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November 1, 2007

Schrodinger's Bat

My First Full Season

by Dan Fox

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"This team, it all flows from me. I'm the straw that stirs the drink. Maybe I should say me and [Thurman] Munson, but he can only stir it bad."
-Attributed to Reggie Jackson in the May 1977 issue of Sport magazine.

---

For all baseball fans, there is one season that holds a special place in our hearts. For many, that is the first season where we really followed the game from the season's blossoming in spring, through the long hot summer, and on into the shorter and colder days of autumn. For me, 1977 was that season. As a nine-year-old boy, I started that ritual (interrupted briefly by the release of Star Wars) of watching standings, studying box scores, and keeping up with my favorite team while noticing the events of the larger game. At the same time, I started working hard to collect the entire 1977 Topps baseball card set, which I finally did a few years later.

What I remember most was that "our" Cubs-and even as a nine-year old I understood the frustration that went with that term from my father and grandfather-were hot and seemed destined to make the postseason. After posting a mediocre 7-9 record in April, the new-look team featuring Bobby Murcer and Steve Ontiveros from the Giants and Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus from the Dodgers won 21 of 28 games in May, and another 19 of 27 in June to run their record up to 47-24, taking a 7 game lead over the Phillies as the calendar turned to July. My personal interest was heightened that month, as my family attended the doubleheader on July 27th against the Big Red Machine, marking my first trip to Wrigley Field. Although the Cubs would lose the first game 6-2 to rookie Mario Soto, they would come back and score five runs in the eighth inning of the second game, sparked by leadoff triple by DeJesus (I confess, my favorite player) to earn the split; a feat we witnessed second-hand via WGN radio, as we'd cut out early for the long drive back to Iowa.

Despite that offensive outburst, the Cubs that summer were doing it on the strength of their run prevention, led by the emergence of Bruce Sutter, who reeled off 24 saves and threw 81 1/3 innings before the All-Star break. In some ways, his usage that season foreshadowed the modern closer role, as manager Herman Franks called on him with the Cubs trailing only six times in 62 appearances. When Sutter came down with a back injury that would sideline him for three weeks, the team scuffled; by the time he came back, it was too late to avoid a third-place finish and a 81-81 record.

Despite this first of many disappointments as a Cubs fan, the 1977 season will always be a memorable one for me, with games witnessed later that summer at Royals Stadium in the midst of a rain shower, hoping to see Brooks Robinson play in his final season, and also at Arlington Stadium, where the soon-to-be world champion Yankees played the Rangers.

More generally, that season will also be remembered for:

  • The offensive outburst, perhaps fueled by unusually warm weather or differences in the ball (Rawlings became the exclusive vendor in 1977), that saw home runs increase by 27 percent, helping George Foster crack 50 home runs, the first time it had been done since Willie Mays did it in 1965;
  • The 260 stolen bases of the Pirates, the National League's highest total since the Deadball Era;
  • The Royals' 16-game winning streak, and 24 wins in 25 games down the stretch, reminiscent of this year's Rockies;
  • Reggie Jackson's three-homer capper in Game Six of the World Series.

So, in honor of that season, we'll turn back the clock 30 years and take a look at the best and worst baserunners of 1977.

Leaders, Trailers, and Trends

As with the 2007 leaders we discussed a couple of weeks ago, we'll begin with advancement on ground balls (EqGAR). Keep in mind that all of these values are based on a multi-year run expectancy matrix that includes 1977, and so are relative to the overall level of run scoring during that era.


Name            GAOpps  EqGAR
Len Randle          54    1.6
George Brett        39    1.5
Rick Manning        22    1.4
Hal McRae           35    1.3
Ted Sizemore        42    1.2
Gary Matthews       31    1.1
Rob Picciolo        21    1.1
John Scott          22    1.0
Ken Griffey         32    1.0
Lee Mazzilli        44    1.0
Thad Bosley         23    0.9
Wayne Garrett       14    0.9
Carlos Lopez        12    0.8
Dan Ford            29    0.8
Sandy Alomar        16    0.8
-----------------------------
Steve Kemp          26   -1.1
Mike Schmidt        14   -1.1
Andres Mora         13   -1.1
Andy Thornton       34   -1.2
Ruppert Jones       39   -1.2
Joe Zdeb            15   -1.3
Dan Meyer           34   -1.3
Lou Brock           30   -1.3
Reggie Jackson      36   -1.3
Cesar Geronimo      28   -1.3
Lyman Bostock       55   -1.4
John Milner         23   -1.4
Jason Thompson      33   -1.4
Dave Kingman        21   -1.4
Pete Rose           53   -2.4

In the category of how changing scenery can work wonders, Len Randle takes our top spot at +1.6 runs. You may recall that Randle was suspended for 30 days after punching out Rangers manager Frank Lucchesi before a spring training game as a reaction to having learned that Bump Wills had won the starting second base job. Lucchesi spent some time in the hospital, and Randle was dealt to the Mets. Ted Sizemore is something of a surprise to me on this list, since I remembered him as more of a plodder. It's also nice to see Rob Picciolo in the midst of a historically bad season have at least something positive to show for his efforts.

On the flip side, a 36-year-old Pete Rose lost 2.4 runs, and 38-year-old Lou Brock 1.3 runs, while the slow-footed Dave Kingman and Jason Thompson provide no surprises in turning up here.

Next, we'll move on to runner's contributions on stolen base attempts and pickoffs:


Name            SBOpps  EqSBR
Larry Bowa          30    4.3
Cesar Cedeno        78    4.2
Mitchell Page       52    3.4
Frank Taveras       93    3.0
Gene Richards       74    2.7
Freddie Patek       69    2.3
Miguel Dilone       12    1.9
Joe Morgan          59    1.8
Terry Puhl          11    1.5
Omar Moreno         72    1.3
Chris Chambliss      4    1.2
Toby Harrah         33    1.1
Dave Concepcion     37    1.0
Amos Otis           30    0.9
Jerry Turner        17    0.9
-----------------------------
Mickey Rivers       38   -3.8
Buddy Bell          12   -3.9
Jim Norris          43   -3.9
Len Randle          55   -4.1
Jim Wohlford        35   -4.2
Hal McRae           36   -4.2
Mike Vail            9   -4.6
Juan Beniquez       44   -4.7
Enos Cabell         69   -5.1
Garry Templeton     54   -6.3
Derrell Thomas      31   -6.3
Dave Parker         36   -6.5
Bert Campaneris     53   -6.7
Al Oliver           31   -7.2
Jose Cruz           70   -8.4

Larry Bowa takes the top spot at +4.3 runs on the strength of stealing 27 of 30 bases when he was the lead runner, including a steal of home and seven steals of third. Cesar Cedeno stole 63 times in 78 attempts, although six of the times he was caught were at third, costing him over three runs. With just 12 attempts, future one-hit-wonder Miguel Dilone racked up +1.9 runs by never getting caught. Likewise, Chris Chambliss contributed +1.2 runs by stealing four bases, including stealing home twice.

The trailers here are interesting, because their damage done so heavily outweighs the contributions of the players at the top of the list. Jose Cruz of the Astros had 40 stolen bases, but was put out 30 times-including being picked off an amazing seven times-contributing to his negative 8.4 runs. Likewise, the other runners on this list all had poor stolen base percentages, and in retrospect should have been given the stop sign much more frequently. Incidentally, the Mets' Mike Vail was a perfect 0-for-9 (including two pickoffs), no doubt finding himself on the short end of a few hit-and-run plays.

But this list points to the fact that at the time sabermetric knowledge was in its infancy, with Bill James' first self-published Baseball Abstract making its debut the same year. Not all managers or players were aware of the costs of allowing Gary Templeton and Enos Cabell run with abandon, leaving a trail of broken innings in their wake. As a result, stolen base percentages were relatively low, just 62.9 percent overall. When noting the general rule that a 67-70 percent success rate is required to break even (yes, it varies by the base/out situation, and that's taken into account by EqSBR), you can see how teams left a lot of runs on the field. In fact, the aggregate EqSBR for the majors stood at a staggering -418 runs for the 1977 season, or over -16 runs per team. The Reds were the best team in baseball at -7.2 runs, while the Indians lost over 27 runs and the Cardinals over 25 with their basepath mayhem. In their 397 opportunities, the Pirates cost themselves 20 runs. With rising stolen base rates over time, the cost of stealing overall has shrunk to where the strategy cost teams just a total of 62 runs in 2007:

historical stolen base rates

The reason for the steady increase in stolen base percentage is another matter, but one could speculate about an increased awareness of the costs and benefits, while improvements in the game in terms of technique and perhaps athleticism have almost certainly been contributing factors.

Next, we'll take a look at advancing on fly balls (EqAAR). It should be noted that this metric uses park factors calculated just for 1977 for each of the three outfield positions for each of the 26 parks.


Name            AAOpps  EqAAR
Fred Lynn           27    2.3
Tito Fuentes        45    2.0
George Scott        28    1.7
Jim Rice            34    1.5
Denny Doyle         28    1.5
Joe Morgan          25    1.4
Chris Chambliss     36    1.4
Frank White         22    1.3
Bobby Murcer        34    1.3
Phil Garner         33    1.3
Gene Clines         15    1.3
Greg Luzinski       26    1.3
Rick Burleson       55    1.2
Lou Piniella        13    1.2
Jim Spencer         21    1.1
-----------------------------
Pat Kelly           24   -1.7
Willie McCovey      19   -1.9
Willie Horton       30   -1.9
Bob Bailor          29   -1.9
Fred Kendall         8   -2.0
Jose Cardenal       12   -2.0
Dan Driessen        20   -2.0
Gene Richards       32   -2.1
Don Money           39   -2.1
Chris Speier        28   -2.1
Bob Watson          20   -2.3
Davey Lopes         35   -2.5
Ron LeFlore         34   -2.6
Doug Ault           15   -2.7
Darrell Porter      27   -2.9

Fred Lynn takes the top spot at +2.3 runs because he advanced on 13 of his 27 opportunities and was never thrown out. George Scott (+1.7) and Greg Luzinski (+1.3) are surprises, but Scott scored six times and advanced to third or second six other times in his 28 opportunities, and was only thrown out once. On the other side of the coin, the Royals' Darrell Porter was thrown out three times and scored just four times in 27 chances. Although you might think that faster runners like Ron LeFlore and Davey Lopes may have scored poorly by taking extra chances, in fact LeFlore was thrown out just once, but failed to advance on 26 of his 34 chances; Lopes was not thrown out and failed to advance in 27 of his 35 opportunities.

Next, it's on to advancing on hits (EqHAR) which uses the same park factors as EqAAR.


Name            HAOpps  EqHAR
George Brett        43    5.1
Toby Harrah         46    4.9
Rod Carew           58    4.4
Ivan DeJesus        75    4.3
Lee Mazzilli        38    3.7
Phil Garner         56    3.7
Bob Bailor          32    2.9
Jerry Mumphrey      37    2.8
Len Randle          51    2.6
Davey Lopes         48    2.6
Denny Doyle         26    2.6
Dan Driessen        34    2.6
Ken Griffey         57    2.5
Chet Lemon          52    2.4
Steve Dillard       19    2.4
-----------------------------
Jim Norris          44   -2.4
Steve Kemp          36   -2.4
Bake McBride        35   -2.4
Andy Etchebarre     13   -2.5
Joe Morgan          31   -2.6
Dave Collins        20   -2.6
Darrell Evans       27   -2.6
Willie McCovey      26   -2.7
Ray Fosse           23   -2.8
John Mayberry       37   -2.9
Thurman Munson      46   -3.1
Bob Boone           51   -3.1
Dan Meyer           32   -3.8
Butch Wynegar       46   -4.0
Hector Torres       24   -5.3

So, a 24-year-old George Brett led the league advancing on hits, with the underrated Toby Harrah in second at +4.9 runs. Once again, Len Randle (+2.6) makes an appearance, as does DeJesus, my boyhood hero, at +4.3 runs. The biggest surprise to me here was probably Dan Driessen, who I hadn't considered much of a baserunner. However, in 1977 he was just 25 years old and stole 31 bases in 44 attempts, and overall came in at -0.6 runs.

Hector Torres-playing in his final season at the age of 31 for the expansion Blue Jays-was thrown out advancing five times in 24 chances, with the result that it cost his team 5.3 runs. Butch Wynegar (-4.0), Dan Meyer (-3.8), Thurman Munson (-3.1), Pete Rose (-0.9), and Jim Norris (-2.4) were all thrown out four times. The fact that Joe Morgan (-2.6) and Dave Collins (-2.6) make the list is unexpected, although Morgan was thrown out three times, and Collins twice.

As with EqSBR, in this metric it's interesting to note the historical trend:

historical advances to third base

This graph shows that the percentage of times runners advance to third or home on a single by the batter has decreased from over 30 percent in the 1970s and early 1980s to around 27 percent in 2007. While at first this might seem to be something of a paradox, given that stolen base percentages are on the rise, the two apparently opposite trends are connected. Just as managers, coaches, and players are now more aware of the costs of attempting stolen bases, they may also be taking a more conservative approach to taking extra bases. In 1977 runners were thrown out 292 times--or over 11 times per team--while in 2007 runners were gunned down 257 times, or 8.5 per team. In addition, better defensive play and smaller ballparks may be contributing to the decreased risk-taking.

Finally, in the last of the five metrics we'll look at the leaders and trailers in advancing on balks, passed balls, and wild pitches (EqOAR):


Name            OAOpps  EqOAR
Rod Carew          556    3.8
Joe Morgan         465    3.1
Roy Howell         292    2.3
Len Randle         542    2.2
Jim Sundberg       430    1.9
Thurman Munson     412    1.8
Gene Richards      559    1.8
Hal McRae          556    1.7
Jerry Mumphrey     387    1.7
Julio Gonzalez     287    1.6
Bobby Bonds        387    1.6
Frank Taveras      449    1.6
Davey Lopes        556    1.6
Garry Templeton    463    1.6
Vic Harris         151    1.6
-----------------------------
Toby Harrah        497   -0.9
Craig Reynolds     319   -0.9
Tito Fuentes       506   -1.0
Cecil Cooper       445   -1.1
Jerry Morales      399   -1.1
Graig Nettles      413   -1.1
Steve Garvey       413   -1.1
Rusty Staub        417   -1.2
Al Bumbry          488   -1.2
Rico Carty         301   -1.3
Mark Belanger      312   -1.3
Pete Rose          646   -1.4
Dave May           250   -1.4
Bob Boone          336   -1.5
Jim Norris         434   -1.5

Rod Carew takes the top spot with a hefty +3.8 runs by advancing 17 times, amazingly rattling pitchers enough to score six times on balks and five times on wild pitches. Joe Morgan advanced 16 times scoring six times. Bob Boone and Jim Norris, on the other hand, tried to advance five and four times, and were thrown out twice and once, respectively.

To cap it off, we'll close with the overall leaders and trailers for the summer of 1977.

Name            GAOpps  EqGAR SBOpps  EqSBR AAOpps  EqAAR HAOpps  EqHAR OAOpps  EqOAR EqRuns
Larry Bowa          22   -0.4     30    4.3     38    1.0     42    1.1    467    0.8    6.8
Phil Garner         34    0.7     42    0.0     33    1.3     56    3.7    482    0.4    6.1
Toby Harrah         38   -0.3     33    1.1     31    0.7     46    4.9    497   -0.9    5.5
Cesar Cedeno        21    0.2     78    4.2     27    0.7     23    0.2    469    0.0    5.2
Rod Carew           29   -0.6     35   -2.7     31    0.1     58    4.4    556    3.8    4.9
George Brett        39    1.5     26   -3.3     25    0.9     43    5.1    450    0.1    4.3
Mitchell Page       33   -1.0     52    3.4     28    0.4     34    1.3    483    0.2    4.2
Joe Morgan          21   -0.2     59    1.8     25    1.4     31   -2.6    465    3.1    3.4
Vic Harris          14    0.1      3   -0.3      9    0.1     12    1.9    151    1.6    3.4
Gene Richards       52    0.6     74    2.7     32   -2.1     40    0.2    559    1.8    3.1
Ken Griffey         32    1.0     24   -1.7     48    0.0     57    2.5    587    1.3    3.1
Carl Yastrzemsk     30   -1.0     13    0.5     22    1.0     26    1.7    416    0.8    3.0
Denny Doyle         30    0.1      6   -1.2     28    1.5     26    2.6    335   -0.1    2.9
Fred Lynn           14    0.0      5   -0.6     27    2.3     30    1.1    336   -0.1    2.8
Frank Taveras       38   -1.0     93    3.0     18   -0.1     31   -0.7    449    1.6    2.8
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Willie Horton       25   -1.0      5   -1.1     30   -1.9     36   -0.6    367   -0.6   -5.3
Steve Kemp          26   -1.1      6   -0.3     30   -1.1     36   -2.4    387   -0.5   -5.3
Enos Cabell         29    0.6     69   -5.1     36   -0.8     30   -0.6    451    0.3   -5.6
Ray Fosse           14    0.4      6   -2.8     10    0.2     23   -2.8    181   -0.6   -5.6
Ron LeFlore         62    0.0     62   -2.4     34   -2.6     45   -1.2    614    0.5   -5.7
Hector Torres       20   -0.2      2   -0.3      6   -0.1     24   -5.3    198   -0.1   -6.1
Darrell Evans       20   -0.3     17   -1.9     20   -0.6     27   -2.6    321   -0.7   -6.1
Doug Ault           29   -0.5      8   -2.2     15   -2.7     18   -1.8    270    0.2   -7.0
Bob Boone           20   -0.5     11   -2.0     22   -0.1     51   -3.1    336   -1.5   -7.2
Derrell Thomas      33   -0.7     31   -6.3     38   -0.8     39    0.8    449   -0.5   -7.5
Dan Meyer           34   -1.3     20   -2.0     23   -1.6     32   -3.8    386    0.7   -8.0
Jim Norris          34   -0.4     43   -3.9     25   -0.1     44   -2.4    434   -1.5   -8.4
Dave Parker         32   -0.7     36   -6.5     33   -1.2     58    0.7    519   -0.8   -8.5
Al Oliver           42   -0.5     31   -7.2     29   -0.1     45   -0.4    464   -0.8   -9.0
Jose Cruz           21   -0.3     70   -8.4     24    0.3     32   -1.4    468    0.3   -9.5

Larry Bowa, whodathunkit? He turns out to be the overall leader (+6.8), powered by his strong showing in EqSBR, while Phil Garner (+6.1), Toby Harrah (+5.5), Cesar Cedeno (+5.2), and Rod Carew (+4.9) round out the top five. Aside from Bob Boone (-7.2), Dan Meyer (-8.0), Darrell Evans (-6.1), and Hector Torres (-6.1), the bottom fifteen are dominated by those who did poorly in EqSBR, with Jose Cruz (-9.5) costing his team a full win on the bases, all by himself.

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