Any player/Any era: Mickey Mantle

Posted: 30th July 2013 by Graham Womack in Mickey Mantle

What he did: There’s a Mickey Mantle stat I’m drawn to, and it’s not something that jumps out like the 536 lifetime home runs or 565-foot bomb he hit at Griffith Stadium in 1953. Early in his Hall of Fame career, Mantle was known for his speed, with him being one of the fastest players in his time, perhaps in baseball history. A blown knee in the 1951 World Series and a host of other physical problems that followed eventually made this a distant memory, though certain numbers from his first few seasons hint at what might have been. For me, one Mantle number that sticks out is his .366 lifetime batting average at Sportsman Park in St. Louis.

Mantle only got 119 plate appearances at the ballpark over his first three years in the majors before the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles, though it’s no surprise to me that Mantle made the most of these PAs. With a famously hard playing surface, Sportsman Park ranks as one of the better hitters’ parks in baseball history, not as notorious as the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia or Coors Field in Denver but similarly able to distort numbers. And it was perfect for a young player with blazing speed. It makes me wonder what Mantle might have done with more time in St. Louis.

Era he might have thrived in: To be clear, I believe Mickey Mantle is one of a select number of players in baseball history who would’ve thrived in any time. It’s a hunch, but I assume all-time greats like Mantle or Willie Mays or Babe Ruth could transcend whatever circumstances they were placed in and dazzle. For Mantle, transcendence was playing home games in a pitcher’s park, in a pitcher’s era and still managing feats of legend with his bat. This being said, Mantle may have put up some obscene numbers playing for the St. Louis Cardinals or even the Browns in the 1930s.

Why: Where to begin? I’ll start with strikeouts, which Mantle was famous for. In later life, the Commerce Comet liked to joke that between striking out and walking roughly 1,700 times apiece, he went seven full seasons without touching the ball. Some of this was the result, though, of his era.

Mantle struck out 17.3 percent of his plate appearances while the American League had a 13.4 percent strikeout rate overall during his career. Looked at another way, Mantle struck out about  30 percent more than league average. I generally believe players could maintain their relative superiority or inferiority to other players in different eras, with some exceptions (Gavvy Cravath wouldn’t out-homer entire teams today, nor would Babe Ruth.) This tells me that playing in the 2013 majors, where the strikeout rate has hovered around 20 percent, Mantle might K 200 times. But it also makes me wonder what he’d be capable of in an era where strikeouts were far less common. Enter the 1930s, where the strikeout rate was under 10 percent for much of the decade.

What would Mantle do with more at-bats where he made contact? His career BABIP, short for Batting Average on Balls in Play, gives a hint. Mantle famously batted just below .300 for his career, .298. However, unlike his contemporary Willie Mays, Mantle’s BABIP was a tick higher than his batting line, .318. There’s a misnomer that BABIP is a luck stat for hitters, perhaps because it’s one for pitchers; research in the past decade or so has found that the BABIP a pitcher allows can vary greatly from year-to-year, in that pitchers have limited influence in what they allow beyond strikeouts, walks and home runs. That said, a hitter’s BABIP is more dependent on skill. It’s a reflection of being able to place balls and leg out hits. On the latter count particularly, it’s a great stat for a speedy young Mickey Mantle– or in today’s majors, the closest player to Mantle, Mike Trout who unsurprisingly has a lifetime BABIP of .361.

Left unsaid here thus far– but said in more previous columns on this site than I can count– is what a hitter’s era might enable for someone like Mantle. It’s a toss-up if the 1930s or 1990s rank as the greatest offensive era in baseball history. While I’ll sidestep that question today, the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com has some ludicrous numbers for Mantle in the era of Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Carl Hubbell and 200 other pitchers whose names are little remembered by modern fans. On the 1930 Cardinals, Mantle’s 1957 season is good for a slash line of .422/.572/.770 with 43 home runs and 133 RBI. On the 1936 Browns, who shared Sportsman Park with the Cardinals for many years, Mantle’s ’57 season converts to .418/.568/.760.

I’ll admit I like Mantle on the Gashouse Gang Cardinals more than the Brownies. Baseball history’s most famous drinker would’ve fit right in on the first team, just another young, free-spirited country boy. Pepper Martin and Dizzy Dean would’ve been Mantle’s Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. And it goes without saying that the Cardinals president in those years, Branch Rickey, loved Mantle as a player, saying “He’s the best prospect I’ve ever seen,” and, “Fill in any figure you want for that boy. Whatever the figure, it’s a deal.” Rickey’s tendency was to sell players off just as they began to decline, so Mantle’s peak with the Gashouse Gang Cardinals would probably have been brief. But while it lasted, it would’ve been something to behold.

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

Others in this series: Al KalineAl RosenAl SimmonsAlbert PujolsArtie WilsonBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der Ahe, Davey LopesDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug Glanville,Ed WalshEddie LopatElmer FlickEric DavisFrank HowardFritz MaiselGary CarterGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner)George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro SuzukiJack ClarkJack MorrisJackie RobinsonJim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh GibsonJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.,Kenny LoftonLarry WalkerLefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Mark FidrychMatt CainMatt NokesMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertNolan RyanOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax,  Satchel PaigeShoeless Joe JacksonSpud ChandlerStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

 

 

An interview with Sean Forman

Posted: 18th June 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB, Sean Forman

I joke sometimes that if I were ever marooned on a desert island and could bring one thing, I might take Baseball-Reference.com with me. The world’s greatest baseball website has enough content to keep a hardened fan or researcher occupied for months if not years. I’ve certainly killed weekends on it.

I was lucky enough recently to talk with Sean Forman, the founder of Baseball-Reference.com and its overarching group of businesses, Sports Reference LLC. Excerpts from our phone conversation are as follows:

BPP: How many pages do you have overall on Baseball-Reference? I’ll say just Baseball-Reference right now. Do you have over a million pages on the site?

Forman: Oh yeah. Just box scores, we have 200,000 box scores.

Oh whoa.

And then, we have probably 200,000-300,000 pages in the minor league players, total, who have pages. Then you’ve got another 40,000 teams. You’ve got 2,000 teams in the major leagues, plus then we’ve got like 10 different pages for each season. I’m guessing we’re into the millions, just to count splits, game logs, the whole nine yards. It’s probably well over a million. I’m sure there are over a million. There could be over two million distinct pages on the site.

When you’re dealing with as large of an entity as Sports-Reference, what keeps you on-track and keeps you focused? I would think it would be so easy to get off-track and go off in a bunch of different directions.

It is. It’s… yeah, I’m not sure we are on-track. [laughs] We try to do some planning. We obviously have to fix any mistakes or bugs that people find. But yeah, it’s always challenging to make sure we’re making big strides rather than small steps that aren’t getting us where we want to go. It’s a challenge. That’s probably true of anybody trying to stay focused on what they want to be doing.

* * *

As far as the scope of minor league data on the site goes, do you have any ideas in mind to expand the amount of minor league data that’s up there.

The Japanese leagues are obviously not minor leagues, per se, but I think at some point this summer, we’re going to put up pretty complete Japanese league stats back to like the ’30s or ’40s. That’s kind of the big thing. Continuing to make progress on the Negro League stats, which we got from the Hall of Fame and from Outsider Baseball. It’s things like that and just continuing to get more league coverage and more complete leagues… in the minor leagues. It’s just ongoing. It’s one of those things where you work on it on a daily or weekly basis or there are other people who are working on it on a daily or weekly basis. You look up in two years, and you’ve gotten pretty far into the project. It seems daunting but if you try to make progress everyday, you can move pretty far in not too long of a time.

I was talking to (Major League Baseball historian and author) John Thorn a few years ago, and he was saying one of the potential pitfalls with Negro League stat research, he said there’s some researchers who’ll go so far as to hypothesize box scores. Have you heard of that kind of thing?

It’s very hard. The leagues were not well-defined. The barnstorming was obviously endemic and very important to the game, so how do you count those? It’s a messy situation… I think we have like 140 home runs for Josh Gibson, or something like that, but you could probably defend any number between 140 and 500 and make it sound reasonable. We’ll never know. We’re just never gonna know what those numbers are. And I mean, it’s unknowable, because different people are gonna have different views as what should and shouldn’t be counted. Even if we knew what all the game results were, different people would count them differently…

There’s a famous mathematician, Paul Erdos who would joke that he was excited to go to Heaven, because he figured God had all the proofs for all the theorems that we didn’t yet know how to solve. So he called it ‘The Book.’ He wanted to go to Heaven and see ‘The Book’ so he could learn what all these beautiful proofs that God had worked were, all these mathematical theorems. I figure God also has the Baseball Encyclopedia so when we go to Heaven, we’ll actually know what Ty Cobb’s hit total was and how many home runs Josh Gibson hit in his career. It’s unknowable. We’re doing the best we can but it’s not possible to really get those numbers. Even Ty Cobb’s hit totals, we don’t know exactly what that was.

* * *

I’m guessing you’re kind of limited on time and there’s probably certain things that you’d like to be able to do that you simply don’t have time to do. What’s one thing that you would expand on for Baseball-Reference if you had more time?

It would be some of the more modern stuff, like the PITCHf/x. I would love to go in and create some data presentations for that material but I just have not been able to set aside a three-month period to work diligently on that. I’m not sure how much of a big payoff that would be, either. It’s something that I’d love to do, but I just haven’t had time.

The PITCHf/x stuff, that’s become a big thing in the last few years, right?

Right. It’s a remarkable data set. It really turns the analysis of pitching on its head. You’re able to look at things at a granularity. And even catching, it’s revolutionized defensive [analysis for] catching. People are getting 30, 40, 50 run estimates for what Bengie Molina adds or Jose Molina adds in framing pitches. It’s fairly compelling stuff, so it’s interesting to see that. More data just creates better science and more interesting results.

That’s interesting, I didn’t realize PITCHf/x also lent itself to pitch framing. I’ve thought of it more as a pitcher’s stat but that totally makes sense. It’d be one of those stats that kind of goes both ways.

Right because you’re able to see the location of the pitch and whether it was called a ball or a strike, so you can say this catcher, for whatever reason, he gets more strike calls on these pitches than the typical catcher does. There’s some really interesting articles on Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs on it.

* * *

With Sports-Reference, do you get the feeling ever that you’re preserving history?

I’d say we’re putting a friendly face on it so people can find it more easily. I think our goal is to answer user questions and a big part of that is obviously the question of what happened… and who was this person and what did they accomplish and things like that. So yeah, definitely, we’re working to preserve history.

Other interviews: Robert Creamer, Rob Neyer, Joe PosnanskiDan Szymborski, John Thorn.

Thoughts about a famous Vin Scully quote

Posted: 18th May 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination.

-Vin Scully

Three years ago, in the early stages of this blog, I wrote a post suggesting the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. It was three years ago, granted, so I knew less about sabermetrics, less about baseball history, and less about eligible players not in Cooperstown. (I still don’t know everything and I never will, which is one thing I like about baseball history. Through more than 150 years of organized play, there are seemingly endless expanses to explore.) Instead, I based my piece on what I knew best at the time, traditional stats. This led me down a rabbit hole which I can laugh about three years on.

I started by visiting the list of highest career batting averages at Baseball-Reference.com. Why batting average? Before I knew of OPS+, wRC+, or wOBA, to name a few sabermetrics that measure a player’s overall offensive contributions, I considered batting average the best measure of a hitter. And without knowing of total value metrics like Wins Above Replacement, JAWS, or Hall Rating, I figured the best candidate not in Cooperstown would be a great hitter. Don’t ask me how my mind works sometimes.

Starting at the top of the batting average list, I scrolled past all-time leader Ty Cobb whose .367 clip helped get him in Cooperstown long ago, past next runner-up Rogers Hornsby, also long since enshrined, and past Shoeless Joe Jackson, who isn’t eligible. For some reason, I either missed or disregarded the fourth man on the list, Lefty O’Doul, though that’s probably for the best. Lefty’s a great hitter, no doubt, and he belongs in Cooperstown, but he hit .349 in a short career, in a Golden Age for hitters. His 143 OPS+ is worse than 15 eligible players not enshrined. His splits are also nuts: .426 in 733 at-bats at the Baker Bowl; .327 in 2,531 AB’s elsewhere.

After Lefty, I scrolled past a number of players already enshrined, as well as three 19th century hitters: Dave Orr, Pete Browning and Jake Stenzel. In discussions of all-time greats, I tend to reflexively disregard anyone who played before the Modern Era. I don’t know if this is wrong. This in turn led me to the owner of the 22nd highest batting average in baseball history, Riggs Stephenson. At the time I clicked on his name, I’d never heard of Stephenson who hit .336 over a career that spanned 1921-1934, though the sponsor’s message on his Baseball-Reference page proclaimed him: “The greatest baseball player who is NOT in the Hall of Fame!” That was good enough for me. If I ever do a post called “Times I was wrong here,” what I cobbled together on Stephenson will rank highly. He’s not the best player not in Cooperstown. Looking at other stats as well Stephenson’s impact on the game and place in baseball history, I doubt he ranks among the top 100 candidates.

I was reminded of all this by Scully’s quote, which someone recently posted to Twitter. I think there’s some truth in what Scully said (which, as Joe Posnanski noted, wasn’t an original quote), though in the grand tradition of quotes, it’s since been misappropriated by people looking to advance a cause. To my understanding, the quote is sometimes trotted out as an argument against sabermetrics. To an extent, I see the skeptics’ point. In four years of blogging about baseball, I’ve seen discussions where people have used an advanced stat to bludgeon home an argument. Heck, I’ve done it. It’s pretty simple to reference a player’s OPS+ and WAR, throw in a few factoids about him from Wikipedia, his SABR biography, or Google, and call it a day on a post. But it’s also easy to engage in this type of debate using traditional stats in place of sabermetrics.

I’ve been the proverbial drunk on the lamp post with both traditional and advanced stats. In both cases, I’ve been wrong. There’s not a stat in baseball, new or old, that’s best used dogmatically and in the absence of other information. By that same token, I think it’s also wrong to disregard stats entirely. They don’t tell the whole story of what goes on in baseball, but they certainly are evidence of whatever’s going on. They provide context as well. And they can serve as a gateway to learning about forgotten players. It’s why I’m grateful for the rise of sites like Baseball-Reference, seemingly designed to introduce me to players like Riggs Stephenson and so many others I may never have heard of were they not a click away. Ideally, checking out their stats can be just the beginning for learning their stories.

Tolerating the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball

Posted: 27th April 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

April 1987 marked the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. On April 6 of that year, the ABC program “Nightline” had on baseball author Roger Kahn and the Dodgers executive who signed Robinson, Al Campanis as guests. At first, it went smoothly, with Kahn noting that his late friend Robinson might be dismayed that the majors at that time had no black managers, general managers or owners. Koppel asked Campanis, by now vice president and general manager of the Dodgers, why there was still so much prejudice in the game.

“No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice,” Campanis said, via a video feed from the Astrodome where his Dodgers had just lost. “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be a– let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.”

“Do you really believe that?” Koppel said.

“Well, I don’t say all of them, but they certainly are short,” Campanis said. “How many quarterbacks do you have? How many pitchers do you have that are black?”

Kahn wrote years later that Campanis’s voice was thick as he spoke, suggesting he may have been drinking.

“I’ve got to tell you that that sounds like the same kind of garbage we were hearing forty years ago about players, when they were saying, ‘Ah, not really, not really cut out,’” Koppel said.  ”Remember the days when you hit a black football player in the knees.  And you know, that really sounds like garbage, if you forgive me saying so.”

Campanis countered that he’d played with blacks in college, saying he didn’t know the difference in their skin color. He added that he hadn’t known many black swimmers, due to what he termed a lack of “buoyancy.” Koppel gave Campanis “another chance to dig yourself out, because I think you need it.”

“I have never said that blacks are not intelligent,” Campanis said. “I think that many of them are highly intelligent.  But they may not have the desire to be in the front office.  I know that they have wanted to manage, and many of them have managed.  But they’re outstanding athletes, very God-gifted, and they’re wonderful people, and that’s all that I can tell you about them.

The fallout for Campanis, the Dodgers and baseball was immediate and severe, with Campanis being forced to resign within 24 hours of the appearance, his career effectively over. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth hired Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, as his assistant for minority affairs; in time, it helped spur an increase in minority hiring for front office and managerial positions. Campanis, who publicly apologized after the incident, calling it “the lowest day of my career,” reached out to Edwards early in his tenure, asking if there was anything he could do to help.

“We’re going to have to deal with the Campanises in baseball,” Edwards said, “And it’s good that I have a person in-house who knows how they think.”

*            *             *

I was reminded of all this after an appearance Thursday by former player and current Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson on MLB Network. To the uninitiated, Harrelson is known on-air for unabashed support of the White Sox and the occasional display of emotional pyrotechnics when a call goes against Chicago. He has little use for sabermetrics. A few weeks ago during a game, he called sabermetrics the most overrated addition to baseball in the past 10-15 years. Harrelson’s remarks naturally stirred some response, first an outcry via social media and then an on-air rebuke by MLB Network broadcaster Brian Kenny, a proponent of sabermetrics. This led to Thursday’s segment, hyped as a debate between Harrelson and Kenny. (Anyone who’d like to watch the full 10-minute clip can find it here.)

To call the segment a debate is admittedly a stretch. It mostly consisted of Harrelson rattling off talking points with a flustered Kenny attempting to reason with him to no avail. I feel for Kenny. One of my biggest frustrations in debate is dealing with someone who cannot or will not listen to me and won’t acknowledge any validity in my points. It’s disrespectful, counterproductive and, of course, all too common. Hawk Harrelson talks baseball the way some of my older family members talk politics. There’s little hope in changing their views, but I’ve learned I can be respectful, listen and voice my beliefs. Occasionally, I even hear a thing or two that causes me to question my views. I think that’s healthy.

Throughout the debate, Harrelson demonstrated only a passing acquaintance with sabermetrics. He slammed the film “Moneyball” before conceding, upon prodding from Kenny, that he hadn’t read the book. He trotted out stats like ‘OBPS’ (a misspeak of OPS, I think) and VORP, which hasn’t been in regular use in baseball analysis in several years. Harrelson reaffirmed his claim about sabermetrics being overrated, saying that numbers had a place in the game but were 50-60 years from being ready, an interesting statement given that sabermetrics has been in baseball going as far back at least as the 1950s. Then Harrelson introduced a stat he called tWtW– The Will To Win– saying that when it could be incorporated into other advanced metrics “then you might have something.” When I first heard reference on Twitter to tWtW, I assumed Harrelson spoke tongue-in-cheek. He offered it without flinching.

Much of Harrelson’s screed came off half-cocked and self-righteously ignorant, though he said a few things I agreed with. At one point, he referred to Kenny’s broadcast partner, former Seattle Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds who, in sabermetric terms, had -1.8 Wins Above Average in his 12-season career.

Harrelson told Reynolds and Kenny:

People 40 or 50 years from now look at Harold Reynolds’ numbers and say, ‘Okay, he was a pretty good player.’  Well, Harold was not a pretty good player. He was an outstanding player. Because he did things that you can’t put numbers on. Harold was the kind of the guy he would turn a double play when he knew he was gonna take a hit from guys like myself or Kirk Gibson, whoever, gonna knock him into left field. He’d get it over, turn it over and then take the hit. He’d also steal a base in the late innings of a ball game when everyone in the park knew he was gonna steal. He’d also make that diving stop of a ground ball going to his left to keep a man going from first to third.

I agree with Harrelson: Numbers don’t tell the whole story of what goes on in baseball. For me, the best use of sabermetrics is not as some omnipotent tool. It’s to confirm what’s seemingly apparent through visual observation or traditional statistics and to show where more cursory analysis might deceive. For me, sabermetrics is vital to my understanding of baseball, though I’d never use it solely in the absence of other tools.

 *            *             *

In sabermetric circles on the Internet, Harrelson has been largely and predictably panned since his appearance. Colin Wyers wrote for Baseball Prospectus:

Hawk is at least two kinds of extra special wrong. One is what Isaac Asimov described as “wronger than wrong,” where you’re clinging to outmoded beliefs and defending yourself by claiming that better ideas than yours are also incorrect and refusing to address your own deficiencies. Sabermetrics’ failure to be perfect is not a blanket justification to ignore all of it.

The other kind of extra special wrong Hawk stumbles into… is what Wolfgang Pauli called “not even wrong.” It’s when you make claims that can’t be refuted, and in doing so make claims that aren’t worth refuting. Hawk talks about “the will to win” (and believe me, he keeps repeating this) being the most important thing in baseball, and apparently it’s judged by how many wins you have. If you’ve won a lot, you had the will; if you didn’t, well, you didn’t.

People like Hawk will always roll out this line of thinking because it can’t be disproven, so they never reach a moment where they’re refuted and forced to actually quit. So what they never notice is that it’s also totally meaningless; you can only ever figure out who had the will to win after the fact, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it.

I get where the criticism of Harrelson comes from. He’s generally an easy target, given his on-air demeanor. For the most part in his MLB Network appearance, Harrelson was clearly and loudly wrong. But he’s also a sympathetic figure, given his age, status as an ex-player and the fact that, at least to me, there generally doesn’t seem to be malice behind his words, misguided as they sometimes are. Harrelson just comes across as someone who loves baseball and the White Sox and, flowery though this may sound, has his own way of expressing it. I worry that verbally eviscerating Harrelson is the wrong approach, over the top. I think it makes the sabermetric community look worse for wear, about as intolerant as Harrelson came off with Brian Kenny on Thursday. We can do better.

To me, the most telling moment of the MLB Network segment came when Harrelson remarked to Kenny that his main gripe with sabermetrics was that it had gotten people fired. He spoke of a scout he knew– “God rest his soul”– remarking about managers having to call up to press boxes late in the game to get permission to bunt. Kenny and Reynolds didn’t make much of this before moving onto other topics, understandable to a degree since it was a live television segment. If I had been interviewing Harrelson, though, I’d have zeroed in on this and asked more questions. There’s clearly more there. If I had to guess, I’d say Harrelson’s main gripe with sabermetrics is personal. I’d love the chance to listen to whatever Harrelson had to say and then offering as calmly and persuasively as I could what sabermetrics really is: nothing to be feared; something that already is making baseball better.

This is easier said than done, of course, but I believe it’s important to engage with the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball. Even as baseball has changed rapidly in recent years, as sabermetrics has gained rapid acceptance in front offices, there are still many men like Harrelson in the game. If and when they make poorly-conceived comments, I’d rather do my best to win them over to my side than publicly slam them. And who knows, maybe I’d learn a thing or two from them as well. I look at a man like Harrelson, who’s been in professional baseball in one form or another since 1959 and I marvel at all the stories he must have. While most of those stories have probably been told in-booth (and a few are collected in his SABR bio), the journalist and historian in me likes to think there’s always more, that I’m missing out if I dismiss someone out of hand. I prefer to build bridges, to be inclusive, to forgive.

 *            *             *

Al Campanis never got another job in baseball after his resignation from the Dodgers. He lived 11 more years, occasionally showing up at baseball functions, watching as his grandson Jim attempted, without fruition, to make the majors. Campanis died in 1998 at 81. ”His was a life full of love for the game and his family,” succeeding Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said after Campanis’s death. ”No one loved baseball more than Al loved the game. He was a great student of the game and a great teacher of the game.”

In April 2012, ESPN.com did a 25-year retrospective on Campanis’s remarks, talking to Dr. Harry Edwards among others.

“It wasn’t a simple case of Al being a bigot — to say he was just a bigot is simply wrong — people are more complex than that,” Edwards said. “To a certain extent, it was the culture Al was involved with. To a certain extent, it was a comfort with that culture. And at another level, it was a form of discourse he was embedded in.”

Baseball’s culture continues to change, to evolve for the better. For every Campanis or Harrelson still around, I like to think change is possible as well.

Why I love baseball history

Posted: 18th April 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

Thursday afternoon, news broke on Twitter that Derek Jeter would be out injured until at least the All Star Break and the response was fairly predictable. While Yankee fans bemoaned yet another sidelined Bomber, opposing fans took the opportunity to bash Jeter and the organization. In the midst, my friend Melissa tweeted a call for fans to respect Yankee history and resist the urge to pile on. Of course that drew one person who argued with her. Melissa wrote the tweet above in response.

I met Melissa awhile back when I tweeted that I could name more members of the 1919 Black Sox than cast members of “Jersey Shore.” (In the interest of not sounding like an elitist, let me add that I can also name more Black Sox than current U.S. senators, Supreme Court justices or foreign heads of state.) People like Melissa and I are in a minority among baseball fans, particularly younger ones. I know full well how little use most fans have for baseball history. I see the traffic numbers for this website, pedestrian even when we’re posting good content regularly. I see the shrinking membership for the Society for American Baseball Research, even while baseball attendance has increased markedly over the past 20 years. People still love baseball, but its history most can take or leave. That’s unfortunate.

I’m drawn to baseball as a writer, historian and journalist. I love the stories. When people ask me which team I’m a fan of, I sometimes say I’m a fan of baseball history. It’s a little dorky but it’s true. While technically I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan since grade school, it’s baseball history, all 150-plus years of it that I really love. I’ve been reading about it since I was eight and what I’ve found is that most every team has something cool in its past, something worthy of respect regardless of uniform colors. I think of Ted Williams serving in two wars, first as a flight instructor in World War II then as a combat pilot in Korea. I think of the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. As for the Yankees, few moments in baseball history yield the emotional impact of Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech. Any opposing fan not moved at least somewhat by the Iron Horse’s words is either unaware of their existence or a cold-hearted cynic.

It’s not just baseball history that I love but history in general. I enjoy accumulating knowledge and anecdotes. I like the better understanding of the world the information gives me. I like to think it makes me a better writer and wiser person. More than that, I just enjoy learning about history. A writer I like, Sarah Vowell is, similar to me, a history nerd. Some years ago in an essay, she expounded on this, writing:

On the first day of school when I was a kid, the guy teaching history– and it was almost always a guy, wearing a lot of brown– would cough up the pompous same old old same old about how if we failed to learn the lessons of history then we would be doomed to repeat them. Which is true if you’re one of the people who grow up to run things, but not as practical if your destiny is a nice small life. For example, thanks to my tenth-grade world history textbook’s chapter on the Napoleonic Wars, I know not to invade Russia in the wintertime. This information would have been good for an I-told-you-so toast at Hitler’s New Year’s party in 1943, but for me, knowing not to trudge my troops through the snow to Moscow is not so handy day-to-day.

The other sort of useful thing the history teacher in the brown jacket never really said, probably because he would have been laughed out of the room, was this: knowing what happened when and where is fun.

Ultimately, that’s what baseball history is for me: fun. Its importance in understanding what goes on in baseball today is debatable, seeing as baseball changes from generation to generation and other tools are more useful for deconstructing the current game. Knowing that Joe Sewell struck out as many times between 1926 and 1932 as the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners did on Wednesday night– 40 times– won’t explain why strikeouts are up so dramatically in the majors these days. It won’t say whether baseball’s gotten better or worse over the years, even if some may attempt to use the stat that way. But it’s a fun, quirky fact that provides some contrast. Baseball history is littered with these. (Another fun Sewell fact while we’re on the subject: He had six seasons with at least 600 plate appearances where he struck out fewer than 10 times. Who does that anymore? Answer: No one.)

In February, I got my eight-year-old nephew Jasper his first book of baseball history. From what I hear, he was excited to receive it. That puts a smile on my face. I hope he gets out of the book what I have (Ken Burns’ Baseball– one of my favorites) and is one day able to return the favor for someone else. To me, baseball history is too enjoyable not to be shared.

Editor’s note: With Jackie Robinson biopic “42″ due in theaters Friday, it is my pleasure to present Nick Diunte’s latest: an interview with someone who faced Robinson in his minor league debut in 1946.
______________

Jackie Robinson’s impact on baseball was felt immediately the moment he stepped on the field for the Montreal Royals in their season opener against the Jersey City Giants on April 18, 1946. In addition to all of the social implications behind Robinson’s debut, his 4-for-5 performance that included a home run, two bunt singles, and two runs scored by causing Jersey City’s pitchers to balk, left an indelible mark on his opposition.

Larry Miggins’ view of Robinson’s eye opening performance remains vivid some sixty-seven years later. The 20-year-old Bronx, New York native manned third base for Jersey City that day and had no trouble recalling how the day’s events unfolded.

“I remember it well,” the 87-year-old Miggins said from his home in Houston, Texas. “It was a full house, 45,000 fans. The place was packed.”

As the team went over its pre-game scouting report, information on Robinson’s tendencies were limited to what the manager had seen during batting practice. The Giants and Royals were due to meet in spring training, but the game was cancelled when officials in Jacksonville, Fla., upheld a city ordinance that did not permit mixed racial competition.

“Most of the guys were known by somebody, but when it came to Robinson nobody ever had seen him play,” Miggins said. “Our manager Bruno Betzel said he saw during batting practice that Robinson was a strong pull hitter. He said to me, ‘Miggins, you play him deep at third base.’”

Following his coach’s orders, Miggins positioned himself as instructed. During Robinson’s first two at-bats, the ball didn’t come Miggins’ way, as he grounded out to shortstop his first time up, and then hit a 335-foot home run down the left field line.

Expecting another powerful shot by Robinson, Miggins held his ground behind the third base bag as Robinson approached for his third at-bat.

“Next time up, I’m playing back, deep behind third base,” said Miggins. “He bunted and dropped one down. I could throw a ball through a brick wall in those days, so I pick it up and fire to first base and it was a real close play, safe. He could run too you know. He beat it out.”

Robinson proceeded to hit a single to right-center field during his fourth at-bat, which set the stage for Miggins to have another close encounter with the Royals second baseman. He did not think that Robinson would test him a second time with a bunt.

“Like an idiot, I’m playing him back at third base again the fifth time up. He dropped another bunt down and beat it out,” said Miggins. It was a lesson learned for the young infielder. “I gave him two hits that day and he never bunted again on me because I played him even with the bag from then on.”

Miggins went on to play parts of two seasons in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1948 and 1952, but his involvement with Robinson’s debut is one that he wears with a sense of pride and humor.

“They got him into the Hall of Fame and there he was, Rookie of the Year, MVP, and a World Series Champ, all because of the great start I gave him in baseball!” said a laughing Miggins. “I gave him two hits opening day and he never stopped from there, he just kept going. I always look back and that 4-for-5 opening day gave him a thrust for his whole career.”

___________

Related: Recollections from one of Robinson’s 1947 spring training teammates

My latest at Hardball Times

Posted: 2nd April 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

Hi all,

A quick note this morning to say that I have a new piece up at the Hardball Times. As some of you may know, Baseball-Reference.com added salary information and an inflation calculator to player pages not long ago. Using this info, I recently ranked every Hall of Fame player for their top salary in 2012 dollars.

Hope you all enjoy. I should have a new update here later this week. I’m itching to write about Dave Kingman, who had an infamous run-in with one of my editors from the 49ers magazine I wrote for this fall.

Photographs of Babe Ruth often capture the slugger gripping a bat, if not two, that resembles a troll’s club in length and thickness. With such a mass of lumber, one is tempted to think, it’s no wonder the guy hit 714 home runs.

But according to physicists, heavy bats can be detrimental to a player’s swing. One study, based on the calculation of bat speed, estimates that the average professional baseball player should swing a 31.1-ounce bat and the average college baseball player a 29.4-ouncer, but players at both levels often drastically exceed those guidelines.

Heavy bats, in fact, are ingrained in baseball lore.

Early-20th century star Frank “Home Run” Baker used a 52-ounce bat, according to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia, and the Louisville Slugger company once sold bats weighing more than 45 ounces to many players, including eventual Hall of Famers Baker and Edd Roush.

But the end of the Deadball Era in the 1920s led to an emphasis on power over contact and an influx of lighter bats, according to P.J. Shelley of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.

Then came Hall of Famer Ted Williams, a student of the game and one of history’s greatest hitters. Shelley says Williams, who mostly ordered bats between 32 and 34 ounces during a career that lasted from 1939 to 1960, was “one of the first to recognize that bat speed is more important than the weight of the bat.”

From Williams until about 25 years ago, bat weights dropped further, and today’s average Major Leaguer swings about 31.5 or 32 ounces, according to Shelley.

Though most players now use lighter bats than their predecessors, some still believe the more mass the better. According to Shelley, the Los Angeles Angels’ Josh Hamilton and Los Angeles Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez swing 34.5- or 35-ounce bats, among the heaviest in the Major Leagues. And one Chicago Cubs player recently made headlines for his weighty bat choice.

In June 2012, Chicago Cubs left-fielder Alfonso Soriano was persuaded by manager Dale Sveum to pick up a 32-ounce bat, after years of using a 33.5-ounce behemoth, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“He’s typically used one of the heaviest bats in baseball most of his career,” Sun-Times reporter Gordon Wittenmyer said. “And you could make a case that’s part of his high-strikeout total, and it’s definitely part of his home run totals.”

Research supports Sveum’s suggestion that Soriano swing a lighter stick: In 1995, Terry Bahill and Miguel Morna Freitas of the University of Arizona developed a model that used bat speed to calculate ideal bat weight for any given baseball player. They also developed a simpler version using height, weight and age to estimate the optimal weight. According to the latter model, Soriano, at his listed height of 6 feet 1 inch, should use a 31.3-ounce bat, which, according to Bahill, would increase his contact rate.

“The 31- and the 33-ounce bat wouldn’t make a lot of difference in the distance the ball would go,” Bahill said. “But we think he could swing it more accurately if it were smaller.”

According to the Arizona duo’s study, the average college baseball player is best off with a 29.4-ounce bat, but Northwestern University baseball coach Paul Stevens said options are limited and most players use either 30- or 31-ounce bats.

NU shortstop Trevor Stevens is listed at 5 feet 9 inches, suggesting he should, according to Bahill’s model, swing a 29-ounce bat. But the switch-hitter uses a 31-ounce bat when he bats left-handed and a 30-ounce bat when he bats right-handed. He said those weights reflect what manufacturers produce and therefore what college players can access.

“There are bats that are weighted differently within the barrel and the handle,” Stevens said. “They feel lighter in your hands, but the ball doesn’t jump off of them as much.”

Stevens was referring to “moment of inertia” (or “swing weight” in baseball parlance), a parameter that measures the distribution of mass along the bat. Dr. Daniel A. Russell of Pennsylvania State University said a number of studies have proven moment of inertia more important than bat weight in bat choice.

“It’s not just how heavy the bat is, it’s how that weight is distributed,” Russell said. “You can take two bats that both weight 30 ounces and you’ll get very different behaviors depending on how the weight is distributed.”

Despite the available research, Wittenmyer said he has never heard anyone around the Major Leagues reference any studies on bat choice, suggesting the choices players make when choosing their equipment is more instinct than science.

Unscientific thinking may be advisable given the imprecision of the researchers’ conclusions. Bahill said his simplified model can only predict ideal bat weight within about two ounces and in order to get precise results, a player must come into his lab for measurements.

Hence what Shelley calls the true determinant of bat choice among baseball players of all ages.

“It’s a matter of player preference,” he said. “And what feels comfortable to them.”

The Bat Chooser: In 1995, Terry Bahill and Morna Freitas developed a method for choosing the right baseball bat, appropriately dubbed “The Bat Chooser.” This model calculated maximum bat speed using the force generated by a players swing and measured subjects across all levels of play. Because the original Bat Chooser required players to visit a laboratory for precise measurement, the researchers simplified their model to estimate ideal bat weight using height, weight and age. Later research brought into question the validity of these calculations.

Mean ideal bat weight of those studied (oz)

Number of subjects studied

Professional, major league

31.1

27

University baseball

29.4

9

University softball

29.7

19

Junior league, age 13-15

21.7

6

Little League, age 11-12

21.3

34

Little League, age 9-10

21.5

29

Little League, age 7-8

19

27

Slow pitch softball

25.7

12

 

Recommended Bat Weight (oz)

Professional, major league

Height/3 + 7

University baseball

Height/3 +6

Fast pitch softball

Height/7 + 20

Junior league, age 13-15

Height/3 + 1

Little League, age 11-12

Weight/18 + 16

Little League, age 9-10

Height/3 + 4

Little League, age 7-8

Age*2 + 4

Slow pitch softball

Weight/115 + 24

Age (years); height (inches); weight (pounds)

Announcing a new policy at BPP: Paid guest posts

Posted: 16th March 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

There’s something I’ve been mulling for some time now that I think needs to be said. I’ll try to keep this brief.

I’ve reached the point in my writing career where I only want to do paid work. My ultimate goal is to make a living as a writer, preferably a sportswriter. I worry that the longer I do free work, the more I sell myself short and belabor this goal. It’s part of the reason I haven’t written a ton here over the past several months.

I deserve to be compensated for what I do. All writers should. I understand that the Internet is a still-evolving medium as well as a meritocracy and that web publishers are still figuring out ways to make paid content work. That said, I believe we can and should help each other.

Effective immediately, all guest posts at this website will be paid. I’m coming out of pocket, so I can afford to do this a maximum of once a month and pay $25 per piece. (I can’t yet pay for participation in group projects, though I’m happy to offer trade: You write for my project, I’ll write for yours.) As advertising dollars increase, I’ll try to up the volume of paid content and the amount I pay per piece.

I believe paying for content is the right thing to do from an ethical, altruistic and karmic standpoint. I simply no longer feel right accepting free work while asking payment for what I do.

On a related note, I solicited donations for charity a year ago promising a free set of trading cards to anyone who donated at least $25 to said charity. I finally have money to print these cards. I have a list of donors who I’ll soon be reaching out to. If you remembered donating $25 and would like a set of cards, please email me at thewomack@gmail.com.

An open letter to Bill Dwyre

Posted: 9th March 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

Dear Bill Dwyre,

My name is Graham Womack. You probably don’t remember me, but I attended a sports journalism workshop you helped put on in 2003 as sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. I was one of 30 college students selected from around the country to spend a few days at Hollywood Park horse racing track leading up to the Jim Murray Classic. It’s hard to believe as I look back but that workshop was my first exposure to Murray’s writing; a decade on, the greatest sports columnist ever (and it’s not even close) remains a significant influence for me. I also got to hang out with a bunch of other talented, aspiring journalists and rub elbows with a few working writers. Best of all, I think everything was free.

So it was with disappointment that I read your recent column, Angels’ Jerry Dipoto speaks to the SABR rattlers. I’m not the first person to speak out regarding your rant against sabermetrics. Former LA Times staffer Matt Welch posted a rebuttal on Friday evening that’s worth a read if you haven’t checked it out already. I was alerted to your column after another writer tweeted on Saturday that your piece might be the worst baseball article of 2013. I wouldn’t go that far. You’re certainly not the first journalist I’ve come across with little use for advanced baseball statistics. Heck, I feel like I read this type of column every few months and generally I don’t respond. I’m making an exception this time, in part because the group you bashed, the Society for American Baseball Research, is about so much more than sabermetrics.

I’m in my third year as a SABR member. I don’t speak for SABR or have its demographics onhand, but in my experience, we’re primarily baseball history enthusiasts. Honestly, we’re people who know entirely too much about baseball history: that the 1926 World Series ended because Babe Ruth was thrown out stealing; that Joe DiMaggio barely missed having more homers than strikeouts in his career; that Smoky Joe Wood, Denny McLain and Dwight Gooden all had more wins before their 25th birthdays than after. I’ve been reading about baseball history since I was eight. For much of my life, the knowledge I’ve accumulated has been of little use to those around me, a curiosity mostly. At SABR meetings, I’m around peers, many of whom know more than I do. I feel at home. By the way, SABR predates the term “sabermetrics” by about a decade. There’s no official connection between the two terms. Most SABR members aren’t sabermetricians, I’d venture.

Is some of SABR’s membership zealously into advanced stats? Sure. The event that you got your column from attending, the annual SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix attracts this cross section. The registration alone for this conference was $495 with a member discount. I contemplated going because a bunch of prominent baseball writers were scheduled to attend and I’d like to be acknowledged for knowing basic sabermetrics. I’d also like to learn more. I decided against going, as I didn’t have the money and I’m no hardcore statistician. Anyhow, I have other things on my baseball bucket list that I might splurge on first. I want to attend the main SABR conference in Philadelphia in July. I’d like to do a research trip to Chicago and catch a game at Wrigley Field while I’m there. I’d also like to make another visit to the Hall of Fame, possibly when 19th century great Deacon White gets inducted this summer. I know I’m not the only member who thinks this way.

So we’re clear, I embrace sabermetrics. I didn’t a few years ago– like you, I once joked about the meaning of VORP– but after I began writing often about baseball, I found that basic advanced stats improved my understanding. The story side of baseball history was and is my primary love. But I like being able to rely on something besides quotes and opinions to tell stories. I’ve read of Casey Stengel bemoaning one of his outfielders driving in a run but letting three more in with shoddy fielding. I like that there’s a way to quantify this with metrics such as Wins Above Replacement that assess a player’s total value, taking all facets of his play into account. I like OPS+ and wRC+ that compare a hitter’s production to league average, normalizing for ballpark and era. For me, so much about baseball research is establishing context. While I don’t think sabermetrics alone can do this, they’re a valuable part of the equation.

That being said, I think the majority of SABR members hold true to traditional stats like batting average, runs batted in and pitcher wins. Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame case is a source of continual derision among many sabermetricians, as Black Jack has underwhelming ratings for various advanced stats; I read somewhere that more than half of SABR members support Morris being enshrined. At a SABR meeting in January, I took in a presentation from a fellow member who talked about flying to libraries around the country to look through old newspaper records to doublecheck long-ago RBI totals. I personally think RBIs are a misleading indicator of player value, since they’re dependent on a number of factors outside a hitter’s control. I rose my hand to ask this fellow why he wasn’t putting all this (commendable) effort into researching another stat. He tersely replied something to the effect of, “Well, you know, runs decide games.” I don’t know if people like this fellow would ever attend SABR Analytics. I suspect not.

I’m sorry you got the wrong idea about SABR, near as I can gather from reading your column. I invite you to give my organization another shot in the future. Perhaps the Allan Roth Chapter in Los Angeles could have you speak at a future meeting. Beat writers, broadcasters and other media members are common fixtures at meetings. I imagine you have loads of great baseball stories that a lot of us would love to hear.

Regardless, I close respectfully.

Graham Womack