Babe Ruth and the greatest World Series game ever pitched

Posted: 2nd September 2014 by Graham Womack in MLB

Babe Ruth

[Babe Ruth with Red Sox teammates, 1915 | Library of Congress]

A frequent refrain from supporters of Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame candidacy is that he pitched the greatest game in World Series history. Certainly, Morris placed himself in unique company in 1991 when he became the third Fall Classic pitcher to hurl a 10-inning shutout after Clem Labine in 1956 [hat tip to Devon Young] and Christy Mathewson in 1913. Morris is also the 10th and most recent pitcher with a Game 7 shutout, joining men like Dizzy Dean in 1934, Sandy Koufax in 1965 and Bret Saberhagen in 1985. In addition, Morris is the only pitcher in World Series history with an extra inning, complete game victory in Game 7.

For some fans, all of this may be more than enough to anoint Morris. By various objective measures, though, Morris’s masterpiece is far from the greatest World Series pitching performance. There’s Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 or journeyman Howard Ehmke’s surprise start in 1929 where the junkballer set a record at the time by striking out 13 stunned Chicago Cubs including Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler twice apiece. Then there’s Bob Gibson’s five-hit shutout in 1968 where he set a World Series record that still stands with 17 strikeouts.

Game 2, 1916 World Series – Boston 2, Brooklyn 1
Pitching IP H R ER BB SO HR BF GSc WPA aLI RE24
Sherry Smith, L (0-1) 13.1 7 2 2 6 2 0 51 82 0.582 1.77 3.3
Babe Ruth, W (1-0) 14 6 1 1 3 4 1 48 97 1.082 1.54 4.8
Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com | Full box score

By Game Score, the best World Series pitching performance came in 1916 by Babe Ruth with a 97. [Morris is tied for 38th at 84.] Ruth set a World Series record that still stands when he went 14 innings for the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 on October 9, beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 2-1. He even drove in one of Boston’s runs, the New York Times noted, when Brooklyn second baseman George Cutshaw juggled a grounder in the third inning, allowing Everett Scott to score.

No one ever really talks about Game 2 of the 1916 World Series anymore, though it’s a great story. The day after it happened, the New York Times described the game as “the most thrilling world’s series battle ever fought.”

It was Ruth’s first start in a postseason game, as the 21-year-old had been kept in reserve for the 1915 World Series after going 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA that season. He earned the nod for Game 2 of the 1916 Series after going 23-12 with an American League best 1.75 ERA [as well as a combined 10.4 WAR between pitching and hitting.] Ruth struggled early in his World Series pitching debut, surrendering an inside-the-park home run to Hy Myers with two out in the first inning. “Ruth oftentimes has his hardest session at the beginning,” teammate Jack Barry wrote the following day in a presumably ghostwritten Boston Post column. “We all were sure as the game went along that Ruth would get better.”

Pitching in cavernous Braves Field with 44,000 fans packed in, Ruth threw 13 innings of shutout ball the remainder of the game, allowing five hits and three walks. Barry wrote that Myers’ homer came off a high fastball and that Ruth kept Myers hitless thereafter by pitching him low. Ruth escaped trouble, Barry noted, recording consecutive ground outs to close the eighth inning after Brooklyn put runners on second and third. Later in the 13th inning, Red Sox left fielder Duffy Lewis provided a running catch off a Jake Daubert fly ball. The game finally ended amid fading daylight when pinch hitter Del Gainer provided an RBI single in the 14th inning. Having now taken the first two games, Boston would go on to win the Series 4-1.

At least a few prominent writers praised Brooklyn’s hurler Sherry Smith, something of a surprise starter as the New York Times noted in its game coverage. [Major League Baseball historian John Thorn tells me there were occasional surprise World Series starters back then, Ehmke being perhaps the most famous.] Hugh Fullerton, a few years away from helping break the Black Sox Scandal, wrote that Ruth was saved by superior defense. Barry also wrote that Ruth received better support. Grantland Rice wrote in his syndicated column the following day:

Smith pitched the better game. For thirteen innings he had the Red Sox lashed to the phantom, swinging as helpless as the bewildered old dame who attempted to sweep back the ocean with a mop. They couldn’t hit with a machine gun loaded with buckshot.

Ruth pitched twice more in postseason play, winning two games in the 1918 World Series. His all-time Fall Classic pitching line: 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA, two complete games and a shutout. Somehow, the best was yet to come.

Why do people still think Jack Morris pitched to the score?

Posted: 1st September 2014 by Graham Womack in MLB

Every so often, I see tweets or articles from reputable sources repeating a long-since debunked myth. This one was posted about a week ago:

Lyle Spencer, a writer for MLB.com, is no different than a lot of other veteran reporters or fans who keep repeating this idea that Jack Morris pitched to the score. Morris popularized the notion, I think, to bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy despite a lifetime 3.90 ERA. As far as Hall campaign strategies go, it’s probably been one of the more effective ones. Morris just missed induction through the writers ballot and may be a future Veterans Committee pick.

Never mind that Joe Sheehan picked apart the myth of Morris pitching to the score in a landmark 2003 piece for Baseball Prospectus. In the piece, which is long but worth a full read, Sheehan examined everyone of Morris’s 527 career starts and discovered that Morris put his team behind in roughly two-thirds of them. That Morris had 254 wins while allowing nearly four runs a game is largely a credit to pitching for one of the best teams of the 1980s, the Detroit Tigers and getting at least five runs of support in nearly half his starts.

Sheehan’s piece is easily found in Google, as are any number of related ones that have come since. It’s like the majority of people who follow baseball aren’t even reading them.

As an enthusiast of sabermetrics, I see the world through proverbial rose-colored glasses sometimes. Primarily through this site and Twitter, I associate with a lot of researchers, analysts and fellow baseball writers, people who can concisely explain why they favor one version of Wins Above Replacement over another. I forget that most of the baseball universe doesn’t work this way.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a fellow who wrote at Baseball-Reference.com’s blog. What he told me: Most fans aren’t like us. They go with traditional stats like batting average or RBIs and don’t seek any kind of deeper statistical appreciation of baseball. They embrace the game’s myths, like Abner Doubleday inventing baseball or Morris pitching to the score. My friends and I? We maybe comprise less than one percent of all people into baseball.

People change, granted. Peter Gammons, among others, changed his mind on Morris pitching to the score after reading Sheehan’s piece. In time, maybe others will follow. But I suspect articles and tweets like the one above will keep coming and more people like me will keep writing pieces denouncing them until this issue, finally, is completely beaten to death. Trying to get people to see things differently seems like a fool’s errand sometimes. I know I often feel like I’m preaching to a choir of like-minded individuals.

The baseball world and the world in general remains so polarized. It’s a shame Jack Morris’s career has become a reminder of this. He was a fine pitcher, one of the best of his era and his work in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series was masterful. I agree with people like Joe Posnanski who’ve written that all this debate about him pitching to the score detracts from this.

Nap Lajoie and others with more homers than strikeouts

Posted: 31st August 2014 by Graham Womack in MLB

07440r

For much of the early part of this season, it looked like Victor Martinez might join an exclusive club: players with more home runs than strikeouts in a season. It used to happen with some regularity, though since strikeout rates rose in the 1950s it’s become almost unheard of. Since 1958, just George Brett and Barry Bonds have accomplished the feat. Others like Albert Pujols and Tony Gwynn have come close. Martinez likely will not, as he has 27 homers and 39 strikeouts with a month to play.

According to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, 25 players in the modern era have had more home runs than strikeouts in a season where they qualified for the batting title. In all, the feat has been accomplished 65 times since 1901 led by Joe DiMaggio who did it seven times and famously just missed having more home runs than strikeouts for his career. Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Ted Kluszewski and Frank McCormick all had more homers than strikeouts at least four seasons apiece.

The list below offers a “Who’s Who” of great individual years in baseball history: DiMaggio and Ted Williams in 1941; Stan Musial when he just missed winning the Triple Crown in 1948 and collected 429 total bases, a mark no one’s topped since. My favorite of the bunch? Nap Lajoie, who took advantage of high scoring and foul tips not yet being called strikes in the expansion American League in 1901 to hit .426 with 14 home runs, nine strikeouts and 24 walks. Basically, everything Lajoie saw in 1901, he hit [though the Cincinnati Enquirer suggested late in the season that Lajoie was closing out with "don't-care-a-rap" play as his team stumbled to fourth.]

That said, having a staggering level of offense is by no means the rule for making this list. Frank McCormick hit .269 when he had more homers than strikeouts in 1941, with adjusted rates of run creation and total offensive production barely above league average. Joe Sewell would have made this list more than twice with any kind of power. From 1925 through his final year in the majors of 1933, the Hall of Fame shortstop averaged four home runs and five strikeouts per season.

All this being said, I offer the following list chronologically:

Player HR SO Year G PA AB R H 2B 3B RBI BB BA OBP SLG
1 Nap Lajoie 14 9 1901 131 582 544 145 232 48 14 125 24 .426 .463 .643
2 Jimmy Ryan 6 5 1902 120 540 484 92 155 32 6 44 43 .320 .384 .448
3 Ed Delahanty 10 9 1902 123 539 473 103 178 43 14 93 62 .376 .453 .590
4 Ken Williams 39 31 1922 153 678 585 128 194 34 11 155 74 .332 .413 .627
5 Irish Meusel 19 16 1923 146 648 595 102 177 22 14 125 38 .297 .341 .477
6 Tris Speaker 17 15 1923 150 695 574 133 218 59 11 130 93 .380 .469 .610
7 Ken Williams 18 17 1924 115 483 398 78 129 21 4 84 69 .324 .425 .533
8 Ken Williams 25 14 1925 102 462 411 83 136 31 5 105 37 .331 .390 .613
9 Irish Meusel 21 19 1925 135 558 516 82 169 35 8 111 26 .328 .363 .548
10 Billy Southworth 16 10 1926 135 566 507 99 162 28 7 99 33 .320 .365 .497
11 Mickey Cochrane 12 7 1927 126 507 432 80 146 20 6 80 50 .338 .409 .495
12 Lefty O’Doul 32 19 1929 154 732 638 152 254 35 6 122 76 .398 .465 .622
13 Joe Sewell 7 4 1929 152 671 578 90 182 38 3 73 48 .315 .372 .427
14 Mel Ott 42 38 1929 150 675 545 138 179 37 2 151 113 .328 .449 .635
15 Lefty O’Doul 32 19 1929 154 732 638 152 254 35 6 122 76 .398 .465 .622
16 Al Simmons 36 34 1930 138 611 554 152 211 41 16 165 39 .381 .423 .708
17 Lefty O’Doul 21 20 1932 148 655 595 120 219 32 8 90 50 .368 .423 .555
18 Joe Sewell 11 3 1932 125 576 503 95 137 21 3 68 56 .272 .349 .392
19 Bill Dickey 15 13 1932 108 459 423 66 131 20 4 84 34 .310 .361 .482
20 Bill Terry 28 20 1932 154 677 643 124 225 42 11 117 32 .350 .382 .580
21 Lou Gehrig 49 31 1934 154 690 579 128 210 40 6 166 109 .363 .465 .706
22 Ernie Lombardi 12 6 1935 120 351 332 36 114 23 3 64 16 .343 .379 .539
23 Bill Dickey 14 11 1935 120 491 448 54 125 26 6 81 35 .279 .339 .458
24 Arky Vaughan 19 18 1935 137 609 499 108 192 34 10 99 97 .385 .491 .607
25 Charlie Gehringer 19 16 1935 150 709 610 123 201 32 8 108 79 .330 .409 .502
26 Bill Dickey 22 16 1936 112 472 423 99 153 26 8 107 46 .362 .428 .617
27 Charlie Gehringer 15 13 1936 154 731 641 144 227 60 12 116 83 .354 .431 .555
28 Lou Gehrig 49 46 1936 155 719 579 167 205 37 7 152 130 .354 .478 .696
29 Joe DiMaggio 46 37 1937 151 692 621 151 215 35 15 167 64 .346 .412 .673
30 Bill Dickey 29 22 1937 140 609 530 87 176 35 2 133 73 .332 .417 .570
31 Ernie Lombardi 19 14 1938 129 529 489 60 167 30 1 95 40 .342 .391 .524
32 Joe DiMaggio 32 21 1938 145 660 599 129 194 32 13 140 59 .324 .386 .581
33 Bill Dickey 27 22 1938 132 533 454 84 142 27 4 115 75 .313 .412 .568
34 Joe DiMaggio 30 20 1939 120 524 462 108 176 32 6 126 52 .381 .448 .671
35 Ernie Lombardi 20 19 1939 130 494 450 43 129 26 2 85 35 .287 .342 .487
36 Frank McCormick 18 16 1939 156 688 630 99 209 41 4 128 40 .332 .374 .495
37 Joe DiMaggio 30 20 1939 120 524 462 108 176 32 6 126 52 .381 .448 .671
38 Joe DiMaggio 31 30 1940 132 572 508 93 179 28 9 133 61 .352 .425 .626
39 Frank McCormick 17 13 1941 154 653 603 77 162 31 5 97 40 .269 .318 .421
40 Ted Williams 37 27 1941 143 606 456 135 185 33 3 120 147 .406 .553 .735
41 Joe DiMaggio 30 13 1941 139 622 541 122 193 43 11 125 76 .357 .440 .643
42 Frank McCormick 20 17 1944 153 645 581 85 177 37 3 102 57 .305 .371 .482
43 Tommy Holmes 13 11 1944 155 705 631 93 195 42 6 73 61 .309 .372 .456
44 Frank McCormick 20 17 1944 153 645 581 85 177 37 3 102 57 .305 .371 .482
45 Tommy Holmes 28 9 1945 154 714 636 125 224 47 6 117 70 .352 .420 .577
46 Johnny Mize 51 42 1947 154 664 586 137 177 26 2 138 74 .302 .384 .614
47 Willard Marshall 36 30 1947 155 655 587 102 171 19 6 107 67 .291 .366 .528
48 Lou Boudreau 18 9 1948 152 676 560 116 199 34 6 106 98 .355 .453 .534
49 Johnny Mize 40 37 1948 152 658 560 110 162 26 4 125 94 .289 .395 .564
50 Joe DiMaggio 39 30 1948 153 669 594 110 190 26 11 155 67 .320 .396 .598
51 Stan Musial 39 34 1948 155 698 611 135 230 46 18 131 79 .376 .450 .702
52 Yogi Berra 28 12 1950 151 656 597 116 192 30 6 124 55 .322 .383 .533
53 Andy Pafko 36 32 1950 146 595 514 95 156 24 8 92 69 .304 .397 .591
54 Yogi Berra 27 20 1951 141 594 547 92 161 19 4 88 44 .294 .350 .492
55 Don Mueller 16 13 1951 122 493 469 58 130 10 7 69 19 .277 .307 .431
56 Yogi Berra 30 24 1952 142 603 534 97 146 17 1 98 66 .273 .358 .478
57 Ted Kluszewski 40 34 1953 149 629 570 97 180 25 0 108 55 .316 .380 .570
58 Ted Kluszewski 49 35 1954 149 658 573 104 187 28 3 141 78 .326 .407 .642
59 Yogi Berra 27 20 1955 147 615 541 84 147 20 3 108 60 .272 .349 .470
60 Ted Kluszewski 47 40 1955 153 686 612 116 192 25 0 113 66 .314 .382 .585
61 Ted Kluszewski 35 31 1956 138 574 517 91 156 14 1 102 49 .302 .362 .536
62 Yogi Berra 30 29 1956 140 596 521 93 155 29 2 105 65 .298 .378 .534
63 Vic Power 16 14 1958 145 620 590 98 184 37 10 80 20 .312 .332 .490
64 George Brett 24 22 1980 117 515 449 87 175 33 9 118 58 .390 .454 .664
65 Barry Bonds 45 41 2004 147 617 373 129 135 27 3 101 232 .362 .609 .812

From the archive: When Mark Koenig pitched

Posted: 29th August 2014 by Graham Womack in Mark Koenig as a pitcher

I’ve known of Mark Koenig as a shortstop from the Murderers Row Yankees of the late 1920s. One of my acquaintances through the Society for American Baseball Research, Rick Cabral even got to interview Koenig in the early ’90s when he was the last-living member of the team. Therefore, I was struck during my research a few weeks ago on position players who’d pitched to note that Koenig had made a few mound appearances in the 1930 and 1931 seasons. As has happened with so many position players who pitched, Koenig got rocked.

There was still some optimism when this piece ran October 11, 1930 in the Winnipeg Tribune. Never mind that Koenig was the owner at that point of a 10.00 ERA after nine innings spread through two appearances for the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1930 season, including a September 27 loss to the lowly Chicago White Sox. Optimism springs eternal during the offseason in baseball, when every player seemingly resolves to return the next spring in the proverbial best shape of their life. Koenig’s pitching career lasted three more appearances the next season, with him walking 11 batters over seven innings.

In a sense, though, Koenig got lucky. The article above mentions that Koenig was switching to pitching because failing eyesight had ruined his batting vision. Over the remainder of his career, Koenig offered just a .662 OPS and 78 OPS+. But these stats didn’t exist in the early 1930s, of course and the high scoring environment of that era also helped mask Koenig’s offensive deficiencies. He hit .277 over his final six seasons, a respectable figure for a shortstop in those days, retiring in 1936. Near the end of Koenig’s career, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle celebrated the veteran, suggesting his mental reactions, rather than his eyesight had been at the root of his hitting problems.

The Eagle also noted of Koenig:

With the idea of ailing eyesight preying on his mind, he decided to try pitching, where you didn’t have to have such sharp sight for snaring hot grounders. He started a few games on the mound for the Tigers, but didn’t do very well, although he claims he would have got by if he had concentrated on his hurling. But Mark wasn’t that kind of ballplayer. He was always being shoved into some spot in the infield when the occasion arose, and the occasion arose very often.

Ultimately, as it’s been for so many position players who’ve taken to the hill, pitching proved but a footnote for Koenig’s long tenure in the majors.

_________________________________________

“From the archives” is a Friday series that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series: 25 years after Pete Rose, Hal Chase’s story is bleaker | Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

A backlog of books and a new series

Posted: 28th August 2014 by Graham Womack in Book reviews

Two piles of unread books sit atop my bookshelf, reminding me of a promise I made here four years ago. In the early days of this site, I once wrote that I would review any book sent to me. It was a bold promise and one I probably shouldn’t have made. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about baseball history. But I can be a slow reader, frequently distracted and it sometimes takes me months even to finish a classic like The Boys of Summer. Four years past my promise here, I’ve long since had a backlog of books and I officially need to revise my policy.

Henceforth, I can no longer promise to review any book sent to me. The following 30 books that have been sent to me and not yet reviewed since I made my promise will be reviewed through a new weekly series starting next Thursday. It’s important to me to be a person of my word and I also believe the majority of these books may be of interest to anyone who frequents this site. Fellow writers, if you see your book among this list, I apologize for not getting to this sooner. I’ll be happy to email you when I review your book, which should be sometime in the next year:

In the meanwhile, please, no one send me anymore books!

In yesterday’s post, I noted that Mike Trout was on the verge of having the most Wins Above Replacement in his first four seasons of any center fielder in baseball history. Longtime reader Devon Young commented that Trout already has the most WAR of any player through his age 22 season, which got me thinking.

As I replied to Devon, Trout’s comps through age 22 are impressive, though I don’t place a ton of stock in them. The reason? There simply haven’t been that many players in baseball history who’ve racked up a lot of WAR before age 22. It’s rare that players make the majors and receive significant playing time before their mid-20s. Sometimes, this is due to factors beyond playing ability. Some players go to college first. Others are kept in the minors longer than necessary, perhaps with an aging, expensive veteran occupying their position with the big league club.

I decided to see how Trout might rate historically through a different lens: WAR per 162 games over a player’s first four seasons. I got onto this line of thought after noting that Trout and Joe DiMaggio had roughly the same lifetime WAR through their first four years, though Trout’s done it in 81 fewer games. The following is an exercise that rewards this sort of quicker achievement.

The following are the 25 highest totals for WAR per 162 games among position players of the modern era who had at least 15 WAR over their first four seasons. As an aside, I’ll break ties by favoring which player has the overall most WAR for their first four seasons:

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
1 Ted Williams 9.5 34.2 586 2613
2 Mike Trout 9.3 26.6 463 2070
3 Willie Mays 8.8 24.8 458 1978
4 Stan Musial 8.6 24 455 1953
5 Kenny Lofton 8.1 21.4 428 1910


It’s no sad consolation for Trout being second to Williams here and if we do another version of this exercise in a year, perhaps Trout will be first. The Splendid Splinter has long since had the standard for triumphant entries into the majors, offering a .356/.481/.642 slash over his first four seasons and hitting .406 in his third year. Kept in the minors through 1938 over concerns about his attitude, Williams was more or less in full stride by his debut with the Red Sox. His 190 OPS+ over his first four seasons is identical to his rate for the stat lifetime.

Mays and Musial’s inclusions here aren’t surprising, though I’m struck by Kenny Lofton. I recently wrote of Barry Bonds as the most underrated player of the 1990s, though I could maybe give it to Lofton now. Similar to Tim Raines, I generally picture Lofton as a journeyman over the second half of his career. I forget the young speedster who electrified baseball, leading the league in steals his first five full seasons while offering a .316/.386/.435 slash. I assume Hall of Fame voters forgot this as well, as Lofton received 3.2 percent of the vote his sole appearance on the writers ballot.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
6 Evan Longoria 7.9 27.4 563 2414
7 Dick Allen 7.8 22.7 474 2040
8 Joe DiMaggio 7.7 26.3 554 2545
9 Rogers Hornsby 7.7 19.8 417 1665
10 Wade Boggs 7.6 27 576 2550


As fellow baseball blogger William Juliano told me today on Twitter, using WAR to make comparisons across eras is shaky. This, William explained, is because WAR for the past decade or so includes defensive data gathered through sophisticated means, while older WAR more or less gauges defense through box scores. While this fact alone isn’t enough for me to abandon this exercise, as WAR skews more toward a player’s offensive contributions, it isn’t insignificant either. Take DiMaggio, for instance.

A surprising amount of DiMaggio’s early value comes from his defense. Perhaps if there was more defensive play-by-play data available for his era, he might rate closer to Trout here. As it stands, finishing eighth-best seems like no slight. [I'm struck in general by the number of legendary players like DiMaggio comprising the bulk of the ranks here. One of my favorite things about WAR is that it often reinforces popular perceptions of players like the Yankee Clipper. In sum, I assume WAR helps the cause of players like DiMaggio more than it hurts them.]

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
11 Arky Vaughan 7.6 26.7 567 2479
12 Albert Pujols 7.5 29.2 629 2728
13 Bobby Grich 7.5 15.3 332 1367
14 Johnny Mize 7.4 26.2 572 2368
15 Nomar Garciaparra 7.3 20.4 455 2074


The Veterans Committee gave Mize and Vaughan their due in the 1980s, though they perhaps deserved it far sooner. By WAR, Mize and Vaughan were nearly equal to DiMaggio in the 1930s. Like Grich, Mize and Vaughan probably rate among the most underrated players all-time. All three sustained their value better than Nomar, who’s about to have a similarly lackluster debut on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
16 Eddie Mathews 7.2 25.7 581 2490
17 John Valentin 7.2 18.8 421 1727
18 Cal Ripken Jr. 7.1 22.3 507 2137
19 Charlie Keller 7 23.3 541 2370
20 Mike Piazza 7 16.9 389 1592


Bill James has spoken of the joy of baseball research where the results surprise him. Part of the reason I enjoy exercises like this is I wind up with players like Valentin who look gloriously out of place. Valentin’s part of the top 25 because of his 1995 season, his fourth in the majors, where he racked up 8.3 WAR to go with 27 homers, 102 RBI and a ninth place finish in American League MVP voting. He never had another year with even All Star-caliber WAR, though he finished with 32.5 WAR lifetime, a serviceable if generally unremarkable player.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
21 Jackie Robinson 6.9 25.6 598 2666
22 Ralph Kiner 6.8 25.4 604 2582
23 Frank Thomas 6.8 22.4 531 2328
24 Rickey Henderson 6.8 21.2 504 2269
25 Josh Donaldson 6.8 15.8 374 1555


I’m glad to see Kiner here, as he led the National League in home runs his first seven seasons. Next to Babe Ruth, he might be the best slugger out of the gate in baseball history. And this whole exercise would seem foolhardy without the presence of Robinson, even if he’s admittedly the oldest “young” player of this bunch. It’d be a shame not to include the player the Rookie of the Year award was created for. And Robinson’s WAR his first four seasons looks like one more reason he and so many other great black players were long overdue by 1947.

One final thing– Donaldson and Eric Davis each had 15.8 WAR, 374 games, and 6.8 WAR per 162 games through their first four seasons. I’m giving Donaldson the edge because his fourth season isn’t over yet, and I assume he’ll boost his numbers through the pennant race unfolding in the AL West. That’s not to slight Davis or the other 40 or so players with at least 6 WAR per 162 games over their first four seasons. If this exercise reminded me of anything, it’s the number of good young players who’ve shined throughout baseball history.

Five notable young players who fell short of the top 25: Barry Bonds (6.7 WAR per 162 games his first four seasons), Ken Griffey Jr. (6), Fred Lynn (5.4), Mickey Mantle (6.4),  Alex Rodriguez (6.6)

By WAR, Mike Trout may be the best young CF in baseball history

Posted: 26th August 2014 by Graham Womack in MLB
Rk Player WAR first four years WAR per 162 gm Defensive runs saved Span Age [on Jun 30] G PA
1-Tie Mike Trout 26.3 9.2 7 2011-14 19-22 462 2065
1-Tie Joe DiMaggio 26.3 7.7 30 1936-39 21-24 554 2545
3 Willie Mays 24.8 8.8 39.8 1951-55 20-24 458 1978
4 Kenny Lofton 21.4 8.1 52.1 1991-94 24-27 428 1910
5 Ken Griffey 21.3 6 8.5 1989-92 19-22 578 2422
6 Vada Pinson 19.9 6.6 18.7 1958-61 19-22 489 2183
7 Grady Sizemore 19.8 6.1 10 2004-07 21-24 525 2364
8 Cesar Cedeno 19.1 5.9 1 1970-73 19-22 529 2227
9 Earl Averill 19 5.1 -23 1929-32 27-30 599 2699
10 Al Simmons 18.9 5.5 5 1924-27 22-25 558 2443


I saw Mike Trout play for the first time last Friday. I make it to three or five games a year and aside from going to spend time with family and friends, my goal is generally to see historic players in action. Trout more than qualifies. Four seasons into an already-storied career, the Los Angeles Angels center fielder looks like his generation’s version of Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. In fact, going off Wins Above Replacement, Trout’s better. By WAR, Mike Trout could be the best young center fielder in baseball history.

The chart above represents the 10 best WAR rankings, via Baseball-Reference.com, for center fielders who logged at least 75 percent of their games at the position over their first four seasons. Entering today, Trout was tied with Joe DiMaggio for first with 26.3 WAR. If Trout has a good game tonight, he’ll be in the lead tomorrow [though not for Fangraphs' version of WAR, where DiMaggio bests Trout over their first four seasons, 28.7 to 27.] More impressive, Trout accumulated his WAR in 82 fewer games than the Yankee Clipper, just beating out Mays and– this surprised me– Kenny Lofton, for best WAR per 162 games, at 9.2. That’s an MVP-caliber rate for Trout’s career.

Another thing that gets me about the list above is that most of the players on it went on to have stellar careers. DiMaggio, Mays, Earl Averill and Al Simmons are all deservedly in the Hall of Fame. Ken Griffey Jr. will be in a couple more years. I could make Cooperstown cases for Lofton, Vada Pinson and Cesar Cedeno and one can only wonder what might have been if Grady Sizemore hadn’t been beset with injuries. Oh well, Grady, we’ll always have this Sports Illustrated cover.

I keep wondering where the fail-safe point is with Trout, when we’ll know for sure that he’s another legend, not a Pinson or a Cedeno who started off so brightly and then declined precipitously. [Cedeno's early comparisons to Mays looked like a joke by the end of his career.] I’d say we’re close right now on Trout, maybe a year or two off. I certainly got my money’s worth last Friday, watching Trout hit a homer that cleared the left-center fence in a hurry. I’ll be sure to see him play again before too long.

Improving the Baseball-Reference.com stat converter

Posted: 25th August 2014 by Graham Womack in MLB

I’ve seen mentions over the past few years from major outlets like MLB Network of one of my favorite tools on Baseball-Reference.com: the stat converter.

To the uninitiated, the stat converter can be found by clicking More Stats on a player page and scrolling down to where to it says Neutralized Batting or Pitching. With this tool, we can discover things, such as that Ty Cobb would have had 101 steals if he’d played his 1915 season for the ’62 Dodgers, meaning Maury Wills still would have broken his single-season record. And Pedro Martinez might have bested Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA if he’d played his 2000 season for the ’68 Cardinals; the converter has Martinez at a 1.00 ERA. It’s enough to keep a stat geek like me occupied for hours. It has, I think.

Near as I can tell, the stat converter works on a simple algorithm. Essentially, every player in baseball history has been on a team that scored an average number of runs per game and has played in a ballpark with numerical factors based around 100 that denote how conducive it’s been to pitching and hitting. The stat converter seems to tweak players’ numbers by taking the average runs and ballpark factors from their original teams and substituting those values out for whatever team they’re placed on, with the overall average runs for their leagues also being taken into account. It’s a fun, quick way to make projections across eras, but it isn’t perfect.

I first noticed an issue a few years ago when trying to project Live Ball Era numbers for Deadball great Home Run Baker. Wanting to see if Baker would have been worthy of his nickname on the 1999 Colorado Rockies, who had four players with 30 homers, I ran his converted numbers and saw he jumped from 12 home runs with the 1913 Philadelphia A’s to 18. This didn’t seem right. The converter also projects Baker having over 200 RBIs and a .400 batting average, also seemingly unrealistic. His projected strikeout rate doesn’t wash, either. In 1913 where AL players struck out once every 9.7 plate appearances, Baker whiffed once every 20.7 plate appearances. In 1999 where NL players struck out once every 5.9 PAs, Baker is projected to K once every 23.4 PAs.

The problem with the converter is apparent as well going from Live Ball to Deadball Era. Barry Bonds of 2001 is projected to have hit 57 home runs on the 1916 Boston Braves. Dave Robertson, Cy Williams and Wally Pipp led baseball with 12 homers apiece that season. And Bonds’ projected ballpark, Braves Field boasted vast dimensions such as nearly 500 feet to dead center to facilitate inside-the-parks homers, Boston owner James Gaffney’s favorite blend of baseball. I don’t care how much better Bonds was than the rest of the majors in the early 2000s. He would’ve been pushed to hit even 25 homers for the 1916 Braves, a team that hit 22 collectively and had no player with more than four homers.

The issue doesn’t just lie with Live Ball to Deadball conversions. I couldn’t find a modern pitcher projected to win 30 games on the 1968 Tigers, not Randy Johnson in 2001, Bob Welch in 1990, or Ron Guidry in 1978, to name three recent pitchers who’ve come close since Denny McLain won 31 games for Detroit. Part of the problem is that the stat converter doesn’t appear to adjust for different pitcher usage rates between eras. Welch, for instance, was fourth-best in baseball with 238 innings in 1990. The fourth most-durable pitcher in 1968, Bob Gibson had 304.2 innings, though the stat converter offers Welch’s projections with 238 innings that year. It’s part of the reason he’s projected to go just 14-12 for the Tigers.

All of this, so we’re clear, isn’t to take major issue with the stat converter. It’s one of many, many reasons that Baseball-Reference.com is easily my favorite baseball website of them all, one more reason I should probably be paying Sean Forman rent for the amount of time I spend on his site. I don’t know how or if it’s feasible to adjust the stat converter so that it becomes anything more than a fun, simple tool that projects based on run-related averages. But I offer all of this with the hope of advancing creative endeavor.

Guest post: This Chet Was A Lemon In Name Only

Posted: 24th August 2014 by Cyril Morong in MLB

Editor’s note: I’m honored to feature a guest post from Cyril Morong. An economics professor at San Antonio College and a sabermetrician, Cyril runs the superb Cybermetrics baseball blog. Today, he focuses on an eternally underrated ballplayer.

___________________

Chet Lemon, centerfielder for the White Sox in the late 1970s and for the Tigers in the 1980s, is one of the most underrated players of all time.

But underrated by whom and by how much? I recently tried to estimate this. More on that later. The baseball writers, by voting for Most Valuable Player and for the Hall of Fame, create a rating for players. And this shows us how poorly Lemon was rated.

He has the highest career Wins Above Replacement of any position player to never get any votes for MVP. Dan Hirsch compiled these numbers. Here are the top five:

  • Chet Lemon 55.3
  • Jason Kendall 41.5
  • Ron Fairly 35.2
  • Frank White 34.7
  • Jeff Cirillo 34.4

Lemon has a pretty big lead of the next player, Kendall. This is despite four top 10 finishes in WAR including 1984, when his Tigers came in first place in the AL East.

To see the explanation of my work on estimating “underratedness” by correlating career MVP shares with career WAR, go here.

I ranked players by how far above or below the trend they were. If a player got more MVP shares than his WAR predicted, he was considered overrated. If he got less, he was underrated. To see the complete list, go here.

Lemon is the 13th most underrated player out of 810 going back to 1931 when the baseball writers first had their MVP award. That is, his actual MVP shares were much lower than expected, given the overall voting patterns.

He is 142nd all-time in career WAR among position players and he received just one vote for the Hall of Fame in 1996. That gave him less than 5 percent in his first year of eligibility, so he dropped off the ballot after that.

I also compared WAR to first year Hall of Fame vote percentage for all position players since 1966. Before 1960, players sometimes received votes while they were still playing or before they had been retired for five years. For players who retired after 1960, this generally was not a problem. Further explanation of this research can be found here.

Lemon was the 26th most underrated out of 430 players. Again, I ranked players by how far above or below the trend they were. Lemon’s vote percentage was far below what we would expect given the relationship that it has with WAR. . To see the complete list, go here.

So in both MVP voting and Hall of Fame voting, Lemon did very poorly for a player of his caliber. I have not done much prior analysis of MVP voting, but I have so for the Hall of Fame. Lemon’s poor showing there is not a big surprise.

My research indicates that milestones like 3,000 hits and 500 HRs matter along with all-star appearances and Gold Glove awards (there are other factors, too.)

Lemon won no Gold Glove awards (despite finishing in the top 10 in defensive WAR three times) and was only named to the all-star team 3 times. According to Lemon’s SABR biography, his career was cut short by a blood disorder, polycythemia vera.

So he was done at age 35. He still played in 1,988 games. But he did not even reach 2,000 hits. He had a good OBP for his era, .355. The league average was.328. Back then, however, OBP was not widely seen as being important.

He also got a good bit of that OBP from getting hit by 151 pitches. He led the league four times and was in the top 5 five other times. Not counting his HBPs, his OBP was .342. Still good for his era, but not something MVP voters would notice. And voters probably did not get wowed by HBPs.

He had good power, hitting 215 HRs and 396 2Bs. The average player would have had 177 & 315. Voters back then probably were not aware of how valuable it was to be well above average in both power and getting on base. His solid but unimpressive .273 career batting average probably did not impress many. He also only stole 58 bases in his career.

Lemon is one of only five outfielders to record 500+ putouts in a season (along with Taylor Douthit, Richie Ashburn, Dwayne Murphy and Dom DiMaggio). Lemon finished in the top 5 in OF putouts 7 times.

It seems like at least one writer should have noticed him catching all those balls, getting on base frequently and hitting for power for some pretty good teams. When he first came to the White Sox in a trade at the end of the 1975 season at the age of 20, he played 3B. I remember seeing an enthusiastic, hustling player who would add a spark to the White Sox. He seemed like a fan favorite. One banner often held up in the stands of old Comiskey Park in Chicago said “Chet’s no lemon.”

Too bad some voters didn’t see it that way. Lemon clearly deserves more recognition that he got.

An interview with Ernie Broglio

Posted: 23rd August 2014 by Graham Womack in Ernie Broglio

I ventured today to the 20th annual Pacific Coast League reunion. Dedicated to players who were in the PCL before 1958, the reunions attract men like Broglio, who pitched for the Oakland Oaks 1953-55 before an eight-year MLB career. Broglio may be most remembered for being traded for Lou Brock, among the worst trades in baseball history since Broglio went 7-19 with a 5.40 ERA the rest of his career while Brock went onto Cooperstown. He accomplished a lot beforehand, though, going 60-38 with a 3.15 ERA and 18 Wins Above Replacement, 1960-63.

I talked with Broglio for five minutes today. Highlights of our conversation are as follows:

What do you remember about playing in the PCL in the early ’50s?

The good thing is you never traveled that much. You were six days in one town and played, which was good, Monday off. Longest trip was between Seattle and Portland. Second longest trip was between LA and Hollywood and then San Diego was separate. But that’s what made it interesting because you didn’t have to pack and go, pack and go, y’know, so it was pretty good that you stayed in one town for a long time.

Did the pre-1958 PCL feel like the majors at all?

A lot of big league ballplayers came out [of it.] In fact, I’ve got my understanding, they didn’t want to go back to the big leagues because they were making better money in the Coast League than they were being paid in the big leagues. So I would think that, with that question, the guys wanted to stay in the Coast League.

So you were sold to the Cardinal organization and you got to be a part of the Cardinals in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I know ’64 to ’68 was kind of their glory period but what do you remember about the time before it? It seemed like they had a lot of good guys on those teams.

Well, prior, I was sold to the New York Giants before the Cardinals. I was traded to the Cardinals–

For Bill White, right?

No, for Hobie Landrith.

Oh okay.

Yeah, Marv Grissom and myself went to the Cardinals for Hobie Landrith and one other ballplayer, two other ballplayers. And then the Cardinals traded me to the Cubs in 1964 for Lou Brock. I wanted to finish my career in St. Louis because it was such a great town, great baseball town. I’m not taking anything away from the Giants because they [packed] the stadium all the time, but I just thought that St. Louis was a great baseball town.

Could you tell that they had the makings of a championship club during your time there?

I was back there a few months ago. I was brought back for the 50 years of the 1964 team which I didn’t know I had won three games [for] before I got traded. I didn’t know, I thought it was only one game. I was talking to some of the players, and they thought the best team was our 1963 team before the 1964 team.

Why was that?

I don’t know why. The ballplayers were great, I was very fortunate to win 18 games, and probably because it was the last year Stan Musial played before he retired, so that could be some of it, too. He ended up hitting what he did 20-something years prior. He [came] to the big leagues and went two for four and he finished his career hitting two for four.

What was he like as a teammate?

Great. Just a fantastic individual. I pitched a ball game, a 12-inning ball game against the 1960 Pirates. Myself and Bob Friend, we both pitched 12 innings. Stan hit a home run for me in the top of the 12th and put me up 3-1 and the score [had been] 1-1. They came back and scored a run. Nowadays, you’re out of the game. They got that pitch count, which I don’t believe in. I told Stan, I says, “I’m gonna take you out for a cocktail.” He says, “No, you’re coming with me.” So that’s the type of guy he was.

For everything you accomplished in the big leagues, does it ever bother you that people mostly remember you as being part of the Lou Brock trade?

Like I’ve told Lou before, I says, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go before me because I’ll be forgotten.’

________________________________

Other recent interviews: Bob Watson, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn