Category Archives: MLB

A busy few weeks

Dear readers:

I apologize for the sporadic content lately. It’s been a busy past couple of months. I’ve been working longer hours at work and am also in the process of moving to Sacramento to be with the woman I love.

I enjoy maintaining this site and something feels off when I’m not writing regularly here. That said, supporting myself and being there for the people who matter most to me will always take precedence.

The regular posting schedule here is 3-5 articles per week. I will return to this as soon as I can.

I should have a new post up in the next couple of days.

Thanks for reading,
Graham

Jim Levey’s year in the sun

If Jim Levey isn’t the worst player in baseball history, he isn’t far off. My friend Adam Darowski ranks him 18,401st out of 18,405 players. But even bad players have their days. Alfredo Griffin, Doug Flynn and Neifi Perez all won Gold Glove awards. Ray Oyler had his own fan club in Seattle, having a good enough experience in the city that he lived there until his death. Levey, meanwhile, got an MVP vote in 1932. There’s a good story around how Levey got that vote.

I discovered Levey, a shortstop for the St. Louis Browns while researching Pete Rose and the worst seven-season stretches for players based on Wins Above Average. WAA’s an interesting stat, and Levey shows a side of it I hadn’t thought much about. As reader Marc Rettus has pointed out a few times in the comments here, WAA is a rate stat that rewards players like Roberto Clemente or Sandy Koufax whose careers ended at or near peak performance levels. WAA penalizes players like Rose, Lou Brock and Rabbit Maranville, to name a few who stuck around past their primes. Then there are the Jim Leveys of the baseball world who started their careers at the statistical bottom and scraped it for a few years before their inevitable quick departures from the majors.

Levey lasted just 440 games through four seasons with the Browns before being banished back to the minors, though it’s worth noting he accumulated his -13.7 WAA at a quicker clip than the all-time leader for this stat, Bill Bergen at -24.4 WAA. For the most part, Levey’s career was just wall-to-wall dreck. His -5.9 WAA in 1933 is worst in baseball history, and he also ranks fourth-worst all-time with -5 WAA in 1931. Levey wasn’t a bad athlete, necessarily, coaching semi-pro basketball during the 1932 offseason and playing in the NFL after his time in the majors. He just didn’t have much success with baseball.

But in 1932, however, things seemingly came together for Levey. Seizing on a suggestion in spring training from manager Bill Killefer to change his right-handed batting stance and hit left-handed against right-handed pitchers, Levey raised his batting average .280, up 71 points from 1931. While sabermetrics shows that Levey’s 1932 season wasn’t good, just relatively less bad than his other work at -2.6 WAA, it seemed like enough of an improvement at the time that he was written of as possibly baseball’s most improved player late in the season.

I couldn’t figure out who gave Levey his MVP vote and if it was meant seriously or as a token gesture. Votes like this sometimes go to veteran players who help traditionally bad teams to unexpected successes; Maranville got these sorts of MVP votes late in his career. But the ’32 Browns finished a distant sixth at 63-91. And even by the statistical measures of the day for voters, Levey looked nothing close to the best player in his league. Jimmie Foxx was American League MVP decisively, hitting .364 with 58 homers and 169 RBIs for an A’s team that won 94 games and finished second.

That being said, I can’t say that I mind coming upon votes like this. It’s nice to see the Jim Leveys of baseball win one every now and again.

Pete Rose’s historically bad final seasons

I was struck perusing Baseball-Reference.com on Saturday to see Pete Rose had -13.7 Wins Above Average over his final seven seasons, 1980 through 1986. It’s long been well-known Rose stuck around a few seasons longer than he maybe should have as he chased the all-time hits record. Rose got 884 hits those final seven seasons, passing Honus Wagner, Cap Anson, Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and finally Ty Cobb on the hits list. But those seasons cost Rose in other ways.

If Rose had retired at 38 after the 1979 season, he’d rank 49th all-time with 42.3 WAA; instead, he’s tied for 130th at 28.6. He’d also be two hits shy of averaging 200 hits a season for his career and likely would have been ushered into the Hall of Fame in 1985, four years before his lifetime ban for betting on baseball. In more ways than maybe any other player in baseball history, Rose’s career and life is a story of not knowing when to quit. Ironically, it’s the same compulsive drive that made him great.

By Wins Above Average, Rose’s final seven seasons rank 29th-worst among position players in modern baseball history. With the help of the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, here are the 29 worst seven-season runs by position players since 1900:

  • Bill Bergen, -14.3 WAA, 1901-1907
  • Bill Bergen, -14 WAA, 1902-1908
  • Bill Bergen, -14.9 WAA, 1903-1909
  • Bill Bergen, -16 WAA, 1904-1910
  • Bill Bergen, -16.3 WAA, 1905-1911
  • Ralph Young, -14 WAA, 1916-1922
  • Walter Holke, -13.8 WAA, 1918-1924
  • Walter Holke, -14.7 WAA, 1919-1925
  • Chick Galloway, -15.3 WAA, 1920-1926
  • Tommy Thevenow, -13.8 WAA, 1928-1934
  • Tommy Thevenow, -15.6 WAA, 1929-1935
  • Tommy Thevenow, -14 WAA, 1930-1936
  • Doc Cramer, -15.8 WAA, 1936-1942
  • Doc Cramer, -13.8 WAA, 1937-1943
  • Ken Reitz, -15 WAA, 1973-1979
  • Ken Reitz, -16.2 WAA, 1974-1980
  • Jerry Morales, -15.3 WAA, 1974-1980
  • Dan Meyer, -14.3 WAA, 1974-1980
  • Ken Reitz, -15.7 WAA, 1975-1981
  • Dan Meyer, -15.4 WAA, 1975-1981
  • Jerry Morales, -14.9 WAA, 1975-1981
  • Doug Flynn, -15.9 WAA, 1976-1982
  • Dan Meyer, -14.1 WAA, 1976-1982
  • Doug Flynn, -17.6 WAA, 1977-1983
  • Dan Meyer, -14.7 WAA, 1977-1983
  • Doug Flynn, -17 WAA, 1978-1984
  • Doug Flynn, -14.7 WAA, 1979-1985
  • Pete Rose, -13.7 WAA, 1980-1986
  • Yuniesky Betancourt, -16.7 WAA, 2007-2013

There’s another side to this that I’d be remiss to not mention. For one thing, Rose’s WAA would be higher had he not played first base for the Phillies. According to this page of Baseball-Reference.com, which @LoveSportsFacts showed me on Twitter, WAR sets average offensive production for first basemen at .797 OPS. It’s set at .707 for third base, Rose’s position before he signed with the Phillies in December 1978. Assuming Rose had been able to keep playing the bulk of his innings at third, his .687 OPS from 1980 through 1986 would be close to average for the position. It seems a little unfair to penalize Rose, given that he switched positions to accommodate Mike Schmidt.

Rose’s greatest value may have come in the clubhouse, which makes me wonder why he didn’t manage Philadelphia, which had four skippers during his five seasons in town. Dan Mallon shared a few pages with me via Twitter from the 2013 book Almost a Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the 1980 Phillies, which describes Rose’s immediate impact in Philadelphia. This included Rose diverting attention away from Schmidt by grandstanding with the press, “a wonderful salesman for the team almost from the beginning of his tenure.” He also helped build Schmidt and other teammates’ confidence. The book includes a quote from Schmidt, who said of Rose:

In 1980, Pete provided the kind of dynamic leadership that took the pressure off the other players. He was the finest team player I had ever seen. He always had something to say to pump you up, to play harder every game. At the same time, he was the kind of athlete who was boastful and could go out on the field and back it up. That allowed the rest of us to raise our level of play and ultimately go on to win the World Series.

Mallon told me Rose that Schmidt, like Phillies teammates Larry Bowa and the late Tug McGraw and manager Dallas Green have all publicly credited Rose for getting Philadelphia over the hump to win its first World Series in 1980. After all when Rose joined the Phillies as a free agent in December 1978, the team was coming off three consecutive years losing the National League Championship Series. As a player, Rose was worth -2.8 WAA in 1980. Given the outcome that year, the point is moot.

It’s a different story for 1983, where 42-year-old Rose hit .245, was worth -4 Wins Above Average and struggled to keep his starting spot. Nicknamed “The Wheeze Kids” at an MLB-high 31.8 years average age that season, Philadelphia somehow made a pennant run. Rose hit .345 in the playoffs, but the Phillies lost to Baltimore 4-1 in the World Series and released Rose one week later. Roger Angell wrote of it, “It is painful for us to see old players go, and infinitely harder when they prolong the inevitable process.” Bill James wrote in his 1984 abstract, by which point Rose had signed with the Montreal Expos:

Pete’s selfishness in sacrificing the good of his team to forge on in sub-mediocrity after his own goals is, in its own way, what you would expect from a spoiled beauty. It’s a sad way to end a distinguished career, but you’ll do us both a favor if you’ll just pull the plug on it, and let him get his 4,000th hit two years from now in an empty parking garage in a dark corner of the nation, at a far remove from the pennant race.

Baseball, of course, did nothing of the sort with a seven-minute celebration and new Corvette presented on field when Rose got his record on September 11, 1985.

A nice story about Doug Glanville

I was pleasantly surprised the other day to see former baseball player, ESPN commentator and writer Doug Glanville announced as a candidate to manage the Tampa Bay Rays. I’ve admired Doug’s thoughtful, engaging writing for a long time, maybe a decade. I also have a personal connection to Doug that I haven’t shared here, though I thought the time might be right.

As an independent baseball blogger, I sometimes devise unusual methods to promote my work. In the past, I wrote a weekly column here called “Any player/Any era” where I projected players into different eras than the ones they played in. A couple of years ago, having interacted with Doug once or twice through Twitter, I thought he’d be interested to hear I’d be writing one of these columns on him. Doug was receptive, answering a few questions while I researched the piece. He had nice things to say about the end product, too and within a few months, we were following each other on Twitter.

Around this time, I went through a rough stretch with employment, being unable to consistently pay my bills. I sometimes will stay quiet during such stretches, as they’re embarrassing, though I decided to speak up this time on Twitter. Doug caught site of my tweet as follows:

The best was yet to come.

Shortly thereafter, Doug messaged me asking where I’d want to write, if I could do so anywhere. Would if every struggling writer could get one of these messages. I was so excited I called my parents at 6:30 a.m. to tell them. That probably wasn’t my best idea, as parents worry when they get calls from or about their kids so early in the morning. Still, I couldn’t hide how I was feeling.

After thinking about it briefly, I told Doug of a few places I might like to write, including the San Francisco Chronicle. Doug said he’d email the sports editor. While Doug wasn’t the only person who put in a good word for me, he’s part of the reason I wound up freelancing for the Chronicle for about a year. [A collection of my Chronicle stories can be found here, by the way.]

With sabermetrics staking more and more of a place in the baseball world, the job of a manager is changing. For some teams, managing is less these days about devising in-game strategies [front office employees and computers can do that] than it is about managing the various personalities that play for any given team. Managing is about offering encouragement to a collection of mostly 20- and 30-something-year-old players, getting the best out of them, helping them to believe they’re capable of more than they have been heretofore.

Doug did this for me and while I don’t know if that means he’d make a good big league manager, I like to think it does.

Project schedules

A quick update for a Tuesday afternoon:

First off, voting closed Sunday night for my project on the 25 most important people in baseball history. Thanks to the 262 people who voted! I’m excited to share the voting results and will unveil them next Monday. I want to take my time writing between now and then to do this project justice. I’ll try to get a couple regular posts up in the interim, though I’m not promising anything in-depth.

On a related note, as some may know, I do an annual project having people vote on the 50 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. I’ve done this project for four years now and it’s always been a December-January thing. I’ve done it at this time because interest in Cooperstown spikes between the time the Veterans Committee announces its inductees in December and when the Baseball Writers Association of America does likewise in January.

That being said, I’ve decided to do something different this year. Because I do not want to burden people who just voted in my project on the 25 most important people in baseball history by asking them to immediately fill out another ballot, I’m pushing my project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame out at least a few months. Ideally, I’d like it to run in late July, when interest in Cooperstown peaks during the annual induction weekend.

I may ask for votes a few months before July, though, as I’m interested in doing the next version of my Hall of Fame project as a book. That’s right. I’m 31, I’ve never written a book, and I know I have one in me. I also think I’ve maybe taken my Hall of Fame project as far as I want to in blog form. I’m eager to explore the creative possibilities that doing my project as a book may allow. I also believe in continuing to give myself challenges and growing. It’s an important part of life, not just for writers.

I’m posting all of this here as an explanation to anyone who was looking forward to voting in a month [eight people have voted all four years of my project; dozens of others have voted two or three years.] I also want to invite anyone interested in helping me plan a book. I know I’m going to need a lot of help for this thing to be a success.

Why Irv Waldron may have left the majors

It ranks as one of the more enduring mysteries in baseball history. The inaugural 1901 season of the American League also marked the debut in the majors of 29-year-old Irv Waldron. While not a star, the 5’5″, 155-pound outfielder hit .311 between the old Milwaukee Brewers [who became the St. Louis Browns in 1902] and Washington Senators, with a 106 OPS+ for the year. And that was it for Waldron. While he played another nine seasons for various minor league teams, he never returned to the majors after 1901.

I’ve written about one-season MLB careers before. What makes Waldron’s unusual is that it didn’t end for the typical reasons– injury or lack of ability. Granted, he finished third in errors by an outfielder, his defense suspect enough to inspire a derisive Chicago Inter Ocean cartoon, at right. But Waldron likely could have gotten more work playing in the majors. Late in the 1901 season, the Boston Beaneaters of the National League expressed interest in signing him for their depleted outfield. Tangentially, one of the Beaneaters stars of 1901 figured in where Waldron played in 1902. More on that in a moment.

To my knowledge, no one’s ever definitively stated the reason for Waldron’s exit from the American League. Seemingly, no one thought to interview him before his death in 1944, with his obituary making no mention of why he left the majors. Waldron has no SABR biography and scant details accompany his stats at Baseball-Reference.com. What’s been written is largely speculative, like this book noting, “His reputation for bone-headed playing must have stayed with him.” The Ultimate Baseball Book classes Waldron “among the most mysterious figures to wear major league uniforms.”

Waldron’s departure was mysterious even at the time. MLB historian and veteran baseball author John Thorn sent me an excerpt from a Febuary 1, 1902 article in Sporting Life that asked of new Washington manager Tom Loftus:

Why has he permitted Sam Dungan and Irving Waldron to slip away and fall into the minor leagues? They hit way over .300 last year why were they not good enough for 1902? The ways of managers are past all explanation, and what’s the use of trying to fathom their ideas?

Loftus’s presence in Washington could hint at why Waldron left. Loftus took over for Jim Manning, who served as both manager and co-owner for Washington in 1901 before selling his controlling shares in the team. The New York Times noted on October 30, 1901 that while several stockholders lobbied Manning to retain control, he sold because of his strained relationship with notoriously imperious American League president Ban Johnson. Instead, Manning and future Hall of Famer Kid Nichols, who anchored the Boston Beaneaters pitching staff in 1901 got joint control of a Western League team, the Kansas City Blue Stockings, with Nichols to serve as manager. In January 1902, Nichols signed a number of players including, on January 19, Waldron.

I mentioned Waldron and Manning’s simultaneous move from Washington to Kansas City to baseball historian David Nemec, who wrote much of the text in The Ultimate Baseball Book. Nemec replied:

I checked my notes after we talked.  They confirm everything you found and more.  Manning was very popular with many players he managed and Nichols was still at the top of his game.  He hated it in Boston and went to KC as part-owner.  Although salary figures are unavailable, I suspect Waldron made more in 02 than he did in 01 with Washington.  After Nichols left KC to come back to the majors, Waldron left too and went to SF in the fledgling PCL.  Probably he followed the money; the PCL even then paid fairly well.  Waldron I suspect was a lesser version of Willie Keeler, good contact hitter but one that didn’t walk much despite the small strike zone he presented.

I’ve mentioned before here– and I’m not the first person to say it– that generations ago in baseball, effective players with a glaring flaw or two like Waldron could often earn more in the minors than the majors, with the added bonus of being able to play in western states the majors didn’t extend to before 1958. Indeed, as a longtime reader pointed out to me when I emailed him about it, most of Waldron’s minor league career after 1901 is a series of sojourns through places like San Francisco, Denver and Lincoln, Nebraska.

There’s one other thing worth noting. Early in the 1902 season, with Waldron on his way to hitting .322 for Kansas City, he got an offer to jump to the Louisville Colonels of the American Assocation. George Tebeau who’d managed the previous Western League team in Kansas City in 1901 offered Waldron $350 a month, not far off of the National League maximum annual salary of $2,400. Waldron turned Tebeau down, giving his telegram to Nichols to keep as a memento. In an article on the incident in the April 30, 1902 Topeka Daily Capital, Nichols laughed, “Tebeau has always been anxious to sign Waldron. He was after him in the East at the time that I landed him.”

There may never be a definitive answer to why Waldron didn’t play in the majors after 1901. Short of tracking down one of his descendants through ancestry.com, which I don’t yet have access to, I’m not sure the historical record exists. But one thing is clear– for many years after 1901, Waldron remained in demand as a baseball player.

Ben Shields and the fight against fate

A longtime reader asked me recently which pitcher in baseball history had the most wins without any losses. In using the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool to research the answer to this question– Clay Rapada, who is 8-0 through seven seasons– I came across an obscure pitcher who seemingly wouldn’t rate a mention today.

Ben Shields’ career spanned just 41.1 innings between 1924 and 1931. While he went 4-0 lifetime, which is tied for the fourth-most wins without any losses of any pitcher in baseball history, the remainder of his stats are ghastly: an 8.27 ERA, 5.82 FIP and a projected -4.0 Wins Above Average for a full season’s work. At one point, however, Shields was a top Yankee prospect. If not for a disease that’s long since been eradicated in the western world, Shields might have pitched for the 1927 Murderers Row club.

Shields certainly looked like one of the few bright spots for an otherwise abysmal Yankee club when he joined the team in September 1925. The left-hander had gone 21-14 for Richmond of the Virginia League that season, setting a strikeout record for the circuit. And after pitching a scoreless inning in his season debut for the Bronx Bombers on September 22, Shields proceeded to win his next three appearances, pitching two complete games. But his illness during spring training the following year would forever alter his career.

After Shields came back to the majors with the Boston Red Sox in 1930, there were stories his career had been disrupted because he’d taken a Babe Ruth line drive to the chest during spring training in 1926, suffering internal injuries. I couldn’t find any record of this in perusing newspaper accounts from 1926. The truth appears to be less dramatic, as it often is, with the Yankees shelving Shields for the 1926 season after he contracted tuberculosis. He’s not the only ballplayer to battle the disease, with Christy Mathewson and Rube Waddell both dying from it. Shields overcame it and lived to old age, dying in 1982, though he didn’t pitch professionally in 1927, ’28 or ’29, working as a taxi driver in Richmond.

The Red Sox thought enough of Shields, however, to pay $150 to cover his travel expenses when they worked him out in the winter of 1930. Shields made just three appearances for Boston, allowing 16 hits and 10 earned runs in ten innings, though the Phillies brought him back the following year after he asked manager Burt Shotton for a tryout. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted on March 3, 1931:

Now the Phillies have him– a burly, healthy-looking fellow, whose weight is up to 213 pounds. But the health bug has bitten Ben for fair now. It’s more weight than he wants, and he’s the hardest worker on the Winter Haven lot to boot.

But that isn’t all. After Burt Shotton dismisses his baseball class every day, Shields hies himself to a lake in Winter Haven and rows around in circles for an hour or more. ‘I’m going to get as hard as steel,’ Ben promises.

I admire people like Ben Shields, folks who persevere, thumb their nose at bad fate and work to make their own better destiny. I want to believe the Ben Shieldses of the world can and will succeed with enough hard work. I want to believe because I see a bit of myself in him. But there was nothing Shields could do about the ’31 Phillies, a sixth-place team that allowed the most runs in the National League and played in the notoriously hitter-friendly Baker Bowl. Shields allowed nine runs over four appearances that totaled 5.1 innings and that was it for him as a baseball player.

Rube Ehrhardt’s unique place in baseball history

Few baseball fans may know of Rube Ehrhardt. Seemingly, there’s no good reason. Ehrhardt pitched for Brooklyn Robins and Cincinnati Reds from 1924 to 1929, going 22-34 with a 4.15 ERA, sub-par even for the high-scoring age in baseball history. With the exception of 1924, when Ehrhardt’s stellar pitching after a mid-July purchase from a Class C team helped keep Brooklyn in the pennant race until the season’s final days, he had an unremarkable career. Half the battle for Ehrhardt was just getting to the majors, as he didn’t debut until age 29 due to multiple serious injuries and service in World War I. Perhaps it stunted his professional growth.

Ehrhardt has a niche in baseball history, though, as one of five pitchers who threw a shutout in their final game, according to this Baseball Research Journal article and a review of recent seasons I did with the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool.

Three of the other men who threw shutouts in their final game– Lew Krausse Sr. on September 2, 1932, Don Fisher on September 30, 1945 and Brian Denman on October 2, 1982– were young pitchers who barely made a dent in the majors and played in the minors for some time after. The fourth pitcher to hurl a shutout in his last game, one-time All Star Don Wilson on September 28, 1974, died months later at 29 of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ehrhardt is the only member of this group who voluntarily didn’t pitch another professional game after his shutout finale.

I’d like to think of Ehrhardt as the baseball equivalent of an entertainer dropping his mic and walking off stage after an epic performance; maybe it isn’t that simple. Ehrhardt was a few months from turning 35 when he blanked the World Series-bound Chicago Cubs on the last day of the 1929 season, triumphing over another journeyman pitching the last game of his big league career. Ehrhardt went to spring training training with Cincinnati in 1930, though the Reds released him in April after he declined to be sent to the minors. The Boston Braves signed Ehrhardt a few months later, though he never pitched for them, instead closing out the year playing semi-pro ball in his native Chicago.

Ehrhardt’s baseball career seemingly over after 1930, he pursued various other lines of work the remainder of his life, at different times a car salesman, taproom operator and, for 20 years, an employee in a Chicago-area steel mill. [Long before free agency or baseball’s pension plan, former ballplayers usually had to work after their careers ended. I’ll dive into this more in a future post.] By the time of Ehrhardt’s death at 85 in 1980, I imagine his baseball career was a distant memory for all but those closest to him.

The “One and Only” Club: Pitchers

On Monday, I looked at hitters who retired with one of a certain stat. I enjoyed researching and writing that enough that I decided to expand this to pitchers. Via the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, here are six pitchers since 1901 who retired with the most innings pitched in the statistical category they represent:

Randy Hennis, one hit allowed in 9.2 IP: Quietly and without anyone knowing it at the time, Randy Hennis had one of the best final appearances in major league history. A 24-year-old September call-up for the Houston Astros in 1990, Hennis threw a one-hitter over 6.1 shutout innings against the Cincinnati Reds on the last day of the season. Hennis got rocked during 1991 spring training, however and that was it for him in the majors.

Juan Pena, one run allowed in 13 IP: Whenever someone talks about a great Boston Red Sox pitcher from 1999, it’s generally Pedro Martinez who had one of the best years ever for a pitcher that season. Seemingly no one ever talks about Juan Pena, who got sent to the disabled list twice in short succession after he went 2-0 with an 0.69 ERA in two starts. Pena never pitched again in the majors, though one can only wonder what might have been. Had Pena pitched 210 innings in 1999 [and not regressed], his stats project to a 742 ERA+ and 12.9 WAR.

Jack Nabors, one win in 269.2 IP: Poor Jack Nabors. There was no hope for the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who were in the middle of a long rebuilding stretch and went 36-117, boasting three pitchers with at least 20 losses. Nabors was one of them, going 1-20 with a 3.47 ERA, 82 ERA+ and 3.12 FIP. Playing on an A’s team that scored just 447 runs, Nabors received two runs or less of support in 18 of his 30 starts. His only win came April 22 when the A’s scored six runs. Connie Mack said late in the season that Nabors would be back in 1917, though he pitched just twice more in his career.

Rube Vickers, one homer allowed in 458 IP: Some context is in order here. Rube Vickers pitched 317 innings in 1908 without allowing a home run, but there were just 116 hit in all of the American League that year. One team, the Chicago White Sox managed three homers all season, with Hall of Fame pitcher Ed Walsh accounting for one of the bombs. In contrast, the average American League team in 2014 hit 144 home runs.

Kirk Rueter, one shutout in 1,918 IP: With just four complete games, a 4.27 ERA and a career spanning an era that strongly favored hitters, it’s a wonder Kirk Rueter lasted as long as he did. His only shutout is more unbelievable: a one-hit, seven strikeout gem on August 27, 1995. Ironically, it came against the San Francisco Giants, where Rueter would play the majority of his career. Or maybe that’s why the Giants traded for Rueter.

Tom Seaver, one save in 4,783 IP: Decades before relief specialists were common, staff aces pitched with some regularity out of the bullpen. Walter Johnson had 34 saves lifetime. Christy Mathewson, Dizzy Dean and Grover Cleveland Alexander all had at least 30 saves as well. Heck, Lefty Grove led the American League in saves the same season he won 28 games. By Seaver’s era, though, the trend had slowed. Tom Terrific made just nine relief appearances in his career, collecting his only save in the second game of a 1968 doubleheader.

Book review series delays

Faithful visitors to this site will notice that once again there is not a promised new book review posted.

I started a Friday book review series a month ago to clear a roughly 30-book backlog that had accumulated since I promised four years ago to review any book sent to me. When the series began, I promised to review a book a week. That quickly became once every two weeks when I couldn’t read the books quickly enough. Now, it’s been three weeks since my last review and I’m halfway through my latest book.

Suffice it to say, I don’t know when my next book review will be posted. It’s important to me to be a person of my word, and I’m tired of making promises I keep breaking. I don’t know if I need to stretch my book review schedule to once every month or abandon it entirely and post reviews as I finish reading these books, even if it’s one every six months. I’d rather post an infrequent but thorough review than rush up hastily-written screeds about books I’ve only skimmed. That said, I’m also concerned about having no incentive to read these books at a reasonable pace.

I’d welcome feedback on this from anyone who’d like to give it.

The “One and Only” Club

It takes some players awhile to collect certain stats. Ben Revere finally hit his first home run this year, five seasons into his big league career. Also in 2014, with less fanfare, Yonder Alonso got his first triple. And, after nearly 1,000 plate appearances, Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez stole his first base.

Revere hit his second homer before the regular season ended and other players have gone on to collect more stats in areas they were formerly without luck. I got to wondering, though, about players who retired with just one of a certain stat. With the help of the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, here are eight players. Each has the most plate appearances for any position player since 1901 in the statistical category they represent:

Skeeter Shelton, one hit in 43 plate appearances: Shelton’s big league career barely spanned a week late in the 1915 season. He was perfect in 22 chances in the outfield, with Shelton’s SABR bio noting that he robbed Bobby Veach of a triple. But even in the Deadball Era on a New York Yankees team that hit just .233, there was nothing that could be done about Shelton’s .025 batting average. His SABR bio notes that he served in World War I, coached baseball at West Virginia University and sold insurance, among other things, after he left the majors.

Mike Schemer, one strikeout in 114 plate appearances:

Schemer hit .333 after the New York Giants made him a late-season replacement for Phil Weintraub in August 1945. But while he also won praise for his defense, his power– one home run and a .407 slugging percentage– left something to be desired for a first baseman. “Schemer isn’t an impressive batter,” the Associated Press noted two weeks into his career. “He looks husky enough to powder the ball but he doesn’t get much distance.” Johnny Mize returned from World War II the following season and that was it for Schemer.

Joe Cannon, one walk in 232 plate appearances: There were hints of the inept free-swinger Cannon would become as he progressed through the minors. The 1974 first round draft pick hit .299 with the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate 1976-78, but he averaged 95 strikeouts and 28 walks. Houston dealt Cannon to the Toronto Blue Jays in November 1978. Getting his most playing time in the majors the following season, Cannon’s issues came full surface. In 146 plate appearances, he managed just a .211/.217/.254 slash. His only walk came August 24, buttressed by 34 strikeouts.

George Twombly, one double in 477 plate appearances: Here’s an odd one. Deadball Era outfielder Twombly was by all accounts a hapless hitter, offering a .211/.289/.247 slash over parts of five seasons. That he managed just one double and had no home runs isn’t a surprise. It’s the seven career triples, including five in just 266 plate appearances as a rookie in 1914 that seem wholly out of place.

Duane Kuiper, one home run in 3,754 plate appearances: Maybe I’m biased as a San Francisco Bay Area sports fan, but I assume Giants announcer Kuiper’s one home run is the most well-known of any stat on this page. It even inspired a commemorative bobblehead from the Giants earlier this year. “The thing I always ask myself, and I’ll ask it about this function: If I would have hit two, would there be a bobblehead?” the San Jose Mercury News quoted Kuiper as saying. “No? Well, then this is fantastic!”

Rod Barajas, one triple in 3,784 plate appearances: Lumbering catchers often don’t have many triples or stolen bases in their careers, so it isn’t stunning that Barajas appears here. [He came close to making this list for steals as well, with two lifetime.] He had five triples in his first four seasons in the minors, though.

Gus Triandos, one stolen base in 4,424 plate appearances: I’ll give Triandos credit for knowing not to run. Russ Nixon, who went 2,715 appearances without a stolen base, was thrown out seven times trying to steal. Cecil Fielder was 2-for-8 stealing lifetime. Triandos’ only career stolen base and attempt came the last day of the 1958 season, in the second game of a doubleheader, in the ninth inning. “I went in standing up on that one, too,” Triandos told the Baltimore Sun in 2009. “[Opposing catcher Darrell] Johnson never got over that.”

Pete Rose, one grand slam in 15,890 plate appearances: Had Charlie Hustle played in a better hitter’s era or batted deeper in the order– 90 percent of his PAs came in the first or second spot in the lineup– this stat might be different. That being said, as Tim Kurkjian noted for ESPN.com in 2006, Rose’s sole slam came off his future manager Dallas Green. On a side note, Derek Jeter just retired with one career grand slam as well.

How many homers did Babe Ruth lose bunting in 1927?

There’s an interesting Babe Ruth stat, one of many things that’s unique to the Sultan of Swat. The historical record shows Ruth with 14 sacrifice hits in 1927. Ruth, in fact, is the only player in baseball history with any sacrifice bunts in a season where he hit at least 60 homers.

It’s a bit of a misleading stat. My Twitter friend @aceballstats [who, by the way, is a superb follow] pointed out that sacrifice hits included both flies and bunts until 1954 after I started tweeting about this a little while ago. Looking through 1927 game logs on Retrosheet.org, I found that Ruth had 11 sacrifice flies and three sacrifice bunts in 1927.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if Ruth lost any homers with those three sacrifice bunts. If I’d been Ruth’s manager in 1927, I’d have fined Ruth for not swinging.

It’s of course impossible to know what Ruth might have done swinging the bat instead, but with the help of Retrosheet, I’ll present his three sacrifice bunts from 1927:

1. June 23, 1927: Ruth bunted in the first inning of an 11-4 win against the Red Sox. Boston’s starter Del Lundgren lasted just two innings, surrendering seven runs with just two earned runs. He allowed a homer to Lou Gehrig in the second inning.

2. August 1, 1927: Ruth bunted in the fourth inning of a 2-1 loss to visiting Cleveland. Opposing starter Jake Miller allowed just six hits and one run before the game was called in the sixth inning because of rain. It should be noted that Ruth otherwise owned Miller, hitting five homers in 32 at-bats against him lifetime with a .375/.412/.906 slash.

3. August 18, 1927: This Ruth bunt might be the most interesting, as it came in the 12th inning and the player that Ruth sacrificed over, Mark Koenig, subsequently scored the deciding run for the Yankees. Ruth’s bunt also came against Ted Lyons, who held the Great Bambino to just five homers in 113 at-bats lifetime with a .274/.383/.442 slash.

It’s a small sample size, granted and it’s perfectly possible Ruth did the right thing bunting. All the same, I can’t help but wonder.

How to play baseball, as told by the greats

On Friday, I said I’d highlight a seven-part series today that the Associated Press offered in 1954 with instructions on how to play baseball from Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner. When I went to research this piece, I realized I’d goofed. In 1954, AP Newsfeatures produced a seven-part series of former big league stars offering playing tips. It’s the kind of thing that would be great to see today, if only anyone still read newspapers.

With the help of newspapers.com, I tracked down all seven parts of this series. They’re highlighted and linked to as follows:

Part I: “How to play the outfield,” by Joe DiMaggio

The caption for the photo above begins with a quote from DiMaggio saying, “Backing up a teammate should come by instinct.” It’s a curious choice of photo. It shows Mickey Mantle blowing out his ACL in the second game of the 1951 World Series, after the Yankee Clipper called for a ball Mantle was running down in right field. The caption praises DiMaggio for “making a difficult play look routine,” which he did often during his Hall of Fame career. But it was also the first of many serious injuries for Mantle.

DiMaggio noted in the article:

Had that ball gone through us I would have had to chase it since it was coming toward right center. It might have gone for two or three bases, and we might not have beaten the Giants by 3-1 that day.

Part II: “How to play third base,” by Pie Traynor

It’s odd to think that at the time this series ran, Traynor was considered by many to be the greatest third baseman in baseball history.

Mike Schmidt , Brooks Robinson, George Brett and others have long since eclipsed Traynor in the running for this honor. Sabermetrics also shows that Traynor might be one of the more, if not most overrated all-time greats. His 36.2 career Wins Above Replacement ranked 13th among third basemen up to 1954. But that stat was a long way off back then and Traynor’s .320 lifetime batting average was tops of any living third baseman in 1954. Traynor still has the third-best lifetime batting average among third basemen after Wade Boggs and John McGraw.

Traynor’s article for the second part of this series focused on the defensive aspects of his position. Aside from various pointers, Traynor wrote of a play he’d devised. He noted:

When the ball was hit to me at third base and with a runner on third I would fire the ball into the plate to get the man going home with one out or less.

The moment I threw the ball I would run as fast as I could and the moment the runner held up, the catcher would return the ball to me. It was easy to tag the runner. I would be standing next to him. But wait! As I tagged the runner, I’d be getting set to make a throw to first base to get the batter. And many times we’d get the batter because he had made the turn of first base toward second.

Part III: “Shortstop is key position– says Honus Wagner”

1954 was a good year for Honus Wagner. All throughout the year, the Pittsburgh Pirates took donations from fans to build a statue of their legend beside Forbes Field. Dwight Eisenhower, among others, called Wagner to wish him a happy 80th birthday on February 24. A few months later, AP Newsfeatures sports editor Frank Eck interviewed Wagner for the third part of this series. It’s the only installment, incidentally, where a player is not given byline credit.

Wagner, the eighth-oldest living Hall of Famer at the time, offered a number of gems in the piece, including:

I stayed at shortstop until the ball was hit or pitched out. I learned that from Hughie Jennings back in 1897 when I was playing right field for the Louisville Colonels in the National League. Jennings hit .397 for Baltimore in 1896 and when I came up as a 23-year-old rookie, I thought I’d see how Jennings did it. Jennings was a shortstop but how he could cover second base! He could take the throw while on the run.

Part IV: “How to play second base,” by Rogers Hornsby

It’s funny, I never think of Rogers Hornsby for his defensive contributions. I think of the lifetime .358 batting average or the .402 clip he managed from 1921-25 or the two Triple Crowns. Even with sabermetrics that mitigate for the superb offensive era and ballparks he played in, Hornsby’s batting feats are still astonishing. His 175 OPS+ is fifth best in baseball history and his 173 wRC+ is tied for third.

I’ve traditionally thought of Hornsby as a second baseman only in the respect that’s it where I’d tolerate playing him in exchange for having his bat in the lineup for my all-time dream team. But he knew enough about the position to write the fourth installment in this series. Hornsby wrote:

Some fellows say the second baseman should face partially toward first base when fielding ground balls. I disagree. A second baseman, or any fielder for that matter, definitely must get in front of all ground balls. Never play a ball off your side. Try to play the ball with both hands. There is too much of this one-handed stuff today. Use one hand only when forced to.

The article also included a quote from legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who’d faced Hornsby as a player. Stengel said, “I never saw any other second baseman throw sidearm and get the speed on the ball that Hornsby did.”

Part V: “Bill Terry offers some tips on how to play initial sack,” by Bill Terry

Terry’s another player I know chiefly for his bat, the last man to hit .400 in the National League thanks to his .401 season in 1930. Sabermetrics suggests he was a decent fielder as well, with Terry saving 73 defensive runs during his career, 11th-best among first basemen all-time. Terry wrote in the fifth installment of this series:

I see all sorts of players, men who have come up as catchers, outfielders and infielders at other spots put on first base. It seems the popular trend is that if a man can’t play any place else, or is beaten out of his job they put him at first.

I have never considered it that simple. A good first baseman can save a team a lot of base hits by going after the close ones. He should stretch on every play, automatically. A good first baseman can save a team a lot of errors by fielding the bad ones.

Part VI: “Easy delivery aids control,” by Carl Hubbell

Aside from striking out five consecutive future Hall of Famers in the 1934 All Star Game, Hubbell was perhaps most famous for his screwball pitch. Interestingly, in the sixth installment of this series, Hubbell cautioned aspiring hurlers against throwing too many different pitches or getting excessively creative.

Hubbell wrote:

Tricky deliveries may succeed on the sandlots but as a pitcher moves into faster company he will find that the pitch that overpowers a good hitter will be his best weapon.

It’s interesting, by the way, to see Hubbell as an authority on power pitching. His 1,677 strikeouts rank 137th in baseball history as of this writing. In 1954, though, they were 26th-most ever and 15th-most by any pitcher since 1901. The times, how they’ve changed.

Part VII: “Good arm, quick reflexes make top catcher,” by Gus Mancuso

For the final installment of this series, the AP turned to Mancuso, the only player of the seven not in the Hall of Fame today. In fact, everyone else but DiMaggio– whose 1951 retirement and 1955 induction helped inspire the five-year waiting period for eligibility– had already been voted in by the time this series.

There weren’t a ton of legendary former catchers to approach in 1954 [though with some foresight, then-active catchers like Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella might have made great choices.] Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane were the only two living catchers who’d already been enshrined in 1954. Presumably, future honorees like Ray Schalk, Ernie Lombardi and Gabby Hartnett weren’t available.

Instead, readers got Mancuso, a 17-year National League veteran who made two All Star teams and twice finished in the top ten for MVP voting. Perhaps Mancuso had something to offer as an instructor as well, as he managed in the Texas League from 1946 through 1949.

Among Mancuso’s instructions in this piece he wrote:

The catcher must get his pitchers to respect his judgment because when a pitcher gets in a jam his catcher often can help him as much, and maybe more, than his manager or coach. The catcher is definitely the quarterback of his team.

_________________________

I wonder who might figure into a similar series today?

A new design here

Frequent visitors to this site may notice the design of this page has once again been updated.

I changed the theme a few weeks ago and I liked the clean, simple look, but I noticed that it didn’t display bylines for individual articles. I write most of the posts here myself these days but there was a stretch a few years ago where this site featured several different writers. Some of their articles still get traffic and this morning, someone commented thinking I’d written one of them.

I’m not comfortable passing anyone else’s writing off as my own, be it intentionally or unintentionally by using a theme that doesn’t automatically display bylines. I’ve thus switched temporarily to a theme that does this. I’ll work over the weeks to come to find a more lasting design solution.

Vote: The 25 most important people in baseball history

Organized baseball history dates more than 150 years, with more than 17,000 men having played in the majors and countless other individuals having helped in other capacities. Baseball history being what it is, a lot of people have made noteworthy contributions to the sport over the years.

Who then has been most important?

I wrote a post last week offering who I considered to be the 10 most important people in baseball history. My research for the post and subsequent reader response has led me to believe there might be something more worth looking at. In that spirit, I invite anyone interested to vote on the 25 important people in baseball history.

A ballot with 190 of baseball’s most memorable players, executives and other figures can be found here. Please VOTE HERE [anyone who has trouble with the Google Form I’ve created can email me their votes at thewomack@gmail.com.]

As always with these projects, there are few rules aside from the following:

1) Anyone is eligible to vote. Please feel free to share the link to the ballot with anyone who might be interested.

2) Any person in baseball history is eligible and I welcome write-ins. The ballot includes, but is certainly not limited to, anyone who I felt had a reasonable shot at the top 25.

3) Please use any voting criteria– “most important” is a deliberately subjective term and I’m interested to see what direction people go with it. I’ve included a broad enough range of candidates on the ballot for voters to go in any number of directions. On a related note, I do little to no active campaigning and encourage voters to work independently.

4) Please have all votes in by Sunday, October 26 NOVEMBER 2 at 8 p.m. Pacific Time. I’ll unveil results Monday, November 3  NOVEMBER 10.

On a different note, this project also has a charity component. Two years ago, I raised $1,600 for 826 Valencia, a non-profit that teaches journalism to middle schoolers. Now, I’d like to raise $2,000 for the American Brain Tumor Association to help fight glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant type of brain cancer that’s had a noticeable impact on baseball in recent years. For more information and to donate, click here.

Why Clayton Kershaw is doing historically well

Clayton Kershaw’s 7.4 WAR as of this writing belies the fact he might be having the best season by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000. Kershaw’s WAR doesn’t immediately stand out like his 1.87 FIP, 0.86 WHIP or 1.80 ERA, all best for a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title since Martinez in 2000. At this juncture, though, the fact that Kershaw has compiled 7.4 WAR in 190.1 innings places him in rare company. Kershaw is scheduled to make one more start this season and could become the seventh pitcher in baseball history with at least 7 WAR in under 200 innings.

Here are the six pitchers who’ve done this, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index tool:

Lefty Grove, 7.0 WAR in 191 innings in 1939: In August, I wrote of Grove as the most underrated player of the 1930s. I based it off seasons like this when Grove was an aging junk ball pitcher, with traditional stats far less impressive than before he blew out his arm in 1934. Per inning, though, Grove might have had the best season ever by a 39-year-old pitcher in 1939. Only Phil Niekro and Dazzy Vance managed more WAR in their age 39 seasons, with Niekro needing 334.1 innings to compile 10.1 WAR in 1979 and Vance needing 258.2 innings for 7.1 WAR in 1930.

John Hiller, 8.1 WAR in 125.1 innings in 1973: Hiller’s celebrated in the sabermetric community, with my friend Adam Darowski rating him higher than Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman or Dan Quisenberry. It’s partly due to Hiller’s 1973 season, which might be the most underrated one in baseball history. That said, Hiller’s work that year didn’t go unnoticed. He finished fourth in American League Cy Young and MVP voting after going 10-5 with a 1.44 ERA and 38 saves for an aging Tigers club.

Goose Gossage, 8.2 WAR in 141.2 innings in 1975: As the saying goes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Every few years in baseball, someone forgets about what happened with Gossage because of this season and unsuccessfully tries to turn another reliever into a starter. Gossage’s brilliance in 1975– 1.84 ERA and an AL-best 26 saves– was a distant memory as he stumbled to a 9-17 record and 3.94 ERA the following year as a starter. On the bright side for Goose, he returned to the bullpen for good thereafter, collecting another 280 saves over the rest of his Hall of Fame career.

Mark Eichhorn, 7.4 WAR in 157 innings in 1986: I run an annual project having people vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. The first year I did this project, someone gave Eichhorn a write-in vote because of his superb 1986 rookie season. I’d never given Eichhorn much thought before I saw the vote, though it strikes me that he posted a 200 ERA+ with three different teams. Looking at pitchers with at least 50 innings in a season, only Roger Clemens, Keith Foulke, Billy Wagner and Joaquin Benoit have matched that feat.

Pedro Martinez, 8.0 WAR in 186.2 innings in 2003: Martinez gets far more attention for his eye-popping stats from 1999 and 2000, though proportionally, this season wasn’t far off. Were Martinez to have pitched the same number of innings in 1999 and 2000 that he did in 2003, he’d scale to 8.5 WAR and 10.1 WAR, respectively.

Josh Johnson, 7.2 WAR in 183.2 innings in 2010: Johnson was 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA when the Marlins shut him down for the 2010 season after his September 4 start. While it was probably a wise move for the young right hander, who’s battled injuries much of his career, it helped keep him to a distant fifth in National League Cy Young voting. If he’d gotten the starts he missed thereafter, Johnson might have led the NL in WAR.

The 10 most important people in baseball history

1. Babe Ruth: When Ruth died in 1948, Grantland Rice wrote, “No game will ever see his like, his equal again. He was one in many, many lifetimes. One all alone.” That about sums it up. More than 75 years after his last game, the New York Yankees legend looms eternally large, forever baseball’s greatest slugger, icon and savior. No player before or since has dominated the rest of baseball like Ruth did. No one transformed the game so much.

2. Ban Johnson: Since the National League’s founding in 1876, many rival circuits have come and gone from the Players League to the Federal League to the Continental League to name a few. Johnson started the only rival to the National League that’s lasted, the American League in 1901. “He was the most brilliant baseball man the game has ever known,” Johnson’s successor Will Harridge said. “He was more responsible for making baseball the national game than anyone in the history of the sport.”

3. Kenesaw Mountain Landis: Baseball’s first commissioner and still, 70 years after his death, the standard by which all other commissioners are measured, Landis like Babe Ruth helped save baseball after the 1919 World Series. Where Ruth restored fan interest, Landis effectively rid the game of gambling, which had been endemic in the sport for at least 20 years before Landis took office. Imagine any commissioner today ruling so autocratically or effectively.

4. Branch Rickey: Rickey did at least three major things to change baseball. First, he created the farm system. Then he signed the first black player in the majors since the 1884. Then in the late 1950s, Rickey helped spur baseball to expand by heading up the Continental League, a circuit that would have operated in parts of the western United States where the majors had not yet reached. Though he doesn’t get much credit for it, Rickey’s part of the reason there are teams today in cities like Houston and Denver.

5. Jackie Robinson: Rickey knew before he signed Robinson in October 1945 that the wrong player would set back integration in baseball by 20 years. Without Robinson’s stoicism and unruffled playing ability, there’s no telling how many stars the majors would have lacked over the decades that followed.

6. Marvin Miller: The greatest travesty in baseball today is that this man isn’t in the Hall of Fame. No one in the past 50 years has had a greater effect on the game than Miller who, as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, led the successful fight to abolish the Reserve Clause.

7. Hank Aaron: That many people still consider Aaron the true home run king is a testament to his legacy. That Aaron made his mark in the most trying of circumstances– reams of hate mail during the summer of 1973 and a bodyguard provided by the FBI– only adds to the mystique. He’s been a fine elder statesmen for the game in retirement, too.

8. Rube Foster: The father of black baseball and, with respect to everyone who came after, its most important figure, Foster founded the first successful black baseball circuit, the Negro National League in 1920.

9. Al Spalding: Nineteenth century baseball had a lot of pioneers. Spalding may have been the most multifaceted of them, making his mark as a player, executive and sporting goods distributor, among other things. Among his many contributions, Spalding wore the first glove during the 1870s and organized a world tour for the game during the 1880s.

10. Henry Chadwick: Things like the box score and many stats that modern fans take for granted were Chadwick’s creation in the late 1800s. That has to be good for something.

Players with .500 slugging percentages their final season

In keeping with yesterday’s theme, here’s another historical rarity in baseball: players who posted at least a .500 slugging percentage while qualifying for a batting title their final season.

Just as pitchers generally keep getting work if they have anything left in their arms, batters can expect to remain in the majors if they can still hit for power.

Generally.

Here are the six players since 1871 who, for various reasons I’ll detail below, defied historical trends and left the majors after slugging at least .500 their final season:

Rk Player SLG Year Age G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA OBP
1 Shoeless Joe Jackson .589 1920 32 146 649 105 218 42 20 12 121 .382 .444
2 Will Clark .546 2000 36 130 507 78 136 30 2 21 70 .319 .418
3 Happy Felsch .540 1920 28 142 615 88 188 40 15 14 115 .338 .384
4 Buzz Arlett .538 1931 32 121 469 65 131 26 7 18 72 .313 .387
5 Dave Orr .534 1890 30 107 498 89 172 32 13 6 124 .371 .414
6 Kirby Puckett .515 1995 35 137 602 83 169 39 0 23 99 .314 .379

It’s probably worth noting the reasons that each player’s career ended:

  • Felsch and Jackson were among the eight members of the Chicago White Sox banned for throwing the 1919 World Series. The White Sox really got screwed on this on this one. Felsch and Jackson are also two of the three players since 1920, along with Albert Belle, to have at least 100 RBI their final season
  • Orr and Puckett retired due to injuries– a stroke for Orr and glaucoma for Puckett
  • Arlett had a one-season career in the majors, possibly due to fielding issues; Bill James, among others, had written of Arlett as the Babe Ruth of the minors
  • Will Clark, after a triumphant final season where he helped spur a playoff run for the St. Louis Cardinals, retired to spend more time with his autistic son

Pitchers with at least 150 strikeouts their final season

Bill James wrote in his 2001 historical abstract:

Play along with me here. Take out your pen, and write down the names of ten pitchers who won 200 or more games in the majors leagues. You pick ‘em– players from the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, lefties, right-handers, American Leaguers, National Leaguers, Hall of Famers or guys who just hung around a long time. Your list.

What do all of these men have in common? I’ll tell: they were all above the league strikeout average early in their careers. Probably seven of your ten led the league in strikeouts at least once.

One of the things I enjoy about Bill James’ writing is that it has a certain timelessness to it. Now, just as it was in 2001, strikeout pitchers are highly valued in baseball. In fact, it’s extremely rare for a pitcher with any power left in his arm to not get work the next season.

Between 1901 and 2012, just five pitchers had at least 150 strikeouts their final season. [Another six pitchers who haven’t pitched this season due to injuries had 150 strikeouts in 2013, though I’m omitting them here as I assume they’ll pitch again.]

Sandy Koufax, 317 strikeouts in 1966: There’s a great story about Koufax, repeated in a 1999 Sports Illustrated retrospective. Tom Verducci wrote:

In his 50s Koufax was pitching in a fantasy camp when a camper scoffed after one of his pitches, “Is that all you’ve got?” Koufax’s lips tightened and his eyes narrowed– just about all the emotion he would ever show on the mound– and he unleashed a heater that flew damn near 90 mph.

Koufax famously quit baseball at 31 because of his arthritic left elbow. I assume after a break from playing and a reduction in his workload, something less than the obscene 323 innings the Dodgers required of him in 1966, Koufax could have pitched more years in the majors.

Britt Burns, 172 strikeouts in 1985: Just 26 his last season, Burns finished baseball at the youngest age of the men here. He won a career-high 18 games for the White Sox who dealt him to the Yankees that December. However, Burns never played for the Bronx Bombers because of a degenerative hip condition. He attempted a comeback in 1990, going to spring training with the Yankees and briefly pitching for two teams in their farm system.

Chuck Finley, 174 strikeouts in 2002: Finley went through an ugly divorce from actress Tawny Kitaen during his final season, with divorce paperwork including accusations he’d used steroids. The St. Louis Cardinals declined to resign the 39-year-old after the season ended and while Finley’s agent told the Associated Press his client intended to play in 2003, no one bit.

Mike Mussina, 150 strikeouts in 2008: Next to Koufax, Mussina might have the best final season by a pitcher in modern baseball history. After going 20-9 with 5.2 WAR and finished sixth in American League Cy Young voting, the 39-year-old voluntarily walked away.

Javier Vazquez, 162 strikeouts in 2011: Still just 38 at this writing, it’s a wonder Vazquez hasn’t pitched in three years. He’s spoken of coming back and has pitched internationally since the Marlins let him leave following the 2011 season. Vazquez never became the ace people expected though his career numbers via Fangraphs– 53.7 fWAR and 3.75 xFIP– suggest he may have been a little underrated.

Players who hit at least 25 home runs their final season

1. Hank Greenberg, 25 homers, 1947: After missing nearly five years for military service, Greenberg was coming off a resurgent 1946 campaign when the Detroit Tigers sold him to the Pittsburg Pirates. As recounted in The Glory of Their Times, Greenberg considered retiring until the Pirates offered to move their left field fence in, let him choose the amount he was paid– $100,000– and release him at year’s end. Greenberg is primarily remembered from 1947 for mentoring Ralph Kiner, though the 36-year-old put up stats suggesting he could have played a couple more years. Aside from a 131 OPS+, Greenberg tied for the National League lead in walks with 104 and cost the Pirates just two defensive runs.

2. Ted Williams, 29 homers, 1960: According to a piece by Glenn Stout referenced in an Out of the Park Baseball forum, Williams turned down $125,000 to pinch hit for the New York Yankees in 1961. Like Greenberg, Williams’ final season suggested he had more to offer. His .645 slugging percentage is tops, by far, among players with at least 300 plate appearances their final season. Williams’ 190 OPS+ his last year is also far and away best and, interestingly, identical to his lifetime rate. Had there been DH’s during Williams’ career, the Splendid Splinter could have played until he was 45.

3. Dave Kingman, 35 homers, 1986: Kingman has the most homers his final season of any player. In almost every other respect, though, he was historically bad in 1986. His slash was a ghastly .210/.255/.431. His -3 Wins Above Average are the worst of any player in their last year. His 126 strikeouts are second-worst. In addition, Kingman sent a live rat late in the season to my future editor Susan Fornoff, one of the first female reporters allowed in locker rooms. Not surprisingly, the Oakland A’s let him walk. Save for a brief stint the following season with the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A club, he was done.

4. Mark McGwire, 29 homers, 2001: Big Mac’s final season is a little underrated, since he declined dramatically from what he did the preceding five years and hit below the Mendoza Line. That said, it might be the best sub-.200 season a hitter’s had, with McGwire homering once every 10.3 at-bats and offering a 105 OPS+ thanks to his power and on-base abilities. While he was an injury-riddled mess at the end of his career, he remained a threat when healthy.

5. Barry Bonds, 28 homers, 2007: That Bonds had a 1.045 OPS his final season and couldn’t get work thereafter is a testament to how cancerous of a player he became or at least was perceived. Only Williams and Shoeless Joe Jackson have also had OPS’s over one their final seasons.

6. Jermaine Dye, 27 homers, 2009: Dye peaked late, hitting 187 of his 325 homers after age 30. That said, when he declined, it may have been in a hurry. Dye was on-pace for 40 homers and a .300 batting average through the first half of the 2009 season.  The Chicago White Sox declined to resign him, though, after he posted a .179/.293/.297 slash in the second half with just seven homers.