Statistics are a tool, not unlike a microscope. Statistics are a hammer, a speculum, a thermometer. A statistics-based approach to understanding of baseball is one of many paths to knowledge of the game. Calling those who take that path “freaks” or “Nazis” makes as much sense as calling a Ph.D. chemist a wimp because he tests the qualities of his cyanide compound by means of Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy rather than just drinking the thing.
The threshold for changing managers varies from team to team. In Boston, an obviously wrongheaded move with Pedro Martinez was enough the get Grady Little handed his hat, whereas in Houston a more sustained failure of critical thinking (rather than a failure of intelligence, which means a whole different thing these days) gets overlooked. As Billy Joel sang, it’s a matter of trust, though not in the “Will Billy Martin come to the park sober tonight?” sense, but rather the “Would you trust this doctor to prescribe you a Band-Aid?” aspect. Among the many underpublicized acts of suicide by a manager last year was Jimy Williams’ overfondness for Geoff Blum, Orlando Merced, and a host of other fill-ins; plate appearances were thrown away with an alarming profligacy, more than enough to make the difference in a close race. This time around, the big question is not only if Williams will repeat the same mistakes with his Orlando Palmeiro, his Jose Vizcaino, and his Mike Lamb (“Sometimes, when you have nothing to do,” says Sbirro in Stanley Ellin’s classic 1948 short story, “The Specialty of the House,” “you must turn your thoughts a little to the significance of the Lamb in religion. It will be so interesting.” ) but if, when the time comes, the organization will forcibly divorce the team from its favorite crutches by trading for a real catcher or center fielder.
This week’s YOU, tenth in an ongoing series looking at today through the looking glass of yesterday focuses on two unusual mammals, one of the marine variety, the other a pitcher with an unusual adaptation. The passing last week of left-handed knuckleball pitcher Gene Bearden, hero of the 1948 American League pennant race, has me missing Stellar’s Sea Cow. It’s a silly emotion because I’ve never seen a Stellar’s Sea Cow, and neither has anyone living. Stellar’s was ejected from the big game back in 1768. Still, to know that there was once such a magnificent creature on this planet and to have missed a chance to see it is quite depressing.
Stellar’s was the mega-manatee, a huge version of the endangered Florida marine mammal. Like Cecil Fielder, it weighed as much as ten tons and could reach lengths of up to 100 feet. At one time Stellar’s had a large range, but due to hunting by primitive fishermen with pointy sticks they hung out exclusively in the Bering Strait by the time they were officially discovered in 1741. The Russians, who found them quite accidentally, exterminated them in about two minutes, give or take 27 years. The eighteenth century is known as the Age of the Enlightenment, which proves that historians have a sense of humor.
Having gone back and read what I just wrote, the following now seems sort of trivial. Aspiring writers, avoid this sort of segue: knuckleball pitchers are baseball’s version of Stellar’s Sea Cow circa 1767. If you were around to follow the game in the 1980s, you had a good chance of seeing at least two starts by a knuckleball pitcher in any given week. Back when it was morning in America, Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro, Tom Candiotti, and Charlie Hough made a combined 917 starts (1981-1990), and at times they were each very good. In fact, Hough was consistently one of the best pitchers in the game.
Earlier this week, the merry BP Brigade was found shooting the baseball breeze in the bullpen at our secret HQ, the Prospectus Nexus. As our lovely girl Friday Esmé Chimère
(author of BP’s upcoming column for our female readers, “The Boys on the Basepaths”) tended the hibachi, weighty topics were bandied about like the tainted games of the 1919 World Series that suggested to Ring Lardner pretty bubbles marred by cancer spots.
One of the questions we briefly kicked around and the YOU-crew has gnawed like a bucket of Sammy Byrd’s legs ever since is that of where a manager makes his primary contribution to his team’s fortunes. Some would say that the manager’s main job is morale-building. Before agreeing, we should probably ask Larry Bowa what he thinks. It was easy to eliminate in-game tactics, because aside from the odd obsessional bunter (Don Baylor) or compulsive lefty-righty switcher (Tony LaRussa), these are largely rote decisions.
It has been suggested elsewhere that constructing the batting order was where the manager most exerts his influence. This is closer to the heart of the matter, a minor truth in search of a major one. It’s not what order the players bat in that defines the manager, but who is allowed to bat in the first place.
The history of spring training is one of ongoing professionalization and standardization, which is a 13-syllable way of saying, “All eccentricities have been stomped out of it.” In the early days of spring training, teams lacked set destinations. There were no permanent Florida or Arizona complexes, the Dodger installation at Vero Beach not coming until mid-century. Depending on the year and where the manager felt like spending his spring, teams trained in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Catalina Island, California, the Dominican Republic. Ernest Hemingway figures in a number of spring training stories because the hard-drinking Papa frequently crossed paths with the hard-drinking Dodgers when they trained in Cuba during the 1940s. Most of the stories revolve around Hemingway and closer Hugh Casey getting drunk and beating the heck out of each other. As Papa wrote in The Sun Also Rises: “Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Today, teams have expensive stadiums waiting for them, some appendages of theme parks. There are no more holdouts, no Rickey Hendersons who report late because they can’t be bothered to start on time. But for Dominicans with visa problems, punctuality is the rule. If the training season is used for anything more fun than training, it’s kept on the down low.
Thus the main import of Yawkey’s largesse was mostly symbolic. As a competitive program, he and Collins were misguided. As is now grudgingly accepted, the difference between a star and an average player may only be a few wins a year. There is no player, pair of players, or trio of players, that is capable of taking a team staffed by replacement-level players and turning it into a pennant winner. Improved talent must be diffused throughout the roster. In the 1933-1936 period, the Red Sox never came close to achieving this goal. Two key problems: The Yawkey/Collins program never got around to addressing the outfield; the Sox annually presented the most punchless pasture aggregation in the league; after Grove and Ferrell, the Red Sox were unable to dig up anything like another eight decent pitchers, or even another three. One lesson to be drawn is that even in an environment in which rival teams are “freely” giving away talent, it’s almost impossible to buy enough to staff an entire ballclub. Not only will the pool of available talent, at its deepest, be unequal to the demand (note that even this year’s Yankees, who have acquired a number of big-ticket items from more conservative clubs, have not been able to buy certainty for their starting rotation) but buying off the rack forces a team to be overly dependent on making the right selections–that is, on luck. A team that chooses to bank on stars rather than on depth faces a greater risk of having no fallback should their star prove to be infirm, unreliable, or simply on the way down. The large influx of talent that comes with developing a strong minor league system gives a team the depth to survive its own misjudgments.
Had Baseball Prospectus existed in 1984, there are a number of topics we would not have been talking about. The debate about how best to use a closer wouldn’t have existed because the “one inning and only with a lead” doctrine had yet to be invented. 1984 closers who pitched more innings than 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne: all of them. Twenty relievers threw over 100 innings that year. The reason that Willie Hernandez was perceived to be so important to the Tigers, why Goose Gossage was considered the last piece in the Padres puzzle, was because they pitched in high-leverage situations. They could have saved 45 games if they had been used that way, but managers of the time thought it would be more useful if they pitched when the game was on the line. Like all pitchers, some relievers are durable and some are not. Bruce Sutter averaged 99 innings a season through 1984. After that year, in which he recorded a record 45 saves and had a 1.54 ERA, he became a free agent and was signed to a large contract by the Braves. Consistent with the Ted Turner touch o’ gold that persisted throughout the second half of the 1980s, Sutter’s arm immediately fell off. That was his problem. It was Eddie Haas’ problem, Turner’s problem. Twenty years later, it should not be Eric Gagne’s problem. Sutter was no cautionary tale–pitchers are largely immune from generalization. Each should be exploited according to the extent of his ability to remain healthy (with consideration being given to frequency of use, mechanics, weather conditions, pitches per appearance and the like), rather than at some mythical lowest common denominator level of work which is deemed “safe.”
The one young shortstop whose time was perceived to have come was Richard William Thon of the Houston Astros, “Dickie” from South Bend, Indiana. In spring training that year, The Sporting News surveyed the Astros on Thon. The shortstop’s teammates could have been expected to be supportive, but the ‘Stros were downright lavish: “When I see Dickie Thon, I see a future Hall of Famer.” – Astros GM Al Rosen. “I think Dickie has a good chance to become the MVP in our league.” – Craig Reynolds. “Dickie is the backbone of our team.” – Astros manager Bob Lillis. “I’m afraid to predict how great Dickie can become. I know I’d love to play second base for Houston the next 20 years and have Dickie by my side.” – Astros second baseman Bill Doran. “When I see Dickie play, my heart flutters in my chest like a caged bluebird trying to get free so it can sing paeans, soprano hosannas to the sparkling greatness that is the Thonster Monster.” – Phil Garner.
The Kansas City Royals forgot to take their calcium; the team had more breakdowns than Zelda Fitzgerald. George Brett’s knee blew out, forcing him to miss the first six weeks of the season. Frank White’s leg sent him to the DL in July. There was no regular shortstop because both Onix Concepcion and U.L. Washington were hurt (though not because Washington swallowed his toothpick), leaving the position in the hands of chronic non-hitter Buddy Biancalana. Third base rested in the hands of veteran understudy Greg Pryor. Propelled by a 4-for-37 May, Pryor posted a .301 OBP and .356 SLG, a far cry from what Brett would have provided. Then there was Willie Wilson’s drug-enforced vacation, which left the team with an ugly outfield of Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan, and Butch Davis. Only Steve Balboni remained to carry the offense. Balboni, a 27-year-old rookie first baseman/four-time minor league home run champion, had been buried at Triple-A Columbus by the Yankees because (a) he wasn’t an expensive free agent (b) he struck out a lot, and (c) he had been lapped by a prospect named Don Mattingly. The Royals had liberated him from New York the previous December by dealing reliever Mike Armstrong and catcher Duane Dewey, one of the more perspicacious trades in team history.
What the Royals lacked in positional depth they made up for in young pitching. At season’s outset, Kansas City envisioned its top four starters as Paul Splittorff (37), Larry Gura (36), Dennis Leonard (33), and Bud Black (27, and excellent). The best plans of mice and men quickly ran into the Grim Reaper of Old Pitchers: Splittorff was battered in three starts and summarily retired; Leonard missed the entire season with a knee injury; Gura started well then declined precipitously over the balance of the season. After 10 starts, Gura sported a 3.59 ERA. He allowed 70 runs over his next 101 innings and was yanked from the rotation.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the Royals deployed their every pitching prospect, in the process creating the pitching staff that would get them to the World Series just a year later. The new rotation retained Black, who was pitching his way to a 257-inning/3.12 ERA season (league ERA, 4.00), and added Charlie Leibrandt (unestablished at 27 and freshly returned from a year’s exile at Omaha), Danny Jackson (22), Mark Gubicza (21), and Bret Saberhagen (20). Though not all of them were consistently successful that year, Kansas City had performed one of the greatest player-development feats of all time, introducing four of the best pitchers of the era simultaneously.
In part one of the current series remembering the 1984 season, You Could Look It Up revisited the champion Detroit Tigers–a phrase difficult to write with any comprehension giving the current decrepit state of the franchise–a team whose dominance came as the result of surrounding a strong core with a large cadre of role players. It’s a solution set that is largely impossible now, due to the prevalence of bullpens bulging with mediocre lefties. At various times in the 1984 season, Bobby Cox, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, platooned at catcher, third base, right field, and designated hitter. The Toronto bullpen was widely perceived to have been a disaster, yet Cox used 12 pitchers all year long. Truly, we live in a time like unto the dark ages, where the wisdom of the past has been lost and superstition thrives. With no further ado, let’s continue by dropping in on George Steinbrenner and pals during the summer of Wham.
After the introductory edition of this column appeared last week, I received a couple of messages from–if Star Trek fans are “Trekkies,” what are BP fans? Beepies? Beppies?–readers asking why we were bothering to take notice of the 20th anniversary of the 1984 baseball season, with a week-long series no less. Nothing special happened that year, they said. Actually, 1984 was a case study in baseball problem solving, as executives were faced with difficult decisions, like, “If my entire starting rotation retires at once, what do I do?” “How do you react to an aggressively restructuring team who happens to be leading you in a close pennant race?” “If one-10th of my 40-man roster is arrested for attempting to obtain illegal drugs, how many of them should I retain?” and many more. Call the year a Choose Your Own Adventure book for managers and GMs, not to mention little pubescent proto-sabermetricians and performance analysts nationwide.
This is the very first installment of You Could Look It Up. The title, with its
old-time, pulp feel, is meant to evoke a portal to anywhen in the history of baseball, to flannel times and polyester times, lilywhite Washington Senators uniforms, rainbow-striped Houston Astros uniforms, all coming together, a great overlap of Ruths and Ryans and A-Rods. You Could Look It Up is a gateway to varied, hectic, multihued yesterday, a vantage point from which we might discern truths that have been lost to common knowledge, human stories that still evoke laughter or tears, and unrestful ghosts in black and white photographs who still haunt our own forcibly uncomplicated, Manichean times.
Hey–don’t turn away just yet. We ain’t talking any of that mushy “Field of Dreams” poetastry. Ray Liotta’s right-hand-hitting, city-slick Joe Jackson is not to be found in these pages. But it’s here that on any given day you might find Shoeless Joe, hand extended for a dollar or a fly ball, as Leo Durocher steals grounders and his teammates’ watches, all the while trying to do his best imitation of Rabbit Maranville, whose beltline basket catch was necessary because the sheer whiskey content of his exhalations could divert the flight of the ball above chest level. There’s Joe McCarthy, a manager who never ripped a player in public…until the day he did; Casey Stengel, who always ripped his players in public and ripped them in private too, but was given to numerous, unpublicized sentimental gestures; and his protégé, Billy Martin, who said that a winning manager knew that some ballplayers were mules and some racehorses, and you could beat the mules all you wanted and they would never be racehorses–yet beat both the mules and the racehorses. All of these people have something to say to us, because of what they did, and, as importantly, who they were.
Elsewhere on this Web site, Joe Sheehan has often promoted TINSTAAPP, or “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.” To this we must add a second acronym, TINSWTBAPS–There Is No Sure Way To Build A Pitching Staff. Even just decent pitching staffs require an element of luck to come together. The 1984 Tigers required Willie Hernandez to pitch approximately twice as well as he had in any other season to make up for almost every other pitcher on the staff being just average. The 1933 Yankees had two Hall of Fame pitchers, Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, at the peak of their careers, plus a couple of other very good starters in Johnny Allen and Danny MacFayden. They were terrible. When Joe Torre put Mariano Rivera in the bullpen in 1996, he had no idea that the skinny righty would be one of the most valuable pitchers in the American League that season. You cannot plan these things.
Continuing the bill of indictment chronicling the Pirates’ trading habits over the last century. In this fourth and final installment, four more bad trades and 12 good ones.
In part one of this series on the roster-building woes of the Pirates–most of them self-inflicted as the organization careens from crisis to crisis like an inebriated pachyderm with a stuttering problem pirouetting through a mine field while trying to recite key scenes from Finnegan’s Wake–it was alleged that the Pirates have a long history of making disastrous trades, and that in fact the list of good trades barely existed. Herewith, the evidence.
Only twice during the free agent era have the Pirates signed a player of sufficiently high profile to warrant draft compensation to the team he departed (although why this was the case with 1979 signing Andy Hassler is unclear. He had no profile). Until 1998, Pittsburgh free agent signings were of the superannuated veteran, high-risk/low upside variety. As such, the Pirates paid for the last 53 games of Gene Tenace’s career, the last 40 games of Amos Otis, and the last 72 games of Sixto Lezcano. Only the 1979 signing of outfielder Lee Lacy, an undistinguished part-timer with the Dodgers from 1972, paid dividends. Lacy was not blessed with great power or plate judgment, but in six Pittsburgh seasons he was a consistent .300 hitter. Even he, though, must be marked with an asterisk as he was, allegedly, one of the narcotics abusers infesting the Pittsburgh clubhouse at the time. Then again, drugs in the clubhouse didn’t bother anyone in Pittsburgh at the time, so perhaps it isn’t worth mentioning.
In both the 1997 and 1998 off-seasons, the club once again sallied into the free agent market. Pitcher Mike Williams was signed after going 6-16 with a 5.52 ERA from 1996-1997. The following winter, Mike Benjamin, a utility infielder with one of the all-time weak bats (.224/.275/.337 in 507 games through 1998) to a four-year, $3.25 million contract. For a franchise that claimed to have limited resources, Benjamin was a disastrous addition and a clear sign that the owner and his general manager (still Bonifay) did not understand that baseball had entered the age of the two-way infielder.