About Jeff Kallman

Member, Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and the Society for American Baseball Research.

2023 BBWAA Hall ballot: Jones, Rolen return and belong

Anticipating the arrival of my 2023 Hall of Fame ballot from the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (yes, it’s merely ceremonial, but still), the Baseball Writers Association Hall ballot has been released. There are two players returning on the ballot who belong in Cooperstown absolutely, no further questions asked.

Tomorrow: the newcomers. Wednesday: the rest of the returning class. Now, the two returning guys who deserve their plaques post haste, especially the center fielder who killed the most runs of all.

Andruw Jones

Andruw Jones

This is the single most run-preventive center fielder who ever played major league baseball. His name is Andruw Jones. His uniform front should have read Electrolux. He belongs in Cooperstown.

I’m pretty sure people still have a near-impossible time reconciling Jones’s too-staggering decline phase to his peak through age 29. It started with his final, injury-marred Atlanta season, and continued so profoundly in Los Angeles that he became indifferent enough to be a sad punch line before he was finally bought out of his deal.

But that peak should still be enough to make Jones a Hall of Famer.

He wasn’t just a Hall-level hitter before those later-career health issues. But he was way off the proverbial charts as a run-preventive center fielder. He had a great throwing arm, a genius for finding sure routes to balls despite his habitual shallow positioning, and both elevated him where it mattered the most—not just in the highlight reels, either, though he had more than enough of those.

Jones retired with the second-most defensive runs saved above his league average for any player at any position—only Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson’s +293 out-rank Jones’s +253. Jones is also +80 ahead of Hall of Famer Willie Mays among center  fielders, incidentally. Don’t be silly. I’m not calling Jones a better player than Mays, or even Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. They were just too much better all-around to kid yourself. (Baseball-Reference [via Jay Jaffe] ranks Jones number 11 among major league center fielders.)

I am saying, however, that taken strictly for his defense Jones was the most run-preventive defensive center fielder who ever played major league baseball. But Jones all-around at his peak was remarkable enough. For his twelve Atlanta seasons, my Real Batting Average metric (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) shows Jones’s peak value as more than worthy of a plaque:

Peak RBA PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Andruw Jones 7276 3185 717 65 62 83 .565

His career value at the plate wasn’t damaged quite as much as you remember by that terrible post-Atlanta decline phase, either. In fact, his career RBA is a) only nine points lower than his peak; and, b) higher than three other Hall center fielders who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:

HOF CF PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 47 13 .651
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 91 44 .631
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 102 81 .620
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 54* 21 .615
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 39* 38 .576
Andruw Jones 8664 3690 891 69 71 97 .556
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 118 111 .534
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 58 56 .524
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 30* 43 .463
HOF AVERAGE .574

Measure him by wins above replacement-level player (WAR), and Jones’s seven-year peak WAR is above that of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. There are plenty of mostly or solely peak-value Hall of Famers in Cooperstown; they only begin with Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax. 

Jones’s Hall of Fame teammate, Chipper Jones, wasn’t just blowing smoke when he said upon his own induction that if you wanted to beat the 1996-2007 Braves “you had to go through the Jones boys, too.” That’s the way Hall of Famers play the game. And if the Hall now gives more value to defense than in the past, Jones assuredly deserves the honour even more.

Scott Rolen

Scott Rolen

This is a Hall of Fame third baseman. His name is Scott Rolen. He shouldn’t have to wait for an Era Committee to enshrine him.

Once more, with ten times the feeling: It wasn’t Rolen’s fault that he was villified and sullied during his early seasons in Philadelphia. He just wasn’t the kind of guy the Phillies’ front office of the time loved, influenced heavily enough by the like of Loud Larry Bowa and Drill Sgt. Dallas Green.

Rolen was soft spoken, he let his prep and his play do his talking, and he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed or a play faltered or a game was lost. You hear a lot of lip service to let’s just get ’em tomorrow. Rolen lived it. If he’d been a fighter pilot, Rolen would have earned a rep as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff.

That front office misread Rolen as indifferent, if not unrealistic. (Rolen went into his walk year in 2002 unsatisfied that the Phillies then were committed to building a consistently-winning team and spurned a $140 million offer because he wasn’t convinced of it.) Even if every teammate he had knew better. He hustled himself into injuries and that only added to the sullying, in Philadelphia and in St. Louis, where he ran afoul of Tony La Russa despite playing his usual kind of hard and delivering performances that helped the Cardinals to a few postseasons and a World Series ring.

Rolen fumed over La Russa souring on him for being injured in honest competition. If only he could have then-Brewers manager Ned Yost for a skipper. Yost called him “the perfect baseball player. It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”

Then-Cardinals GM John Mozeliak came publicly to regret trading Rolen to the Blue Jays. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty caught wind that Rolen wanted to play closer to home   and pried him out of the Jays for the Reds. Rolen helped the Reds to a couple of postseasons, too.

Rolen wasn’t the hitter Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones was, but Jones wasn’t the defender Rolen was, either. Not by about ten country miles. Rolen won eight Gold Gloves and they weren’t by reputation alone. Only Robinson and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt have more such awards at third base.

Rolen had eleven seasons averaging ten or more runs saved at third and three in which he averaged twenty or more. His 140 defensive runs above league average are tied for sixth among third basemen all time. Preferring to leave it on the field and at the plate without starving for publicity or acting like the star he did his best not to present himself being may have been Rolen’s number one career problem.

But would you believe that Rolen is ahead of five postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Fame third basemen at the plate, according to RBA? That those he passes include George Brett? See for yourself:

HOF 3B PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Schmidt 10062 4404 1507 201 108 79 .626
Chipper Jones 10614 4755 1512 177 97 18 .618
Eddie Mathews 10100 4349 1444 142 58 26 .596
Scott Rolen 8518 3628 899 57 93 127 .564
George Brett 11625 5044 1096 229 120 33 .561
Ron Santo 9397 3779 1108 94 94 38 .544
Wade Boggs 10740 4064 1412 180 96 23 .538
Paul Molitor 12167 4854 1094 100 109 47 .510
Brooks Robinson 11782 4270 860 120 114 53 .458
HOF AVG .557

Baseball-Reference (via Jay Jaffe) rates Rolen the number ten third baseman ever. His Hall candidacy gets more traction year by year. (He shot through the 60 percent line last year, in fact.) He deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, and he shouldn’t have to wait for an Era Committee to get it.

Note: Some of the foregoing has been published previously.

Sal de mi césped?

Carlos Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera

Asdrúbal Cabrera (right) telling Carlos Castro (left) that a shot in the head trumps a bat-flipping home run Saturday.

Asdrúbal Cabrera never played for the Braves during fifteen major league seasons. But on Saturday he found a way to behave as though he’d taken lessons in self-appointed Fun Policing from longtime Braves catcher Brian McCann. With a critical piece missing.

Cabrera was playing first base for Caribes de Anzoategui against Tiburones de la Guaira in the Venezuelan Winter League. It just so happened to be a game in which Tiburones’s Carlos Castro saw fit to hit three hefty home runs.

The third proved the money shot, for reasons having nothing to do with distance or the score. It proved that a 37-year-old major league veteran can display the mind of a seven-year-old who’s forgotten the meaning of fun when believing, apparently, that he and his team have been dissed.

Against lefthanded Caribes pitcher José Torres, Castro blasted one the other way to right field and clear over the fence. He strided up the first base line, bat still in hand, watching the ball fly out. On his tenth step up the line, Castro flipped his bat to begin his home run trot.

He seemed to glance toward the Caribes dugout as he approached first, but I couldn’t tell whether his face showed anything grave or provocative. The New York Post (Cabrera is a two-season former Met) described the glance as “glaring” into the dugout and Torres as “clearly upset with the antics . . . jawing at Castro as he headed to first, but it got much worse after that.”

As he rounded first, Cabrera approached from his apparent play-to-pull positioning. Castro wasn’t two steps past the pad when Cabrera swung his left arm hard to the right side of Castro’s face.

Being unprepared for such a sucker punch, Castro went down in a heap, onto his el culo, as his batting helmet took a dive toward the line under the influence of Cabrera’s flying forearm. When both benches poured out of their dugouts almost at once, Cabrera himself ended up on the ground sprawling.

Cabrera’s said to have turned an offer in free agency down last winter before sitting the 2022 season out. Considering his 2021 performance papers, he may have been fortunate to get that single offer at all. If he’s looking for one more turn in the Show for 2023, he may yet discover that a clothesline swing won’t get you half the attention a few zinging line drives to left might get.

Unless, of course, there’s a team out there that anxious to find an ancient infielder who can’t hit baseballs as often as he once did, has as much remaining defensive range as a toy dump truck with a flat inner-rear tire, but might hit a bat flipper or two blindside as a fresh new precinct commander for their self-appointed Fun Police Department. Cheap shots a specialty,

Castro rounding first looked as though he saw Cabrera coming his way but didn’t quite see the prospect of a would-be left hook until it met his face flush on. Maybe Cabrera didn’t learn what I thought from McCann, after all.

Back in late September 2013, Milwaukee outfielder Carlos Gomez tripped the Braves’ triggers when he blasted one out against Paul Maholm, a pitcher against whom he had better than respectable performance papers, enough so that Maholm had hit him with a pitch or three in the recent past, enough so to leave Gomez with a sour taste at minimum.

Now, in the top of the first in Turner Field (the Braves hadn’t yet dumped the still-not-so-old yard for Truist Park), Gomez sent Maholm’s one-out, 0-1 service over the left center field fence. He didn’t celebrate the blast so much as he pronounced it payback for a plunk too many, and he let Maholm know it. Uh-oh.

As he rounded first, then-Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman barked at him. As he rounded third, he was slightly surprised to see McCann ambling up the line, out from behind the plate, hell bent on arresting him with a choice, howling lecture accompanying the handcuffs.

Well, not so much handcuffs, but Gomez never got to hit the plate as McCann obstructed him in anger and the benches emptied. “Gomez believes Maholm drilled him intentionally two months ago, and this was his payback,” wrote ESPN’s Tim Keown at the time. “‘You hit me. I hit you,’ were apparently the words that rocked the Braves’ world. Is that a worse offense than intentionally hitting someone?”

At least McCann never went further than stopping someone to bawl him out. Sucker punching wasn’t part of his Fun Police gear.

Who knows what among the Caribes players flipped their switches when Castro looked into their dugout? Who knows what Castro had in mind when he looked? Had there been words between them over his two previous bombs in the game?

“This is not representative of baseball in Latin America,” tweeted my friend (and former Call to the Pen editor) Manuel Gómez. “Latinos are known for bringing sazón to the game. Clearly, there is some animosity between these particular teams and it was expressed in violence on the field. We are better than this!”

Tiburones went on to finish what they started, a 6-4 win. But no matter who said what to whom, Cabrera came away resembling a bit of a hypocrite. We take you back to 22 September 2016, in Citi Field, the Mets down two, when Cabrera walked it off against the Phillies with a three-run blast into the bullpen behind the right field fence.

He flipped his bat toward the Mets dugout and looked there as he started running it out. OK, he looked into his own dugout and not the opposition’s. But still. Apparently, Cabrera was fine with a flip if it came off a game-winner. But in his older baseball age he’s none too fine with a flip if it’s flipped off a blast hit before the game actually ends.

Cabrera’s not too likely to find a Show suitor for 2023. The last thing needed by a Show still coming to terms with letting the kids play is an old fart whose uniform might have sal de mi césped! as a p.s. beneath his name.

Keep José Altuve off the Astrogate hook

Jose Altuve

It’s been said before Peter Gammons revived it Friday: José Altuve wanted no part of illegally-stolen signs when he was at the plate. Stop hammering him with the “chea-ter! chea-ter!” chants once and for all.

When the World Series shifted to Philadelphia, after the Phillies and the Astros split the first two games in Houston, the Citizens Bank Park crowd wasn’t shy about letting the Astros have it over You-know-what-gate. The good news was that they saved the chea-ter! chea-ter! chants for the only three position players left on the roster from the forever-tainted 2017-18 team.

The bad news was that one of the three actually spurned taking the illegally stolen signs in the batter’s box. That was second baseman and Astros franchise face José Altuve. It didn’t matter to the chanting Phillies fans. But it should have.

When SNY’s Andy Martino published Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing in June 2021, the chapter called “The Scheme Begins” included a revelation that should have jolted anyone hammering the Astros rightfully enough over their Astro Intelligence Agency plot:

Altuve was the most reluctant of the Astros stars. When the option to have a teammate bang the trash can [to relay the signs stolen by way of an illegal off-field-based real-time camera to an illegal additional clubhouse monitor—JK] first arose, he declined.

When Altuve was batting, and there would be a bang, he would glare into the dugout.

“He doesn’t want it,” teammates would say frantically. On more than one occasion, Altuve returned to the dugout after his at-bat and yelled at the others to knock it off.

It jolted me, too. Especially since I’d actually missed the first such revelation, in February 2020, from then-Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, usually the face of the team when it came to defending the 2017 World Series title before he signed with the Twins last winter. (Correa is now a free agent again.) I missed it, and I shouldn’t have.

Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down his Astrogate verdict in January 2020—suspensions for 2017-18 general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch, and bench coach Alex Cora (subsequently a World Series-winning manager for the 2018 Red Sox . . . who had their own Rogue Sox replay room reconnaissance ring operating that season and possibly beyond); heavy fine for owner Jim Crane; key draft picks stripped.

The Astros faced the press when spring training opened the next month. Depending upon how you saw and hear, they seemed either unapologetically apologetic or apologetically unapologetic. “Yes, there’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed,” wrote since-retired Thomas Boswell, the longtime Washington Post baseball eminence.

Crane and his team used their showcase to insist they keep their phony title and that Major League Baseball was correct not to fine or suspend any Astros players. Also, we should just trust that they stopped cheating in 2018. Why? No reason at all. Just felt like stopping, even though they, you know, won the previous World Series doing it.

. . .Maybe, with time, some Astros will be more forthcoming with authentic feelings, not practiced phrases, that will show their human dilemma—most of them not $100 million stars or future Hall of Famers, just normal ballplayers caught on a runaway train with, realistically, no emergency brake available for them to pull.

But even Boswell might have missed that Altuve didn’t want any part of the AIA. Before the original coronavirus pan-damn-ic compelled that spring training’s shutdown, Correa talked to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, one of the two reporters (with Evan Drellich) who first exposed the true depth of scheme. (Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers had finally agreed to go on the public record in November 2019, following long, futile efforts to get someone/anyone to investigate.)

They talked aboard MLB Network a couple of days after the presser that did the Astros more harm than good. Correa steamed over Dodger outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger’s fuming that Altuve cheated Yankee rookie star Aaron Judge out of the 2017 Most Valuable Player award he might have won if not for Altuve’s career year in Houston. “Cody,” Correa began, “you don’t know the facts.”

Nobody wants to talk about this, but I’m going to talk about this. José Altuve was the one guy that didn’t use the trash can.

The few times that the trash can was banged was without his consent, and he would go inside the clubhouse and inside the dugout to whoever was banging the trash can and he would get pissed. He would get mad. He would say, “I don’t want this. I can’t hit like this. Don’t you do that to me.” He played the game clean.

. . . When you look at Altuve’s numbers on the road, he hit .400 on the road (.381, actually, compared to .311 at home). He didn’t cheat nobody of the MVP. He earned that MVP. He’s a six-time All-Star, three-time batting champion, MVP, five-time Silver Slugger. He’s been doing this for a long time.

For [Bellinger] to go out there and defame José Altuve’s name like that, it doesn’t sit right with me. The man plays the game clean. That’s easy to find out. Mike Fiers broke the story. You can go out and ask Mike Fiers: “Did José Altuve use the trash can? Did José Altuve cheat to win the MVP?” Mike Fiers is going to tell you, straight up, he didn’t use it. He was the one player that didn’t use it. (Emphasis added.—JK.)

The foregoing arises again because another Athletic writer, Peter Gammons, the longtime Boston Globe scribe/analyst who’s a Spink Award Hall of Famer, wrote of the Astros’ post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker and winning team cultures in a piece published Friday—and returned to that 2020 spring training opening. Including the impossible position into which Altuve was pushed.

There he was, sitting at the table, looking as though he’d rather undergo root canal work without an anesthetic. Now we should ask just what the hell Crane was thinking when, seemingly, he insisted Altuve sit at the head table for that 2020 spring presser. The owner with a reputation for rejecting direct accountability forced “the one player that didn’t use” the AIA’s espionage to take it like a man.

Gammons talked to assorted Astros near the end of the opening workout later in the day. “They were subdued, clearly remorseful,” Gammons wrote, “but when I told Altuve that players, coaches and a number of people in the organization had told me that he did not participate in the sign stealing, he politely declined to discuss it, and asked that I didn’t talk about it on television, or write about it. ‘It would be a betrayal of my teammates’.”

Two years later, he still did not want to be singled out. But while he and [third baseman Alex] Bregman were asked by management to speak to the scandal for all the players and he received the most obscene treatment from beered up louts in Boston and New York, he never pointed to 2017 home/road splits that showed a 200-point OPS difference in favor of the road, where there was nary a banging trash can to be heard.

“He is,” Baker said, “the ultimate teammate.” That from a man who played with Henry Aaron and Reggie Smith.

Altuve’s 2017 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 248 points higher on the road—where the AIA couldn’t operate—than it was at Minute Maid Park. He also hit six more home runs out of town than in Houston. With only four more plate appearances on the road than at home in ’17, his Real Batting Average (my metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) was .529 at home . . . but .679 on the road.

The Gammons story seems to have jolted for the Altuve “revelation.” In its email newsletter Morning Bark, offering links to stories based on its choice of a day’s top ten sports stories, Yardbarker linked to it with this teaser, which also headlined a brief news item about the piece: “Insider reveals interesting detail regarding José Altuve and Astros’ cheating scandal.”

It’s only a “revelation” if you missed either Rosenthal’s original or Martino’s book. I missed the former upon its original arrival, but I pounced on the latter when it was published. SNY, after all, stands for the Sports New York regional cable network. And the Yankees, whom Martino’s normal coverage includes, had their own skin in the sign-stealing world.

Theirs wasn’t quite as extensive as the 2017-18 Astros, of course. Neither was anything by any other teams who might have done as the Red Sox did, using their MLB-provided replay rooms for such sign-stealing reconnaissance. (MLB has since tightened up on guarding the replay rooms.) The 2017-18 Astros went far above and far beyond just boys-will-be-boys replay room roguery.

But Martino taking Astrogate book depth had no reason to want Altuve whitewashed. Especially considering Altuve—when Yankee manager Aaron Boone elected to let his faltering closer Aroldis Chapman pitch on to him, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, instead of putting him on at 2-1 with a spaghetti bat on deck—hit the monstrous two-run homer on an up-and-away slider that won the 2019 Astros the pennant.

In fact, Cheated‘s footnotes included the original Correa/Rosenthal revelation. Martino had me convinced before the footnotes section. Reading the Correa/Rosenthal revelation both recently and once again after the Gammons piece Friday, I’m convinced even more.

Saying Astrogate won’t disappear until the last member of the 2017-18 team no longer wears an Astro uniform is one thing. So is saying the 2017-18 cheaters stained baseball almost as deeply as the 1919 Black Sox. But it’s something else to keep including José Altuve among the tainted when he doesn’t deserve to be among them.

The further evidence should be even more clear by now. Altuve wanted no part of the original Astrogate scheming and bawled teammates out when they didn’t respect his wishes. He played the game straight, no chaser, then and now. He’s taken it across the chops unfairly since.

Enough, already

Pete Rose

Pete Rose, shown before a Reds game in Great American Ballpark in 2018. His letter to commissioner Rob Manfred should receive a single-word answer.

Last Friday, TMZ revealed Pete Rose sent a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred four days earlier. Just how TMZ obtained the letter is open to speculation. Some might suspect someone in Manfred’s office leaked it; some might suspect Rose himself. Neither suspicion is implausible.

If you’re inclined toward charitable thought, Rose’s letter is a letter of apology, an acknowledgement of accountability, a plea for forgiveness from a man who’s been punished enough via the opprobrium he still receives as baseball’s most prominent exile.

But if you temper charity with realism, it’s yet another example of what The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal describes as words ringing hollow from a man who can’t get out of his own way. A man who still doesn’t get it. A man whose most stubborn remaining partisans still don’t get it, either.

“[F]or Rose,” Rosenthal writes, “untrustworthy behaviour is nothing new.

He spent the first fourteen years of his ban denying that he bet on baseball, including in his 1989 autobiography, Pete Rose: My Story. He served five months in prison in 1990 for filing false income tax returns. A secret meeting in Milwaukee with former commissioner Bud Selig in 2002, during which he admitted betting on baseball as a manager for the first time, also apparently went awry. News of the meeting leaked, and Rose promptly followed it with an appearance at a sports book in Las Vegas.

Two years later, Rose released a second autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, as the Hall of Fame prepared to induct two new members, Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor. Rose said the timing wasn’t his fault. Nothing is ever his fault . . .

For all Manfred knows, he could reinstate Rose and then be subjected to some other bombshell. Rose has admitted to betting on baseball only after his playing career ended. But in June 2015, ESPN obtained copies of betting records from 1986 that provided the first written corroboration Rose had gambled on games as the Reds’ player-manager. It’s always something.

In August, the proof that it’s always something reared grotesquely enough after Manfred agreed to allow Rose to take part in the Phillies’ commemoration of their 1980 World Series title. Rose made it far less about that 1980 team and far more about himself.

It took nothing more than Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alex Coffey doing nothing worse than her job, asking Rose whether his presence—considering that only the statute of limitations kept him from facing consequences over an early-1970s extramarital affair with a teenage girl—thus sent a negative message to women. Saying he wasn’t at Citizens Bank Park to talk about that, Rose added, “It was 55 years ago, babe.”

“Put aside for one moment (and only one) the message Rose’s cavalier dismissal and term of address to Coffey,” I wrote then. “Consider that his presence Sunday sent a negative message to women and men as well as baseball. For a few grotesque moments the Phillies looked like a team that couldn’t have cared less about anything beyond a cocktail of nostalgic self-celebration and the ballpark gate.”

That’s the Rose effect. He makes it all about him. In the same moment, he can and often does make it impossible to look for what he insisted to Manfred should be sought and kept under full focus.

That’s the man who hired on as a baseball predictions analyst for online sports betting site UpickTrade last year and told a presser, “For those people who are worried about the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to remember I got suspended in 1989. That’s 32 years ago. I’m not going to live the rest of my life worried about going to baseball’s Hall of Fame.” (Suspended?)

Until he is, that is. “Despite my many mistakes,” Rose wrote to Manfred now, “I am so proud of what I accomplished as a baseball player—I am the Hit King and it is my dream to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Like all of us, I believe in accountability. I am 81 years old and know that I have been held accountable and that I hold myself accountable. I write now to ask for another chance.”

A man who hung around as a player above and beyond his actual shelf life on behalf of the self-elevating pursuit of Ty Cobb’s career hits record is only slightly more hubristic than the teams enabling him to do it regardless of his actual on-field value. The publicity factor overrode the honest competition factor often enough then and still does, often enough.

Hubris often leads to tunnel vision. It did for Rose. He couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get that he could have retired right after that 1980 Phillies world championship with a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame case even if it meant falling short of Cobb by about 632 hits. There were people (including Rose himself, sometimes) who believed he had some preternatural entitlement to pass Cobb despite his actual playing value.

Rose’s wins above replacement-level [WAR] from his rookie 1963 in Cincinnati to his 1983 World Series ring with Philadelphia: 80.4. Rose’s WAR from 1981-86, when he finally surrendered to Father Time and took himself out of the Reds lineup to stay: -0.8.*

Rose being a Hit King shouldn’t make a single bit of difference to Manfred. Not now, not ever. Rose’s pride in his playing accomplishments shouldn’t make a single bit of difference. Nor, for that matter, should any of MLB’s promotional deals with this or that online legal gambling operation. (Don’t go there, Roseophiles: Gambling isn’t the only legal activity for which your employers can discipline or fire you for indulging on the job. Just ask anyone who ever lost a job for showing up high as a kite, wired up the kazoo, or bombed out of his or her trees.)

There’s only one thing Manfred should consider. It’s called Rule 21(d). The rule against betting on baseball. The rule that makes no distinction between whether you bet on or against your team. The rule that calls for permanent, not “lifetime” banishment. The rule that prompted the Hall of Fame itself—faced with the prospect of Rose’s election despite its mandated punishment—to enact its own rule barring those on baseball’s permanently ineligible list from standing for election on any Hall ballot.

Rose “can continue pleading to Manfred, appealing to public sympathy. But Rose, to borrow a term from horse racing, one of his favorite sports, is getting left at the gate,” Rosenthal writes. “His race for Cooperstown remains permanently stalled, and it’s no one’s fault but his own.”

Accordingly, the commissioner’s sole answer to Rose now and forever should be, “No.” As for any and everyone else, the answer now and forever should be, but probably won’t be, Enough, already.

——————————————————————————————————

* By contrast, Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Cal Ripken, Jr. pulled up on the positive side of the WAR ledger when they broke revered career records. Aaron, the year he broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record: 2.1. Ryan, the year he broke Hall of Famer Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record: 2.6. Ripken, the year he broke Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak: 3.9.

Come to think of it, when Ryan threw a bullet past Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to record lifetime strikeout number 5,000—with then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in the ballpark itching to pump his fist celebrating the milestone—he was having an All-Star caliber 5.1 WAR season in the bargain.

Ryan, of course, was an outlier even among outliers, a point forgotten often enough and conveniently enough by the ill-informed who insist on comparing pitchers since to him and wondering why simply no one has his one-of-a-kind endurance. 

You gotta have heart plus

Don Larsen

Nothing before or after indicated Don Larsen (here delivering with second baseman Billy Martin in the background, waiting) had even a no-hitter in him, never mind the only perfect game in World Series history.

Finding foolish social media threads is as difficult as finding foolish pronouncements from the political (lack of) class. You don’t even have to hunt them for them to find you. The Twitterpater who launched one Tuesday involving Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game is a perfect example.

“Imagine,” he begins, “telling Don Larsen he’s done after 6 innings because the analytics department won’t allow him to face the top of the order for a third time.” Imagine, too, telling such a gentleman that, on that fine afternoon in Yankee Stadium, Larsen was as outlier as an outlier can become.

In the World Series era (1903-present), Larsen’s is the only one of 21 perfect games to have been pitched in a World Series, of course. He could have disappeared entirely into oblivion from there, or he could have done what he actually did posting a journeyman pitcher’s fourteen-season career, and nobody can ever take that from him.

“The unperfect man pitched a perfect game,” led Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News. “The million-to-one shot came in,” led Shirley Povich of the Washington Post. They would not have led thus if someone such as Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, or Warren Spahn had done first what Larsen did first. Those were Hall of Fame pitchers you might have expected reasonably to do it.

Larsen himself knew it. Until the day he died at 90 over two and a half years ago, those who found Larsen’s telephone number and rang it hoping to talk a little baseball would be greeted, almost invariably, with, “You want to talk about my year with the Orioles, right?”

Nothing in Larsen’s performances before and after Game Five of the ’56 World Series indicated he might have such a jewel in him. One thread respondent replied with evidence that batters facing Larsen usually hit above .250 facing him the third time around in a game. Oops.

The thread launcher snarked back, “Larsen’s perfect game—the most iconic pitching performance in postseason history—couldn’t have happened today. The game has a heartbeat, and [Yankee manager Casey] Stengel knew it. Today’s clinical, data-as-gospel approach totally discounts that.”

Where to begin? With the counterpoint that the approach itself discounts nothing of the sort but the manner in which it’s deployed might? With the point that Stengel himself was as much about advance knowledge and matchups as he was anything else as a manager,  ages before anyone put a name to that knowledge?

“Baseball is percentage, plus execution,” Stengel loved to say to anyone who would listen.  In that order. He knew in his mind as well as his gut that without the one, the other goes in with an arm missing. (Even as late as 1963, managing the hapless embryonic Mets, Stengel lectured reporters about on-base percentage, decades before it became a sabermetrics/analytics linch pin.)

Should we then begin with the point that all the heartbeat on earth won’t always ensure a result commensurate to it? With the point that if all you needed was heart this year’s Phillies might have pushed this year’s World Series to a seventh game they might have won with it or lost in spite of it? With the point that men of the stoutest heart can and do fail as often as they succeed, if not often enough more so?

Larsen’s World Series perfecto ended in a 2-0 Yankee win. The game’s key moment has long been recognised as Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle’s running catch of now-fellow Hall of Famer Gil Hodges’s sinking fly to deep left center. If you’re looking for prior indicators that Larsen had it in him, be reminded that he started Game Two but got hooked after an inning and a third despite surrendering a single hit.

Double oops: Handed an extremely early 6-0 lead to work with, Larsen also walked four batters in that inning-and-a-third, including two in the bottom of the second, before surrendering a sacrifice fly to Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. Small wonder Stengel hooked him that soon. He wasn’t going to risk Larsen walking the Dodgers right back into the game if he could help it.

The manager had no advance knowledge, of course, that the man he brought in after a foul pop out and a bases-reloading walk, sinkerball pitcher Johnny Kucks, would surrender a two-run single (Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese), right before his relief, Tommy Byrne, surrendered a three-run homer (Hall of Famer Duke Snider).

Larsen threw 97 pitches in the perfecto, averaging 10.7 pitches per inning. Stengel was known both for his pitching management and his willingness to go to his bullpen the moment trouble arose enough. In fact, the Ol’ Perfesser’s Game Five plan was to start Larsen . . . but have his eventual ’58 Series MVP Bob Turley ready to go at the earliest sign of serious trouble.

(In due course, Stengel would execute that plan precisely: Larsen started Game Seven of the ’58 Series, but ran into trouble with an early one-run lead, prompting Stengel to bring Turley in. Turley went the rest of the way as the Yankees won.)

Would anyone really believe that Stengel—hooking Larsen early in Game Two when his control went AWOL, now with a World Series tied at two games each—wouldn’t have hooked Larsen even sixty-plus pitches in, if the Dodgers really began hitting him hard enough during the middle innings, even if those balls were hit for hard or long outs?

(Mantle’s catch was one of two very narrow escapes Larsen had in the same inning. The next Dodger batter, Sandy Amoros, running-catch hero of Game Seven the year before, securing their only World Series win as Brooklyn Dodgers, drove one into the upper deck that missed being a home run by inches past the foul pole.)

Looking at pitching wins and perfect games over a year ago, I drew a table to show just how much the perfecto pitchers were responsible for the outcomes by themselves. (My handicap: full game logs available for only nineteen of the perfect games.) Let me now isolate Larsen’s World Series perfecto according to that table of strikeouts, ground outs, fly outs, the win factor (WF) assigned to the pitcher—based on strikeouts divided by the sum of ground and fly outs—and the pitcher’s fielding-independent pitching rate on that season:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Don Larsen (1956 WS Gm Five) 2-0 7 6 14 .350 4.27

Larsen’s win factor of .350 is tied for fourteenth place among perfect game pitchers, with Tom Browning (Reds, 1988). Larsen was the beneficiary of fourteen fly outs including Mantle’s staggering catch. Among the ground outs was a second-inning smash to third by Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson that caromed off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove—and, in a marvelous stroke of fortune, right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out by about the width of a hair.

What of that 4.27 FIP in 1956? Larsen is sixth from the bottom among the perfecto pitchers for the seasons in which they achieved those perfectos. Only one perfect game pitcher ever had a sub-2.00 FIP in the season during which he did it. In his case, too, having pitched a no-hitter in each of his three previous seasons, it really was a case of practise makes perfect:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Sandy Koufax (1965) 1-0 14 3 10 1.077 1.93

One of the thread respondents made note of Larsen’s lifetime performance against batters facing him the first, second, and third times in his starts: .228 the first time, .253 the second time, .278 the third time. A second made note of the OPS against Larsen in the same scenarios: .647 the first time, .711 the second, .788 the third. From there, I elected to look at how batters fared against Larsen in low, medium, and high-leverage situations:

Batters vs. Larsen, Career BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Low Leverage .239 .317 .360 .677 94
Medium Leverage .252 .336 .381 .716 105
High Leverage .255 .354 .363 .717 106

The higher the leverage, the better batters generally did against Larsen, even if the distinction between his medium- and high-leverage pitching was as slim as you see. His strikeout-to-walk ratio also worsened the more batters saw him during a game over his career: 1.27 the first time around the order; 1.05 the second time; 0.79 the third time. Lifetime, too, Larsen struck out about five batters per nine innings’ work but walked 4.2 per nine.

All the heart in him couldn’t make Don Larsen a great pitcher. (Did all the heart on earth keep the Dodgers from succumbing?) It took nine Yankee hearts including his (Stengel didn’t pinch hit for anyone during the game) to do what he did in Game Five, 1956.

He had an equal zest for living; in fact, he was known as a champion drinker who reported hung over to Yankee Stadium on the fateful day. Not until he remarried happily in 1960 did he abandon the wild-enough ways that once prompted teammates to nickname him Gooney Bird.

Larsen was a power pitcher with inconsistent control who was just good enough to pitch fourteen major league seasons including on five pennant winners and two world champion teams. He never again achieved anything within a light year or five of what he did that 1956 afternoon. He never pretended otherwise. He had no less heart lacking success than having success.

He also lived longer from that day forward than any other player, coach, or manager involved in his immortal afternoon. (He was also the last living St. Louis Brown before his death.) “The last one to go was Yogi in 2015,” he told a reporter in 2018. “It’s lonesome when you get to the top.”

Larsen more than anyone else knew that what he did in the ’56 Series made him and keeps him the all-time World Series outlier, whose record in depth before and after indicated no such performance—with or without his teammates’ aid and comfort—was even imaginable, never mind possible.

The unperfect man who threw the World Series’ only perfect game ever also did his eventual grandchildren a phenomenal favour. In 2012, Larsen auctioned his Yankee uniform from the game to pay for their college educations. Enough of social media might forget to remember that that’s stronger evidence of heart equaling result than any outing he ever had as a major league pitcher.