Walter Bingham remembers Casey Stengel

Editor’s note: The following was written by longtime Sports Illustrated writer Walter Bingham, who was gracious enough to share a few vignettes for this website about one of baseball’s most legendary managers.

I was attending the winter baseball meetings in Washington D.C. back in, maybe 1957 or ’58. A colleague and I had decided to call it an evening when we saw several men standing around a couch just off the hotel lobby. Sitting there was Casey and someone else, a foil in effect, because Casey was doing all the talking. We joined the group, listening to Stengel ramble on, pretending to be talking only to his couch-neighbor, but knowing he had an audience.

After a half hour of this, entertaining though it was, it really was time to turn in. Which we did. The next morning, quite early, I rose, dressed and took the elevator to the lobby, looking for breakfast. To my astonishment, there was Stengel talking with someone else–no audience this time. No, he had not been there all night, or what was left of it. He had changed clothes, so presumably he had been to his room, presumably slept and yet had beaten me downstairs. Proof the man had stamina.

One evening at Yankee Stadium, I was watching batting practice, leaning on the metal framework of the cage. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. It was Casey. What he said, if anything, I don’t recall, but he pulled at the netting to show me that it could more than reach my nose. That is, a foul tip by the better, should it come directly back at me, would not be impeded by the netting, leading to a broken nose. Proof the man had heart.

I was sitting in the Yankee dugout before a game. Stengel was there, surrounded by maybe four New York beat writers. I was considerably outside the ring, but certainly able to hear what Casey was saying. He was commenting on a throw an outfielder had made the night before.

The situation on the field was this: runners on second and third, no one out, two-run lead for the team on the field. The batter hit a fly ball to short right field. The outfielder caught the ball and fired to the plate, but the throw was slightly off line and the runner scored.The man on second advanced to third.

I was somewhat removed down the dugout bench from Stengel and the group of New York reporters around him, a kibitizer. But I could hear Stengel, who always spoke with a loud growl and when he asked “his guys” where the right fielder should have thrown, I just blurted out “third base” without thinking. The startled look on Stengel’s face was memorable, hearing the answer come from somehwere other than the group around him. I’m sure he didn’t even realize I was there.

I once told Casey something he didn’t know. In 1958, Stan Musial got his 3,000th hit and I was asked to write a “Highlight”, about a 500 word sidebar to whatevewr the main baseball story was that week. In researching Musial’s beginnings, I discovered that his first hit, a double, had come against the Boston Braves in 1942. The Braves were managed by Casey. So up to the stadium I went and asked him if he realized this. He did not, but the information obviously delighted him. He then spent the next five minutes talking about Musial, who of course he had soon become aware of, even if he didn’t remember hit #1.

826 Valencia and the BPP All-Time Dream Project need your support

Back in March, I announced that the BPP All-Time Dream Project would be raising $3,000 by April 15 for 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based non-profit that teaches journalism to kids. With results of the project scheduled to go live on Sunday, support is still needed.

Thus far, people have donated $285. At this point, I don’t expect to have $3,000 raised by the time the post goes live Sunday morning, though I assume if we’re even halfway there, I can get readers to donate the rest. I expect 3,000 to 5,000 people to read the post in the first 24 hours, and if every reader donates a dollar, we’d shatter the fundraising goal.

To donate, go here.

For what it’s worth, I know the results of the project are worth something. I’ve got an All Star team of writers and an illustrator contributing content. I’m excited to get to publish the results and am confident it will be one of the best posts in the history of this website.

So here’s what I’d like today: If you’re reading, and you’ve planned to donate, please do so. Even a dollar or two makes a difference. I could also use retweets and help getting the word out about what I’m doing.

In return, I can offer the following. First off, I’m going to list the names in the results post of everyone who donates, even if it’s one cent. Everyone who donates before the post goes live will be listed as “Early Donors”. I’ll also provide a link to anyone who writes an original post on my efforts. It should be a valuable link for SEO purposes.

Donations can be made directly at the FirstGiving page I’ve set up, or by sending in a check. I’d also be happy to post a donation on anyone’s behalf if they prefer PayPal, since FirstGiving doesn’t take that. Please feel free to email me at thewomack@gmail.com with questions or feedback.

We have a chance, collectively, to make a difference. Let’s do some good.

To donate, go here.

Any player/Any era: Artie Wilson

What he did: Wilson’s an answer to a trivia question as the last player to hit .400 with his .402 season for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League in 1948. He also mentored a young Willie Mays, was written of as the best black shortstop of the 1940s, and was a four-time batting champion and Hall of Famer in the Pacific Coast League. Wilson, who died in 2010 at age 90, could have been something else, too: the first black player for the New York Yankees.

Era he might have thrived in: Former Yankee PR director and longtime baseball writer Marty Appel has a history on the club, Pinstripe Empire due out on May 8. The following is excerpted:

In 1948, the New York Football Yankees of the All American Conference, owned by Dan Topping, signed the black All-American, Buddy Young. In February 1949, the “Baseball Yankees” made a decision to enter the Negro League market, and announced the signing of both infielder Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons, (who was missing a finger on his throwing hand), and the dark-skinned Puerto Rican outfielder Luis Marquez of the Homestead Grays. The deals proved to be complicated; Cleveland also claimed to have signed them both, and when the deals were reviewed by Commissioner Chandler, Wilson was awarded to New York, and Marquez was sent to Cleveland.

But Wilson didn’t want to take the pay cut the Yankees were offering him to play for Newark, and he wanted a piece of the purchase price as well. So five days later he was sold to the Indians organization after all. In his place, the Yanks signed Frank Austin, a Panamanian shortstop, from the Philadelphia Stars. So who was the first black player in the Yankees organization? Both Austin and Marquez started the season with Newark in ’49 and share the distinction, but both were out of the organization by May. Only Marquez would see brief Major League action some years later.

It took until 1955 for the Yankees to field a black player, Elston Howard, New York among the last clubs to integrate. Wilson, for his part, barely played in the majors, 19 games with the New York Giants in 1951, and one can only wonder what might have been. Wilson’s departure from the Yankees may have been due to a combination of greed, racism, and Phil Rizzuto sharing his position, though Wilson may have thrived in pinstripes.

Why: Perhaps the Yankees weren’t the most bigoted franchise of their era. The Boston Red Sox passed on Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. The Pittsburgh Pirates never responded to a sportswriter’s cable in 1937 suggesting the team pick up Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Cool Papa Bell. Still, the Yankees weren’t much better, if at all, and their reticence to sign black players had a lasting effect on their fortunes.

Red Smith wrote upon Ed Barrow’s death in 1953 that the Yankee general manager could push a button on his desk and know within five minutes what a prospect in Kansas had eaten that morning. The same organization missed a chance to sign Mays, David Halberstam wrote in Summer of ’49, after a Southern-born scout reported he couldn’t hit a curve ball. The Yankees also kept Vic Power in Triple-A, watching him hit .331 in 1952 and .349 in 1953 before they traded him to the Athletics, purportedly because he liked to date white women. Power is considered one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball history. In his place, the Yankees went for much of the ’50s with Moose Skowron, a fielder so inept he was eventually sent to Arthur Murray Dance School to refine his footwork.

Halberstam wrote:

The Yankees thought of themselves as the elite team of baseball. They felt they did not need black players (as the Dodgers, a poorer cousin in Brooklyn, did) because their teams were already so good, their farm system so well stocked, and their overall operation so profitable. The whites-only policy reflected the attitudes of men, born around or before the turn of the century, who felt the use of black players tainted their operation… They would, management believed, draw black fans, who would in turn scare away the good middle-class white fans. When the question of blacks, or Negroes, as they were then called, arose, the Yankee answer was that they would sign one when they found one worthy of being a Yankee.

With that attitude, the Yankees eventually went through a moribund stretch from the late ’60s to mid ’70s. With Power at first, Mays alongside Mickey Mantle in the outfield, Wilson somewhere in the infield, and perhaps other black stars in tow, one can only wonder. Racial diversity was a hallmark of so many teams that shined as the Yankees dimmed.

Might Wilson have been an upgrade over Rizzuto? Perhaps. Rizzuto is a Hall of Famer and helped anchor the Yankees through five straight championships from 1949 to 1953. He ranks among the worst shortstops in Cooperstown, though, hitting .273 with an OPS+ of 93 and 41.8 WAR. Negro League Baseball Museum president Dr. Bob Kendrick told me Wilson hit better, had a stronger arm and better range than Rizzuto. I’d venture Wilson might have excelled as a lefty batter in Yankee Stadium and had the speed to fly around the bases when his teammates cranked balls into the broad power alley in left-center.

We’ll never know, and with the 65th anniversary of Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers coming Sunday, that’s a shame.

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Any player/Any era is a Thursday series that looks at how a player might have done in a different era than the one he played in.

Others Negro League veterans in this series: Jackie Robinson, Josh GibsonMonte IrvinSatchel Paige

The Eternal Promise of Opening Day

Editor’s note: This originally ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 1.

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Every spring, the ritual repeats itself. As major league baseball teams break camp, managers report that their athletes have never been in better condition, predict that rookies will shine, vow that last year’s underperforming veterans will bounce back and declare that the starting pitching will surprise the harshest critics.

During the summer, the truth will out. Since the turn of the 20th century, when baseball’s modern era dawned, the Pittsburgh Pirates have scaled the highest peaks and plumbed the lowest depths. In 1902, as he departed Hot Springs, Arkansas en route to Pittsburgh, manager Fred Clarke called his squad the best ever assembled. Clarke had good reason for optimism. His team had five returning .300 hitters including the incomparable Honus Wagner and Clarke who, in addition to his managing duties, patrolled left field. The Pirates rewarded Clarke with an astonishing 103-36 record and ran away with the National League title by 27.5 games.

In 1952, however, skipper Billy Meyer’s dreams were dashed early and often. The 13 Pirates’ rookies on the opening day roster included four teenagers. Collectively, they failed and were soon forever gone from baseball. Future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner turned in one of his worst seasons. Kiner lost sixty points off his batting average and slugged five fewer home runs than the preceding season.

The 1952 Pirates were among the worst teams ever to don a uniform. When late September mercifully rolled around, only small handfuls showed up at Forbes Field to watch the 42-112 Corsairs play out the string.

Four decades later, Jim Leyland put on a happy pre-season face. His Bucs had captured division titles in 1990 and 1991. But Leyland knew he would miss his best hitter, Bobby Bonilla, a free agent signed by the New York Mets and his only 20-game winner, John Smiley, traded to the Minnesota Twins. Of all the things that he might have anticipated though, Leyland in his wildest imagination couldn’t have envisioned the gut-wrenching seventh League Championship Series game against the Atlanta Braves that Pirates fans will carry to their graves.

The Pirates, who had battled back from a 3-1 series deficit, held a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth. To the uninitiated, being three outs away from a World Series berth with a two run lead might seem secure. But in baseball, there are many ways to snatch defeat from victory’s jaws. If old Fred Clarke were still around, he could have reminded Bucco backers about an incredible 1901 game when the Cleveland Blues scored nine times with no outs to beat the Washington Senators, 14-13.

Watching from my California home and slumping further into my sofa with each pitch, here’s what I saw unfold in Fulton County Stadium.

The Braves immediately loaded the bases. Doug Drabek surrendered a lead off double, an infield error and walked former Pirates Sid Bream. Dark clouds gathered. Every formula for baseball disaster includes walks and errors.

Exit Drabek; enter Stan Belinda. A sacrifice fly scored one and another walk reloaded the bases. When an infield pop up produced the second Braves’ out, it looked like the Pirates would escape.

But pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera, the last Braves’ position player and a substitute so inconsequential that he batted only ten times during the season, thrust the final dagger into the Pirates. Cabrera singled; two more runs scored. Final: Braves 3-Pirates 2. For the third consecutive year, the Pirates failed to reach the Fall Classic.

From the bullpen, catcher Don Slaught and pitcher Bob Walk’s hearts fell when they saw Bream slide in just under Barry Bond’s throw. More than 2,500 miles away in my living room, I shared their pain. Watching in what he described as “disbelief,” Walk said he wanted to call time out as Bream rounded third but he knew that was impossible. Added Walk, “For two weeks, I tossed and turned. I couldn’t sleep thinking about the lost opportunity.” Slaught called Cabrera’s winning hit and the shattered Pirates’ dreams, “A killer.”

Slaught had played an essential role in the Pirates’ climb to first place. Not only was Slaught a solid defensive catcher and clutch hitter but he also became rookie Tim Wakefield’s personal receiver. Wakefield and his befuddling knuckleball burst onto the Three Rivers scene in late July to propel the Pirates to the pennant. Wakefield rolled up an 8-1 record before pitching two complete game victories against the Braves.

This winter Wakefield retired from the Boston Red Sox. From the 1992 Pirates only pitcher Miguel Batista, a Mets’ non-roster invitee, is still active.

As the 2012 season begins, Pirates fans wonder if this will be the year that the team reaches .500. Few need reminding that 1992 was the last time the Pirates broke even.

Like Clarke, Meyer, Leyland and his other 25 predecessors, Clint Hurdle likes what he sees. When asked to evaluate the Pirates’ spring, Hurdle described it as, “Just like all doctor’s surgeries—successful.”

Hurdle pointed to the Pirates’ depth and greater experience as its main strengths. Even with A.J. Burnett out for six weeks, Hurdle anticipates improved pitching and better years from his position players including the new long-term Pirates Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen.

Through last July, the Pirates were baseball’s most exciting story. Although the team fell off in the second half, Hurdle thinks losing taught them the invaluable lesson of how to “finish—plays, innings, games and seasons.”

Because of Hurdle’s inspirational leadership, Pirates’ fans became believers again and basked in the Bucs’ brief but heady success. PNC Park sold out 17 times.

Baseball, the game of hope that links the past to the present, began anew on April 5.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Jeff Kent

Claim to Fame: Kent played for six teams over 17 seasons in the Major Leagues, bringing a big bat and a bad attitude with him on every stop. With the Mets, Kent was criticized for his refusal of hazing rituals and short-temper. In San Francisco he repeatedly butted heads with Barry Bonds (although Barry would almost certainly win any head-butting competition), famously exchanging shoves with the leftfielder in 2002. This after Kent had broken his wrist popping wheelies on a motorcycle and lied about it, much to the displeasure of the Giants organization. Years later, with the Dodgers, Kent’s criticisms of LA’s young players caused James Loney to announce that “Jeff Kent is not our leader,” before, in a separate incident, the second baseman opined that legendary Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully “talks too much.” Milton Bradley would accuse Kent of not knowing “how to deal with African-American people,” and a $15,000 donation to backers of California’s ban on gay marriage suggests that in addition to being an alleged racist, Kent wasn’t too fond of gay people.

But, as Yahoo! Sports’s David Brown wrote upon Kent’s retirement in January 2009, “The consensus on Jeff Kent seems to be, ‘That jerk sure could hit!’ ” Arguably the best offensive second baseman since Rogers Hornsby, Kent hit more career home runs than anyone ever at that position. And among second basemen with at least 9,000 plate appearances there, he’s second all-time in slugging percentage, third in OPS, eighth in wOBA, and sixth in wRC+ (frustratingly, I can’t find a way on baseball-reference.com to organize by position, so these are fangraphs.com stats; wRC+ is essentially equivalent to OPS+).

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Kent last played in 2008, meaning he will be eligible for BBWAA Hall of Fame voting in 2013.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Kent’s career WAR of 59.4 puts him right along the Hall of Fame fault line. Many players below that figure have been inducted, but a handful above it still wait for a call. Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph, and Bobby Grich are the only non-Hall of Fame second basemen to have contributed more WAR than Kent, while Bobby Doerr, Johnny Evers, Nellie Fox, Billy Herman, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Mazeroski, Bid McPhee, Joe Gordon, and Red Schoendienst are all in Cooperstown with fewer WAR.

Yet Kent’s body of work might be better than all 12 of those fellow-second basemen. His 2000 National League MVP award is one of only nine BBWAA MVPs ever awarded to a second basemen, and of those listed above, either in the Hall or out of it, only Fox owns one (although Evers won the Chalmers Award in 1914, the equivalent of an MVP). Offensively, Kent has few peers among the borderline HOF group; of the aforemention dozen, only Grich tops Kent in OPS+, and only Grich and Lazzeri lead Kent in wRC+. And for those who look to peak performance to gauge Hall of Fame-worthiness, behold Kent’s five-year stretch between 1998 and 2002, when he averaged 29 home runs and 5.7 WAR while posting a .307/.378/.548 slash line and a 142 OPS+.

Because voters too often cast their votes based on counting stats, expect many to note Kent’s 377 home runs from a second baseman and induct him on the second or third ballot. Just know that when they do, he’ll deserve it, curmudgeon or not.

New ballpark, shutout pitching and more this opening weekend

Baseball for real is finally back and the failures or success stories of spring training are a thing of the past for the fans anyway. I made it through the confusion of three opening days this season and managed to not miss the Marlins first regular season game.  I spent most of the week hunting through various schedules to find out when baseball was actually going to begin for real.

The “opening” in Japan seemed nothing short of silly and I almost missed the Wednesday Marlins game.  After much research I discovered late that afternoon that this game actually counted.  The following day (Thursday) seemed to be the actual opening day.  Is the average baseball fan such as myself supposed to be this confused?  Things used to be a lot simpler when opening day began April 1 or 2 and in Cincinnati.  But I won’t go into my well documented opinions on Bud Selig.  Suffice it to say that the Marlins opener featured the usual confusing nonsense from the commissioner during two innings which saw all three announcers fawn and ogle over his sound bite observations on the state of baseball.

The new Miami ballpark is quite impressive. Except for that gawdy and downright ugly thing past the left centre field wall.  Apparently it lights up and dolphins dance and God knows what else when a Marlins player hits a home run.  I was grateful that none did that night.  This was also only a one game series and then Miami traveled to Cincinnati. Doesn’t make any sense to me either. This team is trying to build up fan interest.  Increased fan interest has to be built and sustained over a period of time. One game and hit the road doesn’t seem to be the way to do it. We shall see if the baseball fans of Miami come out to see this greatly improved team in a beautiful new ballpark.

Opening day in Pittsburgh simply wasn’t fair.  I realize that Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have to face somebody in their first start but a team which is going nowhere again this season shouldn’t have to begin the season with the very real possibility of beginning 0-2. Halladay was his usual unhittable self on Thursday and as many teams have found out over the career of Halladay, no fun day in the batter’s box.  Pittsburgh was lucky to get the two hits they did. Oddly enough, Halladay didn’t pitch a complete game. He only pitched eight innings of two hit shutout baseball.  Pittsburgh had to be satisfied with that for the day.  They won game two however.  That’s why they play the game on the field.

The St. Louis Cardinals don’t seem to be missing Albert Pujols all that much.  At least in the early going of the 2012 baseball season. That’s because 2011 playoff and World Series hero David Freese continues to carry the team.  Freese in previous seasons was held back only because of injuries. Certainly the Cardinals need Carlos Beltran to stay healthy and Lance Berkman to repeat his surprising season of last year and need Chris Carpenter to return and Adam Wainwright to come back. But thus far, they seem like a very solid and balanced team.

Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg showed no ill effects from his rotator cuff surgery and the Chicago Cubs blew another game.

Jon Lester and Justin Verlander locked up for a great pitching duel which saw the debut of Prince Fielder and Boston manager Bobby Valentine.

Clayton Kershaw left the Los Angeles Dodger opener after only four innings, apparently with the flu and Tim Lincecum gave up three runs, including two long home runs in his first start.

Oh yeah, one more thing.  Toronto and Cleveland loved opening day so much that they went a record 16 innings to finish it.  Then they went 12 innings the next day.  The batboys might have to pitch game three or four at this rate.

The first couple of games are under our belt. Life makes sense again.

Any Player/Any Era: Al Rosen

What He Did: If you don’t know Al Rosen, it’s because his career was just a smidge away from absolute greatness.

Because of his military background, the War and some fluky poor performances in small samples from 1947-1949, Rosen didn’t get a full time gig until 1950. He was 26.

He had an immediate impact, leading the league with 37 HRs and setting a rookie record for HRs in the process. Rosen also walked a cool 100 times and had 159 hits. To put this in perspective, in just four of his seasons did Tony Gwynn reach base by walk and hit more than 159 times.

While there was a slight sophomore slump for Rosen in 1951, he finished fifth in RBIs (102), extra-base hits (55), and walks (85).

In 1953, Rosen hit 43 HRs, knocked in 145 and had a .336 average. He led the league in HRs, RBIs, SLG, OPS, OPS+, total bases and runs. Unfortunately, Mickey Vernon batted .337 that season, narrowly keeping Rosen from the Triple Crown. Rosen went 3-5 on the season’s final day, just missing out. That said, those RBIs are the 37th most by a righty in a season in baseball history, and he was rightly unanimously voted the MVP.

From 1950 – 1956 Rosen posted a .287/.386/.500 line and averaged 27 HRs a season. During that span, his 39.2 fWAR was the eighth best behind Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson and Richie Ashburn. His mark was actually ahead of the immortal Ted Williams.

At his height, Rosen was a giant, just ask Casey Stengel: “That young feller. That feller’s a ball player. He’ll give you the works every time. Gets all the hits, gives you the hard tag in the field. That feller’s a real competitor, you bet your sweet curse life.”

Unfortunately, back problems and leg injuries forced Rosen to retire at 32 in 1956. Rosen finished with a .285/.384/.495 line with 192 HRs in 4,374 plate appearances. Of players with at least 4,000 plate appearances, Rosen’s HR:AB rate is in the top 100.

Oddly, Rosen is one of three players to retire with fewer than 200 HRs, but who hit 40 in a season (Jim Gentile and Davey Johnson are the others). He is also one of 32 players to have a 40 HR and 200 hit season. As a third baseman, the 43 dingers he hit during the magical 1953 season are tied with Matt Williams (more on him later) for the 10th most in a season.

Era he might have thrived in: Rosen is one of the great “what if” players, i.e., what if he played during a time when there wasn’t a World War, what if he stayed healthy, what if people fully understood how his minor league numbers would translate over a large sample in the majors. For those reasons, Rosen would have clearly thrived in the mid- to late-1990s. With modern medicine and analytics, Rosen’s career could have been years longer and Rosen might be in the Hall of Fame. For many reasons, I’m putting Rosen on the late ‘90s Cleveland Indians.

Why: Put Rosen on the 1996 Cleveland Indians and he hits .310/.412/.537. His 1953 season would produce 51 HRs, 184 RBIs and a .365/.453/.666 line from a third baseman.

While the numbers would be ridiculous, Rosen would have a real impact on those Indians teams. In 1996, the Indians could have traded Eddie Murray earlier to the Orioles, slid Julio Franco to DH and Jim Thome to first base and greatly enhanced the offense. In addition, Rosen’s presence in 1996 would have stopped the organization from giving a ton of talent for an aging Matt Williams. Instead of needing someone to man the hot corner, Rosen would have enabled the Indians to keep Jeff Kent, Julian Tavarez and Jose Vizcaino.

In ‘97 and thereafter, Kent could have taken over for Tony Fernandez and David Bell at second base. In ’99, the Indians could shift Kent to third, still sign Roberto Alomar and give Rosen much needed DH duties.

Just imagine the 1998 Indians batting line-up: Kenny Lofton-Manny Ramirez-Al Rosen-Jim Thome-Brian Giles-David Justice-Jeff Kent-Omar Vizquel-Sandy Alomar. Perhaps they win a few World Series, perhaps Rosen stays healthy. If so, Rosen is in the Hall of Fame.

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

Others in this series: Al KalineAl SimmonsAlbert PujolsBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug GlanvilleEddie LopatElmer FlickEric Davis, Frank HowardFritz MaiselGary CarterGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner)George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack MorrisJackie Robinson, Jim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh GibsonJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Mark FidrychMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey Henderson
Roberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonSpud ChandlerStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

Pedro Alvarez: Play Him? Demote Him? Platoon Him?

What to do about Pedro Alvarez? That’s the number one question asked by Pittsburgh Pirates fans during spring training. Alvarez is the highly touted second overall pick from the 2008 draft who signed a $6.4 million contract with a $6 million signing bonus. First called up to the Pirates major league roster in 2010, Alvarez performed well. In 95 games, Alvarez hit .256 with 18 home runs and 64 RBIs.

But in 2011, Alvarez hit .191 and was demoted to AAA Indianapolis mid-season before being called back in September. This spring has been, to put it kindly, a disaster for Alvarez. His batting average is about .150 and he strikes out with alarming regularity. Through Sunday’s games, Alvarez had struck out 24 times and walked once.

Nevertheless, management is poised to start Alvarez at third base with the long shot hope the he’ll get well against major league pitching. At the same time, however, the Pirates are desperate for power, having none to speak of any place in the lineup save for the occasional Garrett Jones dinger. And there seems little reason to send Alvarez back to Indianapolis since that route has been tried without success.

The risk of putting Alvarez on the field day after day is that if he doesn’t perform, the fans will rag him mercilessly. When that happens, and it’s 100 percent certain that it will if Alvarez doesn’t hit, then his psyche would become even more messed up than it already is.

For fans who have endured 19 consecutive losing seasons, Alvarez is symbolic of all that’s wrong with the Pirates.

The Alvarez case has two interesting back stories. First, before he even arrived in Pittsburgh, Alvarez got off on the wrong foot. On August 18, 2008 after finishing his Vanderbilt University career, Alvarez agreed to but did not immediately sign his $6 million Pirates’ contract. When the signing deadline expired, Alvarez was placed on the restricted list. A month later, Alvarez renegotiated a $6.4 million contract. In other words, Alvarez held the Pirates up for $400,000.

Second, after Alvarez flamed out last year manager Clint Hurdle and the front office urged him to play winter ball so that he could practice against high quality players. Alvarez refused. Instead, he chose to “train” in Newport Beach, California. Here’s how Alvarez explained his workout schedule: “Some days I’ll hit for 10 minutes, some days I’ll hit for an hour. I’ll typically be done around noon and then I have the rest of the day just to hang out.”

If you’ve been to Newport Beach, you know that “hanging out” there is a dream vacation that’s not likely to result in a higher batting average.

The 2012 season is crucial for the Pirates and Alvarez. Last year, after a promising start that saw the Pirates in the thick of the National League Central Division race through July, the team fell like a stone. Nevertheless, the Pirates raised ticket prices. The offseason acquisitions, A.J. Burnett, Eric Bedard, Rod Barajas, Casey McGehee, Nate McClouth are aging cast offs. In Burnett’s case, the Yankees were willing to absorb millions from his contract to have him not pitch in New York. Of the 30 teams, only the Pirates were willing to take Burnett despite the Yankees’ subsidy.

As for Alvarez, a .211 career hitter against left handers, he’ll spend most of April on the bench. The Pirates’ early schedule includes games against the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks. That means Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner as well as the league’s top right handers like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Roy Halladay.

Baseball is full of surprises. And maybe the 2012 Pirates will once again be among the contenders that take the National League by storm. From this corner, however, a happy ending for the Pirates seems unlikely.

Guy Hecker's 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys: The Least Talented Team Ever

Guy Hecker had an incredible 1884 season. The 28-year old righty started an American Association-leading 73 games for the Louisville Eclipse (completing 72 of them and making 75 appearances overall). He also led the league with 52 wins (against just 20 losses for a .722 winning percentage), a 1.80 ERA, 171 ERA+, 0.868 WHIP, and 385 strikeouts.

At the plate, he made 328 appearances and hit .297/.323/.430 for a 149 OPS+. His WAR was 16.6 as a pitcher and 2.0 as a hitter. His combined total of 18.6 led the league by a full seven wins (over Tony Mullane).

Hecker’s name has come up quite a bit in my research, but it recently popped up again as I was calculating Wins Above Expectancy for managers. Wins Above Expectancy simply calculates how many wins a team should have won and assigns the difference to the manager. Obviously the manager is not the sole reason a team performs over or under expectation. Wins Above Expectancy is just a junk stat I’ve been playing with since we don’t have a good way to calculate WAR for managers.

Hecker’s name came up because he was a player/manager in the final year of his career. Hecker also pitched and played first base for the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys in the National League. The team was awful—they went just 23–113, setting a new loss record that would stand until 1899.

I calculate Wins Above Expectancy in two ways. The first uses Pythagorean record, which is the record the team was expected to finish with, given their runs scored and runs allowed. The Alleghenys scored 597 runs and allowed 1235, giving them a pathetic Pythagorean record of 28-108. So, by their runs scored and runs allowed, they should have won five more games than they actually did.

The second approach I used was to add up the combined WAR of all players on the team and calculate what the expected win-loss record would be. It is by this measure that the Alleghenys are the worst team ever.

The team’s hitters were worth –119 runs at the plate and –99 in the field, a horrible combination that adds up to a total of –4.9 WAR.

And the hitters were amazing compared to the pitchers.

22 pitchers took the hill in Pittsburgh that year. 21 were below replacement level. Only 25-year old Phenomenal Smith was able to produce 0.6 WAR (in 44 innings). Hecker himself was 2.4 wins below replacement. A pitcher named Fred Osborne managed to finish 4.3 wins below replacement in just 58 innings. The total of the pitching staff was –37.5 WAR.

The combined –42.4 WAR is simply incredible. Based on that total, the Alleghenys were expected to win just 1.8 games. As in 2–136, if you round up.

A starting lineup of 2012 managers

Big league playing experience is not a prerequisite for being hired as a major league manager, as evidenced by the six current managers who never made it to the “show’ as players: Fredi Gonzalez (Braves), Terry Collins (Mets), Joe Maddon (Rays), Buck Showalter (Orioles), Jim Leyland (Tigers) and Manny Acta (Indians). Several other current managers had short, unspectacular careers, consistent with the long-standing notion that marginal players make the best managers.

Nonetheless, the group of managers heading up major league clubs at the start of the 2012 season can be assembled into a pretty fair starting lineup.

C: Mike Scioscia (Angels). Another old saw about managing is that catchers are well suited to the job. A look at the current set of major league skippers offers no reason dismiss this thought. Seven current managers played catcher, but only Scioscia was a stand-out as a player. Joe Girardi (Yankees) and Mike Matheny (Cardinals) both held down starting positions for several years, but neither came close to Scioscia’s 23.7 WAR, which he accumulated during 13 years with the LA Dodgers. Girardi, Matheny, Bruce
Bochy (Giants), Ned Yost (Royals), Bob Melvin (Athletics) and Eric Wedge (Mariners) each earned less than five WAR for their playing efforts.

1B: Don Mattingly (Dodgers). He was an MVP, a six-time All-Star and a nine-time Gold Glove winner, and although I am not among the people advocating Mattingly’s Hall of Fame candidacy (largely on his brief peak and less-than-elite OBP), there’s no denying that he was a first-rate ball player. As the only first baseman among the current crop of MLB managers, he’s a natural for this starting lineup.

2B: Davey Johnson (Nationals). Like Mattingly at first base, Johnson is the only current MLB skipper who played second base. With Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger, Johnson was part of the celebrated Baltimore infield of the late ’60s and early ’70s. A four-time All-Star, Johnson saved his best season for 1973 when he hit 43 home runs for the Atlanta Braves.

3B: Robin Ventura (White Sox). Hired this off-season as Chicago’s field general despite having no previous managerial experience, Ventura will be returning to the organization where his playing career began. In ten seasons with the Sox, Ventura won five Gold Gloves and was a consistent offensive force in a lineup that also included Frank Thomas and Tim Raines. Ventura’s best season was 1999, his first with the Mets, when he hit .301, had an OPS of .908 and won his sixth Gold Glove. Brad Mills (Astros) is the only other third-sacker among current MLB managers, and he was a replacement-level player who had a very brief career with the Montreal Expos.

SS: Ozzie Guillen (Marlins). Shortstop was the primary defensive position of five current MLB managers, but Guillen is the natural choice to be in the starting lineup, mostly on the strength of his defensive skills. Never an offensive force, Guillen was a .264 hitter with little power. Nonetheless, he held the starting job for the White Sox for more than a decade, with more than two-thirds of his career 15.9 WAR earned on defense. Bobby Valentine (Red Sox), Ron Washington (Rangers), Dale Sveum (Cubs) and Ron Gardenhire (Twins) all played shortstop, but they did so at or near the replacement level.

LF: Dusty Baker (Reds). Baker had an interesting career arc. His talents were visible early in his career, when he hit .304 and slugged .501 in his age-23 season with Atlanta in 1973. He did not top 130 in OPS+ again until 1977 (age 28), and then did so again in ’80, ’81 and ’82. His peak years were ’79 through ’85 (ages 30-36). He earned a solid 34.8 WAR for his career.

CF: Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks). The signature moment in Gibson’s career was his World Series home run off Dennis Eckersley. He won the MVP in 1988, his first season with the LA Dodgers, and on the strength of that season and the previous several years in Detroit, Gibson was poised to make a run at a Hall of Fame career. But from 1989 forward, Gibson was barely more than a replacement level performer. Still, he
accumulated 37.1 WAR during his 17-year career. Although he played far more as a corner outfielder, Gibson played more than 300 games in center, making him best suited to hold that position in our managers-only starting nine.

RF: Clint Hurdle (Pirates). Hurdle had one of the most disappointing careers of any major leaguer, not because he was a poor player, but because of the astronomical expectations that came along with his arrival with the Kansas City Royals in 1978. If you strip away the expectations and take an objective view, what you can observe is a short career to be sure (less than 1600 plate appearances) but not an unproductive one. His career .341 OBP and .403 SLG made for a 105 OPS+, making Hurdle a slightly above average performer with the bat. If not Hurdle in this starting lineup, the other choices are Charlie Manuel (Phillies), Ron Roenicke (Brewers) and Jim Tracy (Rockies), all of whom had short, undistinguished careers as MLB outfielders.

SP: Bud Black (Padres). Few major league pitchers become major league managers. Among 2012 skippers, only Black and John Farrell (Blue Jays) were MLB pitchers. Black was not much more than a .500 pitcher at 121-and-116, but his ERA+ was above average at 104, and for much of his career he was a serviceable second or third starter. He earned 19.6 WAR over his 15-year career. John Farrell has a somewhat less impressive pitching resume. He made only 109 starts in an eight-year, injury-interrupted career. Although certainly not an ace with his 36-and-46 record, Farrell was not a push-over, either. For his career, he averaged more than six innings pitched per start.

DH: Although the managers making up this lineup are drawn from both leagues, their talents are best suited to playing under National League rules – no DH required. If forced to send a DH to the plate, this team would be hard-pressed to produce a batter with anything near league-average offensive production. Take your pick from among Girardi (72 OPS+), Washington (79), Valentine (85) and Roenicke (92). All were more likely to strike out than to strike fear in the opposing pitcher.