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.

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“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.

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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.

Run totals throughout baseball history

It started out as a simple question, one I’ve had since reading in The Book that teams scored just under five runs per game from 1999 through 2002 and that generalized run expectancy totals could be gleaned based on that. Many have treated The Book as the definitive tome for sabermetrics since its publication in 2007. Candidly, I was a little irked by its use of run totals from such a peak era of baseball history to suggest normative conditions. It couldn’t be right to suggest teams all through history have averaged five runs a game. Could it?

With the help of Baseball-Reference.com and a willingness to kill a few hours making a spreadsheet, such questions can easily be answered. Going through 139 seasons of data, I found the answer to my question: through baseball history, teams have averaged 4.53 runs per game. There’s more worth saying here, granted. A more detailed, though still admittedly cursory look at what I discovered in my research follows below.

I. Wild West: Before the formation of the American League in 1901

Year Games Runs Average
1876 520 3066 5.9
1877 360 2040 5.67
1878 368 1904 5.17
1879 642 3409 5.31
1880 680 3191 4.69
1881 672 3425 5.1
1882 1144 6092 5.33
1883 1570 9030 5.75
1884 3088 16742 5.42
1885 1780 9292 5.22
1886 2104 11512 5.47
1887 2116 13417 6.34
1888 2184 10628 4.87
1889 2180 12986 5.96
1890 3216 19330 6.01
1891 2218 12635 5.7
1892 1842 9388 5.1
1893 1570 10315 6.57
1894 1598 11796 7.38
1895 1598 10514 6.58
1896 1584 9560 6.04
1897 1622 9536 5.88
1898 1842 9129 4.96
1899 1846 9672 5.24
1900 1138 5932 5.21
1876-1900 totals: 39482 224541 5.69


There isn’t much sense in comparing run totals before the formation of the American League in 1901 to today. Baseball in the 19th century was nothing like it is today. Leagues came and went, like the Union Association of 1884 or the Player’s League of 1890 or so many other circuits that no casual fan has ever heard of. Rules that modern fans may take for granted, such as the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate or the right of pitchers to not have their pitches called by opposing batters (seriously, this happened), were established through trial and error in these early seasons.

Don’t get me wrong, though, the run totals in baseball over the first 25 years after the National League was established in 1876 are a lot of fun. Baseball will never see anything like it again. There will never be another season like 1894, where the average team topped seven runs a game, all of baseball hit .309, and the Phillies boasted an all-.400 outfield and still finished fourth. There will never be another pitcher like Jack Wadsworth having a lifetime 6.85 ERA that’s just 5 percent worse than the MLB average for the years he played. The offensive boon of the 1920s/’30s and the steroid years have nothing on this wacky era.

II. Formation of the American League and the first Deadball Era

Year Games Runs Average
1901 2220 11073 4.99
1902 2234 9897 4.43
1903 2228 9888 4.44
1904 2498 9302 3.72
1905 2474 9635 3.89
1906 2456 8873 3.61
1907 2466 8690 3.52
1908 2488 8417 3.38
1909 2482 8797 3.54
1910 2498 9577 3.83
1911 2474 11160 4.51
1912 2464 11165 4.53
1913 2468 9961 4.04
1914 3760 14531 3.86
1915 3728 14213 3.81
1916 2494 8889 3.56
1917 2494 8949 3.59
1918 2032 7382 3.63
1919 2236 8668 3.88
1901-19 totals: 48194 189067 3.92


I wasn’t sure how to group these seasons together. While this time period more or less constitutes the Deadball Era, depending on who is consulted, these 19 seasons are more representative as a patchwork of a few sub-eras.

There’s 1901-03 where run totals are noticeably higher, primarily the result of two things, I’m guessing: 1) Foul tips not being called strikes in both leagues until 1903; and 2) A bit of chaos the first few seasons after the formation of the American League in 1901. These were years players jumped leagues irrespective of contracts, rosters sometimes being raided. The two leagues made peace in 1903, and run totals plummeted the following year.

With the exception of 1911 and 1912, Deadball Era scoring levels remained fairly constant from 1904 through 1919. Not counting 1911-12, teams scored an average of 3.72 runs per game 1904-19. We can exclude 1911 and 1912 as the ball wasn’t dead during those years. As noted in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, both leagues used a cork-centered ball during these years, causing offense to spike. Emerging use of the emery ball in 1913 restored the advantage to pitchers.

III. A Golden Age for offense

Year Games Runs Average
1920 2468 10761 4.36
1921 2458 11928 4.85
1922 2476 12057 4.87
1923 2466 11871 4.81
1924 2462 11716 4.76
1925 2456 12593 5.13
1926 2468 11443 4.64
1927 2472 11746 4.75
1928 2462 11650 4.73
1929 2458 12749 5.19
1930 2468 13695 5.55
1931 2472 11891 4.81
1932 2466 12114 4.91
1933 2452 10989 4.48
1934 2446 11999 4.91
1935 2456 12026 4.9
1936 2476 12846 5.19
1937 2478 12070 4.87
1938 2446 11969 4.89
1939 2462 11876 4.82
1940 2472 11568 4.68
1941 2488 11168 4.49
1920-41 totals: 54228 262725 4.84


A number of changes happened in baseball around 1920. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, leaving baseball scrambling with its first public relations crisis. Then Babe Ruth started hitting more homers than any player before him, attracting more fans than ever at the same time. In the midst, Ray Chapman became the first  major leaguer killed by a pitched ball. For these and perhaps other reasons, Major League Baseball banned the spitball and emery ball in 1921, as noted by Bill James; MLB also elected to keep cleaner balls in play that could be more easily seen by hitters and would be less likely to lose shape late in games.

This led to the first great offensive age of the modern era for baseball, 22 glorious seasons that offered some of the highest RBI totals and batting averages that will ever be seen. There’s a reason Rogers Hornsby’s .424 clip and Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs have stood as record since these years. While run totals occasionally dipped, such as when less-lively balls were introduced in 1933, scoring stayed high until the majority of big leaguers went to war. I like this kind of baseball, if I’m being candid. It’s a wonder to me there hasn’t been more of it in the modern era.

IV. Second Deadball Era: World War II

Year Games Runs Average
1942 2448 9995 4.08
1943 2476 9687 3.91
1944 2484 10351 4.17
1945 2460 10286 4.18
1942-45 totals: 9868 40319 4.09


Although I haven’t seen it formally recognized as such, I consider World War II the third Deadball Era in baseball’s history, together with the early 20th century and mid-1960s. The run totals are certainly more or less in-line. Like the earliest Deadball Era, this one primarily owed itself to the balls in use. As noted in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:

During wartime, the quality of baseballs used was inferior, as there was something in regular baseballs that was needed to make explosives or O.D. green paint or something, and the balls manufactured were rather lifeless.

I was tempted to group 1946 in as part of the war years as scoring didn’t rebound until 1947. I doubt the caliber of balls was inferior in 1946; I just have this theory that long breaks tend to favor pitchers and that it took hitters a year or so to get back to form after the war ended. Some didn’t recover, such as Cecil Travis, never the same player after four years of combat service. The popular story on Travis was that he suffered frostbite at the Battle of the Bulge. His New York Times obituary quoted him saying the real reason he declined was he lost his timing as a hitter.

V. Post-war years, before strike zone change in January 1963

Year Games Runs Average
1946 2484 9953 4.01
1947 2486 10827 4.36
1948 2474 11327 4.58
1949 2480 11425 4.61
1950 2476 12013 4.85
1951 2478 11268 4.55
1952 2478 10349 4.18
1953 2480 11426 4.61
1954 2474 10827 4.38
1955 2468 11068 4.48
1956 2478 11031 4.45
1957 2470 10636 4.31
1958 2470 10578 4.28
1959 2476 10853 4.38
1960 2472 10664 4.31
1961 2860 12942 4.53
1962 3242 14461 4.46
1946-62 totals: 43246 191648 4.43


One of the things I find most interesting about these years is that run totals didn’t change that much, on average, while otherwise baseball was changing tremendously. The majors were integrated. Teams began to relocate for the first time in half a century and four expansion clubs were added. Transcontinental air travel and night games became commonplace. Despite all this, scoring levels remained reasonably constant most of these 17 seasons never quite returning to the stratospheric highs of the ’20s and ’30s or dipping to Deadball levels.

Run totals for this period, 4.43 runs per game were as close to the average for baseball history, 4.53 runs per game of any of the periods listed here. I assume the balance between hitting and pitching was also as close as it’s been for any sustained period. It was certainly better than it is now.

VI. Third Deadball Era: After strike zone change in January 1963

Year Games Runs Average
1963 3238 12780 3.95
1964 3252 13124 4.04
1965 3246 12946 3.99
1966 3230 12900 3.99
1967 3240 12210 3.77
1968 3250 11109 3.42
1963-68 totals: 19456 75069 3.86


Sandy Koufax entered spring training in 1961 boasting a 36-40 lifetime record with a 4.10 ERA. He had nearly as many strikeouts for innings pitched at that point of his career, though the young lefty was also averaging more than five walks every nine innings. Famously, Koufax’s catcher Norm Sherry told him to throw less hard, and Koufax proceeded to go 32-20 with a 3.11 ERA over the next two seasons.

Then, on January 26, 1963, as recounted by Bill James in the historical abstract, the Baseball Rules Committee expanded the strike zone, stating that it went from the shoulders to the bottom of the knee. Now blessed as well with the best pitcher’s park of the 1960s, Dodgers Stadium, Koufax went on one of the finest runs a pitcher’s ever had. Over the ensuing four seasons before his arm gave out, Koufax went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA (with an unreal 1.97 cumulative FIP), three Cy Young awards, and a National League MVP.

VII. End of an era? After pitching mound was lowered

Year Games Runs Average
1969 3892 15850 4.07
1970 3888 16880 4.34
1971 3876 15073 3.89
1972 3718 13706 3.69
1969-72 totals: 15374 61509 4


Following the offensive nadir that was 1968, when teams averaged their lowest runs per game in 60 years, Major League Baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. They did it to help hitters, ostensibly, though it didn’t cause run totals to change that much. In fact, certain pitchers got better while others continued to dominate. There are perhaps a few reasons the lower mound didn’t produce the desired effect.

First, as Jim Bouton wrote during spring training in 1969 in Ball Four:

[Seattle Pilots teammate] Mike Marshall is a righthanded pitcher who was 15-9 in the Tiger organization last season. He’s got a master’s degree from Michigan State. He majored in phys. ed, with a minor in mathematics. He’s a cocky kid with a subtle sense of humor. He’s been telling everybody that the new lower mound, which was supposed to help the hitters, actually shortens the distance the pitcher has to throw the ball. Has to do with the hypotenuse of a right triangle decreasing as either side of the triangle decreases. Therefore, says Marshall, any psychological advantage the hitters gain if the pitcher doesn’t stand tall out there will be offset by the pitchers knowing that they are now closer to the plate.

I recently interviewed former Houston Astros pitcher Larry Dierker, who enjoyed a career year in ’69, going 20-13 with a 2.33 ERA and 8.6 WAR. Assuming the lower mound favored hitters, I asked Dierker how he compensated. He told me he hadn’t even noticed. Dierker said:

What I noticed, when I’m on any mound, is whether it feels comfortable or not. But my arm position was around three-quarters, and I think the higher, steeper mound is really the mound that gives a tall, straight overhand pitcher like Jim Palmer a better advantage. Randy Johnson, when he was with us, the Phillies for some reason or another– I know it wasn’t legal– they had a high, steep mound just like they used to have in Dodger Stadium, and that was the only game that he didn’t pitch well for us. He was complaining about the mound from the first inning on. But he was kind of low three-quarters with his arm position, and I think he preferred a little bit more gentle slope.

Jim Palmer, for his part, averaged 19 wins and a 2.47 ERA from 1969 through 1972, twice finishing in the top five for American League Cy Young voting.

VIII. First 20 seasons after the implementation of the DH

Year Games Runs Average
1973 3886 16376 4.21
1974 3890 16046 4.12
1975 3868 16295 4.21
1976 3878 15492 3.99
1977 4206 18803 4.47
1978 4204 17251 4.1
1979 4198 18713 4.46
1980 4210 18053 4.29
1981 2788 11147 4
1982 4214 18110 4.3
1983 4218 18170 4.31
1984 4210 17921 4.26
1985 4206 18216 4.33
1986 4206 18545 4.41
1987 4210 19883 4.72
1988 4200 17380 4.14
1989 4212 17405 4.13
1990 4210 17919 4.26
1991 4208 18127 4.31
1992 4212 17341 4.12
1973-92 totals: 81434 347193 4.26


There’s this myth veteran sportswriters repeat around Hall of Fame voting time that the implementation of the designated hitter rule in 1973 created a greater offensive era. The myth is used to justify Jack Morris’s 3.90 ERA, among other things. The next time someone trots out the myth, please, show them the chart above. Maybe tell them also that for the years Morris pitched in the majors, 1977 through 1994, teams scored an average of 4.34 runs a game. (So we’re clear, I don’t take much issue with Morris being a future Veterans Committee selection for the Hall of Fame; I just am leery of hyperbole.)

With the exception of a few outlying seasons, notably 1987 where a rabbit ball may have been in use, run totals after the 1960s didn’t rise to major heights until the mid-1990s. Scoring rose slightly, granted, but was below the average for baseball history of 4.53 runs per game. The 1970s and ’80s weren’t an era that favored offense. It was more or less average, with pitchers enjoying a slight edge and small ball an oft-used strategy of the day. The sooner this is better understood, the more that players like Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy may get recognition from Cooperstown.

IX. The offensive explosion

Year Games Runs Average
1993 4538 20864 4.6
1994 3200 15752 4.92
1995 4034 19554 4.85
1996 4534 22831 5.04
1997 4532 21604 4.77
1998 4864 23297 4.79
1999 4856 24691 5.08
2000 4858 24971 5.14
2001 4858 23199 4.78
2002 4852 22408 4.62
2003 4860 22978 4.73
2004 4856 23376 4.81
2005 4862 22325 4.59
2006 4858 23599 4.86
2007 4862 23322 4.8
2008 4856 22585 4.65
2009 4860 22419 4.61
1993-2009 totals: 79140 379775 4.8


There still isn’t consensus about what caused run totals to increase so much in the mid-1990s and early-2000s, and I don’t know if there will ever be. It’s a controversial, polarizing subject, and I don’t know if all the variables from the era will ever fully come to light. The common suggested culprits for the spike in offense, I think, are steroids, expansion, weaker pitching and a livelier ball. It’s somewhat of a cop-out, I’ll admit, to say I suspect that a combination of these and other factors engendered the greatest offensive era in baseball since the 1930s. Strictly speaking, though, there’s no quick explanation for the era. There generally isn’t in baseball history. I’m reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

X. What’s going on?

Year Games Runs Average
2010 4860 21308 4.38
2011 4858 20808 4.28
2012 4860 21017 4.32
2013 4862 20255 4.17
2014 3676 15037 4.09
2010-14 totals: 23116 98425 4.26


Something’s been happening in baseball over the past five seasons, causing run totals to trend down. I don’t know what the reason is, but we’re clearly in an age for pitchers. It’s why Clayton Kershaw is having the best season of any hurler in 15 years, why Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and others aren’t far off. We’re heading toward the fourth Deadball Era if this trend doesn’t reverse. And if that happens, fans can bet on more rule changes from Major League Baseball to liven the game.

From the archive: Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

Editor’s note: I’m pleased to introduce a new Friday column here, “From the archive.” I recently re-upped my subscription to newspapers.com, a paid archive service. I’m the kind of person who can kill several hours combing through old newspapers. (Seriously, it’s fun for me.) As a writer, I’m also always in search of information beyond what’s quickly available on the web.

I both enjoy and value newspapers.com as its database goes back as far as the 1700s, with a range of big-name and defunct papers, both from big cities and rural areas. It’s great for re-discovering forgotten stories or players.

I’ll aim each week to highlight at least one interesting piece that I come across. Please feel free to email research suggestions to thewomack@gmail.com.

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Found on Newspapers.com

Why this story sticks out: Television revenues have revolutionized baseball, and sports in general, transforming a modestly-profitable enterprise into a multi-billion dollar industry. Many teams have aligned themselves with cable networks with great success, teams like the New York Yankees whose relationship with the YES Network is a major reason the franchise is valued at $2.5 billion today. It’s also forced many fans to purchase cable packages to see games.

It makes the story above seem quaint, humorous even. But, in 1964, the Yankees selling for $11.2 million (about $86 million in 2014 dollars) in a hastily-brokered deal to the Columbia Broadcasting System created no small amount of controversy. It  stirred renewed questions about baseball’s informal exemption from anti-trust laws and irked a number of baseball owners from the era.

“Those big companies can lose a half-million dollars in baseball without feeling it,” former Yankees co-owner Larry MacPhail said in the story, an Associated Press piece that ran August 16, 1964 in the Kansas City Star and elsewhere. “It’s unfair to other owners.”

CBS for its part denied anything untoward, saying in a statement quoted in the article, “Pay television was in no way a motivating consideration in our decision to invest in the New York Yankees.”

Given all the that changes paid television has wrought in baseball since 1964, I’ll call a rat on that quote. I think this sale foretold a lot to come over the next 50 years.

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UPDATE: Longtime reader Vinnie, who grew up a Yankee fan emailed me shortly after I published this post. With Vinnie’s permission, I’m sharing his email:

As best I recall, the purchase did nothing to effect the free broadcast of the Yankee games on, I believe, WOR in NYC and on the station I picked up the weekend and holiday feeds from. If anything, the purchase instead of putting new life into the team, signaled the end of the dynasty and almost a distant, hands off, benign neglect by general partner mike burke that insured mediocrity until the boss bought the team from them.
To begin with, CBS had no business owning a team. They had no idea how the business worked and no idea of any kind of a business plan or model to follow. The great Yankees had either retired, grown old and suffered injuries, and were reduced to hollow shells. (See Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone) The farm system with the exception of a Roy White, a Bobby Murcer, was supplying such as Roger Repoz, Jerry Kenney, Jake Gibbs, Steve Whitaker, and yes; even Bobby Cox. Trades brought in Bill Robinson and Charlie Smith. The draft had cut off their ability to sign the best young talent and left them a shambles, with no direction and no one who had any knowledge of baseball running the team.
There was no special tv deals and I don’t think that even crossed anyone’s mind. If there was a plan for pay tv, with the product on the field, no one would have watched and no sponsors would have bought air time.

The most underrated player of each decade: Recent years

Today marks the final installment, for now, of my series about the most underrated baseball player of each decade. (When I know more about 19th century baseball than the cursory amount that I do, I’ll write something. My thought, by the way, is that many 19th century ballplayers are underrated and that we’re just re-discovering them via Baseball Reference.)

We’ve looked over the past few days at the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s and the 1900s, ’10s, and ’20s.

Now, let’s turn our attention to an era still settling.

1990-99:  Barry Bonds

It sounds crazy, I know, to suggest a player who won three National League MVPs and eight Gold Gloves in a decade was anything but one of the most celebrated players of it. I should clarify.

This project has primarily been about identifying players who look underrated in the historic rear view. Bonds qualifies here because the steroid-addled caricature he created for himself in his final seasons obscures everything he was before. Now, when anyone mentions Bonds, it’s to marvel over the freakish stats he offered from 2001 through 2004 or, conversely, to denounce his Hall of Fame candidacy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I figure in the former group.)

I’d like to see more focus on what Bonds did over his first 13 seasons, 1986 through 1998, before it’s generally assumed he began taking steroids. Heck, make it 1990 through 1998. In those seasons alone, Bonds accomplished more than many players in Cooperstown: those three MVPs, 76.1 Wins Above Replacement and 112 defensive runs saved (second-best in baseball for those years behind, get this, Sammy Sosa.) Bonds packaged this with averages from 1990-98 of 36 home runs, 36 steals and a .305/.438/.600 slash. It’s not the best peak in baseball history, but it also isn’t far off.

Honorable mention: Craig Biggio, who will be lambasted as one of the worst defensive Hall of Famers when his 3,000 hits get him enshrined. Biggio cost his team 100 defensive runs lifetime which will rank worst among Hall of Famers, at least until someone like Dick Allen, Derek Jeter or Gary Sheffield goes in. Thing is, Biggio was a valuable fielder during the ’90s. He cost the Astros one defensive run for the decade while providing offense that surely totaled more aggregate value than a slick-gloved infielder with no bat.

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2000-09: Scott Rolen

Seemingly every baseball generation has its underrated third basemen. Graig Nettles and Darrell Evans came up in yesterday’s post. There’s also Buddy Bell, Ron Santo, Ken Boyer and a range of other third basemen who hit respectably and offered superb, if under-appreciated, defensive value. It’s tough for a third baseman if they don’t have Mike Schmidt’s power, George Brett’s batting average, or Brooks Robinson’s highlight reel glove. The best they can generally hope for is a belated nod from the Veterans Committee.

The two third basemen in recent years who’ve seemed poised to join Nettles, Evans and company in underrated purgatory are Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen. Beltre’s lucky. He’ll likely get into Cooperstown on the writers ballot, thanks to a late career renaissance with the Rangers that has pushed him near 3,000 hits and a .300 lifetime batting average. I wonder if Rolen might be in the same boat if he’d spent more time at the Ballpark in Arlington; his slash in just 34 plate appearances there is .419/.471/.742.

Regardless, Rolen has borderline Hall of Fame numbers for a third baseman and quietly did much of it the first decade of the 2000s. Among Rolen’s accolades from 2000 through 2009: 48.3 WAR, 127 defensive runs saved and a .285/.368/.497 slash. In spite of it all, Rolen will be lucky to top 15 percent his first time on the writers ballot.

Honorable mention: Bobby Abreu, who fell just short of a .300/.400/.500 slash for the first decade of the 2000s. Abreu’s quietly wrapping up his career as we speak, his best years a distant memory. He reminds me a bit of Reggie Smith, another eternally underrated outfielder. If there’s any indication from Smith’s showing on the Hall of Fame ballot– 0.7 percent of the vote in 1988, one of the weaker ballots in recent memory– Abreu doesn’t have much to look forward to in five years.

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2010-now: Jason Heyward

Heyward turned 25 on August 9, and to a frustrated Braves fan, their right fielder has struggled since finishing runner-up in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. There’s the .261 lifetime batting average and the ever-fluctuating power numbers, including a .386 slugging percentage this season. Thus far, Heyward has mostly seemed to offer tantalizing glimpses of what he might become. He certainly has gone all-but-unrewarded since that first season, save for a Gold Glove two years ago.

Look past Heyward’s garish traditional stats, though, and a brightly talented player emerges, one who’s averaged All Star-level WAR since the beginning of his career. His 5.5 WAR this season is seventh-best in the majors. Heyward’s 96 defensive runs saved are also best in baseball, by a wide margin, over the past five seasons. I assume Heyward’s best years are in front of him. I also count him as one of the few players 25 and under who already has a shot at Cooperstown.

Honorable mention: “Anyone who plays for the A’s,” my girlfriend said after I told her about this project. I’ll zero in on Oakland’s bullpen past closer Sean Doolittle. Featuring obscure castoffs and salvage projects like Dan Otero and Eric O’Flaherty, A’s relievers have a collective 2.85 ERA and 1.07 WHIP this season. Like Oakland’s more celebrated starting rotation, there’s tremendous depth in the bullpen (plus a couple of talented relievers on the 40-man roster who could get September call-ups.) It’s just a challenge for any non-A’s fan to name one of these guys.

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Missed the first three parts of this series? Get caught up: 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s | 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s | 1900s, ’10s, and ’20s

The most underrated player of each decade: Mid-late 20th century

1960-69: Mickey Mantle

I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and say Mickey Mantle is the most underrated all-time great in baseball history.

The traditional narrative gives the Commerce Comet credit as an elite player through 1964, denigrating his alcohol and injury-plagued seasons that followed while the Yankees began a historic decline. Thing is, the Yankees’ refusal to feature black players until 1955 had them heading for trouble long before they tumbled to the bottom of the American League; and Mantle remained one of the best hitters in baseball while his team began to lose, offering a 149 OPS+ over 1,928 plate appearances his final four seasons.

Adjusted stats are important for paying Mantle his due. The end of his career coincided with the greatest renaissance for pitchers since the Deadball Era, with teams averaging 3.8 runs a game Mantle’s final four seasons. Mantle also played in Yankee Stadium. As Jane Leavy’s superb Mantle biography pointed out, the most famous switch hitter in baseball history was noticeably better from the right side of the plate. Old Yankee Stadium, prior to its renovations in the 1970s, did right-handed hitters few favors.

Could Mantle have rehabbed injuries better and boozed less? Sure. But in a better ballpark and hitter’s era, his final raw numbers would have impressed more.

Honorable mention: Frank Howard, one of several ’60s hitters who might be in the Hall of Fame had they played in a more favorable era for hitters

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1970-79: Graig Nettles

Nettles lasted four years on the Hall of Fame ballot, peaking at 8.3 percent of the vote in his first year, 1994. Now, he’s staked out a long-term spot in my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame, finishing an average of 37th each year. I doubt Nettles will get in Cooperstown anytime soon, given his 390 lifetime homers, .248 batting average and two Gold Gloves. It’s just not a sexy enough candidacy for the Veterans Committee, which relies on traditional stats over sabermetrics to make its assessment.

If defensive sabermetrics ever become a thing that could push a player into the Hall of Fame, though, Nettles might make a good test case. Nettles saved 158 runs in the ’70s, the fourth-highest total in a decade behind Brooks Robinson in the ’60s, Mark Belanger in the ’70s, and Ozzie Smith in the ’80s. Unlike Belanger and Smith, Nettles didn’t give the runs back on offense either, averaging 25 homers, 83 RBIs and a 114 OPS+, a vital member of the Yankees during their Bronx Zoo glory years.

Honorable mention: Paul Blair, maybe the best defensive outfielder in baseball for the first half of the ’70s. Blair won six consecutive Gold Gloves from 1970 through 1975, saving 97 runs and amassing 10.8 defensive WAR, each best in baseball for outfielders. With Orioles teammates Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich, Blair might have been part of the best defense in baseball history.

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1980-89: Dwight Evans

In February 2012, godfather of baseball stats Bill James wrote an open letter for Grantland arguing Dwight Evans’ case for the Hall of Fame. Calling Evans “one of the most underrated players in baseball history” James wrote:

Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.

While James is slightly off, given that Evans racked up a career high 6.7 WAR, led the American League in homers and finished third in MVP voting at age 29 in 1981, he otherwise makes a good point. From 1982 through 1989, Evans offered a .280/.385/.496 slash while turning in just shy of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs per season. Aside from Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs, Evans is the biggest reason the Red Sox averaged 85 wins a season in those years, twice making the playoffs.

Were this better understood or had Evans matched teammate Jim Rice’s production in the 1970s, they might have gone in Cooperstown together. As it stands, I’ve no doubt many in the sabermetric would swap Evans in for Rice if given the chance.

Honorable mention: Darrell, the other Evans who got better with age during the 1980s

Tomorrow: ’90s and first decade of 2000s

The most underrated player of each decade: Middle 20th century

1930-39: Lefty Grove

When Pedro Martinez debuts on the writers ballot for the Hall of Fame in a few months, a lot will be made of how thoroughly he dominated in arguably the greatest era for hitters in baseball history. He’s not the first of his kind, though. What Pedro was to the 1990s, Lefty Grove was to the ’30s.

In the most bereft decade for pitchers of the modern era, Grove stood far and away alone. No ’30s pitcher approached Grove’s 78.3 Wins Above Replacement for the decade, with just 10 other hurlers topping even 30 WAR. Meanwhile, Grove went 199-76 with a 2.91 ERA , leading the American League in ERA and ERA+ seven seasons. He thrived in a decade where teams averaged 4.9 runs a game, nearly a run higher than what teams average today.

Grove battled arm ailments throughout the decade, blowing out his arm in 1934 and transforming from power pitcher to junkballer thereafter. He was hospitalized after complaining of another dead arm in 1938, with one newspaper proclaiming “Lefty Grove Is Nearly Through As Sox Hurler.” He went 15-4 with an AL-best 2.54 ERA and 185 ERA+ the following year.

Honorable mention: Zeke Bonura, who’d be better remembered if he hadn’t been a first baseman during the most star-packed decade for the position. Bonura may have deserved more opportunity. After he left the majors, Bonura hit .367 over 1,375 more at-bats in the minors

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1940-49: Luke Appling

As Derek Jeter nears his final game, I’m reminded of another ageless wonder. Luke Appling forged a Hall of Fame career over 20 seasons with the Chicago White Sox, retiring in 1950 at 43. At one point, he’d played the most games of any shortstop. His longevity was so pronounced that he famously homered in an old-timers game when he was 75.

Appling logged 40.9 WAR in the 1940s, eighth-best among position players that decade. Beyond draft age, Appling played through much of World War II (though he missed the 1944 season serving, with his wife saying the war would be over in two weeks since he’d never held a job outside baseball for longer.)

That said, Appling kept going strong after the war ended, hitting .308 from 1946 through 1949. He’s the oldest player with at least 5 WAR in a season, courtesy of his 1949 campaign when he was good for 5.1 WAR at 42. Among Appling’s most unusual stats that year: five triples, a .439 on-base percentage and 121 walks over just 24 strikeouts. Somehow, he didn’t make the All Star team.

The Associated Press noted on July 21, 1949 that Appling was 20 games from breaking Rabbit Maranville’s record for most games at shortstop. “I don’t see how anything will keep me from that record,” said Appling, who would set the mark, since surpassed, on August 9. “I don’t plan to stub my toe [or] anything like that and I’m not superstitious about black cats crossing my path. Course my ankle hurts and my back still aches– they always do– but that baling wire will hold me up.”

Honorable mention: Elbie Fletcher, who averaged 94 walks and a .404 on-base percentage for the decade, long before anyone valued either stat

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1950-59: Minnie Minoso

Minoso’s become something of a curiosity for his eternal reappearances in baseball since he first retired in 1964. There were the brief stints with the White Sox in 1976 and 1980 that delayed his Hall of Fame eligibility. He also played in the Mexican Leagues in the late ’60s and early ’70s and had promotional independent league at-bats in 1997 and 2003. Prior to all this, however, Minoso was one of the best players of the 1950s, hitting .306 with 47.2 WAR.

While the more prominent debate on the best outfielder of the 1950s revolved around Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider, Minoso offered consistent All Star caliber production for the White Sox and Indians. He made six All Star teams during the decade and finished fourth in voting three times for American League Most Valuable Player. Oddly, he also led the league in hit-by-pitches every season of the ’50s except 1955, helping him to a .400 OBP those years.

Minoso is well-celebrated in the sabermetric community, one of 32 players to rank all four years for my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. The 88-year-old is one of the last living Negro League greats as well, with Negro League Baseball Museum president Dr. Bob Kendrick calling repeatedly in recent years for Minoso’s enshrinement. It’d be great to see Cooperstown get to this while Minoso is still living.

Honorable mentions: Billy Pierce, a favorite pitcher of sabermetricians; Luis Aparicio, who deserves at least some of the credit generally given to Maury Wills for re-popularizing the stolen base

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Tomorrow: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s

The most underrated player of each decade: Early 20th century

1900-09: George Davis

Anytime someone says there can’t be any worthy Hall of Fame candidates remaining after several decades of voting, point them to George Davis. The Veterans Committee more or less exists to honor players like Davis, notable in their time but forgotten by baseball history. The committee gave Davis a plaque in 1998 after Bill James devoted a chapter to him in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?

Davis was winding down his career by the early 20th century with younger stars like Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson garnering more attention. Nonetheless, Davis finished strong. His 41.8 WAR for the decade, spanning his 11th to 20th seasons, ranked sixth-best among position players then. He may have been the best bat on the Hitless Wonder 1906 Chicago White Sox. He also saved 91 defensive runs, fourth-best for the decade, while playing every infield position between two teams.

Honorable mention: Iron Man Joe McGinnity, who deserved many more years in the majors than he got

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10329v1910-19: Art Fletcher

Fletcher ranks as a historical curiosity, one of a small number of players who got votes in several early Hall of Fame elections but never built momentum toward enshrinement. If Gold Gloves had existed in the 1910s, Art Fletcher’s Hall candidacy may have received more support.

In a decade where slipshod defense was the norm, Fletcher’s 133 defensive runs saved and 25.1 defensive Wins Above Replacement were by far best in baseball. The longtime New York Giants shortstop led the National League in dWAR four times and was second twice more. He provided with the bat as well, hitting .277 with a 102 OPS+ for the decade and helping the Giants win four pennants.

Honorable mention: George McBride, another Deadball Era defensive great no casual fan has heard of

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rogershornsby-featured1920-29: Rogers Hornsby

Ty Cobb was famously resentful of Babe Ruth obscuring his star. Hornsby has better cause for grievance. While the Georgia Peach was fading by the 1920s, the Rajah totaled 93.1 WAR, second-best in a decade for a modern position player. The only problem for Hornsby was that Ruth was even better in the 1920s with 102.3 WAR.

To be clear, no one’s ever done what Ruth did in those years, out-homering entire teams and forever transforming baseball while becoming the sport’s first marketing star. Even in the absence of Ruth, Hornsby wouldn’t have changed the game. He wasn’t that kind of player or man. He just would have been in a class completely his own.

As it stands, Hornsby’s accolades as the second-best player of the 1920s mesmerize. His stats for the decade are a sea of black ink on Baseball-Reference.com: seven batting titles, two Triple Crowns, and National League highs for OPS+ nine of ten seasons. Hornsby hit .382 for the 1920s (.390, if his pedestrian 1926 season is omitted) and famously batted .402 from 1921 through 1925. Somehow, his abrasive personality led to him playing for four teams through the course of the decade.

Honorable mention: Urban Shocker, who might be in the Hall of Fame if his career and life hadn’t ended at 37 due to a congenital heart condition

Coming tomorrow: The 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

Five memorable pitching appearances by position players

Adam Dunn’s stint as a relief pitcher on Tuesday night got me thinking. The Chicago White Sox slugger, who pitched the last inning of a 16-0 loss to the Texas Rangers, is far from the first position player called to the mound.

Here are five memorable appearances:

1. Babe Ruth, October 1, 1933: As is lore, the Bambino debuted as an ace pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, becoming a full-time outfielder in mid-1918. (Ruth, of course, was a fine hitter from the beginning, amassing 5.6 WAR and a 150 OPS+ in 407 plate appearances in his first four seasons.) As a promotional stunt, Ruth pitched five more times, winning all five games after joining the New York Yankees in 1920. His final start, which came up in conversation with John Thorn at SABR last week, came on the last day of the 1933 season. Ruth pitched a complete game victory in front of 25,000 at Yankee Stadium and provided the deciding run on a solo homer over Boston. Something worth at least a tangential note? The game only took an hour and 38 minutes.

2. Matty Alou, August 26, 1965: Alou struck out future Pittsburgh Pirates teammate Willie Stargell twice while pitching two scoreless innings of an 8-0 loss for the San Francisco Giants. “I just threw him slow curve, slow curve,” Alou was quoted as saying in his SABR bio. “And I know I would get him out again if I faced him.” Ever one of the under-appreciated players of his era, Alou of course never pitched again.

3. Jose Oquendo, May 14, 1988: Position players of the recent era generally pitch when the bullpen is exhausted, either in blowouts or extra inning games. Oquendo fared decently in the latter scenario, though he took the loss for his efforts. (On a side note, it’s exceedingly rare for modern position players to earn a decision, making Chris Davis’s victory for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012 all the more special.) Oquendo, a longtime Cardinals infielder, went to the mound in the 16th inning of a five-hour and 40-minute marathon against the Atlanta Braves, after seven St. Louis pitchers had come and gone. Oquendo pitched the final four innings and threw 65 pitches, perhaps the most ever by a position player. He allowed four hits, two runs and six walks, his high point perhaps coming when he struck out Ken Griffey Sr.

4. Manny Alexander, April 19, 1996: It’s common for position players to have control problems pitching. Jose Canseco threw 12 strikes and 21 balls in his infamous relief appearance for Texas in 1993. Alexander makes Canseco look like Greg Maddux. Baltimore manager Davey Johnson summoned his utility man in the eighth inning with Texas leading 17-7. Entering with the bases loaded, Alexander walked in three straight runs then allowed a sacrifice fly. After walking the next batter, he allowed a grand slam. The score now 26-7, Alexander got the next batter to ground out and the inning mercifully ended. Alexander finished the game, and his pitching career, with a 67.50 ERA. He hadn’t asked to pitch. “I hate this,” he told the Baltimore Sun afterward.

5. Wade Boggs, August 10, 1999: Like a lot of aging position players, from Jimmie Foxx and Ben Chapman during World War II to his contemporaries Dave Concepcion, Gary Gaetti, and Mark Grace, Boggs took his turn on the hill. And like Chapman, Foxx and Gaetti, Boggs pitched for two teams, appearing first for the Yankees in 1997. Two years later, the future Hall of Famer closed out Tampa’s 17-1 loss to Baltimore by allowing three hits and a run over 1.1 innings. Boggs’ control wasn’t bad, 13 strikes in 21 pitches. The 41-year-old even struck out Delino DeShields looking.

Honorable mention: Former Atlanta Braves All Star Jeff Francoeur, currently extending his run as a perennial sabermetric punchline by pitching for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas.

My first SABR convention: What took so long?

SABR logoI joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2010, and for the next few years, I faced the same annual disappointment.

Each year, I’d hear of the national SABR convention months in advance, with the understanding I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the trip or justify going if I somehow came up with the money.

A SABR convention costs about $1,000 to attend between registration, airfare and lodging, and as a freelance writer who gets rent paid as a delivery driver, it’s rare I have an extra grand. When I do, other matters often need my attention. Don’t get me wrong, I love SABR and baseball history and getting together with others to obsess over it. Attending a SABR convention has just heretofore been a luxury beyond my reach.

This year was different, though. I’ve had better luck than expected selling freelance pieces, and after checks started arriving, I decided to finally splurge on a SABR convention. While the expense seemed risky, I didn’t want to pass another year at home reading about the convention on Twitter and wondering why I couldn’t have just, I don’t know, panhandled for the necessary funds or sold a kidney. So I bit the bullet and bought a plane ticket to Houston this past week. I’m so glad I did.

As I write this, I’m two days removed from returning from one of the best baseball experiences of my life. Among the highlights for me:

  • Grabbing dinner the first night of the convention with veteran author and official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. I’ve corresponded with John a few years because of my writing and have interviewed him several times. I count John as one of my heroes, among the handful of people I know of able to make a living writing about baseball history. He knows it well. I could write a post in itself about what it was like to sit in the hotel restaurant a few hours with John, his son, and another person who works in baseball, slowly making our way through dinner and talking baseball history. The best part? John picked up the check. Welcome to SABR, kid.
  • Meeting many interesting people I’ve known through writing and who, like John, were accessible and welcoming at the convention. These people include: Sean Forman, founder of Baseball-Reference.com; Rob Neyer, who’s written online about baseball more than probably anyone; Mark Simon, researcher and writer for ESPN.com (and a repository of trivia– on the last night of the convention, Mark recited the last out of every World Series since 1950); Joe Dimino, who oversees the Hall of Merit; Sean Lahman, a baseball database pioneer; Matt Mitchell, who I enjoy talking stats with on Twitter; Cecilia Tan, a SABR editor; and Jacob Pomrenke who runs SABR’s website.
  • Meeting new friends such as Anthony Rescan, a college student who attended the conference on a scholarship from SABR. Making quick friends with people like Anthony wasn’t particularly difficult, even if unlike Anthony, the average attendee at a SABR convention is a 60-year-old dude. Everyone ultimately comes to a convention for more or less the same reason, blessed with the same encyclopedic wealth of baseball knowledge that generally otherwise places one far beyond societal norms. For a few glorious days each year, we find each other.
  • Taking in some interesting panels and research presentations on everything from Houston-area baseball history to a college panel that Roger Clemens spoke on after receiving assurances he would be asked no questions related to steroids. I got to interview panelists Bob Watson, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn, and Jose Cruz. Even getting turned down by Clemens offered some entertainment. Clemens brushed me off after his panel saying he needed to get going; a few minutes later, Jacob and I spotted him demonstrating his pitching motion to other convention attendees, doing something that looked like leg kicks.
  • Live tweeting the finals of the SABR trivia contest, a formidable challenge to even the most seasoned of baseball history enthusiasts. Sample question: Name the seven players to win four National League batting titles. For some reason, people beyond the convention were fascinated as I and a few others tweeted out the trivia questions. I may even start doing this on my own regularly.
  • Connecting with multiple book publishers. I’m getting the itch to write a book, and attending the convention may help make this dream a reality.

Like a European vacation, I didn’t do my trip perfectly and I came back with ideas for what I want to do differently next time. Chief among my missteps, I didn’t stay in the convention hotel, opting for cheaper digs two miles away that I returned to late each night via taxi. I also didn’t get to any baseball games while I was in town, and I left the convention a day before it ended to work Sunday, missing a private pregame session for convention attendees at Minute Maid Park on Saturday afternoon.

That said, I have no regrets for how everything played out and am probably sold on attending SABR conventions for the foreseeable future. It was a great investment, probably worth more than what I paid. I’m bummed I have to wait a year to go again.

An interview with Bob Watson

Here’s another interview from the annual SABR convention in Houston. This one is with Houston Astros great Bob Watson, who I caught up with after a panel a little while ago.

Me: I was interested to talk to you ’cause you were one of the great Astros hitters of the ’60s and ’70s, and one thing that struck me is just you hit so well playing in a ballpark that was so tough to hit in. What do you think was your secret?

Watson: I used a 40-ounce bat, and I didn’t try to pull the ball. I used the turf. I think that playing in the Astrodome actually helped me because it allowed me to hit the ball hard on the ground and not in the air.

What kind of advice did Rusty Staub give you?

See it and then hit it. Rusty, great fastball hitter, and all he just said, ‘Hey, see it and hit it.’

Jose Cruz was telling me yesterday that Rusty advised him not to go for home runs so much, to be more of a contact hitter. Did Rusty say anything similar to you?

Yep, basically, because we didn’t play in a home run ballpark. My 18 home runs a year probably translated to 36 somewhere else. And if I played in this little ballpark here, it would’ve been 45 or 50, because I was a gap hitter, I didn’t pull the ball, and right center here at Minute Maid, what is it, 370 or something? Well it was like 410 in the Astrodome.

Do you feel the Astrodome cost you the Hall of Fame?

No, no. I wasn’t a Hall of Famer, and I’ll tell you why. Since baseball started over 100 years ago, 135 I guess, there’s been 18, 19,000 players and there’s only 300 guys in the Hall of Fame. I don’t really think the Astrodome cheated me. I had a very good career. I hit .300, I dunno, seven, eight times, .290 or better another six times, .280. The criteria for Hall of Fame in my opinion: lead the league two or three times in either home runs or RBIs, be an MVP three or four times. I didn’t have that kind of career.

Interesting. What about some of your teammates like Cesar Cedeno or Jimmy Wynn? Do you think those guys might have had [HOF] bids if they’d played elsewhere?

Oh well, probably. I think, very, very honestly, those guys– both of ‘em– their off-the-field habits cost them their careers. Everybody knows what Cesar did over in the Dominican. (Editor’s note: Here’s the story.) Jimmy had some other problems off the field. I think if those weren’t there, their careers would’ve been a lot longer and a lot better.

Interesting. One last question. I wanted to ask you, Bill James did a thing years ago where he looked at your stats and compared ‘em to High Pockets Kelly who’s in the Hall of Fame–

High Pockets Kelly! [laughing] I’ve gotta look him up.

What he found was you guys had similar batting averages but when you adjusted for era that your numbers were a lot better. Do you make anything of that?

I have never heard of High Pockets. But you know what, again, I had a very good career, and if I was born in this era, yeah, I’d be a millionaire. But I wasn’t. Just like Hank Aaron. He would own the team, he might own the league if he was playing in this era. Sandy Koufax, all those guys, the era you play in is where you play, and I fit in very nicely where I played.