The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


The Retiring Sort

Absent from my Sammy Sosa piece the other day was the question of whether the once-great slugger actually had anything left in the tank, playing-wise. Coming off of his Age 36 season, in which he missed sixty games, Sosa put up a .221/.295/.376 line that looks as though it were borrowed from Neifi Perez. As such, there is plenty of cause for pessimism.

About a month ago, ESPN's Alan Schwarz compared two projections for Sosa's 2006, those of Bill James (as published in Baseball Info Solutions' The Bill James Handbook 2006) and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system. Here's what those two systems say, along with a couple more, Tangotiger's deliberately facile Marcel the Monkey forecasting system, and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection:
             AB   AVG  HR  RBI  OBP  SLG
Bill James 388 .265 27 70 .355 .521
PECOTA 311* .242 12 44 .312 .418 (* PA, not AB)
Marcel 417 .245 22 61 .318 .451
ZiPS 440 .227 21 67 .313 .409
Suffice it to say there's some difference of opinion between James (who admittedly ignores the possiblity of injury in his projections) and the rest of the field, but none of the other three are very rosy. Focusing on PECOTA because it factors in the most data and offers a range of outcomes instead of a single one (the above line is the weighted mean projection), the system shows Sosa's 90th Percentile forecast at .267/.336/.475 with 20 homers in 358 PA, good for a 16.5 VORP an a 0.072 Marginal Lineup Value rate, the number of runs per game that Sosa would add to an otherwise league-average lineup. Dropping down to his 75th Percentile forecast of .247/.317/.430 with 15 home runs in 377 PA, Sosa's VORP comes in at a paltry 4.8, and his MLVr slips into the red, at -0.032 runs per game. In other words, the system sees a better than 75 percent chance that Sosa's production will be below average. That ain't good.

At his weighted mean forecast, Sosa's VORP is just 1.8, and his MLVr is -0.059. Other veterans within 0.002 MLVr include Mark Bellhorn (last seen gathering splinters on Joe Torre's bench), Josh Phelps, Orlando Palmeiro, and Eli Marrero -- reserves who once might have had some value but are now looking at longer odds of contributing positively.

As bad as those numbers are, they come with some caveats. PECOTA sees Sosa's missed playing time, but it doesn't see the causes for it (a staph infection in his foot, and later a lesion under his big toe). As nauseating as those injuries are to contemplate -- how much could a new pair of sanitary socks, shower sandals and a washcloth cost, really? -- they're not hamstring, knee or back troubles. Given that Sosa hit just .248 on balls in play, fifty points below the league average, it's a reasonable assumption that he could pump a bit of life into that batting average if he wasn't in pain during every single step.

Suppose that Sosa can hit that 75th percentile projection, which equates to 1.6 WARP. Using Nate Silver's Marginal Value Over Replacement Player formula (MORP), that's worth about $1.65 million in salary. Even his weighted mean of 1.2 WARP is worth $1.2 million. If I'm a GM with a roster spot that might be up for grabs, or a corner or DH slot that's been filled in less than impressive fashion (the Yanks' hopelessly misguided Bernie Williams plan, the Cardinals' Larry Bigbie/John Rodriguez combo, Toronto's Reed Johnson/Alex Rios duo, and the Indians' Casey Blake solo), I think I could find the extra half-mil and the guaranteed contract that the Nationals couldn't come up with for what's essentially a better than 50 percent chance that he'll be worth that meager amount. Sosa's detractors might point to the potential distraction the slugger-in-twilight might cause, but there isn't a team that couldn't punt a $1 million problem if it had to. And the upside, that Sosa might hit 20 homers and put a few fannies in the seats with a mild resurgence, isn't the worst gamble in the world.

In any event, if Sosa is indeed done, he's virtually a lock for the Hall of Fame. Not only has he crossed the Kingman Line of 442 homers, above which every eligible player has been inducted (Jose Canseco at 462 will raise the bar next year when he reaps what he's sown, Fred McGriff's 493 will probably set the new standard before too long, and Rafael Palmeiro at 569 might be in for a good stretch in the waiting room), he's fifth all-time in homers. Only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Willie Mays are ahead of him, and that's worth a lot.

The Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS) isn't quite so convinced. Sosa accumulated 93.6 WARP3 for his career, with a seven-year peak of 59.5. That comes out to a 76.6 JAWS score. The average Hall of Fame rightfielder scores at 112.4/61.5/86.9, more than 10 points better than Sosa. Rightfield is an especially strong position among HOFers; only the second basemen, at 90.6, have a higher average JAWS score.

Part of the problem for Sosa, JAWS-wise, is that he's hanging up his spikes earlier than most superstars; another three years and 10.0 WARP would do wonders for his score. Looking a bit more closely at his peak score, Sosa's got a big gap between his best season (13.6 WARP3) and his second-best (9.6), though anyone looking for fuel to add to a steroid-fluke fire ought to consider that more than 300 players throughout baseball history have a gap of 4.0 wins or more between best and second-best seasons. Moving along, there's a pretty serious dropoff between Sosa's fifth-best season (7.6 WARP) and his sixth (6.0) and seventh (5.8, a total he hit three times). An extra win in each of those years would almost cut the difference between him and the Hall average in half. Among rightfielders, Sosa's score falls between those of Enos Slaughter (96.2/57.7/77.0) and Harry Heilman (92.8/57.7/75.3) and would rank 12th of all time. That's not inner circle, but it's nothing to sneeze at, and while my system doesn't advocate a vote, it's prone to penalizing those who fail to collect those final table scraps. If I had a BBWAA ballot, he'd be on it.

• • •

Retirements have been in the news lately. The reviled Kevin Brown -- a pain in the ass during his Dodger and Yankee years due to a variety of injuries, has decided that his back can't withstand the rigors of playing any longer. Personally, I think he's just bitter he'll no longer have that Fox jet at his disposal now that his seven-year, $105 million deal is history, but then I've got few kind words to say about the man. Watching him struggle to a 4-7, 6.50 ERA season was a pleasure even as it set the Yankees back (it's called schadenfreude; I've got all their albums), given his stubborn insistence on taking the ball for Game Seven of the 2004 ALCS when he was physically unfit for the task and digging the Yanks a hole out of which they couldn't climb.

Baseball Prospectus' Christina Kahrl was more charitable in her Transaction Analysis obit:
As much as Brown's decision to call it quits might elicit all sorts of raspberries from now-frequently disappointed Yankee fans, let's consider their receipt of [Scott] Erickson as a punishment for any ill will they may still bear, as well as a caution as to what the alternatives can be.

I guess I think of Brown the way some people think of David Cone or Curt Schilling, or the way I think all sentient life on this planet felt about Mike Scott in 1986, which is that he was not somebody you wanted to face in October. I know, some will point to his losing three of four World Series starts, and Yankees fans probably can't see past his getting torched twice by the Red Sox in 2004, but that's hardly fair. Brown was damaged goods at the point that the desperate Bombers threw him out there against Boston, and if he doesn't pitch as well as he did for the Marlins and Padres in the Divisional and Championship Series of 1997 and 1998, those clubs almost certainly don't make it to the World Series in the first place.

But my warm feelings for Brown's performances aside, I know a lot of people will be looking at his as a career that ended on a note as characteristically sour as the rest of it. A good amount of that seems to be the product of Brown's personality, or more properly, the way media interlocutors have portrayed him to the public. I don't know if Brown eats kittens or feeds them cream-fattened mice in his moments of kindness, and I don't especially care, because it was the quality of his work on the mound that matters, and the quality of that work that made several teams winners. I'll look forward to what Jay Jaffe's JAWS system has to say about Brown, but I don't think any of us expects him to be a Hall of Famer.
Since Chris asked, and since we were already on the topic, Brown finishes at 104.6/61.6/83.1, which is actually above the HOF average for pitchers of 99.3/61.9/80.6. That's better than (among others) Tommy John, Red Ruffing, Don Sutton, Don Drysdale, Bob Lemon, Jim Kaat, Curt Schilling, Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, John Smoltz, Jim Bunning, Wes Ferrell, Whitey Ford and the aforementioned Cone and Schilling . Which isn't to say he'll make it to Cooperstown, not with "only" a 211-144 lifetime record, a shelf that's lacking a Cy Young (though he finished among the top six five times), and a postseason record of 5-5 with a 4.30 ERA. But in five years, maybe I can come up with something nice to say about the bastard if my system still pegs him as worthy.

• • •

Also hanging up his spikes, though with nowhere near the fanfare or a shot at the Hall, is Brooks Kieschnick, a favorite around these parts for his double-duty efforts as a pinch-hitter and mop-up pitcher.

The #10 pick of the 1993 draft by the Chicago Cubs, Kieschnick's career stalled before he could ever draw 100 at-bats in a season at the major-league level. A pitcher in college at the University of Texas (for whom he was the two-time National Palyer of the Year), he decided to revive his shot at the bigs by returning to the mound in 2002. In 2003, he earned a spot with the Milwaukee Brewers, for whom he tossed 53 innings of 5.26 ERA ball in 42 relief appearances (posting a 1-1 record) and hit a neat .300/.355/.614 with 7 homers in just 70 at-bats.

Kieschnick pitched better in 2004 (3.77 ERA in 43 innings), but his hitting declined (.270/.324/.365), and he spent 2005 in the Astros chain, getting roughed up in the PCL (5.72 ERA in 56.2 innings). He'd signed a minor-league contract with the Orioles, but rather than face that ignominious fate, packed it in at age 33. He won't reach Cooperstown, but he's earned a spot on my Wall of Fame when I get a chance to write him up.

• • •

When I touted Albert Belle for the Hall of Fame back in December, my reasons were based on his statistics, not the charming personality and gentlemanly conduct which endeared him to so many of our nation's finest and most forgiving scribes. Alas, Mr. Belle has seen fit to show that he's still crazy after all these years. This past week he was arrested and charged with stalking his ex-girlfriend by -- get this -- planting a Global Positioning System tracking device on her car. The ex discovered the GPS unit fell off and put two and two together with the fact that Mr. Romance "had been showing up everywhere she went [the store, on dates, the gym, etc.]" according to the article. No, that's not creepy, threatening, or desperately obvious at all.

Not that Belle had any legitimate shot at the Hall based on his surly reputation and foreshortened playing career, or that I was endorsing him based on his humanitarian credentials. But getting pissed off at sportswriters or fans is one thing, crossing into Kirby Puckett territory by threatening a woman quite another entirely. This is likely the final nail in his Cooperstown coffin, and it's pretty clear who's holding the hammer.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Slamming Sammy

Sammy Sosa has passed on the Washington Nationals' low-ball offer of a nonguaranteed $500,000 contract, and with it, one of the great sluggers of the past decade has apparently passed into retirement as well. Said his agent, Adam Katz, "We're not going to put him on the retirement list... But I can say, with reasonable certainty, that we've seen Sammy in a baseball uniform for the last time."

The 37-year-old Sosa's fall from grace has been precipitous. It was only a few years ago that he was one of the game's biggest stars, credited with reviving interest in the game after the 1994 players' strike, able to transcend boundaries with his infectious smile and boyish enthusiasm for the game, not to mention those booming home runs. Sosa launched 588 of them for his career, the fifth-highest total of all time. At one point in the not-too-distant past, he had a legitimate shot at surpassing Willie Mays' 660 dingers, and even a run at 700 didn't seem out of the question.

But when the Cubs collapsed in the final weeks of the 2004 season, losing seven out of eight to cough up the NL Wild Card, Sosa became the center of controversy. As the ever-useful Wikipedia neatly summarizes:
Sosa had already been told that he would not be in the starting lineup for that game, and arrived at Wrigley Field only an hour before game time; this was a violation of team rules. He then left Wrigley without permission during the game, claiming to reporters afterwards that he left in the seventh inning. However, a surveillance video proved that Sosa had left the stadium 15 minutes after the game started. Several days later, the Cubs fined him one game's pay (approximately $87,000).

After his teammates learned of the departure that day, they decided to vent their frustration on Sosa's trademark boombox that he kept in his locker...Though unconfirmed, reliable sources have stated that catcher Michael Barrett, following up on a suggestion by pitcher Kerry Wood, destroyed the boombox with a bat. That action was viewed as symbolic of the end of Sosa's era with the Cubs.
Thus the love affair between Sosa and Cubs fans -- which was already on the rocks for reasons we'll get to -- came to a decisive end. Over the winter the big slugger was traded to the Baltimore Orioles after waiving the poison-pill clause of his contract, which would have guaranteed him an $18 million salary for 2006 and a $4.5 million buyout on a $19 million option for 2007. Alas, his season in Baltimore turned into an unmitigated disaster. After a moderately productive April (.281/.317/.469) that saw him walk just three times, Sosa hit just .201/.288/.345 the rest of the way and literally couldn't get on the good foot. He missed three weeks in May with a staph infection on the bottom of his left foot, then was sidelined by a lesion under the nail of his right big toe in late August. With the Orioles well into their post-Palmeiro crash and burn mode, he never returned to action.

Sosa will be remembered for blasting 243 homers over a four-year span, an unprecedented barrage that saw him cross the once-unreachable 60-homer threshold three times. Ironically, none of those 60-plus seasons led the National league; Sosa was runner-up to Mark McGwire twice and to Barry Bonds once, though he did lead the NL with 50 in 2000 and 49 in 2002.

His proximity to those two sluggers has taken some of the luster off that output, but it's worth asking whether that's fair. According to grand jury testimony pertaining to the BALCO case which was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, Bonds admitted to using previously undetectable performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire first made waves for using the steroid precursor androstenedione during his 1998 home run chase. While he tearfully refused to talk about whether he had used any other performance enhancers when called before Congress last March -- a refusal that was read as guilt by most observers -- a New York Daily News report connected him to an FBI investigation called "Operation Equine." McGwire wasn't a target of "Operation Equine" himself, but two dealers who were caught fingered a man who allegedly supplied both McGwire and teammate Jose Canseco with steroids.

There's no similar smoking gun for Sosa. We don't know whether he was among the 83 players who turned in a positive test during 2003, when Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association conducted survey testing to determine whether a stronger program was needed, or in 2004, when the 12 players who tested positive weren't publicly identified but placed on a so-called "administrative track." We do know that he wasn't among the Dirty Dozen who tested positive and drew a suspension last year. We know that his performance collapsed in the first year of open testing, although so did those of many other players including (to reel off a bunch from the lower ranks of the VORP listings) Mike Lowell, Cristian Guzman, Ivan Rodriguez, Tony Womack, Steve Finley, Miguel Cairo, Jeff DaVanon, Cesar Izturis, David Bell, Jose Hernandez, B.J. Surhoff, Scott Hatteberg, Jose Lima, Russ Ortiz, Kirk Rueter, Al Leiter, Eric Milton... a long list.

We know that Sosa was never linked to BALCO, and hasn't turned up in any other law-enforcement investigation pertaining to steroids. We know that he wasn't among the names named by Canseco in his salacious tell-all Juiced. We know that last March, Sosa appeared before Congress along with McGwire and said he never used steroids. He was clearly uncomfortable in the proceedings -- let those who haven't quaked in front a Congressional hearing, however dubious, cast the first stone -- and his denial may have lacked the finger-wagging flair of Rafael Palmeiro, but unlike Palmeiro, Sosa didn't fail any of his subsequent wizz quizzes.

Yet the assumption that Sosa used steroids runs rampant. Back in 2002, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly smugly challenged Sosa to pee in a cup and prove his innocence; when Sosa refused, Reilly wrote a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife column about it. Even now, as Sosa fades into the sunset, writers can't resist treating him as though he'd been caught red-handed. Here's what ESPN's Buster Olney wrote the other day:
But we all really know why a guy who once hit 66 homers in a season is headed into history through the back door. Steroids. It's a word that -- fair or not, right or wrong -- will appear in the first three paragraphs of Sosa's obituary.

I don't know for sure whether Sosa took steroids and I suspect that we won't ever know, for certain. But this is what makes us all feel uncomfortable, and maybe a little glad that he's going away. Here's the thing, though. Steroids became the elephant in the room with Sosa and with others more than a decade ago, and virtually everybody who had a chance to say something said nothing.

Baseball's Frankensteins grew, and for all intents and purposes, almost everybody within the institution of baseball chose to stand aside, look the other way, and capitalized. Big-time. The home runs flew out, and as the fans flocked to see the show, their checks were cashed and their credit card imprints were taken. The game climbed aboard the Slammin' Sammy Show and the Mark McGwire Train, and almost nobody said aloud what was being whispered -- by executives, by scouts, by players, by writers.

...As a beat writer covering this sport, I did a horrible job of reporting this story, and not because I didn't want to damage baseball's Frankenstein, but because I assumed that getting at a smoking gun -- a box of used syringes in a clubhouse, for example -- was all but impossible. There were other ways to illuminate the story, but it took me too long to realize that.

So now Sammy Sosa is retiring, and fans -- who weren't in position to know what those in the game had long suspected -- have the right to say what they want.

But almost everybody associated with the game helped create the Frankenstein, to varying degrees. We should be nothing but embarrassed, for ourselves, that one of the all-time home run leaders is headed out of baseball through a back alley, and others will follow.
While Olney shifts some of the blame to himself and his peers over the steroid mess, he's virtually treating Sosa's guilt as a fait accompli, and nearly every writer who's covering his departure finds a way to work steroids into their narrative.

Two possibilities exist when it comes to the presumption of Sosa's guilt. First, writers such as Olney are doubtless well-connected enough to be privy to information that a certain high-profile slugger may have been on the 2003 or 2004 lists with a positive test, wink wink, nudge nudge. In the tradition of "where there's smoke, there's fire," such articles as Olney's recent one might be interpreted as said writer's knowing wink to the rest of us all that yes, the rumors are true.

For what it's worth, a source who was privy to the 2003 positive list has confirmed that Sosa was not on that list, but was unable to confirm whether he passed his 2004 test as well. Given the 86 percent reduction in positive tests between those two years -- down to less than one percent of all major-leaguers tested -- and the assumption that a positive result for Sosa would have been harder to contain from a confidentiality standpoint based on his high profile, this is a statistical longshot. Nonetheless, Sosa clearly has made some enemies within the Fourth Estate, and many writers feel justified in treating him as a user because, well, he profiles like one and, y'know, he shunned their interview request that time after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in a tough loss.

Second, there's another elephant in the room, that of the infamous corked bat Sosa was discovered to be using in June 2003. Despite Sosa's explanation that the use of that particular bat was accidental, fans and writers were shockingly quick to throw Sosa under the bus. Sosa drew an eight-game suspension (later reduced to seven), but none of the 76 other bats MLB confiscated and tested turned out to be similarly tainted. It's worth noting that while the shape of Sosa's performances before (.282/.410/.493) and after (.277/.337/.576) the incident are different, the overwhelming likelihood is that tainted bats played no part in those calling-card home run totals. After all, how many other bats did Sosa break during his reign as one of the game's top sluggers? Yet because of that admittedly embarrassing incident, there's an assumption that Sosa would stoop to any level to cheat, would slide down any slippery slope. And now that he's retired, many are hailing him as history's greatest monster.

Frankly, that's horseshit. Here's what I wrote about Sosa after the corking incident:
What Sosa did was wrong, but he immediately came forward and offered a fairly convincing explanation -- he mistakenly grabbed a bat that he uses to wow the crowds for batting practice and home run derbies. You don't necessarily have to buy that, but I do. Sosa's credit line is good with me, and not just because I once put him on the cover of a book. First of all, the accountability has to count for something. Sammy didn't hide, issue a denial or pass the buck to anybody else. He said, in essence, "My bad." We've seen superstars do a lot worse.

Second, we have zero proof that he's done this before. Think for a moment about the intense scrutiny the man's been under since he made the country's radar screen during the Great Home Run Chase of '98. Sammy's probably broken a few bats since then, while millions of people watched. None of them ever turned up corked, not a single one. So if somebody wants to tell us that the reason Sosa hit all those homers is a corked bat, the burden of proof is on them, not on Sosa.
Substitute "steroids" for "a corked bat" and you can find my current stance on the matter, not that the preceding thousand-plus words haven't made that clear. Sosa did a lot for the game of baseball, and while we've been forced to reconsider the context of those accomplishemnts, we need to retain perspective instead of rushing to judgement. In one of the better postmortems,'s Ken Rosenthal wrote of the multiplicity of viewpoints on Sosa's legacy:
For now, the enduring images of Sosa will be different in each mind's eye. Some will recall his glory days with the Cubs, his home-run hop, his joyous sprints to right field, his dugout pantomimes for the cameras. Others will remember his less charming side, his corked bat, his clubhouse boombox, his early departure from Wrigley Field on the final day of the 2004 season. Still others will recall his swift, stunning fall from grace, his feeble appearance before Congress, his loss of bat speed in '05.

It's too soon to capture his legacy. Too soon to assign his place in history. Too soon to make sense of the Steroid Era and all that it involved.
Amen to that. And peace to Sammy Sosa in his retirement.


Friday, February 17, 2006


Pitchers and Catchers: Dawn of the Undead

Having raised more than one toast to the arrival of Pitchers and Catchers earlier this week, I'm lucky it didn't all come up on me at midnight last night, when I did a spit-take after reading that the Yankees had signed Scott Erickson to a minor-league deal. Suffice it to say that I was not amused at the specter of a 38-year-old, injury-addled has-been who hasn't been anywhere near useful since 1999. "I thought we killed this piece of shit off last summer in L.A.," I wrote in an email to a few friends. "What is he, some kind of zombie? I guess Donovan Osborne, Darrell May and Tim Redding had better ditches to curl up and die in, and Hideo Nomo wasn't biting either."

Erickson spent the first half of last season with the Dodgers, posting a 6.02 ERA in 55.1 innings, allowing 12 homers while walking 25 and striking out 15, and reportedly stirring shit in the Dodger clubhouse. Even given the injuries that the team was suffering, that Erickson was even on the roster was a horrible miscalculation on the part of GM Paul DePodesta. That Jim Tracy tapped him to start eight games was equally indefensible. That he lasted with the team until the trading deadline was tantamount to a war crime. What, the Red Sox wouldn't take him straight up for Manny Ramirez?

My email continued: "It would take a nuclear holocaust, a flash flood of biblical proportions, and a plague of 50-foot-tall flesh-eating red ants for Erickson to merit 'meaningful innings' in the major leagues, and if he's still living at that point, I'd rather be dead."

Erickson is hardly the only washed-up pitcher who's washed up on the shores of a major-league team in recent weeks. The Mets, who began the offseason with a good amount of depth in their rotation before squandering Kris Benson and Jae Seo in trades, have turned to Jose Lima, who posted a 5-16 record with a 6.99 ERA in 169.2 innings in Kansas City. As Baseball Prospectus' long-suffering Royal rooter Rany Jazayerli summarized:
The owner of both the American and National League records for highest ERA in a season of 30+ starts is now a member of the New York Mets, who are apparently unaware of the information contained in the preceding clause. No team stands to gain as much from a case of addition-by-subtraction as the Royals will by changing their clocks away from Lima Time.
Yeesh. Lima's no stranger to high ERAs; he's finished a season above 5.50 five times in eleven-plus seasons, and his career mark of 5.21 is 15 percent below the park-adjusted league average. And to think it was less than 18 months ago that Lima capped a storybook season by shutting down the mighty St. Louis Cardinals for the Dodger' sole postseason victory since 1988, one of the most electrifying performances in franchise history.

Obviously feeling the void left by Erickson, the new-look Dodgers tapped one of the Yanks' favorite whipping boys, Aaron Sele. Last year in Seattle, Sele went 6-12 with a 5.66 ERA in 116 innings, an amazing accomplishment considering he had the Giant Fork of Done-ness sticking out of his ass. Sure, it's only a minor-league deal like those of Erickson and Lima, and the range of reasons teams bring these guys to camp runs from personal favors to veteran herbs and spices to simply having a few extra arms to send on the bus to Clearwater while the A-listers shag fly balls at the home complex. But Lord knows that none of these systems is so threadbare that they don't have a few Triple-A types who would benefit from a bit more work instead of standing by while these zombie retreads dish out 425 feet worth of Cream of Slider soup.

So, having covered the Yanks, Dodgers, and Mets, who are some of the other similarly undead pitchers who will be serving up meatballs in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues over the next few weeks? Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Hitting in a Pinch

In a recent L.A. Daily News article, Kevin Modesti strained a metaphor in comparing the Dodger organization's history with that of the (sigh) Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. No matter. What caught my eye was Modesti pointing out that in the entire organization, the current Dodgers have but two links to their World Series glory days of the '70s and '80s: Special Advisor to the Chairman Tommy Lasorda, who managed the team from 1977-1996, and coach Manny Mota, their pinch-hitter extraordinaire for more than a decade.

While nobody could miss Lasorda's bluster, Mota flies much further under the radar, but his role in the team's continuity hasn't escaped my notice. When I went down to the Dodgers' spring-training facility in Vero Beach back in 2003, I was amused to find him still riding his bike onto the field before games, just as he had been doing on my first trip to Vero back in '89. Roll on, Manny.

When he retired in 1980 (he got a token at-bat in '82), Mota held the all-time major league record with 150 pinch-hits. He's since been surpassed by Lenny Harris; here's the leaderboard (updated from Wikipedia):
 1. Lenny Harris     212
2. Manny Mota 150
3. Smoky Burgess 145
4. Greg Gross 143
5. Dave Hansen 139
6. Mark Sweeney 131
7. John Vander Wal 129
8. José Morales 123
9. Jerry Lynch 116
10. Red Lucas 114
11. Steve Braun 113
12. Terry Crowley 108
Denny Walling 108
14. Gates Brown 107
15. Mike Lum 103
16. Jim Dwyer 102
17. Rusty Staub 100
18. Dave Clark 96
19. Larry Biittner 95
Vic Davalillo 95
Gerald Perry 95
22. Jerry Hairston 94
23. Dave Philley 93
Joel Youngblood 93
25. Jay Johnstone 92
Dave Magadan 92
Harris may have taken the top slot, but he can't carry Mota's jock to the end of the bat rack. He's been squeezing out the occasional single at a near-replacement level for the past several years (that's exactly 1.3 WARP3 since '99) and overall has hit a rather weak .260/.312/.330 in 816 PA the role, according to Retrosheet. For comparison, Mota hit .288/.360/.359 in 614 PA (per Retrosheet), and that's without considering the lower-scoring era in which Mota played.

In any event, Harris is virtually the last of a dying breed. At the Hardball Times, Steve Treder recently offered up a history of pinch-hitting specialists, which he defined as players appearing in at least 40 games a year, with at least 80% of their appearances as a PH. Since 2000, just six player-seasons have qualified under that definition, including two by Harris. That's an average of 0.067 per NL team (there hasn't been one in the AL since Bobby Molinaro on the 1981 White Sox, managed by that master fidgeter, Tony La Russa), down from 0.088 in the '90s and a peak of .217 in the '80s.

Treder has compiled a decade-by-decade breakdown of each PH specialist season, along with some commentary, making for an entertaining stroll through the history of this particular species and providing an appreciation for how difficult the job is even for very experienced players. Suffice it to say that in 40 to 100 plate appearances, anybody can hit anything, so you've got a players like Gerald Perry and John Vander Wal who shows up on Treder's Top and Bottom 20 seasons lists just two years apart.

Here's what he had to say about Mota:
Manny Mota was another pinch-hitting legend, deployed by the Dodgers as an extreme pinch-hitting specialist through much of the decade of the 1970s. Unlike the vast majority of these guys, Mota was a right-handed batter, but it didn't make any difference to Mota who was pitching; he was going to hit a line drive anyway. As a Giants fan, I can attest that in the late innings of a tight game against the Dodgers, the presence of Mota looming in the L.A. dugout was frightening indeed. Mota was constitutionally incapable of doing anything other than smacking a solid line drive in any at-bat against any pitcher in any circumstance. Mota turns 68 years old this month, but I suspect if you go to Mota's house tonight at 3 AM, yank him out of bed, jam a bat in his hands and have a fully-warmed up Mariano Rivera in the front yard flinging his nastiest cutter, the groggy, barefoot pajama-clad Mota will stumble out there and drill the first wicked offering for a solid line drive. In the dark. (Smash! There goes the neighbor's living room window.)
As interesting as his research is, Treder's strict definition leaves out many renowned pinch-hitters. Just comparing the names in his article to the leaderboard above, fourth-ranked Greg Gross is nowhere to be found. Jose Morales, who set a single-season record with 25 pinch-hits in 1976, is represented only by his 1983 season with the Dodgers because he spent about half his at-bats in the Bicentennial campaign playing catcher or first base. Also MIA is Red Lucas, who doubled as a pitcher (157-135, 3.72 ERA in his career, which ran from 1923-1938) while racking up 437 PH at-bats (he hit .281/.340/.347 for his career during a high-offense era). No love for Denny Walling, Jim Dwyer, Larry Biitner or Jerry Hairston (Sr.) -- guys who were staples of pinch-hitting in the '70s and '80s, at least in my mind -- to be found.

As for those flying the Dodger blue flag, while Reggie Smith injury-addled 1981 season and Boog Powell's odd 1977 finale make Treder's cut along with Mota, a couple of other Dodger favorites, Vic Davalillo and Jay Johnstone, missed it. Davalillo was Mota's even-more-ancient partner in crime. A diminutive (5'7" 155 lbs) Venzuelan outfielder who reached the majors at age 25 in 1963, Davalillo was a light-hitting regular for a decade. A late-season pickup for the 1973 champions-to-be Oakland A's, he went 5-for-8 with a double and a triple in their ALCS win. Released in May '74, Davalillo spent three years in the Mexican League before the Dodgers purchased him in August '77, shortly after his 41st birthday. He hit .312/.312/.354 in 48 at-bats the rest of the way, and played a crucial role in the postseason. In Game Three of the LCS against the Phillies, the Dodgers were down 5-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth when pinch-hitter Davalillo beat out a daring drag bunt. Pinch-hitter Mota followed him with a drive that was misplayed by leftfielder Greg Luzinksi ("The worst outfielder I ever saw, bar none." -- Bill James, NBJHA) into a double, with Davaillo scoring on an accompanying error. In all, the rally produced three runs, and the Dodgers finished the series off the next day. Davalillo went on to another fine season in 1978, hitting .312 /.333/.390 in 77 at-bats, including 47 as a pinch-hitter, but the returns diminished from there. He got just 27 at-bats the next year, and six the following, retiring at age 43.

Johnstone was a handy outfielder who'd passed through six different teams over 14 years by the time he reached the Dodgers in 1980. In addition to emerging as Lasorda's comic foil, he hit .307/.372/.406 that year as a fourth outfielder. He was lousy in the latter role the next year, but still hit .289/.341/.600 in 38 pinch-hit at-bats. In the World Series, he drove in a run with a pinch-hit in a Game One loss, then entered the pantheon of Dodger heroes with a two-run pinch-homer in Game Four that trimmed a 6-3 Yankee lead to 6-5. They tied the score later in the inning, then took the lead for good in the next, and knotted the series at 2-2. When the Dodgers won the Series, Johnstone's homer was cited by teammates as the turning point (for more on Johnstone, see here).

In any event, the pure pinch-hitting specialist is clearly a vanishing breed; as Treder points out, the roster spot seems to have been usurped by an even more questionable specialist, the LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy). Treder is skeptical that either role is a great use of a roster space, and while I'd agree, it does seem that having a very good one who can also play a bit of defense here and there, as many of the names I've dredged up could, is considerably more useful. Towards that end, here are a couple of quick lists based on data I dredged up from ESPN's Sortable Stats, the best and worst pinch-performers of the last six years, with a minimum of 40 At-Bats + Walks (no HPB or sacrifice data available):
BEST           TEAM   Year   AB   H   HR  RBI  BB    AVG   OBP   SLG    OPS
Craig Wilson Pit 2001 34 10 7 11 7 .294 .442 .912 1.354
Wes Helms Mil 2005 41 16 2 6 6 .390 .469 .634 1.104
Dave Hansen LA 2000 55 15 7 14 10 .273 .385 .673 1.057
David Dellucci Ari 2001 56 18 5 16 9 .321 .415 .607 1.023
Greg Norton Col 2003 71 23 4 17 6 .324 .385 .606 .990
Tony Clark Ari 2005 44 14 3 15 4 .318 .375 .614 .989
Julio Franco Atl 2004 43 15 2 16 6 .349 .429 .558 .987
Danny Bautista Ari 2001 40 14 1 7 3 .350 .409 .525 .934
Hal Morris Det 2000 40 13 2 7 5 .325 .404 .525 .929
Jason Lane Hou 2004 36 12 2 6 4 .333 .400 .528 .928
Mark Sweeney Col 2004 65 16 5 23 12 .246 .366 .554 .920
Marlon Anderson StL 2004 51 17 3 10 3 .333 .370 .549 .919
Alex Cintron Ari 2005 46 14 3 12 3 .304 .347 .565 .912
Keith Lockhart Atl 2001 46 15 1 6 8 .326 .426 .478 .904
O. Palmeiro Hou 2005 52 15 1 8 6 .288 .361 .519 .880
Erubiel Durazo Ari 2001 45 11 5 13 1 .244 .255 .622 .878
Mark Sweeney SD 2005 62 18 2 12 13 .290 .408 .468 .876
Orlando Merced Hou 2001 58 15 4 17 6 .259 .323 .552 .875
Olmedo Saenz LA 2004 48 15 3 13 4 .313 .345 .521 .866
Bobby Bonilla Atl 2000 39 12 0 10 6 .308 .404 .462 .866
Carlos Baerga Ari 2003 55 19 1 10 8 .345 .429 .436 .865
John Valentin NYM 2002 50 15 1 13 10 .300 .419 .440 .859
Ricky Ledee LAD 2005 35 11 1 9 6 .314 .419 .429 .847
Greg Norton Col 2001 63 17 3 11 5 .270 .319 .524 .843
A. Galarraga SF 2003 40 12 2 6 4 .300 .364 .475 .839
Julio Franco Atl 2005 45 14 1 12 5 .311 .392 .444 .837
Robin Ventura LA 2004 48 13 3 14 8 .271 .368 .458 .827
Miguel Cairo StL 2002 59 19 0 10 4 .322 .364 .458 .821
Tony Fernandez Mil 2001 43 15 0 7 5 .349 .420 .395 .815
Jacob Cruz Cin 2005 76 20 3 11 11 .263 .352 .461 .813

Abraham Nunez Pit 2002 43 5 0 4 4 .116 .204 .116 .320
Jose Vizcaino Hou 2001 45 7 0 0 4 .156 .224 .156 .380
Darren Bragg Atl 2002 42 6 0 1 3 .143 .200 .190 .390
Tomas Perez Phi 2005 43 6 0 6 6 .140 .260 .140 .400
John Mabry StL 2001 41 7 0 5 3 .171 .239 .195 .434
Wilton Guerrero Cin 2002 56 11 0 3 4 .196 .250 .196 .446
Jose Macias ChC 2005 54 10 0 5 2 .185 .207 .241 .448
Troy O'Leary ChC 2003 39 5 1 7 5 .128 .222 .231 .453
Jose Macias ChC 2004 47 10 0 6 2 .213 .260 .213 .473
Kevin Sefcik Phi 2000 43 6 0 2 9 .140 .288 .186 .475
Brant Brown ChC 2000 44 8 0 2 3 .182 .234 .250 .484
Lenny Harris ChC 2003 40 8 0 2 5 .200 .289 .200 .489
Dave Hansen SD 2003 55 9 0 3 10 .164 .292 .200 .492
Julio Franco Atl 2002 39 7 0 2 6 .179 .289 .205 .494
Matt Mieske Hou 2000 53 8 2 7 4 .151 .207 .302 .509
Dave Hansen LA 2002 53 9 1 4 7 .170 .267 .245 .512
Todd Zeile NYM 2004 39 6 1 2 4 .154 .233 .282 .515
Matt Franco Atl 2003 78 15 2 10 5 .192 .238 .282 .520
Dave Hansen Sea 2004 51 8 1 6 11 .157 .306 .216 .522
Q. McCracken Ari 2003 54 12 0 3 3 .222 .263 .259 .522
Another former Dodger, Dave Hansen, at one point looked like a solid bet to eclipse Mota and move into second place. But with two dubiously chart-making seasons in 2003 and 2004, plus an anemic 2-for-31 last year, Hansen appears to have run out of gas. Unless he somehow finds a job this spring, he will have finished with just 19 hits in his final 137 pinch-ABs (.139). For his career, he's still hit .234/.351/.358 in 593 at-bats in the role, and as his presence on the first list attests, was one of the best in his "prime." It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Angels in the Out-on-a-Limb-Field

I had lunch on Thursday with an old college pal who works down in the Wall Street area -- we'll call him B. Ever since reconnecting at our 10-year reunion in 2002, we've been playing fantasy baseball together, more as an excuse to talk smack than anything else. This is the friend who's called his team "Jaffe's Big Stinky" in each of the last two years, and let's just say that I exacted some revenge by using his surname as part of my even-less-printable team name. Since I took the league crown last year, he's in for more of the same.

He's a Red Sox fan, and most of our spirited conversation centered around the offseason maneuvers of the Sox and Yankees. But at some point, after mutually second-guessing the team's dumping of Andy Marte and the slim chances of a healthy Curt Schilling, the conversation drifted to the Angels, whose essay I came out of the bullpen to write for Baseball Prospectus 2006.

Now, I've never been an Angels fan, but I've gotten an eyeful of the franchise as it's eliminated the Yankees in 2002 (on their way to a long-elusive World Championship) and 2005. While the team isn't exactly what you'd call sabermetrically inclined, they've done a pretty good job of handling those paragons of the Moneyball way, the Oakland A's, over the last four years, reaching the playoffs three times while the A's have missed in each of the past two years. In doing so, they've topped three million in attendance in each of the past three years, including a franchise-record 3.4 million last year. With an owner, Arte Moreno, who's willing to spend money, a nice combination of depth and versatility, and an impressive crop of prospects in the pipeline, they have much reason for optimism. The essay I quickly pulled together reflected that.

Moreno, who bought the team from Disney fresh off of their 2002 title, made a bold move last winter by recomissioning them the Los Angeles Angels, targeting L.A. county's diverse population (10 million) over Orange County's much less colorful three million. In doing so, he also put an embattled Dodger franchise's assumption that they owned the town directly in his crosshairs, even going so far as to put up billboards near Dodger Stadium.

Per a 1996 lease agreement with their host city, a court ordered "of Anaheim" appended to the Angels' name, creating an unprecedentedly unwieldy moniker. One would have expected a backlash, and certainly many writers, both professional and amateur, seized on the ridiculousness of the name. But the controversy certainly didn't hurt the Angels at the gate or on the field, and even as the court case between the team and the jilted city of Anaheim loomed, I maintained my note of optimism in my essay.

In the three weeks since I've handed it in, I've been sweating both the trial and the negative PR it generated, and as B. and I discussed the Angels, I proffered the opinion that if they'd lost the suit, Moreno would either begin threatening to move the team -- an ugly, no-win battle that we've seen the Marlins, Twins, and Expos/Nationals fighting for the better part of the past decade -- or else unload them once his five-year depreciation window shut. Given the bold vision Moreno has shown, either of those outcomes would have been a shame. After ridiculing him myself, I've come to admire the owner's chutzpah; if the true lesson of Moneyball is about capitalizing on inefficiencies in the market, what's more Moneyball than leveraging a $294-million franchise to take advantage of the demographics of his locale and the weakness of his competition?

Just a few hours after finishing lunch, the verdict came down. Team 1, City 0:
Ending a yearlong dispute that sparked regional one-upmanship and talk-show ridicule, an Orange County jury Thursday decided that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim could keep their geographically awkward name.

After deliberating just over four hours in a trial that pitted the city of Anaheim against its hometown team, jurors voted 9 to 3 that the Angels did not violate five words in the stadium lease that required that the team "include the name Anaheim therein."

Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, who led the city's multimillion-dollar fight to restore the name, said: "There was a really a broader issue, and that was to make sure our identity of Orange County and Anaheim be preserved. We're very disappointed."

The city had asked for damages up to $373 million it said it would lose in media exposure and tourism revenue. The jury awarded it nothing. The city also may be on the hook for as much as $10 million in legal fees — their own and the Angels' — if the team seeks reimbursement.

City officials will discuss whether to appeal the decision at a meeting Tuesday, but council members said it was not likely.

Angel owner Arte Moreno — popular among fans for investing millions in superstar players, lowering beer prices and schmoozing in the stands — clapped as the verdict was read and gave a thumbs-up sign.

"Believe it or not, what we've been trying to do is enhance the Angels brand," said Moreno, a self-made billionaire from Arizona. "I know local fans were very emotional about it. We understand that. But in the long run … we believe this gives us a better chance of being a perennial upper-echelon franchise, and a chance to compete for a championship every year."
So that note of optimism I sounded in my essay doesn't look so unwarranted. But as for the team's on-field performance, let's just say PECOTA isn't so impressed. When Nate Silver released the 2006 projections to the BP staff, he had the team coming in at 78-84 thanks to an offense worse than any AL team save the Royals. One reason for that is the anticipated presence of Darin Erstad, who comes in at a craptastic .264/.314/.364 weighted mean projection in 545 plate appearances, mainly as a first baseman. Since the Angels have announced that Erstad is moving back to centerfield -- thereby not only lessening the load his bat should be expected to carry but also increasing his chances for injury -- I don't think things are nearly that dire. As I told B., I see Erstad limping his way out of the lineup in 60-70 games. But PECOTA isn't exactly bullish on his first-base replacement either. Casey Kotchman's weighted mean comes in at an Erstadian .270/.328/.398 in 461 PA. The system simply doesn't think the 23-year-old's power is going to develop, but the fact that he clubbed seven dingers in 142 PA over the season's last two months leads me to believe he's turned a corner. Kotchman's been addled by various wrist injuries during his development, but if he's put them behind him, I think he's more likely to find himself on the upper reaches of his projection, somewhere between the 75th percentile (.284/.344/.428) and 90th (.299/.361/.463). That's not world-beating, but it is a difference of a couple of wins if it happens. (For more on Kotchman's projections, see Beyond the Box Score.)

Regardless, PECTOA thinks the Angels have plenty of other troubles, more than I care to delve into at this point. I may well end up with egg on my face for my predicting they'd take this year's AL West in my BP chat last month. But with prospects like Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood (both among the top 10 in BP's forthcoming Top 50 Prospect list) and one of the game's best owners behind them, I remain bullish on their future.

• • •

Speaking of the Angels, former LAAoA outfielder and FI favorite Jeff DaVanon inked a one-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks this week, capping several weeks of intense pursuit by, oh, about half the teams in baseball, with the Rockies, Mets, Red Sox and Indians reportedly among them. Back around the time of the Yanks signing Johnny Damon, I had touted DaVanon as a low-cost alternative who, as a swicth-hitter capable of playing all three positions, made for an ideal fourth outfielder or pre-deadline centerfield stopgap. That meme caught on, most notably with Steve Goldman, who mentioned DaVanon in several Pinstriped Bible/Blog entries.

Alas, the Yanks seem wedded to the idea that the dessicated remains of Bernie Williams and the Make-A-Wish kid, Bubba Crosby, can fulfill those responsibilities. Here are PECOTA's weighted mean forecasts for the trio:
          Age   AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr
Williams 37 .261 .336 .384 -.049
Crosby 29 .249 .302 .382 -.116
DaVanon 32 .266 .360 .389 .002
MLVr is Marginal Lineup Value rate, the per-game comparison of how many runs a player would add to an offense of league-average hitters. None of these guys have a lot of power at this stage, but DaVanon's plate discipline is superior at this stage to Bernie's. Even with enough questions about his health (shoulder) to downgrade his contract from a once-rumored $3.5 million to $525K plus incentives and conditional options, he'd have been a better use of roster space than #51, if only to dissuade Joe Torre from pencilling in Williams as the DH to the point of 300-400 PA. The guess here is that nobody would have batted an eye if the Yanks had just tossed DaVanon $2 million back in December and been done with it. As it is, the Yanks are woefully thin on the bench and at DH, while DaVanon is likely the D-Backs' starting CF, at least until rookie Chris Young heals his broken hand (thanks to Rob Mc at 6-4-2 for calling attention to that news). Grrrrr.

• • •

Have you got Olympic fever? My wife did, literally, so we stayed home on Friday night to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Games at Torino as she nursed a triple-digit temperature. Brought back a lot of fond memories of the 2002 Salt Lake City games, which my pals and I attended. Sunday's slate includes an event which supercedes even the Super Bowl in my personal pantheon of great sporting events: the Men's Downhill. You know I'll be watching that one, not to mention a good deal of the rest of the coverage, which should help the time between now and Pitchers and Catchers fly.

• • •

Following up on my entry on Ben Sakoguchi's Orange Crate Label Series, Don Malcolm has a lavishly illustrated, in-depth look at the exhibit over at Baseball Think Factory. Malcolm brings a lot more background to the subject than I do, and -- befitting his own checkered past -- is well-attuned to the confrontational aspects of the artist's work. Here's some of what he had to say:
Sakoguchi likes to draw startling, jagged, and even surreal parallels in these paintings. In fact, 33 of the paintings in the new group (28%) feature “two-shots” of players or individuals shown either as contrasts or “hidden selves.” The one most pertinent to the question of race is the painting entitled “Cubanos,” where Ben explores the taboos of skin pigmentation (light-skinned Cuban Dolf Luque is “eligible” to play in the 1920s milieu of baseball, while dark-skinned Cuban Martin Dihigo is “ineligible”).

It isn’t surprising that Sakoguchi would be interested in “otherness” as it is manifested in baseball. After all, we are talking about a Japanese-American who, as a very young boy, was interned at Manzanar, one of America’s “detention centers” during World War II. From an artistic standpoint, Ben’s interest in color probably stems from the early realization of how much importance it seemed to have in the minds and actions of those in power in America. As a painter, Sakoguchi wields a palette of colors that covers the artistic waterfront—from Impressionism to “plein air” to pulp art and back again.

Some of his most arresting images, however, are reserved for another casualty of American history—the Indian. During the deadball era, there were several Native Americans who fashioned notable careers in spite of their “otherness.” It could be claimed that the lone reason for their assimilation into the American culture of that time was located in their abilities on the baseball diamond. All of these themes are captured masterfully in “Chiefs,” Sakoguchi’s tribute to Chief Meyers and Chief Bender.

Sakoguchi has also mined the imagery of baseball that links the game with war, patriotism and other knee-jerk topics that people in present-day America use as tools of divisiveness and demonization. Eleven of the paintings (just under 10%) touch upon these themes, and they cover the full spectrum of baseball’s presence in American history. In “National Past Time,” Sakoguchi conjures up a baseball setting for the Civil War, making a comic contrast between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (the height difference between the celebrated debate opponents has been exaggerated, with Douglas looking like a nineteenth-century version of Eddie Gaedel) that is nevertheless only half the story on the canvas. In “All-American Boy,” Ben’s colors are at their most impressive as he examines the two sides of heroism attached to the deadball era’s most celebrated role model, Christy Mathewson. Moving up to the present day, Sakoguchi has some fun with our current “red-blue” stereotypes with two paintings depicting Democratic and Republican presidents in that wearying-but-time-honored-act of throwing out the first pitch.
A must-see, especially if you can't actually get to the exhibit.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Happy B-Ref to You!

Though the main banner I designed for the site has since been replaced to no great advantage, it's with no small amount of respect and admiration that I tip my cap to the sixth birthday of the mighty website. Congratulations to Sean Forman on the site's success.

Quite simply, there's virtually no chance you'd be reading this site without the advent of B-R, because that site, with its infinitely cross-linked database of player, team, and league stats helped to rejuvenate my own interest in baseball, one which led me to start FI back in 2001 (yes, we're rapidly coming up on five years here). Hardly a day goes by without me making at least one trip to the site. In fact, the contextual toolbar link which allows me to highlight a player's name in a random web page and instantly jump to his B-R page is about as essential as any of my ten fingers (if you're not running Firefox, the other bookmarklets are available here).

Some interesting tidbits from the Philadelphia Inquirier article linked above:
Traffic on the site is the best measure of its popularity. According to Forman, the site is visited by 30,000 to 40,000 users per day. On Jan. 10, the day Hall of Fame results were announced, there were 70,000 visitors.

If that's not enough to show you how much people like the site, dig up a copy of the July 2005 issue of GQ magazine. In a list of 75 reasons to love America, the magazine ranked the Web site No. 7, one behind "Pot delivery" and one ahead of "The wineries of the Pacific Northwest."

...As moves into its next year, Forman hopes to add features, like up-to-date daily stats and sortable stats, which would allow users to generate lists and comparisons.
One of the top 10 reasons to love America? I'm not so sure that's accurate, given the fact that B-R can be accessed worldwide via the Internet -- even by those damned Al Qaeda killjoys whose hatred for this country is tempered only by a hunger for the season-by season OBP and SLG numbers which don't make it onto the backs of the baseball cards distributed in the Middle East.

How about "One of the top 10 reason to love electricity?" That's more like it.

For a good history of B-R's genesis, see King Kaufman's Salon piece on Forman and his site, which oddly enough reminds me that the brief period when B-R went dark began the exact day this site started, April 9, 2001. Weird...

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Crate Stuff

Even with Pitchers and Catchers just about a week away, and the new PECOTA cards now up at BP, it's about the deadest time in the year as far as baseball is concerned, s as dead as the Pittsburgh Pirates' chances in the NL Central -- and I've got no more sympathy for Steeltown after that bag job of a football game on Sunday. With Bengie Molina now a Blue Jay, our long international nightmare is over; just about every major free agent has signed somewhere. Meanwhile, I'm afraid of going blind playing with my DIPS spreadsheet, as if squinting harder with my head cocked at a 45 degree angle might provide some brand new insight into the vexing mysteries of year-to-year correlations.

With all that, it's nice to come across something as colorful as artist Ben Sakoguchi's Orange Crate Label Series: The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings. Those paintings are part of an exhibit -- curated by those wonderfully wacky folks at the Baseball Reliquary -- called "Winter Ball" which opened yesterday at the Los Angeles City College Library and runs through March 4.

Here's what Sakoguchi's web site has to say about the Orange Crate series:
From the 1880's to the 1950's, California oranges were sent to market packed in wooden crates with big, multi-colored labels pasted on the ends. Among Ben Sakoguchi's early influences were the bold graphics and fanciful images on the orange crates that were stacked behind his parents' grocery store.

In the 1970's -- after cardboard cartons had replaced wooden crates -- beautifully printed labels that had long been stored in packing houses were being sold as collectors' items at the flea markets Sakoguchi frequented. He was attracted by the familiar orange crate label format, and started using it in a series of small paintings.
Sakoguchi produced several hundred 10" x 11" orange crate paintings (acrylic on canvas) from the mid-'70s to the early '80s, depicting "events, issues and attitudes of modern culture," as the site says. After moving onto other projects, he began revisiting the form in the mid-'90s. Created last year, the baseball series is but a small subset of a much larger body of work, one with an edge that often reminds me of the satirically remixed war propaganda posters of Micah Ian Wright. If you're like me, destined to remain several thousand miles away from the exhibition as it runs, you ought to set aside a chunk of time to check it out.

Sakoguchi's work uses wonderfully vivid colors, but its message isn't always so sunny. One painting for "Iron Horse Oranges" depicts Yankee star Lou Gehrig and Negro League legend Buck Leonard standing on either side of the frame, with the word "Ineligible" stamped over Leonard. The phrase "White Knight" appears below Gehrig, while "Black Buck" is inscribed below Leonard. In the painting preceeding it, "Topsy Turvy," Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson are juxtaposed in a circle, with Gibson labelled "The Black Babe Ruth," and the Bambino rechristened "The White Josh Gibson," yet another example of just how ridiculous and arbitrary the color line seems now. Further down the page, the old, garishly Semitic-looking Cleveland Indians logo is used for "First American Oranges" alongside a depiction of Larry Doby. "Bush League" offers George H.W. Bush in his Yale baseball uniform and his idiot son Dubya outfitted in a Texas Rangers jacket from his days as an owner.

Not all of the paintings are quite so charged. One called "L.A. Heat" has Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan side by side, while "Pirate Hats" offers Dave Parker in a creepy hockey-style mask (which he wore for a broken jaw, I think), Kent Tekulve in the star-spangled train conductor hat of the late '70s Fam-i-lee, an old time Pittsburgh ballplayer wearing what looks like a pith helmet, and a few scurvy dogs lacking only the parrot on the shoulder. Arrrrgh!

In all, only 30 of the 100+ baseball paintings from the current exhibit are up, but there are plans to add more, and several of the artist's earlier baseball paintings are among the hundreds of images shown elsewhere on his site. As enjoyably edgy as these little pictures are, I'd love to see them in a book. Sakoguchi is definitely onto something that's worthy of your coffee table.

(Thanks to Jon Weisman for the exhibit link).

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Futility Infielder Book Rodeo -- Super Duper Edition

I received a couple of interesting book-related emails yesterday, and with a few other books I've been meaning to mention and the need for something to do while the blue-and-green face paint dries before kickoff of the big game, I bring you the latest Book Rodeo:

• Starting with the obligatory plugs of things I'm involved with, lest this post be accused of not being self-serving enough: both Baseball Prospectus 2006 and Baseball Between the Numbers (also from BP) will be shipping in the next few weeks.

• The Fantasy Baseball Idex 2006, of which I wrote a good chunk, is available directly from and will hit the stores on February 14. Warning: if you think your significant other has that kind of fantasy in mind for Valentine's Day, you ought to spend that sleepless night on the couch rethinking more than your draft strategy.

• If you've spent any time discussing sabermetrics on the Web, you've no doubt come across the rather enigmatically named MGL (Mitchel Lichtman) and Tangotiger (Tom, uh, Tango) somewhere along the way. That duo, along with one Andrew Dolphin, have joined forces to produce The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. The book, which seeks to "continue[s] where the legendary Bill James Abstracts and Palmer and Thorn's The Hidden Game of Baseball left off over twenty years ago," promises in-depth analyses of the sacrifice bunt, the intentional walk, the optimal batting order, streaks and clutch performance, and platooning, according to their website. The site generously offers excerpts of each chapter; just cherrypicking what they've posted about the "Clutch Hitting" one:
The concept of “clutch” is so central to our understanding of sports that it needs little in the way of introduction. Simply put, a clutch player is one who performs better when the game is on the line. The usual criterion for recognizing “clutchness” is something along the lines of, “If your life depended on a jump shot/putt/hit being made, whom would you want to attempt it?” For most people, the answers would be Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods—but what about baseball? If you're a manager, whom do you want at the plate in the ninth inning with two outs and you're down by a run? Or if you're up by a run and the other team is batting in the ninth, whom do you want on the mound? Is there any way to answer these questions objectively? Let's take a look.

The most obvious way is to look at a player's history—compare his wOBA in high-pressure situations to his overall wOBA, and chalk up any difference to the player's ability to come through in the clutch. That much is straightforward, but what exactly constitutes a high-pressure situation? Obviously there is no concrete definition, but as long as we divide plate appearances into two groups, such that one set is mostly low-pressure and the other is mostly high-pressure, we're fine. We'll define a high-pressure situation as one in which runs are needed in the very near future but the game is not yet out of hand: i.e., any plate appearance in the eighth inning or later in which the batting team is trailing by one, two, or three runs. Again, there really is no perfect definition of a “clutch” or high-pressure situation, but this will do just fine for our analysis. All other PA will be classified as “non-clutch.”

Looking at all players with at least 100 high-pressure plate appearances between 2000 and 2004, we find that the best clutch hitter in our sample was Scott Spiezio, with a clutch wOBA of .416 and a non-clutch wOBA of .329. In other words, Spiezio is pretty much an average offensive player overall, but when the game is on the line, he seems to turn into one of the game's top players. That's saying something, right? Of course, one might expect that Spiezio would be getting some more attention (Scott who?) if this transformation could be counted on in the future. Well, maybe Spiezio is a statistical fluke. What about some other elite clutch performers? Aramis Ramirez is second-best with a clutch/non-clutch differential of .079, followed by Bret Boone (.075), and J.T. Snow (.067). And how about Derek Jeter, who is widely regarded as one of the game's great clutch hitters? His improvement is a mere .022. Perhaps something else is going on.

One of the pervasive themes of this book is the danger of inferring too much from too little by underestimating the influence of randomness. In the case of clutch hitting, clutch plate appearances, according to our definition of “clutchness,” typically account for 7% of a player's total, which means that a regular player will see approximately 30 clutch situations over the course of a full season. Perhaps what we're actually seeing is just random variation caused by the small number of clutch plate appearances? Recalling the Toolshed chapter, we expect that the typical random fluctuations (for the mathematicians, one standard deviation) to be around .050 in wOBA after 100 plate appearances, meaning that 16% of players in our sample will have clutch wOBA more than 50 points higher than their true clutch wOBA due to randomness alone.

As you have already seen a few times in this book, the quickest way to examine this is to determine whether or not a player's history of clutch performance is useful in predicting his future clutch performance. For example, in 2005, would a manager have had any reason to expect Spiezio's .416 clutch wOBA to continue, and thus make decisions accordingly? Or put differently, if you're managing a team, how important is it to your decision-making process that a player has done well in the clutch in the past?
I'm not exactly sure what wOBA is, but I'll guarantee that it's spelled out in great detail for readers. Tango and MGL have done some of the best sabermetric work to be found anywhere over the past several years (for example, Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating fielding statistics, and Tango's work on leverage, Win Expectancy, and contributions to the further understanding of DIPS), and this book should more than live up to those standards.

• My Baseball Prospectus colleague, Dayn Perry, has just come out with Winners : How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think). Having studied 124 playoff teams of the recent past, Perry offers some statistical analysis on various trends which unify these winners as well as some straight history about how the teams were built. An excerpt of the first chapter is available from the publisher's website and I'll say this: any book that opens by using Pedro Guerrero's fantastic 1985 season as a point of entry is one that I look forward to reading. And once I do read it, I'm planning to interview Perry in the manner that I did Steve Goldman. Stay tuned.

• Speaking of Guerrero's 1985, in which he hit 15 homers in the month of June, I included that season in my ballot for the All-Time Dodger Single-Season MVP over at Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts. Voters get to choose five player seasons from a list of 35 (including several repeaters) that Weisman has nominated (and no, pitchers weren't included because Jon ran a All-Time Dodger Cy Young Award ballot a few years back, won by Sandy Koufax's 1966 finale.

Here's how my MVP ballot -- for which the team winning a division or pennant in that year was a prerequisite, and WARP3 and EqA were my roadmaps -- shook down: 1. Jackie Robinson 1949, 2. Duke Snider 1955, 3. Pedro Guerrero 1985, 4. Roy Campanella 1953, 5. Adrian Beltre 2004.

Weisman's got a self-published compilation of The Best of Dodger Thoughts available now, and while Book Season has distracted me from picking my own copy up, that's something I intend to remedy soon.

• Alex Belth's bio of the man who challenged baseball's reserve clause, Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights, ships in mid-March. Having followed this book's trajectory via my friendship with Alex, I'm very excited for it to hit the streets.

• Belth's partner in crime, Cliff Corcoran, reports that the paperback version of Howard Bryant's Juicing the Game (which Corcoran edited) is out in March, with an epilogue covering the 2005 season. The book was a must-read the first time around, so if you slept on it, be sure to avail yourself of the opportunity to get right.

• Neil deMause has popped up in a few blog entries lately, and according to his personal website, a new version of Field of Schemes is forthcoming from Common Courage Press next fall. No word on whether Andrew Zimbalist has pre-ordered his copy yet.

• Sometime between the moment the White Sox popped the champagne corks and the point when my own work started to pile very high, I received a copy of Saying It's So: a Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal, by Daniel A. Nathan. Haven't done more than browse a bit, but it looks to be a pretty interesting academically-oriented take on the way the 1919 scandal has been depicted by journalists, historians, novelists, filmmakers, and fans; Eliot Asinof's Eight Men Out, Bernard Malamud's The Natural, W.P. Kinsella's Field of Dreams -- and the movies which brought them to life -- all make appearances here, as does Bill Veeck's semi-obsucre The Hustler's Handbook. It might not be everybody's cup of tea, but those with a more scholarly bent should get plenty of mileage.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


The Big One

This Sunday's Super Bowl is a bit more special for me than most. I grew up rooting for the Seattle Seahawks, who are making their Super Bowl debut after 30 seasons notable more for futility and a few trick plays than for glory. I'm not a die-hard football fan, but when I was a kid the game meant as much to me as baseball did. To the horror of my parents, I played tackle football every recess in elementary school, taking my lumps while catching passes in the manner of another undersized receiver, the Seahawks' All-Pro, Steve Largent.

Salt Lake City didn't have an NFL team, of course. I first found out about the Seahawks via the Sears catalog, which had licensed merchandise of every team in all variety, not just clothing like jerseys, tees, and sweats, but also bed sheets, waste baskets, lunch boxes... hell, probably toilet seats as well. Browsing through the catalog with my brother, who was too young to read -- I must have been seven, in 1977, making him five -- I kept picking out the menacing blue-and-green bird logo, knowing that the team represented the city of my birth. Bryan, for some reason, fell for the Houston Oilers.

At that point I didn't actually watch much football, but by the time we moved across town later the next year, I was a Sunday and Monday regular. The new house my parents were building wasn't ready when we had to leave our old one, so we spent about six weeks as nomads, staying in the houses of friends who either had room or were conveniently traveling for a week or so in November or December. We spent a few weeks with the family of a girl I'd known since preschool. Her bratty older brother, Larry, was a Steelers fan. So long as Bry and I were around him, Larry lorded over us based on the superiority of the Steelers, who were on their way to a 14-2 record, tops in the AFC that year, and the Super Bowl trophy. The Oilers were hardly slouches, thanks to a brilliant rookie running back named Earl Campbell, and a likbly down-home coach named Bum Phillips. Even the Seahawks were emerging as respectable in their third season of existence, on their way to a 9-7 record.

Seattle was coached by Jack Patera, whose brother Ken went from Olympic weightlifting fame to pro wrestling ignominy and later the police blotter sheet. The team's defense was one of the worst in the game, but in that third season, their offense was beginning to gel. A lefthanded quarterback named Jim Zorn improved by leaps and bounds that year, upping his completion percentage from the low 40s to the mid-50s and throwing for 3,283 yards, third in the NFL. The other end of the dynamic duo was Largent, a possession receiver who ranked among the league leaders with 71 receptions and 1,168 yards. In the backfield, the tandem of Sherman Smith and David Sims combined for over 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns to give Seattle a respectable running game, one augmented by Zorn's own scrambling skills. I was hooked.

I got to know the key players in the same way I learned about baseball players, via the magic of 2.5" x 3.5" cardboard slabs I'd purchase at a little convenience store we'd walk by on our way to school called Table Supply. I used my 1978 set doubles to trade for Larry's 1977 doubles, building up a stack of cards that was about three inches thick. Unfortunately, one night I left the entire stack at Skippers, a fast-food seafood joint, and was back to square one. In a touching show of solidarity, Larry got me started by handing over his duplicate checklist cards. With friends like that...

Seattle earned some respect with that 9-7 finish, and and even more notoriety in the following season when they matched that record. But it was Monday night game against the Atlanta Falcons that year which cemented those early Seahawks teams in legend. First Patera ordered a fake punt, with punter Herman Weaver completing a pass for a first down. Then on a field goal attempt, holder Zorn threw a perfect peg to kicker Effren Herrera, who gained 20 yards. As this website devoted to memorable trick plays recalls: "The best way I know to explain the play is to ask you to imagine a little 4'6" Hispanic penguin waddling up field to catch a ball between its flippers. Efren Herrera...the least athletic person to ever catch a pass in the NFL. Final Score: Seahawks over Falcons 31-28." Suddenly the 'Hawks were the toast of the NFL for flying their freak flags. To a Jewish kid growing up in Mormon-heavy Salt Lake City, where the bland conformity of "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys, held sway, they were a welcome tonic. Still, they missed the playoffs again.

Including the strike-torn 1982 season, Patera lasted three more years at the helm, with diminishing returns. Following his dismissal, the team paraded through a succession of head coaches better known for their successes elsewhere -- Chuck Knox (who took four squads to the playoffs in LA and Buffalo), Tom Flores (who coached two Super Bowl winners), Dennis Erickson (who won two national championships at the University of Miami), and finally Mike Holmgren (who won a Super Bowl with the Packers). In 1983, Knox's first season, Zorn gave way to understudy Dave Kreig, while former Penn State standout Curt Warner became one of the NFL's top running backs, and the team not only won the AFC Wild Card with a 9-7 record, but made it all the way to the AFC Championship game before falling to the Raiders. Despite a 12-4 record the next year, they lost in the divisional playoff game, and in seven more years under "Ground Chuck," the team vacillated between 7-9 and 9-7 (with one 10-6 anomaly), losing their only two playoff games.

Largent retired after the 1989 season, ranking as the NFL's all-time leading receiver in terms of catches, yardage, touchdowns, and consecutive-game streak. He's since been surpassed by a handful of receivers including Jerry Rice, who rewrote the record books. Can't say I shed a single tear over the matter, as I discovered that beneath his silver helmet lurked a vapid right-wing Congressman in waiting. Blech.

If the mediocrity of Knox's teams was a drag, Flores' squads were even worse, winning just 14 games over three years; I half-suspected he was planted there by hated Raiders owner Al Davis to destroy the team from the inside. As if starting Stan Gelbaugh, Kelly Stouffer and Rick Mirer didn't make that patently obvious.

I lost touch with the team somewhere around then. Living in Providence, Rhode Island, I turned my focus to the QB the Seahawks should have gotten, Washington State's Drew Bledsoe. With a shot at the top pick in the NFL draft, Seattle had lost a coin flip to the New England Patriots and ended up with The Wrong Guy in Mirer. Meanwhile, Bledsoe, in his second season, threw for an improbable 4,555 yards, helping the 1994 Pats to reel off seven straight wins, overcoming a 3-6 start and making the playoffs.

As Erickson took over the Seahawks, the team became virtually unlikeable. The University of Miami (strike one) coach left had his school just as the NCAA closed in and placed the team on probation for three years. Running back Chris Warren, the team's leading rusher, was charged with assaulting a woman (strike two) outside a club. Leading receiver Brian Blades was charged with manslaughter (strike three) in the shooting death of his cousin. Mirer egregiously impersonated an NFL quarterback for four years under the Seahawk colors (strike four), posting QB ratings in the 50s and 60s. All deserved the gallows or worse.

Even when Holmgren took over in 1999, leaving behind the winning tradition of Green Bay, I hardly stirred. By this point I was living in New York City, where the NFL's arcane blackout rules mandated a weekly diet of Giants and Jets games while blotting out Sunday afternoon for every other team. The advent of this website in 2001, making baseball a year-round intellectual pastime for me, was the final nail in the coffin for any real passion I felt for the pro game. I still tune in for the playoffs, but rarely do I bother with even the fourth quarter of a regular-season game, armed with a TiVo to whisk me through the dead spots punctuated with occasional action.

In his first four years in Seattle, Holmgren finished below .500 twice, and up until this year had just a 50-46 record with one 10-win team -- hardly enough to rouse me from my disinterest. But behind running back and league MVP Shaun Alexander, who ran for a league-leading 1,880 yards and set an NFL record with 28 TDs, the team roared to a 13-3 record this season. Despite Alexander sustaining a concussion in the divisional playoff game against the Redskins, the team advanced, relying on QB Matt Hasselbeck's mastery of the West Coast offense. In the NFC Championship Game (they switched leagues, for a second time, back in 2002, while unveiling a hideous metallic, monochromatic color scheme), they even dug into their trick play legacy by completing a pass to backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, who lined up as a receiver and made an over-the-shoulder grab for a 28-yard gain that set up Seattle's first touchdown. Now they're in Super Bowl XL underdogs to -- who else? -- the Steelers. Somewhere I'm sure Larry is watching.

So there it is. I'm not going to paint my face blue and green, nor don my old Largent jersey (which won't fit, and which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole anyway). But I'm looking forward to those grainy clips of the old days. Zorn even patrols the sidelines as the team's QB coach, offering a tangible connection to that freak-flag past. Fly it, boys.

• • •

Speaking of big games, I haven't written much about the controversial inaugural World Baseball Classic in this space. Except to counter a rather jingoistic assault on Alex Rodriguez's admittedly embarrassing Hamlet act in choosing to play for the U.S. or the Dominican Republic, and to cross my fingers in the hopes that Barry Bonds gets drilled in the earhole, I hadn't even given it much thought until last week. But when my brother-in-law invited Andra and me to join him and his girlfriend for a long weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to take in some baseball, I perked up. Since I was already mulling a spring-training pilgrimage to Florida, it didn't take long to buy into Adam's sales pitch: a pair of second-round games including one matching up the Pool C (Cuba, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico) and Pool D (Austrialia, Dominican Republic, Italy, Venezulea) winners, a pairing we hope nets us D.R. vs. P.R. We've also got the Pool D winner vs. Pool C Runner-Up game the night before.

Like most other fans, I'm a bit wary of the cocked-up manner in which the Classic has been devised; really, there's no ideal solution that allows major-league players to partake when they're in game shape, and I can hardly hold it against a franchise for discouraging its players' participation. Pitching is the real problem; even with limits of 65, 80 and 95 for the various stages, the workloads are a few weeks ahead of major-league pitchers' typical schedules, and if you thought hearing Mike Mussina whine about Opening Day in Japan all the way into October, get ready for this topic to get beaten like a dead horse all season long if even one team's middle reliever goes down with a hangnail. As it is, the limits stack the deck in favor of the U.S., which has much more pitching depth than any other country.

Just the same, with a few World Series games and an All-Star Game under my belt (not to mention a Winter Olympics), I'm excited for this even though I know it's closer to a glorified exhibition than it is a World Cup (the intended model). It's still baseball in March in a warm climate, with some fantastic talent at hand. How much more do you need than that?


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