Take your pick: a .400 hitter, or a .700 batter

Much talk now hooks around Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon hitting (as of Friday morning) .424, and whether the short season means he’ll finish the season hitting .400 or over. I have a better piece of conversation for you.

Suppose I tell you Blackmon was really batting .648 when he woke up Friday morning?

While you reel your tongues back into your mouths from the floor and retrieve the eyes that blasted out of their sockets, I’ll begin the splainin’ I have to do by saying you might notice where I said “hitting” and where I said “batting.” Because when you say Charlie Blackmon’s hitting .424, it’s not the true, full picture of him at the plate.

The traditional batting average still has isolated value, but it’s also an incomplete statistic. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s something intrinsically wrong with a stat that makes two grave mistakes. Mistake number one—it treats every hit equally. Mistake number two—it addresses official at-bats alone.

I’ve said this before, too: Should you really trust a statistic that treats all hits equally when all hits are not equal? Do you really think a single is as valuable as a double, a triple, or a home run? If you answer “yes” to both questions, you’re really cheating yourself—or you might really be Frank Lane returned to earth and living in someone else’s body.* If you answer “no,” pull up a chair and a cold drink.

Let me present to you once again, with one modification to my original concept, the formula I believe gives the most complete possible look at what a batter does at the plate:

TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP
PA

In plain English, that’s total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances. What the formula determines is a player’s real batting average (RBA), everything he does at the plate.

And when you add Charlie Blackmon’s 2020 total bases (60 entering today), walks (8), intentional walks (1), sacrifice flies (0), and times he was hit by a pitch (1), then divide the sum (61) by his plate appearances (108), you have his real batting average. Tell me now that a .648 batter isn’t as impressive as a .424 hitter. Still have questions? OK, here goes.

Total Bases—It counts a player’s hits the way they ought to be counted—unequally. A single is worth one base. A double, two; a triple, three; a home run, four. If all you see is a player with 42 hits (Blackmon led the entire Show entering Friday morning) you think that’s a lot of hits in 25 games—and it is, of course—but you’re not seeing the real value of those hits or everything he’s doing to help his team create runs.

The last I looked, the name of the game in baseball is putting more runs on the scoreboard than the other guys. A man who’s batting .648 is doing a magnificent job of creating and/or producing runs above and beyond scoring them or driving them in. To do both of the latter, it depends entirely on his teammates knocking him home or reaching base in the first place.

(Why discount runs scored and runs batted in to any degree? Easy: Find me the rule that says you can drive yourself in. Find me the player who steals three bases in one unmolested turn on the bases every time he reaches base. Find me the player who can steal home at will every time he reaches third base. Not even Rickey Henderson, the Man of Steal himself, could do that.)

Charlie Blackmon’s hits as of Friday morning were: 31 singles, seven doubles, one triple, and three home runs. That’s 31 + 14 + 3 + 12 bases each. That’s 60 total bases. We’re not talking about a fellow who’s coming up very big in the extra-base hit department (26 percent of his hits are extra-base hits so far), but we are talking about a productive fellow regardless.

Walks—You’d think the walks would be covered within the total bases, but they’re actually not. But I think a player who’s sharp enough at the plate to read the zone and the pitches in flight and take them appropriately should get particular credit for that. The walk doesn’t count as an official at-bat, of course, but unless I have been very deceived by my own eyes all these years, the last I looked the man was at bat, in the batter’s box, when he worked out the walk, and he wasn’t there without his bat.

Intentional Walks—It may seem superfluous since they’re also counted in the total walks, but there’s a damn good reason a player should get additional credit for intentional walks. Why would you not credit him for a batting situation in which the other guys would rather he take his base than their heads off? Whether it’s him taking their heads off or the guy batting behind him posing the better shot at a defensive out, that batter should get credit for being presence enough that they don’t want him swinging the bat.

Sacrifice Flies—The one change I made to my original RBA concept is removing sacrifice bunts from the equation. Not just because the bunt in general is in disfavour now but because of the basic reason it fell that way in the first place—you don’t give the other guys a free out to use against you.

So you moved the runner over? Good for you. But you also gave your team one less out to work with trying to get that man home, and your chances of getting him home just fell by 33.33 percent. Don’t get me started on the fools who think bunting a runner over with two outs is sound baseball. (And, as the invaluable Keith Law has put it, show me any crowd at the ballpark under normal circumstances who paid their way in to see all those sac bunts dropped, or flipped on the TV set to watch them.)

So why keep sacrifice flies but not sacrifice bunts in the RBA formula? Easy: sacrifice flies aren’t intentional outs and, by their very design and the rule book, they put runs on the scoreboard.

There isn’t a batter on the planet who goes up to the plate thinking, “Let me take one for the team. I’ll just hit this fly ball right to Bernie Boxorocks in left field so I can get Frankie Feetsies home from third on the cheap.” That batter kinda sorta wants to reach base himself, unless he gets to step on each base en route home plate after hitting one into the nearest cardboard cutout or stuffed animal in the seats.

Hit By Pitches—As Groucho Marx once said, this is so simple a child of five knows it, now let’s find a child of five.

It doesn’t matter whether he was just trying to push you back off the plate. It doesn’t matter if he drilled you because you took him over the International Date Line your last time up. It doesn’t matter if he did it because he’s P.O.ed that the guy just ahead of you took him there. It doesn’t even matter if he drilled you for wearing a cheating team’s uniform even though you weren’t on the team to join in the cheating.

If that pitcher wants to hand you first base on the house the hard way, let it be on his head and the plus side of your ledger.

As of this morning the Show had one other .400 hitter—D.J. LeMahieu, about whom the bad news is that he’s another hapless New York Yankee on the injured list. (Yes, children, if The New England Journal of Medicine could have been last year’s Yankee yearbook, this year’s may yet become The Journal of the American Medical Association.) RBA says LeMahieu’s really batting .556.

How about Bryce Harper, about whom everyone harped on his modest traditional batting averages in recent seasons without looking his true depth at the plate? This year, he’s hitting a traditional .338. RBA says Harper’s batting .744. Mike Trout, who plays for a team that’s still not a team its best player can be proud of? He’s hitting a traditional .338 so far. RBA says he’s batting .707.

How about Fernando Tatis, Jr., who inspired this week’s major kerfuffle when he swung on 3-0 with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a San Diego Padres blowout-in-the-making, ground salami, and infuriated the boring old unwritten rule farts including his own momentarily brain-vapourised manager? Let’s see. Tatis woke up this morning leading the Show in total bases. (77.) RBA says he’s batting .738.

Forget the race to see whether Blackmon can finish hitting .400+ in this season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please! Lawrence Fechtenberger Escapes the Intergalactic Nemesis Beyond Tomorrow’s Stroke of Fate. Wouldn’t it be more fun seeing whether Blackmon, Harper, Tatis, or Trout can finish batting .700+?

If you answered “no,” tune in tonight to Chocolate Cookies with White Stuff in the Middle Presents The Wilderness Family Theater.

—————————————————–

* When Frank Lane made the notorious Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn trade as spring training finished in 1960, among his explanations for the deal Cleveland still can’t forget was, “We’ve given up forty homers for forty doubles. We’ve added fifty singles and taken away fifty strikeouts . . . Those singles and doubles win just as many games as home runs.”

(Harvey Kuenn was better at avoiding the strikeout, but Rocky Colavito was better at it than you might remember: he never struck out more than 89 times in any season and he only ever reached that number once, in 1958.)

In 1959, Colavito led the American League with 42 home runs and 301 total bases. Kuenn in 1959 led the American League with a .353 traditional batting average and by hitting as many doubles as Colavito hit home runs. But he wasn’t even close to Colavito with 281 total bases. Colavito also produced 201 runs (scored/driven in) to Kuenn’s 170. And, 44  percent of Colavito’s hits were for extra bases against 29 percent of Kuenn’s.

RBA says Colavito batted .580 in 1959 and Kuenn, .543. I’d submit that those singles and doubles didn’t necessarily win as many games as the home runs. So did the 1959 American League standings, with the Indians finishing five games out of first place and the Detroit Tigers—who dealt Kuenn for Colavito—finishing eighteen games out.

It wasn’t Rocky Colavito’s fault the ’59 Indians finished five behind the pennant-winning White Sox, of course, and neither was it Harvey Kuenn’s fault the Tigers finished thirteen behind the Tribe. But Lane also described the trade as “hamburger for steak.” He was too thick—and, in fairness, baseball men of the time not named Branch Rickey wouldn’t have dug deep enough—to know he’d acquired hamburger for steak.

Year-end, decade-end clearance

DSC03222-02

Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.