Archive for May 2010

Canyon of Heroes

05/26/2010

This last weekend I was in downtown New York City, and I happened to walk up the Canyon of Heroes.  As interesting as the record of Manhattan’s ticker tape parades are in general, I’d like to pull out the celebration of baseball teams. I find the list very strange to say the least.

1949 – Connie Mack
1954 – New York Giants
1961 – New York Yankees
1962 – New York Yankees
1962 – New York Mets
1969 – New York Mets
1977 – New York Yankees
1978 – New York Yankees
1986 – New York Mets
1996 – New York Yankees
1998 – Sammy Sosa
1998 – New York Yankees
1999 – New York Yankees
2000 – New York Yankees
2009 – New York Yankees

Everything about that list fascinates me. First, the two baseball people honored individually were Connie Mack and Sammy Sosa. Why them and no one else? Second, why did the 1954 Giants become the first team to get a parade? By this point, the Giants had won 4 World Series, and the Yankees had won 16. What distinguished 1954? Next, the 1962 Mets. Few things in the world please me more than the ’62 Mets getting a ticker tape parade. Finally, what did the 1956 and 1958 Yankees do wrong? Between 1954 and 1961, three New York teams win the World Series. The 1955 Dodgers had their parade down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. What happened to the Yankees?

Does anyone know any of the answers? If so, feel free to stick it in the comments.

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Explaining the Flyers to Baseball Fans

05/19/2010

I recognize that I have an audience of baseball fans for the most part, and that my hockey posts receive minimal traffic.  Nonetheless in the middle of the NHL playoffs and only the early part of the baseball season, I am tempted to write more about hockey than about baseball.  Today, let me try to combine the two.  At the moment, the Philadelphia Flyers are 2 victories away from making the Stanley Cup finals, despite being a 7-seed who only made the playoffs by winning the last game of the regular season in overtime and overcoming a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 series and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 itself.  That strange confluence of events make the Flyers look extremely lucky, and that is surely part of their success.  However, let me give you a baseball analogue to the Flyers to help explain their success.

In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series despite having the worst record of any team to win the Series. For the regular season, they went only 83-78, a .515 winning percentage. Compare this to their Pythagorean record, and you will see a team whose year basically lined up with their record. So, were the Cardinals the worst team ever to win the World Series? Were they a total fluke? I think the answer to the first is no, and the second is a qualified yes.

For starters, put 2006 in context. The Cardinals won the NL Central each of the previous two seasons, winning 105 and 100 games respectively. In 2004 they lost the World Series to a freakishly hot Red Sox team, and in 2005 they dropped the NLCS to Houston. In 2006, they win the World Series but only win 83 regular season games. Which is the fluke? The Cardinals are flukish only when judged by their regular season record. The fluke is how few games they won, not their eventual Series win.

Second, the Cardinals were a rare playoff team that got healthier as the playoffs progressed. During the regular season, Albert Pujols played in 143 games, Scott Rolen in 142, and Jim Edmonds in 110. Only Rolen missed a single postseason game, and his was missed in the first round. Certain assumption usually hold, and one of those is that the more games you play in a year, the more injuries accumulate. For the Cardinals, this assumption failed, and woebetide the Padres, Mets, and Tigers who had to face a team with a history of 100-win talent.

What does this have to do with the Flyers? In 2010, the Flyers put up 88 points, and they barely squeezed into the playoffs as a 7-seed. Nonetheless, the team had recorded 95 and 99 points the two previous seasons. In 2008, the team made the Conference Finals, and in 2009 they pushed the eventual Cup-winning Penguins to 6 games. The 88 point regular season appears to be the aberration, not the deep playoff run.

Finally, the Flyers, outside of goalie, are surprisingly healthy. Part of the poor regular season record were key injuries to Simon Gagne and Danny Briere. Briere snuck into 75 regular season games, but he battled injury all year.  Gagne only played 58. In the playoffs, though, a healthy Briere has 9 goals and 9 assists in 14 games. Gagne has 6 goals and 3 assists in 10 games, but his healthy return in the second round changed that series. He missed the first three games, which the Flyers lost, and played the last four, all of which they won.

The 2010 Flyers are a team with a flukishly poor regular season that has gotten healthy at the right time. As the 2006 Cardinals showed the world of baseball, that can be a dangerous combination in the playoffs.

Titles as a Measure of Greatness

05/17/2010

Many people consider the titles the ultimate measure of greatness. Did a player win a title? Then he might be great. If not, he clearly was not. Classic examples of this are the contrast between Dan Marino and Tom Brady, or Bill Simmons‘ preference for Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain. For starters, I think this measure is nonsense. Given that all of these sports are team games, it is tough to argue that any one player determines a championship. With that point acknowledged, I do not see how championships are an appropriate measure of greatness. However, that is not my point today. Rather, I want to pick at another consequence of this line of thought. When does a player become great?

If championships are the measure, a player cannot become great before winning a title. Sometimes, this makes sense. Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter all won titles as rookies. They, then, become instantly eligible for greatness. Look at the flipside, though. Alex Rodriguez became officially great in 2009, almost certainly after he has reached the downside of his 3-time MVP career. Wayne Gretzky became great in 1984, two years after he set the single season goal record. Wilt Chamberlain became great in 1967, 5 years after averaging 50 points/game for a season and scoring 100 points in a game. Jerry West became great in 1972, his 12th season, at age 33.

Think about that very brief list for a minute. Gretzky and Chamberlain had established scoring records that stand today, yet they were not officially great. Jerry West had become the logo of the NBA, but he was not great. Rodriguez had become one of only 10 players in MLB history to win 3 MVP’s, but he was not great. Does that make any sense? Ignore, for a minute, the obvious counters to titles as a measure of greatness (i.e. Ernie Banks, Carl Yastrzemski, Dan Marino, Dick Butkus, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, etc.). Even for players who have won titles, the titles say little about these players claim to greatness.

Titles are important, clearly. In the end, teams play in order to win a title. Players, as part of a team, are supposedly united by this common goal. Nonetheless, titles make a poor measure of greatness.

The Events You Missed

05/10/2010

Yesterday, Dallas Braden threw the 19th perfect game in major league history, and I did nothing more than follow the 9th inning online.  That is one of the consequences of a great pitching performance on Mother’s Day:  Almost no one will be able to watch.  This does not make Braden stand out in my life as a baseball fan, though.  In all my years of baseball viewing, I have never seen a perfect game.  I watched one no hitter live, and given that it was thrown by the immortal Bud Smith it helped to de-mystify that particular genre. Nonetheless, I have missed every perfect game in my lifetime, and there have now been a number. This leads to my question for today: What baseball event that you did not see do you most wish that you had seen?

Baseball is full of great moments, but most of those are single instants. I did not see Willie Mays’ catch live, but I can easily pull it up on You Tube anytime I want. The same is true for Bobby Thompson’s home run. As a Twins fan, I recognize that the most significant events in baseball history were Kirby Puckett’s home run to end Game 6 of the 1991 World Series and Gene Larkin’s single to win Game 7. Those two I saw live, so they can’t be the answer. Given how easy it is to find highlights for single events that have happened in the last 60 years, I will by default exclude them, even if I did not see them live.

For me, then, that leaves four events that for whatever stick out to me. I will count them down in reverse order.

#4: Addie Joss’ perfect game.

Three things stick out for this game. First, and most obviously, Addie Joss threw a perfect game. This has only happened 18 other times in baseball history. Second, Joss only threw 74 pitches. You simply cannot be more efficient. The next closest is the 88 pitches thrown by David Cone in his perfect game. Third, you can make the case that Joss was outpitched. In defeat, Ed Walsh struck out 15, and he gave up only a single unearned run. He allowed 5 total baserunners. To me, this is the pitcher’s duel of all pitcher’s duels, slightly ahead of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, when the loser only gave up a single hit.

#3: The Speech

This is the classiest moment in baseball history. Even knowing that Gary Cooper probably did it better in the movie, I get chills even thinking about this moment. If you have a spare moment and some tissues handy, click on the link and listen to Lou Gehrig. That is how it is done.

#2: Jackie Robinson’s debut.

This moment changed baseball. When Robinson stepped out onto Ebbets Field for the first time, he changed the game forever. In terms of significance, this one tops the list. The only reason I put it #2 for me is that as a game it is nothing special. The Dodgers lost to the Braves 5-3, and Robinson went 0-3. For history alone, it makes it to #2.

What does your list look like? What is the best baseball moment you ever saw live and the one you wished you had seen?

#1: Don Larsen.

Done only once. Never been seriously approached on another occasion. Done against a lineup with 4 future Hall of Famers and other excellent players like Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, and Carl Furillo. (Sandy Amoros couldn’t hit, so he doesn’t count.) Series was tied 2-2 at the time, just to add to the pressure. The game was even well-celebrated. Imagine your reward for pitching the only perfect game in World Series history: You have to carry Yogi Berra off the field. If I could have seen any baseball moment live, this one would be at the top of my list.

R.I.P. Ernie Harwell

05/05/2010

Ernie Harwell passed away late last night at the age of 92.  He is remembered well around the web, with particularly good entries from Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, and Lee Panas. I can’t say that I have a personal Ernie Harwell story, but I would like to talk a little about the man in general.

I am not a Tigers fan, and I did not grow up listening to Harwell. In fact, he was always the announcer of the opposition. Nonetheless, great announcers are like great ballplayers: They are worthy of respect whether you support your team or not. Harwell brought a level of beauty and poetry to the game that few other announcers ever approached. With Harwell’s passing, we are nearing the last gasp of an earlier era. Jack Buck (my personal favorite) passed away in 2002, Mel Allen in 1996, Red Barber in 1992. With Harwell gone, only Vin Scully remains. Though this is the way the world always works, it is still sad to watch it happen.

Second, Harwell is an aspirational figure. It would be nice to be remembered as warmly as Harwell has been when my final days come. He is constantly described as a model of grace, warmth, and generosity. I have told people before that I think fatherhood exists on a continuum from To Kill a Mockingbird (“Stand up. Your father’s passing.) to Field of Dreams (Dad, can we have a catch?). As a father of 3, I often think in such terms. In the broader world, the remembrance of Ernie Harwell anchors that continuum, a man remember with unstinting love and respect. If you have to go, that’s the way to do it.

RIP Ernie Harwell.

The Weakness of Wins

05/03/2010

Wins are a common statistics dumped on by sabermetricians.  Pitching wins, it is argued, are too dependent on things outside of a pitcher’s control for the stat to have much meaningful content.  The best recent example of this case was delivered by Joe Posnanski, covering Zack Greinke’s last 46 starts. Over that stretch, Greinke posted a 2.11 ERA, yet the Royals posted a 22-24 record. In this case, it is clear that Greinke should not be punished for the Royals’ sins. Posnanski charts each non-win in detail, and you can see a combination of factors killing Greinke. Most notably, Greinke and the Royals lost because of a combination of poor, run support, bad relief pitching, and atrocious defense. In light of this, I have always wanted to do a small exploration of Bob Gibson’s 1968 season. As is well known, Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA, completed 28 of his 35 starts, threw 13 shutouts, and finished with a 22-9 record. Given those first three stats, the W-L record seems absurd. So, how did it happen?

Here are Gibson’s 13 losses or no decisions. All of this information is taken from Retrosheet:

On 4/10, Gibson pitched 7 shutout innings and allowed 5 total baserunners (1 of whom reached on an error by Lou Brock). Unfortunately, the Cardinals did not score until the bottom of the 8th. No decision.

On 4/15, Gibson pitches poorly by his standards. He gives up 3 runs in 7 innings on 9 baserunners (one by error on Mike Shannon). The Cardinals tie up the game in the 8th, then go on to win in 10, 4-3. No decision.

On 4/20, Gibson picks up his first loss. He threw a complete game, but he gave up 5 runs, only 3 earned, on 10 hits. Unfortunately, Fergie Jenkins only gives up 1 run while throwing a complete game of his own. Loss.

After 3 straight wins, Gibson comes back with a loss on 5/12. Gibson threw 8 innings, giving up 11 hits but striking out 10 Astros. He gave up 3 runs, 2 earned (error by Dal Maxvill), but he could not overcome the complete game thrown by Larry Dierker. Loss.

On 5/17, Gibson earns the 2nd in a series of 4 consecutive losses. Gibson throws a complete game and gives up a single run in the bottom of the 10th to opposing pitcher Woodie Fryman. Sadly, Fryman threw a 10-inning shutout. Loss.

On 5/22, Gibson threw 8 innings and gave up a single run. In the 9th, reliever Joe Hoerner gave up an unearned run. Unfortunately, Don Drysdale threw a shutout, and the Dodgers won 2-0. Loss.

On 5/28, Gibson gave up 3 runs to the Giants on 4 hits and a walk in another complete game. 2 of the 4 hits were home runs, and one came after a single. Gaylord Perry only gave up a single run in his complete game, and the Giants won 3-1. Loss.

After 12 consecutive wins, Gibson went 11 innings on 8/4 and did not factor into the decision for the last time that year. He struck out 10 but gave up 12 hits and walked 3. Those turned into 5 runs, 4 earned, including a lead off home run in the top of the 9th to tie the game. After Gibson left, Hoerner gave up one run in 1.2 innings, and the Cardinals lost to the Cubs 6-5 in 13. No decision.

Now we get to the oddest loss of the lot. On 8/24, Gibson’s streak of 16 consecutive starts without a loss came to an end. The Cardinals lost to the Pirates 6-4, but Gibson threw a complete game with 15 strikeouts. Nevertheless, the Pirates scored all 6 runs in the final 3 innings, though only 3 were earned. Orlando Cepeda and Dal Maxvill committed critical errors, and Willie Stargell stuck a home run in between them. Despite his highest strikeout total of the season, Gibson took the loss. Loss.

On 9/6, in the first game of a double-header, Gibson struck out 7 over 8 innings, but he gave up 3 runs, 2 earned (another Maxvill error). The Cardinals can only put up 2 runs. Loss.

On 9/17, Gaylord Perry did it again. Gibson struck out 10, threw a complete game, and gave up a single run on a first inning home run by Ron Hunt (he would hit only one other in all of 1968). Perry struck out 9 in his shutout. Loss.

On 9/22, Gibson picked up his final loss. This time, he threw an 8 inning complete game, giving up 3 runs, 2 earned (error by Joe Hague). Don Sutton threw 8 innings and only gave up 2, leading to the Dodgers 3-2 win. Loss.

Like Greinke, Gibson ran into many of the same problems. The Cardinals did not score a lot of runs, and he was victimized by lots of unearned runs. Given the time period, the bullpen was not a real factor. With Greinke, we attribute his problems to the quality of the Royals. Of course bad teams skew pitchers’ wins. The 1968 Cardinals, though, were defending champs and went 97-65 in 1968. Even with an outstanding team, pitching wins contains too many extraneous factors to be the sole measure of pitching greatness. Though it is a stat of interest, it is by no means the best or most useful means of evaluating pitchers. Just look at Bob Gibson and Zack Greinke if you need a reminder.