The Phillies close out Harper’s Bazaar

2019-02-28 MikeTroutBryceHarper

HI, NEIGHBOUR!Bryce Harper, now about to play in Mike Trout’s native neighbourhood, ends his sweepstakes with a deal from the Phillies. It may yet do Trout a bigger favour than it does the Phillies, depending on what the Angels do or don’t do with baseball’s best before he hits the open market after the 2020 season.

If nothing else, Washington’s long Nationals nightmare begins, now that their longtime mainstay Bryce Harper has signed on with the Phillies for 13 years and $330 million. It’s one thing for the Nationals having prepared for a future without him; it’s something else again that that future is here.

The Nats spent the winter preparing by upgrading their bullpen, fortifying their catching corps, outbidding everyone else for starting pitcher Patrick Corbin, and plugging a second base crack with veteran Brian Dozier. Only half hoping that Harper might play the market, find it wanting in one way or another, and come back to take the Nats’ original ten year/$300 million offer.

It turned out that Harper wanted longer term stability than that and that the Phillies were willing to give it to him, including an absence of opt-out clauses. Assuming Harper plays out the full term of the deal, guess how many games the Nats get to play against the Phillies with or without the National League East title at stake. How does 247 games strike you?

The Nats are still a terrific team. They’ll still give the Phillies (and anyone else in the NL East) a run for their money. But they might be just a little less fun without Harper. Unless they have some aces (on and off the mound) up their similarly red sleeves.

When Manny Machado signed with the Padres last week (ten/$300 million) it kicked the rebuilding Padres far closer to returning to real competitiveness, particularly with their well-regarded farm system on the threshold of a harvest. Harper sees and raises.

He kicks the Phillies—whose fortifications to their solid and still ascendant youthful core this winter include J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson—right into being the NL East favourites. The Phillies are already imagining their Opening Day lineup with Aaron Nola on the mound and Harper patrolling right field. Phillies fans may not be muttering “Wait ’till next year” this time around.

It’s not that Harper himself didn’t gamble. The market proved a lot less flexible than he and Machado believed going in. He thought about life as a Yankee, the team his father rooted for, and either he or the Yankees or both thought, “Can’t be done.” He pondered life as a Dodger, closer to his Las Vegas home, until they “apparently offered Harper less than half the guaranteed money he’d already turned down in D.C.,” as Thomas Boswell puts it. He even pondered life as a Giant, who lost 89 in 2018 but still have the weight of several bad contracts and quickly-aging anchor players.

The Phillies showed him two more things. They showed him the guaranteed money (and a far less oppressive tax state than California), but they also showed him a team built to win now and for the next several years. A team young enough despite the veteran additions to stay winners for the next several years. A team that likes the kind of player he is at core, what Boswell called “hard hat with, sometimes, a hard head.”

The hard head cause a few clumps of Nats hair to be torn out while the team’s brain trust struggled to convince him outfield walls are still the least forgiving walls on the planet. Harper’s hustled himself into hardware-costing injuries in the past; he struggled in 2016 because of a shoulder injury and, later, a stiff neck.

Last year, after blasting out of the starting chocks in his first seventeen games, Harper nose-dove until just before the All-Star break. He’d come out of spring training seemingly obsessed with his launch angles and his pull hitting, not to mention defensive overshifts. After making a pre-break correction to that thinking, he hit .300 the entire second half, with a .305/.442/.538 slash line the final two months.

Harper will have his moments of transcendence and his moments of failure, and the notorious Philadelphia boo birds will let him know the difference as they usually do. (“Those people,” legendary pitcher/playboy Bo Belinsky once observed, “would boo at a funeral.”) He’s strong enough to know the difference and experienced enough not to let the worst of the latter stain the shinings of the former.

His critics, pardon the expression, harp on his full-season .247 batting average as evidence he had no business playing this winter’s market for the stakes he wanted. But last year’s NL Most Valuable Player, Christian Yelich, had 41 percent of his hits go for extra bases. Harper had 49 percent go for extra bases. Nolan Arenado, who just signed a delicious extension aimed at making him rich and a Rockie for life, and led the National League with 38 home runs last year, had 45 percent extra-base hits.

Let’s look at the extra-base hit averages among the other top ten position players in last year’s MVP voting (Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer also finished in the top ten), in descending percentage order:

Matt Carpenter—53%
Trevor Story—49%
Javier Baez (RBI leader)—47%
Ronald Acuna, Jr.—44%
Paul Goldschmidt—42%
Anthony Rendon—42%
Freddie Freeman (hits and doubles leader)—37%
Lorenzo Cain—22%

Harper wasn’t even close to getting a single MVP vote last year but only two MVP candidates had the same or a higher percentage of extra-base hits. And if you’re still harping on his full-season batting average, feel free to remind yourself about the two wounding flaws in batting average:

1) It treats all hits equally, and all hits are not equal. Come to think of it, all .300 hitters aren’t equal, either. If Tony Gwynn was a more valuable or more complete hitter hitting a lifetime .338 than Willie Mays hitting a lifetime .302, the one who says so a) didn’t see either one play all that often; and/or, b) doesn’t read the whole record as it was above, beyond, and deeper than those averages.

2) A batting average accounts only for your hits divided by your credited at-bats. It doesn’t account for everything you do at the plate divided by all your plate appearances, and thus gives an incomplete picture of what you do at the plate to help your team win.

Maybe batting average ought to be called hitting average instead. Or maybe the term for a complete offensive percentage—including hits, walks, intentional walks (yes, count them separately), sacrifices, and the times a batter got hit by a pitch, divided by his total plate appearances—should be called Real Batting Average. (No, it’s not the same as on-base percentage, which factors official at-bats but not total plate appearances.) Here are the RBAs for the aforementioned top ten MVP candidates, including the winner, plus that other guy who just signed with the Padres for ten years and $300 million:

Player PA Hits Walks IBB Sacs HBP RBA
Javier Baez 645 176 29 8 5 5 .346
Trevor Story 656 174 47 3 4 7 .358
Ronald Acuna, Jr. 444 127 45 2 3 6 .376
Nolan Arenado 673 175 73 10 7 3 .398
Manny Machado 709 188 70 18 5 2 .399
Lorenzo Cain 620 166 71 1 2 8 .400
Paul Goldschmidt 690 172 90 11 0 6 .404
Matt Carpenter 677 145 102 17 4 6 .405
Christian Yelich 651 187 68 2 2 7 .409
Freddie Freeman 707 191 76 12 6 7 .413
Anthony Rendon 597 163 55 5 8 5 .417
Bryce Harper 695 137 130 16 9 6 .429

Harper’s 2018 RBA was .429. In other words, even in what was considered a bad full season because of his .247 batting average, Harper was a more complete batter whose real batting average was better than both than the top ten National League position players and his fellow new three hundred times over millionaire Manny Machado. (Last year’s American League MVP, Mookie Betts, shows a .459 RBA.)

And that’s without talking about something else that helps your team put runs on the board: the extra bases you take on followup knocks. Harper wasn’t as good at that last year as in seasons past, but lifetime he’s taken the extra base(s) on the followup knocks exactly half the time he’s reached base in the first place. (For a little perspective, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson—the Man of Steal himself—did it 55 percent of the time he was on base . . . and Mike Trout does it 57 percent of the time.) He’s not waiting for you to hit one out of the yard to kick on the jets and fly.

(So why did Harper crater to a 1.3 wins above a replacement-level player last year? Easy: bad outfield defense. Even in a down season Harper was still worth 4.2 WAR as an offensive player, just below an All-Star’s level. But his defensive WAR was -3.2. Maybe the weight of the free agency season he’s just finished will be removed enough to clear his head in right field as well as all the way at the plate.*)

Now, who beside their new teams have been done the biggest favours by the Harper and Machado deals? One name seemed to spring to mind at once after Harper signed, and he’s due to hit free agency after the 2020 season.

He’s been the best all-around player in baseball since his first full season. The question is long established that it’s just a question of when, not if he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, assuming nothing drastic or tragic happens to him before he finishes his tenth major league season. And his 2018 was better than all the above in several ways last year even with missing time due to a thumb injury.

OK, you asked for it. Forty-five percent of Mike Trout’s 2018 hits went for extra bases, but his real batting average, according to the foregoing criteria, was . . . .507.

Mike Trout in 2018 was a more complete hitter doing that much more to help his team win—never mind that Angel fans continue to wish the organisation would build a team its and baseball’s best player can be proud of—than both leagues’ Most Valuable Players and their top-ten MVP finishers among position players.

The Angels had better get to serious work on a) building a team Trout can really be proud of; and, b) making him their Nolan Arenado and not letting him escape without a fight. And there isn’t a fan alive observing the Harper-Machado markets, questioning the sanity of either or both, who’d say Trout doesn’t deserve it even more.


* PostscriptNot long after writing and publishing this essay, I was reminded that Bryce Harper suffered a hyperextended left knee late in the 2017 season, and that the effects may have carried over long enough into the 2018 season to affect both his plate appearances—since the injury occurred, of course, on the leg off which he drives his batting—and his play in right field. Those who feared that he himself feared going for some balls or trying for some plays may well have forgotten that injury, as I did.

He’s ready for the Show, so quit stalling

2019-02-27 VladimirGuerreroJr

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.—if he’s anything like his old man, they’re going to love him in the Show. What are the Blue Jays waiting for?

When the children of good, great, or even Hall of Fame players take a turn at baseball, as they do more often than you think, it isn’t always a given that the sons will equal or surpass the fathers. Great or even Hall of Fame fathers don’t necessarily breed Hall of Fame sons or grandsons.

If they did, Earl Averill, Jr., Dale Berra, Eddie Collins, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Jr., Chuck Lindstrom, Earle Mack, Queenie O’Rourke, Eduardo Perez, Tim Raines, Jr., Dick and Dave Sisler, and Ed Walsh, Jr. would be mounted on Cooperstown plaques. There are also two sons who left their fathers far enough behind to become the Hall of Famers the old men weren’t: Roberto Alomar (son of Sandy, Sr.) and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Along comes Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. His father earned the nickname Vlad the Impaler during a career that earned him induction into the Hall of Fame last year. The son may be baseball’s number one major league ready prospect even at nineteen years old. The Blue Jays don’t quite see it that way.

It’s not that Guerrero fils lacks the ability. Last season, during which he earned a promotion to the Triple A level, the young man looked like the second coming of his father: in a mere 95 games (minor league seasons are generally shorter, anyway) Guerrero fils showed a .437 on-base percentage and a .636 slugging percentage, including a .564 slugging percentage in his Triple A time.

Customarily a player who posts a .978 OPS at Triple A has shown he’s major league ready. The bad news is Jays general manager Ross Atkins, believing Guerrero, Jr. isn’t major league ready because he’s . . . only nineteen years old. And Atkins stumbled so clumsily over himself trying to explain that he became an immediate textbook exercise in why players aren’t the only ones who think front offices are talking through their chapeaus about player development versus player control:

It really comes down to development. I just don’t see him as a major league player. You just pencil him in and he’s done. He’s 19. He has accomplished everything he can accomplish as an offensive player. And there’s so many opportunities for him defensively and what he can do to really maximize the power, the size and the strength that he has.

Talking out of both sides of his mouth? Atkins talks through a five-pointed star of an orifice. Never mind that Guerrero fils will be 20 before Opening Day. It makes you wonder where he was or wasn’t, or what he has or hasn’t read, about other nineteen-year-olds brought to the Show and making impacts:

Juan Soto, 2018—He might have been last year’s National League Rookie of the Year if not for a fellow named Ronald Acuna, Jr. Soto posted a .923 OPS and whacked 22 home runs, which was even more impressive considering he didn’t come up to the Nationals to stay until mid-to-late May . . . after earning three minor league promotions up from A-level in a month to start his season.

Bryce Harper, 2012—He was only the National League’s Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, and worth 5.2 wins above a replacement-level player, and his 57 extra base hits that season set a modern-era record for teen players. And now he’s still on the open free agency market with an excellent chance of equaling Manny Machado’s new contract for himself.

Ken Griffey, Jr., 1989—He didn’t do quite as well as Harper or Ott in his age-19 season; the Hall of Fame greatness began the following season. But he finished third in the American League’s Rookie of the Year voting and showed various tastes of what was to come at the plate and in center field alike.

He didn’t quite get to pass Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list, thanks to injuries dogging him constantly after he moved to Cincinnati, but he had more than enough to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Dwight Gooden, 1984—The National League’s Rookie of the Year that season, Gooden busted Herb Score’s record for strikeouts in a rookie season, and Dr. K’s mark (276) remains the modern era rookie record. He went from there to post the impossible season in 1985 . . . and in spring training 1986 the Mets, somewhat insanely, ruined him.

They told a young man who’d struck out 544 batters in his first two seasons, and had a 1.91 fielding-independent pitching rate to line up with his 2.07 ERA those two seasons (and a Cy Young Award the second) that he needed . . . more stuff. As if his multiple-warhead fastball and the most voluptuous curve ball since Sandy Koufax wasn’t enough.

“I always thought they should have left Doc alone,” said Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter. “[Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre] thought teaching him a third pitch would be to his advantage. But he didn’t need it. He needed someone to say, ‘Hey, you’ve been successful. Just keep going at it.’ But they didn’t.” It shot Gooden’s confidence and his release point. And something else. Carter: “I also think it hurt his shoulder. The pitches didn’t feel natural to Doc, and pitching was so natural to him. It just wasn’t smart.”

Confidence shot, especially because the pliant Gooden listened to everyone no matter how cockamamie their suggestions. Near-constant shoulder issues and substance abuse to follow. Gooden had a long and very respectable career after all, including a late-career no-hitter, but he was really denied his chance at sustained greatness by short-sighted coaching and management.

Wally Bunker, 1964—Blessed with a deadly sinkerball, Bunker was the American League’s Rookie of the Year runner-up with a 2.69 ERA and a major league-leading .792 winning percentage. The bad news: Bunker experienced arm soreness during a start on a cold Cleveland night. The soreness turned out to be undiagnosed tears in a tendon or a ligament.

Bunker would never be the same pitcher again, though he’d pitch a six-hit shutout in Game Three of the 1966 World Series en route the Orioles’ sweep of the Dodgers. He ended up an original Kansas City Royal and threw the first pitch of their existence, but the arm issues persisted and he was finished by 1970.

Tony Conigliaro, 1964—Tony C. set the modern-era record for home runs by a major league rookie when he bopped 24. The following season, he’d become the American League’s youngest home run champion ever with 32. Three years later, his career would be derailed when, unable to duck out of the way in time, a Jack Hamilton fastball smashed into his face, causing serious eye issues that eventually ended his career in earnest.

Mel Ott, 1928—Ott actually came to the Giants right out of the chute at 17, but manager John McGraw—terrified that some nitwit minor league coach or skipper would try to wreck the kid’s unorthodox but impeccable swing (his front leg kick as he began his swing made him resemble a pitcher about to deliver)—kept him next to him two years to teach him the game before letting him fly as the Giants’ regular right fielder.

Master Melvin merely posted a .921 OPS in 124 games in 1928. And he merely went on to become the National League’s home run king of the pre-World War II era (he was the second behind Babe Ruth to hit 500+ career home runs) and a Hall of Famer.

Those may be the best nineteen-year-old seasons on record. But there’ve been other nineteen-year-olds who came to the majors to stay at that age, under various circumstances. They include but may not be limited to Chief Bender, Ty Cobb, Bob Feller, Felix Hernandez, Al Kaline, Sandy Koufax, Manny Machado, Mickey Mantle, Bill Mazeroski, Milt Pappas, Alex Rodriguez, Babe Ruth, Mike Trout, and Smokey Joe Wood.

All but three of those are Hall of Famers, by the way. Rodriguez would be if not for, you know, that other stuff. And those who think Trout won’t be should know that he’s already above the career WAR of the average peak-value Hall of Famer, and he ranks objectively as the seventh-best all-around center fielder of all time. More’s the pity that baseball’s governors still can’t find a way to promote him as the face of the game.

“Atkins and the Jays’ organization think that they are fooling people by saying it comes down to development,” writes Sportsnaut‘s Vincent Frank. “There’s nothing more that [Guerrero, Jr.] can develop by dominating lesser competition in the minors. It’s that simple.”

Maybe even simpler. The Blue Jays need all the help they can get if they hope to compete in an American League East that’s not necessarily known for showing mercy to the lesser forces.

“Teams are going to be highly resistant to any change that deprives them of cost controlled years of their best players,” writes FanGraphs‘s Craig Edwards. “But the [Major League Baseball Players Association] focusing some of their attention on getting players like Vlad Jr. to the majors, as well as getting better benefits to the minor leaguers left behind, can only be to the game’s benefit. Many of baseball’s stars of tomorrow are ready today. Let’s watch them play, shall we?”

If he’s anything like his father, whether or not he’ll swing at anything within his area code the way Pop did, Guerrero fils is going to make Blue Jays and other fans fall as much in love with him as Expos, Angels, and other fans did with the old man. Let’s, indeed.

An incomplete look at “complete” hitting

2019-02-26 TonyGwynnWadeBoggs

Were Mr. Padre and the Chicken Man really complete hitters?

I fell upon an essay at FiveThirtyEight last week arguing the rise in foul balls contributes more than people think to actual or alleged “pace of game” problems. It provoked some equally interesting replies and arguments around cyberspace, never mind my own take being that, if you’re going to complain about lack of action, you can’t complain about hitters being adept at fouling pitches and draining pitchers.

But one argument invites my almost-undivided attention, from a fan in a forum who argued that if hitters would just think about “complete” hitting again, the game would move right along.

You might assume he means high-average hitters obsessed less with their launch angles than with just plain putting the ball in play, especially when he mentioned two Hall of Famers by name (albeit parenthetically) who had gaudy batting averages in their careers: Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs. And if the only thing you see is their batting averages (Gwynn hit .338 lifetime; Boggs, .328.), you’d think they sure did look like “complete” hitters.

Both men passed 3,000 lifetime hits (Gwynn: 3,141; Boggs, in two fewer seasons: 3,010) and have several 200+ hit seasons between them. (Boggs has seven; Gwynn has five.) Gwynn won eight batting titles and Boggs, five, though Boggs won those in his first six full seasons while Gwynn spread his a bit more before winning four straight in his ages 34-37 seasons. Boggs won those batting titles with averages of .357 or better; only Gwynn in the integration era hit .350+ more. (Six times.)

Boggs was better at reaching base than Gwynn, though. His on-base percentage (OBP) is 27 points better, and Boggs in two fewer seasons reached base 450 times more. Even cutting Gwynn a little slack for late career injuries plus aging, he’d have pulled up a little short of Boggs. Boggs led his league in times on base eight times (and all consecutively, for that matter, from 1983-1990) but Gwynn only did it once, in 1987. Boggs is just inside the top 25 and Gwynn is exactly 50th, at this writing.

As all-around players, Boggs leaves Gwynn far enough behind: he not only played a tougher field position but as of this writing Boggs shakes out as the third best all-around third baseman ever to play the game. (He’s behind Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews; George Brett would be number two if he hadn’t missed an estimated 251 total days on the disabled list over his career or been moved to first base and designated hitting for his final seven seasons.) That includes his having saved 95 runs lifetime at his position. Gwynn shook out as the fourteenth-best right fielder of all time, and a lot of that has to do with a staggering drop in his defensive effectiveness after 1992.

But back on the track. And, to the question of how we should really define a complete hitter. The longtime answer seems to have been that the complete hitter was the guy who hit for high enough average and for power. If that’s still any kind of true, where does it leave the Chicken Man and Mr. Padre, the hitting machines?

Allowing that scoring and driving in runs depend on the team around you, Boggs produced 167 runs per 162 games lifetime and Gwynn, 166. I was surprised at how close that is, too, considering Boggs was a leadoff hitter with better lineups behind him while Gwynn was a number three hitter who didn’t always have solid lineups around him. It’s to wonder how Gwynn would have done if he’d had, consistently enough, someone like Boggs on base ahead of him.

Gwynn averaged 36 doubles and six triples per 162 games; Boggs averaged 38 and four per 162, respectively. Before adding their handful of home runs, that means 20 percent of Gwynn’s hits went for extra bases to 21 percent for Boggs. Gwynn hit 543 doubles and 85 triples lifetime; Boggs, 578 doubles and 61 triples.

Now let’s throw in their home runs, acknowledging that this pair wasn’t exactly Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt, or Ken Griffey, Jr. Gwynn averaged nine homers per 162 games and hit 135 lifetime; Boggs, 8 per 162 and 118 lifetime. (That would make them feared sluggers . . . in the dead ball era.) Calculate the doubles, triples, and home runs, and you’ll discover that a full quarter of Boggs’s lifetime hits went for extra bases and practically a quarter of Gwynn’s did.

I have a hard time seeing two players who hit for extra bases only a quarter of the time as “complete” hitters. Consistency is one thing but completion something else. During the 1986 postseason, when Boggs’s Red Sox shoved their way past the Angels to win the pennant but lost that World Series to the Mets, the single most frequent description of Boggs during game broadcasts was “the major leagues’ leading hitter.” And he did lead the Show with his .357 average. But his 207 hits that season were fourth behind Don Mattingly, Kirby Puckett, and Tony Fernandez and ahead of his teammate Jim Rice plus Joe Carter (who tied with 200 hits each), and 27 percent of those 207 went for extra bases. The others? In descending percentage order:

Joe Carter—37 percent.
Don Mattingly—36 percent.
Kirby Puckett—33 percent.
Jim Rice—31 percent.
Tony Fernandez—24 percent.

Wade Boggs in 1986 had a lower percentage of extra-base hits than four out of the five top average hitters in the American League. If Vin Scully had known that or thought about that, and there wasn’t a broadcaster alive who thought more acutely or deeply about the whole game than he did, I don’t think he would have called Boggs “the major leagues’ leading hitter” quite as frequently as he did that postseason.

While I was at it, I took a look at Tony Gwynn’s 1986. He finished third in the batting average race (.329) behind leader Tim Raines (.334) and Steve Sax (.332); behind him were Kevin Bass (.311), Keith Hernandez (.310), and Von Hayes (.305). Gwynn led the league with his 211 hits, too, but 25 percent of them went for extra bases, right at his career average. In descending order, here are the other five:

Von Hayes—36 percent.
Kevin Bass—32 percent.
Keith Hernandez—28 percent.
Tim Raines—27 percent.
Steve Sax—25 percent.

Tony Gwynn finished third in the batting championship race, but one guy ahead of him and three guys behind him had higher percentages of extra-base hits, and one guy behind him had the highest extra-base hit percentage of the sextet.

(I bet you didn’t think it was Von Hayes, either. Fair play: It wasn’t Hayes’s fault the Phillies were foolish enough to trade five players to the Indians to get him, or that the Indians thought he was worth five players—including Julio Franco. That hung unrealistic expectations upon Hayes, which is always dangerous in Philadelphia. But he did have a have a respectable if not spectacular major league career—until a Tom Browning fastball broke his arm and reduced him to replacement level his final couple of years—and he also led the National League in doubles in 1986. In case you were curious, Hayes’s 1986 extra base hit percentage was four points above his career average. There was plenty wrong with the 1980s Phillies after they acquired him, but he wasn’t it.)

And that’s without pondering the leagues’ bombardiers who had considerably higher percentages of extra-base hits than those men did. For just one example, 42 percent of Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt’s 1986 hits (it was his next-to-last great season at the plate) went for extra bases, in the year he nailed his eighth and final league home run championship.

Just that isolated season and those results offer up a look at the big problem with batting average as the number one indicator of a hitter’s value. As Keith Law noted in Smart Baseball, batting average’s major flaw is treating all hits equally and telling you how often he gets a hit “ignoring times he draws a walk, gets hit by a pitch, hits a sacrifice fly, makes a successful sacrifice bunt, or reaches via catcher’s interference.” Or, reached when a catcher mishandles a third strike and the hitter beats the throw to first that would have finished that strikeout.

For me, I want to know more than just the frequency a hitter hits them. I want to know more than just the number of hits he got, more than just how often he hit safely. When Pete Rose busts the career hits record but only 24 percent of his hits go for extra bases, I’m not inclined to call him the Hit King no matter how many hits he totaled, no matter how many winning games he played in. (Rose loves boasting he played in more winning games than any. player. ever. And it tells you . . . almost nothing, or at least not much.) I want to know what they were really worth for helping his teams win. I want to know whether his or anybody’s hits put runs on the board or made it that much easier for his mates to put them there.

Forget the 1986 season; you can find a passel of lifetime .300+ hitters who don’t have batting averages as gaudy looking as Gwynn’s and Boggs but who had higher percentages of extra base hits. Exactly 40 percent of Hank Aaron’s (.305) and Willie Mays’s (.302) hits went for extra bases. George Brett shares Aaron’s lifetime batting average and 35 percent of his hits went for extra bases. Frank Thomas snuck into the .300 club (.301), but 42 percent of his hits went for extra bases; 39 percent of Chipper Jones’s (.303) hits went for extra bases (and he was a switch hitter in the bargain); and, 37 percent of Edgar Martinez’s (.312) and Mike Piazza’s (.308) went for extra bases.

Kirby Puckett, a direct contemporary of Gwynn and Boggs until glaucoma ended his career in 1995, sported a .318 lifetime batting average but with 29 percent of his hits for extra bases. Joe Mauer, who did a lot to heal Twins fans in the aftermath of sordid revelations about Puckett, following the latter’s untimely death, and who retired last November after an injury-compromised career, has a lifetime .306 batting average, and he had 28 percent of his hits go for extra bases. That puts them closer to Gwynn and Boggs and toward a possible definition of somewhat incomplete hitters.

You probably didn’t need me to tell you that incomplete hitters are just as capable of run creation as complete hitters. Run creation, as opposed to run production, measures everything you yourself brought to the table at the plate and on the bases: your hits, your walks including your intentional walks, the times you got hit by a pitch, your sacrifices, the extra bases you took on followup hits. Batting averages factor only your “official” at-bats, not your total plate appearances.

How did those players do when it came to creating runs? Here they are, in ascending order of runs created per 27 outs. (If you want a simpler way to see RC/27, think of it as how their teams would score in a typical game if they had nine of these guys in their batting orders.)

Pete Rose—5.8.
Kirby Puckett—6.1.
Joe Mauer—6.3.
George Brett—6.6.
Tony Gwynn—6.6.
Wade Boggs—7.1.
Mike Piazza—7.3.
Hank Aaron—7.5.
Chipper Jones—7.9.
Willie Mays—7.9.
Edgar Martinez—8.3.
Frank Thomas—8.8.

Now, look at those players per 162 games, and the outs they used up to create runs. The numbers are runs created first, then the outs they used to create each run. I’ll list them in ascending order according to the parenthetical list of outs per run created:

Edgar Martinez—129; 416. (3.2)
Chipper Jones—127; 432. (3.4)
Willie Mays—128; 436. (3.4)
Frank Thomas—140; 426. (3.4)
Mike Piazza—117; 430. (3.7)
Hank Aaron—123; 449. (3.7)
Wade Boggs—116; 436. (3.8)
George Brett—112; 459. (4.1)
Tony Gwynn—109; 442. (4.1)
Joe Mauer—105; 445. (4.2)
Kirby Puckett—109; 480. (4.4)
Pete Rose—101; 470. (4.7)

You are now free to move the Hit King designation away from Rose if you so desire. Sure he got more hits than anybody else who ever played the game. But he didn’t create as many runs as Gwynn and Boggs, whose careers began when Rose was at the end of the line; or, as many runs as Brett, whose career began while Rose was in the thick of his Big Red Machine seasons. He wasn’t worth as many runs as Aaron, Jones, Mays, Martinez, Mauer, Puckett, and Thomas, and he used up almost five outs per run created.

But do you notice that between Gwynn and Boggs, the so-called “complete” hitters, only Boggs between them used less than four outs per run to create runs? (And did you think or remember that Edgar Martinez was that good at using few outs a run to create runs?)It makes you wonder if Gwynn would have been more run creative if he had someone like Boggs setting the table for him. I bet you didn’t think Jones, Martinez and Thomas were that run creative, never mind that Jones would slot in right between Aaron and Mays, even if you had a pretty good idea without looking how run creative Aaron and Mays were.

You can also figure out how well these guys did when it came to taking extra bases on followup hits. You just have to know where to look. Baseball Reference has it for you, the percentage of extra bases these guys took at the next cracks of the bat after they reached base in the first place, listed here in ascending order:

Mike Piazza—27%
Frank Thomas—30%
Edgar Martinez—33%
Wade Boggs—37%
Joe Mauer—42%
Tony Gwynn—45%
Chipper Jones—45%
Pete Rose—49%
Hank Aaron—51%
Kirby Puckett—51%
George Brett—54%
Willie Mays—63%

You sort of understand why Piazza’s extra base percentage is so low: he played one of the three most physically demanding positions on the field and maybe the position that takes the most toll on a player’s legs. But Mauer was a catcher, too, until the injuries prompted the Twins to move him to first base, and his 42 percent lifetime matches his percentage when he was strictly a full-time catcher. In fairness, Mauer did have a few better lineups around him than Piazza often did, but Piazza wasn’t anywhere near as swift on the bases as Mauer was.

And it’s also fair to say Brett, Boggs, Jones, Mays, and Puckett each played a field position almost as physically demanding. Gwynn and Aaron were corner outfielders, their positions less physically demanding than center field, but Gwynn wasn’t as swift on the bases as Aaron was. Rose wasn’t even close to being that fast but he still got to within two percentage points of Aaron for extra base advancement. Brett and Puckett (who looked like ten pounds of hamburger in a seven pound bag his entire career) were faster on the bases than you probably remember.

But who knew Willie Mays was that good at taking the extra base(s) on the followup knock(s)? You knew he was swift; you know he’s behind only Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson as a power/speed combination, but did you really think he’d taken extra bases on followup knocks 63 percent of the time he was on base as well as hitting for extra bases 40 percent of the time while playing a field position at least as physically demanding as third base?

And I haven’t even thought about the 8,000-pound elephant in the room yet. This isn’t the place to examine or discuss actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, what they really did or didn’t do for those who used them (as opposed to what people only think they did or didn’t do) other than increased muscle here, increased recovery time there. I’ll split the difference and talk about the elephant’s career only through the end of the season before he’s suspected to have begun indulging the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances.

Here he is:

Barry Bonds, unsuspected/untainted:
42 % extra base hits.
133 runs created per 162 games.
8.8 runs created per 27 outs.
407 outs per 162 games.
3.1 outs per run created.

His batting average for the pre-suspicion seasons was .267; he’d hit 445 home runs to that point. He probably would have had better batting stats before 1990, but the Pirates made a drastic mistake: they looked at his power/speed combination, married it to his parentage (his father was a swift, power-hitting leadoff man; Bobby Bonds still has the number five power/speed number in baseball history) and his ability to take walks, and assumed he, too, was a leadoff man, slotting him into a lineup spot where he was clearly enough not quite himself.

In 1990 the Pirates wised up, listened to the man himself, and made him a number three hitter—and Bonds became Bonds. He even won his first National League MVP; with a league-leading 9.7 wins above a replacement-level player, slugging percentage, OPS, and a justly-deserved Gold Glove in left field. Here’s his 1990 season according to extra base hit percentage, runs created per 162 games, runs created per 27 outs, how many outs he used per 162 games, and how many outs he used per run created (* indicates leading the league):

44% extra base hits.
128 runs created per 162 games.*
8.8 runs created per 27 outs.
390 outs per 162 games.
3.0 outs per run created.

That put him at or around his untainted/unsuspected career level. Starting in 1990, too, Bonds never again struck out more often than he walked. He’d lead the league in walks five times between 1990 and 1999; he’d lead in OBP four, slugging three, OPS five, and intentional walks seven times. And he hit .301 from 1990-1999 while he was at it. He was a bona-fide Hall of Famer before the taint is said to have begun.

I’ve gone around several blocks, of course. And even looking deeper I’m not entirely convinced that there’s a single, no-questions-asked way to measure “complete” hitting. Even OPS doesn’t seem to satisfy me, though it’s worth a look at those players and their OPS, because I know you can put up a gaudy-looking OPS even if you’re not really that much of a slugger. Well, here they are, in ascending order, with their extra-base hit percentages in parentheses:

Pete Rose—.784. (24)
Joe Mauer—.827. (28)
Kirby Puckett—.837. (29)
Tony Gwynn—.847. (25)
George Brett—.857. (35)
Wade Boggs—.858. (25)
Mike Piazza—.922. (37)
Hank Aaron—.928. (40)
Chipper Jones—.930. (39)
Edgar Martinez—.933. (37)
Willie Mays—.941. (40)
Barry Bonds (pre-suspicion/pre-taint)—.965. (44)
Frank Thomas—.974. (42)

The players with 900+ OPSs generally hit for extra bases 35 percent of the time or better; George Brett is kind of an outlier in that regard.

Let me show you a few hitters—eight Hall of Famers, one who should be—who didn’t quite make it to a .300 lifetime batting average but did make it to .900+ OPS. Hitters whom the batting averages uber alles types would consider “incomplete” because they didn’t make the Magic .300. I put their batting averages in parentheses right after their names (notice how close to .300 five of these men got), and their extra-base hit percentage in parentheses after their OPSs:

Mike Schmidt (.267)—.906. (45)
Ken Griffey, Jr. (.284)—.907 (43)
Dick Allen (.292)—.912. (41)
Duke Snider (.295)—.919. (40)
Frank Robinson (.294)—.926. (40)
Ralph Kiner (.279)—.946. (43)
Jeff Bagwell (.297)—.948 (42)
Jim Thome (.276)—.956 (47)
Mickey Mantle (.298)—.977. (39)

I still don’t really know just how conclusive all the foregoing is. But I do think it’s reasonable to suggest that Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs a) were no-questions-asked great players; b) no-questions-asked Hall of Famers; but, c) need better evidence than the foregoing to present them as “complete” hitters.

When Dale Murphy talks, listen

2019-02-22 DaleMurphy

[I]f I can count on one hand the number of teams that genuinely tried to improve this winter, it’s an indictment of the offseason — and the game in general. Unless something changes, this problem won’t go away. It will only get worse.—Dale Murphy

There are always those players incumbent and retired about whom you can say that when they talk, the game ought to listen. Dale Murphy is one of those among the retired. And if he says baseball has a problem with free agency based on the past two off-seasons, baseball ought to listen.

As he writes in The Athletic, the Manny Machado deal should be something of a wake-up call for owners and players alike. Whether it will be is something else entirely.

Murphy begins pretty much by re-iterating an argument he’s made previously, that reinventing free agency would give the owners—whom he doesn’t believe are colluding now the way they were foolish enough to try twice in the 1980s—less time to sign free agent players. “After all, if nothing is going to happen for months on end,” he writes, “the game might as well regulate that as part of its offseason calendar.”

Sound as a nut. You probably didn’t need Murphy to tell you as he does that nothing happening when anything could happen can knock you down, but nothing happening because you have to wait for it to happen “builds suspense. The possibility and speculation would drive fans into a frenzy.”

Face it. Until Machado and the Padres tied the knot this week, nothing happened while anything could have happened when it came to some of the game’s marquee free agents. About the most exciting things to happen were the trading table moves the Reds and the Mets made. And suddenly both teams didn’t look like basket cases anymore.

The Reds went from nothing special to hey-look-us-over in one big deal with the Dodgers looking to re-arrange their payroll, not to mention a couple of moderate-level free agency signings, and Cincinnati actually believes the Reds could do something they haven’t done in a few years, make some legitimate racket in the National League Central.

The Mets went from six dozen in-house disasters to half a dozen potential improvements with a couple of clever trades and a couple of bargain signings, and so long as they can stay the hell off the disabled list—oops! the injured list—they’re liable to make some legitimate National League East racket this year.

Then the Padres and Machado tied the knot. And suddenly the rebuilding Padres looked as though contention might not be as far away as anyone thinks. And didn’t you become exhausted from the Machado/Bryce Harper cacophony well before Machado decided San Diego looked just right for him? Even Murphy might have.

But suppose nobody could touch any free agent until, say, January at all, or after the Super Bowl, the latter of which is Murphy’s own suggestion? (Presumably, Murphy has in mind a signing period no longer than January or the end of the Super Bowl to maybe the second week of spring training.)

“You don’t think that type of months-long chatter would be good for the game?” he asks, then answers. “Look at the NBA. Nothing — no trades, no free-agent signings — can happen until July, and all anyone is talking about in February is where Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis will end up. That’s telling.”

Murphy’s only too well aware that the days of the ten-year contract are gone, unless it involves someone as young as Machado, who’s not even 26 just yet. But does that mean the top drawer free agents of any offseason should remain unemployed as long as Harper, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, and Marwin Gonzalez (if you don’t think he’s top drawer, name me one better jack-of-all-trades on the market right now) have?

The owners aren’t wrong to shy from elongated contracts with players 31 or older; the Albert Pujols deal showed the pitfall of such a player starting the deal reasonably right but falling into an injury pit the way Pujols did. His legs and heels have reduced him to a designated hitter and a not-always-available one. That won’t hurt his Hall of Fame case, of course; the man was a Cooperstown lock before he signed with the Angels. But if the owners, as Murphy writes, are drawing a line in the sand about long term deals, the players might want to think of a line of their own.

It’ll take more than players not named Harper thinking about ten years and the equivalent of a tropical island economy. It’s not unrealistic for Harper to think that way considering he’s Machado’s age give or take a month or three. But if the owners really want to put the near-permanent brakes on decade-long deals, Murphy says, the players should put one pistol to their heads and compel them to make arbitration eligibility and free agency happen sooner than they do now.

The current rules let players go to arbitration after three seasons and to free agency after six. Murphy suggests changing it, respectively, to two and four. He may have something there. And it wouldn’t stop a club from gazing upon its newest and likeliest-to-last superstar and offering to extend him more than handsomely, or a player from deciding its worth pushing back his first free agency if the club wants him badly enough to make him that rich that soon. (You wouldn’t be shocked if the Red Sox offer and Mookie Betts accepts, would you?)

When the Messersmith ruling came down in 1975, even then-Players Association director Marvin Miller didn’t want to make players free agents right out of the chute after single seasons once the first free agency class was established after 1976. Nor did Miller want to deny the teams’ rights in players they developed for at least their first few seasons. Six seasons to a player’s first free agency seemed about right for a long time.

But that was then, this is now, and as Murphy says the owners can’t have it both ways. “They can’t control a player on the cheap for most of his 20s and then refuse to pay him once he hits 30,” the former longtime face of the long-enough-time woebegone Braves writes. “I expect this to be a point of contention during the next collective bargaining agreement. And if it’s not, it should be.”

I understand the appeal of young players, but I worry about guys who have been in the league for 6-10 years getting squeezed. These guys aren’t hanging on for one more year in the sun. They’re seasoned veterans who would bring leadership and production to any organization. Younger players are cheaper and more controllable, I get it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more valuable — or even a better value — than guys who have been around the block and understand what it takes to win, who understand what it means to be a professional.

Though Murphy didn’t attach a name to that, you just got a serious discourse in why the Nationals were as willing as they were to hand now-retired Jayson Werth seven years at $126 million entering the 2011 season. The game went nuts, even from those quarters who respected Werth as a man. The Nats knew better.

Werth was a good player who sometimes touched greatness as a ballplayer, when he wasn’t injured, but he was invaluable in policing a clubhouse and teaching younger men how to be professional without turning into the old gray flannel suits. He was good at doing what several Nat managers couldn’t. And he was good at calling out weaker but recalcitrant managers, too. (“When exactly do you think you lost this clubhouse?” he challenged Matt Williams, long after everyone but Williams knew he’d lost just that.)

They got to four postseasons in Werth’s seven years with them. Last year’s Nats seemed to sputter under their own weight much of the season, looking for clubhouse leadership that suddenly lacked or didn’t show up consistently. Former manager Dusty Baker drove the point home: “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.” They’d better hope that talk of newly solidified clubhouse leadership is equal to their playing potential this season.

“I’m not suggesting that owners spend money willy-nilly and give players whatever they want,” Murphy emphasises. “That’s not how business works, and there has to be some give and take on both sides.

“But if I can count on one hand the number of teams that genuinely tried to improve this winter,” he continues, “it’s an indictment of the offseason — and the game in general. Unless something changes, this problem won’t go away. It will only get worse.”

You get that Harper might not have to re-align his thinking toward a shorter-term deal especially with the Padres showing his agesake Machado the money and the years of commitment, never mind the opt-out clause Machado can exercise after five years. What you may not get is Kimbrel standing fast on big bucks and long years.

He’s been as lockdown as closers get. Or, he was, until last season, anyway. Look past his 2.74 ERA, his 13.9 strikeouts per nine, and his 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate on the regular season. His fielding-independent pitching (that’s your ERA when nothing’s considered but your strikeouts and your walks, folks) was 3.13, which would be terrific for anyone else—but was the worst of Kimbrel’s career. Before last season his lifetime FIP was 1.80.

He’s lost some hop on his fastball; his rates allowing home runs and extra-base hits at all were career worst; his ground ball percentage was likewise far below his career rate to that point; he started working out of the zone more as he went to his breaking balls more. For any other relief pitcher Kimbrel’s 2018 might look like a career year. For Kimbrel, it looked like the beginning of his decline phase.

And that’s before he turned a few postseason gigs too many into overtime for on-call mobile cardiac arrest units. (If nothing else, he owes Andrew Benintendi big for that diving catch that bailed him out of a potential bases-clearing, game-winning double by Alex Bregman in the ALCS.)

That’s not to say that a team looking for an established closer would ordinarily shy away from a Kimbrel. But it is to say that they’re not going to pay him for what was simply because what was is already far enough in the rear view mirror. Kimbrel can still be good enough for a contending team, but there’s probably no way—barring unforeseen miracles—he’s going to be even slightly above average for all of the six years and nine figures he’s said to want.

Still, speaking in general terms, Murphy isn’t even close to off base. He knows that you can justify some but not all teams being quiet in this year’s free agency market. He didn’t have to come right out and say it’s one thing for an established contender to stand predominantly pat (and several didn’t), but something else entirely for a woebegone team that isn’t as poor as you think not to think about improving the on-field product even a little bit.

“Whatever the next big signing is, whenever it comes, I’ll be happy,” he writes. “But I’ll wonder why it didn’t come sooner. And I won’t hold my breath for the next.” He may not be alone there.

The self-made, self-immolating Babe

2019-02-21 JaneLeavyBabeRuthReading of it in any kind of depth, Babe Ruth’s childhood was six parts David Copperfield and half a dozen parts Dead End Kid and not entirely of his own making. It turned him both larger than life and not quite as large as his legend, one of the unmistakable faces of the Roaring Twenties and one of the most deceptive American myths.

Cast into his home state’s child welfare system by parents about whom cruel would be a perverse compliment, Ruth’s latest and perhaps greatest biographer, Jane Leavy, writes that he couldn’t bear to question the kind of parents who gave up one of their only two surviving children out of several offspring.

Some such children often grow up in spite of their root and sorrow to become self-made successes as adults; others grow up to become self-immolating. The greatest baseball player of the game’s pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night ball era, left at seven years old to a group home for Catholic boys who called themselves its inmates, grew up to become both.

[H]e never shared his first impressions of St. Mary’s [Industrial School, to which his parents exiled the boy] with his family. He never spoke about what it was like to go from being one of two surviving children in a family defined by loss to being one of the many, what it was to go to bed that night wondering when or if he’d see that family again. He never said what it was like to sleep in ordered rows and dress in matching clothes, to share sinks and stalls in a communal washroom, to surrender to a system predicated on uniformity and routine.

As Leavy paints in detail rich, stark, and almost cinematic at once, in The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created (New York: HarperCollins; 620 pages, $32.50), Ruth might have been far more self-immolating had it not been for his manager/syndicator Christy Walsh forging him into outsized marketability while actively and mostly successfully keeping his client’s least engaging sides from exposure and condemnation.

“If the twenties roared,” Leavy writes, “it was in large part because of new means of amplification: bylined sports columns, screaming tabloid headlines, and radio frequencies that broadcast voices with unforeseen clarity from sea to shining sea, and beyond. Fame got bigger, louder, more personal.”

2019-02-21 BabeRuth

Even when he smiled, Babe Ruth seemed to show what one writer called “a certain pathos in his eyes . . . a child not quite sure that a rebuff is not waiting somewhere.”

Concurrently, she quotes an October 1927 column by the New York Daily News‘s Paul Gallico: “Ruth without temptations might be a pretty ordinary fellow. Part of his charm lies in the manner with which he succumbs to every temptation that comes his way . . . Ruth is either planning to come loose, is cutting loose, or is repenting the last time he cut loose. He is a news story on legs going about looking for a place to happen.”

The Babe was wholly unprecedented for marrying athletic achievement to metastatic mythology, the first man or woman in professional sports to be seen as an entertainer and a product, who “always envisioned for himself a bigger kind of stardom than baseball afforded,” as if being baseball’s first truly unquestioned king of swing in terms of power hitting was simply part time sufficiency.

A classic aphorism Leavy cites is E.B. White’s about the 1920s being a monument to modern man’s creative capacity for mischief, adding that Ruth was his time’s rule breaker in chief.

He never embodied the traditional public virtues that defined ancient celebrity, and he didn’t have to. Instead, he gave the public glimpses of a bad boy having the time of his life. Hadn’t they told him he was a bad boy? He did his adult best to fulfill the mandate: punching out umps, chasing after boobirds in the grandstand . . . sleeping with other men’s wives but ignoring his own. Everybody loved, forgave, and maybe envied the Babe for being himself.

If Hans Gumbrecht (whom Leavy cites deftly) was right when he wrote, in In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time, that Ruth “was an internationally innovative figure in the new twentieth-century stardom precisely because he was never qualified to fulfill the expectation of virtue,” then it must be that such stardom has aged poorly enough that no athlete, entertainer, or other public celebrity can get away now with everything for which Ruth got a pass and often still does. Those few who called it as it actually was about the Babe—as did The New Yorker in dismissing him as unfit “in any way to have a public”—would be ignored.

But even the hagiopgraphers Ruth and Walsh cultivated had limits, as at the end of August 1925, when the Daily News that was once described as being Ruth’s personal back page revealed Ruth’s comely full-time mistress (and second wife-to-be) and exploded the family man portion of the Ruthian myth, including the revelation that the mistress called on Ruth while he was hospitalised for (ahem) the world’s then-most famous stomach ailment while the then-Mrs. Ruth was also a patient there.

Yet there were such editorials as Frank Wallace’s in the New York Post, pleading that, well, this was Babe Ruth and he kinda sorta was entitled to a more nuanced perspective. There are few such apologies more jarring than Leavy extracts from Wallace’s essay: “His is a big soul made bigger by our applause. And a big soul needs room to roam. Smaller souls might well close their eyes at times like these and let these big souls roam; else they stifle and die and lose the thing that makes them big.”

Leavy’s graces include that she writes soberly and lyrically without wearing a judge’s robe, but it’s tempting to invite you to ponder today’s athletic greats shown behaving with similar depravity while flouting professional protocols and being made not into rakish, quintessentially American big souls but vermin weeks past the dates on which they should have been run out of town if not country.

2019-02-21 BabeRuthYogiBerra

The ailing Babe gives a handshake to a nervous Yankee sprout named Yogi Berra.

Ruth lived large and unaccountable but now, Leavy writes, the Daily News and the tornado-in-a-can it opened “put him on notice: he had to behave, or at least learn how to fake it.” Until his body threatened to go AWOL by 1935, he did just that at and away from the ballpark, somehow. He even allowed Walsh to put all his outside income in trust while limiting him to living and playing on his baseball salaries alone. (His second wife would see and raise, sort of: she limited him to $50 a week in his pockets.)

Leavy weaves the book around a barnstorming tour featuring Ruth and his Hall of Fame teammate Lou Gehrig leading teams of all stars against each other for fun and profit, Ruth cheerfully thumbing his nose at commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and at times the Yankees themselves for undertaking such tours. Barnstorming for Ruth was income and, in its way, social advancement: he thought nothing of pitting his all stars against teams of Negro Leagues all stars and other black talent. He knew it wasn’t his fault such talent couldn’t yet play “organised baseball” and wouldn’t so long as Landis was alive.

The further bad news is that all those years of behaving as a law unto himself may have cost Ruth a real chance at the one thing wanted most in baseball after his playing days ended. At the end of the 1934 season, his last as a Yankee, Tigers owner Frank Navin wanted to hire him as player-manager, figuring Ruth’s role as a player would end first. Ruth said he’d call Navin back only after finishing a tour of Hawaiian exhibition games. Navin hired Mickey Cochrane instead. The Babe let his faithful man Friday Walsh talk him out of accepting a job managing the Yankees’ Newark farm to gain experience enough that he might take over the parent club in due course.

Ruth fell for it hook, line, and stinker when the Braves, then in Boston, signed him as a part time player for 1935 to goose their weak gate and also gave him the title of assistant manager, without a single intention of letting him be such or of becoming the woebegone team’s manager at any time. We feel sympathy for Ruth having been treated so shabbily, but we temper it remembering that the very thing for which some editorialists believed he deserved his leeway may also have been the very thing that turned the game’s less capricious overlords against entrusting him with team management.

Leavy’s account of Ruth’s final decade plus of life is as sober as it is touching and revelatory, and you’ll wish only that she’d seen fit to include the whole of the Babe’s rasping farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, delivered from his cancer-eroded throat, with incumbent Yankees (including Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who posed nervously for a photograph with Ruth) up one foul line and Yankees past up the other, revealing the big kid humbled as a man at last:

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. You know how bad my voice sounds. Well, it feels just as bad. You know, this baseball game of ours comes up from the youth. That means the boys. And after you’re a boy and grow up to know how to play ball, then you come to the boys you see representing themselves today, in your national pastime. 

The only real game, I think, in the world—baseball.

As a rule, some people think if you give them a football, or a baseball, or something like that, naturally they’re athletes right away. But you can’t do that in baseball. You’ve got to start from way down the bottom, when you’re six or seven years of age. You can’t wait until you’re fifteen or sixteen. You’ve got to let it grow up with you. And if you’re successful, and you try hard enough, you’re bound to come out on top, just like these boys have come to the top now.

There’ve been so many lovely things said about me, and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you.

When Leavy asked Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum director emeritus Mike Gibbons which book about Ruth he considered definitive, he answered, “It hasn’t been written yet.” If we mean which book about Ruth the abandoned boy and Ruth the self-made/self-immolating man behind the mythology, and not purely the baseball player, it’s been written now.

Baseball wants spyball under arrest

2019-02-20 LeoDurocherBobbyThomson

Leo Durocher (left, with Bobby Thomson)—his spyglass-and-buzzer sign-stealing operation in the 1951 pennant race was a precursor to the high-tech espionage baseball now wants to try stopping.

“This is a simple game,” fictitious Durham Bulls manager Skip Riggins huffs at his stumbling players in Bull Durham, after jolting them following yet another loss by heaving a pile of bats onto the communal team shower floor. “You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.”

It’s so simple that assorted major league people sometimes do everything they can think of to out-wit the other guys, even with complicated gadgetry and a taste for larceny. And we don’t mean the basepath kind of larceny that earned Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson his nickname The Man of Steal.

High technology has its place in baseball, but it should also have its limits. So says commissioner Rob Manfred about new restrictions aimed at taking a big byte out of baseball espionage. Manfred thinks the new rules will help speed up games. They just might, but that’s not half as important as further ensuring games are played with pixelated pilferage kept less than minimal. If only.

Let’s be real. Cheating is probably professional sports’ oldest profession. Performers have sought every last edge about as long as they’ve sought the perfect swing, the best pitch, the most effective slide, the least penetrable game strategy. Enough of them have been willing to cross the line between mere gamesmanship and somewhat organised crime.

Baseball government will now ban non-broadcasting field cameras between the foul poles and squeeze in-house video. Boys will be boys, but Manfred thinks high-tech sign stealing got so prevalent last season that teams worried as much about playing Spy vs. Spy as they worried about playing baseball.

Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci says six teams were believed to be using center field in-house cameras aiming at catchers’ signs while “several other teams were under heavy suspicion. The sign stealing forced most teams to adopt multiple sets of signs even with the bases empty. Those signs were changed often, even within at-bats, which slowed the pace of play.”

Baseball already had a rule that you couldn’t steal signs from the dugout, the bullpens, or anywhere else that didn’t involve second base and a baserunner, or even the coaching lines. The new regs are aimed at cracking down on baseball’s version of cybercrime. Leo Durocher, call your office, wherever you are.

This isn’t the 1950s Phillies grounds crew sculpting the third base line into an incline to keep Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn’s deft bunts from going foul and, ahem, robbing him of infield hits. This isn’t the Giants’ grounds crew re-wetting the infield dirt but turning the first base area into a swamp to keep Maury Wills from stealing more bases than he already was against them. This isn’t even Graig Nettles doctoring a bat by loading the barrel with mini-Super Balls, or Mudcat Grant getting away with a soap ball until he overloaded the stuff inside of his road jersey and the warmth of the sun foamed it too visibly through the gray.

That stuff’s petty larceny. A clever baserunner or baseline coach catching and relaying signs to a hitter is just a clever baserunner or baseline coach. A camera/monitor/ computer/Apple watch/smartphone operation is espionage just short of planting a mole in the other team’s clubhouse.

At the turn of the 20th Century the Phillies were caught red-handed in a sign-stealing operation, or maybe that should be jelly-legged: third base coach Pearce Chiles had a jiggling tic in his leg on the coaching lines that the Reds finally noticed he had only during Phillies home games. Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran finally couldn’t take it anymore and went to start kicking at the coaching box until he struck a vein—a box full of wires that buzzed Chiles with stolen signs he could relay to his batters.

Durocher saw and raised the Phillies in mid-1951, when he discovered a recent Giants acquisition, reserve infielder Hank Schenz, owned a Wollensak spyglass he’d acquired during his World War II service and once used while perched inside Wrigley Field’s scoreboard behind the bleachers to steal signs for his then-fellow Cubs.

The Lip deployed coach Herman Franks to the offices above the back of the Polo Grounds’ deep center field, between the clubhouses, where Franks would train the Wollensak upon the catcher and then tap a buzzer picked up in the Giants’ bullpen, signaling reserve catcher Sal Yvars the signs to relay to Giants hitters.

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Hank Schenz, whose Wollensak spyglass handed Leo Durocher a pennant race espionage operation.

That scheme began when the Giants were thirteen games behind the first place Dodgers in the pennant race. Durocher audaciously asked his Giants whom among them wanted some stolen signs. Half the team actually did. (When Hall of Famer Monte Irvin refused to take them, Durocher thought he was out of his mind.) The Giants were a solid team in the first half, going 44-36 before Durocher initiated his espionage plan; they shot the lights out in the second half (54-23), including a sixteen-game winning streak, and their 40-14 record in August and September bested the Dodgers’ 33-26 in those months to force the pennant playoff.

The Dodgers actually smelled the proverbial rat early on. Cookie Lavagetto, a World Series hero turned coach for the Dodgers, later remembered the Dodgers so suspected the Giants were up to no good that they brought binoculars into the dugout to try catching the Giants in the act, until an umpire saw and confiscated them.

“Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!” snorted Thomas Boswell, reviewing Joshua Prager’s in-depth exposure of the plot in The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Ralph Branca, Bobby Thomson, and the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Ralph Branca had Durocher’s sign-stealing operation confirmed to him by a former Giant when they ended up teammates with the Tigers later in the 1950s. Carrying the infamy of surrendering Bobby Thomson’s pennant winning home run with uncommon grace, Branca went to his grave unable to bring himself to fault Thomson, who swore he refused to take even one stolen sign during the playoff.

Exposing the plot once and for all soiled the sweet friendship Branca and Thomson built over the years that followed (“I lost a ballgame, but I gained a friend,” Branca often said) in the final decade of Thomson’s life. (Branca died in 2016.) But Branca blamed Durocher and his immediate accomplices, Franks and Yvars, far more directly for the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

As if to prove that crime didn’t pay, after all, the Giants and their soiled pennant lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games, including two losses in the Polo Grounds, one of which was a 13-1 Game Five blowout. Durocher didn’t live to see himself elected to the Hall of Fame. It’s to wonder whether his signature moment as a major league manager (he managed thirty seasons all told, but won only three pennants and one World Series), that 1951 pennant race comeback and playoff triumph, should now argue for his removal.

The new regulations will also restrict live broadcast feeds to those provided each team’s replay official, using specially trained monitors. Verducci also says the new regs will also send game broadcasts to the bullpens and clubhouses on eight-second delays, bar monitors from tunnels and clubhouses, and require teams to audit every in-house camera, its purpose, its wiring, and where it can be viewed. Good luck.

Baseball government expects the new regs to come into final form in time to begin this season, after teams review and offer comments. But the game will always have its Houdinis and gangsters. (Not to mention spies in the seats, wielding anything from binoculars to cell phones.) They may even have to go back to the future, with buzzers and handheld spyglasses and blinkers, to continue their lives of crime.

And maybe Hank Schenz should be awarded a retroactive National League Most Valuable Player award.

 

Don Newcombe, RIP: The enemy within

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Don Newcombe, the first black pitcher to start Game One of a World Series, who could put racists in their place but couldn’t stop questioning himself.

Brooklyn Dodgers legend Don Newcombe looked and acted gruff on the mound but it masked a genuine sensitivity, to people in general and about his own triumphs and shortfalls. His successes were profound but his failures gnawed at him because, it seemed to him, people were more unwilling to forget them than they were to remember his triumphs.

If people were unwilling to forget, Newcombe himself seemed even less so. He could put baseball racists in their place with a well-timed knockdown pitch, but he couldn’t put himself in his own place comfortably.

He was the National League’s first Rookie of the Year, in 1949, when the award was made into one for each league; he was the first black pitcher to get the start in Game One of a World Series, also in 1949; he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner when it was introduced as a one-across-the-board prize for the game’s best pitcher at the end of the 1956 season.

But Newcombe, who died Tuesday at 92, was an intimidating looking 6’4″ who inspired writers to describe him in larger-than-life terms so often that whenever he came up short he was seen and written up as a grave disappointment. A deeply human man who wasn’t allowed to be human; a man too well aware of his flaws who wasn’t allowed to be flawed, who waged a quiet war with himself when he came up short time after time, no matter what, in some of the Dodgers’ biggest games.

“Though his build gave him a great advantage on the mound,” wrote Michael Shapiro in The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together,

it put him in that unfortunate position of being the object of unreasonably high expectations: like all big men, he was supposed to beat lesser men. And when he did not his failure could not be dismissed as a physical limitation, say, like Carl Erskine’s chronically sore shoulder. Worse still, Newcombe’s failures—like all pitchers, he did fail to win games his team needed—seemed to come in the big games. That is not to say that he had not won important games, many of them, and that he had been anything other than up to the task. But when the beat fellows broke out their record books and old scorecards it did not take long to notice that Newcombe had never won a game in the World Series.

Newcombe’s first World Series failure wasn’t even close to being for lack of trying. He took the distinction of being the first black man to get a Game One start and used it to fight the Yankees’ Allie Reynolds to a scoreless draw until the bottom of the ninth, with Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich leading off.

Blessed with a live fastball (and remarkable control of it), Newcombe also owned a curve ball with a break so ferocious that umpire Jocko Conlan once spent an entire game trying to catch Newcombe throwing spitters. Now, on 2-0, Newcombe threw Henrich one of those curve balls. And Henrich drove it over the right field fence. Game over.

“[Hall of Famer Roy] Campanella said, ‘You missed the first two pitches. Let’s give him your best stuff’,” Newcombe remembered to Peter Golenbock for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “And I threw him a curve ball. I had a good, sharp breaking curve ball. And I’d throw the same pitch to him today and dare him to hit it again. I’d like to see him hit it again. And he hit it over the right field fence. That winter we’d go around speaking, and I asked him if he knew what it was. He said, ‘No. All I knew, I hit what I saw.’ They didn’t call him Old Reliable for nothing.”

Newcombe lost again in Game Four when he couldn’t get out of the fourth alive, Cliff Mapes hitting a one-out two-run double and, a fly out later, Yankee pitcher Eddie Lopat hitting an RBI double. Those were nothing compared to arguably the biggest game of Newcombe’s career, Game Three of the 1951 National League pennant playoff. With a two-run lead, one out, and two on in the bottom of the ninth, Newcombe ran out of gas.

Much later it came forth that Newcombe said he was spent before he went back out to start the inning. Out came Newcombe, in came Ralph Branca (when bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth panicked over Erskine bouncing a curve ball while warming up), and into the short left field seats went Bobby Thomson’s three-run homer.

We know now that the playoff was made possible in the first place because Giants manager Leo Durocher installed an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that was instrumental in the Giants’ unlikely comeback from thirteen games out of first place. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! Thomas Boswell crowed after reading the Wall Street Journal column that first exposed the scheme, flipping broadcaster Russ Hodges’s famous radio call smack on its head.)

Shapiro recorded “many believed” the first seeds of Newcombe’s choking reputation were sown by Durocher himself, who’d managed Newcombe briefly with the Dodgers before managing the Giants.

[Durocher] possessed a cruel streak that he applied to good effect. It did not much matter whether, in fact, Newcombe choked, only that Newcombe could be made to feel like he did when he pitched against New York. If Durocher was the source, he did his work well because by 1956 the book on Newcombe was that while he possessed terrific stuff he lacked the courage to use it when it most mattered. Durocher knew enough about Newcombe to know that while he blustered, ranted, and postured, he was a sensitive man who looked at the strengths and triumphs of other men as indications of all that he lacked.

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Newcombe steadies himself with Sandy Koufax’s arm as they prepare to throw out ceremonial first pitches before Game Seven of the 2017 World Series.

“[T]he last thing in the world you want when you have a pitcher on the ropes is to give him a chance to compose himself,” Durocher would say in his memoir Nice Guys Finish Last, about that third playoff game, “and so I’m also screaming insults at . . . Don Newcombe . . . The truth is that I had been trying to get into a fight with Newcombe from the time we tied the score in the fourth inning. After every inning, I had waited for him to pass me on his way back to the dugout so that I could let him know what a choke artist he was.”

Newcombe himself once admitted to one of his most wounding flaws, a tendency to get a little careless on the mound when he had a decent-sized lead to protect. He could and would knock down the hottest hitter in the lineup if the opposing team threw nasty racial epithets at Newcombe and the integration-pioneering Dodgers, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t protect himself when a game began to catch up to him.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson and other teammates often had to ream him to get him enraged enough to bear down again. They must have had to do it often enough in 1956, when he won a staggering 27 games, showed a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and won all ten first place votes for baseball’s first Cy Young Award. (The award wouldn’t change to one award in each league until another Dodgers 27-game winner, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, won his third Cy Young Award for his final season, 1966.)

Yet Newcombe chafed over people crediting May acquisition Sal Maglie—long enough a hated Giant enemy but now purchased by the Dodgers from the Indians—with making the final Brooklyn pennant possible when he posted his final solid season including a no-hitter against the Phillies. Robinson and Newcombe were never particularly close (Newcombe’s best friend on the team was Campanella, with whom he’d played in the Negro Leagues and the minors), but Robinson got Newcombe’s frustration over that, saying as much to sportswriting legend Jimmy Cannon, then with the New York Post, near the end of the season:

He’s a very proud guy. I see where all the credit goes to Sal. Look, I know that without Sal we wouldn’t be where we are. I’m not taking anything away from Sal. But along the way they should have given some credit to Newk. He probably feels this way even though I haven’t spoken to him about it. If I was in his spot, doing what he’s been doing for the ball club and I wasn’t given the credit, I’d be burned up too.

Newcombe missed the 1952 and 1953 Series in military service. He got one start in the 1955 Series, the one that finally made next year this year for Brooklyn, and was handed a 2-0 lead to work with in the top of the second. It didn’t last; the two teams traded leads until the fourth, when Joe Collins homered for a 4-3 lead, then the Yankees went ahead to stay in the sixth, when Collins hit a two-run homer. Two batters and a triple later, Newcombe was out of the game. He didn’t appear in that Series again.

Then Newcombe was beaten twice in the 1956 Series, which also went seven games but also went to the Yankees, thanks in large part to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra hitting a pair of two-run homers off Newcombe in Game Seven. Both on 0-2 counts, both when Campanella called for Newcombe to waste inside deliveries to the notoriously bad ball-hitting Berra. Driven out of the game when Elston Howard homered in the fourth, Newcombe was too humiliated to stay in the clubhouse, showering and walking out to his car, accompanied by his father and by another Post writer, Milton Gross.

As the men climbed into the car, Newcombe apologised to his father. “What do you have to be sorry for?” asked James Newcombe, who worked as a chauffeur to raise three sons and a daughter in New Jersey. On the drive back to Jersey the three men listened as the Yankees finished what they started, a 9-0 blowout to win the Series. As he dropped his father home, Newcombe also apologised to his mother, who replied, “What’s to be sorry?”

Then, after Newcombe called his wife (he would marry three times in his life), he and Gross headed toward Newcombe’s own home. As Gross recorded in a remarkably sensitive column, Newcombe thought aloud about whatever it was he was still doing wrong. “I can’t put my finger on why I do it,” he said. “I was running in the outfield at the stadium the other day and a guy called me a yellow-bellied slob. How do you take things like that?”

I’ve written elsewhere that the sports goat business gets too far out of hand too often. I’ve also written that it usually comes from people who wouldn’t have even an eighth of the guts it takes to go out in front of a packed stadium and maybe millions more on television, next to radios, or listening online, and even try to do what the Don Newcombes did for entire careers.

You’d love to see whom among Joe and Jane Fan would have half the fortitude to even go out to the field, to the mound, to the plate, or into the dugout with the lineup card at all, never mind trying to do such a public job the way baseball’s too-condemned goats did. Like it or not, the one law of sports you can’t overthrow is that somebody has to lose. Like it or not, the best of men get beaten when doing nothing worse than their best just as the most modest of men triumph when least expected.

If Newcombe was too well aware of his flaws, if he was sometimes more bothered by those than comforted by his triumphis, it still speaks well of him that he went out to the mound in some of the biggest pressure games of his life and tried to do his job despite them. And, despite the salve to which he took that nobody on the Dodgers realised until he got momentarily unruly on the team flight to Japan for an exhibition tour following the ’56 Series: alcoholism, which actually began in his childhood when his father actually believed drinking beer would make the boy big and strong.

Newcombe kept another secret during the ’56 Series: he couldn’t throw his curve ball without pain. He’d felt a pop in his arm while pitching the pennant clinching game against the Pirates and started shaking off curve ball signs. On the Japanese tour, Newcombe said, “This choke-up and gutless talk is nonsense. I tried to win a game for them with a bad arm.” Only Campanella knew of the injury, and Newcombe refused to talk about it otherwise.

After a modest 1957 and a slow start in 1958, the latter the team’s first season in Los Angeles, Newcombe was traded to the Reds. By 1960’s end he was out of the majors and, after one season in Japan as an outfielder/first baseman, out of the game. Only in 1965, after he passed out and awoke to see his wife and children packed ready to leave him, did Newcombe finally stop drinking.

After working several years as an alcohol counselor for groups aiming to curb teen drinking, Newcombe rejoined the Dodgers as a community relations director and eventual front office advisor, and thrived on both while also enjoying numerous spring trainings as a special instructor and mentor. (He even helped Bob Welch, a former Dodger who’d earn 27 wins for the 1990 Athletics, recover from alcoholism.) But not long after he got sober to stay, Newcombe helped make Koufax’s final pennant clincher possible. Kind of.

Koufax was pressed into service on two days’ rest for 1966’s final regular season game, the second of a doubleheader in which fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale lost. Pitching impressively against the Phillies (plate umpire Doug Harvey would remember it as “the best exhibition of baseball I’ve ever seen in my life, it was privilege to call that game”), Koufax felt something go out of whack high in his back while pitching to the Phillies’ Gary Sutherland.

He ran into the clubhouse and gulped a handful of pain pills. It turned out he suffered a slipped vertebra. Newcombe just so happened to be in the clubhouse when Koufax came in and made for the trainer’s table. Newcombe and trainer Bill Buhler took hold of him on the table at either end, pulling like a tug-o-war until the disc slipped back into proper place, and Koufax finished what he started, a 6-3 win to nail the pennant.

He thanked Newcombe profusely after the game. “Don was a mentor at first,” Koufax said upon Newcombe’s death, referring to their relationship when Koufax was a green bonus baby, “and a friend at the end.”

I saw Newcombe once in my own lifetime. I took my young son to Dodger Stadium on a fan day during which you could meet and get autographs by assorted Dodgers, players and coaches alike by waiting in lines until you reached the next available Dodger. (My son got a ball signed by then-coach Jim Riggleman; he’d hoped for Shawn Green.) Newcombe sat at a table, a straw hat on his head and a Dodger jersey with his old number 36 around his torso. He bantered genially with the fans and seemed completely at peace in Dodgerland and with himself, belying his reputation for generosity and bristling at once.

It was a peace too hard won that didn’t have to be so hard. His number one enemy was the enemy within; the empathy and kindness he needed most was from himself. May the Lord’s angels shepherd him to an eternity of both.