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October 28, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

(Near) Hitless Wonders

by Jay Jaffe

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Zero for 31.

That was the combined World Series line of Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria going into the top of the fourth inning of Game Five of the World Series last night. To make matters worse, the Rays were already down 2-0 at that point, facing the prospect of needing to rally against Cole Hamels, the best pitcher of the 2008 postseason, in order to stave off elimination.

Cinderella had all but been fitted for a toe tag. Hamels was cruising against a team whose approach at the plate made one wonder whether their bus was double-parked with the engine idling, waiting for a quick getaway from a bad ending. The Phillies' ace had needed just 17 pitches through the first two innings, with Dioner Navarro's six-pitch walk the only hint of a challenge from the Tampa Bay hitters. His pitch count was at 36 by the time Pena came up with one out in the fourth, and with the rain already falling on a cold night, it appeared that the elements might get to him before the Rays would.

Pena and Longoria had combined for 26 hits, nine homers, and 21 RBI through the first two rounds of the postseason, but it appeared as though they might be headed for the most conspicuous double oh-fer in the World Series since 1939, when the Reds' Wally Berger and Lonnie Frey combined to go 0-for-32 in a four-game sweep by the Yankees. Fortunately for the Rays, those horse collars came off in the space of three pitches, as Pena launched a towering double off of the right/center-field wall-right fielder Jayson Werth had the leap timed but appeared to miss catching the shot by only an inch or two-and Longoria quickly followed with a single to left-center to put the Rays on the board.

Pena would collect one more hit before the pouring rain halted play after five and a half innings, and it was a crucial one at that. Trailing 2-1 with two outs in the top of the sixth, with the question of whether the game and thus the series might be curtailed by the inclement weather still lingering, B.J. Upton reached down and golfed a 2-2 changeup for an infield single that Jimmy Rollins couldn't quite handle cleanly as he moved towards second base. Running on a wet track, Upton brazenly stole second as Hamels delivered his first pitch to Pena. After four pickoff attempts had kept the runner honest, the southpaw could only peer over mid-delivery as he watched Upton's great jump towards second. Four pitches later, Pena knotted the game by lining a single to left field.

Pena advanced to second on a passed ball by Carlos Ruiz, and Longoria blooped a shot into the left-center field gap that hung up long enough for Shane Victorino to run down, but by that point, the weather was the dominant story. Action had already been held up a few times as the Citizens Ball Park grounds crew labored to keep the mound and infield from becoming even more of a quagmire, but the newly tied score appeared to give the umpires cover to call for a rain delay that would lead to a suspended game rather than a shortened one. The tarp was pulled onto the infield after Longoria's out, and MLB President Bob DuPuy told Fox interviewer Chris Myers that a decision had been made to halt play at the end of the half-inning regardless of the score. Still, it wasn't clear until the "post-game" press conference that Commissioner Bud Selig had conferred with the umpiring crew and team officials well before first pitch and had mandated that the game would be played in its entirety, even if that required a suspension of play that was unprecedented in World Series history. The man perhaps most infamous for calling a tie in the 2002 All-Star Game at least had the foresight to ensure that the World Championship would not be decided by Mother Nature.

Which isn't to say that playing in those sodden conditions didn't affect the quality of play, or that halting play mid-inning doesn't leave the Phillies without a legitimate reason to beef. After all, in situations like turning on stadium lights, the change can only be made at the start of the inning, forcing both teams to play under equivalent conditions, so doesn't it follow that the Phillies should have batted before the tarps came out? Particularly with any cessation in play curtailing Hamels' night-and quite possibly his season-after just 75 pitches, one can't blame the Phillies or their fans for wanting a more equitable solution.

There were no easy answers on Monday night, even to the question of when play would resume given Tuesday's grim weather forecast. All we really know is that a franchise that's won just one World Championship in its first 125 years will have to wait at least a little longer for that second one, and that an upstart's storybook season has at least one more chapter to be written.

Though Pena and Longoria each have hits to their credit now, neither is out of the woods when it comes to going down in history as World Series disappointments. What follows here is a somewhat subjective baker's dozen of notable hitless and near-hitless wonders from previous Fall Classics, in chronological order:

1-2. Jimmy Sheckard, Cubs, and Billy Sullivan, White Sox, 1906
The 116-win Cubs were heavily favored to make short work of the crosstown White Sox, the so-called "Hitless Wonders" whose team batting average of .230 had ranked last in the American League even as they'd managed 93 wins. Sheckard, the Cubs' left fielder, had finished fourth on his team with a .276 EqA (adjusted for all-time), but his 0-for-21 showing was the lowest mark for futility on a club that batted only .196 and scored just 18 runs against the White Sox. Sullivan, a weak-hitting catcher, matched that with an 0-for-21 performance for a team that hit just .198, though he did throw out six of the 15 baserunners who attempted to steal as the Sox pulled off an upset in six games.

3. Marv Owen, Tigers, 1934-1935
The Tigers' third baseman had enjoyed his best season in 1934, hitting .317/.385/.451, but he went just 2-for-29 as his team fell to the Cardinals in seven games. He collected both hits and drove in a run in a 10-4 rout in Game Four, but then began an 0-for-29 string that carried over through Game Five of the following year's World Series, and still stands as the longest hitless streak by a non-pitcher in series history. Owens wound up just 1-for-20 in the 1935 World Series against the Cubs, but his hit was a big one, a game-tying RBI single in the sixth inning of the sixth and final game; the Tigers would add a run in the ninth to finish the job. Still, his 3-for-49 showing over two World Series has to rank as one of the Fall Classic's most desperate lines in the annals of post-season futility.

4. Gil Hodges, Dodgers, 1952
Possibly the most famous oh-fer in World Series history, Hodges went hitless in 21 at-bats as the "Boys of Summer" fell in seven games to the Yankees. For his part, Hodges did draw five walks and drive in the tying run in Game Seven on a bases-loaded liner to left in the fourth inning, but the Yanks ultimately prevailed. The loss prolonged the suffering for Brooklyn's fans, who watched their beloved team fall in the Fall Classic for the fourth time in 13 seasons, all to their hated rivals from the Bronx. Aside from that drought, Hodges actually hit a robust .318/.382/.491 in his other six World Series appearances, helping to propel the Dodgers to titles in 1955 and 1959.

5-6. Dal Maxvill, Cardinals, and Bill Freehan, Tigers, 1968
The "Year of the Pitcher" saw the two leagues combine to hit .237/.299/.340 over the course of the season, and while offense was up slightly in this seven-game thriller, it's no surprise that at least a couple of hitters were mostly left out. Maxvill, the Cardinals' light-hitting second baseman, was actually coming off a career-best .254 EqA (his career mark was an anemic .208), but his 0-for-22 outdid even Hodges, and still stands as the biggest zero in World Series history. Freehan, already a five-time All-Star backstop to that point in his career, had hit .263/.366/.454 with 25 homers for the season, tied with Norm Cash for second on the Tigers and fifth in the league. He was 0-for-16 through the first five games of the series before collecting an RBI single in the second inning of Game Six, and he would add an RBI double off of Bob Gibson in the seventh inning of Game Seven immediately following Jim Northrup's two-run triple. He wound up 2-for-24 as the Tigers went on to win.

7. Davey Johnson, Orioles, 1969
Perhaps better known for piloting the 1986 Mets to their second World Championship, Johnson also played a part in their first one, albeit reluctantly: the All-Star second baseman went just 1-for-16 as the heavily favored, 109-win Orioles fell to the Miracle Mets. Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around on a team that hit just .146 over the five game series, and Johnson wasn't even the worst offender. Brooks Robinson went 1-for-19 (albeit with two RBI to Johnson's zero), and Paul Blair and Don Buford each went 2-for-20, but Johnson's link to the Mets' two championships stands out, and that's why he's noted here.

8. Dick Green, Athletics, 1974
The Big Green Machine's second-base situation-exacerbated by manager Dick Williams' penchant for pinch-hitting for the light-hitting Green-had already drawn heavy scrutiny the previous fall, when owner Charlie Finley forced backup second baseman Mike Andrews to sign a false affidavit saying he was injured after Andrews made errors on consecutive plays in the decisive 12th inning of Game Two. Finley wanted Andrews deactivated in favor of rookie Manny Trillo (who would later share in the 1980 Phillies' World Championship), but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn saw through the ploy, and Andrews' teammates mutinied, taping Andrews' uniform number to their uniforms during a workout.

Green had gone just 1-for-16 in Oakland's 1973 victory, but he under-did that the following year. New skipper Alvin Dark maintained Williams' tendency to pinch-hit for Green, who went 0-for-13 in the five-game victory over the Dodgers, but Green's slick fielding nonetheless helped him earn the Babe Ruth Award, given by the New York chapter of the BBWAA to the World Series MVP; Rollie Fingers won the official World Series MVP Award for collecting a win and two saves.

9. Frank White, Royals, 1980
Another slick-fielding second baseman, White was a better bet with the bat than Green ever was; he'd earned MVP honors in the American League Championship Series by going 6-for-11 with a double and a homer as the Royals reached the World Series by beating the Yankees for the first time in four LCS tries. Facing the Phillies in the World Series, White could scarcely buy a hit; he went 2-for-25 and failed to score or drive in a run as the Royals fell in six games.

10. Dave Winfield, Yankees, 1981
After the Yankees fell to the Royals in the 1980 ALCS, George Steinbrenner opened up his wallet and signed the Padres' four-time All-Star to a record 10-year, $23 million contract in an attempt to restore the Yankees' luster. Winfield hit .294/.360/.464 with 13 homers in the strike-torn season, and had hit .350 in the first-of-its-kind Division Series against the Brewers, but by the time he reached the World Series he was in the throes of a 2-for-18 slump. It would only get worse; Winfield went just 1-for-22 while the Yankees fell to the Dodgers in six games, and he soon became saddled with the "Mr. May" nickname that would dog him until he helped the Blue Jays win the 1992 World Series by driving in the winning run in Game Six.

11-12. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, Athletics, 1988
The Bash Brothers had combined for 74 home runs and 223 RBI in helping to power the A's to 104 wins, tops in the majors. Canseco, who clouted 42 homers en route to winning MVP honors, knocked three more in the ALCS, and McGwire added one as well, but the duo was shut down almost completely against the comparatively weak Dodgers in the World Series. Canseco went 1-for-19, his lone hit a Game One grand slam that was trumped by Kirk Gibson's legendary game-winning pinch-hit homer off of Dennis Eckersley in the bottom of the ninth. McGwire's sole hit was a solo homer in Game Three, the only game the A's would win amid one of the great upsets in World Series history.

13. Placido Polanco, Tigers, 2006
In a rerun of the Frank White scenario, Polanco won ALCS MVP honors by going 9-for-17 against the A's on top of a 7-for-17 showing against the Yankees in the Division Series. The six-day layoff between the end of the LCS and the start of the World Series iced him, however, and he went 0-for-17 as the Tigers fell to the Cardinals in five games.

Pena and Longoria have at least shed the stigma of their zeroes, but it remains to be seen whether they'll wind up among the ranks of the infamous here or whether they'll help the Rays stave off elimination and add a few more hits to their lines. Simply by forcing Hamels' exit, the resumption of the suspended game certainly helps the Rays, but given that this game will apparently be decided by the bullpens which ranked first and second in the majors in WXRL during the season, the fact that the Phillies still have the extra at-bat in hand, not to mention the home-field advantage, shouldn't be overlooked. FanGraphs' live win expectancy show the Phils with a 58 percent shot of winning once play resumes. It remains to be seen if they can convert that advantage, and if so, how soon.

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

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