The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Brooklyn Dodgers”

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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Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 6 – The Brooklyn Dodgers

The Brooklyn Dodgers have been extinct for fifty-three years now.

Yes, I am aware that there is a team out in L.A. that calls itself the Dodgers, and that they have been in existence for nearly as long as their original name-sake.  But the two versions of the Dodgers are as different from one another as Bob Marley, the comedian from Maine, and Bob Marley, the Reggae singer from Jamaica.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were baseball’s happy, lovable, birthday-party-of-a franchise.  Their Sym-phony band serenaded fans and players alike with a perpetual cacophony of off-key, tone-deaf music recalling  a time when baseball’s soul hadn’t yet been completely sucked dry by corporate avarice.

The L.A. Dodgers, on the other hand, are your well-to-do, late middle-aged uncle tooling around in an expensive convertible, trying to impress  a girl-friend half his age.

But the Brooklyn Dodgers were also an actual baseball team.  And, although theirs was largely a record of futility dating back to the days of Zach Wheat, by the late 1940’s,this was a team on the rise.

Their names, summoned from the stately pen of Roger Kahn, still evoke timeless awe in those who hear them:  Pete Reiser, Don Newcombe, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, Clem Labine, and, of course, Jackie Robinson.  The Boys of Summer.

But one man, a right-fielder by trade, has sometimes gone overlooked among those who journey down memory lane all the way to Ebbet’s Field in Flatbush, N.Y.  His nickname… “The Reading Rifle.”

His name was Carl Furillo.

Outside of his baseball address in Brooklyn, N.Y., Furillo lived his entire life in Stony Creek Mills, PA, where he was born in 1922.  At the age of 24, he made his debut with the Dodgers, the team with whom he spent his entire 15 year career.

Although Furillo had already enjoyed seven productive seasons with Brooklyn, including identical 18 homer, 106 RBI campaigns in 1949-50, Carl Furill0’s Best Forgotten Season occurred in 1953.

At the age of 31, he won the N.L. batting title with a .344 mark.  His on-base percentage was .393, he slugged .580, and his OPS was .973 (fifth best in the league.)  His OPS+ was a career high 146, also good for fifth best in the N.L.

Furillo had 38 doubles, 21 homers and 92 RBI’s while striking out just 32 times all season.  He finished tied for 9th in MVP voting in 1953 with teammate Carl Erskine.  In fact, an astonishing seven Dodgers finished in the top 14 in MVP voting in 1953.  Furillo’s teammate, Roy Campanella won the award, and Duke Snider finished in 3rd place (although he had the highest WAR of any of the Dodgers at 9.5.)

Interestingly, Jackie Robinson, 12th place in the voting, had a slightly higher WAR than MVP winner Campanella (7.3 to 7.2.)

Furillo remained a productive player for the Dodgers for the next five years, hitting between .289 and .314 per season.

When the Dodgers moved to Chavez Ravine in L.A. in 1958, Furillo went with them.  He enjoyed his first year out west, batting .290 with 18 homers and 83 RBI’s.  But at the age of 36, his career was clearly winding down.

He finished his career with a .299 batting average, over a thousand RBI’s, and nearly 2,ooo hits.  He also led the N.L. in outfield assists twice, and he played in two All-Star games.

Furillo played his last game as a Dodger on May 7, 1960.

In a few months, a new young President would be elected, and a new era would dawn on the L.A. Dodgers.

Now, meet Joe Black.

Before there was Tony LaRussa and his coddled, one-inning specialist, there was Joe Black.

Joe Black, born in Plainfield, New Jersey,  made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 at the age of 28.  He had pitched well for a Negro League team, the Baltimore Elite Giants, for several years before arriving in Brooklyn.  His late arrival may indicate that although the dam holding back the flood of African-American talent had been severely eroded by 1952, it had not fully collapsed.

In 1952, Joe Black enjoyed one of the Best Forgotten Seasons of any Brooklyn Dodger.

He pitched in 56 games in his rookie season, tossing 142 innings, far more innings than modern relief pitchers are expected to hurl.  He finished 41 games, and his 15 saves were second best in the N.L.  These totals demonstrate how much the role of a relief pitcher has changed over the decades.  Black pitched whenever his manager felt like he needed him, not merely when a pre-determined inning number appeared on a scoreboard.

His 15-4 record, 2.15 ERA, and 1.00 WHIP were so impressive that Black not only won the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award, he finished third in the MVP voting.

After injuries decimated the Dodgers pitching staff shortly before the 1952 World Series began, Black was asked to start Game One of the World Series against the Yankees.  Black beat Allie Reynolds 4-2, becoming the first African-American to win a World Series game.  Black then started Games 4 and 7.  Although he lost both of them, he pitched very well in all three outings.

Strangely, however, this was Black’s only effective season in his major league career.  His WAR for 1952 was 4.0.  For his entire career, it was 3.4.  WAR is a cumulative stat, so this indicates that Black’s career after 1952 actually resulted in negative value until his retirement in 1957 at the age of 33.

It is a mystery as to why a career that began with so much promise went downhill so quickly and dramatically.  Black pitched just 414 innings in his entire career, finishing with a career record of 30-12, but his ERA after 1952 was never lower than 4.00 in any season.

Perhaps starting and working deep into three World Series games in seven days took their toll on his arm.

Although Joe Black’s 1952 season is largely forgotten today, it deserves to be remembered as one the Best Forgotten Seasons any Brooklyn Dodger ever produced.

Author’s Note:

This was my 50th blog-post.  I want to say thank you to all of you who have been reading along for the past several months.  I appreciate all the comments many of you have left for me, and I have enjoyed this experience even more than I thought I would.

So, once again, Thank You.

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