"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
January 26, 2001
BASEBALL: The New Strike Zone
(Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website)
One of the hottest topics coming into this baseball season is what the new strike zone will mean. Word has it that the powers that be (i.e., Sandy Alderson) want the umps to enforce a strike zone that is much higher – extending all the way to the letters on the batter’s uniform – but also narrower, extending only so far as the edges of home plate. In other words, it's the strike zone in the rulebook, rather than one shaped like Eric Gregg. Peter Gammons reports that, at least for now, the umps are actually taking this seriously.
Personally I’ll believe this when I see it. We’ve heard about new strike zones before, and they tend to drift downward and outward after a little while. The last really big new-strike-zone initiative, in 1988, was never formally repealed but drifted gradually into disuse.
This much is certain: at least at the start of the season, the zone will be different. And the effect on the game of baseball will be dramatic. The strike zone is baseball’s central battlefield; control of the strike zone is to baseball what control of the line of scrimmage is to football, what control of the boards is to basketball. With enough talent you can lose that battle and still win the war, but you are swimming upstream something fierce.
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STUDYING THE IMPACT
I’ll get out my own crystal ball in a little bit. I certainly agree with some of Olkin’s picks (Matt Anderson could benefit tremendously from the high strike) and he’s probably seen some of the young guns in the NL more often than I have. But as I was working on my Hall of Fame column, a thought hit me: it seemed like an awful lot of the key candidates – Hernandez, Carter, Dale Murphy, Rice, Parker, Lance Parrish – hit the wall dramatically right around the time the new strike zone came in, cutting the productive parts of their careers short just shy of the qualifications needed to cement their Hall of Fame cases. I started to think back and realize that they weren’t alone – there were lots of players of that generation who just evaporated at about the same time (remember Buddy Bell?), to the point where comparing a list of the best players in baseball in 1987 and 1991 would yield very dramatically different lists.
Just suspicion wasn’t enough; I decided to take a systematic (albeit not entirely scientific) look at what happened to players age 32 and up when the new strike zone hit town. I picked 32 because the most dramatic results seemed to be with guys who were expected to begin a long, slow decline to their careers and instead just turned into pumpkins overnight. Spurred on by the cases of the most prominent players, I decided to focus not on the immediate one-year impact but on how these players’ careers changed from 1986-87 to 1988-89, a long enough span to test whether their relationship to the rest of the league was fundamentally altered.
Of the roughly 300 players who played at least semi-regularly in 1988, 60 were 32 years old or older. This was a bit of a self-selecting list; guys like Jerry Mumphery, who dropped from .333 in 1987 to .136 in 1988, were left out because they didn’t even last out the year. Ditto for Ted Simmons. To calculate the change in performance, I used OPS (On Base Plus Slugging), which provides a good general snapshot of offensive production.
SPLAT! THE RESULTS
-30.3% Bob Brenly (34, C: 780 to 544)
Other players with 10% or greater dropoffs (in order): Don Baylor*, Terry Kennedy, Jack Clark, Fred Lynn, Pedro Guerrero, Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon, Keith Moreland, and Gary Carter.
There are some obvious caveats here. The league OPS declined 4.7% in the AL and 5.7% in the NL over this period, so anyone who declined less than that was actually improving relative to the league, and anyone who declined by less than about 8% or so certainly wasn’t suffering from anything more severe than the natural aging process. Also, you can easily identify individual issues at work in some of these cases: Jim Rice was going downhill in 1987, and a bunch of these guys (Hernandez, Buckner, Carter and Guerrero) suffered from various leg injuries.
A number of players (18 of the 60 in the study) actually either improved or improved relative to the league (i.e., a 2-3% decline). The ten biggest trend-buckers:
+25.5% Carlton Fisk (40, C: 691 to 867)
Notables just off this list include George Brett, Robin Yount and Andre Dawson. Again, some individual factors were at work; Smith’s improvement was all in 1989, as he had less than 200 at bats in both 1987 and 1988; Dawson didn’t move to Wrigley until 1987; Salazar got his first everyday job in years in 1988. This list also includes a lot of people who were bouncing back after hitting rock bottom, including Fisk (who sulked through an awful '86 in left field before returning to catching as a part-timer), Smith, Armas and Templeton. There is, perhaps needless to add, neither any rational explanation nor any precedent in history for two of the three most-improved hitters in any group being a pair of 40-year-old catchers. Fisk and Boone just stick out like a sore thumb from virtually all the visible trends.
To wrap up the heavy number-crunching, here are the overall trends, listed by Age, Average Change, and number of players declining out of number in the sample.
Age 32, -5.4%, 12 of 18
Ages 32-33, -5.4% 16 of 27
As far as individual declines, the list here reminds us what we should already know: catchers in their mid-30s tend to drop like flies. The rest of the list of big losers is a mixed bag of the patient and the impatient, the tall and the short . . . all different types of hitters. When you combine it with the list of improvers, though, one thing does jump out: the guys who were hit hardest were mostly good players, while several of the people who went the other way were terrible. That suggests that reduced offensive conditions tend to exacerbate the leveling forces already at work in the game, and that players who have built a foundation of some success have the most to lose. Also, the decliners were more likely to be people who depended on good strike zone judgment, while half of the top 10 list of improvers were died-in-the-wool hackers (Templeton, Quirk, Washington, Armas, and Salazar).
In retrospect, it would have been more interesting to run a complete study of all hitters, to see if there were other patterns among the likely victims. The other group of hitters who had a tough time in 1988-89 were the guys who had their first good year – mainly rookies and guys getting their first full-time job – in 1987. I didn’t study them systematically; there are certainly counterexamples (like Bonds and Bonilla, or like Howard Johnson, who bounced back in 1989), but the number of players who dropped off severely and somewhat permanently in 1988 was substantial, including Larry Sheets, Benito Santiago, BJ Surhoff, Devon White, Dale Sveum, and Juan Samuel. But this group exists in any year: guys who just had a big year and never adjusted once the pitchers caught up with them. Dave Concepcion, among others, fits in both groups, since he had a career year with the bat at age 39 as a part-timer in 1987.
The reasons why so many older players, particularly successful ones, took it on the chin when they started calling the high strike in 1988 seems easy enough to explain rationally, in two ways:
--1. Players with a long track record of success may be more stubborn about changing their approach.
--2. The high strike mostly helps out the hard throwers – meaning that these guys are suddenly seeing a lot more high fastballs just at the age when they are starting to have real trouble catching up with the high heat.
--3. Players who could foul off borderline fastballs and let the high hard one go for a ball, laying in wait for breaking balls, are suddenly required to swing at pitches they really can’t hit anymore with consistency. There’s nowhere to hide.
BILL JAMES’ 1963 STUDY AND 1988 PREDICTIONS
The most pronounced effect he found was that “tweeners” – players who hit for good but not great averages with medium power – just got destroyed. For 1963, James cited people like Willie Davis, Brooks Robinson, Vic Power and Tito Francona. The 1988 results at least partly bear this out. The people he named for 1988 were Keith Hernandez, Pete O’Brien, Phil Bradley, Carney Lansford, Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Bonilla, and Terry Pendleton. I’m not sure that the last two really belonged in the group; Pendleton had been wildly inconsistent before this and kept that pattern, while Bonilla blossomed into a serious home run hitter in 1988. Sandberg was OK in 1988 and later returned to being a big home run threat. But the others held the pattern:
* Hernandez I discussed above, as well as Buddy Bell, Walling, Griffey, Knight, Herndon, and Buckner, also all players of this type.
(Another group worth mentioning: three nearly identical players, all centerfielders with speed, some power, and some plate discipline but only moderate averages and high strikeout rates: Lloyd Moseby, Mike Davis, and Oddibe McDowell. Not sure why, but these guys all got ruined for good in 1988-89, even though they weren’t that old. Hard to say if that’s a trend or a coincidence.)
2001 PREDICTIONS: HITTERS
Let’s start with the obvious suspects, the guys who lived through this last time and took it on the chin then as young players: Surhoff (age 35), Rafael Palmiero (age 36), Mike Stanley (age 38), Dave Martinez (age 36), Santiago (age 36), Devon White (age 38; he’s basically done anyway), Joyner, Raines (working on a comeback with the Expos), and Mark McGwire. McGwire may seem bulletproof, but remember: he’s 37, he has an enormous top half of the strike zone, his batting average fell off a cliff in 1988-89, and he’s got to get his timing back after a half season on the DL. Could be tough sledding for these guys.
What about the Keith Hernandez group, the line-drive-hitting tweeners? James defined these guys as players who hit .275 to .310 with 15-20 homers a year, although the definition of “moderate power” has changed some; I’m thinking more of guys who generally hit around .290-.320 with 15 to 25 homers most years. The two guys who come to mind as parallels to the Hernandez/Buddy Bell type are Mark Grace and John Olerud; both are in their 30s (37 and 32, respectively) and Olerud is about 6 foot 5 to boot.
Others in this general class of hitters include Surhoff, Joe Randa, Rusty Greer (age 32), Garret Anderson, Bobby Abreu, Travis Fryman (age 32), Paul O’Neill (age 38), Dante Bichette (at sea level; Bichette is 37), Johnny Damon, Jay Payton, Ray Lankford (age 34), Todd Walker, Jeff Cirillo, David Segui (age 34), Brian Daubach, Herbert Perry, Troy O’Leary, Jeff Abbott, and until recently Derek Bell (in his good years; Bell is 32), Jeff Conine (age 35) and Rico Brogna, all of whom are the same type of hitter.
(Abreu and Damon are just hitting their prime and at the upper end of this group, so they would seem the best bets to buck the trend or at least stay very valuable. Also, there’s no telling how this will play out in Colorado. I would not want to have a lot of money tied up in Randa, Fryman or Greer under these conditions, never mind some of the guys who have multiple strikes against them.)
An additional group that, one reasons, should have a tough time is players who had long track records as pretty weak hitters until the 1994 offensive bonanza, and who would thus presumably be most vulnerable to changed offensive conditions. These guys may have stepped up for other reasons, such as adding muscle mass, but it’s worth a spin: Jay Bell (age 35), Surhoff (boy, he’s really got a lot going against him), Bichette (his improvement wasn’t all altitude), Todd Zeile (age 35), Ken Caminiti (age 38), Steve Finley (age 36). A subsidiary group is the guys who were good enough hitters until 1993 but were vaulted to stardom by the same changes: Edgar Martinez (age 38), O’Neill, Jay Buhner (age 36), to a lesser extent Palmiero.
In a class mostly by himself is Frank Thomas. Thomas is unusually dependent on the strike zone; you may remember that some people blamed his 1998-99 slump on his running feud with the umpires over to his continual griping on called strikes; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he had a big resurgence after Alderson fired about half the veteran umps in the league. Thomas could be in for a long, grouchy year.
The other enormous power hitters in the McGwire/Dale Murphy mold will be the main group to have trouble, although these guys were all over the map in 1988. This group includes Richie Sexson, Canseco (who had his best year in 1988 but is a lot older now), Cliff Floyd, and Tony Clark. Of course, these days the ranks of 6-foot-3 and over power hitters is a very long list and includes catchers and shortstops.
Rickey Henderson may actually be helped by the new zone if the narrower corners are actually enforced; with his crouch there’s not much room between the belt and the letters anyway. But Rickey is obviously sensitive to any tinkering because he rarely swings at anything anymore.
Eric Davis will be unaffected as he was in 1988, since he swings at everything above the belt anyway. Tony Gwynn’s decline should not be affected, since contact hitters in the Gwynn mold (including Gwynn) faired pretty well the last two times.
Anything that makes scoring runs harder is good news for Rey Ordonez, who can’t hit under any conditions.
2001 PREDICTIONS: PITCHERS
The old power pitchers may wind up being helped as much as the new ones, since they will know from Day One how to take maximum advantage. Clemens, even at his advanced age, should be one of the biggest beneficiaries, since he can get ahead of hitters by throwing closer to the head, thus setting up the split finger pitch (same goes for Armando Benitez). Clemens’ control has been a big issue in recent years. Al Leiter also loves to work high in the strike zone and misses high a lot, as does Curt Schilling. The high strike may revive the careers of Troy Percival and Billy Wagner, and might even rehabilitate Jose Mesa and Heathcliff Slocumb. Randy Johnson, if he stays healthy, should finally break the strikeout record. A number of players have been quoted as saying Pete Harnisch will be particularly tough with the high strike. I’ll address Hideo Nomo and David Cone in my Red Sox preview (coming in the next few weeks).
Pedro would seem to be helped as well, but he’s the flip side of Ordonez; since Pedro’s butting up against the theoretical limit on how good a pitcher can be, anything that helps the rest of the pack catch up is bad news. Same goes for Mariano Rivera.
Should be fun to watch and see.
FUN FACT: The federal budget averages out over the year to spending just over $205 million an hour. At that rate it would take the entire government 73 minutes to spend the equivalent of the reported value of A-Rod’s contract.
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January 25, 2001
BASEBALL: Link From The Prospectus
January 18, 2001
BASEBALL: Random Notes Column
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
This week: a series of random thoughts on recent events; the "notes" in Baseball Weekly contained a number of gems recently, and the trade wires were hot:
THE WELLS TRADE
This is mostly a gut feeling - although Rusch's great K/BB ratio (157 to 44) backs it up - but he seems primed for a breakthrough season in '01. Rusch struggled after a hot start last year, but he appeared to be learning as the season went on, trying out new approaches to left-handed hitters in particular, and in the postseason he was deadly, repeatedly getting out of man-on-third-less-than-two-out jams he was brought into. His development reminded me of David Cone in 1987; I can still remember Cone, a rookie the Mets got from Kansas City for not much more than they gave up for Rusch, using his curveball to strike out Dale Murphy in one jam in April of that year and then strike out Jack Clark with the bases loaded in a key game later that week. The next year Cone was 20-3 with a 2.22 ERA.
The White Sox, though, had different needs than the Mets; they have a better offense but no Al Leiter. Mike Sirotka is a good pitcher, maybe better than Wells and certainly younger and cheaper, but he's injury-prone and not the workhouse of Wells' caliber; with a staff in shambles and no postseason experience, someone like Wells looks a whole lot better. The White Sox needed a rotation anchor, and Wells can certainly provide ballast. Plus, they’ll love Da Boomer in Chicago.
The Jays, of course, get rid of a whining headache (Wells can be a pain when he’s unhappy) and a fat salary and bring in a pitcher who’s 8 years younger. A good deal all around.
Note: Another team that could have used Wells or Pat Hentgen or Kevin Appier (neither of whom I’m all that enthused about for their new teams) is the Phillies. Philadelphia has a number of talented young pitchers (Bruce Chen, Randy Wolf) but nobody able to soak up 230 innings and keep on ticking.
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THE JOHNNY DAMON TRADE
The Royals are either stupid or got screwed, depending on whether you think Damon would have fetched a higher price elsewhere; clearly they're a better team with Damon. While their bullpen the last two years was the worst in baseball history by several standards, Hernandez may be a shorter-term fix than they think, given 76 hits and 9 homers in 73.1 innings last year. They still have no starting pitching. They claimed that the A-ball shortstop was the key to the deal, but that’s just what M. Donald Grant said when he traded Tom Seaver (“the Dan Norman trade.”) GMs do that because the guy at the bar who thinks they otherwise gave Damon away doesn’t know anything about the A-ball shortstop and will forget about him in two years.
For Tampa, this was Christmas in January; when you are looking to dump an expensive 36-year old relief pitcher, how often does somebody offer a 25-year-old power hitter in return? Grieve becomes the first good young player in franchise history. You know they weren’t the ones to think of this deal; Allard Baird told Billy Beane he wanted Hernandez for Damon, and the Rays got a gift.
Another thing that caught my attention (I think it was on ESPN) was a “fantasy analysis” of this deal focusing on Damon and Grieve. Duh! Damon and Grieve are bit players in this deal from a Roto perspective, and neither one will really change his roto profile much; the only difference is the domino effect of giving Dermal Brown a job and taking away Vinny Castilla’s (he’ll move soon anyway). The BIG Rotisserie issue is that the KC bullpen finally settles down – you can forget about Lance Carter, Orber Moreno and Jaime Bluma – while Tampa’s opens up to competition between Esteban Yan, Albie Lopez, Jesus Colome and Doug Creek (don’t count out Creek).
THE MELUSKEY/AUSMUS TRADE
THE ROYCE CLAYTON TRADE
THE TRADING BLOCK
But I also have a question: how does a 33 year old man gain 25 pounds of muscle in three months? I lifted weights 5-6 days a week when I was in college . . . now, I'm no professional athlete, but I got a real education in how hard it is for a 19-year-old to add muscle; it's a whole lot harder past 30 . . . or it should be . . .
Look at the facts. Carpenter got off to a good start in 1999 and then imploded. In 2000, coming off surgery, he was hit on his pitching elbow in his last start of the postseason and had to be carried off the field. He stumbled out of the gate, getting clocked for a 7.31 ERA, 10 walks and 6 homers to only 6 K in losing his first three starts. After that he righted the ship, running off a 6-2 record and a 3.86 ERA in his next 11 starts through June 14. He was pitching well, allowing less than a hit an inning, averaging a gopher ball every 11 innings, and striking out 5 and a half men per 9 innings. But there was a downside: he averaged almost 107 pitches per start in this period, often topping 120; he was working very hard for a guy with a surgically repaired elbow.
Something must have given out, because over the next 10 starts Carpenter pitched about as badly as anyone in the game's history has ever pitched: 99 baserunners and 12 home runs in 38.2 innings, resulting in a 1-5 record and a 13.27 ERA. Combined with Roy Halladay's ERA hovering over 11.50, the Jays were getting pounded out of too many games too early to stay in the race. Carpenter was exiled to the pen.
It didn't happen immediately upon going there, but on August 7, something clicked. Carpenter struck out over 7 men per 9 innings the rest of the way, alternating between the bullpen and the rotation, and had a good 3-2 record and 3.92 ERA in his last ten outings.
Cut up in four slices, Carpenter's season presents an almost unfathomable contrast: one pitcher who rivals any non-Pedro starter in the league, with a 9-4 record, a 3.88 ERA, a K/BB ratio nearly 2-to-1 and a good 1.326 baserunners/inning ratio in 21 appearances; another who goes 1-8 with an 11.52 ERA, more walks than strikeouts, 2.3 baserunners per inning and a homer every three innings. Yeah, a lot of pitchers can be broken down to look like Jekyll and Hyde like this, but I find it impossible to believe that the "good" Chris Carpenter could possibly pitch so badly if he was healthy.
The pitch-count crowd may argue that all he needs is a 95-pitch limit or some such, but it's very hard to enforce those limits on a thin staff. Even with a solid closer, the Jays can always use a good reliever more than a starter who spends half his season making the batting practice pitcher look good. Time to make the move.
THE GOING RATE
THE POOR GET RICHER?
Personally, I thought a few years ago that the Mariners were missing a good business opportunity. The situation: you've got a contending team with three hugely marketable stars (Johnson, Griffey, Rodriguez), two of them young, plus other talented players who could be fan favorites if they got more exposure. You've got a new stadium on the way, with the city screaming about cost overruns. The idea: Bill Gates, who was in desperate need of good PR at the time, should have bought the M's (not a huge ticket item for him), re-signed the three stars, eaten the cost overruns at Safeco and strong-armed MSNBC into giving the Mariners a TBS-Braves deal for nightly national basic cable telecasts.
The benefits: Gates would have won himself some serious good press (to say nothing of a new challenge for his competitive juices) by making a firm commitment to keeping the team's stars in the town they started in and by getting taxpayers off the hook for Safeco. I'm no tax lawyer, but if the Mariners really had no legal exposure for the cost overruns there may have been a way to structure a gratuitous assumption of the city's debts as a charitable tax deduction.
Long-term, a national cable deal would give the M's a serious financial advantage, as the Braves have despite not being in a NY or LA size market. There is no West Coast team on TV every night, and with that star-studded team and two guys maybe chasing home run records they could have built a big regional following. And MSNBC may have finally found a voice in focusing on political yelling matches, but at the time it was a station with access to a lot of homes but not much in the way of distinctive programming. 10 p.m. EST baseball would have been a plus. Thus, it's unlikely that either Gates or the station would have found this a bad financial deal in the long run.
Anyway, the moment has passed, and the Pacific Northwest is NOT a small market. Don't cry for the Mariners.
Meanwhile, the Expos have lost their number one sponsor (Labatt's, which had planned to buy naming rights to the now-dead new ballpark) and with it $1.4 million in annual revenue. Most of the small-market teams still have enough revenue to compete periodically, but there's just not enough money there to support baseball in Montreal. They have to either move or be put out of business.
HALL OF FAME POSTMORTEM
--1. I picked eight players . . . the writers picked two. I can't be too hard on them for being stingy; heck, Joe DiMaggio didn't get in on the first ballot. Better too few than too many.
--2. Gary Carter, with almost two-thirds of the vote, is now nearly inevitable. I've yet to hear a writer explain why he doesn't belong; the best I've heard is USAToday's Rod Beaton say Carter "doesn't feel like" a Hall of Famer. Deep. Rice, Sutter and Gossage all gained votes as well; the writers are taking their time with the closers, which is prudent. Rob Neyer ran Rice's career home-road split, and got me thinking yet again about whether he belongs . . . until next year . . .
--3. I was appalled that Lou Whitaker didn't get enough votes to stay on the ballot. I defy any writer who voted against him - or anybody else, for that matter - to name ten players who had better careers at second base. And no cheating with active players the jury's still out on or guys like Carew who spent half their careers at an easier position. Five are easy (Hornsby, Morgan, Collins, Lajoie, and Gehringer), and Jackie Robinson would be a clear sixth if they had let him start his career before age 28; he was better than Whitaker so we'll count him. But after that . . .
Evers, Lazzeri and Doerr had much shorter careers, and Doerr and Sandberg played in hitters' havens. Fox, Schoendeinst and Mazeroski weren't even close as hitters. Lazzeri and Billy Herman played in far higher scoring eras, and Herman's offensive numbers still don't stack up, while neither Lazzeri nor Doerr could match Whitaker defensively. Frankie Frisch had marginally higher career SLG and OBP (.432 and .369) than Whitaker (.426 and .363) in careers of about the same length, but Frisch's numbers are a little less impressive because scoring was higher in the twenties and thirties; they would also seem to have been comparable defensive players. The evidence outside their respective batting lines (championships, contemporary opinion, etc.) all points to Frisch by a nose (he won an MVP award and was traded straight up for Rogers Hornsby once, after all), but it's hard to argue that the difference there is huge.
That leaves three spots to fill (two if we overlook Sandberg's park and on base percentage) - with who? Bid McPhee? The other candidates haven't been enshrined either -- Bobby Grich, Joe Gordon, Davey Lopes, Larry Doyle, etc. Bring it on!
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION
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January 11, 2001
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Blyleven, Morris, Kaat, John, Tiant
My look at the Hall of Fame concludes this week with the starting pitchers. The burning questions: what matters more, brilliance or longetivity? Getting guys out or winning?
The two most-touted starting pitcher candidates on this year’s ballot are Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris. Personally, I came into this process having touted Blyleven, Morris and Jim Rice for the Hall, but each of their cases seemed weaker on closer inspection than I thought, while the cases for Luis Tiant and Ron Guidry seemed stronger. All four are close calls.
The ironic thing about Blyleven and Morris is that their cases rest on almost diametrically opposed arguments. Blyleven often had outstanding ERAs and mediocre records; Morris often had outstanding records and mediocre ERAs. Blyleven supporters point to his great career totals and ignore the early-70s AL he pitched in, when lots of others put up similar numbers; Morris backers point to his superiority to his contemporaries and ignore the unimpressive way his numbers stack up to the Hall’s usual standards. Blyleven never pitched a really memorable masterpiece in the postseason, but his postseason records (5-1, 2.47 ERA with his teams winning 6 of his 7 starts) are most impressive; Morris didn’t have staggering career numbers in October (7-4, 3.80 ERA) but pitched some of baseball’s greatest postseason victories. Blyleven’s fans argue that his teams dragged him down; Morris’ fans ignore the many great players who took the field behind him.
Looming in the background of Blyleven’s case is the specter of Tommy John and Jim Kaat. If you put in Blyleven on the strength of 287 career wins, the argument goes, you have to honor John (288) and Kaat (283). But seriously, who thinks those guys were Hall of Famers?
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Besides, comparing Kaat and John to Blyleven is apples and oranges. The 1970s are already represented in Cooperstown by more starting pitchers than any other decade since the pit of the dead-ball era; we can’t just enshrine everyone from the pitcher-dominated years 1963-76. That’s a strike against all three of these guys (and Tiant too); but you have to remember that, while we may think of them all as 70s pitchers, Blyleven was NOT from the same era as Kaat and John. Kaat broke into the big leagues when Blyleven was 8 years old, and won in double figures for the last time in 1976. John also preceded Blyleven to the big leagues by seven years; he beat the league ERA only once (in 70.2 innings) after 1982 and threw 200 innings for the last time in 1983. Blyleven, by contrast, won the same number of games between 1984 and 1989 as Roger Clemens, and just 5 fewer than Dwight Gooden.
Kaat pitched against Ted Williams; Blyleven pitched against Pudge Rodriguez.
LOOKING AT WHO’S IN AND OUT
Let’s look at it more systematically. There are 93 pitchers who won 200 games in the major leagues with a winning record. 49 of those are in the Hall, 6 are ineligible for various reasons, and 38 have failed to win election. Let’s break those down:
* Twenty pitchers won 300 games; all are in the Hall, and with a minimum of controversy. 300 wins is 30 a year for 10 years, or 20 a year for 15, 15 a year for 20, or 12 a year for 25. It has remained a durable standard of excellence throughout changing times; the worst guy to do it was probably Don Sutton, and perma-Don went 22 years without missing a turn in the rotation (I read that somewhere, and if it’s not true he was close), which is much more impressive than what Cal Ripken did.
* Nineteen pitchers won 250-299 games; 11 of those are in the Hall. Of the other 8, one (Roger Clemens) is still active, three (Irish-born sometime “switch pitcher” Tony Mullane, Jim McCormick, and Gus Weyhing, the last man to play without a glove) pitched in the 19th century and really have to be judged by a different set of rules for these purposes. That leaves four: John, Kaat, Blyleven, and Morris, all still on the ballot.
* Of the pitchers with 200-249 wins, 14 had winning percentages of .600 or higher. 8 are in the Hall; two (Maddux and Glavine) are active, three (Bob Caruthers, Charlie Buffington, and Jack Stivetts) pitched in the 19th century. That leaves Carl Mays, who once killed a man with a pitch and (according to Bill James) was embroiled in several other controversies.
* Twenty-two won between 55 and 59 percent of their decisions. Three of those are ineligible; Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez retired too recently, and Eddie Cicotte was banned from baseball. Of the other 19, 7 are in and 12 are out. The seven are Amos Rusie, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Jesse Haines, Hal Newhouser, Don Drysdale, and Catfish Hunter. If you are cringing at that list, it's with good reason: it reads like a "who's who" of the Hall's worst mistakes in picking pitchers, particularly Hoyt and Haines (the next list is even worse). Several of these guys would have been .500 pitchers or worse if they hadn't pitched their best years for great teams. I'm not saying none of these guys belong, but more of them don't than do, and the others are close calls. Anyway, as I’ll discuss in more detail below, Luis Tiant is in this group.
* Twelve had winning percentages between .525 and .549. Three somehow made the Hall: Vic Willis, Jim Bunning, and Rube Marquard. Nine didn’t, although there’s an active Veterans Committee push afoot to induct Mel Harder (more on him if they vote him in).
* Six had winning records below .520 (Tanana, Koosman, Reuss, and Joe Niekro are the recent ones). None are in danger of going to Cooperstown.
--Actual record: 287-250, .534, +37 (games over .500), 3.31 ERA, 4970 IP
The best argument for Blyleven is that he’s number 1 or 2 in almost everything among non-Hall of Famers – 2d in wins, 2d in starts, 1st in shutouts, 1st in K, 1st in IP. He’s third on the all-time K list and threw more shutouts than Tom Glavine, Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina put together, more than Maddux and the Big Unit combined. Most of the guys around him in each of these categories is in.
One criticism of Blyleven that I think is unfair is that he lacks the "wow" factor - you just don't think of him as a Hall of Famer. To fans scanning the leaderboards that may be true, but I bet if you asked the top AL hitters of the early 70s - Reggie, Yaz, Dick Allen - who the toughest pitchers they faced were, Blyleven's name would come up pretty quickly. If you asked them or asked the next generation of AL bats (Brett, Winfield, Mattingly, Rice) who had the toughest curveball they ever saw, I'd be shocked if less than two-thirds named Blyleven. Maybe he didn't wow the crowds, and his teammates never liked him (he was standoffish and sarcastic, traits he now puts to better use as a broadcaster) but when you look at what his peers said about him, they were certainly impressed.
The big problem I have with Blyleven is that his tendency to hover around .500, particularly in the 1970-78 period, can't be adequately explained by the quality of his teams. In 1970, Blyleven went 10-9 for a team that won 98 games; his teammates Luis Tiant and Jim Kaat were a combined 21-13 despite higher ERAs. In 1977, Blyleven went 14-12 for a team that won 94 games; teammates Gaylord Perry and Doyle Alexander went a combined 32-23 with significantly higher ERAs. In 1978, Blyleven was the staff ace for an 88-win Pirates team with a powerhouse offense led by MVP Dave Parker and a deep bullpen; Blyleven went 14-10 despite leading the team in ERA and innings, while 21-year-old teammate Don Robinson went 14-6. In 1980, admittedly having an off year, Blyleven went 8-13 for the defending World Champs; Jim Bibby was 19-6 for the same team. Rehabbing from an injury in 1983, Blyleven went 7-10 while Rick Sutcliffe was 17-11 (with a higher ERA). In 1986, Blyleven was 17-14; Frank Viola was 16-13 with an ERA a half run higher. In 1985 he was 9-11 with a 3.26 ERA when the Indians traded him; Curt Wardle went 7-6 with a 6.68 ERA for the same team.
When that happens to a pitcher now and then, you call it luck. But year in and year out? How can a run of bad luck keep up for 685 starts without catching a break, without once running off a year like Jack Morris had in 1992? Even a lot of the crappy teams Bert pitched for were bad because the rest of the pitching staff stank, not because they couldn't score, yet he was always 17-17 or 16-15 or 20-17. The Twins of 1972 were not a good team, but they were better that season than the Mets, the Phillies, or the Angels - the teams for which Seaver, Carlton and Ryan went 21-12, 27-10, and 19-16, respectively. Blyleven was 17-17. According to the “Great American Baseball Stat Book 1988,” Blyleven’s teams scored 4.29 runs/game in his starts between 1976 and 1986, while he allowed 3.25 per 9 innings; he still had just a .545 winning percentage.
Blyleven’s real problem, though, is not that he won too little but that he lost too much. That comes with the territory of being a workhorse on bad pitching staffs. In 1973-74 Blyleven started 77 games and got 71 decisions, a staggering total even for the seventies. In 1985-86 he was at it again: 73 starts, 64 decisions, way above the league average. That doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a start; Blyleven was the guy who was left in to lose tie games in the 8th and 9th while the bullpen rested.
If we are going to immortalize Blyleven, the key is in the mid-1980s (the 1984-87 period) and the 1981 and 1989 seasons - in short, the years when he often went head to head with Morris. Those were the years when his workloads were remarkable; those were the years when he posted records that were often significantly better than the teams around him deserved, pitching under difficult conditions. Blyleven was 19-7 in 1984 for a miserable Indians team, and was the top starting pitcher in the Cy Young voting (behind Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry); he was 17-5 in 1989 for an Angels team with a distinctly unimpressive offense. In 1985 he became the last man to throw 290 innings or 20 complete games.
In the end, even with reservations about his wins, I just can’t shake the fact that Blyleven pitched so well for so long. On this score, Blyleven’s postseason greatness is huge: the man proved he could win the big ones, so we should give his record the benefit of some doubt. The Translated ERAs of several of his contemporaries were worse: Carlton (3.22), Ryan (3.35), Gaylord Perry (3.20), Jenkins (3.25), and Phil Neikro (3.21). Blyleven just kept on going at this pace for nearly 5,000 innings. That’s too much good pitching. IN.
My initial sense of Luis Tiant was that he just missed out; he didn’t pitch as much as the titans of the 1970s, and his numbers were inflated by the era. When he won 20 in 1973, he wasn’t even in the AL’s top 10 in wins. But when I looked closer, I just couldn’t separate Tiant that far from the crowd of the deserving inductees.
Consider: between 1921 and 1993, only three pitchers qualified for the ERA title with an ERA below 2.00 more than once: Sandy Koufax, Hal Newhouser, and Luis Tiant. Tiant's 1.91 mark in 1972 was the lowest at Fenway between Babe Ruth's 1916 season and Roger Clemens in 1990; his 1.60 ERA in 1968 remains the lowest in the AL since Walter Johnson in 1919. Those gaudy ERAs are less impressive when you consider that 1972 and 1968 were the low points for scoring in the AL after 1920, but the translated ERAs for the two seasons are still impressive, 1.99 and 2.16. As the TR for Tiant indicates, he was a guy who would have been a winner even on average teams; his offenses, on balance, just weren’t that great.
To best guage Tiant’s qualifications, I looked for similar pitchers. Let’s face it, the Hall has actually been pretty consistent in giving the benefit of the doubt to pitchers who could be shown to meet the standards of those already in there, regardless of where the ideal line should be drawn.
Going over the list I discussed above, I came up with a list of 29 pitchers with similar credentials: I picked all the pitchers with 200-249 wins and winning percentages between .541 and .597, putting Tiant smack in the middle on both counts. I excluded the ineligibles (Hershiser, Martinez, Cicotte) and the 19th century types (Rusie, Will White, and Silver King), leaving me with 23, including Tiant. Of those, 8 are in the Hall; I’ll list their W, W%, games over .500 and “ERA+” (percent better than the league, park-adjusted) since I haven’t run a TR:
Now, as I’ve said before, these are hardly the Hall’s greatest hits. But Tiant isn't just trying to get in on the bootstraps of being similar to this crowd; I'm pretty confident that he was better. (Newhouser was a great pitcher but for only four years, two of them against weak wartime lineups). Hoyt and Pennock are in the Hall of Fame because of Babe Ruth. Drysdale and Hunter are much more famous because of their postseason exposure, but even their superficially flashier numbers aren't so striking: neither of them ever had a 1.60 ERA, after all.
The best case for Tiant is that he meets the standard they don't: a guy who would still have had very good records even with just average teams. Yeah, Catfish won more games in the postseason, but tell me that Tiant wasn’t as good a big-game pitcher as anyone in his time; counting the postseason, Peter Gammons in “Beyond the Sixth Game” noted that Tiant’s September/October record with the Red Sox – in some of the tightest pennant races and serieses ever – was 32-10. 32-10! It’s simply impossible to look at the career records of Hunter and Bunning and explain why they were any different from El Tiante. We can’t kick them out.
He’s gotta go IN.
So why not Morris? The 80s were a tough time, and Morris won more games than anyone. There’s no precedent for denying Hall induction to a 250-game winner with a .577 winning percentage. The seventh game of the 1991 World Series may have been the greatest game anyone ever pitched, given the circumstances. When the game ended, I told everyone I could find that he had just pitched his way into the Hall of Fame.
This was a tough one, but the translated record – and the close look I took at his record to get there – sold me. Year in and year out, Jack Morris had outstanding offenses behind him. Always. Six times he pitched for teams that were 10% better than league-average in putting runs on the board. Only three of his teams were below-average (1981, 1985 and 1989). That, and not anything else, is the reason he won so many games with unimpressive ERAs. You want comparisons? Check out the record of Dennis Martinez (245-193, .559, 3.70 ERA) and tell me how Morris goes in and he doesn’t. And the Hall of Fame doesn’t need to explain why invisible differences make Morris and Catfish better than Tiant and Martinez.
In the end, so much of Morris’ case is built on a freak of timing – all the best pitchers of Morris’ generation flamed out before they could make it to the 1990s. Guidry, Steib, Mario Soto, Dennis Leonard, Fernando, Steve Rogers . . . Morris endured. But I’m not ready to put him in on his record. He's OUT
Was Jim Kaat ever a great pitcher? Yes, in his one best season. In 1966 Kaat won 25 games with little help from a Twins offense that fell off sharply from the prior year's pennant winner and had a 2.75 ERA in over 300 innings in a tough hitter's park; he led all AL pitchers in the MVP voting and would have won the AL Cy Young Award easily if one had been given (at the time there was just one award for both leagues, which Koufax won unanimously). His translated record for that season? 27-12, which puts him in some very fast company. You could classify two other Kaat years as star-level seasons (the two 20-win years for Chuck Tanner's White Sox in 1974-75), but that's really it; Kaat spent the rest of his career as a just-above-league-average starter living off Harmon Killebrew and Mike Schmidt. He pumped up his numbers by just lingering, winning 17 games in relief his last 4 years. Kaat was a great fielder, a no-windup lefty who won 16 straight Gold Gloves, but he was not, on balance, particularly close to being a great pitcher. He's OUT.
You saw Tommy John. Well, I did, anyway. Immortal? The John of the sixties was better than the John of the eighties, but neither was ever anywhere near the top of the game. As for his durability, John was hardly a guy who never missed a day at the office; he pitched forever, but was rarely a workhorse in between (really just 1979-80). And throughout the 70s he had great parks to work in, and great, great offenses behind him (take a look at the 1974 Dodgers, more than 30% better than the league, an offensive juggernaut). John was never, and would never have been, a number one starter for a contending team. End of story. He's OUT.
Jim Deshaies wraps up my Hall of Fame ballot (another NO). The only mystery about Deshaies, a promising young pitcher who looked like he would be as good as Browning or maybe Darling, is why the Astros never used him in the 1986 NLCS after he had eaten up the Mets during the season, particularly when they let a washed-up Aurelio Lopez lose game six in the 16th inning.
Next week: back to the present . . .
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION
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January 4, 2001
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Gossage, Sutter & Other Relievers
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
The starting-pitcher analysis is taking longer than I expected; look for me to wrap up the Hall of Fame debate with an overview of Morris, Blyleven, Tiant, John & Kaat next week. For now I’ll take a brief look at the relief pitchers on the ballot.
Let’s start with the basics: There have been two Hall of Famers elected as career relief pitchers: Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm. Until about the 1950s (with rare exceptions like Fred “Firpo” Marberry), outstanding pitchers rarely spent a significant period of their careers in relief. The top relief pitchers of the 1900-1955 period do include a number of Hall of Famers, but those were starters who closed games between starts (including Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson) or old guys playing out the string (Satchel Paige, who was a highly effective reliever in the majors, and still a strikeout pitcher, in his mid-40s). Because of this we have no established standards for what is and is not a Hall of Fame reliever. What we do have is Fingers and Wilhelm.
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The clearest conclusion we can draw is that both of these guys lasted an extraordinarily long time as effective relievers, carrying heavy workloads in a business where few guys have that combination of effectiveness, consistency, longetivity, and ability to pitch a lot of innings. Counting his brief trial as a starter, Wilhelm threw over 100 innings 11 times, with an ERA below 3.00 in 8 of those, and over 80 innings 17 times, with an ERA below 3.00 12 times, including a streak in the late 60s of five straight seasons below 2.00. Fingers threw over 100 innings 11 times, including 10 in a row, with an ERA below 3.00 nine times, including 8 of those in a row (he only cleared 80 innings 1 other time, with a bad ERA, though he won an MVP award throwing 78 innings with a 1.04 ERA in the two-thirds of a season played in 1981). It helped, of course, that both guys retired as the all-time saves leader.
I’m satisfied that both guys belong, given their combination of these virtues. But I’m in no great hurry to build a relief pitcher wing in the Hall of Fame. There are no pinch hitters in Cooperstown, no backup catchers, no late-inning defensive subs – heck, Yaz, Paul Molitor, and Jim Rice are the closest we are soon likely to see to a career DH in the Hall (unless Edgar Martinez keeps hitting .330 until he’s 45). And that’s OK, because none of those jobs is nearly as important to a baseball team as an everyday player or a guy who starts 35 games a year, at 6 to 8 innings a pop. Neither is a relief pitcher; the modern 60-70 inning closer faces somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 batters a year, while regular players bat 600-700 times and starters generally face at least 800-1000 batters a year (even today).
It's certainly true that 100 innings of relief, from a closer or a key middle reliever, is worth a lot more than 100 innings of starters’ work, because teams save their best relievers for the late innings of close games, where they can have a disproportionate impact on a team’s record. Then again, starting pitchers ALWAYS enter the game with a tie score, and a team’s ability to maximize the number of games where it has a big lead or is in a close game entering the seventh inning has a much bigger effect on its overall record than its ability to win the close ones. After all, few pennant winning teams play better than .540-.550 ball in close games.
To be extremely generous to the relievers, let’s estimate the value of a relief inning as twice the value of an inning of starters’ work, on the theory that starters spend half their time pitching in games that are not close and were never in danger of being close. This is demonstrable nonsense, but it gives us a floor that we expect relievers to meet. That makes the 100-inning reliever worth just as much as the 200-inning starter. It does NOT, however, make today’s 60-inning reliever worth much more than half the value of a 230-inning starter, let alone the 320-inning starter of the early 1970s or the 270-inning starter of the 1978-85 period.
Then, let’s do one other critically important thing: ignore saves. That’s right, ignore saves. Examine saves, wins and losses as measurements of how much time a reliever spent pitching in critical situations, but don't use those stats to evaluate a reliever’s bottom line -- saves are just too dependent on how a manager uses a pitcher, and with the game on the line a guy’s “ability” to convert save opportunities is useless.
You don’t believe me? The World Series is on the line with three outs needed and a 1-run lead, and you have two choices: bring in 1978 Goose Gossage, who saved 27 games, had a 2.01 ERA, with 122 K, 87 hits allowed in 134.1 innings, and a fastball that could pound a catcher’s mitt into diamonds; or 1998 Rick Aguilera, who saved 38 games, had a 4.24 ERA, with 75 hits and 57 K in 74.1 innings (I don’t have their save % numbers here, but you get the idea). Who are you going to call? Aguilera’s saves are meaningless at this point – you want Goose’s firepower. I could list pages of examples like this. Starting with the assumption that most relievers who are up for Cooperstown weren’t mop-up men, we should throw saves out the window and just ask three things:
1. How much did they pitch?
That makes the Goose a pretty easy call. In his heyday, he was a totally dominating figure, throwing between 133 and 141.2 innings with an ERA between 1.62 and 2.01 in 1975, 1977 and 1978. Leaving aside his disastrous 1976 foray into starting, when you combine 1975 with 1977-85 he threw at least 79 innings with an ERA below 2.30 seven times in 10 years, and with an ERA below 3.00 eight times. Gossage threw in an 0.77 ERA in 46.2 innings in 1981; the only off year was 1979, when he was his usual self but pitched just 58.1 innings because he broke his hand in a clubhouse fight with Cliff Johnson. And he was better than his ERAs indicate because he was so unhittable entering games with men on base.
The Goose was a classic “fireman” rather than a modern “closer,” sometimes riding the bench during easy “save situations” but often entering close games in the seventh or eighth innings with men on base. Twice he averaged more than two innings per game for an entire season (1975 and 1978), and he averaged over 1.5 innings per game in nine of his ten “peak” seasons. He made nine All-Star teams. True, Gossage stuck around too long, but even after 1985 he had ERAs below 3.00 twice plus a 3.12 mark in hitter-happy 1987; he also pitched well in 1993 (at age 41) but had his season ERA ruined by one horrific outing where LaRussa left him in during a blowout to give up something like 7 or 8 runs to save the younger arms in the pen.
In short, while Gossage’s declining years and early struggles as a starter don’t help his reputation, they certainly don’t detract from his towering peak. For example, he had a 3.01 ERA in 1809.1 innings, but it was 2.55 in 1366.1 innings if you throw out those four early seasons where they screwed around with him as a starter and 2.93 in 1714.1 innings if you remove his last two seasons. In my book, he’s IN.
As for Bruce Sutter, when he was on with the Cubs, he was UNTOUCHABLE -- the toughest pitcher I've ever seen (including Pedro), the most unhittable pitcher I've even seen (including Ryan and El Sid), and the guy who humilated batters most that I've seen (including the Big Unit). In his second season in the NL, Sutter had a 1.34 ERA, striking out 129 batters while allowing 92 baserunners in 107.2 innings; the league ERA was 4.40, more than three times Sutter’s. Even Pedro can’t top that (nor any other starting pitcher ever).
Though Sutter’s late-season fades, and restrictions on his use to combat them, presaged the modern closer, Sutter never threw less than 82.1 innings (and that in 1981) in his first ten seasons in the majors. In 1984 he had another eye-popping year, a 1.54 ERA in 122.2 innings, Dwight Gooden-ish numbers if you indulge in our fantasy that a reliever’s inning is worth two for a starter.
Still, the outstanding seasons for Sutter number only 7 or 8, and he neither had as many dominant seasons as the Goose nor as many good ones. He cleared 110 innings but once, and had ERAs below 2.60 just three times, pitching in a more pitcher-friendly league. He was totally and utterly through by age 32. He was in six All-Star games, good but not really a Hall of Fame mark. In his Cardinal years he didn’t have the same intimidating effect as he had before. Yeah, he was a Candy Cummings-like pioneer, but I’m not a big fan of honoring innovators unless they can turn their inventions into Cooperstown-worthy results. Hey, Steve Yeager invented that thing that hangs down from the catcher’s mask . . . he pitched just over 1000 innings in his career, barely half as many as Fingers or Dizzy Dean, the patron saint of pitchers with short careers. Sutter’s not so far off – but he has to stay OUT.
Keith Woolner of the Baseball Prospectus lays out a case for Tom “the Terminator” Henke, but again I don’t see it. Henke pitched 789.2 innings in his entire big league career; Bert Blyleven, on the ballot with Henke, threw almost 5,000 innings and appeared in 50 more games, even as a starter. Henke never threw 100 innings and only once appeared in more than 66 games in a season. He even only led the league in saves once, if that’s your criterion. Henke was an extremely good and consistent closer – 311 saves and a 2.67 career ERA – and pitched well in the postseason, but I put Henke’s Hall of Fame case in the bin with Manny Mota, Herb Score and Smokey Joe Wood. OUT.
Dave Righetti three years as a promising starter, three years as an outstanding closer, five years playing with matches in the ninth inning of close games, and three years accepting charity from major league organizations. Sound like an immortal to you? He saved 46 games once; Antonio Alfonseca saved 45 last year. OUT.
Steve Bedrosian won a Cy Young award by default when the best starting pitcher in the NL went 8-16 for the defending NL West champs (you can’t give a guy with an 8-16 record the Cy Young award). Bedrock should be content with that piece of immortality. OUT.
(A final note: one other guy who was even more valuable than Sutter and almost comparable to Gossage in his career, and another who wasn’t far behind Sutter? Kent Tekulve and the late Dan Quisenberry, respectively, neither of whom threw hard enough to dent play-doh. Tekulve had a 2.85 career ERA in over 1000 games and over 1400 relief innings, and the Quiz in his best season threw 139 innings with an ERA less than half the league’s. You could look it up).
Also, random HOF thought for the day: In 1984, one of the four seasons on which Don Mattingly’s boosters rest his Hall case (Mattingly won the batting title), the AL MVP voters rated him third AMONG FIRST BASEMEN, behind Kent Hrbek and Eddie Murray. After finishing first in 1985 and second in 1986, Mattingly didn't finish in the top five in '87. Think about that the next time somebody tells you that Mattingly was revered as a god in his prime.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
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