On December 2, I kicked off voting for my annual project on the 50 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Due to a WordPress glitch, several posts on my site were destroyed including my call for votes. If you’ve already voted in my project: 1) Thank you; and 2) Your votes are safe and have been recorded in a Google document independent of this site.

To anyone just joining us, since 2010, we’ve made an annual thing here of this project. Here are the preceding three years: Version 3.0Version 2.0 and the debut of this project. This year looks to be better than ever, with an unusually deep class of newly-eligible players on the ballot including Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas.

I’d like to invite anyone interested to submit a ballot. To vote, please go here. A reference ballot of 526 players can be found here.

There aren’t too many rules for this, except:

1) You must vote for 50 players. Next to each player you select, please put a “Y” or “N” to signify if he belongs in the Hall of Fame. This project isn’t about designating 50 players who must be enshrined tomorrow, simply the 50 best players not in Cooperstown.

2) Anyone who hasn’t played in at least five years is eligible. A person need not have played for five years or even in the majors to be eligible. I encourage people to work independently and use whatever criteria they prefer for voting.

3) All votes are due by December 23 at 9 p.m. PST. No late ballots will be accepted. Results will be unveiled on January 6, two days before the Baseball Writers Association of America reveals the results of its Hall of Fame voting.

4) I prefer if people vote at the link provided above. That said, if anyone has problems with it, please feel free to email me at thewomack@gmail.com.

This being said, I look forward to seeing how everyone votes. Thanks and good luck!

Technical issues

Posted: 6th December 2013 by Graham Womack in Uncategorized

As some of you may have noticed, my website crashed this week and several posts are now missing including my post from Monday that kicked off voting for my annual project on the 50 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. I apologize for any inconvenience.

To those of you who’ve voted thus far:

1) Thank you!

2) Your votes are safe and have been automatically inputted into a Google document independent of this site.

To anyone who hasn’t voted, you can vote here and check out the reference ballot here.

As a reminder, all votes for my project are due December 23 by 9 p.m. PST. I’m debating extending voting by a week because of the crash.

More to come.

Why there may never be a unanimous Hall of Famer

Posted: 24th September 2013 by Graham Womack in Baseball Hall of Fame

Last year, I asked readers to vote on an inner circle for the Hall of Fame. I’ve run a few voter-driven projects, and while I enjoy getting to look at everyone’s ballot, it’s generally the same story. I doubt any two ballots are alike. Voters use a variety of rationales. And most every ballot has a glaring omission or imperfection– in the case of my inner circle project, no player received 100 percent of the vote, not Willie Mays, not Babe Ruth, not Honus Wagner. We’re not fools, it’s just the way these things work. Some voters consciously omit players. Others simply forget them. I don’t think this is a a bad thing. I set very few rules for voters, by design. If enough people vote independently, the right thing seems to happen. Unanimity’s a nice ideal, but it’s never been necessary here.

I’m reminded of all this by a piece Buster Olney has up at ESPN Insider, advocating that retiring New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera be the first unanimous Hall of Famer. In the piece, mostly hidden behind a paywall link, Olney recounts the bizarre, implausible, unpalatable truth through more than 75 years of Hall of Fame voting– there’s never been a unanimous selection. Never. Ty Cobb, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and others have come within a handful of votes, but something always seems to prevent unanimity. One writer left Ryan off his ballot, for instance, because he wanted to make a stand about Don Sutton’s candidacy.

Olney writes:

Maybe it’s time for this embarrassing tradition to end. Maybe it’s time for this small handful of writers who want to turn themselves into a speed bump at the gates of the Hall Fame to stop making themselves the story….

Five years from now, there is no reason for any voter to not put a check mark beside Mariano Rivera’s name on a ballot, because his candidacy is pristine.

It’s a great idea, and I support it wholeheartedly, but it seems highly unlikely it will happen, not in five years, probably not ever. I imagine people responding to Olney’s piece will make this about Rivera, fixating on his worthiness or lack thereof as a relief pitcher, but the broader debate isn’t about Rivera or any other player. So long as the current process for Hall of Fame voting remains, I doubt there will ever be a unanimous selection. And I’m cool with that.

If an algorithm determined picks, it would stand to reason that a player could get in satisfying every requirement. But voting is still done by humans, through an electorate that continues to grow, with a record 581 ballots cast in 2011 and another 573 last year. Few requirements exist for making picks, with a basic set of rules that concern eligibility. Beyond that, voters are invited to set their own criteria. One writer from last year’s election told me he didn’t vote for Tim Raines, in part, because he only logged 13 full seasons. Again, I’m fine with this. I’d shudder if any one voter got to determine all the plaques in Cooperstown using this mindset, but I assume that with enough people casting ballots, the right thing will generally happen.

It doesn’t mean that questionable candidates won’t sometimes be enshrined, be it on the first pass or the 10th, with 98 percent of the vote or 75.2. But the point of the Hall of Fame isn’t perfection or unanimity. It’s about honoring the best moments in baseball history. More often than not, Cooperstown and its voters have honored this ideal.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Dick Groat

Posted: 21st September 2013 by Graham Womack in Dick Groat

Claim to fame: Dick Groat and the question of his Hall of Fame worthiness has popped up twice on this website in recent months. First came a comment at my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. Someone wrote:

Bobby Grich (6x-AS, .266 avg.)
Dick Groat (8x AS, 1960 MVP, .286 avg)

Groat played in a pitcher’s era and still hit .286. Groat was voted MVP in 1960. Grich never ranked higher than 8th in MVP voting during his career. I guess it helps to have played more recently.

Last month, I posted my personal Hall of Fame, which includes Maury Wills. Longtime reader Brendan Bingham posted a long comment, which included:

3) If Maury Wills, why not Dick Groat?
I have commented on this site about the similarity between Wills and Groat. Their careers were of similar length (8306 PA for Wills; 8179 for Groat). The biggest difference between them is that Wills stole more bases, 572 more (586, versus Groat’s 14). But Wills hit only 177 doubles, while Groat hit 352. That’s a difference of 175 bases that Groat did not need to steal, because he was already on second base. The down side of attempting to steal bases is getting caught stealing. Wills was caught 208 times, versus 27 for Groat. Wills had a few more walks; Groat had a few more home runs. Wills earned more WAR (39.8 to Groat’s 36.8), but is he really worthy of enshrinement? With all due respect to Groat, the multi-sport Duke graduate, can a compelling HOF case really include the phrase, “he was marginally better than Dick Groat”?

I found both comments thought-provoking. I’ll reply momentarily.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Groat last played in 1967 and appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for Cooperstown six times from 1973 through 1978, peaking at 1.8 percent of the vote. Now eligible for enshrinement through the Veterans Committee and considered to have played in what the committee dubs the Golden Era between 1947 and 1973, Groat could theoretically next be voted in in two years.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? In a word, no. I’ve hesitated to write this column in part because Groat’s an easy “No” for me. While I respect that Groat was an integral member of two championship teams (the 1960 Pirates and ’64 Cardinals) and was a rare man to play both MLB and NBA ball, he simply doesn’t have the numbers for Cooperstown and trails behind legions of worthier candidates. But I don’t mind spotlighting older players, however briefly, and there are a couple of broader points I’d like to make here.

The first excerpted comment above, comparing Groat to Bobby Grich took me back. Before I got into sabermetrics, I treated batting average as the overall measure of a batter, and I believed that Grich’s era, the 1970s and ’80s was significantly more of a hitter’s era than the 1960s. I was wrong on both counts. There’s this misnomer that the lowering of the pitcher’s mound in 1969 and the adoption of the designated hitter rule in the American League in 1973 dramatically changed the offensive landscape. In reality, except for the occasional outlier such as 1987, run totals in games didn’t spike consistently until the 1990s. The sooner this is better understood, the easier it will be for players like Grich, Dwight Evans, and Dale Murphy to get enshrined. They simply played in a tougher offensive era than they’re being credited for.

For evaluating offensive production, I’ve come to prefer comprehensive stats that don’t just look at a hitter’s ability to make contact with the ball but also incorporate things like run production, on-base percentage and total bases. I also like stats that are weighted to adjust for ballpark and eras. For all of this, I find stats like wRC+ (weighted run creation) and OPS+ (weighted offensive production) much more useful than batting average. Grich trumps Groat 125 to 89 in OPS+ and 129 to 90 in wRC+. If we simply look at raw stats that aren’t adjusted for eras, such as wOBA or OPS, the differences are more pronounced. A 20 point advantage in batting average may be impressive at quick glance, but it doesn’t mean that much in context.

I take a different approach, however, comparing Groat and Maury Wills. When it comes to Wills, I value his contribution to baseball history more than his somewhat pedestrian career stats. My rationale is admittedly somewhat arbitrary and selective, but I think a certain degree of that is okay when it comes to the Hall of Fame. It’s not the Hall of Algorithmically-Determined Statistical Superiority, after all. (My friend Adam Darowski has a cool site for this.) I like Wills’ role in popularizing the stolen base in the 1960s (though he was arguably no more important than Luis Aparicio or Lou Brock.) I like that he shattered Ty Cobb’s 47-year-old season record for stolen bases in 1962. For me, that’s enough for a plaque.

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Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? has been a past regular feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsAndy PettitteBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBilly PierceBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon MattinglyDon Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJeff KentJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohan SantanaJohn SmoltzJohnny MurphyJose Canseco,J.R. RichardJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouOmar VizquelPete BrowningPhil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSean FormanSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince Coleman, Vlad GuerreroWill Clark

Notes from the 19th annual Pacific Coast League reunion

Posted: 25th August 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

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Rugger Ardizoia didn’t know he was the oldest living New York Yankee until a few days ago. It’s probably fitting.

Though the 93-year-old San Francisco resident still keeps his team identification card in his wallet, he comes across soft-spoken and reserved, not one to boast about his past or demand attention for it. It’s probably appropriate he not brag too much of his time with the Yankees. Rugger pitched all of two innings in the majors, his sole appearance coming April 30, 1947 when he scattered four hits and two runs. But sit and talk a little while with Rugger– who became the oldest Yankee following the death of Virgil Trucks in March– and the surreal stories I love as a baseball historian start coming out.

They’re stories of making road trips with Joe DiMaggio; of playing for Casey Stengel in the Pacific Coast League; of being on a USO team during World War II with DiMaggio, Red Ruffing and a slew of other major leaguers. I’ve interviewed Rugger four or five times in the past decade, and I imagine there are still a wealth of good stories I haven’t heard. It’s one thing that keeps me coming back– that, and he’s a kind, charming man. The widower told the crowd at the 19th annual Pacific Coast League reunion that he still considers himself married to a wife of 71 years.

As a historian and a journalist, part of my calling is to capture stories. I enjoy preserving and sharing them, and I feel both a sense of duty and urgency. With players like Rugger and nine other former players who attended the reunion, held Saturday near Oakland, California, time is running out to record the stories. Most veterans of the old PCL, who played in it before the Giants and Dodgers came west in 1958, are in their mid-70s or older. The ever-present possibility lurks of great stories dying with these men. Maybe it’s not more than a collection of untold quirky anecdotes, but I like to think the world’s a little better with them accessible.

I didn’t get a ton of stories Saturday, but here are a few anecdotes from Rugger:

  • Stengel, who managed Rugger on the Oakland Oaks in 1946, would buy two cases of beer for the clubhouse after every win. (As noted in Jane Leavy’s biography on Mickey Mantle, Stengel’s the same manager whose advice on temperance for players was to not drink in the hotel bar “because that’s where I do my drinking.”)
  • Rugger noted he had 117 complete games in professional baseball and wondered how many pitches he threw. He said Stengel was never one to pull pitchers.
  • Rugger spoke of going to an event with DiMaggio’s first wife, Dorothy Arnold and seeing her bedecked in jewelry. Upon closer inspection, he learned it was all fake costume jewelry. Arnold explained that as the wife of DiMaggio, she had a certain appearance to keep up.

It remains to be seen how many more reunions can be held. A fellow member in my chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research estimated that 100-110 men who played in the PCL prior to 1958 are still living. I’m reminded of the final reunion of Pearl Harbor veterans, held just a few years ago.

My personal Hall of Fame: The inaugural class

Posted: 19th August 2013 by Graham Womack in Baseball Hall of Fame

Months ago, a friend asked me to make a personal Hall of Fame for a project he’s doing. It sounded like a fun idea. The Hall of Fame has been a topic of frequent discussion here in the past, and I annually do a project on the 50 best players not in Cooperstown. Off the top of my head, I can name 100-200 surefire Hall of Famers and another 50-100 who aren’t currently enshrined but make my list. It’s fun to make these kinds of lists. I guess it’s how my mind works, and I assume others who frequent this site think similarly.

An interesting thing happened when I started to write down names, though. After exhausting the obvious picks for me, I turned to Baseball-Reference.com and found a number of long-ago players I knew little about beyond stats. This threw me. Being into baseball history, I rely on statistics and basic sabermetrics to have a more complete understanding of the game, but I don’t like being utterly beholden to numbers, particularly when it comes to making a personal Hall of Fame. It kind of takes the fun out of it for me.

Faced with this dilemma months ago, I set my list aside and put off coming back to it. Recently, though, I had an epiphany that I’d rather share my personal Hall of Fame, imperfect though it may be than stay quiet. I talk myself out of writing posts to often for fear of being wrong or mediocre. I’m calling bullshit on this. I’d like to start writing more about baseball history again because I enjoy the process and it adds something to my life.

I will present the following names without comment besides to say a few things. One, I only considered players who’d been retired at least five years, though I’ve included a few guys who wouldn’t meet Cooperstown’s eligibility requirements. I also favor a big Hall of Fame; it wasn’t this way for me when I started this website a few years ago, though the more I’ve written about players not in Cooperstown, the more I’ve found guys worth celebrating. It doesn’t water down the institution to me to tell more of their stories. That being said, I imagine I neglected to include a few players here. If there’s one thing I know about Hall of Fame voting, it’s that it’s very easy to forget players. Even Babe Ruth only got 95 percent of the vote.

All this being said, here are the players for my personal Hall of Fame. Let me know who else belongs here:

  • Hank Aaron
  • Grover Cleveland Alexander
  • Dick Allen
  • Roberto Alomar
  • Cap Anson
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Richie Ashburn
  • Earl Averill
  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Ernie Banks
  • Cool Papa Bell
  • Johnny Bench
  • Chief Bender
  • Yogi Berra
  • Craig Biggio
  • Bert Blyleven
  • Wade Boggs
  • Barry Bonds
  • Bobby Bonds
  • Ken Boyer
  • George Brett
  • Lou Brock
  • Dan Brouthers
  • Kevin Brown
  • Mordecai Brown
  • Roy Campanella
  • Rod Carew
  • Steve Carlton
  • Gary Carter
  • Bob Caruthers
  • Cesar Cedeno
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • Frank Chance
  • Ray Chapman
  • Oscar Charleston
  • Will Clark
  • John Clarkson
  • Roger Clemens
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Ty Cobb
  • Mickey Cochrane
  • Rocky Colavito
  • Eddie Collins
  • David Cone
  • Roger Connor
  • Sam Crawford
  • Jim Creighton
  • Joe Cronin
  • Bill Dahlen
  • Ray Dandridge
  • George Davis
  • Andre Dawson
  • Dizzy Dean
  • Ed Delahanty
  • Bill Dickey
  • Dom DiMaggio
  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Larry Doby
  • John Donaldson
  • Don Drysdale
  • Hugh Duffy
  • Dennis Eckersley
  • Darrell Evans
  • Dwight Evans
  • Johnny Evers
  • Bob Feller
  • Wes Ferrell
  • Rollie Fingers
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Curt Flood
  • Whitey Ford
  • Nellie Fox
  • Jimmie Foxx
  • Frankie Frisch
  • Pud Galvin
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Charlie Gehringer
  • Bob Gibson
  • Josh Gibson
  • Lefty Gomez
  • Dwight Gooden
  • Goose Goslin
  • Goose Gossage
  • Hank Greenberg
  • Bobby Grich
  • Lefty Grove
  • Ron Guidry
  • Tony Gwynn
  • Billy Hamilton
  • Isao Harimoto
  • Gabby Hartnett
  • Harry Heilmann
  • Rickey Henderson
  • Keith Hernandez
  • Orel Hershiser
  • Gil Hodges
  • Rogers Hornsby
  • Frank Howard
  • Dummy Hoy
  • Waite Hoyt
  • Carl Hubbell
  • Monte Irvin
  • Joe Jackson
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Ferguson Jenkins
  • Tommy John
  • Judy Johnson
  • Walter Johnson
  • Addie Joss
  • Al Kaline
  • Tim Keefe
  • Wee Willie Keeler
  • King Kelly
  • Harmon Killebrew
  • Ralph Kiner
  • Ted Kluszewski
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Nap Lajoie
  • Barry Larkin
  • Tony Lazzeri
  • Buck Leonard
  • Pop Lloyd
  • Kenny Lofton
  • Mickey Lolich
  • Ernie Lombardi
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Rabbit Maranville
  • Juan Marichal
  • Roger Maris
  • Dennis Martinez
  • Edgar Martinez
  • Eddie Mathews
  • Christy Mathewson
  • Don Mattingly
  • Willie Mays
  • Willie McCovey
  • Joe McGinnity
  • John McGraw (as a player)
  • Fred McGriff
  • Mark McGwire
  • Minnie Minoso
  • Johnny Mize
  • Paul Molitor
  • Joe Morgan
  • Jack Morris
  • Tony Mullane
  • Thurman Munson
  • Dale Murphy
  • Eddie Murray
  • Stan Musial
  • Don Newcombe
  • Kid Nichols
  • Phil Niekro
  • Lefty O’Doul
  • Buck O’Neil
  • Sadaharu Oh
  • Tony Oliva
  • Al Oliver
  • Mel Ott
  • Satchel Paige
  • Jim Palmer
  • Dave Parker
  • Gaylord Perry
  • Mike Piazza
  • Lip Pike
  • Vada Pinson
  • Eddie Plank
  • Spottswood Poles
  • Kirby Puckett
  • Dan Quisenberry
  • Old Hoss Radbourn
  • Tim Raines
  • Pee Wee Reese
  • Rick Reuschel
  • Sam Rice
  • Cal Ripken Jr.
  • Phil Rizzuto
  • Robin Roberts
  • Brooks Robinson
  • Frank Robinson
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Bullet Rogan
  • Pete Rose
  • Red Ruffing
  • Amos Rusie
  • Babe Ruth
  • Jimmy Ryan
  • Nolan Ryan
  • Ryne Sandberg
  • Ron Santo
  • Eiji Sawamura
  • Curt Schilling
  • Mike Schmidt
  • Tom Seaver
  • Al Simmons
  • Ted Simmons
  • George Sisler
  • Ozzie Smith
  • Duke Snider
  • Warren Spahn
  • Al Spalding
  • Tris Speaker
  • Victor Starffin
  • Willie Stargell
  • Vern Stephens
  • Dave Stieb
  • Harry Stovey
  • Don Sutton
  • Sam Thompson
  • Luis Tiant
  • Joe Torre
  • Alan Trammell
  • Cecil Travis
  • Fernando Valenzuela
  • George Van Haltren
  • Dazzy Vance
  • Arky Vaughan
  • Rube Waddell
  • Honus Wagner
  • Larry Walker
  • Ed Walsh
  • Paul Waner
  • Monte Ward
  • Willie Wells
  • Lou Whitaker
  • Deacon White
  • Hoyt Wilhelm
  • Billy Williams
  • Smokey Joe Williams
  • Ted Williams
  • Maury Wills
  • Dave Winfield
  • Smoky Joe Wood
  • Early Wynn
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Cy Young
  • Robin Yount

Any player/Any era: Mickey Mantle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

An interview with Sean Forman

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

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

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

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

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

Oh whoa.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Thoughts about a famous Vin Scully quote

Posted: 18th May 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

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

-Vin Scully

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerating the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball

Posted: 27th April 2013 by Graham Womack in MLB

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

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

“Do you really believe that?” Koppel said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*            *             *

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

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

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

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

Harrelson told Reynolds and Kenny:

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

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

 *            *             *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *            *             *

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

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

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

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