Friday, August 10, 2007

Welcome back

In the old days, I would have been listening to the playoffs on a transistor radio I smuggled into class, until the teacher caught.

But this was the year 2000, and I could follow the game via the Internet. I was particularly interested in the opening divisional series game between St. Louis and Atlanta because a key member of my fantasy team that year was pitching for the Cardinals.

Rick Ankiel
had turned 21 a few months before but already had established his presence in the National League by compiling an 11-7 record and striking out 194 batters in 175 innings, turning in a performance that earned him second place in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

I checked in and saw St. Louis had scored six runs off the Braves' Greg Maddux in the first inning, so it looked like it would be smooth sailing for Ankiel. I went back to work for a while, then took another peek at the scoreboard.

It took me a while to decipher what exactly was occurring, but apparently the rookie was having control problems. I remember seeing "wild pitch" listed with alarming frequency, and in fact, Ankiel ended up throwing five balls away in that single inning, the first pitcher to do anything like that in 110 years, let alone in the postseason. Manager Tony La Russa finally yanked his pitcher after he'd given up four runs and walked a total of six batters in his 2 2/3 innings.

The Cardinals won the game and swept the Braves to advance to the championship series against the Mets. Obviously considering Ankiel's meltdown a fluke, La Russa started the rookie in the second game. The result: 2/3 of an inning, three walks, a wild pitch and two runs.

La Russa used Ankiel again in mop-up duty as the Cardinals lost 7-0 in the fifth and deciding game. According to Retrosheet, "Ankiel's last warm-up throw went to the backstop; during (Mike) Bordick's at bat the crowd chanted 'wild pitch' to Ankiel." The crowd was prophetic. Bordick walked, was sacrificed to second, and scored after two wild pitches. Ankiel then walked Edgardo Alfonzo and was relieved.

Ankiel won two more games in the majors, one each in 2001 and '04, but a series of injuries ended his pitching career. He announced he was going to switch to the outfield, but no one took that very seriously. Besides a semi-successful switch by Brooks Kieschnick in the other direction, no one has made that radical of a transformation in baseball's modern era.

But ya never know. Check this out:

St. Louis 5, San Diego 0

I guess the name Rick Ankiel will be prominent on the fantasy waiver wires once more.

Here are some other players who made the switch from pitcher to batter:

George Herman Ruth (as if you didn't know). Keep in mind that Ruth was regarded as the best left-handed pitcher in the American League when he made the switch. In 1916, he hurled nine complete-game shutouts, still the AL record for lefties, later tied by Ron Guidry. And don't forget the 29 2/3-inning scoreless streak in the World Series.

George Sisler. The Hall of Fame first baseman always said his greatest thrill was, as a young pitcher, beating Walter Johnson twice. But Sisler's St. Louis Browns needed his bat more than his arm, and he compiled a lifetime record of 5-6 with a 2.35 ERA.

Francis "Lefty" O'Doul. The future batting champion, who still co-holds the National League record for hits in a season, was a marginal major-league pitcher with the Yankees and Red Sox in the early '20s, compiling a 1-1 record in 34 relief appearances. In 1923, he set a 20th-century record by allowing 13 runs in a single inning.

"Smokey Joe" Wood. Howard Ellsworth Wood was a pitcher of legendary prowess during the Dead Ball era, winning 81 games before he turned 23, including a 34-5 season for the Series-winning Red Sox in 1912. He hurt his arm the following spring, and despite leading the AL in earned run average in 1915, decided he was through pitching. He came back as an outfielder with Cleveland and played in the 1920 World Series.

James "Cy" Seymour. In his first two full seasons with the New York Giants, 1897-98, Seymour was a 20-game winner. In 1898, he struck out 239 batters, an extremely high total for the era. He also walked 213, eclipsing any single-season mark of the 20th century, and his career totals show 655 bases on balls in 1,043 innings. By 1905, he was a full-time outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds and nearly won the Triple Crown, posting a .377 batting average with 121 RBI and finishing second with eight home runs. He also led the NL in slugging, hits, doubles, triples and total bases. Not bad for an ex-pitcher.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

For the record

OK, Henry Aaron is in second place. Life goes on. The sun will come up tomorrow.

Moving right along ...

Leading up to what that guy who plays for the Giants did, plenty of radio sports-talk types were passing the time by discussing callers' opinions of unassailable records. I never did hear anyone mention John Taylor and his 1,727 consecutive innings pitched without being supplanted by a reliever. But I guess that goes without saying.

Here are some records that may or may not stand the test of time. I don't know, but I find them interesting:

• Three pitchers in the 20th century had four games in which they walked 10 or more batters, the last being Steve Barber, a talented pitcher for the Orioles in the 1960s whose career was cut short by injury. I don't foresee any of today's managers leaving anyone on the mound with those kind of control problems more than, say, once in his major-league career. Let the minor-league managers sort out all of that!

• Bert Blyleven, who for some reason is not in the Hall of Fame, won 15 shutouts by the minimum 1-0 score. That's third on the all-time list, but it isn't even half as many as Walter Johnson posted. Johnson, who entered the Hall before they opened the doors, compiled 38(!) 1-0 victories.

Nolan Ryan is co-holder of the record for most career grand slams allowed, with 10. That's understandable, considering he played in parts of 27 seasons and tossed a total of 5,386 innings. (And the last pitch he ever threw was a grand slam hit by Seattle's Dann Howitt.) Also allowing 10 grand slams was longtime reliever Mike Jackson, who pitched only 1188 1/3 innings.

• Back in the '70s and '80s, the single-season save record seemed to fall every other year. But Bobby Thigpen's 57 saves for the 1990 White Sox has stood for 17 years now.

Gene Garber, a native of Lancaster, Pa., was a fairly well-regarded relief pitcher with his nearly hometown Phillies in the mid-'70s. Then in 1978, he was shipped to Atlanta for Dick Ruthven. Garber gained some fame by retiring Pete Rose in his last at-bat to end his NL-record 44-game hitting streak that year. But the following season, Garber set a record by losing 16 games in relief for the Braves. No pitcher has lost more than 12 games in relief since.

Mike Marshall (the pitcher and doctor of kinesiology, not the mediocre outfielder) pitched 106 games in relief in 1974. That record might fall someday, to a left-handed specialist who gets about 75 innings of work from all of that. But Marshall also pitched 208 1/3 innings in relief in '74. You're not going to see that again.

• In 1919, Harry "Slim" Sallee pitched 227 innings and recorded only 24 strikeouts. Yet he managed to win 21 games for the 1919 Reds, who went on to win the World Series (which proved easier than expected when many of the White Sox were trying to lose). Sallee's unique 20-20 is a feat that should stand for the ages.

• Before the strike wiped out the last two months of the 1994 season, Bret Saberhagen had compiled these numbers for the Mets: 143 strikeouts, 13 walks. Since they moved the mound back to 60 feet, 6 inches, he is the only pitcher to score double digits in the ratio of strikeouts to walks.

Louis "Bobo" Newsom was a baseball gypsy who made Mike Morgan look like he stayed in one place; Bobo changed teams at least 16 times between 1929 and 1953. He ended up with the lowly St. Louis Browns a couple of times, and one year actually managed to win 20 games for a team that posted only 55 victories. What makes the feat even more remarkable are some of Newsom's numbers: He allowed 526 baserunners and 205 runs in 44 games. His 5.08 ERA in 1938 still is the highest in history for a 20-game winner.

• The 1972 Phillies won 59 games. Reliever Darrell Brandon managed seven victories. Wayne Twitchell had five. Some other members of the starting rotation: Woodie Fryman (4-10 before he landed in Detroit and help pitch the Tigers into the playoffs), Billy "Misnomer" Champion (4-14), Ken Reynolds (2-15) and Jim Nash (0-8 in eight starts after coming north from Atlanta. Oh, yeah. There was this Steve Carlton fellow, who reeled off 15 victories in a row on his way to a 27-10 season. His 45.8 percent of his team's total wins might be right up there with John Taylor's no-relief record.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Tale of two rookies

In 2001, two rookies made the St. Louis Cardinals' roster coming out of spring training, one a left-handed relief pitcher who was talked about as a potential closer, the other a multi-position player who was targeted to perhaps fill a hole at third base.

Neither impressed as the Cardinals were swept three straight in the season-opening series in Colorado. The hitter went 1-for-9, and the pitcher gave up two earned runs in 2 1/3 innings in a relief appearance.

The team traveled to Arizona, where the rookie hitter started opening eyes by putting a hurt on the Diamondbacks: 7-for-14 with 8 RBI in three games. That began a 13-game hitting streak, by the end of which he was hitting .393.

The pitcher, meanwhile, sat on the bench and watched. Finally, 10 days after his first appearance, he entered a game in the seventh inning with the Cardinals trailing Houston, 4-2. The lefty proceeded to walk Jeff Bagwell, hit Richard Hidalgo, walk Lance Berkman and walk Chris Truby. Manager Tony La Russa had seen enough.

Three days later, La Russa brought the pitcher in to relieve Dustin Hermanson, who was getting strafed, with the Cardinals trailing 8-1. The rookie prevented further damage by retiring Armando Reynoso and Tony Womack to end the inning.

But Arizona scored five runs in the fourth, capped by a David Dellucci home run. Tony Womack tripled to open the fifth, and another ex-Pirate, Jay Bell, followed with a homer.

La Russa walked out to the mound to take the ball, and that was it for Chad Hutchinson's Major League Baseball career. His numbers: 3 games, 4 innings, 9 hits, 11 earned runs, 6 walks, 2 strikeouts.

His rookie counterpart, meanwhile, went on to a .329-37-130 season and today has a .331 lifetime average with 273 home runs. At age 27.

His name, of course, is Albert Pujols.

Trivia question 56: For which National Football League teams did Chad Hutchinson play quarterback?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ruth vs. Aaron and Bonds

After I compared the home runs of Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds as percentages of league totals, I thought it might be interesting to do the same for George Herman Ruth.

As more and more players exceed 500, 600 and even 700 lifetime homers, the Babe is starting to get lost in the shuffle. With very few people still alive who ever saw him play, some skeptics are dismissing his feats, using such caveats as the color line that unfortunately existed in organized baseball at the time.

Overlooked in the onslaught of modern home run marks is the enormity of Ruth's impact on the way baseball was played. Casual baseball fans might know the long ball was somewhat of a rarity before the Babe started hitting them. But even after certain aspects of the game made it easier for hitters after 1920, the balls weren't flying out of parks at anything resembling the rates of today. Throughout Ruth's career, in no season did the American League average more than 100 home runs per team, and usually the figure was well below that. Meanwhile, he was hitting them out at a pace very comparable to Aaron and Bonds.

Even in 1918, the year the Red Sox started to convert him to a full-time outfielder, the Babe was wowing 'em with his bat. His 11 home runs that year might seem like a few good weeks' worth of work nowadays, but it was an eye-popping total considering that the entire AL hit only 96 (that's a dozen per team). And considering that Ruth also posted a 13-7 record that year, with 18 complete games in 19 starts, then won two more games in the World Series.

Anyway, I tried to make Ruth's figures comparable to Aaron's and Bonds' by adjusting the number of teams to 12, even though eight existed throughout Ruth's career. (For the heck of it, I also ran straight percentages for Ruth, and they're truly astounding.)

Here is the chart for Ruth. Please click on the image for a larger view:

For Aaron and Bonds, see yesterday's post. And you'll see there is no comparison, really.

Trivia question 55:
In what season did Babe Ruth post his final victory as a pitcher?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bonds vs. Aaron: the nth comparison

My personal contention is that Henry Aaron played primarily in an era, the better part of the '60s, when pitching was as dominant as it has been since the day of the Dead Ball. Much of Barry Bonds' career has been during a period of unprecedented bounty for the long ball.

I started thinking about how Aaron fared against the rest of the National League while he played, compared with Bonds. Of course, the two played radically different types of schedules: Aaron started when the league had only eight teams, while Bonds now faces 15 other NL foes (not to mention that interleague stuff).

Anyway, to level the field for a comparison, I adjusted league home run totals for each year of both players' careers to reflect the number 12 teams would have hit. In other words, the 1,255 home runs National League hitters belted in 1955, when the NL had eight teams, is adjusted upward to 1,895; the actual NL total of 2,595 in 2002 is adjusted downward to 1,946.

Then I measured each player's home run total against the teams-per-league adjustment. And as I suspected, Aaron comes out ahead for his 21-year career in the National League, 2.22% to Bonds' 2.05%.

Both players were remarkably healthy throughout most of their careers, until Bonds missed most of the 2005 season, which is not included here. His playing time was limited in 1999, as well, but was comparable to Aaron's final NL season, when he was reduced to part-time status.

I've included Bonds' performance so far in 2007, as he has played nearly full-time. Plus, if we throw out '05, that gives him 21 seasons to equal Aaron.

Here is the comparison (click on the chart for a larger view):

Some aspects I find interesting:

• When Bonds set his single-season record in 2001, he accounted for 3.30% of the adjusted league total. But the highest figure on the chart is Aaron's 3.41% in 1971, when he hit a career-high 47. By the way, both players happened to be 37 years old at the conclusion of their top home run seasons.

• Bonds topped 2.5% in four seasons. Aaron did so in 10, and came very close to an 11th in 1957, the year he won his sole MVP award.

• Aaron's percentages increased markedly after the Braves moved to Atlanta. But his top five seasons in Milwaukee are bested by all but four of Bonds' 21 seasons.

• Aaron played in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, when the adjusted home run total was 1,069. Bonds played during three seasons (1999-2001) that more than doubled that total, plus another two (2004 and '06) that nearly did.

Certainly, it's difficult to compare different eras. But say you had your choice of facing Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Ferguson Jenkins and Steve Carlton on a regular basis. Or your choices were … well, there are so many teams nowadays, no one faces opposing pitchers on a regular basis. Some of Bonds' recent blasts have been off the likes of Will Ohman, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang, Livan Hernandez, Scott Proctor, Tim Wakefield, Josh Towers … you get the drift.

When Bonds breaks Aaron's record, keep the quality of Hammerin' Hank's pitching nemeses in mind.

Trivia question 54: What Hall of Fame pitcher surrendered Henry Aaron's 600th home run? (Hint: It probably still was wet when it landed in the stands.)

Monday, July 23, 2007


We get kind of used to the Yankees beating up on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But the slaughter perpetrated by the Bronx Bombers over the weekend goes far beyond the usual thrashing.

In three games on Saturday and Sunday, New York scored 45 runs off the beleaguered Rays pitching staff, cranking out 53 hits in the process. Bob Abreu, criticized often this season for underproducing, fattened up his stats by racking up seven hits in the three games.

Of course, the net effect on Tampa Bay's pitching statistics was none too kind. The Rays' earned run average ballooned to 5.98, and the staff now is on pace to break the 1,000 mark in runs allowed. The really bad news is that James Shields, who has seemed to have the makings of a decent hurler, gave up 10 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings on Sunday, adding more than half a run to his season's ERA. His 4.44 mark still looks stellar next to the figures compiled so far by the likes of Andy Sonnanstine (5.37), Edwin Jackson (6.65), J.P. Howell (7.36) and Jae Weong Seo (8.13). Such showings are worthy of the Baker Bowl Phillies or pre-humidor Coors Field.

But, hey, these are the Devil Rays, statistically the worst franchise in major-league history since the 19th-century version of the Washington Senators folded up the tent in 1899. Yes, the Phillies have lost 10,000 games, but if Tampa Bay had played as many contests as Philadelphia, they'd have dropped approximately 11,346 of them (by extrapolation, of course).

This is Tampa Bay's 10th season of existence. The team managed to sneak out of the basement once, blowing past Toronto in 2004 to win a franchise-record 70 games. In nine complete seasons so far, the Rays have finished a cumulative 312.5 games behind the Yankees.

We've seen new franchises in the past take a long time to win, but never like what's going on in Tampa. Remember how bad the Mets were in the '60s? They managed to develop a young pitching staff that took them to the top in their eighth year of existence. In the era of free agency, the Colorado Rockies made the playoffs in their third year; the Florida Marlins won the World Series in their fifth; and the Arizona Diamondbacks won a divisional title in their second.

When there was talk of contracting the major leagues a few years ago, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were at the top of the list.

After their showing in the Bronx the past few days, we can assume they still belong there.

Trivia question 53: What Tampa Bay pitcher holds the team record for victories in a season?

Big Poison

In another season full of disappointments, the Pirates looked back to happier times this weekend by retiring the number of Paul "Big Poison" Waner, who spent the first 15 years of his Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh.

Saturday's ceremony at PNC Park was a heart-warmer, with members of the Waner family attending as featured guests, along with other Pirate Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Bill Mazeroski. Fans certainly had a thrill in seeing Kiner, who looked to be his usual healthy self at age 84.

As for Waner, the honor certainly is deserved. We could go through a litany of his batting achievements -- he still is 10th on the all-time triples list -- but the key number is 3,152, the hits he accumulated for his career. He is the only player between the 1920s and '50s to accomplish that milestone. Unfortunately he did it as a member of the Boston Braves in 1942, two years after he left Pittsburgh.

For a firsthand account of Waner's career, buy a copy of Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times," the gold standard of baseball oral history books.

Although Waner's brother, Lloyd ("Little Poison") followed him to Cooperstown, the Pirates have yet to retire the other number. Perhaps that will come when the team is looking for something to celebrate in '08, although scholars of baseball concede that Lloyd was nowhere near the player Paul was. Lloyd hardly ever struck out, though -- 173 times in 7,772 career at-bats -- and that's definitely something today's Pirates could try to learn.

During Saturday's pregame ceremonies, the Pirates did another classy move, attributed to lame-duck CEO Kevin McClatchy. Among those honored was Craig Biggio of the visiting Astros, who reached the 3,000-hit plateau this season and was introduced as a "future Hall of Famer." Let's hope the voters agree.

Trivia question 52: Former St. Louis Browns pitcher Rollie Stiles, believed to be the oldest former major leaguer, died Sunday at age 100. What former major leaguer lived the longest, to age 107?