Official Scoring Is “Officially” Meaningless

My hackles went up before a single out was recorded in the first spring training game I watched.

With the Pittsburgh Pirates hosting the Toronto Blue Jays in Bradenton and with runners on first and second, no one out, Jose Bautista hit a sharp ground ball off starter James McDonald directly to third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

Let me clarify “directly”. Alvarez didn’t have to take a step in any direction. The ball hit him square on his glove. Alvarez muffed it. Instead of playing the ball cleanly as any major leaguer should, he kicked the ball around a couple of times before locating it in the dirt between his legs. As a result, a run scored.

Broadcaster Bob Walk wondered out loud if Baustista’s grounder would be scored a hit or an error. But I hadn’t the slightest doubt: Hit!

When Walk announced the official scorer’s decision, he offered the age old baseball excuse that Bautista’s easy out was “too hot to handle”.

Later in the game, Bautista was credited with a double when left fielder Matt Diaz butchered a pop up. Really, you would be disappointed if you Little Leaguer didn’t make the play Diaz mangled.

More than the nonsensical save, the laughable “quality start,” or the absurd pitch count, nothing annoys me more than the watered down official scoring wherein any hard hit ball or any fly that turns an outfielder around is automatically designated a hit.

I don’t know when or why it happened but generous (to the batter) scoring is baseball’s unspoken disgrace. There’s no explanation because while it may, in my example today, help the terrible fielding Alvarez maintain an artificially high fielding average or give Bautista’s offensive stats a boost (a single and a RBI), it also works to the detriment of the pitcher, in this case McDonald, who should not have been charged with an earned run.

Here’s an exercise for those of you who score or are casual observers of baseball games. As the game you’re watching progresses, make a notation of how many balls put into play that should be converted into outs are scored as hits. Your total will vary from game to game but by the end of the season, I’ll estimate that you’ll average at least two.

Since baseball has developed a whole new set of statistics for pitching and hitting, the time has come for different and more realistic official fielding standards too. Bill James has his Fielding Bible which, it strikes me, is too complex for the average (or even advanced) fan.

This, for example, from James’ overview of his Plus/Minus system:

“The computer totals all softly hit ground balls on Vector 17, for     example, and determines that these types of batted balls are converted into outs by the shortstop only 26 percentage of the time. Therefore, if, on this occasion, the shortstop converts a slowly hit ball on Vector 17 into an out, that’s a heck of a play, and it scores at +.74. The credit for the play made, 1.00, minus the expectation that it should be made, which is 0.26. If the play isn’t made—by anybody—it’s -.26 for the shortstop.”

I have in mind something much simpler. In Alvarez’s case, it would be BEGB [HH]/CTR= Booted Easy Ground Ball [Hard Hit]/Cost Team a Run.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Ron Santo

Claim to fame: Santo just might be the best eligible baseball player not in the Hall of Fame, depending on one’s views of Jeff Bagwell, Bill Dahlen, or a few others. Santo was certainly one of the most-beloved non-enshrined players even before his death at 70 in December. In 15 seasons, he was a nine-time All Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, and, together with Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, one of the top Chicago Cubs in the 1960s. His career WAR of 66.7, while not iconic, ranks among the best for eligible players not in Cooperstown. The question is if all this is enough for a plaque.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Santo exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1998, peaking with 43.1 percent of the vote, well below the needed 75 percent. That leaves him for the Veterans Committee to consider, though as Joe Posnanski wrote in December, “The structure and standards of the committee changed so that in the last 10 or more years the Veteran’s Committee has turned into a grumpy bunch of scrooges who seemed to come out once a year for the expressed purpose of not voting for Ron Santo or Marvin Miller.”

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? I’ll start by saying Santo would be far from the worst Veterans Committee pick. I’d have him in the Hall of Fame over Nellie Fox, Rick Ferrell, or just about any former teammate Frankie Frisch railroaded into Cooperstown in his years heading the committee. But that’s not the best way to get a guy into the Hall of Fame. Posnanski wrote something about this last summer.

Posnanski wrote:

The reason this is fairly useless (but enjoyable) is that nobody really believes the Hall of Fame line is drawn at the most controversial choices. Nobody wants a Hall of Fame that includes every single player who was ever as good as or better than George Kelly or Herb Pennock. Then, suddenly, you find yourself arguing why Danny Darwin is not in the Hall of Fame, and nobody really wants to have THAT argument (except maybe Danny Darwin, I don’t know).

The line has to be drawn somewhere, and where it sits now, guys like Santo and Gil Hodges are sentimental favorites for fans, but fence cases statistically. I heard someone refer to Santo a few months before his death as one of the living legends not in the Hall of Fame, and that seems a little over the top, given his .277 batting average, 342 home runs, and OPS+ of 125, among other things. Still, he exceeds the Gray Ink standard on career stats for Cooperstown and comes close on two other metrics, so there may be more worth exploring here.

Of course, stats aren’t everything. So much of making Cooperstown comes down to what the player means to fans, writers, and baseball folk, and with that I’ll offer one more thing. A few months ago, I organized a voter-driven project to find the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame, and Santo tied for second with Roberto Alomar. I mention this as Alomar and our first place winner, Bert Blyleven each were subsequently voted into Cooperstown by the baseball writers. While I’m absolutely not taking any credit here (as it would be hilariously ridiculous), perhaps this is a good omen for Santo when he’s next eligible with the Veterans Committee in 2012.

He’s well-regarded. At some point, perhaps that will be enough.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert Belle, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

MVPs for a team's second-best player

I’ve never delved in to win shares on my own blog, but will here today. But first, what are ‘Win Shares’?

Win shares are the creation of the master himself: Bill James. They are a really fun and outstanding metric James first introduced in his 2002 book Win Shares. Bill uses his system to assign a certain number of win shares for each player on a particular team, based on that player’s offensive, defensive and pitching contributions to the team. The statistics are also park-adjusted, league-adjusted and era-adjusted. Of course, Bill is also dealing in advanced metrics – sabermetrics – and not in RBI, wins, etc.

More to the mechanics of it, a win share is a third of a team win. So when the Giants won 92 games in 2010, they had 276 win shares to go around. We won’t go into the complicated formula, we haven’t the time, and so you’ll just have to buy the book. The basic idea is to determine how many win shares each player on a particular team deserves, to determine how valuable each player was. Often, we give too much credit to the offense while taking away from the importance of defense. We won’t do that here, not today.

This brings us to the topic of the day: Most Valuable Player awards. There’s always a lot of debate on this subject. Should it go to the leagues best player? Should it go to the player that was most valuable to his team? Does that player get extra credit if his team makes the playoffs? These are all very fair questions. I won’t bore you with my own convictions.

When the award comes out, there isn’t always consensus on who should have actually won… “There’s no way Ryan Howard should have won, Albert Pujols had a way better season!” It happens. It happens often. A lot of the time, though, the player that loses comes from another team that just didn’t play as well overall; the deserving player was simply overlooked. But how often do they give the award to a player that wasn’t even the best player on his own team?

You’d think it’d be a whole lot harder to overlook a better player when he’s on the same team as the guy that won the award. I assure you, though, it’s not. Would you believe, since 2002, it’s happened close to 20% of the time? With win shares, I’ll show you.

I looked at each season’s voting from 2002, the year of the release of James’ transcendent book, to the present.

There have been 18 MVP winners since 2002, nine American League winners and nine for the National League. I love symmetry. The NL winners, in order: Barry Bonds, Bonds, Bonds, Pujols, Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Pujols, Pujols, Joey Votto. For the AL: Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Rodriguez, Justin Morneau, Rodriguez, Dustin Pedroia, Joe Mauer and Josh Hamilton. Note: Bonds, Pujols and Rodriguez are greedy buggers.

From 2002-2005 we had some close calls, but the better player on the same team at least won the MVP. In 2006, that changed. Since 2006, I can find three out of ten players (30%) that won MVPs that weren’t even their club’s best player.

Justin Morneau is an excellent player. He had an excellent season in 2006. It just wasn’t that excellent. There were probably upwards of 10 players who had better seasons, pitchers and hitters included. One of those players was Grady Sizemore. Another was teammate Joe Mauer. Go figure.

According to Baseball-reference, Mauer was worth 7.0 wins above replacement (WAR), Morneau just 4.2. Mauer had a slash line of .347/.429/.507 (AVG/OBP/SLG) while winning the batting title — his first of three so far — and playing the much more important position of catcher. Morneau hit .321/.375/.559 while playing the far less important first base, and really not all that well if we’re keeping track of that sort of thing. But Morneau drove in 130 runs to Mauer’s 84 and took home the AL MVP.

Bill James Online (subscription) shows Mauer was far and away the better player with 30 win shares to Morneau’s 26. We have our first flub.

The voters wasted no time and did it again in 2007. Jimmie Rollins is another excellent player. He just wasn’t as good as perennially underrated teammate Chase Utley, at least not that season. It’s also worth mentioning that Pujols was the best player that season with 8.3 WAR, but I guess the voters decided he can’t win every season.

Rollins played every game that season for the Phillies, won a Gold Glove and hit .296/.344.531 with 94 RBI. Teammate Chase Utley hit .332/.410/.566, drove in 107 and did not win the Gold Glove — he’s been hosed more than once, never won one. It’s hard to say why they missed Utley, but they did.

Well, it’s not that hard when it comes down to it using James’ win shares. They each finished with 28 (Utley had 28.04 and Rollins had 27.79). This one isn’t such an egregious mistake, but still.

Again, wasting no time at all, it happened once more in 2008, this time again in the AL. The city: Boston. Joe Mauer probably deserved the award with a ridiculous 8.7 WAR to lead the pack in the AL, but Dustin Pedroia won it.

Everyone loves a gritty, small player that’s way better than he should be. Everyone loves David Eckstein, and he’s not even very good. Pedroia is. He’s really good. He just wasn’t as good as teammate Kevin Youkilis who was worth 6.0 WAR – Or Twins catcher Mauer, as I mentioned.

Pedroia hit .326/.376/.493 while leading the league with 213 hits, 54 doubles and 118 runs. It was quite a remarkable season for a second baseman. There’s no doubt about it. He also took home the Gold Glove. Meanwhile, Youkilis hit .312/.390/.568 with 115 RBI and 29 home runs while playing first, third and a (very) little outfield.

Again, James has Youk the best player on the team with 27 win shares to Pedroia’s 26. This is another close call, but the award didn’t go to even the best player on one team.

The award voters have wised up with the Cy Young award – Felix Hernandez won it for the AL in 2010 with just 13 wins to 12 losses — maybe they’ll reform when voting for the MVP too. But I won’t hold my breath. And, apologies to players like Utley, the Gold Glove voting is even further behind with the managers and coaches in charge of voting. They often go to the incumbents, the players with defensive reputations, and somewhat ironically, those players that performed well offensively.

______________

Rory Paap writes PaapFly.com and regularly contributes articles to this Web site as well as TheHardballTimes.com

Is It Better To Buy or Develop?

While watching the Kansas City Royals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers on MLB.com the other day, the question entered my mind as to which road was better taken when building up a good baseball team.

I suppose the question really came to mind after listening to a conversation with Royals GM Dayton Moore.  The Royals starting line-up was made up mostly of “can’t miss” prospects, most of whom will begin the year in AA with (name of team).  The hope expressed by Moore was that by 2012, the year the Royals host the all-star game, most, if not all of these players, would be finding success at the major league level with the parent club.

We all know that the baseball landscape is littered with high draft picks who never found any sustained major league success or for that matter, any major league time at all.  The vast majority of high round draft picks never reach the majors let alone the lofty heights forecast for them by major league scouts and GMs.

Small market teams who have seen limited or no success in recent years, many with high draft picks, have little or no margin for error and must decide between the best available athlete or a player who could fill a pressing need a few years down the road at the big league level.  They stand to lose another year of system development if they make the wrong choice and more money which they can ill afford.

Big market teams with big payrolls can make mistakes as their resources and already at the big league level talent can, in most cases, compensate for what sometimes turns out to be an ill advised and wasted pick.

Signing free agents, while it has it’s own inherent element of risk, allows a team to add an established and more veteran player to their line-up.  A weakness can be addressed immediately or an area of strength can be protected against poor performance or injury.  The richer and more successful teams with few holes to fill can use this market to quickly jump back into competition or solidify their already dominant position.  Their farm system is a luxury which can be used to acquire veteran players to stabilize or improve a team as the season moves forward.

Their poorer or less successful brethren must decide between the two options or some reasonable balance.  They must decide if their long suffering fans will be able to endure more seasons of mediocrity while awaiting the promise of better days to come.  How long will these fans wait and what will be the consequences of yet another rebuilding five years or more process?

This is where the double edged Catch 22 syndrome can waylay the best laid plans of mice and GMs should the determination of those involved waver.  We have often witnessed the following scenario-as a farm system finally bears fruit and produces some genuine major league stars, those players when they become eligible for arbitration and eventually free agency, begin to demand monies commiserate with their abilities and track record.  Or they tire of toiling for unproductive teams and seek greener pastures with more successful organizations.

Pay them what they demand or trade them for prospects and begin the process once again?  The dangers here are panicking and overpaying or allowing those players to leave and alienating your long suffering fan base. If payment is your preferred option, a player who suddenly declines for reasons of age, injury  or  thanks for the pay check I’ll sit around and watch now will absorb much of your budget and will be
untradeable no matter how little is demanded in exchange for his services.  Starting over again can further alienate an already critical fan base and can lead to apathy.  Fans will turn to other diversions or simply stay at home.

The best choice seems to be ownership which cares enough to develop and nurture a productive farm system which can then be used to acquire veteran players as needed. A commitment to hiring baseball savvy GMs and organizational people and a love of the game are the key elements to such a plan.  A willingness to spend the necessary money to keep those star prospects which have been developed over a few years and the ability to differentiate between good player and bad.

I know-much easier said than done.

Adiós to the Santurce Cangrejeros, the New York Yankees of the Puerto Rico Winter League

While researching my post about Big George Crowe, I learned that the Santurce Cangrejeros, one of the greatest Puerto Rico Winter League teams of all time for which many Major League stars played, is out of business.

Because of faltering attendance from 2000-2004, the Santurce team moved to two smaller island cities, first Manatí and then Arecibo. Now, with no games played during the 2010-2011 season and none scheduled in the future, it appears that the franchise is gone forever.

While I wouldn’t describe the passing of the Cangrejeros as significant as the demise of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants or the Philadelphia Athletics, it’s nevertheless a serious blow to baseball history.

From 1955 to 1960 when I lived in Puerto Rico, I saw dozens of outstanding big league stars on the Santurce squads including the incomparable Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays and Crowe.

But Rubén Gómez, a marginally successful pitcher with the New York and San Francisco Giants, was Santurce and the Winter League’s most dominant player.  Over his amazing 29-year Puerto Rican career, Gómez posted a 179-119 mark while striking out 2,488. Both Gómez’s win total and strike outs are all-time records.

At 46, Gómez had enough left in his tank to shut out bitter cross-town rival San Juan.

Gómez attributed his durability to his outstanding athletic ability conditioning. Nicknamed “El Divino Loco” (the Divine Madman) because he used the tricky Sixto Escobar Stadium winds to his advantage, Gómez earned a master’s degree in physical education from the University of Puerto Rico and starred on the baseball and track teams.

When asked later in life about how his arm withstood all the innings pitched, Gómez said: “I lifted weights at home on a daily basis and at the university I would made 50 long throws of close to 400 feet from the outfield to home plate. That’s why my arm never bothered me. Even at 65, I didn’t have arthritis.”

Originally signed by the New York Yankees, the Bombers suspended Gómez for playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Eventually Gómez signed in 1953 with the Giants. One of the first Puerto Ricans to make his mark in the major leagues, Gómez broke in with a respectable 13-11 mark. He went 17-9 with a 2.88 ERA in 1954 and, with Johnny Antonelli and Sal Maglie, led the Giants to the World Championship over the heavily favored Cleveland Indians. In the third game, Gómez went the distance, pitching a four-hitter to dominate Indians’ starter Mike Garcia, 6-2.

Another Gómez performance was one for the ages. In 1958, the San Francisco Giants’ debut year after leaving the Polo Grounds, manager Bill Rigney tapped Gomez to pitch the first major league game ever played on the west coast. Gomez overwhelmed the Los Angeles Dodgers and Don Drysdale in a complete game masterpiece at Seals Stadium, 8-0.

Although Gómez last pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies in a cameo appearance in 1967, he was still a stand out in Puerto Rico. By the time his Winter League career ended a decade later in 1975-1976, Gómez had been on nine Santurce championship teams.

Gómez died in 2004 after a prolonged bout with complications from cancer.

The Great Friday Link Out X

  • The series Bill Miller and I have been doing on great players on bad teams lives on at his new space. I wrote today’s installment, and it’s on Jimmie Foxx and the 1935 Philadelphia Athletics.
  • There’s a longish, excellent piece in the new spring issue of The American Scholar on famed newspaper writer Ring Lardner and why he quit covering baseball after the 1919 World Series. It’s a great story for anyone who’d like a comprehensive look at baseball’s labor history, though I’d argue that Lardner abandoning the game for other subject matter wasn’t unprecedented. Heywood Broun did it later, Westbrook Pegler as well, and to some extent Damon Runyon, the only person I know of to cover a World Series and write a Broadway musical (Guys and Dolls.)
  • Can John Thorn Finally Erase Abner Doubleday? The thought here: no, sadly. A fan, and particularly a baseball commissioner, must be willfully ignorant to still proclaim Civil War hero Doubleday as the founder of the baseball. Why does the game still need a creation myth in the 21st century? What is wrong with the very well-documented truth?
  • The untold story by a 90-plus-year-old former ballplayer who caught Jackie Robinson’s ill-fated tryout for the Boston Red Sox in 1945. Part of being a baseball writer or historian is knowing there are so many of these stories out there that never get properly documented and die with the players involved. I’ll give a tip of my non-existent hat (since I rarely wear them) to the writer who contacted this player ahead of his death this last year.

Any player/Any era: Babe Ruth

What he did: Ruth may have been the greatest baseball player of all-time, perhaps the best athlete ever with all of his varied abilities, but I’ve noticed there’s a view of him today that seems pervasive. The idea, which I’ve seen in Baseball Think Factory forums and elsewhere, is that early greats like Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson would find themselves horribly out of shape if whisked from their eras to the modern game, sultans of sweat in flannel uniforms. They supposedly wouldn’t hold up against current competition.

But I think this does a disservice to the Babe. Fred Lieb, a New York sportswriter during Ruth’s years on the Yankees, offered an interesting anecdote in his 1977 memoir, Baseball As I Have Known It. Lieb wrote:

During the years that Babe was in his prime, a professor at Columbia College gave Ruth a thorough physical examination, testing such measurable traits as the speed of his muscular and nervous reactions to various stimuli. The New York Times, in recording the professor’s findings, gave the story the head ‘ONE MAN IN A MILLION.’ The report said nothing about Babe’s IQ, but in twenty categories, Babe ranked well above the average male. All of his five sense were keener and sharper than average. He also scored high in strength, response to stress, and reaction time. As I recall it, the professor explained: ‘Take twenty men off the street and you will find that several of them may score above average in two, three, or four of these tests, but it [is] only one in a million who will score above average in all twenty.’

I couldn’t find any record of this article in the New York Times archives. But supposing Lieb’s story is true, it leads me to believe Ruth would excel in pretty much any era. Playing in recent years, when his natural abilities could be strengthened with modern fitness there’s no telling what Ruth might do.

Era he might have thrived in: Ruth played his prime years in a Golden Age for hitters, the 1920s and early ’30s and in a ballpark literally built for him, old Yankee Stadium which boasted a short porch in right field that suited him as a left-handed pull hitter. Thus, in most other eras, Ruth’s numbers would drop, even if he remained relatively dominant to the rest of baseball. But if we put him on one of the top American League offensive juggernauts of the late 1990s, he might hit .400 or smack 70 home runs.

Why: All the reasons we’ve talked about so far would help Ruth in the 1990s. He’d go from one Golden Age for hitters to another, facing the same weak pitching. Ruth would also have access to modern strength training which wasn’t emphasized in baseball before the 1960s (and for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume Jose Canseco doesn’t turn Ruth on to steroids.) Ruth would retain all the same preternatural instincts and abilities that made him one of a kind in his own day. It’s a wonder, really, he achieved as much as he did. Talent can only take a person so far in life. In the 1990s, Ruth’s talent would be coaxed and developed.

The projected numbers speak for themselves. On the 1996 Texas Rangers, Ruth’s historic 60-home-run season in 1927 converts to 70 home runs, 201 RBI, and a .379 batting average. In fact, 12 of his 22 seasons convert to .370 or better on the ’96 Rangers, and the stat converter has him hitting above .400 for his converted 1923 and 1926 seasons. He also hits at least 60 home runs for his converted 1920, 1921, and 1928 years. The thought here is that if Ruth played most of his career on a team like the Rangers or the Kingdome-era Seattle Mariners or even the Yankees, he’d top 800 home runs lifetime.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

My interview with John Thorn

To anyone who missed it, one of my interview subjects from last year, John Thorn, was named official historian yesterday for Major League Baseball. Thorn has authored several books, including Total Baseball and served as senior creative consultant for the Ken Burns Baseball series that aired in 1994 on PBS. After seeing the news yesterday, I emailed John to see if he would be up for a phone interview. He agreed. Excerpts of our discussion from this morning are as follows:

I know when we talked about John Donaldson last June, one thing you told me was that you felt that the MLB didn’t care much about anything before World War II. I know you’re an expert on baseball before the modern era. The first thing I wanted to ask you is, as the new official historian, are you aiming to promote more awareness for baseball before World War II?

Thorn: I’m not coming in with an agenda, I’m not coming in with aims, and I believe that Major League Baseball’s preference for historic treatment of players for whom footage exists is natural in the age of the Web.

I wanted to ask you, too– this new job, how long has it been in the works for?

Thorn: Well, clearly, there were discussions underway for some period, but I prefer not to get into how the hot dog was made.

*                              *                              *

I know you’re taking over for Jerome Holtzman. No Cheering in the Press Box is one of the books I have on–

Thorn: I’m not taking over for Jerome. The position was created for Jerome. He occupied it from 1999 until his death in 2008, and I think the position was really identified with him, and no immediate successor was appointed. I’m thinking that Major League Baseball selecting me as its official historian after something of a gap after Jerome’s passing can be taken as an interest in my taking an active role in making baseball’s history more accessible.

I know Jerome was great on oral histories… What do you think that you bring to this role different than what Jerome would have offered?

Thorn: Jerome loved baseball history and made baseball history through the creation of the save. He had tremendous curiosity. His knowledge of the game was broad but sharpest of course during the period of his active reporting. I think I may have more interest and background in primitive baseball, in other words baseball before the major leagues. This was not an area of interest for Jerome.

I know you have a book due out, what is it, two weeks from now. Are you planning to keep writing?

Thorn: Yeah, yeah. That’s what I do. There may be some writing involved on behalf of Major League Baseball– that’s yet to be determined– and I will continue to write books as subjects come up that are of interest. Writing Baseball in the Garden of Eden, taking as many years with that as I did was a bit exhausting, so I don’t trust myself to identify the subject of my next book.

You said you worked on that book more or less for like 25 years, right?

Thorn: The research was well over 25 years, and the writing of the book was probably six or seven. It’s not that I was doing nothing but [writing], but this was firmly lodged between my ears for all that time. It’s a subject dear to my heart, and one to which I’ve devoted a great deal of time, and I think I found a great deal that’s not in print anywhere else and will transform our understanding of how baseball came to be, the game that we love today.

What do you think might be missing from baseball’s archives or baseball’s lore right now that you might be able to help uncover? Do you have any idea of what you might be looking for?

Thorn: No, no. You never know what you’re going to find, and I’m not going to be conducting independent forays and then suggesting to Major League Baseball that it memorialize… such things. I am now working for Major League Baseball, and I will serve at its pleasure.

*                              *                              *

I know for promoting your book, I heard you established a new Web site that points out some of the old 19th century players. I know earlier, you were saying you’re going in with no stated agenda, but do you think you’re going to try to do anything to bring light to some of these players you put up on this Web site?

Thorn: Graham, that’s an excellent question, but I think it reflects a misunderstanding of what my role in Major League Baseball is going to be. They’re not looking for me to come in and point out neglected stars from 1902. The baseball Hall of Fame takes care of that, and while I have my favorites, and I’ve written about my favorites, I don’t have any particular wish to install such people officially within Cooperstown or Park Avenue….

John Donaldson was the subject of our discussion earlier, and I’m not championing Donaldson or José Méndez or any particular ancient star. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I did previously on my own. I’m not one for advocacy.

I believe institutions ought to do what they are inclined to do. The baseball Hall of Fame installs people in its gallery that it thinks are worthy. I might have different opinions, and you might have different opinions, and that’s perfectly okay.

Other interviews: Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, Josh Wilker, John Thorn, Hank Greenwald

Remembering Duke Snider

Duke Snider and I were never in the same place at the same time. When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, the Dodgers were playing in Brooklyn. By the time Snider arrived in Los Angeles, my family had moved to Puerto Rico. And when Snider got to New York in 1963 to play out the string for the Mets, I was still two years away from starting my career in Manhattan.

Snider, as far as I was concerned as a youth, was just another big league star I would never see. When my California friends and I debated about whether baseball’s best center fielder was Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Snider, we always added the Hollywood Stars’ Carlos Bernier to the equation. Bernier played just one year in the majors, 1953 when he hit .213 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he thrived in the Pacific Coast League, every bit as good an outfit as the show in our opinion. In 16 seasons in the minors overall, Bernier hit .298 with 2,291 hits and 200 home runs.

As an adult, I’ve gotten to know more about Snider. His death on February 26 came only a few days after I had taken the Yankee Stadium tour that devotes a large section of its museum to the Golden Era of New York baseball, 1949 to 1957, and displayed old uniforms, photographs and equipment from the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers from that period.

To imagine three players as great as Mays, Mantle and Snider in the same metropolitan area all at once is hard to fully grasp. During the only four years that they all played in New York, in 1954 the center fielders averaged 36 home runs, 114 RBIs and .327; 1955, 43, 121 and .312; 1956, 40, 105 and .314 and 1957, 36, 94 and .324

During that period, Snider dominated in homers (165) and RBIs (449) while Mantle led in batting average.

Snider’s relationship with the fans was often contentious. In 1955 Snider told sportswriter Bill Gilbert that “The Brooklyn fans are the worst in the league. They don’t deserve a pennant.” Then a year later, because of a Collier’s article titled “I Play Baseball for Money—Not Fun,” Snider took another public relations bashing.

Never one to mince words, Snider once gave manager Walter Alston a piece of his mind. In 1954, Alston’s first season as the Dodger’s manager, Snider was taking batting practice during spring training. Alston, standing next to the cage, asked Snider if he always held his back leg so deep in the batter’s box. Replied Snider, “I hit forty-two home runs in the big leagues last year. Where did you make your mistakes?” Snider’s barb was a reference to Alston’s single plate appearance as a St. Louis Cardinals when Lon Warneke struck him out on three straight pitches.

Whatever Snider’s true personality may have been, on the field he had few equals. As my final tribute to the Duke, I offer this 1956 Sports Illustrated scouting report:

“Physically, the perfect ballplayer—tremendous left-handed power, vast fielding skill, a fine arm. Last year, hit .309 with 42 home runs, 136 runs batted in.”

Watch a video of Snider almost breaking up Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game here.

Other recent passings: Chuck Tanner, George Crowe, Art Mahan, Gil McDougald, Billy Raimondi

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Jim Edmonds

Claim to fame: Four-time All Star and eight-time Gold Glove center fielder Edmonds announced his retirement on February 18 at 40. His 393 home runs, 1,949 hits, and .284 lifetime batting average seem a little pedestrian for much of his era, one of the greatest periods for hitters in baseball history, though Edmonds’ stats compare favorably with a number of Hall of Fame outfielders including Jim Rice and the recently-deceased Duke Snider. His chances for Cooperstown look promising.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Edmonds will first be eligible for enshrinement through the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2016, with a maximum of 15 years on their ballot.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Was Edmonds ever the best player in his league? No, but he came close a few times, finishing in the top five in National League MVP voting in 2000 and again in 2004. Was he, at any point in his career, the best player at his position? Maybe, depending on one’s opinions of Ken Griffey Jr., Andruw Jones, and Carlos Beltran. Was Edmonds ever much more than a very good player? Maybe not, but he was very good in so many facets of his game. That has to count for something.

In his prime, Edmonds offered 40-home run power, a .300 batting average, Gold Glove-caliber defense, and near-MVP WAR. Barry Bonds didn’t do all this in his biggest offensive years (though he did it early in his career.) Alex Rodriguez has done it, as have Albert Pujols and Griffey, and maybe a small number of others. Without checking, I’d guess it’s one of the feats that’s remained consistently rare between eras, steroids or no. Well-rounded players aren’t easy to come by. Guys like Edmonds are probably more valuable than they’re given credit for. I suspect he’ll be one of the more underrated Hall of Fame candidates when the time comes.

Is Edmonds a first ballot Hall of Famer? I doubt it. Snider, who hit 407 home runs with a .295 lifetime batting average, needed 11 ballots before his induction in 1980. Rice, with 382 home runs and a .298 clip, needed 15. While Edmonds hit for a lower batting average in a better offensive era (though Snider and Rice each played their best years in prime hitter’s enclaves, Ebbets Field and Fenway Park), Edmonds’ lifetime WAR of 68.3 bests Rice (41.5) and Snider (just barely, 67.5.) In addition, Edmonds’ OPS+ of 132, while less than dozens of non-enshrined players including Will Clark, Albert Belle, and Mark McGwire, bests Rice at 128, but falls short of Snider at 140.

The thought here is that unless an old, positive steroid test emerges for Edmonds, we’ll see him inducted into Cooperstown somewhere within 5-10 years after he debuts on the ballot. Some purists and Hall of Fame restrictionists may bemoan the eventual presence in Cooperstown of a second-tier honoree like Edmonds (because he’s no Ruth or Mays or Aaron, not that many players really are.) All the same, I doubt the Hall of Fame will be any worse for it.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert Belle, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack MorrisJoe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark