Throneberry Fields Forever

. . . a calm review of baseball

Throneberry Fields Forever

Are we still missin’ a great game?

Whitey Herzog

Whitey Herzog, inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager in 2010: “The state of the game is about as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” says the man whose baseball life began as a tenacious outfielder and student of the game.

Perhaps if Whitey Herzog were about three decades younger than he is now, you might think he’s casting his retired eyes upon Rob Manfred’s job. Talking to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Rick Hummel, you’d almost think the Hall of Fame manager wishes he could turn the proverbial clock back and let someone post his name for the job. Almost.

“The state of the game in baseball,” says the White Rat, who turns 90 today, “is about as bad as I’ve ever seen it. It’s all strikeouts and home runs and a high number of pitches.” Well.

In 2021, home runs accounted for fifteen percent of all hits. Doubles accounted for twenty percent; triples, for two percent; singles, then, still accounted for 63 percent of all hits. Pitchers threw 709,842 pitches during the season’s 4,858 games; in 2019, the previous full season, pitchers threw 732,511 pitches.

Herzog stands on stronger ground over pitch volume than he does over home runs. In 2021 games averaged 146 pitches per; in 2019, 151. On the other hand, both seasons averaged four pitches per plate appearance. And, in 2021 and 2019, batters made contact on 74 percent of the pitches they saw.

During 1960, with sixteen teams playing the last season before baseball’s first league expansions, home runs accounted for ten percent of all hits. Doubles accounted for sixteen percent. Triples, three percent. Leaving singles to account for 61 percent of all hits.

A season that’s part of an era still glorified by certain old fans, with almost half as many major league teams as today, had only three percent less singles than twice that many teams playing in 2021. Forget percentages, do you want to see raw numbers?

Season 1B 2B 3B HR
1960 (16 teams) 15,206 3,442 658 2,128
2021 (30 teams) 25,006 7,863 671 5,944

Pitch totals for 1960 aren’t available, so we don’t know for dead last certain the percentage of pitches on which 1960 batters made contact. From the look of the raw numbers above the triple does seem to have collapsed. (Only twelve triples more this year than 61 years ago?) But 1960 batters struck out in 14 percent of their plate appearances, while 2021 batters struck out in (wait for it!) 23 percent of their plate appearances.

I’m not entirely certain that there’s that significant a difference between a season in which 86 percent of plate appearances didn’t end in strikeouts and one in which 77 percent of plate appearances didn’t.

Herzog really starts winding up with Hummel when he strikes at Manfred’s purported game-shortening experiments. “He keeps talking about the three-batter rule for [relief] pitchers. Stupid,” he says. “And then the tenth inning rule [the free cookie on second to open each extra half-inning]. Stupid. Seven-inning doubleheaders. Stupid. None of that is going to shorten the games at all, until we can lower the amount of pitches that they throw.”

The White Rat is dead right about the three-batter relief pitchers’ minimum and the free cookie on second to start each extra half-inning. The latter was dropped during this year’s postseason, thankfully, but the former wasn’t. But the seven-inning doubleheader has a benefit critics and supporters alike tend to miss—the season is long enough without compounding players’ wear and tear and injury risks.

Something noticeable under the three-batter minimum was a lot of managers leaving a reliever in after facing his minimum third batter but getting battered before or after that third minimum batter. It’s worth reminding ourselves that relief pitchers have already been pitching in the bullpens before they get into the game in the first place.

Whitey Herzog

The White Rat, in the Cardinals dugout during a 1980s game: “[We’re not] going to shorten the games at all until we can lower the amount of pitches that they throw.”

Herzog, you may or may not remember, is the manager who once wrote, “The good skipper does his managing before the game starts. The guy you see out there managing is the one who’s screwing up the arms.” He’s the manager who once ran his bullpens according to a strict rule: if he warmed a pitcher up more than once but didn’t bring him in after the second warmup, the man had the rest of the day or night off.

This is the same manager who [in his memoir/critique, You’re Missin’ a Great Game] criticised two men he liked, Tommy Lasorda and Pete Rose, for misusing their bullpens by warming, sitting, warming, sitting, then bringing in relievers who’d already been gassed enough by the time they got into the game—and got murdered on the mound.

Some managers think if a guy’s not actually in a game, he’s not pitching. But if he’s tossing on the sidelines, man, he’s getting hot. Over the years I dealt some of my pitchers to [the Dodgers] . . . and they always came back with the same report: Tommy was still messing up the pen . . .

Pete Rose was like Tommy. Wonderful baseball man, but he was impaired when it came to handling pitchers. Here he had three world-class relievers, Norm Charlton, Rob Murphy, and Rob Dibble, all in the same pen . . . With those three guys on your side, you shouldn’t lose games after the sixth. But Pete found a way.

He’d get Murphy up in the third; he’d warm him up in the fourth. Then he’d sit him down. He’d get Charlton up in the fifth. Sometimes I’d look down there and he’d have both lefthanders going at the same time. Why would you warm ’em both up at once? You’re only going to use one lefty or the other! Then, after he’d worked ’em out three or four times, Pete would put one in the game and be surprised he had no zip. “He can’t be tired,” he’d say. “He ain’t pitched in three days!” Somebody counted how many times he warmed Murphy up one year, and it was over two hundred. I like Pete, boy—but I loved managing against him.

It’s worth listening to Herzog, then, when he tells Hummel that none of Manfred’s gimmickry is going to shorten a thing until managers can reduce the pitch volume. In 2021, batters faced an average just a sliver under four pitches per plate appearance. It comes out to 709,842 pitches for 182,128 plate appearances all regular season long.

“I watch every game at home,” the White Rat says. “I generally don’t go to bed until 11 at night when I’m watching the West Coast games and when the teams throw 340 to 360 pitches every night, there’s no way you can shorten the games. I sit and watch an 0-2 pitch — a perfect pitch on the black — (the umpires) never ring anybody up. It’s always a ball.”

Herzog may have exaggerated the number slightly (there were more like 292 pitchers per game on average, covering both sides of a game), but he makes a pretty point. Especially if he’s absolutely right about the umpires, most of whom still have their “own” strike zones, not calling the rule book strike zone, compelling hitters and pitchers alike to think in the terms that once alarmed Sandy Alderson, when he was MLB’s vice president of baseball operations in 1999.

The old Major League Umpires Association fumed (and ultimately imploded) in 1999, over MLB’s then-intention to hold umps to account over strike zone distinctions. When their then-leader Richie Phillips snarked that umpires should be compared to federal judges, Alderson snarked right back. “Federal judges can be impeached,” he said. “I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”

In 2021, pitchers threw 453,466 strikes. Those resulted in 42,145 strikeouts. Remember—that’s 23 percent of 2021 plate appearances ending in strikeouts. But how many of those strikes were called when the pitch actually traversed the plate outside, under, or above the real strike zone?

Herzog is on board with analytics to a particular extent. You should expect that of a man who believes the good manager does his managing before the game begins. “Analytics are a wonderful thing–up to a point,” says the Rat. ” . . . [T]here are a lot more things that go into managing a baseball game than analytics. The people who sit up in the office don’t make out the lineup, but they tell you which eight players should be playing. But they don’t know if a guy’s sick or got a hangover or having marital problems.”

Or, if a guy might be playing through an injury while actually making things worse for himself and his team. Baseball history is littered with players playing hurt and managers plus front offices pressuring them back before injuries are healed properly and fully. Leo Durocher, to name one notoriously, had a penchant for ripping the injured as quitters. Too many fans even today think injuries equal quitting.

Alex Bregman’s near-complete absence at the plate during the Astros’ run to the World Series was much remarked. The righthanded-hitting third baseman underwent right wrist surgery Monday, having dealt with the issue since September to crown an injury/illness-disrupted season. (A quad injury took him out for the first two months.)

Just how much did Bregman trying to play and hit through the wrist issue hurt the Astros’ Series hopes? Being a “gamer” is one thing, but you can and too often do hurt your team more than help when you’re playing with and through an injury that you can and often do make much worse for your trouble.

Bregman played excellent postseason third base defense, mostly. But he looked as lost as the treasure of the Incas at the plate. His backup Aledmys Diaz is a capable defender at third (he was worth six defensive runs above the American League average when he played the position), hit capably when batting third or sixth in the lineup this season, and hit .342 with men in scoring position on the season.

The Astros’ World Series undoing came in significant part because they had a sudden penchant for leaving men on base, and in part because the champion Braves plain out-pitched them when it mattered most.

They might have seen a few different results with Diaz stepping in for Bregman, though. It might not have made the difference overall, and certainly Astro fans would have preferred to see Bregman at his customary stand. But maybe the Astros wouldn’t have gone down by being shut out in Game Six, either. They might even have gotten to play a Game Seven instead of watching the Braves celebrate in their house. Might.

Rickey don’t lose those numbers

2019-08-26 RickeyRoth

Hiring Allan Roth (right) as MLB’s first full-time (and then some) team statistician in 1947 may remain Branch Rickey’s least appreciated baseball innovation.

The good news: I looked forward to appearing on a Sunday podcast for which the subject was to be Branch Rickey. The bad news: I didn’t get a chance to discuss the one thing about Rickey that nobody, seemingly, thinks about whenever his name arises in most baseball discourse. The mere mention of it inspires a sub-topic change faster than you’d try to elude a visible virus; the nostalgist wishes merely to hasten back to reminiscence, the troglodyte contingent wishes you quartered without drawing first.

Understood: Say “Branch Rickey” and the usual first response is “Jackie Robinson,” and that’s exactly the way it should be. After decades of hoping to do so, but lacking the opportunity so long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis dictated baseball, Rickey ended a wrong with an irrevocable right and chose the absolute right player to do it. If “Jackie Robinson” isn’t your first response to “Branch Rickey,” the lacking is yours, not theirs.

Understood further: If “the farm system” isn’t your second response to “Branch Rickey,” take a remedial crash course in elementary baseball history. Even the most free agency-conscious teams in baseball today still believe in their farm systems, even if not all of them operate them as acutely or with foresight as they should. Both the rich talent pool mined since Robinson plus the farm system’s continued if oft-compromised operation are Rickey legacies not to be dismissed.

If “sabermetrics” or “analytics” isn’t your third response . . . Aw, jeez, not that you-know-what again! I hear you shuddering. Hear me out.

Like it or not, however shallow or deep anyone looks, statistics are the life blood of baseball. Long before anyone spoke of sabermetrics, baseball fans obsessed over baseball numbers as much as over Hall of Fame prospects. Simple (and often misleading or short on vision) though they were, baseball cards did not live by handsome face pictures alone.

For better or worse, Rickey was as obsessed with numbers and their meanings as with anything else about the game he loved and changed. And, like almost anything upon which he cast his bushy-browed eyes, Rickey dove right into the deep end of the pool, when a Canadian-born, thirty-year-old number cruncher with a passion for tabulating sports statistics, baseball in particular, convinced the Mahatma (only one of Rickey’s nicknames) to hire him.

The hire was Allan Roth, who’d grown up loving baseball, hockey, and figuring out stats for both, before he was forced to forget his college plans when family issues compelled him to hire as a salesman. After trying but failing to get then-Dodgers president Larry MacPhail to hire him, Roth met then-National Hockey League president Frank Calder and got a job with that league. Enter World War II and a stint in Canada’s Army to interrupt Roth’s statistical career.

The Canadian Army leaned on his statistical analyses before discharging him in 1944, upon his diagnosis of epilepsy. Roth cast his eye upon the Dodgers again, with MacPhail long gone and Rickey running the Bums since. When a first meeting between the two went like “a disaster,” according to Tom Cronin of  Statliners, Roth managed to tell Rickey he wanted “only ten minutes of your undivided attention.”

Told to give Rickey’s assistant a detailed paper, Roth obeyed. As Roth’s Society for American Baseball Research biographer Andy McCue wrote, “Some of these were standard, but others, such as where the ball was hit and the count it was hit on, hadn’t been compiled regularly.”

Roth also proposed to break the statistics down into various categories that would reveal tendencies which the front office and the manager could use to win ballgames. Breakdowns such as performance against left-handers and right-handers, in day games versus night games, in the various ballparks, in situations with runners in scoring position, are all mundane to us now. But in Roth’s time, they were rarely compiled or used, and never part of the public discussion. The letter was intriguing enough to get a meeting with a still-skeptical Rickey.

It got Roth a second direct shot with the Mahatma: “The second meeting was the opposite of the first. Roth later stated that Rickey was intrigued with some of his ideas during the meeting, especially on how RBI’s are overrated.” This time, Rickey was more than intrigued. Once Roth solved his visa problems, and on the same day Jackie Robinson premiered with the Dodgers, Rickey finally hired Roth to be the Dodgers’ statistician, the first full-time such man in major league baseball.

Roth would do the job for eighteen years, recording every pitch the Dodgers threw, every swing they took, every base they reached or advanced, every ball they fielded. He was once somewhat renowned (and often mocked) for tabulating those on copious sheets of graph paper, apparently his favourite charting device.

Taking as long as five hours after each game to break down the game and the players, Roth also spent copious off-season time digging deeper into what we know long since as matchups, best- and worst-count performances, at home and on the road. He also developed a fine sense of humor about it; The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn once credited Roth with inventing the game Silly Records. Except that some of those silly records weren’t as silly or meaningless as they probably sounded then.

Until he was pressured into selling his percentage of the Dodgers to Walter O’Malley in 1950, Rickey paid close enough attention to Roth’s charts and graphs to draw plenty of conclusions of his own in addition to what Roth himself enunciated. And in 1954, as if hiring Roth at all hadn’t been heresy enough, Rickey wrote and Life published “Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” much of which was mulcted from Roth’s work. Including:

Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man’s effectiveness on offense.

The ability to get on base, or On-Base Average, is both vital and measurable.

The correlation shows that OBA went hand in glove with runs scored.

The next measurable quantity is Extra base power . . . My own formula computing power . . . is called isolated power, is the number of extra bases over and above singles in relation to total number of hits.

Runs batted in? A misleading statistic.

Fielding averages? Useless as a yard stick.

As Brian Kenny wrote, in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, Rickey “didn’t just say, ‘Hey, ever wonder why the Dodgers have been kicking your ass for the last eight years? Would you like to know the best way of quantifying talent and production? Oh, shoot, here ya go!'” Today’s sabermetricians were children when Rickey (and Roth) wrote the Life piece; baseball’s lords and princelings were all too ready to take it with a pillar of salt when not laughing hysterically over the Mahatma’s impudence.

The Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass for most of the rest of their Brooklyn life (the Boys of Summer were, after all, Rickey teams), and the Pirates finished in 1960 what Rickey began from 1951-55. (The nucleus of that world champion was Rickey’s nucleus: Vernon Law, Elroy Face, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, and a talented minor leaguer he drafted from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 minor league draft: Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.)

Which was rather splendid for a number cruncher who didn’t consider himself a pure numbers man. Roth “didn’t do his own taxes. He couldn’t remember his phone number,” McCue wrote. “What he would do is record the numbers in myriad detail and then use his true talent, recognizing what the numbers meant, to provide value to his employers. He summed up his philosophy: ‘Baseball is a game of percentages—I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good’.”

(Was Casey Stengel eavesdropping a little on Rickey and Roth near the beginning? Baseball, the Ol’ Perfesser told anyone within earshot, is percentage plus execution. You thought the Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass? Stengel’s Yankees only had ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons to show for his willingness to put old thinking, even old “traditional” Yankee thinking aside.)

Though such crustily visceral managers as Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen spurned Roth’s analyses, Walter Alston accepted them. It took Alston one full season to get his sea legs managing the Dodgers after he was hired to succeed Dressen for 1954, and there were a few growing pains as he asserted his authority and learned his players, but in Alston’s second season? Dem Bums finally won the World Series.

Walter O’Malley could challenge you until you and he were the proverbial blue in the face, but the core of the Dodgers who finally made next year this year were still Rickey’s boys: Hall of Famers Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. We won’t suggest what we now know as analytics put World Series rings on the 1955 Dodgers’ fingers, but it didn’t hurt them to have the data, either.

Then they almost won the ’56 Series while they were at it. It wasn’t Alston’s fault that the Dodgers began showing their age in their final Brooklyn season. (The average age of the regular lineup: 32.) And even their 1959 pennant winner was still a team transitioning from the further-aging Brooklyn veterans.

During the Dodgers’ first serious pennant race in Los Angeles, facing a critical late-season doubleheader against the Giants, Roth convinced Alston, based on his tabulations, that Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched far better at night than during the day, while another Dodger righthander, Roger Craig, was almost the same pitcher day or night. Alston switched his planned doubleheader rotation, starting Craig in the day game and Drysdale for the night game.

The result? The Dodgers swept the Giants, helping them force the three-game playoff against the Braves that meant the pennant. By then even Dodger players received regularly updated Roth tabulations on their own performances and worked accordingly.

Seriously? You really thought that started in this century? Anyone who knew the Dodgers well in those years knew Allan Roth’s role with the team, and that it wasn’t just rehashing or writing out their baseball cards. They could have told you the Dodgers had a lot more going for them than balls and strikes, runs and hits, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s latest beyond-belief performance, right up to the day the Dodgers let Roth go in 1964.

And they really had Branch Rickey to thank.

“Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics,” wrote John Thorn and Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball, “comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly.”

A man who evaluated character in hand with performance but wasn’t always the most astute judge of the former when all was said and done, Rickey died a year after the Dodgers lost Roth. He was foresighted and devious, compassionate and penurious, all at once. He was maybe baseball’s deepest thinker and one of its most pompous. “A man of strange complexities,” the New York Times‘s John Drebinger once wrote, “not to mention downright contradictions.”

For every one who canonises Rickey for elevating and supporting Jackie Robinson as a player and a man, appropriately, there’s another who broils him just as appropriately for the shifty penury that prompted his Hall of Fame Pirate Ralph Kiner to credit him with doing the most to seed the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.

“Rickey believes in economy in everything,” the New York Daily Mirror‘s Dan Daniel once wrote, “except his own salary.”

Roth’s Dodger days ended, McCue wrote, after O’Malley discovered his statistician, whose marriage was collapsing, had a romantic relationship with a black woman at a time when too many Americans, O’Malley included, yet quaked over the very idea of such interracial romance, never mind the scandal quotient still attached to it. That romance ended in a shouting match and Roth’s marriage itself ended, but so did his Dodger career.

He returned to free-lance work until ABC, then NBC, hired him to give announcers (including two former players he’d once analysed, Koufax and Pee Wee Reese) the same deeper analyses he’d previously provided the Dodgers and Scully, until his health failed in the 1980s. (He died in 1992.)

“Roth was a firm believer that you do not have to be an expert mathematician to record baseball stats,” Cronin wrote. “You just had to be an innovative thinker and have a passion for the game. He also realized that human element of baseball and numbers could only help aid the game, not run it.”

So did Branch Rickey. Sabermetricians aren’t the only ones who should thank him for his patronage of and further education from Roth, no matter how dearly baseball’s paleozoics would like to spank him for it.