Thursday, November 18, 2010

It Ain't So, But It Coulda Been

The "what if" game is a favorite with all baseball fans, though ultimately futile. As enjoyable as it is to imagine how one change in a single baseball event could have far-reaching ramifications, the reality of each baseball season is still more vivid, entertaining, and memorable.

A few years ago, I was one of a number of baseball quasi-historians who participated in a book edited by Jim Bresnahan titled Play It Again: Baseball Experts on What Might Have Been. It was lots of fun to field questions on dozens of possibilities--if this trade hadn't been made, if that pitcher had lasted longer, if rules had been changed at different times, and so on. I recently wrote an article on one of the most dramatic what-ifs: how good would Herb Score have been if that line drive off his face hadn't wrecked his career?

For nearly 100 years, the quintessential baseball what-if has been "Suppose the 1919 White Sox hadn't conspired to throw the World Series?" The quick and easy answer is that they probably would've won that Series. But what about the long-range picture? The "Black Sox" weren't exposed until late in the 1920 season, and their absence may well have cost the team another pennant. Is that all? If the team had stayed intact, could they have wrestled any more pennants away from Babe Ruth's Yankees? Would Joe Jackson have continued on the fast track to the Hall of Fame? What about his teammates--how would their careers have panned out?

Many writers have pondered these questions and posed generalized answers. But nobody has taken the subject as seriously as Michael T. Lynch, Jr., whose fascinating book on the subject, It Ain't So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, was published earlier this year (available at www.mcfarlandpub.com). If you have wondered whether there's a parallel universe where Joe Jackson and the others resisted temptation, look no further. Lynch looks at the issues from every conceivable angle and comes up with some convincing answers.

Lynch, who operates the popular baseball website www.seamheads.com, used computer simulations to "replay" the 1920s with the "Black Sox" unbanned and chasing more diamond glory. He chose the highly regarded "Out of the Park" as his operating program because it was more adaptable to the career profiles he hoped to create for the Black Sox. He tried to replicate the rosters and lineups for each season, applying trades as they happened in reality, with the aim of having everyone else in the league perform at levels close to what they really did. That would provide a more accurate picture of how the eight Black Sox (along with Dickie Kerr, honest in 1919 but screwed out of his career later on) would have performed in the same conditions and how their presence would have changed history. This wasn't no-brainer work, and he explains every nuance and factor. He made the decision to end one player's career early due to injury, kept one star in the lineup an extra year or two despite diminished production, and had persistent challenges in choosing starting pitchers, especially in the World Series.

The results aren't all that surprising when you consider how talented those White Sox were. They won the 1917 World Series, should have won again in 1919, and were battling for another pennant when the players were sidelined in 1920. Why wouldn't they have continued to win? Three of the "clean" Sox--Eddie Collins, Ray Schalk, and Red Faber--are in the Hall of Fame, and Lynch makes a good case that two or three of the others would've joined them in Cooperstown. Instead, the bannings decimated the lineup and the pitching corps, sending the franchise on a downhill spiral that lasted several decades. How much different would it have been?

Lynch makes a strong case for the White Sox joining the Yankees at the top of the American League heap for most of the 1920s. In his simulations, they still lose to the Reds in the 1919 World Series, bounce back to take the 1920 title, and remain in contention until late in the decade. The method in the book is to look at each season in several aspects: a thorough discussion of what really happened; details of how the real White Sox fared; month-by-month coverage of how the pennant race unfolded in the simulation; how players and teams fared in comparison to reality; and more thorough analysis of how the Black Sox's careers continued to unfold. The style is a mixture of statistical analysis and subject commentary, the latter bolstered by numerous wonderful quotes from the great baseball writers of the time.

It's exciting to follow the White Sox's fortune for a dozen years following their actual exile; Lynch carries us through 1932, when the last of the Black Sox--Lefty Williams and Swede Risberg--would have retired according to the simulation. The best part of the book, however, is the long final section in which Lynch analyzes each of the players' careers as fleshed out by "Out of the Park". Lynch brilliantly assesses them not only in terms of numbers but in comparison to similar players whose careers followed a certain pattern. That's the trickiest part of simulating baseball: every event affects every subsequent event, and it's impossible to know how injuries or other factors would have contributed to a career ending (Lynch uses a modified version of the "Brock2" formula originally devised by Bill James to determine the rate of a career's downward spiral). Even acknowledging these disclaimers, Lynch does a fascinating job of outlining these hypothetical careers.

Yes, of course Joe Jackson would continue as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. In these simulated games, Jackson accumulates 3,457 hits and a .351 career average, a no-brainer Hall of Famer. The biggest surprise is Lefty Williams, only 27 years old when banned from the majors. Just coming into his prime, with 82 victories under his belt, Williams becomes an elite pitcher in the simulation, winning another 227 games and securing a spot in the Hall of Fame. Three other Black Sox wind up with borderline Hall of Fame careers: Eddie Cicotte, despite being retired after 1921 with an injury; Happy Felsch (.312 average, 2, 743 hits); and Buck Weaver (2,924 hits).

Follow their careers as they might have been, and you'll be fascinated. Moreover, you'll learn a lot about how baseball evolved during the hitting-happy 1920s, and the simulations will serve to illuminate the reality. That's always the bottom line; reality trumps imagination. But as imaginary journeys go, Michael Lynch's is just a fine line away from the real thing.

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