The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Royals”

Strange Baseball Seasons and Careers

Every once in a while, as I’m doing some research for this blog, I’ll come across a baseball statistic that stuns me.  What is most surprising, however, is that even after all these years of studying baseball and looking at stats, there are still surprises lurking in the shadows of the ancient statistical tomes.

I’m not suggesting that no one else has ever noticed any of these odd items before, either, but if they are new to me, they might just be new to you, too.

Further, as the title of this blog-post states, statistical oddities may not reveal themselves until a player’s career has long since ended.  Conversely, though, some unlikely stats will pop up and demand your attention like an inebriated, embarrassing  guest at a dinner party.

This blog-post claims no pretensions that its writer has any real idea of just what a dinner-party actually looks like, so in the name of Frozen Dinners and improvisation, lets eschew any formal organizational structure in this blog-post from here on out, and just indulge our (my) fascination with statistical oddities, free-style, as it were.

To begin with, who do you think were the toughest pitchers to hit (using Hits Given Up per Nine Innings) of all- time?

Did you say Walter Johnson?  Well, O.K., he is 33rd on the all-time list having given up 7.47 hits per nine innings in his career.  Randy Johnson?  You’re getting warmer.  He is 22nd on the list.

Remember, we are not talking about WHIP here.  Just hits per nine.  Yes, of course, you remembered Nolan Ryan.  He was the Number #1 toughest pitcher to hit, having given up just 6.55 hits per nine.

Sandy Koufax comes in at Number #2, posting a 6.79 hits per nine ratio.  Again, no surprise there.

Number #3 Toughest Pitcher to Hit, Ever?  Well, let me save you some time:

Sid Fernandez.  Yes, that Sid Fernandez.  El Sid.  The Mets’ secret weapon in the bullpen against the Red Sox in the ’86 World Series.

Sid Fernandez posted an incredible 6.85 hits per nine innings in his career in 1866 innings.  He pitched in parts of 15 different seasons and made exactly 300 starts in his career.

So how many wins did El Sid record out of those 300 starts?  Just 114 wins, against 96 losses.  In other words, Fernandez ended up with a no-decision in 30% of his career starts, a rather high percentage.

So why didn’t he win more games?  Apparently, El Sid just couldn’t get much past the sixth inning.  In fact, he completed only 25 games in his entire career!  Thus, his bullpen mates ended up swooping down for the win, or they blew the game and took the loss.

Sid Fernandez’s idea of a workout routine was a 6,000 calorie breakfast, followed by long periods of rest and idleness.

Fernandez only reached double-figures in wins in five seasons; his best win totals were 16 (in 1986), 14 (twice) and 12 (twice).  That’s it.

Sid Fernandez was, then, one the greatest six- inning pitchers ever.  But even though one inning specialists now routinely make it into Cooperstown, (they’re called “Closers”), El Sid will never get in without first paying for a ticket.

Now that’s a strange career.

Almost as strange was the career of a former teammate of Sid Fernandez:   David Cone.

At first glance you might not expect Cone to have had a weird career, but let me throw some numbers at you.  I’ll do it in the form of a Table so you can more clearly see what I noticed.

The first number represents a season with exactly that number of wins; the second number directly to the right of it represents how many seasons Cone reached that number of wins.  So let’s take a look:

20  -  2  (Cone had 2 twenty win seasons)

19  -  0

18  -  0

17  -  0

16  -  1

15  -  0

14  -  3

13  -  1

12  -  2

11  -  1

10  -  0

Cone finished with nearly 200 wins in his career in over 400 starts.  His career win-lost percentage was a very nice .606.

But where did all those 194 career wins come from?  How does a pitcher have two 20 win seasons, but NO 15, 17, 18, or 19 win seasons, and still have an excellent career?

Cone is the antithesis of Bert Blyleven.  Blyleven won nearly 300 games (287) in his career, but his entire career was made up of exactly the kinds of seasons Cone NEVER even had once in his entire career (except for the one lonely 16 win season.)  For example, Blyleven produced five 17-win seasons.

There are two types of Hall-of-Famers, and two kinds of HOF voters.  One group prefers the bright shining stars that flame out fast, but oh, what beauty when they shined.  The other group prefers slow-and-steady-wins-the race.  Cone is not in The Hall, nor is Blyleven.  But they are on polar opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the kinds of careers a pitcher who could be considered for The Hall might have.

Now, how about a hitter.

Hitters, of course, are mainly supposed to hit.  But it’s O.K., even lauded in some circles, if a particular hitter draws an occasional Base-on-Balls, too.

One particular hitter that, occasionally, did draw a walk was former infielder Alfredo Griffin.  Griffin played his first full season in the Majors in 1979, winning the A.L. Rookie of the Year award playing for the Blue Jays.  He retired in 1993.

Alfredo Griffin just might have been the worst regular, everyday offensive player in the history of baseball.

Now, I know, there have been lots of really bad offensive players throughout baseball history.  But this, as they say, you have to see.

Griffin’s highest single-season on-base percentage in his career was .333 in his rookie campaign of 1979 when he drew a career high 40 walks in 689 plate appearances.  He never walked as many as forty times in a season again.

But the season that truly boggles my mind was 1984 when in 441 plate appearances, Griffin drew exactly FOUR walks all year.

How is that even possible?

His batting average that season was .241; his on-base percentage was .248.  For his entire career, Griffin posted an OBP of .285 in over 7,000 plate appearances.

Folks, we are talking about a guy that played all 162 games in four different seasons, not some part-time late-inning defensive replacement.

Defensively, by the way, he was pretty good, although he managed to win just one Gold Glove award in his entire career.  But even fifteen Gold Gloves couldn’t justify those awful non-hitting skills of his.

You want to hear the best part?  1984, the year he drew just four walks, the year he posted an OBP south of .300, was the Only year he made an All-Star team.

Well, did he hit lots of homers?  Nope, just 24 in his entire career.

Did he score lots of runs.  Nope, he reached 80 runs scored only once, his rookie season.

Did he steal lots of bases?  Well, here’s the thing.  He did steal 192 bases in his career, but he was also caught stealing 134 times, a poor “success” rate of .588.  In fact, in a two year period, 1980-81, he successfully stole a paltry 26 bases in 61 attempts!  He did improve later on in his career, but was never truly an asset on the base-paths.

In 1980, he led the A.L. in triples with 15, and in outs made with 532.

In November of 1988, the Dodgers, enamored by Griffin’s .199 batting average and .965 fielding percentage from the ’88 season, signed Griffin as a free-agent for one million dollars.

Ladies and gentleman, am I missing something here?

To sum up, the weirdest thing about Alfredo Griffin isn’t his career numbers, it’s that he ever had a career at all, and a long career at that.

O.K.  Let’s follow Griffin up with a player who actually could hit.

Carlton Fisk was one of the best overall catchers in baseball history.  Suffering from numerous injuries early in his career, he nevertheless ended up playing in 2,499 games, amassing 9,853 plate appearances.

Most of his career numbers are pretty standard (meaning very good) for a player of his caliber, especially for a catcher.

But one season late in his career when he played for the White Sox stands out.  In 1984, when Fisk was already 36 years old, he slugged a reasonable 21 home runs.  Now, normally when a player hits over 20 homers and plays more or less every day, their RBI total lands somewhere in the 75-90 range, give or take a few.

Somehow, despite hitting 21 homers, Fisk managed to drive in only 43 runs in just under 400 plate appearances.  I am guessing that his RBI total that year has to be one of the lowest ever recorded, perhaps the lowest, for a player who hit at least 20 homers in one season.

I am not casting any aspersions on Fisk’s talent or on his career, but that is one fluky statistic.

Finally, there is the strange case of Storm Davis.

Davis was an extremely young man of 20 when he threw his first pitch for the Orioles in 1982.  By the age of 22, Davis had already pitched 525 innings in the Majors; there were no Joba Rules in those days.

By 1989, Davis was a member of a formidable Oakland A’s rotation.  In that year, his age-27 season, Davis enjoyed his career-year.  Despite tossing just 169 innings, Davis posted a record of 19-7.

It was the worst 19 win season in major league history.

Here are the ugly peripheral numbers behind that inflated win total:

ERA:  4.36, WHIP:  1.506,  Strike-Outs:  91,  Walks:  68,  K’s / 9 innings:  4.8,  Hits / 9 innings:  10.

In short, if Davis had pitched that year for virtually any other baseball team, he would have ended up with a sub-.500 win-lost record.

Of course, the Kansas City Royals, unable to see past Davis’ gaudy win total, signed Davis in the off-season to be the ace of their staff for over a million dollars (still big money in those days.)

The Royals were rewarded with a 7-10 season in 1990.

This is one reason why some small-market teams continue to be unsuccessful.  When they do splurge on a free-agent, it’s usually the wrong guy.

Davis’ career was strange because he was actually a pretty good pitcher who pitched terribly one season, still won 19 games, and was rewarded with a large contract as a free agent.

I’m absolutely positive there are many other players who have had strange, unlikely individual seasons and /or careers.  If you can think of others and would like to share them, by all means please do.  I’m not necessarily talking about One-Year Wonders; I already did a prior blog-post on that topic.

Now, let’s see what kind of strange, unlikely seasons we are in store for in 2010.  We know they’ll happen.  We just don’t know yet who they’ll happen to.

And once again, thank you for taking the time to read my blog.  I appreciate it.

Bill

A Delicate Imbalancing Act

It is the conventional wisdom among many fans and sports-writers these days that baseball suffers from a serious case of competitive imbalance.

The rich teams like the Yankees (always the Yankees) enjoy an unfair competitive edge over their disadvantaged competitors  due to the monstrously large size of their media-market.

A few other teams, notably the Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and perhaps the Cubbies also get to bid on the high-profile free agents, leaving the small-market teams gazing woefully in the window like so many Dickensian street-urchins.

Things have gotten so bad, so the logic goes, that only a salary-cap can save baseball from itself.

The on-line blogosphere, Twitter, and all of the other domains frequented by the chattering masses, constantly sling arrow after arrow at this paper tiger, trying, ostensibly out of a sense of fairness, to slay this ravenous beast before it ruthlessly devours yet another season.

And yet, the reality is that the competitive balance between baseball’s thirty teams is as strong as it’s ever been, and is much stronger than it has often been.

Since the year 2001, eight different teams have won the World Series in nine seasons of competition.  Only the decade from 1978-87, when ten different teams won the World Series, featured a greater diversity of championship teams.

Moreover, although free agent signings have played a part in the overall formula of putting together a championship baseball team, a significant proportion of the star players on these teams have either come up through the team’s farm systems, or they were acquired in astute trades.

Let’s use the 2006 champion St. Louis Cardinals as an example.  Only two significant players on that team, Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen, were obtained via free agency.  The combined cost of these two players, however, was a nominal three million dollars.  One would think that even teams like the Royals and the Pirates could have afforded one or both of those players.

The total team payroll for the Cardinals that championship season was a relatively modest 88 million dollars.

The 2005 Chicago White Sox are another example of how a franchise can build a championship baseball team without leading the league in spending.  The entire payroll for this team was about 75 million dollars, and the only significant free-agent the White Sox added that season was Jose Contreras, who ended up with a reasonably productive fifteen victories.

And although last season’s Yankees won the World Series after purchasing both Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia, they also had farm system products Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Phil Hughes to thank as well for their 27th World Series Championship.

That’s far more talent than the Royals and Pirates have produced from their farm systems combined over the past decade.

While it’s true that the Yankees broke the bank last season with a payroll in excess of 200 million dollars, it is also true that their example has been an anomaly over the past decade.  Most teams, like the Mets, for example, who have relied primarily on free agent signings (Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, K-Rod) to bring a world championship home, have failed miserably.

Conversely, most teams that have won, or have simply played in the World Series over the past decade, have been in the middle or upper-middle tier of spenders.  A couple have even been near the bottom of the payroll list.

Now the argument at this point becomes, of course, that small market teams  just can’t generate enough revenue to compete with even the medium market teams.  Well, there are three basic flaws with that argument:

Flaw #1:  Each franchise is owned by a millionaire, or a group of millionaires, who have to decide how important it is for them to field a championship ball-club.  The truth is (as we have just witnessed with the penny-pinching Marlins signing of Josh Johnson to a long-term contract) that the money IS ALWAYS there, if ownership decides to open their collective checkbook.  Meanwhile, what is the excuse for poor scouting, player development, and lack of sound judgment when making trades?

Flaw #2:  The second argument that advocates of competitive reform make is that baseball is a business, and you can’t expect the owners of small market teams to throw good money after bad in a vain attempt at catching the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets, etc.

Yet in what other realm of the American business world do owners of small franchises EXPECT and, stunningly, RECEIVE, gifts of cash from their bigger competitors to “level” the playing field.  The owners of these small baseball franchises then generally pocket the cash, fail to improve their product-line, then expect that baseball will come up with even more creative ways to allow them to enjoy a profit without being held to even a minimum standard of improvement.

Flaw 3:  Teams like the Royals, Brewers, Pirates, Reds, A’s, etc, are NOT directly competing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Angels.  These small market teams are more accurately competing directly with the other teams in their own division for a shot at the playoffs.

The Brewers, for example, simply have to play just slightly better than the Reds, Pirates, Astros and Cubs for a shot at the playoffs.  And once in the playoffs, as several Cinderella teams have showed over the years, anything can happen.  The team with the best record during the regular season does not always win.

This is why when I read respectable sports-writers make arguments that, for example, the Brewers should trade 26-year old Prince Fielder now for maximum value so they can obtain blue-chip prospects, the lack of logic in that argument leaves me dumbfounded.

Here’s why.

The Brewers, with Fielder and Braun in the middle of their lineup, and several other at least league-average players, have a legitimate chance of competing for the top spot in their division.  Isn’t that the reason franchises field teams in the first place?  Isn’t that why fans come out to the park to see their team?  Isn’t that why (perhaps ironically) the Brewers signed free-agent Randy Wolf?

Moreover, if the Brewers did put Fielder on the open-market and obtained a couple of blue-chip prospects in return (who might be only a couple of years younger than Fielder), wouldn’t they just end up with the same dilemma a couple of years from now regarding whether or not to keep these new young players?

Would you then turn around and trade them as well for prospects?  What’s the point of making trades for young talent in the first place if you don’t plan on keeping them around long enough to help your team make a run at the playoffs?

This is called a prospect-fetish; its danger is that it masquerades as a sensible solution to the apparent dilemmas posed by direct competition.

Let’s stop for a minute and ask another question.  Why do some people assume that what is in the best interests of small market teams is naturally in the best interests of Major League Baseball?

Those who advocate for a salary cap, for example, base their arguments on the presumption that because this salary cap would, in effect, “hurt” the Yankees chances of future success, then small market teams can only benefit.  And if this new system allows small market teams greater access to top-tier talent, they can only be more competitive as a result.

But I ask once again,  how is this zero-sum game philosophy (your loss is automatically my win) in the best interests of BASEBALL?

This is not a rhetorical question.  Here’s why.

Guess which teams benefit the most when the World Champion Yankees or Red Sox come to town?  It is the small market teams (who refuse, or, out of sheer incompetency, are unable, to field a quality team) that benefit the most.

Attendance is always higher in Kansas City, or in any of the smaller markets, when the Yankees or Red Sox come to town.  In other words, EVERYONE WINS when these high quality teams come for a visit.   Revenues go up for both the Royals AND the Yankees.

Does baseball really want to consider putting a system in place that could, in effect, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

There is one solution to this so-called competitive imbalance that was once used extensively as a means by which a team would seek to enhance its bottom line.

Move the franchise.

Take a look at how many teams moved from one city to another in search of greener pastures throughout the 20th century.  The Dodgers, Giants, Braves (twice), A’s (twice), and the Senators, are just some of the teams that moved primarily for financial reasons.  Some cities gained teams; others lost them, and some of those who lost teams later gained new franchises.

There are thirty major league franchises, yet several teams play in American cities that don’t rank anywhere near the top thirty in terms of population.  Kansas City, Oakland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh rank, respectively, 35th, 44th, 56th and 60th in population.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, NC ranks 18th, Las Vegas ranks 28th, and Tucson, AZ ranks 32nd.  Raleigh, NC, Mesa, AZ and several other cities are moving up fast.  These cities also have the advantage of being in the sun-belt, a more natural setting in which to play baseball.

Change is difficult, but baseball is a business. And if it is in the best interests of both the teams themselves and of Major League Baseball for a franchise to move, then sentimental posturing, aided and abetted by inefficient and ultimately pointless systems like revenue-sharing, shouldn’t stand in the way.

Ultimately, then, the Pirates,  assuming they commit themselves to top-notch scouting and player-development, might someday be able to afford to sign that free-agent who could turn out to be the last piece in their franchises’ championship puzzle.

Only it may happen in Charlotte instead of Pittsburgh.

But, hey, Pittsburgh, you would still have the Steelers.

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