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April 27, 2005

You Could Look It Up

The Infinity Edition

by Steven Goldman

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Responding to a May, 1897 news report that claimed he had expired in Europe, Mark Twain sent a note to the New York Journal: "The report of my death was an exaggeration." So to with "You Can Look It Up," BP's history beat, which hasn't appeared in these pages since last October. YCLIU hasn't been cancelled or declared a free agent. It's simply that yon proprietor was selected by BP's infernal masters to midwife the BP book Mind Game, our look at some of our favorite controversial topics in team building as viewed through the lens of Boston's successful championship drive. Mind Game has been playing mind games ever since and continues to do so until this day, making simple acts like tying one's shoes difficult, preparing breakfast a daunting test, and producing YCLIU nearly impossible. Long gone are the days before Mind Game, when we were young.

Still, a revival of YCLIU was always planned, and though the Mind Beast is still not quite ready for the marketplace, we're setting up this horse to ride again. Until we've cleared the time to get into our traditional Suetonius-style lengthy narratives, we're going to do short subjects in the traditional, perfected, BP manner. Join the Baseball Prospectus gang in a little adventure we like to call…

BASEBALL PROSPECTUS EDITION

Each year, Baseball Prospectus published a book of player profiles and other information. We've been doing it for ten years because nobody's stopped us. Along the way, the BP annual has become the longest-running show of its type. Still, if there's one drag about being on stage longer than Sugar Babies it's that we haven't been on stage long enough. There are no player comments for Germany Schaefer, Marvell Wynne, and Bobby Meacham. The BP Infinity edition will correct that, one player at a time.

With each installment of BP Infinity, we'll move five players through the alphabet, then start over again. The team and years listed represent the time and place of the player's primary achievements.

  1. HENRY AARON
    RF•MILWAUKEE-ATLANTA BRAVES 1954-1974

    Until David Aardsma, Hank Aaron always came first in alphabetical listings of baseball players, in the same way that the Bible always starts with "In the beginning." This is not entirely coincident with the spelling of his last name, for the baseball history book starts with Hank Aaron no matter how you shape it: alphabetically, according to magnitude of accomplishment, the cut of his jib in a major league uniform, whatever. What the racists who insisted that Aaron had no right to Babe Ruth's record never understood was that Ruth's record never really belonged to him in the first place, achieved as it was not against the best competition that the nation had to offer, but rather the best white competition. Aaron was staking a claim to ground that was up for grabs, and in doing so sanctified what had been a compromised bit of history. That Aaron has been displaced at the head of the baseball alphabet by a nondescript reliever could just be coincidence, or perhaps it says something about the pell-mell, unplanned way teams try to staff out their bloated bullpens these days. Cycle through relievers rapidly enough and not only will you add an Aardsma to the lexicon, but also an Xavier Xavier, an Oje Neeash, and another Hank Aaron, this one a lefty with only two fingers. It's like an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters.

    Had he played in the era of free agency, Aaron would have been one of the safest investments a buyer could find. He neither missed significant time to injury nor had anything you could categorize as an off-season until he was 40 years old, and was a .362 hitter in the post-season.

    Some say that small players hitting home runs is an indirect sign of steroid use, but note that Mr. Aaron was just six feet tall and is listed as a bit under in some sources.

  2. JIM BAGBY, SR.
    RHP•CLEVELAND INDIANS 1916-1922

    "Sarge Jim" was the sacrificial lamb of Tris Speaker's 1920 world champions. Bagby started 38 games, completed 30 of them, and relieved in ten more, then added an additional two starts in the World Series. For his 354.2 innings pitched, Bagby earned 31 wins (plus one more in the Series), leading the American League in that category as well as in complete games, innings pitched, and appearances. In 1921 his ERA rose from 2.89 to 4.70, even higher than the corresponding jump in the league average from 3.79 to 4.29 and from which we can infer that his arm was not quite up to the burden which was placed on it. Bagby never recovered his effectiveness and was out of the majors at 34. Still, if one was going to go out in a blaze of glory there are worse career finishes than a 31-win season followed by a complete game World Series win in which your own three-run homer was part of the margin of victory. Bagby lived to see his son Jim Junior take up his spot in the Indians rotation.

  3. FRANK CHANCE
    1B•CHICAGO CUBS 1898-1912

    Chance earned the sobriquet "The Peerless Leader" during his stint as player-manager of four Cubs' pennant winners, including the 1906 club, always on the short list of the greatest teams of all time. Despite his two Chicago champions, his greatest moment of peerless leadership might have come as manager of the Yankees in 1913. New York's greatest star was first baseman Hal Chase, who was, unfortunately, corrupt. In addition to undermining Chance with the other players, Chase would do what he could to throw games for gamblers and to recruit others to help him do so. Chase had been in New York since 1905 and his activities were well known, but the Yankees owners had always refused to part with the popular "Prince Hal," at one point replacing a manager who wanted to deal Chase with Chase himself. Frank Chance, though he knew it would cost him his job, took matters into his own hands and traded Chase before the owners could intervene, dumping him on the White Sox in exchange for two journeymen. When the Yankee owners were informed a brawl nearly broke out: the owners had to be restrained from beating their own manager to death.

  4. STORM DAVIS
    RHP•BALTIMORE ORIOLES 1982-1986, OAKLAND A's 1987-1989

    George Earl Davis, step-brother of first baseman Glenn Davis, was called "Cy Future" as a prospect, though in retrospect it's hard to see why--the seventh-round draft choice's trip through the minor leagues was not particularly eye-opening. Still, he pitched with poise belying his years as a 20-year-old rookie in 1982. For the first three years of his career Davis was a strong 35-20, but then the wheels began to come off of his cut fastball. In 1986, the Orioles, not exactly swimming in quality pitchers at the time, traded Davis to the Padres in exchange for catcher Terry Kennedy and reliever Mark Williamson. In San Diego he ran afoul of rookie manager Larry Bowa, who hit him with one of baseball's most memorable insults, suggesting that the pitcher thought that the "SD" on the Padres cap stood for "Storm Davis." A trade to the A's quickly ensued, where despite high ERAs Davis enjoyed a brief renaissance in front of Tony LaRussa's bash 'n' bullpen combination. A hefty free agent contract from the always helpful Kansas City Royals followed but they provided neither the bash nor the bullpen and Davis was a predictable disappointment. He was out of the majors at 32.

  5. DOCK ELLIS
    RHP•PITTSBURGH PIRATES 1968-75, NEW YORK YANKEES 1976-1977

    Dock Ellis is known for a lot of unusual things, including coming to the ballpark in hair curlers, pitching a no-hitter on LSD, and a 1974 start in which he hit or attempted to hit the first five batters to face him before being relieved. He was also part of one of the greatest trades in Yankees history, sent to New York with rookie second baseman Willie Randolph and lefty Ken Brett in exchange for Doc Medich. The trade was so imbalanced that when Medich struggled, someone quipped that Ellis was probably a better doctor too.

    For our purposes, perhaps Ellis' most interesting accomplishment was posting a 17-8, 3.19 ERA record for the 1976 Yankees while walking 76 and striking out 65 in 211.2 innings at a time when pitchers weren't doing that--this line would have been less interesting during the dead ball era or even the 1950s. American League pitchers were in positive territory in the strikeout/walk department in 1976, with a ratio of 1.49. Ellis's was .86.

    Normally, allowing as many balls into play as Ellis did would be a bad thing--on any given day they might start missing the fielders. Ellis allowed only a .255 batting average on balls in play. In his case, the balls didn't miss the fielders, suggesting the Yankees played a shockingly tight defense, shocking at least, in view of the cumbersome present-day Yankees. Indeed, the Yankees led the majors in defensive efficiency, turning 73% of balls in play into outs (Ellis got a slightly better shake from the D than he was entitled to). Clay Davenport's fielding runs depict a team that didn't sacrifice the leather at any position:

    C Thurman Munson, +1
    1B Chris Chambliss, +3
    2B Willie Randolph, +18
    3B Graig Nettles, +22
    SS Fred Stanley/Jim Mason, +1 (combined)
    OF Roy White, +2
    OF Mickey Rivers, -5
    OF Oscar Gamble, +1
    OF Lou Piniella, +1

    Ellis's DERA (ERA with the pitching isolated from the defense), was a slightly below average 4.47, as opposed to his NRA of 4.18, suggesting just how much he benefited from the defense.

    Given the subsequent history of the Yankees and the piecemeal way this team was assembled (the subject of a future YCLIU), the defensive strength of the unit was something of a lucky break. The Yankees weren't out to collect defensively reliable fielders and strong glovemen, it just happened. That they have never done it again shows just how much of a fluke it was.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Hank Aaron

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