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July 5, 2017

Baseball Therapy

The Great Debates

by Russell A. Carleton


There’s no fun in an argument that has a correct answer. You might think Lord Palmerston was England’s greatest Prime Minister and your friend might prefer Pitt the Elder, but there’s no real way to come to a conclusion. Sometimes, it’s best to agree to disagree, rather than get into a big fight about it. But what if there were a right answer? Last week, MLB.com's Cut4 site put up a whimsical poll in which they asked the big questions about baseball. I think some of those questions had correct answers.

OK, fine, if not correct answers, then perhaps there’s at least a little bit of data that we can shine on them.

What’s the hardest position to play?

There’s the old defensive spectrum, which says that catchers are the most specialized of position players. A simple sort by OPS, split by position, shows that in 2016 catchers posted the lowest number (.703) followed by their next-closest neighbors (shortstops at .725). But I think there’s more evidence than that.

In 2016, there were 104 players who came to bat as “catchers.” (It’s possible that I’m missing one or two who caught a stray ninth inning, but never came to bat.) This was the fewest of any position.

Position

Players

Catcher

104

Shortstop

121

Second Base

152

Center Field

157

Third Base

160

First Base

170

Right Field

206

Left Field

241


Teams have very few players whom they trust to don the tools of ignorance. But I think that the most powerful evidence for catcher being the most special of the positions comes from the chart below. I took the players who appeared at each position and were not among the top 30 in the league in plate appearances at that position (i.e., they were backups). From the chart above, we know that there were 74 such catchers (104 minus 30). Among those 74 catchers, they averaged 14 plate appearances at positions other than catcher.

Position

Average Plate Appearances Elsewhere (backups)

Catcher

14

Second Base

162

Third Base

165

Left Field

173

Shortstop

184

Right Field

186

Center Field

195

First Base

235


You could view this data as proof that catchers just aren’t very positionally versatile, or you could view it as proof of the fact that you can get a job in MLB knowing nothing more than how to not embarrass yourself behind the plate.

But wait, the Cut4 survey also included pitchers (they included options for starter and closer). Is it harder to be a pitcher or a catcher? There are, of course, a lot more pitchers floating around the game, but that has more to do with the fact that pitchers need more rest than do position players. So, if a team had an 18-year-old prospect whom they felt could be either a pretty good pitcher or a pretty good catcher, which would they prefer to train him as?

We don’t have a lot of case examples to draw from on this. (Hey there, Christian Bethancourt!) Actually, the Bethancourt experiment, such as it has been, is rather illustrative. The Padres were willing to let their catcher give it a shot on the mound, on the off chance that they might be able to get something out of him there. No one ever said, “You can never have too many catchers.”

Then again, failed pitchers do pop up here and there as position players, though they are usually sent to the outfield. Perhaps because not just anyone can hack it at catcher? Perhaps we can split the tie here with this: "Pitcher is the hardest position to play well. Catcher is the hardest position to play, period.”

***

Are you in favor of the DH?

I am personally firmly #TeamDH, but then I grew up in an American League city. Implementing the DH would not immediately bring 15 new hitters who hit like DHs into the NL. It would instead let 15 guys who are currently faking it as left fielders and first basemen sit down for half the game. The increase in offense would be the difference between a pitcher hitting and a backup left fielder hitting. That’s an increase, but perhaps a little less than some people hoped for.

What we do know is that the lack of consistency in the DH rule actually favors the American League (slightly, but it’s there) when teams meet in interleague games, although that’s more an argument for consistency than the DH. Rob Mains has pointed out that the “no DH promotes strategy” argument has largely been neutralized, as the game has shifted to a model of pitching where the starter goes fewer innings and there are more relievers per game.

Here’s a graph from 1993-2016 showing the overall trend in the number of times that a pitcher was due up to bat and took his plate appearance, rather than being pinch-hit for.

That doesn’t include preemptive double-switches, where the manager essentially inserted the pinch-hitter ahead of time. This isn’t a perfect proxy for that, but here’s the percentage of times (in NL parks, obviously) in which the ninth spot in the order came up and the plate appearance was taken by the pitcher, removing cases in which the batter was a pinch-hitter.

Those dips in 2007 and then in 2015 and 2016 were when Tony La Russa (2008) and Joe Maddon (and a few others, 2015/2016) started hitting the pitcher eighth. Still, we can see that the overall trend line is downward. The National League itself is trying to find ways to have their pitchers hit less. Perhaps they might check in with how the American League handled the issue.

***

Should adult fans bring gloves to baseball games?

It’s considered perfectly acceptable for an adult to wear a “replica” jersey, perhaps even a personalized one, to a baseball game. Do you really need a glove? Other than the cosplay aspect of bringing your own mitt (an adult bringing a baseball bat into a public event where they serve alcohol is apparently frowned upon), the most common answer to this one is that the glove might come in handy for catching a foul ball.

In 2016, there were approximately 51 foul balls hit per game, along with 2.3 home runs. Not all the foul balls made it into the stands, but let’s just assume that they did. There were an average of just over 30,000 people in attendance at each major-league game last year. You’ve got roughly a one in 600 shot that a ball will somehow come your way. Do you feel silly yet?

If the goal is to snare a foul ball and take it home, you have to ask what additive effect bringing your glove actually has. Even if we assume that, with a glove, you are more likely to catch the ball than if you try to do it barehanded, the chances of catching it barehanded are not zero, and frankly, unlike the field players, you don’t actually have to catch it on the fly for it to count. Even if the ball were somehow hit right to you and you dropped it, you can still take it home. Congratulations. You now have one more foul ball in your house than I do.

I guess the only situation where the glove would come in handy would be one where the ball is hit in your general area and there are several other people around you who are clamoring for the ball as well. In that case, your glove probably serves to simply rob someone else of a souvenir. Not only are you bad at math, you are a bad human being.

***

Is it OK to do The Wave?

Let me leave aside the usual argument about The Wave being done in the eighth inning of a 2-1 game with two outs and a couple of runners on (for crying out loud, watch the game!), and meditate on The Wave itself. The Wave is an exercise in emergent behavior, the idea that a group of people (or a group of anything, really) can somehow become more than the sum of its parts. We entered this stadium as 30,000 individuals, but thanks to the efforts of a couple of over-sugared 10-year-olds in section 107, we are now “a wave.”

That idea can be cool to think about. Emergent behavior can be fun to study, so why not study the emergent behavior that is happening directly in front of you on that grassy area in the middle of the stadium? Baseball is a game where we emphasize individual credit. Smith hit the home run. Jones struck that guy out. But why did Jones strike that guy out? Is it because he got a good pitch called from his catcher that he wouldn’t have personally thought to throw? Is it because he felt the need to keep the ball out of play because he knows the defense behind him sucks? Is it because he learned a trick from one of his teammates a couple weeks ago that makes his slider do a little zwurvle movement that hitters have a hard time picking up on?

The idea of emergence in baseball is not well-understood. How do the parts fit together (or alternately, get in each other’s way) to provide value? How can a team become more than the sum of its parts? The Wave is JV stuff. Instead of standing up after section 224 stands up, try to pick apart what’s going on between the ... HEEEEEEYYYY ... white lines.

***

Peanuts or Cracker Jack?

Um, I believe the song specifically asks for both, and I’m a fan of “both/and” thinking.

When we compare them nutritionally, peanuts contain more calories per ounce than does Cracker Jack, largely for the fact that peanuts contain more fat and more protein. If they are salted, the peanuts will have more sodium. On the other side, Cracker Jack contains more sugar. The peanuts probably provide more nutritional value (they also provide some lesser-known, but important vitamins and minerals), and when I last looked at the poll, they held a 60-40 advantage over Cracker Jack.

In 1998, researchers Daniel Read and Barbara van Leeuwen ran an experiment in which they asked volunteers what sort of snack they would like in one week, and gave them a choice between chocolate and fruit. The majority chose fruit. When given the same choice of a snack in the present, the majority chose chocolate. People are often more confident in their ability to choose nutrition over candy than they truly are when given that choice.

***

High socks or low cuffs?

Pass.

***

Are bat flips cool?

Let’s for a moment imagine a team that decided they were going to do a full-on bat flip for everything. And I mean a full-on epic, Tom Lawless-level bat flip that would make Jose Bautista blush. Single up the middle? Excuse me while I causally toss this toothpick away from me. Can of corn to center field? Let’s do a two-handed shove for emphasis. Strike out called with two outs and the bases loaded? I’m gonna stand here and pose for a moment, then toss my bat. Baseball’s odd system of justice would call for retaliation for the crime of ... what’s the charge, officer?

There’s a certain logic to beanball wars, even if it’s a skewed and twisted logic. A 98 mph fastball to the head really could kill someone, in the sense that they would no longer be alive. So, when there’s an inkling that some pitcher might have it in his head that he can go headhunting, there’s at least an understandable impulse to respond by dropping a curveball on someone’s hip to reinforce the idea that any further infractions of the rule will be met with mutually assured destruction. It’s not a great way to live, but it was the basis of US-Russian foreign policy for a few decades.

For some reason though, a bat flip—which, assuming it doesn’t hit the guy in the on-deck circle, is a threat to no one—gets the same response, because baseball’s system of justice runs in part on honor culture. The crime is failing to pretend that nothing interesting happened after hitting a big home run, and the punishment is a free trip to first base (if won through a bruise on your back) the next time you come up. If you don’t mind being a heel, it’s like getting to hit a home run, and getting a free toaster as an added bonus!

Are bat flips cool? Yes! They make the other team do irrational things because they got a feelings boo-boo. Imagine the power of being able to psychologically manipulate your enemy to do something that you wanted done anyway. Bat flips are psychological warfare. What’s interesting is that if our unrepentant bat-flippers really did keep up their flipping strategy through an entire year, the other teams would probably seethe, but they would stop retaliating. Eventually, they’d start forcing in runs.

So why did they bother with the first one?

***

Should you ever say the words “no-hitter” while one is in progress?

On September 1st, 2004, I did this.

The Phillies still did this. It was a game that I took my daughter to, and it was her third ever game. As Jonathan Papelbon closed out the ninth, I looked to my daughter and told her that I wished that she were older so that she could appreciate what was happening. It was the first no-hitter for both of us. She was five. I was 34.

There’s a statistical question about when it becomes an “in-progress no-hitter.” Technically, as the teams take the field for the first time, the starter is “working on a no-hitter” if only because he hasn’t yet faced a hitter. But even assuming that we’ve made it into the sixth inning with a no-no still a possibility, the truth is that some idiot will say the two forbidden words. Has there ever been a no-hitter in progress where someone didn’t?

So, at the very least, we lack data points where everyone kept mum about the “N. H.” Logically, we have to leave open the possibility that there’s something magic about not saying “it.”

***

How many batters does it take to "bat around"?

Using 2016 numbers:

Number of batters

Percentage of half-innings

1-7

96.7%

8

1.9%

9

0.9%

10 or more

0.5%


For those of us on #Team9, there’s a certain symmetry to the accomplishment. If (at least) nine players come up, then everyone has had a chance to contribute. Asking that one player must, for some reason, contribute twice, seems like overkill, and seems like asking more out of one player than the other eight.

Besides, restricting the definition to 10 or more means that the number of times we can proclaim that a team has batted around will be cut into a third of what it could be. THERE IS SO LITTLE JOY IN THE WORLD. LET US HAVE THIS, YOU MISERS WHO PROBABLY TAKE YOUR GLOVE TO THE GAME!

***

Which mascot is the best?

Mr. Met did make a case for himself recently that he was number one. However, I think the data tell a very compelling story on this one.

Team

Current Mascot

Introduced

World Series win Since?

Notes

Arizona

Baxter the Bobcat

2000

Yes

Atlanta

Homer the Brave

1989

Yes

Baltimore

An Oriole without a Name

1979

Yes

Boston

Wally

1997

Yes

Chicago (N)

Clark

2014

Yes

Oh sure… that did it.

Chicago (A)

Southpaw

?

Yes?

Cincinnati

Mr. Red

1997 (re-introduced)

No

Cleveland

Slider

1990

No

Injured himself during the 1995 ALCS

Colorado

Dinger

1994

No

Detroit

Paws

1995

No

Houston

Orbit

2012

No

Got kicked out of their league

Kansas City

Sluggerrr

1996

Yes

Los Angeles of Anaheim

No Mascot

Los Angeles of Los Angeles

No Mascot

Miami

Billy the Marlin

1995

Yes. In 2003.

We don’t talk about 1997 at my house.

Milwaukee

Bernie the Brewer

1973

No

Got kicked out of their league.

Minnesota

T.C. Bear

2000

No

New York (N)

Mr. Met

1964

Yes

New York (A)

No Mascot

Oakland

Stomper

1997

No

Philadelphia

Phillie Phanatic

1978

Yes

Pittsburgh

The Parrot

1979

Yes

San Diego

Swinging Friar

?

No

It’s not the Chicken.

San Francisco

Lou Seal

1996

Yes

Born in an even year.

Seattle

Mariner Moose

1990

No

St. Louis

Fredbird

1979

Yes

Tampa Bay

Raymond

?

No

Texas

Rangers Captain

2002

No

Toronto

Ace

2002

No

Washington

Teddy Roosevelt (technically, not, but whatever, it’s Teddy)

?

No

Teddy never wins


Of the 27 teams that have a mascot, 14 of them (the majority) have not won a World Series since their mascot made its debut. Therefore, teams should avoid mascots.

The correct answer is Youppi!

***

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

Yes.

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

11 comments have been left for this article.

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