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Who Is the Average Hall of Fame Player?

Virtually every conversation about the Baseball Hall of Fame includes some version of the following argument:

“We shouldn’t water down the Hall of Fame.  It should only be reserved for the best of the best.”

The implication being, of course, that every pitcher on the ballot needs to compare favorably to Tom Seaver, Walter Johnson, and Sandy Koufax.  The same, of course, is true of every position player on the ballot.  Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams are the immortals that some fans believe our most recent ballot hopefuls need to measure up to in order to merit serious consideration for being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But how realistic and accurate is that assessment?  What is a “real” Hall of Fame-caliber player?  When we’re discussing the careers of Biggio, Bagwell, Thomas, Piazza, Walker, etc., (among the position players on the ballot), what is a fair and honest standard to hold them to in order to reward them with a plaque in Cooperstown?

Fortunately, Baseball-Reference has a page that actually sheds some light on these questions.  Here are the statistics for a typical, average position player already in the Hall of Fame:

Games:  2,134, Plate Appearances:  8,996, At Bats:  7,917, Hits:  2,397, Doubles:  409, Triples:  110

Home Runs:  209, Runs Scored:  1,321, RBI:  1,212, Stolen Bases:  228, Walks:  889, Strikeouts:  728

Triple Slash Line:  .303 / .376 / .462,  OPS:  .837  WAR:  69

I did a little research to see if I could find one player in baseball history who came closest to approximating those stats over the course of his career.  While there was no one player that matched perfectly, of course, there were a few who came relatively close.  For example, here’s Player A:

Games:  2,076, Plate Appearances:  9,053, At Bats:  7,869, Hits:  2,336, Doubles:  449, Triples:  55

Home Runs:  287, Runs Scored:  1,366, RBI:  1,257, Stolen Bases:  147, Walks:  1,069, Strikeouts:  1,212

Triple Slash Line:  .297 / .381 / .477,   OPS:  .858  WAR:  49.5 (But Offensive WAR:  62.7).

As you can see, Player A had a little more power, and a little less speed than your “average” HOF player.  But overall, this player is a pretty good comp.  Let’s try another.  Here’s Player B:

Games:  1,976, Plate Appearances:  8,283, At Bats:  7,173, Hits:  2,176, Doubles:  440, Triples:  47

Home Runs:  284, Runs Scored:  1,186, RBI:  1,205, Stolen Bases:  67, Walks:  937, Strikeouts:  1,190

Triple Slash Line:  .303 / .384 / .497,  OPS:  .880  WAR:  56.2

Player B’s batting average is right on the money, and his on-base percentage is close.  Again, a little more power and less speed than the average HOF’er.   One last comp:  Player C 

Games:  2,380, Plate Appearances:  9,086, At Bats:  7,946, Hits:  2,383, Doubles:  413, Triples:  148

Home Runs:  169, Runs Scored:  1,247, RBI:  1,304, Stolen Bases:  71, Walks:  1,018, Strikeouts:  538

Triple Slash Line:  .300 / .382 / .453,  OPS:  .834  WAR:  55.1

Player C’s Triple Slash Line is very close to the average HOF’er, as are his hits, doubles and triples.  The WAR is a little low, but the rest of the profile matches up pretty well with our hypothetically average Hall of Famer.

Which of the three do you like best?

O.K., I wasn’t being completely fair.  Of the three players I analyzed, only Player C is actually in the Hall of Fame. Player C is Enos Slaughter, inducted into The Hall in 1985.

Working backward, Player B is Will Clark, and Player A is Bernie Williams.  In other words, a typical Hall of Fame-caliber player isn’t necessarily even in the Hall of Fame.

As you can see, then, although many baseball fans feel protective of the Hall of Fame, and don’t want it to be “watered down” by inducting “unworthy” players, the truth is, the Hall of Fame doesn’t require protection from any of us.

There is little danger that any of the players on the current ballot who might conceivably be inducted would, in any objective way, lower the standards of the Hall of Fame as it actually exists.  If anything, the majority of the players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot are, by historical standards, overqualified.*

Simply put, this is not just Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame.  It is Enos Slaughter’s Hall of Fame as well.**

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

*You will find that this is true, even if you decide to break the list down position by position.

**It may also some day be Carlos Beltran’s Hall of Fame.  Though his stats are also pretty close to the historical averages, I didn’t include him because he is still currently active.

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Big Ed Delahanty Takes A Plunge

The young woman’s bare foot stuck out from under the brown quilt.  Her toes were painted light pink.  Breathing in short, shallow spasms, like a small bird trapped, she slept softly as the big man stared.  Her bunk rocked slightly as the night train sped south out of Canada.  The stubborn shadows in the corners of her berth swallowed the gaslight whole.

Ed Delahanty, one of the Phillies' standout pl...

Ed Delahanty, one of the Phillies’ standout players in the early era of the franchise. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The man held an open straight razor.  The metal, still quite sharp, had dulled in color to a dusky hue that perfectly matched the complexion of her face.  He couldn’t remember why he’d entered her room, or what, if anything he’d intended to do once he’d come here.  Perhaps he just wanted company.  Perhaps he wanted more.

Bits and shards of the night began to come back to him, like jigsaw pieces from several different puzzles scattered about the floor.   The conductor’s face, swollen and severe, pointing a finger at him.  Terrified passengers looking at…him?  A bottle of whiskey crashing to the worn, wooden floor beside him.  He couldn’t remember holding it.  The train whistle blasting as the train approached the international border.  Black waves somewhere in the distance crashing against a barren shore.  Why was he crying?

The big man grabbed her ankle firmly.  He knew how to subdue without leaving a mark.  So Norine no longer wanted any part of him.  Well, this one would do.  There was always lots of Pretty Polly to go around.  At 35-years old, he was far from finished, no matter what she thought.  The money was long gone, but he’d be back on top soon enough, then she’d come begging and pleading to have him back.

The cabin door opened behind him, and three strong toughs wrestled him to the ground.  The woman woke with a start, cupping her hand to her mouth, stifling a scream.  He looked up at her, a pleading in his blue eyes she couldn’t fathom.  They brought him out to the club car in the back, the fight mostly having left him, at least for the moment.

He heard the wind howling outside as the train approached Niagara Falls in the dark.  As a boy down in Ohio, his grandmother, from County Kilkenny, would tell him stories on nights like this of the banshees that prowled the night.  She said that when the banshees come calling, someone was sure to die.  On the night she died, the wind blew the shutters off his bedroom window.  Now he knew she was out there, again, calling to him on this night, all these years later.  And no amount of whiskey or blood could change that.

The train ground to a sudden stop on the cold, steel track.  He was led to the back, handed his hat in the dark, and sent on his way.  No more foolishness on this foul evening.  Strangely, the woman with the pink toenails was there as well.  Barefoot, with only a shawl over her shoulders, she, too, stepped down onto the track aside the hulking Irishman.

Seems her ticket stub was not quite in order, having expired over a year earlier, and under a different name.  Seeing her as if for the first time, Big Ed took her arm firmly in his, a gentleman out for a stroll with his lady, as they stepped off together into the moonless night.

The night watchman upon the bridge called out a warning to them, but they didn’t respond.  Big Ed heard the banshee’s wail, even if the barefoot woman did not.  Her feet, stepping gingerly over the stones in the slats between the tracks, were cold now, and she longed to be back in her warm, feather bed upstairs in the farmhouse in Utica.

She clasped onto the arm of the big man, not knowing quite what they were going to do, but feeling unaccountably safe, even until the moment when the bridge suddenly ended without warning, as they plunged out of the July night into the darkness below.

In the millisecond before she went under the cold, black waves forever, she thought she felt not one, but two sets of arms, holding her soothingly until the darkness enveloped her in its firm, final grasp.  Up above, a train whistle startled what was left of the evening, the faces of the men and women in the windows searching the darkness, seeing nothing.

Below:  Ed Delahanty’s Obituary:  (Source:  Baseball Almanac)

DELEHANTY’S BODY FOUND.
_______________

Baseball Player Swept over Niagara
Falls—Woman’s Body Also
Recovered.

  NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y., July 9.—The body of Edward Delehanty, the right fielder of the Washingtonbaseball team of the American League, who fell from the International Bridge last Thursday night, was taken from the river at the lower Niagara gorge today. Relatives of Delehanty arrived here this afternoon and positively identified the body as that of the missing baseball player.

  The body of a woman thirty-five years old was also recovered at Lewiston today. It has not been identified.

  Delehanty’s body was mangled. One leg was torn off, presumably by the propeller of the Maid of the Mist, near whose landing the body was found. The body will be shipped to Washington tonight. Delehanty’s effects have been sent to his wife by the Pullman people.

  Frank Delehanty of the Syracuse team and E.J. McGuire, a brother-in-law, from Cleveland, are here investigating the death of the player. They do not believe that Delehanty committed suicide or that he had been on a spree in Detroit. In the sleeper on the Michigan Central train on the way down from Detroit,Delehanty had five drinks of whiskey says Conductor Cole, and became so obstreperous that he had to put him off the train at Bridgeburg at the Canadian end of the bridge. Cole says Delehanty had an open razor and was terrifying others in the sleeper.

  When the train stopped at Bridgeburg Cole did not deliver Delehanty up to a constable, as the Canadian police say he should have done. He simply put him off the train.

  After the train had disappeared across the bridge, Delehanty started to walk across, which is against the rules. The night watchman attempted to stop him, but Delehanty pushed the man to one side. The draw of the bridge had been opened for a boat, and the player plunged into the dark waters of the Niagara.

  Delehanty’s relatives hint at foul play, but there is nothing in the case, apparently, to bear out such a theory.

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d835353d

Major League Ballparks: Largest to Smallest

Sometimes you look at a stadium filled to capacity, and you wonder why they didn’t build it just a bit larger so it could accommodate more people.  On the other hand, you could go to a Mets game at Citi Field in August, and wonder why they didn’t build it half as large, so it wouldn’t look quite so empty.

Here, then, is a complete list (largest to smallest) of each MLB stadium, along with their officially listed seating capacity:

1)  Dodger Stadium – 56,000

2)  Coors Field –  50,480

3)  Yankee Stadium – 50,291

4)  Turner Field – 49,586

5)  Rogers Centre – 49,282

6)  Chase Field – 48,633

7)  Rangers Ballpark – 48,114

8)  Safeco Field – 47,476

9)  Camden Yards – 45,971

10) Angel Stadium – 45,483

11) Busch Stadium – 43,975

12) Citizens Bank Park – 43,651

13) Petco Park – 42,524

14) Great American Ballpark – 42,319

15) Progressive Field – 42,241

16) Minute Maid Park – 42,060

17) Citi Field – 41,922

18) AT&T Park – 41,915

19) Miller Park – 41,900

20) Nationals Park – 41,418

21) Comerica Park – 41,255

22) Wrigley Field – 41,019

23) U.S. Cellular Field – 40,615

24) Target Field – 39,021

25) PNC Park – 38,362

26) Kauffman Stadium – 37,903

27) Fenway Park – 37,499

28) Marlins Park – 36,742

29) O.co Coliseum – 35,067

30) Tropicana Field – 34,078

You can also call this list, the Incredible Shrinking Ballpark.  Ballpark construction certainly is headed down as far as seating capacity is concerned.  During the last boom of construction in the 1960’s and ’70’s, stadiums regularly topped 50,000 seats.  For many years, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park were normally the two “coziest” parks in baseball.  Now, about half the parks seat 42,000 or fewer folks, while 23% of MLB parks now seat fewer than 40,000 fans.

 

Heart of a Tiger: Book Review

What images come to mind at the mention of the name, Ty Cobb?  Do you picture a snarling, angry man, sliding into third base, spikes high?  A racist racing into the crowd to beat up a defenseless invalid?  A man to be feared, perhaps grudgingly respected, but almost always despised?  Now ask yourself, where does that picture come from?

In the book, “Heart of a Tiger:  Growing Up With My Grandfather, Ty Cobb,” we are introduced to not an entirely different Ty Cobb than we’ve become used to hearing about, but to a much more fully developed account of a human life.  This is not, as you might think at first blush, a biography bordering on hagiography.  In fact, strictly speaking, it’s not truly a biography at all.  It is a moving account, by turns harrowing, tender and stark, of a deeply forged relationship between a man entering his twilight years, and his grandchildren.  Specifically, it is a narrative about how Ty Cobb, for all practical purposes, saves the lives of his three grandchildren from the destructive emotional and physical abuse they suffer at the hands of their parents.

Herschel Cobb, the author of this 279 page tale, is the middle child of three, and the son of Ty Cobb’s own son, also named Hershel Cobb.  Ty Cobb’s relationship with his son, Hershel, and with his daughter-in-law was fraught with tension, suspicion and animosity.  Little Hershel, the author, was his father’s favorite target for physical abuse on a pathological level that needs to be read to be believed, and his mother was, if anything, even more cruel and terrifying.

Herschel and his siblings, Susan and Kit, were fortunate, however, to spend part of several summers at their granddaddy’s cabin at Lake Tahoe.  In the 1950’s and early ’60’s, it became a refuge for three weeks per year away from the terror and neglect they experienced  when they weren’t lucky enough to be at school.  It is in this milieu that little Hersch’s relationship with his grandfather is forged.

Ty Cobb was clearly looking for a second chance in his life to nurture and experience the love that he failed to both give and receive as a young man.  Clearly tortured by his past, his determination to become a better man is evident throughout the tales recounted by his forever grateful grandson.  While this may not excuse the sins of his past, it does suggest that Cobb was not the one-dimensional sociopath that has come down to us in history.

Al Stump, who wrote a sensationalized portrait of Ty Cobb that was supposedly the “unvarnished truth” about Cobb is revealed by Herschel Cobb (who met Stump as a young teen) as a shady, creepy fraud who Herschel once caught stealing autographed photos directly out of Cobb’s personal study.  Yet, it is largely the Cobb that Stump more or less invented that has become the Cobb we believe to be the true man.  Such is history.

This is not strictly speaking a baseball book, but Cobb is clearly proud of his accomplishments on the baseball diamond, and he is generous later in life with the money he received both due to his professional accomplishments as well as his wise investments in Coca-Cola as well as in other firms.  Nor do we experience through Hersch’s book an obvious racist or unreconstructed Southerner.  The reason for this is clear:  Hersch only writes about what he experienced first-hand with his grandfather.  The specifics of this tale are not often easy to read, but they are poignant and precise, and present a much fuller account of Cobb, Sr. than we are likely to find anywhere else.

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8...

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8/16/[19]24. 1 negative (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the baseball fan, though, there are moments in the book that will satisfy, such as Cobb’s version of how he viewed base-running, his relationship with Babe Ruth, the players he thought were the best whom he ever played against, and which players were his friends or foes.  Cobb’s memories of these players and events are ultimately enlightening and plausible.

Cobb clearly missed the game as he grew older, and was obviously happy to reunite on occasion with those few players he remained close to until the end of his life.  While there were clearly many players who hated him (which he does not try to deny), what comes across is how his hyper-competitiveness contributed to how and why his foes on the field targeted him in the first place.

Not unlike a young Bryce Harper, Cobb was a very young man when he broke into the Majors at age 18 in 1905, and was viewed by the veteran’s (often not nearly as talented as Cobb was) as a cocky upstart who needed to be put in his place.  When Cobb fought back (as Harper has on occasion) many were quick to judge him (in the press as well as among his peers) as a brash, arrogant youth who didn’t respect the game or his peers.  As far as Cobb was concerned, he was out there to win ballgames, not friends.

Which brings us full circle back to Herschel Cobb’s story.  As Hersch (as his grandfather calls him throughout the book) grows from a young boy to a young man, Cobb, Sr. sees something of himself in this particular grandchild.  But the life lessons that Ty Cobb teaches Hersch by word and example go well beyond sports and baseball.  They are lessons of trust, humility, inner-strength and love.  In the end, Cobb needs his grandchildren as much as they needed him.  As a result, they all get a second chance to experience a better quality of life than any of them otherwise would have.

When all is said and done, who among us wouldn’t appreciate a second chance to right the wrongs, to rectify our past, if given the chance?  That Ty Cobb took this opportunity and made the most of it, creating a happy and safe environment for three innocent children experiencing suffering beyond comprehension, is ultimately a final legacy that should be respected, in a tale that needed to be told.

If you read only one book about Ty Cobb in your life, this is the one for you.

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 3 – Jim Hegan

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

During the middle of the 20th century, the Cleveland Indians fielded some very strong teams, including the 1948 World Championship club.  Though they certainly had some very fine position players such as Larry Doby, Lou Boudreau, Al Rosen and Rocky Colavito, arguably the heart and soul of those teams was the pitching.  Bob Feller was the ace, but the Indians also featured Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mel Harder, Mike Garcia, Herb Score, and even Satchel Paige.

Feller, of course, went on to win 266 games in his career, despite missing three full seasons to World War II.  Perhaps fittingly, two of those three seasons overlapped with the WWII service of Feller’s favorite catcher, Jim Hegan.

English: Cleveland Indians catcher .

English: Cleveland Indians catcher . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Hegan.

Bob Feller was a rural farm boy from the Midwest, while Jim Hegan was born and raised in Lynn, Massachusetts.  During the war years, while Feller was in the Navy, Hegan served in the Coast Guard.

Lest you think the Coast Guard was relatively safe during the war, at least 15 C.G. ships sunk or were destroyed during WWII, and one (the Natsek) mysteriously vanished without a trace in the Belle Island Strait.

Upon their return from the war, Hegan and Feller enjoyed long and successful careers, forming one of the most productive batteries in Cleveland Indians history.  Feller pitched for the Indians until his retirement in 1956, while Hegan was the team’s primary catcher through 1957, before performing backup catcher duties for a variety of teams for the next few years.  He retired in 1960.

Bob Feller made 484 starts in his Indians’ career.  Jim Hegan caught 241 of those games, almost exactly half of Feller’s starts.  Hegan was behind the plate for 22 of Feller’s shutouts, and one of his no-hitters.  Of the 16 catchers who caught at least one of Feller’s outings, Feller stated that Jim Hegan was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball history.  Feller remembered:

“Jim called a good game. We disagreed rarely. Jim was very good at keeping pitchers calm.”

While Hegan was the Indians’ primary catcher, they led the league in team ERA four years in a row, 1948-51.  Overall, the Indians led the A.L. in ERA six times while he was their primary catcher.  Hegan caught six 20-game winners in his career, and three no-hitters.  Hegan, recognized primarily for his defensive prowess,  was named to five A.L. All-Star teams.

One of the finest defensive catchers of all-time, when he retired in 1960, his .990 fielding percentage was the second-best ever recorded.  Hegan led the league in putouts, assists, double plays, caught stealing, and range factor per nine innings three times each, though not necessarily in the same three seasons.  A gun for an arm, he caught an excellent 50% of all would-be base-stealers during his career, including nearly 70% in ’46 and ’50.

An extremely durable catcher throughout his career, Hegan is still 4th all-time in games played for the Indians with 1,526.  In fact, he was respected so much as a catcher that he was the rare receiver who never once played a single game at another position during his entire career.

One small statistical oddity, in 5,320 career plate appearances, he was hit by a pitch just four times in his entire career.  For what it’s worth, Bob Feller was hit three times.

So what kept Hegan out of the Baseball Hall of Fame?  Well, as with the two other catchers we’ve reviewed in this series (Eddie Ainsmith and Jerry Grote), Hegan just wasn’t much of a hitter.  His career triple slash line of .228 / .295 / .344 is underwhelming, to say the least.  He managed 1,087 hits in his career of which 92 were home runs.  He drove in 525 runs, and he scored 550.  Hegan’s career high in batting average in a full season was .249 in 1947.  He did, however, hit a home run in the 1948 World Series vs. the Boston Braves.

When Hegan retired in 1960, his son, Michael, was just beginning his pro baseball career.  When Mike Hegan was a member of the ’72 World Champion Oakland A’s, he and his dad became the first father-son combo to each be part of a World Series winning team.

Jim Hegan is part of a long line of smooth and highly effective defensive catchers for whom useful statistics haven’t yet fully materialized.  Perhaps all one can do is to notice  the quality of the pitchers they’ve handled over the years, and accept the fact that to some reasonable extent, those pitchers owe at leas part of their success to the Jim Hegans of the world.  As my dad used to say, there’s nothing wrong with just working for a living.

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 2 – Jerry Grote

This is the second installment of this series.  You can read Part 1 here.

As a young boy growing up a Mets fan in the 1970’s, I always liked Jerry Grote.  Looking at the back of his baseball card, I realized he wasn’t going to ever win a batting title, but watching him play on WOR-Channel 9, I watched him catch enough to know that he was a true professional behind the plate.

Even with the advances made in modern statistical calculations, including dWAR, it is difficult to put a real value on how much a catcher like Jerry Grote was worth to the Mets while he was their primary catcher from the late ’60’s through the mid ’70’s.  Thumbing through a copy of the 1974 Mets yearbook, I found this entry:

“Fortunes of Mets continued to revolve in great measure around availability of bulldoggish, fiery competitor ranked with elite N.L. receiving corps; Shea troupe’s decline began to set in after Ramon Hernandez pitch fractured his right arm bone in Pittsburgh May 11, while pennant push coincided with return to steady full-time duty July 21.”

Perennial stolen-base leader Lou Brock considered Jerry Grote the toughest catcher he ever tried to steal off of, and Johnny Bench himself once remarked that if he’d been on the same team as Grote, he (Bench) would have been relegated to third base with Grote being the regular catcher.

Joe Torre, who both played for and managed the Mets, once compared Grote to Johnny Bench and Ted Simmons.  He said that while Bench and Simmons were hitters that caught, Grote was a catcher who hit.  While that may have been an oversimplification of the abilities and careers these three fine players enjoyed, it does reflect on the high level of respect accorded to Grote by his contemporaries, especially concerning his defense.

Tom Seaver worked with a total of 25 catchers during his MLB career, including Grote, Bench and Carlton Fisk.  No catcher caught Seaver more than Grote did.  Grote was behind the plate for a Seaver start 239 times.  Bench was a distant second at 94 times.  Mets backup catcher Duffy Dyer caught Seaver 55 times.  Seaver made 395 starts as a Met.  Grote was behind the plate in 60% of those starts.  It’s hard to imagine Seaver developing quite the way he did without the defensive prowess of Jerry Grote.

Grote was the Mets starting catcher 1,105 times during his 11 1/2 seasons as a Met (1966-77.)  During that time, he was named to two All-Star teams, led N.L. catchers in putouts in 1970 and ’71, in Range Factor / Game six times, and in Fielding Percentage once.  He never led N.L. catchers in runners caught stealing largely because most base-runners just wouldn’t test his arm.

A .252 career hitter with just 39 career homers, Grote was never a great hitter, but he always viewed his defense as his primary job.  With Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and, a bit earlier, Nolan Ryan to catch, the question is, was his reputation partly enhanced by having the good fortune to catch those excellent pitchers, or were those pitchers so highly productive at least in part because they were lucky to have Jerry Grote behind the plate?

Certainly, a young pitching staff has a lot to learn, and a catcher as assertive and competent as Grote could only have reinforced their development.

Grote’s toughness behind the plate was legendary.  Out of San Antonio, Texas, Grote was an old school guy who was not afraid to call out Seaver or any of the other pitchers when they made a mistake.  He often had run-ins with umpires who earned his wrath, including one alleged incident when he allowed a pitched ball to hit an umpire in the mask.

Pitchers who shook him off could expect him to come barking out from behind home plate, so it didn’t happen very often.  And in 1988, seven years after he’d retired as an MLB catcher, Birmingham Barons manager Jerry Grote inserted himself into a game as his team’s catcher when no one else was available.  At age 42, it was the final time he suited up for a game.

Perhaps we should allow Tom Seaver to have the final word regarding the career of Jerry Grote.  Seaver once remarked on national television that even having had Bench and Fisk behind the plate at one time or another in his career, the finest catcher he ever enjoyed as a battery-mate was Jerry Grote.

If Jerry Grote  was good enough to win high praise from none other than Tom Seaver, who are the rest of us to judge?

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 1 – Eddie Ainsmith

My wife tells me that behind every great man is an even greater woman.  Actually, she just tells me to take out the trash, but it works out to the same thing, at least in my imagination.  Then again, since I’m not even remotely a great man, does that still make her a merely somewhat great woman?  Perhaps behind (or alongside, or even in front of) a mediocre guy like myself there is a truly special woman who puts up with a lot his dumb, pointless nonsense.  Yup, that must be it.

At any rate, that got me to wondering (while taking out said trash) if behind every great pitcher there is a great catcher.  I don’t necessarily mean great as measured by batting average, OPS+ or WAR, but simply by being that pitcher’s primary catcher over an extended period of time.  Just as it’s impossible to quantify how much my wife has done for me over the past 15 years or so, maybe a catcher has a similarly positive, yet hard to quantify, effect on a pitcher.

So I thought I’d take a look at some of the forgotten or semi-forgotten catchers in baseball history who have caught baseball’s greatest pitchers.  I know that as I research this topic, I will learn a lot more about these players than I’ve known before.  And, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to get this post done before my wife tells me to take out the trash again.

Edward Ainsmith

Edward Ainsmith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walter Johnson made 666 starts in his career.  Nineteen different catchers caught at least one of Walter Johnson’s starts.  Only one of them, however, caught more than 200 of Johnson’s efforts.  His name was Eddie Ainsmith.

Actually, he was born Edward Anshmedt, his family changing his name after they passed through Ellis Island in the waning years of the 19th century.  You see, little Eddie was born in Russia, and his family’s surname was Anglicized upon naturalization.  It happened a lot back then.  At any rate, young Ainsmith’s family eventually ended up in New Hampshire, which is where Eddie grew up.

He graduated from Colby Academy (now Colby-Sawyer College) in New London, NH in approximately 1907 or ’08.  He must have been one heck of a young baseball prospect in his time because by age 20 in 1910, he made his Major League debut with the Washington Senators.

Through his first five seasons, Ainsmith was often brought in as a late-inning defensive replacement, or as a pinch-runner or pinch-hitter.  For a catcher, Ainsmith was a pretty good base-runner, notching 17 steals in 1913, and 16 steals in 1917.  In fact, on June 26, 1913, Ainsmith stole second-base, third-base and home in the first game of a double-header vs. the A’s.  The A’s still won the game, however, 11-2.

It wasn’t until 1917 when Ainsmith was already 27-years old that he became the Senators’ primary catcher.  By then, Walter Johnson was already at the mid-point of his career, and had already enjoyed several fantastic seasons.

Ainsmith’s final season in a Washington Senator’s uniform was in 1918.  Nevertheless, in his relatively short stint as the Senator’s primary catcher, he caught Johnson 210 times, more than any other catcher in team history.

Never much of a hitter, Ainsmith batted just .207 during his nine years in Washington.  He ended up in Detroit for the 1919-1921 seasons, then was traded again, this time to St. Louis in the second-half of the ’21 season.  He hit well in 1921 and ’22 (as did almost everyone else with the new, “live” ball), batting .281 and .293, respectively.

Yet by 1923 and ’24, his career was all but over.  He played just a handful of games in each of those two seasons, playing small roles for first Brooklyn, then for the Giants.  Ainsmith played his final MLB game July 21, 1924 at age 34.

He retired with a .232 career batting average, 22 home runs, and 86 stolen bases in 1,078 games played.  His career dWAR was 3.6, and his overall career WAR was just 5.7, so he was obviously primarily a defensive specialist.  In fact, he led the A.L. in Range Factor / Game three times, in 1912, 1917-1918.

One other thing I found interesting about Ainsmith was that on July 19, 1918, as WWI was slowly grinding to a halt, Ainsmith applied for a draft deferment.  Secretary of War Newton Baker, however, had other ideas.  He ruled that baseball was not an “essential occupation” (take that, baseball) and that all players of draft age were subject to the “work-in-essential-industries-or-fight” rule.

A week later, though, Baker sort of changed his mind (under pressure from the baseball oligarchs, apparently) and allowed an exemption for ballplayers until September 1st of that year.  Both leagues voted to cut the season short, and the season ended on Labor Day, September 2nd, 1918 (exactly 95 years ago today.)

The Great War Armistice occurred on 11 November 1918, so Eddie Ainsmith never went off to war anyway.  But we are left to wonder why Ainsmith would attempt to seek a deferment from the draft at all, a rather unusual step in those days.

Was he just too scared to fight?  Was he a pacifist?  Was he concerned that going off to war might ruin his baseball career?  Or could it have been that because he was born in Russia, and that perhaps Anshmedt is actually a German name (there was a large German population in Russia at one time), could it have been that his family connections to  Europe made it too difficult for him to contemplate taking up arms on a European battefield, perhaps against even his own former countryman?  We can only guess at his motivations.

Eddie Ainsmith did go on to live to the age of 91, passing away in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1981.

Did Ainsmith make Walter Johnson a better pitcher?  That seems highly unlikely.  But it is worth noting that of the 562 games he caught in Washington, he was behind the plate 210 times to catch The Big Train.  That means that in 37% of Ainsmith’s games as a catcher, Johnson was on the mound.  In effect, it appears that Ainsmith was virtually Johnson’s personal catcher for several years.

Ainsmith did not enjoy a Hall of Fame career as Walter Johnson did, but having had the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, enjoy a 15-year career as a catcher, and being able to boast that he caught the great Walter Johnson a couple hundred times is a career, and a life, worth having lived.

The Greatness of Clayton Kershaw

Is it possible that a 25-year old starting pitcher, with barely a half-dozen seasons under his belt, is already one of the most taken-for-granted veterans in the Majors?

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m writing, of course, of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

As a Mets fan, I’ve been in awe of our own great pitcher, Matt Harvey (The Dark Knight of Gotham.)  Every pitching performance of his is an event to be savored.  I can think of perhaps only two or three other pitchers in Mets history who’ve generated this kind of buzz and displayed such overwhelming dominance at this point in their careers.

Then I recall that Clayton Kershaw is just a year older than Matt Harvey, and has already been just as dominant, perhaps more so, for about six years now.

Kershaw made his MLB debut at age 20 on May 25, 2008 against the St. Louis Cardinals.  In six strong innings, he struck out seven, walked just one, and surrendered five hits and two earned runs.  Of his 102 pitches, 69 were strikes.  His ERA after that first start was 3.00.  He has not posted an ERA that high in any of his past five seasons (including this one.)  His lone mistake that day was a double to some guy named Pujols.

Through 1,142 career innings (a fair sample size), Kershaw’s career ERA+ of 146 ranks 5th best all-time among starting pitchers since 1900, behind only Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood.  Including this season, he is enjoying his 3rd straight year with an ERA+ of at least 150.  By way of comparison, Sandy Koufax reached that level of dominance in each of his final four seasons.

Speaking of Sandy Koufax, until this year, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax ranked #1 and #2 in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings in their careers (6.555 and 6.791, respectively.)  This year, Kershaw has squeezed in between Ryan and Koufax, now claiming second place all-time at 6.767 per nine innings.  Granted, Koufax tossed about twice as many innings in his career as Kershaw has to date, but, then again, Kershaw has been a much more dominant pitcher in his first half-dozen seasons than Koufax was.  In fact, Koufax was about Kershaw’s current age before he finally began to turn the corner in what had been to that point a very mediocre career.

Kershaw, with a career record of 74-44, has already won one Cy Young award, was the runner-up last year, and has an excellent chance to win another this season.  He is on his way to winning his third consecutive ERA crown, and will probably lead the league in WHIP this year for a third straight season as well.  He has also given up an average of just 5.8 hits per 9 innings this year, one hit per nine below his already fantastic career average.

Astonishingly, in his 1,142 career innings pitched, Kershaw has surrendered just 859 hits.  Another way of looking at this is that Kershaw has tossed 283 hitless innings in his career, the equivalent of pitching an entire season, and then some, without giving up a hit.

And lest you think that perhaps Kershaw has a walk rate that might not be quite as impressive as his hit rate, Kershaw’s career mark of 3.0 walks per nine compares favorably (though very similarly) to Koufax’s career rate of 3.2 walks per nine (not to mention Nolan Ryan’s much higher rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings.)

Since his rookie year of 2008, Kershaw’s WAR has gone up virtually every season as well:  1.4, 4.7, 5.5, 6.5, 6.2, 7.1 (thus far in 2013.)  His 31.4 career WAR (generally a cumulative stat), works out to an average of around 5.5 per season.  I’ll leave it to you to estimate where he might finish among the all-time WAR leaders if he enjoys perhaps another decade of good health.

There’s a real chance that before he’s done, Clayton Kershaw will rate among the top five left-handed pitchers in baseball history.  It would be unfortunate if, outside of L.A.,  baseball fans failed to notice Kershaw’s greatness due to our sports media’s current obsession with scandal, blame and shame.

Addendum:  I just learned a couple of hours ago of the elbow injury that Matt Harvey has suffered.  The brittleness of pitchers is something that we are constantly reminded of and, despite our hopes going forward, obviously no pitcher is guaranteed a long and healthy career.  Not Matt Harvey, not Clayton Kershaw, not any of them.  All we can do is enjoy their talent while we have them.  

Top Ten Pitchers Who Never Won 20 Games

Whether it’s fair or not, a 20-win season has long been regarded as a mark of excellence for a pitcher.  Up until perhaps the past decade or so, an ace pitcher was expected to win at least 20 games in a season.  Anything less than that was considered a bit of a disappointment, regardless of how strong that pitcher’s other stats may have been.  This led me to wonder which of the best pitchers in MLB history (using WAR as a career measure of success) never enjoyed a 20-win campaign.

Dave Stieb pitching in Toronto, Canada in 1985...

Dave Stieb pitching in Toronto, Canada in 1985. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided to exclude currently active pitchers as well as, for obvious reasons, pitchers who worked primarily in relief during their careers.  Here’s what I came up with:

1)  Chuck Finley (L):  200-173, WAR:  58.5

2)  Frank Tanana (L):  240-236, WAR:  57.5

3)  Dave Stieb (R):  176-137, WAR:  57.0

4)  Kevin Appier (R):  169-137, WAR:  55.0

5)  Kenny Rogers (L):  219-156, WAR:  51.1

6)  Mark Langston (L):  179-158, WAR:  50.3

7)  Dennis Martinez (R):  245-193, WAR:  49.5

8)  Jimmy Key (L):  186-117, WAR:  49.4

9)  Milt Pappas (R):  209-164, WAR:  46.8

10)  Steve Rogers (R):  158-152, WAR:  45.3

As you can see, if you came of age as a baseball fan around the 1980’s, you’ll be quite familiar with many of these names.  Only a couple of the pitchers on this list go back much further than that, with Milt Pappas apparently being the “old-timer” on this list.

Exactly half the pitchers on this list were southpaws, and two guys named Rogers are represented as well.  Each of the first eight guys on the list pitched either primarily or exclusively in the American League.  Milt Pappas split his career almost evenly between the two leagues, and Steve Rogers is the only pitcher on this list to have pitched exclusively in the National League.

Half of these pitchers won at least 200 games, and all finished with records above .500.  Only three of the pitchers on this list reached 19 wins in a season:  Langston (twice), Tanana, and Steve Rogers.

In their prime, each of these pitchers was very tough, and if any of them had pitched on consistently better teams, or were a bit luckier, they might not have appeared on this list at all.

Mets vs. Yankees: A Unique Look at a Crosstown Rivalry

Growing up as a Mets fan, there haven’t been that many seasons where I’ve had the pleasure of being a fan of the better team in the New York area.  I’m aware, of course, that the Yankees have enjoyed many more World Championships than have the Mets since I started following baseball in the mid-’70’s.  But it occurred to me that I’d never really taken a look at each of the teams’ respective best players on a year-by-year basis.  I wondered if perhaps the Mets actually had the better player (measured by WAR) as often as not over the past half-century.

Here, then, are the results:

1962:  F. Thomas – 2.6    M. Mantle – 6.0

1963:  C. Willey – 4.2       E. Howard – 5.1

1964:  R. Hunt – 3.2        W. Ford – 6.8

1965:  J. Lewis – 2.4        M. Stottlemyre – 6.9

1966:  D. Ribant – 3.5      T. Tresh – 5.4

1967:  T. Seaver – 6.7      A. Downing – 4.6

1968:  T. Seaver – 7.0     S. Bahnsen – 5.9

1969:  T. Seaver – 7.2     M. Stottlemyre – 6.1

1970:  T. Seaver – 6.4       R. White – 6.8

1971:  T. Seaver – 6.9     R. White – 6.7

1972:  J. Matlack – 6.1      B. Murcer – 8.1

1973:  T. Seaver – 11.0    T. Munson – 7.2

1974:  J. Matlack – 8.7     E. Maddox – 5.4

1975:  T. Seaver – 8.2      C. Hunter – 8.1

1976:  T. Seaver – 5.3      G. Nettles – 7.9

1977:  L. Randle – 4.1       G. Nettles – 5.5

1978:  C. Swan – 5.5         R. Guidry – 9.6

1979:  L. Mazzilli – 4.8      R. Guidry – 6.5

1980:  L. Mazzilli – 3.2     W. Randolph – 6.6

1981:  H. Brooks – 2.6       D. Righetti – 3.5

1982:  J. Stearns – 3.8       R. Gossage – 4.5

1983:  K. Hernandez – 4.3   R. Guidry – 5.3

1984:  K. Hernandez – 6.3   D. Mattingly – 6.3

1985:  D. Gooden – 13.2     R. Henderson – 9.9

1986:  K. Hernandez – 5.5    D. Mattingly – 7.2

1987:  D. Strawberry – 6.4  D. Mattingly – 5.1

1988:  D. Cone – 5.8             R. Henderson – 6.3

1989:  H. Johnson – 6.9     S. Sax – 4.4

1990:  F. Viola – 6.3          R. Kelly – 5.5

1991:  D. Cone – 4.3          S. Sax – 4.1

1992:  S. Fernandez – 6.2   M. Perez – 6.0

1993:  D. Gooden – 4.2         J. Key – 6.2

1994:  B. Saberhagen – 5.7   W. Boggs – 4.5

1995:  J. Kent – 3.2              B. Williams – 6.4

1996:  B. Gilkey – 8.1        A. Pettitte – 5.6

1997:  E. Alfonzo – 6.2        A. Pettitte – 8.4

1998:  J. Olerud – 7.6       D. Jeter – 7.5

1999:  R. Ventura – 6.7      D. Jeter – 8.0

2000:  E. Alfonzo – 6.4   J. Posada – 5.5

2001:  M. Piazza – 4.4       M. Mussina – 7.1

2002:  E. Alfonzo – 5.0      J. Giambi – 7.1

2003:  S. Trachsel – 4.5    M. Mussina – 6.6

2004:  A. Leiter – 4.7        A. Rodriguez – 7.6

2005:  P. Martinez – 6.5    A. Rodriguez – 9.4

2006:  C. Beltran – 8.2    C. Wang – 6.0

2007:  D. Wright – 8.3        A. Rodriguez – 9.4

2008:  J. Santana – 7.1    A. Rodriguez – 6.8

2009:  A. Pagan – 4.0       D. Jeter – 6.6

2010:  A. Pagan – 5.3       R. Cano – 8.2

2011:  J. Reyes – 4.7        C. Sabathia – 7.4

2012:  D. Wright – 6.9      R. Cano – 8.5

Overall Tally:  Mets 19 wins, Yankees 31 wins, with one tie (1984.)  If you throw out the first five years after the expansion Mets came into existence, the Mets have 19 wins to the Yankees 26.  From approximately 1985-2000, the Mets matched up pretty well overall with the Yanks.  In the 21st century, however, it’s mostly been all Yankees.

If, like me, you were wondering who the hell C. Willey was on the ’63 Mets, Carl Willey was a 32-year old pitcher from Cherryfield, Maine who finished the season 9-14 despite a reasonable 3.10 ERA over 183 innings.  Two years later, he was out of baseball.

The best single season of the group?  Dwight Gooden’s 13.2 WAR in 1985.  The best Yankee?  Ron Guidry’s 9.6 in 1978.

Perhaps with the Mets new emphasis on youth (and perhaps spending some dollars this coming off-season) as well as the obvious aging of the Yankees, the tide may turn.  But one thing Mets fans have learned over the years is, never count out the Yankees.

 

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