"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
June 30, 2011
POLITICS: The Biggest Money
This graph is pretty compelling as far as looking at who contributes the most to political candidates and campaigns. This is the status quo that the critics of independent expenditures are so desperate to protect.
June 29, 2011
LAW/POLITICS: The Centralizing Impulse
Michael Barone has an excellent essay on what the partial dissent in Wal-Mart v Dukes says about how businesses should be run. As someone who practices a lot of class action defense, my main interest in the case* was the procedural aspects, including the point on which the Court was unanimous: you can't use Rule 23(b)(2)'s mandatory, no-opt-out class action device and "Trial by Formula" for suits seeking individual damages. But Barone focuses on the real fissure that led to the 5-4 split on whether the case presented common, class-wide issues - the fact that Wal-Mart delegates discretion over personnel decisions down to the local store level and holds managers accountable simply for results - and how the dissent's approach would spell the end of that entire management style. This feeds into one of Barone's larger points: so much of "progressivism" is, for all its emotional hostility to big business, fundamentally dependent on an economy and society in which decisions are made on a nationwide basis by large, centralized institutions like big corporations, the federal government and large labor unions. Defined-benefit pension plans, nationwide class actions, a massively complex corporate tax code, volumes upon volumes of federal regulations - all these things are spectacularly ill-suited to addressing a decentralized world in which even people connected to large institutions are genuinely empowered at the local level, to say nothing of their poor fit with smaller businesses that lack the economies of scale to cope with byzantine federal regulatory demands, rent-seeking plaintiffs lawyers and long-term pension and health care costs for current employees.
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* - Disclaimer: My firm was involved in the case, this post is solely my own opinion, etc.
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June 28, 2011
June 20, 2011
POLITICS: Where Do I Sign?
Expecting consistency from left-wing political activists is folly, but rarely does one get such a glaring example as the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen on presidential "signing statements." Watch, and your head will spin.
During the Bush years, liberal commentators suddenly discovered that they didn't like the longstanding practice of "signing statements" by which the President offered his own interpretation of legislation he was signing, in some cases declaring his intention to ignore unconstitutional provisions. Now, in a better world, presidents would just veto laws containing unconstitutional things - this was, in fact, perhaps the most frequent basis on which presidents used the veto power in the 19th Century - but the use of signing statements to set forth a public defense of Executive Branch prerogatives has a long and bipartisan history, and there is a quite respectable argument that such statements preserve the President's role as head of a co-equal branch of government with as much right to his interpretation of the Constitution as Congress or the Supreme Court.
Anyway, Steve Benen was one of the liberal bloggers who pushed the anti-signing-statements hysteria without consideration that there was any argument for defending the practice whatsoever:
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MAKING A STATEMENT....Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has caved to White House demands on a wide variety of issues, but when it comes to presidential signing statements, the Pennsylvania senator has actually been pretty good. A year ago, he even tried to introduce legislation that would allow Congress to sue the president over his use of these legally dubious documents. He asked at the time, "What's the point of having a statute if ... the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like? ... If he doesn't like the bill, let him veto it."
We have a bizarre dynamic at play: Congress passes bills, Bush signs the bills into law, and then, in several instances, after the president issues signing statements, the Bush administration decides not to do what the law mandates.
Specter added, "If the president is permitted to rewrite the bills that Congress passes and cherry-pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process designed by our framers."
REMEMBER SIGNING STATEMENTS?.... There are plenty of reasons to look forward to the end of Bush's presidency, but I'm especially pleased at the prospect of having a president who won't sign bills into law, only to announce soon after which parts of the law he plans to ignore.
SIGNING STATEMENTS.... It's hard to know where to start when detailing George W. Bush's assaults on constitutional norms, but near the top of any list would have to be his signing statements. The former president used them to give laws passed by Congress a little "touch up," explaining which parts of the law he didn't like, which parts he'd ignore, etc.
But even at the outset of the Obama Administration, Benen was suddenly untroubled by the idea that Obama was going to use signing statements for the same basic purpose:
Obama said he would consider using signing statements as president, but would take a modest approach, and limit them to bills that include provisions of dubious constitutionality.
Which brings us to...
June 20, 2011, "Taking a hatchet to presidential power"
Also note, the same day as this letter about recesses, House Republicans also began pushing a measure to prevent the president from issuing "signing statements" - another power presidents have been using for generations.
What I find remarkable about all of this is comparing the seriousness of the times and the severity of the GOP's restrictions. In effect, President Obama is being told, "You have to fix the economy, win several wars, fix the housing crisis, respond to disasters, improve American energy policy, and keep the country safe, all while being fiscally responsible. But you can't have a full team in place; you can't enjoy the same powers your predecessors did; you can't use the same tools your predecessors used; and you can't expect the Senate to function by majority rule the way it used to. Good luck."
Good thing President Bush wasn't expected to solve any difficult problems, never had his appointees bottled up in the Senate, and never had anybody try to stop him from using longstanding presidential powers like signing statements! Because Steve Benen would have been there to tell them off!
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June 19, 2011
POP CULTURE: RIP Big Man
RIP Clarence Clemons. Bruce will undoubtedly tour again, but it really is an end of an era, the end of a whole, long period of my life and the lives of so many other fans of the E Street Band, to think we'll never see the Big Man on stage again.
UPDATE: Read Joe Posnanski on Clarence. Just do.
I offered up some video memories here. A few more below the fold.
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Cadillac Ranch, 1985 - this really captures the power of Clarence's horn, and how it just drives this classic driving song along:
Detroit Medley 1984 - always a fan favorite, and more of Bruce & Clarence's showmanship on stage:
And for the farewell, Land of Hope and Dreams, 2002...
...and Bobby Jean, 1984:
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June 16, 2011
POLITICS: Militarizing America: The Nick Kristof Plan
So often, the problem with the New York Times op-ed page is not just the left-leaning politics, but the poor quality of the contributors, despite the fact that they occupy some of the highest-paid and most-visible perches in the punditocracy. And the hallmark of poor quality punditry is the failure to think through the implications of one's arguments. So it is with today's column from Times columnist Nick Kristof.
Kristof's thesis is that the US military is actually a "socialist" institution that should be a model for our society:
[I]f we seek another model, one that emphasizes universal health care and educational opportunity, one that seeks to curb income inequality, we don’t have to turn to Sweden. Rather, look to the United States military.
Now, it's reasonable as far as it goes to point out that the military, being wholly-owned and operated by the government, does not behave like a private for-profit enterprise. But does Kristof really think the military isn't too bureaucratic and inefficient to be a model for the private sector? Hint: it is, because it's a government bureaucracy, but we tolerate that because it performs an essential and irreplaceable function. Even leaving that aside, however, let's look at the essential characteristics of the military as a workplace, few of which Kristof seems to have thought through and many of which, I'd guess, he would find objectionable as applied to the private sector:
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1. The workforce is not free. You join the military, unless you are discharged, you must serve out your enlisted term of years. Most American workers are free to change jobs, and even if you have a contract for a stated period, the Thirteenth Amendment protects you in most cases from being compelled to do more than pay money damages for quitting. Not so with soldiers, who can be imprisoned for desertion. Also, enlisted soldiers often must live in housing provided by their employer (depending on their rank and other conditions), and ordinarily have few rights of privacy against inspection of their living quarters. They can be shipped hither and yon without their consent.
2. The workforce is not unionized. The military's complete control over working conditions is in no way obstructed by collective bargaining or work rules. Nor are wages protected by statutory schemes such as the Davis-Bacon Act.
3. The employer is largely immune from suit. Americans with Disabilities Act? Sexual harrassment litigation? Medical malpractice? Age Discrimination in Employment Act? Never heard of them. Most of the workforce is under 40, disproportionately male, physically fit, and until very recently did not permit open homosexuals to serve. Military culture is distinctive, and feminists in particular have long complained of the persistence of a 'macho' culture. The upper ranks of the military are naturally dominated by men, because women are barred from the jobs (i.e., combat) that provide the most important opportunities for advancement.
4. The entire workforce is armed and wears uniforms. I'm guessing this is not the case in the New York Times newsroom.
As it happens, the things that make the military so cohesive, and so willing to accept wages and working conditions that would be objectionable in the private sector, are inseparable from its dangerous and violent mission, focus on combat and, yes, its irreducibly masculine culture. As Jonah Goldberg traced in his excellent book Liberal Fascism, Kristof is following an impulse here that recurs with great regularity in the liberal imagination: the desire to replicate the "socialist" nature of the military - or of civilian life in times of total war - without its military-ness. Goldberg draws extensively on the history, from post-World War I progressives (including FDR) seeking to recreate the conditions of the wartime Wilson Administration, to LBJ's War on Poverty, to Jimmy Carter's "moral equivalent of war" on energy consumption - he might have added Kristof's colleague Paul Krugman, who is constantly harping on the economic conditions of the World War II era as a model. But they always fail; men who will run uphill into a machine gun nest for their comrades simply will not do the same thing to sell dishwashers, and no amount of re-imagining of fundamental human nature will make them do so. Militarized societies inevitably founder on this basic reality; they face constant pressure to become wholly militarized and regimented, yet sooner or later they still fail to sustain conditions in which ordinary citizens act like soldiers. As my RedState colleague Repair Man Jack commented, "they tried that in Germany and Italy once. The results weren't what anyone could have hoped for."
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June 13, 2011
POLITICS: The Last To Know
The president jokes - and not for the first time - about "shovel-ready" projects in the stimulus not being actually shovel-ready. It's staggering how little attention you have to have paid to American government before 2009 to be surprised by this.
Obama's inexperience has proven to be awfully expensive. Next time, let's not elect a guy whose first order of business is to spend nearly a trillion dollars on something with no idea how it works. That would be a good start.
BASKETBALL: The Promised Land
After all the LeBron James hype, the NBA title goes to the Dallas Mavericks. This is good news all around.
Starting with the champs - with the Rangers coming up short in October and the Cowboys long removed from their halcyon years, Dallas fans haven't had a title to celebrate since the Dallas Stars in 1999, and Dallas is - to put it mildly - not predominantly a hockey town. The Mavericks have had many good teams over the years, but this is the first time over the hump for the franchise and its long-suffering fans, for Mark Cuban, for Dirk Nowitzki, for Jason Kidd. Even if you don't love some of those guys - it's been hard to root for Kidd since he pleaded guilty to domestic abuse a decade ago - they've paid their dues in the NBA.
As for the Heat, I may be alone in this view, but as I wrote in July, I want them to succeed and prove the naysayers wrong, in part because it pains me to see a talent as great as LeBron James get run down for not winning a title, and in part because I've overdosed on the preening of the LeBron bashers - but at the same time, I'm happy that he melted down and failed to win it this year. A little humility, a little adversity along the way is not just good for the soul, it's good for the sport. A great many of the NBA's legends (like Nowitzki and Kidd) failed in their first crack at the Finals, and sometimes multiple times, before getting over that hump - Shaq, Wilt, Olajuwon, Drexler, Dr. J, Moses, Jerry West, Isiah, Wes Useld, Elvin Hayes, Bob Pettit. LeBron, of course, has now been down this road twice. It will make it all that sweeter, and feel more earned, when and if he finally wins the big one.
POP CULTURE: The Big Man
Clarence Clemons, hospitalized in Florida after a stroke, has had two brain surgeries but is "responsive and in stable condition," according the authoritative Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fan website, backstreets.com.
Prayers and best wishes for the Big Man, one of rock's greatest performers in his own right. I could offer you a thousand words on his impact on Bruce Springsteen's music as well as his other projects, but instead, here's a collection of great memories on video:
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So Young and In Love, 2008 - nobody does the opening sax solo like Clarence:
Sherry Darling, 1984 - another great opening sax solo, plus some classic clowning around with Bruce:
Quarter to Three, 1989, with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band - another opening sax solo, and Clarence as bandleader:
Quarter to Three again, 1979 - this picks up in the middle of the song, but shows the breakneck tempo at which the E Street Band used to play this song without losing cohesion, as well as Clarence playing fight referee and duck walking:
And I couldn't leave the Bruce section of this post without Rosalita, 1978:
part 2 of that clip:
Freeway of Love, with Aretha Franklin, 1985:
Santa Claus is Coming to Town, with the Pointer Sisters, 1987:
Here's what could be Clarence's swan song, the Lady Gaga single Edge of Glory (which, thanks in no small part to Clarence, is the first of her songs I have actually liked) - his sax solo starts around 3:05, and starts the outtro around 4:30, and will no doubt be heard everywhere on radio this summer, just like it was 1985 one more time:
And finally, Clarence in his own words on meeting Bruce for the first time:
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June 10, 2011
BUSINESS/OTHER SPORTS: Grantland on the National
If you haven't yet checked out Bill Simmons' new ESPN-backed website Grantland.com, you should. The site has taken its share of mockery, partly due to the hazing that comes with new, risky ideas, partly because Bill's success (a recent NY Times profile labelled him " the most prominent sportswriter in America") has spawned a natural backlash, partly because of the eccentric decision by ESPN brass to name the site after long-dead 1920s sportswriting icon Grantland Rice. The site is mainly geared towards long-form sportswriting, and of course it makes me nostalgic for the days when Bill was running his own small, scrappy regional site back in Boston, where I was one of the very few regular contributors.
Anyway, it is fitting that one of Grantland's inaugural features is a two-part oral history/remembrance (here and here) of The National, America's first and only national daily sports newspaper, which ran from 1990-91. The profile is chock full of hilarious detail, lovingly remembered by the many talented writers who worked there - it's worth the read just for the vicious potshots taken by the interviewees at Mike Lupica, who used The National as one of his many platforms but, unlike most of the others, didn't commit his heart and soul to the project. You can tell reading it that most of the people involved felt, and still feel, that The National was the most exciting thing they'd ever be involved with. The tale of its rise and fall, complete with extravagant spending, a fantastic product, and a complete failure of practical business planning, strongly foreshadowed the dot-com mania that arose later in the decade, although ironically it was the technology of the late 90s that the paper most desperately needed and lacked. But as the retrospective points out, the paper may not have been a success, but it had influence on the sports-media world that persists to this day.
I remember fondly reading The National, on those occasions when I could lay hands on it and it had timely boxscores, always a dicey proposition. Some context on the times, and on why I confess I didn't myself read The National as often as I'd have liked: we think today of the college years as a time when young people are deluged with access to the Information Age, but in 1990-91 I was in my sophmore-junior years in college in the days before the Internet; I didn't own a television until my third year of law school, I could only sporadically get WFAN, I couldn't afford a daily newspaper (as often as not I went to the library to read the papers)...and at the time, I was writing a weekly political op-ed column for the campus newspaper, the lead sports columnist job being filled by Bill Simmons. When I went to spend a semester in DC in the spring of 1992, I actually had to put a 3.5" floppy disk in the mail every week to publish my column. When I started writing again for Bill's site in 2000, it was a revelation to be able to email him a column and have it posted the next day. Now, of course, anything but instantaneous publication seems archaic.
Anyway, set aside some reading time - it's a long profile but worth the read.
June 9, 2011
LAW/POLITICS: The Perils of Complexity
As a practicing lawyer, I naturally have a professional interest in vague and/or complex legal rules that require lots of expensive legal research, training and experience to understand and explain. But complexity isn't just costly to consumers of legal services, and thus a burden on business as well as on citizen access to the courts. It's also a drag on the economy and on personal liberty, as businesses and ordinary citizens must choose between paying lots of compliance lawyers or steering too wide of increasingly large gray areas. It risks in particular the unfair, arbitrary and sometimes corrupt or discriminatory abuse of the criminal justice system to prosecute things that were hard to foresee as violations of the law. And it demeans democracy, as the actual making of law is done by judges and bureaucrats rather than citizen-elected legislators.
One of the greatest virtues of Justice Scalia in his quarter-century on the Supreme Court (he celebrates 25 years on the High Court in September) has been his structural critique of, and systemic assault on, unnecessary legal complexity. In three opinions this morning, he focused attention on three different aspects of that same problem - one of which was graphically illustrated by yesterday's news regarding the widespread practice of waivers under Obamacare. And last week's news regarding the indictment of John Edwards illustrates how the failure to heed Scalia's wise observations has made a hash of efforts by campaign finance "reformers" to regulate political speech in the United States.
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1. Sykes v United States: Vagueness By Judging
In the first case, Sykes v. United States, Scalia dissented from an opinion by Justice Kennedy regarding the Armed Career Criminal Act, which punishes the possession of firearms by felons with three prior "violent felony" convictions. Congress, however, did not set out an exhausive list in the ACCA of what is a "violent felony," and since every state has its own set of felonies, there has been repeated litigation over what is and is not a "violent felony," and the Court has adopted a variety of tests for determining whether a particular state felony counts. Blasting "today's tutti-frutti opinion" for failing to choose among these tests, Scalia tore into the entire process of using repeated Supreme Court cases to define what Congress, in the ACCA, has failed to define:
As the Court's opinion acknowledges, this case is "another in a series,"...More specifically, it is an attempt to clarify, for the fourth time since 2007, what distinguishes "violent felonies" under the residual clause of the [ACCA], from other crimes. We try to include an ACCA residual-clause case in about every second or third volume of the United States Reports.
My assessment has not been changed by the Court's later decisions in the ACCA "series." Today's opinion, which adds to the "closest analog" test ... the "purposeful, violent, and aggressive" test ... and even the risky-as-the-least-risky test that I had proposed as the exclusive criterion, has not made the statute's application clear and predictable. And all of them together - or even the risky-as-the-least-risky test alone, I am now convinced - never will. The residual-clause series will be endless, and we will be doing ad hoc application of ACCA to the vast variety of state criminal offenses until the cows come home.
Scalia found especially unhelpful the Court's technocratic analysis through crime statistics of what felonies tend to be associated with violence (a chronic problem with using the ever-changing body of social science research to determine the meaning of a statute or Constitutional term that was adopted at a fixed point in time):
[T]he more fundamental problem with the Court's use of statistics is that, far from eliminating the vagueness of the residual clause, it increases the vagueness. Vagueness, of course, must be measured ex ante - before the Court gives definitive meaning to a statutory provision, not after. Nothing is vague once the Court decrees precisely what it means. And is it seriously to be expected that the average citizen would be familiar with the sundry statistical studies showing (if they are to be believed) that this-or-that crime is more likely to lead to physical injury than what sundry statistical studies (if they are to be believed) show to be the case for burglary, arson, extortion, or use of explosives? To ask the question is to answer is to answer it.
Finally, Scalia homes in on the real culprit: an overly-meddlesome Congress:
We face a Congress that puts forth an ever-increasing volume of laws in general, and of criminal laws in particular. It should be no surprise that as the volume increases, so do the number of imprecise laws. And no surprise that our indulgence of imprecisions that violate the Constitution encourages imprecisions that violate the Constitution. Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the Congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nittygritty. In the field of criminal law, at least, it is time to call a halt. I do not think it would be a radical step - indeed, I think it would be highly responsible - to limit ACCA to the named violent crimes. Congress can quickly add what it wishes. Because the majority prefers to let vagueness reign, I respectfully dissent.
2. DePierre v. United States: Lawmaking By Legislative History
One of Justice Scalia's best-known crusades, at least among lawyers, is against the use of legislative history to determine the meaning of statutes. Now, there are good reasons at times to look at the historical record at the time a statute or Constitutional provision was enacted to get a general sense of how terms were understood at the time and what problem a particular enactment was targeted at, but Scalia's point is twofold: (1) when Congress speaks clearly, its work should not be undone by what was said at some point by some participant in the legislative debate and (2) legislative history is rarely a trustworthy guide to what the majority who voted for a bill intended - it can easily capture just the thinking of some staffers. And of course, if you have to research legislative history every time lawyers argue over a statute, that makes litigation more expensive, and the law harder to understand for non-lawyers who don't keep volumes of USCCAN on their bookshelves.
In a characteristically acid-tipped concurrence to an opinion by Justice Sotomayor holding that "cocaine base," for sentencing purposes, includes all forms of cocaine base and not just crack, Justice Scalia unloaded on the Court for taking the time to include a discussion of legislative history in its analysis:
Everything in-between could and should have been omitted. Even if Dr. Byck had not lectured an undetermined number of likely somnolent Congressmen on "the damaging effects of cocaine smoking on people in Peru," ... we would still hold that the words "cocaine base" mean cocaine base. And here, as always, the needless detour into legislative history is not harmless. It conveys the mistaken impression that legislative history could modify the text of a criminal statute as clear as this. In fact, however, even a hypothetical House Report expressing the Committee's misunderstanding (or perhaps just the Committee staff's misunderstanding, who knows?) that "cocaine base means crack cocaine" could not have changed the outcome of today's opinion.
3. Talk America, Inc. v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co.: Lawmaking By Bureaucratic Fiat
In the third of today's trilogy, Justice Scalia filed a concurrence to an opinion by Justice Thomas regarding the meaning of some FCC regulations. There are longstanding rules (subject to some exceptions not relevant here) under which courts defer to administrative agencies in determining the meaning of the statute the agency is charged with enforcing. Justice Scalia wrote separately to explain why he was rethinking one corollary to that rule, extending deference to an agency's interpretation of its own regulations:
On the surface, it seems to be a natural corollary - indeed, an a fortiori application - of the rule that we will defer to an agency's interpretation of the statute it is charged with implementing ... But it is not. When Congress enacts an imprecise statute that it commits to the implementation of an executive agency, it has no control over that implementation (except, of course, through further, more precise, legislation). The legislative and executive functions are not combined. But when an agency promulgates an imprecise rule, it leaves to itself the implementation of that rule, and thus the initial determination of the rule's meaning. And though the adoption of a rule is an exercise of the executive rather than the legislative power, a properly adopted rule has fully the effect of law. It seems contrary to fundamental principles of separation of powers to permit the person who promulgates a law to interpret it as well. "When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner." Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws ...
Obamacare Waivers and Bureaucratic Lawmaking
The issue of combining the executive and judicial functions was a great source of controversy during the Bush years, as many liberals reacted with loud horror at the Bush Administration's use of "signing statements" - a longstanding practice used by all prior Administrations - to announce where it would not comply with laws it deemed unconstitutional. Yet the problem has mushroomed under the Obama Administration, with nary a peep from the same critics - not only has Obama continued the use of signing statements, he has also refused to defend the constitutionality of duly-enacted laws. And of course, the excessive reliance on bureaucracies to make, enforce and construe the law has expanded apace under this Administration together with its push for more regulations, more "czars," and more government meddling in business.
The latest example of this is the news that Obamacare - the bill you famously had to pass to find out what was in it - doesn't expressly authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to grant waivers from the statute's requirements:
[T]he Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) never had the authority to issue waivers from Obamacare's annual limit requirements.
This is a far larger issue than signing statements, given the massive reach of the statute into American domestic life, and the waiver process is a graphic real-world illustration of Justice Scalia's concern about arbitrary enforcement when laws are not clear on their face, accountable to Congress and applied uniformly across the population:
In what's become a bit of a pattern for the Obama administration, there's at least an appearance of political favoritism in favor of those who lobbied for HHS to grant itself waiver power. Many of the administration's nearly 1,400 waivers, including the waivers that went to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district in April, went to companies and entities that lobbied their support behind HHS's drive to grant itself that power.
United States v Johnny Edwards
For another such graphic illustration, look no further than John Edwards, a two-time presidential candidate who 59 million Americans voted to make Vice President in 2004, and who now stands under indictment for taking money from contributors to cover up an affair and illegitimate child. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Edwards, but after the initial rush of schadenfreude wore off, the fact remains that his criminal prosecution, too, raises some troubling questions about the complexity of the law. Much of the original debate about the legal investigation of Edwards was about whether he could be charged with misusing campaign contributions to pay off his mistress, on the theory that this is not a valid campaign purpose. But instead, Edwards was charged under precisely the opposite theory: that taking money from big backers to pay off his mistress, without reporting them as campaign contributions, violated FEC rules because paying her off was for the purpose of advancing his campaign. Edwards was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.
This is, if you recall, not the first time a major figure on the national political scene has faced a campaign finance investigation or prosecution under rules that are far from clear, ranging from the IRS investigation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to the investigation of then-Vice President Al Gore to the conviction of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In each case, there was much controversy over the complexity of the rules involved and the lack of precedents for the charges being levelled - witness Gore's famous lament, under a provision of the Pendleton Act that hadn't been enforced since 1883, that there was "no controlling legal authority." You may find these protestations unconvincing as to those politicians you disagree with, but one of the basic principles of clarity in the law is that you shouldn't pass criminal statutes if you wouldn't be prepared to see them used against someone you like. Ad hoc-racy is not democracy in the world of campaign finance any more than it is under the ACCA.
Maybe we need to listen more to Justice Scalia and that old military maxim, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
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June 7, 2011
BASEBALL: Citi Field Detailed Home/Road Splits
SNY's Ted Berg asked this question on Twitter, and it seemed worthy of a detailed response: "Is there any hard evidence that Citi Field plays as an extreme pitcher's park?"
Well, using the same method as in my "History of Defense" breakdowns, I combined the batting stats for all Mets games 2009-11 thru Sunday's action, both by and against the Mets. Here's the home/road splits:
Runs per game:
Batting Average on Balls in Play:
Doubles per 600 at bats:
Triples per 600 at bats:
Home Runs per 600 at bats:
Walks per 660 plate appearances (I used a PA metric rather than at bats for walks and strikeouts):
Strikeouts per 660 plate appearances:
Conclusion: From 2009-11, which now seems a large enough sample size to judge, Citi Field has played as a fairly extreme pitchers' park, drastically reducing scoring and home runs, depressing batting averages on balls in play, and slightly decreasing doubles and increasing strikeouts. It is, however, a great triples park, undoubtedly due to its spacious power alleys (and a few Mets hitters well-suited to exploit them), and has seen walks increase slightly at home.
UPDATE: So, if the Mets are looking down the road to what kinds of hitters prosper at Citi Field, who should they be looking at? Here's the 2009-11 home/road splits of Mets hitters with at least 200 plate appearances at Citi Field - home line on the left, road line on the right, and home OPS divided by road OPS in the H/R column:
I admit it's odd to see Bay (and Tatis) that high, but otherwise it's the people you'd expect: line-drive/gap hitters like Reyes, Castillo, Pagan and Murphy at the top, Beltran at the bottom (Wright hasn't suffered at Citi nearly as much as Beltran). Reyes this season is batting .395/.453/.645 with 10 triples in 29 games at home, .277/.315/.361 with zero triples on the road.
So, if the Mets go to the free agent market in 2011, they should be looking to sign a player as much like Jose Reyes as possible. Gee, if only such a player was going to be a free agent after this season...
Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:44 AM | Baseball 2011 | Baseball Studies | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
June 2, 2011
BASEBALL: A History of Team Defense (Part I of II)
Who are the best defensive teams of all time? Individual defensive statistics in baseball - as in other team sports - have been crudely kept and poorly understood for years, with the more sophisticated modern methods only being gathered for the past decade or two. As a result, even statistically-oriented baseball fans have tended to answer questions about defense as much by reputation and anecdote as anything. The lack of a statistical framework tends to make defense a bit invisible in our memories; even most knowledgeable fans have no more concrete sense of, say, Ty Cobb as a defensive player than they do of Turkey Stearnes as a hitter. My goal in this essay is to a little bit to remedy that on the team level.
We do have one measurement of team defense that endures over time and thus can be used as a baseline for measuring team defense: Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER). I'd like to walk you through the history of the best and worst teams in each league, and the league average, in DER from the dawn of organized league ball in 1871 down to this season. As usual, I'll try to explain here what I'm measuring in terms that make sense to readers who may not be all that familiar with the 'sabermetric' literature, although I make no claim to be current myself on every study out there, and welcome comments pointing to additional studies.
What is DER?
DER is, put simply, the percentage of balls in play against a team that are turned into outs. The exact formulas used to compute DER can vary a bit, and while Baseball-Reference.com - which I used for this study - computes DERs all the way back to the start of organized baseball in 1871, its description of the formula is a bit vague:
Percentage of balls in play converted into outs This is an estimate based on team defensive and pitching stats. We utilize two estimates of plays made. One using innings pitched, strikeouts, double plays and outfield assists. And the other with batters faced, strikeouts, hits allowed, walks allowed, hbp, and .71*errors committed (avg percent of errors that result in an ROE) Total plays available are plays made + hits allowed - home runs + error committed estimate.
All methods for computing DER look at the percentage of balls in play that become hits; it appears that Baseball-Reference.com's formula also counts the outs that result from double plays or outfield assists, both clear examples of outs created by good defense, as well as counting against the defense the one thing that fielding percentages always recorded - errors - but only where they put a man on base. From what I can tell, essentially the same formula is used over all of the site's historical DER data, so the data is generally consistent over time.
It's worth recalling that DER only measures outs vs. men reaching base - it doesn't deal with extra bases on doubles and triples, or stolen bases and caught stealing, or other baserunning issues. So, it's only one part of the picture just as on base percentage is just one part of the offensive picture. But like OBP, it's the single most important part.
What Goes Into Team DER?
One of Bill James' maxims throughout the 1980s was that "much of what we perceive to be pitching is in fact defense." As most of my readers will recall, Voros McCracken broke major ground in the field of baseball analysis of pitching and defense in 2001 with a study showing that Major League pitchers, over time, had no effect - or at least, there was no difference among Major League pitchers in the effect they had - on whether balls in play become outs. Strikeouts, walks and home runs (the so-called "Three True Outcomes") are the pitcher vs. the hitter, mano a mano, but on average, BABIP (batting average on balls in play, the flip side of DER) shows no tendency to be consistent year to year among individual pitchers; other statistical indicators also strongly suggest that a pitcher's BABIP tends to be mostly a combination of team defense and luck. The simple way of expressing McCracken's insight is that it's the defense rather than the pitcher that determines how many balls in play become outs.
As with most groundbreaking insights, further research has added some caveats to McCracken's theory. The first one, which he observed from the beginning, was that knuckleballers tend as a group to have lower than average BABIP, and thus are something of an exception to the rule. I haven't absorbed all the further studies, but there are reasons to suspect that other classes of pitchers may have a modest advantage in the battle against BABIP, including elite relievers (Troy Percival, Armando Benitez, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Keith Foulke all seemed to have much lower career BABIP than their circumstances would suggest) and possibly pitchers who throw a huge number of breaking balls (we'll discuss Andy Messersmith a bit below).
Also, McCracken's research, and most of the following research, looked at the conditions of modern baseball (at the time, Retrosheet and Baseball Prospectus' database only went back to the mid-1950s). It's entirely possible that pitchers had greater influence on BABIP/DER in the era before 1920, or further back, when there were pitchers who had consistent success even in the era when most plate appearances resulted in a ball in play and thus the pitcher had little opportunity to set himself apart from his peers by success in the Three True Outcomes. As I explained in this 2001 essay, the playing conditions were greatly different in 19th century baseball in particular, and I'd be hesitant without data on that era to just assume that the pitcher's effect on balls in play was as minimal then as it is now.
Finally, of course, as with other statistical measures, there are park effects. We all know that different parks are more or less favorable for hitters, and of the components of that, park effects on home runs are significant, and parks can effect walks and strikeouts as well. (Less so for baserunning, in most cases). Balls in play are no exception, and I don't have data handy on how park effects specifically affect balls in play over time besides the ability to notice some trends (for example, the Polo Grounds for many years was a great home run park but not a great hitters' park; I assume DER there tended to be high) and a few specific examples where I dug into the numbers we have. So bear in mind that the numbers set out below are not park-adjusted.
Key to the Charts
BIP%: Percentage of plate appearances resulting in a ball in play (i.e.,Plate Appearances minus homers, walks and strikeouts). Since I used league batting rather than pitching data for this, there may be a slight discrepancy for the period since the start of interleague play in 1997.
NL/AL etc.: Under the league name I have the league's DER for that season.
High/Low: The team with the league's highest and lowest DERs. I used Baseball-Reference.com's team abbreviations.
DER: That team's DER
High%/Low%: Team DER divided by the league average. This is the key number I use to identify the best and worst defensive teams, so we can see who were the best and worst defensive teams relative to the league average. As usual, I'm not using any math here more complicated than simple arithmetic and basic algebra.
Also, where I compute "rough" estimates of BABIP for pre-1950 pitchers I used the basic formula of (H-HR)/((IP*3)+H-HR-K)
Talent levels in the 1870s were especially uneven, as the first organized league - the National Association - began play in 1871 just two years after the debut of the first-ever professional team. Schedules were short (20 games in 1871, in the 60s by decade's end), fielders didn't wear gloves, playing surfaces were ungroomed and in some cases effectively without fences, and with nine balls for a walk and longballs unheard of, nearly every plate appearance resulted in a ball in play - the 1872 season's 96.5% rate is the highest in the game's history, and 1879 was the last season above 90%.
As you can see, defenses improved dramatically over this period, in part no doubt as professional pitchers and fielders learned their craft and more of the nation's best ballplayers gathered into the National Association and later the NL. But errors were a big chunk of the poor defense of the era - 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 would drop below 1 per game.
The most successful defensive team of the era was the 1876 St. Louis "Brown Stockings" team (not precisely the same organization as the Cardinals), the only Major League team ever to be 10% better than its league in DER. Starting pitcher George "Grin" Bradley struck out 1.6 men per 9 innings but led the league with a 1.23 ERA (the team also allowed the league's fewest runs, although their 2.36 unearned runs per 9 innings was only third-best in the league) while throwing all but four of the team's innings. A rough estimate of the BABIP against Bradley is .258 in 1875, .224 in 1876, but .285 after he changed teams the next year, when his ERA nearly tripled, and .267 for his career. Which at least seems consistent with the notion that Bradley's defense was doing most of the work.
Note that the Philadelphia Athletics of 1873-74, featuring Cap Anson and Ezra Sutton in their infield, made the only repeat appearance on the decade's leaderboard (Anson, in his early 20s, played multiple positions including short and third, while Sutton was beginning a long career as a third baseman and shortstop).
The worst defensive team of all time? I hate to give you such an underwhelming answer, but by a wide margin it's the 1873 Baltimore Marylands, who folded after just 6 winless games and almost none of whose players appeared in the big leagues again. The hapless Marylands allowed 144 runs in 6 games (24 per game), only 48 of which were earned; in addition to hideous defense their pitchers didn't strike out a single batter. (The offense was no better, as a team batting average of .156 with only one extra base hit and no walks attest). When you think of the level of competition in those early years, think of the Marylands.
National Association-National League
The game gradually professionalized in the 1880s, but not without a great many bumps along the way. The Union Association of 1884 was only barely a major league (four teams, including Wilmington, folded after playing less than a quarter of the schedule), but diluted the talent level of the two major leagues. The 4-ball/three-strike count wasn't standardized until 1889, after a gradual decline in the number of balls for a walk and a one-year experiment in 1887 with four strikes for a strikeout; DERs rose sharply after the three-strike rule was restored. The schedule topped 100 games for the first time in 1884, and had reached 135 by 1888. The color line was established in the wake of the failure of Reconstruction (which effectively ended in 1877), after only a few black players had taken the field. The first gloves were becoming commonly used by decade's end.
Anson's 1882 White Stockings (now Cubs) and the 1882 Red Stockings (now Reds) became the first pennant-winning teams to lead the league in DER since the founding of the National League (in the NA, only the 1872 Boston team had done so); four teams would do so in each of the two leagues in ten years, plus the Union Association champs. Bid McPhee, enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2000 largely for his defense, anchored the Red Stockings teams that led the league three times in their first six seasons in the league, and their 1882 and 1883 DERs were the most dominant of the decade outside the UA, but the mid-decade St. Louis Browns (now Cardinals) juggernaut also emerged as a defensive powerhouse. The woebegotten 1883 Philadelphia Quakers were the decade's worst defensive team. The NL's most successful defensive squad? The 1884 Providence Grays, much to the benefit of Old Hoss Radbourn, who had his famous 59-12, 1.38 ERA season. Radbourn also struck out 441 batters in 678.1 innings, so he did his share as well, and by a rough calculation the opposing BABIP of .242 - while a career best - wasn't hugely out of line with his career .271 mark. Lucky and good is a good combination.
The NL achieved dominance after the Players League war. The modern era of pitching arrived in 1893 when the mound was moved back from 50 feet to its current 60 feet 6 inches; the percentage of balls in play spiked as strikeouts became almost non-existent, while DERs plunged in 1894 and 1895, suggesting more hard-hit balls off pitchers struggling to adjust to the new distance. The 1890 Pirates were the decade's worst defensive team, the 1895 Baltimore Orioles (with extra balls hidden in the long grass of the outfield among their notorious tricks) the best, although the late-decade Beaneaters (now Braves, featuring Hall of Famers Hugh Duffy and Billy Hamilton in the outfield, Jimmy Collins at third, and Kid Nichols as the staff ace) were consistently dominant and would remain so through 1901. (Collins left in 1901, Duffy the previous year, but Nichols, Hamilton and infield anchors Herman Long, Bobby Lowe and Fred Tenney were there the whole time; Long and Nichols had also been on the 1891 team). Four teams had the NL's best record while leading the league in DER, three of them Beaneaters teams.
The foul-strike rule, adopted in the NL in 1901 and the AL in 1903, brought back the strikeout and contributed, along with better gloves and more "small ball," to rising DERs, as the NL in 1907 became the first league ever to turn 70% of balls in play into outs, rising to 71.4% in 1908, a level that would not be matched again until 1942. Schedules also started to be standardized in 1904, settling around 154 games after a decade mostly in the high 120s.
Surprisingly, defense was not the essential element for many of the pennant winners of the Dead Ball Era's first decade - only one AL pennant winner (the 1903 Red Sox, featuring Jimmy Collins yet again) led the league, and only two NL pennant winners. That being said, the Cubs of the Tinker-Evers-Chance era have as good an argument as anyone to be the dominant defensive team of all time. They led the NL in DER eight times in nine years, as well as finishing a close second (at 726, 101.68% of the league) the ninth of those, and second again in 1912. In 1906, on the way to a 116-36 record, they became the first of five post-1900 teams to beat the league average by 5% or more, and their 736 DER bested the second-place Phillies by 29 points and would not be topped (in raw terms) for 62 years, by men using vastly superior equipment. It's possible there was a park factor at work, although Baseball-Reference.com lists West Side Park (where the Cubs played until Wrigley opened in 1916) as if anything a hitters park until late in the decade; in 1906, the Cubs combined to score and allow 7.24 runs per game at home, 7.03 on the road, with the defense in particular allowing 2.22 runs per game on the road compared to 2.78 at West Side Park. Was it the pitchers? By my rough estimate, the BABIPs against four or the five pitchers on that staff to throw 1000 or more innings as Cubs between 1903 and 1912 -Three Finger Brown, Carl Lundgren, Orval Overall, and Jack Pfiester - varied between .237 and .241 compared to a team average of .241 for all pitchers to throw at least 200 innings on the team over those years, with only one such pitcher above .254. Only Ed Reulbach, at .230, seems to have stood out a bit. That suggests that the team's defense was the predominant factor. The same BABIP figure for the rival Giants, a good but more normal defensive team, was .259 - the 19-point advantage on balls in play for Brown over Christy Mathewson is almost certainly the main explanation for why Brown's ERA was better (1.75 to 1.90) over those years, although of course Brown was nonetheless a great pitcher.
Best AL defensive team? The 1901 Red Sox, another Jimmy Collins squad. Worst team of the decade? The unraveling 1902 Baltimore Orioles, who were deserted by John McGraw in mid-season and relocated to New York (now the Yankees) the following spring (like the prior year's Milwaukee franchise - there's a long history of teams getting folded or moved after cellar-dwelling DERs, as terrible defense is often a byproduct of organizational failure).
Also, note the atrocious showings by the late-decade Washington Senators, the team on which Walter Johnson broke in, yet another way in which Johnson's early career was plagued by bad teams. Johnson would bear some closer study - a quick look suggests that his BABIPs may have been better than his teams' for much of his career, as if he needed more advantages on top of leading the AL in K/BB ratio nine times, K/9 seven times, fewest BB/9 twice and fewest HR/9 three times (a favorite stat: Johnson in 1918-19 threw 616.1 innings and allowed just two home runs, both of them by Babe Ruth). His BABIP seems to have hit a career low of .219 in 1913 at the same time as his career high 6.39 K/BB ratio, another example of perhaps being both lucky and good, or perhaps there being a correlation between the two.
Defense had the upper hand in the teens, with DERs regularly topping 70% leaguewide in the second half of the decade, especially in the NL. If top defensive teams winning the pennant were a rarity in the prior decade, they became routine in the teens - five times in the NL, five in the AL. The Red Sox were the decade's dominant team in the AL both defensively and overall, and continued to lead the league even after the departure in 1916 of Tris Speaker. (Oddly, the Red Sox went from the best DER in the AL in 1912 to the worst in 1913 and back to the best in 1914; more on that below.) Meanwhile, the NL's revolving door of pennant winners (and World Series doormats) from 1915-19 were generally whoever handled the balls in play best. Yet most of those NL teams didn't beat the league average by all that much, and the best single-season showing was the 1919 Yankees. The worst, unsurprisingly, was the post-fire-sale 1915 A's (with a fossilized 40-year-old Nap Lajoie at second and their best remaining player, catcher Wally Schang, playing out of position at third), although the doormat 1911 Braves weren't far behind.
The Cubs' defense stopped being dominant with the 1913 departure of Joe Tinker, who went on to anchor the Federal League's best defense, while Johnny Evers was part of lifting those Braves out of their 1911-12 defensive funk to a slightly above average defensive team in 1914 (they'd been below average in 1913 - that said, I'd expected the 1914 Miracle Braves to be one of the teams that had a huge year defensively, and even with Evers and Rabbit Maranville, they didn't).
Lower strikeout rates with the lively ball's arrival were probably the largest factor in the sudden increase in scoring in the Twenties, as even the gradual arrival of home run hitters and a leaguewide rise in walks couldn't stop the upward march of the percentage of balls in play. But DERs dropped a good 15 points as well.
Defense was slightly more the hallmark of AL than NL pennant winners in the Twenties - six in the AL, four in the NL. Naturally the 1927 Yankees were the best in the league at this, too, their fifth league lead in nine years. And Walter Johnson finally got some real defensive support when the Senators won their two pennants in 1924-25, dropping Johnson's BABIP from .280 to .248 in 1924.
As discussed in the next decade, you have to figure a significant park effect was at work in the fact that the Phillies were dead last in the NL in DER 14 times in their last 17 full seasons in the Baker Bowl, including the NL's worst showing of the decade in 1926. Then again, nearly all of those Phillies teams were terrible teams, with a collective .383 winning percentage and only one winning record, in 1932 when their DER was 98.5% of the league average. And the Phillies had led the league in DER behind Grover Alexander in 1915.
1935 saw the arrival of night baseball, which would eventually be a factor in bringing back strikeout rates, as would the growth of relief pitching, still taking its first baby steps in the Thirties; between those factors and more home runs, the AL in 1937 became the first major league in which less than 80% of plate appearances resulted in a ball in play, after being above 83% in the AL and 84% in the NL for much of the Twenties. Six AL pennant winners had the league's best DER, compared to just two in the NL.
The 30s were the best and worst of times. The Phillies hit their nadir in 1930, at 631 the worst raw DER since 1900 (the 1911 Braves being the only other team since 1906 to finish below 650), the worst relative to the league since the ill-fated 1899 Cleveland Spiders and the only team lower than 95% of the league average since the 1915 A's. Not for nothing did they post a modern-record 6.71 team ERA, allow 7.69 runs per game, and lose nearly two-thirds of their games even with Lefty O'Doul batting .383/.453/.604 and scoring 122 runs and Chuck Klein (probably the most park-created of all Hall of Famers) batting .386/.436/.687 with 158 runs scored and 170 RBI. Then again, they also had the league's worst K/BB ratio and allowed the league's most homers, so it wasn't all the defense's fault. And the Phillies left the Baker Bowl for good at the end of June 1938, and still finished last in DER in 1938 and 1941 plus three more times in the mid-1940s.
In the AL, the late-30s St. Louis Browns, presumably despite Harlond Clift at third, were the league's worst, hitting bottom in 1939. Also in St. Louis, if you're curious, the 1934 "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals team was league-average.
On the positive end, we have the 1900s Cubs' top competition for the title of the best defensive team of all time, the 1939 Yankees, the team that Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein (measuring by runs scored and allowed relative to the league) marked as the greatest team of all time in "Baseball Dynasties," noting that they led the league in runs scored and fewest runs allowed four years in a row. So it's not surprising to encounter them here. The Yankees' DER was the furthest above their league of any team since 1885, and their 730 DER led the league by 35 points. This was part of a string of six straight seasons and 12 in 13 years when they had the league's most successful defense, starting in Babe Ruth's last year two years before the arrival of Joe DiMaggio and running clear through World War II. While a number of players appeared on many of those teams (DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, Frank Crosetti, Red Rolfe, Joe Gordon), the only constants were manager Joe McCarthy and catcher Bill Dickey. (Both had also been on the 1933 team that was last in the AL in DER before cutting back the Babe's playing time and putting Earle Combs and Joe Sewell, both 34, out to pasture). You have to give McCarthy some of the credit for the Yankees' consistent defensive excellence, if only in how he chose to distribute playing time.
That said, a significant park effect can't be discounted here. Yankee Stadium was always a pitcher's park, and seems to have been a particularly extreme one in 1939: unlike for the Cubs, we have home/road detailed splits for the 1939 Yankees, which show that Yankee hitters had a BABIP of .273 at home, .315 on the road, while Yankee opponents had a BABIP of .248 at home, .267 on the road - combined, .260 at home, .292 on the road. I haven't had time to run the splits for the Yankees' whole run in that period - this essay took up quite enough of my time, and it would be a worthwhile project for someone else to carry on further - but even on the basis of the huge split for 1939, as remarkable as the Yankees' defensive performance was in the McCarthy era, it has to be taken with the same grain of salt as the Baker Bowl era Phillies. (The 1930 Phillies' Home/Road BABIP splits were .352/.300 for their offense, .365/.341 for their pitching staff, and a combined line of .358/.321 - a 36-point spread)
Speaking of managers, Walter Johnson may not have had great defenses as a pitcher, but as a manager he did better, skippering the Senators to two league-best DERs in four years from 1929-32. And the 1938 Braves became the first Casey Stengel-managed team to lead the league in DER, albeit a squad he inherited from Bill McKechnie with the decade's best DER in the NL in 1937.
In the 1940s, change was in the winds. The war decimated MLB's talent level and introduced inferior baseballs (due to wartime shortages) that traveled poorly when hit. DERs rose back above 70% even before the war in the NL, and in 1942 in the AL. After the war, integration followed and the game was off to the races, while night baseball really came into its own.
In the NL, defense was king - seven pennant winners led the league in DER in nine years between 1939-47, plus the 104-win second-place 1942 Dodgers; four pennant winners led the AL, but three of those were the 1941-43 Yankees. The strongest defensive teams of the decade were McKechnie's 1940 Reds and Lou Boudreau's 1948 Indians (a team famous for its outstanding infield of Boudreau, Ken Keltner, Joe Gordon and Eddie Robinson), the weakest the 1940 Pirates and 1942 Senators (the difference between the Senators of the mid-40s and the Indians of the 50s explains a lot about Early Wynn's career). The chicken-egg question remains regarding good defenses and successful managers, as Leo Durocher's arrival in Brooklyn in 1939 and Billy Southworth's in St. Louis in 1940 were followed within a few years by the construction of superior defensive teams.
The 1947 Reds were the third and last team to go from first to last in the league in DER in a single season, after the 1913 Red Sox and 1880 Buffalo Bisons:
The Bisons and their ace pitcher, Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, hail from baseball's ancient past, and the Red Sox were a bit of a fluke, given the small size of their decline and their rapid rebound the following year. What of the 1947 Reds? 1946 was the last season of McKechnie's career, and McKechnie was notoriously defense-obsessed. The team gave a lot more playing time to 30-year-old shortstop Eddie Miller, outfielder Frank Baumholtz and noodle-armed 35-year-old left fielder Augie Galan. Sidearmer Ewell Blackwell had his big breakthrough season in 1947, improving his K/BB from 1.27 to a league-leading 2.03, but saw his ERA slip slightly from 2.45 to 2.47, while veterans Johnny Vander Meer and Bucky Walters got completely wiped out by the defensive collapse.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 PM | Baseball 2011 | Baseball Studies | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
BASEBALL: A History of Team Defense (Part II of II)
Baseball started moving west with the Braves' move to Milwaukee in 1953, and the resulting shakeup ended the stranglehold of old, mostly smaller ballparks in the East. High walk rates, more power hitters and a few more strikeouts meant that balls in play rates were dropping, while defenses got stingier - the 71.6% of balls in play turned into outs in the NL in 1956 remains the league record.
I've written before about the advantage Casey Stengel's Yankees got from their defense and how it played into the superior performance of pitchers in pinstripes. But it was the Indians who were the true defensive juggernaut of that era, leading the AL seven times in the decade between 1947-56. The AL was truly defensively stratified in those years, with the upper tier of the Yankees, Indians and White Sox at the top and weak sisters like the Browns, Senators, A's and Tigers at the bottom. Park effects were part of that picture for the Yankees - for example, in 1955 the Yankees and their opponents had a BABIP of .265 at home, .278 on the road, compared to .272 at home, .269 on the road for the 1954 Indians.
The 111-win Indians were the best defensive team of the decade (the 1909 Pirates, who finished one point behind the Cubs, are the only team to win 110 games in a season without leading the league in DER), Durocher's 1950 Giants the best NL team, the 1955 Pirates and 1950 Browns the worst; the Pirates were perennially hapless. Four pennant-winning teams in each league led the league in DER, although as I've noted the Yankees often finished second or third in DER while winning the pennant, and the 1953 Dodgers and 1957 Braves just narrrowly missed the league lead.
I'd expected the Ashburn-era Phillies to lead the league more than once; the strangest league leaders were the 1952 Cubs, an also-ran team that featured one of the more plodding sluggers (Hank Sauer) ever to win the MVP.
Rising strikeout rates, with the onset of expansion, new pitchers' parks in LA and Houston, and the expansion of the strike zone in 1963, are a major part of the story of pitching dominance in the Sixties; the AL in 1961, the year of Maris and Mantle, became the first league to see balls in play drop below 75% of plate appearances, and by 1964 it was down to 72.9%, the lowest it would be until 1987. Unsurprisingly, that started to loosen the relationship between defense and success - only three NL pennant winners led the league in DER, four in the AL, and the 1967 Twins came within a game of becoming the first team to finish first while being last in the league in DER.
Meanwhile, the story on balls in play showed a real split between the leagues: DERs actually declined in the NL, while reaching historic highs in the AL. The 724 DER in the AL in 1968 is the highest in Major League history, and the 743 figure by the 1969 Orioles is the highest ever recorded by a team. That Brooks Robinson-Mark Belanger-Davey Johnson infield and Paul Blair-led outfield really was impenetrable, and even adjusted for the league was the best of the decade, powering the O's to 109 wins. (Home/road split: .275 at home, .278 on the road).
The Dodgers of the Sixties did well on balls in play, even as they dominated the pitcher-controlled aspects of defense (if I recall correctly, the 1966 Dodgers still hold the team K/BB ratio record).
The 1962 Mets, surprisingly, did not have the league's worst DER (unlike the 1969 Seattle Pilots), finishing a point above the Astros; the 1969 Mets did lead the league (in fact, they led three years in a row from 1968-70), but other surprise teams of the decade did not - the 1967 Red Sox were just below the league average at 715, and the 1960 Pirates were also below average. Probably no team in this sample surprised me more with their poor defensive stats than the Pirates of the 1960s, finishing last in DER in 1961 and 1964 despite a lineup stocked with legendary defensive players like Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon as well as other respected glove men like Dick Schofield Sr. The other surprise, more on which later, was the persistent poor performance of the Astros.
The Yankee dynasty's collapse was reflected defensively, as the Yankees were second in DER in 1964 (at 726), but ninth in 1965 at 707.
In the 1970s, even after the arrival of the DH, AL teams with top defenses tended to finish first in their divisions - 8 times in 11 years from 1969-79. In the NL, it was a different story, as teams like the Big Red Machine and the late-70s Pirates seemed often to lead the league in years other than the years those same teams finished first. The Dodgers led the league in DER four times between 1972 and 1978, and won the division the three years they didn't.
You've met two of the five teams since 1900 to better the league average in DER by 5% or more, the 1906 Cubs and 1939 Yankees, both great teams that left the rest of their league in the dust. But the third team was one left in the dust by another juggernaut: the 1975 Dodgers, who led the league in DER by 20 points over the 108-win Reds, while finishing 20 games behind them (it didn't help that the Dodgers underperformed their Pythagorean record by 7 games). Oddly, the very best Dodger defense came in a season when Bill Russell missed a good deal of time, but the then-youthful infield of Garvey, Lopes and Cey was otherwise tremendously durable, while 33-year-old Jimmie Wynn anchored the outfield defense (Wynn had also played on those late-60s Astros teams that perennially finished last in DER; go figure). Park effect? The Dodgers and their opponents combined for a .268 BABIP at home, .276 on the road, so the park seems to have had something to do with it. What about a pitching staff effect? Knuckleballer Charlie Hough had the team's lowest BABIP (.219), but Hough threw only 61 innings. 321 innings were thrown by curveballer Andy Messersmith, and there may be something to that - pitcher BABIP are available since 1950, and Messersmith has the lowest career BABIP of any pitcher with 2000 or more career innings at .243 (rounding out the top 10, he's followed by Catfish Hunter at .246, Hoyt Wilhelm at .250, Jim Palmer at .251, Hough at .253, Mudcat Grant at .258, Koufax at .259, Early Wynn at .260, and Tom Seaver and Warren Spahn at .262). The fact that that persisted across three teams (Angels, Dodgers and Braves) before he broke down in 1977 and that only Hunter's even close to him suggests that Messersmith may have had some ability in that area. On the other hand, you have knuckle-curve specialist Burt Hooton, making the case for it being the team: Hooton's BABIPs with the Cubs from 1972-94 were .278, .303 and .322, and .400 in the early going in 1975; after arriving with the Dodgers it dropped to .236, and was .253 over the next three seasons. Whether that's the defense or the park, it's evident that Hooton's sudden improvement was due to the environment he pitched in.
The best AL defense of the decade was the Orioles again in 1973 (featuring much of the same cast, but this time with Bobby Grich at second); Earl Weaver's defenses remained outstanding for years, as did Billy Martin's when he arrived in New York (and brought in Paul Blair, among others). The worst were the 1974 Cubs and 1970 White Sox. Those Cubs featured Bill Madlock at third, 31 year old Don Kessinger at short, and an outfield of three guys who later became professional pinch hitters (Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal and Jerry Morales) and a DH at first (Andre Thornton). That said, BABIPs were higher at home - .312 at home, .296 on the road - so even aside from the home run ball, the park likely exaggerated the Cubs's defensive failings in that era. Not for nothing did Rick Reuschel retire with a career BABIP of .294.
DERs in the AL finally dropped back in line with the NL by the late 70s, and the two leagues have mostly remained even since then. Balls in play percentages dropped in 1986, perhaps reflecting the rise in strikeouts occasioned by, among other things, the popularity of the split finger fastball and the increasing specialization of bullpens.
Best defensive team of the 80s: the Billyball A's of 1980. In the NL: the far less remembered 1982 Padres. Worst: the 1981 Indians and 1984 Giants. The Whitaker-Trammell-Chet Lemon Tigers also stand out, although they are not as remembered as a defensive unit (but see the career of Walt Terrell). Their DER was also 713 when they had their big year in 1984, 705 in 1987.
The 1980s might be the decade that defense mattered least. Only two teams, the 1985 Blue Jays and 1989 A's, finished first while leading the league in DER; the 1982 Giants came within two games of being the first team to finish first while being last in the league in DER, and a year later the "Wheeze Kids" Phillies turned the trick, remaining to this day the only team to be first in the standings and last in DER (the league hit .286 on BABIP against Cy Young winner John Denny, .329 against Steve Carlton). Those two teams had two things in common - an aging lineup (which for the Giants included Darrell Evans and Reggie Smith, the Phillies Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Gary Maddox, Mike Schmidt and Gary Matthews) and specifically, Joe Morgan at second base. I have to wonder about Morgan - it's not a surprise that he would be found on poor defensive teams as his bat kept a decaying glove in the lineup in his late 30s (don't forget, these were still good teams), but the Reds' only league lead in DER in the 70s was in 1971, the year before Morgan's arrival, and the Astros had routinely finished last during his years as their second baseman in the 60s. Could all be a coincidence, as Morgan's defensive stats seem to suggest he was a fine glove man in his prime, but it bears closer examination.
The 1989 Yankees became the first Yankees team to finish last in the league in DER since 1933. The Mets finished second in the NL in DER in 1985, third in 1986. The Red Sox at 686 were below average in 1986, but at least not in the cellar as they were in 1985 and 1987.
DERs dropped sharply in 1993, inaugurating the era of...well, the Steroids Era, if you prefer. Or in the NL, perhaps the Mile High/Coors era. There were also ever fewer balls in play, with more and more homers, strikeouts and walks. Four NL teams finished first in DER and first in their division, three AL teams including the 1998 Yankees (the only Jeter-era Yankees team to finish either first or last in DER).
The worst defensive teams of the decade were the 1999 Rockies and 1997 A's (the start of the "Moneyball" era - the A's often fielded Jason Giambi and Matt Stairs in the outfield corners - although the winning A's teams of a few years later would be above-average defensively, leading the AL in 2005). The Rockies' home/road splits were so vast - .374 at home, .306 on the road in 1999 - that it's almost impossible to evaluate their defense as such.
The 1990s also brought us the fourth of the five great defensive teams, the 1999 Reds, who led the league by a margin of 17 points over the Mets on the way to losing a one-game playoff for the wild card when their bats were stifled by Al Leiter. That Reds team is not recalled as widely as a great defense - it was the Mets that year who got the Sports Illustrated cover asking if they had the best infield ever - but with Barry Larkin, Mike Cameron and Pokey Reese, they had an outstanding defensive unit. Their home/road splits - .306 at home, .312 on the road - suggest that they did it without a huge amount of help from their home park.
Is defense the new market inefficiency? Maybe in the National League, as eight first-place teams led the league in DER between 2000 and 2010 compared to three in the AL (plus the 2002 Angels, who didn't finish first but did win 99 games and the World Series). Even with BIP percentages dropping, marginal advantages in defense can still help make a division winner.
Worst DERs of the decade: the 2007 Rays and Marlins, both scraping just above 650. Best in the NL: the 2009 Dodgers. And the fifth and final team to beat the league by 5% or more - indeed, second only to the 1939 Yankees at 105.52% - the 2001 Mariners, who tied the 1906 Cubs' record of 116 regular season wins. The Mariners featured Ichiro, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Carlos Guillen, and yes, Mike Cameron in center again. They got some help from Safeco (home/road split of .300/.322), where they led the AL again in 2003 (Cameron's last year there) and 2004.
Then there's the 2007-08 Rays. As I noted before the 2008 season, Baseball Prospectus' optimistic PECOTA projection for the Rays required them to massively improve on their MLB-worst team defense; as I noted that October, they did just that, to the point where nearly the entire turnaround to a pennant-winning team was a function of becoming the MLB's best defensive team in one year. This made them just the ninth team ever to go worst-to-first in their league in DER in one year (other unsurprising names on that list include the Billyball A's and the 1991 Braves), and aside from a team from 1878, Tampa's defensive improvement was the largest leap of any of those teams, a 56-point or 8.6% improvement, which made their pitching staff much better without changing its personnel. The Rays did this returning five regulars - Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, Akinori Iwamura, Carlos Pena and Dioner Navarro - although Upton in 2007 was still learning center field as a new position, and Iwamura moved from third to second in 2008. Adding Evan Longoria and Jason Bartlett, plus clearing out some less mobile players and letting the incumbents settle in, led to a historic turnaround:
History continues to march on: the NL in 2010 became the first league in baseball history to have less than 70% of all plate appearances result in a ball put in play.
2011 stats are through May 31, 2011. DERs can be volatile in-season; I noted a few weeks ago that the Astros were at 648, 633 around the beginning of May, which would have set them on pace as the first defensive team since the 1930 Phillies to finish below 650, but since replacing Angel Sanchez with Clint Barmes they've been on an upward trajectory, and are no longer even last in their division. As you can see, the Cubs are having a terrible defensive year, while the Braves and those Rays again (even sans Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett) are flying high. The AL (unlike the NL) is above 700 this season, the first time either league has cracked 700 since 1992.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 PM | Baseball 2011 | Baseball Studies | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
June 1, 2011
BASEBALL: Honor the Kid