February 2012

Dirk Hayhurst Returns

The entire roster is very small and I’m not even confident we have one guy for every position (although we have the beginnings of a pitching staff), but there is no question that if they ever open a Players/Authors Hall of Fame next to the larger one in Cooperstown, Dirk Hayhurst will be a first ballot electee.

And as of today he has two titles to put on his plaque. Out Of My League is now officially published and available in all formats, and without a prescription.

The Bullpen Gospels, his startling and unexpected 2010 debut as an author, told the gritty yet funny and redeeming story of a ballplayer’s sudden realizations that a dream career can still turn into a desperately unpleasant job, and that all but about six guys in his minor league were merely there to provide game-like practice for the actual prospects. It became a New York Times best-seller. If you want my detailed unabashed joy at reading the best baseball book since Ball Four, here is my original post from December, 2009.

In Out Of My League Dirk’s journey takes him to the majors with the Padres in 2008, and while the experience does not have quite the range of emotions as his first book (that would have required him to produce two baseball versions of Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum) there are enough laughs and terrors to keep any baseball fan – or just any person – riveted.

Without scooping his story and telling it as my own, Hayhurst goes – in the span of one baseball season and one book – from moments of absolutely certainty that his career will end with nothing more achieved than the faint afterglow of a Texas League Championship, to being the starting pitcher against the San Francisco Giants. The same kind of disillusionment that made The Bullpen Gospels a universal story of handling the sour taste of reality – and one that you also discover to your shock, not everybody around you is bright enough to perceive – continues in the new book.

That this unhappy surprise comes at the major league level makes Out Of My League a touch more heretical, because it dents the fiction that The Bigs are Perfection With Whipped Cream On Top. Just because you’d give your right arm to pitch a game in the majors does not mean that’s a greater sacrifice than giving 20 years of your life for exactly that same singular opportunity. When you think of it in those terms – and Hayhurst forces you to – it suddenly seems less like the childhood dream of fame and success, and more like the scenario in which you get that bicycle you desperately wanted for Christmas, and are promptly directed to spend nearly all of your youth learning how to ride it, with the reward being your opportunity to guide it across a tightrope stretched across the two rims of a bottomless pit.

And still it’s a fun read. Plus, it will explain the hesitation of most modern pitchers. Once you read Out Of My League you’ll understand exactly where that uncertainty comes from: The pitcher staring back over his own shoulder is not always just checking a baserunner’s lead.

Baseball Prospectus 2012

It hath arrived.

Got it first Sunday at a chain bookstore here and have not dived fully in,  but the predictions based on Statistical Reduction and a dozen other complicated formulae cascade out upon you from every page and it’s worth mentioning a few even before anybody’s done a thorough vetting of what they’ve got.

The most poignant of them, perhaps, are the minimalist predictions for the Yankees’ only offensive addition (“his dense hasn’t been good in a decade, and his bat is barely good enough to fill a DH role”) compared to the man the franchise downgraded, degraded, and then forced into retirement:

Player                                           PA    2B     3B   HR    RBI     AVG/OBP/SLG    WARP

Raul Ibanez                              552   28     3      17     65       .251/.311./.416    1.5

Jorge Posada                           376   18     0      13     45       .260/.350/.440   2.1

The predictions were done, obviously, before Ibanez signed with the Yankees and do not account for their intention to sit him against lefthanders. If that brings Ibanez’s predicted Plate Appearances down the 32 percent or so to where the Posada predicted Plate Appearances are, the BP forecast for Ibanez translates to 19 doubles, 2 triples, and 44 RBI.

In short, the stats – and remember this is the predictive formula that got Evan Longoria’s rookie season virtually exactly correct, even though it had nothing but college and minor league data to work with – suggest Jorge Posada would’ve had a better year than Raul Ibanez will have. This underscores a point that has become clearer and clearer to me since the Montero-Pineda trade: Brian Cashman and the Yankees are approaching 2012 in exactly the opposite way they should be. They are not flush with hitting and weak with starting. Their offense is, in fact, getting dangerously old, and the only immediate productivity from their farm system was likely to be more starting pitching (the traded Hector Noesi, plus Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances). They did not have a hitter to trade, least of all one that Cashman compared to Miguel Cabrera.

I’ll go into the Yankees’ age problem in another post but the Alex Rodriguez prediction is appropriate here:

Player                                           PA    2B     3B   HR    RBI     AVG/OBP/SLG    WARP

Alex Rodriguez                       437   18      0    24      66       .279/.377/.525    4.3

Ack.

BP has long been known as a deflator of the balloons of hope. It sees Mike Trout getting just 250 ups this year, with a 4-24-.254/.317/.369 line. Bryce Harper gets the same number of plate appearances, and just 7-26-.239/.304/.383. The rookies it likes best include an unusually large lot of catchers:  Jesus Montero (2.7 WARP), Robinson Chirinos (2.5), Ryan Lavarnway (2.3; I agree; Boston hopes this year may rest on whether or not anybody on the “New Sox” has the vision to see it); James Darnell (2.1) and Devin Mesoraco (2.1). The likelies to crash (in terms of WARP falloff) are Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Gordon, Matt Kemp, Alex Avila, and Jeff Francoeur – but even with that it still sees Bautista at 9th in that category in the AL and Kemp tied for 7th in the NL.

What it says about the big Pujols move, and the other transactions, I leave to the hard-working editors and publishers. I’ve stolen enough of their thunder.

As to an evaluation of the book itself, there is a format change. In past years, players were grouped by the teams they were with in the preceding year. In this edition, all those who have moved before the publishing deadline have been put in the sections of their new teams – which sounds great, except when you go looking for Pujols and Fielder you’ll find the former with the Angels and the latter with the Brewers instead of the Tigers. It’s a nice try but ultimately not helpful.

And in what is either a booming typo or a bizarre redefinition, the very last leader board in the book – Rookie Pitchers’ WARP – seems to list last year’s rookie pitchers. Unless I’m missing something, Pineda, Hellickson, Ogando, Kimbrel, Sale, et al, don’t get a second bite at the kiddo apple.

Sampling Baseball Cards Of The Past

OK, look carefully. This is the back of the 1964 Topps baseball card of Mickey Mantle:Now, take a look at the back of this 1964 Topps baseball card of Mickey Mantle:

See the difference? I mean, besides the fact that the second card is printed in a vibrant red and the first one is distinctly orange.

It’s in the biography. The first card mentions Mantle’s (then) 15 World Series homers, “breaking a mark set by Babe Ruth.” The second one stops at the reference to the homers. No Ruth. I discovered this literally Sunday afternoon – and I’ve never heard any mention of it before. But if you’re a Mantle collector don’t go nuts and decide you have to go and find this suddenly priceless variation card.

Because it not only isn’t a variation, it’s not even a real card. From 1952 through 1967, Topps produced “Salesman’s Samples” with which to excite candy jobbers and retailers about the upcoming year’s baseball cards.

The one shown here on the left is from 1964, and on the front there are three cards from Topps’ 1964 1st Series (Carl Willey and Bob Friend are the “big” names). On the back, this blood-red pitch for the ’64 set and the special “bonus” – the first set of baseball “coins” Topps ever made.

And then there at the bottom is the variant Mantle card, without the reference to Babe Ruth. Trust me, if two different versions of the ’64 Mantle had been included in the actual set, the scarcer one would cost a fortune.

These Salesman’s Samples are very scarce, too, but it wasn’t until the Mantle biography change jumped out at me did I decide to inspect the others to see if the Mantle change was unique.

It wasn’t. While it doesn’t look like any of the card fronts have been changed, not so for the backs.

Until 1957, only card fronts appeared on the Samples, so there were no backs to check, but sure enough, there’s a change that very first year.

As shown above, by 1964 Topps had long since realized that you needed some star power, even on the Salesman’s Samples and even just on the back.

After his 61-homer season in ’61, a version of Roger Maris’s card number one is on the back of the 1962 Sample. There’s Mantle in ’64, and the ’66 has a picture of a Sandy Koufax insert on the back.

But in ’57 that message hadn’t gotten through yet, so there he is: that great New York Yankees starting pitcher…Tom Sturdivant?

As the bio suggests, he had a big year in ’56, 16-8, and a complete game six-hit shutout over the Dodgers in the World Series, which kinda got upstaged when Don Larsen went out and threw his perfect game the next day. But the point here is not the bio but the card number.

Tom Sturdivant is not card #25 in the 1957 Topps set. His teammate Whitey

1957 Topps Sturdivant Card

Ford is. Sturdivant is #34, as the shown version of his issued card suggests. You’ll notice also that the cartoon quiz at the right side of the card has been changed from something about home runs in one inning, to a question about playing outfield with your boots on.

Again, not a true variation – the obverse of the Sturdivant back shows the Billy Martin front. I suppose somebody could have cut the cards apart and come up with a weird Martin/Sturdivant #25. If one ever turns up, now you know what it is.

There are two other “Sample” variations that jumped off (once it had occurred to me to start looking for them). I’ll spare you the full 1959 Salesman’s Sample back, but here is the detail on the one card back shown.

It was a pretty good guess on the part of Topps: Nellie Fox would be American League MVP as his White Sox won the pennant for the first time in 40 years.

But the original design for the backs of the 1959 cards (or at least Fox’s) was decidedly different than what Topps wound up publishing.

The color design on the Sample card is green-and-black, and quite obviously the color design on the actual issued cards has been dramatically altered to the full Christmas design.

The green “name box” has gone red, the black type in the bio has gone green, and the cartoon is now not just green and black, but red, green, with a salmon pink background.

Still, the other details of the card seem identical both in the preliminary and issued versions.

1960 Topps Salesman's Sample

Not so for 1960. This might be my favorite of the bunch. There was a rationale, even for the changed number of the 1957 Sturdivant, for the inclusion of all the other cards shown here on the Salesman’s Samples. Through 1972, Topps cards were sold in numbered “series,” spaced out over the course of the spring and summer.

All the Sample cards were drawn from the first series – except in 1960. See that nice unspectacular version of #66, Bobby Gene Smith?

He would not be in the first “series” of 1960 Topps cards. Even though they had already mocked up a back for his card, and evidently made no changes in it other than the by-now traditional color re-thinking, Smith was for some reason bumped from #66 to #194.

In the actual card set #66 is an obscure pitcher named Bob Trowbridge – it was not like there was some urgent need to drop somebody to make room for him. Sadly there are no files hanging around a back room at Topps annotating the arcane decisions about card numbers (though I know one later editor liked to give card number 666 to players who had hurt his favorite team). So we’re on our own figuring this all out.

Gary Carter, In Memoriam

It was 1988 and I was in my second month as the sports director of the CBS television station in Los Angeles and I was suddenly in desperate trouble.

The Dodgers were hosting the Mets in the National League Championship Series, I was doing the obligatory live sportscast from the field, and our prearranged interview with Orel Hershiser had suddenly blown up, five minutes to air, because manager Tom Lasorda had called a sudden team meeting. Orel was almost red with embarrassment but as I told him then, I wouldn’t have even thought about getting mad at him.

I don’t think Hershiser and I got animated or anything, and frankly I didn’t think anybody had even heard his friendly regrets, nor my friendly acceptance. But apparently Gary Carter of the Mets had been running past us, or something, as we spoke. Because as I turned around to try to figure out which of the Mets we might appeal to out of desperation, he was ten feet away and closing ground fast. He introduced himself – as if I wouldn’t have known who he was – and reminded me we had once done an interview while I was with CNN – as if I’d forgotten it. In point of fact, the first time I ever got paid to write about baseball players, the first time, was writing up the biographies on the backs of a set of baseball cards highlighting the stars of the International League in 1974, including the great catching prospect of the Memphis Blues, Gary Carter. I had known about him, and in a sense covered him, since I was fifteen years old. And Gary Carter was trying to pull my live shot out of the fire.  “We’re supposed to be hitting,” he said. “But if Orel had to bail out on you, and you’re stuck for an interview, I can help you out.”

Just like that. Overheard that a guy he barely knew was in a spot, and he managed to shuffle a few things around – an hour before a game that helped decide whether or not his team would go to the World Series.

Because of this odd notion of his thatallof us on the field contributed to baseball’s success – not just the ones wearing the uniforms – some players called Gary Carter “Camera.” The premise was, he always knew where the camera was, and whether or not it was on him. In point of fact, I think his ceaseless cooperation with the media actually wound up hurting him in the Hall of Fame voting, as I think it has hurt Dale Murphy. The writers are afraid that voting in a guy whose geniality towards the media was legendary, but whose credentials could be interpreted as Hall/Not Hall, might look like favoritism.

We even talked about it in a tv interview in 2001. Of course he dismissed the idea. He was frustrated by being passed over for election, but still upbeat and enthusiastic, and he told me that if somehow his cooperation delayed or even prevented getting into Cooperstown, so be it. He wouldn’t have changed his attitude just to get another award, even if that award meant baseball immortality. As it was, Gary Carter had to wait until 2003 to get in to the Hall.

Today, after months of agonizing and dispiriting struggles with brain cancer, Gary Carter, a great catcher and leader and hard-nosed figure on a baseball field, yet simultaneously an aggressively nice man off it, passed away. And I am not ashamed to say it has left me in tears.

The Batter Who Ran To Third

This morning I got a fun tweet from a reader:

Reading @KeithOlbermann’s BBNerd Blog, remembered a dream I had where I was @ a ball game and the batter broke and ran 4 3rd.

That was no dream! It was a past life experience!

Jim St. Vrain

Baseball historians have never been entirely comfortable with saying with absolute certainty that this happened, but the anecdotal and circumstantial evidence suggests that on April 27, 1902, Chicago pitcher Jimmy St. Vrain – the youngest player in the majors – grounded to Pirates’ immortal shortstop Honus Wagner and as the astonished Wagner threw to first, St. Vrain ran to third.

Davy Jones of the 1902 Cubs told the late historian (and top economist) Larry Ritter the story and Ritter put it in his seminal book The Glory Of Their Times (which you must buy now if you have not already done so):

He was a left-handed pitcher and a right-handed batter. But an absolutely terrible hitter — never even got a loud foul off anybody.

Well, one day we were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jimmy was pitching for us. The first two times he went up to bat that day he looked simply awful. So when he came back after striking out the second time Frank Selee, our manager, said, “Jimmy, you’re a left-handed pitcher, why don’t you turn around and bat from the left side, too? Why not try it?”

Actually, Frank was half-kidding, but Jimmy took him seriously. So the next time he went up he batted left-handed. Turned around and stood on the opposite side of the plate from where he was used to, you know. And darned if he didn’t actually hit the ball. He tapped a slow roller down to Honus Wagner at shortstop and took off as fast as he could go … but instead of running to first base, he headed for third!

Oh, my God! What bedlam! Everybody yelling and screaming at poor Jimmy as he raced to third base, head down, spikes flying, determined to get there ahead of the throw. Later on, Honus told us that as a matter of fact, he almost did throw the ball to third.

“I’m standing there with the ball in my hand,” Honus said, looking at this guy running from home to third, and for an instant there I swear I didn’t know where to throw the damn ball. And when I finally did throw to first, I wasn’t at all sure it was the right thing to do!”

The story sounds great, it has a quote from Wagner, and Jones’s eyewitness account. The only problem is, as noted here, while Jimmy St. Vrain pitched against the Pirates on April 27, but witness Jones didn’t join Chicago until May 13. St. Vrain was only in the bigs for 12 games, so there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. He did start again against the Pirates in Pittsburgh on May 30 before returning to the bushes, but as most historians note, you would think something as bizarre as a batter trying to run the wrong way around the diamond would’ve been mentioned in the usually labyrinthine newspaper articles of the time – but the Jones story is the only contemporary account.

40 Years Of Steve Carlton

It remains, in short, the most amazing season a pitcher has put together since at least Sandy Koufax, and very probably since long before him. And now, Steve Carlton’s 1972 campaign, when he won 27 of his rotten team’s 59 games, dates to 40 years ago.

So much has been written about Lefty’s work that it is amazing to consider that an extraordinarily relevant detail is usually omitted from the recounting – one that makes winning 46 percent of one team’s entire supply of victories all the more remarkable.

Steve Carlton did it in a strike-shortened season.

The first sport-wide in-season strike in American history would in later contexts seem so brief as to be almost quaint. But when Opening Day was pushed back by a week forty years ago, and each team lost between six and nine games, it was traumatic – and it contributed to the distinct possibility that Carlton missed an opportunity to win 30 games.

The Phillies were to open in St. Louis on Friday, April 7 – 43 days after they had obtained Carlton straight-up from the Cardinals for Rick Wise – and were then to return for the home opener and an additional game against Montreal beginning April 10. They should’ve been in Chicago on April 14th, but that was the last of the six games which were wiped out, simply cancelled with no attempt to squeeze in make-ups nor compensate for the havoc of imbalanced schedules that would, among other things, largely decide who won the American League East that year.

One speculates about a small alteration in a large swath of history at one’s peril. Just because the guy got caught stealing does not mean the team would’ve scored two runs when the next batter homered. They could’ve pitched to him differently or they could’ve hit him or the guy standing safely at second at just that moment could’ve invoked a Rapture of some kind. Contemplating Carlton opening up against his erstwhile Cardinal teammates on April 7th instead of against the Cubs on April 15th is rife with hypothetical disaster. He might have hurt himself there, or begun the path to a bad habit, or not faced the right batter he challenged in just the right way to uncover the keys that led to his marvelous season. For all we know, if the players hadn’t struck and the games hadn’t been cancelled, Steve Carlton might’ve lost 27 games for the 1972 Phillies.

But it is deliciously intriguing to note that Carlton won all four of his starts against the Cards in his first season out of their uniform. With Phils’ skippers Frank Lucchesi and Paul Owens adhering pretty rigidly to a four-man rotation, Carlton would’ve pitched in the second home game against the Expos on April 12 – and of course Carlton also won all of his starts (three of them) against Montreal in ’72. But if the original schedule had been observed, that would have pushed his third start from April 15 against the Cubs to April 17 against the Cards, and it probably would have denied him the chance to start the last game before the All Star break. Thus if you buy any of the argument that the strike “cost” Carlton, it probably cost him one start and the most his theoretical full season should’ve netted him was 28 wins instead of the actual 27.

Of course, since we’re down the What-If rabbit hole, the real fun comes when we look at the 14 starts Carlton did not win, in route to 27-10.

The first stunning overarching truth about Carlton’s 1972 season was that he did it almost all by himself. He lasted through 30 Complete Games, and only three of his 27 wins were saved by other relievers. For contrast, when Bobby Welch won 27 for the 1990 A’s, the sport had already changed so much that all but seven of those wins had saves (19 by Dennis Eckersley) and Welch threw just two CG’s – both shutouts. Incredibly, Carlton blew the lead in one of his own non-win starts five times during 1972, and could only blame the tissue-thin Phillies’ bullpen for one other defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Amazingly, Carlton endured a five-game losing streak beginning May 13th. His own error was the fulcrum in a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers and Claude Osteen at home that night, and the other games in the skein saw Carlton surrender at least three earned runs. The streak ended with a no-decision exactly a month later when Carlton helped cough up his own 5-0 lead to the Reds. Johnny Bench and Julian Javier homered in the 7th, but it was still 5-3 Phillies when Joe Morgan doubled off Carlton to lead the 8th. Reliever Chris Short let the inherited run score, and then Hal McRae touched him for the game-tying homer to start the 9th. The Phils would lose it in the 10th.

There were four occasions when just slightly more offense from the Philadelphia bats might’ve gotten him another win or two.  On June 16th in the Astrodome he struck out a dozen and gave up just six hits and four walks in ten innings, but the Phils could do nothing with Don Wilson and Tom Griffin, and Dick Selma lost it in the 11th on a walk-off homer to Jimmy Wynn. On August 21st, Carlton again did marathon work without a win: 11 innings of seven hit, two run ball. He struck out 10 more, but the Phils turned nine hits and a walk off Phil Niekro into just one score, and Carlton’s 15-game winning streak was snapped. At Shea on September 24th, he gave up a lead-off homer to Tommie Agee and then watched John Bateman throw away a squib in the 8th, setting up the game-deciding sacrifice fly by the very non-immortal Lute Barnes in a 2-1 defeat (one of seven career RBI in a cameo career by the Mets’ second baseman).

But the best bet for another Carlton win probably came at Candlestick on July 15th. Carlton struggled through five, and was trailing 4-0 when Joe Lis pinch-hit for him. In the seventh, the winds changed and Phillies scored eleven off the Giants, and Bucky Brandon would vulture the win.

In short, we all knew as it happened that Carlton was creating something none of us had ever seen before. Just how special it was is only becoming clear now, with 40 years to ponder it.

The Heritage Of Alex Gordon

As a follow-up to the 10th annual “Topps Pack Opening Day,” I was studying the 2012 Heritage proof sheet by pals there were nice enough to provide. A familiar face showed up:

Last year, after a lot of hard work and a willingness to change what he had done all his life, the former collegiate superstar finally lived down his reputation as a man most famous for one of his baseball cards, and is now “just” a top flight hitter on what might quickly become a tremendous offensive machine in Kansas City, and this is “just” what his 2012 Topps Heritage Card #51 is going to look like.

2006 Topps #297 Alex Gordon

Even most non-collectors remember the brouhaha six years ago at this time when cards of Gordon appeared in the 2006 Topps and 2006 Topps Heritage sets – even though the MLB Players Association had recently codified the rules about who could and couldn’t be in big league card sets. It was comparatively simple: if you hadn’t already played a major league game, you couldn’t be included in a major league set. Topps, either accidentally (or many critics say, deliberately) got confused because that one rule meant Gordon – with 0 major league games under his belt – was eligible to be included in one of its brands, Bowman, but not eligible for its two others, Topps and Topps Heritage.

Gordon cards were made for all three sets and the MLBPA screamed bloody murder and just before the sets were released, the cards were supposedly pulled out of the packs of Topps and Heritage. The regular Topps set was released first, and cards of Gordon with a two-inch square hole in the middle started appearing in the packs (a ‘punch’ of some sort being used to destroy the inner portion of the cards while they were still on the uncut sheets, and the sheets were still stacked at the printers’). Not long after, full versions of the card appeared, some of them in packs shipped to PXs at American Military Bases in Germany.

If you think the thing with the Skip Schumaker “Squirrel” card is crazy, it pales in comparison to L’Affaire Gordon. I bought a few of the cards at four-figure prices on eBay, on the premise that this was the first regular Topps card ‘pulled’ from circulation since at least 1958. I was actually accused of being some sort of shill for the thing, because I consult on Topps’ retro issues; in point of fact I learned about the card’s scarcity on ESPN’s website, weeks after it came out. Topps estimated that maybe 50 to 100 of the Gordon cards got out, and maybe an equivalent number of ‘cutout’ cards. In the spring, however, a longtime dealer friend told me he’d been offered a large quantity of them. “I can get you 500 of them if you’ll pay the price.” Needless to say, I didn’t. As of this writing, there’s exactly one of them on eBay, but I’m confident that the number in circulation is closer to 1,000 than it is to 100.

2006 Topps Heritage #255 Alex Gordon cutout card with two "fragments"

Weeks later, Topps Heritage hit the stores and sure enough, the #255 Alex Gordon appeared – but only in cutout form. This frame-like card still shows up at times, although only a few of the fragments from the cutout parts ever hit the hobby.

You can see from the little Frankenstein-like assemblage of parts here that there must’ve been a third “fragment” there bearing Gordon’s face. This was the only time Topps ever actually issued a jigsaw puzzle kind of card (although they experimented with a set of them in the early ’70s – and it bombed). One wonders if somebody opened a pack of 2006 Heritage and found these little pieces of junk without realizing what they were, and tossed them.

In any event, six years and five Alex Gordon Topps Heritage cards later (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012), a full uncut version of the #255 2006 Heritage has never turned up. But I think it’s time for me to confess that I have one – sorta. We end as we began, with the fact that Topps indulges my long-standing fascination with their production process by donating the occasional proof sheet or printout to my Unintentional Museum.

So, for awhile now, I’ve had a paper proof version of the uncut 2006 Heritage Gordon. You’ll notice it looks different than the issued card – the proofs had red outlines, a “Rookie Card” logo, and the position designation had not yet been coordinated with the original abbreviations from the 1957 Topps set on which the Heritage cards were based. But, if you’ve ever wanted to see what the ’06 Heritage Gordon was supposed to look like… Ta da:

2006 Topps Heritage #255 Alex Gordon Proof (from the Keith Olbermann Collection. Ok, Obsession)

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