Thursday, December 18, 2008

Great What-If Matchups

One of most baseball historians' favorite things to speculate about is how certain players would have done if their careers had happened in different times and places and against different opponents. How spectacular would Ozzie Smith have been on a dirt infield with a small glove instead of on Astroturf? Suppose Ted Williams had been traded for Joe DiMaggio and both hitters could have performed in much friendlier home-field configurations? Would Willie Mays have beaten Hank Aaron to 715 home runs if the Giants had stayed in the Polo Grounds? Suppose Gaylord Perry had been allowed to throw a spitball?

I'm particularly interested in how great hitters and pitchers perform against each other. Thanks to Retrosheet, we can view those breakdowns from the last 50+ seasons. Take my two favorite pitchers from the last 20 years, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. I remember that at one point in Maddux's career, Tony Gwynn had a lifetime .500 batting average against him. Gwynn wound up going 39-for-91 agaisnt Maddux, an impressive .429 average. Even more eyepopping is the fact that Maddux never struck him out! Gwynn drew 10 walks against him, leading to a career on-base percentage of .485. On the other hand, Barry Bonds had only a .370 on-base percentage against Maddux, and batted just .262 (34-for-130). On the other hand, eight of those hits were home runs. For a hitter Maddux "owned," try Dale Murphy, a pitiful 2-for-34 (.059 average) with 12 strikeouts.

Pedro Martinez has owned a lot of great hitters. Frank Thomas was a mere 2-for-24 against him (.083), with 11 strikeouts and only one home run. Manny Ramirez isn't much better, just 5-for-30 (.167) with no home runs and 13 Ks. Other batting studs who have struggled against him include Albert Pujols (2-for 13, .154), Sammy Sosa (4-25, .160, with 15 Ks), and Ken Griffey (1-for-15, .067). But don't tell Mike Piazza that Pedro is unhittable. Piazza drilled 6 home runs in only 26 at-bats against him, for a slugging% of 1.115 to go with a .385 batting average.

How would they have done against the greatest hitters of the past? I often think about possible duels between players I know well and players I never saw. Here is a lineup full of intriguing pitcher-batter matchups I wish I could have seen. In each case, I've pitted a living player against a long-gone adversary. Which one do you think would have gotten the better of the other?

1. Greg Maddux vs. Ted Williams: It's tempting to throw a tough lefty like Steve Carlton at Williams, but I think Williams would handle him. Carlton's best pitch was a slider which started at the belt and dived low-and-inside to righty hitters, who would twist themselves into pretzels trying to hit it. Williams would recognize and lay off that pitch, which would be outside the strike zone crossing the plate. So I'll go with Maddux instead. We'd have the hitter with the best knowledge of the strike zone against the pitcher with the most precise command of the strike zone. Much of the time, Williams would work the count full, and Maddux would throw him his bread-and-butter 3-2 pitch, a change-up breaking low and away from lefties, into the area where Williams felt he was most vulnerable. I think Williams would fare about the way Barry Bonds did against Maddux, working him for his share of walks and belting some home runs, but losing the overall battle.

2. Randy Johnson vs. Babe Ruth: Wouldn't you love to see these two behemoths square off about a hundred times? It would depend on which Johnson showed up, the wild hurler of his early years or the low-walk pitcher of his Cy Young Award seasons. I actually think Ruth would do better against the later Johnson. He'd feel more comfortable, would have to guess less often, and wouldn't strike out as much. A few lefties have done well against "The Big Unit," including Bonds and Larry Walker, who hit .393 in 28 at-bats despite famously turning around to bat right-handed in an All-Star Game.

3. Pedro Martinez vs. Rogers Hornsby: This one could go either way, the best right-handed hitter of all time (.358 career average) tangling with a pitcher who has held righties to a .204 average. Hornsby stood well away from the plate and stepped into the ball, spraying line drives all over the field. Pedro wouldn't be able to intimidate him with high-inside heat; Hornsby would simply back up. The key would be how well he could paint the outside corner, and how well Hornsby could reach those pitches. I think the result would be similar to Roberto Clemente facing Juan Marichal. Clemente hit .288 in 125 at-bats, with a solid .488 slugging%.

4. Bob Gibson vs. Ty Cobb: I can see it now. Gibson would start by low-bridging Cobb, who would glare at him. The second pitch would be under Cobb's chin, and down he'd go. Same thing on the next pitch. The 3-0 pitch would be in the strike zone, and Cobb would drag a bunt down the first-base line. Somewhere between home and first, the two would meet and tangle, punching and kicking each other until they both were bloodied. Next time up, they'd start in all over again. Cobb used to brag that he took advantage of Walter Johnson, like Gibson a hard thrower with a crossfire motion, because he knew Johnson didn't want to hit batters. He wouldn't have that luxury against Gibson.

5. Sandy Koufax vs. Lou Gehrig: Let's put these two New Yorkers in a neutral park, taking away the raised mound of Dodger Stadium and the short right-field porch of Yankee Stadium, and see who prevails. I don't think Koufax would overpower Gehrig, but that off-the-table curve would keep him off-balance. Stan Musial, a comparable hitter, batted .342 in 38 at-bats against Koufax, though he was spared Sandy's last three dominating seasons. Gehrig would have sacrificed some power to find the gaps in this matchup.

6. Nolan Ryan vs. Willie Keeler: These two are polar opposites, "hit 'em where they ain't" facing the guy who threw 'em where the bats weren't more often than anybody. Keeler rarely walked (one walk per 17 at-bats for his career) and almost never struck out, while Ryan either walked or fanned nearly 40% of the hitters he faced in his career. So what would happen? The outfield would play about 50 feet behind the infield dirt against the ultimate slap-hitter, and Keeler would stand in astonishment as fastballs whizzed past his head. Eventually he'd get his bat on the ball and steer it safely between Ryan and the second-base bag.

7. Christy Mathewson vs. Ichiro Suzuki: I was tempted to give Lefty Grove a shot at Ichiro, but he hasn't had a problem with hard-throwing lefties, batting a combined 27-for-66 (.409) against Randy Johnson and CC Sabathia. Of course, he was also 4-for-6 against Greg Maddux, the pitcher most similar to Mathewson, but only 5-for-23 against Pedro Martinez. Matty would throw a steady stream of strikes and dare Ichiro to try to go deep, but he'd also be well-practiced in handling all those bunts and choppers. We haven't seen anybody who can stop Ichiro, but this one could go either way.

8. Lefty Grove vs. Tony Gwynn: Grove was the hardest thrower of his generation and, for my money, the best left-hander ever, while Gwynn was the best pure hitter and the toughest to strike out in his generation (roughly once every 25 plate appearances). I think Tony might be in trouble on this one. He hit only .156 (7-for-45) against three hard-throwing lefties (Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Mitch Williams), albeit in limited action. Against Grove, he'd just try to make contact and slice something to left field, where the fielder would be stacked to stifle him

9. Juan Marichal vs. Mel Ott: This battle of great Giants would be fun for aesthetics as much as any other factor. The high-stepping "Dominican Dandy" had the highest leg kick ever by a pitcher; if you never witnessed it, that's too bad. He'd rear back with his front leg almost straight overhead, and somehow fire a dazzling array of pitches with pinpoint control. Meanwhile, Ott had the highest leg kick of any hitter. About the time that Marichal dropped his left leg, Ott would be raising his right knee to his chest. He had an eagle eye that would challenge Marichal's control, a power hitter who drew a ton of walks (over 100 in ten seasons) and seldom struck out (in 1929, he hit 42 home runs and whiffed only 38 times).

Those are my nine dream matchups. Computer simulations are fine for estimating how these duel might have gone, but I really wish I could see them. Who would you like to see?


Robin said...

I realize this post is from a year and a half ago, but I love #4, the Cobb-Gibson matchup. I see no way that this matchup wouldn't result in a fist fight every time. How else could it be resolved?

As a Phillies fan, one I think about is Robin Roberts and Babe Ruth. Put together the pitcher who allowed the most homeruns and made it to the Hall of Fame, against the best homerun hitting player. Would Robin be able to get him once or would every at bat result in a free trip around the bags?

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