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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Updike Fan Bids Author Adieu

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike passed away today at age 76. While he didn't write often about baseball, and while I'm no expert on the rest of his oeuvre, his career line includes one memorable home run of a piece: "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu", his account of Ted Williams' final game, written in 1960 for The New Yorker and anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century. Salon's King Kaufman sets the scene. Here's a taste of the piece itself:
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities. Its right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters. On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28th, as I took a seat behind third base, a uniformed groundkeeper was treading the top of this wall, picking batting-practice home runs out of the screen, like a mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff. The day was overcast, chill, and uninspirational. The Boston team was the worst in twenty-seven seasons. A jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence, the Red Sox were finishing in seventh place only because the Kansas City Athletics had locked them out of the cellar. They were scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles, a much nimbler blend of May and December, who had been dumped from pennant contention a week before by the insatiable Yankees. I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season, and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder, known to the headlines as TED, KID, SPLINTER, THUMPER, TW, and, most cloyingly, MISTER WONDERFUL, would play in Boston. "WHAT WILL WE DO WITHOUT TED? HUB FANS ASK" ran the headline on a newspaper being read by a bulb-nosed cigar smoker a few rows away. Williams' retirement had been announced, doubted (he had been threatening retirement for years), confirmed by Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, and at last widely accepted as the sad but probable truth. He was forty-two and had redeemed his abysmal season of 1959 with a—considering his advanced age—fine one. He had been giving away his gloves and bats and had grudgingly consented to a sentimental ceremony today. This was not necessarily his last game; the Red Sox were scheduled to travel to New York and wind up the season with three games there.

...In sum, though generally conceded to be the greatest hitter of his era, he did not establish himself as "the greatest hitter who ever lived." Cobb, for average, and Ruth, for power, remain supreme. Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson, and Lefty O'Doul, among players since 1900, have higher lifetime averages than Williams' .344. Unlike Foxx, Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, and Ralph Kiner, Williams never came close to matching Babe Ruth's season home-run total of sixty. In the list of major-league batting records, not one is held by Williams. He is second in walks drawn, third in home runs, fifth in lifetime averages, sixth in runs batted in, eighth in runs scored and in total bases, fourteenth in doubles, and thirtieth in hits. But if we allow him merely average seasons for the four-plus seasons he lost to two wars, and add another season for the months he lost to injuries, we get a man who in all the power totals would be second, and not a very distant second, to Ruth. And if we further allow that these years would have been not merely average but prime years, if we allow for all the months when Williams was playing in sub-par condition, if we permit his early and later years in baseball to be some sort of index of what the middle years could have been, if we give him a right-field fence that is not, like Fenway's, one of the most distant in the league, and if — the least excusable "if" — we imagine him condescending to outsmart the Williams Shift, we can defensibly assemble, like a colossus induced from the sizable fragments that do remain, a statistical figure not incommensurate with his grandiose ambition. From the statistics that are on the books, a good case can be made that in the combination of power and average Williams is first; nobody else ranks so high in both categories. Finally, there is the witness of the eyes; men whose memories go back to Shoeless Joe Jackson—another unlucky natural—rank him and Williams together as the best-looking hitters they have seen. It was for our last look that ten thousand of us had come.
Regarding his final at-bat:
The afternoon grew so glowering that in the sixth inning the arc lights were turned on — always a wan sight in the daytime, like the burning headlights of a funeral procession. Aided by the gloom, Fisher was slicing through the Sox rookies, and Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us — stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his bat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.
"Gods do not answer letters" ranks among the most memorable lines ever written in the service of sport. Classic stuff well worth reading and savoring in its entirety.

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Kent's Cooperstown Case

In today's Hit and Run column at Baseball Prospectus, I take up "The Curious Case of Jeff Kent", who retired last week:
There’s no crying in baseball, which may or may not explain why Jeff Kent's stoic facade crumbled during the press conference in which he announced his retirement last week. A notoriously gruff and prickly personality, Kent had spent the better part of two decades distancing himself from his teammates and the media as much as possible. Thus the sight of him fighting back the tears was surprising, even shocking given his apparent lack of emotional range. As the legendary sportswriter Frank Graham once wrote of Yankee outfielder Bob Meusel, "He's learning to say hello when it's time to say goodbye."

...While Kent hasn't been the object of many fond farewells, the widespread consensus in the mainstream media is that he's bound for the Hall of Fame. From a traditional perspective, it's not difficult to see why. Although he didn't debut in the majors until he was 24 and didn't top 400 plate appearances until the following year, Kent nonetheless racked up 2,461 hits and 377 homers, reached the postseason seven times, made five All-Star teams, and won the 2000 NL MVP award. The 351 home runs he hit as a second baseman are tops for the position, far outdistancing the second-, third-, and fourth-ranked second-sackers—Ryne Sandberg (277), Joe Morgan (266), and Rogers Hornsby (263)—all of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown. He also leads all second basemen in RBI and extra-base hits, while ranking 12th in games played at the position.

...Kent does not fare nearly so well when it comes to JAWS, and I say that as somebody whose first impulse would be to vote for him if the BBWAA granted me a ballot today. I've explored his case before, but with his final two seasons of play as well as a major adjustment in the WARP system's replacement level—one that's not yet reflected on our player cards, alas—it's appropriate to take another look...

Kent ranks 12th in career WARP, 20th in peak WARP (best seven seasons) and 14th overall among all second basemen. As odd as it sounds for a player who lasted through his Age 40 season, he's hampered by a lack of durability. Kent topped 145 games just five times (including in 2002, the season he infamously broke his wrist while "washing his truck") and averaged only 133 games a year over his last six seasons, the Houston and Los Angeles phases of his career. He's got just four seasons above 5.5 WARP via the new system, and just three above 7.0. Overall, his JAWS score tops only one of the nine second basemen elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America, that being Jackie Robinson, whose career was shortened by the color barrier but who nonetheless had a peak that was well above average, to say nothing of his monumentally larger role in history.
Kent falls slightly short via JAWS, and his case appears to rest upon how much value one places on holding the home run record for second basemen, a record set under historically favorable conditions.

As you'd expect, the article has plenty of charts to illuminate the case as well as a deeper look at the JAWS system and in particular the odd distribution of second basemen amid the rankings. None of which will have an impact on whether Kent makes the Hall of Fame; he'll likely find a spot there in due time, and while I doubt I'll greet that news with more enthusiasm than Kent showed in his Dodger days, it's not something that will be worth fighting against the way Jim Rice's candidacy was.

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Friday, January 23, 2009



Doubling up with yesterday's Hit and Run column, I had a chat at BP as well. Alas, it was fraught with technical difficulties that slowed the system considerably, limiting the number of questions I could get to without pulling my hair out:
frampton (Oakland, CA): Thanks for the chat! You alluded in today's article to the difference between lamenting the inclusion of players like Jim Rice to the Hall on the one hand, and pressing for the inclusion of guys like Blyleven and Raines. Is there a pragmatic reason to focus on the latter rather than the former in the sense that the guys with the votes might be more receptive to arguments for inclusion if we don't tell them they're idiots for putting in borderline players? It also sort of seems that the history of the Hall has pretty much rendered moot the argument that only the truly elite should be enshrined . . .

JJ: There are a few things in play here. Arguing against Rice is particularly futile because his admission is a done deal. Not that it didn't stop me from mentioning some of his candidacy's shortcomings today, but my intent was more to focus on the process and its underlying patterns than on the player. Oh the other hand, arguing for Blyleven and Raines is still a worthy cause even if the battle appears to be an uphill one. Second, as contrarian as I may seem relative to the BBWAA electorate, I much prefer the positive angle of arguing for a worthy candidate than against an unworthy one.

Furthermore, in this particular case, I've had enough of bagging on Rice because as I mention, I genuinely did enjoy watching him play and I do feel like he got a raw deal in some quarters. If his admission promotes a bit of healing, so much the better.

Matt A (Raleigh): I've been very interested to hear the thoughts of someone from BP on the Braves' signing of [Derek] Lowe. Got any?

JJ: Moving away from the Hall questions for the time being, I like this signing, though the price is a lot steeper than it should have been based on the reports of what the Mets were offering. Lowe is an ultra-durable groundballer who's solidified into a much better pitcher since leaving Boston, even beyond the obvious advantages of his move from Fenway to Dodger Stadium, park- and leaguewise. Over the last four years, he ranked 11th in the majors in SNLVAR, 10th in innings, and 12th in ERA+. While he's entering his age 36 season, there's nothing about him that suggests he's a particular health risk or that he's at risk of a sudden collapse.

The bigger issue for the Braves, however, is that while Lowe and recently acquired Javier Vazquez are both solid #2-type starters, neither is anywhere near the caliber of Johan Santana or Cole Hamels, the NL East's big guns.

AlexBelth (Bronx, NY): Jay, do you ever recall an off-season when so many veteran players were unsigned by this point? It's one thing when you are talking about Junior Griffey who has little value left, and a guy like Manny or to a lesser degree Abreu, who while in decline, can still provide...something.

JJ: My man Alex! I think you'd have to go back to the collusion era (1985-1987 offseasons) to find so many big names out there who remain unsigned. While I'm not suggesting anything so nefarious is afoot, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if a decade from now somebody unearths evidence to the contrary there.

Doubling this up with another good question you've asked ("Has your analytical work been more difficult this year with all these free agents still out there in limbo?") I think the offseason climate created by the economy and the slow pace of player movement has provided one of the more daunting challenges I've ever faced in this industry. Teams like the Brewers and Dodgers (both of whom I cover in BP09) still haven't come close to completing their offseason work with regards to replacing big guns like CC Sabathia and Manny Ramirez, making any legitimate assessment of their 2009 chances very difficult.

Snakedoctor18 (New York): Who should be the Yankees opening day CF in 2009?

JJ: Has the ship sailed on Zombie Mickey Mantle yet?

I'm certainly not wowed by the Yankees' in-house options, a pool that nominally includes Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher. I don't think the latter two can carry the position defensively anymore, and I'm less than wowed by the offense offered by either of the former two, unless Cabrera has spent the entire winter being beaten over the head with a fungo bat in an effort to impart the slightest modicum of common sense into his thick skull.

Which means that a better solution must lie outside the organization. I'd be willing to see if Jim Edmonds has anything left given his rebound with the Cubs.
I appreciate those of you out there who dropped by. Fair amount of Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, Brewers and Hall of Fame chatter in there for those interested in reading more.



(No) Comments

As you may or may not have noticed, the comments feature on this blog has been nonfunctional over the past month. As of December 23, the third-party system I used, YACCS (Yet Another Collaborative Comment System), discontinued its service, but it's only now that I've had a chance to clean up my template and enable Blogger's integrated comments system. The existing YACCS comments have been archived but I'm not sure if there's a way to import them back into Blogger, or at least an easy way that's worth my time; only a few recent postings have drawn comments at all.

Currently, the new settings for the comments feature do not require any registration, only word verification. Nor are they moderated, though I've obviously reserved the right to delete offensive or irrelevant comments if necessary, and to reach out to smite you in your chair if the offense is grave enough (ok, getting carried away there). I'd prefer not to have to take a stronger hand in managing this feature, but I'll do so if necessary. Either way, I hope the new system serves this site's readership well. Please note that there is some delay between posting comments and seeing them on the site, a consequence of going through Blogger's big, big system.

Also, another one of my third-party add-ons, Blogrolling, is temporarily kaput. This controls the link list you see at left. There's a lot of housekeeping which could stand to be done -- links added, deleted or updated -- once it comes back online. Apologies for the inconvenience in the interim.


Thursday, January 22, 2009


Pattern Recognition

After a week and a half of laying low following the delivery of my final Baseball Prospectus annual essays and JAWS pieces, I've re-emerged with both an article and a chat. Today's piece at BP focuses on last week's Hall of Fame voting results and their underlying patterns. After noting that Jim Rice made history by becoming the first player ever voted in on his 15th and final ballot, I noted how rarely late-eligibility elections occur:
Beyond the fact that Rice made it in his final turn at bat, it's worth noting how uncommon it actually is for any candidate to win the requisite 75 percent after lasting for more than about five years on the ballot. Since 1966:
Years    #   Elected
15 33 1 Rice (2009)
14 37 0
13 39 2 Ralph Kiner (1975), Bruce Sutter (2006)
12 43 1 Bob Lemon (1976)
11 45 1 Duke Snider (1980)
10 52 1 Don Drysdale (1984)
9 62 4 Joe Medwick (1968), Lou Boudreau (1970),
Tony Perez (2000), Rich Gossage (2008)
8 68 1 Hoyt Wilhelm (1985)
7 72 0
6 84 3
5 96 4
4 107 3
3 124 5
2 175 4
1 629 37
Basically, a candidate who lingers on the ballot for longer than five years has about half the chance of being elected as someone who gains entry in his first five years of eligibility:
Years     #  Elect   %
1-5 1131 53 4.7
6-10 338 9 2.7
11-15 197 5 2.5
Further down, I've got my own prescription for reforming the voting process:
Elsewhere on BP, [Joe] Sheehan advocated a one-and-done approach to the BBWAA voting. While I do think that there's ample room for reform, particularly in light of the data above, subjecting the candidates to a single in/out vote seems to me an awful idea given the obstinacy of a portion of the electorate, to say nothing of the sorry state of the Veterans Committee. Certain voters love to parade their ignorance of any approach beyond Ye Olde Pornography Test ("I know a Hall of Famer when I see one"), and many others could stand to research the candidates much more thoroughly before delivering a potentially fatal blow to the chances of the likes of Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, and Dan Quisenberry, all of whom fell off the ballot after one vote because they failed to garner five percent.

Instead of making this a one-shot deal, I'd advocate shortening a player's term on the ballot to three years—three strikes and you're out, get it?—with no minimum five percent cutoff. The portion of the electorate that feels strongly enough about the distinction between "first ballot" types and the rest of the field would still have that avenue available to them, but the process would be considerably sped up, and the field simplified.

Of course, I'd also like to see the BBWAA voting rules reformed to allow the new wave of internet writers — including my BP colleagues Will Carroll and Christina Kahrl as well as ESPN's Rob Neyer and Keith Law — their voting privileges before the ten-year waiting period is up. While there's more than a little self-interest with regards to that statement — I'm extremely hopeful that one day I might join those ranks myself — the bottom line is that those of us who have come around to any kind of sabermetric approach to the Hall want to see a better-educated electorate tackling the ballot so that the game's highest honor may be more uniformly bestowed upon the most deserving candidates. Is that so wrong?
That Will, Christina, Keith and Rob all were granted entry to the BBWAA [Baseball Writers Association of America] is the long-lost bit of news that I alluded to back in early December when the story broke, but I never got around to discussing here. I'm elated for all parties involved; Neyer and Law were snubbed a year earlier in what became an ugly PR disaster for the BBWAA, as numerous other Internet-based writers, including several of Neyer and Law's ESPN colleagues, gained entry. The BBWAA had been exclusive to print-based publications prior to that point, but with the realities of the newspaper industry becoming grimmer by the day, the organization finally saw the light on that front. What it all means is that if I continue long enough with BP I too may gain membership, which, assuming I could then hang on long enough, would make me eligible to vote in the Hall of Fame balloting around the time the AARP starts taking an interest in my life — hence the bit of self-interest in picking up the damn pace.

I'll be back to slice and dice the chat in my next post...

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Monday, January 12, 2009


JAWS Attacks the 2009 Ballot

Happy New Year, dear readers! It's been about three weeks since I checked in here, a time during which I've been plowing through my winter workload, with a weeklong trip to England over Xmas and New Years thrown in as well. In the meantime, I've completed the entire JAWS series on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot for Baseball Prospectus:

• Oh Rickey You're So Fine: Rickey Henderson

• A Rock-y Road: Tim Raines

• Throwing Rice: Jim Rice

• Andre and Onward: Andre Dawson and the other outfielders

• The Infielders

• The Pitchers

There's also a WWZN "Young Guns" radio segment from last week, focusing on Rice as well as a two-part video series at Bronx Banter featuring Alex Belth, Cliff Corcoran and myself. In Part One, we discuss Henderson, Raines and Alan Trammell. In Part Two, we hit Rice, Dawson and Bert Blyleven.

But wait! There's more! For those who didn't feel like reading over 20,000 words worth on the topic, I penned an express version for which briefly covers the cases of the five players whom the JAWS system tabbed as vote-worthy (Henderson, Raines, Mark McGwire, Trammell and Blyleven) as well as the two players from outside that group who had polled more than 50 percent in the balloting last year, Rice and Dawson.

As you probably know by now, Henderson and Rice were the two who got the call, while Raines' vote total actually dropped. I'm elated about Henderson -- about whom Bill James once famously wrote, "If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers" -- making the Hall, but that was a no-brainer; what was surprising was that 28 writers left him off the ballot, thus committing mail fraud. As for Rice, I've railed against his candidacy and the late groundswell of support he received, support which is founded in mythology rather than performance (Joe Sheehan hit this one out of the park) and, in my mind, some amount of guilt on behalf of the writers who covered Rice and with whom he sparred. That he could get in while Raines is on the outside has me burn-an-overturned-car angry. Or it would if I didn't need some sleep to catch up with all of this.

Anyway, I'm glad the JAWS project is done for another year, the sixth time I've done this for BP and the eighth time I've reviewed the BBWAA ballot at length overall. My timing wasn't great this year, not only since I needed to deliver the last three installments covering 21 of the 24 players on the ballot in the span of five days. The system's underlying valuation metric, Wins Above Replacement Player, is in the midst of a recalibration which has raised the offensive replacement level, with the conversion to a play-by-play system for defense still pending. The changes remain unpublished, so essentially I've been on the bleeding edge, working with a system that's still in beta, with all of the hazards that entails.

In any event, I'm proud of the work but even more glad than usual that it's done, as is my work for the Baseball Prospectus annual and the Fantasy Baseball Index. Might just find time for the occasional blog post now and then...

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