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April 9, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

Dead Player of the Day and Other Notes #10

by Steven Goldman

DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY

In which I pick a page from the encyclopedia at random and riff on what I find.

Russ Christopher RHP 1942-1948 (1917-1954)

Russ Christopher has been gone a long time. Rheumatic heart disease laid him low at 37 years old, having already forced him into retirement at 30. At least he got to go out a winner.

A tall, skinny Californian, Christopher was developed by the Yankees. Pitching for their top farm team at Newark in 1941, he went 16-7 with a 2.82 ERA in 185 innings, allowing only 160 hits  but tellingly walked 77 and struck out 69. You could get away with that back then. That fall, Connie Mack spirited Christopher away to Philadelphia in the Rule 5 draft. “The Yankees lost an outstanding prospect,” wrote The Sporting News. “Tall and with long, sling-shot arms, Christopher has all the equipment necessary to become a major league star, although some observers insist he should add beef to his 170-pound frame. He has a good fast ball, a curve that explodes, and effective change of pace and great control. Moreover, he fields his position with skill.”

He wasn’t that good, but he wasn’t a terrible starter for the A’s, especially aided by the softer quality of wartime competition. A change in his delivery also helped: initially a conventional pitcher, an injury forced him into a submarine delivery after a couple of years in the majors. In Veeck As In Wreck, Bill Veeck wrote that Christopher pitched “with a swooping, almost underhanded motion. Christopher’s ball would come from down under and then dip as it neared the plate, which meant that hitters almost had to beat it into the ground.” From 1944-1945 he went 27-27 with a 3.07 ERA as a member of some fairly weak A’s teams, even posting a positive strikeout-walk ration (184:138). The heart problem was already holding him back, however; perhaps it contributed to his second-half slump in 1945. Standing tall at 11-3 on July 1, he went 2-10 the rest of the way.

In the minors, doctors had told him that his leaky heart could kill him if he kept playing. He said that if this was fated to happen, he would rather it happen on a ballfield anyway, and kept on going.

After Christopher struggled throughout 1946, Mack shifted him to the bullpen for 1947. The team’s fireman, Christopher went 10-7 with a 2.90 ERA and saved 12 games (retroactively figured), the third-highest total in the league. Then he collapsed. This was a problem for Bill Veeck, because he had taken notice of Christy’s bullpen excellence and imagined him as the perfect relief ace for the contender he was building in Cleveland. He approached Mack with an offer of $25,000.

“But he’s in bed now with pneumonia,” Mr. Mack said. “I’m afraid this may be the final blow to the poor boy.”

“I’ll give you twenty-five for him,” I said, “if I can talk to him first.”

Mr. Mack was shocked. “That would be a terrible thing for me to do to you. He’s a sick man. He can’t play.”

And yet, Mack relented, as he surely had to in the face of the greenback dollar. Veeck found Christopher and convinced both of them (Veeck and Christopher) that he was worth the purchase price. “I think you’re crazy,” Christopher told Veeck, “but you have my word on one thing. I’ll do the best I can for you.”

His best proved to be very good. No one knew it at the time, but Christopher, handled very carefully by manager Lou Boudreau (“If he had to throw more than a dozen pitches after he entered the game, his lips would turn purple,” Veeck remembered) led the league in saves with 17. He pitched in 45 games, threw only 59 innings, and put up another 2.90 ERA. Here’s Veeck one more time:

By late summer, we were saying, “Look, Russ, you’ve done your share. If you want to go home…”

“No,” he’d say. “The doctors know what’s wrong with me and they say it doesn’t matter. I told you the first time you asked me—I’m a pitcher. If I die, I might as well die pitching.”

Christopher pitched once in the World Series, which the Indians won, and then he had to bow to the inevitable and retired.

When Christopher died, the great Red Smith wrote a column about him, touching on his unorthodox delivery and his sense of humor, and finishing on this memorable note:

Memory retains a small tableau. An hour or so after a game in St. Louis, the last group to leave Sportsman’s Park caught a cab at the press gate and, crossing Dodier Street, noticed a mob of at least fifty kids on the sidewalk. They had a tall young man pinned against the wall.

By this time, healthy ball players were back in the Chase Hotel, complaining because the steak was overdone. Russ Christopher was patiently scribbling autographs.

Sample Sizes

When Jay and I did Brian Lehrer’s show last week, we took calls from some anti-stats fans. One woman called in to complain about “this batter ranks sixth among switch-hitters batting left-handed in extra-base hits with runners on base in away games.” I gave a standard response about how such miniscule slices of data were indistinguishable from luck, ridiculing samples of “30 at-bats.” With opening week coming to a close, I have been reminded that I set the threshold too high. The public doesn’t need to be reminded that 30 at-bat samples are too small; we have to start with two at-bat samples.

Several times already this year I have heard broadcasters say, “Manager Winky Brigsteen says that he sat Garfield Brookens against pitcher Portly Van Deferens because in his career he’s 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against him, whereas Larry Gollywhompus is 1-for-2 with a home run. Clearly, Gollywhompus has got Van Deferens figured out.”

If you’re reading this site, you know where I’m going and don’t need a lecture on just how meaningless all of the foregoing can be, regardless of whether it is occasionally borne out by results, such as Curtis Granderson’s second career home run against Jon Papelbon earlier this week. Granderson is now 3-for-10 in his career against the Red Sox closer, all three hits going for extra bases. Is that meaningful? If it is, it’s a nice bonus for the Yankees, but we have no way of knowing for sure. We certainly can’t present the information as if it’s factual.

Now, just because something is a small sample doesn’t mean we have to be stupid about dismissing it. I’ll give you an example, also involving Granderson: in his career he’s 4-for-9 with two home runs against Cha-Seung Baek. Yes, it’s a small sample, but common sense tells us it’s probably not a fluke. Baek is a fringe pitcher in the majors, he’s at a platoon disadvantage against Granderson, and it’s not unrealistic to think that the outfielder just doesn’t have a problem hitting him.

What is frustrating is not the broadcasters; we don’t expect much of the vast majority of them (the exceptions, you know who you are, and we love you). The real issue is managers making decisions on playing time and pinch-hitting based on impossibly small samples that just don’t signify. In the absence of a larger sample, this is where scouting is actually more valuable than statistics. Garfield Brookens might be a left-handed hitter with a poor record of hitting left-handers, and Portly Van Deferens is a left-hander, but what if Portly’s out-pitch is a slider and Brookens’ scouting report says that he murders the slider? The manager might be better off forgetting about what he knows about the platoon advantages and his two-at-bat sample and just playing the guy.  

Unfortunately, this is one area in which the statistics revolution begun by Bill James has been too successful. First they couldn’t stand anything sabermetricians had to say, now they can’t do without us. It’s just another example of how a tool can be a weapon in the wrong hands. A scalpel can be an a pathway to a kind of art in the hands of a great surgeon, but all a butcher can do with it is stab you in the eye. As the old saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The war between the forces of enlightenment and reaction goes on, but what we really need is a truce and a celebratory mating that produces a viable hybrid, the best of both worlds.

One More Baltimore Reminder

Looking forward to seeing you in Baltimore on Monday, April 12, along with the rest of the guys and Andy MacPhail and the ballgame and the hot dog. There's one question I desperately want to ask Mr. MacPhail, and it goes something like this: "How well did you know your grandpa?" I can't wait to hear the answer.

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

Related Content:  Russ Christopher,  Veeck As In Wreck

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