Happy Memorial Day

Just a quick post to say Happy Memorial Day and that it’s looking like it will be a good week for Baseball: Past and Present.

Two new regular features will be debuting here, “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” which will run Tuesdays and “Different player/Different era” for Thursdays which will look at how certain players would have done in different eras. I wrote the first two pieces this morning, and I’m excited to see how they’re received.

It also looks like this week could mark the appearance of a first-ever guest post here, as I’ve been talking with a fellow who’s eager to write something. This blog has largely been a personal vehicle for me, so far, and while I want to maintain my creative freedom, I’d also like to have the occasional different voice here. In addition, I’m looking to ramp up the amount of content I have, from a few posts a week to one every weekday, and I may need help on this, since my day job sometimes consumes me.

Thus, I would encourage anyone who’s interested in writing a guest post here to shoot me an email. I have high standards as to what goes up here, as should hopefully be apparent, though the former newspaper editor in me is happy to help anyone step up to the challenge.

More all-time durable pitchers

After my post yesterday on all-time durable pitchers, I emailed Fredrico Brillhart. Regular readers may remember that after I did a guest post on ballplayers who saw war combat, Brillhart emailed me wanting to know why there weren’t any Negro Leaguers. I figured he might like yesterday’s post, since my top durable pitcher is Satchel Paige, a Negro League immortal, and I was also curious if he knew of other players I had failed to mention.

Fredrico wrote back:

Hello Graham,

Here are some other additions for your list………..

27 year career in the Negro Leagues >Smokey Joe Williams,

John Donaldson [ I will have John’s leading researcher, Peter Gorton contact you ],

Will Jackman [ his leading bio person, Dick Thompson passed on awhile back, but I think you still can get info if you Google him ] Will was a barnstormer that pitched an incredible amount of games & at one time might have been the 2nd highest paid pitcher to Paige. He didn’t pitch as much in the Negro Leagues, since he was making more money by barnstorming.

See my > Waiting For Cooperstown All-Stars & the Analysis of The Pittsburgh Courier Poll pieces I had sent to you for some other insights, as most that I have brought up here have info there.

Charles “Lefty” Williams was a legend around the Pittsburgh semi-pro sandlots, plus he pitched 20 years for the Homestead Grays in the Negro Leagues, where he was not as effective vs League teams. He is credited with 540 total wins in his whole career including those semi-pro outings.

Massaichi ” Golden Arm ” Kaneda is the all-time wins leader in Japan with 400 wins. For 14 of his 20 year career he had over 300+ IP. In 1955 he had 400 IP. He also had 14 > 20+ win seasons there. His 5,526 & 2/3 innings pitched in Japan would be in 4th place in the Majors all-time. Take note, that in Japan the season is shorter so his massive innings pitched are even more impressive.

Ramon Arano pitched 30 years & won 421 games in Mexico, the most all-time there, adding summer & winter leagues.

Juan Pizzaro pitched 18 years in the Majors & 22 years in the Puerto Rican Winter League &  had a combined total of 290 wins + 38 wins in the Mexican League & 66 wins in the Minors for a grand total of 394 wins in his career. What is amazing is that he pitched non stop summer & winters in the majority of his seasons.

Hippo Vaughn had a grand total of 401 wins as a pro combining his ML & Minor League numbers. 5 times in the ML he had 20+ win seasons.

With these additions I still think you are correct in saying that Satchel Paige was the most durable, even with his dead arm period.

Yours, Fredrico

I’ll close by saying that in the last week, I’ve received other great emails like this. In fact, a reader wrote yesterday to tell me he had mentioned my site in a column he wrote. That appears to be for a newspaper, which is a Baseball: Past and Present first.

Looks like I was wrong about Roy Halladay

Back in November, when Roy Halladay looked on the outs with the Toronto Blue Jays, I wrote a post here saying teams would be wise to steer clear of him. It appears I was gloriously wrong on this one, worse than the time I predicted the San Francisco 49ers would win the NFC West and they proceeded to go something like 2-14.

Halladay is on pace to win 24 games, finish with an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP below 1.00, and today, he became the 20th player in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game. In fact, Halladay joined Dallas Braden as the second pitcher this month to allow no men to reach base, leading the Philadelphia Phillies to a 1-0 victory over the Florida Marlins.

When I wrote my post in November, I didn’t yet understand WHIP (which measures walks and hits divided by innings pitched) or fully grasp the importance of Halladay going to a National League contender. I simply offered a few reasons for teams to be wary, including that the track record on older pitchers is uneven and that Halladay was going to be expensive, both for contract dollars and the players any prospective team would have to give up to obtain him.

Like I said, I was completely wrong, and if I had a time machine, I’d tell my San Francisco Giants to give up whatever players they needed to bring Halladay aboard (I’d also probably do some other things if I had a time machine, but that’s a post for another time.) As it stands, the Phillies are now in first place, and Halladay looks like the early favorite for the National League Cy Young Award, perhaps even an MVP. Then again, my word on Halladay wasn’t great last time so I’m open to any thoughts that anyone else has.

Nolan Ryan the most durable pitcher all-time? Not so fast

I was at an old-timers lunch recently in Sacramento, and a former big league scout named Ronnie King, who’s something of a baseball legend in my hometown, asked me who I thought the most durable pitcher all-time was. I thought for a moment and then answered Walter Johnson. He scoffed, said Nolan Ryan, and promptly turned to another conversation.

I can see how Ryan is a popular choice, being that the all-time strikeout leader pitched 27 seasons until lingering embarrassment over his all-time memorable fight with Robin Ventura drove him to leave the game (I’ll have to look that up, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.) Still, I consider Ryan overrated, even if a recent Sports Illustrated article said he’s got his Texas Rangers pitchers believing they can throw long innings. Though Ryan won 324 games, he also nearly lost 300 and had he not notched his 300th win or struck out so many batters, I doubt he’d be as remembered. Really, he’s a glorified Bert Blyleven (who, incidentally, will probably soon be selected to Cooperstown for being an underrated Ryan.)

I’ve pondered King’s question in the weeks since, and while it’s probably a draw between Johnson and Ryan who’s more durable, I know three pitchers I’d rank ahead of them.

They are:

  1. Satchel Paige: Estimated he won 2,000 games. Even if that’s an exaggeration, what are we left with? 500 wins? 700? More impressively, Paige made the big leagues in his forties after it finally desegregated and pitched as late as 1965, when he threw three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in a publicity stunt. Most impressive, though, Paige accomplished much of what he’s remembered for following a career-threatening arm injury in the 1930s. The title of his autobiography? Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.
  2. Cy Young: Pitched almost 2,000 more innings and won nearly 200 more games than Ryan in an era where pitchers routinely logged upwards of 40 starts and 400 innings in a season. Young pitched until he was 44, comparable to Ryan who bowed out at 46 and lasted well beyond most of the other great hurlers of his era like Christy Matthewson, Kid Nichols and Pud Galvin.
  3. Iron Man Joe McGinnity: Robert Downey Jr. has got nothing on this guy. McGinnity was the original Iron Man. After leaving the majors in 1908 with a 246-142 lifetime record, good for an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame, McGinnity proceeded to win another 207 games in the minors. In fact, in 1923 at the age of 52, McGinnity went 15-12 for Dubuque. Though it was the D League and McGinnity had a 3.93 ERA, it still may be among the most impressive minor league seasons for a former star.

There are many more pitchers whose longevity at least compares to Ryan, from Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander in the early days to Phil Niekro, Tommy John, Randy Johnson, and Jamie Moyer in recent years. To say the Ryan Express belongs in a class all his own seems inaccurate.

(Postscript: Read the follow-up post.)

Some new developments for this site

I got detailed, constructive feedback on this site today from an acquaintance at the San Francisco Chronicle. He started by saying, “The site looks great,” but proceeded to offer a number of solid suggestions. Among these tips: Try to post every weekday, and consider having regular ongoing series. Thus, starting next week, I am going to debut a couple of weekly features:

  • Tuesdays: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?
  • Thursdays: Ballplayers who would have done well in a different era

I’ve been thinking about the Tuesday idea for awhile, since some time after the first occasion I made a list of 10 great players not in the Hall of Fame a year ago. Since then, I’ve written about the Hall of Fame several times and can now probably name 50 or 100 players who inspire debate, some who belong in Cooperstown, many more who probably do not but are at least worthy of discussion.

My acquaintance had the Thursday idea, and I ran with it. I like the idea of taking contemporary players like Ichiro Suzuki or Curtis Granderson and imagining how they would have cleaned up in the Deadball Era, and I’m also intrigued by learning more about certain Negro League greats who never got a chance to play in the big leagues and seeing what might have been.

My acquaintance also suggested I provide more news, like on deaths of former players. I will be on the lookout, though I encourage family members of old ballplayers (both big league and otherwise) to seek me out if they’d like something written. I check the email address listed on this site pretty much every day and am always in need of new, compelling material here.

I of course welcome feedback on either of the new features that will be debuting as well as anything else people would like to see here. Thank you to everyone who reads.

It’s the Battle of the Area Codes: 717 vs. 415

A few days ago, I got an email from a reader named Fredrico Brillhart who saw my starting line-up of combat veterans for the Baseball in Wartime blog and wanted to know why I failed to include Negro League veterans. He sent information that seemed noteworthy enough to merit a follow-up post.

Shortly after my post went live, Fredrico emailed regarding third basemen who’d seen combat (Al Rosen, Billy Cox and Buddy Lewis to anyone who’s interested) and also offered this closing bit:

I live in the ( 717 ) area code & have enclosed the 717 Area Code All-Stars on attach file. I wonder if any other area code in the country could compete ?  What a pitching staff we have !!!

I scanned the information Fredrico provided on players from the 717 area code (which is in southern Pennsylvania) and for pitching at least, he may be right. His five-man rotation reads like a dream Deadball Era staff, every man in the Hall of Fame. The pitching staff is:

1. Christy Matthewson
2 or 3. Eddie Plank
2 or 3. Ed Walsh
4 or 5. Chief Bender
4 or 5. Stan Coveleski
Closer: Bruce Sutter
Setup: Gene Garber
Long relief, spot starting: Mike Mussina

Fredrico’s batting order is:

LF – Spottswood Poles
2B – Nellie Fox (HOF)
CF – Oscar Charleston (HOF)
DH – Vic Wertz vs RHP/ Steve Bilko DH
RF – Rap Dixon
1B – Jake Daubert vs. RHP/ Vic Wertz vs LHP
C – Johnny Bassler
SS – Hughie Jennings (HOF)
3B – Billy Cox

Overall, it’s an impressive team, but I know at least rival one area code: the 415. Currently, it covers San Francisco and Marin County, though it was much bigger in the past. I didn’t know this until I moved to the Bay Area, but it used to cover the East Bay, the Peninsula (south of San Francisco), and, in fact, much of California. Today, it seems there’s a million different area codes in my home state, but at one point, the 415 was one of three.

An all-time great batting line-up could be made from guys who were either born in the 415 — at least, in an area considered to be part of it at their time of birth — or spent their formative years there. My lineup is:

SS – Jimmy Rollins
3B – Joe Cronin (HOF)
CF – Joe DiMaggio (HOF)
LF – Barry Bonds
RF – Frank Robinson (HOF)
DH – Lefty O’Doul
1B – Harry Heilmann (HOF)
C – Ernie Lombardi (HOF)
2B – Tony Lazzeri (HOF)

I’m guessing this lineup would average .330 and have multiple .400 hitters. For context, here are some hitters who didn’t crack the order: Ping Bodie, Dolph Camilli, Dom DiMaggio, Ferris Fain, Curt Flood, Keith Hernandez, Willie McGee, and Vada Pinson as well as Hall of Famers Chick Hafey, High Pockets Kelly and Willie Stargell. Were these latter three substituted in and DiMaggio switched to shortstop, his first position in the Pacific Coast League, it could be an all-Cooperstown batting lineup. Hernandez and Dom DiMaggio could also make crack defensive substitutions, among the best all-time at first base and center field, respectively.

My pitching staff is less impressive and features:

1. Randy Johnson
2. Lefty Gomez (HOF)
3. Dave Stewart
4. Tom Candiotti
5. Ray Kremer
Closer: Dennis Eckersley
Setup: Tug McGraw
Long relief, spot starting: Dutch Ruether

I wonder which team would win. I’m guessing it would be a slug-fest unless Deadball Era baseballs were allowed, in which case it could get bleak for my 415 hitters. Maybe home field advantage determines what era baseballs are put in play or if Bonds gets to take steroids or if the fact that Ty Cobb lived in Atherton, California late in life makes him eligible for the 415 team. I’m saying no, but I might try to sneak him on if things got tight.

I also wonder if anyone could offer a better baseball area code. Perhaps it’s 213 back when it covered all of Southern California and produced players like Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams, but that’s a post for another time.

Related post: My visit to Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home in North Beach

Why getting a lot of Hall of Fame votes matters

I logged into my Google Analytics account this morning and was surprised to see that I got a bunch of traffic yesterday from a Web site called Baseball Think Factory. David Pinto of Baseball Musings linked to my post from Saturday proposing a new Hall of Fame metric, so I expected some spike, but this was insane. I got over 200 unique visitors yesterday, a Baseball: Past and Present record (I don’t get a whole lot of traffic.) Over a hundred of these visitors came from Baseball Think Factory, which I’m guessing picked up on my post from David. I was less excited, though, when I saw discussion by the members. I didn’t know whether to cheer that I made the site or throw up at how I was received.

Basically, I got my ass handed to me in the forum. No one much cared for the metric I proposed, Hall of Fame +/- which takes the number of future Hall of Famers a ballplayer got more votes for Cooperstown than, subtracts the number of non-members who finished in front of them and divides by the number of years they were on the ballot. Some members didn’t read my post, instead remarking that I share the same last name as an excellent Motown singer (I like to tell people we’re related.) One person who did read my story (twice, he lamented) referred to it as TFA, Internet slang for That Fucking Article. A guy who said he skimmed my piece slammed it for not offering Hodges’ Hall of Fame credentials, which I previously did elsewhere and would’ve added to an already-long post.

He wrote:

Did you read the article? The guy makes no case for Hodges whatsoever other than he received a lot of HoF votes. He doesn’t mention the pennant winners, the all-star games, the MVP votes (which aren’t impressive), the best at his position or anything. He mentions his made-up stat. His argument for Hodges’ worthiness is essentially (although it’s not clear he understands this) “the writers almost elected him, therefore he’s the most deserving of the un-elected.” You’d have a hard time coming up with a less interesting take on who deserves to be in the HoF that isn’t there already.

Actually, that’s incorrect.

I looked at every Hall of Fame ballot from 1936 to 1980 this evening. Out of the 104 men who received at least 30% of the vote at least once from the Baseball Writers Association of America in those years, 97 are now in Cooperstown (the seven players who aren’t enshrined are: Phil Cavarretta, Gil Hodges, Marty Marion, Hank Gowdy, Allie Reynolds, Johnny Sain, and Maury Wills.) The honorees aren’t just guys who made the Hall of Fame in a walk. The writers inducted 61 men (some, like Duke Snider, past their 10th ballots), the Veterans Committee enshrined another 24, and an Old-Timers Committee tabbed the remaining dozen.

Basically, if a player gets at least 30% of the vote at any time he’s on the Hall of Fame ballot, there is a better than 95% chance he will eventually get a plaque. It may take a long time, like it did with Tony Lazzeri who was enshrined 35 years after the first time he cracked 30 percent of the BBWAA vote, but it’ll happen. The longer it takes for a guy to get enshrined, the more he rises in the Hall of Fame +/- rankings.

I stand by my “made-up stat.”

(Postscript: This post caused some discussion)

Negro Leaguers who saw war combat

I got an email today from someone who read the guest post I did for the Baseball in Wartime blog about a starting line-up of ballplayers who saw combat. The reader had an issue with my post.

He wrote:

Hello Graham Womack,

I read your guest post in the Baseball In Wartime blog. There was an absence of any of the great Negro League stars that served in your listing. Spottswood Poles is one that I feel deserves the honor the most. He got a Purple Heart & several other awards for his service in WW I. He was a Sgt. with the 369th Hell Fighters that had the Germans running in fear, since the 369th had many ball players that could throw grenades twice as far as any German had ever seen. He is buried in Arlington National.

Another Negro Leaguer was Joe Greene ( 3 years WWII ) who received two Battle Stars serving with the 92nd Division, mostly on the front lines. Three times he barely escaped being killed [ one time he was in the hospital for 3 weeks from a mortar shell blast ]. Like Cecil Travis he was never the same ballplayer when he came back. He even helped cut down Mussolini & his girlfriend that had been hung by partisans in Italy.

These are just two stories of the many Negro League stars that served in combat for their country. On attach files see about Spottswood Poles.

Yours, Fredrico  [ Fred Brillhart ]

I replied:

Hi Fredrico,
I looked at putting Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin and Oscar Charleston on the team but decided against it. Thompson didn’t make it on playing merit, while I couldn’t confirm if Irvin or Charleston saw combat. Irvin was in Europe during World War II as a back line of defense, while Charleston was in the Philippines from 1910 to 1915, but I wasn’t sure if this qualified as combat.
I also considered putting Jackie Robinson on the team as an honorary member — since the only thing that may have kept him from combat was a race-related court martial — but chose not to for space constraints.
I wasn’t aware of Greene or Poles and will look more at what you sent.
Thanks for writing,
Graham Womack

I went with what I knew for writing the original post. I know great Negro Leaguers like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and other players Ken Burns researched — and that’s probably more than lots of other baseball fans — but my knowledge is for the most part cursory.

I think Fredrico has a good point. Among the attachments he provided was a piece he wrote in 1998 on Poles which said that he “was the first great lead-off hitter of the 20th Century and was the prototype that goes all the way to Rickey Henderson.” He also said Poles’ .365 lifetime batting average in the California Winter League is better than 10 Major League Baseball Hall of Famers.

If I were to write the post again, I think I might be able to find a place for Poles in my outfield. And I would concede there are others like him and Greene.

An open letter to Baseball-Reference and the statistical powers that be

To whom it may concern:

On the heels of a pair of great Baseball-Reference blog posts this past week ranking the best pitchers and position players not in the Hall of Fame based on their Wins Above Replacement data, I may have created a new baseball statistic and found another way to gauge worthiness for Cooperstown.

This statistic is called Hall of Fame +/- and it measures how many future Cooperstown members a ballplayer finished ahead of in Hall of Fame voting compared to how many fellow non-inductees got more votes than them, divided by the number of years they were on the ballot. As I’ll explain momentarily, it’s a great tool for discovering forgotten players. Also, it appears many recent Veterans Committee picks have positive Hall of Fame +/- ratios so my metric could be a good way for predicting future honorees. In fact, the old-guard players and managers of the committee could care less about modern sabermetrics like WAR, so this might predict more future picks.

Baseball-Reference helped with the creation. I recently learned it’s possible through the site to view the results of Hall of Fame voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America for every year dating back to the first vote in 1936. Looking at the results of the 1983 election for a post I did in April on one-and-done Hall of Fame candidates, I noticed Gil Hodges, whose Hall of Fame credentials I’ve looked at before, got more votes than six future Cooperstown members that year but wasn’t enshrined. In fact, Hodges exhausted his 15th and final year of BBWAA eligibility in 1983 and still doesn’t have a plaque.

For each year Hodges was on the ballot, he got more votes than an average of 9.67 men who were later enshrined. Only once, in his first year of eligibility, did anyone finish ahead of him in the voting who doesn’t have a Cooperstown plaque now. So, by taking the 145 times Hodges got more votes than a future Hall of Famer, subtracting the three non-members who beat him in 1969 and dividing by the 15 times Hodges was on the ballot, we get his Hall of Fame +/- of 9.47.

I wanted to see if this was an anomaly or the norm for the 32 other men besides Hodges who’ve gone the full 15 years and failed to make the Hall of Fame with the writers since the advent of modern voting procedures in the 1960s, men like Ron Santo, Roger Maris and Tommy John. Thus, I started going through the voting records and tabulating the Hall of Fame +/- for each player.

I didn’t look at all 32 others, but the ones I saw didn’t approach Hodges’ ratio. Maris, Santo, and John all have negative Hall of Fame +/- ratios– that is, the number of non-members who got more votes than them was higher than the number of future Hall of Famers they beat out. Bill Mazeroski never finished ahead of a future Hall of Famer in his 15 years on the ballot, though the Veterans Committee later enshrined him. Other committee picks like Jim Bunning and Red Schoendienst appear to have positive ratios at quick glance, though I haven’t calculated them yet, and I’m guessing the numbers are lower than Hodges’ ratio.

I dug through old ballots to find Hodges a peer. Some may argue it’s not a valid comparison, since the older the Hall of Fame voting year, the more time that’s transpired to allow a larger number of players to be honored by the writers and Veteran’s Committee. Old ballots also sometimes teemed with more than 100 players, including active stars and managers. That’s where the ratio comes in: It means little for a player to have finished better than 50 future Hall of Famers in 1938 if that many non-members finished in front of him. My stat rewards non-members who finished consistently better than other non-members.

Hodges doesn’t have the best Hall of Fame +/- ratio among all non-inducted players. I found three with better ratios: Lefty O’Doul with 13.8, and a pair of Deadball Era catchers, Hank Gowdy with 14.59 and Johnny Kling with 13.11. Hodges also doesn’t have the record for most future Hall of Famers beaten out on one ballot, even though he bested 13 in 1970. Gowdy, who I recently wrote belongs in a starting lineup of combat veterans, got more votes than 33 future members in 1956. Kling beat out 32 in 1937 and 31 the following year, while O’Doul, an amazing player a short time in my book, got more votes than 27 in 1960. Gowdy, Kling and O’Doul weren’t bested by any non-Hall of Famers those years, either.

I hadn’t heard of Kling prior to my research, and it illuminated others like Babe Adams, Duffy Lewis, and Bucky Walters. To me, that makes this stat valuable. If for no other reason, it could help honor forgotten players. With that said, there’s another reason I’d love to see this stat added to Baseball-Reference: All I’ve done this weekend, it seems, is pore over old Hall of Fame ballots.

Anyhow, with that, I’m out.

Yours truly,

Graham Womack

(Postscript: Not everyone liked this idea.)