Baseball Present: But I Told You So

Two weeks ago in this very column I predicted which teams would be the winners and which the losers.  Those predictions did come with some restrictions that might apply.  I also stated, quite emphatically, that I don’t bet on baseball, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend any bets be placed based on my words (even if, in the words of Pete Rose, I were a betting man.)  Turns out I was right on the money… about not betting on my predictions.

That’s why they actually play the games.  That’s why the best can be beaten by the worst at a drop of the hat and no logic can explain it.

As you may or may not recall, I predicted that the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves would make the playoffs.  I also predicted that the Philadelphia Phillies much vaunted and admired starting four would ensure the Phillies not only went to the World Series, but would defeat the New York Yankees.

Oops.  Double and even quadruple oops.

So what the heck happened?  How did the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red sox manage to accomplish the biggest freefall in major league baseball history?  How did the Detroit Tigers defeat the New York Yankees?  How did  St. Louis defeat Philadelphia?

I can only imagine the media feeding frenzy in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  I haven’t read any of the “analysis” from those media centers but I  am certain that everyone from the stars of the team to the water boy has been blamed.

To this point, the proverbial scythe has lopped off the head of Boston manager Terry Francona, is threatening to do the same for Boston GM Theo Epstein and New York GM Brian Cashman , and there will be the inevitable questions for Charlie Manuel and Joe Girardi.  In these cities, making the playoffs , especially not making the playoffs, is never enough, only winning the World Series will get it done.

The rumors in Boston point to an undisciplined clubhouse and Francona losing control of several veteran players, players he was counting on to right the ship before it was too late.  Veterans more concerned with their paycheck and when the next tee off time was than winning a ballgame.  Veterans who seemingly didn’t care enough about winning and playing as a team.   No one knows for sure if Francona left or was fired.  He graciously alluded to the fact that he didn’t get the job done and made too many mistakes.   But he’s a corporate kind of guy with a loyalty not often seen in the world of sports.

The criticism in Atlanta seems to be focused on the overuse of the bullpen.  They couldn’t hold a couple of leads late in games over the final weekend.  They couldn’t overcome the injuries to the starting staff.  Maybe Fredi Gonzalez was too laid back.  Rumors persist that Bobby Cox would never have allowed this to happen and Gonzalez was too laid back.  Someone needed to light a fire under this team.  Apparently, no one did.   Apparently Jason Heyward having a horrible sophomore season and Chipper Jones being hurt off and on had nothing to do with it.

I was somewhat correct in my prediction that no team could beat the Phillies starting four more than once.  I got that one right if one wants to get technical about it.  No Phillies starter lost more than once.  Unfortunately, no Phillies starter won more than once either.  Halladay let game one get away early but settled down and his team came back and won it for him.  Halladay allowed only one first inning run in game five, yet lost the game. The other starters pitched well, just not well enough to win.  The St. Louis Cardinal offense was relentless and no one could get Albert Pujols out.   A different Cardinal beat Philadelphia in each game.  Philadelphia couldn’t hit and couldn’t hit especially when the game was on the line.

So you ask, what am I predicting for the Championship series?  Well, not the Phillies or the Yankees and that one I would bet on.  So there.


“Baseball Present” is a column that Doug Bird contributes every Sunday that looks at the current state of the game.

Baseball’s First Fan: Abraham Lincoln

Evidence indicates that Abraham Lincoln may have been among baseball’s first fans. And just as enthusiastic as Lincoln were his successors, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

During the summer of 1859 the Washington Potomacs played, as it was then called “The Game of Baseball,” on the White House lawn. The team was made up of mostly government clerks who had social standing in Washington. Baseball was quickly taking over the town with its popularity.

At about the same time in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln then a young lawyer was in a heated contest for the Republican presidential nomination. According to research done in 1939 by Steve Hannagan for baseball’s Centennial Year celebration, a Republican delegate approached Lincoln during a ball game in which the president-to-be was a player to tell him that the Chicago convention had nominated him.

Said Lincoln to the messenger:

Tell the gentlemen they will have to wait a few minutes until I get my next turn at bat.

As monumental as a bid to be the United States’ sixteenth president may have been, Lincoln was too engrossed in his ball game to forego his turn at the plate.

After end of the Civil War (where soldiers had organized ballgames between fighting), Presidents Johnson and Grant demonstrated the same passion for baseball as Lincoln showed. Johnson became the first president to watch an inter-city Washington game. Then by 1868, crowds as large as 4,000 fans sat on the lawn to take in the games and, on Saturday, listen to the Marine Band that Johnson provided. Later, when Grant assumed office, he continued the tradition by watching the games from the White House south lawn.

For decades, presidents and baseball have been linked. But, as far as historians can tell, only Lincoln put off his advisers so he could get in one more swing.

Any player/Any era: Pee Wee Reese

What he did: A reader sent me an article about Derek Jeter over the weekend that contained an interesting bit about the value of good shortstops. The passage read:

Teams don’t regularly appear in postseason series if their middle infield is suspect; the Dodgers of 1974, ’77, ’78 and ’81, notwithstanding. Those who question the Hall of Fame credentials of Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto ought to note which teams played into October year after year in the late ’40s into the mid ’50s and identify the shortstops. Ted Williams identified Rizzuto as the difference between the first-place Yankees and the runner-up Red Sox.

The line struck me because Dodger shortstop and Hall of Famer Reese actually got his start in the Red Sox system. He was on the Louisville Colonels in 1938 when Sox owner Tom Yawkey bought the team for $195,000, with Roger Kahn noting in The Boys of Summer that “five thousand was for the franchise. The rest went for the kid at short.” Reese led the American Association in triples and stolen bases in 1939, but Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin reputedly ordered Reese’s sale so he could play five more years. The Dodgers snagged Reese for $35,000 and four forgotten players, and the Red Sox went through seven shortstops during Reese’s time in Brooklyn, one for each World Series he helped those Bums to. Meanwhile, Boston made the postseason just once in this stretch, 1946.

Thus, this week’s column is about if things had been different and Reese had stuck around Beantown. In fact, we’ll go a step further with the idea.

Era he might have thrived in: After 1918 and before 2004, baseball life was one long series of crushing blows for Boston and its fans, purgatory punctuated periodically by close calls. This week’s column looks at if Reese could have made a difference in some of the closest of calls: 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986. Try and name an elite shortstop from those teams. With a guy like Reese around to provide an upgrade, it seems unlikely the Red Sox would have gone 86 years without a world championship.

Why: Johnny Pesky, Rico Petrocelli, Rick Burleson, and some combination of Rey Quinones, Spike Owen, and Ed Romero. These are the men Reese would have unseated taking over short any of the years mentioned above. Of these players, Petrocelli might have been the only one not worth having Reese stand in for, seeing as Petrocelli was good enough in 1969 to hit 40 home runs and lead all shortstops in fielding percentage. Everyone else here is replaceable.

Burleson somehow finished 13th in MVP voting in 1975 hitting .252. Meanwhile, Quinones, Owen, and Romero hit about .220 collectively and suggest Bill Buckner may have gotten too much blame losing Boston a championship. As for Pesky, although he hit .335 in 1946, he was moved to third base a couple years later when the Sox traded for Vern Stephens. With Reese in town in ’46, the shift could have happened sooner and relieved Boston’s starting third baseman that year, Rip Russell who hit a motley .208 in limited duty. The stat converter on has Reese’s ’46 season with Brooklyn converting to a .294 batting average with 10 triples for the Red Sox. That may have helped Boston overcome St. Louis in the World Series.

Would Reese have the same legacy as a man who helped welcome Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn, refusing to join his fellow Southern teammates in signing a petition protesting Robinson’s presence? Maybe not. But perhaps Reese could have brought this same spirit of tolerance to Boston and helped an organization that would ultimately wait until 1959 to field a black player, the last big league team to integrate.

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 Bonds, Billy BeaneBilly 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 WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro SuzukiJack ClarkJackie RobinsonJim AbbottJimmy 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 BunkerWill ClarkWillie Mays

Postseason baseball: Uniting the political divide since 1931

It was 1931, the Great Depression was well underway, and in Philadelphia, the Athletics and the Cardinals were playing Game 3 of the World Series. Future Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and Burleigh Grimes had been dueling for some time when a security detail arrived in front of the A’s dugout. Herbert Hoover had reached Shibe Park.

Joe Williams, covering the game for the New York World Telegram, captured the scene:

The crowd back of the dugout recognizes the President and there is a pattering of palms and Mr. Hoover waves a gray, soft hat at mechanical intervals, and smiles his greetings. An official box has been set aside for the visitors from Washington. Grove and Grimes, who have paused in deference to the President’s entrance, go back to their mysteriously silent labors.

And then something happens. Some one boos. Or it may be a whole section which surrenders to this spontaneous, angry impulse. In any event, the boos rise from the stands and break with unmistakable vehemence around your ears. They grow in volume and pretty soon it seems almost everybody in the park is booing. Booing what? It doesn’t take long to get the answer. They are booing the President of the United States.

With the arrival of postseason baseball once again and times in America not as troubled as they were in 1931 but somewhere in the same vicinity these days, maybe this scene could repeat itself. For better or for worse, baseball has had a way of uniting the political divide over the years, particularly come playoff time.

Sometimes the moments are happier. When Woodrow Wilson arrived during the middle of the seventh inning in a 1918 World Series game, the crowd spontaneously began singing the Star Spangled Banner, patriotism perhaps abounding with World War I in its waning days. Wilson had been having Francis Scott Key’s effort played at military functions for two years, and while it wouldn’t become the national anthem until 1931, the instance has traditionally been credited as the first time the song was played at a baseball game.

More recently, the 10th anniversary passed for the attacks of September 11, 2001, bringing to mind a moment from the World Series that year. George W. Bush, his popularity at a higher point than it had ever been or would be again, threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. The former Texas Rangers owner tossed a strike, perhaps the result of genetics from his father who pitched for Yale or a bit of inspiration from Ronald Reagan, who once played Grover Cleveland Alexander in a film. The crowd gave a standing ovation, and an autographed 2011 Topps Allen and Ginter card of the event sold on eBay for $1,393.88.

It’s certainly the best reception a Republican throwing out a ceremonial pitch during wartime ever got in New York. Just ask Billy Graham, who was scratched from first pitch duties at Shea Stadium in the 1969 World Series because of controversy around the Vietnam War and Graham’s connection to Richard Nixon. A disinterested Casey Stengel had to stand in, and I just hope the boos were at a minimum for the Old Perfessor.

The curious case of Robinson Cano

Robinson Cano, the second baseman for the New York Yankees, had a superb 2011 season and was the hitting star of the first game of the Division Series against the Detroit Tigers. However, let’s stop any talk that at season’s end Cano might have been voted the American League MVP. “Cano as MVP” was the subject of incessant chirping from Ron Darling and John Smoltz during Sunday’s television broadcast of the New York-Detroit series, but any such discussion is silly in my view. In the parlance of Moneyball, one simple reason that Cano is not the MVP is that he makes too many outs, the result of his being almost incapable of drawing a base on balls.

Cano walked only 38 times in 2011, which is less than any of the players who have received serious consideration for the AL MVP, including Jose Bautista (132), Miguel Cabrera (108), Dustin Pedroia (86), Curtis Granderson (85), David Ortiz (78), Paul Konerko (77), Adrian Gonzalez (74), Jacoby Ellsbury (52), and Josh Hamilton (39). I would rank most of these players ahead of Cano for MVP. This statement is not meant to imply that I consider walks to be the key stat on which the MVP should be decided, but walks are – or at least should be – one of the leading ways that a batter gets on base. And on-base percentage (either in isolation or as part of OPS) is a stat that I would weigh heavily for MVP-worthiness.

Cano had a .882 OPS this year, ranking 10th in the AL, and that’s about where I would place him for MVP. Cano ranks 26th in the league in OBP and 9th in SLG, indicating that Cano earns his OPS more through slugging than getting on base. His power hitting (46 doubles, 7 triples, 28 home runs) is central to his value as a player. If Cano could draw even a few more walks his value would increase, but too often he swings at ball 4, not to mention balls 1, 2 and 3.

Cano had a BB/PA of .055 in 2011. This walk rate is substantially below the league average, placing him in the lower third among everyday players. In contrast, Bautista, Cabrera, Pedroia, Granderson, Konerko and Gonzalez all walked at rates well above the league average. If you imagine that Cano had walked at the league average of .081 times per plate appearance, his 38 walks would become 56. By drawing 18 more walks, Cano could be expected to have made 12 fewer outs, which would increase his OBP from .349 to .365. Assuming that his being more selective at the plate would not also adversely affect his ability to drive the ball, this increase in OBP would boost Cano’s OPS to .898, which would move him up to eighth in the league, ahead of Alex Avila (.895), but still trailing Bautista (1.056) and six others. Even then, he’s probably not a leading candidate for MVP, although perhaps defense and intangibles could earn him a few votes. Cano would have to increase his walk total to about 75 or 80 (an OBP of perhaps .380) in order to be a serious contender for MVP.

I enjoy watching Cano play. He has a sweet swing and plays the game with an unusual combination of joy and intensity. He has surpassed all but Tony Lazzeri as the all-time best second baseman for the Yankees, and Lazzeri might well fall from that discussion in the next few years. Cano is a fine player, but I will be shocked if we learn in November that he has been voted the 2011 AL MVP.

Jim Devlin: The Most Interesting Man in Baseball History

Editor’s note: Alex Putterman will be contributing posts every other Monday going forward.


Jim Devlin is third all-time in ERA among pitchers with 1,000 career innings pitched, behind Hall of Famers Ed Walsh and Addie Joss. He’s also third all-time in ERA+, behind Mariano Rivera and Pedro Martinez and right ahead of Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson. But Devlin is not in the Hall of Fame, and by no measure deserves to be; in fact, the 1870’s star played only half the ten-season Hall requirement. Into those five wacky seasons, however, Devlin packed multiple careers-worth of notability. From a full season of complete games to a disappointing Shoeless Joe-like end, Jim Devlin’s résumé reads like a baseball-themed Dos Equis commercial.

Devlin began his career in 1873 in the National Association, playing mostly 1st base for the Philadelphia and Chicago White Stockings (two separate teams with the same name, another bizarre reality of 19th century baseball) and batting .281 during his time in the NA. But as Chicago learned in 1875, Devlin’s true value was on the mound, where he posted a 1.93 ERA in 28 opportunities that season.

When the NA folded in 1876, Devlin jumped to the National League to pitch for the newly-formed Louisville Grays. Here, he is said to have invented the “down shoot,” a pitch modern baseball fans know as the sinker. With the unhittable new pitch as his secret weapon, Devlin went 30-35 in ’76, throwing 66 complete games in 68 starts (the team played 69 games, the last of which Devlin lost to injury) with a 1.56 ERA. At a time when starting pitchers all accumulated inning totals absolutely obscene by modern standards, Devlin led the NL with 622 innings pitched (tied for 9th most ever in a single season).

Devlin followed up his terrific ’76 campaign with one of the most remarkable seasons in baseball history. The Grays played 61 games in 1877. Devlin started all of them… and finished all of them, the first and only pitcher in baseball history to pitch every inning of every one of his team’s games. Although for the second straight year the right-hander led the NL in losses, he also boasted the league’s highest totals in innings pitched, games started, complete games and ERA+ and won 35 games.

But a calamitous late-season road trip kept Devlin’s Grays from the National League pennant that year, and suspicion arose that gamblers had a hand in the collapse. It was eventually concluded that Devlin and three teammates had taken money to intentionally lose games (Devlin confessed, blaming his “cheapskate” owner). National League president William Hulbert promptly banished the quartet for life, and so, with 1,405 career innings pitched (1,181 in the National League), Jim Devlin’s career was abruptly over. So too was the two-year existence of the Louisville Grays, who went out of business after the scandal. In the franchise’s abbreviated history Jim Devlin had been starting pitcher in all but one game.

If not for his banishment, Devlin would have presumably maintained his prowess on the mound a few more seasons and could today be enshrined in Cooperstown. Instead he’s been relegated to relative anonymity, closer to infamy than fame, noted more for associating with gamblers than for starting 129 out of a possible 130 games over a two-year stretch. But it’s both the throwing of baseballs and the throwing of games that makes Devlin such a fascinating figure. Inventor of the sinker, greatest innings-eater of all-time, and culprit of a gambling scandal? Those sound like credentials of the most interesting player in baseball history.