Defining Moments

'33 Hubbell

If you’ve been a baseball fan for decades, there are dozens of mental snapshots available to you at any given time. Some were taken in person and many others have accumulated through watching live games on TV, viewing archival footage or enjoying sports-related docudrama. These collective moments give you a personal history of the game beyond the written word but even the prose of the sport creates images of players you may have never seen. This concept leads each of us to have differing “defining moments” in the game.

 

Excuse the pun, but everyone has their own definition of a defining moment. If you feel that Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat or Pete Rose passing Ty Cobb on the all-time hit list or Willie Mays making that catch in the World Series or Derek Jeter hitting a home run for his 3000th hit were defining moments, you and I are already in disagreement. To me, those players were so great that any one moment can’t define their career. It is, however, a very fine line because there will be Hall of Fame players who actually have a defining moment and it might cause an ongoing debate about the term. For the Old Duck, the criteria is simple…when you hear a player’s name, is there any doubt about what moment you remember? For example, actor Peter Fonda passed away recently at age 79. In 1969, he starred in the counter-culture classic “Easy Rider” and it is that role he is most remembered for playing. The average person can’t name two of his films from the last 50 years despite the fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 1977’s “Ulee’s Gold”.

 

The specter of an additional pun looms when I say that what is presented here in certainly not a definitive list. It is only one person’s reflections from his own snapshots and hopefully, you will add many of your own that we can discuss in the future.

 

> Fred Merkle (1908) – In the September pennant chase, Giants base-runner Merkle was belatedly called out after failing to touch 2nd base after a teammate crossed home plate with what would have been the winning run. The Cubs ended up taking the pennant when the game was replayed in October. Even though his career lasted until 1926, still to this day, his nickname is “Bonehead”.

 

> Carl Hubbell (1934) – A Hall-of Fame pitcher for the Giants, “King Carl” is revered for his performance in the All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds on July 10th. Utilizing his famous screwball, Hubbell struck out five Hall-of-Fame AL batters in succession…Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons & Joe Cronin.

 

> Johnny Vander Meer (1938) – The Reds pitcher no-hit the Dodgers 6-0 after no-hitting the Boston Bees four days earlier. No other major league hurler has ever accomplished this feat.

 

> Lou Gehrig (1939) – Despite having one of the great careers in the history of the game, this defining moment came after his playing days were over. On July 4th at Yankee Stadium, the terminally ill “Iron Horse” told the crowd that “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”.

 

> Mickey Owen (1941) – In the World Series, the Dodgers are leading the 4th game with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning when Catcher Owen lets a 3rd strike get past him and the Yankees go on to win the game and the Series.

 

> Joe Nuxhall (1944) – Not yet 16 years old, the Reds LH Pitcher makes the first appearance of what would be a 16-year career. It was eight years before he pitched in the big leagues again.

 

> Jackie Robinson (1947) – On April 15th, he starts at 1B for the Brooklyn Dodgers and become the first player of color in the Major Leagues.

 

> Eddie Gaedel (1951) – The St. Louis Browns sent the 3’7″ pinch-hitter to the plate wearing uniform number 1/8. He walked on four pitches and was replaced by a pinch-runner.

 

> Bobby Thomson (1951) – “The shot heard ’round the world” was a home run in the bottom of the 9th inning to give the Giants the NL pennant over the Dodgers.

 

> Johnny Podres (1955) – Ending decades of frustration for Dodger fans, he shut out the Yankees 2-0 in game 7 of the World Series.

 

> Don Larsen (1956) – In game 5 of the World Series, this Yankee hurler pitched the only perfect game in post-season history when he retired 27 consecutive Dodger batters.

 

> Harvey Haddix (1959) – This Pirate hurler pitched 12 perfect innings but lost the game to the Braves in the 13th inning.

 

> Bill Mazeroski (1960) – The Pirates 2B hits a walk-off HR in the 7th game of the World Series to defeat the Yankees.

 

> Roger Maris (1961) – A good, but not great player overcame the intense pressure and the insult of the Commissioner to break Babe Ruth’s record with his 61st home run on October 1st…Holy Cow!

 

> Tony Cloninger (1966) – This Braves Pitcher beat the Giants 17-3 on July 3rd…he hit two grand-slam HR’s and had 9 RBI’s.

 

> Al Downing (1974) – He won 123 games in a 17-year career, but on April 8th, he gave up Hank Aaron’s 715th HR.

 

> Carlton Fisk (1975) – Another Hall-of-Fame player, he will always be remembered for guiding his HR off the foul pole in the 12th inning to beat the Reds in the 6th game of the World Series.

 

> Len Barker (1981) – This Indians hurler threw 84 of his 103 pitches for strikes and pitched a perfect game against the Blue Jays. He recorded 11 strikeouts and they were all swinging.

 

> Bill Buckner (1986) – Despite a career in which he had over 2,700 hits, all that is remembered is the error he made in game 6 of the World Series that doomed the Red Sox and opened the door for the Mets to become world champions.

 

> Kirk Gibson (1988) – His 9th inning walk-off (or was it limp-off) home run in game 1 of the World Series propelled the Dodgers to defeat the Athletics in 5 games…it was his only at-bat in the Series.

 

> Joe Carter (1993) – The Blue Jays OF hit a Series-ending 3-run HR to beat the Phillies and secure Toronto’s second consecutive title.

 

> Edgar Renteria (1997) – Another walk-off World Series winner, his 11th inning single won the 7th game for the Marlins against the Indians.

 

> Kerry Wood (1998) – This rookie pitcher for the Cubs struck out 20 Astros while pitching a one-hitter…it was his 5th major league start.

 

> Luis Gonzalez (2001) – His bloop single over the Yankees drawn-in infield in game 7 gave the Diamondbacks the World Series title.

 

> Aaron Boone (2003) – A walk-off home run in the 11th inning of game 7 gave the Yankees the AL Pennant over the Red Sox.

 

> Dave Roberts (2004) – As a pinch-runner, he steals 2B and eventually scores the tying run for the Red Sox, who go on the beat the Yankees in extra innings for the AL pennant.

 

> David Freese (2011) – Still an active player, nothing will ever compare to his performance for the Cardinals in the World Series where he had an OPS of 1.106.

 

That takes us to eight years ago and many current players still have their defining moment to come. Which of your memories did we leave out? How about names like Bucky Dent, Ray Fosse, Jack Morris, Fernando Tatis, Rennie Stennett, Vic Wertz, Cookie Lavagetto, Dusty Rhodes or Enos Slaughter? I’m guessing some of those snapshots are in your mental camera.

 

 

The Color Of The Game

'71 Clemente

Every April when Major League Baseball celebrates the anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers in 1947, the conversation inevitably turns to the question about the percentage of black players in the game being in decline. Everyone seems to have a different opinion and there is probably some validity to each point of view. The Old Duck subscribes to the theory that due to the increase in popularity of basketball and football, young black athletes in this country have many more options compared to 40 or 50 years ago. Even beyond the NBA and NFL, College sports is a booming business and High School programs are feeding those universities the players they need. No longer do youngsters become “dual sports” stars because the competition in each endeavor in so fierce, they must devote 100% of their time and training to a chosen sport.

 

The anecdotal evidence is very clear if you’ve watched a group of major league players over the last few years. Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu & Aroldis Chapman are all from Cuba and fans have been blown away by their skills and athleticism. These four average 6’2″ & 230 lbs. and some fans wondered out loud why we never see baseball players like this anymore. The answer seems obvious if you think it through. In Cuba, baseball is the national game with essentially no competition. A spectacular young athlete like Puig would be drawn to the baseball field with the dream of traveling the world as a member of the national team and then, hopefully, finding a way off the island to play in the major leagues. If Cespedes had attended the local High School in your community, he never would have made it to the baseball field. The basketball coach would have wanted him to play small forward and might still have lost out to the football coach who had him slotted as a Linebacker or a devastating Running Back.

 

Another aspect of this topic interestingly came up a few years back on the golf course. One of my golfing buddies and I were doing our usual damage to the course when the subject of baseball came up during a lull between hooks and slices. Over the years, he’s learned about my affinity for the game but indicated that he’s really not much of a baseball fan. It certainly wasn’t an aversion to sports in general because he has a Pittsburgh Steelers golf bag on his cart. On this particular day, I casually asked why he wasn’t also into baseball. Embarrassingly, he told me that his Father gave up his season tickets to the Pirates the year the team fielded an all-black line-up and while my friend was already a young adult at that point, baseball became an afterthought. Of course, none of us should be shocked that this type of attitude prevailed in the early 1970’s but a real-life story really crystallizes the significance. My friend’s Dad was born in 1922 and while it’s easy to be critical in retrospect, is it really possible for us to completely understand the society that was prevalent while he was being raised? Think about the fact that for the first 25 years of his life, major league baseball was all-white. Ironically, the City of Pittsburgh has a rich tradition in black baseball as both the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro Leagues called the steel city their home.

 

From a historical perspective, the date in question was September 1, 1971 and the Pirates, managed by Danny Murtuagh, were on their way to the National League pennant and an eventual World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles. With the help of a wonderful article by George Skornickel in a 2011 SABR Research Journal titled “Characters with Character”, let’s take a closer look at this moment in the game’s archives.

 

One caveat to the story is that the first all-black line-up isn’t defined as an all-African American line-up, as the Pirates has numerous Latin players on the team who represented Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Cuba. The Bucs outstanding 1B Al Oliver was interviewed for the article and indicated that it’s doubtful that Murtaugh was even aware of the unique moment because his goal was to put the best available players on the field. Even Oliver didn’t notice the situation until the third or fourth inning and also pointed out that the line-up was configured with as many right-handed hitters as possible because the opposing Phillies had LH Woodie Fryman on the mound. Murtaugh’s quote after the game was, “I put the best athletes out there. The best nine tonight happen to be black. No big deal. Next question.”

 

In 1971, the Pirates were baseball’s most integrated team, with Black & Latino players making up almost half of the roster. Let’s take a look at that famous line-up card from 9/1/71…

 

> Rennie Stennett, 2B – This Panamanian was only 20 years old and didn’t become a regular player until the following season…he hit .353 in 153 AB’s in ’71.

 

> Gene Clines, CF – In his first full season, he was one of the Bucs back-up OF’s and hit .308 in 273 AB’s.

 

> Roberto Clemente, RF – The Puerto Rican legend was 36 but played like someone 10 years younger by hitting .341 and winning a Gold Glove.

 

> Willie Stargell, LF – “Pops” was the glue that held the team together…he hit 48 HR’s and finished 2nd in the MVP balloting.

 

> Manny Sanguillen, C – This All-Star was in his prime at age 27 and hit .319 while throwing out 50% of baserunners attempting to steal.

 

> Dave Cash, 3B – Normally the starting 2B, he was giving Richie Hebner the day off against a LH Pitcher.

 

> Al Oliver, 1B – Another versatile player, the team’s regular CF was playing 1B to give Bob Robertson a breather…he was a 7-time All Star.

 

> Jackie Hernandez, SS – This native Cuban was another role player, as Gene Alley was the everyday SS.

 

> Dock Ellis, P – The team’s ace with 19 Wins, he had appeared in the All-Star game a few months earlier where he gave up a famous home run to Reggie Jackson that cleared the right-field pavilion in Tiger Stadium.

 

How did the game turn out? The line-up strategy worked as Fryman gave up six runs in the 1st inning and the Pirates went on to win 10-7. Sanguillen hit a home run while Clemente & Stargell each had two hits and two RBI’s. A white Pitcher named Luke Walker came in to relieve early in the game and pitched the final six innings for the victory.

 

The curiosity 45+ years later is what the reaction was in Pittsburgh at the time. One local sportswriter looked back in 1997 and said, “Baseball at that time, in my opinion, had a whole lot of racial division and I think it went on inside baseball and angered some people. There was also some hostility in the city. Pittsburgh is a conservative city and there were a lot of snide remarks made privately. I’m sure there wasn’t a major reaction in the media other than to observe that it had taken place and it was a first.”

 

Another writer’s 1997 recollection was much more telling…”It’s always been a problem of management. How many blacks will the fans take? I went down to the GM’s office not long after that game and he had a stack of mail and told me I could take out any letter I want and it will be negative.”

 

GM Joe L. Brown defended the team he put together and said, “I was always proud of the fact that we never paid attention to color in our organization. I don’t think any club in the history of baseball had as many blacks on their roster at one time and consistently over the years.”

 

In 2011, Dave Cash remembered Danny Murtaugh with this quote…”I remember him saying that he didn’t realize who was out there, he just wanted to put the best team on the field and with the Pirate family, it didn’t matter what color you were. We were about winning. That was the most important thing. In 1970, when we got into the play-offs and lost, we tasted that defeat and didn’t want it to happen the next year. So in ’71, we took care of business!”

 

Clemente was the MVP of the Fall Classic, as he hit .414 with a 1.210 OPS.

 

 

 

E

Reaching 400

Williams '41

In today’s analytic game, a player’s Batting Average (BA) has lost some of its appeal and importance. Most fans realize that On-Base Percentage (OBP) is more important…both to the player’s value and team’s win-loss record. Without using the Internet, do most fans even know who had the best BA last season? Or, which player leads that category for 2019? The answers are Mookie Betts and DJ LeMahieu.

 

From a historical standpoint however, Batting Average has an exalted place in the game. For over a hundred years, it was the measurement of a hitter’s greatness and the stat we looked at first on the back of a baseball card. Even the Sunday paper listed every player in order of their BA…how else could we have determined the “Mendoza Line”?

 

In the modern era (starting in 1903), baseball has seen 27 players exceed 500 Home Runs, 32 pass the 3,000 Hits mark and 21 others have at least 1,800 RBI’s. But hitting .400? It has only been accomplished a dozen times and those seasons belong to only seven legendary players. And, due to numerous changes in the game, there’s a reasonably good chance it will never happen again. Let’s take a look at those magic numbers…

 

> 1911, Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers) .419 – This should come as no surprise, as “The Georgia Peach” has the highest lifetime BA in history at .366. This was his 7th season in the big leagues and his first over the .400 mark…but it wouldn’t be his last.

 

> 1911, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Cleveland Naps) .408 – An impressive first full-season for Joe, as he also led baseball in OBP with .468. His lifetime BA is .356 but he was banned from baseball as a result of the “Black Sox” scandal. His final year in baseball was 1920 and he hit .382 at age 32!

 

> 1912, Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers) .409 – Back-to back for Cobb in a season where he swiped 61 bases and had an OPS (On-Base + Slugging) of 1.040. Jackson was second in BA at .395.

 

> 1920, George Sisler (St. Louis Browns) .407 – The first .400 hitter in the “live-ball” era, he had 257 Hits and 122 RBI’s.

 

> 1922, George Sisler (St. Louis Browns) .420 – He “slumped” to .371 in 1921 and then came back with another amazing performance that included 51 SB’s and 18 Triples.

 

> 1922, Rogers Hornsby (St. Louis Cardinals) .401 – One of the greatest stat-lines of all time…250 Hits, 42 HR’s, 152 RBI’s.

 

> 1922, Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers) .401 – He was slowing down at age 35, but still had another .400 season in him.

 

> 1923, Harry Heilman (Detroit Tigers) .403 – In his prime at age 28, he had an OPS of 1.113 and beat out Babe Ruth for the batting title by ten points. In ’25, he hit .393 and in ’27, hit .398.

 

> 1924, Rogers Hornsby (St. Louis Cardinals) .424 – This is the highest BA of the modern era. “Rajah” also drew 89 Walks for a .507 OBP!

 

> 1925, Rogers Hornsby (St. Louis Cardinals) .403 – Also led the NL with 39 HR’s & 143 RBI’s.

 

> 1930, Bill Terry (New York Giants) .401 – 254 Hits, 129 RBI’s and a 1.071 OPS.

 

> 1941, Ted Williams (Boston Red Sox) .406 – 6-for-8 in a double-header on the last day of the season got him over .400 and no player has done it since. He was 22 years old and opposing Pitchers walked him 147 times. When you add it all together, his OBP was .553…the highest ever until Barry Bonds discovered needles.

 

You are also slightly acquainted with one other person who has “hit 400”. Back in February of 2012, the great guys at mastersball.com invited me to contribute an article each week that touched on baseball and numerous related topics. It was a great relationship and I treasure their friendship to this day. After 200 columns, the Old Duck ventured into the blogosphere and today’s piece is number 200 under the byline of rotisserieduck.com.

 

After 7+ years and something over 250,000 words, there’s still a rush when I’m able to share my thoughts about baseball with family, friends and acquaintances. Some of you are occasional readers and others are dedicated “regulars” but you’re all appreciated.

 

Hope to see you at the ballpark.

 

 

 

Contact, Not Outcomes

'18 Alvarez Gold

MLB is on the cutting edge of sports technology and it is making their teams rich. In 2000, they established MLB Advanced Media (BAM) and it has become a $3 Billion enterprise that supplies streaming video services to ESPN, HBO and the WWE.

 

For the fan, player and front-office executive, BAM has become the go-to provider for advanced analytics through “Statcast”. For the past few seasons, this operation has tracked every pitch, hit & catch in every major league game and gives us information we’ve never been privy to before. Much of the data is proprietary but even the basics you can find at mlb.com are fascinating as well as informational.

 

One of the stats that has become mainstream is exit velocity. You see it on your TV screen every time a Home Run is hit along with the estimated distance.

 

Does exit velocity matter? Let’s look at the top ten hitters in average exit velocity for 2019 (through August 9th) and determine if your eyes tell the same story…

 

1) Aaron Judge – 97.9 mph

2) Joey Gallo – 96.2 mph

3) Nelson Cruz – 95.0 mph

4) Christian Yelich – 94.5 mph

5) Miguel Sano – 94.4 mph

6) Kyle Schwarber – 94.3 mph

7) Rafael Devers – 94.2 mph

8) Josh Donaldson – 94.1 mph

9) Yoan Moncada – 94.0 mph

10) Shohei Ohtani – 93.8 mph

 

The list seems to make reasonable sense but when you realize that Cody Bellinger (91.4), Mookie Betts (90.8), Ronald Acuna Jr. (90.8) & Mike Trout (90.8) aren’t even in top 35, you realize that exit velocity is only a piece of the puzzle.

 

With the numbers from StatCast, another statistical analysis is available to compare the best of the best when it comes to major league hitters. Here’s the definition…

 

” Expected Outcome stats help to remove defense and ballpark from the equation to express the skill at the moment of batted ball contact. By looking at the exit velocity and launch angle of each batted ball, a Hit Probability is assigned that gives each player an Expected Batting Average, Expected Slugging and (most importantly) Expected Weighted On-Base Percentage. These numbers tell the story of a player’s season based on quality and amount of contact, not outcomes.”

 

It may sound complicated, but the formula is essentially taking luck and ballpark factors out of the equation. So, the major league 2019 expected batting average for all players is .247. The top five are Cody Bellinger (.335), J.D. Davis (.320), D.J. LeMahieu (.318), Anthony Rendon (.318) & Christian Yelich (.317).

 

The 2019 expected slugging percentage for all players is .413 and, once again, here are the top five…Nelson Cruz (.655), Mike Trout (.655), Bellinger (.646), Yelich (.637) & Rendon (.601).

 

No surprise on the list for expected on-base average (mlb average is .319) as Trout leads with .460, then Bellinger (.448), Cruz (.435), Yelich (.433) & Rendon (.425).

 

An interesting aside is that Astros rookie Yordan Alvarez (who has less than 200 AB’s) would be in 6th place with a .420 xOBA just ahead of J.D. Martinez (.412). And that doesn’t count the three HR game Alvarez had while I was typing this piece. Aaron Judge, George Springer and Freddie Freeman round out the top ten.

 

These are the best offensive players in the game…unless you’re fooled by your eyes.

 

 

I’ve Been Framed

Martin Heritage

Old-school fans had very little information when it came to judging the defensive skills of Catchers. The best option was to focus on their success with throwing out potential base-stealers. As with new analytic stats for hitters like OPS, the defensive value of a team’s backstop isn’t determined by only one measure. For example, if you learned that James McCann of the White Sox was in the top five in the caught stealing statistic (35.6%), you might assume that he’s a positive contributor behind the plate. The science of pitch framing however, might tell a different story.

 

This old-school / analytic fan wouldn’t jump to a positive conclusion based on the caught-stealing stat because a few years ago, I took the time to read “Big Data Baseball” by Travis Sawchik. It is the story of the Pittsburgh Pirates resurgence starting in 2013 and how they got ahead of the curve regarding baseball analysis. This mid-market team with a limited payroll, found ways to win that confounded the experts. Defensive shifts, pitching adjustments and pitch-framing helped them turn around a 20-year losing streak. Possibly the most important move they made was signing a Catcher that had lost much of his appeal and was coming off a season where he batted just .211. His name was Russell Martin and the two-year $15 Million deal turned out to be life-changing for the Pirates & Martin.

 

In  both 2013 & 2014, Martin finished in the top ten for all MLB Catchers in the amount of runs saved through pitch-framing. If you think that statistic is a bunch of hooey, consider this…in 2015, the Blue Jays signed Martin (at age 32) to a five-year, $82 Million free-agent contract. The Pirates could no longer afford him, so they acquired Yankees back-up Catcher Francisco Cervelli to take Martin’s place. That season (2015), Cervelli rated out as the best pitch-framer in baseball and the Pirates locked him up with a three-year, $30 Million deal that paid off handsomely except when concussions got in the way.

 

What does pitch-framing mean? With today’s video technology, it has become rather simple to determine the number of called strikes caught outside the strike zone. That isn’t the only criteria, however, as Catchers can be guilty of catching a pitch in the strike zone that ends up being called a ball by the umpire. All of this, and more, goes into the overall ratings. If you’d like to see the formulas and better understand the statistic, go to statcorner.com.

 

If you’re a real baseball fan and actually watch at-bats and how they play out, you can begin to understand how this unique ability can change the dynamic of the game. The difference in success when the hitter is ahead in the count as opposed to being behind in the count is something even old-schoolers understand.

 

So, who are the best framers for 2019 through August 3rd? Austin Hedges of the Padres leads the way with 16.8 RAA (Runs Above Average). Red Sox backstop Christian Vasquez is 2nd (13.4) followed by the Brewers Yasmani Grandal (11.1) and Roberto Perez of the Indians (10.3). Two perennial top ten Catchers in this stat are 5th & 6th…Tyler Flowers of the Braves (9.7) and Tucker Barnhart of the Reds (9.5).

 

The #1 Catcher in throwing out runners is J.T. Realmuto of the Phils at 46.2% and he’s 10th in framing at 4.3 RAA. Perez is 2nd in nabbing base-runners at 39.5% and Vasquez is right behind at 39%. Talk about adding value to your team? As for McCann, his pitch-framing is the third worst in baseball (-10.6 RAA) topping only Pedro Severino of the Orioles and Elias Diaz of the Pirates (Cervelli’s replacement).

 

If you wonder about the impact of saving runs defensively, think about this…teams with a negative run differential almost never make the playoffs.

 

 

 

Believe In The OPS

Yelich Heritage

On the shelf in my office is the 1985 edition of “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract”. It wasn’t the first material of his that I read and certainly not the last, but it looks down at me with a reminder of the era in which this fan transitioned from old-school to analytic. After all, the inaugural “Rotisserie League Baseball” book had come out in 1984 and our home league (which is still going strong) started that April.

 

As a kid looking at the backs of baseball cards and reading Street & Smith’s preview issue along with “Who’s Who In Baseball”, the statistics we learned were the ones they gave us. Batting Average (BA), Home Runs (HR), Runs Batted In (RBI’s) were what we used to determine if a player was fair, good or great. The back of Mickey Mantle’s 1959 Topps card doesn’t even tell you how many Stolen Bases (SB’s) he had the previous season. The 1961 Who’s Who did include SB’s but nothing so exotic as Slugging Percentage (SLG) or On-Base Percentage (OBP).

 

So, now that at least 30 years has passed in the debate between tradition and analytics, maybe we can finally agree on the validity of one stat. No, I’m not going to try and sway you about Wins Above Replacement (WAR) because that glazed look in your eyes tells me it’s a hopeless task. As with Capt. Queeg in the Caine Mutiny, I’m going to “prove beyond the shadow of a doubt…with geometric logic, that a valid stat does exist”.

 

In his book, “Ahead Of The Curve”, Brian Kenny writes that Bill James #1 revolutionary theory about baseball is that getting on base is the most important thing in offense. It seems to make sense intuitively, but OBP was never on baseball cards, in magazines or listed in the Sporting News. After all, how did Eddie Yost of the Tigers lead the AL in Runs Scored (115) in 1959 at age 32 with a BA of only .278? Simple…he led the AL in OBP at .435. No player was going to get benched if he got on base 40% of the time, but writers and broadcasters paid no attention because it wasn’t a mainstream stat. Over 40 years later, Billy Beane and the A’s, followed quickly by the Red Sox, found that OBP was under-valued in the game along with the players who provided those quality numbers. The 2002 Athletics had eight offensive players with an OBP of .348 or better and they won 103 games with a small-market payroll. The 2004 Red Sox broke the “Curse of the Bambino” with eleven (11) hitters having a .365 OBP or higher.

 

Old-school fans and pundits still weren’t convinced and argued that OBP diminished the contribution of power hitters because those HR’s they hit were worth three more bases than a walk. That brings us to a slightly more traditional stat – Slugging Percentage. SLG tells us how many total bases a hitter has accumulated compared to his amount of plate appearances. After all, Roger Maris & Mickey Mantle led the AL in SLG in ’60 & ’61, so what could be more fair to power hitters?

 

That brings us to the stat that really matters when analyzing major league hitters. If you take OBP and add it to SLG, a player is rewarded for both his on-base skills and power production. The result is On-Base + Slugging (OPS) and even though we never spotted it on the back of a baseball card, it is the number that tells the tale. How do we know? Because there are only seven players with a lifetime OPS over 1.000…Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg & Rogers Hornsby…Mike Trout is eighth at .999.  Others in top 20 include Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Frank Thomas, Johnny Mize & Jim Thome. Even old-school fans have to admit that there aren’t any flukes on that list.

 

Other than Trout, the three best active players are Joey Votto (.944), Miguel Cabrera (.937) & Albert Pujols (.931). As all are in their declining years, the numbers won’t get any better.

 

So, in today’s game, you’ll see what is called the “slash line” for an offensive player. It looks like .252/.322/.433 (BA/OBP/SLG), which is the average production for all major league hitters through July 26th. By adding the last two numbers, you arrive at the OPS of .755. While the OBP hasn’t changed much in recent years, the juiced baseball has increased the SLG by 4% since the last time we did this analysis in 2016.

 

 

In late-July of 2019, who are the best offensive players in the game based on OPS? Let’s look at the top ten…

 

1) Christian Yelich, Brewers OF…1.136 – Last year’s NL MVP is at it again in his age 27 season…he’s leading the league with 35 HR’s

 

2) Cody Bellinger, Dodgers OF…1.108 – The best player on the best team…and he’s only 23 years old.

 

3) Mike Trout, Angels OF…1.107 – At age 27, this player is so good, he’s almost taken for granted. This will be his 3rd MVP award.

 

4) Anthony Rendon, Nats 3B…1.010- Great timing for this 29 year-old All-Star, he’ll be a free agent after the season.

 

5) Nelson Cruz, Twins DH….988 – Even at 39, “Boomstick” hasn’t slowed down.

 

6) Josh Bell, Pirates 1B….974 – Lots of pundits thought he didn’t exhibit the skills to be a top-rated corner infielder…he has 86 RBI’s with two months to go.

 

7) Pete Alonso, Mets 1B….973 – Looks like a slugger and performs like one…this rookie has 34 HR’s.

 

8) Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox SS….973 – 2018 was great but 2019 is even better…at age 26.

 

9) Kris Bryant, Cubs 3B….972 – It seems like he isn’t having that good of a season but batting 2nd in the line-up takes advantage of his on-base skills (.408 OBP).

10) Charlie Blackmom, Rockies OF….966 – No doubt helped by altitude, but he’s a solid performer.

 

Now, of course, we could also discuss OPS+, which adjusts the figure based on the ballparks. OK, I see that “deer in the headlights” look, we’ll talk about it some other time.

 

 

Deadline Deals In The Rear-View Mirror

'89 Johnson UD 10

Some people love the holiday season and others would just as soon say “Bah Humbug” and hunker down until it’s over. Or, you could just embrace Jerry Seinfeld’s non-religious holiday of Festivus (for the rest of us). It seems that MLB General Managers approach the final days of July in the same manner. Some embrace it, others ignore it and many just can’t wait for it to end. Should they be a buyer or seller? In the era of the “Wild Card”, the decisions aren’t easy.

 

In the next week, a feeding frenzy could have premiere players going all over the place. As we look at the landscape on July 21st, some of the names being bandied about are Will Smith & Madison Bumgarner of the Giants, Marcus Stroman & Justin Smoak of the Blue Jays, Kirby Yates of the Padres as well as Nick Castellanos & Shane Greene of the Tigers.

 

For historical perspective, let’s look at some deadline deals over the last 20+ seasons and see how the players stats impacted the season…and, in some cases, the future.

 

> As “The Big Unit” is now a Hall of Famer, let’s start with Randy Johnson. On 7/31/98, the Mariners traded Johnson (in his walk year) to the Astros for Freddy Garcia & Carlos Guillen. In the last two months of the season, he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and led Houston to the post-season.

 

> For all true Red Sox fans, the trade made on 7/31/04 will always be memorable because it helped bring the first title to Fenway Park since 1918. Nomar Garciaparra was dealt to the Cubs in a 4-team deal that brought back Doug Mientkiewicz & Orlando Cabrera. They also swapped a player named Henri Stanley for Dave Roberts and these three acquisitions were instrumental in the Sox success.

 

> Unsuspecting Dodgers fans created “Mannywood” in the Summer of ’08, when Manny Ramirez was acquired from the Red Sox on July 31st. The slugging leftfielder had two months that were other-worldly….396 BA, 17 HR’s & 53 RBI’s as he led the team to the NLCS. Of course, he was cheating but nobody cared. We’re still waiting for the infomercial promoting those female hormones.

 

> On 7/26/00, the D’Backs acquired Curt Schilling from the Phillies. In the next two seasons, he posted records of 22-6 & 23-7 while being Co-MVP of the 2001 World Series. Who did the Phillies get in the deal? Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee & Vicente Padilla.

 

> On July 31st, 1997, the Red Sox acquired two players from the Mariners. Derek Lowe made All-Star teams as both a reliever (2000) and starter (2002) before helping the BoSox to overcome the “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004. Catcher Jason Varitek was a key figure in both the 2004 & 2007 World Series titles. Both were acquired for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb.

 

> Cliff Lee was a back-to-back deadline contributor. On 7/29/09, he was traded to the Phillies and won seven (7) games down the stretch. In the post-season, he was even better as he went 4-0 with 1.80 ERA. In the off-season, he was dealt to the Mariners but the following July, he moved again, this time to the Rangers and helped them to the World Series.

 

> The Mets needed to bolster their offense for the 2015 stretch run and added Yoenis Cespedes from the Tigers in exchange for Luis Cessa & Michael Fullmer. Cespedes hit 17 HR’s the rest of the way with .941 OPS. The Mets went from 53-50 to 90-72 to capture the NL East.

 

> Scott Rolen had worn out his welcome in Philadelphia when the Phillies traded him to the Cardinals on 7/29/02. He had 14 HR’s & 44 RBI’s in the last two months of the season and then proceeded to make four consecutive All-Star teams with the Redbirds. The Phillies return on investment? Bud Smith, Mike Timlin & Placido Polanco.

 

> The Cardinals also had a somewhat successful trade on 7/31/97, when they dealt Blake Stein, T.J. Mathews & Eric Ludwick for a tall, muscular 1B named Mark McGwire. You might recall his 70 HR’s the following year.

 

> Speaking of curses, the Cubs ended their drought in 2016 and the key piece was Closer Aroldis Chapman. Acquired for Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney and Adam Warren, the fireballing Cuban posted 16 Saves with a 1.01 ERA and 46 K’s in 26+ innings. He added four additional Saves in the post-season.

 

Many other top-shelf players have moved in late July including Fred McGriff (’93), Roy Oswalt (’10), CC Sabathia (’08) & David Cone (’95).

 

As the old baseball cliché says, it takes years before a trade can be properly judged. The 2019 deals will be too new to rate, but fun to watch.