"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
December 29, 2000
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, and Kirby Puckett
My 12/29/00 Column on Dale Murphy and Jim Rice, along with Kirby Puckett. This originally ran on the BSG site. I've rethought the Rice comment - I think I'd put him on the outside now - and the part about being proud of what an upstanding guy Kirby was is now cringe-inducing. But here we go:
PUCKETT, MURPHY AND RICE
Kirby Puckett is probably headed in to the Hall on a wave of sentiment and his .318 lifetime batting average. Dale Murphy (23.25 % of vote) appears headed to join Roger Maris as the only back-to-back MVPs never to make it. LF/DH Jim Rice (51.50% of vote) is at a critical point: with bigger candidates headed to the ballot soon, he needs to sustain the momentum of having received votes from more than half the voters last time around. The fairest way to look at these three is to lump them together, as I did with the first basemen.
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(Another running theme: all these guys played in the era of free agency, but look at how many on this year’s ballot spent their whole career, or at least all the good years, with one team).
1. THE NUMBERS
OPS= On Base + Slugging.
“Context” is a very big number for these three guys: what I did was to look at league runs scored/season and adjust by the park factor, as I will discuss more below.
Clearly, Murphy was the best of the three in his prime, getting on base more and scoring more runs in a lower-scoring environment, while running nearly even as an RBI man and a slugger. He was a better baserunner, created fewer outs, played a more important defensive position than Rice and played it well, winning five Gold Gloves. He won back-to-back MVP awards; Rice won the award once, and Puckett never won it. On the other hand, the sample of his prime years here runs only two-thirds the length of the other two’s, and that’s including his lousy 1981 and good-not-great 1986. Like Don Mattingly, Murphy stood on the mountaintop for only a brief moment.
Rice and Puckett were actually fairly comparable as hitters, with Puckett’s doubles and higher averages evening the score a bit with Rice’s home run power. Puckett was a far superior defensive player and baserunner.
2. PARK EFFECTS
Then we get to Rice and Murphy. Rice didn’t play in Coors Field, but in the late 70s, Fenway was the next best thing. In 1977, scoring was up 37 percent in Sox home games vs. Sox road games; for the 1975-86 period as a whole, it was up 14.8%.
Did Rice benefit? Here are his home/road splits, 1977-79, averaged out to a full season: .350 with 55 homers, 153 RBI and 130 runs scored at home ... .290 with 28 HR and 102 RBI on the road ... SLG/OBP .701/.406 at home, .498/.342 on the road ... 1.107 OPS at Fenway, .840 away.
How about Murphy? 1980-87 saw scoring increase 12.9% in Atlanta, almost as big an effect as the Fens. In 1982-84, his absolute peak, Murphy hit .318 with 39 HR and 112 RBI, 117 runs at the Launching Pad, .265 with 33 HR and 108 RBI, 109 Runs on the road (but more than twice as many steals in the more spacious NL road parks). .580 slugging at home, .482 on the road; I don’t have the walk totals but if the walk rate was the same that would put his OBP at .406 at home, .358 on the road and an OPS split of 986 at home, 840 on the road.
You have to remember, though: most players will hit a bit better at home, all other influences being equal. And, if a player is a 30% better hitter in a park that increases scoring by 15%, that’s a learned skill that translates into a competitive advantage, just like Kirby Puckett learning to catch fly balls in the Metrodome. That’s why I generally look at overall park effects rather than individual home/road splits as the better indicator of what a player’s contributions were worth.
3. MY VOTE
Yeah, the Sox of the 70s woulda coulda shoulda been a dynasty, but moan all you want; the fact remains that Jim Rice’s teams won a lot of baseball games, and he was a very big reason for that. For the twelve seasons of Rice’s peak, the Sox played .550 ball – 89 wins a year – winning 95 games in a season four times. So to lump him in with losers or guys who just put up big RBI numbers in bandboxes far removed from the pennant race would be terribly unfair.
I laid out the Rice case in more detail in August when I compared him to Tony Perez. I’m more certain that he belongs ahead of Perez in the Hall of Fame balloting than I am that Rice is an ideally qualified candidate – Perez was an easy comparison because he was also useless on the bases and in the field – but anybody who saw Rice in his prime thought of him as a great player, and he stayed near the top of his game for more than a decade, driving in runs like it was his job. It was, and he did it as well as anyone. Rice should go IN.
Dale Murphy was a great player. Of that there can be no doubt; for a brief moment of about 3 years, he was at least arguably as good as anyone in the game (personally I would have taken Ripken or Yount and maybe some others ahead of him, but it was a fair claim). When Bill James devised his questionnaire for Hall of Fame candidates, he described players like Murphy, Schmidt, Mays and Mantle as the type of players who would yield “yes” answers all over the place. Two years in a row the voters named him the league’s best.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Murphy was never quite as dominant as those credentials, never the kind of overpowering force that Ralph Kiner was, nor head and shoulders over the contemporaries at his position like Frank Baker. The MVP races were neck and neck every year in the NL between 1979 and 1988; at no time was Murphy ahead of the pack by any serious margin, and it was a big pack, including Hernandez, Carter, Schmidt, Sandberg, Raines, Guerrero, and Dawson for most of those years. You can make a case for any one of those guys winning it more than once, and if Murphy had switched parks with any one of those guys except Sandberg, they would have finished ahead of him in the MVP voting every year. I never doubted that he was a Gold Glover, but his defensive statistics also don’t suggest a really superior glove man rather than just a good one. His teams were awful more often than they succeeded, and never won a postseason game.
Murphy needs all the greatness he can get, because outside of his six great years and one good year, he’s really got nothing to sell; I don’t hold his crummy years too much against him (although the Braves were certainly harmed by his failure to do anything productive when they quite reasonably counted on him in 1981, 1988, and 1989), but if you discount them he’s a guy with a very short career. Unlike a lot of the (deserving) Hall of Famers with short careers, he wasn’t a pitcher or catcher, never managed, and didn’t have his productive years unfairly cut short by war or the color line. Maybe he really was as good as Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler and Earl Averill, but that’s an argument against them, not for him. There’s just not enough there. Murphy’s OUT.
I have a tough time with Puckett, because he really doesn’t rise measurably above the Keith Hernandez line – he was never really a dominating player and he only had ten really good years, not quite enough to qualify as truly sustained excellence in the place of concentrated greatness. Unlike Dave Parker, Puckett’s career was cut short through no fault of his own, but it was cut short nonetheless.
Puckett was a legitimately major star, though, for ten seasons, always in the lineup (except for the strike-shortened seasons his career low in at bats was 551), driving in runs like clockwork, and getting on base. In the other two (before his power surge made him a factor on offense) he posted otherworldly defensive stats, including the third-highest range factor of all time. In fact, his career range factors are comparable to most of history’s greatest centerfielders. Granted, outfield range factors can be influenced by parks, pitching staffs (the Twins had lots of extreme fly ball pitchers, like Viola, Morris, Blyleven, Mike Smithson and Ron Davis) and most clearly by the era one plays in, but nonetheless the fact that his numbers are so good suggests that criticisms of his six Gold Glove awards has been overblown. At least until his last few seasons, Puckett was a very good centerfielder.
Obviously a major factor favoring Puckett over Rice and Murphy, particularly in the minds of the BBWAA, is his success in the postseason. Murphy was in the postseason only once, and despite being the NL MVP that year he was a complete non-factor as his team was swept 3 straight despite being favored by some observers at the time. Rice, of course, went the way of all Red Sox and did so without contributing anything near his usual output. He was injured for one of his teams’ two World Series runs. By contrast, who can forget Puckett’s heroics in 1987 and 1991, helping lead his team to upset championships?
If you’re acquiring a player for next season, you may not count his World Series stats for much – 28 at bats don’t equal a season. But in looking back to award honors, well, the Series is what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s why Catfish Hunter – who would never have won twenty for Tom Seaver’s teams – is in there. I particularly credit Puckett for winning titles not once but twice without really stellar supporting casts. Talk all you want about Tony Perez’ leadership of teams chock full of supertars, or about the grit of Don Mattingly or upstanding character of Dale Murphy on teams that never won, but with Puckett we have evidence: his team won when it wasn’t expected to, and then four years later it did it again. That matters.
Puckett has all the sympathy factors you could imagine pulling for him, which is why his election won’t be close. He rose up from a hard-knocks background. His enthusiasm for the game was unmatched. He overcame a physique that reminded nobody of a professional athlete. Before sudden power explosions became common, he mashed his way to 31 homers after seasons of 0 and 4, a feat so improbable that Bob Costas was forced to stick to a late-May promise to name one of his children after him. He won the World Series twice, with teams nobody expected to win, and was a hero in the postseason. He stayed out of trouble, and almost never missed a game. They loved him in Minnesota; his whole career there was like Fred Lynn’s 1975. He helped draw 3 million fans a year to a franchise that people say, just ten years later, can’t draw enough to survive. His career ended suddenly, after a season where he drove in 99 runs and hit .314; Bill James was projecting him at the time as having a 27% chance at 3000 hits; when he said goodbye to his playing days, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Kirby Puckett was and is about all the things that made us love baseball in the first place– not just the happy things like grown men playing a child’s game with a child’s joy and millionaires taking time out for autographs and smiles for the kiddies, but the hard things like gritting your teeth through the long season, putting in the extra BP and the adjustments to stay constant from year to year, and shutting out the world long enough to hit a game-winning home run in the World Series. He did enough of those things to plant two championship flags in the rafters of the Metrodome, flags which seem less likely today to be revisited than the one Neil Armstrong put on the moon.
At the end of the day, the writers all want to take their children to Cooperstown and say, “that’s Kirby Puckett, and he is one of baseball’s all-time greats.” After running the numbers and finding him, at the least, very close to the line, I have to confess: so do I. I’d vote him IN.
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December 22, 2000
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Lou Whitaker, Dave Concepcion and Dave Parker
Hall of Fame Part 3: Lou Whitaker, Dave Concepcion and Dave Parker (Originally ran 12/22/00 on the Boston Sports Guy website):
Lou Whitaker is a pretty easy one, in my book. No question whether Sweet Lou had the longetivity – only Eddie Collins and Joe Morgan played more games at second base than Whitaker. It’s a tough position; a lot of guys get ruined turning double plays in traffic. And there was never any down time in the 18 seasons (not counting an 11-game cup-a-joe in 1977) of Whitaker’s career. He was Rookie of the Year in 1978, and notched his two best slugging percentages in his last two seasons, 1994 and 1995 (when he was platooned). He never had an on base percentage below .331, and was over .360 eleven times, finishing his career at .363. He slugged over .400 fourteen years in a row, a very rare accomplishment for a middle infielder.
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Whitaker wasn’t an iron man, but he appeared in over 130 games twelve times, plus appearing in all 109 Tigers games in 1981. His only serious injury was the one that finished the Tigers off as a contender (after 11 years in or around the pennant race), when he missed the last month of the 1988 season after tearing a hamstring dancing at his sister’s wedding. He ran well (only once hitting into more than 10 double plays in a season), hit for a solid average with some power and good patience – in short, a complete offensive player, no weaknesses other than his chronic struggles with lefthanded pitching and some subpar performances in the postseason. He was also a solid defensive player, outstanding for the first several years of his career; he won three Gold Gloves and made everything he touched look easy. His career offensive totals are comparable to those of several other Hall of Fame second basemen.
Trammell is a tougher question, probably a little short on the same standard, but the simple fact is that Whitaker was an above-average hitter at a fielder’s position, and a good glove, year in and year out for nearly two decades. Whitaker was the best at his position between Morgan and Sandberg; he didn’t dominate the game but he fits in perfectly with the Tigers tradition of steady contributors, from Sam Crawford to Charlie Gehringer to Al Kaline. He should be IN.
Davey Concepción is a classic example of a guy with the skeleton of a good Hall of Fame argument but no meat on the bones. He had a long career, 19 years, played a key defensive position and played it well; he played for many championship teams; he was the best in his league and possibly the best player in baseball at his position for six years (1974-79). He was a nine-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves. He hit well in the postseason, pounding the Pirates in 1975 and 1979 and hitting well in 3 of his 4 World Series appearances.
But . . . that’s all. Concepcion was a good hitter for a shorstop, at least before Robin Yount and Alan Trammell redefined the position in the early 1980s into one where some run production was expected. But he was never actually a good hitter, as his lifetime batting/slugging/obp of .267/.357/.322 will attest. The Runs Created formula pegs him as a below-league-average hitter for the balance of his career, plus Riverfront was a pretty good place to hit. Yeah, he played for great teams, but not only were Bench and Morgan arguably the best ever at their positions and in their prime, and not only was Rose a legitimately great player, but we’ve already put Tony Perez in the Hall of Fame for having the “leadership” and “clutch ability” to turn this scrappy bunch into winners . . . not to mention Sparky . . . let’s just say that there are no more extra bonus points for intangible magic left to award for the Big Red Machine.
The damning question, among the list Bill James devised for deciding who is really a Hall of Famer, is this: could a team with Dave Concepcion as its best player win the pennant? In 1982, the Reds finally found out; Concepcion hit .287 and the Reds lost 101 games. That’s not to suggest that a Concepcion-led team would necessarily lose 100 games, but I wouldn’t have confidence in such a team to finish much above .500. That’s not a Hall of Famer. He’s OUT.
Dave Parker got 20.84% of the vote last year, so he’s probably losing steam. Parker was a dynamite player in his late-70s heyday, a very similar player to Winfield but with a bit less power and hitting for a better average. It’s hard to say a guy had too few good years when he was in the top 10 in RBI nine times, got over 2700 hits and drove in nearly 1500 runs. Parker’s career totals are strikingly similar to those of Billy Williams, but he played in a better era for hitters and the percentages are less impressive; his career on base percentage was .339. If you replaced Parker’s 1980-84 seasons with Dale Murphy’s, you’d have a first ballot guy. Let’s take a look at that period, averaged out over 4.67 seasons:
That’s age 29-33; not exactly Parker’s prime, but the time a Hall of Fame outfielder should still be head and shoulders above the league. The five years Parker spent mailing it in because he was fat and on drugs just kill his candidacy. It’s great that he turned things around, but the ship sailed while he was snorting with the Parrot, and we should cut him no slack for what might have been. Parker’s OUT.
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December 15, 2000
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Don Mattingly, Steve Garvey and Lance Parrish
(Originally posted 12/15/00 on the Boston Sports Guy website):
I?ve already laid out the bones of the case for Gary Carter in my column on Tony Perez, and I intend to go back and do a more detailed treatment of the Carter vs. Fisk debate another day, so I'll pass over him without much comment here. Carter is the easiest call of any of the plausible candidates on this ballot - in fact, I'm as sure he belongs in the Hall as I am that Candy Maldonado doesn't. He's indisputably one of the 10 best ever at his position. I would vote Carter IN.
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Other than Carter, there?s no precedent for denying Hall of Fame induction to a catcher with 300 career home runs and a World Series ring, and Lance Parrish is a better candidate than you think. Parrish's case is mostly based on the 4-year peak (1982-85) when he averaged 30 homers and 99 RBI a year, won 3 Gold Gloves, played for a World Champion, caught an MVP/Cy Young Award winner and terrorized opposing baserunners. But I have to vote Parrish OUT. Yes, there are a lot of Hall of Fame catchers who weren?t much as hitters, but it's no answer to lower the standards to keep up with the worst mistakes the Hall of Fame has already made, and there are just too many negatives with Parrish.
Despite the great arm, Parrish was, at minimum, a controversial defensive player. Pitching coach Roger Craig called his pitches for him from the bench, and his handling of pitchers was the subject of much debate. I'm not sure how much to make of all that, since the men on the field voted him the Gold Gloves, but it?s a start. He only had six full seasons as a real star (1979-80 and 1982-85), plus one more outstanding year cut short by injury in 1986; the rest of his career he was a below-average player. Even in his best years he hit for a mediocre average at best and rarely walked, resulting in a career on base percentage of .313, which was poor even for the less offense-crazy 1980s. In 1984, having one of his better seasons and earning his only postseason appearance, Parrish?s OBP was .287. Eech.
Parrish's career HIGH in OBP (.343) barely beats the LOWEST career OBP of any Hall of Fame catcher (Ray Schalk, .340). There are only four Hall of Famers with career OBP below .320, and they are all shortsops of dubious credentials from lower-scoring eras than the early-80s AL: Joe Tinker (.308), Luis Aparicio (.313), SS/P/Manager Monte Ward (.314) and Rabbit Maranville (.318). As a result of his failure to get on base, Parrish scored just 856 runs in 19 seasons, with a career high of 80. Maybe with 3 or 4 more years of 30 homers and 100 RBI that wouldn't matter so much. Unfortunately for Parrish, you can fall short of either transcendent greatness or durability and still make the Hall... but not both.
Garvey and Mattingly both burst on the scene suddenly, and all three players were also washed up very suddenly - Garvey declining rapidly beginning at age 32, Hernandez at age 34, and Mattingly having his last truly great season at age 26 and his last star season at 28 due to back trouble. Mattingly and Garvey were short for pro ballplayers, and Hernandez wasn't exactly known for his strict training regimen; none of the three were effective once their reflexes slowed.
The place to begin is in their primes; I started by looking at the 7-year stretch (1974-80, age 25-31) that comprises nearly the whole of Garvey's case, and comparing Mattingly's 4 great and 2 good ones (1984-89, age 23-29) and Hernandez' best 8-year stretch (1979-86, age 25-32, actually prorated as a 7.67 year stretch because of the 1981 strike). That meant including seasons that were less than Mattingly's best while excluding some that weren't far off for Hernandez, but it just wouldn?t work to compare a 12-year peak to a 4-year peak.
Here's the average season:
(Outs includes Caught Stealing, Sac Flies and GIDP).
All hitting stats are not created equal, however. The average team scored 4.09 runs/game in the NL during Hernandez' prime, 4.13 during Garvey's - but the average AL team scored 4.52/game during Mattingly's peak. While the DH is part of the equation there, the bottom line is that the runs put on the board by Hernandez and Garvey were about 10% more important in the context they played in. The technical measures like Runs Created/27 outs, when compared to the league, give Hernandez a significant edge over the other two on account of a much higher on base percentage.
Then there's the parks. Yankee Stadium was a very mild pitcher's park in Mattingly's prime, depressing scoring by about 4% overall, which means only about a 2% drag on Mattingly's numbers. Shea was a tough places to hit in the mid-80s, but while Busch was a brutal home run park it was actually quite friendly to high-average hitters like Hernandez in the early 80s; the net effects cancel each other out. Only Garvey's stats were seriously influenced by his park; Dodger Stadium wasn't the beast it had been before they chopped down the mound in 1969 and then moved in the fences in 1977, but overall from 1974-80 it averaged about a 9% reduction in scoring. We have to give Garvey credit for swimming uphill against that.
All three were good defensive players; Garvey was largely a stationary object, and a short one at that, but he was tremendously sure-handed, racking up several league leads and records for fielding percentage. That's not a small thing, in an infield where the double play combination was a pair of converted outfielders, and something the Dodgers missed after Garvey left. Garvey won four Gold Gloves, before Hernandez came into his own. Mattingly was really outstanding with the glove, winning nine Gold Gloves. And Hernandez was just the best defensive player I could imagine at the position.
(If you never saw him play, it's hard to describe how a first baseman can be such an impact player in the field. Just saying he won eleven consecutive Gold Gloves doesn't do him anything near justice. He was a master at fielding bunts, often cutting down the runner at second, and covered an enormous amount of ground. He covered a multitude of sins handling throws. Who else could hold together an infield that sometimes included Wally Backman at second, Howard Johnson at third, and Kevin Mitchell at short - on a first place team? Is it an accident that the Cardinals won the World Championship the only full season that Hernandez and Ozzie Smith shared the infield?)
None of the three ran well; Hernandez had a ridiculous style of running with his toes pointed almost upwards, and Garvey in his later years became a GIDP machine. Hernandez and Garvey also compiled extensive resumes of clutch performance. We can debate whether clutch hitting is more luck and chance than skill, but honors like the Hall are for actual, not potential, performance; I definitely give some bonus points for outstanding postseason performances. Hernandez drove in the tying or go-ahead run in the seventh game of the World Series not once but twice in his career. Garvey did much better, setting a boatload of LCS records, winning two LCS MVPs, and leading his teams to five World Serieses. Garvey was truly a fearsome postseason performer.
Let's look at the average Hall of Fame first baseman, by comparison; these are players from many different times and places and most of them weren't the kind of glove men that Hernandez and Mattingly were, but it's worth running the chart:
All three guys would drag down the average in nearly everything. It's obvious that Garvey doesn?t stack up here, heck, even his prime years don't really stack up here; while he amassed respectable career totals, he just spent too many years as a below-average player. I don't necessarily hold those years against him - you play your way into the Hall, not out of it - but I basically discard them in giving him any credit for longetivity, and all that's left is seven very good but not truly great years (even when you take the park and era into account). Garvey's OUT.
Mattingly was considered one of the best players in baseball, but for only a brief moment and he was probably being a bit overrated; when you stretch out his prime by adding 1988-89 he already slips away from the pinnacle of true greatness inhabited by the likes of Hank Greenberg, George Sisler, Johnny Mize, and even Frank Chance in his prime, let alone people like Gehrig, Foxx, McGwire, Frank Thomas and Dan Brouthers. And after six years, there's nothing left, not a single season worthy of the All-Star team and only one (1993) that even put him arguably in the top half of the league at his position. If he hadn?t gotten hurt . . . but he did. Mattingly's OUT.
That leaves Hernandez, the strongest of the three candidates. STATS, Inc. has a "relativity index" comparing a player's Runs Created/27 outs to the league average; Hernandez comes in in the top 20 first basemen of all time for his career, while neither Mattingly nor Garvey is on the chart. Most of Hernandez' career was the good stuff - he was a significantly above-average hitter for twelve years, and was widely regarded when he played as the best defensive player ever at his position. He was respected as a leader, although when you combine his drug history with the lives of the people he led, you have to wonder. He played on championship teams, and was the best player on at least one team (the 1984 Mets) that won far more games than it had any business doing and another team (the 1986 Mets) that won 108 games and placed among the all-time great teams. He was a serious MVP candidate three times, splitting the award in 1979 and in the running in 1984 and 1986. From 1979 to 1984 he was rivaled only by Eddie Murray as the best in the game at his position (Cecil Cooper was a close third). He was among the league's top 3 in on base percentage six years in a row and seven times in eight years.
It's a very tough call, but I would leave Hernandez OUT. The Hall of Fame is an exclusive institution, and it can stay that way only by excluding the very, very good so as to truly honor the great. Hernandez was a critical component of winning teams, but except for 1979 he was never a dominant player, and his career still runs a bit short of the durability required for a player who wasn't. Two or three more of his good years would make him a no-doubt inductee. He drove in or scored 100 runs only three times, and averaged 88 RBI a year in his prime; those numbers don't suggest a great hitter - due to his poor foot speed, Hernandez wasn't a run-scoring machine - and he played at a hitter's position.
Hernandez was clearly a better player than Tony Perez or George Kelly or Jim Bottomley (or Frank Chance on the balance of his career, although Chance was both a superstar and a great manager in his prime), and fairly comparable to Bill Terry and Orlando Cepeda. But I wouldn't have voted for Perez or Bottomley, and Kelly's a bad joke as an "immortal." Hernandez falls just short.
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December 14, 2000
BASEBALL: Rating the Pitchers
This columnar addendum was originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
Translated Pitching Records
One common theme in this column is that comparisons of pitchers over time, in different eras and different parks and for different teams, is only possible and certainly only sensible if some effort is made to adjust the statistical record to reflect the massive changes in the ways that starting pitchers are used and the conditions under which they labor. For that purpose, I have developed a simple, if primitive, method for converting or “translating” pitching records from one context into another, or (more commonly) into a common context.
The bottom line: when I run “Translated Pitching Records,” this is what I am talking about – translation into the same context for workload, league ERA, team offense, and park. Read on if you want the gory details of how the method works. I’ll be glad to answer email inquiries by anyone who thinks I’ve left too much out of this description.
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I reached pitchers’ Translated ERA, then, by the formula:
((ERA)*3.72)/((League ERA)*(Park Factor)).
I used 3.72 because that was the National League ERA in 1986, according to the STATS, Inc. All-Time Sourcebook. I used the 1986 NL as the baseline for three reasons: (1) I wanted modern workload and strikeout numbers so that the translated records would look familiar to modern readers; (2) I wanted an ERA around 3.75 to approximate the historical median between the great pitchers’ eras, when the league ERA was around 2.60, and the great hitters’ eras (like the one everyone but Pedro pitches in today) with league ERAs around 5.00 and higher; and (3) hey, I’m a Mets fan and it’s my method. If you want to spend six weeks in a room with a calculator, pen and the encyclopedias to change it to the 1967 AL, be my guest.
Here are the vital stats for the 1986 NL:
This is an uncontroversial method – Total Baseball and baseball-reference.com have long used the same method for the “ERA+” stat. The only gripe I have with ERA+ is that it doesn’t look like a familiar stat. Thus, I use a translated ERA to (1) translate the stat into an intelligible, reader-friendly format and (2) use different park factors than Total Baseball uses, because I rely on the park factor that represents the actual run-scoring environment for that pitcher's team's season while I believe that Total Baseball uses a multi-year averaged factor that is intended to reflect the performance-altering aspects of the park itself.
What I did, then, was to create a “Decisions Factor” and “Innings Factor” for each season. The logical way would be to come up with some measure of the average workload of a full-time starter, but I have scarce free time and limited computing skill, so instead what I did for IP is to average the number 3, 4, and 5 men in the league in IP and use that as a benchmark. I exclude the numbers 1 and 2 men from the IP and Decisions factors partially out of convenience but also because I don't want the happenstance of one outlying factor - like Phil Niekro, Ed Walsh or Billy Martin - to skew the picture of average workloads. This yields a factor that illustrates the change, over time, of the workload of a near-the-top number one starter. The IP factors have varied widely over the years, running as high as 322 in the 1973 AL and into the 500s in 1880, 1883 and 1884 (the last year over 400 was 1894), but into the 250-270 range regularly between 1925 and 1963 and as low as 222 in the AL in 1999.
The “Decisions Factor” is separate because the relationship between a pitcher’s innings and his decisions has changed over time, as pitchers are increasingly likely to throw 5 or 6 innings in a no-decision in a given start; over time that means fewer decisions per inning pitched. For decisions, I used an average of the 3-4-5 men in W plus the 3-4-5 in L. Again, it’s just a factor to allow for a comparison of change over time. The Decisions Factor has been around 34-37 for most of the post-1920 period, but went as high as 41 in the early 1970s.
HITS, WALKS, K'S
The reason why I adjust W/L records by a team's offense rather than its overall W/L record is that it really begs the question to compare a pitcher to his team's other pitchers - it should be obvious that Don Sutton's ability to win games in his rookie season was affected by how good the Dodgers on the field were, not by how good Koufax and Drysdale were. That's a prime example because the "rest of the team" had a great record, but by 1966 the Dodger offense, even when adjusted for park illusions, had sunk to a below-average outfit. The method is still imperfect because I can't adjust for variances in bullpen support or defense (tough luck if you are Roger Clemens and it's 1996), plus my mathematical adjustment would probably be slightly more accurate if I used some variant on Bill James' Pythagorean method (squaring the offense factor) rather than a straight division. But here the method is constrained by my lack of computing sophistication.
I differ from the BP method because it ignores the reality that a pitcher allows runs under real game conditions, and will pitch differently depending upon what it takes to get the “W”. You can’t just throw the career W-L out the window, because some guys really do have a talent for winning games, however overrated that talent may be.
One of the virtues of the TR method is that it reveals the fact that many pitchers are really much more consistent over time than you think. Look at Cy Young's career records and you see huge variations in IP, K/BB ratio, ERA, etc. But look at his TR and you see a guy who churned out essentially the same season year in and year out for two decades, with the only real variations coming when the majors contracted from 12 teams to 8 in 1900, producing an off year under more-competitive conditions, and then when it expanded to 16 teams in 1901, setting off a three-season spurt where Young dominated a still-weak new league. Most of the rest of the changes in his career were due to external factors - moving the mound back in 1893, the foul-strike rule in 1903, changes in teams and parks, etc.
I’ll do more historical reviews of how the TR analysis has affected my view of history’s greatest pitchers. For now I’ll just leave you with the formulas.
Decisions: ((W+L)*32)/(Seasonal Decision Factor)
Offensive Support factor: Team Runs/(Park Effect)*(League-Avg Team Runs)
Wins: (W*(Translated Decisions))/(Actual Decisions)*( Offensive Support
ERA: ((ERA)*3.72)/((League ERA)*(Park Factor)).
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December 13, 2000
BASEBALL: Free Agent Roundup
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
FREE AGENT QUICK TAKES (an incomplete list):
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: It’s not impossible to build a team from a marginal contender into a champion, starting with one huge paycheck. After all, the Lakers did it. But the Rangers aren’t run by a baseball Jerry West and can’t bank on just pulling a rookie superstar out of their tails. Instead, they just have to bank on Tom Hicks not caring about the payroll. They still don’t have any pitching, although they do have Royce Clayton to trade (hey, how about Clayton for Kevin Appier?). I guess Rodriguez hopes to capitalize on the pro-Ranger bias in the MVP voting and favorable tax treatment from a pro-Ranger White House bent on rewarding Hispanic Floridians. $252 million is ridiculous money but it’s better than spending $6 million on Mike Lansing; at least they will get something for the money. This won’t help the Yanks and Sawx in re-signing Jeter and Nomar.
Funny, I don’t remember Boras asking the Braves to move the fences in – for their own good, of course – when he was representing Greg Maddux as a free agent.
MANNY RAMIREZ: What a coup, even if an expensive one. Actually there’s not much to say; A-Rod is the game’s best all-around player and younger, but Manny is baseball’s best hitter and will do wonders for the offense. The key now is how the Sox turn the crowd of extras into successful platoons or trade bait at 1B, 2B, 3B and DH. Just forget about that 1-for-18 thing . . .
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yup, turning down that $140 million was a great idea . . . I’m surprised Boras didn’t demand that the Rangers sign him too. Hard to see where he goes besides Detroit.
MIKE MUSSINA: The rich not only get richer, they get to gripe about how everyone else went over budget. Mussina’s no lock to make the Yankees a lot better – remember what people said about Roger Clemens, and his first year in pinstripes was a disaster. Mussina went 11-15 last year, and with weak middle relief and no run support he could do that again. Not to say it’s not a great move, but funny things happen and the Yanks still need offensive help.
MIKE HAMPTON: I hated to lose Hampton, but an 8-year contract for a starting pitcher who has to throw 20 extra pitches a night in his home games isn’t a great idea. Then again, the Rox have to at least try to have some pitching, and since Hampton’s the most extreme groundball pitcher in the game they will finally get to test out that theory. He's probably a better gamble the next 3-5 years than Mussina, except for the Coors effect. Buyer beware: Hampton was 4-6 with a 4.83 ERA on the road in 2000.
KEVIN APPIER: Glad it's not my $42 million. Over the past two years, Appier has posted a 4.85 ERA pitching mostly in a pitcher's park; given an unusually high number of unearned runs, that comes to 5.34 runs per 9 innings (granted, the A's porous defense is part of that). He has averaged, per 9 innings, 9.57 hits, 1.1 HR, 4.14 walks and 5.79 K. Appier's sharply declining K/BB ratio is a major indicator of a guy who's reduced to nibbling because he's not fooling anyone anymore. He may or may not be an improvement over the injury-prone Bobby Jones. If the Mets get one good year from Appier before he crumbles I’ll be happy.
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DENNY NEAGLE: Neagle now has a built-in excuse for his inevitable failure. He remains proof that the Yankees and Braves don’t give up on pitchers unless they’re hurt.
DARREN DREIFORT: Oddly, Dreifort has always pitched poorly at home, which is one reason I thought he might not be a creation of Dodger Stadium. Dreifort remains an unproven commodity, but he's young enough that he could still surprise.
STEVE TRACHSEL: I was much higher on Trachsel before this season, but he’s still a healthy innings-eater who will hover around the league-average ERA, and he was cheap, cheap, cheap at about a third of Appier’s price. The Sawx, who need healthy arms as much as anyone, really missed the boat on this one.
DEREK BELL: Don’t pity me because I’m small market. Pity me because I’m stupid. Bell is completely done as a major league regular, and will never be happy as a bench player. I can’t even imagine what would possess anyone to sign him . . . but Bell’s batting/slugging/OBP against the Pirates this year was .432/.622/.512, so I guess their pitchers think he’s Ted Williams.
MARK GRACE: Rob Neyer captured this debacle pretty well; so much for the Diamondbacks’ supposed cash crunch. Grace openly mocked the idea that somebody named Hee Seop Choi could “protect” Sammy Sosa in the lineup; now we get to find out.
ANDRES GALARRAGA: I’ve predicted the Big Cat’s demise before without success; who the heck knows? He’s still not a great investment, but his loss will be felt in Atlanta.
TERRY MULHOLLAND: How desperate are the Pirates to look like they care? Hopefully they will use him in relief.
FRANK CASTILLO: Castillo can be brutal when his control is off even a little. A good candidate for a Joe Kerrigan-inspired 3-month hot streak, but all bets are off after that.
JEFF FRYE: Well, the first step is admitting you have a problem, and Homer Bush was a problem. Frye could be a stopgap solution.
KEN CAMINITI: The Rangers sure know how to stock up, but their defense will be shaky with so many old, brittle guys. Hope they are keeping Mike Lamb handy.
JEFF NELSON: The Mariners’ bullpen gets nastier – wow that sounds strange. The Yankees will miss Nelson very much, even with Mendoza returning.
ELLIS BURKS: As you might have guessed, I’m not a big fan of signing injury prone thirtysomethings as free agents, and replacing Ramirez with Burks is another sign that an era has ended in Cleveland.
JOSE MESA: Did anyone think this was a good idea?
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POLITICS/LAW: Bush v. Gore, and a few thoughts and observations on the end of an era
From an email I sent to some friends in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision:
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1. First of all, it is a wonderful thing to see all the same liberals who gloried in their raw power to prevail throughout the Clinton years left with the same sputtering, impotent rage we all had during impeachment and other fiascos. As for the consequences, we all predicted doom for Clinton many times, and Bush seems to have a little of Clinton's pure political skill in getting out of the noose.
2. I can't say this is a great decision as far as legal reasoning and judicial restraint. I am always suspicious of judicial opinions that take notice of facts outside the record and that are long on prononcements of fundamental principles and short on citations. However, the Court went out of its way to limit this to the facts at hand, and to show how the current system wasn't so much discriminatory as it was lacking in any rational basis.
Far more to the point, as far as consistency with conservative principles is concerned, the Court made clear that its decision does not (at least on its face) apply to the conduct of elections generally ("The question before the Court is not whether local entities, in the exercise of their expertise, may develop different systems for implementing elections"). Rather, the Court's decision focuses in on, and arguably applies a higher standard for, judicial proceedings to review elections ("[W]e are presented with a situation where a state court with the power to assure uniformity has ordered a statewide recount with minimal procedural safeguards. When a court orders a statewide remedy, there must be at least some assurance that the rudimentary requirements of equal treatment and fundamental fairness are satisfied") (emphasis added). The net result is to counsel state as well as federal courts to be more circumspect in the future in ordering remedies in election cases where the remedy has not been explicitly set out in advance in a statute. It is this aspect of the decision that essentially constitutionalizes the James Baker Doctrine: you can't go to court to change the rules after the election.
3. The Court also went out of its way to essentially put the blame on the Florida Supreme Court for extending the original deadline in violation of its own statutes, thus leaving no time to remedy a problem that the Court suggested could possibly have been remedied if there had been adequate time. This was clearly Justice O'Connor's stick in the eye, which is fitting in that she is the only member of the Court who has experience as a state legislator (I think Souter might share her experience as a state Supreme Court justice) and doesn't appreciate when courts ignore state statutes. It's also consistent with her view, as well as Justice Kennedy's, strongly favoring respect for state law against the intrusion of the courts (state or federal), a point made and emphasized explicitly by the Chief Justice's concurring opinion.
4. A (pro-Gore) colleague here raised an interesting question that the parties ignored: the Court held, citing Article II section 1, that an "individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College." Is this consistent with Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that "when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States . . . is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state"? The matter may be somewhat academic, since the Court implicitly concluded that nobody's right to vote was denied or abridged if they cast their ballots into a system that counted all those ballots the same way, and it is arguable that the use of the phrase "any election" implies that no such election need be held if that is the way the legislature wants it. The question would have more direct relevance if the Florida Legislature's slate of electors was challenged as a denial of the right of the people to vote, which is one reason I thought they should have tried to vote in the very same people that were on the ballot.
5. The Twelfth Amendment requires that electors' votes be sealed and opened only by the President of the Senate (i.e., Al Gore) at a special session of both Houses of Congress. Such a session, by tradition and (I believe) by federal statute would be in January. There is no requirement that electors disclose publicly who they voted for, is there? Or are the votes tabulated at public proceedings at the statehouses? What I am getting at is the possibility that, if there are "faithless" electors (following the Cuomo/Beckel line), we might only discover in January that Al Gore actually won the electoral college vote and is the president, despite not having been elected such by the voters who chose the electors, and possibly despite having conceded and not having prepared over the next several weeks for a transition. Ugh.
6. Also in the realm of being hoist by one's own petard, it was interesting to see how the per curiam and concurring opinions relied on some of the more elastic decisions handed down during the civil rights movement with the effect of curtailing state control over the franchise. Justice Ginsburg just undoes her own argument by claiming that it was proper in those cases to disrespect state court conclusions on state law matters because the circumstances suggested motives by the state court to be less than their usual selves. In fact, a case of this nature puts equal if not greater pressures on state courts to twist their own laws so as to determine the leader of the other 49 states.
7. I had a lot of trouble following some of the Bush team's arguments in the Supreme Court on the Article II/statutory deviation points arising from the second Florida Supreme Court decision, but the concurrence focuses in on two good ones: (1) that the Florida Supreme Court should have given greater deference to the Secretary of State in a presidential election than in other elections, inasmuch as it was her statutory mandate; and (2) the definition of "vote" in the protest statute should be presumed to be the same as its definition in the contest statute.
8. In theory, Justice Stevens had a good point -- the majority's equal protection reasoning could arguably be extended to the use of two different types of voting machines with different error rates, although even Justice Souter rejected this argument. I would, however, question as a matter of appellate procedure whether it was proper for him to rely (see footnote 4 of his opinion), as the Florida Supreme Court also erroneously relied, on statistical evidence that was reviewed and rejected as not credible or reliable by the trial court. Once the trial court has disclaimed reliance on such evidence in its factfinding capacity, appellate courts -- who resolve all inferences in favor of the party prevailing at trial -- are forbidden to rest their determinations on it.
9. While Justice Stevens is probably right that the 3 U.S.C. 5 deadline of yesterday is not mandatory, his reliance on the 1960 Hawaii precedent is totally bogus -- Nixon, as the losing candidate and sitting as President of the Senate, ruled (and was supported by voice vote) for the later-cast slate of electors primarily as a gracious gesture, and explicitly stated at the time that he did not intend to create a precedent for accepting the later-submitted slate of electors in the future.
10. Hopefully, Justice Stevens will be correct in his prediction that Americans, in the future, will not blindly accept the notion that courts are always and everywhere impartial and unbiased.
11. At first glance, it seemed wise to accept the Florida Supreme Court's conclusion that the trial judge's "reasonable probability" burden of proof was higher than the "place in doubt" standard used by the legislature, but it would be a very curious construction of a statute to hold that a defendant in any sort of litigation has the burden of proof beyond any "reasonable possibility." I can't think of any cause of action anywhere that has that sort of standard, and given that the legislature stated that it wasn't altering existing caselaw, I think this was a rare case where the circumstances have to trump one reasonable meaning of the statutory language.
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December 7, 2000
BASEBALL: SUBWAY SERIES DIARY PART II
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
GAME THREE: HERNANDEZ v. REED AT SHEA STADIUM
The Met announcers pointed out that Met leadoff men have opened Game 3 of the World Series with a home run in each of the team's three prior Series appearances. [THIS WEEK’s TRIVIA QUESTION: name them]. But Timo Perez went quietly. Another bad omen.
Both starting pitchers brought their Good Stuff for this one. Rick Reed, in particular, cranked it up a notch, striking out 8. I’ve always been a Rick Reed fan going back to his Pirates days; he was on my Rotisserie team in 1994. Reed seems to have something extra on the ball in September and October; for his career, in the regular season, he has struck out 6.28 batters per 9 innings after September 1, compared to 5.47 the rest of the year; in the postseason the past two years that jumped to 7.94.
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The big controversies in this game would be the two Met rallies against an exhausted El Duque, one in the sixth inning and the other in the eighth. In the sixth, Hernandez started to wear down, giving up a game-tying RBI double to Zeile and loading the bases with nobody out. At this point, Jay Payton came up with a chance to blow the game open. Some people called after the game for a pinch hitter here – Hernandez is murder on righties and Payton has a huge platoon split – but Payton is also one of the toughest guys on the team to get a third strike on, as Felix Rodriguez will attest. Hernandez got it anyway.
Then Bordick was due up. Bordick, I would have pinch hit for. Yeah, you don’t want to lose your best defensive shortstop with (at least) three innings to go, but Bordick had been lost at the plate for months, and with the Payton strikeout the odds were starting to turn; this would be the last shot to at least get one run in or to start a really big inning. Darryl Hamilton was on the bench, as well as Bubba Trammell and Todd Pratt; I would have called here for Hamilton, a lefty and a contact hitter. Instead, Bordick struck out as well. Then Hamilton came in to hit for Reed. I would have liked to see Reed stay in, but the bullpen was rested, Reed had thrown 102 pitches, and in any event you just couldn’t let the picher hit here with El Duque about to get off the ropes. Hamilton grounded out weakly, and thoughts of hearing more Yankee guff about the “magic” of the pinstripes were dancing in my head.
In the seventh, Hernandez plowed through the top of the order (including the by-now-helpless Timo Perez) 1-2-3. He opened the eighth with his twelfth strikeout; exhausted as Hernandez was, there was a building sense that this would be like one of those classic Fernando outings with guts winning out over an empty tank. Joe Torre thought so too, and there was his undoing. The next batter was Zeile, who singled past a diving Jeter on exactly the kind of play that most shortsops make without diving. Jeter wound up as Series MVP and deservingly so (although I would have given it to Rivera), but this was not one of his high points. An RBI double by Agbayani and a single by Payton drove El Duque from the game after 134 pitches, and the Mets finally hit for Bordick with Bubba Trammell, who added an insurance run with a sac fly.
Then... Benitez. I would have closed my eyes, but I could still hear the radio. Despite the flamethrowing that makes him untouchable when he’s on his game, Benitez has lots of outings in the edge-of-your-seat tradition of past Mets closers like Franco, Roger McDowell, Neil Allen and Tug McGraw. The inning led off with a battle of the brain-frozen, Benitez against Knoblauch, and soon there was a man on first. Torre, looking for a repeat of his Game 1 coup, called again for Luis “jail was better than the Yankees” Polonia, but this time Benitez got him, and Jeter too. Up comes Justice. Ball. Strike. Ball. Ball. Uh-oh. What’s worse – the fear of grooving a game-tyer to Justice, who has had more than his share of huge postseason bombs, or walking him to bring up the ticking time bomb of a still-hitless-in-the World Series Bernie Williams?
On Benitez’ third pitch to Justice, Knoblauch takes off for second. I’ve seen this play before, and from the Yankee perspective maybe it makes a little sense because the easy force at second is off in the event of a grounder deep in the hole to Ventura or Abbott. The Mets didn’t throw, as they often don’t in this situation, which on its face also makes some sense; Piazza is nearly as likely to throw the ball away as to catch a runner. BUT: the downside is the Yankees get another base, or even a run if the throw really goes wild and it’s 4-3. The upside is the Mets get an out and the game is over. How can you not try, unless you were truly caught with your pants down as far as the runner’s jump? The Mets won’t throw with a 1-run lead either, but that’s because they fear that Benitez won’t throw his split finger pitch with a runner on third and a 1-run lead, and Game 1 notwithstanding, Benitez doesn’t give up many singles anyway. Just to concede a chance to get a game-ending out – or to risk it for little gain, from the Yanks’ perspective – is ignoring the costs and benefits.
But it was moot. Benitez got Justice to pop out, and threat was gone. The game was, in many ways, a replay of Game 4 against the Braves last season (the one Rick Reed pitched where Olerud’s bouncing grounder past Ozzie Guillen beat John Rocker to avert a sweep), breaking the sense that the Mets just couldn’t beat these guys – but doing so too late. They broke the Yankees’ 14-game World Series winning streak and the Yanks’ streak of never having lost a postseason game started by Orlando Hernandez. But they were still down 2-1.
GAME FOUR: NEAGLE v. JONES AT SHEA STADIUM
Neither side was overjoyed at what seemed likely to be the pivotal game of the Series being pitched by a soon-to-be-free agent fourth starter; Neagle had gone totally in the tank down the stretch (he has since decided to accept a large salary and a built-in excuse for future failure by signing with the Rockies) and Jones, though he had won 11 of his last 14 decisions and been brilliant against the Giants, was actually the Mets’ fifth starter during the regular season.
Jones never even got warm. Derek Jeter blasted his first pitch for a homer, Paul O’Neill hit his second triple in two days (after none in the regular season) in the second, and Jeter tripled in the third. 3-0 Yanks, and that was all they would need.
Neagle wasn’t really a lot more effective, falling behind 10 of 15 hitters (not counting a first-pitch single by Payton) after the first inning and giving up a 2-run homer to Piazza; he only got out of trouble in the second because Bordick and Jones were up when the Mets got 2 men on. Torre went with a quick hook, and asked David Cone to get one man – Piazza – after Neagle had retired Perez and Alfonzo on 4 pitches in the fifth. Naturally I and other Met fans were drooling at this after Piazza’s homer in the third, but Cone got him and Torre knew not to press his luck by going another batter just to get Cone a win. It’s not fair to beat up Piazza for driving in only 2 runs in this game, but when you are the superstar you are supposed to do better than pop up against a guy with a 6.91 ERA.
The honeymoon with Timo Perez officially ended in the seventh, when Valentine pinch hit for him (albeit against Stanton, who was eating lefthanders alive) with Kurt Abbott. Abbott, as he had as a pinch hitter in Game 3, struck out on three pitches while Todd Pratt and Mike Hampton rotted on the bench and Darryl Hamilton (who had been used up without batting in one of Valentine’s send-up-two-guys routines) headed back to the dugout.
Having burned through his bullpen by the end of seven innings, Torre called for Rivera to hold the one-run lead for two innings. What Torre did here was inspired managing. You can’t use Mariano Rivera two innings at a time all year; he’s not Goose Gossage, he’s not used to it, his arm would fall off. In fact, if you tried it for an entire seven-game series, Rivera would be burned out by Game Six. After all, Rivera threw 2 innings in Game One, and the next day the Mets teed off on him like he was Jaime Navarro.
But Torre gambled that if he won Game 4, he could put the Mets away and not have to face a Game 6, or at least not a Game 7. And that’s how you manage a World Series – everything for today and to heck with tomorrow. Win the game and lose the player? It’s worth it. It worked. A single by Zeile was the Mets’ lone threat, and Rivera took apart the suddenly helpless Alfonzo and the rest of the Mets’ lineup.
Torre made more good decisions in Game Four than he did in five years managing the Mets. Now they were down to one game. At least it was at home, and Al Leiter would be on the mound.
GAME FIVE: PETTITE v. LEITER AT SHEA STADIUM
In the second, the bomb went off: Bernie Williams finally got a hit, homering on a 3-2 pitch after fouling off four pitches. In the bottom of the inning, things got really strange. Pettite walked Trammell and gave up a single to Payton. With Abbott and Leiter due up, this looked like a replay of too many Met rallies killed by the 8-9 hitters, and Abbott went quietly, advancing the runners on a grounder. Then, with two outs, Leiter bunts. For an infield hit! Actually, it was scored an error on Pettite. What a crazy, stupid, gutsy move – how often will you see a weak-hitting pitcher with bad knees bunting for a base hit with two outs? Then Agbayani hit a roller to third that was booted by Brosius for an infield single, and the Mets had another run in and two on with Alfonzo up and Piazza on deck.
Time to bust the game open. Pettite had been working behind in the count the whole inning, and the Yankee defense that supposedly never makes an error in a big game was unraveling. But Alfonzo popped out, and it was over. The biggest overall frustrations of this series, aside from the particulars of individual games, were the futility of Edgardo Alfonzo and the Mets’ inability to hit Andy Pettite the way the American League hits Pettite. Time and again they had him on the ropes and couldn’t put him away; it was the two Leiter-Pettite matchups that really decided the Series.
In the fourth, the Mets rallied again. Trammell led off with a single, and after Payton grounded into a force at second, Kurt Abbott finally pitched in, working Pettite for a nine-pitch walk. This time Leiter could bunt the runners to second and third for Agbayani, and the Mets would have a clean shot at going up 4-1 with Leiter fully in command. Then, disaster. Pettite picks off Abbott. Pettite has an amazing move to first, and Abbott was getting ready to run on the bunt, but there is still no excuse for getting picked off first when there’s a runner on second, one out and the pitcher at bat. The rally was dead just like that, and this time Pettite got Leiter and the inning was over. The lead was still 2-1, so Derek Jeter was able to tie it all up with a solo shot in the sixth. In the bottom of the sixth the Mets re-played the fourth inning rally, with Abbott staying put this time; Leiter bunted the runners over but Pettite got Agbayani to ground out.
That brought us to the fateful top of the ninth. Leiter had thrown 121 pitches, but he was still throwing hard. Valentine left him in, and sensibly so; a guy like Leiter isn’t in danger of hurting himself from one season-ending outing, so if he’s still in command you don’t pull him while he’s still chugging along. He blew away Tino to start the inning. 124 pitches. O’Neill battled, fouling off four pitches, but Leiter dialed up that little extra something left in the tank to get him swinging. 129 pitches. The Met announcers were wondering now if Leiter had just used up the last of his stuff, and with Posada’s home run power I was worried, but I figured Leiter could get one more guy. He came very close. Posada fought off four pitches and walked on a 3-2 count. Leiter thought he had him on the seventh pitch of the sequence, but he didn’t. 138 pitches.
Leiter was spent. Maybe it’s just me, but I wanted to see him stay in one more batter and try to get Brosius. Brosius isn’t really that dangerous at this point, and maybe one more cut fastball could get him to beat one into the ground. I was probably being silly and sentimental, but I wanted him to get one last shot. So Leiter fell behind, as he did with Posada, now trying to stay way out on the corners. Brosius singled. 141 pitches.
It was obvious to me, listening on the radio, that Leiter was finished for the day, couldn’t possibly have anything left to reach back for. The weak-hitting Luis Sojo was coming up; a single could win the game, but a fresh reliever – Benitez, Turk – could handle him easily. Was Valentine thinking too far ahead? We all expected yet another extra inning marathon at this point, and Leiter was due to lead off the bottom of the ninth. No need to burn another pitcher – except that now the game was in jeopardy. But Valentine, normally a quick hook, suddenly turned into Buck Showalter at the wrong time, just sitting there on the bench. The next pitch rolled between two Met infielders, Payton got overeager trying to throw home, and it was 4-2. Valentine had to use up John Franco to get Glenallen Hill (amazingly this worked, given that Hill has just murdered Franco in the past).
The damage was done. It’s one thing for Joe Torre to pull this sort of foolishness; Torre's an emotional guy and has gotten great mileage out of being loyal to a fault to his players. If he sometimes overdoes it, that’s part of why they love him. But Valentine’s a manipulative jerk; he wins precisely because he doesn’t make emotional decisions. I really think he was thinking too much about saving his bullpen and hitting for Leiter; sentimentality just isn’t his style.
Torre went to the well one last time in the ninth, and yet again Rivera wasn’t that sharp after throwing two innings the prior night. He walked Agbayani on 4 pitches, and the Mets pulled the same play as the Yanks the night before, with Agbayani taking second base uncontested. The final out came down to Piazza against Rivera, like Yaz and the Goose 22 years ago, with similar results. On the radio I couldn’t tell how close Piazza’s drive came to clearing the center field fence 410 feet away, but the Met announcers didn’t sound as optimistic as the roaring crowd. Bernie hauled it in, and I would have thrown the radio out the window except (1) the windows in my office don’t open and (2) it was my boss’ radio. Back to work. Ugh.
A major hero of the series, and a bit overlooked in the aftermath, was Posada. Posada was really the guy who turned the tide in the twelfth inning rally in Game One and the ninth inning rally in Game Five. In fact, all season, Posada never got the credit he deserved for his contributions to shoring up a Yankee offense weakened by the rapid declines of Martinez, O’Neill and Brosius and the chaos in left field and DH before the arrival of Justice.
2000 has been a year of close calls, parity and cliffhangers, a year when coulda shoulda woulda was everywhere you turned. At this (Thursday) writing, Al Gore looks likely to end the year the way Kevin Dyson began it, reaching out, half a yard from the goal line, victory forever frozen just out of reach. Rasheed Wallace can sympathize; so can Arthur Rhodes and Barry Bonds. So can the girl who lost the gold medal to the sniffles, or that guy (I forget his name now) who lost that heart-stopping tournament to Tiger Woods. Like the US Olympic baseball team, the Yankees clawed their way to the title with only inches to spare, rather than their usual accustomed unopposed walk. We couldn’t have expected it any other way.
Yankee Stadium has always been Where Miracles Go To Die, the place where the unexpected is stamped out at every turn. This time it was a precarious run, but a successful one again. The defining feature of the Yankees has always been this: they win when they are supposed to win, and they don’t win when they are not supposed to win. Try on the phrase “Miracle Yankees;” it just doesn’t fit. The closest the Yanks ever had to a Cinderella team was the war-depleted 1943 squad that beat a heavily favored Cardinal team in the Series. Still, that team was taking its seventh pennant and sixth World Championship in 8 years, so they were hardly fitted for a glass slipper. Or the “Heartbreak Yankees;” think back to all the pennant races and postseason matchups decided on bad hops, near-miss home runs, freak plays on the basepaths, and other controversies and close calls.
Have the Yankees lost those? Once in a blue moon: 1904 (Jack Chesbro’s wild pitch), 1926 (Babe Ruth caught stealing), 1955 (Sandy Amoros’ catch of Yogi’s drive), 1960 (the infamous bad hop to Tony Kubek’s neck). But they have won the overwhelming number of those, including the 1977 pennant race and 1996 playoff series that turned on non-calls of fan interference in the Bronx.
Anyway, it was a lot to gag on. I grew up as a Mets fan in the late 1970s, when it was very easy to be a Yankee fan; my grammar school class included no other Mets fans. This is still a baseball town; nothing in the other sports can match a Subway Series. With the 2000 Series, another generation of schoolchildren will go the Yankee way, and the more of them there are, the bigger the Yankees’ cable contract will be.
Aside from Clemens, a few bit players like Canseco and the always-theatrical O’Neill, the Yankees have mostly turned away from the circus atmosphere that pervaded the first two decades of Steinbrenner’s reign, and now resemble much more clearly the Yankees of the fifties, a relentless machine with a leg up on everyone else. Then again, it’s still easy to hate a team with a $110 million payroll and not one but two players who have been on People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful People” list; the absence of Billy and Reggie means that Yankee fans just have more ways to brag about their team.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
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December 1, 2000
BASEBALL: SUBWAY SERIES DIARY PART I
Sometimes in baseball, as in life, the bad guys win. In fact, it may happen more often than not; that's what makes victory so sweet when it does come. I've delayed long enough; it's time to put to paper my Subway Series Diary.
Despite the Yankees' dominance in 1998 and 1999, many people (including me) were skeptical of their chances when the playoffs started and still favored the Mets at the start of the series. Then again, I rated the Yanks as the best of the AL contenders in late July; while that was based on a vast overestimation of Denny Neagle, I recognized that the two teams were closely matched. I expected the series to come down to the Mets' ability to knock out the Yankee starters or drag games into extra innings, on the theory that the Mets would excel in bullpen depth and home run power. What I didn't anticipate was a series where the Yankees would pull out so many close ones.
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GAME ONE: LEITER v. PETTITE AT YANKEE STADIUM
Fox ran some interesting stats: going back to 1969, 14 of 60 Mets postseason games went to extra innings and 17 of the club's 36 postseason victories had come in their last at bat. So many epic games - as this one would turn out to be.
Early on, Pettite looked sharp, but I was optimistic; the Mets were running a lot of deep counts, and there was reason to think we would see the Yankee middle relievers before Rivera could get in the game (as it turned out, Pettite wound up being lifted in the seventh after 96 pitches). Even Timo Perez was taking pitches, no doubt in an attempt to counteract the "book" on him - everyone and his brother was mentioning before the Series that Timo had drawn just one walk in postseason play and the Yankees would never throw him a strike.
This game was more than enough to remind me why I hate Joe Buck. Buck is the embodiment of everything that is false, smarmy, unnecessary and irrelevant to baseball about "Fox Attitude." I don't want to hear dumb, overrehearsed canned humor, and I don't want to see the stars of Fox shows in the stands unless Mr. Burns is hanging out in the Yankee owner's box. Give us the facts, not a wink and a nudge and a hey-buddy.
The sixth inning showcased the worst, though not the only, example of bad baserunning by the Mets, Timo Perez failing to run on a near-homer by Todd Zeile that hit the top of the fence and winding up getting thrown out by a mile at home (Zeile had also been thrown out failing to run on an infield grounder in the fourth, although Zeile doesn't get many infield hits anyway). What was really bizarre about this play was Cookie Rojas waving Perez home when anyone in the park could tell he was going to get gunned down (or at least it looked obvious to me from the TV angle).
Now... Perez is a hungry rookie and was bound to make some mistakes from being overly aggressive, but when you are on a major league roster and starting in the World Series for no other reason than that you are hungry and aggressive, you ought to be running hard on everything, everywhere. You run if Bobby V asks you to get him a cup of coffee. Heck, when I started my first job I used to charge up and down the hallways just to fetch stuff from the printer. Perez doesn't deserve to be the only goat of the Series, but he will probably never be an everyday player again, and this wasn't a moment to look back on with pride when he goes home four years from now.
Anyway, the worst thing about the play, combined with some hustling baserunning by Derek Jeter in the bottom of the inning, was that it gave us a chance to hear more Yankee fan sanctimony (Tim McCarver threw out the ceremonial first gloat) about how the Yankees would never, ever make a baserunning gaffe. Yankee fans have long been second only to Celtics fans in this sort of stuff, but we won't get into the Celtics here since it's not nice to speak ill of the dead.
In the seventh, Bubba came through. Now, I had been agitating since his arrival in New York for an everyday job for Bubba Trammell, and of course it's easy now to look back and say he was always a better player than Timo Perez. If they had played Trammell against the Giants, who knows if they would have won that series? Here, with the Mets down 2-0, Trammell was sent in for the increasingly lifeless Mike Bordick, and drilled a single to tie the game and (soon thereafter) drive out Pettite. Then Pratt scored on a slow roller to Brosius that was beaten out by Alfonzo. Things were looking up - and the door shut. Piazza flies out lamely against Jeff Nelson, and the Yankee pen would go on for five more scoreless innings, including a harrowing escape by Rivera in the top of the ninth when the Mets failed to send the runners on a grounder with second and third and one out.
In came Benitez... and exhausted as I was after a long week, something told me not to go to bed until the last out. Been there too many times before. I've always been a Benitez fan, but this game confirmed all the worst stereotypes about him - that he goes to pieces in the big games, gets rattled and can't get himself straightened out. Paul O'Neill worked Benitez for a walk after an epic at bat, and Torre sends up Polonia. I'm thinking: this is Benitez. He's usually unhittable, but he's also homer-prone. You only get so many shots. Where's Canseco? But Torre's preference for a slap hitter worked, and two batters later O'Neill was trotting home with the tying run.
That's when I knew. I have seen many Met postseason games, many amazing comebacks and an awful lot of extra-inning magic. It was happening again: whoever won this one would win the Series. So much for getting to sleep.
The tenth inning should have ended it, if this was a normal game. The Mets had blown the lead, and now Dennis Cook - who had never allowed a run in the postseason - puts runners on second and third with nobody out. Met fans everywhere are cursing Cook, who had a terrible year and would keep his scoreless streak alive despite having a miserable Series. In comes Glendon Rusch, who had shown a remarkable ability (particularly for a soft-tossing lefty) to get out of man-on-third-less-than-two-out jams earlier in the postseason. And he did it again! A popup by Tino. An intentional walk to Posada, removing Rusch's margin for error, with one thing in mind: a double play ball by Paul O'Neill. And he gets it! O'Neill, cool-headed veteran that he is, slams his helmet down in disgust (can't you tell he used to play for Lou Piniella?). Yankee fans in the front row, who had started smugly for the exits, return to their seats, and suddenly the momentum is back to the Mets. Particularly since Torre, thinking this was his big chance, sent in the mighty Clay Bellinger to run for David Justice, robbing the Yanks of their best threat to end the game in one blow. I figured at the time that this was critical, since the longer the game went, the more likely it was to end on a longball.
Then Mike Stanton came in. Except it wasn't the Mike Stanton we had seen for much of the season, the Stanton that Braves fans and Red Sox fans know so well. It was more like Lefty Grove in a Mike Stanton jersey. Give Stanton all the credit here; he just totally overwhelmed Perez and Alfonzo, leaving them flailing away wildly. He struck out Pratt on a pitch at his eyeballs.
(Todd Pratt was hit by two pitches in this game - and Clemens wasn't even pitching. How often does that happen? Not to mention the beating he took behind the plate. I had to wonder if Valentine was getting nervous about using his only other catcher as the DH. And what's with Jorge Posada's filthy helmet? The guy looks like he's been digging trenches, not playing a game on a grass field...)
Anyway, at 1 AM, with a man on first and one out, the Yankees got the big hit: a double by Posada. Second and third again - and again the Mets get to two outs, as O'Neill is intentionally walked this time and Turk gets Sojo to pop out to Todd Pratt. But up strides Jose Vizcaino, who posted a .332 on base percentage in two and a half seasons with the then-dismal Mets. And Vizcaino gets his fourth hit of the game. Ugh.
This was the longest game (time-wise) in World Series history, and one of the great ones. But the Mets' battle would have to be all uphill from here.
GAME TWO: HAMPTON v. CLEMENS AT YANKEE STADIUM
As an aside, those website displays showing the play-by-play are not as ultramodern as you might think. I have been reading a biography of Walter Johnson recently that mentioned how a nationwide network of scoreboards showing the line scores and nearly real-time play-by-play movement of baserunners (transmitted from the park over telegraph wires) was set up for the 1924 World Series, at a time when radio broadcasts were not universally available. Sports journalism may have its flaws, but it has always been in the technological forefront when it comes to distributing baseball scores.
The main event in Game Two was Roger Clemens' venture into the world of javelin. The Met announcers were completely dumbfounded by this development; Gary Cohen just kept yelling over and over, "WHAT was Roger Clemens thinking?" Nobody can really answer that question - probably not even Clemens. Certainly he was overwrought at pitching in the World Series again and facing Piazza, and he probably just had an emotional reaction that defied logic. I don't think he actually thought about harpooning Piazza.
(Of course, one benefit of taking things out on Piazza is that, as the Mets' best hitter, he is understandably reluctant to do what somebody should have done - charge the mound.)
What galled me was Joe Torre - who treated Clemens like he was Sonny Corleone back when he was throwing at the Yankees - claiming that Clemens couldn't have been doing anything wrong because it wouldn't be logical. WAKE UP JOE! YOU MANAGED DARRYL STRAWBERRY! YOU MANAGED STEVE HOWE! BALLPLAYERS DON'T ALWAYS ACT RATIONALLY!
The game after that was ridiculously one-sided, with the Mets seemingly intimidated by the Big Bully. But again, the difference in the game turned out to be the Yankees doing what the Mets didn't in Game One: getting insurance runs, the last let in by Dennis Cook, to the point of a six-run lead they would need every one of.
I don't know what tells me these things - a lot of years of watching Met games and some misguided optimism, perhaps - but as soon as Nelson came in to start the ninth, or at least as soon as Alfonzo led off with a single, I could smell a rally. For some reason I just knew that Payton would hit a home run, for example. But in between was a costly play, as a near-homer by Zeile again reached the top of the left field fence, only to be hauled in this time. Down to their last out, the Mets sent up the completely overmatched Kurt Abbott - with Bobby Valentine obviously worried about his extra-innings defense if he had to use McEwing at short - and Rivera made a narrow escape from a five-run rally with the win. Lesson: never let a .217 hitter be the last out of a one-run World Series game.
With Zeile losing a second game-turning homer in two days to Yankee Stadium's Death Valley, I am forced to reflect on Yankee Stadium. This Mets team was built to win at Turner Field, not Yankee Stadium - a fate that befell many a Boston Red Sox and Brooklyn Dodger team in the past. Then again, the Mets loaded up on lefthanded starting pitching; it was really just the offense. Had Zeile hit those drives anywhere else . . . but of course, that's not where the games are played. It was just the wrong flyballs in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of such stuff are World Series won and lost.
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