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.

Jim Devlin and life after organized baseball

Long after Hal Chase left the majors, he could be found playing in outlaw leagues. The same could be said of several of the Black Sox banned following the 1919 World Series, including Shoeless Joe Jackson. Even Benny Kauff scouted for 22 years after he was banned for participating in a stolen car ring. It isn’t that surprising, really. What’s a person to do deprived of their livelihood? Long before Chase, Jackson and Kauff continued baseball careers in obscurity, Jim Devlin trod a similar path.

Devlin may rate as one of the sadder stories in baseball history. His 13.3 Wins Above Replacement in 1877 are the most of any player in his final season as he was the Louisville Grays’ only pitcher that year, racking up a staggering 559 innings. He went 35-25 with a 2.25 ERA and was rated by Bill James in his 2001 historical abstract as the best pitcher of 1877. Late in the season, Devlin and three other Grays were among the first players banned from baseball for throwing games. Suspicions rose after a seven-game losing streak where they muffed easy plays and were later seen with diamond stick pins. Banished from baseball, uneducated and semi-literate, Devlin and his family faced bleak prospects.

Devlin lived six more years, dying in 1883 of consumption exacerbated by alcoholism. Around September 1882, he got a job as a policeman in his hometown of Philadelphia. For most of his life after 1877, though, Devlin did two things: 1) Annually petition baseball to be reinstated, with the minor league National Association doing so in 1879; 2) Continue to play baseball, with Devlin being connected with at least nine teams after his ban from the majors. John Thorn wrote in Baseball in the Garden of Eden that Devlin may have played for still more teams under assumed names.

Devlin’s continued career after his ban offers a reminder of how disjointed 19th century baseball was and how little relation it bears to the current game or even the majors 50 years later. For instance, the SABR bio of Gene Paulette, the first player permanently barred by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, talks about how an industrial league couldn’t put him in uniform thereafter because no team would play it. While Chase played in the Pacific Coast League after he left the majors, he and some of the Black Sox later consigned themselves to the outlaw Frontier League in Arizona. Sal Maglie may have been last to play during a ban. Maglie’s SABR bio, which Jacob Pomrenke pointed out to me, talks of him barnstorming unsuccessfully and playing in a Canadian league after his five-year ban from the majors for jumping to the Mexican League in 1946.

Devlin needed no subterfuge after his ban. He pitched for at least three teams in 1878, including in a benefit game at Troy on October 9. Earlier, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on March 8, 1878 that Devlin would be going on the variety stage and that a team named the Marions would be assembled around him in Philadelphia. Two months later, the Tribune noted Devlin pitching for a Philadelphia amateur team. Without clarifying if it was the Marions, the Tribune added that a Philadelphian was interested in launching a team for Albany with Devlin and Levi Meyerle. While that may have fallen through, Devlin found other baseball work in 1878, with the Tribune noting on November 17, 1878:

During the past summer he played with a Canuck club, and as a reward for his services was beaten out of the greater part of the salary promised him. During the season he became convinced that there was no chance for mercy at the hands of the League, and since then his efforts have been directed toward the International Association.

Meanwhile, Devlin was continuing to lobby for reinstatement. There’s a famous story about National League president William Hulbert tearfully giving Devlin $50 from his pocket at a private meeting and then telling him he could never let him back in the league because of his transgressions. The Chicago Daily Tribune noted July 6, 1879 upon Devlin’s reinstatement to the National Association:

But, even while seeking pardon for the past offenses and promising honesty for the future, Devlin was at his old tricks. When in Chicago last year he was actually given money by charitably-disposed persons who believed his story of poverty and sufferings, and in less than three hours this same money was used by him for the purpose of gambling.

Nevertheless, Devlin’s playing career continued. Thorn told me via email that Devlin signed with Forest City of Cleveland in August 1879. The following year, Devlin played for the San Francisco Athletics of the California League, a team that featured a few notable members including future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin. The San Francisco Chronicle even reported on July 26, 1880 that Devlin pitched a three-hitter against future 191-game winner Jim Whitney.

Devlin wasn’t done. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that Devlin might play in St. Louis in 1881. Thorn’s email also noted that Devlin played center field for Trenton in October 1881 and that he signed with Lone Star of New Orleans to play winter ball with in 1881 and 1882. I haven’t found any evidence Devlin played baseball beyond New Orleans, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there for someone willing to dig in deep with a newspaper archive. The man could seemingly not stop playing even in the most obscure and depressing of situations. With respect to Chase, Kauff and Shoeless Joe, I don’t know if there’s been anything like it in baseball since.

Jackie Robinson’s underrated final season

Jackie Robinson could have quit baseball last year or this year or next and it would have occasioned no astonishment to those who have known him and were aware of what pride he took in his skill. It seemed altogether reasonable that when he saw those gifts fading, he would walk out. Somehow, the idea of him being traded always seemed outlandish.

–Red Smith, December 18, 1956

By all appearances, Jackie Robinson was declining when the Brooklyn Dodgers traded him to the New York Giants for journeyman pitcher Dick Littlefield and $30,000 in December 1956. A month shy of turning 38, the future Hall of Famer and man who broke baseball’s color barrier had averaged 111 games and a .266 batting clip his past two seasons. So it was no surprise when Robinson refused to report to the Giants and announced his retirement a few weeks later in a piece that Look Magazine paid him $50,000 to write. In fact, Robinson had made his decision before the trade but kept quiet, controversially, because of Look’s publication deadline. He might have been selling himself short.

Most WAR by position player in final season
Rk Player WAR Year
1 Shoeless Joe Jackson 7.6 1920
2 Happy Felsch 5.5 1920
3 Roberto Clemente 4.8 1972
4 Jackie Robinson 4.5 1956
5 Roy Cullenbine 4.3 1947
6 Bill Joyce 4.3 1898
7 Chick Stahl 4.1 1906
8 Will Clark 4.0 2000
9 Phil Tomney 3.9 1890
10 Ray Chapman 3.8 1920

Among all position players since 1871, Robinson had the fourth-most Wins Above Replacement in his final season with 4.5, just shy of All Star level production. And Robinson rates tops for WAR in his final season among position players who quit voluntarily. Of the other nine players on the list at right, three– Clemente, Stahl and Chapman– died during or after their final seasons and two– Jackson and Felsch– were permanently banned from baseball.

Robinson’s 4.5 WAR in 1956 was a credit to his fielding. His 19.1 defensive runs saved that year were the most by a player in his final season. Bill James also noted in his 2001 historical abstract that Robinson’s 5.52 Win Shares per 1,000 innings at third base lifetime, where he played the most near the end of his career, was the best of any player since 1940. James wrote, “I think the record would suggest that Robinson may in fact have been a far better defensive player than most people think he was.”

Robinson wasn’t terrible with the bat either in 1956, hitting .275 with an adjusted rate of offensive production 6 percent better than other players. It was nothing like his peak numbers, but it was more than serviceable for an aging infielder, comparable to how Derek Jeter, Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel hit at 37. I like to think Robinson could have at least made a serviceable bench player for the Giants or another team in 1957. But maybe it wasn’t in his nature to accept a diminished role on a new club or renege on his deal with Look Magazine. Robinson also might not have been physically able to play anymore.

As Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, the Giants kept pursuing Robinson through the winter of 1957, improving on their initial offer of $40,000 for the first season and $20,000 for two years thereafter as a part-time scout. Robinson hesitated to return, in part, because of the possibility of having to pay back Look Magazine. Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi speculated publicly that Robinson would keep the money and play for the Giants anyhow. This, Kahn wrote, led Robinson to conclude he’d have to stay retired to preserve his integrity. Any lingering thoughts Robinson had of a comeback ended when he woke up the first day of the 1957 season with his right knee so badly swollen he couldn’t get out of bed. His SABR bio also notes speculation that Robinson, a diabetic, may have been dependent on an insulin pump from the middle of his career on.

Instead, Robinson stuck with his new job as vice president for Chock Full O’ Nuts, a coffee company. He worked there until 1964, whereupon he founded the Freedom National Bank in Harlem and, like Bob Feller, sold insurance. One can only wonder how much longer Robinson’s baseball career might have been in an era that allowed him to make the majors sooner or offered him better medical care. His superb play his final season is one more example of everything he overcame.

Baseball players who starred in movies

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 [An ad for Ty Cobb's 1917 acting debut | Photo found at Our Game]

My girlfriend and I were struck this weekend to find a 1920 silent film that Babe Ruth starred in, Headin’ Home available on Netflix streaming. While we only got through a few minutes of the film, which played like a collection of stock footage and is of interest mainly for having a young, pinstriped Ruth in it, my girlfriend encouraged me afterward to look at other times ballplayers have starred in movies. It’s somewhat of a bygone tradition in baseball.

Baseball players still have cameos or make minor appearances in movies these days, with Wally Joyner making something of a name for himself in Mormon films. Near as I can tell, though, it’s been awhile since a baseball player starred in a film. It’s not like the era of Babe Ruth starring in four films including 1942’s “The Pride of the Yankees.” Here are seven other notable players who received star billing in a movie:

Christy Mathewson in “Matty’s Decision,” 1915: Christy Mathewson was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career when he appeared in this film, intended to be the first of several for him with Universal. Save for an appearance in a 1917 baseball documentary, this was it for Mathewson as an actor. The plot, a full synopsis of which can be found here, revolves around Mathewson and his friend Eddie falling for the same woman and her father deciding that whoever triumphs in a pitching game can marry her. Though Mathewson loses, Eddie sees how distraught he is afterward and sends Matty a note saying he can have the girl.

Mike Donlin in “Right Off the Bat,” 1915: I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Mike Donlin, who hit .333 lifetime and might be in the Hall of Fame had he not retired to pursue a vaudeville career with his wife Mabel Hite. He returned to baseball, was never the same player and returned to acting thereafter. Donlin’s IMDB page lists 66 acting credits in films starring the likes of John Barrymore, Buster Keaton and Wallace Beery, though it’s mostly bit roles. One of Donlin’s few starring appearances came in this five-reel comedy, which I learned of through a much longer look at old-time ballplayer actors at John Thorn’s site.

Ty Cobb in “Somewhere in Georgia,” 1917: Ty Cobb had a unique screen career, even receiving writing credits for, get this, a few 1950s television programs including “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” Prior to this, Cobb acted. The New-York Tribune praised his starring turn in the 1917 short “Somewhere in Georgia,” though it may be worth noting that its sports editor Grantland Rice wrote the film. The Tribune gushed:

Ty Cobb and Grantland Rice [debuted] on the screen yesterday via the Sunbeam Motion Picture Company. Grantland Rice furnished the story ‘Somewhere in Georgia,’ which is described as ‘a thrilling drama of love and baseball in six innings.’ It is all of that, and as an actor Ty Cobb is a huge success. In fact, he is so good that he shows all the others up.

Others had nice things to say about Cobb’s acting, though, including the Altoona [New York] Tribune and, as noted at Thorn’s site, Variety Magazine. The latter noted, ““Inasmuch as …Cobb is considered about the greatest ballplayer in the world, it goes without saying that [the film] is going to make a ten-strike with Young America.”

RawhideLou Gehrig in “Rawhide,” 1938: I rarely use pictures on this website, as I’m reluctant to violate copyright laws. I hope my use of the picture at right qualifies as Fair Use. There’s simply no other way to capture the awesomeness of Lou Gehrig’s sole film appearance. Currently available on Netflix streaming, it seems like a must-watch for anyone into kitsch. The premise: Gehrig is “a former baseball champion who retires to a ranch where he helps break up a destructive racket in stock feed prices.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Jackie Robinson in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” 1950Like every player here, more or less, Robinson played himself in his big screen debut. It only makes sense. Robinson was one of a kind, one of the more outspoken individuals in baseball history. While Chadwick Boseman was reasonably passable playing Robinson in the reasonably passable “42” in 2013, there was no replacing the original. That said, one IMDB reviewer noted that Robinson’s costar in his 1950 film debut, the recently-deceased Ruby Dee said Robinson felt out of place in it.

Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in “Safe at Home!” 1962There are many reasons ballplayers don’t star in as many movies today. The main one, I’m guessing: They don’t need the money. Roger Maris is a case in point. In the days before free agency and other factors sent salaries skyrocketing, Maris wasn’t financially set by his historic 1961 season. He and his brother wound up running a beer distribution business after he retired.

Maris resigned with the Yankees in February 1962 for $72,000, about $568,000 in today’s dollars. Around this time, newspapers announced that Maris and Mantle would be filming “Safe at Home!” in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, their spring training headquarters at the time. The black-and-white, 84-minute quickie film came out less than two months later. My girlfriend owns a DVD copy and the few minutes we watched were strictly kid fare, save for a wry supporting turn by “I Love Lucy” co-star William Frawley. Maris and Mantle fared better a couple months later with their cameos  in the Doris Day and Cary Grant classic, “That Touch of Mink.”

From the archive: ‘Is Babe Ruth hurting game?’

Found on Newspapers.com

I was enthralled when I came across this piece, an interview with a prominent baseball researcher of the 1920s suggesting Babe Ruth’s home runs were hurting baseball. Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research told me after I first shared this piece a few weeks ago on Twitter that such stories were common in Babe Ruth’s era as he became the game’s first great slugger.

I suppose it’s human nature to come up with inane rationalizations to justify resisting change, and perhaps no player in baseball history changed the game as much as the Sultan of Swat. There were probably some growing pains for lots of people interested in baseball while Ruth was forever reshaping play. All the same, pieces like the one above seem wonderfully arcane nearly a century on. Historians seem to have long since settled on the narrative that Ruth saved fan interest in baseball, practically on his own, following the Black Sox Scandal. It’s a little surreal coming across pieces that run counter to this. But that’s part of the fun of historical research.

An added bonus, as Jacob pointed out to me: This story ran in the Boston Post, no doubt eager to bash Ruth, barely a year removed at the time from his sale to New York. Geographically, it’s the same press corps that hounded Ted Williams much of his career so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Book review: 1954, by Bill Madden

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In previewing my new book review series last week, I promised I’d review one book per week. It was an ambitious goal and in reading the first book this past week for my new series, 1954 by longtime New York Daily News columnist and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Bill Madden, I realized I’d overshot. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a slow reader, frequently distracted and for my first review, I chose Madden’s reasonably quick, 262-page work. It took me a better part of a week to read and accordingly, my new series will run every other Thursday.

Aside from my fleeting attention span, I will say Madden’s book occasionally didn’t keep me engaged for the same reason a lot of baseball history books don’t: excessive exposition about what happened in games. I was drawn in initially by the cover quote that the 1954 season was “the year Willie Mays and the first generation of black superstars changed Major League Baseball forever.” With this summer’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri and the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America’s troubled racial history seems as relevant as ever. I’m always interested to learn more about how baseball’s history relates. It makes me proud as a fan that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors a decade before the Civil Rights movement really got going.

Madden includes many pertinent anecdotes, from Minnie Minoso sensing he regularly led the league in hit pitches because of his dark skin to the struggles Mays and others had staying in heretofore segregated hotels. But Madden strays from his theme at times and what felt like much of the midsection of the book to detail game-by-game minutiae. And until the epilogue, there isn’t much discussion of the legacy of the 1954 season. Granted, any baseball history book needs a certain amount of exposition, the meat and potatoes represented in how individual games came out. It’s a delicate art determining the right balance. I’d simply have liked to have read more passages like this:

A big reason, of course, for the dearth of black talent in both professional football and basketball was the fact that three of the leagues’ primary ‘feeder’ collegiate athletic conferences, the Southeastern, Southwest, and Atlantic Coast, did not get around to integrating until 1963, nine years after Brown vs. Board of Education. And it wasn’t until 1971, for instance, that the Southeastern Conference athletic programs were fully integrated. With so many gifted young black athletes in the South denied the opportunity to play football and basketball at all the major southern universities, baseball became their natural sport of choice. ‘I’m sure I could’ve been a real good football player– that’s what my mother wanted me to be,’ [Hank] Aaron told me in 2012. ‘But I didn’t see any future there. Not in Alabama anyway. I wasn’t going to college. All I wanted when I got out of high school was to get on with my baseball career and follow Jackie to the big leagues.

In 1954 Major League baseball had 38 black players, out of 536, on its rosters during the season, or 7 percent. That percentage gradually increased every year to a high of 28 percent by 1986, when it began declining again. By 2013 the number of African American players on the major league rosters was down to about 8.5 percent. Not coincidentally, the decline began in the mideighties, when the major southern collegiate conferences’ football and basketball teams were now predominantly black. It’s anyone’s guess how many potential Hank Aarons and Willie Mayses, who grew up in the South, baseball lost to football and basketball.

I’d recommend 1954 to anyone looking for a nice, quick read about one of the great seasons in baseball history. Of particular interest may be the wealth of interviews Madden did with the stars of that season, including Mays, Aaron and Bob Feller. That said, for anyone seeking the sort of thorough and academic look at MLB’s integration found in Jules Tygiel’s classic Baseball’s Great Experiment, this isn’t really the book. It’s fun but it falls short of being socially significant.

Babe Ruth and the greatest World Series game ever pitched

Babe Ruth

[Babe Ruth with Red Sox teammates, 1915 | Library of Congress]

A frequent refrain from supporters of Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame candidacy is that he pitched the greatest game in World Series history. Certainly, Morris placed himself in unique company in 1991 when he became the third Fall Classic pitcher to hurl a 10-inning shutout after Clem Labine in 1956 [hat tip to Devon Young] and Christy Mathewson in 1913. Morris is also the 10th and most recent pitcher with a Game 7 shutout, joining men like Dizzy Dean in 1934, Sandy Koufax in 1965 and Bret Saberhagen in 1985. In addition, Morris is the only pitcher in World Series history with an extra inning, complete game victory in Game 7.

For some fans, all of this may be more than enough to anoint Morris. By various objective measures, though, Morris’s masterpiece is far from the greatest World Series pitching performance. There’s Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 or journeyman Howard Ehmke’s surprise start in 1929 where the junkballer set a record at the time by striking out 13 stunned Chicago Cubs including Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler twice apiece. Then there’s Bob Gibson’s five-hit shutout in 1968 where he set a World Series record that still stands with 17 strikeouts.

Game 2, 1916 World Series – Boston 2, Brooklyn 1
Pitching IP H R ER BB SO HR BF GSc WPA aLI RE24
Sherry Smith, L (0-1) 13.1 7 2 2 6 2 0 51 82 0.582 1.77 3.3
Babe Ruth, W (1-0) 14 6 1 1 3 4 1 48 97 1.082 1.54 4.8
Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com | Full box score

By Game Score, the best World Series pitching performance came in 1916 by Babe Ruth with a 97. [Morris is tied for 38th at 84.] Ruth set a World Series record that still stands when he went 14 innings for the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 on October 9, beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 2-1. He even drove in one of Boston’s runs, the New York Times noted, when Brooklyn second baseman George Cutshaw juggled a grounder in the third inning, allowing Everett Scott to score.

No one ever really talks about Game 2 of the 1916 World Series anymore, though it’s a great story. The day after it happened, the New York Times described the game as “the most thrilling world’s series battle ever fought.”

It was Ruth’s first start in a postseason game, as the 21-year-old southpaw had been kept in reserve for the 1915 World Series after going 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA that season. Robert Creamer explained in his signature Ruth biography that Red Sox manager Bill Carrigan had elected to primarily use right-handed pitchers in the 1915 Series against Philadelphia and its slugger Gavvy Cravath who had hit 24 homers in the regular season, best in the modern era to that point. Ruth got one pinch hit appearance in the Series while Boston won 4-1 and kept Cravath homer-less with a .125 batting average.

Ruth earned the nod for Game 2 of the 1916 Series after going 23-12 with an American League best 1.75 ERA [as well as a combined 10.4 WAR between pitching and hitting.] Ruth struggled early in his World Series pitching debut, surrendering an inside-the-park home run to Hy Myers in the first inning after, as Creamer noted, two Boston outfielders tripped in pursuit of the ball.  Teammate Jack Barry wrote the following day in a presumably ghostwritten Boston Post column, “Ruth oftentimes has his hardest session at the beginning. We all were sure as the game went along that Ruth would get better.”

Pitching in cavernous Braves Field with 44,000 fans packed in, Ruth threw 13 innings of shutout ball the remainder of the game, allowing five hits and three walks. As Creamer noted, Ruth pitched a no-hitter the final seven innings. Barry wrote that Myers’ homer came off a high fastball and that Ruth kept Myers hitless thereafter by pitching him low. Ruth escaped trouble, Barry noted, recording consecutive ground outs to close the eighth inning after Brooklyn put runners on second and third. Later in the 13th inning, Red Sox left fielder Duffy Lewis provided a running catch off a Jake Daubert fly ball.

The game finally ended amid fading daylight when pinch hitter Del Gainer provided an RBI single in the 14th inning. Having now taken the first two games, Boston would go on to win the Series 4-1. “I told you a year ago I could take care of those National League bums, and you never gave me a chance,” Creamer quoted Ruth telling Carrigan after Game 2. “Forget it Babe,” Carrigan is said to have replied. “You made monkeys out of them today.”

At least a few prominent writers praised Brooklyn’s hurler Sherry Smith, something of a surprise starter as the New York Times noted in its game coverage. [Major League Baseball historian John Thorn tells me there were occasional surprise World Series starters back then, Ehmke being perhaps the most famous.] Hugh Fullerton, a few years away from helping break the Black Sox Scandal, wrote that Ruth was saved by superior defense. Barry also wrote that Ruth received better support. Grantland Rice wrote in his syndicated column the following day:

Smith pitched the better game. For thirteen innings he had the Red Sox lashed to the phantom, swinging as helpless as the bewildered old dame who attempted to sweep back the ocean with a mop. They couldn’t hit with a machine gun loaded with buckshot.

Ruth pitched twice more in postseason play, winning two games in the 1918 World Series. His all-time Fall Classic pitching line: 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA, two complete games and a shutout. Somehow, the best was yet to come.

Why do people still think Jack Morris pitched to the score?

Every so often, I see tweets or articles from reputable sources repeating a long-since debunked myth. This one was posted about a week ago:

Lyle Spencer, a writer for MLB.com, is no different than a lot of other veteran reporters or fans who keep repeating this idea that Jack Morris pitched to the score. Morris popularized the notion, I think, to bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy despite a lifetime 3.90 ERA. As far as Hall campaign strategies go, it’s probably been one of the more effective ones. Morris just missed induction through the writers ballot and may be a future Veterans Committee pick.

Never mind that Joe Sheehan picked apart the myth of Morris pitching to the score in a landmark 2003 piece for Baseball Prospectus. In the piece, which is long but worth a full read, Sheehan examined everyone of Morris’s 527 career starts and discovered that Morris put his team behind in roughly two-thirds of them. That Morris had 254 wins while allowing nearly four runs a game is largely a credit to pitching for one of the best teams of the 1980s, the Detroit Tigers and getting at least five runs of support in nearly half his starts.

Sheehan’s piece is easily found in Google, as are any number of related ones that have come since. It’s like the majority of people who follow baseball aren’t even reading them.

As an enthusiast of sabermetrics, I see the world through proverbial rose-colored glasses sometimes. Primarily through this site and Twitter, I associate with a lot of researchers, analysts and fellow baseball writers, people who can concisely explain why they favor one version of Wins Above Replacement over another. I forget that most of the baseball universe doesn’t work this way.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a fellow who wrote at Baseball-Reference.com’s blog. What he told me: Most fans aren’t like us. They go with traditional stats like batting average or RBIs and don’t seek any kind of deeper statistical appreciation of baseball. They embrace the game’s myths, like Abner Doubleday inventing baseball or Morris pitching to the score. My friends and I? We maybe comprise less than one percent of all people into baseball.

People change, granted. Peter Gammons, among others, changed his mind on Morris pitching to the score after reading Sheehan’s piece. In time, maybe others will follow. But I suspect articles and tweets like the one above will keep coming and more people like me will keep writing pieces denouncing them until this issue, finally, is completely beaten to death. Trying to get people to see things differently seems like a fool’s errand sometimes. I know I often feel like I’m preaching to a choir of like-minded individuals.

The baseball world and the world in general remains so polarized. It’s a shame Jack Morris’s career has become a reminder of this. He was a fine pitcher, one of the best of his era and his work in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series was masterful. I agree with people like Joe Posnanski who’ve written that all this debate about him pitching to the score detracts from this.

Nap Lajoie and others with more homers than strikeouts

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For much of the early part of this season, it looked like Victor Martinez might join an exclusive club: players with more home runs than strikeouts in a season. It used to happen with some regularity, though since strikeout rates rose in the 1950s it’s become almost unheard of. Since 1958, just George Brett and Barry Bonds have accomplished the feat. Others like Albert Pujols and Tony Gwynn have come close. Martinez likely will not, as he has 27 homers and 39 strikeouts with a month to play.

According to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool, 25 players in the modern era have had more home runs than strikeouts in a season where they qualified for the batting title. In all, the feat has been accomplished 65 times since 1901 led by Joe DiMaggio who did it seven times and famously just missed having more home runs than strikeouts for his career. Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Ted Kluszewski and Frank McCormick all had more homers than strikeouts at least four seasons apiece.

The list below offers a “Who’s Who” of great individual years in baseball history: DiMaggio and Ted Williams in 1941; Stan Musial when he just missed winning the Triple Crown in 1948 and collected 429 total bases, a mark no one’s topped since. My favorite of the bunch? Nap Lajoie, who took advantage of high scoring and foul tips not yet being called strikes in the expansion American League in 1901 to hit .426 with 14 home runs, nine strikeouts and 24 walks. Basically, everything Lajoie saw in 1901, he hit [though the Cincinnati Enquirer suggested late in the season that Lajoie was closing out with "don't-care-a-rap" play as his team stumbled to fourth.]

That said, having a staggering level of offense is by no means the rule for making this list. Frank McCormick hit .269 when he had more homers than strikeouts in 1941, with adjusted rates of run creation and total offensive production barely above league average. Joe Sewell would have made this list more than twice with any kind of power. From 1925 through his final year in the majors of 1933, the Hall of Fame shortstop averaged four home runs and five strikeouts per season.

All this being said, I offer the following list chronologically:

Player HR SO Year G PA AB R H 2B 3B RBI BB BA OBP SLG
1 Nap Lajoie 14 9 1901 131 582 544 145 232 48 14 125 24 .426 .463 .643
2 Jimmy Ryan 6 5 1902 120 540 484 92 155 32 6 44 43 .320 .384 .448
3 Ed Delahanty 10 9 1902 123 539 473 103 178 43 14 93 62 .376 .453 .590
4 Ken Williams 39 31 1922 153 678 585 128 194 34 11 155 74 .332 .413 .627
5 Irish Meusel 19 16 1923 146 648 595 102 177 22 14 125 38 .297 .341 .477
6 Tris Speaker 17 15 1923 150 695 574 133 218 59 11 130 93 .380 .469 .610
7 Ken Williams 18 17 1924 115 483 398 78 129 21 4 84 69 .324 .425 .533
8 Ken Williams 25 14 1925 102 462 411 83 136 31 5 105 37 .331 .390 .613
9 Irish Meusel 21 19 1925 135 558 516 82 169 35 8 111 26 .328 .363 .548
10 Billy Southworth 16 10 1926 135 566 507 99 162 28 7 99 33 .320 .365 .497
11 Mickey Cochrane 12 7 1927 126 507 432 80 146 20 6 80 50 .338 .409 .495
12 Lefty O’Doul 32 19 1929 154 732 638 152 254 35 6 122 76 .398 .465 .622
13 Joe Sewell 7 4 1929 152 671 578 90 182 38 3 73 48 .315 .372 .427
14 Mel Ott 42 38 1929 150 675 545 138 179 37 2 151 113 .328 .449 .635
15 Lefty O’Doul 32 19 1929 154 732 638 152 254 35 6 122 76 .398 .465 .622
16 Al Simmons 36 34 1930 138 611 554 152 211 41 16 165 39 .381 .423 .708
17 Lefty O’Doul 21 20 1932 148 655 595 120 219 32 8 90 50 .368 .423 .555
18 Joe Sewell 11 3 1932 125 576 503 95 137 21 3 68 56 .272 .349 .392
19 Bill Dickey 15 13 1932 108 459 423 66 131 20 4 84 34 .310 .361 .482
20 Bill Terry 28 20 1932 154 677 643 124 225 42 11 117 32 .350 .382 .580
21 Lou Gehrig 49 31 1934 154 690 579 128 210 40 6 166 109 .363 .465 .706
22 Ernie Lombardi 12 6 1935 120 351 332 36 114 23 3 64 16 .343 .379 .539
23 Bill Dickey 14 11 1935 120 491 448 54 125 26 6 81 35 .279 .339 .458
24 Arky Vaughan 19 18 1935 137 609 499 108 192 34 10 99 97 .385 .491 .607
25 Charlie Gehringer 19 16 1935 150 709 610 123 201 32 8 108 79 .330 .409 .502
26 Bill Dickey 22 16 1936 112 472 423 99 153 26 8 107 46 .362 .428 .617
27 Charlie Gehringer 15 13 1936 154 731 641 144 227 60 12 116 83 .354 .431 .555
28 Lou Gehrig 49 46 1936 155 719 579 167 205 37 7 152 130 .354 .478 .696
29 Joe DiMaggio 46 37 1937 151 692 621 151 215 35 15 167 64 .346 .412 .673
30 Bill Dickey 29 22 1937 140 609 530 87 176 35 2 133 73 .332 .417 .570
31 Ernie Lombardi 19 14 1938 129 529 489 60 167 30 1 95 40 .342 .391 .524
32 Joe DiMaggio 32 21 1938 145 660 599 129 194 32 13 140 59 .324 .386 .581
33 Bill Dickey 27 22 1938 132 533 454 84 142 27 4 115 75 .313 .412 .568
34 Joe DiMaggio 30 20 1939 120 524 462 108 176 32 6 126 52 .381 .448 .671
35 Ernie Lombardi 20 19 1939 130 494 450 43 129 26 2 85 35 .287 .342 .487
36 Frank McCormick 18 16 1939 156 688 630 99 209 41 4 128 40 .332 .374 .495
37 Joe DiMaggio 30 20 1939 120 524 462 108 176 32 6 126 52 .381 .448 .671
38 Joe DiMaggio 31 30 1940 132 572 508 93 179 28 9 133 61 .352 .425 .626
39 Frank McCormick 17 13 1941 154 653 603 77 162 31 5 97 40 .269 .318 .421
40 Ted Williams 37 27 1941 143 606 456 135 185 33 3 120 147 .406 .553 .735
41 Joe DiMaggio 30 13 1941 139 622 541 122 193 43 11 125 76 .357 .440 .643
42 Frank McCormick 20 17 1944 153 645 581 85 177 37 3 102 57 .305 .371 .482
43 Tommy Holmes 13 11 1944 155 705 631 93 195 42 6 73 61 .309 .372 .456
44 Frank McCormick 20 17 1944 153 645 581 85 177 37 3 102 57 .305 .371 .482
45 Tommy Holmes 28 9 1945 154 714 636 125 224 47 6 117 70 .352 .420 .577
46 Johnny Mize 51 42 1947 154 664 586 137 177 26 2 138 74 .302 .384 .614
47 Willard Marshall 36 30 1947 155 655 587 102 171 19 6 107 67 .291 .366 .528
48 Lou Boudreau 18 9 1948 152 676 560 116 199 34 6 106 98 .355 .453 .534
49 Johnny Mize 40 37 1948 152 658 560 110 162 26 4 125 94 .289 .395 .564
50 Joe DiMaggio 39 30 1948 153 669 594 110 190 26 11 155 67 .320 .396 .598
51 Stan Musial 39 34 1948 155 698 611 135 230 46 18 131 79 .376 .450 .702
52 Yogi Berra 28 12 1950 151 656 597 116 192 30 6 124 55 .322 .383 .533
53 Andy Pafko 36 32 1950 146 595 514 95 156 24 8 92 69 .304 .397 .591
54 Yogi Berra 27 20 1951 141 594 547 92 161 19 4 88 44 .294 .350 .492
55 Don Mueller 16 13 1951 122 493 469 58 130 10 7 69 19 .277 .307 .431
56 Yogi Berra 30 24 1952 142 603 534 97 146 17 1 98 66 .273 .358 .478
57 Ted Kluszewski 40 34 1953 149 629 570 97 180 25 0 108 55 .316 .380 .570
58 Ted Kluszewski 49 35 1954 149 658 573 104 187 28 3 141 78 .326 .407 .642
59 Yogi Berra 27 20 1955 147 615 541 84 147 20 3 108 60 .272 .349 .470
60 Ted Kluszewski 47 40 1955 153 686 612 116 192 25 0 113 66 .314 .382 .585
61 Ted Kluszewski 35 31 1956 138 574 517 91 156 14 1 102 49 .302 .362 .536
62 Yogi Berra 30 29 1956 140 596 521 93 155 29 2 105 65 .298 .378 .534
63 Vic Power 16 14 1958 145 620 590 98 184 37 10 80 20 .312 .332 .490
64 George Brett 24 22 1980 117 515 449 87 175 33 9 118 58 .390 .454 .664
65 Barry Bonds 45 41 2004 147 617 373 129 135 27 3 101 232 .362 .609 .812

From the archive: When Mark Koenig pitched

I’ve known of Mark Koenig as a shortstop from the Murderers Row Yankees of the late 1920s. One of my acquaintances through the Society for American Baseball Research, Rick Cabral even got to interview Koenig in the early ’90s when he was the last-living member of the team. Therefore, I was struck during my research a few weeks ago on position players who’d pitched to note that Koenig had made a few mound appearances in the 1930 and 1931 seasons. As has happened with so many position players who pitched, Koenig got rocked.

There was still some optimism when this piece ran October 11, 1930 in the Winnipeg Tribune. Never mind that Koenig was the owner at that point of a 10.00 ERA after nine innings spread through two appearances for the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1930 season, including a September 27 loss to the lowly Chicago White Sox. Optimism springs eternal during the offseason in baseball, when every player seemingly resolves to return the next spring in the proverbial best shape of their life. Koenig’s pitching career lasted three more appearances the next season, with him walking 11 batters over seven innings.

In a sense, though, Koenig got lucky. The article above mentions that Koenig was switching to pitching because failing eyesight had ruined his batting vision. Over the remainder of his career, Koenig offered just a .662 OPS and 78 OPS+. But these stats didn’t exist in the early 1930s, of course and the high scoring environment of that era also helped mask Koenig’s offensive deficiencies. He hit .277 over his final six seasons, a respectable figure for a shortstop in those days, retiring in 1936. Near the end of Koenig’s career, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle celebrated the veteran, suggesting his mental reactions, rather than his eyesight had been at the root of his hitting problems.

The Eagle also noted of Koenig:

With the idea of ailing eyesight preying on his mind, he decided to try pitching, where you didn’t have to have such sharp sight for snaring hot grounders. He started a few games on the mound for the Tigers, but didn’t do very well, although he claims he would have got by if he had concentrated on his hurling. But Mark wasn’t that kind of ballplayer. He was always being shoved into some spot in the infield when the occasion arose, and the occasion arose very often.

Ultimately, as it’s been for so many position players who’ve taken to the hill, pitching proved but a footnote for Koenig’s long tenure in the majors.

_________________________________________

“From the archives” is a Friday series that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series: 25 years after Pete Rose, Hal Chase’s story is bleaker | Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

A backlog of books and a new series

Two piles of unread books sit atop my bookshelf, reminding me of a promise I made here four years ago. In the early days of this site, I once wrote that I would review any book sent to me. It was a bold promise and one I probably shouldn’t have made. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about baseball history. But I can be a slow reader, frequently distracted and it sometimes takes me months even to finish a classic like The Boys of Summer. Four years past my promise here, I’ve long since had a backlog of books and I officially need to revise my policy.

Henceforth, I can no longer promise to review any book sent to me. The following 30 books that have been sent to me and not yet reviewed since I made my promise will be reviewed through a new weekly series starting next Thursday. It’s important to me to be a person of my word and I also believe the majority of these books may be of interest to anyone who frequents this site. Fellow writers, if you see your book among this list, I apologize for not getting to this sooner. I’ll be happy to email you when I review your book, which should be sometime in the next year:

In the meanwhile, please, no one send me anymore books!

The 25 best young position players of the modern era by WAR per 162 games

In yesterday’s post, I noted that Mike Trout was on the verge of having the most Wins Above Replacement in his first four seasons of any center fielder in baseball history. Longtime reader Devon Young commented that Trout already has the most WAR of any player through his age 22 season, which got me thinking.

As I replied to Devon, Trout’s comps through age 22 are impressive, though I don’t place a ton of stock in them. The reason? There simply haven’t been that many players in baseball history who’ve racked up a lot of WAR before age 22. It’s rare that players make the majors and receive significant playing time before their mid-20s. Sometimes, this is due to factors beyond playing ability. Some players go to college first. Others are kept in the minors longer than necessary, perhaps with an aging, expensive veteran occupying their position with the big league club.

I decided to see how Trout might rate historically through a different lens: WAR per 162 games over a player’s first four seasons. I got onto this line of thought after noting that Trout and Joe DiMaggio had roughly the same lifetime WAR through their first four years, though Trout’s done it in 81 fewer games. The following is an exercise that rewards this sort of quicker achievement.

The following are the 25 highest totals for WAR per 162 games among position players of the modern era who had at least 15 WAR over their first four seasons. As an aside, I’ll break ties by favoring which player has the overall most WAR for their first four seasons:

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
1 Ted Williams 9.5 34.2 586 2613
2 Mike Trout 9.3 26.6 463 2070
3 Willie Mays 8.8 24.8 458 1978
4 Stan Musial 8.6 24 455 1953
5 Kenny Lofton 8.1 21.4 428 1910


It’s no sad consolation for Trout being second to Williams here and if we do another version of this exercise in a year, perhaps Trout will be first. The Splendid Splinter has long since had the standard for triumphant entries into the majors, offering a .356/.481/.642 slash over his first four seasons and hitting .406 in his third year. Kept in the minors through 1938 over concerns about his attitude, Williams was more or less in full stride by his debut with the Red Sox. His 190 OPS+ over his first four seasons is identical to his rate for the stat lifetime.

Mays and Musial’s inclusions here aren’t surprising, though I’m struck by Kenny Lofton. I recently wrote of Barry Bonds as the most underrated player of the 1990s, though I could maybe give it to Lofton now. Similar to Tim Raines, I generally picture Lofton as a journeyman over the second half of his career. I forget the young speedster who electrified baseball, leading the league in steals his first five full seasons while offering a .316/.386/.435 slash. I assume Hall of Fame voters forgot this as well, as Lofton received 3.2 percent of the vote his sole appearance on the writers ballot.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
6 Evan Longoria 7.9 27.4 563 2414
7 Dick Allen 7.8 22.7 474 2040
8 Joe DiMaggio 7.7 26.3 554 2545
9 Rogers Hornsby 7.7 19.8 417 1665
10 Wade Boggs 7.6 27 576 2550


As fellow baseball blogger William Juliano told me today on Twitter, using WAR to make comparisons across eras is shaky. This, William explained, is because WAR for the past decade or so includes defensive data gathered through sophisticated means, while older WAR more or less gauges defense through box scores. While this fact alone isn’t enough for me to abandon this exercise, as WAR skews more toward a player’s offensive contributions, it isn’t insignificant either. Take DiMaggio, for instance.

A surprising amount of DiMaggio’s early value comes from his defense. Perhaps if there was more defensive play-by-play data available for his era, he might rate closer to Trout here. As it stands, finishing eighth-best seems like no slight. [I'm struck in general by the number of legendary players like DiMaggio comprising the bulk of the ranks here. One of my favorite things about WAR is that it often reinforces popular perceptions of players like the Yankee Clipper. In sum, I assume WAR helps the cause of players like DiMaggio more than it hurts them.]

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
11 Arky Vaughan 7.6 26.7 567 2479
12 Albert Pujols 7.5 29.2 629 2728
13 Bobby Grich 7.5 15.3 332 1367
14 Johnny Mize 7.4 26.2 572 2368
15 Nomar Garciaparra 7.3 20.4 455 2074


The Veterans Committee gave Mize and Vaughan their due in the 1980s, though they perhaps deserved it far sooner. By WAR, Mize and Vaughan were nearly equal to DiMaggio in the 1930s. Like Grich, Mize and Vaughan probably rate among the most underrated players all-time. All three sustained their value better than Nomar, who’s about to have a similarly lackluster debut on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
16 Eddie Mathews 7.2 25.7 581 2490
17 John Valentin 7.2 18.8 421 1727
18 Cal Ripken Jr. 7.1 22.3 507 2137
19 Charlie Keller 7 23.3 541 2370
20 Mike Piazza 7 16.9 389 1592


Bill James has spoken of the joy of baseball research where the results surprise him. Part of the reason I enjoy exercises like this is I wind up with players like Valentin who look gloriously out of place. Valentin’s part of the top 25 because of his 1995 season, his fourth in the majors, where he racked up 8.3 WAR to go with 27 homers, 102 RBI and a ninth place finish in American League MVP voting. He never had another year with even All Star-caliber WAR, though he finished with 32.5 WAR lifetime, a serviceable if generally unremarkable player.

Rk Player WAR per 162 games, first four seasons Total WAR, first four seasons G PA
21 Jackie Robinson 6.9 25.6 598 2666
22 Ralph Kiner 6.8 25.4 604 2582
23 Frank Thomas 6.8 22.4 531 2328
24 Rickey Henderson 6.8 21.2 504 2269
25 Josh Donaldson 6.8 15.8 374 1555


I’m glad to see Kiner here, as he led the National League in home runs his first seven seasons. Next to Babe Ruth, he might be the best slugger out of the gate in baseball history. And this whole exercise would seem foolhardy without the presence of Robinson, even if he’s admittedly the oldest “young” player of this bunch. It’d be a shame not to include the player the Rookie of the Year award was created for. And Robinson’s WAR his first four seasons looks like one more reason he and so many other great black players were long overdue by 1947.

One final thing– Donaldson and Eric Davis each had 15.8 WAR, 374 games, and 6.8 WAR per 162 games through their first four seasons. I’m giving Donaldson the edge because his fourth season isn’t over yet, and I assume he’ll boost his numbers through the pennant race unfolding in the AL West. That’s not to slight Davis or the other 40 or so players with at least 6 WAR per 162 games over their first four seasons. If this exercise reminded me of anything, it’s the number of good young players who’ve shined throughout baseball history.

Five notable young players who fell short of the top 25: Barry Bonds (6.7 WAR per 162 games his first four seasons), Ken Griffey Jr. (6), Fred Lynn (5.4), Mickey Mantle (6.4),  Alex Rodriguez (6.6)

By WAR, Mike Trout may be the best young CF in baseball history

Rk Player WAR first four years WAR per 162 gm Defensive runs saved Span Age [on Jun 30] G PA
1-Tie Mike Trout 26.3 9.2 7 2011-14 19-22 462 2065
1-Tie Joe DiMaggio 26.3 7.7 30 1936-39 21-24 554 2545
3 Willie Mays 24.8 8.8 39.8 1951-55 20-24 458 1978
4 Kenny Lofton 21.4 8.1 52.1 1991-94 24-27 428 1910
5 Ken Griffey 21.3 6 8.5 1989-92 19-22 578 2422
6 Vada Pinson 19.9 6.6 18.7 1958-61 19-22 489 2183
7 Grady Sizemore 19.8 6.1 10 2004-07 21-24 525 2364
8 Cesar Cedeno 19.1 5.9 1 1970-73 19-22 529 2227
9 Earl Averill 19 5.1 -23 1929-32 27-30 599 2699
10 Al Simmons 18.9 5.5 5 1924-27 22-25 558 2443


I saw Mike Trout play for the first time last Friday. I make it to three or five games a year and aside from going to spend time with family and friends, my goal is generally to see historic players in action. Trout more than qualifies. Four seasons into an already-storied career, the Los Angeles Angels center fielder looks like his generation’s version of Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. In fact, going off Wins Above Replacement, Trout’s better. By WAR, Mike Trout could be the best young center fielder in baseball history.

The chart above represents the 10 best WAR rankings, via Baseball-Reference.com, for center fielders who logged at least 75 percent of their games at the position over their first four seasons. Entering today, Trout was tied with Joe DiMaggio for first with 26.3 WAR. If Trout has a good game tonight, he’ll be in the lead tomorrow [though not for Fangraphs' version of WAR, where DiMaggio bests Trout over their first four seasons, 28.7 to 27.] More impressive, Trout accumulated his WAR in 82 fewer games than the Yankee Clipper, just beating out Mays and– this surprised me– Kenny Lofton, for best WAR per 162 games, at 9.2. That’s an MVP-caliber rate for Trout’s career.

Another thing that gets me about the list above is that most of the players on it went on to have stellar careers. DiMaggio, Mays, Earl Averill and Al Simmons are all deservedly in the Hall of Fame. Ken Griffey Jr. will be in a couple more years. I could make Cooperstown cases for Lofton, Vada Pinson and Cesar Cedeno and one can only wonder what might have been if Grady Sizemore hadn’t been beset with injuries. Oh well, Grady, we’ll always have this Sports Illustrated cover.

I keep wondering where the fail-safe point is with Trout, when we’ll know for sure that he’s another legend, not a Pinson or a Cedeno who started off so brightly and then declined precipitously. [Cedeno's early comparisons to Mays looked like a joke by the end of his career.] I’d say we’re close right now on Trout, maybe a year or two off. I certainly got my money’s worth last Friday, watching Trout hit a homer that cleared the left-center fence in a hurry. I’ll be sure to see him play again before too long.

Improving the Baseball-Reference.com stat converter

I’ve seen mentions over the past few years from major outlets like MLB Network of one of my favorite tools on Baseball-Reference.com: the stat converter.

To the uninitiated, the stat converter can be found by clicking More Stats on a player page and scrolling down to where to it says Neutralized Batting or Pitching. With this tool, we can discover things, such as that Ty Cobb would have had 101 steals if he’d played his 1915 season for the ’62 Dodgers, meaning Maury Wills still would have broken his single-season record. And Pedro Martinez might have bested Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA if he’d played his 2000 season for the ’68 Cardinals; the converter has Martinez at a 1.00 ERA. It’s enough to keep a stat geek like me occupied for hours. It has, I think.

Near as I can tell, the stat converter works on a simple algorithm. Essentially, every player in baseball history has been on a team that scored an average number of runs per game and has played in a ballpark with numerical factors based around 100 that denote how conducive it’s been to pitching and hitting. The stat converter seems to tweak players’ numbers by taking the average runs and ballpark factors from their original teams and substituting those values out for whatever team they’re placed on, with the overall average runs for their leagues also being taken into account. It’s a fun, quick way to make projections across eras, but it isn’t perfect.

I first noticed an issue a few years ago when trying to project Live Ball Era numbers for Deadball great Home Run Baker. Wanting to see if Baker would have been worthy of his nickname on the 1999 Colorado Rockies, who had four players with 30 homers, I ran his converted numbers and saw he jumped from 12 home runs with the 1913 Philadelphia A’s to 18. This didn’t seem right. The converter also projects Baker having over 200 RBIs and a .400 batting average, also seemingly unrealistic. His projected strikeout rate doesn’t wash, either. In 1913 where AL players struck out once every 9.7 plate appearances, Baker whiffed once every 20.7 plate appearances. In 1999 where NL players struck out once every 5.9 PAs, Baker is projected to K once every 23.4 PAs.

The problem with the converter is apparent as well going from Live Ball to Deadball Era. Barry Bonds of 2001 is projected to have hit 57 home runs on the 1916 Boston Braves. Dave Robertson, Cy Williams and Wally Pipp led baseball with 12 homers apiece that season. And Bonds’ projected ballpark, Braves Field boasted vast dimensions such as nearly 500 feet to dead center to facilitate inside-the-parks homers, Boston owner James Gaffney’s favorite blend of baseball. I don’t care how much better Bonds was than the rest of the majors in the early 2000s. He would’ve been pushed to hit even 25 homers for the 1916 Braves, a team that hit 22 collectively and had no player with more than four homers.

The issue doesn’t just lie with Live Ball to Deadball conversions. I couldn’t find a modern pitcher projected to win 30 games on the 1968 Tigers, not Randy Johnson in 2001, Bob Welch in 1990, or Ron Guidry in 1978, to name three recent pitchers who’ve come close since Denny McLain won 31 games for Detroit. Part of the problem is that the stat converter doesn’t appear to adjust for different pitcher usage rates between eras. Welch, for instance, was fourth-best in baseball with 238 innings in 1990. The fourth most-durable pitcher in 1968, Bob Gibson had 304.2 innings, though the stat converter offers Welch’s projections with 238 innings that year. It’s part of the reason he’s projected to go just 14-12 for the Tigers.

All of this, so we’re clear, isn’t to take major issue with the stat converter. It’s one of many, many reasons that Baseball-Reference.com is easily my favorite baseball website of them all, one more reason I should probably be paying Sean Forman rent for the amount of time I spend on his site. I don’t know how or if it’s feasible to adjust the stat converter so that it becomes anything more than a fun, simple tool that projects based on run-related averages. But I offer all of this with the hope of advancing creative endeavor.

Guest post: This Chet Was A Lemon In Name Only

Editor’s note: I’m honored to feature a guest post from Cyril Morong. An economics professor at San Antonio College and a sabermetrician, Cyril runs the superb Cybermetrics baseball blog. Today, he focuses on an eternally underrated ballplayer.

___________________

Chet Lemon, centerfielder for the White Sox in the late 1970s and for the Tigers in the 1980s, is one of the most underrated players of all time.

But underrated by whom and by how much? I recently tried to estimate this. More on that later. The baseball writers, by voting for Most Valuable Player and for the Hall of Fame, create a rating for players. And this shows us how poorly Lemon was rated.

He has the highest career Wins Above Replacement of any position player to never get any votes for MVP. Dan Hirsch compiled these numbers. Here are the top five:

  • Chet Lemon 55.3
  • Jason Kendall 41.5
  • Ron Fairly 35.2
  • Frank White 34.7
  • Jeff Cirillo 34.4

Lemon has a pretty big lead of the next player, Kendall. This is despite four top 10 finishes in WAR including 1984, when his Tigers came in first place in the AL East.

To see the explanation of my work on estimating “underratedness” by correlating career MVP shares with career WAR, go here.

I ranked players by how far above or below the trend they were. If a player got more MVP shares than his WAR predicted, he was considered overrated. If he got less, he was underrated. To see the complete list, go here.

Lemon is the 13th most underrated player out of 810 going back to 1931 when the baseball writers first had their MVP award. That is, his actual MVP shares were much lower than expected, given the overall voting patterns.

He is 142nd all-time in career WAR among position players and he received just one vote for the Hall of Fame in 1996. That gave him less than 5 percent in his first year of eligibility, so he dropped off the ballot after that.

I also compared WAR to first year Hall of Fame vote percentage for all position players since 1966. Before 1960, players sometimes received votes while they were still playing or before they had been retired for five years. For players who retired after 1960, this generally was not a problem. Further explanation of this research can be found here.

Lemon was the 26th most underrated out of 430 players. Again, I ranked players by how far above or below the trend they were. Lemon’s vote percentage was far below what we would expect given the relationship that it has with WAR. . To see the complete list, go here.

So in both MVP voting and Hall of Fame voting, Lemon did very poorly for a player of his caliber. I have not done much prior analysis of MVP voting, but I have so for the Hall of Fame. Lemon’s poor showing there is not a big surprise.

My research indicates that milestones like 3,000 hits and 500 HRs matter along with all-star appearances and Gold Glove awards (there are other factors, too.)

Lemon won no Gold Glove awards (despite finishing in the top 10 in defensive WAR three times) and was only named to the all-star team 3 times. According to Lemon’s SABR biography, his career was cut short by a blood disorder, polycythemia vera.

So he was done at age 35. He still played in 1,988 games. But he did not even reach 2,000 hits. He had a good OBP for his era, .355. The league average was.328. Back then, however, OBP was not widely seen as being important.

He also got a good bit of that OBP from getting hit by 151 pitches. He led the league four times and was in the top 5 five other times. Not counting his HBPs, his OBP was .342. Still good for his era, but not something MVP voters would notice. And voters probably did not get wowed by HBPs.

He had good power, hitting 215 HRs and 396 2Bs. The average player would have had 177 & 315. Voters back then probably were not aware of how valuable it was to be well above average in both power and getting on base. His solid but unimpressive .273 career batting average probably did not impress many. He also only stole 58 bases in his career.

Lemon is one of only five outfielders to record 500+ putouts in a season (along with Taylor Douthit, Richie Ashburn, Dwayne Murphy and Dom DiMaggio). Lemon finished in the top 5 in OF putouts 7 times.

It seems like at least one writer should have noticed him catching all those balls, getting on base frequently and hitting for power for some pretty good teams. When he first came to the White Sox in a trade at the end of the 1975 season at the age of 20, he played 3B. I remember seeing an enthusiastic, hustling player who would add a spark to the White Sox. He seemed like a fan favorite. One banner often held up in the stands of old Comiskey Park in Chicago said “Chet’s no lemon.”

Too bad some voters didn’t see it that way. Lemon clearly deserves more recognition that he got.

An interview with Ernie Broglio

I ventured today to the 20th annual Pacific Coast League reunion. Dedicated to players who were in the PCL before 1958, the reunions attract men like Broglio, who pitched for the Oakland Oaks 1953-55 before an eight-year MLB career. Broglio may be most remembered for being traded for Lou Brock, among the worst trades in baseball history since Broglio went 7-19 with a 5.40 ERA the rest of his career while Brock went onto Cooperstown. He accomplished a lot beforehand, though, going 60-38 with a 3.15 ERA and 18 Wins Above Replacement, 1960-63.

I talked with Broglio for five minutes today. Highlights of our conversation are as follows:

What do you remember about playing in the PCL in the early ’50s?

The good thing is you never traveled that much. You were six days in one town and played, which was good, Monday off. Longest trip was between Seattle and Portland. Second longest trip was between LA and Hollywood and then San Diego was separate. But that’s what made it interesting because you didn’t have to pack and go, pack and go, y’know, so it was pretty good that you stayed in one town for a long time.

Did the pre-1958 PCL feel like the majors at all?

A lot of big league ballplayers came out [of it.] In fact, I’ve got my understanding, they didn’t want to go back to the big leagues because they were making better money in the Coast League than they were being paid in the big leagues. So I would think that, with that question, the guys wanted to stay in the Coast League.

So you were sold to the Cardinal organization and you got to be a part of the Cardinals in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I know ’64 to ’68 was kind of their glory period but what do you remember about the time before it? It seemed like they had a lot of good guys on those teams.

Well, prior, I was sold to the New York Giants before the Cardinals. I was traded to the Cardinals–

For Bill White, right?

No, for Hobie Landrith.

Oh okay.

Yeah, Marv Grissom and myself went to the Cardinals for Hobie Landrith and one other ballplayer, two other ballplayers. And then the Cardinals traded me to the Cubs in 1964 for Lou Brock. I wanted to finish my career in St. Louis because it was such a great town, great baseball town. I’m not taking anything away from the Giants because they [packed] the stadium all the time, but I just thought that St. Louis was a great baseball town.

Could you tell that they had the makings of a championship club during your time there?

I was back there a few months ago. I was brought back for the 50 years of the 1964 team which I didn’t know I had won three games [for] before I got traded. I didn’t know, I thought it was only one game. I was talking to some of the players, and they thought the best team was our 1963 team before the 1964 team.

Why was that?

I don’t know why. The ballplayers were great, I was very fortunate to win 18 games, and probably because it was the last year Stan Musial played before he retired, so that could be some of it, too. He ended up hitting what he did 20-something years prior. He [came] to the big leagues and went two for four and he finished his career hitting two for four.

What was he like as a teammate?

Great. Just a fantastic individual. I pitched a ball game, a 12-inning ball game against the 1960 Pirates. Myself and Bob Friend, we both pitched 12 innings. Stan hit a home run for me in the top of the 12th and put me up 3-1 and the score [had been] 1-1. They came back and scored a run. Nowadays, you’re out of the game. They got that pitch count, which I don’t believe in. I told Stan, I says, “I’m gonna take you out for a cocktail.” He says, “No, you’re coming with me.” So that’s the type of guy he was.

For everything you accomplished in the big leagues, does it ever bother you that people mostly remember you as being part of the Lou Brock trade?

Like I’ve told Lou before, I says, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go before me because I’ll be forgotten.’

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Other recent interviews: Bob Watson, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn

From the archive: 25 years after Pete Rose, Hal Chase’s story is bleaker

Fred Lieb devoted a chapter in his memoir Baseball As I Have Known It to Hal Chase. Titling the chapter “Hal Chase: He had a corkscrew brain,” Lieb wrote about the troubled career of the once-great first baseman, banished from baseball after 1919 for fixing games. Lieb included a euphemistic mention near the end of the chapter that Chase died at 64 in 1947 “in dire straits.” The story of Chase’s years after being cast out of baseball is one of the bleaker tales in baseball history. It far surpasses that of Pete Rose, who’ll mark the 25th anniversary of his lifetime ban on Sunday.

If not for Chase’s many transgressions– according to Ken Burns, three managers publicly accused Chase of throwing games– he’d have been in the Hall of Fame decades ago. Even with his ban, Chase finished 25th and 22nd in the first two writers votes for Cooperstown. He’s still considered one of the best-fielding first basemen ever. Lieb wrote that Chase played the position off the bag like an infielder. Grantland Rice ranked Chase in 1942 with George Sisler and Lou Gehrig as one of the three best first basemen of the past 40 years, writing, “Hal could make plays around first base that no other ballplayer would even try to make.”

Rumored to have been the go-between who introduced players and gamblers before the ill-fated 1919 World Series, Chase’s SABR bio notes a couple of interviews he gave late in life to the Sporting News where he denied any role in the fix. He admitted to knowing of the plot ahead of time saying, “I did not want to be what I then called a ‘welcher.’ I had been involved in all kinds of bets with players and gamblers in the past, and I felt this was no time to run out.” But persistent rumors of his wrongdoing were enough to prompt his lifetime ban.

Chase kept playing baseball for years after his ban from organized ball, turning up in a semi-pro league in California in 1921 and continuing an itinerant career into his 50s. Chase, it should be noted, is far from the only man of his era to play well past his time in the majors, the wealth of minor and semi-pro circuits back then offering ample work for ex-big leaguers. Three Finger Brown, Chief Bender, and Iron Man Joe McGinnity, to name three, all pitched into their 50s. I suspect some players continued their careers for love of the game. Others like Chase clearly needed the money.

His run of bad fortune, random and self-imposed followed. He suffered lacerations after being struck by a car in 1936 and was hospitalized again in 1941 with a stomach ailment. Chase gave an interview to the United Press from the hospital after the latter incident, estimating that he’d earned $150,000 during his career but neglected to save it. The following year, he was written of again for telling police during a DUI stop,  “You shouldn’t arrest a man as famous as I am. I’m Hal Chase, the baseball player.” [Oddly, the story lists Chase being booked into jail as Elmore Axel Chase, a salesman from Huntington Park, California. Baseball-Reference.com lists Chase with a full name of Harold Homer Chase.]

Then there’s the story shown above, from the Santa Cruz Sentinel on August 1, 1942. It details Chase winding up in Highland Hospital in Oakland after being found on a lawn in nearby Alameda. The story notes a woman telephoning police that a “ragged and tattered man was wandering on her lawn.” The story said Chase had been en-route to a wartime defense job from his San Jose home and “was, and perhaps still is, a victim of amnesia.” Another paper reported that the hospital offered this diagnosis came after Chase was initially diagnosed with a brain stroke. Candidly, his story reads a lot like one of prolonged alcoholism.

The baseball world will be sympathizing with Pete Rose over the next few days, issuing renewed pleas for his Hall of Fame induction. ESPN.com already has a lengthy article on Rose’s “25-year exile” on its homepage. It’s been a long time since anyone offered Hal Chase any sympathy.

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“From the archives” is a Friday series here that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series: Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

Does expansion meaningfully affect scoring?

It seems like a common notion among casual baseball fans that expansion boosts scoring. Certainly, the individual achievements that have happened in expansion seasons would appear to support this. Every time baseball has expanded, it seems, something noteworthy has happened, be it Roger Maris breaking the home run record in 1961, Mark McGwire doing likewise in 1998, or Rod Carew, John Olerud and Andres Galarraga hitting close to .400 in other expansion years.

Granted, the notion of expansion boosting scoring has its skeptics, most prominently perhaps Bill James who wrote in his 2001 historical abstract:

Expansion favors neither the hitter nor the pitcher, on balance; it does as much to create a shortage of good hitters as it does to create a shortage of good pitchers.

While I trust Bill James more than I trust conventional wisdom in baseball, his claim raised a red flag for me. With the help of the spreadsheet of baseball run averages since 1876 that I wrote about earlier this week, I applied a cursory test.

Expansion year League Average runs per team 5-year pre-expansion average Difference
1961 AL 4.53 4.36 Up 3.9%
1962 NL 4.48 4.39 Up 2.1%
1969 AL 4.09 3.8 Up 7.6%
1969 NL 4.05 3.89 Up 4.1%
1977 AL 4.53 4.04 Up 12.1%
1993 NL 4.49 4 Up 12.25%
1998 AL 5.01 5.05 Down 0.8%
1998 NL 4.6 4.6 Even


My thought? James is mostly right. Expansion alone won’t create a scoring boon, though it could favor individual achievement since the best players in baseball will face more marginal talents in expansion years. In his 1992 book Baseball’s Last .400 Hitter, SABR member John Holway suggested that in order for someone to hit .400 again, the majors might need to be tripled in size in order to restore player-population ratios of Ted Williams’ era.

That said, the fact that scoring has increased six of eight times that a league has expanded and didn’t meaningfully decrease the other two times is striking to me. I could drill down deeper in my research, though I’ll leave this as is for now.

Five hitters who may have missed .400 due to their ballparks

According to Joe DiMaggio’s biography, the Yankee Clipper once was almost traded for Ted Williams. The thinking behind the proposed trade was that each icon would benefit from playing in the other’s home park. There may be something to this with DiMaggio whose offensive production was 8 percent better at Fenway Park than the original Yankee Stadium. Williams is another story. In 1941 when he became the most recent player to hit .400, Williams batted .428 at home. A different ballpark may have cost him. The stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com has Williams hitting .373, for instance, with the Boston Braves.

Not every hitter in baseball history has had Williams’ good fortune with his home park. Here are five men who may have hit .400 if they’d played in more hitters-friendly stadiums in years they approached history:

1. Tony Gwynn, 1994 and ’97: It’s nice Gwynn played his entire career– preps, college, and majors– in San Diego, but he paid a price for his loyalty. Playing for the Padres may have cost Gwynn .400 twice. There’s 1994 where Gwynn hit .394, the closest anyone’s come to .400 since 1941. In the majority of parks in the American League, where teams averaged 5.23 runs, 13 percent higher than the NL rate in 1994, the converter projects Gwynn hitting around .420. Gwynn would have topped .400 again in 1997 had he played for the Rockies. Playing home games that season at Coors Field, he’d have hit .414.

2. Rod Carew, 1977: Carew’s .388 for Minnesota converts to .400 in a number of other parks in 1977. One that stands out: Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta where Carew is projected to have hit .413 with 265 hits. Granted, he would have been on a team that finished 61-101, scored 678 runs and, for one inglorious game, featured owner Ted Turner as manager. Carew would have also had to contend with the pressures of playing every game before a national audience on TBS. Still, I can’t help but wonder what he might have accomplished in one of the great hitter’s parks of its day. And it’s worth noting that the Braves became a contender by the early ’80s. Maybe with Carew in town, that could have happened sooner.

3. George Brett, 1980: Brett hit .390 for the Royals, flirting with .400 for much of the second half and being above the mark as late as September 19. The stat converter has Brett finishing above .400 in 1980 for the Red Sox, Twins, Indians, Tigers, Mariners and Blue Jays. The converter, of course, isn’t infallible. We can rule out Seattle or Toronto, each recent expansion clubs at the time that barely topped 600 runs. The Twins seem unlikely as well, given their 666 runs and 86 OPS+ as a team. A .400 hitter needs a lively offense; the 1941 Red Sox, for one, scored 865 runs.

It’s counter-intuitive to take Brett away from a juggernaut like the 1980 Royals, who lost in the World Series. But Brett may have stood a better chance at .400 that season with Boston or Detroit. The converter has him topping .408 for either team. I like Brett’s chances in Boston most. Detroit scored more runs that season (830 to 757) and each team had a fine hitting park, though the Red Sox lineup gets the edge for star-power: Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Tony Perez and Carl Yastrzemski. With Brett substituting for Glenn Hoffman at thrid base, perhaps Boston would have fared better than 83-77 and fifth place in the AL East.

4. Jeff Bagwell, 1994: The Red Sox famously traded Boston native Bagwell while he was in the minors for aging reliever Larry Andersen, with the belief Bagwell wouldn’t beat out Scott Cooper at third base. Next to Babe Ruth for “No, No Nanette,” it’s maybe the worst trade in Red Sox history. Here’s Bagwell’s slash if he’d played his home games in ’94 at Fenway Park rather than the cavernous Astrodome: .401/.486/.811, to go with 44 home runs and 143 RBIs. (Favorite Bagwell stat from ’94? He hit better at home than on the road, .373 to .362. It’s one of the more underrated seasons in baseball history.)

5. Barry Bonds, 2002: When all is said and done, there is no finer use for the stat converter than seeing the kind of cartoonish numbers Bonds would have produced for the Colorado Rockies. There’s the 87 homers the converter projects him hitting for Colorado in 2001 or the 50-50 season he just misses out on in 1996. Then there’s the matter of the .370 batting average (with the is-this-real-life 268 OPS+) that Bonds offered while leading the Giants to the 2002 World Series. Playing for the Rockies instead in 2002, Bonds would have hit .401 with 53 homers and 133 RBIs.

Honorable mentions

Derek Jeter, 1999: Every time I see a mention of the stat converter from a major outlet, it’s generally to punch in numbers players would have offered on the 2000 Colorado Rockies. The ’99 Rockies actually offers slightly higher converted numbers, though I doubt this is widely understood. Take Jeter, who hit .349 for the Yankees in ’99. Playing for the Rockies instead, Jeter’s average rises to .391.

Ichiro Suzuki, 2004: The best season of Suzuki’s career had him batting .372 and breaking George Sisler’s hits record for the Mariners. Safeco Field may have short-changed Suzuki, though. The stat converter has the best contact hitter of his era hitting .398 with, get ready for it, 292 hits in 797 plate appearances for the Rangers in 2004. Alex Rodriguez’s preseason trade to the Yankees would quickly have become a distant memory.

Chipper Jones, 2008: Jones led the National League with a .364 batting average at 36, reminiscent of when 38-year-old Ted Williams hit an AL-best .388 in 1957. Playing at Fenway Park instead of Turner Field in 2008, Jones would nearly have matched the Splendid Splinter. The stat converter has Jones hitting .385, though I suspect the chance to serve as designated hitter on a regular basis might have pushed his average higher.

Joe Mauer, 2009: According to the stat converter, Mauer’s .365 batting average in his MVP season with the Twins becomes .386 for the Yankees.

Parsing the DH era

In my post Sunday on run totals throughout baseball history, I noted a common myth: that the adoption of the designated hitter rule in 1973 jump-started baseball’s offensive era. In truth, run totals didn’t peak until the mid-1990s. That’s been lost on a number of prominent writers who rationalize the inflated ERA totals of any pitcher from the 1970s or later. Just Google “Jack Morris DH era.”

One irksome thing to a baseball historian like me is that sportswriters often treat the so-called DH era as one continuous stretch. What people call the DH era is more like three eras:

1) 1973-92, where American League teams averaged 4.41 runs, while NL teams averaged 4.12. Historically, the AL average was 0.9 percent higher than the average of 4.37 runs from the league’s founding in 1901 through 1972. The increase may have seemed more dramatic at the time, as AL teams had flat-lined at 3.88 runs a game from 1963 through 1972, after the Baseball Rules Committee changed the strike zone.

2) 1994-2009, where AL teams averaged 4.99 runs, while NL teams averaged 4.65. Whatever the reason or reasons, some seismic shift occurred in baseball in the early ’90s, leading to the highest sustained scoring levels in the circuit since the 1930s.

3) The past five seasons, where AL teams have averaged 4.39 runs, while National League teams have averaged 4.14. The current AL scoring rate is slightly below the all-time league scoring average through nearly 114 seasons of 4.5 runs per game.

Has it been harder to pitch in the American League since the DH was the instituted? Almost certainly. Overall, run totals in the American League have been roughly 6.5 percent higher than they have been in the National League since 1973. In all the years before that both leagues were in existence, AL teams enjoyed just a two percent advantage in scoring. So there’s been some boost with the DH, which seems reasonable given that pitchers have been replaced in batting lineups with the likes of Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz.

That said, I think the important thing is not treating all pitchers from the DH era the same. Morris’s 3.90 ERA and Mike Mussina’s 3.68 ERA are two radically different numbers, for one. In the years Morris pitched, 1977 through 1994, American League teams averaged 4.5 runs per game. During Mussina’s career, 1991-2008, the AL average was 4.91 runs. Looked at another way, Morris’s ERA was 13.3 percent better than league average while Mussina’s was 25.1 percent better.

I noted something along these lines yesterday on Twitter and someone replied that Mussina is among the most underrated players all-time. I agree. With a better understanding of run totals from Mussina’s era, maybe this can change.