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September 11, 2009

You Could Look It Up

A Triple Play of Pondering

by Steven Goldman

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1. Is Jarrod Washburn the Tigers' Steve Trout?

With a 6.64 ERA through seven starts, Washburn looks like the bust of the trading season, but it wouldn't be fair to hand Steve Trout's rusty tin crown over to Washburn just yet. There are some broad similarities: both are low-strikeout lefties added to contending teams in July. The Yankees acquired Trout from the Cubs on July 13, 1987, giving up three pitching prospects, one of whom would emerge as control artist Bob Tewksbury. Trout was an utter bust, finishing the season with an ERA of 6.60, mighty close to Washburn's current mark. Like Washburn, who threw eight shutout innings in his third start as a Tiger, Trout threw six shutout innings in his third start as a Yankee. Further attempts at starting proved fruitless, and relief work also proved to be a bridge too far. There are three key differences, however. First, the Yankees went 5-9 in Trout's appearances, while the Tigers are a relatively healthy 4-3 in Washburn's. Second, whereas the Yankees were in first place at the time that Trout was acquired, catching Trout rapidly propelled them out of the top slot, whereas the Tigers are still hanging on and seem likely to retain their postseason berth. Finally, insofar as we know, the Tigers' owner did not tempt fate by crowing to his club's skipper, "I just won you the pennant!" when acquiring Washburn.

2. Who gets the Retro-Bichette Award for the 1920s?

Dante Bichette, who played for the Rockies from 1993 to 1999, hit roughly .360/.396/.642 at home versus a much less exciting .267/.303/.438 on the road. For the award named in his honor, I nominate center fielder Cy Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies. Williams hit the third-most home runs in the decade of the 1920s, trailing only Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby. Williams came up with the Cubs in 1912, and after some initial difficulty breaking into the lineup showed that he had very good pop for a hitter of the Deadball Era, pasting 13 round-trippers in 1915, and leading the National League with 12 more in 1916. Williams had an off year in 1917, and the Cubs swapped him to the Phillies for 36-year-old outfielder Dode Paskert, a decent player whose time was just about over. The transfer to the Phillies put Williams, a left-handed pull hitter, into the tiny Baker Bowl with its 272-foot right-field line (with accompanying 40-foot wall) at the same time as the introduction of the lively ball. In 1920, he led the National League in home runs again with 15, but within a couple of years he had jumped his annual production up to 26, and then a league-leading 41. After a couple of years of platoon work, Williams, by now 39, got in one last full season and popped a league-leading 30 homers over the wall.

With Retrosheet now having completed its work on the 1920s, we know exactly what the Baker Bowl did for Williams. For example, in his 41-homer, .293/.371/.576 season of 1923, he hit .322/.392/.650 with 26 home runs in 286 at-bats at home, but .261/.348/.490 with 15 home runs on the road-not bad, but not nearly of the same quality. The same could be said of Williams' overall home/road splits. He batted .337/.423/.600 at home, .284/.349/.438 on the road from 1920-1930.

Williams is not in the Hall of Fame, but a teammate, Chuck Klein, is. Klein had all the park advantages of Williams, plus he got to play his prime seasons in the early '30s, when the lively ball became downright caffeinated. We don't have full splits for Klein's career as of yet, but the few years we do have (again, courtesy of Retrosheet) suggest that he took full advantage of the park, while still succeeding as a hitter overall. In 1929, he hit .356/.407/.657 with 43 home runs overall-.391/.434/.734 with 25 homers in the Bowl, .321/.383/.583 with 18 homers on the road. In 1930 he hit .386/.437/.687 overall, which breaks down to .439/.483/.794 at home, and .332/.391/.578 on the road. His 1931 numbers had a Bichette-style split: his .337/.398/.584 overall clip resulted from his hitting .401/.465/.740 with 22 home runs at home against just .269/.327/.421 with nine homers on the road.

What we have to ask ourselves about players like Bichette, Williams, and Klein (not to mention Jim Rice) is whether the ability to take such extreme advantage of one's surroundings constitutes a distinct, creditable skill, since not every player receives an equivalent boost. I would argue that such things are a matter of degree and home park advantages should be "forgiven" only insofar as they elevate an otherwise solid player. Williams and Klein were worth playing outside of their enabling playpen. Bichette was not, and Rice was somewhere in between. Evaluated in such a fashion, Todd Helton could reasonably be described as a Hall of Famer.

3. Brian Roberts has reached 50 doubles for the third time in his career. How many Orioles have done that?

Given that no other Oriole has had 50 doubles twice, the easy answer is 'none.' Just three Orioles or Browns have reached the big 5-0 in two-baggers: Roberts (2004, 2008, 2009), Miguel Tejada (2005), and an obscure Texan named Roy Chester "Beau" Bell, who legged out 51 doubles while splitting time between right field and first base for the 1937 Brownies. Bell was 29 years old, and had a terrific year for a miserable 46-108 Browns club, an outfit that had some very solid, albeit little-remembered players. In the outfield along with Bell were All-Stars Sam West (a Johnny Damon type) and Joe Vosmik. Vosmik was an outfielder of a type that doesn't really exist anymore, the high-average gap-hitter, and Bell was in the same mold as Vosmik, hitting .340/.391/.509 with a league-leading 218 hits. In addition to the 51 doubles, Bell also hit eight triples and 14 home runs. It was his second consecutive star-quality year, as his 1936 was almost identical to his '37.

Roberts will be remembered for his solid career, not to mention his enduring status as the Guy Peter Angelos Just Wouldn't Trade. Bell disappeared very quickly; despite his relatively advanced age at that point, '37 was only his second full season in the majors due to a long stay in the low minors. He would have no more big-league seasons like it. He slumped to .262/.350/.414 in 1938, and was out of the league after the 1941 season. As Monty Python might have put it, Bell was fond of his dram, a taste which helped speed him back to the Lone Star State. His enduring contribution to baseball history was the May, 1939 trade which sent him, Red Kress, and Bobo Newsom to the Tigers. He and Kress didn't do much for Detroit, but Newsom pitched the Tigers into the 1940 World Series.

No Oriole (as opposed to Brown) has ever topped Brown's .340 average of 1937 or his .344 of 1936. Melvin Mora tied the former mark in 2004, but the latter remains unmatched by any Baltimore player. Before Bell, of course, the Browns had George Sisler, whose batting averages will remain untouched until the owners vote to lower the mound, shrink the parks, and reduce gravity.

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

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