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January 17, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

January Is the Cruelest Month

by Jim Baker

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It's January and we must take our baseball where we find it. In this, perhaps baseball's cruelest month, here are some random items about our beloved sport:

They don't make trivia like they used to

Are you ready for some trivia? Some really old trivia? I found a trivia quiz in a copy of Baseball magazine from February of 1947 and thought I might run some of the questions by you. Before I do, seeing this quiz got me to wondering when trivia was invented, for lack of a better word. When did the first baseball trivia question appear? Does trivia predate baseball? Wouldn't it make sense that the concept of trivia is something that grew out of baseball? I doubt that's the case, but what other endeavors generate so much of the stuff? Perhaps all human knowledge is trivia--who am I to judge?

In any case, here are five of the 20 questions from the Baseball magazine quiz, written by Harold Winerip. This is multiple choice, although some of the questions have seven possible answers, so getting by on guessing will be tough. Answers will come at the bottom of the column. Please, no checking reference sources! Forget all you know about what happened in the last 58 years….

1. It's easily remembered that Harry "Cat" Breechen copped three games in the 1946 World Series, but only the quiz-taker with a blade-sharp memory will recollect the other Cardinal triumph of the classic was credited to:

Johnny Beazley
Murry Dickson
Red Barrett
Ted Wilks
George Munger
Al Brazle
Howie Pollet

2. Groucho, Chico and Harpo are the three Marx brothers; Mary Livingston and Jack Benny are wife and husband; but Mickey Cochrane, Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris all:

Piloted teams to the cellar in their first years as American League skippers.
Had a lifetime batting average of over .300.
Started their major-league careers with the Chicago White Sox.
Guided teams to pennants in their first season as American League managers.

3. Sportsman's Park, historic home of the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals, is owned by:

The Rockefeller Foundation
The St. Louis Cardinals
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
The St. Louis Browns
The University of Missouri

4. One of these ballplayers realized the rookies' dream by belting 200 basehits in his first full season as a major leaguer:

Dick Wakefield
Charlie Keller
Harry Walker
Johnny Hopp
Cecil Travis
Lenny Merullo
Peewee Reese

5. The name Les Nunamaker, former American League catcher, is still preserved in record books because:

He completed two unassisted double plays in one game.
In one inning, he threw out three runners trying to steal.
He caught 400 consecutive major-league games.
He was a left-handed catcher.
He was charged with 35 passed balls in one season.

Betting on Big Mac

Do you know you can already get a bet down on whether or not Mark McGwire will be elected to the Hall of Fame next year? I was poking around one of those off-shore gambling sites and found a proposition with the following lines:

Yes: +240
No: -300

Hmmm… it's interesting that it's even come to this. Six years ago, he looked like a mortal lock. Now, you have a shot at making money betting against him getting in. Count on nothing--oh, except that Cal Ripken Jr. is a mortal lock. That much we know.

We're Number Two!

Speaking of the evil scourge that is gambling (or fun pastime, depending on your point of view), this same Web site currently has the Dominican Republic as the favorites to win the World Baseball Classic. The United States is a close second with Venezuela the only other team under the $1,000-line (numbers based on $100 bets):


Dominican Republic    $100
USA                   $125
Venezuela             $800
Japan                 $1,000
Puerto Rico           $1,000
Taiwan                $1,500
Korea                 $2,000
Mexico                $4,000
Canada                $5,000
Panama                $5,000
Netherlands           $10,000
Italy                 $25,000
Australia             $50,000
South Africa          $50,000
China                 $75,000

Consider this: if everyone in China bets $10 on their team and they somehow prevail, money as we know it will have no longer have any meaning.

Positional Pride

Back in May, I got curious about which positions were representing themselves the best on a league basis. I averaged the top five VORP at each position per league and came up with this:


20.1: First Basemen, National League
16.0: Left Fielders, National League
14.5: Third Basemen, National League
14.2: Shortstops, American League
13.7: Right Fielders, American League
13.3: Second Basemen, National League
13.1: Designated Hitters, American League
12.9: Center Fielders, National League
12.5: Second Basemen, American League
12.0: Shortstops, National League
12.0: Right Fielders, National League
11.8: First Basemen, American League
11.7: Catchers, American League
10.6: Third Basemen, American League
 8.9: Center Fielders, American League
 7.8: Catchers, National League
 6.4: Left Fielders, American League

Now, with the full season on the books, I came across this list and got to wondering how things finished up. This time, I took the top ten players at each position per league in terms of plate appearances and then averaged their VORP. This is how they fared:

56.98: First basemen, National League
44.45: Leftfielders, National League
41.69: Shortstops, American League
38.01: Designated Hitters, American League
35.82: Second Basemen, National League
35.77: Rightfielders, National League
34.42: First Basemen, American League
33.22: Rightfielders, American League
32.65: Second Basemen, American League
31.53: Third Basemen, American League
30.83: Leftfielders, American League
30.41: Third Basemen, National League
30.36: Centerfielders, National League
29.54: Catchers, American League
28.46: Shortstops, National League
25.74: Centerfielders, American League
17.93: Catchers, National League

Given the larger sample, normalization was to be expected and fully half the positions fell into a fairly narrow band between 29.5 and 36 as the season progressed. The American League centerfielders never quite recovered while their left field counterparts at least got into the middle of the pack. The AL CF leader had a lower VORP than the NL 1B average, that being Grady Sizemore at 52. Bernie Williams and Jeremy Reed were both in single figures, hurting the cause.

We don't expect catchers to hit the upper reaches of a chart like this given their generally reduced playing time but seven AL catchers qualified for the batting title and an eighth, A.J. Pierzynski, came very close. Greatly explaining the NL catching predicament is the fact that Pierzynski had more plate appearances than senior loop leader Paul Lo Duca, as not a single NL catcher reached 502 official plate appearances.

The American League third basemen were a one-man show, really. Subtracting Alex Rodriguez's 99.7 from the mix, their average falls to 24.


Ancient trivia answers

1. George Munger: I love the way Winerip butters up the readers about how wonderful their memories must be to recall this. This wasn't exactly ancient history at the time, the games having been played only five months before. Red Munger, as he was also known, won Game 4 with plenty of support from his Cardinal mates, 12 runs on 20 hits. He was a three-time All-Star.

2. Guided teams to pennants in their first year as managers: All three did so as player-managers. Cronin was 26 when he took over the Washington Senators in 1933. Cochrane was 31 when he assumed control in Detroit the following season. Harris was 27 when he got the Senators job in 1924 and is the only one of the three to have won the World Series.

3. St. Louis Browns: How else could they have hung in there for so long? If they had not been able to charge rent to their successful tenants, they would have ended up playing in a rail yard down by the river.

4. Dick Wakefield: He got his 200 hits for Detroit in 1943. It was the only season in which he qualified for the batting title. Of the other players given as possible answers, only Travis ever got 200 hits (218 in 1941). That was in the eighth year of his career, though. Travis was just hitting his peak when war broke out. He posted an 11.5 WARP3 in 1941 but couldn't get it going again when he came back in 1945.

5. He threw out three runners trying to steal: Ol' Winerip got right to the point, not elaborating in any way. Nunamaker pulled off this feat on August 3, 1914 while catching for the Yankees. The opponents were the Tigers who prevailed 4-1 in spite of their failed thievery. (On the other extreme, the very next year the Senators stole eight bases in one inning against the Indians.)

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