"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
August 25, 2000
BASEBALL: Todd Helton vs. .400
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Now that Nomar Garciaparra’s bid to become the first .400 shortstop in 104 years has gone by the wayside, the media monster trains its sights on Todd Helton. Will he be the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams and the first National Leaguer to turn the trick since Bill Terry?
Let’s get to the key fact first: after Wednesday afternoon’s game, the Rockies have 19 home games left and 16 road games. That favors Helton, who is hitting .432 at home but .360 on the road. The tough schedule issues come in the last week. Will the lefthanded Helton, batting almost seventy points lower against lefties, sit out against Randy Johnson? Arizona comes to town for a four-game set before the season’s final series, and Johnson is likely to pitch, particularly if the D-Backs are still in the race. Following that, Colorado ends the season in Atlanta. Will Helton face Maddux, Glavine and Millwood? Will he face lefty-killer John Rocker (AKA the man who lost to Brent Mayne)? Or will he mostly see minor-league relievers as Bobby Cox pulls his starters after five innings, as has been his practice in past season-ending serieses (except in 1998, when the opponent was the Mets and they were fighting for a wild card)?
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(As for the question of whether Helton is a real .400 hitter if he hits .3995, get over it. Helton’s a Coors-made .400 hitter if he hits .420. But one asterisk is more than enough. Nobody grew up talking about how Rogers Hornsby hit .4235 in 1924. Nobody gripes about rounding up .300 hitters, or even lifetime .300 hitters.)
We have witnessed a number of challenges at .400 since Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977; before Carew, only Ted Williams (in 1957) made things interesting in the post-war era. The most captivating, of course, was George Brett’s chase in the late summer of 1980. The closest, though, was Tony Gwynn in 1994. Along with Matt Williams and Ken Griffey chasing Roger Maris, the baseball world was robbed of Gwynn’s pursuit of one of his long-time idols, Teddy Ballgame, by the strike. One more reason to hate Jerry Reinsdorf and Don Fehr.
Helton is going about this the hard way: he came out of the gate quickly but hasn’t started a day at .400 since June 10. As hard as it is to hit .400, a hot start followed by a steady march around .390 is the toughest way to do it. A player who comes into the midpoint of the season hitting around .430, as Ty Cobb did in 1911 and 1912, can suffer a mini-slump here and there and still hang on. A player batting .360 or .370 in early August who gets incredibly hot will avoid the daily media pressure until the year is nearly over. Sammy Sosa had it easier in 1998 because he started slowly and was seen as a weaker threat to Maris than Griffey even after his June hot streak; it was late-July before he started receiving some serious media scrutiny. I would have given better odds to Nomar if he and Helton were both at the same point, because Nomar is in a pennant race (is too!) and thus unlikely to get consumed by the .400 issue. Helton is playing for nothing but numbers.
Helton’s path still risks going in the direction of Larry Walker or John Olerud: fading, fading, fading, until the record books no longer reveal that you even made a run. Helton has been pushing it with an August hot streak, like Brett and like Hornsby, who batted .509 in August of 1924. The difference: Brett’s hot weather tear pushed him just over .400, and he couldn’t hang on. Hornsby was already over .400 and just pulled away.
To make sense of Helton’s chances – as well as future runs – I looked back at the men who succeeded. There have been 27 .400 seasons in major league baseball history, counting players who qualified for the batting title in the majors (Terry Forster need not apply, nor Josh Gibson with his incredible .517 season in 1943). What I really wanted to know was not just what type of player hits .400, but what conditions do you need for a .400 season?
First, these were mostly great players. Five players (Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Ed Delahanty, and Jesse Burkett) hit .400 more than once, accounting between them for 13 of the 27 seasons. 22 of the 23 .400 seasons since 1894 were by Hall of Famers, the lone exception being Joe Jackson. Of course, at least in Bill Terry’s case, the .400 season is most of the reason why he’s in Cooperstown. Oddly, none of the players to hit .400 in the game’s first 18 years – Ross Barnes, Fred Dunlap, Tip O’Neill (no, not that Tip O’Neil), and the original “Louisville Slugger,” Pete Browning, are enshrined in the Hall. That bodes well for superstars like Nomar, but not so well for Helton.
Second, ten of the 27 .400 seasons took place in a six-year period between 1894 and 1899, the golden age of high-average offense (it began when the mound was moved from 50 feet to 60’6” in 1893 and ended when the NL contracted from 12 teams to 8 in 1900 and both leagues started calling foul balls as strikes in 1902). The NL as a whole hit .309 in 1894, .296 in 1895, .290 in 1896, .292 in 1897, and .282 in 1899.
League batting average is the most important factor in determining whether a player can hit .400, because it’s far easier to surpass the average by a little than a lot. As has often been noted, Yaz out-hit the league by a larger percentage margin with his .301 batting title in 1968 than Bill Terry did when he hit .401 in 1930.
On average, the .400 hitters played in leagues with a batting average of
The National League is batting .268 this year, the AL .277. Proportional to the league, how many of these guys would have hit .400 compared to a league average of .268? Nine, and that includes Lajoie, Barnes and Dunlap. Here are the “translated” batting averages:
Dunlap, 1884: .451
Computed: ((avg)/(league avg))*(.268)
A much more select club, and one that leaves you with new respect for Ty Cobb. In 1912, Cobb hit .410 in the same league where Walter Johnson posted a 1.39 ERA and Smokey Joe Wood posted a 1.91 ERA and went 34-5.
Cobb also did this with less help. Every single .400 hitter has played on a team with an above-average team batting average, often far above average. The only team with a .400 hitter that was close to the league average was the 1912 Tigers, who hit .268. Fourteen of the twenty-seven played on teams that out-hit the league by twenty points or more; the 1876 White Stockings outhit the NL .337 to .265. That’s partly the result of having a .400 hitter, of course; the 1894 Phillies had three .400 hitting Hall of Famers starting in their outfield (Delahanty, Sam Thompson, and Billy Hamilton) and reserve outfielder Tuck Turner hit .416 in 339 at bats. The team hit .349.
What about the ballparks, an issue so near and dear to Helton’s heart? Well, we (or I, at least) don’t have access to home/road batting average data, although the high occurrence of high team batting averages suggests that some of these parks may have been good for batting average, specifically. What I do have is park factors for run scoring. The results are mixed. Thirteen players played in parks that inflated run scoring by at least 4%, and six played in parks that pumped up scoring by more than ten percent, a very high figure: Barnes (+45%), Hugh Duffy in 1894 (+26%), Sisler in 1920 (+26%), Cobb in 1911 (+21%), Browning (+12%), and Burkett in 1896 (+11%).
If you are wondering, scoring was up 6% at Fenway in 1941, and we have Ted Williams' home-road splits for that year: accordng to the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, he hit .428 at Fenway and .380 on the road -- not Helton, but a pretty big edge nonetheless. The same source reports Ty Cobb's home/road splits are nearly even: .418/.422 in 1911, .404/.418 in 1912, and .405/.397 in 1922. The Historical Abstract also reports that Rogers Hornsby, in 1922, batted .403 at home and .400 on the road, while George Sisler, in 1920, batted .473 at Sportsman's Park and just .341 away from it (Sisler got 150 hits at home that year).
No third baseman or catcher has ever hit .400; the record averages at those positions are .390 by Brett and .394 by the lefthanded-throwing catcher Jack Clements, a Phillies teammate of Delahanty, Hamilton and Thompson. Only one shortsop has done it (Jennings) and first basemen have done it three times (Sisler twice, and Terry). The rest are split between outfielders (17 times) and, oddly, second basemen (six times).
The average age of a .400 hitter is 27. Two of the four guys to bat .400 after age 30 were Cobb and Delahanty, both on their third .400 season. Cobb was the oldest, at 35; the other two were Thompson (34) and Terry (33). Three did it before age 25: Jackson (21), Williams (22), and Cobb (24 in 1911). Williams, of course, was in the military between ages 24 and 26; it is extremely likely he would have done it again. Helton and Nomar both turned 27 within the past month.
Some random issues:
** The patient Helton has been making exceptional contact, to the tune of 80 walks and 42 strikeouts, an unusually good ratio in today’s high-strikeout environment. While only two men have hit .400 while drawing 100 walks (Williams and Hamilton), most have shown at least decent patience and only one has struck out more than 40 times (Hornsby, with 50 K in 623 at bats in 1922). The .400 hitters averaged 59 walks apiece; while strikeout numbers aren’t uniformly available, the average total (reflecting the slap-hitting 1890s) was just 24.
** The lowest walk total: 19 by Jennings. He nonetheless managed an unbelievable accomplishment: while drawing just 19 walks, he posted an on base percentage of .472. He did it the hard way, batting .401 and being drilled by a major league record 51 pitches in 130 games.
** Helton is currently on track to bat 580 times. That’s important; only three .400 hitters have cleared 600 official at bats (Sisler in 1920, Hornsby in 1922, and Terry), while seventeen have batted 550 times or less. Keeping up the pace gets harder and harder the more you bat.
** More than 45% of Helton’s hits have been for extra bases. While most .400 hitters have been near or over 30%, that’s higher than anyone in the .400 club, edging out Rogers Hornsby’s 1925 season.
My prediction is probably the same as yours: Helton won’t make it. Coors will keep him close, and he’s a good (but not great) hitter, too. I expect a finish around the high .380s. But if he can close the deal against the likes of Schilling, the Big Unit, Maddux, and Glavine in the season’s final week, he will have earned some real respect.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION
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August 16, 2000
POLITICS: LBJ! LBJ! LBJ!
An email I sent in 2000, reformatted for the blog archives. Note the "no great external threat" language from President Clinton.
The Democrats keep telling us that Republicans are the old guard, looking backward, while they are looking forward. But who's looking backward for inspiration? Re-read this, near the very end of the President's speech:
Now, I want the young people especially to listen to this. I remember this well. I graduated from high school in 1964. Our country was still very sad because of President Kennedy's death, but full of hope under the leadership of President Johnson. And I assumed then, like most Americans, that our economy was absolutely on automatic; that nothing could derail it.
I also believed then that our civil rights problems would all be solved in Congress and the courts. And in 1964, when we were enjoying the longest economic expansion in history, we never dreamed that Vietnam would so divide and wound America.
So we took it for granted.
And then, before we knew it, there were riots in the streets, even here. The leaders that I adored as a young man, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were killed. Lyndon Johnson -- a president from my part of the country I admired so much for all he did for civil rights, for the elderly and the poor -- said he would not run again because our nation was so divided.
And then we had an election in 1968 that took America on a far different and more divisive course. And you know, within months, after that election, the last longest economic expansion in history was itself history.
Why am I telling you this tonight? Not to take you down, but to keep you looking up. I have waited, not as president, but as your fellow citizen, for over 30 years to see my country once again in the position to build the future of our dreams for our children.
We are -- we are a great and good people. And we have an even better chance this time than we did then, with no great internal crisis and no great external threat. Still, I have lived long enough to know that opportunities must be seized or they will be lost."
Is it just me, or is this basically a way of telling the Democratic convention that after lo these many years in retreat and hiding, if we can elect Al Gore the coast will be clear for Great Society Big Government liberalism to come out in the open once again?
August 15, 2000
BASEBALL: Offensive Winning Percentages
This is an email I sent to Rob Neyer on August 15, 2000, reformatted for publication.
ESPN.com calculates "offensive winning percentage," which I assume is the
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*-Based on full year stats
I seem to recall from the book that very few of the all-time great teams you listed had a regular at every position with an OW% over .500, let alone .520, but if Veras were healthy, both of these teams would meet that standard at this stage of the season.
I had to put in the pitchers to show that Hampton is having a better year with the bat than the Braves' starting 2B. The Braves fail to stack up to the Mets primarily due to the absence of Quilvio Veras and the fact that Chipper would be the Mets' third-best hitter. The Mets have a better ERA in the starting rotation and have scored more runs than Atlanta; the Braves' only statistical advantage is in the bullpen (!).
Also: Benny Agbayani's OPS, for 1999-2000, is now .891 (comparing favorably to the .876 figure posted by Bubba Trammell, 1998-2000). Agbayani was not an impressive minor league hitter. Is this a real improvement, or are we still waiting for a larger sample size for Agbayani to return to earth?
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August 11, 2000
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Tony Perez, Jim Rice and Gary Carter
Column on Tony Perez, with comments on Gary Carter and Jim Rice (Originally posted 8/11/00 on the Boston Sports Guy website):
Carlton Fisk is easy, although I plan to return later this year to the tougher question of who was better, Fisk or Gary Carter. For the moment it's enough to say that both should have been obvious first-ballot Hall of Famers. Leaving aside the active guys (Piazza, Rodriguez) and the Negro Leaguers (Josh Gibson, who was almost certainly greater than anyone to play the position in the majors), you would be hard pressed to list the ten best catchers of all time without both Carter and Fisk (the rest of my list: Bench, Berra, Cochrane, Campanella, Dickey, Hartnett, Buck Ewing, and Bill Freehan).
Lots of commentators have taken apart Tony Perez's credentials; let's skip the heavy-duty number crunching here because anyone who takes that angle has to regard Perez as much less than immortal.
Look at the stats: Perez is near the bottom of all Hall of Fame first basemen in batting, on-base, and slugging; the only one lower in both slugging and on-base percentage is the inexplicable selection of George "Highpockets" Kelly, who was sort of a poor man's Cecil Cooper. Three points here:
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--1. Perez's boosters kept insistently arguing that they would not discuss the statistics; Perez even included a self-serving line in his acceptance speech about how he didn't play for statistics. Yet, every single column in his defense cited his 1,652 career RBI as a centerpiece of the argument. And to think, these guys get PAID to write this stuff.
--2. Perez played 21 major league seasons in which his team -- sometimes with a tremendous supporting cast (i.e., players much better than Tony Perez) -- did not win the World Series. Where was the famous leadership and clutch hitting of Perez when the Big Red Machine lost the 1973 NLCS to a team that won 82 games in the regular season? He hit .091 in that series. Perez’s best year in the regular season was 1970; he hit .056 in the World Series and the Reds lost. Two championships, yeah. Wilt Chamberlain took two NBA rings to his grave, and they called him a loser. Did Roger Clemens become a better pitcher in 1999?
--3. C'mon, anybody who watched Tony Perez, Jim Rice and Gary Carter in their prime and thought Perez was the best of the three should be reassigned to cover the XFL. Other than not breaking his hand in October 1975, what did Tony Perez ever do better than Jim Rice? Perez was just as slow as Rice, grounding into 268 career DP (Rice: 315), and an even worse defensive player.
Bill James once wrote that “giving Fenway Park to Jim Rice is like giving Superman brass knuckles.” Who ever wrote anything like that about Tony Perez? Lynn, Fisk, Yaz, Evans . . . when pitchers and managers stayed up at night worrying about the Red Sox, none of those guys (good as they were) were first on their mind. Who ever went into Cincinnati thinking the key thing was to stop Tony Perez? Whitey Herzog once put on a special shift to stop Rice, and complained that the shift he really wanted was to put two guys in the net and two on the Citgo sign. Nobody put infielders in orbit over Tony Perez.
Carter and Rice both played for championship teams when Perez wasn't around, but the Perez magic did nothing for Carter’s Expos or Rice’s Red Sox. RBI, then? RBI is all that matters? Jim Rice had more 120-RBI seasons than Perez (4 to 2), more 100-RBI seasons (8 to 7), more 95-RBI seasons (9 to 7), and only one fewer 85-RBI season (11 to 12). Granted, Perez drove in between 90 and 92 runs five times, but half his 201-RBI edge over Rice was the seasons before their first 100-RBI year and after their last: for Perez, that meant nine seasons, 277 RBI; for Rice, four seasons, 175 RBI.
Did I mention that Perez played nearly 600 more games than Rice and scored 23 more runs?
Lest you think the difference is the leagues they played in, consider the leader boards: In the main offensive categories (Avg, Slg, Obp, R, RBI, and we will throw in OPS) Perez finished in the top five in the league 10 times, Rice 24 times; Perez was in the top ten 26 times, Rice 37 times. In the other categories (G, AB, 2B, 3B, HR, H, BB, TB, SB), Perez finished in the top five in the league 9 times, Rice 26 times; Perez was in the top ten 30 times, Rice 43 times. Fenway alone does not explain that away.
Carter? Taken in context, his numbers with the bat were just as good as Perez’s numbers. Carter once led the league in RBI, while Perez never led in anything but GIDP. But while Carter in his prime was a great defensive catcher (and later a catcher who threw poorly but did the rest of the job well), Perez was such a disaster at third base (leading the league in errors three straight years, although in his defense, Perez had decent range, and errors are overrated) that the Reds had to trade a good young player (Lee May, who averaged 37 homers a year from 1969 to 1971) to move Perez to first and play Dennis Menke at third. Menke hit .233 in 1972 and .191 in 1973. The move more than worked out because May brought back Joe Morgan and in 1975 the Reds finally plugged the third base hole with Rose, but the point is that nobody ever had to trade good players away because Gary Carter couldn't field his position.
At the start of their respective careers, if you could have traded away the futures of Carter or Rice for Perez, would you have done it? In the middle of their careers, if you could take their best five or ten seasons for Perez’s best 5-10, would you do it? Hey, I’m a big fan of consistency and durability, but two or three extra years of solid production plus a better career as an aging benchwarmer do not add up to the kind of greatness that Carter and Rice reached. Some would say that at least Perez's mammoth career RBI total means he won’t water down the standards for future inductees, but when greatness is the standard, only the great get in. When 1,652 RBI is the standard, the inflated offensive numbers of the 1990s put an awful lot of people on the doorstep to immortality. Don’t look back, Harold Baines (1,614 RBI) might be gaining on you.
I'm not totally sold on putting Jim Rice in Cooperstown, but making him wait behind Tony Perez? Because Perez had Morgan, Rose and Bench while Rice's teams, with shaky bullpens and pitiful benches, came up just a little short of great teams three or four times? Or because Tony Perez is a good interview, and Jim Rice preferred to just do his job and keep his mouth shut?
Hall of Famers should meet standards of greatness in their time, and there is room in the Hall both for players who offered a relatively short period of transcendent greatness and for those who were very good players, consistently, over a very long time. Statistics are the main way that we measure those standards, but they are not the standards themselves and should not be confused with them.
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BASEBALL: Bid McPhee, Hall of Famer?
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Who was the greatest second baseman of the 19th century? It may seem like a very academic question, but for one of this year's Hall of Fame inductees it was critical.
Taking a break this week from the hubbub of the pennant races, I'm going to take an overdue look at the Hall of Fame Class of 2000. Part 2, later today, will focus on Tony Perez, and I'm skipping over Norman "Turkey" Stearns. I have no more idea than the man in the moon how good Turkey Stearns really was; the Negro League stats (including several consecutive home run titles and a career batting average of .359) are too spotty to be conclusive but they certainly don't contradict his case for the Hall. According to the HOF web page, his contemporaries compared him to Al Simmons.
First, though, let's start with the little-analyzed selection of John "Bid" McPhee.
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Sometimes a particular position will have a wealth of talent -- first base in the AL of the 1930s, shortsop in the AL now. And sometimes there's a real dearth. Dominance during a weak era for first basemen might be an argument for Perez, although the best first baseman in the NL between 1972 and 1980 was probably Steve Garvey or Willie Stargell. But for an everyday player to be the best at his position over a span of a quarter century or more... to me, that's a definition of a Hall of Famer. And that's Bid McPhee’s argument in a nutshell.
Until this year, the Hall had not found room for a single second baseman whose prime years were in the 19th century. The only three second basemen in the Hall to play their prime years before 1920 were Nap Lajoie, who broke in in 1896 but played 100 games at second only once (1898) before 1900; Johnnie Evers, who became a regular in 1903; and Eddie Collins, who cracked the lineup in 1908. That’s one reason I’ve generally been in favor of Evers as a Hall of Famer, since he was the only NL second baseman enshrined from the league’s first forty years or so. The only credible challenger to Evers as the best NL second baseman of his era would be Larry Doyle.
The first candidate for second baseman of the century would have to be Ross Barnes. In the National Association, the first professional league, which ran from 1871 to 1875, Barnes was the league's dominant offensive player, batting .379 and scoring the preposterous total of 462 runs in 266 games (the seasons were shorter then). Over that period, Barnes outpaced his closest competitors by 17 points in batting and by 63 runs. In 1876, the National League’s inaugural season, Barnes batted .429 (the league hit .265), led the league in walks, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, slugging and on base percentage, and scored a staggering 126 runs in 66 games, leading the league by a margin of 54. No one in the 124 seasons since has approached this ratio of runs scored per game, not even close. Barnes led all second basemen in fielding percentage for good measure, 46 points higher than the average second baseman.
Barnes' career was derailed the following season when the rules were changed, making his signature play, the fair-foul bunt (i.e., bunting with the ball landing in fair territory and rolling foul before crossing the first or third base bag) a foul ball. He played just 168 more major league games over three seasons, never again hitting above .272.
After Barnes came McPhee, the Reds’ regular second baseman from the modern franchise’s inception in 1882 (when they won the American Association pennant, the only one of McPhee’s career) until 1899. In the years 1876-1900, only 15 men played 700 games at second, and only 7played 1,000 games; McPhee played 2,126 games at the position, more than 500 more than Fred Pfeffer, the nearest competitor, and eighth on the list to this day. After retirement McPhee managed the Reds; in 1901, his only full season at the helm, he led the Reds to the worst record in franchise history.
McPhee was a good, not a great, hitter, over a long period of years. Typical of his day, McPhee was speedy but with limited power, although his 53 career home runs were quite a respectable total. He stole a ton of bases, although stolen bases were counted differently then. He drew a fair number of walks starting with 59 in 1886, when the number of balls for a walk was seven. His career batting average of .271 looks weak when one thinks of the high-octane 1890s, but the league average in the AA was often very low, bottoming out at .238 in 1888, and McPhee's on-base percentages were routinely 20-30 points above the league, very good for a middle infielder.
McPhee’s most impressive credential is his 1,678 runs scored, 23nd the all-time list; McPhee scored 28 more runs than Joe Morgan, 174 more runs than Lajoie. The runs scored total should be taken with a grain of salt, as with Barnes: in an era when the league fielding percentage hovered around .900 and about two-thirds of all runs were unearned, players scored a lot. Still, McPhee scored 155 more runs than Big Dan Brouthers, the dominant hitter of McPhee’s era, and just 12 fewer than Sliding Billy Hamilton, the greatest leadoff man of the century.
On a year-in-year-out basis, though, McPhee was only occasionally among the league leaders in any batting category, despite mostly playing in a good hitters’ park. He led the league in games, triples, and homers (with 8) once each, and on two occasions was in the top five in runs, once in steals. There always seemed to be a better hitter in the league at his position; the STATS All-Time Sourcebook does an annual retroactive All-Star team based largely on batting stats, and McPhee is always ranked behind people like Sam Barkley, Yank Robinson and Cupid Childs.
For his career, the Runs Created/27 Outs method, used in the STATS, Inc. books, estimates that McPhee was 17.8% better than the league average hitter for the balance of his career (before adjusting for his park). Not counting Rod Carew, who I regard as a first baseman, that puts him 11th among the 13 Hall of Fame second basemen, ahead of only Red Schoendeinst (who ,s in partly as a manager) and Nellie Fox.
On the basis of his bat, McPhee falls a little ahead of Perez (by the standards of his position) in the category of good, long-time hitters who don’t quite have what Cooperstown requires. Oh, but his glove. McPhee was a legendary glove man, or rather, hand man; he was one of the last men to play the field barehanded, resisting the widespread adoption of gloves in the late 1880s. The numbers back up his reputation: McPhee led his league in double plays his first nine straight seasons, and 11 times in 12 years. He led in putouts 8 times, assists 6 times, fielding percentage 7 times, and range factor (then an unknown measurement) 8 times. When he switched to a glove in 1896, his fielding percentage jumped 23 points, setting a record that would stand for 25 years.
There were a few other good ones, like Fred Pfeffer and Bobby Lowe. Fred Dunlap hit .412 and led the league in nearly everything in 1884, but that was in the one-year Union Association, barely a major league; only two other times did he bat above .280. McPhee’s only real competition for the position on the team of the century would be Cupid Childs.
Childs was a legitimately outstanding hitter, a lifetime .306 hitter and 21st all time in on-base percentage at .416. He scored over 135 runs 3 straight years, leading the league in 1892 and finishing third in 1891 and 1893. Childs was in the top ten in the league in walks eleven years running and top ten in OBP 7 times in 8 years (leading the NL in 1892); he was probably one of the game’s top 5 hitters between 1890 and 1892. He was also a fine fielder in his own right, twice posting league leading range factors (although with below-average fielding percentages), and he played for a perennial contender.
Nonetheless, I would give it to McPhee, as I will explain more below. McPhee played longer, and was good hitter in his own right. Also, Childs’ teams (unlike McPhee’s) never did win a pennant despite their many stars (Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, Childs, Ed McKean), and he was basically washed up after 30.
I was initially opposed to the McPhee selection. His batting stats look so unimpressive, and if there is little point in immortalizing a guy like Tony Perez for longetivity when he is here to enjoy it, there is less so for a guy who’s been dead for 57 years and who no one alive saw play. It is nearly time to close the Hall doors to any new entrants from any earlier than the mid-1930s; personally I think the Veterans Committee should only be allowed to elect players that at least one member played with or against.
But somebody has to be the best at the position over so many years, and while McPhee was not a great hitter, he was good enough, like Ozzie Smith or Dave Bancroft; he was never a liability like Rabbit Maranville. And McPhee’s defense was truly exceptional. In an era when walks and extra base hits were rare and errors and aggressive baserunning were common, infield defense meant more than it does today; McPhee was clearly the best in the business, and for a very long time.
Finally, I wonder about Ross Barnes. He played for only ten years and unlike contemporaries Al Spalding and Candy Cummings, he was no innovator (his signature play was outlawed 123 years ago). But Barnes was the best position player in professional baseball for its first six seasons, and the second most valuable behind Spalding. Maybe it’s not long enough to make a real Hall of Fame career, but you have to think that there would at least be some way to honor a guy who dominated the game like that. Remember, if Tony Perez can make the Hall of Fame, anything's possible.
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK'S TRIVIA QUESTION
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August 4, 2000
BASEBALL: Grading the Deadline Deals (AL)
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
The trading deadline is past; Peter Gammons can take a breath again, although from appearances he’s still exhaling pent-up rumors. What emerges are a few common themes:
1. Almost every deal that was made was to fill teams’ weak spots with acceptable contributors, rather than to upgrade from contributing players to stars. The order of the day was the Mike Bordicks and B.J. Surhoffs of the world, not the Sammy Sosas and Albert Belles.
2. The contenders mostly held on to their top prospects; nobody sold the crown jewel of their farm system. Most teams, whether their farm system is loaded with talent or just trickling players, have 2 or 3 prospects who are critical to the organization’s future. Nearly none of those prospects were moved, unless you count Ed Yarnall.
3. The players who were dealt by the contenders were mostly high-risk players rather than sure contributors: guys with talent whose stock had fallen sharply. The guys they got in return were mostly low-risk players who are likely to keep doing what they were doing for a few more months.
Let’s look at the deals that were done over the past two months and try to grade the teams (hey, if I didn’t run a column like this they would yank my amateur sportswriter’s license); I’ll take on the AL this week and get to the NL races later, unless something more interesting intervenes.
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Dealing Sexson looks bad, given his monstrous power and youth and the Indians’ history of dealing big young sluggers (Giles, Burnitz, Casey) for mediocre pitchers. Sexson is not productive at this point, given his dismal on-base percentages in 1999 and 2000, but at age 25 it seems hasty for them to give up on his ability to learn the strike zone. The guys who came in return are useful but unimpressive; I’d hate to rely on Jason Bere, and the talented Mr. Woodard has been awful this year.
The fascination with Wil Cordero, to the point of trading two good young players for him, paying his 3-year $9 million contract and possibly demoting Branyan to play him everyday, is utterly inexplicable. Cordero has a reputation as a good bat because he had some pop for a shortstop, but he hasn’t played there in five years. As a corner outfielder he's woefully inadequate, combining mediocre power with minimal speed and an inability to get on base. Ordinarily you would assume he must be one heck of a nice guy to get so many undeserved chances, but he is basically unrepentant about beating his wife.
Peter Gammons called him an “experienced situational hitter,” which is baseball-speak for a guy who doesn’t hit real well on the whole. You take the “situational” hitters and I will take the guys who are just good hitters like Manny Ramirez (last year’s Divisional Series or not), and we will see who wins more games. More to the point, if a guy is a “situational” hitter, why play him everyday? Why not just save him to pinch hit in the “situations” where he will supposedly excel, rather than polluting the lineup with outs in meaningless situations (like the first six innings of a tie game, for example).
WHITE SOX: A-
ROYALS, TWINS: B
In the short run, they needed bullpen help, and while Colome may turn out to be a steep price for the Larry Andersen-ish Jim Mecir, Mecir will take some heat off an overworked Jeff Tam. But the pen is still thin, the everyday rightfielder is still hitting .220 and Terrence Long is still leading off. I think the A’s are still a year away; judging from their nonchalance around the deadline, I suspect they do too.
Some Yankee fans were upset (in a “Hey, there’s a paint chip on my Mercedes” kind of way) that they didn’t bring home a superstar, and the Yanks do still have some legitimate holes, like the offensive cavities at first and third. But with the collective bargaining agreement coming up and the howls over revenue sharing only getting louder, George has to figure that loading up his team with Sammy Sosas and Juan Gonzalezes is only going to make the Philadelphias and Torontos of the world that much quicker to join Les Miserables de Montreal faction in ganging up on Mr. Big's cable money.
Unfortunately, they only got the housecleaning concept right; they forgot to get anyone in return. Luis Rivera (obtained in the Surhoff deal) is supposed to be a prospect, but I have yet to see anyone get a pitcher from the Braves and find the guy completely healthy (ask Jim Bowden how long it took to get Denny Neagle back in form). The guys the Mets gave up are mildly useful. At 28, Melvin Mora doesn’t have long to learn the ropes, but for a team out of contention it’s worth spending two months to see if Mora can learn to play shortstop. He hits well enough to play there but not to play center field regularly, and if he can’t learn there’s every indication that Bordick will come back to Baltimore next year to fill in until permanent help arrives. Leslie Brea (the typical wild fireballer, walking six men per nine innings in AA ball) and Mike Kinkade (a guy who hits for average with a little power and plays several positions almost as well as Pedro Guerrero played them) could be helpful spare parts, but Brea isn’t close to ready.
BLUE JAYS: B
The one deal they made, I like. Steve Trachsel is a solid pitcher, notwithstanding his record the last two years, and he’s never been hurt, rare for a starter these days. The guy they gave up, second baseman Brent Abernathy, is supposed to be pretty good, which begs the question of why he wasn’t eating Homer Bush’s lunch by now.
DEVIL RAYS: B-
The deal with the Mets wasn’t totally awful; Jason Tyner is several years younger than Bubba Trammell, and Paul Wilson might maybe turn back into a pitching prospect with some patience. Right now, though, I’d rather bet on Dwight Gooden’s future than Wilson’s.
I wonder if trading Trammell for Tyner is a sign that the Rays are about to head back in the direction of slap-hitting speedsters and away from power. The Rays are like the guy in your rotisserie league who lost the pennant last year because he had no closer, so this year he goes and buys four of them, none named Mariano Rivera, and the rest of his team stinks. They haven’t figured out that just having a plan (speed and defense! No, lumbering power hitters!) isn’t enough; you have to show good judgment in getting talented players, and you need people in or entering their prime.
RED SOX: C
Obviously the short-term key is whether Arrojo’s present is more valuable than Rose’s future. Granted, Arrojo has not quite been the same since his injury in early 1999, and for all we know he could be older than Luis Tiant, but he does have some tricky stuff and he wasn’t half as bad as his numbers look from Colorado. On the road, his ERA was right around the league average, so it would not be unreasonable for him to get turned around and post an ERA around 4.00 the rest of the way. Given Joe Kerrigan’s record with reclamation projects like Fassero and Schourek and Ramon, there is reason for Sox fans to hope for the best here.
Lansing might also help if used properly. He was a decent player in Montreal who fell off sharply in Colorado. My sense is that, with his chronic back problems, what Lansing needs most is to get away from the grind of playing everyday. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look so far like Jimy has figured this out – he has been playing everyday so far (granted, with Offerman out) and worse yet, on Tuesday he actually tried batting him LEADOFF! At this pace, Lansing will probably be finished as a major league player by the end of his contract next season.
The cost in players wasn’t that high. I’ve always liked Jeff Frye, but his injury record is ghastly. Rose is the opposite: he never distinguished himself as a legitimate prospect, but he’s young, healthy and possesses a respectable fastball, so if he can get out of Colorado quickly there is always the outside chance he could develop into a decent pitcher. The problem with this deal isn’t who Boston got or gave up; at the end of the day this is not an earthshaking trade. The problem is how it impacts the available alternatives and what it says about the Red Sox.
First, was Arrojo the best available pitcher? I would rather have had Masato Yoshii, who was brilliant down the stretch last year, and beyond Colorado there’s certainly a bigger upside to Ismael Valdes. Second, acquiring a guy like Lansing is fine for the Yankees or Dodgers, but the Red Sox presumably don’t have an unlimited budget to eat other teams’ mistakes. It’s bad enough when it’s one expensive year (like the Mets bought in Derek Bell), but Lansing will cost them $6 million next season.
Worst of all is Boston's refusal to bite the bullet and pick a few young pitchers to stick in the rotation and live with their ups and downs. Rose just wasn’t the right guy, in my opinion, but at least he was given half a shot. But a guy like Okha, for example, has nothing more to prove at AAA; if you gave him a few months in the rotation you could start to get a fix on whether he might survive the jump to the majors. Same with Paxton Crawford and Juan Pena, although it’s not the Sox fault that Pena skipped right to the Saberhagen stage of his career. Jerking guys in and out of the rotation after two or three starts is no way to develop young pitchers; that’s the old Steinbrenner method. Ferry in a guy like Schourek -- as we have seen -- and even if he’s a hit, after three or four months you need another to re-order another quick-fix guy.
As for the prior acquisitions of Sprague and Gilkey, they fit in with the prevailing theme: bad players that are better than the REALLY bad players they replaced. For a team that seems one or two quality players away from the prize, that isn’t enough; the Sox simply did not add a guy who will bring positive value to the club rather than just stanching the bleeding.
And, to top this all off, the Sox go out and get Rico Brogna. Now, Brogna's a good guy and a good fielder, and he was a fine hitter in 1994-95. But let's look at 1999-2000:
Avg Slg Obp OPS
And that's without mentioning that Brogna has grounded into 22 double plays in that stretch to Stanley's 9, in just 89 more plate appearances. Yes, Stanley had Fenway on his side, but this is yet another addition that adds nothing. Brogna gets on base at a rate well below the league average, which is dismal for a first baseman.
In my opinion, Dan Duquette dropped the ball. The Sox could still win the division or the wild card, but it's now a long shot, and they are taking on ballast they don't need. I've been a Duquette fan in the past, but anyone who thinks you win championships by collecting the likes of Sprague, Lansing and Brogna has no business running a contender. Hey, the Cubbies' GM job is open...
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION
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August 1, 2000
POLITICS: Gore For Us
You know, I tend to vote primarily on ideology and party lines. But a lot of voters out there are not so inclined, and tend to ask the question, what are you going to do for me? Politicians spend a lot of time honing their message for particular interest groups, tailoring their strategy for winning them over.
What hit me the other day (maybe this is a sign of too much time in the car) was this: Al Gore does not even want my vote. Think about it broadly: white male voters between the ages of 21 and 60 who work in white-collar private-sector jobs and/or earn at least $40,000 or $50,000 per year (or earn susbstantial taxable capital gains) make up, I suspect, a decent-sized chunk of the electorate. There must be at least as many of us as there are so-called "soccer moms," or unionized blue-collar workers, and the group probably compares somewhat favorably in size to black voters, or college students who vote, or even to elderly voters who take prescription medication. Or maybe I have my numbers wrong, but there must be enough to at least make a dent in a close election.
But what is Al Gore offering us? All his tax breaks, his "Social Security plus" plan, virtually all his economic incentives cap out somewhere around $50,000 per year. He wants to pour huge dollars into schools, but how does that help people like me who want their children raised in schools that are permitted to teach faith and moral virtues? And not only is he neither reaching into the goodie bag for us nor offering to lighten the load of government, but he doesn't talk to us, doesn't speak our language, doesn't even have any apparent strategy to win our votes. When Gore talks about economic growth, he puts on the green eyeshade and talks about balancing the budget, about deficits and debts and surpluses and government "investment." He always zeroes in on government, never talks about lifting regulatory or tax burdens, about the virtues of private investment and private business, about getting out of the way. When Gore talks about individuals, when does he ever mention people like us?
(As a practical matter, Gore isn't offering much to nonwhite male voters in these categories either, but at least he claims to feel their pain).
Bush, of course, does -- he wants to cut my taxes, he wants to help me save for retirement, and he regularly addresses issues of concern to middle- and upper-income voters, the people who pay most of the taxes and work to pay the bills. And when you look at the polls, that's why white male voters as a whole -- including the blue-collar voters that Gore is at least trying to win over -- are flocking to Bush at something like a 2-to-1 margin. How on earth can you overcome a gap like that and be president? How can a candidate win public office by winning only a third of the very demographic group of which he himself (and most of his publicly mentioned likely running mates) are members? And why wouldn't you even try?
Well, of course, Bush had my vote anyway; obviously I believe that Bush's plans are better for the public weal as a whole than Gore's, and while I would like a tax cut I don't necessarily need one. I tend to focus more on what Bush can do systemically for issues like education and Social Security and Medicare. But when you look at this on a purely selfish level, it's hard to see why anyone in our position would give their vote to Gore. Hey, he isn't even asking.
This is an email I sent to friends on August 1, 2000.