Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Closers

The following post is written by Matthew Warburg

With the retirement in January of the current career saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, it seems now would be a good time to repeat a question we’ve heard before: Do closers belong in the Hall of Fame? Some people might say yes, and voters certainly have. For me, the answer is that for the most part they do not. Closers simply do not have a big enough impact on the game to be considered among the all-time greats.

To start with, closers pitch relatively few innings. Of the four modern day closers in Cooperstown (Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley, provided one does not consider Hoyt Wilhelm a modern closer), none pitched more than 1,600 innings as a reliever. To put that in perspective, consider that that is roughly the same number of innings a starter pitches in about seven seasons.  Most Hall of Fame starters pitch between 3000-4000 innings, and even Sandy Koufax’s brief but stellar career encompassed over 2300 innings pitched. Obviously, the fewer innings pitched, the less impact a hurler has on the game.

A closer’s job isn’t particularly difficult. After all, if you enter the 9th inning with the bases empty, no outs, and the lead, as most modern closers do, you already probably have around an 80 percent chance of winning the game. So the fact that the best closers have save percentages in the mid to high 80’s isn’t really that impressive. Consider too that many save opportunities come with two or three run leads, in which case the chance of winning the game is already probably upwards of 90 percent, and the job of closing out a game becomes an even less impressive feat.

Add these two points together, and you get largely unremarkable pitchers whose Hall of Fame candidacies are the product of a poorly designed statistic, the save. Closers wouldn’t even be entering the Cooperstown discussion if not for that stat’s existence. The evidence is in the WAR. Goose Gossage, the closer with the highest career WAR of those already inducted (I haven’t counted Eckersley’s years as a starter), is tied for 425th on the all-time list. Gossage’s best single season, with a WAR of 7.0 (also I believe the best single season by any closer) doesn’t even come close to making the top 500 seasons of all-time (the cut-off is 8.1).

Now consider that Bruce Sutter’s best single season WAR was 6.3, Eckersley’s (as a reliever) 3.2, and Fingers’ 4.1 (the year he won the Cy Young and MVP.) Francisco Rodriguez’s 62-save masterpiece only earned him a WAR of 3.2. Mariano Rivera’s best season is a whopping 5.4; Lee Smith never topped 4.5. And Trevor Hoffman, the current all-time saves leader whose retirement has sparked this debate? A career WAR of 30.7 and single-season high of 4.0.

So are the best closers very good at what they do? Undoubtedly yes. But is what they do very difficult? No. Do they have a significant impact on the outcome of baseball games. No. Maybe that’s why whenever a closer gets injured or traded, a manager is usually able to give the job to his next best reliever and achieve similar results. It just isn’t that difficult or meaningful a job, which is why I don’t think closers belong in the HOF.

This was a guest post written by Matthew Warburg

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert Belle, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

Do we have to worry about vultures?

The following guest post was written by Brendan Bingham

With Felix Hernandez having won the AL Cy Young Award and Bert Blyleven’s recent election to the Hall of Fame, it seems that wins and losses have fallen out of favor as the primary measures of a pitcher’s success.  However, we remain a long way from ignoring these stats altogether.

Vulture is a term applied to a relief pitcher who collects victories, often not so much through his own pitching prowess, but opportunistically, thanks to the timely late-inning hitting of teammates.  There is an air of deprecation in the use of this term.  In one scenario, the relief pitcher enters the game with his team losing.  This vulture is in a relatively invulnerable position.  If he pitches poorly, perhaps his ERA suffers, but he cannot be charged with the loss.  But if his team scores enough runs to take the lead, he stands to be credited with the win, sometimes after only a short and unspectacular time on the mound.  In a second – perhaps more sinister – scenario, the relief pitcher enters the game with the lead, but fails to hold it.  At least this vulture is at risk of taking the loss.  However, with his team’s rallying to retake the lead, he “earns” the victory, an unsavory accomplishment worthy of its being named for the large carrion-eating bird.

How common are vulture wins?

With the expansion and increasing specialization of relief pitching, we’re hearing more and more about vultures.  Modern day 25-player rosters are typically composed of no less than 11 pitchers, more often 12, sometimes 13.  In contrast, having 10 pitchers on the roster was the norm in the 60s and 70s.  The 4-man starting rotation has become a thing of the past.  Starters are pitching fewer innings and very few complete games.  Relief pitching has been broken down into three or four distinct sub-disciplines, and relievers as a group are pitching more innings.

The table below shows the number of wins collected by starters and relievers since 2000.  Please note that “% Starter Wins” is not a traditional winning percentage.  For the purpose of this analysis, losses and losing pitchers are ignored.  For each game played, we’re simply asking – was the winning pitcher a starter or a reliever

Year Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
2000 1680 748 69.19
2001 1716 712 70.68
2002 1703 722 70.23
2003 1730 699 71.22
2004 1657 771 68.25
2005 1741 689 71.65
2006 1723 706 70.93
2007 1682 749 69.19
2008 1682 746 69.28
2009 1706 724 70.21
2010 1736 694 71.44

These percentages are remarkable in their lack of variation.  With only minor year-to-year changes, the win in about 70% of MLB games in the past decade was credited to the winning team’s starting pitcher.

It is reasonable to expect that the frequency of vulture wins has increased over time, given the transformation that has taken place in the bullpen, or at least that was my expectation going into this analysis.  However, a quick survey of every tenth year from 1920 to 1990 shows evidence of change, but not where I had expected it.  Indeed, wins by relief pitchers were once less common, but you have to go back to 1950 to see a noteworthy departure from the 70/30 split of recent years.  Before looking at these numbers, I had expected the percentage of wins by starters to have been higher in 1960, if not also in 1970.  Bear in mind that I am not including all years from these earlier decades; rather I am trusting that one year in ten is representative of the decade, always a dangerous assumption.

Year Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
1920 1062 166 86.48
1930 990 242 80.36
1940 958 270 78.01
1950 965 265 78.46
1960 856 376 69.48
1970 1386 557 71.33
1980 1533 568 72.97
1990 1509 596 71.69

Traditionally, pitchers were expected to finish what they started.  Relief pitchers were often called upon only when the game was out of reach.  That’s an admittedly simple-minded view of relief pitching, but perhaps close enough to accurate for the 20s, 30s and 40s.  While it is only in the past two decades that our recognition of relievers’ contributions has included election to Cooperstown, it was during the 1950s that some well-known relievers emerged.  Two examples are Clem Lebine, who had double-digit relief wins for the ’55 and ’56 Brooklyn Dodgers, and Elroy Face, who performed the same feat for the ’59 and ’60 Pirates.

How important are vulture wins to team success?

We need look no further than the past season to see that vulture victories are sometimes key to team success, but more often not.

2010 National League
Team Total Wins Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
PHI 97 70 27 72.16
SF 92 61 31 66.30
ATL 91 59 32 64.84
CIN 91 57 34 62.64
SD 90 66 24 73.33
STL 86 68 18 79.07
COL 83 58 25 69.88
FLA 80 63 17 78.75
LAD 80 55 25 68.75
NYM 79 53 26 67.09
MIL 77 52 25 67.53
HOU 76 52 24 68.42
CHC 75 60 15 80.00
WAS 69 42 27 60.87
ARI 65 49 16 75.38
PIT 57 34 23 59.65
2010 American League
Team Total Wins Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
TB 96 73 23 76.04
NYY 95 72 23 75.79
MIN 94 73 21 77.66
TEX 90 58 32 64.44
BOS 89 70 19 78.65
CHW 88 64 24 72.73
TOR 85 63 22 74.12
DET 81 53 28 65.43
OAK 81 64 17 79.01
LAA 80 62 18 77.50
CLE 69 51 18 73.91
KC 67 46 21 68.66
BAL 66 42 24 63.64
SEA 61 46 15 75.41

In the NL, Cincinnati’s league-leading relief wins were important to their making the post-season.  Based on starting pitcher wins, St Louis would have won the Central division.  The Giants also beat out the Padres due in part to their posting more relief victories.  Meanwhile, the Phillies, who finished the season with the most total wins, had 27 wins by relief pitchers, a good but not outstanding total.  Many teams, including the division-trailing Washington Nationals, posted vulture win totals similar to Philadelphia’s.

In the AL, the Texas Rangers benefited from posting a league-leading 32 relief wins.  They would have finished third in their division based on starter wins alone.  However, the other three post-season teams put up unspectacular numbers of vulture wins.  Moreover, the Baltimore Orioles, with the second-worst record in the league, had more relief wins than the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays or the wildcard Yankees.

In general, the number of wins by starters is a better predictor of team success than wins by relief pitcher.  Poor teams and good teams often have similar numbers of relief pitcher wins.

Bottom Line

Although modern-day relief pitching has become very specialized, its primary purpose is to preserve starting pitchers’ wins, not to generate wins from the bullpen.  Closers are the most highly respected (and best paid) relievers, and the key stat by which they are judged is saves, not wins.  Wins from the bullpen are great, but they’re unpredictable, and when a team generates lots of them, the accomplishment speaks more to the team’s clutch hitting than its pitching.  If you had to summarize the Texas Rangers’ pennant-winning season with one phrase, I suspect you would more likely choose “timely late-inning hitting” than “dominant relief pitching.”

Post Script

It was my interest in the distribution of starter and relief pitcher wins that prompted my prediction about Denny McLain (see Graham’s Jan 27th post).  On the reasoning that 1) the percentage of wins by starters doesn’t change much between eras and 2) in any era, there is only one winning pitcher per ballgame, I asserted that McLain’s 30-win season should survive his being transported to another era, provided he winds up on a winning team and is given the opportunity to pitch as much as he did in 1968.  Sound reasoning, or so I thought, but stat converter says otherwise.  1968 remains a special year for pitchers, particularly Denny McLain.

This guest post was written by Brendan Bingham. Email him at

Bobby Layne: The NFL Hall of Fame Great Who Could Have Starred in the Major League

Snow is snowing and the wind is blowing here in my Pittsburgh hometown. But despite how awful the weather may get, no one cares. We’re all about the Steelers, 24/7. With only a handful of days left until the Super Bowl, no Steelers’ story has gone uncovered.

The most over-analyzed player is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: Is he really remorseful for his long history of inappropriate off-field behavior? While Big Ben has won over some fans, he’s still got a long way to go. A Hollywood Reporter poll found that Ben is three times as unpopular as any Super Bowl player.

For the most part, Steelers fans are more concerned about how Roethlisberger stacks up against his Green Bay opposite, Aaron Rodgers.

Having heard the Roethlisberger versus Rodgers debate non-stop for nearly two weeks, I’ve added another dimension to the argument. Here’s my version of the big question—Who would you rather have in the biggest game of the year: Rodgers, Roethlisberger or old-timer Bobby Layne?

As every Steelers, Detroit Lions and University of Texas football fan knows Layne, whose college and professional career spanned 18 years from 1944 to 1962 is, a four-time All-Southwest Conference pick, a six-time Pro Bowler, six time All-Pro selection who was chosen for the NFL’s 1950s All Decade team and elected into the Hall of Fame in 1967. In 1995, Sports Illustrated named Layne the “toughest quarterback who ever lived” and in 1999, the Sporting News placed him #52 on its list of the 100 greatest players ever.

Layne remains a Pittsburgh legend not only for his heroic efforts to lift the Steelers out of the doldrums after his abrupt and controversial trade from the Lions but also for his late night, non-stop partying. Compared to Layne, some consider Roethlisberger an altar boy.

His propensity for heavy drinking aside, Layne’s achievements are beyond question. On the University of Texas campus, undergraduates and alums still talk about the 1947 Cotton Bowl game against Missouri where Layne scored every point in the Longhorns’ 40-27 win. For the day, Layne had three running touchdowns, two passing, one receiving and kicked four extra points. (See You Tube video here).

In 1948 when #5 Texas‘ beat #6 Alabama 27-7 in the Sugar Bowl, Layne got the Longhorns off to a quick start with a 99-yard first quarter touchdown strike.

For all of Layne’s football skills, he could just as easily have been an outstanding major league pitcher. During Layne’s three seasons as a Longhorns’ starter, he posted a 39-7 record including two no hitters.

Layne had bids from the New York Giants, the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals to join their staffs. But in the late 1940s, the road to the bigs was long and arduous. Rookies started out in Class D where teams were located in small towns with substandard facilities. From there, players progressed slowly—next stop, Class C, then B, A, AA, AAA and finally for the best of them, the major leagues. By choosing football, Layne went straight to the Chicago Bears.

Without question, Layne would have contributed to those 1950s Giants, Red Sox and Cardinals teams. A quick look at their pitching shows little depth.

While we can only speculate about how effective Layne would have been on a major league mound, it’s safe to say that his competitiveness and no quit attitude would have made him a valuable addition to any team. Just as he did on the football field, Layne would somehow or another figured out a way to slip a fastball past opposing batters.

Getting back to the Super Bowl, I’m willing to go out on a limb. Please take into account that I’ve been barraged for two weeks on talk radio and local television about the Steelers’ greatness.

Nevertheless, I predict that the Steelers will score more points than most people think (many of them on defense) and the Packers will score fewer.

Final score: Steelers 31-Green Bay 17

The Great Friday Link Out IV: A New Hope

The only thing missing here is Billy Dee Williams.

  • For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Rob Neyer left on Monday, joined SB Nation on Tuesday, and gave a kickass interview here on Wednesday. Things really do move quickly on the Internet.
  • It’s my turn today on the “Best of the Worst” series Bill Miller and I have been doing for his blog, The On Deck Circle. This week, I wrote about Walter Johnson, perhaps the greatest example ever in baseball history of a superb player with a moribund franchise.
  • Here is a recap of the brief and colorful career of Detroit Tigers pitcher Boots Poffenberger. That name alone merits a post. If anyone would like to send me an unusual name of an obscure player, I’ll do an “Any player/Any era” for the one I like best.
  • The Hardball Times notes why Jim Leyland, Mike Scioscia, and Ozzie Guillen could eventually be in Cooperstown as managers: Each won World Series without any future Hall of Famers on their postseason rosters. This has happened three other times in baseball history, 1981 and 1988 with the Dodgers and 1984 with the Tigers and the managers for those clubs, Tommy Lasorda and Sparky Anderson are each enshrined. My thoughts? Leyland: Yes. Scioscia: Probably, if he keeps doing what he’s doing for another decade. Guillen: No.
  • Verdun2 has done it again with a fine profile of late sportswriter Wendell Smith who pushed for the integration of baseball and was the first black member of the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1948. This looks to be the first in a series of articles for February. Verdun2 ended his post by saying it would “begin a celebration of black history month in the US with a look at a black American writer. I intend to make a few more looks at the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball off and on during the month. Hope you will enjoy them.” I’m sure we will.

Any player/Any era: Michael Jordan

What he did: Many fans probably know the story of Michael Jordan’s first retirement from the NBA, how he quit basketball in October 1993 and resurfaced the following spring as a 31-year-old minor league baseball player. Jordan spent one season with the Double-A affiliate for the Chicago White Sox, the Birmingham Barons, managing 30 stolen bases, a .202 batting average, and a .556 OPS. He looked so out of place Sports Illustrated put out a cover that screamed, Bag It, Michael! and while Jordan quit talking to SI thereafter, he abandoned baseball and returned to the NBA in early 1995.

Successful transitions from basketball to baseball are rare for professional athletes with success stories like Dick Groat, George Crowe, and former Harlem Globetrotters Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Ferguson Jenkins few and far between. In Jordan’s case, there was simply no hope of a light-hitting outfielder debuting in the majors on the wrong side of 30, not now, not in any generation of baseball since 1920 when the livening of the ball shifted the balance of power in the game from pitchers to hitters. But what if Jordan played before all this?

Era he might have thrived in: In 1906, the Hitless Wonder Chicago White Sox won 93 games and a World Series title despite hitting .230 as a team, scoring just 570 runs, and having two outfielders with OPS ratings under .600. The thought here is that Jordan would be an upgrade on either man and offer a perfect style of play for these White Sox, assuming of course we suspend disbelief about him being able to play in the majors as a black man prior to 1947 and Jackie Robinson.

Why: There’s a scene in Major League where manager Lou Brown barks at wannabe power hitter and leadoff man Willie Mays Hayes, “With your speed, you should be hitting them on the ground and legging them out.” The same goes for Jordan, who didn’t benefit facing the modern, tightly-wound ball. Playing in the Deadball Era with a softer ball that rolled slower, I can only wonder how many more hits Jordan would have had. His average still might not have been much higher than .202 but that could have been enough for these White Sox, whose best batter hit just .279. Imagine if Jordan learned to bunt proficiently as well.

Jordan’s speed would endear him on a team that stole 216 bases and boasted five players with at least 20 steals. It could help Jordan in the field, too. Deadball Era outfielders played much shallower, which is why there are a lot of these men near the top of the outfield assists leader board almost a century later. With Jordan’s legs, he could play as close to the infield as he liked and cover enough ground to compensate, and he wouldn’t need much arm strength to make a difference.

It goes without saying that Jordan may have benefited, too from playing baseball in an age before basketball could have caused him to abandon his efforts. I think success in life is partly about persisting in the face of adversity, blinding ourselves to would-be detractors, and ignoring distractions. That was a lot easier in the days before Sports Illustrated and seven-figure basketball contracts. Any of us would struggle in Jordan’s shoes, really. That he even lasted a season in 1994 Double-A ball is, at least to some degree, a feat in itself.

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

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

Sandy Koufax’s peerless half-decade

Editor’s note: Rory Paap of, who’s written a couple guest posts here in recent months has agreed to contribute an article every other week to this site. Rory’s on his way up as a writer and is light years ahead of me in terms of statistical analysis. I’m honored to have him here.

Over on my personal corner of the Web, I recently wrote about Matt Cain and his ability to tame the fly ball and defended that idea today, after it stirred some controversy.  I wrote that Cain’s skill did not make him overrated, but unique. While doing my best to unearth what exactly Cain is so good at, I brought in Koufax. At a glance, they don’t seem so similar at all, but upon further observation some similarities emerge: Koufax also excelled at turning balls hit in the air into outs. Unfortunately, because it is predominantly in this area that Cain excels (and it does little or nothing to light up the stat sheet otherwise), many choose to poke holes in it. But with Koufax, he excelled in each of rendering fly balls innocuous and striking out hitters in flurries; thus, no one bothers to question the former.

But that’s only just an introduction to my favorite pitcher of all time, southpaw Sandy Koufax.  I explained in that post that Koufax’s dominant stretch would be addressed some other time; it has arrived.

He must have been something else given that he was a Dodger and I am an intense Giants fan.


Koufax had two weapons that made him devastating: an extremely hard four-seam fastball that had late life which made it appear to rise as it approached the hitter, and a 12 to 6 curveball held with an odd grip and ridiculous bite. These two weapons caused Willie Stargell to once say of him: “Trying to hit him is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

Koufax would only play 12 seasons, but the first half of them were uninspiring. He had a golden left arm that could blister a catchers glove with fastballs but hadn’t a clue how to wield it. But in the second half of his career he learned to, and what followed was one of the grittiest and most dominant stretches in history for a pitcher.

It was gritty because he suffered from severe arthritis in his final two seasons, and by the end it was clear he would take any measure to get to the bump every few days. After more than one start his arm was black and blue and his elbow about the size of a football. To remedy this inconvenience (when it would qualify as a serious medical condition to most), Sandy soaked his arm in ice baths after starts, took Empirin with codeine, Butazolidin and capsaicin*-based Capsolin ointment for pain, inflammation and god knows what else, as Jane Leavy explained in her 2003 biography (which I’ve read and is wonderful), Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. That sounds more like an addict’s medicine cabinet than a pitcher’s between-start regimen.

*Capsaicin comes from the white, membranous area inside of peppers, and is what gives them the “heat,” i.e. what is the irritant to humans. Does that sound like something you’d feel comfortable slathering your arm with?

From 1962-65 he was breathtaking. With a 1.95 ERA he would win 111 games to just 34 losses in 1,377 innings and 176 starts, of which 100 were complete games (33 shutouts) – to put that into context, Roy Halladay led baseball in 2010 with 9 complete games, and only Felix Hernandez was close with just 6.

Announcing his arrival as an elite pitcher, Koufax threw his first no-hitter in June of ’62. He would throw three more over the course of his career, the last being of the elusive Perfect Game variety in 1965 when he struck out more than half (14) of the 27 batters he faced. He was the first to throw four no-hitters, and it would take a man named Nolan Ryan to eclipse him.

His adjusted-ERA (ERA+) was 167 over that span, or 67% better than the league average pitcher. He allowed less than one base runner per inning (walks plus hits per inning (WHIP): .926). He struck out more than a batter per inning (9.4 per nine) and walked just 2.1 per nine (strikeout to walk ratio: 4.57). He racked up an unbelievable 42 (4.4, 10.8, 7.8, 8.2, 10.8) Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in those five seasons.

And with his dominance came accolades. He won both the Cy Young award and the MVP award in 1963. When he won the Cy Young award again in 1965 and 1966 (finishing second in both seasons’ MVP voting), he became the first pitcher to ever have won three, and each happened to be unanimous. In each of those seasons, he was the Triple Crown winner for pitchers. What’s more, he’d have led the American League too.

He also earned World Series MVP honors twice while leading the Dodgers to titles in both 1963 and 1965.

In 1966, he led the league in wins, ERA, starts, complete games, shutouts, innings and strikeouts, won the Cy Young unanimously, and then quietly walked away. He’d had enough of the pain. He was just 30. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 on his first ballot, the youngest player ever enshrined.

And yet perhaps the greatest achievement of his career came on October 6, 1965 when he refused to pitch Game 1 of the World Series, as the game fell on Yom Kippur. His fearlessness in standing up for what was sacred to him was inspiring.


If, by any chance, you’re looking for a more recent example of such a dominant stretch, look no further than Randy Johnson’s 1999-2003. Within that stretch, he had an ERA+ of 175 and won four consecutive NL Cy Young awards. But keep in mind that he won only one NL Triple Crown in that stretch and a single World Series MVP. He did not throw a no-hitter, let alone four. His cumulative WAR in that span was 34 (to Koufax’s 42). In terms of pure performance, workload, postseason success, league awards and no-hitters, Koufax’s ’62 to ’66 is peerless. Talk about going out in style.

(H/T to Baseball-reference, Baseball Almanac and Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, written by Jane Leavy)

An interview with Rob Neyer

Editor’s note: The following conversation took place this morning by phone. For the second straight day, I’ve got to say it: Thank you Rob Neyer

First off, thank you so much for being up for this. I just got a few questions. I know you’re a busy guy. The first thing I wanted ask you was leaving ESPN, it seemed like you probably could have had your pick of going anywhere you want, any publication or being a consultant for any number of teams or baseball-related museums such as the Hall of Fame. Why did you choose SB Nation?

Neyer: Well, I wouldn’t say that I would have my pick. That would be a lovely situation to be in. Certainly, I’ve had opportunities over the years to leave and work with lots of great people, but none of those things ever felt exactly right. It never made sense for me to leave ESPN, which is a wonderful place to work, unless it felt exactly right, and this, SB Nation was really the first time I felt like that. It’s just an immensely energetic, creative place with just a huge roster of talent, a [ton] of sports blogs, very high quality. And it just seemed to fit in with what I’ve been doing my whole career.

How long was this all in the works?

Neyer: I think, like almost anything else, on some level it’s sort of always been in the works. There’s no real moment I can point to. Certainly, I’ve been admiring SB Nation for a long time time, and I became friendly with Tyler Bleszinski some years ago, just on a sort of professional level. Tyler’s the one who started SB Nation… and we certainly always thought it’d be fun to work together some today. But you have a lot of discussions like that with people. I certainly didn’t know that it was going to come together or think that it might until fairly recently.

*                        *                      *

Does SB Nation, does it parallel at all the early days of ESPN, like maybe say the late ’90s?

Neyer: I would probably go back a little bit further than that. I joined, which actually was then called in 1996, and it very much had the feel of a start-up, you know a very well-financed start-up no question. Paul Allen (the co-founder of Microsoft) was behind it, and of course, Paul Allen was then a billionaire and still a billionaire. But there was an energy around that company, Starwave, which had a number of Web sites including ESPN. There was an energy around that company that you really couldn’t help sort of be imbued with. One thing I liked about being there at that point was that it sort of felt like you could do almost anything, that you could just try things. If it didn’t work out, that’s okay, and if it did work out, nobody would say, ‘Hey, you’re not really supposed to be doing that. You’re supposed to be doing this.’

That’s how I became a baseball columnist, essentially. I was hired as a– I think my official job title for awhile anyway was fantasy editor. That was job: edit and generate some fantasy content for the fantasy sports that we had on the site. But it really wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I discovered that fairly quickly. So I spent more and more of my time just writing, and nobody ever said, ‘Hey Rob, stop doing that.’ I was fortunate that I had editors and other people there who were very supportive of what I wanted to do and what seemed to be working for me. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t a fantasy editor, I was just a columnist, a baseball writer. And obviously, that’s what I’m still doing.

That culture at, does that still exist to a certain extent? Has it kind of gone away as the organization has gotten bigger?

Neyer: Look, I’m just one guy, and it’s a huge company. I certainly wouldn’t want to say that there aren’t still opportunities to strike out in different directions. I think that there probably are. I think there are people who do that. I just didn’t figure out how to do it. Over the last four or five years, I felt like I maybe hit– I don’t want to say I was in a rut, because it didn’t feel like a rut. I just felt like I’d maybe taken it as far as I could. But that’s not ESPN’s fault, that’s probably my fault for not being smart enough to figure out how to do other things.

I think a lot of people at some point in their career they just come to a spot where a change is good, not because of a problem with the old place, but because the new place sort of forces one to step back and say, ‘You know what? What do I really want to be doing? And how do I do that?’ And I think that SB Nation is really– I mean, I’ve been there for a day, and I’ve already been doing some things that– you know, small things but some things that I’ve never done before. And it’s been a lot of fun.

What’s an example of one of those things?

Neyer: This is a very tiny thing and will sound inconsequential to anyone, I suspect, but what I wanted to do for a long time in my blog at ESPN was write very short blog entries or short comments, maybe 100 words, 200 words. I never really felt like I had the right spot to do that. I was limiting myself, I think, in that regard, so I have nobody to blame but me. All I can say is SB Nation has a place on the baseball page that’s perfect for a short comment or commentary of 50 words or 100 words, something between Twitter and a full blown column.

I was a blogger at ESPN the last three or four years, technically or officially, but really all I was doing was writing more columns, column-length blog entries, and I didn’t really get the hang of writing the short, catchy stuff that I think really fits into a blog. Whether it was the format of the blog or what it was I don’t know, but all of a sudden, I feel very liberated like I can write anything between 50 words and 1,000 words, and there’s a place to put that.

*                        *                      *

I know you kind of got your start with Bill James, and Bill James was somebody who, 30 years ago, his stuff was considered too off-track of the mainstream, and he kind of had to create his own ideal. I don’t know, you think you were thinking at all of Bill James when you made this move?

Neyer: Good question. I sort of internalized Bill James, reading everything he’s written essentially, much of it multiple times and working for him for four years. I don’t think of Bill James every day. He passes through my thoughts, obviously, but I don’t sort of consciously think, ‘Okay, what would Bill do here?’ But it does happen. I think that some people might regard my writing style, for example, as a poor man’s Bill James. There probably is something to that. Sometimes, I’ll read something that I’ve written– I don’t read my own stuff very often after the fact–  but if I do, I think, ‘Oh wow, that was sort of me channeling Bill James, wasn’t it?’ I really can’t get away from it at this point, but I don’t know if leaving ESPN and joining SB Nation really has anything to do with an ethos that Bill might be an exemplar of.

I do think that one thing that characterized Bill for a long time, really for his entire career as a writer is a willingness to write things that might make people uncomfortable, an unwillingness to allow people tell him what to write. And one thing Bill’s never really done is write for a big entity with a structure and a hierarchy where someone could say, ‘You know what Bill? You can’t write that.’ Every writer would love to have that situation. Bill was able to make it work. Most of us can’t.

I certainly had standards at ESPN, some of which I found chasing, and I’ll have standards and practices and guidelines at SB Nation, maybe not quite as restrictive. I’ve been encouraged to push the envelope a little bit, which I really appreciate. But still, I can’t just write the thing that pops into my head and expect that it will pass muster.

Certainly, I mean the blogosphere is a meritocracy. I believe that.

Neyer: I think so. There are so many great writers out there on the Web, many of whom do it purely because they enjoy it, not for the money. It really is amazing how quickly it can happen.

I have a friend, Carson Cistulli who I started on, and it didn’t really work out for reasons beyond his and my control. It was discouraging for me because I thought, ‘You know what, I found this guy.’ I shouldn’t say I found him, I discovered him. But I appreciated him. I was convinced he was talented and had a really interesting voice, and I tried to get him out there where a lot of people could find him, and it didn’t work. Again, it was discouraging. Well it was then a month, two months, he was at Fangraphs, then he was at someplace else. Now, he’s all over the place.

That whole process took maybe two months, three months, and it really can happen. With a small break here or there and a voice, you can move up pretty quick on the Web, and I don’t know exactly if it was like that before the Web.

What do you think is the best course for a young writer starting out right now? Do you think it’s still smart to shoot for a place like Sports Illustrated or or do you think it’s kind of better just to sort of create your own thing?

Neyer: Look, I’m sure there are lots of ways to get where a person wants to be. I would never tell someone, ‘Don’t shoot for ESPN.’ If that’s your dream, then that’s what you should shoot for, and there are ways to do that. It’s very difficult to plan for a destination like that, though. I guess Bill Clinton wanted to be president when he was 19 or something, and he did it, Barack Obama did. I suppose that there’s something to be said for setting what seem to be unreasonable goals at a young age or early in a career. I’ve never known how to make that sort of thing work, maybe it’s just me.

To me, if you’re a young writer, the thing to do is read lots of good writing, do lots of writing and hope that it becomes good, and if you do that, there’s ways to move up. I think for a relatively long time, the notion has been, ‘Well, I’ll start a blog, and it’ll be so good someone will notice me, and I’ll get to write somewhere else and move up.’ And that works. It has worked. But now, there’s even another way, which is you can just write what are called fan posts. They actually show up, and people see those too. And if you’re good enough at that, you’ll move up. They’ll say, ‘Hey, we love your fan posts, will you write for the site regularly?’ ‘Yeah I will,’ and you’re on your way. This really is an exciting time for writers.

It’s funny because the notion is that there’s less money out there for writers. And certainly we see lot of people in the media get laid off and retire earlier, that sort of thing. It’s harder to make money writing books, I think, than it ever has been. But, by the same token, the barriers to entry whether it’s writing books or writing on the Web or whatever is much lower than it’s ever been before. Maybe you’re not going to make a lot of money writing, but if what you want to do is write and make some living or even just as a part-time job, the opportunities are out there like they’ve never been before. I think this is probably the best time ever to be a young writer.

Other interviews: Joe Posnanski, Josh Wilker, John Thorn, Hank Greenwald

How Harry Leon Simpson Became “Suitcase”– Not the Way You Think!

With Steelers mania in my hometown of Pittsburgh at full throttle during this week leading up to the Super Bowl, I decided to add a little balance to my life by finally sitting down to watch the 20-DVD Major League World Series set issued last year by Major League Baseball.

I worked my way up to the 1957 World Series that pitted the New York Yankees against the Milwaukee Braves. Watching the clips from Game 3, I was surprised to see Harry “Suitcase” Simpson at first base for the Yankees.

Even though I’ve never been a Yankee fan, my Bronx-raised father avidly rooted for the Bombers. And in 1957, my family lived in Puerto Rico where the Armed Forces Radio game of the week always featured, or so it seemed, the Yankees. So I was somewhat surprised that I had no clear recollection of Simpson’s brief Yankee days which totaled 99 games in parts of 1957 and 1958.

Still, as I watched Simpson stroke a first inning RBI single, I was happy to be reminded of him. “Suitcase,” I thought, is a great nickname. One of my minor peeves about modern baseball is the virtual disappearance of creative nicknames. “A-Rod,” “K-Rod,” “I-Rod,” and “Gorzo” aren’t nicknames in the true sense of the word.

I grew up with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Bob Prince who had a way with nicknames: Vernon “Deacon” Law, Don “The Tiger” Hoak, Bill “The Quail” Virdon, Gene “The Stick” Michael, and Dave “The Cobra” Parker all have solid baseball rings to them.

Prince and his broadcasting partner Jim Woods also had great monikers. They were, respectively, “The Gunner” and “The Possum”

Going back further in baseball history, nicknames were even more colorful: “Noodles” Hahn, “Hippo” Vaughn, “Piano Legs” Hickman and “Three-Finger” Brown for example.

Digging deeper, the story I found behind Simpson’s nickname floored me. If I asked 100 of my contemporaries to explain how Simpson became known as “Suitcase,” I’m confident that they would all answer that it was a reference to his numerous trades that caused him to constantly be packing his suitcase. After all, Simpson was traded eight times during the four years from 1955 to 1959.

But according to the Cleveland Indians official 1952 sketch book, Simpson got his nickname from sportswriters who likened him to the Toonerville Trolley character named Suitcase Simpson. The date of this revelation, 1952, was years before Simpson’s multiple trades. And the sketch book added the mostly useless information that Simpson’s childhood nickname was “Goody” which came from his willingness to help out his neighbors in his childhood hometown of Dalton, Georgia.

A few other forgotten facts about Simpson surfaced during my research. “Suitcase” was a better than average player during his short eight year career.  For the Kansas City Athletics during his All Star 1956 season, Simpson hit 293 with 21 home runs and 105 RBIs. That year, Simpson led the league in triples with eleven. He won the triples title again in 1957 with 9. In 1955 with the Athletics and the Cleveland Indians, Simpson hit .300

As the old saying goes, you learn something new every day– but rarely about “Suitcase” Simpson.

Thank you Rob Neyer

Everyone around the baseball blogosphere has been writing thank you posts for Rob Neyer, who announced this week he was leaving and joining SB Nation, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t add something as well. But before I thank Neyer, I should thank Joe Posnanski. Or Or Twitter.

In September, Posnanski granted me an interview that went for one of the greatest hours of my writing life. I’d have been okay if the Sports Illustrated writer, blogger, and busy family man had offered five halfhearted minutes. Posnanski was one of the best subjects I’ve ever encountered. And I say this as someone who’s interviewed Rollie Fingers (who was dull), Jose Canseco (who subtly asked me if I’d read Vindicated— I hadn’t), and Ozzie Smith (who was the commencement speaker at my college my sophomore year and was wonderful.) If I ever make it as a baseball writer, I hope I’m half as humble as Posnanski.

Within hours of me posting the interview, it was up on Baseball Think Factory, and they referred a heavy amount of traffic by their standards (500 unique visitors– I’m happy to get 100-200 from them.) A few days later, a visitor commented that he’d seen my article up on Neyer’s ESPN blog, the Sweet Spot. That was the day my blog got almost 2,000 unique visitors, which was the record here until Neyer linked again in December and gave me so much traffic the server crashed. It remains my high water mark as a blogger, and friends give me high fives when I tell them about the server crash. I hear it’s called being aneyerated.

One other cool thing happened after Neyer linked to me: I got an email saying he was following me on Twitter. I thought it was a joke at first, and then after checking his page, seeing it was a Verified Account and that he had 300 people he was following and more than 15,000 followers, it just seemed surreal. Every other big name sportswriter has ignored me on Twitter. Even Posnanski. I keep worrying that Neyer will get sick of my random Sacramento Kings Tweets (a man has to rep his hometown) and attempts at humor, or that I’ll sneeze and he’ll unfollow me, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s even linked to me a couple more times because of Twitter.

I wish Neyer well in his new endeavor and applaud him for trying something new. After reading his inaugural SB Nation post today, I Tweeted that Neyer had made the boldest move in sports journalism so far this year. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope to eventually write for ESPN or SI or most any other major publication that would have me. But maybe Neyer has the right idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes out better for it, with the media landscape continuing to change. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s set a great example for an up-and-comer like me. I just hope he does a link post in his new space.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Barry Larkin

Claim to fame: The shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds from 1986 to 2004, Larkin was a 12-time All Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and the 1995 National League MVP. In January, Larkin appeared for the second time on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s ballot for the Hall of Fame and received 62.1 percent of the vote– less than the 75 percent he needed to get in but a sizable improvement from the 51.6 percent he received in 2010. With Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar to be enshrined via the writers this summer, Larkin looks like one of their logical next inductees in 2012.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Larkin has a maximum of 13 more years of eligibility remaining. If he’s not ultimately enshrined, whether by the writers or the Veterans Committee, Larkin would have a dubious first: In 75 years of Hall of Fame voting, no player who’s received more than 50 percent of the BBWAA vote in his second year of eligibility has failed to earn an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame. Others who’ve followed this path, like Roy Campanella, Juan Marichal, and Ryne Sandberg got into the Hall of Fame by their fifth year on the ballot. Larkin seems a certain pick for Cooperstown. Whether this is deserved or not is another question.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? It depends on one’s criteria. For those who see Cooperstown as strictly a place for the Babe Ruths, Ty Cobbs, and Hank Aarons of baseball, Larkin doesn’t come close. He’s too flawed a candidate by that measure, too mortal, someone with few healthy seasons (just four seasons with more than 150 games) and several borderline Hall of Fame stats from his .295 batting average to his 116 OPS+ to his 68.9 WAR. One might even call Larkin overrated, a player who wouldn’t be anywhere close to Cooperstown had he put up the same hitting numbers as a center fielder.

All that being said, Larkin would be far from the worst shortstop in the Hall of Fame, and I wouldn’t be against enshrining him. Larkin might not be on par with Honus Wagner or Cal Ripken Jr or Alex Rodriguez, but lists Larkin having a better career WAR than 14 shortstops in Cooperstown:

  • Luis Aparicio
  • Dave Bancroft
  • Ernie Banks
  • Lou Boudreau
  • Travis Jackson
  • Hughie Jennings
  • Rabbit Maranville
  • Pee Wee Reese
  • Phil Rizzuto
  • Joe Sewell
  • Ozzie Smith
  • Joe Tinker
  • Bobby Wallace
  • George Wright

The only inactive shortstop with a better career WAR than Larkin who isn’t in the Hall of Fame is Bill Dahlen, a solid, if not great Deadball Era shortstop who played in Wagner’s shadow and spent 21 years in the majors, all told. In 2006, my colleague Cyril Morong called Dahlen the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cyril and Dahlen’s other champions decry when Larkin is inducted. Same goes for Vizquel or Alan Trammell or Dave Concepcion who had a distressingly strong showing with the Veterans Committee in December. Then and now, image is everything for a shortstop to get into the Hall of Fame.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark