The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Babe Ruth”

Remnants of All Things Dying

The slushy streets sounded hollow as my boots clicked on the pavement, as if the subterranean world below Bridgeport was a cracked eggshell just waiting to collapse into itself.  I imagined the bones of workers clubbed to death in labor disputes by company goons a half-century before my father was born, rotting down there, shovels and picks in mummified hands awaiting a battle long ended.  Dead buildings of gray brick and grime stood sentinel along wide, deserted streets.  They called this time of year “Spring.”

I felt both sweaty and chilled in my dark blue fleece as the remnants of a sun dissolved behind black cherry clouds.  My dad once worked in one of these vacant buildings where cold metal machinery claimed fingers, hands and even the occasional arm in its vast unforgiving maw.  Guys got bandaged up and went back to work the next day.  The blood of men in their thousands greased the wheels of industrial America.  My dad called it “going to work.”

My friend James lived up on Washington Ave. about a mile or so from my house, but a frayed ribbon of Bridgeport mile was a showcase of all that had once been, and now only the scattered, battered remains were apparent.  A vast industrial cemetery graveyard that I called home.  It started to drizzle.

I had hoped James and I could play some catch.  I’d even brought along an extra glove in my denim duffle bag I’d inherited from a gnarled aunt whose favorite pastime was collecting stamped envelopes from places others had been, of which she could only imagine the worst calamities befalling her if she’d ever set foot outside her two-room apartment, triple locks on her front door.  I couldn’t say I blamed her.

James didn’t answer the door at first; he never did.  Apparently allergic to the light even in a refracted nightmare of a town like ours, asthmatic James finally cracked the door open, stretched and yawned in his undershorts and without a word, allowed me to enter his darkened sanctuary.  He coughed as he pointed to a pile of papers on a desk on the edge of a shallow kitchen.  It was a story he and I’d been working on, but it wasn’t coming together. Like our story, he and I would soon go our separate ways, connected only by the fiction that friendship lasted forever.

“So, what did you think?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

James sighed a lot.  (Only my dad sighed more often.)  There were levels to his sighs.  Small sigh meant things were typically O.K., but never would be great.  Medium sigh, shorter in duration but more intense, meant he had actually given the subject some thought and predictably wasn’t impressed.  Long sighs followed by a trip to the refrigerator for a glass of milk indicated categorical failure on your part from which there might be no return.

What followed was a long sigh, followed by a trip to the bathroom.  That was a new one, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew it couldn’t be good.

Good times with James only happened more or less by accident now.  A friendship formed between a pair of fourteen-year old loners in a Catholic high school populated by medieval nuns, creepy lay-teachers and sadistic jocks was a friendship defined under duress in the trench-warfare of adolescence.  Now that we’d been freed from the petty tyranny of our education, our bond had begun to dissipate, though neither of us had the guts to completely face up to it.  Getting on each other’s nerves was about all we had left.

When he emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed in blue jeans and a Pink Floyd tee-shirt, I chose not to ask for specific feedback on my portion of the story.  It would be a hopeless and depressing waste of time.  So I pulled the glove out of my duffle bag and tossed it over to James.  He briefly examined it without surprise or excitement.

“Where the hell’d you get a left-handers mitt?”  he asked, because I was right-handed.

“Babe Ruth’s fucking grave.  What the hell difference does it make?”

Babe Ruth's grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery

Babe Ruth’s grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without a word and to my everlasting astonishment, James led the way outdoors to the mostly empty parking lot around the back of his apartment building.  Only a lone, ’76 Nova stood in the way of the spot where we last played nearly a year ago.  Luckily, it had its parking brake off, and with the driver’s side window smashed in, it wasn’t too difficult to manipulate the abandoned vehicle out of our way, if you were careful about the broken glass.

I started off with a split-fingered fastball, the way Bruce Sutter used to do it.  That pissed James off ’cause he wasn’t expecting it, so he fired a two-seamer back at me which nearly ripped the webbing of the glove I’d had since sixth-grade (and still have today.)  I smiled, which I think was the first time either of us had smiled that day.

“Asshole!” I called out to him, the echo reverberating off the silent brick buildings.

I threw him my best change-up, which never fooled anyone I ever threw it to.

“That all you got?” he shot back, a faint hint of a smile nearly creasing his lips.  “No wonder you never got laid in high school.”

“With those Amazons?”  Christ, even the nuns looked better.

“Donna would’ve let you at least touch her.”  He was getting comfortable now, his arm angle the familiar three-quarters I remembered from the high school ball-field.

“Yeah, with your dick,” I called back.  A pretty standard, unoriginal response expected by both parties in a conversation such as this.

“Got one for you,” he warned.  But I knew what was coming.  A tight curveball, small but perceptible break to it, creased the March breeze and smacked into my tan George A. Reach Co. mitt.  It felt like home.  Not the one I actually lived in, but the place I imagined must be just around the corner from the park, where kids played in actual sunshine on real grass.  Home.

A middle-aged black man came down and sat on a stoop just watching us for several minutes, followed by a pair of young, twin sisters with pink barrettes in their hair.  James and I had nothing more to say to each other, but I like to think the sound of baseball — the final game of catch we ever played — yet reverberates off silent walls in a crumbling, forgotten part of town accessible only through faulty, imperfect memory.

The Day Babe Ruth Called His Shot

Writing about Babe Ruth is like writing about God.  No matter what you say about either of them, you are bound to offend someone.

Still, there is one major difference between the two of them. God never hit 714 home runs.

Oh, sure, God COULD have hit that many if he had wanted to, you say, but we’ve heard that before about countless prospects over the decades. Yet only a heroic Henry Aaron and an inflatable Barry Bonds have surpassed Ruth. Gods, of course, have the power to know what truths the future holds, a power that mere mortals are not privy to.

So how, then, was Babe Ruth able to predict that he would hit a home run off of Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in that legendary at-bat in the 1932 World Series? Actually, the essential question here is, DID Babe Ruth truly call his shot on that early October afternoon in Chicago?

It all began with sportswriter Joe Williams.  In the late edition of the same day as the game, he wrote, “Ruth Calls Shot As He Puts Home Run No. 2 In Side Pocket.” (Ruth had already hit another home run earlier in the game.) At first, even Ruth dismissed the story, saying that he was just pointing towards the Cubs bench telling them he still had one more strike to go.

As time went on, however, Ruth began to warm up to the story, embellishing it as time went by.

Yet no other player on the field that day was able to positively confirm that Ruth actually did call his shot, a monster 440-foot home run towards the flagpole beyond the outfield wall. Still, the famous photo exists that shows Ruth gesturing, arm outstretched, pointing at someone or something during this very at-bat.

Isn’t it at least plausible that this enormously talented hitter and consummate showman really could have called his shot that day? Ruth later claimed that he announced, “I’m gonna hit the next pitched ball past the flagpole. Well, the Good Lord must have been with me that day.” God, apparently, is a Yankees fan (which would explain a lot of things.)

Yet Yankees pitcher Charlie Deven, in an interview given seven decades later, said that while at first he thought Ruth’s foreshadowing gesture was indeed a portent of the subsequent home run, he was corrected by Yankees shortstop Frank Crosetti who told Deven that Ruth simply put up one finger to indicate he still had another strike coming.

Cub’s pitcher Charlie Root denied to his dying day that Ruth called his shot.  In one interview, he said that if Ruth had tried a stunt like that, his next pitch would have knocked Ruth on his ass.

The player who was physically closest to Ruth in that moment was Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett.  Hartnett later stated that Ruth did not in fact call his home run.  Instead, he said that Ruth bellowed, “That’s only two strikes,” while pointing at the Cubs dugout.

One might argue that Crosetti simply wasn’t physically close enough to Ruth to hear what he actually said.  And it can also be argued that Gabby Hartnett, being the catcher for the opposing team during a bitterly contested World Series (which the Yankees swept in four games), would have every reason to try to deny additional glory to the Yankee legend.

We must keep in mind that Ruth was not a brash, 25-year old kid just trying to make a name for himself.  In that case, it is conceivable that players on both teams would have tried to cut Ruth down to size for his lack of humility. But Ruth was an aging, 37-year old legend playing in his last World Series.  He was not just another star; he was THE star that all of baseball was indebted to for leading the way out of the woods of the scandalous 1919 season which could have ruined baseball indefinitely.

It was his exploits that changed the game forever, filling stadiums all over America, putting a little more money in every player’s pocket. In other words, his reputation already cast in stone, it’s hard to see why, if Ruth really had called his shot that day, not a single player on the field that day would grant him this one last diamond in his crown.

Unless, of course, it never happened. But why, then, would Ruth feel compelled to embrace this apocryphal tale?

To answer this question, we have to take a closer look at Ruth the Man, as opposed to Ruth the demigod. Despite enjoying a very productive season in 1932, Ruth was clearly no longer the dominant slugger in the American League.  For the first time since 1925, Ruth failed to lead the league in any of the following three categories:  Home Runs, RBI’s, or Slugging Percentage.

His teammate, Lou Gehrig, with whom a tense rivalry existed, had driven in 151 runs to Ruth’s still fine 137.  Worse, Jimmie Foxx of the Athletics had out-homered Ruth 58 to 41, falling just two homers short of Ruth’s own single-season home run record.

While Foxx and Gehrig had finished 1-2 in MVP voting in ’32, Ruth finished tied with Joe Cronin for a distant 6th in the balloting. Ruth, age rapidly creeping up on him, must have sensed his days as baseball’s most awesome slugger were numbered.  He also must have known that despite how much he was loved by his countless admirers, in the end, his on-field production would dictate the intensity and degree of their future admiration.

Ruth would also have realized that the world itself had changed drastically since the Yankees glory days of the late 1920’s. Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic back in ‘27.  Now, Europe was faced with the specter of Fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany. A world-wide Depression had taken hold, and America itself was threatened by malignant forces both from within and without.

In short, the world was clearly not headed into a new Age of Reason.  Dark forces could only be effectively met by new heroes.  Franklin Roosevelt and his inspirational Fireside Chats were still months away.  Ruth, then, already a hero back in the heady days of the ‘20’s, tapped into the American Zeitgeist once again, and delivered the miracle this emotionally impoverished nation needed, i.e., that a man could still control his destiny.

Babe Ruth’s Called Shot resonated with the American public because it proved that even in the face of extreme darkness, heroic moments were still possible.

Yet, for our purposes here today, during a time of renewed social and economic turmoil, our rationalist selves have to accept that there just doesn’t seem to be any objective evidence that Babe Ruth really did call his shot.

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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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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.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Walter Johnson

Many people regard Walter Johnson as the greatest pitcher of all time.

But who was the greatest hitting pitcher?  (To address the obvious, I disqualified Babe Ruth immediately because he was strictly a pitcher for just four seasons, accumulating 5.6 oWAR.)

Originally, this post was going to examine Walter Johnson’s career strikeout numbers, and go from there.

But as I examined his record, I happened to stumble upon his career hitting stats.  To say that I was amazed at what I found would be a tremendous understatement.

Walter Perry Johnson (1887 – 1946), American b...

Walter Perry Johnson (1887 – 1946), American baseball player (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping in mind that the arrival of the Designated Hitter rule was still several decades away when Johnson retired after the 1927 baseball season, he certainly made the most of his plate appearance.

Typically, if a pitcher hits anywhere near .200, he’s considered dangerous with the bat.  If he’s capable of poking a homer or two out of the park every few years, so much the better.

Walter Johnson did much better than that.  Over the course of his 21-year career, he amassed an astonishingly high (for a pitcher) 2,324 at bats during which he produced 547 safe hits.

But the Big Train was not just a singles hitter.  He also slammed 94 doubles, an astonishing 41 triples, and an impressive 24 career home runs.  He even drove in 255 runs in his career.  His 795 total bases are, by far, the greatest number of total bases I found for any pitcher.

Oh, and his batting average?  A not-too-shabby (for his time / place / position) .235.  In fact, aside from his pitching WAR, Johnson accumulated 13.1 WAR with his bat.  Only one other pitcher that I looked at reached 10.0 WAR as a hitter.

But here’s my favorite surprising stat about Walter Johnson:  In four seasons (1910, 1915, 1916 and 1919) he actually hit more home runs than he allowed.

In four other seasons, (1908, 1909, 1912, and 1914), he hit exactly the same number of home runs himself as he allowed other batters to hit off of him.

Walter Johnson on a 1909-1911 American Tobacco...

Walter Johnson on a 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company baseball card (White Borders (T206)) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for Johnson’ 159 career extra base hits, I could find no other pitcher who reached as many as 110.

As an aside, in the four years Babe Ruth was used strictly as a pitcher (1914-17, inclusive), he hit nine home runs, while surrendering just six.

All of this raises the question, “Was Walter Johnson the Greatest Hitting Pitcher Who Ever Lived?

Strictly from a cumulative standpoint, the answer has to be yes.  As far as I can tell, he is the all-time leader in more than a couple of hitting stats for pitchers.

The 24 career home runs intrigued me.  I was well aware that there have been other slugging pitchers in baseball history, but I wasn’t sure if any of them had hit more homers than Johnson.  As it turns out, two other pitchers — Bob Gibson and Carlos Zambrano — have also each hit 24 home runs.

The still active 31-year old Zambrano, who hit a home run this year, certainly has a chance to pull ahead of Johnson and Gibson.  Zambrano’s career batting average of .238 is about the same as Johnson’s was, also.

I didn’t think any other pitcher could have hit more, but then I came upon Don Drysdale.  Although he hit just .186 for his career, Drysdale slammed 29 home runs in his 14 seasons.  In fact in two seasons, 1958 and 1965, he hit seven home runs in each year!

Yet, as you’ll see below, even Drysdale doesn’t hold the record for most career homers by a pitcher.

English: US President Calvin Coolidge and Wash...

English: US President Calvin Coolidge and Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson shake hands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, the career non-pitching WAR for Drysdale, Gibson and Zambrano (5.7, 7.8, 6.3, respectively), each fall short of Johnson’s 13.1.

Among other pitchers I looked at: (and please keep in mind, this list is not meant to be comprehensive.  It serves only to provide context for Johnson’s own hitting numbers.)

Tom Seaver slugged 12 homers, but only 45 extra base hits overall, and finished with a .154 batting average and a 4.2 WAR.

Phil Niekro had 260 career base hits, but a -1.0 WAR.

Greg Maddux batted .171, hit five homers among his 42 extra base hits, and a 2.2 WAR.

Dwight Gooden batted a respectable .196, slammed eight homers and had a 5.0 WAR.

Lefty Grove slammed 15 home runs, had 47 extra base hits, but hit just .148.

Sandy Koufax was a terrible hitter:  .097, 2 homers, -4.1 WAR.

Bill Lee enjoyed his final American League at bat in 1972, though he had a few opportunities later on with the Expos.  Lee had just three hits for the ’72 Red Sox, a single, a triple and a homer.  He batted .208 in his career with one additional homer.

For the humorous story of Bill Lee’s final A.L. at bat, go to 3:32 of the clip below.  I’ll wait for ya.

Robin Roberts hit an impressive 55 doubles among his 255 career hits.  His career WAR (non-pitching, remember) was 2.8.  Batting average: .167.

Dizzy Dean had a pretty decent .225 batting average, eight home runs, and a 2.1 WAR.

Don Sutton as a hitter was, as my nine-year old son would say, extremely lame.  In 1,559 plate appearances, Sutton hit 0 home runs.  C’mon, Don, really?  Not one homer?  In fact, in his entire career, he had just 16 extra base hits.  Basically, he was the poster boy for the D.H.

Christy Mathewson held his own in the batter’s box:  .215 batting average, 69 extra base hits, 7 homers, 457 total bases, 6.3 WAR.

Fergie Jenkins hit 13 homers, including 6 in one year as a Cub, but hit just .165 in his career.

Mike Hampton posted a solid .246 batting average and hit 16 career homers to go with his 8.2 WAR, but a closer look reveals that he hit ten of those homers while pitching in Colorado where he also batted over .300.  Therefore, we have to take his final hitting stats with a grain of salt.

Wes Ferrell:  Was he a pitcher who got to hit, or a hitter who got to pitch?  Ferrell holds the record for most career home runs by a pitcher (38), and most in a season (9).  His overall batting average was .280.  Ferrell produced a career oWAR of 12.1, though it’s not clear how much of that came as a pinch-hitter vs. as a pitcher receiving his regular at bats during a game.  Still, if he could hit well enough to regularly be used as a pinch-hitter, he has to be considered one of the best hitting pitchers  of all time.

Ken Brett.  Ken Brett didn’t receive a lot of plate appearances during the course of his career, but George Brett’s big brother knew how to wield the lumber.  Ken Brett posted an extremely impressive .262 batting average in his career, including ten home runs.  His career slugging percentage of .406 was also significantly higher than Johnson’s .342.  Though Ken Brett’s offensive WAR was just 4.1, he was a very solid slugger.

Don Newcombe.  The former Dodger ace was also an excellent hitter.  Though Newcombe had a relatively short career, as a hitter this pitcher could just about have batted in the top half  of the Dodger’s lineup.  Newcombe’s .271 career batting average, his .705 OPS and his 85 OPS+ are among the best numbers I could find among pitchers.  He also hit 15 home runs in his career, accumulated 322 total bases, and produced an 8.8 WAR as a hitter.

Therefore, though we are comparing pitchers across eras, the best hitting pitchers that we have seen here today (and I fully expect you’ll add more yourself), I would rate in the following order: Wes Ferrell, Ken Brett, Don Newcombe, Carlos Zambrano and Walter Johnson.

So Walter Johnson was not only the greatest pitcher who ever lived, he was also among the greatest hitting pitchers who ever lived as well.

All in all, the boy from Humboldt, Kansas did pretty well for himself, don’t you think?

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Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Jackie Robinson

What is the most exciting play in baseball?  Is it the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth?  How about a bases-loaded triple?  For that matter, how about a triple play?

Certainly, one of baseball’s most exciting plays is stealing home plate.

Now, although there are different “kinds” of steals — straight steals, double steals, busted suicide squeeze plays — for the sake of brevity, this article will not differentiate between the various types.

When Washington outfielder Bryce Harper stole home off of Philadelphia lefty Cole Hamels a couple of months ago, it was noteworthy not only because Hamels had plunked Harper in the back to apparently send him some sort of message (guess THAT didn’t work), but also because the straight-steal of home (as opposed to being on the front end of a double-steal), is such a rarity these days, (notwithstanding the fact that the Padres Everth Cabrera stole home just two days ago against the Dodgers.)

There was a time, however, when stealing home was an important tactical weapon in the arsenal of most baseball teams.  Certainly, it requires the guts of a cat burglar and the stealth of a ninja.  Or, at the very least, a pitcher half-asleep on the mound.

Jackie Robinson often comes to mind when I think of a player stealing home.  Perhaps his most famous steal of home occurred in the 1955 World Series against the Yankees in Game One.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra went ballistic when Robinson was ruled safe at home by the home plate umpire.  Berra maintains to this day that Robinson really was out.

This was also the only World Series the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn, and it was Robinson’s only steal of home in a World Series.

Recalling this exciting event led me to ask an obvious question, “How many times did Jackie Robinson steal home in his career?

Of course, stealing home was going on in baseball long before Jackie Robinson came along.  The first unrecorded steal of home must have taken place in the 19th century.  We do know that Honus Wagner stole home twice on June 20, 1901.

Interestingly, the Dodgers own Pete Reiser set the modern N.L. single-season record for steals of home plate with an amazing seven in 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  (Ty Cobb holds the single-season record with eight steals of home in 1912.)

Jackie Robinson, it turns out, stole home a whopping 19 times in his career, against approximately 12 times caught stealing.  Before 1950, “caught stealing” as a statistical category was not consistently recorded, so we can’t be sure exactly how many times Robinson was caught stealing home.  For four of Robinson’s ten seasons, therefore, we have incomplete data from which to draw accurate conclusions regarding his overall success rate.

Shane Tourtellotte of the Hardball Times, in an interesting and provocative article published on March 2nd of this year, posits the interesting hypotheses that Robinson’s 19 successful steals of home (20, if you count the one in the ’55 Series), were worth more in run-producing, game-winning value than all of his other steals combined.

So, did Jackie Robinson steal home more than any other player in history over the course of his career?  Not by a long shot.  As far as we know, 38 players have stolen home base at least ten times in their careers.  Here’s a list of the top 20: (Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Almanace.com)

1)  Ty Cobb – 54

2)  Max Carey – 33

3)  George Burns – 28

4)  Honus Wagner – 27

5)  Sherry Magee – 23

5)  Frank Schulte – 23

7)  Johnny Evers – 21

8)  George Sisler – 20

9)  Frankie Frisch – 19

9)  Jackie Robinson – 19

11) Jim Shekard – 18

11) Tris Speaker – 18

11) Joe Tinker – 18

14) Rod Carew – 17

14) Eddie Collins – 17

14) Larry Doyle – 17

17) Tommy Leach – 16

18) Ben Chapman – 15

18) Fred Clarke – 15

18) Lou Gehrig – 15

I was surprised that, although Robinson’s 19 steals of home are impressive, they are not nearly the greatest total of all time.  Ty Cobb’s record of 54 career steals of home is a record that I can’t imagine ever being broken.  The most recently active player with at least ten career steals of home plate is Paul Molitor, who retired 14-years ago at age 41.

The biggest surprise to me on the list I posted above is Lou Gehrig.  Who knew Gehrig stole home just four fewer times in his career than Jackie Robinson?  In truth, if Gehrig had one flaw as a baseball player, it was as a base stealer.  In his career, Gehrig stole 102 bases, but was also thrown out 100 times.

Among baseball statisticians, anything less than a 70% success rate means you should have stayed put.  A 50% success rate indicates an actual loss of overall run production, due to the opportunities squandered where a base runner who had stayed put might have been driven home by his teammates.  (See Tourtellotte’s article for more on this as well.)

Anyway, if you have Babe Ruth and Tony Lazzeri around you in the lineup, is there really any reason to try to steal home?

Speaking of Babe Ruth, it may also come as a surprise to you that The Bambino actually stole home ten times in his career, most, presumably, on the front end of double-steals.

Strategies and game conditions have, of course, changed a great deal over the past hundred years.  For many reasons too numerous to discuss in this post, the steal of home hasn’t been a significant part of the National Pastime for decades.

Nevertheless, when it does occur, it brings us back to a time when daring base runners challenged pitchers to a duel unlike any other in sports:  I can run faster than you can throw.  It is a challenge that links us to baseball’s historic past, even as the game continues to evolve on into the future.

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Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Hank Aaron

This is the eighth installment of my series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”  Here are links to the first seven parts:  Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Joe Jackson, Roger Maris, Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, and Pedro Martinez.

When you think of Hank Aaron, what comes to mind?  Is it the number 714?  Or perhaps 755?  Is it that you still consider him to be the “true” home run king of all-time (Barry Bonds be damned?)  Or on a more personal level, is it the stoic demeanor he displayed in the face of the bitter racism he faced during his daily assault on Babe Ruth’s career home run mark?

English: Milwaukee Braves outfielder and Hall ...

English: Milwaukee Braves outfielder and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron in a 1960 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some players are linked forever to one particular season:  Roger Maris in ’61 comes to mind.    Hamerin’ Hank was such a fine, consistent hitter that few people could even tell you which of his seasons was his best.  He won his only MVP award in 1957, but played well enough in several seasons to have won half a dozen more.

But it his home runs that have made him famous.

I was aware that although he broke Ruth’s career home run record, Aaron never reached the 50 homer plateau in any particular season.  That led me to ask the following question:  What was Hank Aaron’s best single-season home run total?

I also thought it might be interesting to compare his career high with some other notable sluggers, minus the obvious ones such as Ruth, Maris, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds.

It turns out that Aaron’s single-season high for home runs didn’t occur until 1971, when Aaron was already 37-years old.  He slugged 47 that year, good for second place in the N.L. (Willie Stargell hit 48.)

But what struck me as remarkable about this total is that Aaron missed 22 games that year due to injuries.  In ’71, Aaron led the N.L. in slugging percentage (.669), OPS (1.079) and OPS+ (194!)

Here’s something else I thought was interesting about Aaron’s annual home run totals.  Look at his mean, median and mode numbers as far as home runs are concerned:

Mean – 37 (per 162 games)

Median – 36 (if you throw out his final season in which he played only 85 games.)

Mode – 44

So Aaron’s mean and median numbers are remarkably consistent, but he was more likely to hit exactly 44 homers in a season than any other particular number.  In the first three of those 44-home run seasons, by the way, Aaron led the league in home runs.

English: Hank Aaron, former US Baseball player...

English: Hank Aaron, former US Baseball player who set a new record of 755 homeruns, during a visit to the White House on August 15, 1978. Cropped from the source. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now take a look at the number of seasons Aaron reached a particular home run plateau:

40+ home run seasons:  8

30+ home run seasons: 7

20+ home run seasons: 5

Fewer than 20 in a season: 3

For the vast majority of players who have ever lived, to the extent that they could even be represented on a list such as this, you would probably find the opposite result: More 20-homer seasons, then fewer 30-homer years, fewer still 40-homer seasons, and perhaps a season or two reaching the 50 mark.

Here’s Willie Mays, for example:

50+ home run seasons:  2

40+ home run seasons:  4

30+ home runs seasons:  5

20+ home run seasons:  6

Fewer than 20 homers in a season:  4

While his top totals are higher than Aaron’s, his home run pyramid, if you will, is basically inverted; fewer seasons at each succeeding home run level.

Many players have hit more homers in a single season than Hank Aaron.  The list includes Dave Kingman, George Foster, Cecil Fielder, Brady Anderson, Greg Vaughn, Luis Gonzalez, Shawn Green and many others.  Troy Glaus matched Aaron with a career high 47-home runs in the year 2000.

Yet for year-to-year home run consistency at the highest caliber, however, few players in history could match Hank Aaron’s annual efforts.

Keep in mind, too, that Aaron did not play in the best hitter’s era in baseball history, he had to play night games, which did not exist until 1935, and, unlike the sluggers in the pre-Jackie Robinson days, Aaron obviously played in an integrated league facing stiffer competition.

For each of these reasons, then, if you are asked what comes to mind when you hear the name Hank Aaron, and you should reply, ” Home Run King,” no one can reasonably assail your choice.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ty Cobb

In my last post in this series, I wrote about Pete Rose.

Rose has often been compared to Ty Cobb, both for his intense personality as well as for his take-no-prisoners style of play.  He’s also been compared to Cobb for the obvious reason that he broke what was once considered Cobb’s unbreakable career hits record of 4,189 (according to Baseball-Reference.com.)  Rose, of course, broke Cobb’s record, and finished his career with 4,256 hits.

But Rose topped a .500 slugging percentage in just one season, and finished in the top ten in his league in slugging percentage just twice (1968-69.)  His career slugging percentage of  just .409 is the same as Rafael Furcal.

In other words, Rose, like Ty Cobb, was a consummate contact hitter who sacrificed power in favor of batting average.

But is that who Ty Cobb really was, or has this become an easy, though ultimately false, comparison?

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record...

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record for highest career batting average, at .366. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the question of the day is, “Did Ty Cobb ever lead his league in slugging percentage?

Now, I was already aware from prior research that Cobb won 11 batting titles, drove in over a hundred runs in a season several times, topped 200 hits in a season 9 or 10 times, and stole nearly 900 bases.

But I never paid much attention to his slugging percentages because, well, I don’t think most of us associate Ty Cobb with having been a “slugger.”

So what I discovered truly surprised me.

Ty Cobb led his league in slugging eight times in an eleven year span.  In other words, from 1907 to 1917, Cobb was not merely the greatest hitter for average in his league, he was also the greatest slugger in his league.

How does Cobb’s eight slugging titles compare with other great players in history?  Here’s a list of several players (not meant to be comprehensive) and the number of times they led their league in slugging percentage:

Babe Ruth:  13

Rogers Hornsby:  9

Ted Williams:  9

Ty Cobb:  8

Barry Bonds:  7

Stan Musial:  6

Honus Wagner:  6

Jimmie Foxx:  5

Willie Mays:  5

Hank Aaron:  4

Mickey Mantle:  4

Mark McGwire:  4

Alex Rodriguez:  4

Albert Pujols:  3

Joe DiMaggio:  2

Lou Gehrig:  2

Ken Griffey, Jr.:  1

Frank Thomas:  1

I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to rate these players beforehand from top to bottom regarding career slugging titles, I’m pretty sure this would not have been the order in which I would have listed them.  Nor would I have come close to the number of slugging titles each of these players won.

Gehrig, of course, had Ruth as a teammate, thus his low total.  DiMaggio played his home games in a park that absolutely killed right-handed power hitters.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, based on this list, it is beyond dispute that Ty Cobb was not merely one of the very best hitters for average in baseball history, he belongs on the short list of greatest sluggers in the history of the game, despite his modest total of 117 career home runs.

Different parks and different eras both serve to either inflate or suppress a players apparent power. Because Cobb played in what’s commonly referred to as the Deadball Era, his reputation as a hitter has been unfairly limited to one aspect of the game, batting average.

But there can be little doubt that if Cobb had played in favorable hitter’s decades like the 1920’s and ’30’s, he would be remembered today in much the same way that Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams are recalled.

All of which also points to the conclusion that any comparisons between Cobb and Rose as actual hitters needs to be reconsidered by most of us lest we make easy, though demonstrably inaccurate,  comparisons.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Pete Rose

To perhaps tide you over until I return with some new material, here is a post I wrote about a year and a half ago about Pete Rose.  Some of you haven’t seen this one before.  If not, I hope you enjoy it.  

This is Part 5 of my series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”  To link to any of the first four parts, click on the links to the right under “Recent Posts.”

The object of this series is to revisit players most of us already know something about, then to uncover one fact or statistic that isn’t widely known.

Pete Rose, like Joe Jackson before him, made some personal choices regarding baseball that came back to haunt him, and from which his personal reputation will probably never recover.

Rose walks onto the field with the Cincinnati Reds

Rose walks onto the field with the Cincinnati Reds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the fact remains that, on the baseball field, Pete Rose accomplished some very impressive things.  He is, of course, baseball’s all-time hits leader with 4,256 safeties.  His 3,215 singles are also the most in history.

Rose is also in second place on the all-time doubles list with 746.  He had ten 200-hit seasons, won three batting titles, and played in more games (3,562) than any other man in baseball history.

Perhaps most impressively, though, Pete Rose reached base safely more times (5,929)  than any other player ever did.

That’s a lot of at bats.  That’s a lot of plate appearances.

Which inevitably leads me to the question, “How many outs did Pete Rose make in his career.”

First, some perspective.  Babe Ruth made 5,758 outs in his entire career.  Mickey Mantle made 5,899 outs.  Richie Ashburn, who was primarily a lead-off hitter for most of his career, and who played in parts of three decades, made 6,096 outs.

Willie McCovey broke into the big leagues when Eisenhower was President, and he didn’t retire until the eve of Ronald Reagan’s first term.  McCovey made 6,259 outs.

Carlton Fisk, who would probably still be playing today if someone hadn’t hidden his catching gear from him (1969-93!) made 6,767 outs.

Ty Cobb, to whom Pete Rose in often compared, made 7,748 outs.

Peter (Charlie Hustle) Rose made 2,580 more outs than Ty Cobb.  (Imagine if he hadn’t hustled?)

Pete Rose made about as many outs in his career as Babe Ruth and Phil Rizzuto combined.  He made  approximately as many outs as Mike Piazza and Edgar Martinez combined.  He made just a few less outs than Bobby Murcer and Kirby Puckett put together.

Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium d...

Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium during the 1970s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The answer to my original question as to how many outs Pete Rose made in his career is that Rose made exactly 10,328 outs.  He is the only player in history to have made more than 10,000 outs.

Another way of looking at this is that if you take Rose’s 162 game average of 723 plate appearances per season, and divide 10,328 by 723, you end up with equivalent of 14  seasons where Rose did absolutely nothing but make outs!

Rookie outfielder Bryce Harper is 19-years old.  If Harper began next season going 0-4 in his first game, and then kept doing absolutely nothing but making outs UNTIL HE WAS 34 YEARS OLD — not a single hit, walk, or hit by pitch — he would then begin to approach the number of outs Rose made in his career.

Would the Washington Nationals be patient enough to wait out a 14-year super-slump from this year’s phenom?  I’m guessing probably not.

So here’s a thought.  If Pete Rose’s job was basically to do nothing other than to get on base (for he was by no means a slugger, nor was he much of a base-stealer), then do we consider him a success for reaching base more times than any man in history?

Or do we shake our collective heads in disbelief regarding the overwhelming number of outs he made and ask, was it really necessary for him to play as long as he did?

In short, were those 5,929 times on base really worth the 10,328 outs it took to get him there?

Let’s hope Bryce Harper doesn’t have to find out the answer to that question the hard way.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Roger Maris

This is the fourth installment of my series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”

What is the most famous number in baseball, if not all of sports?

The "M&M Boys," Mickey Mantle (right...

The “M&M Boys,” Mickey Mantle (right) and Roger Maris in the historic 1961 season. Photo from a 1961 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A strong case can be made that 61, the number of home runs Roger Maris hit during the 1961 season when he broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 set in 1927, would be chosen by many.

It is doubtful that there are many baseball fans who aren’t aware of Roger Maris’ pre-McGwire / Sosa / Bonds record.  (Incidentally, it is often overlooked that Maris’ 61 home runs remains the record for A.L. hitters.)

I have my doubts, though, that very many fans, except Maris’ most adamant Hall of Fame supporters, know exactly how many home runs Maris hit during the totality of his 12-year Major League career, not to mention how many home runs he hit over his seven-year tenure in Yankee pinstripes.

This led me to the primary question I chose to research for this post, “How many home runs did Roger Maris hit during his career?”  I also decided to add an obvious follow-up, “How many home runs did Maris hit as a member of the New York Yankees?”

To begin with, Maris was just 26-years old when he hit his legendary 61 home runs.  Though mentally and physically drained by the ordeal, it wouldn’t have been out of the question that going into his age 27-season, if reasonably healthy, he could have expected to have approached perhaps 50 home runs, (at the very least, 40 home runs), in his follow-up season.

Outfielder Roger Maris during his time with th...

Outfielder Roger Maris during his time with the Cleveland Indians in a 1957 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After all, Ruth was already 32-years old when he slugged 60 homers in ’27, and he followed up that performance by swatting another 54 in 1928.

Maris, however, never reached as many as 40 homers either before or after the ’61 season.  In fact, the 39 home runs that Maris hit in 1960, his first of two consecutive MVP seasons, was the second most home runs he ever hit in one year.

Therefore, his 1962 season, during which he hit 33 home runs, must assuredly have been viewed as a major disappointment by Yankee fans, as well as by Maris himself.

Still, during the three-year period from 1960-62, Maris slugged an impressive 133 home runs.  By contrast, his teammate Mickey Mantle never hit more than 128 over a three-year period, (1956-58.)

But those 133 home runs represent fully 48% of all the homers Maris hit in his career.  Thus, nearly half of his total career value was compiled during just about one-quarter of his actual career.  In fact, as measured by WAR as well, Maris accumulated 17.4 WAR over that three-year stretch, exactly 48% of his 36.2 career WAR.

The answer, then, to my original question, “How many home runs did Roger Maris hit during his career?”  is that Maris hit 275 career home runs, good for 165th all-time, tied with Dean Palmer, Brian Downing, and a recently retired Yankee, Jorge Posada.

As for Maris’ tenure with the Yankees, he hit 203 of his career home runs as a member of the Bronx Bombers.  That total currently ranks 14th on the all-time Yankees home run list, two behind Dave Winfield, and one ahead of Bill Dickey.

Maris’ relatively brief 12-year career was largely defined by one memorable season.  But, Hall of Fame discussions aside, Maris’ legacy will probably outlast those of the vast majority of players in the Hall of Fame, regardless of where he ranks on any particular list of statistics.

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