Nig Clarke Goes 8 for 8 with 8 Home Runs

Editor’s Note: Joe Guzzardi’s Friday series “Double the Fun” has ended. It will return next baseball season
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I’m not impressed!

Sure, Prince Fielder hit three titanic home runs Tuesday night off soon-to-be former Pittsburgh Pirates starter Ross Ohlendorf. That still leaves Fielder five behind Jay Justin “Nig” Clarke who, on June 15, 1902, belted eight round trippers for the Corsicana Oil Citys as they hammered their Texas League rival Texarakana Casketmakers, 51-3. Since runs batted in were not an official statistic in the early 20th Century, historians can only estimate that Clarke drove in between 16 and 20 runs.

To this day, the final score is in dispute. Telegraph operators, not believing their eyes, reported the score as 5-3 and changed Clarke’s “8” homers to 3. As recently as 1965, the Dallas Morning-News uncovered evidence that Corsicana manager and first baseman Mike O’Connor had inflated the totals.

According to the original newspaper account: “The official scorer lost his head, but the foxy manager of the Oil City boys has discovered a tabulated record which goes as the official figures. He realizes the benefits in swelling batting averages …” Nevertheless, in an interview late in his life, Clarke recalled his 8 epic home runs “as if they were yesterday.”

Naturally, the left- handed hitting Clarke benefited from the 210 foot right field fence. Still, assuming each of Clarke’s homers went at least 250 feet, by the end of that June afternoon his balls had travelled 2,000 feet. I estimate the aggregate distance of Fielder’s 3 blasts at 1,100 feet. I should add that if the roof at Miller Park had been open, one of them would still be in orbit.

During the 2 hour and 10 minute game, the Oil Citys collected 59 base hits that included 20 homers. But before you totally dismiss Clarke’s historic day, keep in mind that the Casketmakers didn’t hit a single round-tripper.

Unfortunately for Clarke, his major league career was less spectacular. In a fifteen year career with the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Naps, St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates, Clarke only hit 9 homers. Clarke did however hit .358 in 1906.

Clarke’s big league years included one wonderful game. On October 2, 1908 Clarke caught Addie Joss’ perfect game, at that time only the fourth in baseball history. Clarke had a well-deserved reputation as an outstanding defensive catcher from baseball’s harshest critic, Ty Cobb.

After Clarke caught his last game for the Pirates, he returned to the minor leagues where he hit .266 and played until he turned 42.

Any player/Any era: Billy Beane

What he did: This was originally going to be a column about Branch Rickey. With the premier of Moneyball in theaters last week, I figured it might be interesting to see how Rickey would do in Beane’s place as general manager for the Oakland Athletics. If ever there was an executive who succeeded with limited resources, it was Rickey, who invented the farm system in St. Louis and later made perennial contenders out of also-rans in Brooklyn. He didn’t fare as well at the last stop of his career in Pittsburgh, though his shrewd move plucking Roberto Clemente from the Dodger minors kept the Pirates relevant long after Rickey left town. Rickey might make a good subject here at some point, though for our purposes this week, it dawned on me that the Mahatma and Beane might help each other.

There’s a scene early in the book version of Moneyball where a young Beane sprints against a couple other top prospects in the 1980 draft, his speed and other suite of skills tantalizing enough for the New York Mets to make him a first-round pick. Beane didn’t amount to much as a player, though, and the scene mainly serves to show his disdain for valuing young prospects specifically for raw talent. But Beane might have been a good project for Rickey, who valued speed perhaps as much as any other skill and who resolved early on that if he lacked the money to sign established players, he’d simply develop his own. His systems produced Stan Musial, Johnny Mize, and Joe Medwick, among others, and I only wonder what fellow outfielder Beane might have done for him.

Era he might have thrived in: We’ll place Beane on the Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals of the 1930s which Medwick was an integral member of, Mize joined at the tail end, and Musial just missed. With his speed and brash personality, Beane would have fit right in and been in a better situation than he was with the Mets.

Why: Certainly, the Mets of the 1980s produced a huge number of talented young players: Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, and Gregg Jefferies all come to mind, and perhaps New York of those years was what St. Louis was half a century earlier. But for all the successes, Beane was a noted failure in his development, being pushed too early, ultimately hitting just .219 lifetime, and playing his last game in the majors at 27. With the Cardinals, Beane might not even be in the show at that age, and if he was, it’d only be because he was absolutely ready to go and be an asset to St. Louis. Rickey liked to keep a good veteran or two around on his bush league teams to help the young players. It’s why guys like Harry Walker took so long to make the big leagues.

So Beane would have a better chance at properly developing into a good all-around player for the Cardinals. And if he stuck with the route he’s gone in real life, becoming a scout shortly after quitting playing and eventually matriculating to the front office, Beane would be learning from the organization of arguably the greatest executive baseball has ever known. I can only wonder about what Rickey might have been able to teach Beane and what the meeting of the minds could have been like for two men devoted to innovation and exploiting baseball’s inefficiencies. True, Beane might not be played in any movie these days by Brad Pitt, a bizarre, wonderful fluke for the sabermetric community if there ever was one. But Beane could wind up with just as worthy of a legacy, if not better.

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 PujolsBabe RuthBad News Rockies,Barry BondsBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob Watson,Bobby VeachCarl MaysCharles Victory FaustChris von der Ahe,Denny McLainDom DiMaggioEddie LopatFrank HowardFritz MaiselGavvy CravathGeorge CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus Wagner, Hugh CaseyIchiro SuzukiJack ClarkJackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Matty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertPaul DerringerPete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey Henderson,Roberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam Thompson,Sandy KoufaxSatchel PaigeShoeless Joe JacksonStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTy CobbVada PinsonWally Bunker, Will Clark, Willie Mays

Jack Sanford: “A Damn Good Buick”

These are dark days for San Francisco Giants fans. Since August, they have had a growing sense of dread that 2011 just wasn’t going to be another miracle year. Missing from their late season roster are not only the high profile Buster Posey, Freddie Sanchez and Brian Wilson but also others who played important roles last year like Nate Schierholtz and Jeremy Affeldt.

As I watched Tim Lincecum Sunday in his final outing, I was reminded of Jack Sanford another bulldog Giants’ pitcher. Although Sanford was the Giants’ losing pitcher in the 1962 seventh game against the New York Yankees, he was one of the best of his era.

Sanford, a right-hander, also pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies, the California Angels and the Kansas City Athletics in his 12-year major career during which he posted a 137-101 record with a 3.69 earned run average.

In his 1957 Rookie of the Year season with the Phillies, Sanford notched a 19-8 record with a league leading 188 strike outs. But Sanford suffered a sophomore jinx and went 10-13 in 1958. Then a post-season trade sent Sanford to San Francisco for pitcher Ruben Gomez and catcher Valmy Thomas in what turned out to be a great deal for the Giants and Sanford.

Sanford pitched seven solid years for the Giants and had his best year in 1962 when he went 24-8, winning 16 straight games and leading the Giants to their first pennant in San Francisco. The Giants beat the Dodgers in a best-of-three playoff series.

During the World Series, Sanford pitched three games against the Yankees whose roster included Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Sanford went 1-2 with a 1.93 ERA. He pitched a three-hit 2-0 shutout in Game 2 and struck out 10 in a 5-3 loss in Game 5.

Game 7 was one of the greatest pitching duels in World Series history. While Ralph Terry carried a perfect game into the sixth inning and a two-hit shutout into the ninth, Sanford was almost as effective. He gave up seven hits in seven innings, the only run coming on a 6-4-3 double play in the fifth inning when Tony Kubek grounded to Jose Pagan to Chuck Hiller to Willie McCovey. For Terry, who won 23 games, his masterpiece redeemed him personally for the 1960 gopher ball he served up to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski.

In a play that longtime Giants have indelibly etched in their memories, McCovey lined out to second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the game with runners stranded on second and third.

Sanford, who pitched more than 200 innings in each of his first five seasons with San Francisco and topped the National League with 42 starts in 1963, suffered a shoulder injury in 1964 that limited him to 18 games. In 1965, the Giants traded Sanford to the California Angels. Moved to the bullpen, Sanford recorded a league-high 12 wins in relief in 1966.

An excellent hitting pitcher, Sanford went all out on the base paths. “It seemed like he hit a triple in about five games one year, and every time, (reliever) Stu Miller got ready to come in,” retired San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Bob Stevens once said. “He knew Sanford would be exhausted.”

When Sanford, a notoriously tough competitor, lost a game beat reporters never approached him.

Stevens came up with the classic line that compared Sanford to an automobile.

Here’s the whole quote:

Sanford didn’t get a lot of credit because he wasn’t a classic-looking pitcher. He was a bulky guy who would be a small-size right tackle on the football team. He wasn’t delicate. He was out there to throw the baseball and he did it well. He wasn’t afraid to brush back a hitter. He was an old-school pitcher. He wasn’t a Cadillac but he was a damn good Buick.

Undeserving Hall of Famers

Editor’s note: Please welcome Alex Putterman to the site. At 17, Alex is the youngest person to ever post here, though that wouldn’t be apparent from his fine writing. Alex tackles a topic a few others have suggested to me in the past but I’ve shied away from writing about. I’ve devoted a lot of space to the best players not in the Hall of Fame. Today, Alex takes on another question: Who are the worst?

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame has always prided itself on exclusivity. Enshrinement in Cooperstown is considered the most prestigious honor a ballplayer can attain, an assurance of his permanent standing among the all-time greats. To be a Hall of Famer is to claim the same distinction as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and all the greatest baseball players.

Sharing in that honor, however, are a whole cast of undeserving and under-qualified others. I took to sorting through the 221 players (excluding Negro Leaguers) currently honored in Cooperstown and was unnerved by the inconsistency and injustice of so many Hall of Fame selections. Earl Averill? Rabbit Maranville? Ray Schalk? These so-called “greats” make Tim Raines looks like Willie Mays.

Guided by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), as calculated by baseball-reference.com, I created two categories of unqualified Hall of Famers:

  1. Those who are unquestionably undeserving
  2. Those whose merit is uncertain but worth discussing.

Having seen few of these guys play, I relied primarily on statistics to analyze their qualifications. OPS+ and ERA+ are very helpful in reconciling era and ballpark differences, and WAR gives a great general idea of a player’s worth. I also considered the given player’s level of dominance over his peers, looking favorably upon impressive peaks and giving credit for leading the league in important categories and contending for major awards.

I’ll further explain specific cases as we go on, but first, here’s list one, the players who I resolutely believe do not deserve a spot in Cooperstown, with career WAR totals included for reference:

  • Hughie Jennings- 46.4
  • Roger Bresnahan- 41.6
  • Tommy McCarthy- 19.0
  •  Joe Tinker- 49.2
  • Clark Griffith- 52.8
  •  Johnny Evers- 48.4
  • Jack Chesbro- 32.5
  • Frank Chance- 49.5
  • Herb Pennock- 38
  • Dizzy Dean- 41.8
  • Chief Bender- 41.9
  • Rabbit Maranville- 38.2
  • Ray Schalk- 22.6
  • Eppa Rixey- 48.4
  • Heinie Manush- 44.1
  • Burleigh Grimes- 42.8
  • Lloyd Waner- 24.3
  • Waite Hoyt- 45.1
  • Jesse Haines- 30.5
  • Earle Combs- 43.7
  • Rube Marquard- 24.2
  • Harry Hooper- 52.5
  • Chick Hafey- 29.5
  • Dave Bancroft- 46.4
  • Ross Youngs- 36.2
  • Lefty Gomez- 38.2
  • George Kelly- 24.3
  • Jim Bottomley- 32.4
  • Earl Averill- 45
  • Freddie Lindstrom- 29.2
  • Hack Wilson- 39.1
  • Chuck Klein- 39.2
  • Travis Jackson- 43.3
  • George Kell- 33.6
  • Rick Ferrell- 22.9
  • Catfish Hunter- 32.5
  • Red Schoendienst- 40.4
  • Phil Rizzuto- 30.8
  • Vic Willis- 50.4
  • Rollie Fingers- 24.3
  • Tony Perez- 50.5
  • Bill Mazeroski- 26.9
  • Bruce Sutter- 24.3
  • Goose Gossage- 39.5
  • Jim Rice- 45.1

Various factors have led to unjust Hall of Fame inductions. Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance were solid players; both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests all were excellent defenders at their positions. But each of this trio owes his Cooperstown plaque to the famous 1910 poem describing their double-play combination. None of the three owns a WAR above 50 and none of the three ever led his league in any Triple Crown category (Chance’s 1905 on-base percentage crown is the only slash-line title among the three of them).

Bill Mazeroski has deservedly enjoyed recognition for his walk-off home run to end the 1960 World Series, but his 26.9 WAR suggest he was far from Hall-worthy (Raul Mondesi, for context, compiled a career WAR of 27.2). Despite being a fine defensive second baseman, Maz was no offensive star, posting a career OPS+ of only 83. Phil Rizzuto, another well-remembered middle infielder, posted similarly meager offensive stats, and his induction too seems questionable.

Dizzy Dean was, for three years, among the most dominant starters in the National League, but his prime was short-lived and his career on the whole not Hall-caliber. Dean isn’t the only player to make the Hall of Fame on the basis of short-term success. Chuck Klein, Jim Rice and Catfish Hunter are other big names whose lack of production before and after their short peaks make them unworthy HOF inductees. And Hack Wilson’s historic 191 RBI in 1930 belie his extreme lack of longevity; Wilson played only 1,348 career games and almost his entire career’s productivity came from one four-year stretch.

Several players owe their Cooperstown plaques to friends in high places. As chairman of the Hall of Fame’s Committee on Baseball Veterans, Hall of Fame second baseman Frankie Frisch successfully lobbied for the induction of a handful of undeserving former teammates, namely Jesse Haines, Dave Bancroft, Chick Hafey, Rube Marquard, Ross Youngs and George Kelly, all of whom occupy a spot on my list of undeniably under-qualified Hall of Famers. Put together, the career WAR of these six, 191.4, is only slightly higher than that of Babe Ruth alone.

Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage are among the few on my list of unworthy Hall of Famers whom some baseball people would consider legitimate inductees. To me, however, a closer pitching 100 innings a season, as these three did, can rarely impact a team more than a starting pitcher who hurls 250 innings per year. The trio’s respective WARs (an identical 24.3 for Fingers and Sutter and 39.5 for Gossage) back up my assumptions of a closer’s limited value. The guy pitching the ninth inning may be important, but he’s not more important than the guy who pitched the first seven.

The next list should be more debatable than the last, intended as thought-provoking rather than conclusive. These are the guys whose Hall of Fame inductions may not be travesties but whose resumes are nonetheless iffy, career WARs again included:

  • King Kelly- 47.5
  • Hugh Duffy- 49.6
  • Clark Griffith- 52.8
  • Pie Traynor- 37.1
  • Max Carey- 50.6
  •  Edd Roush- 46.5
  • Sam Rice- 51.1
  • Red Faber- 51.3
  • Kiki Cuyler- 49.6
  • Stan Coveleski- 48.5
  • Lou Boudreau- 56
  •  Joe Kelley- 55.5
  • Sam Thompson- 46.7
  • Ralph Kiner- 45.9
  • Bob Lemon- 51
  • Joe Sewell- 48.4
  • Amos Rusie- 62.1
  • Addie Joss- 37.9
  • Luis Aparicio- 49.9
  • Hoyt Wilhelm- 37.9
  • Lou Brock- 39.1
  • Ernie Lombardi- 39
  • Bobby Doerr- 47.7
  • Tony Lazzeri- 48.3
  • Hal Newhouser- 57.5
  • Nellie Fox- 44.4
  • Orlando Cepeda- 46.8
  • Kirby Puckett- 44.8
  • Dennis Eckersley- 58.3

Every once in a while a career WAR total seems completely counterintuitive. This list features both players whose WAR is surprisingly high and players whose WAR is surprisingly low. Amos Rusie is statistically one of the most baffling players in Cooperstown. Rusie, both standout pitcher and mediocre outfielder in the late 19th century, was alternately impressive and underwhelming throughout a ten-season career on the mound. So how does his WAR stand at a respectable 62.1? I’m not entirely sure. Evaluating pre-modern era players with advanced stats (or any stats for that matter) can get confusing, and Amos Rusie’s career represents the difficulty in drawing conclusions about 19th century stars, a recurring complication in assessing Hall of Fame worthiness.

The two most surprising WAR numbers came from a pair of players highly regarded during and after their careers. Lou Brock is 2nd all-time in stolen bases, a member of the 3,000 hit club and a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. Pie Traynor was, in 1969, chosen as the third baseman on baseball’s “Centennial Team” and in 1999 named the 70th best player of all-time by Sporting News. Yet both Brock and Traynor have WARs in the 30s and are, if you trust advanced statistics, unqualified for distinction in Cooperstown. Closer inspection reveals that Brock’s times caught stealing diminish the value of his stolen bases, that Traynor rarely walked, that neither had much power, and that both lose points for defense in the WAR formula. While those who saw and were impressed by Brock and Traynor deserve some benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to completely ignore the modern statistical evidence that appears to, in this case, contradict popular opinion.

Addie Joss and Kirby Puckett are interesting cases. Both were terrific players, had careers shortened by disease (meningitis for Joss, glaucoma for Puckett), finished with numbers short of typical Hall standards and were enshrined anyway. Voters were forced to consider whether to grant these stars a pass for their short careers given the extenuating medical circumstances. They did, opting not to punish Puckett and Joss for abbreviated careers.

On the other end of the career-length spectrum is Dennis Eckersley and his 24-year stint in the bigs. Eck is most remembered as a star closer, but his time in the rotation actually produced significantly more wins above replacement than did his closing years. We’ve already addressed the argument against closers in Cooperstown (side note: Hoyt Wilhelm is another tricky case because relievers in his time had very different roles than modern-day closers), and Eck wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber starter, but the combination of 12 years of a starter’s production and the longevity allowed by low inning-totals in the bullpen give him a WAR of 58.3, right in the company of borderline Hall of Famers.

I’ve only addressed a few players on these lists, but hopefully I have, through examples, conveyed the type of thinking I applied to determining the merits of each Hall of Famer. Consensus is near impossible with this sort of analysis, so I’m sure many will disagree with some of my categorizations, but I’m satisfied with having sorted through Cooperstown and, in my mind if not in reality, having narrowed the Hall of Fame to those truly deserving.

Baseball Present: All Roads Lead to Philadelphia

Sadly the 2011 baseball season is winding down but hey, the playoffs are set to begin very shortly and so it is time for the annual playoff prediction notwithstanding the fact that two spots are still up for grabs. I’ll go out on a limb and predict the final two spots and then who the ultimate winner will be. Of course I’m not putting any money on it which I’ve always held to be a wise thing to do considering the anything can happen today normality which is major league baseball.

The Boston Red Sox are fading fast and having to use Tim Wakefield to start games sure isn’t helping any. I’m pulling for Tampa Bay to get the wild card spot but logic tells me that Boston will survive. Despite their pitching problems, they are simply too talented not to get in. Tampa Bay are running out of games and have to face the New York Yankees in their final three. Even thought the Yankees have clinched the division, they have memories of Tampa Bay beating them and would like a little revenge. They can worry about the RedSox later, if and when.

St. Louis are chasing Atlanta and simply don’t have the pitching or the real Albert Pujols. Baseball is all about pitching and Atlanta have enough to capture the wild card. St. Louis are running out of games and need to hope Atlanta stumble again. Tony LaRussa has over managed the Cardinals lately and Fredi Gonzalez has just like his guys play. There have been too many off field distractions for St. Louis this season with Pujols and LaRussa rumored to be leaving, Gonzalez has replaced a legend and handled the pitching staff, (overused the relievers a bit), to get Atlanta here.

So I’m guessing Boston and Atlanta get in as the wildcard.

I’m also guessing that no one will be able to defeat Philadelphia. The starting four are simply too good and too experienced in big games. The trade for Hunter Pence rejuvenated this team and gave the offense the lift it needed. Jimmy Rollins is cocky in big games and how do you defeat Roy Halladay more than once, if at all? That is the simple math of it all. In order to defeat the Phillies, a team will have to win three games against Halladay, Lee, Coles and Oswalt and in the same series. The next series that number moves up to four games. The going gets tougher.

Who will play Philadelphia in the World Series? Does it really matter?

The New York Yankees are the only team which could defeat Philadelphia. On paper even that matchup doesn’t seem fair as the Yankee pitching is very suspect after C.C. Sabathia. But the Yankees have that mystic legendary quality about them even if they seem to be nothing but a bunch of hired guns supporting home grown talent such as Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. But the Yankee ghosts of teams past seem to haunt even the new Yankee Stadium and distracting those ghosts can get in the way of getting those 27 outs. The Yankees are still the team which grinds it out, slow down every big game and doesn’t allow mistakes to go unpunished.

There is no other American League team which can stand up to the Philadelphia Phillies. Texas have the World Series experience and Boston certainly have proven to be ring worthy. Detroit have only Justin Verlander who can’t start every game and all of the games will be do or die against good teams. There are no breathers or easy series against weaker teams in the playoffs. The three and four starters simply can’t matchup against Philadelphia.

Philly can put up a number one starter each and every game and no other team can match that. This is a pitching staff built for the playoffs and built to win.

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This blog primarily focuses on baseball history, but every Monday, Doug Bird writes “Baseball Present” on the current state of the game.

Double The Fun: Johnny Podres, Better Than You Think

Editor’s note: “Any player/Any era” will be up by this evening.
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The 1961 Los Angeles Dodgers’ pennant hopes came to a crashing end on August 16 when they lost both ends of a rare Wednesday evening double dip to the Cincinnati Reds, 6-0 and 8-0.

The defeats were bitter for the Dodgers who had entered the season as favorites based on their roster that included Frank Howard, Maury Wills, Junior Gilliam, the Davis brothers Tommy and Will and Gil Hodges. The mound core included Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

But in 1961, the future Hall of Famer hurlers weren’t as effective as one of the great (Brooklyn) Dodgers heroes of all time—Johnny Podres. Koufax and Drysdale had average seasons (for them) of 18-13, 3.52 ERA and 13-10, 3.69. Podres, although he absorbed the second game loss, racked up a 18-5, 3.74 ERA and led the league in winning percentage.

The problem, anticipated by some analysts in their preseason evaluations, was that except for Podres the Dodgers’ stars were past their prime. The Dodgers ended the season 4 games behind the Reds. Coincidentally, the Dodgers dropped both ends of two doubleheaders against Cincinnati—there are the four games.

Podres, who most casual fans associate with his dramatic seventh game 2-0 shutout of the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series, in reality had a long and productive mound career. Only 23 when he bested the Yankees in the third and seventh games, Podres was the first winner of the Sport Magazine World Series MVP Award which was a red, two-seater Corvette. Sports Illustrated also named Podres its Sportsman of the Year.

During his 15-year career, Podres won 148 games, struck out 1,435, had an 3.64 ERA and threw 24 shutouts in 440 games. Podres saved his best for the World Series. After losing his first decision to the Yankees in 1953, Podres won four straight over the Yankees and Chicago White Sox during the next decade while allowing only 29 hits in 38-1/3 innings with a 2.11 ERA.

After retiring, Podres served as the pitching coach for 13 years for the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies. Frank Viola and Curt Schilling credit Podres with their success.

Podres said former manager Charlie Dressen taught him how to throw the change up that made him into a winning pitcher.

Recalled Podres:

Dressen spent months with me teaching me a change up. He told me ‘Throw a fastball. Then just as you release the ball—Zip! Pull down the shade.’


Dressen explained that the downward motion takes speed off the pitch while at the same takes increases the ball’s rotation.

Armed with that information Podres not only dominated the Yankees but also won the newly transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers’ first game on the road against the hated San Francisco Giants (actually the second game the Dodgers played) and started and won Dodgers’ first home game.

Along his way, Podres met and worked with every Dodger hurler from Dazzy Vance to Pedro Martinez and passed along his change up mastery to any of them who would listen.
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“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader in baseball history each week.

Pondering the Pirates

Mercifully, the Pirates 2011 baseball seasons have only a handful of games remaining. I wrote “seasons” because the Pirates have had two distinct halves. For the first 100 games, the Pirates went 53-47 and for a couple of weeks were either in or flirting with first place. Pittsburgh was in a state of baseball induced euphoria. Pirates’ games were sold out; Pirates’ tee shirts and caps were the wardrobe of choice for town locals.

At the All Star Game, the Pirates sent three players, triple its obligatory single representative. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, starting pitcher Kevin Correia who had notched a league leading 11 wins and lights out closer Joel Hanrahan.

Since the midseason classic, McCutchen is hitting about .200 while Correia, after winning one more game, went on the 60 day disabled list and was lost for the season. As for Hanrahan, there simply weren’t many more save opportunities. Since July 20, the Pirates are 17-46.

The post-All Star Game Pirates are as awful as last year’s 105 game losing Bucco squad. What started out so hopefully in April and May has crashed and burned beyond recognition. Even the most devoted fans can’t bear to watch.

As of Tuesday, the last two games the Pirates played were a dismal Sunday affair in Los Angeles that the team lost 15-1 and a 1-0 defeat in Arizona when Diamondbacks’ ace Ian Kennedy limited the Pirates to two hits while striking out 13.

Speaking of strike outs (which I wish I wasn’t), if watching batters whiff with frightening frequency is your thing, you should become a Pirates fan. Since the ASG, the Pirates have struck out more than any team in baseball; before the break they ranked seventh.

I’ve saved the worst for last. Nothing is more deflating than to see Pedro Alvarez come to the plate. In 2008, Alvarez was the second player chosen in the Major League Baseball Draft and signed a $6.3 million bonus. Last September Alvarez seemed to be on his way when he finished the season by winning the NL Rookie of the Month Award, hitting .311 and leading all Major League rookies with 26 RBIs in his final 27 games.

This year Alvarez, who bounced back and forth between the Pirates and AAA Indianapolis has been, to be kind, a complete bust. As of September 20 Alvarez, in 214 at bats is hitting .189 with 3 home runs and 15 RBIs. Alvarez strikes out about once per every 3 times at the plate. Of the five essential baseball tools—hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw—Alvarez can only throw, assuming he fields the ball cleanly.

No one really knows what to make of Alvarez. According to some, he’s a tireless worker determined to forge a Hall of Fame career. To others, he’s a surly underachiever. The best thing about Alvarez is that he’s 24 and may yet have a future, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

The 2011 Pirates—so magnificent in the spring and so ugly in late summer– remind me of Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.


But what does Tennyson know? After all, he was never a Pirates fan.

An interview with Dan Szymborski

With Moneyball due in theaters this week, I figured it might be a good time to interview Dan Szymborski, who voted in the project here last December on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame and is something of a sabermetric writer about the Internet. Szymborski is the Editor-In-Chief of BaseballThinkFactory.org, and his writing can be found both there and on ESPN.com. In addition, he is the inventor of ZiPS (Szymborski Projection System) which predicts how teams will do each year.

I had a chance to call Szymborski at his home on the East Coast on Saturday morning, and we talked for almost an hour. Highlights of our conversation are as follows:

With everything that you do with baseball research, is it still fun? At this point, is it work? What’s your attitude towards it these days?

Szymborski: It’s still a lot of fun. As a little kid, I wanted to be a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, like most little kids want to play for their favorite team. Once it became obvious that they don’t need 70 MPH fastball pitchers, it [became] one of my favorite hobbies. There’s always going to be an instance where sometimes it feels like work and you don’t feel like writing something right then. But you get over it because it’s a lot more fun than what you could be doing otherwise.

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How long ago did you come up with ZiPS?

Szymborski: The genesis of it was there’s a [person] who contributes to Baseball Think Factory named Chris Dial, and in the late ’90s, they were talking about how someone could make a projection system that’s very basic and get most of the way there, in a way kind of a primordial version of Marcel which is a tabulator.

Before 2002, I was thinking maybe I should try my hand at a projection system. At that time, Voros McCracken’s DIPS research was fairly new, so I wanted to [align my idea.] That’s why I made it rhyme with DIPS, and the Z stands for Szymborski, the second letter of my name. I mean, it’s just a little side thing that started. Then I decided to do hitter projections, because it seemed kind of stupid to do because there were not hitter projections. And then over time, as computers got faster, I could do more things. Over time, it became a pretty complex system… I’m pretty happy with how it’s worked out.

Do you think you have another ZiPS idea in you or do you think that’s going to be your big thing?

Szymborski: I dunno. I always kind of think of myself more as a writer than a statistics developer, but I have more ideas how to use it. I continually refine my aging models and long-term projections and the different things I can do with it. I certainly hope there are other ideas in me, but I don’t have those ideas yet. Hopefully they will develop over the next few years.

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Let’s talk a little Moneyball. Movie’s coming out. Are you intending to see it in the theater?

Szymborski: I’ll probably see it. I’m kind of a cheapskate and don’t usually go to the theater very often, but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any other sabermetric movies coming out of this kind, ever, so I’m probably going to see it. I don’t know if I’m going to go on the premier day, the first day, but I’ll probably go see it.

If you were to be mentioned in the movie, who’s the actor you think that you’d want to play you?

Szymborski: Well, of course, anyone would prefer to be played by Brad Pitt, but that would kind of be unrealistic. Jonah Hill, while not appropriate for Paul DePodesta probably is closer to how I look, so I’ll take Jonah’s fictional character and move him over to me.

It’s amazing that a sabermetric movie got made. It just kind of boggles the imagination.

Szymborski: I know. I know Keith Law wasn’t too thrilled with it, but my stance on it is: This is it. This is the sabermetric movie. There’s not going to be another one, so even if it’s not completely faithful, if there’s dramatic license and all that, this is a sabermetrics movie, so we might as well enjoy it. It’s not like they’re going to have The Bill James Story or any of these guys. I mean, they’re great guys, but none of us are going to have movies except for this. And essentially, one of the most notorious/famous users of statistics, Billy Beane, I mean he’s played by Brad Pitt, in a movie, about sabermetrics. This is it guys.

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How long have you been a SABR member for? I see you’re about 33. Have you been a member for, what, maybe 10 years?

Szymborski: I’m on and off. When I’m not going to the conventions, sometimes I forget my dues (Editor’s note: Joe Posnanski mentioned this same issue when I interviewed him.) So I’ve been on and off since 2003, actually.

I was into sabermetrics for a long time. Of course, SABR and sabermetrics are two very different things, but I’ve been into sabermetrics for a long time. When I was a little kid, I kept baseball statistics. I didn’t really figure out how batting average worked until I was about six. Before that, when I was five, I thought it was the average of the averages, which doesn’t make much sense in retrospect, but of course I was five. My grandfather bought me the Bill James Abstracts that I was old enough to read– I mean I couldn’t read the ones in 1981, obviously— and the Elias Baseball Analysts. I’ve been into baseball stats for a long time.

I have great support for SABR. Of course, a lot of that is historical research, which is very different. There’s potentially kind of a bit of grumpiness on some SABR members that that name has meant statistics, and it’s a lot more than that.

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I was mentioning to one of my readers that I was going to be interviewing you, and he was wondering if there’s actually a way you could eventually be able to not just come and predict how teams would do for seasons, but if you could go so far as to predict individual plays and probability of what’ll happen during games. Do you ever think about that kind of thing?

Szymborski: Well, it’d certainly help for gambling purposes, but I think that game-by-game developments are so volatile in nature that you really can’t predict them…. like, ‘I predict Jeff Francoeur to go 1-4 or 2-4 or 3-4 or 0-4, and there’d be high probabilities of all of that happening.’ Perhaps someone smarter than me could figure that out.

I dunno. I still think of myself more as a writer and a lot of the things I think about developing this for and increasing it is to further writing interesting articles about it. I do a lot of work with ESPN, and a lot of times, they’ll give me a problem, that I have something to resolve with the projection system, and then it’s fun to figure out how to do it. Like, when someone asks, ‘What are the odds of so-and-so hitting 600 home runs?’ Then, that’s the kind of thing I like to build into DIPS and refine.

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Does it ever feel weird to go from being just kind of a young 20-something blogger to now, someone who’s writing for ESPN?

Szymborski: I’ve been writing for them now a year and a half, I mean I’ve written a couple hundred things for them and had two magazine previews. I just figure, ‘This is just the weirdest damn thing ever that I’m writing for ESPN,’ because it’s never something I actually envisioned in any way happening. I didn’t major in journalism, I majored in economics. But I have a great deal of fun writing, and maybe if I’d expected to become a writer, I probably would’ve studied different classes.

It’s a real thrill to be known, and there’s kind of an ego thing about writing. I don’t write for money, but there is kind of an ego trip because when you’re writing something, you kind of have a person’s complete attention. Writing’s a thrill for me, and I’m very happy with the way things work out.

Do you still have a day job or is this what you do for a living?

Szymborski: This is pretty much what I do for a living now. I’ve worked as a private investor for myself for a long time. I made money in college, I was day trading, I was 19, and I was clearing $60,000 a year at the time. That was a lot of money for a college kid, so I’ve always kept doing that. I mean, day trading’s kind of dead because the big houses have pretty much algorithmed their way into that, but I still do a lot of swing trading, which is mid-term trading, and I still do a lot of the commodities. I probably still have to, but it’s fun. In a lot of ways, it’s like baseball but with stocks, equities, and commodities.

No kidding, I wouldn’t have guessed you were a stockbroker… my only conception of day trading is that guy back, like, 10 years ago who killed his family or something. That’s pretty random. I just remember the media reports.

Szymborski: There’s plenty of baseball players who’ve killed their families.

That is true, you’ve got your Donnie Moores [who wounded his wife before committing suicide.]

Szymborski: The one I love is the Len Koenecke story of the baseball player that got drunk on a plane and tried to fight the pilot and the pilot killed him with a fire extinguisher.

Totally, I know the story you’re talking about. That’s so weird because it’s like 1935, so it was the really early days of commercial flight. You almost wonder if the same thing could happen these days.

Szymborski: They probably wouldn’t even let him on the plane at this point. The TSA would boot the crap out of him.

Yeah, he’s pretty intoxicated. I mean, and it’s funny, if you go through baseball history, you get a lot of stories like that. You get Ed Delahanty.

That’s always a fun sabermetric joke, ‘His career was fine until that. He really fell off a cliff.’

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

In Biblical Times

It all began with David vs. Goliath.  It continued this weekend in Fenway Park, Boston.  David came into town to face the might Goliath in a mismatch of the poor farm boy and bemouth, the haves and have nots, of a team which spends hundreds of millions and can attract almost any free agent they desire, opposed by a team which doesn’t make as much as Boston’s’ infield, has little to no fan interest, and doesn’t have a chance.  Everyone knows this, everyone except it would seem, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tampa Bay wins with no margin for error.  Their pitching must be solid every game and their defense has to make all the plays.  They don’t win games as a rule out homering the opposition.  They have to be as perfect as possible to have even a chance.

Tampa Bay lost their entire bullpen and All Star left fielder Carl Crawford over the past offseason.  They have Evan Longoria and no other star position players.  They shouldn’t have any hope of making the playoffs given their low budget and the fact that they play in the nastiest division in baseball.  Not only do they have to contend with the Boston Red Sox machine, but also those true beasts of baseball, season after season, the New York Yankees.

The Boston Red Sox, like the New York Yankees, can address any need they might have or that might come up during the season, simply by opening their check book.  They have made some signings in the past which didn’t work out but can shrug them off and sign another star.  With such a large margin for error, life is much easier.

But teams such as Tampa Bay should have no business contending, especially in the AL East.  That they have done so for the past three seasons is all the more remarkable.

One factor which, ironically, has helped Tampa Bay, is their season after season of mediocrity.  This enabled them to have high draft choices and many of them.  There is no other means of survival for Tampa Bay as their indifferent fan base and lack of salary at the big league level.

Boston, though, because of their recent success, has not had this “luxury”.  Although their farm system has been productive, the opportunity to draft future stars has not often been there.  They must draft with an eye to filling holes in their minor league system and/or using their young players as trade material for any holes needing filling at the big league level.

As has been proven over the years, draft picks, more often than not, do not make an impact at the major league level.  Tampa Bay in past seasons had to draft and sign as many players as possible, hoping that through sheer numbers, a star will emerge.  Their scouting must be perfect.  There is no room for error.

Both teams have excellent managers.  Both have different styles, possible based on their personnel.  I’m certain John Madden would love to sit back and wait for the big homerun.  I’m certain Terry Francona would be perfectly capable of playing little ball.

Joe Maddon has a team which isn’t expected to compete, even with their success over the past three seasons.  He makes them believe that they will win.  He doesn’t believe he is David.  He believes he is Goliath.  If Maddon loses a star player, he replaces him with three average players.  He knows how to take advantage of what a player can give him and doesn’t use him in a situation he will likely fail.

Terry Francona must juggle veterans with their egos.  He must know when to sooth and when to scold.  He must make his team dig a little harder when a star is injured. He must let his players work out a slump and stick with them despite the cries from the press.

Two completely different teams who are, on paper, far apart in ability and potential.  A series like this weekend’s makes baseball watching in September worthwhile.  After all, who would have bet on David but those who had lost all hope or the eternal optimist throwing his last gold coin down on the table?