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April 14, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

Dead Player of the Day and Other Notes #13

by Steven Goldman

DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY (Chick Stahl Edition)

In which I open the encyclopedia to a random page and riff on what I find.

Chick Stahl CF 1897-1906 (1873-1907)

Morbid character that I am, I often think of Charles Sylvester Stahl. Actually, it’s not just my inclination to look on the dark side of life, but the very valuable lesson that Stahl symbolizes. First, let’s talk about Stahl the player. Born in Indiana, he was signed by Boston Braves (then Beaneaters) manager Frank Selee and began his National League career in 1897. He had a terrific rookie year, hitting .354/.406/.499. In 1901, he jumped to the new American League. In his best “modern” season he hit .290/.366/.416 for the Red Sox (or the “Americans” as they were known at that time) with a league-leading 19 triples. Our Davenport Translations say that the season equates .302/.405/.510 with 28 homers and 95 walks in a present-day context. His six post-1900 seasons translate to .288/.367/.460. He was a solid hitter with a reputation as a superb fielder (something borne out by FRAA) but perhaps a bit short of being a star, especially on a team that also boasted future Hall of Famers Jimmy Collins and Cy Young.

Stahl would have been a footnote had he not been made player-manager of the Red Sox at the end of the 1906 season. Collins had had the job since 1901, but despite two pennants (1903 and 1904) and a win in the first World Series he and ownership were ready to be rid of each other. Collins jumped the club and literally headed for the beach. Stahl was named interim manager, and he wrote out the lineups for the last 40 games of a highly disappointing 49-105 season.

Stahl’s initial managerial tour was uneventful enough, though utterly unsuccessful at 14-26. The problems began the next spring, after he had accepted a permanent appointment to the position. The “affable, good-natured fellow,” as Fred Lieb described him, was not suited for the job. First, he was very close to Collins and was eager to turn the job back over to his friend, a fact of which he informed the front office. Second, the negative aspects of the job wore on him as spring training went on. “This handling of a baseball team both on and off the field is not what it is cracked up to be,” Stahl said. “Releasing players grated on my nerves and they come so frequently at this time of the year that it made me sick at heart.” On March 25, 1907, before the exhibition season was over, Stahl had tendered his resignation.

Three days later, with Stahl still serving as manager until a replacement could be found, Stahl ate breakfast, returned to the hotel room he shared with Collins, and downed a bottle of carbolic acid. Suffering greatly, he died in Collins’ arms. His last words, which have been reported with variations, were something along the lines of “It drove me to it.”

What “it” was remains a mystery. Dennis Auger’s Stahl biography for SABR does a good job of kicking around the possibilities, and there is also an excellent discussion in McFarland’s The Red Sox Before the Babe at Google books (which I would surely purchase if McFarland priced their wares as if they were books rather than Criterion editions of classic foreign films). Stahl had been married about a year, apparently happily in spite of what might have been a shotgun wedding to a woman whose morals seem to have been on the shaky side, so that doesn’t seem to have been an issue, and the managerial job being “it” also seems unlikely given that Stahl had just about extricated himself. There had been an incident a few years earlier in which a woman with a gun had stalked Stahl, apparently having been jilted by him, and was arrested just as she was about to attack him, and it’s possible that Stahl had been having a similarly volatile affair. It has been suggested that he had impregnated a woman not his wife, though there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for this. A close male friend from Indiana also committed suicide a few days after Stahl, leaving a note that said, “Bury me beside Chick,” and from that  the possibility of a homosexual affair has been inferred. There have also been discussions of alcoholism and possible drug use.

The cause of Stahl’s suicide may never be known given that over 100 years have passed, and in the end the answer may be as simultaneously as simple and complex as his having been overwhelmed by a case of clinical depression, something of which there is much evidence. He tended to joke about suicide quite a bit, jokes that seemed more like veiled threats, as in fact they were. Whatever the causes, however intense his pain, Stahl was unable to withstand the burden, and in the end that last is all that we really need to know.

The Long, Long Warehouse

Taken at Monday's BP event @ Camden Yards

(Taken at Monday's BP event at Camden Yards)

I have a confession to make: today’s randomly-selected DPTOTD profile wasn’t as random as usual, or at least was only as random as a Ouija board is random.

Players like Stahl have been in my thoughts since Monday evening, when Orioles prexy Andy MacPhail, our most gracious host, spoke at our event at Camden Yards. On the whole, Mr. MacPhail was quite complimentary towards the efforts of the analytical community, but suggested (accused is too strong a word) that we too often overlook the human aspect in our evaluations. I’m here to disagree.

Like any other, the field in which we at Baseball Prospectus toil is populated by all kinds of people. Some have the humility and maturity to understand that the more they know the less they can be sure of. Others have a kind of arrogance of surety that seemingly comes from always having been the smartest kid in the class. Between the two lies a wide spectrum of types and talents, but it seems as if the latter gets more attention for their absolutism than for the content of their thinking. What I’m trying to say is that there is no need to judge a whole approach to understanding baseball by the weakest members of the class.

It has been said many times, but is worth repeating: statistical analysis is not concerned with overlooking the human element in the game. Hell, it’s not concerned with the human element at all. It is simply a way of taking the thousands of discrete events that make up a baseball season and turning them into useful information. That’s all it is. We can make useful inferences about how players will perform under certain conditions, but we can’t tell you who is a bed-wetter and who isn’t. Even if we know, and sometimes we do, bed-wetting is a difficult thing to get a computer to model.

As such, we have to keep players like Chick Stahl in mind, and Tony Horton, and Alex Johnson and Bugs Raymond, and so on. These are extreme cases, but they serve as reminders of the often flawed humans who play the game. Failing to take the human factor into account is to misunderstand what it is that you’re observing, and no credible analyst would make that mistake.

MacPhail gave two examples of analysis that failed to consider the human factor, one general, the other specific. The latter involved the decision to sign Garrett Atkins, a widely panned move that he indicated transcended the standings and was made to demonstrate to the fans the club’s commitment to putting a good product on the field. The more general case was the idea that anyone can close. Taking his second point first, I’m not sure who it was who said that anyone can close, but it’s wrong. However, it’s not far off. A better way of putting it is “Not every pitcher can close, but most can, and while it is true that your team might be the lucky ducky who finds the one pitcher who is so twitchy he can’t covert saves at an 80 percent success rate, it likely won’t happen.”  

You can understand MacPhail’s perspective on this in that if he is the one guy to get burnt because he made Kyle Farnsworth his $1 closer instead of K-Rod his $10 million closer, it’s his job. Still, as Jon Rauch is showing in Minnesota, and as Chad Qualls showed last year, good pitching will out, and for a club that’s bent on economizing, this is a bowel-slackening but worthy gamble to take. As for Atkins, what jazzes fans is the promise of seeing something positively stimulating at the ballpark, which at its most basic level is winning, followed somewhere along the line by winning while watching a homegrown Jeter hit a home run. Atkins promises neither of those things, and while the signing is justifiable on the basis that a team needs a first baseman or a lot of fans are going to be hit by throws by shortstops if no one is there to complete a 6-3 putout, I very much doubt that Atkins budges the ticket and viewer needle at all.

In the end, general managers and the analytical community have their guns pointed in slightly different directions in that the former must exercise a certain caution in order to keep his job, whereas we are about trying to get at the game’s platonic truths. There are times that we may be correct about certain things, as with closers, but that truth may not be useful to the general manager because it places him at unacceptable risk. Similarly, his imperatives, like trying to sell a skeptical fanbase with whatever blunt tools are on hand, such as Atkins, do not overlap with ours. Politics more than truth on one side, truth more than politics on the other.

This is an aspect of the general manager’s job that analysts should do a better job of acknowledging. That said, show me an analyst who disregards the human element, be it on the part of GMs or the players and I will show you a bad analyst. The numbers can tell you a lot, but from Chick Stahl to Elijah Dukes there have always been players for whom projection will never be routine and the back of the baseball card cannot contain the depths of misery which animate and limit their careers.

...Which is Not to Say The Time Was Not Splendid

The Pros from Dover

(The Pros from Dover at Camden Yards. From L to R, Shawn Hoffman, Jay Jaffe, Steven Goldman, Will Carroll, and Clay Davenport.)

None of the above should be taken as my being disputatious with Mr. MacPhail or the Orioles, who I would very much like to thank for inviting us in, but rather as laying the ground for further debate, discussion, and mutual understanding. We had a swell time talking baseball in Baltimore, and I look forward to doing it again soon.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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