The On Deck Circle

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Archive for the tag “Pirates”

A Half-Dozen Underrated Baseball Players, 2015

Now that another baseball season has come and gone, (the regular season anyway), it’s time to take a look back.  But instead of forecasting who will win the annual award hardware, let’s instead review those players who had fine seasons that may have gone somewhat under-appreciated.  The players I’ve chosen might not make your list.  To refer to a player as “underrated” or “under-appreciated” is to make a subjective judgment call.  Still, I’m guessing that unless you are a total baseball junkie, at least a couple of these names may have gotten by you this year.

  1. 3B Nolan Arenado:  Colorado Rockies – Arenado, a right-handed batter, was drafted by the Rockies in the 2nd round of the 2009 amateur draft.  All Arenado did in this third season in the Majors in 2015 was lead the N.L. in home runs (42), RBI (130) and total bases (354.)  A triple slash line of .287 / .323 /.575 indicates that while Arenado could stand to be a bit more selective at the plate, he certainly does crush his pitch when he gets it.  Not just a slugger, however, Arenado is also a Gold Glove caliber third baseman who led all N.L. third basemen in putouts (105), assists (385), double-plays turned (42) and range factor.  This 24-year old played in his first All-Star Game in 2015, and should have many more in his future.
  2. SP Gerrit Cole:  Pittsburgh Pirates – Cole, a right-handed pitcher, was the very first pick of the 2011 amateur draft.  In his third season in the Majors, he nearly won 20 games (19-8 in 32 starts.)  In 208 innings, he struck out 202 batters while walking just 44.  He posted a tidy 2.60 ERA (2.66 FIP), with an ERA+ of 148 and a WHIP of 1.09.  Cole surrendered just eleven home runs all year.  Also a fine fielding pitcher, he did not make an error all season. Like Arenado, Cole made his first All-Star team in 2015.  In many seasons, Cole would be the odds-on favorite to win the N.L. Cy Young award.  But with the dynamic duo of Kershaw and Greinke out in L.A., and the remarkable season enjoyed by Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta (who could also make this list, perhaps), Cole may find himself finishing no higher than 4th or 5th in the Cy Young voting.  Still just 25-years old, however, Cole should have many chances in the future to win that particular award.
  3. CF Kevin Kermaier:  Tampa Bay Rays – Kermaier was not drafted until the 31st round in 2010.  A left-handed batting center-fielder, let me make it clear at the outset that Kermaier did not make this list due to his bat.  As a hitter, he’s about league-average, sporting an OPS+ of 98, though he did finish second in the A.L. in triples with 12.  But a .263 batting average and an on-base average of just under .300, with little power, isn’t going to win him any MVP awards in the near future.  Kermaier is on this list, instead, for his remarkable fielding ability.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an outfielder finish a season with a 5.0 dWAR before, but Kermaier reached that lofty summit in 2015.  His overall WAR of 7.4 makes Kermaier a very valuable player, even despite the average bat.  Kermaier led A.L. center-fielders in Total Zone Runs (24) while recording 410 putouts and 15 assists.  If his bat improves during the coming seasons, the 25-year old Kermaier could become an All-Star caliber player.
  4. RP Zach Britton:  Baltimore Orioles – Drafted by the Orioles in the third round of the 2008 amateur draft, this 27-year old lefty began his career as a starter, but converted to relief-pitching before the 2014 season.  Since then, he has been one of the best closers in the A.L.  This past season, Britton finished more games (58) than any other pitcher in the A.L., while recording 36 saves.  He recorded an ERA of 1.92, an ERA+ of 217 and a FIP of 2.01.  His WHIP was a fantastic 0.990, and he struck out 79 batters in 65 innings, while walking just 14.  He gave up just three homers all year.  Britton was a first-time All Star in 2015, and while not a household name outside of Baltimore, Britton seems poised to enjoy many very productive seasons to come.
  5. 3B Josh Donaldson:  Toronto Blue Jays – Though drafted by the Cubs in the first round of the 2007 draft, Donaldson made his MLB debut with the Oakland A’s in 2010, but didn’t play as many as 75 games in the Majors until he was already 26-years old in 2012.  Since then, this right-handed batting third baseman has been a one-man wrecking crew.  Similar (though older) than Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, Donaldson has a better batting eye, and is nearly as good a defensive third baseman as Arenado.  Also, like his third base counterpart in the Senior Circuit, Donaldson led his league in total bases in 2015 with 352, just two fewer than Arenado.  Of the two, however, Donaldson probably has the better shot at league MVP this year.  Donaldson led the A.L. in both runs scored (122) and RBI (123) while slamming 41 homers and 41 doubles.  Though Donaldson will turn 30-years old this December, his obvious talent should continue to shine on in Rogers Centre, Toronto for the foreseeable future.
  6. CF / 2B Mookie Betts:  Boston Red Sox – Drafted in the fifth round in 2011, this second baseman / center-fielder has brought life and energy to the Red Sox (despite their losing record.)  Mookie turns 23-years old this Wednesday, October 7th, so Happy Birthday in advance, Mookie.  Primarily an outfielder these days, Mookie batted .291 in 2015, with a perhaps surprising .479 slugging percentage.  He has plenty of pop in his bat, as evidenced by his 68 extra base hits this season, including 18 home runs.  Mookie scored 92 runs in 145 games and stole 21 bases while accumulating a 6.0 WAR in his first full year.  This athletic and deceptively powerful young man may already be the most valuable player on the Red Sox, and figures to man center-field for them for years to come.

Obviously, there are many more players who I could add to this list.  But let me put the question to you, oh wise readers.  Which players would you include on this list, based on their 2015 stats?

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I named the under-appreciated right side of my Hall of Fame infield:  First Baseman Roger Connor and Second Baseman Joe Gordon.  For an explanation of what this series is about, you can go back and read the first post here.

In today’s entry, I will divulge my choices for the most under-appreciated shortstop and third baseman in The Hall.  You may be surprised by at least one of my choices.  I’ll be curious to hear what you think.

English: 1933 Goudey baseball card of Floyd &q...

English: 1933 Goudey baseball card of Floyd “Arky” Vaughan of the Pittsburgh Pirates #229. PD-not-renewed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortstop – Arky Vaughan:  Outside of people who write blogs like this as a hobby, Vaughan’s HOF career has gone largely unnoticed by the average baseball fan.

Joseph Floyd Vaughan was born in Arkansas in 1912, (thus, Arky), though his family moved to California when he was very young.

Signed by the Pirates, it was hoped that Vaughan might finally be the shortstop to fill the shoes of Honus Wagner, who had retired 15 years earlier.

Vaughan broke into the Majors in 1932 at age 20, performing reasonably well.  He batted .318 and posted a 3.6 WAR.

For the next nine seasons, Vaughan was the best shortstop in either league.  He made the All-Star team in every season he was eligible, led his league in triples, walks, and on-base percentage three times each, and won a batting title, hitting .385 in 1935.

Vaughan’s .491 on-base percentage in 1935 is still the single-season record for a shortstop.

Vaughan posted a ridiculous strikeout to walk ratio in his career, drawing 937 walks while striking out just 276 times.  His career OPS+ of 136 compares favorably to HOF shortstops Ernie Banks (122) and Lou Boudreau (120).  (Derek Jeter’s is currently 118.)

Vaughan was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942 at age 30.  Playing a new position, third base, Vaughan had a down year.  He rebounded, however, in 1943 when Pee Wee Reese went off to WWII, Vaughan gaining his old position back for that season.  He belted 39 doubles, and led the league in stolen bases and runs scored.

But 1943 was also the turning point in Vaughan’s career.  He was involved in a bitter dispute with manager Leo Durocher, at one point pulling off his uniform and telling Durocher to shove it up his ass.  Though he finished out the ’43 season, he refused to report to the Dodgers in the spring of ’44. He remained unofficially retired, living the life of a farmer, and did not return to the Dodgers until 1947.  By then, Durocher was gone, but Vaughan, now 35-years old, was not the player he had once been.

Vaughan remained a part-time player for the next couple of seasons, until retiring after the 1948 season, age 36.

About ten years ago, Vaughan was rated by baseball statistician Bill James as the second best shortstop of all-time.

Vaughan’s career on-base percentage of .406 is the highest ever by a shortstop, better than Honus Wagner, Alex Rodriguez and Luke Appling.  His career WAR of 70.5, accumulated in just a dozen full seasons, places him among the top 50 position players of all-time.  In fact it is better than what HOF’ers George Kell and Pie Traynor produced combined.

Many, many shortstops are more famous than Arky Vaughan.  More baseball fans are probably familiar with Bert Campaneris, Dave Concepcion, and Bud Harrelson (none of whom are in The Hall) than they are with Vaughan.  And that’s too bad, ’cause Vaughan deserves to be remembered and appreciated more than any of them.

Tragically, Vaughan drowned when his fishing boat capsized in 1952, just four years after he retired from baseball.  He was just 40-years old.

He was finally voted into The Hall by the Veteran’s Committee in 1985, fully 33 years after his death.

Third Base – Eddie Mathews:  You may think this is a strange choice.  Eddie Mathews, the 12-time All-Star third baseman for the Braves?  The man who hit over 500 career home runs, and who drove in over 1,400?  Perhaps the second greatest (after Mike Schmidt) third baseman to ever play the game?  The Eddie Mathews with the career WAR of 91.9, good for 22nd best among all position players in history? (33rd best, if you include pitchers.)

Circa 1963 head shot photograph of American ba...

Circa 1963 head shot photograph of American baseball player Edwin Lee Mathews wearing a Milwaukee Braves cap. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, that Eddie Mathews.  Here’s why.

Out of the 235 ballots cast listing the top 50 Inner Circle Hall of Famers on Graham Womack’s project back in July, Mathews received 148 votes.  That means that 87 people who cast ballots did not think that Mathews rated among the 50 best players of all time.

Still not convinced?

Back in 1999, MasterCard sponsored an All Century Team composed of the top 100 players of all-time, as voted on by the fans.

Over two million votes were cast.  Only 174,529 ballots were cast for Eddie Mathews.  Thus, only about eight percent of the fans who cast ballots believed that Mathews was one of the top 100 players ever.

By comparison, Brooks Robinson, who hit about half as many homers in his career as Mathews did, and whose career WAR was almost 18 points lower than Mathews, received 761,700 votes.

Mike Schmidt (855,654 votes) and Robinson were named as the All Century Team’s two starting third baseman.  Mathews was ignored.

How about one final example?

Eddie Mathews retired in 1968 after a 17-year career during which he slugged 512 homers, scored over 1,500 runs, drew over 1,400 walks (he ranks 24th all-time on that list) produced an OPS+ of 143 (the same as Harmon Killebrew and Mike Piazza, and better than Duke Snider or Reggie Jackson.)

Seems like a slam-dunk case for induction into the Hall of Fame, correct?

On Mathews first time on the ballot (in 1974) he received just 32% of the vote from the baseball writers.  In his second year, he received a little over 40%.  Finally, in his fifth year on the ballot in 1978, Mathews cleared the 75% percent threshold by accumulating 79% of the vote.

Here’s what baseball writer Joe Posnanski had to say about this:

Eddie Mathews’ (32.3%) Hall of Fame journey is baffling. How could a third baseman with 500 home runs not go first ballot? I guess timing plays a role — he did come on the ballot in 1974, the same year as Mickey Mantle. But nobody particularly exciting joined the ballot the next year, and Mathews’ totals only went up a few percentage points. Nobody particularly exciting joined the following year either, but again Mathews’ numbers barely climbed — after three years, he was still not at 50%. The voters finally came to their senses in 1977, jumping him into the 60s, and he was elected the following year. But I really don’t know why it took so long. The low batting career batting average (.271)? The under appreciated skills (Mathews led the league in walks four times)? Eddie Mathews was one of the greatest baseball players ever — when he went on the ballot in 1974 he was almost without question the best third baseman ever. The voters not electing him first ballot is one of the stranger decisions in the history of the Hall of Fame.

Here’s the link to the rest of the Posnanski article.

Eddie Mathews, it appears, might just be the most taken for granted superstar in baseball history.

In 2001, Bill James ranked Eddie Mathews as the 34th greatest player (including pitchers) who ever lived.  Mathews died that same year, age 69, in La Jolla, California.  Here’s an interesting read about the events that led up to Mathews death. published on Arne Christensen’s blog, Misc Baseball.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Next up in this series, my choices for the most under-appreciated catcher and left-fielder in the Hall of Fame.  Thanks for reading.

Baseball 2012: Oddities and Conclusions, and Odd Conclusions

It’s never too early to draw specious conclusions from incomplete data.  Politicians do it all the time.  Therefore, not holding myself to a higher standard than those fine fellows, here’s what we’ve learned from this year’s baseball statistics thus far in 2012:

1)  Albert Pujols is actually 44-years old, and should be put out to pasture.  Seriously, I think it would be a bit premature to predict that Sir Albert will win this year’s A.L. MVP trophy.  Through nine games he has 40 plate appearances, no home runs, and 12 total bases.  It may take him the better part of a full year to adjust to the A.L., and even when he does, he still won’t automatically be the best player in the league.

2)  Break up the Mets!  They are off to a 6-3 start, including a pair of wins against the Phillies this past weekend.  Now just 0.5 games back of the Nats for first place in the N.L. East, and with baseball expanding to two Wild Card teams this year, it’s time to start printing up playoff tickets, isn’t it?

Well, no, it’s not.  The Mets Run Differential stands at exactly 0, meaning that this is essentially a .500 team, which is the best most of us Mets fans could hope for at the beginning of the year.

3)  The Pirates have the best pitching staff since the Braves when Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Neagle were hanging around.  The Pirates four primary starting pitchers: Correia, Bedard, Karstens, and McDonald all have ERA’s under 4.00, and the Pirates have given up fewer runs (22) than any other team in the N.L.

Conclusion:  Although the Pirates offense is awful, their pitching is good enough to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack in the N.L. this year, ensuring many low-scoring (especially at home) but competitive ball games.

4)  You can have your Verlander, Kershaw, Lee, Hamels, King Felix, etc., but for my money, the one pitcher who continues to be completely unreal (and a future Hall of Famer) is the Phillies Roy Halladay.  At 2-0, and having given up just one earned run in 15 innings this year, Halladay has a real chance to reach 200 career wins before he loses his 100th ball game.  His career record currently stands at 190-92, and he just seems to keep getting better with age.

Did you know that Halladay has increased his strikeout totals for each of the past seven years?  That he has walked over 40 batters in a season just once in the past nine years?  That he has never lost more than 11 games in any of his 13 full seasons?  He’s as good as they come, folks, so enjoy him while you can.

5)  Matt Kemp is staking his claim as the best player in the National League.  He should have won the N.L. MVP award last season, leading the league in home runs, RBI, runs scored, OPS+, total bases, and WAR.  He also stole 40 bases in 51 attempts, and plays above average defense in center field.  This year, with the Dodgers off to a 9-1 start, thanks in large part to Kemp’s torrid start, there’s every reason to believe he’ll win his first MVP award.

6) The A.L. East is the most mediocre division in baseball.  No team currently has more than five wins, nor fewer than four.  Only 1.5 games separates last place Boston from first place Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays.  Realistically, it is possible that no one in this division will win more than 95 games, and it is conceivable that four of these five teams might still be separated by as little as 1.5 games going into the final week of the season.

A look at the current run differentials in this division, where Toronto’s +12 is currently the best, suggests that there are no great teams in this division, just several good ones.

7)  David Wright will be the first player in baseball history to hit .500 this year, while posting an OPS+ well in excess of a KaZillion.  On his way to cementing his status as the best position player in Mets history (if you overlook a little thing called defense), Wright appears to enjoy the newly reconfigured Citi Field dimensions.  Most encouragingly, Wright has struck out just twice in his first 26 plate appearances this year.  Yup, he’s Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Paul McCartney and Brad Pitt, all rolled up in one perfect guy.  Let’s Go Mets!

8)  In the apparent pre-season bet between Bobby Valentine and Ozzie Guillen to see which of them could throw their managerial job away first, Bobby V. appears to have the inside edge so far.  Yes, Guillen committed the worst possible sin in Miami by lauding Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, but, hey, he gets language confused, you know?  What he MEANT was the Castro was a brain-eating zombie who devours small children on whats left of the playgrounds in Havana.  It was the MEDIA who got him all confused, see?  ANYONE could have made that mistake, right?

Meanwhile, Bobby V. today managed to insult Kevin Youkilis in what was an apparent effort to “fire him up.”  Oh.  And then he apologized to Youk for saying what he said to fire him up.  Look, it is readily apparent that Boston, as a franchise, is still suffering from what they used to call shell-shock from last September.  Putting Bobby V. at the helm of a franchise suffering collectively from P.T.S.D. is like putting serial killer Ted Bundy in a rape-hotline call center (oh wait, he really did have that job.)

Prediction:  Both managers are fired before the season ends, Bobby V. getting thrown overboard first.

9)  Tommy Hanson will never pitch a complete game shutout in his career.  I’m not saying he’s not a good enough pitcher to do so.  Hanson’s a very good pitcher, but he is one of the least efficient pitchers in baseball, regularly going to 2-2 counts on virtually every batter he faces.  That’s not how you pitch deep into ball games.  In fact, Hanson has completed just one of his 79 career starts.  Maybe he’ll eventually learn to pitch to contact more frequently, but until he does so, he’ll always be a fine six-inning pitcher.

10)  Brett Lawrie will be an All-Star for the next twenty years.  Yes, he only has 211 career plate appearances, but here’s his 162 game average so far:  31 home runs, 100 RBI, 93 runs scored, 25 steals, a .911 OPS, and an OPS+ of 142 (the same as Mike Piazza.)  Waive the ten-years of MLB service requirement rule and put the kid in Cooperstown right now so he can enjoy the honor while he’s still young.

I’m sure you’ve drawn lots of early season conclusions of your own.  So please feel free to share them with me, and I’ll publish the best ones in my next post.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 17 – The Pittsburgh Pirates

Three Rivers Stadium

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s subtitle this post, “Mad Dog and the Candy Man.”

It’s been a while, of course, since the Pittsburgh professional baseball franchise has sniffed respectability.  But there was a time a few decades ago when the Pirates were a team to be feared.

In the decade that lasted from 1970-79, the Pirates won their division six times, finished 2nd three times, and finished as low as third only once.  They won two World Series Championships during that era, both times defeating the Orioles in seven games (1971, 1979.)

One of the most famous Pirates teams of the last 30+ years was the 1979, WE ARE FAM-A-LEE  version.  With their horrendous yellow and black uniforms, they looked like an ornery swarm of wasps darting around Three Rivers Stadium.  But this highly talented team, which featured N.L. Co-MVP Willie Stargell*, howitzer-armed right fielder Dave Parker, and submarine closer Kent Tekulve, defeated the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic.

Two of the key members on this team were pitcher John (The Candy Man) Candelaria and third baseman Bill (Mad Dog) Madlock.

Let’s take Madlock first.

Madlock was obtained in a timely trade with the Giants in June, 1979.  He had already won two batting titles while playing for the Cubs before he ended up with the Giants, and would win two more during his tenure with the Pirates.  At the time of the trade, Madlock was hitting only .261 for San Francisco, but after joining Pittsburgh, he hit .328 for the remainder of the season.  His hot bat was one of the reasons why the Pirates won the N.L. Pennant and World Series.

But the purpose of this post is not to review and analyze the Pirates ’79 franchise.  It is to examine the Best Forgotten Baseball Season for both Bill Madlock and John Candelaria, each of whom just happened to be members of the ’79 team.

Bill Madlock’s Best Forgotten Season for the Pirates was 1982.

Madlock was a stocky, 5’11”, 180 pound, 32-year old third baseman, coming off the strike-shortened 1981 season in which he had won this third batting title with a .341 average. Two years later, in ’83, he would win his 4th and final batting title.

So why not choose either ’81 or ’83?  In 1981, due to the strike, Madlock only played in 82 games and garnered 279 at bats.  Despite putting up excellent stats, Madlock played what amounted to a half season.  Therefore, I have ruled out the ’81 season as legitimate in this context.

How about 1983, when Madlock won his fourth batting title?  Because other than winning the title, most of his numbers were actually inferior to his 1982 statistics.

Specifically, Madlock batted .319 in ’82, second best in the league, and just four points lower than he would hit the following season.  But in ’82, Madlock reached career highs in home runs (19), RBI’s (95), Runs Scored (92), and Total Bases (277).  He also compiled his second highest hit total (181) and doubles total (33).

Madlock also enjoyed career highs in Intentional Walks (16) and Sacrifice Flies (13).  His 154 games played tied his career high, and he also topped 600 plate appearances for only the second time in his career.  His WAR was 5.9, also a career high.

Finally, Madlock also finished in the top ten in the N.L. in OPS (.856) and in Runs Created (103).

For his accomplishments, Madlock finished in eleventh place in the N.L. MVP voting in 1982.

Interestingly, Bill Madlock, despite four batting titles in a 15-year career, barely topped 2,000 career hits (2,008.)  He is also the only player in baseball history to win as many as four batting crowns while scoring fewer than one thousand runs in his career (920.)

But Madlock was certainly a key, underrated cog in the formidable Pirates teams of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, as was his teammate, John Candelaria.

John Candelaria was a big, left-handed pitcher (6’7″, 205 lbs.) from New York City when he first broke in with the Pirates at age 21 in 1975.  The following season, Candelaria established himself in the rotation with a 16-7 record, 220 innings pitched, 11 complete games and four shutouts.  His ERA was a solid 3.15.

Best of all, he knew how to throw strikes, surrendering just 60 walks in his first full professional season.  The following season, however, the Candy Man really broke out.

1977 was John Candelaria’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.

In ’77, on a Pirates team that finished in 2nd place to the Phillies in the N.L. East, Candelaria posted an excellent 20-5 record, resulting in a league best winning percentage of .800.  He also led the N.L. in ERA at 2.34, and in ERA+ at 169. His WHIP (1.071) was second best in the league.

Interestingly, he also served up the most home runs of any N.L. pitcher (29).  But because he walked just 50 batters all season, he greatly limited the damage that could have resulted from all of those homers.  In fact, his 2 walks per nine innings represented the best mark in the league.

But John Candelaria’s career trajectory pointed gradually downward for the remainder of his career.  Although he had several more productive seasons, including a 14-9 record with a 3.22 ERA for the ’79 team,  only once did he win as many as 15 games in a single season after 1977.

Nevertheless, he did post nine more double-digit win seasons after 1977, resulting in a modest career win-loss record of 177-122.  Candelaria enjoyed a long career, beginning when he was just 21 and ending nearly two decades later when he was 39-years old.

In the first ten seasons of Candelaria’s career, all spent with the Pirates, he finished only one season with a losing record.

Candelaria, like Madlock, was not a superstar.  But their accomplishments were instrumental in enabling the Pirates to enjoy one of the greatest runs in team history.

* Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals was the other N.L. Co-MVP in 1979.


Stupid Manager Tricks: Part 1

Baseball may be the most “conservative” of all major sports in the sense that once an idea or a philosophy gains broad acceptance, it is almost impossible to change.  Baseball’s  “Conventional Wisdom” is, at times, venerated as inviolable dogma akin to Holy Scripture.  Woe unto ye heretics who question the value of “Small Ball,” Batting Average, or the Speedy Lead-Off hitter.

If you think I exaggerate, just listen to Tim McCarver or Joe Morgan as they wax eloquent as to why sheer aggressiveness on the base-paths is always preferable to a more calculated, cautious approach by a base-runner.  Or how On-Base Percentage is an overrated stat because where is the value in a slow-footed catcher clogging the bases?

Over time, I’ve compiled a list of what I call, “Stupid Manager Tricks.”  Originally, I was going to include all of them in a single blog-post, but as I began to write about the first item, “The Dubious Value of the Attempted Steal,”  I quickly realized that “Stupid Manager Tricks”  would have to become a series of posts.

Therefore, in this post, I will highlight one common baseball strategy, part of baseball’s Common Wisdom, that I believe needs to be consigned to baseball’s Dust-Bin of History.

The first item, as I’ve already alluded to, is one of the oldest and dearest strategies in baseball history.  I am referring to the The Dubious Value of the Attempted Steal.

The most important word in that short phrase is  Attempted because, of course, some stolen base attempts result in the base-runner being thrown out, thereby, in many cases, short-circuiting an otherwise promising scoring opportunity.

It has long been surmised that stolen base attempts rise and fall with the era in which they occur.  For example, the assumption is that base-stealing was a more significant part of the game in the Dead Ball era, and then again in the late 1960’s-early ’70’s, when runs were more difficult to come by.

Surprisingly, however, according to baseballanylists.com, there has been no distinct pattern between run scoring and stolen base attempts when comparing one era to another over time.

In fact, they concluded that, “baseball teams have behaved irrationally with their base-stealing strategies throughout history…  It seems that steals have not been based on the actual value of the steal.”

They cite “mere fashion” as one reason teams decide to run more in one era as opposed to another one.

Last season, Phillies second-baseman Chase Utley stole 23 bases without getting caught once.  In effect, he turned 23 singles into doubles.  Think about that for a moment.  Does that mean that Utley’s overriding strategy once he reached first base was to automatically try to steal second base?  No, it doesn’t.  How do we know that?  Because Utley reached first base a lot more than 23 times last season, yet he attempted only 23 stolen bases.

Now, not all that many years ago, playing in Joe Morgan’s 1970’s National League, Utley would have been considered less aggressive (negative connotations) on the base-paths compared to a player like Frank Taveras of the Pittsburgh Pirates who stole 46 bases in 1978, but was caught stealing 25 times.

In his day, Taveras was often lauded as an aggressive base-runner who put pressure on the opposing team’s pitcher, a player you would place at the top of the batting order to take better advantage of his speed and base-stealing capabilities.

Yet, despite those 46 stolen bases, Taveras managed to score just 81 runs in 702 plate appearances despite the fact that the Pirates, featuring Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Al Oliver, etc., were one of the premier run-scoring teams in the National League in 1978.

That’s what happens when your “Table Setter” also comes equipped with a .313 on-base percentage.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley, whose on-base percentage was .397 last season, scored 112 runs last season in 687 plate appearances.

Utley is perhaps not as fast or as “aggressive” as Taveras, but he was certainly a better base-stealer, and a much more effective run producer.

And, in the end, isn’t producing runs, (as opposed to merely stealing bases), the reason why any particular player goes up to home-plate, bat in hand, in the first place?

Taveras’ over-aggressiveness, a fatal flaw for the Pirates in 1978 when they finished in second place to the Phillies in the N.L. East, resulted in an extra 25 outs for his team, with little obvious correlation of value-added runs scored as a result.

In other words, it is quite possible that Taveras would’ve scored 81 runs, perhaps a few more, even if he had never attempted a single stolen base that season.

Some stat-heads have calculated that a successful stolen base results in an extra .17-.20 runs scored for the base-runner and his team per steal.  This means that if a base-runner successfully steals 40 bases, he might be adding an additional eight runs scored for his team over the course of an entire season.

Meanwhile, it has also been calculated by statisticians far more competent than I that each caught-stealing costs a team about .50-.60 runs apiece.

Therefore, Taveras’ 46 steals may have resulted in an extra 9 runs scored over the course of his 1978 season.  But his 25 caught steals cost his team about 13 runs.  So, in effect, Taveras aggressive base-running actually cost the Pirates a net total of four runs over the course of the season.

In fact, between 1977-78, the Pirates had several base-runners who ended up costing their team numerous runs over the course of those two seasons.  Here are some numbers showing steals / attempted steals:

1977:  D. Parker – 17/36, A. Oliver – 13/29, E. Ott – 7/14, R. Stennett – 28/46.

1978:  B. Robinson – 14/25, P. Garner – 27/41, F. Taveras – 46/71.

The combined totals for those two seasons by these seven players are 152 steals in 262 attempts, a 58% success rate.  If you calculate the theoretical runs gained from successful steals vs. the runs lost from caught stealing, you end up with, conservatively, a net loss of about 100 runs over the two seasons.

In other words, if the Pirates didn’t attempt a single stolen base in either 1977 or ’78, they would have been better off as a team.  In ’77, they finished in second place, 5 games behind the Phillies.  In ’78, they once again finished in second place behind the Phils, only 1.5 games out of first.

It is entirely possible, then, that the Pirates ran themselves out of at least one, perhaps two, division titles.

So what’s a manager to do?  Should he shun stolen bases entirely as an effective offensive weapon in his arsenal?  Of course not.  In fact, evidence compiled over the past several seasons suggests that many of today’s managers are using the stolen base as a discretionary, tactical weapon in carefully chosen, particular circumstances.

In fact, stolen base success rates are at an all-time high, approaching 78-79 percent over the past few years.

Shouldn’t managers, then, become more aggressive with the running game now that base-stealing success rates are soaring?

Of course not.  If today’s Mets, for example, began to run as frequently as the ’78-’79 Pirates, there is no reason to think they would gain any additional strategic advantage over their opponents.

It is likely, then, that we are now at a point in the evolution of baseball strategy that base-stealing today is now at a near-perfect balance between what can reasonably be gained, and lost, by the current, cumulative number of stolen-base attempts in any given season.

There is nothing wrong with aggressiveness in baseball.  All things being equal, who wouldn’t enjoy having a Jackie Robinson on their team?  And speed on the base-paths is certainly important.  Having a base-runner who is capable of moving from first to third base on a single, or who can score from second base on a base-hit, is always an unquestionable asset.

But the term, “aggressive baseball,” used without a qualifying context, is not the same as intelligent baseball.  In fact, as we have seen with the example of the Pirates of the 1970’s, it can be quite the opposite.

Which is why the often over-used, under-analyzed value of the “aggressive” Attempted Steal, an example of baseball’s unwise Conventional Wisdom, is a primary example of a Stupid Manager Trick.

Now, if only more of baseball’s T.V. “Analysts” would see it that way…

Next up on Stupid Manager Tricks:  The Almost Always Pointless Sacrifice Bunt.

A Delicate Imbalancing Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Move the franchise.

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

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

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

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

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

Only it may happen in Charlotte instead of Pittsburgh.

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

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