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.