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January 4, 2008
Dead Horses and Fifth Starters
Dead Horses Beaten While-U-Wait
Degradation. It's an unpleasant word. Only the most keenly disturbed in our society enjoy it. And yet, it is something we must resort to when determining who belongs in the Hall of Fame and who doesn't. Except, it really isn't degrading someone to point out their place in a qualitative hierarchy, is it? Saying a player is not quite Hall of Fame caliber should not fall under the definition of degradation. It's sorting, really.
So, having said that, addressing the notion that Hall of Fame candidate Jim Rice was "feared" and tying it into the great disparities in his home and away production, we find that managers of the day understood that such fears--if they did, in fact, exist--should be limited primarily to Boston. As Vegas Watch points out, he was not among the leaders in intentional walks received during the course of his career. In fact, he had about half of those received by Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Ted Simmons, and less than Leon Durham in spite of 4,000 more PA. More telling, though, is the dichotomy between his home and road IBB: 50 to 27, respectively. The managers of Rice's day might not have come right out and said it, and they might not have even consciously thought it, but instinctively they understood that outside of Boston they were not facing one of the great offensive bogeymen of the day. This intentional walk split certainly suggests that explanation, anyway, given that Schmidt and Brett's home/road ratios were much more even.
Since Rice's numbers do not come up to Hall of Fame standards, voters predisposed to give him the nod are left looking for intangibles such as this so-called fear factor. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that even this is a concoction of memory.
Bert Blyleven has no shortage of backers on this side of the sabermetric fence. What he needs for induction are a few more backers who actually have votes. My favorite pro-Blyleven set piece is his place on the all-time leaders list in translated wins. With the rough edges of time and place all neatly smoothed out, Blyleven becomes the 300-game winner he would have been with better support. What's more, all those 19th century guys with 400 innings per year disappear from the list, leaving a leaner core of true 300-victory achievers. That gives us this, the 300 Translated-Win Club:
416: Roger Clemens 388: Cy Young 386: Greg Maddux 379: Walter Johnson 345: Nolan Ryan 334: Warren Spahn 333: Randy Johnson 332: Steve Carlton 332: Tom Glavine 329: Phil Niekro 328: Tom Seaver 322: Grover Cleveland Alexander 315: Gaylord Perry 313: Bert Blyleven 311: Don Sutton 305: Robin Roberts
Blyleven's Adjusted W-L record is 313-219. Jack Morris, a candidate who is in direct competition with Blyleven for votes, is at 246-218. Think of it this way: they both get to 246-218, at which point Morris stops pitching and Blyleven goes 67-1. I don't know how to say this tactfully, but if a person doesn't understand the correlation between run support and won-loss records, they don't deserve to get to vote for baseball's highest honor.
Those Ever-Evolving A's
During this offseason, Oakland general manager Billy Beane has traded away his best hitter, Nick Swisher, and his best pitcher, Dan Haren, indicating that 2008 will be a year of adjustment, to put it mildly. In a way, this fits right in with team tradition, does it not? Has any franchise reinvented itself more times than the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland A's? OK, not the Kansas City A's--they were consistently bad, never coming closer than 12 games under .500--but the Philadelphia and Oakland teams have had many mood swings. The franchise mantra seems to be that lean times must always follow good, which will, in turn, always get fat again. The dynasty of the early '70s gave way to several years of ineptitude, which in turn gave way to the rise of Billyball, which was followed by a half-decade of mediocrity, which was followed by four playoff appearances in five years, followed by another half-decade of mediocrity, and then five playoff appearances in seven years. I don't think the A's are looking at five years of deprivation this time around, but including 2007 two or three are possible. After that, much of the player flesh Beane has imported in these two deals will be pulling their weight, and the A's cycle will continue.
Fifth Starters: Who Cares?
Something I've harped on the last couple of offseasons is this: don't waste your eyeball time on articles about pitchers battling for fifth-starter slots in spring training. It just doesn't matter. David Pinto does an excellent job of hammering this point home in this piece. His thesis, well-reinforced with the appropriate statistical evidence, is that fifth starters are a solid lead albatross around the necks of the large majority of teams. The real curse of the five-man rotation is not only that the top two guys don't get more starts, but that fifth starters get so many. On the other hand, they do help hitters generate more outrageous stats, so they are not entirely without purpose.
Jimmy "P.A." Rollins
Any old-timer who wishes to cast aspersions on the work ethic of the modern ballplayer had better take pause. With not a lot of fanfare, National League MVP Jimmy Rollins set the record for most plate appearances in a season in 2007 with 778. This broke the record of another Phillie, Lenny Dykstra, who had 773 in 1993. Rollins also got into the top 10 all-time with 758 in 2006. The other active players in the top 10 are Jose Reyes with 765 in 2007 (good for fifth) and Ichiro Suzuki, whose 762 in 2004 puts him in seventh. Rounding out the top 10 are three appearances by Pete Rose in the '70s, Dave Cash's 765 in 1975, Wade Boggs' 758 in 1985, and Maury Wills' 759 in 1962. The highest pre-expansion number comes from Frankie Crosetti of the 1938 Yankees, when he had 757. Cro benefited from three extra games that year. (Actually, it could have been more. The Yankees had five ties that went unresolved but on the books, but two games that were never made up, so the 157 total could have been 159, adding another 10 PA to Crosetti's total.)
Rollins now has the two-year record as well. His 1,536 PA in 2006-07 beats out Rose's 1,534 in 1974 and 1975. Rollins missed four games in 2006, too. Had he not, it's quite possible he'd have the two top spots in this category. If Rollins can match his 2006 total of 758 next year, he'll also have the three-year record, currently held by Rose, who amassed 2,293 PA from 1974 to 1976.
Is anybody ever going to get to 800 plate appearances in a season? Crosetti averaged 4.82 PA per game, slightly better than Rollins' last two seasons, which were closer to 4.8. A season of 800 PA would require 4.94 PA per game over the course of a full 162-game playing schedule. That doesn't seem like much of an increase, in that it's a little less than one trip to the plate per week, but at these outer reaches of the practice, it's asking a lot. Let's say the Phillies had one unresolved tie--a much greater rarity in this day and age than it was in Crosetti's time--and a playoff game. Then the needed average would drop to 4.88 PA per game. That's still something of a stretch, but if Philadelphia keeps scoring the way it does at home, it is not completely off the possibility charts.