Thursday, August 27, 2009

Random Thursday: September 12, 1964, New York vs. Los Angeles

It’s Thursday, and that used to mean randomness was in the air. Perhaps it still is, as The Common Man used the random function of Baseball to jump from his previous entry, Joe Smaza, to this September 12 game between the 1964 Dodgers and Mets. The game itself, an 8-0 drubbing by Los Angeles over the hapless New Yorkers, is pretty unremarkable. Pete Richert, who had struggled to establish himself in the Dodgers’ rotation, pitched a two-hit shutout against a terrible lineup that was headlined by someone named Joe Christopher and a 19-year old Ed Kranepool. The uninspiring Al Jackson got pummeled for eight runs, but took his lumps like a man, limping to a complete game loss. The game doesn’t seem all that interesting, but at least the 20,004 Dodgers fans in attendance got to go home with the W.

1964 was a poor year for the Dodgers (80-82), who finished below .500 because Sandy Koufax was limited to 28 starts (in which he had a 1.74 ERA and won 19 games), could not seem to find a serviceable 3rd starter behind Sandy and Big D (who was 18-16 with a 2.14 ERA), Frank Howard and Tommy Davis’s production dipped from MVP-esque (149 and 141 OPS+, respectively) to passable (111 and 110 OPS+) and they employed an old-looking Jim Gilliam (.228/.318/.287) at 3B for 390 PAs, and an overmatched Nate Oliver (.243/.309/.271) at 2B for 357.

The Mets, this being the early ‘60s, were understandably terrible (53-109). In addition to Christopher* and Kranepool (.257/.310/.393), the only offense to speak of on the team came from 2B Ron Hunt (.303/.357/.406) and OF Jim Hickman (.257/.319/.377). The pitching was uniformly bad. Jackson (11-16, 4.26, 83 ERA+) and Jack Fisher (10-17, 4.23, 84 ERA+) competed to see who could be the worst pitcher on a staff that only had one member with an ERA+ over 100 (22 year old reliever Ron Locke, who had a 3.48 ERA in 41 innings, but also walked 22 batters and gave up 7 unearned runs).

The game did feature a great duel of managers, however, as Walter Alston and Casey Stengel (in his second to last season at the helm) faced off. Casey probably slept through most of this one, as he was down 5-0 after the 4th, and he couldn’t have made much difference (by the way, Casey finished with a .503 winning percentage as a manager. His Mets-less percentage, however, was .543. There’s no real wisdom there, as The Common Man is glad Casey was still working, and it’s not like managing the Mets hurt his legacy, and the photos of Casey’s misery as the Mets’ skipper are hilarious. It’s just interesting.)

Unlike the Mets, the Dodgers would get better in a hurry. That winter, Richert was dealt with Frank Howard to the new Washington Senators (where he would win 29 games and make two all star teams in the next two seasons, becoming the 3rd starter the Dodgers wanted, before faltering) for Claude Osteen (who also became the 3rd starter the Dodgers wanted, winning 147 games in nine years). Koufax came back strong, as he famously finished 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA and set the new ML record for strikeouts (which still stands as the NL record). Oliver was replaced by NL Rookie of the Year Jim Lefebvre (.250/.337/.369, 109 OPS+), Gilliam bounced back strong (.280/.374/.384, 121 OPS+) at age 36, and the team produced just enough offense to deal with the losses of Howard and Tommy Davis (who broke his ankle in May) and eke out the NL pennant by two games over the Giants, before edging The Common Man’s beloved Twins in the World Series.

*Christopher himself is kind of interesting, mind you. In ’64, his first year of full time action, he put up a .300/.360/.466 line (and a 134 OPS) and finished with 16 HR and 76 RBI. Christopher never finished with an OBP above .340 again, nor a SLG above .365. He was a true flash in the pan for a terrible team and the first player born in the U.S. Virgin Islands to play in the big leagues.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pete Rose to Idiots: Get Off My Side, You're Not Helping

Earlier today, Craig kicked at some embers and turned it into a brushfire over at Circling the Bases, arguing that Pete Rose's 20 year exile from Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame is not enough for an unapologetic serial liar who has worked tirelessly to promote himself and undermine the game he supposedly loves since at least 1989. As you can probably tell, The Common Man tends to agree with Craig on this issue. Over on CTB, The Common Man was not in the majority, however, as dozens of angry idiots with poor sentence structure and historical recall threatened to kill the Internetz with their innanity. Beneath their bile and foolishness, The Common Man left the following extended comment, and reprints it here under the general heading of "how not to argue in favor of Pete Rose's reinstatement":

I wish I had time to write a response to all you idiots, but alas there is not time and most of you can't read at a high enough level for it to make any difference. Let's clear up a few things:

1) If you are tempted to play the "even rapists and murderers get out of jail card," remember that Rose was never put in jail for gambling on baseball (though he was for tax fraud). Going to jail is vastly different from not being allowed to work somewhere. Major League Baseball has never restricted his freedom to make a living anywhere outside of the context of Major League Baseball, which he agreed to in 1989. But just as someone who sells corporate secrets to a rival may get out of jail one day, it's highly unlikely that his original company will want to hire him back. Same situation here.

2) Baseball has had a rule against betting on baseball since 1920. Since 1920, the consequences of breaking that rule have been drilled into its players, coaches, managers, owners, trainers, groundskeepers, batboys, and beer vendors. Rose knew what he was doing and what the consequences of getting caught would be. He made his bed, and has constantly whined about how uncomfortable it is.

3) Rose's stunning lack of honesty and remorse undermine his case significantly. He seems to be a habitual liar, such that nothing he says today, about the nature of his bets or his conversations with Bart Giammatti, cannot be taken at face value.

4) As Craig has noted, his exclusion from the Hall of Fame is the Hall of Fame's decision, not Major League Baseball's. Baseball has no leverage over the HOF. While you might think that Bud Selig, Fay Vincent, and the MLB have had some kind of stick they can hold over the HOF's head, there's no evidence of it. Baseball is at least as beholden to the Hall of Fame (since the MLB isn't going to start a new museum now for itself to funnel players and memorabilia away from Cooperstown).

5) Please get your historical facts straight. Ken Cochran, no one has ever accused Stan Musial of deliberately spiking Jackie Robinson. Quite the opposite; players have raved about Stan's class and kindness to everyone, including his African-American and Latino teammates. VGREISS, Darryl Strawberry is not in the Hall of Fame. And Michael Seibert, Pete Rose quit managing in 1989. Robbie Alomar starting playing in 1988, and the "Spitting Incident" didn't happen until he was playing with the Orioles in 1996. There is no way your version of events is remotely possible.

6) Can we please separate the debate about steroids and the Hall of Fame from the issue of Pete Rose/gamblers and the Hall of Fame? They are two completely different situations, completely different arguments. As far as we know, Rose was acting alone in the game, taking actions that may have compromised the integrity of the game on the field. Steroid users (while morally and ethically wrong) were part of a culture of cheating in which they were universally trying to perform better. We have no such assurance with Rose, aside from his word, which as I've already pointed out, is crap. Have a nice day.

As you can tell, I have nothing but disdain for Pete Rose, and everything he has done since 1989 to stoke the fires of this debate. He is, by all accounts, a first-class jerk. His body of work as a player is astounding, and his achievements will not soon be forgotten, whether he gets into the Hall of Fame, is reinstated into the MLB, or not. But I do not think he has earned himself any leeway in the debate, nor has he tried to. Perhaps a few years out of the limelight and some good works will go a long way toward changing my mind. Pete needs to work on himself in order to change my mind.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Explaing Albert's "Albatross"

On Circling the Bases this morning, contributor Matt Casey pondered Albert Pujols’ second-half performance, which is a significant drop-off from his amazing start. Pujols’ season line has dropped from . 332/.456/.723 to .321/.445/.675 thanks to a .280/.401/.525 “drought”. Casey writes,
“Are we ready to blame the Home Run Derby for squashing Albert Pujols' chance at the Triple Crown, or is that just an easy excuse? We remember players from the past flaming out after taking part in the Derby - David Wright hit only 6 HR after the break in 2006, and of course Bobby Abreu hit a mere 6 dingers in the second half after dominating the slugfest the year before….Did the HR Derby mess up his swing a bit?”

Casey’s article equivocates a great deal, and never really delves deeply into Albert’s performance beyond looking at the surface numbers and wondering aloud whether his two rounds of homerun derby (in which he swung at something like 35-40 pitches) has messed with the man. Of course we can’t be certain, even if Pujols were to complain about the Derby’s effect on him (which he hasn’t), since the data set is small and the subject of the study is probably less reliable a source than The Common Man would like to have. That said, The Common Man hopes that some intrepid soul is going through tape of Albert’s ABs before and after the All Star Break to see if there’s any difference in his swing (ah, the glory of our times, when such things are possible).

The Common Man prefers to look at the issue as a whole. Understanding that even great players have rough patches, it’s important to look at the alleged phenomenon Casey and others have used to explain the performances of Abreu and Wright, and that other players have used to excuse themselves from the Derby. Is this effect real? Does the Home Run Derby unduly affect its participants, as many have been led to believe.

First, a caveat: There is no way for The Common Man to determine with any reliability whether the Home Run Derby has affected the performance of an individual player. It certainly could have. But significant analysis of swing mechanics is probably necessary to address that.

Now then, since 2000, there have been 54 individual participants in the Home Run Derby, but 80 player-seasons are in our data set (8 participants per derby, 10 derbies). Of those 80 seasons, 47 experienced a drop in batting average from the first half to the second, losing an average of .0093 points off of their BA. Forty of the player-seasons experienced a drop in on-base percentage, and the cohort lost an average of .0045 points from their OBP. Forty-five seasons experienced a drop in SLG in the second half, losing an average of .037 in the process. Finally, between the first and second halves, players lost an average of 7.8 homers.

So at first glance, it appears that there is a drop, but there’s some noise in our data. First, the two halves, despite their names, are not the same duration. Teams tend to play somewhere around 90 games in the first “half” (Pujols’ Cardinals played 91 games before the All Star Break this year), meaning that there are fewer available at bats in the second half. This accounts for a great deal of the difference in total homeruns hit, such that the actual difference in terms of homeruns/game ends up being closer to 6.8 HR lost over the course of the season. Second, our data also includes players from 2009, whose HR are drastically down simply because they’ve only played 40 games or so since the break. If we remove these individuals from our analysis of the HR total, we find the difference in HR is something like 4.6 HR lost.

Finally, there’s the case of Ivan Rodriguez and Brandon Inge, both of whose rate stats and home run totals were and have been gutted by injury. In 2000, I-Rod was hitting .366/.393/.708 at the All Star Break, with 26 home runs, on his way to what could have been the greatest season by a catcher ever (perhaps even better than Mauer’s year this year). Eleven games into the second half, however, Pudge broke his right thumb on Mo Vaughn’s bat (is there nothing that behemoth can’t ruin?) as he tried to throw to second base, and missed the rest of the year. He finished the second half hitting .184/.225/.316 with 1 HR. Inge has suffered from knee problems unrelated to his Derby appearance since the break that have robbed him of a great deal of effectiveness. While he continues to play, Inge is hitting .170/.257/.250 in 31 games, and is probably not a good example of typical post-Derby play. I-Rod’s removal (Inge was previously removed from the analysis because he participated in 2009), the difference, adjusted for approximate games played, is approximately 3.8 homers.

Once we remove these significant noisemakers from the data, we see that, in 71 players-seasons, there have been 42 drops in BA, 35 in OBP, and 40 in SLG. This translates to an average drop of .0066/.0006/.029, a very small blip. Indeed, when one considers that the players likely to be part of the Derby had already performed at a level above their normal ability level, and the difference in HR hit, is likely attributable to players finding their truer level, or regressing to the mean, or nagging injuries that weren't there in the first half, rather than some kind of post-Derby swing hitch. So let’s stop wondering about Albert Pujols, who is probably fine aside from his seemingly constant throwing and foot problems. The man, while most uncommon (far more so than The Common Man, I assure you), is still just a man and prone to regression like everyone else. Unlike, for instance, Joe Mauer, who has upped his game since the All Star Break (during which you’ll remember he participated in the Derby), hitting .392/.449/.622.

Note: Other fun stuff in the data (I’m happy to send a spreadsheet around to anyone interested):

Barry Bonds’ line in the second half of 2002 was .404/.608/.825. An OBP of almost 61%? Holy God.

Somehow Hee Seop Choi slipped into a Home Run Derby in 2005 for the Dodgers. It was Choi’s last season in the majors, and he was hitting .236/.318/.458 at the time. He was not on the All Star Team, as a particularly bad Dodgers squad was represented by Jeff Kent and Cesar Izturis.

Another unlikely participant was Pudge Rodriguez in 2005. Pudge had 6 homers at the All Star Break, and would finish with just 14.

The biggest drop in BA was Jim Edmonds in 2003, who hit .303 in the first half and .214 in the second. Based on his playing time, and injury history, he very well may have been hurt. His OBP and SLG dropped as well, but were still perfectly acceptable in the second half (.357/.507). The largest jump in BA was Junior Griffey in 2000, who went from .238 to .317. Griffey’s OBP, however, ticked up just two points from .386 to .388, and his slugging from .550 to .564.

Ryan Howard’s OBP jumped from .341 in the first half of 2006 to .509 in the second half once pitchers stopped throwing him the ball over the plate, the biggest jump in OBP in this study. On the opposite end, Carl Everett dropped .074 in 2000.

The biggest drop in HR between halves (non-I-Rod edition) was Carlos Delgado in 2000, who hit 30 bombs in the first half, but just 11 after the break. Not so coincidentally, Delgado’s drop in SLG (.225 was also the highest in the data set.

The smallest difference between halves in the three rate categories in the data set belonged to Miguel Tejada (who hit .311 in both the first and second halves of 2004), Vlad Guerrero (who slugged .547 in the first half of 2007, and .548 in the second half), and Garret Anderson (.345 and .344 OBPs in 2003) and Grady Sizemore (.374 and .375 in 2008).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Different Kind of Rifle-armed

The Common Man was surprised to find out, when he got home last night, that his Tivo has been making some strange suggestions. For instance, The Common Man has little use for telenovelas like El Corazon Prohibido, or for something called Degrassi: The Next Generation. However, Tivo was right in its guess that its owner would appreciate a look at the iconic Western The Rifleman. The Rifleman, which aired on ABC from 1958 to 1963, ran for 168 episodes and starred Chuck Connors. It was the story of Lucas McCain, a widower who moves with his son to New Mexico, and uses his modified Winchester rifle (which allows him to fire a bullet in .3 seconds) to help the local Marshall.

The Common Man was excited because Connors, who got his big break playing the original owner of Old Yeller in the Disney classic and led to his role in The Rifleman, also was a bit of ballplayer. Connors was originally signed by his hometown Dodgers in 1940, but enrolled in Holy Cross soon after. After being drafted by the Yankees in 1942, he was drafted by the Army and served as a tank maintenance instructor until 1945. In 1946, he convinced Branch Rickey to sign him again to a minor league contract, and played four years in the Dodgers’ minor league system (and playing in the NBA during the offseason before getting a one at-bat tryout in 1949 (he grounded into a double play).

While Connors had significant success for the Dodgers’ farm clubs through 1949, he took a significant step backward in 1950. In 1951, Connors was shipped with Dee Fondy to the Cubs, where he was assigned to the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL. Connors had great success in LA in the spring of ’51 and was called up by the Cubs to take over for a faltering Fondy at 1B. He was given a disastrous extended trial as a 30 year old rookie, hitting .239/.282/.303 and 2 HR in 215 plate appearances. The next year, Connors was sent back to LA, where he struggled with injuries and eventually retired.

Before he did, Connors’ square jaw, on-field antics, and wavy hair were noticed by a fan in the entertainment industry. The unnamed fan inspired Connors to try acting after his baseball career was over. His success in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, however, dried up as the public moved on from straight-laced, earnest John Wayne-types and embraced the darker, more rebellious, anti-establishment heroes played by Eastwood, Newman, Beatty, and Redford. Connors retreated to occasional movie roles (as the father in Flipper, and the heavy in Soylent Green, and The Sarge in Airplane II) and guest spots on Spencer: For Hire, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Murder, She Wrote.

The life of Chuck Connors, despite reaching the pinnacle of both of his chosen professions, is something of a disappointment. Connors clearly had the talent to play major league ball; his minor league stats are Andre Ethier-like (low .300s BA, 15-25 HR/year power), particularly impressive given the developmental time he missed in college and in the Army. By the time he got back to playing ball full time, Connors was 25, and only got a real shot at 30. And while his good looks made him a terrific hero for early-TV Western morality plays, his limited range and lack of emotion left him unable to adjust to the changing needs of Hollywood following his short peak. If Connors had debuted in the early ‘40s, in either field, he might have truly become a legend and a household name.

Connors died in 1992 from pneumonia related to lung cancer. He was 71.