Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fisking the Fast Starts

As Aaron Gleeman notes this morning, Wilson Ramos is off to a ridiculous start with seven hits in his first two games. Of course, it’s just two games (10 at bats) and ultimately not very meaningful. But it’s fun to dream on what Ramos might become, given his talent and his hot bat. Gleeman goes on to note that Ramos is in some elite company (Joe DiMaggio and Enos Slaughter), good company (Preston Wilson), and forgettable company (Hub Walker, Guy Sturdy, Charlie Bates, and Coaker Triplett).

Other than pure randomness, how do we account for that kind of early success, particularly for players who had no hope of sustaining their early success? How were these youngsters able to pull off this incredible feat? Let’s look at each of these cases chronologically.

Charlie Bates, 1927

On September 22, the Philadelphia A’s squared off at home against the Cleveland Indians for a doubleheader. The A’s would finish with 91 wins in 1927, but still finished 19 games behind the legendary ’27 Yankees, generally considered one of the greatest clubs of all time. So by September 22, the A’s weren’t playing for much, especially given they would finish 6 games ahead of the Senators for 2nd place in the American League. Plus, Cleveland did not exactly represent a challenge for the A’s. The Tribe would finish with 87 losses and in 6th place in the AL. So Connie Mack decided to let the kids play a little. Into his regular lineup, Mack inserted two 19 year olds, Bates (who would start in RF) and Jimmie Foxx (who, by then, was in his 3rd season as a backup 1B and C). Mack also tried to give Mickey Cochrane the day off against a lefty pitcher (Jake Miller), putting Cy Perkins into the lineup behind the plate. It was not a quick game. Miller and Rube Walberg battled to a standstill for 8 innings, when Walberg gave way to the A’s bullpen. Cleveland stuck with Miller, who may well have been the team’s best pitcher that year, for all 12.1 innings. Bates would go 3 for 5 with a walk, and three runs scored. Foxx would go just 1 for 6, but would drive in the winning run in the bottom of the 13th.

After such a hot start, Mack couldn’t very well sit Bates down in Game 2. So again he started in RF for the A’s (and Foxx started at 1B) while the Indians trotted 20-year old Hal McKain (McKain had won 20 games for Waterloo that year, and was probably considered a real prospect) out to the mound for his major league debut. McKain had a lot of trouble, giving up 13 hits in 7 innings, along with 3 walks and 5 runs. Bates again excelled, going 3 for 4 with a double, triple, run scored, 2 RBI, 2 stolen bases, and a caught stealing. Incidentally, Jimmie Foxx went 1 for 4 with an RBI.

So what happened to Charlie Bates? Evidently Cleveland caught on fast. The teams played a second doubleheader on the 24th, and Joe Schaute and Garland Buckeye combined to make Bates 0 for 7 (despite Schaute allowing 12 hits). Then Bates took an 0 for 5 collar against the Yankees. After his auspicious start, Bates played in 7 games and went 3 for 29 with two walks. He never played another major league game after 1927, bouncing around the minor leagues until 1946.

Guy Sturdy, 1927

Amazingly, the wonderfully named Guy Sturdy collected his six hits against the same ’27 Indians club that Bates did. Again, Sturdy did it in a double header, this one taking place on September 30. As bad as Cleveland was in ’27, Sturdy’s Browns were worse, losing 94 games and finishing in 7th in an 8 team league. So again, there could have been an effort underway to get a look at younger players. That said, Sturdy wasn’t particularly young. At 27, Sturdy had apparently built a reputation as a slugger for Tulsa, for whom he hit 49 homers in 1926, and had batted .374 in 1927. But St. Louis may have been fishing for a replacement for incumbent 1B George Sisler. Even at 34, Sisler was one of the better 1B in the American League, but Sisler commanded a relatively high salary and the Browns were a pretty cheap organization. So Sturdy would get a chance to prove his mettle against Indians’ ace Willis Hudlin. Hudlin would win and go all 9 innings, giving up 10 hits, but Sturdy got 3 of them in 4 at bats, drove in 2 runs, and had a stolen base.

In game 2, the Browns faced 22 year old rookie Willie Underhill. Underhill was making his fourth appearance (he actually relieved McKain in the A’s game above). It did not go well. The Browns tallied eight hits, earned 6 walks, and scored 8 runs off of Underhill in just 4 innings, before he gave way to the aforementioned McKain, who gave up 5 hits and a run in four innings. Sturdy collected 3 singles in 5 trips, with 2 runs scored and 2 driven in.

Sturdy would remain the Browns’ 1B for the team’s final 3 games as well, and would collect another 3 hits. That offseason, Sisler was sold to the Washington Senators. However, instead of handing 1B over to Sturdy, the Browns traded for the also-wonderfully-named Lu Blue from the Tigers. Sturdy spent most of the season on the Browns’ roster, but was strictly a pinch hitter in 54 games (amazing, 54 games, 54 plate appearances). He would hit .222/.340/.311 on the year and the Browns improved to 82-72 and took 3rd place in the AL. Sturdy would never play in the Majors again, and kicked around the minors until 1940, never matching his gaudy Tulsa numbers (what was up with that ballpark, TCM wonders).

Hub Walker, 1931

Hub Walker broke camp in 1931 with a very bad Tigers team, in what may have been a gimmick. Hub batted lefty and his brother, Gee, batted righty, and the two were essentially platooned in CF for much of the season. In Hub’s first game, he faced off against the normally reliable Sam Gray of the Browns. Alas, Brown was going through a rough stretch that had seen him go 4-15 with a 6.28 ERA in 1930, and would lead to an 11-24 record with a 5.09 ERA in ’31. But Gray had a decent day. Despite giving up 14 hits, he gave up just 4 runs and went all 9 innings. Walker’s day wasn’t bad either. Leading off for Detroit, Hub went 3 for 5 and scored a run.

Walker came back the next day and managed 3 hits (including a 2B) in six trips as part of a 12 inning game. He didn’t score, but did drive in a run, as the Tigers topped a fairly effective pitching troika of George Blaeholder, Chad Kimsey, and Dick Coffman.

Walker lasted the full season and hit .286/.355/.345, but the Tigers didn’t renew the brother tandem for 1932. Gee was retained and would have a good career with more than 7200 plate appearances. Hub, who had less power than his brother, was returned to the International League until 1935, when he earned his recall. He would get work as a part-time player for Cincinnati in ’36 and ’37, and played 28 games as a wartime replacement in 1945 (after he had gotten out of the service himself), and helped Detroit win the World Series. After being discarded by the Reds, he became a mainstay for the Minneapolis Millers for four seasons.

Joe DiMaggio, 1936

The Great DiMaggio, for some reason that TCM doesn’t know, didn’t debut with the Yankees until May of ’36, but he would quickly take the league by storm at just 21 year old. DiMaggio batted 3rd in his debut against the St. Louis Browns and joined in the party as the club jumped up and down all over Browns pitchers. Jack Knott lasted just a third of an inning, giving up 2 hits, 3 walks, and 4 runs. Earl Caldwell and Chief Hogsett, who followed, didn’t do any better, each giving up 5 runs. DiMaggio tallied 3 hits in 6 trips, one of which was a triple (he would lead the league with 15 in his rookie year). He scored three times, and drove in a run. The Yankees, as a team, had 17 hits and scored 14 runs (and the Browns scored 5). For what it’s worth, the game was over in less than 3 hours.

Two days later, the Yankees stomped on the Browns again, getting 15 hits and 8 runs. DiMaggio again batted 3rd and played LF. He had 3 singles in 5 at bats, with 2 runs and 2 RBI. After that, of course, Joe disappeared back into the minors never to be heard from again. Or, alternatively, he became a 3 time MVP, 9 time World Champion, 13 time All Star, with 361 homers, 2214 hits, a .325/.398/.575 line with a career 155 OPS+, played exceptional defense, and became a universally well-regarded example of class and dignity and the consummate Yankee.

Coaker Triplett, 1938

The Cubs had high hopes in 1938, and were lead by Gabby Hartnett and a formidable pitching staff. But they were short in the outfield. Frank Demaree was a very good player and held down RF, and Augie Galan had proven to be a decent option in both LF and CF. But what to do about the other spot? So the Cubs broke camp with 26-year old rookie, and minor league sensation Coaker Triplett in LF. Triplett had hit .356 for Memphis in 1937, with 28 doubles, and 23 triples. Facing the Cubs in the opener, for some reason Reds manager Bill McKechnie chose to start 24 year old Gene Schott over established star Paul Derringer and young phenom Johnny VanderMeer. Triplett took advantage, going 3 for 5 with two doubles, a run and an RBI against Schott, and relievers Peaches Davis and Al Hollingsworth.

The next day, McKetchnie again didn’t start Derringer, going instead with Lee Grissom (who, it should be said, had a good ’37). Grissom lasted a little over an inning, giving up 6 hits and 6 runs against a blistering Cubs attack. Red Barrett pitched 7 innings of relief, giving up 8 hits and 3 runs, while Ted Kleinhans also gave up 2 hits in an inning of work. Triplett again dominated, going 4 for 5 with a triple, 3 runs scored, and an RBI.

Triplett managed two more hits in game 3 against (finally) Derringer (who won, by the way). Through three games, he was hitting .643/.643/.929. But that was it. In 9 more games, Coaker Triplett got 22 trips to the plate, and was 0 for 22 (with a strikeout). He simply, literally, stopped hitting. Flummoxed, the Cubs released their former phenom, and installed former White Sox star Carl Reynolds in CF. The move worked, as Reynolds would hit .302 for the year and help propel the Cubs to the World Series (where they would be promptly slaughtered by the Yankees). Triplett would make it back to the Bigs in 1941 with the Cardinals, and was a pretty good hitter for a few years for them and the Phillies while the War was on. He finished with a .256/.320/.375. After the War, he was a mainstay for Buffalo in the International League for six years, for whom he hit .327, and finally retired in 1952.

Enos Slaughter, 1938

Again, we have two debuts that match up fairly well, in the cases of Triplett and Slaughter. While Triplett was creating unreal expectations in Chicago, Slaughter was busy helping St. Louis fans feel better about what would end up being a pretty bad ballclub. The Gas House Gang of the early ‘30s was winding down. Leo Durocher was dealt to Brooklyn just after the season ended. Frankie Frisch retired as a player. Pepper Martin was transitioning to a part time role. And just before the season started, Dizzy Dean was shipped to the Cubs for three players (two of whom would contribute mightily to the club’s resurgence in 1939) and $185,000. The Cardinals were going young as Branch Rickey’s farm system paid dividends. All of their regulars were 26 or younger. Slaughter was a no doubt addition to the club. At 21, he had hit .382 and slugged .609 at Columbus in the American Association, with 245 hits in 154 games. He had 42 doubles, 13 triples and 26 homers. He was absolutely dominating the high minors. So manager Frisch installed him in RF and made him the #3 hitter in the team’s opener against Pittsburgh. St. Louis knocked around Pirates starter Cy Blanton, chasing him before the end of the 5th. But the Cards could not put together a sustained attack, and wound up losing 4-3. Slaughter went 3 for 5 with a double, but didn’t figure in any of the scoring. The next day, Jim Tobin spun for the Pirates and scattered 14 hits over nine innings. Three of those hits came from Slaughter, who also launched his first homerun.

The Cardinals went nowhere in ’38, but Slaughter proved to be an above average hitter at 22 in his first exposure around the league. His career would take off after that, as he became steadily better through 1942, before he went to War. Returning in ’46, at 30, Slaughter never regained the height of his prowess, but remained an excellent hitter through his late 30s. He batted .300/.382/.453 for his career with 2383 hits and 169 homers, and was thought to be one of the faster players in the game. He won four World Series (two each with the Cardinals and the Yankees), and hit .291/.406//468 in 96 plate appearances, and scored an iconic moment with his supposed “Mad Dash” in the ’46 Series, where he scored from first on a single.

Preston Wilson, 1998

There were 60 years before the next player broke the 3 hit barrier in his first two games, after 6 players did it in 11 years. In 1998, the Mets were fighting for the NL Wild Card, and were a couple outfielders short to start the season. Bernard Gilkey was hurt and ineffective. Butch Huskey was inadequate. Tony Phillips was 39, Lenny Harris was useless and…wait, why the hell did Todd Hundley play 34 games in LF??? Did he lose a bet? Anyway, the Mets were hurting for outfielders who could play baseball in 1998, and turned to one of their big prospects in early May. Preston Wilson was a Mets legacy, the stepson of Mookie, and the #9 overall pick in 1992. The Mets brought him up to face St. Louis on May 7. The Mets had a lot of trouble against Donovan Osborne that day, and got just 7 total hits. Wilson had 3 of those in 4 trips, drove in a run, and stole a base. The next day, the Mets abused Cliff Politte and Mike Busby to the tune of 12 hits and 9 runs. Again, Wilson got 3 of those, including 2 doubles, scored 3 runs and had an RBI.

Like Triplett above, Wilson didn’t have another hit for the Mets and ended his tenure in New York on an 0 for 12 streak. But Wilson was quickly shipped to the Marlins with two other players for Mike Piazza. Wilson was quickly assigned to AAA, performed well, and earned a Sepember callup (during which he hit .065/.194/.161 in 38 plate appearances). But Wilson quickly became a solid contributor in Florida, holding down CF and hitting well for the next four years, before he was shipped to Colorado. Wilson hung up his spikes in 2007, hitting .264/.329/.468 for his career and hit 189 homers in 4436 plate appearances.

Are there any commonalities here. Many of the players in question faced decent pitchers. Indeed, only Bates and Sturdy really fattened themselves against bad pitching. But, then, Ramos didn't really face great pitching in David Huff and Max Schrezer, and a host of relievers. Mostly, frankly, these look like random freak games by totally random players; it's kind of a shame that there is no real predictive ability here. Still, the journey is interesting.

So where will Ramos end up on that continuum? Obviously, it’s hard to say at this point, but if The Common Man were a betting man (and you know that he is), he’d bet Ramos ends up being one of the three best players on that list before it’s all said and done.

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