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April 12, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

Dead Player of the Day and Other Notes #11

by Steven Goldman

DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY

In which I open the encyclopedia to a random page and riff on what I find.

Miller Huggins 2B 1904-1916 (1878-1929)

Today I want to talk about Miller Huggins the player, not Huggins the Hall of Fame manager. “The Mighty Mite” didn’t hit for great averages, and he had almost no power whatsoever, slugging .314 in his career. His main tool was selectivity. The 5-foot-6 infielder must have had a strike zone the size of an ant’s armpit, so even though pitchers must have been tempted to lay it in there and let the punchless little guy have the odd single or bunt hit, he led the NL in walks four times and posted an excellent .382 career on-base percentage. At his offensive peak from 1912-1914, he averaged .283/.415/.331. Luis Castillo shows up on his list of comps at Baseball-Reference, and while it’s not a perfect comparison (Huggins did less hitting and more walking) it will do.

There have never been very many players like Huggins. Hitting for power has always been a prerequisite for piling up high walk totals, the recipe being one-half selectivity, one-half fearful pitching. It is far more rare for a banjo hitter to draw 100 walks with a “Camera Eye” (as Max Bishop, a Huggins-style hitter from the 20s and 30s was called), which is to say with purely persnickety plate judgment. Consider that there have been 499 single seasons of 100 or more walks by hitters since 1901. Of these, 223, or 45 percent, have been compiled by batters who also hit 30 or more home runs. Just 96 of them, or 19 percent, went to hitters who had 10 or fewer home runs.

Most of those seasons, with a notable exception, were compiled by players long gone; it seems like baseball evolution has deselected the “Camera Eye” gene. Take away Huggins and early Phillies outfielder Roy Thomas, who had five such seasons between 1901 and 1906 and you’ve already accounted for about a tenth of the total. The aforementioned Bishop counted eight such seasons. Throw in Eddie Stanky, Ferris Fain, and Richie Ashburn and you’ve covered a good many of the postwar seasons. Rickey Henderson had three of those seasons early, before his power developed, and one late, after it had gone. Wade Boggs had three, so did Tony Phillips. In fact, there has been just one such season since Phillips drew 102 walks and hit eight home runs in 1997: Chone Figgins’ 101 walk, five home run campaign of last year. He’s the last of his kind, the Lone Mariner.

Do these players still exist? Are they being ignored by scouts because they seem too passive, because it is figured that pitchers will throw them too many strikes at the upper levels? Can it really be that there are no more amateur ballplayers who lack great hitting tools and know it, so they emphasize their ability to work the count and get on base? If they do still survive, isn’t there a Moneyball-style opportunity for exploitation here, if only you could convince your development staff to take a chance and find the one of them who is actually so selective that he can wait out even the superb control of today’s hurlers?

One other thing about Miller Huggins: he died of erysipelas, which is basically strep throat of the skin. Ten years later, antibiotics might have saved him (ironically, Huggins’ distant managerial successor, Casey Stengel, was an early investor in the “miracle drug” penicillin). Instead, he was offed by what started out as a very angry pimple. It sat there for awhile before it killed him, Huggins spending hours in his office under a sun lamp, desperately trying to dry it out—a pathetic image. According to Wikipedia, risk groups for the disease include “people with immune deficiency, diabetes, alcoholism, skin ulceration, fungal infections and impaired lymphatic drainage.” One wonders which one, if any, Huggins suffered from.

"Who knows anything about baseball?"--Casey Stengel

In Sunday's Nats-Mets game story, Christina wrote, "Adam Kennedy belted a clean single off Santana in the fourth, proving yet again the more you know, the less you should assume." Under the branches of this very wise adage I would something else from the previous game between the two teams, the decision to start Willy Taveras in right field. When I clapped eyes on the starting lineups, I guffawed heartily, Taveras being no one's image of a right fielder, or a starting outfielder of any stripe. Lo and behold, Taveras lived up to the responsibilities of his position, driving in four runs on a two-run triple in the second and a two-run single in the fourth. Baseball's great leveling property, that on any given day Willy Taveras can be equal to Babe Ruth and Babe Ruth can be equal to Willy Taveras, was again proved. Then again, while it is true, it isn't true very often, and were Jim Riggleman a wiser man (or at least one that managed a team that had remembered to hire a right fielder), he might have never tried it again. Unfortunately, with Johan Santana on the mound on Sunday he went right back to the well, this time getting an 0-for-4. Baseball is all about unexpected risings and humblings, but it ain't, you know, socialism. 

PS: At 2-4 and about to head off for three games each at Colorado and St. Louis, the Mets' season could get depressing even faster than anticipated.

Singing a Personal Note: Casual Observer Music Debuts

Today marks the beginning of another blogging project for me to go with the Pinstriped Bible, Dead Player of the Day, and Wholesome Reading, CasualObserverMusic.net. I've been writing and recording music for nearly 25 years. With rare exceptions, until now it has been mostly a private thing, or shared with friends, or occasionally inflicted on strangers. Pets also tend to hear a lot of it. My collaborator Rick Mohring and I have finally decided to share our work with a larger audience through a songblog on which we will regularly be posting new recordings and related content. It’s free to all, the songs are downloadable, and all I ask is you don’t leave me too many, “You sound like a frog—stick to baseball!” comments.

We’re beginning with two new songs today, “Mark Twain Rides an Elephant” and “Carrie and Pierre.” No doubt the first title conveys that some of the songs follow my usual obsessions (history, literature, and baseball) while others mine the more typical ground of relationships and their discontents. For each song there are lyrics, discussions of what they’re about (or at least what our intentions were), and notes on the recording process for those interested in that sort of thing. The first baseball song is in the queue for about two weeks from now. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy our other offerings. If you do, there are three ways to follow along: on the web site, at Facebook, where you can “fan” us if you’re so inclined, and at Twitter.

This is a very exciting thing for me as this has been one of my main creative outlets away from sportswriting for years. I very much hope you give us a try and enjoy our efforts.

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:  Miller Huggins,  The Who

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