscle.

'I'll probably miss my next start,' said Seaver, who allowed three runs on five hits, walked two, and struck out one. 'I felt something give, but I stayed on for the next out and maybe I shouldn't have.'"
Seaver announced his retirement at Shea Stadium the following June:
"Tom Seaver, convinced that he cannot pitch with the old command at the age of 42 after a nine-month layoff, will appear in Shea Stadium at noon today to announce the end of his three-week comeback and his 20-year career.
Seaver reached his decision after pitching four dull innings in a simulated game at Shea Saturday, a performance that he described as ''so-so and mediocre.'' He also said it marked ''no improvement'' over his first two appearances. ''The bottom line is I'm not pleased with the way I'm throwing,'' he said."

Reggie Jackson
After spending five years with the California Angels, Reggie signed on with his original franchise during the 1986 offseason and batted a mediocre .220/.297/.402 with 97 strikeouts in 115 games. He played his final game on October 4, 1987. From the LA Times the next day:
"The crowd of 9,846, sensing in the Athletics' final home game that Jackson's appearance would be his last, gave him a standing ovation when he left the dugout to warm up in the on-deck circle.

Before batting, Jackson waved his helmet to the crowd as the fans began the familiar chant of "Reggie, Reggie." After his single up the middle on an 0-and-2 pitch from Ed Vande Berg, Jackson left for a pinch-runner to another ovation. When the crowd persisted for more than a minute, Jackson returned and blew kisses to the fans.
'This was my last at-bat," said Jackson, 41. "I'd like to be around next year, but it won't be as a player.'"

Steve Carlton
Carlton is best remembered as the dominant left-hander for the Philadelphia Phillies, for who he won 240 games and for who he struck out over 3,000 batters. By 1988, though, Carlton was on his fifth team in three years and having a difficult time. After a weak start on April 23, 1988, the Twins released him:
"Steve Carlton, one of the best left-handers in baseball history and who was the winningest active pitcher in the major leagues, was released Wednesday by the Minnesota Twins.

Carlton, 43, the only pitcher in baseball history to win four Cy Young awards, was 0-1 this year. He has a career record of 329-244.

In 9 innings this season, he allowed 20 hits, 18 earned runs and five homers. His earned-run average was 16.76.
"It's never easy to release a baseball player, no matter who he is, but particularly someone with Hall of Fame credentials," said MacPhail, who is eight years younger than Carlton."

Dave Winfield
The big news in 1981 was the 10-year contract that George Steinbrenner gave to Winfield to join the Yankees. As the contract was finally set to expire at the end of the 1990 season, the Yankees traded Winfield to the Angels for Mike Witt. From there, he would play on 4 teams in the next five years, ultimately ending up on the Indians in 1995. Winfield played in only 46 games for the Indians that year, batting a pathetic .191/.285/.287, for which he was left off Cleveland's postseason roster. He refused to admit his career was over, though:
"The only melancholy note in all of this was that Sunday marked the end of Dave Winfield's timeless career. What made it melancholy - rather than part of the celebration - was Winfield's refusal to acknowledge this was it after 23 big-league seasons.
Saturday, there was a postgame news conference in which the usually silent Albert Belle talked of hitting his 50th home run. The reporters in attendance had been told there would also be a Winfield news conference.
The assumption was Winfield, who turns 44 Tuesday, would be announcing his retirement. Not so. Winfield wanted to express his disappointment at being left off Cleveland's 25-player postseason roster.
Retirement? His 1995 numbers - two home runs, four RBI, seven extra-base hits and a .191 average in 115 at-bats - were not enough to convince Winny to take the hint. "I have no comment right now on my future plans," he said. "I will address those at a later time.""
Winfield finally retired in February 1996.

Eddie Murray
By the time Eddie Murray was near retirement in 1997, he ranked second all-time behind Lou Gehrig in career grand slams, with 19. So, when Murray found himself in the middle of a playoff race as a Los Angeles Dodger in September 1997, it seemed like the perfect situation for him and the team. On September 18 and September 20, the Dodgers called on Murray to pinch hit in close, late-inning, bases loaded situations. Both times, he failed, grounding into double plays each time. The Sept. 20 game, in which he grounded into a game-ending double play, would prove to be his final at-bat. From the LA Times the next day:
"With the game on the line in the ninth inning Saturday afternoon, and left-handed hitters Brett Butler, Nelson Liriano and Wayne Kirby on the bench, Dodger Manager Bill Russell called on Eddie Murray to face Colorado right-hander Jerry Dipoto.

The 41-year-old Murray, a 21-year veteran, grounded into a double play on a check swing to end the game.

Against the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, Murray came up with one out in the 10th inning and the bases loaded and grounded into a double play. The Giants went on to win in the 12th.

But Russell isn't about to second-guess his decision to use Murray Saturday.

"Eddie is our best hitter in that situation," Russell said. "You're talking about a Hall of Famer. He's been in these situations many times. You know you could get a ground ball and a double play, but that's not what we sent him up there for."
Dennis Eckersley
On September 26, 1998, Eck made the final appearance of his career as a member of the Boston Red Sox. The team was already down 2 runs by the time he entered the game, so there would be no decision coming for him. The appearance was meaningful, though, as it moved Eck alone into first place on the all-time appearances list. With only one game left in the season, he would not get to add to his total. From the New York Times recap:
"Dennis Eckersley set a major league record with his 1,071st career pitching appearance, breaking a tie with Hoyt Wilhelm. The Boston reliever got a standing ovation as he ran in from the bullpen to pitch the ninth, then gave up Surhoff's second homer of the game and 22d of the year."

Wade Boggs
Entering the 1999 season, Boggs needed only 78 hits to reach the 3,000 hit milestone, and it was obvious to just about everyone that the milestone was his main driving force. On August 7, Boggs went 3 for 4 with a home run to join the exclusive club. He would play in ten more games before the season ended. On August 27, 1999, Boggs went hitless against Dave Burba and the Indians in his final game. He would only merit passing mention in the New York Times recap:
"The Devil Rays got the tying run to third in the ninth when Mike Jackson walked Wade Boggs and made a fielding error on Jose Guillen's bunt, but Jackson got the pinch-hitter Terrell Lowery on a game-ending grounder for his 30th save."

Rickey Henderson
Rickey is, of course, the king of refusing to call it quits. From 1997, when he started the season on the Padres, until his final game as a Dodger in 2003, Rickey played on 8 different teams in 7 years, with 5 of those being in his last 3 seasons. On September 19, 2003, Rickey pinch-hit for Guillermo Mota in the bottom of the 7th inning. After getting hit by the pitch, Rickey came around to score on a Shawn Green single. It would be the 2,295th run of his career, and his last. The appearance was so non-descript that it didn't even warrant a mention in the LA Times' game recap the next day. Rickey would not officially "concede" his retirement until July 2007:
"'This means I'm officially retired as a player," he said. "I'm going to share my knowledge with the kids and let them go out and do the playing, and let me sit back and help them accomplish their goals.'
'I haven't submitted retirement papers to MLB," Henderson joked, "but I think MLB already had them.'"

There you have it. With everyone talking about the Braves and Tom Glavine this week, and how unfair the whole situation seems to be, it's good to remember that there are many all-time greats whose careers ended in a similar (or worse) way than Glavine's seems to have ended. It's the sad nature of the game, though, especially as players like Tom Glavine or even Tom Seaver age beyond the ability for their bodies to come back from injury.

Still, as true as that may be, we shouldn't fret. Yes, we all remember Willie Mays falling down in the outfield as a New York Met or Dave Winfield failing to make the postseason roster in his final year, but that's neither the lasting image nor the last feelings that we have of these greats. Instead, we remember their power and their grace and their energy and their attitude from back in their prime. That's why, when you think of Babe Ruth, you see him swinging for the fences in Yankee Stadium or leaning on a bat grinning, and why you see Willie Mays running out to centerfield to catch that ball when you think of the Say Hey Kid. 

I'm not a big enough Tom Glavine fan to know what the image that we remember of him will be, but I know there is one, and I know that it's not going to be from this year. It'll be from some time back when he was at his absolute best, winning division title after division title alongside Maddux and Smoltz. That, to me, is fitting.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

No Frakkin' Way

I just have to say that it's darn near impossible to keep a daily blog post going while trying to watch Battlestar Galactica from start to finish like I am right now, so I apologize for that. I never had a chance to watch it from the beginning on Sci-Fi (only the miniseries), so I avoided its later seasons. But we rented a the first couple of discs this weekend, and we can't put them down now. Watching three hours of deeply engrossing sci-fi drama every night can keep you occupied.

There's a lot of stuff going on recently that I want to comment on, notably the Tom Glavine situation and SI's new coverboy (both of which were, not surprisingly, already covered some by Bill at The Daily Something). I hope to have something interesting up either tonight or tomorrow, and then we'll see how things go after that. With family in town and a stackful of BSG discs calling (gotta love 2-for-1 Wednesdays at the video store), I'm going to have to work to keep myself on task. I feel confident I can do it, though.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Predicting the Next "Team of the Decade"

Yesterday, the illustrious Rob Neyer, after reading Matt Water's take, decided to take a stab at naming his "All Decade Team" for the '00s (are we officially calling it the "oughts" yet?). In his post, Rob takes a critical look at Matt's list and concludes that it's a pretty solid list, save for a couple of mistakes.

The team that he seems to land on is a good team, and one with little room for debate. Some might wonder, for example, about Roger Clemens (he's as worthy as Pedro, I suspect) and whether Barry played enough in the decade to warrant inclusion, but that's all pretty minor. When you break it down position-by-position like that, the choices become pretty obvious.

Are the choices as obvious looking forward, though? As you can imagine, these "Team of the Decade" articles are pretty common every ten years (the most amazing thing about Rob's and Matt's pieces are that they remind us that it's already time for us to come up with yet another one... not that I'm complaining!). I remember it happening in 1999 (when we also had the "All Century Team"), and I know for a fact it was happening in 1989-90 and even earlier. We've all heard it countless times in reference to Jack Morris and his HOF candidacy, after all.

What's more rare than the retrospective "All Decade Team", though, is the predictive "All Decade Team". In the 1990 Sporting News Baseball Yearbook, the editors do both. After coming up with their own "All 1980s Team", they take it a step further and try to predict who will be the "All 1990s Team". The article was published in January/February of 1990, so it's impossible for them to be spot on. Neither of the two catchers of the decade, Ivan Rodriguez or Mike Piazza, for example, were even in professional baseball yet. Plus, the editors seemed to be a little too impressed by the 1989 rookie class. Still, there's enough there worth looking at, so here we go:
TSN's Predicted Team of the '90s

SP: Bret Saberhagen
What They Said: "He's poised to add to his Cy Young collection."
What Happened: Saberhagen was never really able to put together consecutive strong innings, and spent much of the '90s injured or recovering from injuries. He did finish third in the 1994 Cy Young voting. Overall, he went 74-54 with a 124 ERA+ in 192 games in the 1990s.

C: Sandy Alomar Jr, Todd Zeile
What They Said: "These two know all about catching, from A to Z. They can hit, too."
What Happened: Sandy won the 1990 Rookie of the Year award, but was rarely healthy throughout the '90s. He did put together a memorable 1997, but that was probably the highlight of his career. Zeile had a solid career, but as a third-baseman. He only caught in 2 games after 1990.

1B: Will Clark
What They Said: "The Thrill continues to amaze."
What Happened: The Thrill put up a few more great seasons, but his status as the best first-baseman in baseball was over by 1993. From 1990-99, Clark played in only 1264 games. He did hit .302/.382/.480 (129 OPS+) in that time, though. If he had been able to put up 3 or 4 more good, healthy seasons, he might be in the Hall of Fame today.

2B: Roberto Alomar
What They Said: "Power, speed and offense - the Sandberg of the '90s?"
What Happened: Robbie had a great career in the 1990s, winning two World Series and appearing in 3 other postseasons. He had nearly 1700 hits and a 122 OPS+ in 1400 games during the decade. Along with Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent, the best second-basemen of their generation.

3B: Robin Ventura/Matt Williams
What They Said: "Williams reminds some of Mike Schmidt; Ventura is a hitting machine."
What Happened: Two very good players who put up solid numbers year after year. From 1990-99, Ventura played in 1399 games and batted .278/367/.452 (119 OPS+) with 203 HRs. In the same time, Williams played in 1340 games and batted .278/.326/.508 (122 OPS+) with 300 HRs.

SS: Barry Larkin
What They Said: "Just keep him away from the All Star Game skills competition."
What Happened: The bulk of Larkin's HOF career was spent in the 1990s, when he won an MVP award and was named to 8 All-Star games. Despite injuries, Larkin batted .303/.388/.466 (126 OPS+) in nearly 1300 games in the '90s

LF: Bo Jackson
What They Said: "Until he shows otherwise, there's no limit to what Bo knows - or what he can do."
What Happened: Bo, of course, suffered a major hip injury in a January 1991 Raiders game. It didn't technically end his career, but it may as well have. Between 1990 and 1994, Bo played in only 294 games, hitting 60 home runs and stealing only 16 bases. He did have a 119 OPS+ in that time, though.

CF: Ken Griffey Jr/Kirby Puckett/Eric Davis
What They Said: "Pick a star, any star."
What Happened: Puckett's career was a cut short early due to his glaucoma, but he did end up in the Hall of Fame. Griffey dominated the 1990s, and was actually named to the "All Century Team" in 1999. Davis had a good career, but was injured much too often to reach the potential everyone saw. He retired in 2001.

RF: Ruben Sierra
What They Said: "He's ready to dominate the American League right now."
What Happened: Between 1990 and 1996, Sierra played in 1007 games, batting .269/.321/.438. He would only play in 67 more games before the end of the decade. He would somehow make his way back onto major league rosters and play all the way until 2006.

RP: Gregg Olson
What They Said: "His debut season in 1989 gave the Orioles glimpes of glory."
What Happened: Olson saved 133 games for the Orioles between 1990 and 1993, but didn't save more than 8 games in a season again until 1998, when he saved 30 for the Diamondbacks. Olson finished his career as a Dodger in 2001 with 217 career saves.
A mixed-bag, overall. Alomar, Larkin, Griffey, and (to a lesser degree) Williams/Ventura were all good picks, but the injury bug made some of the other picks (Alomar Jr, Saberhagen, Bo) come out rather poorly. It goes to show you that trying to predict a player's ten-year dominance is incredibly difficult. As always, though, it does provide a nice snapshot in time of what people were thinking about players at the time. It makes you wonder how well our current valuations are.

With that said, here's an off-the-cuff prediction about the "Team of the 2010s". It's obviously way too early to make these official, but it's something we can have fun with in the meantime:
Lar's Predicted Team of the '10s

C: Joe Mauer
1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Dustin Pedroia
3B: Evan Longoria
SS: Hanley Ramirez
LF: Ryan Braun
CF: Grady Sizemore
RF: Nick Markakis
SP: Tim Lincecum
RP: Joakim Soria
I'm not necessarily thrilled with all of those choices, but there are a couple of positions where I just don't see any obvious picks. Of course, I'm not as up on young talent as a lot of people are, so I'm almost guaranteed to have missed someone. (And I think it's too early to pencil in Matt Wieters or Stephen Strasburg on a list like this) Thoughts?