Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The New Math of the Strike Zone: 20% of 145 is 14.

The other day, thanks to a baseball group on Facebook, I became acquainted with the article at this link, titled "Analysis of 4 Million Pitches Reveals Umps Really Do Suck at Calling Pitches".

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2019/04/08/umpires-mistakes-baseball-pitches/?fbclid=IwAR0SIadCr1vqGfHFrKkN14neSzLvURjTV19yLdmv59oxlU6pWBUgPsROLVw#.XLcc8bWAMDY.facebook

From the headline alone, it appears that this is about as comprehensive as it can get -- 4 million pitches! The data covered the eleven major league seasons from 2008-2018, and even a skeptic like me can see the theoretical likelihood that looking at that many pitches from that many seasons ought to yield something resembling the truth.

I'll give the folks at Statcast and Pitch f/x credit for establishing themselves as the most ambitious in trying to quantify some of the more elusive aspects of baseball. That they analyzed 4 million pitches is an achievement in itself. Let's give them further credit for sharing this data with the public and with groups like the Boston University students who put together this article, written by Mark T. Williams. And I'll grant one more assumption: that the analysis of the data showed something.

Where I part from this article is in the conclusions is presents. The headline is certainly stark in condemning umpires as a group, and the main point is baldly stated: "MLB home plate umpires make incorrect calls at least 20% of the time--one in every five calls. In the 2018 season, MLB umpires made 34,246 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game, or 1.6 per inning."

Some poor schmuck posted a comment complaining that if 14 missed calls represented 20% of pitches, that would mean just 70 pitches in a game, which is absurd. His misconception was corrected when it was pointed out that the issue was not the total number of pitches, but rather the number for which the umpire made a ball or strike call. "Dope slap to me," noted the poster, feeling chastened for neglected this basic of baseball.

But wait a second. Is 70 the correct number for how many pitches are called by the plate umpire? The article included a graph showing the data analysis--for a game from 2010, when strikeouts and walks were less common than today. No matter. Although the data points are difficult to count exactly, I tallied 143 pitches called by the umpire, twice what the 14=20% formula suggests. Of those 143 pitches, the umpire, Dale Scott, missed 21, or 50% above the average. Yet 21 of 143 equals 14.7%.

Clearly, something is very wrong in the calculations of Mark T. Williams and his cohorts at Boston University. I don't know whether this reflects an inherent error in the Statcast and Pitch f/x approach or merely its misapplications, but I decided to play with some more numbers to see which version of the Dale Scott calculation resembles the norm more closely.

I looked at two sets of games--the 15 games played this past Sunday, April 21, along with the 33 games contested in the 2018 post-season. One of those, the 18-inning World Series Game 3, counted as two games for me, and with other extra-inning games included, I looked at the equivalent of 50 nine-inning games.

For each game, I counted pitches, strikes, balls, strikeouts, walks, and runs. The data was extremely consistent throughout, and almost any group of ten games chosen at random produce the same conclusions. I'm not going to post the data from each game, but here are the overall per-game figures:

GAMES: 50
PITCHES: 289
STRIKES: 185
BALLS: 104
STRIKEOUTS: 18.3
WALKS: 7.2
RUNS: 8.1

The first thing that jumps out at me is that there are, on average, 104 called balls per game. If umpires average 14 wrong calls, that would be 13.5%, not "at least 20% of the time." I'll add that in the 49 games I tracked, only three times were there fewer than 80 called balls. The lowest total was 72, in a game where Clayton Kershaw allowed two hits in eight innings.

In other words, not once in this span of 49 (or 48, if you prefer) games would 14 mistakes have constituted more than 20% of the pitches.

Of course, my readers already know the catch with that statement. What about called strikes? With an average of more than 18 strikeouts a game, surely there are quite a few called strikes. In the graph of the Dale Scott game from 2010, I counted 56 called strikes. MLB doesn't provide data on called strikes vs. swinging strikes and swings that put the ball into play. So the strike totals provided in today's boxscore essentially mean "any pitch that wasn't a called ball," which leaves just bits and pieces of data to play with.

I have seen another article which says that a little more than half of all pitches result in a called ball-strike, with just fewer than half resulting in swings. With an average of 289 pitches, that would mean 145 pitches requiring the judgment of the umpire. That figure might even be a little low, but suffice to say an umpire missing 14 pitches out of 145 is in error "less than 10%" of the time, not "at least 20%".

Note that if I count the actual number of games I looked at, 48, the averages look a little better for the umpires. For 48 games, the pitches averaged 301, with 192 strikes and 109 balls. If it's correct that a little more than half of all pitches are called by the umpire, that would be 151 pitches, making 14 mistakes 9.3%. Add a few more calls, and we're under 9. We can have an entirely separate discussion of whether missing  one out of 11 calls is unacceptable, but compared with at least one in 5, it doesn't sound like such a crisis. Yet on the Facebook page where I saw the article posted, nobody seemed to question its gospel, I suppose because it reinforces what they want to believe.

My "study" was the kind that I could do in one evening while watching a ballgame. Possibly I'm missing something, missing the key factor that renders their arithmetic flawless and mine flawed. Measured against its own criteria and premise, however, the Williams article seems to prove the opposite of its contention.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

How I Inspired Don Larsen


One thing most people don’t know about me is how big a part theater played in my childhood. My parents, Harold and Tanya, began their theater lives before I was born. They were in the first wave of inhabitants of the original Levittown on Long Island after World War II. I was born in nearby Glen Cove Hospital, where Roy Campanella was taken after his car crash in 1958. 
The year I was born, my parents wrote the score for the Levittown Follies of 1951, performed as a benefit for local chapter of the Jewish War Veterans, "proceeds for Civilian Defense" according to the program. My mother performed in the opening number, "Our Town". I wish I had the sheet music for the score, since the song titles present an array of diverting, early suburban concerns: "Rockin' 'n Rhythm," "Pick a Bone," "A Levittown Car Pool," "You Don't Know What You're Missin'," "A Restful Sunday," "The Lumpett Home of 1960," "Election Day in Levittown, a ballet titled "Waltz Des Fleurs," the "Village Green Polka," and a number called "Hindu Boogie," featuring the show's choreographer, Belle Berkowitz, which must have been something to see. 
In 1952, when I was one year old, my parents escaped New York City, making it all the way across the George Washington Bridge and eight miles beyond, to the town of New Milford. That same year, they joined the Bergen County Players, which was already a couple of decades old. The BCP has long inhabited the Little Firehouse Theater in Oradell. It’s a three-story firehouse with a 200-seat theater which has seen eight or nine productions a year for nearly a century and is still going strong.
My mother acted in upwards of a dozen plays, usually character roles like Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town. My father worked backstage with lights and sound; he didn’t get the only role that would have put him on the stage, Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls. They had seen the original production on Broadway three nights before I was born, and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" was my father's favorite song to sing while driving.
More than that, my parents wrote the original score for a musical produced by the BCP in 1953. A Western titled Stake Your Claim, it features my father’s music and my mother’s lyrics. My father had gone to New York in 1930 to stake his own claim to a place as a songwriter. That career didn't happen, but he found his love and his lyricist instead. They idolized Cole Porter and Frank Loesser for their wit, and my mother’s lyrics were cleverly Porteresque. 
I not only have the sheet music for Stake Your Claim, I have the cast album. Linda and I listened to it many times. Her favorite was the song about a bashful cowboy, "Orson, Quit Horsin' Around," I lean toward one of the love songs, "How Did This Happen To Me?" 
I'm appending her lyrics to "When 3-D Comes To TV," performed during one of two "TV Interludes" (there's a later radio interlude). Like Cole Porter, it was built around a risque theme, intricate rhymes, and topical references. If any of the historic ladies doesn't ring a bell, you'll be happy to checked them out on Google Images. And you'll see what my mother was getting at. 
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The Bergen County Players became the social hub of our lives. Every month, the BCP dress rehearsal was "players night," when members brought their families. If it was a comedy, my mother was required to sit in the last three rows; her laugh was so robust and loud that it disconcerted the actors at close range. I often attended rehearsals and still remember Herb Hackbarth sitting in a chair with no lines to speak. All he had to do was smoke a cigarette and sip a scotch. Absorbed in the drama in front of him, he absent-mindedly took a sip with the cigarette dangling from his lips and almost choked to death. 
Opening nights were a big deal if my parents were involved, and I'd either watch my mother act from the front row or sit in the back with my father and help with the light cues. Afterwards, everyone repaired to Hagler's, the bar across the street. I broke a toe during one post-opening night party at Hagler's when some adult stepped on my foot; I was seven or eight. 
One of the members, Bob Schmitt, worked at one of the big television networks in NYC and had access to the film library. During winters, one night a month was ”silent movie” night at the theater, packed with members and families. That’s where I first saw Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon. I especially remember a lot of Chaplin one-reelers like "The Rink" and "One A.M." There were pool parties in the summer, a big Christmas party at the theater, and all those plays.
                                                                *            *            *
I recently found my old hometown newspaper—the Bergen Record—online for the first time, and my first search was for my parents’ BCP doings. What a bonanza! First, the review of Stake Your Claim claimed that it had “humor, heart, melody, and pace,” which is how I would describe the cast album. It’s good stuff.
Among my coolest finds were photos of my mother in two of the productions: You Can’t Take It With You and The Middle of the Night, a Paddy Chayefsky play. I have her Samuel French copy of the Chayefsky, which we used so I could "read lines" to her. She played a substantial role, making a well-meaning but misguided attempt to find a woman for her grieving brother, a role created on Broadway by Edward G. Robinson. 
I found uniformly fine notices for her. The reviewer of The Fifth Season wrote, “As his wife, Tanya Schechter is attractively appealing in a modern version of Ibsen’s doll-wife, Nora.” A 1961 review noted that she and another actress “have given a long list of memorable performances in past seasons.” My favorite is the review of Our Town, in which she and the actress who played Mrs. Webb were commended even though the reviewer found them "too young to be convincing as mothers." At the time, my mother was 42 years old and had an eight-year-old son.
                                          My parents and I in 1963, when my mother was 46.  
Those were all preliminary findings, however, compared to the big quest—anything I could find about my one appearance on the stage. When I was five years old, I was in the BCP production of The Seven Year Itch, a Broadway hit which had been made into a popular movie remembered mostly for the iconic shot of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress getting ruffled.
I remember the experience well. I had to wear shiny shoes and a dress jacket, but they let me carry a toy of my own, a model car. I had four lines in the opening scene, where the hero sends his wife and son off to New England for a summer idyll while he toils away in the city. The idea is that he’ll be miserable—unless Marilyn Monroe moves in, but I didn’t know this. Two of my four lines were “poor Daddy,” and I remember having to feel really, really sorry for him. Here I am:

My four lines done, off I went to the chauffeured. . .excuse me, to the family Ford, to be whisked home and readied to go to bed. I was only five, after all. I never did see the play, and by the time I got around to seeing the movie, I could appreciate it fully.
Did the Bergen (County) Record have a record of my theatrical equivalent of a ballplayer’s cup of coffee? You bet it did, and that’s where a mystery arose. The first thing I found was the review, headlined “Players Open New Season With Well-Acted Laugh Hit.” After running through the anonymous reviewer’s praise of the six performers who carried the play, I found this:
Special mention must be made of the outstanding performance of young Gabriel Schechter, who portrays Ricky, the Sherman’s [sic] son, with brilliance and sincerity.

In four lines? I have already testified to my sincerity with “poor Daddy,” but how brilliant could the other two lines have been? Look at me. Sincere, yes, but sedentary at best. It's a declamatory posture I don't recall seeing in any Olivier bios. Or was something else going on? 
The plot thickened when I found the item that appeared in the Record a few days earlier, the morning before opening night, the first of a dozen performances as the BCP began a new, ambitious policy of three performances a week. The 1956-1957 season also featured productions of Gigi and The Little Foxes. This preview was, I’m sure, written by someone at the Players, undoubtedly a friend of my parents. Listen to this hype:
Others in the cast include Judy Lash, Joan Cole, Doris Wheeler, and Ted Lash, with 5½-year-old Gabriel Schechter threatening to steal every scene in which he appears.
Excuse me? How many scenes was that? It sure sounded like more than four lines. I was a hyper little kid, so maybe I was like a Marx brother, running wild during rehearsals and stealing scenes I wasn’t even in. Did little Ricky have several scenes which I overwhelmed so thoroughly that they were dropped from the final production? I didn’t think so, because the memory of going home right after the scene has always been pretty strong. On the other hand, I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that the director realized that if he cut me down to just the opening scene, they wouldn’t have to deal with me the rest of the night.
My theory was that the publicity maven thought, “nice touch—Harold and Tanya will get a big kick out of that.” The Lashes, Joan, and Doris should have gotten a better agent. I’m sure my parents did get a kick out of it, though probably not as big as I did 62 years later.
                                                               *          *           *           
It took me awhile to get my hands on a copy of the George Axelrod play so I could clear up the mystery of just when and how often I stole what. It arrived yesterday, and the suspense lasted only while I thumbed through it. For once, memory won--I had exactly four lines, and I disappeared from the play after the first five pages.
Ah, but what lines! I thought "poor Daddy" was my second and fourth line, with the other two lines equally brief and scintillating. But no. That lament was the entirety of my final two lines, the last delivered as the light fades and the scene returns to Ricky's father. However, the first two lines consisted of three sentences and a whopping 19 words. 
Richard Sherman is a 38-year-old Manhattan businessman, perfected on Broadway by Tom Ewell, who also wooed Marilyn Monroe in the film version. He's reflecting on the scene yesterday when he sent his wife and son off to New England for the summer. He recalls little Ricky being "really upset when they left for the station. It was very flattering. I thought the kid was going to cry. . .
RICKY: But what about Daddy? Isn't Daddy coming with us?
HELEN: Daddy'll come up Friday night.
RICKY: But, Mommy, why can't Daddy come up with us now?
She explains that Daddy has to stay in the city and make money, so he'll only be able to visit them on weekend. Poor Daddy. She tells him that not only does Daddy have to work and make money, he's giving up cigarettes and alcohol for the summer. That brings the final, plaintive "poor Daddy. . . ."
Plenty of room for sincerity, and no doubt I nailed it. The "Who's Who" in the program assured patrons that "Gabriel Schechter, of New Milford, is making his debut in this production. His flare for dramatics comes natural, being the son of members of the players." The little scene-stealer! I retired my flare after that, auditioning for one BCP show as a teenager. Some other time, I'll tell you about the short film I starred in during grad school.
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There's an odd postscript to my quest for the truth about The Seven Year Itch. The review appeared in the Bergen Record published the morning of October 8, 1956. As my baseball friends know, that was the day Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in Game 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Don Larsen lived in Bergen County. In fact, we had the same physician, Dr. Philip Pollack, who got Larsen to sign a postcard to me that winter.

If I were writing a novel, we would see Larsen at the breakfast table, eating a hearty meal while reading the review. He exclaims to his wife, "By golly, that little 5 1/2-year-old kid was brilliant, wasn't he? I never saw anything like it. Maybe I can do something special at the ballpark today." That would have been complete fiction, of course, for several reasons (starting with "by golly"). Larsen stayed at a Manhattan hotel during the World Series and went out drinking that Sunday evening. Besides, he didn't even know he was starting Game 5 until he got to the ballpark on Monday.              
Still, I can imagine it all I want. I can even think that somewhere out there is a person who attended both performances, or there was. The cosmic connection will stay with me always. Thanks, Don.                                   
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When 3D Comes to TV


Just focus your attention on this brand new invention
TV in three dimension is coming at you.
Now gals with good proportions will not suffer from distortions
And our most delightful portions are projected at you.
Just pick your favorite station and gals from every nation
Will make your imagination run away from you.
In very close proximity our utter femininity
Will rouse your masculinity in a way that’s new.
From the pages of hist’ry some ladies of myst’ry
With figures so blistery will pop into view.

When I’m Madame Du Barry
Ev’ry Tom and Dick and Harry
Will imagine that he’s Louis on the throne.
Ev’ry man from here to Dallas
Will be sleeping in my palace
But he’ll never, never, ever sleep alone.

Imagine when Salome
Does her dance in veils so foamy
And she starts to take the veils off one by one.
When she gets to number seven
Then 3D will seem like heaven.
Well, until the sponsor cuts into your fun.

I hear Marlene Dietrich
Who’s a very, very neat trick
Will make her 3D debut any day.
When she sings her famous tune
About the boys in the back room
Why there’s no telling what requests will come her way.

Mae West would be a riot
Ev’ry able man would try it
When she says “come up and see me, dear, sometime.”
And if Gypsy Rose is willing
She can make a 3D killing
And she wouldn’t even have to speak a line.

When Dagmar shows her glamour
On the screen in Cinerama
That’s when two dimensions look like more than three.
And you fellas from now on will
See a mountain, not a molehill
When you get that double vision on TV.

So focus your attention on this brand new invention
TV in three dimension is coming at you.
Just pick your favorite station and the gals from ev’ry nation
Will make your imagination run away with you.
TV will be more pungent and necklines that were plungin’
From now on will be lungin’, boys, directly at you.
We’ll change the nation’s habits and men who think they’re Babbitts
Will start to act like rabbits adding two and two.

We’ll give you a variety of subtle impropriety
As subtle as a rabbit
adding two and two and two and two and two.

Lyrics by Tanya Schechter, c.1953

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Big Fella Connects

I was a late arrival to the Jane Leavy party. Though her first baseball book, a much-acclaimed study of Sandy Koufax, one of my favorite players from childhood, was published in 2002, it took eight years for me to get around to reading it. It was well worth the wait.

Also in 2010, The Last Boy, her even more acclaimed book about Mickey Mantle, was published. Another eight-year gap followed during which I acquired the book but never got around to reading it. Last summer, I read it and saw why so many other people had responded to it. Like the Koufax book, it reflected Leavy's dogged research and a desire not only to pin down nagging questions about her subject's career and life, but also to frame these discoveries in terms of what they meant to the subjects themselves. One other thing--both books revealed Leavy to be a very fine writer.

I didn't dawdle this time. The Big Fella, Leavy's 2018 book about Babe Ruth, tackles an even bigger subject than Koufax and Mantle, idols of their times. The original sports icon, Ruth has always been a gargantuan target for authors, and Leavy's treatment of his oversize life and legend is correspondingly more far-ranging and depth-plumbing than the earlier books. If it isn't the definitive book about Ruth, we aren't likely to find its successor in our lifetimes, if for no other reason than the increasing scarcity of living people who knew Ruth.

I will lend my voice to the chorus of reviewers who marvel at Leavy's success in tracking down people who intersected with Ruth in some way. Not only did she find them, she unearthed their own life stories to see how an encounter with Ruth might have colored entire lifetimes. For instance, there are the brothers who insisted that they were in a photo taken with Ruth, displaying copies of the photos in various businesses and offices for decades, until learning that the photo was taken somewhere else, three years before the day they saw Ruth. The son of the man who had identified himself as the boy in the photo with the black eye and the cold sore decided to leave the photo on display. Ninety years after that day when Ruth came to town, people still cherish links to Ruth. One of the many beautiful things about this book is seeing how dramatically Ruth affected those who idolized him.

There is a wonderful two-word phrase in this book which Leavy uses to describe the birth of advertising and public relations in the 1920s--just in time to capitalize on Ruth. She calls it "opportunistic connectivity," a phrase which instantly brought an echo in my brain of that Shakespearean description in Julius Caesar of "multitudinous seas incarnadine," another polysyllabic summarization. She refers to the phenomenon of someone like Ruth creating an almost uninterrupted source of material for anyone who wanted to make money off his deeds and his fame. In fact, the phenomenon still exists in the two branches of Ruth's descendants, both mounting websites to claim their pre-eminence as the branch which should most benefit today, 70 years after his death.

One of the many highlights of this book (don't get me started on the delightful saga of Lady Amco) is Leavy's thorough--and thoroughly demoralizing--history of the Baby Ruth candy bar. Though demonstrably intended to exploit Ruth's name, the candy never earned a penny for him and his descendants, not even when the brand was sold a decade ago for $2.8 billion.

I'm a morning reader, and I have spent the past five mornings happily diving into the excesses, the glories, and the ultimate sorrows of Ruth's life. There is a wealth of detail here, and Leavy pinned down so many things. Her work on untangling various issues of parentage and cohabitation is probably heroic. If she didn't touch on something, it must be because she decided it was covered sufficiently elsewhere, such as Ruth's infamous piano or relations between Claire Ruth and Eleanor Gehrig during their shared status as revered widows. Still, I'd like to know more.

In a similar vein--that is, much like someone who has just devoured a feast worthy of a Babe Ruth breakfast, capped by six pieces of apple pie a la mode, yet still wishes there had been pecan pie as well--I want to say something about the photos. They are all remarkable and telling in various ways, and informatively captioned. The problem is that there aren't enough of them, only sixteen. A book like this should have had at least twice as many, particularly because Leavy goes to the trouble of giving readers vivid descriptions of many photos not on display here. As wonderful as her several hundred words are, the photos would have told us still more.

When I worked at the Hall of Fame library and gave tours that included the photo collection, I always showed off just one file, the one with photos of Babe Ruth and children. It wasn't the thickest Ruth file but it contained dozens of photos, many of which had never been published. Many were taken on barnstorming tours like the 1927 post-season tour around which Leavy frames her narrative. At every stop on the tour, Ruth's manager, Christy Walsh (given his full due for services rendered to Ruth over the years) arranged visits to hospitals and young groups (including Boys Town in Nebraska), at which Ruth obliged anyone who wanted to photograph him doing anything.

There was no pose too silly or trivial for Ruth, whose affinity for children is well-documented here and elsewhere. When I went through the file with people on tour, Ruth's childlike joy jumped out at us from so many photos--doing chin-ups with five-year-olds, playing Santa Claus, cheering sick kids--that it became an instant antidote to the urge to make something superhuman out of a man who, as Leavy shows us in many ways, couldn't stand being alone and had the most fun around people who were happy to see him, chiefly kids and fans.

Here's what Jane Leavy and I know about a different kind of connectivity from the opportunistic slant of the hucksters of the past century:  many of the photos in that file were donated by people in them. One I always think of showed Ruth on the field with a young girl who gazed raptly up at him. I recall the name of the girl as Jean Farrington, and the photo was taken during Ruth's career, perhaps on the tour chronicled in Leavy's book. It was donated to the Hall of Fame in the 1990s--by Jean Farrington.

Think about the lifetime that passed between the day she gazed up at Ruth and the day she decided to share her wonder with the Hall of Fame--and unknowingly with an uncountable number of people who have looked at it and will look at it. That is the meaning and the legacy of Babe Ruth, and that is what Jane Leavy has captured with sensitivity and eloquence in The Big Fella, the extraordinary tale of a man in whose aura we continue to bask.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Another Thinking Man's Guide

Power Ball, just published by Harper ($27.99 and worth it), is the latest book by Rob Neyer, former long-time ESPN.com columnist and a man who spends an awful lot of time thinking about baseball. About every aspect of baseball. Even better, he figures things out and shares them with the rest of us in books like this one.

In its basic structure, Power Ball echoes Dan Okrent's 1980s book Nine Innings. Both are batter by batter accounts of a single game which becomes emblematic of baseball in the big picture. Okrent's book dealt more with the players and the situations with that game itself, while Neyer uses game events as leaping-off points for fascinating cogitations on the game in general. In that respect, this book is closer in tone and focus to Leonard Koppett's The Thinking Man's Guide To Baseball, first published in 1966 and revised over the years.

I grew up reading Koppett's columns in the New York Times, and he became my favorite baseball writer until I discovered Roger Angell. I learned so much from Koppett's articles, which combined anecdotes and observations with a kind of statistical analysis he invented as he went along. What he did best was take numbers and put them into context. The sequence went: 1) here's something you haven't noticed; 2) here's something I found out about it; 3) see how the numbers actually tell us something!

That's pretty much what Neyer does in Power Ball, which for my money puts him in the same league as Koppett. Neyer is an Iron Chef of baseball analysis, a puckish Wolfgang who mixes a rich stew of baseball flavors. Each "chapter" covers a half-inning of an Astros-A's game from late in the 2017 season. It could be any game. Though he tells us plenty about the players involved, how they got where they are, and how they performed in this game, it is his historical perspectives that form the meatiest part of this feast.

One reason this is such juicy stuff is that Neyer has access to the best ingredients. Not only has he observed a lot by watching, but when he doesn't know the answer, he knows who does, or at least who has taken the closest look and is making the best stab at an answer. He'll throw in a helpful fact from someone's private study, followed by a pronouncement from management, a blog somewhere that contradicts it, more evidence from someone we'd never get near but who told him all about it, and a cogent quote that puts it all into focus. Every segment (every bite) has a distinctive flavor that rewards an increasing appetite.

Consider the Home Sixth, when Neyer goes from discussing the effect of climate change on ballpark longevity to the history of catchers framing pitches in a span two pages, with no effort, finishing that off with a dash of truffle oil in the form of my favorite quote in the book. It comes from online analyst Ben Lindbergh, about the significance of catchers getting extra strike calls: "Baseball is often described as a chess match between batter and pitcher. But it's more like a chess match between batter and pitcher in which, once in a while, the catcher grabs the board and moves someone's piece."

If this approach seems episodic more than systematic, think again. Neyer covers a lot of ground in short amounts of space because he knows just the right detail, the most telling corrective, the most useful perspective, the expert opinion, and he gets right to them. His style is that of an engaging fellow watching a game with you, addressing you conversationally, but seldom beating a point to death, just helping you understand what you've been looking at all these years without seeing it so clearly.

Every page is thought-provoking, taking nothing for granted and advocating a common-sense approach to the future of baseball (not to mention the future of Baseball -- Neyer makes a distinction between the game on the field and the organized business). Only three times did I find myself strongly disagreeing with his contentions: that even the best umpires miss 10% of ball-strike calls, a figure I don't think has been approached since the retirement of Eric Gregg; that Jack Morris was elected to the Hall of Fame on the strength of one great performance, and short-changing Marvin Miller on the credit he deserves for working hard on player safety issues, especially in his early years as union head.

And that's it for things that made me flinch -- over the course of nearly 300 pages. Many, many more things delighted and enlightened me, but above all was the satisfaction of having someone along for the baseball feast, pointing things out and letting me know what the people who can actually do something about the game think about it. That last item is tricky, because it turns out that although Neyer clearly discerns the things that should and could be fixed, he is pretty convinced that Baseball doesn't think that much is broken, not enough to need actual fixing.

His prescription, delivered in an Epilogue, is one of common sense and sanity, which unfortunately, these days, is more a matter of theory than practice. Whatever Baseball does, it should be aimed primarily at providing a game that is more appealing to fans. This would actually turn out to be a new approach, but I agree with him that it ought to be worth trying.

For instance, the terrific ninth-inning catches which climaxed the recent Red Sox-Astros 8-6 game occurred after 1 AM Eastern time, meaning that few New England die-hards saw it, much less the younger fans who might talk about those two catches a half-century later, after a lifetime of fandom. Start the games early enough for people to watch them! But Baseball will do that only if the television overlords approve. Good luck.

Meanwhile, get this book, read it, and savor it. Not just thinking baseball fans, but Baseball, ought to read Power Ball.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Century-Old Strategy Befuddles Fox Newcomers

I should have known better than to watch Game 5 of the NLCS with the sound on. The partnership of Joe Buck and John Smoltz has seemed like the uneasy alliance between two drunks at opposite ends of the bar, one gruff and grumbling, the other grinning and idiotic.

Listening to John Smoltz during last night's interminable Game 4--13 innings which took five hours and 15 minutes to play--was to behold the process of a nervous breakdown. After hours of enduring some kind of Chinese uppercut-swing torture, after marveling at the growing ratio of strikeouts to base hits, he finally cracked in the last inning. "We've seen 13 hits in 13 innings!" he blurted, like a man who just wasted hours looking for firewood in the desert because someone told him it was there to be found.

In fact, people on the East Coast who were willing and able to stay up until 2:30 AM to watch the turgid affair play out saw quite an accumulation of numbers, though four suffice to sum up Smoltz's torture: 315 minutes, 381 pitches, 15 base hits, 32 strikeouts. No doubt he realizes that if he were in his prime today, he'd have a shot at Nolan Ryan's record. He rightly lamented the Brewers' failure to move a runner from second to third with nobody, begging them to bunt, and the failure to advance the runner cost them dearly.

I felt embarrassed for Smoltz's public breakdown, which lasted an incredulous hour or two, so I hadn't planned to listen to today's game. (Joe Buck? What's my beef with him? Apart from general principles, he pissed me off this week when he said of Bob Uecker, "He won the Ford C. Frick Award, which means he was inducted into the Hall of Fame." Joe, you ignorant slut! Like your father, Uecker is not "a Hall of Famer," and you either know better and don't care about the truth, or you're a public idiot.)

But there I was in that wild bottom half of the first inning, when Craig Counsell sent a shockwave through the broadcast booth by removing starting pitcher Wade Miley after one hitter (a walk). Buck and Smoltz identified the strategy soon enough. The Dodgers had started mostly right-handed hitters, so after the southpaw Miley walked the leadoff hitter (one of two lefties in the lineup), out he went, replaced by right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who would get to face all those right-handed hitters.

I was able to listen to only a few minutes of the ensuing discussion before I was forced to cave in the tv screen with a copy of my Neft-Cohen-Deutsch book about the World Series. The absurdity of their analysis reached the stage where Buck wondered whether there might be some kind of rule needed to require a certain duration by a starting pitcher. This was some kind of bizarre 21st-century aberration, another sign of the times, and they should keep an eye on it.

Eventually their researcher found one other post-season game in which the starter faced only one batter, but that was because of an injury. What all of them missed--and what would have given their discussion some basis in reality--was that this strategy has been used before in the post-season. The idea of replacing your starter with an opposite-handed pitcher in order to mess with the other manager's starting lineup was unveiled. . .ready?. . .in 1924.

The twerps at Fox Sports missed it because in 1924, the starting pitcher faced two hitters before leaving. Why two? Because the second batter was a switch-hitter. It happened, by the way, in Game 7 of the World Series, when the idea is to "pull out all the stops" in the effort to win the title. On October 10, 1924, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, the Senators hosted the New York Giants. For John McGraw's New Yorkers, it was their fourth World Series in a row. For the Senators, it was a first in the franchise's 24-year history, and more than that was seen as a belated showcase for 37-year-old idol Walter Johnson.

The Giants didn't cooperate, beating Johnson in two starts, but the Senators evened the Series in Game 6 when manager/second baseman Bucky Harris drove in both runs in a 2-1 victory. With Johnson unavailable for a Game 7 start (one day of rest), Harris' logical choice for starter was 16-game winner George Mogridge, who had won Game 4. Instead, he went with right-hander Warren "Curly" Ogden, whose major league resume consisted of 11 wins. It seemed to be a case of trying a rested pitcher (he hadn't seen Series action yet) at the end of a long, arduous Series.

But it wasn't that at all. Harris did the same thing Counsell did. After Ogden struck out Fred Lindstrom and walked Frankie Frisch, out he went, and in came the southpaw, Mogridge, now looking at four lefties in the next five hitters. Harris hoped that McGraw would jettison some of those lefties, since he still had Johnson as his ace in the hole.

McGraw didn't bite, with mixed results. The main one was that Mogridge took a 1-0 lead (on a Harris home run--the "Boy Wonder" did everything!) to the sixth inning, having allowed just three hits. But two lefties--Ross Youngs and George Kelly--got on base, so McGraw finally made a substitution, replacing Bill Terry with Irish Meusel, who singled in a run as the Giants went ahead, 3-1. As I write this, Brandon Woodruff has closely duplicated Mogridge's performance.

In this age, when we seem doomed to watch history repeat its worst, I may be a bit of a grinch to begrudge Joe Buck the innocence to think baseball is a phenomenon of his lifetime only, but Joe. . .This has happened before, and for the same reason. Take a look at baseball history and see how beautifully its symmetry endures.

                                                     LATER THAT SAME EVENING

The game is over, so I can finish putting Counsell's bold move in its final perspective. In an eerie parallel, both Mogridge and Woodruff made it safely from the first inning to the sixth before weakening a bit. Both ended the sixth inning trailing 3-1, suddenly subject to being the losing pitcher.

Mogridge was saved by Bucky Harris, who again came through with the big hit, a bases-loaded single that sent the game into extra innings. Harris unveiled his secret weapon, Walter Johnson, in the ninth inning. Four shutout innings later, Johnson became a World Series champion when a bad-hop hit drove in the winning run.

Woodruff could not escape his fate, largely since he had the misfortune of facing Clayton Kershaw on the night when Kershaw lived up to his credentials. In another piece of 21st-century baseball managerial maneuvering, Dave Roberts used four pitchers to preserve a 5-1 lead over the final two innings, removing Kershaw after letting him bat in the seventh (he walked to start a two-run rally).

I'm sure Joe Buck and John Smoltz had an opinion about Roberts' strategy. But I'll be damned if I care what it was.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Are All 1-0 Games Pitchers' Duels?

As we reach the halfway point of the 2018 season, I would like to note that there have already been 32 games this season in which the two teams combined to score just one run, compared to 28 such games all of last season. This isn't a tendency or a trend; it is a force to be reckoned with, as it threatens to get worse.

It isn't the sheer number of 1-0 games that alarms me as much as the style of these games. I read an article the other day that was packed with numbers showing how dull major league baseball has become. The scariest number to me? A ball is put into play once every three minutes and 45 seconds. I've seen that "pace of action" measure once before. It's almost the exact frequency with which Phil Mickelson hits the ball during a round of golf.

I wouldn't suggest that baseball is as dull as golf for the average sports fan (though I'd rather watch Mickelson hit from a sand trap than watch Joey Gallo pop up). My point here is that the very notion of the 1-0 game has changed in a way that's more important than the score.

To serious baseball fans who came to the game before the 1990s, a 1-0 game had a special meaning. It was a pitchers' duel. (Lexicographer Paul Dickson uses the singular--pitcher's--but I prefer the plural since a game in which only one pitcher excels is merely a shutout.) Two pitchers at the top of their game went to battle, with the suspense building throughout. Which guy would crack first?

The best-pitched game of my lifetime was the duel between Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn at Candlestick Park on July 2, 1963, with Willie Mays contributing the only run on a home run in the 16th inning. Both men threw about 200 pitches. The astonishing thing was that Spahn was 42 years old, and he blew out his elbow that night. After pitching just three times in the next six weeks, with two stints on the disabled list, Spahn came back and reeled off eight consecutive complete-game victories to get to 20 wins for the last time. That's pitching!

We remember Game 7 of the 1991 World Series less because of the final score than because Jack Morris pitched ten innings to win 1-0. At the time, the performance was hailed as a triumph of stuff, stamina, determination, and a will to win. In 2018, not one of those four traits is even encouraged by major league franchises. Maybe stuff, but not the variety of stuff that gave Warren Spahn options to keep getting guys out on his sixth trip through the San Francisco batting order.

John Smoltz pitched into the eighth inning the night Morris made his stand, so the duel lasted a long time. That was the thrill of the game, making each base runner and each advanced batter matter more. Two-out single--steal a base? What are the chances of getting an extra-base hit against this guy? Everything is crucial when you know a single run is all that other guy will need.

That, I think, is the crucial thing that is missing from the current crop of 1-0 games. We have seen 32 of them so far, making 64 starting pitchers, of whom only six have pitched past the seventh inning. Just two--Patrick Corbin and Andrew Heaney--have pitched a complete-game 1-0 victory, and in both cases they probably wouldn't have gotten the opportunity if they hadn't tossed one-hitters.

I've been logging data from these 1-0 games and can accurately estimate the numbers of contests that would qualify as a good old-fashioned, two-pitcher pitching duel: two. Fittingly, both involved Johnny Cueto of the Giants, but he didn't get a decision in either one. On March 30, the second day of the season, Cueto battled Alex Wood at Dodger Stadium. Each man surrendered just one hit, with Cueto lasting seven innings and Wood eight. Joe Panik's home run off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning settled it.

On April 17 at Chase Field in Phoenix,Cueto and Arizona's Corbin staged a vintage battle. Corbin allowed just a single by Brandon Belt with two outs in the eighth inning. Meanwhile, Cueto gave up a pair of singles and fanned 11 Diamondbacks in seven innings. Reliever Tony Watson gave up the deciding run in the bottom of the eighth on a walk, a sacrifice bunt by Corbin (take that, DH!), and a single.

How many times out of these 32 well-pitched games has the starting pitcher even gotten the 1-0 win? That would be 22, so more than one-third of the time, a relief pitcher is winning a 1-0 game. Does that sound nifty? It doesn't to me (two of the 32 games have gone extra innings, and in six others, the run scored in the ninth inning).

In the 30 games that required work from the winner's bullpen, 85 relief pitchers were used, or not quite three per game. That's a lot of subcontracting even in this age of specialization. Half the time, the starter has gone six innings. Now that's a pattern, like it or not.

The good news--if you wish to consider it such--is that these games go quickly. The lack of action is compressed into a relatively short time. Of the 32 games tracked so far, only six have taken as much as three hours to play (including the extra-inning games). Conversely, 11 have taken two-and-a-half hours or less; not surprisingly, the Corbin-Cueto duel was the shortest game of the season at 2:05.

So here we are, afloat in a sea of strikeouts, walks, and home runs, seeking more action. My contention is that 1-0 games can still be exciting. They can still contain that suspense of not knowing when what will probably be the run will score. They can still contain the thrill of watching a team nursing an early 1-0 lead through the rest of the game. Yes, these things can still happen. Last night, two pitchers logged seven innings of shutout ball before being excused for the evening. This was the seventh time out of 32 1-0 games when both pitchers managed to last that long. I'm sure that was exciting--as far as it went--but like so many other games this season, it became not so much an impressive showdown between hot pitchers, but rather a struggle to see which weak offense might push across a run.

What are the chances that the next 1-0 game you see will feature two pitchers dueling for eight or nine innings apiece? Not good enough for my money.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Jacob deGrom's Record-Pace Bad Luck

Any Mets fan can tell you what a brutal season Jacob deGrom has had, though it might appear quite unlikely to the outsider. Look at his stats, after all: a 4-0 record, 1.52 ERA, 85 strikeouts and just 47 hits in 65 1/3 innings. That should put him on a pace to contend for the Cy Young Award, an achievement predicted for him in March by Ron Darling, who almost knows about such things.

Yet his bad luck has already reached historic proportions, only one-third of the way through the season. Let me tell you how bad it is.

Since back in the Dark Ages when I worked at the Hall of Fame, I've been compiling several massive studies of pitching usage and success, most going from the 1950s through some recent season. Two studies of starting pitchers are somewhat related, and both reflect what has happened to Jacob deGrom.

One I call the Blown Wins Study. That included all the big winners and seasons from 1955-2008, roughly from Sandy Koufax through Greg Maddux. I focused on the times when each starter left the game with the lead, as the "winning pitcher of record," only to see the bullpen blow the win. For the record, the career leaders in Blown Wins is Roger Clemens, with 67, with Maddux the runner-up at 61.

The lowest Blown Wins totals were Koufax's 13 and Bob Gibson's 15; back then, the starter stayed in long enough to blow his own leads, thank you very much. Maddux and Clemens were often excused from further effort after six or seven innings, giving the bullpen more time to blow those leads.

The other study I call my "Big Pitchers" study only because of the million or two pieces of data I have assembled in it. It focuses on the place in an average game where the deployment of the starting pitcher has changed most dramatically during the past generation or so: the end of the 7th inning.

More precisely, the study covers every time a starting pitcher has worked seven innings and has a lead of three runs or less, the so-called "save situation" in which it has become increasingly automatic for managers to go to the bullpen. In fact, in the last decade this fulcrum has moved to the end of the 6th inning, requiring another study that is in its early stages.

Every time the starter faces the 8th inning with a small lead, I track whether he keeps pitching, what happens if he does, and what happens if and when he is relieved. The amazing (to me) thing I've discovered is that there is little change in the bottom line between the old-time strategy of expecting the starter to finish the game and the current vogue for parading relievers to the mound in the late innings. No matter how you slice it, no matter how hard a manager abuses his starters or falls in love with his bullpen, his team still holds such a lead about 85% of the time.

There's a fair amount of correlation in the two studies regarding starting pitchers leaving the game with the lead but not getting the win. The "big" study simply limits the data to games when the starter worked at least seven innings. By contrast, of Clemens' 67 blown wins, 22 came before the 8th inning, while for Maddux it was 16 of 61.

What does this have to do with Jacob deGrom? I'm getting there. Consider this. Looking at the 25 biggest winning pitchers from a half-century or so (515 individual seasons), I found just 35 in which a starting pitcher suffered as many as 5 blown wins in a season. Three times (Don Drysdale 1960, Phil Niekro 1973, and Maddux 2008), a starter was robbed of 7 wins by horrid bullpen work. Eleven times, there were 6 blown wins (twice each for Jim Kaat, Tommy John, and Tom Glavine, once each for Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Clemens, Niekro and Jamie Moyer. On 21 occasions, a starter had 5 blown wins in a season.

I looked at those 35 seasons to see how often the starter lasted seven innings. It happened 40.6% of the time; three times out of five, they didn't last seven innings. Out of the 35 seasons, I found two in which the starter went seven innings five times, and four in which he did it four times. These were the winningest pitchers of two or three baseball generations, and only six times did they have as many as four games in a season in which they left after seven (plus) innings with a lead that was blown by the bullpen.

It has happened to Jacob deGrom four times already this season. In fact, all four occurred in a six-week period.

Amazingly, the two times a pitcher was victimized by his bullpen five times in a season, it was the same pitcher! That poor bastard was Jamie Moyer, first for the Baltimore Orioles in 1994 and reprising the feat with the 1999 Seattle Mariners. A youth of 31 in 1994, with only 46 of his 269 career victories on his resume, Moyer got 23 starts for the Orioles before the strike wiped out the last one-fourth of the season. Yet it lasted long enough for Moyer to endure this sad carnage:
  1. April 24, vs. Seattle: Moyer led, 6-3, in the 8th inning when he left with the bases loaded. Three relievers later, Seattle had a 7-6 it managed to keep. 
  2. June 15, vs. New  York: Moyer left in the 8th inning with a 3-2 lead, two runners on, and one out. Reliever Jim Poole surrendered the lead before the Orioles rallied to win,
  3. July 10, vs. Oakland: In seven innings, Moyer allowed just two hits, leaving with a 4-2 lead. Lee Smith got drilled for the game-winning home run in the 9th inning by Mark McGwire.
  4. July 24, at Oakland: This time, he left after seven solid innings, but a 6-2 lead wasn't enough. Four runs in the 8th inning tied it, and the A's won it in the 9th.
  5. August 3, at Minnesota: This time, manager Johnny Oates let Moyer pitch the 8th inning, and he was unscathed. Leading 3-2 to the bottom of the 9th, Oates opted for Lee Smith, who gave up two runs and lost. 
In his final start before the strike, Moyer allowed five runs but picked up the winning, making his 1994 record a mediocre 5-7. In addition to the five wins his bullpen blew, he left two games as the potential losing pitcher but was saved by his offense. So his "pitcher of record" record would be 10-9.

By 1999, Moyer had passed the 100-win mark and, though nobody would have suspected it, was just midway through his career at age 36. Here was the sorry chronicle of his undermining that season:

  1. April 21, at Chicago White Sox: He led 1-0 going to the 8th but gave up a leadoff walk and was yanked. Of course that run scored, as did another, and the Mariners lost.
  2. June 21, at Cleveland: He left after the 7th inning with a 3-2. The lead was blown in the 8th inning, but it took until the 12th for them to lose.
  3. June 26, vs. Texas: This time he took a 4-1 lead to the 8th inning and left with the bases loaded and one out. All three runs scored, another lead vanished.
  4. July 15, vs. San Diego: He got to pitch eight innings, but Jose Mesa blew the 2-1 lead and the game in the 9th.
  5. September 8, vs. Toronto: Again he lasted eight innings and left with a 2-1 lead. Again Mesa blew the lead, this time scavenging a win.
Poor Jamie! He's tied with Tom Glavine for third in career Blown Wins with 53, as many as Tom Seaver and Juan Marichal combined. He pitched longer than anybody it seemed--but for just six or seven innings at a time. He tallied a paltry 25 complete-game victories out of his 269. 

Those who attained the 5-Blown-Win plateau include Dennis Martinez in 1989, Roger Clemens in 1996, Pedro Martinez in 2003, and Randy Johnson in 2008. Now the semi-octopus has snared deGrom before the end of May. Avert your eyes if you can:
  1. April 16, vs. Washington: deGrom took a four-hitter and a 6-1 lead to the 8th inning. After one out and two singles, out he came. It took a mere four relievers to negotiate the rest of the inning, allowing six runs along the way. The Mets lost. deGrom shook his head.
  2. April 21, vs. Atlanta: In his next start, deGrom met an uglier fate. Scoreless to the 8th inning, the Mets erupted for three runs, with deGrom exiting for a pinch-hitter. Three relievers combined to lose this one on a pair of two-run rallies. deGrom flinched.
  3. May 23, vs. Miami: Following his April 27 start, deGrom pitched just five innings in the next three weeks, including a stint on the DL. He returned with a 13-strikeout win, and then this happened. He went seven strong innings, leaving with a 1-0 lead. But Jeurys Familia gave up two runs in the 9th inning to blow the game. deGrom's jaw dropped.
  4. May 28, vs. Atlanta: Once again, deGrom met a cruel fate in consecutive starts. Once again, it was a one-run lead (2-1) through seven innings. This time, it was Seth Lugo who gave up three runs to take the loss. deGrom went looking for a shrink
It's hard to overstate how well deGrom is pitching. In his last 40 1/3 innings, he has allowed exactly two runs and 26 hits while striking out 55. I didn't catch the exact number, but he has held the opposition hitless in the last 56 or 58 at-bats with runners in scoring position. You can't pitch much better than that, unless you're Justin Verlander. 

My father used to say that a pitcher has a right to punch an infielder in the nose for making an error that cost him a game. deGrom has a lot of punching to do to show his bullpen what he thinks of their work. This isn't new to him. In 2015 and 2016, he also suffered 3 blown wins. But it has gotten out of hand, so to speak.

He's entitled. But he'd better be careful to punch them with his left hand. Things are tough enough.



Monday, May 21, 2018

The 2018 Reunion Season: Diceball Rides Again


For those of you not keeping score at home, this was season #28 of Modern Diceball History, dating from 1989. Most of the seasons took place in Las Vegas before I moved to California in 1995. Since then, we have occasionally gathered for a marathon season, a four-team, 36-game season played in a long weekend rather than stretched out over a couple of months as in days of yore. (This rich history is recorded in four articles archived in April 2014. The 2014 season history was posted that May.)


Our last season was in 2014, the first since Tim moved to Australia in 2000. He returned in 2013 and now lives in Colorado. We wasted no time getting that first reunion season to happen. The reunion was fantastic but the season lacked suspense. My team ran away with the pennant, tying a Diceball record with a 26-10 record. The main excitement was the other three managers’ protests of steroid use; after an asthma attack shortly before flying to Las Vegas, I was put on prednasone. I was unstoppable.

George and Stew, who introduced me to the game 35 years ago, still live in Las Vegas. Tim couldn’t make it this time, leading to the inaugural season for Stew’s son, Alex. Alex was born in 1991, about the same time that Roberto Clemente hit .349 for the Moody Stews, one of Stew’s favorite teams. Though he has been around Diceball much of his life, he had played it mainly on camping trips with his father, and most of what he knew about baseball comes from playing this game. He does not know what Mickey Mantle looks like, but he knows that Tony Fernandez can get—according to the raw number of possibilities on the cards—more hits against right-handed pitching than the other shortstops in the league.

Our 2014 season was marred a bit by scheduling too many games in too few days. We learned our lesson, and this time I arrived a day early, more feasible since I was the only out-of-town manager. All it took was a 1,000-mile drive. I left home in Oregon at noon on Tuesday, arriving at Stew’s house at 8:30 AM Wednesday, and we drafted that afternoon.

WEDNESDAY

The first three picks in our draft our usually the same, though sometimes the order varies. Alex got the first pick and took Hank Aaron. I went second and took Willie Mays. Stew went third and started cursing. The manager who picks third has won just once in 27 seasons, and that in one of our reunion marathons. Stew and George grew up in Pittsburgh and idolize Clemente, and he was Stew’s obligatory choice here. George took George Brett and Tony Gwynn in the wraparound spot, and off we went.

There are only two things worth noting about the draft, which so often determines the season. George went for one of the oddest drafts in memory, an extreme combination of several extreme experiments. He made starting pitching his last priority, and while the rest of us scrambled after Seaver, Gibson, Koufax and company, he put together a starting lineup in his first eight picks. He’s done that before. And he has saved his starters for his final four picks, as he did this time—the league is deep, and though their cards aren’t as gaudy as the coveted starters, he still got Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Catfish Hunter along with Ron Guidry and Dwight Gooden.

What he hadn’t done before was make picks #9-14 all relief pitchers. Usually we get along with four-man bullpens, since there are no strict innings or usage limitations. Our most-used reliever this season logged 74 1/3 innings in 36 games. He was one of George’s, Dan Quisenberry. Before the rest of us could adjust, George gobbled up Dennis Eckersley, Quiz, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, John Franco, and John Hiller in a trio of double picks that stunned us. That left him seven picks for his bench.

The other strange thing George did was to pick five of the league’s top leadoff hitters amongst those first eight picks. Here’s the order: Brett, Gwynn, Joe Morgan, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, and Rickey Henderson. Everybody can hit first or second except Mantle and Simmons, and several of them can hit third. Only George would put together a team like that. For one thing, he favors the steal more than anyone and would be likely to attempt a few key steals of home with Henderson, one of the three top-rated base stealers in the league (Lou Brock and Maury Wills are the others). He had three other guys who could steal. But what would the batting order look like?

It might not seem possible, but apparently I made one wrong draft pick which ruined three of the four teams. I was supposed to take Frank Robinson, my MVP in the 2014 season, in Round 3. But I did not. I took Johnny Bench instead. Sue me. Stew grabbed Robinson with the next pick, and Alex initiated trade talks with him almost immediately. Robinson, it turns out, is Alex’s favorite player. I applaud that. The possibility of a trade became a running theme during the draft. And, in fact, even though George made an offer for Robinson, Stew did trade him to Alex within minutes of finishing the draft.

That trade—Robinson and Sparky Lyle for Jim Rice, Yogi Berra, and Dave Righetti—changed the tone of the whole season. It remained the incessant discordant note for Stew, who instantly regretted it. It goes against his grain to make a quick trade. Of all of us, he has always given more time to preparing his newly drafted team for the season. In the olde days, he often declined to play a series right after the draft, letting two of us get one three-game series ahead rather than make a rash decision which might cause him a victory at the start that would jeopardize him down the road.

Now he made a trade in a few minutes and started playing not long after that. They played their first series at Stew’s card table; a few feet away, George and I played at the dining table. We’re always somewhat aware of what’s happening in the other game, with home runs and key strikeouts broadcast loudly. In the second game, there was a ton of yelling at the other table, and it became harder to avoid. They had seven runs in the first inning. Jim Palmer got knocked out in the second inning, and Pedro Guerrero hit a pinch-hit grand slam in the third to give Stew a 9-6 lead. That was erased by Ernie Banks’ grand slam in the fourth inning. It was 13-10 in the sixth inning when frantic shouts announced the third grand slam of the game. This one was hit by Willie McCovey, already 5-for-5 with two homers. The carnage was awful (Sandy Koufax gave up nine runs).

I called time-out in our game to check the handy encyclopedia of Diceball, where I saw that the scoring records were 17 runs for one team (done three times), and 25 for two teams. It was already 17-10, and Alex capped the scoring on Joe Torre’s RBI hit. We couldn’t believe it. In Alex’s second game as a manager, he broke the scoring record. Just to prove it was no fluke, in their rubber game, he tied the old record again! Hank Aaron blasted three homers and drove in eight runs in a 17-3 pasting of dear old dad. And Stew went into paroxysms of second-guessing. Everything had gone wrong, and it was because of that trade he should never have made. He had drafted his favorite relief combo, Lyle and Bruce Sutter, and gave Lyle away. Elroy Face had given up 17 runs in four innings in the two romps. He had ruined his season. With a 1-2 record, Stew went out on the Diceball ledge, and it was difficult to talk him off there the rest of the week.

We had to admit that Alex had one of the scariest lineups we’d ever seen. The reason was simple. Since he went by the numbers, he took the guys with the highest hit and total base ratings, the big bopper at each position, while the old-time managers took a lot of old favorites. We picked a lot of guys who have produced for us in pennant-winning seasons. I was delighted to get the same infield I had in 2014: Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken, and Wade Boggs. George has always liked the speedsters like Henderson and Morgan, and Stew has favored the sluggers. This time Alex outdid him in drafting
the home run hitters, and Stew compounded the disparity by trading his 3rd-round pick for Alex’s 8th-round pick (Rice has usually been a platoon player in our league).

Alex’s lineup which scored 35 runs in two games: Lou Whitaker, Robinson, Aaron, McCovey (LF), Mattingly, Banks, Schmidt, Torre (C), and the pitcher. His pitching was solid. We conceded that he’d be tough to beat, even with our experience. Late that evening, while Stew agonized over his inexcusable trade, I did the stats for Alex’s team. In the three-game series (Stew won the opener, 6-2), Aaron, Robinson, McCovey, and Schmidt combined to go 26-for-47 with 25 runs scored, 8 home runs, and 23 RBI. In the game we play (SuperStar Baseball with cards I made), the first dice roll is for the pitcher’s card, and about one-third of the time, he records an out. If he doesn’t, the batter gets to swing. My attempt to talk Stew off the ledge focused on the fact that even if the pitchers had never gotten an “automatic” out against those four guys, the numbers on their own cards would not have produced such great stats. Short-term aberration, Stew. We see it in every game, over the course of every evening (two or three series), and especially in a compressed season like this, throughout a season. A player keeps hitting his home run number or he keeps missing it over the course of this five-day season. For example, Willie Mays has a home run against a lefty on a 23, but it’s a harmless fly against a righty. This season, I rolled a 23 for him nine or ten times—all against a righty. He homered in only two games all season. But that’s another story.

Was I right about the short-term aberration? Alex scored 37 runs in that first series, and by the end of the 36-game season, he had the lowest-scoring team in the league. Over his final 33 games, he averaged 3.4 runs a game. And Frank Robinson drove in just six runs while batting .263. I can tell you why he didn’t perform for Alex. For some reason, he dubbed him “F-Rob”. He came of age when there was A-Rod and F-Rod and K-Rod, I guess, and he eagerly called out “c’mon, eff-robb!” That’s how he wrote his name in the lineup. The first time we played, I promised him that Frank Robinson would not like being called that and would not perform well. He didn’t listen. I should’ve had him, and Stew did have him, but he wound up with a manager who turned into a sound byte, and it didn’t work.

Here’s the best part. In their first game, facing Bob Gibson, Alex benched Robinson and Schmidt in favor of two lefty hitters with higher hit numbers against a righty: Tony Fernandez and Fred Lynn (Lynn had higher hit numbers? Yes, because Robinson had a bunch of on-base chances taken up by walks and hit by pitches.) After he stalled at two runs, Stew gave him a heart-felt talk about how to win a Diceball season, a manager can’t turn his highest draft picks into platoon players. They’re the guys you build your offense around. Schmidt was a 2nd-round pick, Robinson a 3rd-round pick. They had to play. Stew was correct, and Alex took his advice. In the two run parades, Robinson went 4-for-7 with five walks and scored eight runs. In addition to everything else Stew got to second-guess after that first three-game series, he had to wonder whether Alex really needed his help.

Finally, there’s the cherry on top of the whip cream. In the late-night scene out on the ledge, with Stew lamenting the trade (in the 18-10 game, he burned his only star reliever, Sutter, after the second inning, leaving Face to get torched, while Lyle allowed just one run in six innings for Alex to get the win), I happened to ask “how did Rice do for you?” “He went 1-for-5,” said Stew. “In three games?” “He only played one game.”

“Wait a second,” I chuckled. “So you’re telling me that at the same time you lectured your son about the necessity of not turning your third pick into a platoon player, you turned the guy you got in exchange for your third pick into a platoon player. Is that right?” He was stunned. I didn’t think there was room for his self-doubt to grow exponentially, but it did.
In the morning, he made George and Alex (both 2-1) 2-1 favorites to win the pennant. He put my odds at 3-1 and his own at 8-1. We had the same 1-2 record.

THURSDAY

Over the next three days, we played a three-game series against each team, essentially a round-robin. That brought us up to 30 games by Saturday night, leaving the final games for Sunday. It was a very comfortable pace. We started at 2pm the first two days and were done between 10 and 11. On Saturday we started a little before noon, taking time after two series to watch the Vegas Golden Knights on TV (don’t get me started on them!). I have only one other game to present in excruciating detail. Otherwise I’ll give summaries for the whole day. 

All the way through, it was the most topsy-turvy season we could remember. Each of us was in first place and in last place at some point, except for one manager who got within one hitter of first place before falling back. It wasn’t until late that there was more than a three-game difference between first and last, and every series saw a place in the standings at stake. It was one of our more thrilling and competitive seasons, not settled until Sunday.

On Thursday night, I wrote in my journal, “It was devastating to realize that I had taken the self-styled cellar-dweller and turned him into the comeback kid.” That referred to Stew sweeping me to open play on Thursday. He was as fooled as I was, especially when he came back from a 6-0 deficit to win the third game. Stew went 6-3 on the day and was tied with Alex at 7-5. I ended the day by taking two of three from George to tie him at 5-7. I was as happy as anybody. I have a long-standing habit of starting seasons horribly and having to scratch and claw my way back to finish second. I’ve finished last fewer times than anybody, but I’ve also won fewer pennants. So when I lost six games in a row after winning my opener, it was an odd kind of comfort zone. Between games, I happened to gaze at one of my accounts from “Diceball’s Greatest Games,” in which I mention starting some season 2-9 but playing for the pennant in my final series. I could do that again.

In random Thursday notes: Don Sutton won his first three starts for Stew with complete games. . .Nolan Ryan struck out 13 in his first start for Alex. . .George, with a 3-5 record, benched Henderson and Rose against a righty, started Cecil Cooper and Tony Oliva instead, and they combined to drive in nine runs against Stew. . .Willie Mays, inexplicably, neither scored nor drove in a run until my eighth game. . .Jim Palmer gave up 11 runs in less than three innings in two starts and was dropped to the minor leagues. Stew went through several options for his fourth starter, in the process setting a record for the most staff members with an ERA higher than 9—including Bert Blyleven, Vern Law, and Face. . .Johnny Bench, the guy I took instead of Frank Robinson, was atrocious all season. Through 12 games, he was 5-for-40 with two RBI. That was his most productive one-third of the season, He went downhill from there.

                                                           FRIDAY

At the halfway point of the season, we were all within two games. The standings:

FOODIE BLUES (Alex)         10   8                
RE-DUCKS (Gabe)                   9   9                  
KIMOSABI’S (Stew)               9  9                
H20 (George)                          8  10                 

[A word about team names, which have always been high personal and frequently clever. Stew has performed professionally as Moody Stew, featuring his favorite Moody Blues songs, so it was a nice touch for Alex to go for Foodie Blues. Stew chose his name because last year, while recovering from heart surgery, he got hooked on reruns of “The Lone Ranger”. My team name had mixed karma. I attended the University of Oregon in the 1970s and recently moved back to Oregon, so I have become a re-Duck. On the other hand, I once had a Diceball team called the Ducks who didn’t win a pennant, so I was taking my chances here. It did give me a chance to call out “Re-Ducks on the pond!” when I loaded the bases. The coolest name belonged to George, who’s about to retire from his last career as a water meter reader in the town of Henderson, Nevada. Hence the name, and hence his captains, Henderson, Hunter, and Oliva. George also picked the best home field name (another part of the ritual of a Diceball season) a long time ago. The Pittsburgh native had a team called the Arrows who played in Three Quivers Stadium.]

I trailed Alex by two games when our series began, and I won the first two games, blowing a 6-2 lead in the second game before winning on Ripken’s home run. Seaver had the kind of game an ace can have in the finale, hot with the dice, and he took a 2-0 lead and a five-hitter to the bottom of the ninth. He got Aaron and Robinson to start the inning, and Alex put the old Pirates favorite, Smoky Burgess, up to hit for Torre, a courtesy at-bat. Burgess, who went a magical 6-for-8 as a pinch-hitter on the season, singled to keep the inning going. McCovey walked. Lou Whitaker was due up, but in came Roger Maris to pinch-hit. And I saw the 34 coming before they showed up, a three-run home run to win the game, a magical roll of the dice that put Alex back into first place instead of me.

That miracle roll stunned me and paralyzed my team, and George steamrolled me to end the day. I scored one run in each of our three games. That enabled him to go from last place to second by day’s end. Alex, the wunderkind, led at 12-9, George was 11-10, Stew was 10-11, and I wasn’t.

Random events from a long day of Diceball: Alex won a 13-inning battle from Stew; after Stew tied it in the 9th inning on a home run by Berra, Alex won it on a Don Mattingly homer. . .Stew lost three straight games in the other team’s final turn at bat (game-winning hits by Yastrzemski, Ripken, and Molitor), and the internet lit up with news of his woes. Then he rallied to win with a six-run 8th inning, and all was right with the world. . .George Brett drove in seven runs in that final series to put him well ahead in the league lead with 28 in 21 games. The record for 36 games is 39 (Hank Aaron, twice), and Brett might have a shot at it.

                                                          SATURDAY

It took only one series on Saturday to tighten up the pennant race. George and I both took two of three. He tied Alex at 13-11, while I tied Stew at 11-13. When I followed up by taking the first two games from Alex, I had tied him at 13-13. The trick was that George was in the process of sweeping Stew, whose season finally experienced its long-anticipated implosion.

By this point, George had decided not to be half-assed about managing this odd team. He decided that letting his starting pitchers go three or four innings was too much, that he wasn’t using that strong bullpen enough. In nine games on Saturday, his starting pitchers logged a grand total of 20 1/3 innings (allowing 12 runs). One time, he actually used all six relievers, saving Goose Gossage for the final out. That was in a ten-inning game in which the winning run scored after a two-out walk, when Henderson pinch-ran and stole around the bases. That loss deflated Stew, who surrendered 18 hits and 12 runs as George finished off the sweep.

After Marichal shut out Alex for the league’s only shutout this season, Drysdale beat Koufax (who struggled all season with a 2-4 record and 7.43 ERA), and I was poised for a sweep. But again I couldn’t make it happen. Spahn lost to Gibson, 3-2, on homers by Whitaker, Schmidt and Aaron.

It was 24 hours earlier that I followed a rough loss to Alex by getting swept by George. This was a different kind of series, and it began with the most exciting game of the season. I was the home team, with Seaver facing Gooden. Well, facing Gooden for two innings. He gave up an unearned run and left for a pinch-hitter, launching a procession of relievers, the first three of whom all pitched two innings as well—Quiz, Hiller, and Eckersley. It was 1-1 to the 6th inning, when he began with back-to-back homers by Brett and Mantle off Seaver. It was 3-1 to the 9th, when he began with back-to-back homers by Molitor and Dick Allen that made it 5-1.

Sometime during the day, I had noticed something weird about my team. It grew out of my series with Stew, when we were both plagued by frustrating rallies. We kept getting runners to second and third with nobody out and being glad to scratch out one run. I went back through my box scores and found that, going into this game, I had gone 20 games without scoring more than three runs in an inning. Now I was behind by four runs going to the bottom of the 9th. So we all know what happened next.

First came an event that was astonishing in its own way: Willie Mays led off with a home run. This was game #28 on my season, and it was Mays’ second home run. I’m looking at his encyclopedia page, which covers the first 24 seasons; Mays slugged at least 8 homers in 21 of them. Now he had 2. Rollie Fingers immediately got in more trouble, loading the bases on two hits and a walk. Bench pinch-hit (he had lost his job to Gary Carter) and lined out. Vada Pinson pinch-hit and popped out. With the tying run still at first base, I did something that may never have been done before in Diceball: I pinch-hit for Wade Boggs. Yeah, he’s a doubles machine and I needed a long double at least, but you see, George had brought in John Franco to pitch to Boggs. That prompted me to bring in a righty hitter, Dave Winfield. Who promptly doubled. Rounding third with the tying run, Cal Ripken needed a favorable roll of the dice to score, a slight underdog at 48%. He scored to tie the game. And we went to extras. George scored in the top of the tenth; Simmons walked, Henderson ran for him, stole second and third, and scored on Cooper’s single. Bert Campaneris ran for him, stole second, and went to third Bench’s wild throw. With two outs, I walked a man intentionally, which forced him to hit for Franco. He didn’t score, and now he was down to his final pitcher, Gossage. And Gossage got torched for the game-tying home run by. . .Willie Mays, who had suddenly tripled his season total in two innings. The came continued. Wilhelm matched goose-eggs with the Goose, and George had his big chance in the top of the 14th. With one out, Henderson tripled, and it brought up Gossage. George took a long look at the seldom-used suicide squeeze chart and concluded that he couldn’t get in too much trouble. The worst result he could find would be a missed bunt and an attempted steal of home by Henderson. So he rolled the one result he hadn’t checked or known about: Gossage popped up the bunt, and Henderson was doubled off third to end the inning. And George’s last chance, as it turned out. The game ended in the bottom of the 15th on a home run by. . .yep, Willie Mays. Gossage pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowed just two hits: Mays’ homers. Those were his last of the season, of course. George took the last two games of the series, the last one in 12 innings; that time, he got to be the 7-6 winner. But what a game!

That’s what it took to keep George from winning eight straight games, but as it was his 7-2 record on the day busted open the pennant race. It raised him to 18-12. Alex was second with 15 wins, I had 14, and Stew, finally running according to form, was last with 13. So George had a three-game lead with six to play, and he would play Alex first on Sunday. A sweep for Alex would tie them. Anything less could kill the suspense for the final series.

                                                             SUNDAY

In the series that mattered, George took the first two games from Alex to clinch the pennant. For the first time all season, he let a starter go six innings. In fact, Catfish Hunter did so well in the opener (one run in six innings) that he let Ferguson Jenkins do the same thing in the clincher. Mickey Mantle’s two homers fueled Hunter’s win, but Dennis Eckersley picked up the win in relief of Jenkins as George provided a fitting end to the pennant race. In the bottom of the tenth inning, Mickey Mantle singled and Henderson pinch-ran. Have we already danced this dance? He stole second and third, modestly stopped there, and scored the game-winner on a sacrifice fly by Ted Simmons. Alex took the finale as Sandy Koufax pitched his best game of the season.

Meanwhile, I took two of three from Stew to tie Alex for second place at 16-17. Drysdale beat Carlton in the opener, and Stew evened the series with a win in ten innings. In our rubber game, I broke open a close game with a six-run sixth inning against Don Sutton that was quite ugly: six runs on four singles, two walks, a hit batter, and two wild pitches. With two outs and no runs in, Stew opted to walk Ryne Sandberg intentionally to pitch to Gary Carter, my hottest hitter. I have proven statistically that the intentional walk is a disastrous strategy, and I proved it again with the dice. Carter singled, Sutton hit Seaver (huge mistake), and singles by Boggs, Raines, and Murray brought a deluge and a 10-1 win.

This meant that my final series with Alex would determine second place, while George and Stew would play for fun. Normally there would have been more riding on it: money. We have always played for money, and the standard became $55 each per season. The winner would get $80, second place was worth $40, and there were ten statistical categories worth $10 apiece: batting average, hits, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, wins by a starter, wins by a reliever, winning percentage, strikeouts, and ERA. That way, even if your team was out of the race, you might have contenders in a few of the categories to keep you excited. This time, we didn’t play for money at all, not even for the pennant winner. So Stew didn’t get to broadcast the race for hits between his two top picks, Clemente and Carew. They were tied with two games left; Clemente won it.

George and Stew had fun indeed. Their opener went 13 innings after George scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to tie it. This time he won without a stolen base, on a Thurman Munson triple and an RBI single by Henderson. Stew took the second game behind Sutton as Clemente had a triple, double, and single while Carew belted a single and the go-ahead home run. George went upside-down in the final. He began his lineup with his captains: Henderson, Hunter, and Oliva. Catfish got down two sacrifice bunts and pitched a complete game, and Ted Simmons, batting ninth, went 3-for-3 and drove in three runs in a 4-3 victory that gave George a final record of 22-14. When his record was 7-9, he benched Henderson and Pete Rose against righties, put in Oliva and Cecil Cooper instead, and went 15-5 the rest of the season. Henderson still led the league with 33 stolen bases.

And the battle for second place? It was all Re-Ducks in a sweep, 4-1, 6-3, 7-3. Spahn, Marichal and Seaver combined to allow five earned runs in 25 innings, and they jumped on Koufax and Ford early. That made my final record 19-17, a perfectly typical season—I started 1-6, went 18-11, and stormed all the way up second place, three games behind George, who won his umpteenth pennant. It’s fair to say that nobody else would have drafted that team, much less won with it. Hats off to George and H2O!

League leaders included:
Batting average: Brett .325
Home runs: Schmidt 12
RBI: Brett 36
Hits: Clemente 51
Stolen Bases: Henderson 33
Wins (starter): Carlton 6
Wins (reliever): Wilhelm/Quisenberry 4
Winning %: Carlton .750 (6-2)
Strikeouts: Ryan 83
E.R.A.: Eckersley 2.01

FINAL STANDINGS

H2O 22 14 .611 – 
Re-Ducks 19 17 .528 3 
Foodie Blues 16 20 .444 6 
Kimosabis 15 21 .438 7