How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob? At least $137.5 million worth of goodly.

2019-03-26 JacobdeGrom

Jacob deGrom, the fourth Cy Young Award winner in Mets history. (His company: Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, and R.A. Dickey.)

Before last year’s spring training, Jacob deGrom agreed to let his shoulder-length, corn broom-style hair be shorn. It was like Samson letting Delilah seduce him out of his locks. Except that when Delilah sheared Samson, he became weaker than a baby in the cradle. When deGrom got sheared, he became Samson.

Samson of course received more support from a forgiving God and His children Israel than deGrom received from his Mets last year. If Samson finally brought the Philistines’ temple down upon them (and himself in the bargain), deGrom must have felt on too many days and nights as though the Mets let the Philistines escape after he’d manhandled them yet again.

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob? They’re becoming five years and $137.5 million worth of goodly now.

Almost as soon as deGrom’s rotation mate Noah Syndergaard all but ordered the Mets to do right by their defending Cy Young Award winner, the Mets got serious and deGrom, who wasn’t optimistic about a new deal with the Mets before his self-imposed Opening Day deadline, gets rich.

It’s not quite the kind of rich the Red Sox decided to make Chris Sale, but it’s rich enough for a pitcher who’d merely walked the line between above average and excellent before 2018 but went off the charts and into Pedro Martinez territory during 2018.

The Cy Young Award voters chose wisely not to hold his team’s non-support against him; the Mets chose wisely at last in making him their new franchise face. DeGrom’s new deal includes an opt-out clause after 2022, his age 34 season. It also includes a no-trade provision and a team option for 2024.

Thus does deGrom join the pre-free agency extension parade whose participants include Sale, Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander, and, of course, the arch Angel Mike Trout.

Syndergaard unloaded Sunday, partially out of frustration that the Mets planned a promotional pre-Opening Day trip to Syracuse, when asked whether he was paying attention to his buddy deGrom’s contract status, knowing deGrom would have become arbitration eligible at the end of the season about to begin.

“Jake’s the best pitcher in baseball right now,” Syndergaard said. “I think he deserves whatever amount he’s worth. I want to keep him happy, so when it does come time for him to reach free agency, he stays on our side pitching for the Mets. I just think they should quit all this fuss and pay the man already . . . He’s really good. He’s a great teammate. I just don’t get it.”

The National League’s 2014 Rookie of the Year, and the fourth Cy Young Award winner in franchise history (the others: Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, and R.A. Dickey), has probably shocked a lot of people who thought upon his original arrival, among a known crop of up and coming young Mets pitchers, that Matt Harvey was going to be the prize nugget and deGrom one of his over-endowed supporting players.

Harvey had his moments but he became addled both physically and emotionally; the former sapped his pitching power, the latter finally punched his ticket out of New York and to Cincinnati. He’s been remaking himself since into a different pitcher and person before the Angels took a chance on him as a low-cost, single-season free agent for this year.

DeGrom has survived rotator cuff tendinitis (in his Rookie of the Year season) and ulnar nerve surgery (after the 2016 season) and was the only Met starting pitcher to avoid the disabled list (oops! the injured list) during their bloodied-and-bowed 2017. When he underwent the much remarked haircut before last year’s spring training, he was only kidding when he said it would add a little speed to his fastball. We think.

Whatever it did or didn’t do, deGrom’s 2018 wasn’t just off the chart, it was somewhere beyond the Delta Quadrant:

* Batters hit .198 off him.

* He led the entire Show with his 1.70 earned run average and his 1.99 fielding-independent pitching rate. (Once again: that’s your ERA when the defense behind you is taken out of the equation.)

* His 216 ERA+, which adjusts to all the parks in which he pitched last year, also led the Show, as did his rate of 0.4 home runs surrendered per nine innings.

* He was only the second pitcher in baseball history to post an ERA under 2.00, strike out 250 or more batters, and walk fewer than 50 batters in a season, since ERA became an official statistic in 1913. The first? You guessed it—Pedro Martinez.

* If you consider that surrendering three earned runs or less in a game equals pitching well enough to win, deGrom had 29 consecutive starts in which he did that, and he only surrendered three or more earned runs five times all season.

* Along the same criteria of pitching well enough to win, deGrom had twelve starts in which he didn’t earn a decision and in only two of those did he surrender as many as three earned runs. If the Mets had won those games while he was still the pitcher of record, deGrom’s won-lost record would have been 22-9.

* Bizarrely, deGrom wasn’t charged with his first loss until after he’d been credited for four wins over his first twelve starts. In only one of those starts did he surrender more than three runs, and in only one other of those starts did he surrender as many as three.

* The Mets went 14-17 in deGrom’s 2018 starts and his ERA in the losses was 2.13—according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time any starting pitcher’s ERA in his team’s losses over a full season was lower than 2.35. (DeGrom’s ERA in the nine losses he was charged with: 2.71.)

* I told you all that without mentioning wins above a replacement-level player. It isn’t a particularised statistic but, rather, a value developed to determine to the best extent possible a player’s total contribution to his team. DeGrom’s 10.1 led everyone in baseball last year except for Mookie Betts (10.9 and the American League’s Most Valuable Player award winner) and Mike Trout (10.2 despite missing time with a thumb injury). Come to think of it, four National League pitchers had more WAR than the league’s MVP winner Christian Yelich: deGrom, Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola (10.0), Washington’s Max Scherzer (9.5), and Colorado’s Kyle Freeland (8.2)

P.S. Only one first place National League MVP vote didn’t go to Yelich. Three guesses who got that vote.

I wrote it when deGrom won the Cy Young Award but it’s worth repeating: In 2018 he was Pedro Martinez 2000, Bob Gibson 1968, Sandy Koufax 1966, and the Mets treated him like the late Anthony Young 1992-93, when that hapless but courageous righthander was hung with losses in 27 consecutive decisions.

DeGrom’s run support per game while he was actually on the mound last year: 2.9. (For the entire games in which he started, the Mets averaged 3.5 runs.) The Mets should have been grateful he didn’t haul them into divorce court on charges of non-support. And deGrom still wanted to talk about staying a Met.

He got his wish, for this season and for the four to follow, five if the Mets pick up that 2024 option, which could make the total value of his new deal $170 million. And he gets to tangle with Scherzer on Opening Day while he’s at it. Jacob’s Ladder is going to be a lovely ladder to continue climbing. It would be even lovelier if the Mets, at last, field a team their best pitcher can be proud of.

Steve Howe, inadvertent executioner

2019-03-25 SteveHoweYankees

Steve Howe.

The Hardball Times has published a striking retrospective of the late Steve Howe, the uber-talented, uber-troubled, uber-addicted relief star of the 1980s who could tie hitters into knots but couldn’t untie the knot of cocaine addiction. And, who inadvertently sealed commissioner Fay Vincent’s doom in 1992.

“We can’t know for certain just what cocktail of mental health issues, genetic disposition, and poor choices led to Howe’s struggles in baseball,” writes Mike Bates in the Hardball Times essay. “But we do know playing baseball for teams that were not equipped to help him get better did not work . . . [T]he problem more than anything else: teams that wanted their player back more than they wanted their player to be well.”

What Bates didn’t address was how Howe’s seventh drug-related incident pushed Vincent out, at last, after the owners continued fuming over the commissioner’s intervention in the 1990 spring lockout, collusion, realignment, revenue sharing, and threatened losses in broadcast monies.

Allowing that baseball’s business might have been a powder keg not of Vincent’s making, Vincent’s tendency, as John Helyar noted in The Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, was to sit “passively waiting for issues to become a mess instead of getting ahead of the curve on them.” Enough of the owners then thought Vincent was somewhat out of control. Without even trying, Steve Howe helped convince them. And if you didn’t read Helyar’s book you might have missed the details.

Vincent magnanimously allowed the former Dodger relief star (and the National League’s 1980 Rookie of the Year), practically the poster boy for baseball’s cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, back into baseball in time for the 1991 season. His agent, Dick Moss couldn’t find takers including Yankee general manager Gene Michael until Howe and his wife just up and made their way to the Yankees’ spring camp.

Howe convinced someone to provide a catcher so he could show what he still had. The lefthander threw for ten minutes, got himself a non-roster spring training invite, and pitched his way into a new contract.

Considering Howe’s past, that achievement that defied belief. “He’s been clean for two years,” Michael told the New York Times at the time. “I asked a lot of people a lot of questions about him, his makeup, the type of person he is. I feel there’s been a lot worse things done in baseball than bringing Steve Howe back. If it was my son or your son, you’d want to give him another chance.”

“Our kids adore him,” Howe’s wife, Cindy, told Times columnist Ira Berkow, when Howe pitched his way from the Yankees’ Columbus (AAA) farm into a May call-up. “Everybody likes him. Even my parents, who suffered along with me. Steve’s a wonderful, caring, loving person. He’s just goofy and flaky and likeable and lovable. He’s just been very sick.”

Starting that May, Howe was better than even his vintage self in more ways than one. He appeared in 37 games, finished ten of those games, posted a 1.68 earned run average and a 2.34 fielding-independent pitching rate, and had a sub-1.00 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, until he suffered a hyperextended left elbow that finished his season in August.

Starting 1992 he was almost better: his twenty gigs through 6 June produced a 2.45 ERA/2.69 FIP with a 0.55 WHIP and a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, -.36 from his 1991 ratio. But it was something that happened during the 1991-92 off-season that took him out: his Montana drug arrest in December 1991. In June 1992 Howe pleaded guilty to trying to possess the drug, and Vincent finally banned him for life as a seven-time loser.

The players’ association filed a grievance based on Howe’s having been clean in numerous 1992 drug tests. Howe’s own agent Dick Moss handled the union’s side of the grievance and, during the 30 June hearing, engaged three Yankee officials—Michael, manager Buck Showalter, and a vice president named Jack Lawn—as character witnesses. Vincent was not amused.

You could forgive Vincent for thinking that Howe was a truly lost cause who’d just made him look foolish. But the way he struck back unnerved everyone around the game, the Yankees in particular. Banning Howe was one thing, but trying to force Michael, Showalter, and Lawn to change their testimony with a strong-arm disciplinary threat was something else entirely.

Showalter was in his Yankee Stadium office preparing for the day’s game against the Royals when Vincent called him and ordered him flatly to be at the commissioner’s office at eleven that morning. “We have a problem,” Vincent said, “with your testimony yesterday.” The same message was communicated to Michael and Lawn, after Showalter panicked to Yankee publicist Jeff Idelson (the future president of the Hall of Fame) and Idelson called Michael at home.

Equipped with a car phone, and after picking up Showalter and Lawn, Michael called the attorney Vincent rejected in a previous, non-related matter, Bob Costello. Costello told Michael there was no transcript of the Howe grievance hearing and, by the way, don’t go into Vincent’s office without a lawyer unless you’ve been taking suicide lessons.

“Keep in mind when you’re in there that there’s only one reason to call you on such short notice,” Costello warned. “Whatever you said yesterday displeases this guy. He wants to bring you in there and have you contradict what you said . . . And I’m telling you, when you decide not to talk about what our testimony was, he’s going to threaten you with discipline.”

Michael, Showalter, and Lawn thought together, more or less, he wouldn’t dare! Oh, yes he would. Vincent told each that he’d “effectively resigned from baseball” because they’d dared to “disagree with our drug policy” by standing as character witnesses for Howe. As he was quoted as telling Showalter, “You work for baseball; you work for this office when you sign a contract.”

All three made a point of telling Vincent they weren’t talking against baseball but for Howe himself. Which must have been ticklish enough for Lawn, a former Marine who’d formerly worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency. But when Vincent asked why Lawn even wanted to testify, he replied, “If a month from now I pick up a paper and see that Steve Howe killed himself, at least I would have known I tried to help.”

When Lawn told Vincent he was sworn to tell the truth, and “only testified in accordance with my conscience and my principles,” Vincent shot back, “You should have left your conscience and your principles outside the toom.” Helyar wrote that the “stunned” Lawn “fumbled in his shirt pocket for something to write on. He wanted to remember Vincent’s words precisely.”

After doing so on an index card, Lawn told Vincent he supported baseball’s drug policy when asked and didn’t contradict Vincent’s suspension power. Vincent’s aide Steve Greenberg actually told Lawn he “should know when you testify that you should say only certain things.” But when Greenberg demanded to know why Lawn spoke of drug addiction as a disease and why he went to bat for Howe? “Well, as I learned in the Marine Corps,” Lawn replied, “you don’t abandon the wounded.”

After debriefing Showalter, Michael, and Lawn by phone after the meeting, Costello called another lawyer with whom he’d been manhandled by Vincent on other Yankee business, Don Amorosa, and Costello gave it to him straight: “This guy has cooked his own goose.”

Vincent’s insistence on the immediate dressing down meeting meant Showalter didn’t get back to Yankee Stadium until four minutes before the game’s first pitch. And it hit the New York press like the grand slam the Royals’ Wally Joyner smashed in the second inning, making it 6-0 Royals. And, like the three-run homer Matt Nokes hit in the bottom of the seventh to help secure the staggering 7-6 Yankee comeback win.

That comeback win was less on the writers’ postgame minds than Vincent’s showdown with Showalter, Michael, and Lawn. Showalter had to stop at a Yankee official’s office to talk about the meeting and the threats and didn’t get to the dugout until the second inning, after Joyner—himself a former Rookie of the Year (with the 1986 Angels)—hit Tim Leary’s 2-0 service over the right center field fence.

Amorosa faced the press after the game and fumed that Showalter, standing right there, wouldn’t surrender to “intimidating tactics by Commissioner Vincent.” The New York scribes couldn’t have cared less if Vincent wanted to mop the streets and the subways with the then-banished Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, but keep your meathooks off the Showalters and Michaels who were trying to re-tool the Yankees back toward greatness.

The press pressure forced Vincent to back off his discipline threats. (He’d originally told all three Yankees they’d have to wait until the following Monday, five days later, before he’d let them know whether he’d execute them.) It also compelled him to order notices in baseball’s clubhouses saying nobody should fear discipline or retaliation from testifying with candor in grievance hearings.

But it also lit the powder keg of Vincent’s own execution. Those owners already itching to dump Vincent got new impetus and allies by his “manhandling of the Yankee Three,” Helyar wrote. “More no-confidence [in Vincent] memos came across [Brewers owner Bud Selig’s] fax machine. The conference callers turned to two big questions. One: How much support did they need to fire Fay Vincent? Two: Could they legally fire him?”

The answers were, in order: A two-thirds majority; and, yes, as long as they paid Vincent for the rest of his contracted term. Vincent said publicly he’d fight to the bitter end if there was one, but privately he discovered he’d lost key survival support from among former holdouts he’d personally helped solve knotty problems in the recent past. He saved the owners the trouble of firing him by resigning in September 1992.

Howe was reinstated after all. Arbitrator George Nicolau ruled that baseball failed to test Howe “in the manner it promised based on Howe’s documented case of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder,” as Forbes‘s Marc Edelman wrote in 2014. Howe had a none-too-great 1993 but got himself named the Yankee closer for 1994, having a splendid season, the near-equal of his striking 1991-92 work.

But he had a none-too-great 1995, was moved back to a setup role for 1996, and was released in June 1996 after 25 appearances and an obscene 6.35 ERA. He tried one more season in the independent Northern League, with the Sioux Falls Canaries, but called it a career after that 1997 season, after the Giants backed away from signing him following an airport incident in which he was found with a handgun in his luggage.

“Steve Howe was good to me,” now-Hall of Fame Yankee closer Mariano Rivera remembered in 2013, seven years after Howe’s death. “Steve Howe was real good to me. Always was there, making sure I was doing the right things and motivating me always to do what is right and to go with everything that you have.”

Howe could help anyone except himself. There are those who can overthrow drug addiction successfully and those who can’t no matter how often and how hard they try. Howe couldn’t.

Almost ten years after his baseball career ended, working his own framing contracting business in Arizona, Howe was leaving California for home when his pickup truck rolled over in Coachella, ejected him, and landed on him, killing him at 48. Toxicology reports said there was methamphetamine in his system.

The obituaries said everything about how Howe sealed his own fate and almost nothing about how he inadvertently sealed Fay Vincent’s.

The Red Sox keep their Sale going

2019-03-23 ChrisSale

Chris Sale, starting the party after striking out the side to finish the Red Sox’s 2018 World Series triumph. The Olde Town Team’s extended him for five years and $145 million.

He only finished the World Series by striking out the side to finish Game Five. But the real signature moment for Chris Sale, one of the best pitchers in the American League for several seasons and counting, came in Game Four, when he wasn’t even a pitching topic.

Bottom of the sixth. Yasiel Puig has just hit a three-run homer halfway up the left center field bleachers, and it looks like the potential Game Four-winning blast. Red Sox starter Edwin Rodriguez slams his glove to the ground in self-disgust as Puig starts running the bases after his celebratory bat flip. Dodger Stadium sounds like the roaring of jet engines at not-so-nearby Los Angeles International Airport.

Sale in the Red Sox dugout sees real cause for real alarm. He’s on his feet and, shall we say, talking. And it sure doesn’t look like he’s giving the kind of soothing reassurances in which long-enough retired David Ortiz bathed his mates during Game Four of the 2013 Series. His precise words couldn’t be captured unless you were sitting behind the Red Sox dugout, but the words two f@cking pitches! were picked up somehow. Possibly a reference to the Red Sox being held to two hits to that point by Dodger starter Rich Hill.

This may have been the only time on record in which a pitcher hollered, cussed, browbeat, or all-the-aboved his team into turning a 4-1 deficit that looked like it was going to tie the Series at two games each into an explosive late comeback of a 9-4 win to push the Dodgers onto the brink of the elimination into which they’d be bludgeoned in Game Five.

The comeback win that ended with Sale striking out Justin Turner, Enrique Hernandez, and Manny Machado uninterrupted, with only Hernandez making it interesting by wrestling Sale to a full count before swinging and missing. Sale zipped Turner on three straight pitches and magnanimously allowed Machado one ball before zipping him, too.

Now Sale’s zipped his signature on the dotted line and landed himself a five-year, $145 million extension with the Red Sox.

The Olde Towne Team has decided the shoulder inflammation which limited Sale’s service availability down the stretch last season—and probably took him out of the Cy Young Award running, since he was disabled after missing two post-All Star starts and then again after a five-inning shutout performance against the Orioles, but still led the league with his 1.98 fielding-independent pitching rate despite not quite pitching enough for title or award consideration—is as past as Sale himself swears it is.

The average $29 million annual value of Sale’s new deal puts him behind only Zack Greinke ($34.4 million AAV), Clayton Kershaw ($31 million AAV), David Price ($31 million AAV), and Max Scherzer ($30 million AAV). It may also mean he may be underpaid if he lives up to the valuations conjugated by FanGraph’s Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection that Sale through age 35 (when the new deal expires) may yet be worth a sliver short of an average annual 5.0 wins above a replacement-level player over the life of the deal. (Lifetime, Sale has 43.0 WAR and has finished top ten five times in his nine-season career to date.)

At this writing Sale leads all active starting pitchers with his 10.9 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate and his 5.31 strikeout-to-walk rate; only Kershaw’s is better than his lifetime 2.89 ERA and +144 ERA plus. He may also be among the leaders among active pitchers disinclined to talk about themselves above or beyond the game on the mound and the field. Like Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, Sale’s least favourite subject of conversation is himself.

“He spent a good 10 minutes explaining why, he’s sorry, but it’s just too awkward to talk about all the things he doesn’t like to talk about,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, who tried to ask, anyway. “The quiet acts of kindness. The bold moments of leadership. The goofy interactions that are difficult to square with a player who’s so serious about his craft. Sale doesn’t like to talk about himself, and the ramifications of that personal preference are really not his concern.”

When two members of the Red Sox’s media relations department ran the Boston Marathon for charity, Sale whipped out his checkbook and wrote big checks to each—without being asked.

When teammate Eduardo Nunez’s older of two young sons approached Sale and asked for some pitching advice earlier this spring training, Sale forgot how gassed he was from a strenuous bullpen and workout session, put down his phone, and asked the kid to show his mechanics. Then, Sale talked to the lad about pitching philosophy, patience, and the art itself.

But if you’d asked the Red Sox about just what Sale said during his Game Four dugout dump, you get a lot of contradictory answers. As The Athletic‘s Boston reporter Jen McCaffrey recorded after Game Four, it all added up to Sale trying to fire his teammates back up, but just how he did it depended upon whom you asked.

“I couldn’t tell you what he said,” said Mitch Moreland, who had a monstrous three-run homer of his own to pinch hit half an inning after Puig exploded. “I’m sure it was something to fire us up, and obviously it worked. So it was a good one for us.”

“Chris, in the dugout screaming?” said manager Alex Cora, with a reported smirk. “My English is very limited, so I didn’t understand what he was saying.” (Cora’s English is, of course, very, very good.)

“I was definitely there. At that moment that was huge because it motivated us,” said Rafael Devers, who would pinch hit and bust a four-all tie with a single to start that five-run Game Four Red Sox ninth. “It scared me a little bit because I had never seen him yell like that and the words that he was saying, I had never heard that come from him before. But, you know, we came out sluggish and that moment helped us get motivated for the rest of the game.”

And, the Series.

That’s what the Red Sox bought with $145 million over five years. A marksman on the mound. A heart and soul man off the mound. And, if need be, the guy who’ll rip you a few new ones in the dugout if he thinks you look slack or listless with a World Series potentially on the line.

Goodbye until Cooperstown, Ichiro

2019-03-21 IchiroSuzuki

“I am honored to end my big league career where it started, with Seattle, and think it is fitting that my last games as a professional were played in my home country of Japan. I want to thank not only the Mariners, but the Yankees and Marlins, for the opportunity to play in MLB, and I want to thank the fans in both the U.S. and Japan for all the support they have always given me.”—Ichiro Suzuki’s retirement statement.

The good news is that we’ll be spared one of those slightly garish farewell tours such as those attached to several longtime baseball greats in the past decade. The bad is that we’ll still be without Ichiro Suzuki from now on.

“His retirement is bittersweet,” Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. is quoted as saying, “but I need another member to the Hall of Fame so I am looking forward to that. I got one this year and now I just have to wait a few more years for my other guy to get there.”

Griffey refers, of course, to Edgar Martinez, who’ll be inducted into Cooperstown in July, and Ichiro, who retired after suiting up for the Mariners one more time to play a pair of major league season openers against the Athletics in his native Japan this week.

Retiring wasn’t exactly as simple for Ichiro as it once was to send some base hits all over the outfield or run down flies to right or steal bases like they had his name on them. Neither was becoming a professional baseball player, as dearly as he’s loved the game.

Going out hitless in two games and with no on-base presence but a walk in his farewell play probably wasn’t quite the way he wanted to end the career that’s going to put him into the Hall of Fame. Growing up under a training regimen imposed by his father that he himself once said on the record “bordered on child abuse” makes a hitless pair of final games seem like a leisurely stroll.

Paradoxically, Ichiro kept much of what his father taught him to do as his adult training and conditioning regimen. At the same time, he became known around the game for a quirky wit and a penchant for ribaldry, most notoriously in pre-game pep talks he’d unhorse in All-Star clubhouses that left his fellow All-Stars gasping for air from laughing so hard.

That from a man who refused to slam his bat out of frustration whenever he came up short at the plate because it would be (his words) like a carpenter throwing his tools around. A man whose wife once said she’d hear him crying in his sleep during slumps. A man who has said often enough that without baseball he would die.

There’ve been those who know him well enough testifying that his obsessive communion with baseball’s history is partially what ESPN: The Magazine writer Wright Thompson wrote, in a jarring profile over a year ago, was finding a way to “fill the place once occupied by his father.” (Father and son have been estranged both by the childhood brutalitarianism and by the father once mismanaging the son’s finances into a six-figure back-taxes bill; Ichiro’s wife now handles those.)

Ichiro’s visited the Hall of Fame the way children love to visit their grandparents—as often as he can. He’s done it more than any active player. And he spends his time there cradling items such as a bat used by George Sisler (whose single-season hits record Ichiro broke) and a glove used by Lou Gehrig. Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson swears Ichiro was trying to get into their long-departed heads in the moments they used those items.

On a Mariners road trip once upon a time, Ichiro went out of his way to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and, while he was at it, forge a friendship with the late Buck O’Neil. There are American and other-origin players today who don’t have that deep a feel and sense of baseball’s history. And this is a man who’s revered in his native land the way Americans revere Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Hank Aaron

Braden Bishop can tell his grandchildren that his first official major league appearance was replacing Ichiro in right field in Ichiro’s next-to-last major league game, a slugfest the Mariners won 9-7. The following day, the Mariners beat the A’s 5-4; Ichiro went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

His American career began with a phalanx of Japanese media following every move and more rounds of tacky jokes and skepticism than his accomplishments since have obscured. There were those who said major league pitching would tie him up into a package marked “Return to Sender.”

Fat chance. In fact, I can think of a trio of Hall of Famers he wore out at the plate whenever he faced them: Greg Maddux (.667 BA), Randy Johnson (.444), and Mariano Rivera (.400). As a matter of fact, on 18 September 2009, down the stretch of a season that ended with the Yankees winning the World Series, Ichiro beat The Mariano in the bottom of the ninth with . . . a two-run homer that landed about fifteen rows up the right field seats.

If you consider as I do that a real batting average should add your total bases (which account for your hits on their terms, as opposed to traditional batting average treating all hits equally which they aren’t), walks, and sacrifices and divide by your plate appearances, Ichiro’s .449 is still ahead of a few Hall of Famers, though it’d be the lowest among Hall of Fame right fielders when he’s elected.

It’d be higher if he was any kind of real extra base hitter; only 19 percent of his lifetime major league hits have gone for extra bases, and his legs probably did as much as anything else to leave him the active leader in career triples after last season ended. (His 3,000th major league hit was a triple, in August 2016, and just missed being a home run by a couple of feet.)

He left the Mariners for the first time after asking for a trade, knowing the team needed a rebuild and knowing he was as frustrated with their post-2002 slumpings as some teammates were with his frustration. He became a useful Yankee and an even more part-time spare part Marlin; he returned to the Mariners last year but played only fifteen games before being moved to the front office. Not the way you imagined baseball’s international hit king to go gently into that night as good and gray as Ichiro himself is now.

Best to remember the student and lover of the game running down balls in right field, stealing bases, entertaining fans in pre-game warmups by catching balls behind his back, or taking that singular batter’s box stance. Holding his bat out with his right hand as if holding a torch to light your way through a thicket. Moving into hitting position with his hands out a bit from the left side of his head, a hair above his shoulder, the bat angling above the shoulder. Lifting his front leg bent at the knee almost against his left knee. Stepping forward with his front foot hitting the ground a split second before swinging.

Fair disclosure: I did see Ichiro hit one out live and in person once upon a time. I took my son (then ten years old) to see the Angels against the Mariners, 31 July 2004. Early in the game, my son hollered “Hit a home run, Vladimir Guerrero!” when the Hall of Famer led off the bottom of the fourth—and Vlad the Impaler did exactly that, hitting Travis Blackley’s 3-1 service over the left field fence. By the top of the ninth the Angels led 7-6 and Ichiro led off against the Angels’ veteran then-closer Troy Percival.

Bryan wasn’t about to root for Ichiro no matter how good he knew Ichiro was, of course, being the die-hard Angel fan he still is. But this time he jolted with the entire ballpark when that swing hit Percival’s first pitch into the right field bleachers. Even Bryan was impressed, hollering wildly just for the thrill of seeing such an unlikely bomb. And after Ichiro crossed the plate, with extra innings looming, Bryan asked if we could amble down from the upper deck to get a choice seat, maybe, behind the left field bullpens.

With a lot of the crowd beginning to pour out of the ballpark I thought, well, why not? Except that the crowd leaving the ballpark was thick enough to take us two innings to get to that portion down below. Somewhere in there, Bret Boone singled Ichiro home in the top of the eleventh to put the Mariners up, 8-7, as we were told upon arrival down below.

Bryan and his father had barely sat down in a place behind the bullpens when, with Curtis Pride aboard on a leadoff single off the redoubtable Mariners reliever Eddie Guardado, Jose Guillen sent an 0-1 service into those bullpens for the game.

The man who’d proven Japanese position players could play and thrive in the American major leagues (pitchers had already done so) fought the inevitable end as long and sometimes as painfully as he could. But that Saturday afternoon he made a huge impression on my son (and his father) despite wearing enemy colours.

Thanks for that memory and for the Hall of Fame career, Ichiro. Here’s to a post-baseball life of peace that you’ve earned richly, and don’t let anyone take it from you.

The biggest Trout in baseball’s river

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Photographed by yours truly at Angel Stadium, Trout begins a swing that hit one over the left center field fence.

Those looking forward to any kind of bidding war for baseball’s best player after the 2020 season, sorry to disappoint you. Really. Bryce Harper looking forward to him joining up with the Phillies, about an hour south of where he was born and raised, can quit looking now.

When the Phillies signed Harper for thirteen years and $330 million, I suggested that plus the Manny Machado deal in San Diego (ten years, $300 million) would do Mike Trout the biggest favour of anyone. And if ESPN’s Jeff Passan is right, and the Angels are putting the finishing touch on a contract extension that’ll pay him $36 million a year for ten years after his current deal expires after the 2020 season, then I was right, too.

The one supposition in baseball today that nobody was going to contradict is that Trout was going to be an extremely wealthy young man. In human terms, he’ll still be a young man when the extension finishes its course, though in baseball terms he might be a senior citizen at age 40.

Including his 2019 and 2020 salaries Trout has $430 million coming until 2030. And he probably agreed to take less than he’s actually worth, which tells you the state of free agency now, but that wasn’t exactly Trout’s obsession. Staying with the only team he’s ever played for was probably far more important. For himself and for the game itself, since single-team careers were actually as comparatively rare before free agency as after. (And, yes, you can look it up.)

And if he keeps playing for at least half the term at the level he’s played since his first full major league season, Trout will graduate from legend to demigod, a status from which he’s not exactly long distance as it is now.

I’ve been tinkering with the concept of a real batting average for awhile. My original formulation didn’t quite satisfy, because I thought I needed to draw a better bead on figuring what a batter actually does by and for himself at the plate. The traditional batting average’s flaw is that it really should be considered a hitting average: it divides hits by official at-bats and treats all hits equally. Stop me if you get the idea at once.

But 1) all hits are not equal; and, 2) batters also draw unintentional walks and, believe it or not, perform sacrifices. If that seems like I’m approaching on-base percentage, yes, OBP is really a better way to measure a batter but it, too, accounts solely for official at-bats. So, out goes my original idea and in comes this measure: total bases (TB) plus walks (BB) plus sacrifices (SAC)  divided by plate appearances. Or, TB + BB + SAC / PA. Yes, I can think of any number of my childhood math teachers who’d need psychiatric attention after seeing me tinkering this way, since I was about as good a math student in school as B.B. King was at playing a vibraphone.

I’ve spent the past couple of days examining by that formula every Hall of Fame position player who played the majority of their careers in the post-World War II/post-integration/night baseball era. Here are the tables:

CATCHERS PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Ivan Rodriguez 10270 4451 513 107 .494
Gary Carter 9019 3497 848 132 .496
Carlton Fisk 9853 3999 849 105 .503
Yogi Berra 8359 3643 704 53 .526
Johnny Bench 8674 3644 891 101 .534
Roy Campanella 4815 2101 533 48 .557
Mike Piazza 7745 3768 759 45 .590
HOF AVG         .529

 

FIRST BASEMEN PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Tony Perez 10861 4532 925 115 .522
Orlando Cepeda 8698 3959 588 78 .532
Eddie Murray 12817 5397 1333 130 .535
Willie McCovey 9692 4219 1345 75 .582
Harmon Killebrew 9833 4143 1559 77 .588
Jeff Bagwell 9431 4213 1401 105 .606
Jim Thome 10313 4667 1747 75 .629
HOF AVG         .571

 

SECOND BASEMEN PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Bill Mazeroski 8379 2848 447 157 .412
Nellie Fox 10351 3347 719 256 .418
Red Schoendienst 9224 3284 606 116 .434
Craig Biggio 12504 4711 1160 182 .484
Rod Carew 10550 3998 1018 192 .494
Ryne Sandberg 9282 3787 761 102 .501
Roberto Alomar 10400 4018 1032 245 .509
Joe Morgan 11329 3962 1865 147 .527
Jackie Robinson 5804 2310 740 113 .545
HOF AVG         .489

 

SHORTSTOPS PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Luis Aparicio 11230 3504 736 177 .393
Ozzie Smith 10778 3084 1072 277 .411
Phil Rizzuto 6719 2065 651 195 .433
Pee Wee Reese 9470 3038 1210 176 .467
Alan Trammell 9376 3442 850 200 .479
Robin Yount 12249 4730 966 227 .484
Cal Ripken 12883 5168 1129 137 .499
Barry Larkin 9057 3527 939 126 .507
Ernie Banks 10395 4706 763 141 .540
HOF AVG         .414

 

THIRD BASEMEN PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Brooks Robinson 11782 4270 860 225 .455
Wade Boggs 10740 4064 1412 125 .522
Ron Santo 9397 3779 1108 107 .531
George Brett 11625 5044 1096 146 .541
Eddie Mathews 10100 4349 1444 94 .583
Chipper Jones 10614 4755 1512 100 .600
Mike Schmidt 10062 4404 1507 124 .600
HOF AVG         .547

 

LEFT FIELDERS PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Lou Brock 11240 4238 761 93     .453
Tim Raines 10359 3771 1330 115 .504
Rickey Henderson 13346 4588 2190 97 .515
Carl Yastrzemski 13992 5539 1845 118 .536
Jim Rice 9058 4129 670 99 .540
Billy Williams 10519 4599 1045 81 .550
Willie Stargell 9027 4190 937 84 .577
Ralph Kiner 6256 2852 1011 16 .620
Ted Williams 9788 4884 2021 25 .708
HOF AVG         .555

 

CENTER FIELDERS PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 130 .465
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 81 .509
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 142 .512
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 45 .562
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 110 .592
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 84 .597
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 104 .611
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 61 .636
HOF AVG         .561

 

RIGHT FIELDERS PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Tony Gwynn 10232 4259 790 130 .506
Roberto Clemente 10211 4492 621 102 .510
Dave Winfield 12358 5221 1216 114 .530
Al Kaline 11596 4852 1277 149 .541
Reggie Jackson 11418 4834 1375 81 .551
Vladimir Guerrero 9059 4506 737 64 .586
Frank Robinson 11742 5373 1420 119 .587
Hank Aaron 13941 6856 1402 142 .603
Stan Musial 12718 6134 1599 88 .615
HOF AVG         .559

 

DHs PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Paul Molitor 12167 4854 1094 184 .504
Harold Baines 11092 4604 1062 108 .520
Edgar Martinez 8674 3718 1283 87 .587
Frank Thomas 10075 4550 1667 121 .629
HOF AVG         .560

The average RBA among all those 69 Hall of Famers is .532. Eleven of them have RBAs of .600 or better: in ascending order, Chipper Jones (.600), Mike Schmidt (.600), Hank Aaron (.603), Jeff Bagwell (.606), Willie Mays (.611), Stan Musial (.615), Ralph Kiner (.620), Jim Thome (.629), Frank Thomas (.629), Mickey Mantle (.636), and Ted Williams (.708), with Williams the only one of the group above .700.

Now, I give you the $430 million Angel through the end of last season:

  PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Mike Trout 4673 2219 998 44 .698

Think about that a moment. In terms of a real batting average, accounting for all his plate appearances, the real value of his hits, plus his walks and sacrifices, Mike Trout has a higher real batting average than all but one post-World War II/post-integration/night baseball-era Hall of Famer, and he’s only behind Ted Williams by ten points while being ahead of runner-up Mickey Mantle by 31 points. (And, to put things into further perspective, Trout’s home ballpark isn’t exactly a hitter’s paradise.)

In case you were wondering, here’s where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the big nuggets of this winter/spring’s free agent class (whose home ballparks until now haven’t exactly been hitters’ paradises, either, though Nationals Park is more neutral), happen to sit lifetime so far:

  PA TB Walks Sacs RBA
Bryce Harper 3957 1693 585 43 .587
Manny Machado 4074 1810 296 43 .527

Bet on it: If Trout had hit his first free agency this winter/spring, Harper and Machado would have been footnotes by comparison. All three have played in all or parts of the same number of major league seasons (seven), all three have been considered among the game’s elite, but Trout leaves Harper and Machado far enough behind that they’ll need GPSs to keep an eye on him.

Now we can mention the secondary details, such as Trout is going to earn the highest average annual salary on the extension in baseball history, for now. Not to mention all reporting on the deal saying that Trout’s extension, like Harper’s new deal, has no opt-out clause and full no-trade protection. And, we can think aloud about the reasons beyond his baseball virtuosity that Trout was shown that kind of money: he may be the one player in baseball above all others now who couldn’t care less about it.

Baseball may have a real problem in making its best player the game’s face, but Trout isn’t exactly in a big hurry to cash in on the idea and never really was. If he got endorsements and television spots off the field, he didn’t go out of his way to hunt anything more. They came to him, he’d accept, but he wouldn’t lobby for more endorsements, bigger dollars from them, more branding from them. He’s the lowest maintenance superstar baseball’s seen in a couple of generations.

Maybe the only extravagance Trout was ever known to indulge (his known passion for meteorology is just that, a passion) was his proposal to the young woman who’s been his love since high school and his wife since December 2017—he hired a skywriting team to pour out, “Will you marry me Jess?”

Now, if only the Angels, who aren’t exactly in the poorhouse despite deciding to make Mike Trout worth the economy of a single tropical paradise, can figure out a way to build a team baseball’s best player and the no-questions-asked best ever to wear an Angel uniform can be proud of.