Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 2, 2001
BASEBALL: ICHIRO THE THROWBACK
Originally posted 5/2/01 on the Boston Sports Guy website
Through Tuesday's action, Ichiro Suzuki was on a pace to hit 212 singles, which would break the major league record of 206 set by Wee Willie Keeler in 1898 and shatter the AL record of 185 set by Wade Boggs in 1985. Yeah, it’s early to be doing paces (Kazu Sasaki isn’t going to save 84 games), but we are getting a good look now at what kind of player Ichiro is. Like it or not, the answer is: a throwback.
In the beginning, there was the single. Today, we know that a hitter’s most important skill is getting on base to score runs and keep innings going; we measure that skill mostly with on base percentage and runs scored. The second most important skill is advancing baserunners; we measure that with slugging percentage and (as susceptible as it is to team influences) with RBI. How is it, then, that batting average remains the instinctive standard of measurement for people inside and outside the game?
For the answer, you have to go way back in time, back to the earliest days of the professional game in the 1870s. When the game began, all was not as it is today. Pitchers threw underhand, from 50 feet away (ask the bird Randy Johnson drilled in spring training what his fastball would look like at 50 feet). Batters could call for a low pitch or a high pitch and the pitcher was obliged to give him what he asked for. It took nine balls to walk a batter. And fielders didn’t wear gloves, not even the catchers, who stood (not crouched) well behind the plate because they wore no masks or padding.
Under these conditions, naturally, walks as an offensive weapon were nearly useless. When Henry Chadwick invented the box score and began tallying statistics, it is said (I don’t have a source handy) that he considered including walks in the “batting average” but decided against it; if I recall correctly he believed that walks were too rare and out of the batter’s control to be a useful measurement. This made sense at the time; nobody works a pitcher for a nine-ball walk if there’s a chance of putting the ball in play. In the National League’s inaugural season, Ross Barnes led the league with 20 walks in over 340 plate appearances. Since Barnes batted .429 and led the league in doubles and triples, it’s a safe assumption that some of those were semi-intentional. There was no use in batters focusing on trying to up their walk totals from 10 to 15, nor in statisticians tracking such minor variations.
Extra base hits were also rare, for less obvious reasons – it’s hard to pull the ball at 50 feet, and few hitters stood taller than 5 foot 6 – but mostly because of the stress placed on putting the ball in play. The reason why is directly connected to the absence of gloves: in each of the NL’s first five seasons, there were more unearned runs than earned runs scored, and it wasn’t until 1906 that the average number of unearned runs dropped below 1 per game. Given the ease of making contact (when you knew where the pitch would be) and the payoff in errors as well as singles from putting the ball in play, it was a sensible strategy to pick a team on the basis of who was best at just making solid contact on a regular basis. A strikeout was a lost opportunity to induce an error. As Keeler said, “hit ‘em where they ain’t;” but also hit ‘em where they are and hope they drop the ball.
Over the years, the game changed. The number of balls needed for a walk dropped throughout the 1880s, settling at the current 4-balls/3-strikes by 1889. The mound was moved to its current distance in 1893 and pitchers started to throw overhand. Six-footers entered the game, like the first real power hitter, Big Dan Brouthers. Gloves entered common use by the late 1880s, and after about 1920 the combination of bigger gloves, better fields and clean baseballs dramatically improved fielding percentages, which have been rising steadily ever since. In the 1890s, players emerged who drew lots of walks and got hit by lots of pitches as well as hitting for average; one of them, John McGraw, became the game’s most successful manager for three decades and built his teams around the same philosophy. In 1919, 1920 and 1921, Babe Ruth shattered the home run record (pushing the record from 27 to 29 to 54 to 59 in three years), and the modern game of getting men on base and waiting for the home run was born.
Through it all, though, the old-time contact hitter and his hit-‘em-where-they-ain’t credo remained a fixture in the game. The Hall of Fame was populated with the likes of Keeler (who stood just under 5 foot 5 and had just 7 doubles, 2 triples and 1 homer in 1898), George Sisler, Rod Carew, Lloyd Waner, Sam Rice, and Nellie Fox, as well as more well-rounded players like Pete Rose (should be in), Ty Cobb, Lou Brock and Wade Boggs for whom the humble one-base hit was their calling card. And the connection of these players to the game’s earliest roots gave sportswriters a reason to laud their accomplishments as somehow morally superior and more pleasing to the “purist” than the likes of Ralph Kiner, who was broiled by the media of the day for his outspoken argument that “Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat.”
Inevitably, though, the winds changed. Kiner’s teams never won anything, but Branch Rickey's and Earl Weaver’s did. Rickey’s statistician introduced on base percentage in the late 1940s, and Weaver’s argument that “if you play for one run that’s all you’ll get” and his mantra of “pitching, defense and the three run homer” began to capture the imagination of people inside and outside the game. Bill James’ books first rocketed to the top of the best seller list in 1982, tapping into a booming base of fans who learned that careful study of the game’s records validated the ideas of McGraw, Rickey, Kiner and Weaver. After Weaver’s retirement his disciples (like Frank Robinson and Davey Johnson) carried on his methods within the game to great success. By the early 1990s it was nearly impossible to ignore the importance of high on base percentages in building successful offenses. Then in the early 1990s, the old taboo against hitters lifing weights was rejected by trailblazers like Mark McGwire, Brady Anderson and Ken Caminiti.
The home run boom of the 1990s would follow, and teams that were built on batting average – or even on base percentage, like Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals – without power were forced to adapt or get buried. The Oakland A’s built a contending team that looked like a beer league squad. High-average hitters like Derek Jeter started smacking 20 homers a year. Tony Gwynn started to look like the last stegosaurus.
But we should appreciate the slender Japanese right fielder for bringing back a little glamor and pizzazz to the single, the original foundation of baseball’s offensive game. There really is an art to spraying the ball to all fields and just dropping balls between fielders, and it can be an entertaining part of a game that is played at its best when teams have a balance of each of its elements. Most comparisons before the season likened Ichiro to Johnny Damon, a player with more patience and more power to the gaps, but the player we see now has more in common with Willie Keeler, George Sisler and Rod Carew. That’s not a bad thing.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
--Royals manager Tony Muser, after the Devil Rays beat the Royals to raise Tampa Bay's record to 6-14.