Mike Marshall, RIP: A prophet scorned

Mike Marshall

Mike Marshall, pitching in the 1974 All-Star Game.

One of Jim Bouton’s teammates on the Ball Four Seattle Pilots was a young righthanded pitcher named Mike Marshall. “I’m afraid Mike’s problem,” Bouton observed, “is that he’s too intelligent and has too much education.”

Marshall’s intelligence and education brought him a groundbreaking 1974 Cy Young Award—the first relief pitcher so honoured. It also brought him a doctorate in exercise physiology, a lifetime of learning, remaking, and trying to teach his art, and further affirmation of his sense that baseball’s entrenched couldn’t decide whether he was a nutbag, a menace, or both.

The doctor has gone to the Elysian Fields. Marshall died Monday at 78. His ideas about pitching remain, even if it took baseball a near-eternity to catch on and even if the game’s most advanced thinkers still don’t get a lot of them.

On the mound, Marshall set one of those records that sets the old school alight and indignant at once. Alight because he appeared in 106 1974 games, pitching 208.1 innings every one of them in relief, and was credited with fifteen pitching wins in relief, not to mention a 0.75 earned run average in the only postseason in which he got to pitch.

Indignant, because that old school continues lamenting the lack of durability among even relief pitchers nowadays. The old school’s ongoing failure to comprehend that no two human beings, never mind pitchers, are constructed entirely alike is one thing Marshall spent his post baseball life doing his best to transcend.

Four years after his Cy Young season, Marshall completed a doctorate in exercise physiology. His graduate education began as much on the mound as it did in the laboratory. If you’d asked Marshall himself, as ESPN writer Jeff Passan once did when Passan still wrote for Yahoo! Sports, Marshall would have told you the mound was his laboratory.

“I’m a researcher,” Marshall told Passan in 2007. “People forget that about me. That’s where my heart is. I pitched baseball, really, as the lab experiment of my research to see if it worked. Turned out it did. I don’t need any more validation that I know something about baseball. I know what works. That’s the greatest truth there is. I have a responsibility to give it back. Nobody wants it? Hey. That’s not my problem.”

Tommy John was one teammate who wanted it long before Marshall attached a doctorate to it. Marshall figured out (and loved reminding people) it was John’s ulnar collateral ligament that blew on the lefthander, leading Dr. Frank Jobe and the surgery that’s long since borne John’s name. Passan noted in ’07 that Marshall also suggested John adopt a regimen including exercises involving swinging his arm at his side with an iron shot-put ball.

Thus did John pitch thirteen major league seasons after his groundbreaking surgery.”We would just look at him and go, ‘He’s kind of wacko’,” John once said. “Yet you saw these feats. What I saw him do, there had to be a reason for it.”

One point in Marshall’s favour was that he didn’t come from the Dick Radatz school of hard-throwing relief monstrosities. His money pitch was a screwball of the kind that normally compromises if not ruins pitching elbows in younger men (Hall of Famer Warren Spahn developed his somewhat late in his career), but he was a pitcher who preferred to out-think both the opposing batter and his own body.

It wasn’t his intellect but a childhood accident that launched Marshall’s interest in kinesiology, that study of the human anatomy’s mechanics. At age eleven, he rode in a car with his uncle and the car was hit by a train, killing the uncle and hospitalising the boy with back injuries. During that hospital stay, the boy became fascinated with just how the whole human body actually works.

He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan in 1965, while he was in the Phillies’ organisation. “Marshall applied his college course load to pitching and began to develop his own theories of pitching and pitching mechanics,” wrote Bruce Markusen in The Hardball Times in 2010.

He even devised an unusual pickoff move, in which he twisted his body in the direction of first base while making a throw to second base. The move looked painful, to say the least, but Marshall executed the maneuver without hurting his arm.

What Marshall sought most, after a delivery flaw caused him shoulder issues, was to simplify both the art and the physics of pitching on behalf of performing it as painlessly as possible for as long as possible.

“[H]e used high-speed film to analyze himself and noticed that if a pitcher pronates his forearm, it protects his elbow and shoulder,” wrote Passan, “pronating” being turning your hand so your palm faces down or in. “Marshall continued to refine the motion, adding the pendulum swings, where musculature prevents elbow-ligament damage, and the step forward, to prevent the arm from flying out and locking up. Marshall’s theory: Apply all force toward home plate instead of wasting it laterally with complicated wind-ups.”

Mike Marshall

“I’m afraid Mike’s problem is that he’s too intelligent and has too much education.”—Jim Bouton, Marshall’s teammate on the Ball Four Seattle Pilots.

Marshall began to look like a comer at last with the Montreal Expos of 1971-73. After the Expos traded him to the Dodgers for aging outfielder Willie Davis in December 1973, Marshall performed the impossible in relief. After 1974, though, Marshall’s flaws—including an impatient personality, an intolerance toward those who didn’t at least listen to his developing beliefs, and unapologetic activism in the Major League Baseball Players Association—got him traded to the Braves in mid-1976.

He finished 1976 strongly enough with the Braves but four bad appearances to open 1977 got him sold to the Rangers, where he struggled with injuries before becoming a free agent for the first time. He signed with the Twins and, at ages 35-36, had two sterling seasons before a bad 1980 opening got his outright release. Except for the Mets taking a flyer on him for 1981—and him responding with a 2.62 ERA in twenty games at age 38—Marshall never pitched in the Show again.

He took up the life of the itinerant pitching guru after throwing his last major league pitch. If it was too late for him to continue refining and developing his theories for his own work, he could still bring it to those aspiring to the art after him.

“A major part of Marshall’s teaching involves the highly unusual pitching motion that he advocates,” Markusen observed.

With this delivery, the pitcher has no real leg kick. He does not rotate his hips toward second base. After the pitcher lifts the ball over his ear, he follows through with an extreme pronation—turning the wrist outward with his thumb pointing toward the ground. By following these precepts, Marshall believes, pitchers can become injury free.

I’ve seen Marshall demonstrate this pitching motion on HBO and the MLB Network. It looks painful and awkward. Then again, maybe I’m just imagining that it’s pain-inducing because I’m so used to watching the classic pitching delivery. After all, Marshall knows a lot more about the human body, and the ways that its limits can be stretched, than I do.

Marshall also developed theories and demonstrated their operation regarding the rate and ways a baseball turns out of a pitcher’s hand decades before anyone else thought of analysing spin rates. “Even today, Marshall’s theories are finding new life,” Passan wrote for ESPN upon Marshall’s death.

On his website in 2003, he posited a theory he called “The Marshall Effect” . . . The premise was that the way a baseball is made, the Magnus effect—the phenomenon that predicts that a ball moving through space should do so rationally—was incomplete. There was something else making balls move, and Marshall believed that it had to do with the seam orientation of pitches. Eighteen years later, the concept Marshall introduced — now being referred to as seam-shifted wake—has invigorated a baseball physics community that believes it is perhaps the most important breakthrough in decades for understanding how pitches move.

Marshall ran his own low-rent teaching academy for a couple of decades. Descriptions melded together might make you think of a makeshift pitching lane with maybe a couple of small sheds and shacks, but there he worked and thought and taught, in the futile hope that maybe someone within baseball’s artery-hardened establishment would decide that maybe he really wasn’t baseball’s version of Anton Mesmer.

“I got tired of appeasing the stupid,” Marshall told Passan in that 2007 encounter, answering why he finally quit corresponding with most people inside the official game.

“Put it this way,” said Jeff Sparks, once an also-ran Tampa Bay relief pitcher who found and got wise to Marshall’s philosophies when it was too late to save his pitching career but not too late to learn regardless. “If [Marshall’s] way of throwing becomes the mainstream, what does every pitching coach who has been preaching the traditional pitching motion forever and has no idea how to teach this have?”

“[T]he baseball world sees him for what he hasn’t done, and that is consistently produce major-league-caliber players,” Passan observed then. “And so develops the Catch-22: Teams think Marshall is too much of a kook to send him top-of-the-line talent and elite players avoid him because they don’t want any sort of associated stigma.”

That wasn’t good enough for Markusen, either. “Really, what would be the harm in some major league organization taking a few of its struggling young minor leaguers—pitchers who are not considered prospects—and having them adopt the Marshall philosophy?” he asked. “If they have no chance of reaching the major leagues using their current mechanics, what would they stand to lose by giving another approach a try?”

It was done all the time before and after Marshall developed his pitching thought, just not Marshall’s way. We’ve read how many stories about this or that pitcher changing approaches and deliveries to go from nothing special to never better? We’ve pondered how many times that pitching really isn’t just a matter of rearing back and firing without control, thought, or purpose?

We’ve pondered how many injuries to how many pitchers that we’ve thought to ourselves could have been avoided with more intelligent management and something better than a still lingering inclination toward patch-him-up/get-him-back-there quackery?

Marshall now reposes serene in the Elysian Fields, where Jim Bouton might have welcomed him home telling him, “Around here, you’ll probably get occasional visits from other prophets. Other people the world thought were out of their minds, too. About things a lot more grave than getting hitters out, winning pennants, and trying to save pitchers.”

Away from baseball, those who surely didn’t believe Marshall was out of his mind included especially his late first wife, Nancy; his second wife, Erica; and, his daughters Deborah, Rebekah, and Kerry. They mourn something unique having gone from their world, and ours, a truly individual mind. We’re left only to ponder what he might have contributed if that mind trained elsewhere than upon the game he loved.

“Wins” aren’t everything . . .

If you still think the towering Met didn’t earn his back-to-back Cy Young Awards . . .

When Jacob deGrom won back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards despite ten wins the first time and eleven the second, enough of the Old Fart Contingent (OFC from here forward) went nuclear. They’ve really lost it this time, the OFC fumed over the award voters. They still fume, occasionally.

What was Max Scherzer with his three-way-tying eighteen wins, then? What was Miles Mikolas, with the least number of losses among the three with eighteen wins? (And the best winning percentage in the league.) That’s the OFC fuming. The proper question really is, what’s this continuing nonsense about judging pitchers first by their “wins?”

Well, maybe not. The truly proper question is: Name me one pitcher who got all 27 outs in the game all by his lonesome, with no help from the catcher calling his pitches or blocking pitches or spearing potential wild pitches; no help from the fielders behind him. (I could be a real rat and follow it with another question: Name me one pitcher who created and produced every run scored by his team during every one of his “wins.”)

While the crickets continue chirping from the OFC grounds, I’d like to show you a table of three 27-game “winners.” The only other thing this trio has in common is winning the Cy Young Award in those seasons. I’m going to show you their “won-lost” records first:

Pitcher A 27-6
Pitcher B 27-9
Pitcher C 27-10

The OFC who looks at the “wins” and “losses” first will tell you Pitcher A was the best of the three when he had his 27-“win” season. Now, will the OFC have a look at the trio’s earned run averages, fielding-independent pitching (FIP; kind of your ERA when your fielders’ work is removed from the equation), strikeouts (screw Crash Davis, missing bats is not fascist), strikeouts per nine innings, and earned runs surrendered? (An [#] means leading the entire Show; a [*] means leading the league.)

Pitcher A 2.95 4.19 127 1.7 78
Pitcher B 1.73# 2.07# 317# 8.8# 62
Pitcher C 1.97* 2.01# 310* 3.6* 76

Pitcher A’s 27-6 doesn’t look quite the leader of the pack now, does it? By the way, Pitcher A received 5.0 runs of support from his team while he was on the mound in his games that season. Pitcher B received 4.0 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season. Pitcher C received 3.4 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season.

The more runs a pitcher has to work with, the less stressful his day’s work will be, of course. Notice Pitcher A was a little too comfortable, surrendering the most earned runs of the trio while striking out the fewest. Pitcher C worked 26 more innings, approximately, than Pitcher B, and surrendered six more earned runs and struck out seven fewer batters. Pitchers A and C experienced fluke seasons overall; Pitcher B had just pitched his sixth straight season leading the entire Show in FIP.

Pitcher A is Bob Welch. Pitcher B is Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Pitcher C (perhaps appropriately) is Steve Carlton. Koufax and Carlton were the no-questions-asked best starting pitchers on their teams. Welch wasn’t. Not even close. As a matter of fact, two starters (including Dave Stewart) and two relievers (including Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley) had better FIPs than Welch in 1990, while the same quartet also had better ERAs.

So how on earth did the 1990 American League Cy Young Award voters give Welch the award? They saw the 27 “wins” and didn’t bother looking at the real indicators of a pitcher’s effectiveness. If they had looked that deep, they would have handed the 1990 American League Cy Young Award to Roger Clemens. (ERA: 1.93; FIP: 2.18; K/BB: 3.87—all of which led the entire Show.)

“In baseball,” wrote Keith Law in Smart Baseball, “team victories matter, but the idea of a single player earning full credit for a win or blame for a loss exposes a deep ignorance of how the game actually plays out on the field.”

If you’ve ever actually watched an actual game of baseball, you know that the sport doesn’t function this way: even a pitcher who throws a perfect game gets some help somewhere—from his defense, from his catcher, and of course from the offense that scored at least one run so he didn’t have to go out and pitch the tenth inning—which happened to Pedro Martinez in 1995 while he was still a Montreal Expo. Pedro threw nine perfect innings against the Padres, but the Expos couldn’t push a run across until the tenth inning; only after that did he qualify for the win despite retiring all 27 batters he’d faced to that point. As the pitcher, Martinez couldn’t have done any more to help his team win the game, but he didn’t “earn” the victory until his teammates scored. This is because the entire thought process that led us to this point, where a starting pitcher gets that credit or blame, is both out of date and very, very stupid.

Don’t you just love watching the OFC temperatures bursting the mercury tubes? Would you like to send them straight into the ionosphere? Let me give you two more pitchers, one of whom won the Cy Young Award in the season in question and the other of whom out-pitched him profoundly:

The Winner 21-8 3.48 3.75 157 6.3 86
The Shoulda Been 16-7 2.87 2.80# 238# 9.2* 74

The winner was Bartolo Colon, 2005. The shoulda-been 2005 winner (if you’re picking strictly starting pitchers) was Johan Santana.

The OFC will tell you those 21 “wins” which led the American League made Colon a no-brainer. (How about one more “loss” than Santana?) The Show-leading FIP and strikeouts, plus the American League-leading 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and surrendering 12 fewer earned runs, should have told voters Santana was the best starting pitcher in the league that season.

The only American League starter that year who got close to Santana’s ERA was Kevin Millwood, whose 2.86 led the league. But Millwood’s FIP (3.73) was only two points lower than Colon’s; he didn’t miss as many bats as Santana or Colon (146 strikeouts; 6.8 K/9); and, his K/BB ratio (2.81) wasn’t even Colon (3.65), never mind Santana (5.29).

Let’s look in another direction. In 1965, Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game. Koufax struck fourteen batters out, including striking out the side in the ninth. The remaining thirteen outs came through the courtesy of three ground outs and ten fly outs. It’s absolutely fair to say Koufax himself took care of one more out than his fielders did. It’s absolutely fair to say that Koufax did more to win the game than the rest of the team did.

A year before Koufax’s jewel, Hall of Famer Jim Bunning pitched the National League’s first perfect game of the World Series era. (1903-present.) Bunning struck ten batters out. The remaining seventeen outs came by way of eleven fly outs and nine ground outs. Bunning needed more help than Koufax needed to consummate the game. So did a lot of other perfect game pitchers.

There are 21 perfect games in the World Series era, including one that was pitched in a World Series. Nineteen have available game logs, beginning with Charlie Robertson’s perfecto of 30 April 1922. We’ll see their strikeouts, ground outs, and fly outs. I’ll assign each pitcher a win factor (WF) based on his strikeouts (which he got by himself) divided by the sum of ground and fly outs (for which he needed more than a little help from his friends). I’m also including their fielding-independent pitching rates for those seasons.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP (Yr.)
Charlie Robertson (1922) 2-0 6 7 14 .286 3.85
Don Larsen (1956)* 2-0 7 6 14 .350 4.27
Jim Bunning (1964) 6-0 10 6 11 .588 2.75
Sandy Koufax (1965) 1-0 14 3 10 1.077 1.93
Catfish Hunter (1968) 4-0 11 7 9 .688 3.46
Len Barker (1981) 3-0 11 9 7 .688 2.46
Mike Witt (1984) 1-0 10 13 4 .588 3.16
Tom Browning (1988) 1-0 7 10 10 .350 4.50
Dennis Martinez (1991) 2-0 5 17 5 .227 3.17
Kenny Rogers (1994) 4-0 8 7 12 .421 4.55
David Wells (1998) 4-0 11 6 10 .688 3.80
David Cone (1999) 6-0 10 4 13 .588 4.28
Randy Johnson (2004) 2-0 13 7 7 .929 2.30
Mark Buehrle (2009) 5-0 6 11 10 .286 4.46
Dallas Braden (2010) 4-0 6 7 14 .286 3.80
Roy Halladay (2010) 1-0 11 8 8 .688 3.01
Philip Humber (2012) 4-0 9 5 13 .500 5.77
Matt Cain (2012) 10-0 14 6 7 1.077 3.40
Felix Hernandez (2012) 1-0 12 8 7 .800 2.84

Notice that only two of those perfect games have a pitcher win factor one or higher. They just so happen to be tied for the most strikeouts in a perfect game while we’re at it. On the other hand, Koufax got ten outs in the air and three on the ground. Still, Koufax and Cain were equal keeping the ball in the yard for a little help from their friends.

“How about we just de-emphasise the win?” —Clayton Kershaw.

So why shouldn’t Cain be regarded as Koufax’s equal? Aside from the obvious (Koufax is a no-questions-asked peak value Hall of Famer; Cain is maybe the 282nd best starting pitcher of all time), Koufax’s game kind of proved that practise makes perfect: he’d thrown one no-hitter in each of the three previous seasons. Cain’s perfecto was the only no-hitter of his career, and he had the most runs to work with of any of these perfect game pitchers.

Koufax also had a lot less to work with. He also pitched with the anomaly of his mound opponent, Bob Hendley of the Cubs, coming thatclose to pitching a no-hitter on the backside of the game. The lone run of the game scored on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and a throwing error on the steal; the only hit of the game was a double after which the batter was stranded without another baserunner.

The closest to the Left Arm of God was the Big Unit: Hall of Famer Randy Johnson had only two runs to work with while striking thirteen out. Johnson and fellow Hall of Famer Roy Halladay are also the only ones of the perfecto pitchers to divide the work among their teammates evenly between the infield and the outfield.

Don Larsen’s opponent in Game Five of the 1956 World Series was Dodger nemesis-turned-teammate Sal Maglie, who’d thrown a no-hitter of his own during the regular season while helping make the final Brooklyn pennant possible. Decades later, Maglie told Peter Golenbock (for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers), “I wish we had played in Ebbets Field the game that Larsen beat me, ’cause we hit some mighty long balls that were caught. In our ballpark, I don’t believe they would have beat me.”

Sour grapes? Among the above perfecto pitchers, Larsen tied with Charlie Robertson and Dallas Braden for the most fly outs. These are the flies from which Larsen benefited:

Duke Snider—liner to right field. (1st.)
Jackie Robinson—liner to third. (2nd.)
Sandy Amoros—pop fly around second base. (2nd.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (3rd.)
Sal Maglie—liner to center. (3rd.)
Jackie Robinson—deep right field. (5th.)
Gil Hodges—deep left center field. (5th.)
Carl Furillo—pop fly around second base. (6th.)
Roy Campanella—short center field. (6th.)
Pee Wee Reese—deep left center field. (7th.)
Duke Snider—fly to left field. (7th.)
Gil Hodges—liner to third. (8th.)
Sandy Amoros—deep left center field. (8th.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (9th.)

Maglie was probably right about Hodges in the fifth, Reese in the seventh, and Amoros in the eighth. Balls hit in Yankee Stadium’s impossible deep left center field just might have meant extra-base hits or home runs in Ebbets Field’s shorter dimensions. Robinson’s fifth-inning fly might have hit Ebbets Field’s higher, beveled right field wall. Hodges, Reese, or Amoros, maybe even all three, just might have had home runs if Game Five was played in Ebbets.

Dodger Stadium in 1965 was no hitter’s paradise, either, but Koufax surrendered only one deep fly out—Byron Browne’s high liner toward the back of right center field in the top of the second—that might have been extra bases or a possible home run if the game was played in Wrigley Field.

So what’s the point of all that? Maybe the point is that, even if you pitch a perfect game, you didn’t win it all by your lonesome unless you struck out every one of the 27 men you faced to get there without your catcher having to hold onto a foul tip or throw the batter out at first after bobbling or losing the ball on strike three.

Among the perfecto pitchers, Koufax and Cain got the closest. But if you also measure by each perfecto pitcher’s FIP in the season he turned his trick, Koufax was the most likely to pitch a perfect game the year he did it among any of the nineteen listed who did it—and Philip Humber was the least likely to do it.

(If only we had the game log for Cy Young’s 1904 perfecto! Pitching in the dead ball era, when pitchers were still encouraged to let the batters make contact as best they could, Young’s 1.83 FIP made him look like a candidate to pitch a perfect game, but with a 4.7 K/9 ratio you’d also think he needed a lot more help from his friends than Koufax [10.2 K/9 ration in 1965] did to nail one.)

The five pitchers who struck 20 or more batters out in a single nine-inning game did more to win those games than even the perfecto pitchers did.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Roger Clemens (1986) 3-1 20 3 4 2.86 2.81
Roger Clemens (1996) 4-0 20 8 4 1.67 3.43
Kerry Wood (1998) 2-0 20 5 3 2.50 3.16
Randy Johnson (2001) 4-3 20 3 6 2.22 2.13
Max Scherzer (2016) 3-2 20 3 10 1.54 3.24

Five starters in major league history struck out 20 in a nine-inning game and only two of them (Clemens, Wood) threw shutouts. Wood usually gets the big enough edge because a) he had half the runs to work with that Clemens had; and, b) only three balls hit off him traveled skyward. But Clemens needed one fewer out overall. That’s while pondering that, based on FIP, Johnson may have been the most likely of the quartet to punch out twenty in a nine-inning game.

If by now you’re beginning to think that maybe pitching wins aren’t everything for a pitcher, perhaps you’d like to have a look at a game illustrating that maybe pitching losses aren’t exactly everything for a pitcher, either:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
The Hardest-Luck Loser? 1-0 8 14 16 .267 3.40

That was Harvey Haddix’s thirteen-inning heartbreaker in 1959. When he pitched twelve “perfect” innings only to have it broken up in the thirteenth for the loss. (The game is said to have inspired Lew Burdette—the Braves pitcher who went the distance to get credit for the win—when he talked contract before the following season: That guy pitched the greatest game of all time and he still couldn’t beat me—so I must be the greatest pitcher who ever lived. The prankish Burdette got his laugh . . . and his raise, so the story goes.)

There’s no question Haddix worked his tail off to get the game as far as he got it, but a combine of thirty ground and fly outs means he got a lot of help from his friends. Pitchers always do, when all is said and done.

The only friends from whom Haddix got no help were in the Pirates lineup, unable to push runs across the plate despite twelve hits including first and third in the top of the ninth. (They went 0-for-2 with men in scoring position and hit into three double plays while they were at it, too.)

Back to Jacob deGrom. We’ll have a look at his work during his two Cy Young Award seasons, the ones the OFC still believes shouldn’t have gotten him the awards because he didn’t “win” enough. Using the same win factor formula as I used to review the perfecto pitchers, this is the towering Met in 2018-2019:

Pitcher K GB FB WF FIP
Jacob deGrom (2018-2019) 524 360 331 .758 2.33

DeGrom’s win factor shows he pitched more than well enough to earn more “wins” than he actually earned over those two years and to avoid more “losses” than he was charged with in the same period. But enough of the OFC will insist deGrom’s 22 “wins” in 2018-19 mean he wasn’t even a winner, never mind Cy Young Award worthy.

There’s an active three-time Cy Young Award winner who could have been charged with heresy by the OFC for a remark he made during an interview with MLB Network at the 2012 All-Star Game. He actually said, more or less, that pitching “wins” aren’t everything.

Well, he was asked if the pitching win ought to be sent the way of the 78 rpm record. (Well, not quite in those words.) According to Ahead of the Curve author Brian Kenny, one of the three interviewers, this pitcher “said he thought there were many more important categories and thought the W-L was frequently misleading. [Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac] groaned, lamenting a missed opportunity to crush me.”

I seized on it, asking, “Can we then count on you for the Kill the Win program?” [This pitcher] answered diplomatically, “How about we just de-emphasise the win?”

I’ll take it, Clayton.

That’s Clayton as in Kershaw, he with a pair of 21-game “winning” seasons and the lifetime 175-76 “won-lost” record. The pitcher who nailed back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a 1.91 FIP, a 1.96 ERA, and a mere 16 “wins” in the second of the two seasons. (The first: 21 “wins.”) The fellow who struck out 530 batters over those two seasons, against 418 ground outs and 235 fly outs—for an .812 win factor.

When a man winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a win factor higher than those seasons’ “winning percentage” talks, it might be wise to listen.

If it’s any comfort to either himself in the Elysian Fields, or to the OFC any old place you choose to place them, Harvey Haddix’s 1959 FIP says he was more likely to pitch and consummate a perfect game than eight pitchers who actually did pitch and consummate them. Including the million-to-one shot who did it in a World Series.

Mike McCormick, RIP: Mr. 500’s battles

2020-06-17 MikeMcCormick02

A Comeback Player of the Year-winning perseverance probably helped Mike McCormick win the first National League Cy Young Award in 1967.

Ask who was the first Giant (New York or San Francisco) to win the Cy Young Award and some might answer with either Tim Lincecum (who did win twice) or Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (who didn’t win even once).

Now, drop a hint: He’s the only pitcher in the 500-home run club. OK, we’re getting technical. But Mike McCormick did hit home run number 500 . . . by any major league pitcher.

The bad news is that he also surrendered Hall of Famer Henry Aaron’s 500th home run. So put McCormick into the membership-of-one 500-home run club on both sides of the ball.

McCormick was also the first pitcher to win the National League’s Cy Young Award, after the prize was divided for each league following Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s retirement, ending Koufax’s ownership (three in four seasons, the last two back-to-back) of the original major league award.

Until Lincecum won the Cy Young Award back-to-back, McCormick was also the only Giant ever to win the prize.

You’d have spotted McCormick on the road in a heartbeat if you knew some of the foregoing. His personalised license plate read “Mr. 500.” Mr. 500 died at 81 Saturday at his Cornelius, North Carolina home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Native to California, the lefthanded, hard-throwing McCormick had ideas about going to the University of Southern California with his high school all-star teammate Ron Fairly before scouts from all but one major league team began showing him the bonus money in 1956. When the New York Giants showed the 16-year-old $50,000, McCormick didn’t hesitate.

“I realized that fifty thousand dollars will buy me a lot of education,” he once told SF Giants: An Oral History author Mike Mandel, “and it’s an opportunity I may never get again, so I accepted it.”

The bonus rule of the day that required such signings to be kept on major league rosters for two full seasons before they could be farmed out. McCormick spent much of his first two in the Giants bullpen as the team moved from New York to San Francisco. Though numerous writings cite the elder Giants treating him decently, McCormick spent an awful lot of time walking the New York streets alone.

His roommate knew only too well how the kid felt: the late Johnny Antonelli, the first of the bonus babies under that old, silly rule. Antonelli was treated often enough as a pariah during his early years with the Boston Braves–until such veterans as pitcher Johnny Sain parlayed Antonelli’s fat bonus into their own salary hikes, and until Antonelli was drafted into the Army and then traded to the Giants.

In 1959 McCormick stepped forth as the Giants’ third starter. In 1960, he led the National League with a 2.70 earned run average and struck out twice as many as he walked. He fell off somewhat in 1962, but the Giants had reason to believe McCormick and Marichal were about to become the core of a youthful and powerful pitching staff.

They didn’t bargain on one little wrinkle. McCormick threw over a thousand major league innings before his 23rd birthday. At 19 he threw 178.1; at 20, 225.2; at 21, 253; at 22, 250. In 1962, his shoulder went AWOL and his manager Alvin Dark accused him of malingering.

“I couldn’t throw the ball 60 feet without getting tears in my eyes,” he once told Mandel. The pain was so serious McCormick admitted to hoping his catchers wouldn’t throw the ball back after a pitch. He spent the 1962 World Series on the bench and was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in the same deal that also made an Oriole out of relief specialist Stu Miller.

With the Orioles McCormick worked as a spot starter in 1963 but was sent to the minors in 1964—his first taste of minor league service. In the interim, Johns Hopkins doctors ruled he’d suffered a torn muscle in his shoulder that may or may not have been his rotator cuff.  Despite pitching well enough on the farm the Orioles traded him to the Washington Senators for another minor leaguer before the 1965 season opened.

Two seasons in Washington enabled McCormick to reinvent himself as a control-oriented pitcher with a lively screwball who looked and worked better than his won-lost records with the Second Nats. (He also took a single cortisone shot each spring from then on, nothing as insane a volume as other pitchers were administered far too often.)

When they traded him to the Giants for outfielder Cap Peterson and pitcher Bob Priddy in December 1966, the Giants hoped McCormick would just help balance the rotation as its only lefthander. They got better than they expected.

The 29-year-old McCormick wasn’t the National League’s most dominant pitcher in 1967 (Hall of Famer Jim Bunning actually was), but getting credit for a league-leading 22 wins and rolling a sub-3.00 ERA, after four seasons in which it looked as though he’d be another shoulder-wrecked casualty of youthful overwork, did him more than a few favours. He had above-league-average run support and his bullpen only blew one of his starts after he left the game.

McCormick probably won his Cy Young Award two ways: those 22 wins and his too-obvious Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning revival. Sometimes voters reward the effort a little more than the actual results. “He left the Giants’ employ five years ago as a fastball pitcher,” wrote then-San Francisco Chronicle writer Ron Fimrite. “He returned this year as a craftsman.”

It would be his final shining moment. In 1968—the year he surrendered Aaron’s 500th— his screwball took a powder and, despite a briefly shining 1969, McCormick’s pitching days were all but finished. Further injuries, further ineffectiveness, bounding from the Giants to the Kansas City Royals to the New York Yankees and back to the Giants, with a few minor league stops along the way.

McCormick found retiring easier said than done when he tried it first in 1972. But he finally called it a career in 1973. “I was a victim of bad pitching,” he once said. “My own.”

He wasn’t exactly left high and dry after baseball. He’d worked as a stockbroker in many offseasons and eventually became a Bay Area office equipment salesman and worked in promotions for the Giants as well. Divorced from his first wife, the father of three re-married happily, had a fourth child, and eventually retired to North Carolina.

“I loved the competing,” he told the Chronicle in 2002. “I’d play every day if I could, and that’s probably part of the reason I hurt my arm. I’d never say no. I’d say, ‘Fine, give me the ball. I’ll go get ’em.’ I loved it.” If only those who coached and managed Mr. 500 knew how to love his arm back.

The hardware times

2019-11-05 GerritColeJustinVerlander

The AL Cy Young Award race is really between Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander—but could they end up co-Cyners?

Just call this baseball’s True Value season—hardware time. Even if you suspect that this year, like many years, the hardware may not match the true value. And since baseball’s oldest professions include arguing, the hardware should provoke a decent few.

Here are my looks, in order of when the winners will be revealed. (11 November for the Rookies of the Year; 12 November for the Managers of the Year; 13 November for the Cy Young Award winners; 14 November for the Most Valuable Players.)

Rookie of the Year

National League—Pete Alonso (Mets) has a decent shot at running away with the prize, particularly for smashing the Show’s rookie home run record and leading the Show with his 53 bombs. Especially since Fernando Tatis, Jr. (Padres) missed about half the season on the injured list. A full season for Tatis might have made the ROY race a squeaker.

Pitcher Mike Soroka (Braves) is the third finalist, and he’ll get some votes for that 2.68 ERA and for being the stingiest pitcher in the league for surrendering home runs in homer-happy 2019. (0.7 HR/9 inning.) But with Tatis missing too much time the prize is probably Alonso’s.

American League—No contest, even with the 9 June callup. It’s Yordano Alvarez’s (Astros) award. He was just that dangerous even in only 87 games. Brandon Lowe (infielder, Rays) and John Means (pitcher, Orioles) were good, very good, but not even close.

Which is why Eloy Jimenez (White Sox) not making the finalists’ list is a small surprise. Two outfield injuries didn’t stop him from hitting 31 out. He wasn’t really close to Alvarez when all was said and done, but he did have a better season than Lowe.

Manager of the Year

National League—At first you wouldn’t think this’ll be an easy call between finalists Craig Counsell (Brewers), Mike Schildt (Cardinals), and defending MOY Brian Snitker (Braves). All three took their teams to the postseason; two (Snitker, Schildt) won divisions; one (Snitker) wants to be the first back-to-back MOY winner since Hall of Famer Bobby Cox. And one (Counsell) was last year’s second-place finisher.

Snitker’s Braves improved seven games over 2018; Schildt’s Cardinals improved five games over 2018; Counsell’s Brewers showed a seven-game deficit over 2018. And the Cardinals needed every one of their 162 games plus Jack Flaherty’s monster second half to win the NL Central.

Schildt looks to shake out as the winner, though it’s a bloody good thing the votes are voted before the regular season ends. His ugly postgame rant after winning the division series and the Cardinals’ NLCS humiliation at the hands of the Nationals left him a very bad look.

American League—For me, no contest. Whatever happened to the Yankees in the ALCS, they may have been lucky to win 103 regular season games in the first place, with a team resembling a M*A*S*H post-op ward most of the season and a manager who wasn’t sure if he was running baseball games or an urgent care unit.

Rocco Baldelli (Twins) masterminded his team’s remarkable turnaround and AL Central conquest, though it’s possible some voters thought it was as much a product of the Twins’ strategic bombing as anything else. Kevin Cash (Rays) continued doing his share to prove less is more in winning 96 and snatching a wild card entry.

But I suspect the MOY is Aaron Boone’s. If so, don’t be surprised if the hardware comes embedded with a music box—playing the theme to St. Elsewhere.

Cy Young Award

National League—It looked like it would be a near photo-finish between Jacob deGrom (Mets) and Max Scherzer (Nationals) until Scherzer’s neck and back issues rudely interrupted him down the stretch. Before that, there was a time Hyun-Jin Ryu (Dodgers) looked almost as much like the runaway winner in the making as deGrom proved to be at the finish in 2018.

Then Ryu’s season got interrupted by neck trouble, too, unfortunately. He still managed to lead the Show with his 2.32 ERA . . . but his fielding-independent pitching rate (ERA minus defense) checked in higher (3.15) than deGrom’s (2.67). DeGrom also led the league with 255 strikeouts and with 7.3 wins above replacement-level (WAR).

It may not be the runaway triumph it was in 2018, but deGrom probably has the 2019 Cy Young Award, too. He remained an elite pitcher in 2019, got stronger as the season went onward, and it’s likely that his durability as well as his performance papers give him the edge past Scherzer and Ryu. And they didn’t have to fight as many of their teams’ other problems as deGrom did.

It could be deGrom by maybe a nose and a cheek. And if it is, it would make him and Scherzer an anomaly: no pair of pitchers has been back-to-back with each other in winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards since Roger Clemens (1997-98) and Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez (1999-2000) in the American League.

Could deGrom and Scherzer become co-Cy Young Award winners this time? It’s not exactly unheard-of: Mike Cuellar (Orioles) and Denny McLain (Tigers) were co-winners in 1969 for the American League. It’s never happened in the National League yet.

American League—The given: one or another Astros righthander will win it. (And one ex-Astro, Charlie Morton [Rays], is the third finalist.) The question: which one? The answer: It should be Gerrit Cole. But you never know until you get there.

Because Cole led the American League in ERA (2.50), the Show in strikeouts (an Astros franchise-high 326), the league in fielding-independent pitching (2.65), and the Show in ERA+ (park adjustment factor; 185).

But Verlander punched out an even 300, led the Show with his 0.80 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, 7.14 strikeout-to-walk rate, and nailed both his 3,000th career strikeout and his 300th season’s strikeout in the same game. Both against the same victim. (Kole Calhoun, freshly non-optioned by the Angels, though not for that reason.)

Milestones appeal to award voters. Always have. And they may have been awful tempted to make Verlander only the sixth man in history—and the first ever in the American League—to win a Cy Young Award the same year he pitched a no-hitter. (Milestones, continued: it was Verlander’s third career no-hitter.)

This much is certain: Cole and Verlander are likely to become the first rotation mates to finish 1-2 in the Cy Young voting since Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001. We just don’t know which order yet.

My own call is that yes, Verlander hit some significant milestones while having a season for the ages in his own right, but yes, too, Cole was just enough better to win the Cy by a nose and a cheek, too. Of course, they, too, could end up co-Cyners, making them the first American League pair to do it since Cuellar and McLain.

Most Valuable Player

National League—Christian Yelich (Brewers) probably had a hammerlock on the award until his knee injury killed his season. It left room for Cody Bellinger (Dodgers), who’d already yanked his own game to another plateau entirely, to look like the heavy favourite when the season ended. Bellinger was no questions asked the best player on a runaway train team.

Anthony Rendon (Nationals)? He made a case that would probably give him the award if neither Yelich nor Bellinger happened to be in the league this year. The only other flaw in Rendon’s game: He saved his absolute biggest moments for the Nats’ staggering postseason run and triumph, and the votes are cast right after the regular season. His next contract should atone for that.

Now let me be a real stinker. Let me look at Yelich and Bellinger (and, just for fun, Rendon) in terms of what I call a real batting average. I’ll say it again: the traditional batting average underrates what you do at the plate. It treats all your hits equally and takes only those divided by your official at-bats.

A real batting average (RBA) would take your total bases (which count your hits the way they should be counted—all hits are not equal), your walks, your intentional walks (one more time: you deserve extra credit if the other guys would rather you take first base than their heads off), your sacrifices (bunts and sac flies), and the times you got hit by a pitch, and divides the sum of those by all your plate appearances and not just your official at-bats.

Drumroll, please . . .

Christian Yelich 580 328 80 16 3 8 .750
Cody Bellinger 661 351 95 21 4 3 .717
Anthony Rendon 646 326 80 8 9 12 .673

Well, now. If the MVP voters looked that deep, Yelich might still shake out as the National League’s MVP. Might. If they’re not, either Bellinger wins the prize outright or Yelich and Bellinger could become co-MVPs. Could. It’s only ever happened once before: in 1979, when Keith Hernandez (Cardinals) and Hall of Famer Willie Stargell (Pirates) did it.

American League—Mike Trout (Angels) had the award in the vault, with armed guards outside the doors, until he, too, was taken down for the season with an early September injury. Did it leave enough room for Alex Bregman (Astros) to claim the prize?

Trout missed just about the entire final month of the season and still almost managed to lead the league in home runs with his career-high 45. (The Royals’ Jorge Soler beat him out and Soler had to hit three over the season’s last two days to do it.) He also still led the Show in on-base percentage (.438), the league in slugging percentage (.645) and OPS (1.083), and the Show in OPS+ (park adjustments; 185).

Bregman just edged out Trout for the league’s overall WAR lead—8.4 for Bregman, 8.3 for Trout. But Trout still led the league in offensive WAR (8.3) and was .6 ahead of Bregman that way. Bregman’s slash line is his own career high, by the way, not to mention his leading the league with 119 walks.

Marcus Semien (Athletics) is the third finalist for the award, and while it was a joy to see him improve his game that much, he’s not yet in either Trout’s or Bregman’s league. And unless voters look for something else beyond what I’ve just discussed, the award’s going to be between Trout and Bregman.

Now I’ll be a real stinker again, this time looking at Trout and Bregman according to RBA. Drumroll, again, please . . .

Mike Trout 600 303 110 14 4 16 .745
Alex Bregman 690 328 119 2 8 9 .675

The RBA difference between Trout and Bregman (.070) is greater than that between Yelich and Bellinger (.033). Now ponder how Trout and Yelich would have looked if their injuries didn’t end their seasons when September was barely born. (Ponder, too, the intentional walks all six MVP finalists were handed this year. Teams didn’t fear Rendon and Bregman quite as much as they feared Bellinger, Trout, and Yelich.)

The AL MVP voters still might have pondered co-MVPs between Trout and Bregman, after all. And there is that Hernandez-Stargell precedent.

Still, the voters may yet have concluded that Bregman swung that well (especially in the season’s second half) and played excellent third base for a 107-winning team but Trout still shouldn’t be penalised because he doesn’t have a team its and baseball’s still-best all-around player can be proud of. He’s the reason the Angels drew over three million fans despite their fourth straight losing season.

My nickel would probably go to Trout in the American League and Yelich in the National League. Trout’s RBA difference from Bregman is just too vivid, and so is Yelich’s over Bellinger. And my nickel isn’t worth a dime. (Sorry, Yogi.) But it wouldn’t be the end of what’s left of the free world if 2019 proved also to be the year of the co-Cy Young Award winners and the year of the co-Most Valuable Players. Would it?

How a Verlander Cy would make history

Houston Astros v Toronto Blue Jays

Justin Verlander during his no-hitter against the Blue Jays; if he wins this year’s AL Cy Young Award, he’ll make league history in another way . . .

Even I didn’t catch on and I was watching the game. But Justin Verlander’s no-hitter last Sunday could put him into the history books for reasons other than the no-hitter himself.

That’s because, according to Jayson Stark, five pitchers have thrown no-hitters in the same seasons in which they won Cy Young Awards and Verlander, in theory anyway, could become the sixth. But he’d still make history if he wins this year’s American League Cy—because no American League pitcher has yet won the Cy the same year they went no-no.

The previous five: Jake Arrieta (Cubs), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Hall of Famer Roy Halladay (Phillies), Mike Scott (Astros), and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (Dodgers). National Leaguers all. And Koufax did it twice: in 1963, when he pitched the second of his four career no-hitters; and, in 1965, when his fourth proved that practise really makes perfect.

That’s not Verlander’s only shot at the history book this year. (If he does win, it would be his second Cy Young Award.) Suppose he and his rotation mate Gerrit Cole finish one and two in the American League Cy Young Award voting. (It could happen, folks.) According to Stark, it’d be the first time rotation mates ever finished 1-2 in the AL Cy Young vote.

And only one pair of starting rotation mates ever finished 1-2 in a Cy Young Award vote before. No, it wasn’t Koufax and Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. Good guess, though. Koufax won three Cys when it was still a major league award, not one in each league, and he won all three unanimously. Drysdale won it in 1962 even though it’s arguable that Cincinnati’s Bob Purkey probably should have won the award; Dean Chance (Angels) won the 1964 Cy but Koufax was posting a Cy-worth season when it ended after the baserunning injury that exposed his elbow arthritis at last.

It took until 2001 for rotation mates to finish 1-2 in a Cy Young Award vote: Hall of Famer Randy Johnson won the National League award, and should-be Hall of Famer Curt Schilling finished second. The Big Unit, of course, can’t complain since he won five Cy Young Awards including four straight; Schilling’s major Cy Young Award problem is having Cy-worth seasons when someone else was a) just a shade better or b) having a career year.

IF NO KOUFAX—Suppose Sandy Koufax wasn’t in the Show when he copped those three major league-awarded Cy Young Awards? Who would have won them in 1963, 1965, and 1966?

If you go by wins above a replacement-level player, and if Cy Young voters went by it in 1963 (yes, we’re theorising, since nobody thought about WAR back then), the winner would have been . . . Dick Ellsworth, the 23-year-old Cubs lefthander who just so happened to have his career year.

Ellsworth was credited with 22 wins, but he posted career-best full-season 2.11 earned run average (second in the National League to Koufax) and 2.68 fielding-independent pitching. Hall of Famer Juan Marichal won 25 games and had a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time in his career (2.42) and a solid 2.62 FIP.

So how did Ellsworth end up with more WAR than Marichal? Easy: Ellsworth pitched in maybe the National League’s most notorious hitters’ park for a notoriously lousy team still mired in its looney-tooney College of Coaches rotating managers experiment, and he really had to work for those 22 wins. (His ’63 ERA+ was a Show-leading 167.) Marichal’s team was better even though his Giants finished third in the league behind the pennant (and World Series) winning Dodgers and the second-place Cardinals.

Considering that Marichal was credited with 25 wins for a bona-fide pennant contender, it’s entirely possible that if Koufax hadn’t been in the league Marichal would have won the 1963 Cy Young Award. But Koufax was in the league and his ability to miss bats and avoid walks while leading a team to a pennant was just too overwhelming.

Koufax actually didn’t lead major league pitchers in WAR for 1965—Marichal did. So why did Koufax win his second Cy Young Award. Too easy: 26 wins and a fourth no-hitter in as many seasons, which was a perfect game in the bargain. Not to mention pitching the pennant clincher on two days’ rest at the end of a hammer-and-tongs pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants. And breaking Hall of Famer Bob Feller’s single-season major league strikeout record (with 382) didn’t hurt, either.

But if you went by 1965 WAR Marichal had an MLB-leading 10.3 to Koufax’s fourth-in-Show 8.1. There were two guys in between Marichal and Koufax among the 1965 major league WAR-leading pitchers, both of whom were having their career years: Sam McDowell (Indians) and Jim Maloney (Reds), both of whom finished with 8.2 WAR. And McDowell was arguably better than Maloney that year: McDowell led the American League with a 2.18 ERA and a 2.08 FIP; Maloney’s were a few points higher than Sudden Sam’s.

In 1966, the Dodgers and the Giants went at it for a final time among those 1960s pennant races and this time Koufax led the Show with his 10.3 WAR. He also led with a) his fifth-straight league-leading ERA (1.73, which also led the Show for the third time), his sixth-straight Show-leading FIP (2.07), his fourth Show strikeout title (317), and a Show-leading 27 wins.

Marichal finished right behind Koufax with 9.1 WAR, and Hall of Famer Jim Bunning (Phillies) finished with 9.0. As a matter of fact, only one American League pitcher finished in the top ten Show WAR among the hurlers in ’66: Gary Peters (White Sox), with 5.3.

It’s really to mourn that Juan Marichal, the arguable best righthanded pitcher of the 1960s, never won a Cy Young Award, either the MLB version or the league version, but it wasn’t his fault that a) Sandy Koufax was his contemporary through 1966, and b) someone else not named Koufax had either a career year (Dean Chance, 1964; Mike McCormick, 1967), an extraterrestrial year (Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, 1968), or came into his own completely and to stay (Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, 1969) during several of Marichal’s best seasons.

WHITHER WHITEY?—You may have noticed Hall of Famer Whitey Ford missing from the above discourse. In 1963, the Yankee bellwether got credit for 24 wins while helping lead his Yankees to (what a surprise) the pennant. So why didn’t Ford get much of a Cy Young Award nod that year?

For one thing, Ford wasn’t quite as good as Koufax and Marichal at missing bats; he lived on the ground ball as well as generally avoiding walks. For another thing, Ford got slightly better run support per start than Koufax, Marichal, and Ellsworth did in 1963.

On the other hand, his 24 wins were the second and final time Ford was a 20+ game-winner. And both those seasons came following the Casey Stengel era. The legend about Stengel and Ford is generally true; the Ol’ Perfesser really did tend to save Ford for the Yankees’ best opponents if he could help it.

According to Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook, a researcher named Jason Brannon discovered that Ford made forty percent more starts against the Yankees’ top two rivals than its bottom two in the Stengel era. When Ralph Houk succeeded Stengel starting in 1961, Ford made seven more starts (39) than in the only season Stengel allowed him to make more than thirty. And what do you know: Whitey won the Cy Young Award that year.

Except that he won 25 games but shows only 3.7 WAR. Even if you think Edwin Starr was right (War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!), you should know the reason: the 1961 Yankees simply bludgeoned the competition with all those home runs, and they could make any pitcher look like a Hall of Famer, never mind a Whitey Ford who is a bona-fide Hall of Famer.

(The ’61 Yankees are also slightly overrated as a team because of all those home runs and the Mantle-Maris home run chase. If you take the word of Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups, and it’s a good word to take, five Yankee teams were actually far enough better; from first to fifth—the 1998, 1927, 1939, 1923, and 1937 editions. Me, I’d have thrown in the 1954 edition, if only because there’s something a little sad about a team winning 103 games and not winning the pennant . . . because the Indians chose ’54 to have their career year.)

POOR RICHARD’S ALMANAC—Dick Ellsworth, alas, had a 1966 he’d have just as soon forgotten. At age 26 had a respectable 3.46 FIP but his ERA barely missed reaching 4.00 . . . and he was hung with a major league-leading 22 losses. And the 1966 Cubs finished in tenth place.

The lefthander probably should have suspected it was going to be that kind of year when Topps released his baseball card in the spring. Bad enough: the player shown on the face was righthanded. Worse: The the photograph on the front was actually Ken Hubbs, the Cubs’ second baseman (and 1962 NL Rookie of the Year)—who’d been killed in a February 1964 small plane crash.

The good news is that the 1966 Ellsworth/Hubbs card may not be all that valuable among collectible baseball cards. ComC, the Redmond, Washington-based card and comic trading Website, lists a mint condition Ellsworth/Hubbs at no higher than $55.74. The most valuable Ellsworth card? The 1964 card he shares with Sandy Koufax and Bob Friend (Pirates) showing the National League’s 1963 ERA leaders, at $142.48.

Losing Ken Hubbs was devastating to the Cubs and to baseball, of course, especially given the irony that he took up flying to conquer his fear of it. But Dick Ellsworth didn’t deserve to be embarrassed the way he was on his 1966 baseball card, either.