February 2010

The Real Test Is Of The Union

In a second chance to make a first impression, MLB is set to implement blood testing for Human Growth Hormone in the minors later this year – according to sources quoted by the estimable Michael Schmidt of The New York Times.


Schmidt says MLB’s decision comes on the heels of the first positive test for HGH, that of a British Rugby player.
The science is still behind the curve on this, but even the possibility of a breakthrough makes it incumbent upon the Major League Baseball Players Association to act, and act quickly. Executive Director Don Fehr has long said that when a reliable test was available, the union would have to look at it. That the process is not perfected is no excuse; Fehr needs to sign on to some sort of exploratory testing program on the big league level, if not this season, then for 2011.
Mark McGwire and the friends were hardly the only ones to be damaged by the Steroid Era. The owners have, at best, looked like hypocritical enablers, and, at worst, like passive-aggressive pushers. The lethargic pace of steroid testing, and the nonsensical, train wreck that is welcoming McGwire back to uniform this spring, has given the union the opportunity to look like the guys who are truly interested in preserving the integrity of the game, even at the partial expense of membership.
Rightly or wrongly (wrongly, I think; the owners probably had more knowledge than union non-player leadership, at least early on) the MLBPA draws the bulk of the public’s blame for the steroid test foot-dragging through the ’90s and ’00s. This – and I write this as one who has supported the union’s moves, stances and purposes, almost uniformly, since the ’70s – is the players’ chance to erase much of the perception in the fans’ minds that they care only for their wallets, and not for the sport itself.
Just come out and say you’re for HGH testing, in the majors, as soon as it is practical. 
Do it now.

Why Am I Whatting The Who Now?

One of the Baseball Prospectus authors was doing one of the group’s astonishingly pervasive and well-coordinated publicity-generating interviews yesterday (they show up as guests everywhere but the Olympics and Entertainment Tonight) and was asked “why is Keith Olbermann killing your book?” 

I just re-read my entry (below) and I don’t see where anybody might get that impression. But just to be clear, to me “BP” is to the sum total of all forecasting knowledge and its statistical and actuarial bases are impeccable. Years ago, preparing a piece on Tony Gwynn for Sports Illustrated, I discovered by accident that there was a plateau – an exact range of at bats (7,500 to 9,000) at which really terrific .340-.375 lifetime hitters started to plummet back towards the .340-.350 range (Cobb was at .373 through 8,762 AB; Gwynn .340 through 8,187; Keeler .355 through 7,475; Jesse Burkett .350 through 7,273 AB, Lajoie .350 through 8,254. Among them, and Rogers Hornsby, Paul Waner, and Honus Wagner at similar peaks, these eight guys lost an average of eight points from their career averages). 
So I believe fervently in this decline-and-full stuff and BP (and the Jeter prediction, too).
Now if somebody thinks I killed “The First Fall Classic” by Mike Vaccaro… yeah, pretty much (see below).

Swinging At The Future; Whiffing At The Past

Two books to address today, one brand new, one kinda.

BASEBALL PROSPECTUS 2010
Edited by Steven Goldman and Christina Kahrl
John Wiley, $25.95
Two caveats: the publisher is putting out my next book, and this really isn’t a review, because by now if you’re a baseball fan and you don’t know what BP is, you’re working in a mine without one of those helmets with the lights on it.
This is more about the headlines from the annual phone-book-sized tub of prophecies these figure filberts put out, than it is any kind of assessment of the publication as a hole, because we don’t really know how good each year’s edition is until after the season is over. But for once, there shouldn’t be much argument about what is the Statistical Reduction crowd’s biggest forecast for the season ahead: The collapse of Derek Jeter.
OK, “collapse” is a little strong. The actuarial tables of the game again prompt the editors to call Jeter’s team “still the class of MLB,” but they pummel the Captain personally. He finished 2009 at 18-66-.334-.406-.465 with 107 runs and 30 steals. BP sees 2010 as 11-58-.286-.359-.401 with 67 runs and 10 steals. 
As I understand the formulas with which the BP numbers are calculated, there is room for a dollop of common sense and/or extenuating circumstances. But mostly the stats-to-come are generated, in Jeter’s case, by comparing him to what happened to every 14-year veteran going into his 15th season, and what happened to every 35-year-old shortstop as he turned 36, and employing every other demographic comparison in baseball history. And the loss of 48 points of batting average and 40 runs and 64 points of slugging percentage, is the evident result.
It actually gets worse. The one BP number that gives you the best overall sense of a player’s total worth to his team is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). In short, it measures in net runs (how many more do you score, how many fewer does the other team score) what were to happen if the player in question was suddenly reduced by the average bench guy. Last year, Derek Jeter’s VORP was 71.2 (Albert Pujols’ was 100.1), meaning if he had quit on Opening Day 2009 to be replaced full-time by Ramiro Pena, the number of fewer runs the Yankees would’ve scored, plus the number of more runs they would have allowed, would’ve been 71.
Jeter’s predicted 2010 VORP is just 20 – a loss of 51.2 when nobody else in the majors is predicted to lose more than 37.2 (and that’s Joe Mauer, by the way. The BP folks readily admit that their formulae tend to punish spectacular seasons). Merging the topics of catching and the Yankees, BP sees Jorge Posada dropping from 22-81-.285-.522 to 12-49-.263-.445 (and losing 21 VORP points in the process).
If BP is right, there are similar harrowing declines ahead for Ryan Howard (to hit .249 this year), and Michael Young (.297), and Kevin Youkilis (22-86-.283), and David Aardsma (15 saves). On the other hand, it sees Nick Johnson emerging to lead the AL in On Base Pecentage, Kelly Johnson to rebound in Arizona, Jeremy Hermida to blossom in Boston, and Geovany Soto to comeback in Chicago. Certainly two of the stranger computer-generated forecasts: Chris Davis with 33 homers, and your 2010 Major League Saves leader: Joakim Soria with 43 in Kansas City.
There’s also something in here about Rickie Weeks blossoming, but I think that may have been accidentally left over from the 2009 edition. Or the 2008. Or the 2007. Or the 2006…
THE FIRST FALL CLASSIC
THE RED SOX, THE GIANTS, AND THE CAST OF PLAYERS, PUGS, AND POLITICOS WHO REINVENTED THE WORLD SERIES IN 1912
By Mike Vaccaro
Doubleday, $26.95

More than 30 years ago I made an enemy for life of a baseball writer named Maury Allen. I panned his biography of Casey Stengel because I felt he had forfeited the credibility of the book’s essence – exclusive, heretofore unpublished anecdotes and quotes – because he had made so many simple historical mistakes. Allen had the Polo Grounds in which Stengel played and managed off-and-on for 50 years overlooking the Hudson River, when it in fact overlooked the Harlem River, a no-brainer mistake that nobody who had lived in New York for more than three weeks would make.
My point was not that it was fatal to make a few dozen such flubs, but that if I as the presumably less-expert reader could spot such obvious mistakes, how many more of them were in there that I wasn’t smart enough to catch? And why would I trust the accuracy of the quotes and the stories as offered by a writer who couldn’t keep his basic geography straight? If you could switch the Hudson for the Harlem, you could – I don’t know – switch Hugh Casey for Casey Stengel.

Sadly, this dynamic is reproduced in Vaccaro’s book about the epic eight-game World Series of 1912 between the Giants and Red Sox. The Series – and the topic – had everything: a dubious tie game, the first year of Fenway Park, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, President John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, and the year Smoky Joe Wood won 37 of the 120 games (regular season and World Series) he would win in his lifetime. 
For an obsessive historian with a gift for composition, like my friend Josh Prager of The Echoing Green fame, the 1912 Series would basically sing itself and he would write down the notes as quickly as he could. I truly hoped this book would be like this (I went out and bought it retail – the ultimate sign of respect by somebody in the same business) and given the volume of startling stories and the in-the-clubhouse quotes from men dead half a century and more, Mike Vaccaro certainly seems to have tried to make it like that.

But I can’t trust him. The book is riddled with historical mistakes, most of them seemingly trivial, some of them hilarious. One of them is particularly embarrassing. Vaccaro writes of the Giants’ second year in their gigantic stadium, the Polo Grounds:

…to left field, the official measurement was 277 feet, but the second deck extended about twenty feet over the lower grandstand, meaning if you could get a little air under the ball you could get yourself a tidy 250-foot home run…

Unfortunately this wasn’t true until 1923. Any photograph of the 1912 World Series showing left field, indeed any photo of the new Polo Grounds in its first twelve years of use, clearly

Vaccaro Wood.jpg

shows that the second deck ends thirty or forty feet to the left of the foul pole, and the seats in fair territory are the bleachers. 
There are, in fact, actually at least two photos showing Joe Wood, with the Red Sox in the Polo Grounds, which show, in the background behind him, either the left field foul line leading directly to the bleachers, not a double deck, or, the left field foul pole standing like a lone tree with no “extended” deck even close to it.
One of him, warming up, is included in Vaccaro’s book, right after page 146.

That’s it, on the right. The white stripe next to
his glove, is the left field foul line.
The other photograph – the background largely washed out but with the undecked left field corner still vaguely visible – shows him shaking hands with the Giants’ Jeff Tesreau, and it was chosen for publication on the cover of Vaccaro’s book, below.

Sigh.
Vaccaro Cover.jpg
The most often-repeated of the mess-ups, and thus both the most annoying and the most damaging, is Vaccaro’s insistence about Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, arch Sox fan and grandfather of the future president, around whom Vaccaro tries to develop a political thread to the book and who gets nearly as much attention from him as Tris Speaker or Mathewson. Four times in the book, Vaccaro notes that Fitzgerald liked to sing, or was singing, or was about to sing, his theme song “Sweet Adelaide.” There may have been such a song, but it wasn’t a favorite of Honey Fitz (or presumably of anybody else). The Mayor, as any political historian, or adult over 65, or anyone who’s ever encountered a Barbershop Quartet, or any Marx Brothers buff, could tell you, sang “Sweet Adeline,” an incredibly popular song published in 1903 that Groucho and company later performed in “Monkey Business.”
Of the remaining twenty or so that I caught, most have clearer connections to the sport itself. Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey becomes Rixley, 1912 Red Sox infielder Steve Yerkes becomes Sam, Redland Field in Cincinnati becomes “brand-new Crosley Field” (it wasn’t renamed Crosley Field until 1934 and the radio baron who did it was still a 20-something developing automobiles in Muncie, Indiana, when Redland Field was brand-new in 1912). 

There is a lot of historical tone-deafness – particularly distressing considering Mr. Vaccaro often covers the Yankees. He recounts a conversation among McGraw and New York sportswriters about the Giants taking in the American League New York Highlanders as tenants at the Polo Grounds for the 1913 season. Vaccaro quotes the famed Damon Runyon telling McGraw that his paper’s headline writers have a new name intended for the team: The Yankees. McGraw is quoted as wondering if it will catch on in 1913. Even if the mistake originates elsewhere, it should’ve rung untrue to Vaccaro: The name “Yankees” had been used on the baseball cards as earlyYankees1912.jpg as 1911, and on a team picture issued by one of the New York papers in 1907. If McGraw and Runyon hadn’t heard the name “Yankees” by the time of the 1912 World Series, they’d both had undiagnosed hearing problems for five years.

Vaccaro also has a lot of trouble with geography. He indicates that Giants’ owner John Brush had a mansion in “upstate Pelham Manor” even though the town is essentially parallel to 241st Street in Northern Manhattan. He mocks the nickname “Swede” for Danish-born Boston outfielder Olaf Henriksen as an indication that baseball didn’t worry about geography in assigning monickers. But until 1905 Denmark was part of a union with Norway, and as late as the early 1800’s, those two countries were trying to reestablish a medieval tripartite union with Sweden. For all we know, Henriksen might have considered himself Swedish.
There are also mistakes so convoluted as to be baffling. Vaccaro writes of the fabulous game-saving catch by the Giants’ Josh Devore in Game Three:

“I took it over my left shoulder and with my bare hand although I clapped my glove on it right away and hung on like a bulldog in a tramp,” Evans would soon tell the mountain of reporters…

Evans? The catch was by Josh Devore. Evans – Billy Evans – was the umpire who confirmed the out. Later, there is the inexplicable observation that during the tense eighth game, so much of Manhattan was at the then-popular newspaper scoreboards that “Schoolrooms were scarce.” While this was doubtless as true in the New York of 1912 as it is in the city of 2010, it wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with baseball. Students in schoolrooms, yes. The rooms themselves?
The mistakes – and there are probably a dozen more – matter only in this context. When I read Vaccaro’s account of a supposed conversation, after the Red Sox took a 3-1 lead in games, between Boston’s owner and manager that clearly implies that the owner ordered the manager to hold back his ace pitcher in hopes Boston might lose the next game and thus gain the income from one more game in Fenway, I’m not inclined to take Vaccaro’s word for it. Because, lastly and most damningly, this may be how he researched the book. Years after retirement, Boston’s Hall of Fame centerfielder Tris Speaker went back to the minors as an executive. Vaccaro writes he would:

…become a part owner of the American Association, a top Triple-A-level minor league…”

In fact, Speaker would become a part owner not of the league, but of one of the teams in the league, the Kansas City Blues.
You know where else this mistake turns up?

Post professional career
In 1929 Speaker replaced Walter Johnson as the manager of the Newark Bears of the International League, a post he held for two years. He became a part owner of the American Association. The announcement of Speaker’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame was made in January, 1937

Yep. Tris Speaker’s Wikipedia page.

How sad.

Unlikely Spring Training Questions From A Waiting Room

These have been bouncing around my head all off-season; some are tempests in teapots, some a little more substantial – I just havent heard many of them asked…DID the Yankees actually upgrade? Acknowledging that a healthy Nick Johnson, freed of all defensive worries, could win a batting championship (or at least the On Base crown), is a trade-off of Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Melky Cabrera for Curtis Granderson, Johnson, Randy Winn and Brett Gardner really a win? Has Cabreras clutch late-inning hitting been forgotten, or merely written off as a statistical fluke?…ON the other end of the Granderson trade, do the Tigers know Phil Coke wasnt that great against lefties during the first half of last year, and basically stopped getting them out at all after September 1 and in the post-season?…HAS Roy Halladay ever been tested in a pennant race? Does it matter? I seem to recall several clubs drooling over the various Javier Vazquezes who pitched in obscurity in Montreal and Arizona and even Chicago…DID the Angels look at Joel Pinieros last months worth of work in 2009? Did they break out his fly-ball to ground-ball ratio? Did they note that a sinkerball pitcher who cant get the ball down will probably end up in mopup relief?…WHY hasnt anybody else written that if Milton Bradley doesnt sink the Mariners, theyll be the first?…lastly IF you are the Nats and you have as exciting a prospect as Ian Desmond and you havent unloaded Cristian Guzman, why do you go ahead and sign Adam Kennedy?

Remember The Mayne

For more than a decade, one of the pleasures of popping on to a big league ballfield was the frequency with which I would run in to the peripatetic catcher (and, once, winning pitcher) Brent Mayne. When his career ended with the Dodgers in ’04, a little part of my youth went with it.

He might have been the first player who actually said to me “I used to watch you when I was in high school” and could prove it – he was a senior at Costa Mesa High in California when I got to KTLA in Los Angeles in 1985 – and he probably was about as close to my own age as anybody who could’ve said that, could’ve been (I would be about nine years his elder). Brent never failed to ask about family and mutual friends and career milestones, and his reputation as a strong and affable teammate was widespread throughout the game.
None of that conflicts with the bizarre events of the past week that got such play at the website Deadspin, that began at Brent’s blog:

there was ONE instance in all my years of catching where I gave away a pitch to a hitter. In other words, I told the hitter what was coming. And that instance was JT Snow’s first big league at-bat. It was my second year in the Bigs and we were playing the Yankees in Kansas City towards the end of the season. Neither team had much to play for and JT was one of the expanded roster call-ups for the Yanks.


…as I past (sic) JT to squat down, I mumbled at him “fastball outside.” He promptly drilled a double to left field and that was that. Like I said, that’s probably not why he got his first hit, he may have been too nervous to even hear me. 


Brent gives the background in great detail: he and J.T. Snow had grown up together, from Connie Mack Baseball through the colleges into the minor leagues. The thought of him reaching the majors while Mayne was catching – the fulfillment of it all, was just too much, and like probably dozens of guys before him, Mayne decided to try to give a pal a break.


Except, J.T. Snow went 0-for-5 in his first big league game. It was indeed against the Royals, in Kansas City, on September 20, 1992, and Brent Mayne was catching. But there was no double to left; in fact Snow struck out once and hit into a double play for a neat debut of six outs created.

When the story was questioned, Brent put up another post with an apology and a completely Mayne-like explanation, worth both a laugh and a ‘that’s all right, Pal!”:

I was hanging out with George Brett a lot those early years, so my memory is all pops and crackles. It’s tough to remember on two hours of sleep a night…


I know for sure that he was playing for the Yanks. I know for sure it was towards the end of the season. I know for sure it was JT! So I’m thinking one of two things. One, could it have been in New York instead of KC? Or two, I told him the pitch and he lined out instead of doubled. I may have twisted a line out into a double in my memory (it does make it a little better story.)


The Retrosheet boxscore of that first game I linked to above gives Snow’s AB’s in his debut game as follows:

2nd Inning: Flied to left

3rd Inning: Flied to left

6th Inning: Grounded out, third to first

7th Inning: Lined into a doubleplay, first to third

8th Inning: Struck out


Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere. 7th inning: lined into a doubleplay, first to third. No wonder Brent Mayne’s memory is playing tricks on him. He tipped his buddy J.T. in hopes of getting him his first hit (in his fourth at bat, not his first) and instead he lines into a double play.


Except the Royals had started that top of the 7th leading 3-2. Retrosheet again:

YANKEES 7TH: B. Williams doubled to center; 

Velarde singled [B.Williams stayed at second]; 

Mattingly doubled [B. Williams scored, 

Velarde scored]; 

Tartabull grounded out (first unassisted) 

[Mattingly to third]; 

MAGNANTE REPLACED GORDON (PITCHING); 

Hall tripled [Mattingly scored]; 

R. KELLY RAN FOR HALL; 

Snow lined into a double play (first to third) 

[R. Kelly out at third]; 

3 R, 4 H, 0 E, 0 LOB.  

Yankees 5, Royals 3


I do not think Brent Mayne would have tipped a pitch to his own son, with Tom Gordon having just surrendered the tying and lead runs in the 7th on a Mattingly double, and Mike Magnante having been greeted by Mel Hall with an RBI triple and only one out.

I know, I know – by now nobody’s interested in this saga any more, not Mayne, not Snow, maybe not you. But I began wondering if there was some other game, some other at bat, some other something that created this phantom memory in my old friend’s head. 

We have all the resources we need – Retrosheet is a heckuva site – and it turns out that between 1992 and 2004 there were 22 games in which J.T. Snow batted while Brent Mayne was catching. Most notably, Snow not only didn’t get his first big league hit off a Mayne tipped pitch – he didn’t get any hits off a pitch Mayne called, tipped or otherwise, until his fourth season in the majors. That would’ve been an RBI single on May 14, 1995, when the Angels visited Kansas City. It broke Snow’s debut skein of 0-for-11 in Mayne-caught games in ’92 and ’93 (Mayne didn’t play a single game against the Angels in ’94).

In point of fact, J.T. Snow didn’t do very well at all with his old friend behind the bat:

Games: 22

At Bats: 80

Hits: 17

Average: .213

Doubles: 3

Triples: 0

Homers: 2

RBI: 8

The first Snow double didn’t come until July 4th, 2000, by which time Snow was with the Giants and Mayne, the Rockies.


So, with this mystery still unsolved… did I ever tell you about my other friend who claimed every game he pitched against an opposing batter he didn’t like, he hit him? What a liar that guy was! He faced him five times and only hit him in three of the games!

Then again – he was counting spring training.

Since You Asked

Two updates, one coming with my thanks, one with a touch of silliness.

Several times in the comments I’ve been asked about my father’s health. He’s now been hospitalized for more than five months and he continues to struggle against a somewhat-compromised immune system, but he’s been on the upswing for a couple of weeks, and given all he’s conquered, the doctors are very optimistic and he remains in inspiringly good humor. Your interest in him – and that of my tv viewers – is a great source of comfort to him, and on his behalf, I thank you for it.

Sharts.jpg

Now the silliness. A week ago I mentioned the Springapocalypse of 1995, when major league teams filled their camps with retreads, hasbeens, neverweres, wannabes, and UPS drivers (no offense to UPS drivers). I ran through the line-up the Dunedin-Toronto Blue Jays would’ve trotted out on the field on Opening Day in defense of their consecutive World Championships of 1992 and 1993 and a commenter giggled (appropriately, I guess) at the prospect of owning a card of the would’ve-been-Jays closer, Steve Sharts. Ask and ye shall receive. 
Sharts, as we see at Baseball Reference, had a six-year career climbing up the ladder in the Phillies system, after being their 17th Round draft choice out of Cal State Northridge in 1985 (Tom Drees, who threw three no-hitters in the PCL in 1989 and had a cameo with the White Sox two years later, went earlier in the same round). There is a youth baseball program in Florida called, of all things, the The Tampa Terror, which identifies its top coach as Steve Sharts but there is no mention made at its website confirming it’s the same one. The card is a 1990 CMC, there’s apparently also a ProCards issue from the same year.
So there.

Doctor S chickendantz? Seriously? UPDATED

The update on Dirk Hayhurst’s surgery appears positive — fraying labrum, repaired, out most of the season but possibly not all of it. All in all, probably couldn’t have been better.

Now I’m not criticizing anybody’s name (I have never completely mastered pronouncing mine, although I have not misspelled it since about 1963), but the surgeon was Dr. Mark Schickendantz? I mean, how could you not go into orthopedic surgery at least with a weak smile on your face contemplating the fact that your surgeon’s last name includes the words “chicken dantz”?

The fella who took out my appendix two and a half years ago was named Kimmelstiel, complete with the “steel” pronounciation. A guy allowed to use scalpels, named Kimmelstiel. Heckuva surgeon, by the way.

Dr. Schickendantz. 

UPDATE: The author-pitcher quickly regained typing ability (one-handed) and reports himself feeling pretty good, all things considered, but with control of the remote ceded to the Mrs., he says he did briefly consider trying to get a hold of the anesthesiologist for a booster.

FROM A RESEARCHER’S NOTEBOOK: Just stumbled across this in the Fall 2009 edition of   The Society for American Research Journal: a law student at the University of North Carolina named Trent McCotter busted his research hump to analyze the official scoresheets from all of Ty Cobb’s games, to generate his splits. It is startling to consider that Cobb, in 2,109 games in which he faced righthanded starters, batted .375 lifetime (.347 versus lefties). Perhaps more impressive, Cobb’s numbers in games started by the pitching legends he faced:

Cobb Versus:           Games              Average

Walter Johnson            92                    .380

Rube Waddell               21                    .354

Cy Young                     25                    .354

Babe  Ruth                    21                    .338

Eddie  Plank                 54                    .333

Remember, Cobb hit .367 lifetime. He did better than that against Johnson, whom he always claimed he could hit because he knew Johnson wouldn’t pitch him inside because he was mortified at the thought of hitting batters in the pre-helmet days – and killing one of them. He actually managed a .454 on base percentage against The Big Train.

The pitchers McCotter’s research shows were most successful (and again it’s rendered slightly imprecise because the scoresheets don’t pinpoint when relievers might have faced him) were Addie Joss (.264), Red Faber (.277), Waite Hoyt (.299), and, remarkably, Red Ruffing (.229, albeit in ten games). Ruffing became an underrated Hall of Famer with the Yankees. But when Cobb faced him in the first four years of Ruffing’s career (and the last five years of Cobb’s), Ruffing was one of the majors’ worst for the then-dead end Red Sox. His career record on the day of Cobb’s retirement was 30 wins… and 71 losses!


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