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?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Same Dog, Old Tricks

The New York Yankees are at it again. In the middle of a national financial crisis, the richest franchise in sports is leaning on taxpayers to foot more of the bill for a new stadium that has already cost $1.3 billion. I still haven't figured out why--at the same time the Boston Red Sox have found ways to make Fenway Park last a few more decades--the Yankees found it so imperative to tear down the shrine-like Yankee Stadium, unless it was sheer jealousy that New York City might finance a replacement for the Mets' unshrine-like Shea Stadium.

Yankee Stadium underwent a major renovation and face-lift a mere three decades ago, which in itself should have been a cautionary tale heeded by city officials when the Yankees came begging this time around. Here's the item reported today by the Associated Press:

"The Yankees and Mets are asking the city for $450 million more in public bonds to finance their new ballparks, on top of nearly $1.5 billion they were already granted, according to the city's Economic Development Corp.

The teams requested the additional financing in applications filed with the city ahead of a public hearing on the funding next month. The applications have not yet been made public, but the city shared details in response to questions from The Associated Press.

In the Yankees' application, the team is asking for another $259 million in tax-exempt bonds and $111 million in taxable bonds, on top of $940 million in tax-exempt bonds and $25 million in taxable bonds already granted for its $1.3 billion stadium. The Mets are requesting an additional $83 million, on top of $615 million already approved for their $800 million park.

The city's Industrial Development Agency must hold a hearing before granting any additional public support for the ballparks, which are expected to be completed next year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials have long insisted that the city reaps economic and other benefits from having the private stadiums."

A few things are worth noting there. First, the new Yankees stadium was already slated to cost twice as much as the new Mets stadium, while more than 80% of the requested increase in funds would go to the Yankees. No wonder they could only afford to offer C. C. Sabathia a contract for $140 million. The entire Tampa Bay Rays roster made less last year than Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez combined, but it's business as usual in New York as long as the taxpayers can be suckered into paying the bill. It is telling that the mayor cites "other benefits" as a key justification for allocating public money to subsidize one of the city's most affluent tenants. It is an old trick, in fact the same trick pulled by Major John Lindsey back in the 1970s when the city conned its citizens into paying four times what they thought they were going to pay for the renovation of Yankee Stadium.

That story is told, in bits and pieces, in my book "This BAD Day in Yankees History." Here are the relevant items as detailed in the book:

APRIL 5, 1973: WARNING SIGNS: The renovation costs for Yankee Stadium have risen to $27.9 million. This is just the first of many announcements which ultimately raise the original estimate of $24 million to nearly $100 million by the time the job is done.

Quote of the Day: City Council President Sanford Garelik, after Mayor Lindsey says the cost increase is "routine": "The Mayor's casual admission defies belief. . .The total stadium cost may well come in at twice the $24-million cost of Shea Stadium." Make that four times as much.

NOVEMBER 9, 1973: FUZZY THINKING: The Yankees, exiled to Shea Stadium for two years while Yankee Stadium is renovated, request that they be charged only $1 per year in rent. The city is already undertaking the $24 million renovation that will ultimately cost four times that, and the Yankees will pocket parking revenues at Shea, but they still don't want to pay rent.

NOVEMBER 14, 1973: URBAN SHOCKER: The City Planning Commissioner approves an additional $15.9 million funding of the Yankee Stadium renovation, bringing the current cost for the project to $49.9 million. That’s already more than twice the figure announced by mayor John Lindsay when he approved the project. Of course, when Lindsay made the deal he already knew it was going to cost over $30 million, but he said $24 million because that was what the city spent on Shea Stadium. When today’s funding is announced, there’s a report on Lindsay’s desk from the Economic Development Administration saying that the cost will rise to $80 million. Confused? Join the crowd, as New Yorkers wonder why school repairs are being neglected while all this money is poured into a project to benefit CBS, the huge corporation which owns the Yankees. Mayor-elect Abraham Beame’s figure is $53 million. You can double that figure, too, as the renovation’s price-tag ultimately skyrockets to over $100 million. In other words, the whole project was a scam and a mess. By the time the refurbished stadium opened in 1976, New York City was broke. But at least the Yankees didn’t move to New Jersey.
Quote of the Day: Mayor Lindsay’s callous and prophetic statement when the deal was announced: “By the time I retire, the stadium will be gutted and the project so far down the road it will be impossible to reverse it.”

NOVEMBER 16, 1973: Quote of the Day: Brooklyn Borough President Sebastian Leone, after New York City's Board of Estimate approves $15.9 million in additional funding for the Yankee Stadium renovation: "We are caught in a sucker's game." No kidding.

DECEMBER 3, 1975: RED SMITH EXPLAINS IT ALL: Incomparable columnist Red Smith explains the skyrocketing cost of the Yankee Stadium renovation (current estimated cost of $75 million, marked up from the original figure of $24 million): “You [the Yankees] figure the Board of Estimate wouldn’t hold still for an expenditure of more than, say, $25 million so you call in an expert and tell him: ‘Give us an estimate of about $20 million or so. We’ll add $3 million as the purchase price and stay under the limit easily.’ The Board of Estimate gives the O.K. . .Now the city is committed. You let a decent interval elapse and then say, ‘By the way, the figure is $46 million now.’ After that it’s a million here and a million there and it just sort of piles up.” He suggests that while they’re at it, the city ought to start paying Catfish Hunter’s salary, too.

APRIL 14, 1976: NO USE PRETENDING ANY MORE: City Officials finally concede that the cost of renovating Yankee Stadium might reach $100 million, a scandalous figure considering that the 80,000-seat stadium just opened in Pontiac, Michigan took only $55 million to build from the ground up.

MARCH 18, 1978: A LOOPHOLE THEY DROVE A BUS THROUGH: The Yankees take advantage of a clause in their lease agreement with New York City to avoid paying their rent. Their revenue the past two years was over $20 million, and the lease calls for their rent to rise in proportion to revenue. However, another clause allows them to deduct “maintenance” costs from the rent rather than from the pre-rent revenue, and reported costs of more than $1.6 million over those two years negate nearly every dollar of rent due. City Comptroller Harrison Goldin calls the lease “a disgraceful deal for the city.”

DECEMBER 12, 1980: THEY BROKE IT--WE BOUGHT IT: New York City releases a report on the $100 million 1974-1976 renovation of Yankee Stadium charging that faulty design and hasty work have already caused water leaks and cracked concrete in the Stadium. It will cost at least another $2 million to fix the problems, though the immediate priority is pointing fingers. Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis says, “The city paid an awful lot of money for the Stadium work and we shouldn’t have gotten a broken Stadium.”
Quote of the Day: Edward Simpson, president of the company that did the Stadium's construction work: "The design engineers recommended a change and the city didn't accept it because theyw ere concerned about cost and time. They got what they paid for."

That's the legacy of that sham, "a broken stadium" that cost $100 million and lasted less than one-third as long as a Boston stadium that was once regarded as decrepit. It makes you wonder what those dummies over in Detroit were doing, forgetting to fleece the electorate while building a new stadium for just over half as much. Of course, the Pontiac Silverdome hasn't hosted professional football since 2001, about the same time that new New York mayor Michael Blomberg (who by the way could pay for both new ballparks out of his own pocket without feeling the pinch) okayed the public financing of two new ballparks after his predecessor, fellow Yankees fanatic Rudy Giuliani, balked at the massive project in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy.

Bloomberg will get what the rest of us are paying for, and then some, having insisted on a free luxury suite at the new Stadium. Here's the disclosure reported a week ago:

"In his ongoing investigation into the Yankees' new baseball stadium, New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky uncovered e-mail messages sent by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's top aides that show an aggressive bid for a free luxury suite at taxpayer expense, the New York Daily News reported. E-mail requested under the New York Freedom of Information Law show the aides spent months demanding the luxury skybox and free food before finally reaching a compromise with Yankee leadership in which the city would give the team 250 free parking spaces. The $820,000 value of the spaces could hurt taxpayers if the Yankees' garage owner cannot make his $3.2 million annual rent, according to the Daily News. The Yankees asked the city to request tax-exempt funding from the Internal Revenue Service in an effort to save $247 million in borrowing costs, the Daily News reported. The city agreed, but in exchange wanted the skybox and 180 of the best seats to be bought at cost. When the Yankees scoffed at the suggestion, city lawyer Joseph Gunn reportedly threatened to withhold the city's tax-exempt backing if the suite was denied."

Good luck, Mr. Brodsky. If the non-gazillionaire Rays could do it, maybe you can, too.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Closer Look: Intimations of Immortality

I do not get along well with machines, with the notable exception of microfilm readers. These windows into the past always bring delight in some way, either in finding the piece of history I seek or yielding some unexpected treasure along the way. That’s what happened the other day. On the way to finding information about a game played on June 16, 1929, I couldn’t help noticing a gaudy box score from a game played the previous day. Let me tell you about that incredible game.

The New York Giants finished a four-game series at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field that day, and it took 4 hours and 17 minutes to wage a 14-inning battle. The final score was 20-15 in what William E. Brandt of the New York Times called “a fearful and wonder spectacle” ending in a “relay carnival” of 11 runs scored in the final inning. The Giants seemed to have it wrapped up when they took a 9-1 lead in the 5th inning, but it wasn’t that easy. The Pirates fought back and tied it at 11-11 with three runs in the bottom of the 9th. They even had the winning run at third base with one out, but Giants reliever Bill Walker retired Paul Waner and got the third out to send the game into extra innings.

That’s where the real fireworks occurred. The Giants scored a run in the 11th, and when Carl Mays used his famed submarine delivery to get the first two outs in the bottom half, it looked like a New York victory. Not so soon, thanks to future Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor. As Brandt described it, Traynor “simply changed one of the subway pitches into an elevated. The ball came down in the boulevard beyond the left-field fence.”

The game went merrily on after Traynor’s blast until things exploded in the 14th inning. Edd Roush of the Giants led off with a triple, and when Pirates manager Donie Bush protested the safe call at third base, he was ejected. A near-riot ensued, with fans tossing pop bottles onto the field and trying to rush the umpires, only to be held back by police. After the mayhem subsided, Larry French came in to pitch for the Pirates, and the Giants roughed him up for seven hits and eight runs. The Pirates could only get three of those back in their half, and the Giants escaped with their 20-15 triumph.

All that was wild enough, but what truly sets this game apart was the performance of eight players who are now enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This octet combined for an astonishing 31 hits in 57 at bats, 14 of them for extra bases, scored 18 runs, and drove in 20. (Dave Smith of www.retrosheet.org, who generously provided the play-by-play account of the first ten innings, says he cannot find another game in which future Hall of Famers accumulated such prodigious numbers.)

In the 5th inning alone, they were perfect with seven hits and a walk. In the top half, Roush began a four-run rally with a triple. Lindstrom, Ott, and Terry added singles, and Jackson capped the scoring with a triple. The Pirates sandwiched singles by Lloyd Waner and Traynor around a walk to Paul Waner for their run.

When we watch a game, we know who the stars are. We can look at the lineups and anticipate a cluster of likely Hall of Famers putting on a great show for us. That was not the case on June 15, 1929. Apart from the fact that the Hall of Fame did not yet exist, only half of the eight future immortals who excelled that day were established stars. The others were youngsters who gave intimations of what lay ahead. Let’s take a closer look at who impressed the 25,000 fans in attendance at Forbes Field.

EDD ROUSH (36 years old) was in his next-to-last season. Leading off for the Giants, the center fielder went 5-for-9 and scored three runs. His hits included two triples and three singles, and he had two hits in the 14th-inning rally. 1929 average: .324.

FRED LINDSTROM (23), the third baseman, batted third for the Giants. He went 4-for-8, including a double and a triple, scored three runs, and drove in three. 1929 average: .319.

MEL OTT (20) played right field and batted cleanup for the Giants. He went 3-for-7 with two doubles, driving in four runs and scoring twice. He was in just his second full season in the majors. 1929 average: .328 with 151 RBI.

BILL TERRY (30) was in his prime, anchoring the lineup at first base. He went 4-for-5 plus three walks, scoring twice. 1929 average: .372, followed by a .401 average in 1930, the last National Leaguer to hit .400.

TRAVIS JACKSON (25) batted seventh and had a better day than anybody. The Giants shortstop went 4-for 7, all extra-base hits--two home runs, a triple, and a double. He drove in seven runs and scored four. 1929 average: .294.

LLOYD WANER (23) batted second for the Pirates. He went 6-for-8 with four singles, a double, a triple, and a walk. His triple in the bottom of the 9th tied the game. In his third season in 1929, the 150-pound center fielder hit .353 for the season.

PAUL WANER, (26) Lloyd’s older brother, batted third and had a slow day, only 2-for-6 with a double and one run batted in. 1929 average: .336.

PIE TRAYNOR (29) batted cleanup. He went 3-for-7, including that key 11th-inning home run, and drove in three runs. In his prime in 1929, he hit .356 and struck out a mere seven times in 540 at bats.

Eleven pitchers, a record at the time, paraded to the mound, and only a couple of them escaped the carnage that added up to 35 runs, 52 hits, 21 extra-base hits, and 14 walks. No doubt this was one of the games that made Giants manager John McGraw think it might be time for him to retire. McGraw, who had helped pioneer the brand of ball that featured bunts, steals, hit-and-run plays, and a quick-thinking style, wrote after his 1932 retirement that “this was no longer my game—the game in which a manager could ‘mastermind’ his club into a championship.” Instead, “the players win ‘em now by the crude and primitive method of striding up to the plate and slamming the ball out of the park—and there is no better method under existing conditions.” At least on June 15, 1929, McGraw was grateful to get the best of it in one of the more “primitive” slugfests in baseball history.