Hanging Around The Hot Stove With Bill James

Many baseball fans from the “Baby Boomer” generation haven’t really bought into the immense change in how statistics are viewed. They still look at the game with their eyes and are only concerned with the numbers on the back of the baseball card. For those of us more immersed in the details of the game, the man who guided us through the wilderness is Bill James. Starting in the late 70’s, he published an annual “Baseball Abstract” that began the task of analyzing data in new and different ways. By 1985, he wrote the first “Historical Baseball Abstract” and that 700+ page volume still sits on the bookshelf in my office.

For baseball fans in general and Fantasy Baseball players who can’t wait for the upcoming season, Bill also helps us get through the winter while we’re longing for box scores. Each November, The Bill James Handbook gives us a review of the season, lifetime stats of every major league player and numerous articles and lists to make the “hot stove” season tolerable. The 2021 version is available now and at 578 pages, offers just about something for everyone. The Old Duck has an annual exercise, where I take my initial cursory glance at the book and begin discovering information that surprises and enlightens me.

So, here are some random observations from my first time through the pages…

> In golf and tennis, fans can easily find current rankings on each player. The systems are set up so that the rankings move up and down based on performance and are not just for the current season. James has developed a similar idea for ranking starting pitchers. The current top five are Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer & Max Scherzer. Cole is the first pitcher to start and finish the season at #1 since Clayton Kershaw in 2016. Bieber’s incredible performance moved him up from #24 at the start of 2020. The Cubs had two SP’s in the top ten…Yu Darvish at #6 and Kyle Hendricks at #10. The Reds had the best 5-man rotation rating with Bauer, Luis Castillo (#14), Sonny Gray (#18), Tyler Mahle (#76) and Anthony DeSclafini (#126). Some of the biggest drops since a year ago were Patrick Corbin (from 8th to 33rd), Stephen Strasburg (#5 to #46) and James Paxton (#18 to #57). On the positive side, Kenta Maeda (53rd to 13th), Dinelson Lamet (111th to 17th), Brandon Woodruff (78th to 21st) and Zac Gallen (93rd to 25th) were some of the shining stars.

> Fielding metrics are relatively new and not yet accepted by fans or even by many statisticians. The handbook’s “Defensive Runs Saved” chart shows a plethora of new players compared to previous seasons and very close results due to the shortened schedule. Evan White of the Mariners was surprisingly awarded the Gold Glove at 1B but his 7 runes saved were better than perennial leader Matt Olson, who had 5. Kike Hernandez & Nicky Lopez led the way at 2B with 8; Nolan Arenado practically lapped the field at 3B with 15 while Dansby Swanson led all SS with 9. There were also surprises in the Outfield with Tyler O’Neill leading the LF with 9, Byron Buxton in CF had 11 and Joey Gallo topped the RF with 13…two more than Mookie Betts! Max Fried led all Pitchers with 5 and Tucker Barnhart was the best Catcher with 9. For all the cynical fans out there, we can’t leave out the worst fielders in the game and how many runs they cost their teams…

1B) Joey Votto – 7

2B) Keston Huira – 8

3B) J.D. Davis & Austin Riley – 8

SS) Gleybar Torres – 9

LF) Alex Dickerson, Andrew McCutchen & Juan Soto – 8

CF) Mike Trout – 9

RF) Adam Eaton & Matt Joyce – 6

C) Luis Torrens, Jorge Alfaro & Travis d’Arnaud – 7

> A consistently debated topic among fans and media is the dramatic increase in defensive shifts. In 2014, shifts were utilized over 13,000 times, in 2015 the number increased to over 17,000 and in 2016, it grew tremendously (+58%) to over 28,000. The 2017 numbers seemed to show that the optimum advantage had been reached, as the figure dropped slightly to 26,700. But 2018 put every number in the rear-view mirror with over 34,600 (a 30% increase). 2019 left that number in the dust with a 34% increase to 46,700. To the naysayer, the question becomes, would teams be shifting if it didn’t work? According to the “Runs Saved” statistic, shifting saved 196 runs in 2014, 267 runs in 2015, 359 in 2016 and 346 in 2017. Then in 2018, it increased to 592! 2019 came in at 622 runs! If you prorate the 2020 number to a 162 game season, there would have been 64,606 shifts, an increase of 31% from 2019. The shift lowered the Batting Average of shift candidates by 39 points. 25 of the 30 teams increased their shift usage, so don’t expect the strategy to go away.

> In the past, players were judged as good baserunners if they swiped a lot of bases. Not only were their other baserunning skills not considered, even their caught stealing stats were ignored. However, as Tom Boswell pointed out over 20 years ago, a caught stealing is equivalent to two outs because it not only removes a baserunner, it also causes an out. Now we have information that tells us how often a player goes from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home plate on a single. The handbook grades baserunning on the net amount of bases a player gains in a given season. The top eight were Mookie Betts (+22), Trevor Story (+20), Kyle Tucker (+17), Brandon Lowe (+17) and four with 16…Xander Bogaerts, Adalberto Mondesi, Robbie Grossman & Starling Marte.  The Rockies were the best baserunning team in the game at +67 and the D’Backs (who led the category in ’19) were second with +59.

> How often did the top five starting pitchers use their fastball? The “Pitchers’ Repertoires” section will answer that question by telling you that it was 53% for Cole, 45% for deGrom, 37% for Bieber, 48% for Bauer and 46% for Scherzer. See a pattern here? Maybe the pitching philosophy of “Throw him the heater, Ricky” went out about the time of “Major League II”.

That’s just a taste of the information in this year’s edition and we haven’t even looked at the individual player stats. No wonder that “stathead” is now an accepted baseball term.

Hot Stove Smiles

As we head into “hot stove” season and all the complications of free agency, non-tenders, salary arbitration, DH discussions and 60-game player evaluation, let’s take a break and have a few laughs. This piece originally appeared about 3 ½ years ago and was a favorite of regular readers…

There is little doubt that there are more golf jokes than in any other sport. After all, even the throw-away lines are funny because when you ask a golfer how he’s been playing lately and he replies, “My game has improved dramatically since I had my ball retriever re-gripped”, you can’t help but laugh.

When it comes to quotes however, baseball will always be at the pinnacle. Maybe it has to do with over 150 years of history or the fact that every American youth is exposed to the sport at an early age and understands the basics of the game. For us die-hard fans, we’d probably like to think that it’s the result of the great characters that have captured our imagination over a lifetime. So, for today’s visit, we’ll look at some of the great quotes of the game and hope they bring a smile, cause an outright guffaw or put a quizzical look on your face.

> On hearing that Reggie Jackson was reported to have an IQ of 165, Yankee teammate Mickey Rivers snidely replied, “Out of what – a thousand?”

> “He’s got power enough to hit home runs in any park, including Yellowstone.” – Sparky Anderson on Willie Stargell

> “I gave (pitcher) Mike Cuellar more chances than I gave my first wife.” – Earl Weaver

> “Hating the Yankees is as American as apple pie, unwed mothers and cheating on your income tax.” – Mike Royko, Chicago newspaper columnist

> “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.” – Red Smith, sportswriter

> “There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them work.” – Charlie Lau, hitting coach

> “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” – Yogi Berra

> “For the parents of a Little Leaguer, a baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” – Earl Wilson, former pitcher

> “Good pitching will beat good hitting anytime, and vice versa.” – Bob Veale, former pitcher

> “The designated hitter rule is like letting someone else take Wilt Chamberlain’s free throws.” – Rick Wise, former pitcher

> “Trying to sneak a pitch past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” – Curt Simmons, former pitcher

> “In a way, an umpire is like a woman. He makes quick decisions, never reverses them, and doesn’t think you’re safe when you’re out.” – Larry Goetz, former umpire

> “You never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain.” – Leo Durocher

> “A good cigar is like a beautiful chick with a great body who also knows the American League box scores.” – Klinger (from M*A*S*H*)

> “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.” – Satchel Paige


> “Baseball is like a poker game, nobody wants to quit when he’s losing: nobody wants you to quit when you’re ahead.” – Jackie Robinson

> “The difference between the old ballplayer and the new ballplayer is the jersey. The old ballplayer cared about the name on the front. The new ballplayer cares about the name on the back.” – Steve Garvey

> “Baseball must be a great game to survive the fools who run it.” – Bill Terry

> “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else but to be better than someone else. This is the nature of man and the name of the game.” – Ted Williams

> “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life without even considering if there are men on base.” – Dave Barry, humorist

“You can’t sweep a series if you don’t win the first game, and it’s tougher to win two out of three if you lose the first one.” – Todd Helton

> “Willie Mays’ glove is where triples go to die.” – Jim Murray, newspaper columnist

> “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.” – Casey Stengel

> “The way to make coaches think you’re in shape in the Spring is to get a tan.” – Whitey Ford

> “I watch a lot of baseball on radio.” – Gerald Ford

> “I never took the game home with me. I always left it in some bar.” – Bob Lemon

> “All I remember about my wedding day in 1967 is that the Cubs lost a doubleheader.” – George Will, author

> “A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.” – Humphrey Bogart

> “He looks like a greyhound but he runs like a bus.” – George Brett on teammate Jamie Quirk

> “If Mike Scioscia was in a race with a pregnant woman, he’d finish third.” – Tommy Lasorda

> Asked what it feels like to be the shortest player in the major leagues, 5′ 4″ Freddie Patek replied, “A heckuva lot better than being the shortest player in the minor leagues.”

> “Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day…Aren’t we all?” – Vin Scully

> “He once asked me if Beirut was named after that famous baseball player who hit home runs.” – High School Teacher

> Veteran Pitcher Roger McDowell on taking a rookie under his wing – “I have to go to all the places he can’t, to make sure he isn’t there.”

> In 1995, during the strike, a replacement pitcher who hadn’t pitched professionally in nine years had a terrible outing. Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass said, “He should have been better, pitching on 3,195 days’ rest.”

> “Aw, c’mon, how could he lose a ball in the sun? He’s from Mexico.” – Harry Carey

Needless to say, we’ve just touched the surface of this glorious topic and if you’re wondering if we’ll revisit it in the future think of the Bryce Harper quote – “That’s a clown question, Bro”.

Do You Have A Literary Agent?

Seemingly, sportswriters must always wonder if anyone enjoys, or even reads, their work. If a book is published, sales can be tracked but for newspapers, magazines and this new-fangled Internet thingy, the level of interest can remain a mystery.

This humble column, however, doesn’t seem to have that problem. Every weekend, readers send comments about Friday’s article and most are complimentary. Then there are others who take issue with an opinion or position, but that means they’re interested enough to take the time to disagree. Beyond those two categories, however, there is another group known as the “literary agents”. The lead character wants to know when all of these stories will turn into a book because he thinks it would be a best seller. Another reader, who is only a casual baseball fan, regularly asks “non-expert” questions that suggest general topics for future pieces. One other fan only sends comments less than a sentence like “Didn’t know that” and “Willie Mays was better”. If he was Native American, he would be called “Man Who Speaks Without Punctuation”. Six years ago, a young Rotisserie player ramped up the discussion by requesting a specific topic. After reading a previous offering about baseball card values of that year’s hot prospects, he suggested looking at the cards of the top prospects from 10 years ago because he would “be intrigued to see how the value holds up as players reach the majors and either succeed or fail”.

The answer, of course, was “ask and you shall receive”. We reviewed the 2004 top prospect list and found “hits” (Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke & David Wright) and “misses” (Delmon Young, Greg Miller, Andy Marte & Dustin McGowan). Now it’s time to re-visit the topic and see how the youngsters from the 2010 list have done…and if their baseball cards were a good investment.

1) Jayson Heyward, OF Braves – If success was measured in dollars, this player would be on Mount Rushmore. His eight-year, $164 Million deal with the Cubs runs through the 2023 season. Collectors aren’t impressed as his five years with Chicago have only produced 7.4 WAR…Mike Trout has exceeded that total in a single season. Heyward’s RC Auto from 2008 Bowman Chrome is worth $15-$20.

2) Stephen Strasburg, P Nationals – The first player taken in the 2009 Draft, he has had great success but has also battled injuries. His lifetime mark is 112-59. The RC Auto is from 2010 Bowman Chrome and sells for $25.

3) Giancarlo Stanton, OF Marlins – Hold an additional spot on the financial mountainside, as his $325 Million deal goes through 2027. Another player with the mixed result of success and injuries, he has a MVP award but only four seasons where he played 125 games or more. His 2010 Topps Chrome RC Auto will cost you $100.

4) Buster Posey, C Giants – A bay area favorite, the rigors of playing behind the plate have taken their toll. With that being said, he was Rookie of the Year in 2010, MVP in 2012 and owns three World Series rings. A RC Auto from 2009 Bowman sells for about $75.

5) Brian Matusz, P Orioles – As with every year, some top ten prospects never make it. Had a lifetime record of 27-41 and retired in 2016. You can find his RC in the bargain bin.

6) Desmond Jennings, OF Rays – Even Tampa makes mistakes and this “sure-fire” prospect is a prime example. In seven seasons, he batted .245 and his last major league appearance was when he was only 29. More bargain bin cardboard.

7) Neftali Feliz, P Rangers – Blessed with an electric arm, he was the Rookie of the Year in 2010 when he posted 40 Saves. 2011 was another productive season but it was mostly downhill from there. His last year in the “show” was 2017.

8) Pedro Alvarez, 3B Pirates – Led the NL in both HR’s (36) and Strikeouts (186) in 2013 but that was the highlight of a mediocre career. A lifetime BA of .236 doesn’t impress the buyers of collectibles. 

9) Justin Smoak, 1B Rangers – Aren’t you glad there wasn’t a mutual fund where you could have invested in the baseball cards of prospects 5-9? Never made it in Texas but had some productive seasons in Seattle & Toronto. His lifetime BA of .229 and OPS of .740 tells the tale. His RC has no real value.

10) Madison Bumgarner, P Giants – Finally, another name that has historical value. His World Series exploits are the thing of legend. Had 120 victories and four All-Star appearances with San Francisco, along with a post-season ERA of 2.11. His 2008 Bowman Chrome RC Auto is valued at $60.

Reviewing the next ten prospects on our 2010 list gives you a clear insight into just how difficult it is to scout young players. Only #11 qualifies as a real success…

11) Carlos Santana

12) Alcides Escobar

13) Wade Davis

14) Domonic Brown

15) Dustin Ackley

16) Brett Wallace

17) Kyle Drabek

18) Martin Perez

19) Jesus Montero

20) Jeremy Hellickson

You might wonder if there were any big misses by the well-informed baseball experts that put this list together. Let’s allow you to decide, as we look at prospects inside the top 50.

22) Starlin Castro

29) Aaron Hicks

32) Mike Moustakas

33) Wil Myers

46) Michael Brantley

If you play Fantasy Baseball, you might look a little deeper and find these three players who didn’t make the top 50…

Anthony Rizzo

Freddie Freeman

Mike Trout

What’s that you ask? The value of Autographed RC’s of these three? Rizzo is about $50. Freeman is $75-$100. As for Trout, refer to the old cliché…”if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”. Let’s just say four figures.

Stan The Card Man

When friends have the opportunity to view my autograph collection, they invariably ask which players were the nicest and which were the most difficult. Interestingly, some of the best were also the nicest and I always recall the wonderful experience of meeting Stan Musial. So, as this humble blog continues to add new readers, I wanted to share with you a column from 7+ years ago that I penned at the time of Stan’s passing. The baseball card values have been updated.

As we reflect on the life of Stan Musial, the impact of his personality becomes obvious. Quotes such as, “People loved him and he loved them right back” and “Where is the single person to truthfully say a bad word about him” certainly tell the story of how he impacted players and fans. As for his career, anyone who doesn’t think he was one of the five best players of all time needs to book an appointment with a Proctologist to get some assistance finding their head.

There has been much speculation as to why “Stan The Man” was consistently underrated and under-appreciated. As Bob Costas pointed out during the funeral, Musial lacked that singular achievement like DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Williams’ .406 season, Mays’ catch in ’54 and Mantle’s World Series HR’s during the Yankee dynasty. In addition to that, it probably can be attributed to geography. Until 1958, St. Louis was the western-most city in the Major Leagues and by then, Stan was 37 years old. He didn’t have the media hype that surrounded players in New York and other cities. In addition, he never did or said anything controversial and was never once thrown out of any of the 3,000+ games he played.

Adding to all of this, there may be another slightly hidden factor. During his prime, Stan Musial was very seldom found on a baseball card. In the 50’s, before satellite / cable TV and the Internet, boys learned everything they knew about baseball players from the back of Topps baseball cards. For a nickel, they could buy a pack of five cards (with a stick of bubble gum) and hunt for their favorite players. If you bought enough packs, then duplicates could be traded for the cards of other stars and those players also became familiar. Stan Musial wasn’t part of that history lesson for young fans.

When Topps produced their first modern card set in 1952, Stan was already under contract to the Bowman Card Company. He appeared in both the ’52 & ’53 Bowman sets but for the next four years (1954-57), he wasn’t on any baseball card even though he was one of the best players in the game. The back story is that Topps finally was able to get Musial under contract in 1958 as a trade-off for donating money to a charity supported by Cardinals owner Gussie Busch. Why didn’t he sign earlier? One biographer claims “insufficient compensation” was the reason, but that flies in the face of everything we know about the man.

Here’s the history of Musial’s baseball card offerings during his actual playing career. The values are based on a card in “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition.

> 1948 Bowman #36 ($2,200) – Even though Stan’s major league career started in 1941, there were no card sets made during World War II. This is the first post-war set and it is his “rookie card”.


> 1948-49 Leaf #4 ($4,750) – Also considered a rookie card, these cards weren’t actually issued until early ’49 and the company didn’t have enough success to continue production beyond one year.

> 1949 Bowman #24 ($550) – This set had tinted photos on colored background and laid the groundwork for future color photography on baseball cards.

> 1952 Bowman #196 ($475) – Musial didn’t appear in the ’50 or ’51 Bowman sets but shows up here in a set that featured the player’s facsimile autograph on the card front.

> 1953 Bowman Color #32 ($575) – One of the most beautiful sets ever produced with nothing but a Kodachrome photograph of the player on the front.

> 1958 Topps #476 ($60) – Musial’s first Topps card wasn’t even a “regular” card…it was part of the All-Star run at the end of the set. All the other All-Stars also had an individual card earlier in the set and those cards are significantly more valuable.

> 1959 Topps #150 ($125) – Stan’s first real Topps card…issued when he was 38 years old.

> 1960 Topps #250 ($110)

> 1961 Topps #290 ($75)

> 1962 Topps #50 ($80)

> 1962 Topps #317 ($25) – A highlight card celebrating Stan’s 21st season with the Cardinals

> 1963 Topps # 1 ($55) – A “Batting Leaders” card which also featured Hank Aaron & Frank Robinson. Musial hit .330 in ’62 when he was 41 years old.

> 1963 Topps #138 ($55) – This card is titled “Pride of the NL” and pictures Stan with Willie Mays

> 1963 Topps #250 ($90) – The final regular-issue card of the Hall-of-Famer’s career.

The Old Duck got to meet “The Man” at a sports collectibles show many years ago. Scores of people were lined up waiting for the doors to open at 10:00 AM and Stan walked into the lobby on his way to the autograph area. He stopped and said, “You people aren’t waiting for me, are you? We all laughed and then Stan reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out his harmonica and played “Take me out to the ballgame” while we all sang along. A lasting memory of this great man along with the autographed Sports Illustrated cover that adorns a wall in my home. RIP Stan…we were all better for having known you.

The Clutch Chronicles -2020

The Urban Dictionary defines Clutch as, “To perform under pressure”. For decades, baseball pundits and fans have extolled the virtues of players who supposedly had this trait. Their evidence, however, was only visual and anecdotal. Back in the mid-to-late 1970’s, most people considered Greg Luzinski one of the top clutch hitters in the game. He made four consecutive All-Star teams and averaged 111 RBI’s in those campaigns.

Now that baseball is in the age of statistical analysis, our old observations may be called into question. Even a math-challenged fan understands that you can’t get a plethora of RBI’s without baserunners. And, boy, did those Phillies teams have baserunners! The line-up included Dick Allen, Dave Cash, Mike Schmidt and a part-time OF named Jay Johnstone who compiled a .397 OBP in ’75.

 Statistics on RBI Percentage (RBI-HR/Runners On) now go back to 1974, so let’s see how our legendary clutch hitter fared in 1975. “The Bull” had 120 RBI’s, 34 HR’s & 498 runners on base for a RBI percentage of 17.27%. That didn’t even crack the top 20 for the major leagues in ’75! He finished behind household names such as Bobby Murcer, Dave Parker, Jorge Orta, Rusty Staub & George Scott. The leaders were Willie Stargell (20.48%) and Thurman Munson (20.00%).

As a fan, you certainly have an opinion on today’s clutch hitters but do the stats back you up? In 2020, there were over 40 hitters who exceeded the 17.27% that Luzinski posted in ’75. We’ll only include players who had at least 100 baserunners during the season to eliminate the “small sample size” outliers.  These are “Quacker’s Clutch All-Stars” and we’ll see how well their performance aligns with their reputation. There will be players you expected to see and others that will cause you to scratch your head.

1) Eric Hosmer, Padres 1B, 24.32% – The Friars are on the upswing and gave the veteran guys in the line-up plenty of opportunities.

2) Wil Myers, Padres OF, 23.36%% – Should we be that surprised to see his OPS go up over 200 points? He is still only 29.

3) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B, 22.47% – A MVP candidate and one of the most consistent players in the game. He was also 3rd in this category last year.

4) Jose Abreu, White Sox 1B, 22.16%% – Led the AL with 60 RBI’s and it was no fluke.

5) Trea Turner, Natioanls SS, 21.80% – One of the best all-around players in the game.

6) David Bote, Cubs 3B, 21.36%- Every list has a fluke…he only batted .200.

7) Charlie Blackmon, Rockies OF, 21.05% – Was in the top ten last season also…solid.

8) Luke Voit, Yankees 1B, 20.83%- Did you predict that he’d lead the AL in HR’s? If so, you win the Cardinals GM job. He was traded for Giovanny Gallegos.

9) Juan Soto, Nationals OF, 20.69%- Yes, he can do everything and won’t be 22 until later this month.

10) Stephen Piscotty, Athletics OF, 20.51% – His .629 OPS tells another story.

 11) Kyle Tucker, Astros OF, 20.50%- He won’t be 24 until January…this will only get better.

12) Mike Yastrzemski, Giants OF, 20.49%- How did everyone miss on this guy?

Others over 20% were Jesus Aguilar, David Peralta, Dominic Smith, Anthony Santander, Eloy Jimenez, Rowdy Tellez & Andrew McCutcheon.

For everyday players, Hunter Dozier was the worst in baseball at 5.41%. Others under 8% included Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Alex Gordon, Edwin Encarnacion & Christian Yelich (7.75%).

Hope all your fantasy players came through in the clutch. For more information on RBI Percentage, go to baseballmusings.com.

Unexpected WAR

Baseball fans and Fantasy Baseball Managers love pleasant surprises. Those players who weren’t on the radar and then turned out to be a very productive asset to your team.

They could fall into a number of categories. There are prospects that exceeded their ranking in the organization. Then there are those acquired in some insignificant trade who emerge with their new team. Or a post-hype player who disappointed in his first season or two and then figured it out. Every season, these players make a difference in the success of MLB teams and, despite the short schedule, 2020 is no exception. We’re not talking about established guys like Freddie Freeman or Trea Turner who took their game to another level or top prospects such as Fernando Tatis Jr. or Juan Soto.

To indentify the best of these, we’ll once again rely on “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR) which is a statistic designed to answer the following question…if this player got injured and their team had to replace them with an available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing? The value is expressed in a wins format, so we can compare each player’s actual value.

According to the rankings provided by Fan Graphs, there were about 38 players who provided at least 2 Wins to their team with Jose Ramirez leading the way at 3.4. In that top 38, we’ve identified a few who would certainly qualify as a pleasant surprise. Let’s take a look at the list with their overall ranking and WAR contribution…

> #9 Mike Yastrzemski, Giants (2.7 WAR) – Proved 2018 wasn’t a fluke with 10 HR’s, 35 RBI’s and a .297 BA.

> #18 Dinelson Lamet, Padres (2.4 WAR) – In his 2nd season back from TJ surgery, he was solid for the resurgent Friars. Posted a 2.09 ERA with 93 K’s in 69 IP.

> #19 Corbin Burnes, Brewers (2.4 WAR) – Always had good stuff but never put it all together until this season at age 25. In 2019, his ERA was 8.82…in 2020, it was 2.11.

> #23 Brandon Lowe, Rays (2.3 WAR) – Players like this is what makes the Tampa Bay franchise unique. Had a good partial season as a rookie in ’19 and put it all together in ’20 with 14 HR’s, 37 RBI’s and .916 OPS.

> #24 German Marquez (2.3) WAR – Pitching in Denver is always a challenge, but he lowered his ERA from 4.76 to 3.75 while leading the NL in Starts and IP.

> #25 Trent Grisham, Padres (2.3 WAR) – Acquired from the Brewers last November, he contributed 10 HR’s, 10 SB’s and a .808 OPS…at age 23

> #32 Framber Valdez, Astros (2.0 WAR) – His ERA last season was 5.86. In 2020, he was 5-3 in 10 starts with a 3.57 ERA.

 Just below the threshold at 1.9 WAR were Cesar Hernandez of the Indians and Ian Happ of the Cubs followed closely by New Yorkers Dominic Smith & Luke Voit.

If you had these 11 players on your Fantasy squad, apply for a GM opening.

60-Game Heroes

50 years ago, if a baseball fan was asked who the best hitters were, the only significant resource would have been the sports section of the Sunday newspaper. Somewhere in the back pages, there was a long, slender list in very small type showing all current major league players. And those players were ranked by their BA (Batting Average) because that had historically been the benchmark for position players.

Looking back at 1970, we find that the top five BA’s belonged to Rico Carty (.366), Alex Johnson (.329), Carl Yastrzemski (.329), Joe Torre (.325) & Manny Sanguillen (.325). Fine players all, but were they the five best hitters in baseball? Not when you consider that the two MVP winners (Johnny Bench and Boog Powell) didn’t even hit .300. Sanguillen, for example, had only 7 HR’s & 61 RBI’s.

As modern baseball analytics have evolved, one of the most accepted statistics has become OPS (On-Base % + Slugging %). Not only does it prioritize getting on base, it also adds the concept of moving more runners around the bases. After all, Slugging Percentage is defined as Total Bases /At Bats. Old school fans might question the veracity of the stat but baseball history tells the tale. The five highest lifetime OPS numbers belong to Babe Ruth (1.16), Ted Williams (1.12), Lou Gehrig (1.08), Barry Bonds (1.05) & Jimmie Foxx (1.04). There are only two other hitters with a number over 1.00… Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby. Mike Trout is at #8 with .999.

With our 60-game sprint now in the books, let’s see who the best hitters in baseball were according to the numbers.

1) Juan Soto, Nationals OF, 1.185 OPS – The Nats lousy season may have clouded your view, but this is a generational talent. At age 21, he led the NL with a .351 BA and walked more times (41) than he struck out (28).

2) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B, 1.102 OPS – One of the most consistent players in the game, he recovered from an early season IL stint to post a .341 BA. Along with Soto, he’s the only player in the top 12 to have a positive BB/K ratio (45/37).

3) Marcell Ozuna, Braves OF, 1.067 OPS – Had a mediocre 2019 with a .241 BA and .800 OPS and was probably fortunate to get a one-year, $18 Million deal in Atlanta. Now, after leading the NL in HR’s & RBI’s (18/56), he’ll be a free agent in 2021.

4) DJ LeMahieu, Yankees 2B, 1.011 OPS – Many pundits questioned his signing in the Bronx after the 2018 season, but he’s now won batting championships in both leagues…hitting .364 this season. Now, he’ll be a free agent again in 2021.

5T) Jose Ramirez, Indians 3B, .993 OPS – His first-half slump in 2019 made some fans nervous, but you need worry no longer. 17 HR’s, 46 RBI’s & 10 SB’s tell the tale.

5T) Mike Trout, Angels OF, .993 OPS – Probably still the best player in the game, but it appears that stealing bases in no longer in his quiver. In the last three seasons, the numbers have gone from 24 to 11 to 1.

5T) Dominic Smith, Mets 1B/OF, .993 OPS – Having the DH in the National League led to this player’s breakout. Had as many AB’s in 60 games as he had in 162 games last year and produced 10 HR’s with 42 RBI’s.

8) Nelson Cruz, Twins DH, .992 OPS – One of these years, he’ll finally lose to Father Time. But, at age 40 he still produced solid numbers including 16 HR’s. Another 2021 free agent.

9T) Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves OF, .987 – More hyped than Soto, his 2020 campaign was a little less consistent than his first two seasons. Let’s not forget, however, that this was his age 22 campaign.

9T) Jose Abreu, White Sox 1B, .987 OPS – Fans occasionally overlook consistent performers and get excited about the shiny new toy. At age 33, in his 7th season, he led the AL in Games Played, Hits, RBI’s, Slugging % & Total Bases.

11) Trea Turner, Nationals SS, .982 OPS – His best season at age 27 as he led the league in Hits and accumulated 12 HR’s & 12 SB’s.

12) Mike Yastrzemski, Giants OF, .968 OPS – One of those great baseball stories as the Grandson of a Hall of Famer becomes a star at age 29. Never high on the prospect list of the Orioles, he was traded to SF in March of 2019 and hasn’t looked back. In 161 games during the last two seasons he has 31 HR’s & 90 RBI’s.

Did your favorite player get left off the list? The next five are all over .940… Bryce Harper, Wil Myers, Manny Machado, Luke Voit & Corey Seager followed closely by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mookie Betts.

As for 1970, the four players who exceeded 1.000 OPS were McCovey, Yastrzemski, Carty & Jim Hickman.

Motivate This

When people hear that I was professional speaker during my working days, their immediate response is something like “you mean motivation and stuff?” I always wonder if the alternative they’re thinking of would be non-motivational speaking.

Motivational speakers have never impressed me. Their message is usually emotional and short-lived. Most people attending one of these programs during a convention or meeting are motivated for a few hours and have forgotten the experience by the time cocktail hour and the next morning’s hangover have arrived. Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, Wayne Dyer and dozens of others I’ve listened to over the years all have one thing in common. Even after collecting a nice fee, they’re trying to sell you something…books, videos, newsletters and the like. And then, there’s the occasional presenter like football legend Mike Ditka who received five figures as a keynote speaker and insulted any group that wasn’t white and Christian. Guess he didn’t think any of us would be in the audience?

I always considered myself a “success speaker”, in the sense that the people in the room might take away something that could make (or save) them money in their business. In addition, through humor and example, they could also find some hints on how to get along better with people…that’s the real secret to success.

The complete antithesis of a motivational speaker was A’s GM Billy Beane. Two years after “Moneyball” became a best-selling book, he and I were both part of the same program at a business convention in Reno. His message was all about success in business. Innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, allocation of scarce resources and many other topics were relevant to every business person in the room. And, he wasn’t selling anything! Of course, there was some confusion in the audience during the Q&A session when I asked him if Huston Street would still be the Closer the following season.

All of this background filtered back while I was reading an Internet article about the “best motivational quotes about baseball”. It’s a matter of opinion if they are actually motivational, but most are entertaining. The interesting aspect is that each of these comments was made by someone born before 1935. Let’s see if they still fit the game we love.

1) “Any minute, any day, some players may break a long-standing record. That’s one of the fascinations about the game, the unexpected surprises” – Connie Mack

2) “The main idea is to win” – John McGraw

3) “Now there’s three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win or you can lose or it can rain” – Casey Stengel

( Paraphrased by Crash Davis in “Bull Durham”)

4) “If it wasn’t for baseball, I’d be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery” – Babe Ruth

5) “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” – Rogers Hornsby

6) “Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.”  – Leo Durocher

7) “Ain’t no man can avoid being average, but there ain’t no man got to be common” – Satchel Paige

8) “Catching a fly ball is a pleasure, but knowing what to do with it after you catch it is a business” – Tommy Henrich

9) “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer” – Ted Williams

10) “You can shake a dozen glove me out of a tree, but the bat separates the men from the boys” – Dale Long

11) “You can have money piled to the ceiling but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather” – Chuck Tanner

12) “The way to make coaches think you’re in shape in the spring is to get a tan” – Whitey Ford

13) “Baseball is like a poker game. Nobody wants to quit when they’re losing: nobody wants you to quit when you’re ahead” – Jackie Robinson

14) “Friendships are forgotten when the game begins” – Alvin Dark

15) “Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets” – Yogi Berra

16) “The only way to make money as a Manager is to win in one place, get fired and hired somewhere else” – Whitey Herzog

17) “For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps” – Willie Mays

18) “Players like rules. If they didn’t have any rules, they wouldn’t have anything to break” – Lee Walls

19) “You’ve got to have an attitude if you’re going to go far in this game” – Bob Gibson

 20) “Don’t call us ballplayers heroes, Firemen are heroes” – Sparky Anderson

Hope you’re motivated.

The Autograph Box

In the late 1940’s, a young sports fan decided to build an autograph collection. The process was simple, but effective, as he would send a self-addressed post card in an envelope with a note to the player (or team) asking them to sign the postcard and mail it back. In the days before eBay, auction houses and the marketing of autographs, athletes were happy to fill the request. The youngster would cut out the signature portion of the returned post card and tape it an album along with pictures and articles of the players. As he grew up, the collection began to include many signatures acquired in person at games and other events. The end result was a collection that included thousands of autographs from ballplayers of multiple generations.

That young boy from the 40’s passed away last year and his Wife asked me to assist in appraising – and eventually selling – autographs from the collection. The starting point were three binders from the beginning of the project that were completely disorganized…torn newspaper clippings, discolored tape, little loose remnants of 70 year-old post cards with signatures of long-forgotten athletes. Looking through the first binder, however, caused this old baseball fan to stop and stare. In my hands were the signatures of Hall of Famers such as Pepper Martin, Carl Hubbell, Paul Waner & others. Were they in nice condition? Absolutely not! Were they genuine? Even though independent authentication would be necessary, there was no doubt that they were real. In other binders/albums, players like Cy Young, Jimmie Foxx, Ty Cobb & Tris Speaker also appeared.

Now, almost a year later, over 150 autographs have been sold to collectors all across the country. It has been a pains-taking process, including 3rd party authentication of each signature along with marketing the items on eBay, but the project has been more fun than you can imagine for a baseball historian like me. And, of course, let’s not forget that my client is very happy with the results.

That young sports fan didn’t stop collecting as he became an adult. In addition to all those albums & binders from the 50’s & 60’s, he also collected autographs on post cards during the 1970’s. One shoe box has hundreds of them and even though they probably aren’t valuable enough to authenticate, they will certainly jog the memory of fans from that era. For this visit, I’ll randomly grab a handful of these signatures and let’s see if you remember some of the players…

  • Lee Stanton – An AL Outfielder for nine seasons, he had his best years with the Angels…in 1975, he had 14 HR’s, 82 RBI’s and 18 SB’s.
  • Tug McGraw – One of the best Closers of the era, he pitched for 19 seasons with the Mets & Phillies…posted 180 Saves and won two World Series rings.
  • Gates Brown – This Tigers Outfielder played 13 seasons with the Bengals and was part of their 1968 championship team. The signature is from his last season…1975.
  • Jim Barr – A member of the Giants rotation during most of the 70’s, he had 101 lifetime Wins…pitched over 230 innings in five different seasons.
  • Nelson “Nellie” Briles – Debuted as a Cardinal in 1965 and pitched 14 seasons with 129 Wins…after being traded to the Pirates in ’71, he pitched a 2-hit shutout in the World Series.
  • Rick Miller – This speedy Outfielder played 15 years in the majors, 12 of them with the Red Sox…won a Gold Glove in 1978.
  • Woodie Fryman – This left-hander pitched for 18 seasons and accumulated 141 Wins…made the NL All-Star team with both the Pirates & Expos.
  • Jim Sundberg – Played 16 years and was one of the best Catchers in the game during the late 70’s and early 80’s…won six consecutive Gold Gloves from 1976-81.
  • Doyle Alexander – Won 194 games in 19 seasons…in August of 1987, the Braves traded him to the Tigers where he went 9-0 down the stretch…the player going to the Braves was an obscure minor leaguer named John Smoltz.
  • Dan Ford – “Disco Dan” was an AL Outfielder for 11 seasons and hit 121 HR’s…his best stat line was for the Angels in ’79 when he hit .290 with 21 HR’s and 101 RBI’s.
  • Fritz Peterson & Mike Kekich – Peterson pitched 11 seasons (including 20 Wins in 1970), while Kekich was a big-leaguer for nine years…they are best remembered for swapping wives and children during Spring Training in 1973.

There’s the first dozen from the autograph box…hope you enjoyed the visit.

Willie, Mickey and the Duke

Baseball fans from the “Baby Boomer” generation learned all they knew about statistics from the backs of Topps baseball cards. If someone said “SABR”, it was really the word “saber”, referring to a swashbuckling movie starring Burt Lancaster or Stewart Granger. With the advent of Fantasy Baseball, the Internet and advanced metrics for the sport, everything has changed. The real question is, are you still judging player performance by those same stats that were on the baseball cards?

In 1956, it could be argued that the three best players in baseball played the same position on the field in the same city. CF’s Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, Duke Snider of the Dodgers and Willie Mays of the Giants were the cream of the crop. These three Hall of Famers were in their prime with Mantle at age 24 in a Triple Crown & MVP season, Snider at age 29 leading the NL in HR’s & BB and Mays at age 25 with 36 HR’s and a league leading 40 SB. Looking at the back of their 1957 Topps cards gives us a starting point for this analysis. Obviously, the stats are from the ’56 season and tell you the most basic information. For hitters, you find BA, HR, RBI, Runs, Games Played and a few other categories but not SB. There’s even some fielding information like assists and errors. In order to bring the performance up-to-date, let’s see how the new age categories play out for Willie, Mickey & The Duke as well as the current MLB leaders in this shortened season. We must acknowledge, however, that today’s hitting environment is much more difficult than it was for the legendary names of the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s. The key difference is relief pitching, where a series of hard-throwers now hold opposing hitters to a batting average of .244. As a point of reference, during Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, he hit .407 against relievers.

> OBP (On-Base %) – Paul Goldschmidt leads the majors with .466 and Anthony Rendon tops the AL with .430…Mantle had the second best figure in ’56 (behind Ted Williams) with .464, while Snider was at .399 and Mays at .369

> SLG (Slugging %, determined by Total Bases / At Bats) – Juan Soto leads this category with .758 and Nelson Cruz is the AL’s best at .654. Mantle’s figure was the best in the game at .705, while Snider & Mays finished with .598 & .557 respectively. All three were in the top seven for major league hitters

> OPS (OBP & SLG)) – Maybe the most telling of the new numbers, as it explains how many bases a hitter has accumulated for his team…Soto & Cruz lead this category also (1.211 & 1.075), followed closely by Ian Happ and Trea Turner. Mantle was #1 again with 1.169 and Snider came in at .997 with Mays at .926…all three inside the top ten.

> OPS+ (Adjusted to the ballpark factors with a mean of 100) – Only four 2020 players are over 175 led again by Cruz at .192 and Happ at .183, joined by Fernando Tatis Jr. at .182 and Mike Yastrzemski with .176. Mantle was over-the-top at .210 with Snider at .155 and Mays at .146 – again all in the top ten.

> WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – A single number that estimates the number of Wins a player was worth to his team above the level of a replacement player. Only four (4) players are over two (2) Wins through September 4th…Mookie Betts at 2.9, Tatis with 2.6 and 2.2 numbers for Yastrzemski & Jose Abreu. This stat tells the tale about our three CF’s, as they had the three best WAR numbers in baseball…11.2 for Mantle & 7.6 for both Snider and Mays.

> Offense Winning % (The percentage of games a team with nine of this player batting would win. Assumes average pitching & defense) – The current MLB leaders are Happ & Jesse Winker at 80.2%. Mantle was again off-the-charts at 87.8% with Snider at 75.6% and Mays at 70.7%…Williams was the only other player above 80% (83.7) in ’56.

Of course, all around ability and a player’s value also includes defense. Another advanced statistic is “Range Factor”, which calculates Putouts & Assists / Innings Played. Currently, the A’s Ramon Laureano leads the way for CF’s with a number of 2.63. Mays was the best of our three heroes at 2.81, with Mantle at 2.69 and Snider at 2.56. The CF’s with the best range in 1956? Richie Ashburn of the Phillies led the way with 3.37 while Jimmy Piersall led the AL at 3.06.

That’s probably more than enough for this lesson…if you can’t wait for more, try baseball-reference.com