Friday, April 30, 2010

Word Gets Around

There's a bruhaha brewing in Los Angeles, where GM Ned Colletti called center fielder Matt Kemp on the carpet this week and told the press it was because he wondered whether Kemp was resting on his laurels after signing a long-term, eight-figure contract, rather than giving 100% effort on the field. The esteemed ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer responded on Wednesday by criticizing Colletti for ripping Kemp, the league's leading run producer this April, for some shoddy fielding just because the whole team had a lousy week on the road.

I didn't have a strong opinion about Colletti's actions, but I did feel strongly about the effort--or lack thereof--I saw from Kemp during Wednesday's doubleheader in New York. Neyer noted that despite the Gold Glove awarded to Kemp last season, he isn't that good a fielder, implying that we really shouldn't be expecting him to be Willie Mays out there. In the "Comments" section attached to Neyer's blog, I wrote the following:

"After watching the Dodgers against the Mets on Tuesday, I was appalled by Kemp's outfielding, but not as measured by putouts and errors. The appalling thing was his lack of effort. Two balls in the gap that should've been doubles went for triples because Kemp didn't run hard to retrieve them. Kemp even allowed Henry Blanco to go from first to third on a routine single. Blanco looked at Kemp and saw that he was loafing to the ball, and took an extra base on him that helped set up a key four-run rally. So I think the issue is not whether Kemp has talent or is capable of playing well, but whether the things that aren't measured in the box score (or even in SABRmetrics) are the true measure of the man. For my money, he's loafing. I have no idea whether it's because he's sitting on his salary, because he was tired in the second game of a doubleheader the Dodgers were destined to lose, or because he didn't think the Mets were going to take advantage of it. But it was plain as day. He didn't hustle, and it costs his team several runs if not outright defeat."

Neyer took my view and ran with it in another blog posted last night. Here is the heart of his response:
"I went back and looked at the three plays in question, the two triples and Blanco's first-to-third dash:

In the bottom of the first, Jason Bay drove a hanging knuckleball over Kemp, a little toward left field. After Bay slid safely into third, Keith Hernandez said, "And Kemp, look at this! Kind of loafing after it! He loafed from the beginning, and that's the reason Bay got the triple." Hernandez was right. Kemp never did break into a full sprint to retrieve the baseball. If he had, Bay presumably pulls up at second base.

"Henry Blanco led off the bottom of the sixth with a single. One batter later, Angel Pagan singled up the middle, just a little toward right field. With the play in front of him, Blanco motored around for third base. Kemp had to collect the ball, then turn his body for the throw to third base, where the play wasn't close. Could Kemp have charged harder? Yeah, maybe. But I would rate this one 15 percent Kemp's loafing, 85 percent Blanco's hard-and-smart baserunning.

"Also in the sixth, David Wright slammed one into the gap in right-center. Kemp didn't get a good read on the ball, but once he realized where the ball was going he went after it. This ball was hit to a triples spot and Wright's a lot faster than Jason Bay. No play at third base, triple all the way.

"I see three possibilities here:
  • One, we're imagining things.
  • Two, we're not imagining things but Kemp was fatigued, or nursing an injury.
  • Three, we're not imagining things and Kemp simply wasn't giving his best effort."

That's a fair analysis. Rob agreed with the consensus that Kemp loafed on Bay's triple, on which, incidentally, Bay hustled out of the box from his first step, thinking triple. Rob disagreed with my description of Wright's triple, and I'll concede this much: once Kemp misjudged the hit and saw it rolling to the fence, he knew that the game was pretty well lost (it was about to be 10-3) and that it would most likely be a triple no matter what. So we're in agreement on the triples.

The big difference is in our view of the single that sent Henry Blanco from first to third. I'll go along with Rob's math, that Kemp's hustle was 15% shy of what it could've been, and that Blanco's aggressive hustle was the more important factor. But here's the thing. I would say that Blanco's 85% would have been moot without Kemp's 15%. If Kemp had run hard to field the ball, Blanco would have stopped at second. There's no doubt in my mind about that.

The big problem with a lack of hustle is that it is so visible. If Keith Hernandez and I went nuts over it from our distance, you know the folks in the Mets dugout were all over it. That sets a tone for the opposition. "Take the extra base on him," teammates remind each other. "Look for that extra base." It's the same as when an outfielder is known to have a sore arm or a tweaked hamstring. Runners know in advance that there might be some physical reason why the outfielder won't be 100% efficient in fielding a ball and getting it back to the infield quickly. Baseball is a game of inches and fractions of seconds. Anything that shifts that balance one way or another is going to be exploited by a hustling team.

So it was, I believe, when Blanco stood on first base. "If the ball is hit to center," he was thinking, "I'm going to keep a close eye on Kemp, and if he doesn't go all-out I'm heading for third." That's exactly what happened. The play was right in front of Blanco, and when he saw that 15% lack of effort from Kemp, he raced to third. The score was 6-3 Mets at that point. That one burst of hustle from Blanco may well have made the difference between a 6-3 score at the end of the inning and the 10-3 blowout it soon became.

Pagan quickly stole second, and Luis Castillo walked. With Blanco planted at second base instead of runners at second and third, the Dodgers would have been more aggressive with Castillo. Let's say he made an out (after all, statistically he was a big favorite to make an out). Jose Reyes, batting with the bases loaded, hit a sharp grounder to short, where Jamey Carroll blew the inning sky-high. With Blanco still 40 feet from the plate, Carroll bounced the throw, which wasn't handled, scoring Blanco and leaving the bases loaded. If Castillo had made the second out, the Reyes grounder would have been an easy third out with no runs scored.

At that, Jason Bay struck out, and there were still only two outs. Wright never should've come to bat in the inning. Instead, he drilled the shot to the gap in right center which Kemp eventually located on the warning track, and by the time he threw it back toward the infield (I say "toward" because it eluded not one but two relay men), the bases were cleared and it was 10-3, over and out.

Later in the series, the Dodgers had a runner on first base when a ground-ball single headed to right field. All else being equal, it looked like a much more likely hit to send the runner to third than the Pagan hit. However, Jeff Francoeur, the Mets right fielder, hustled quickly in to field the ball, and the runner didn't even think about going to third. He slowed down coming into second, took a short turn, and held his place.

That's the difference between Francoeur and Kemp. Francoeur always hustles to the ball, and combined with his strong arm (he's a Gold Glover, as is Kemp) he prevents runners from taking that extra base. Just as Mets runners had to be telling each other "look to take the extra base on Kemp," opponents tell each other, "make sure you've got extra room before you try to take the extra base on Francoeur."

Francoeur is like another Gold Glove right fielder, Ichiro Suzuki, in maximizing his effort to prevent runners from advancing. There is no way of knowing how many extra bases--and runs--Ichiro has prevented over the years by establishing from the outset of his career that he not only had a cannon of a throwing arm but also the desire and technique to begrudge his opponents every single base. That's the kind of fielder I want on my team.

Conversely, outfielders who lack that desire leave themselves and their teams vulnerable. There's no telling how many more runners will take advantage of even a 15% lapse by Kemp in the coming weeks. . .or months. . .or seasons if he doesn't change his approach. Word gets around the league, especially when a player's GM publicly questions his hustle. I don't see enough Dodgers games to be able to track this, but I know some of you do. Join the whole National League to see what he does--or doesn't do--next.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Long Night's Journey Into Nothingness

As I sat through last week's 20-inning marathon between the Mets and Cardinals, I couldn't help thinking "I've been here before." The Mets have played a disproportionate number of 20-inning games, and I've watched all of them, starting with that ridiculous doubleheader in 1964 in which the Mets lost a 23-inning dandy to the Giants in the second game. I remember two things most about that game: Casey Stengel, obviously not prescient, burned two pinch-hitters and a pinch-runner in the second inning, and Del Crandall sliced a double into the right field corner in the top of the 23rd to drive in the winning run.

I also caught all of the six-hour battle early in the 1968 season at the Astrodome, the longest 1-0 game in major league history. That one was pretty excruciating, like being stuck in an elevator, goose-eggs filling the scoreboard until the bottom of the 24th inning, when a ground ball darted through the legs of Mets shortstop Al Weis to give the Astros a mind-numbing victory.

And I stayed tuned in to that crazy game in 1974, also against the St. Louis, the longest major league game ever played to a conclusion, held hostage by history again. This time the Mets led 3-1 into the ninth inning, but a Ken Reitz home run off Jerry Koosman tied it, and that was the last carnage until the 25th inning. Remember Jerry Cram? Nah, I don't either. He pitched 48 innings in the majors, and eight of them were in this game--for the Mets. He entered in the 17th inning and logged eight shutout innings. In the 25th, Hank Webb tried to pick off Bake McBride, made a wild throw, and McBride came all the way around to score the winning run.

These three ordeals had two things in common: the Mets lost, and Ed Sudol was the home-plate umpire. Sudol must have turned over in his grave on April 17 as the Mets and Cardinals struggled through 18 scoreless innings, somehow both scoring in the 19th before the Mets reversed history by winning in the 20th.

It turns out, however, that none of these games marked the most futile day in Mets history. Playing on www.retrosheet.org the other day, I chanced upon my candidate for that dishonor. It was October 2, 1965, and I'm sure I followed all the "action" as the Mets took on the Phillies (once again, at Shea Stadium) in a doubleheader. It was the last weekend of another lost year for the Mets, a season in which they achieved a .221 team batting average, finished 47 games out of first place, had a pair of 20-game losers (Jack Fisher and Al Jackson), and even lost their one redeeming character when Casey Stengel broke his hip and had to retire.

The Friday game was rained out, so they played a twi-night doubleheader on Saturday. In the opener, Jim Bunning, who had pitched a perfect game against them a year earlier (yeah, I watched that Mets debacle, too), held them to a pair of singles and a walk in winning 6-0. Then came the nightcap, which seemed like a mismatch of southpaws. The Mets starter was Rob Gardner, a 20-year-old who had pitched just four times in the majors, allowing 10 runs in 13 innings. For the Phillies, it was Chris Short, midway through a three-year stretch during which he won 55 games. Ed Sudol was elsewhere, Lee Weyer was behind the plate, and there was no reason to think the game would get out of hand. But it did.

There were scoring chances early, but nothing came of them. Each team left two men on base in the first inning, and Mets should've scored in the third. With one out, Ron Hunt and Joe Christopher hit back-to-back doubles, but Hunt didn't make it past third base. I haven't been able to find out why. The Sunday New York Times went to print before the game ended and included no account of the "action," and by Monday the season was over and nobody cared. But it doesn't matter. These were the early Mets, for whom scoring a run on two doubles was a bit too much to ask. A pair of strikeouts ended that threat, including one by the immortal Danny Napoleon (who replaced starting left fielder Ron Swoboda, ejected in the first inning for arguing a called third strike).

Short settled down after that, and Gardner did an excellent imitation of him. For the next five innings, each team got exactly one hit. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets got a pair of two-out singles, but Short fanned Roy McMillan (his 13th whiff of the game) to send the death-march into extra innings.

The scenario didn't change. Gardner and Short chugged along, giving up almost nothing. The Phillies got a single in the 11th inning, only their fourth hit of the game. It didn't matter. In their half, the Mets got a single and a stolen base in what constituted a major scoring threat by this point. But Cleon Jones (a .149 hitter as a rookie that season) couldn't get him home. On they went.

Somehow, Gardner got even stronger at this point, retiring eleven Phillies in a row before Tony Gonzalez doubled with one out in the top of the 15th. He didn't go anywhere either. In the Mets half, manager Wes Westrum removed Gardner for a pinch-hitter, who did nothing. That was it for the left, who had pitched a three-hitter through nine innings and allowed only five hits in fifteen innings of wasted work. (Despite this promising showing, he went on to a 14-win career.)

Short also left for a pinch-hitter after fifteen shutout innings in which he faced 56 hitters and struck out 18 of them (tying a National League record for most strikeouts in an extra-inning game). Will we ever see anything like this again--two starters going 15 innings apiece? (No.) It matched the extraordinary 1963 duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal, won 1-0 by Juan in the 16th when Willie Mays touched Spahn for a home run.

It was well past midnight by this time, and they kept playing. Relievers came in, but nothing changed. In the 18th, Westrum sent Dennis Ribant to the mound. Only four days earlier, Ribant had pitched eleven useless shutout innings in a game the Mets lost 1-0 in twelve. He had a lot of momentum going and retired the Phillies in order. Jack Baldschun matched him in the home half, fanning Christopher and Charlie Smith to end the inning.

And the game. Anybody remember curfews? A local ordinance prohibited games from going past 12:50 a.m., and the game passed that fail-safe point in the 18th inning. I'm sure Lee Weyer was very happy to pull the plug on this vigil. I'd like to know how many (few) fans were still there (only a little more than 10,000 were there at the start). Incidentally, these 18 innings took a mere 4 hours and 29 minutes to play; at today's pace, the curfew would have tolled the knell five or six innings earlier. How the times have changed.

Add it up, and you get 27 innings for the day, and zero runs for the Mets. No team has ever done so little with so many opportunities in one day of baseball. The beauty of this nightmare was that the game wasn't even suspended. It was officially a tie and had to be replayed the next day--the final day of the season--as a doubleheader which began a dozen hours after the long night's journey into nothingness concluded.

Of course, there was no way of telling how much fatigue contributed to the continuing futility witnessed by 18,000 or so fans the next day. The Mets actually scored a run in the 3rd inning off Ray Culp--thanks to an error--and were tied 1-1 until the Phillies scored twice in the ninth to win it. Al Jackson took the loss to run his record to 8-20. Business as usual. In the finale--the Mets' last chance for shinola in 1965--Jack Fisher took his 8-23 record to the mound and battled Larry Jackson of the Phillies. Each team scored in the 7th, and then things settled into an eerie reminder of the night before. Fisher kept going and surrendered nothing more through the 12th inning. It was still 1-1 when Billy Sorrell led off the 13th. He had already doubled his major league career from six at-bats to twelve, and he blasted a home run. The Phillies scored again and wound up beating Fisher 3-1, capping his 24-loss season.

That was one lost weekend. The Mets played 49 innings in less than 30 hours and scored exactly two runs, one of them unearned. They managed 22 hits and struck out 53 times. The only good news was that they didn't have to play the next day. Or the day after that. And I didn't have to watch them flail away until 1966. Their scoreless futility this month had a much happier ending. They won the game and, at this writing, have propelled that marathon breakthrough to ten wins in their last dozen games. Just don't be surprised if it happens again. They still have the knack.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Deserved But Not Earned

I'm still bothered by a game I listened to on the radio when I was a kid. Thanks to http://www.retrosheet.org/, I know that I've been upset for nearly 48 years, so isn't it about time I got this complaint off my chest?

I was 11 years old the summer of 1962, and on June 5 I spent the late evening catching games on the radio. From my second-floor bedroom in New Milford, New Jersey, I could catch more than half of the 18 major-league teams on my old Emerson radio. I stayed mainly with the Reds, who came through decently on Louisville's WHAS but even better on the Buffalo affiliate of the Reds, WKBW. I could listen to Waite Hoyt telling stories and occasionally covering the action on the field.

There are a number of things worth noting about the Reds-Cards game of June 5, 1962. For some reason, Don Zimmer batted third for the Reds, something he did in only a dozen games in his career (he drove in two runs). The losing pitcher was Dave Sisler, son of Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler. He became the losing pitcher when 41-year-old Stan Musial belted an 11th-inning home run. That completed a hefty comeback from a 9-1 deficit, a comeback partly fueled by a three-run home run by future NL President Bill White of the Cards.

However, this game was etched in my memory for something else: the worst performance ever by a relief pitcher. I feel safe in making that claim, because I've never heard of another case where a pitcher was fined (in this case, $250) simply for performing poorly. That's how bad Ray Sadecki was on that night. Sadecki wasn't a bad pitcher. In 1964 he won 20 games for the Cards, and two years later he was considered formidable enough to be traded straight-up for Orlando Cepeda. Sadecki was a 135-game winner in the majors, but on June 5, 1962, he was 21 years old and unproven.

The Reds led 4-1 in St. Louis when Sadecki entered to pitch the sixth inning. He was greeted by Reds pitcher Bob Purkey, a lifetime .110 hitter. Purkey belted a home run, the fifth of his career. Shortstop Eddie Kasko followed with a single, one of his four hits in the game. Marty Keough tried to sacrifice Kasko to second, but Sadecki bobbled the bunt and both runners were safe on the error. Zimmer slapped a ball to Sadecki, who tried for a force play but threw the ball wildly. Kasko scored and Keough raced to third on Sadecki's second straight error. How much would you have fined him at this point? A home run by the pitcher, a single, and two straight errors. Hardly anyone else on the team had touched the ball, and he was in big trouble, facing the Reds' big bopper, Frank Robinson. Robby put Sadecki out of his misery by blasting a long three-run home run. That made it 9-1 Reds, and it spelled the end of Sadecki's workday.

It bothered me that night that I kept listening as the Reds went on to lose the game 10-9 in eleven innings. But the score couldn't have bothered me much, because I didn't even remember or care who won the game until I found the box score on Retrosheet this morning. What did bother me, what stuck in my craw all these years and still bothers me, is that the official record shows that of the five runs Sadecki allowed, two were unearned.

What!?! Has a pitcher ever deserved to be charged with runs more than Sadecki? I don't think so. Five batters: two home runs, a single, and two batters safe on errors Sadecki committed. Yet he was spared two more earned runs on his record because of those errors. Runs caused by errors are deemed unearned, no other questions asked. Technically, once Sadecki pitched the ball he became a fielder, a fifth infielder, essentially becoming a separate entity from the man who just pitched the ball. So it was that stupid infielder Sadecki who committed those errors, and pitcher Sadecki wasn't responsible.

That's a crock. "Earn" is defined as meriting something for your effort. An earned run, for a pitcher, should be a run caused by his effort. If Sadecki had been charged with four wild pitches instead of two errors, the runs would've been "earned," caused by his wild throws. The fact that someone hit the ball before he made his wild throw shouldn't let him off the hook. The pitcher is responsible for retiring the hitter. This baseball basic is even more pronounced when the ball is hit to the pitcher. Except for a strikeout, this is a pitcher's most direct participation in an out. He catches the ball, he throws it, he gets the out. If he screws up, there's nobody else to blame. In Sadecki's case, he was entirely responsible for all five runs. His outing was a self-contained, albeit nightmarish unit. Five batters, five runs, no clutter left on the bases, in fact, nobody else touched the ball except on the single. It was all Sadecki, yet somehow he wasn't held responsible for all five runs.

Instead of a 5.54 ERA in 1962, Sadecki's ERA should have been 5.72 (just from this fiasco). It even jacks his career ERA from 3.78 up to 3.79. That's the result of one inning in a 2,500-inning career!

My objection is a matter of semantics. As long as we call them earned runs, they should be allotted on that basis. There's a difference between individual and team statistics, and there are frequent discrepancies due to multiple relievers in innings where errors fuel runs. In Sadecki's case, it's one thing to say that the team allowed three earned runs with the others caused by errors. But when you ask the question "who is responsible for allowing those runs?" the answer is nobody else but Sadecki. He has to bear the statistical burden for his mistakes. I'm glad his team fined him for stinking up the joint, but posterity has let him off the hook. That has been bothering me my whole life, it seems.

Here's what I want. There are several other aspects of the earned/unearned issue which bother me, but I'll save those for another time. For now, let's change the terms we use for runs when we think of a pitcher's statistical line. Total runs is clear enough, but what do we call that next column of numbers, the column currently called "earned runs"? What this actually means is "runs not caused by fielding misplays." Those misplays include errors and passed balls. Whose? It doesn't matter. If we're simply measuring how many runs would have scored if the fielders all did their jobs perfectly, the "rncbfm" column would amount to the team's total of earned runs. All we'd have to add is another column showing that pitcher's total of earned runs, which in his case would include all runs for which he is responsible by any aspect of his work from the mound.

Suppose Sadecki had kept pitching? Suppose his manager, Johnny Keane, had said, "screw it--it's 9-1, we're out of this, and I'm gonna punish the punk by leaving him out there!" Fair enough. Say that Sadecki retired the next hitter after Robinson's home run. That would make one out, and if the two errors hadn't occurred, there would be three outs. According to the rules for earned runs, any runs that ensued would also be "unearned"; technically, once that third out should have been made, no more batters should have appeared in that inning. In other words, if Sadecki got one out and then allowed five or ten or fifteen more runs, they wouldn't have put any further dents in his record.

Does that make any sense at all? Nobody but Sadecki would be responsible for extending that inning, but because of the little loophole that defines him as an infielder once the ball is pitched, he gets a total statistical reprieve. Give us a break! If you must have your stupid rule, at least don't define it as the very thing it isn't. Don't call it "unearned" when it is more blatantly earned than any other kind of run. Face it. Purkey's home run may have been wind-aided, but there was no other force of nature involved when Sadecki kicked that bunt. He kicked it; he earned it. You and I know that. Watch out, Sadecki--when I become the czar of baseball, the first thing I'm doing is adding those two earned runs to your record. There is no statute of limitations on dumb stats.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me

It's my birthday (again) tomorrow, and the official state celebration has been going on for the past week or so. Mid-April is a perfect time for celebration, with the recent arrival of baseball season and even a few signs of the impending arrival of spring in Cooperstown (where we had snow on the ground last Saturday morning). Spring brings renewal, and my birthday brings me a renewed sense of energy and joy, especially energy devoted to enjoying baseball.

As someone sentimental enough to be a fan of anyone who shares my birthday, I've been particularly lucky with baseball players. When I was twelve years old, I decided to start rooting for a rookie with my favorite team, the Reds, who happened to be born ten years to the day before I was. The year he retired, another rookie came along with the same pedigree, and he didn't quit playing until a year ago. So from 1963-2008, most of my life, I've been able to focus my enthusiasm on two record-setting performers, Pete Rose and Greg Maddux.

Those two form the nucleus of a squad made up just of April 14 babies. Without them, there would be no point in even trying to assemble a team, because the rest of the roster is pretty thin. To date, 49 major leaguers have been born on April 14, but not until the late 1940s was there one who played regularly at all. The earlier years were filled with the likes of Parson Nicholson, Wild Bill Luhrsen, and Ben Tincup. More recently, a rash of catchers has glutted that section of my birthday-team roster, including Brad Ausmus, Gregg Zaun, and Greg Myers. I have enough outfielders to go around, a smattering of pitching, and enough gaps in the infield so that I'd have to ask Rose to play the entire left side of the diamond, something I'm sure he'd be willing to do. Let's see what kind of lineup I can put together.

Maddux would head a shaky pitching staff, and I wouldn't be able to coddle him the way Bobby Cox did in Atlanta, letting him off after six or seven innings of work. Greg would have to go the distance most of the time for this team to have a chance. Former Braves teammate Steve Avery is my left-handed ace, a guy with tremendous potential who didn't reach stardom but still won 96 games in the majors. Nobody else won more than 40, so the two who did, Ron Schueler and Carlos Perez, fill out my starting rotation. No five-man rotation for me; my guys want to work.

I'm a little shallow in the bullpen, even if you count Kyle Farnsworth as an asset. Quite often, he is. Other relievers include Mike Trombley, Frank Bertaina, Chris Welsh, Mark Bomback, and Johnny Hutchings (you could look him up). There might be hope in newcomer Adam Russell, a 6'8" right-hander who sports a 7-1 record in 37 games in the past two seasons. This crew would get a lot of chances to develop, something they didn't necessarily get in reality.

This team's offense, such as it is, would be built around Rose and the outfield, where I do have some options. Don Mueller is a solid right fielder with a .296 lifetime average in a dozen seasons. David Justice (born the same day as Maddux, on my 15th birthday) will play center, with his 305 career home runs by far the best on the team. Joe Lahoud will play left field. You might not remember him, but he came up with the Red Sox when Carl Yastrzemski was there, and modeled his batting stance after Yaz. Of course, once he swung the bat, the resemblance ended. He lasted eleven years in the majors, never as a regular, and peaked at 14 home runs in his last year with the Red Sox.

In the infield, I'd do best to put Rose in Bugs Bunny mode and have him cover all four positions. Instead, I'm going with Marty Keough at first base. He's the first April 14th player I rooted for, and even spent a few years with the Reds late in his career. Mostly a part-time outfielder, like Lahoud he eked out an 11-year career in the majors. The middle of the infield would be a problem. I have the immortal Roberto Mejia, one of the few players to spend three years with the Colorado Rockies without ever threatening to hit even .250. He'll play second base for the 14ers. For a shortstop, I'll go all the way back to the man who turned two years old the day Lincoln was shot, Thomas "Parson" Nicholson. So obscure was he that historians haven't been able to figure out whether he batted righty or lefty. Most of his major league career came with Toledo in the American Association of 1890. He was the regular second baseman and hit .268, stealing 46 bases and scoring 78 runs. Five years later, he had a brief last hurrah with the Washington Senators, playing ten games at shortstop. That's good enough to make my birthday team.

Rose will play third base, back up first base on grounders up the middle, handle the relay throws from the outfield, warm up pitchers between innings, hit fungoes before the game, hawk programs, and make sure his bookie never runs out of beer. He'll hit about .320, score 100 runs or so, and manage them to a surprise second-place finish. But he'll be disenchanted and will leave his home-birthday team to play for some other birthday, and it will all end badly. So I'm going to pry a bunch of singles and doubles out of him while I have the chance.

That's the only chance this team has. I'm much better off celebrating what Maddux and Rose did on the field during their careers, as I did every day for 46 seasons. Your birthday team is probably better than mine. Give it a try. Birthday lists are all over the internet; the one I used is from http://www.baseball-reference.com/. Have fun--and don't forget to celebrate my birthday.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Looking For A Few Good Loopholes

The story goes that W. C. Fields, on his deathbed, received a visit from an old friend named Gene Fowler. Fowler knew that there was more to Fields than the misanthropic sot he so often played in his movies, but also that Fields was neither an angel nor likely to find himself in the vicinity of one. Thus Fowler was shocked to see Fields, with his energy obviously flagging, using some of it to hold open a Bible he was clearly investigating. When Fowler asked what he was doing, Fields simply told him "looking for loopholes".

I thought about that yesterday when someone sent me the "Official Rules Regarding Ambidextrous Pitchers," a set of guidelines which might come into play in the foreseeable future if Yankees prospect Pat Venditte makes it to the majors. It could happen. There have been several ambidextrous pitchers in major league history, most notably Tony Mullane in the 1880s and most recently Greg Harris in the 1990s. When one of these freaks appears, it seems like a dream come true if it works. Not only could such a pitcher have an advantage over hitters who hit from only one side of the plate, but he would also have increased stamina from putting less strain in either arm.

The rules have been created to avoid the kind of farce that has occasionally accompanied a both-sided pitcher. The pitcher gets ready to pitch right-handed, and as he winds up the batter jumps into the left-handed batter's box. On the next pitch, the pitcher waits until the last second to reveal that he'll throw left-handed. The batter tries to jump again, and there ensues a series of feints, pump-fakes, and misdirections that would make Michael Jordan smile. So here are the rules that MLB has come up with:

Official Rules Regarding Ambidextrous Pitchers
1) The pitcher must visually indicate to the umpire, batter and runner(s) which way he will begin pitching to the batter. Engaging the rubber with the glove on a particular hand is considered a definitive commitment to which arm he will throw with. The batter will then choose which side of the plate he will bat from.
2) The pitcher must throw one pitch to the batter before any "switch" by either player is allowed.
After one pitch is thrown, the pitcher and batter may each change positions one time per at-bat. For example, if the pitcher changes from right-handed to left-handed and the batter then changes batter's boxes, each player must remain that way for the duration of that at-bat (unless the offensive team substitutes a pinch-hitter, and then each player may again "switch" one time).
3) Any switch (by either the pitcher or the batter) must be clearly indicated to the umpire.
4) There will be no warmup pitches during the change of arms.
5) If an injury occurs the pitcher may change arms but not use that arm again during the remainder of the game.

I read these and thought, "Gee, they thought of everything, didn't they?" But a louder voice said, "Nah, they always think they thought of everything, and inevitably something comes along that twists the rules into a big, dry, inedible pretzel."

Baseball history is full of innovators who find the loopholes in rules, dive through them, and change the way the game is played. It happened all the time in the 1800s as the game gradually matured. One early rule said that if a batted ball's first bounce was in fair territory, it was a fair ball no matter where it went after that. So batters perfected a cricket-like swing which would send that second bounce way into foul territory where no fielder could fetch it in time to record an out. So the loophole was closed up, and now a ground ball has to go past first or third base in fair territory to be fair.

It took until the 1910s for the rulebook to contain the useful requirement that the bases be run in order. Nobody thought about it until a goofball called Germany Schaefer stole second on a botched hit-and-run play, then "stole first" on the next pitch so they could work the hit-and-run instead. It happened a few times, and in came the rule saying you can't run the bases clockwise. Who knew it had to be spelled out in the rules? But it did, because the loophole-leapers have always been a part of baseball.

I know Bill Veeck--the man who used a midget as a pinch-hitter, necessitating an alteration of the rulebook--must be turning over in his grave. "I don't break the rules," Veeck famously maintained. "I merely test their elasticity." In that spirit, managers have sat up nights studying the rulebook in search of the slightest opening which could be expanded into an opportunity to get some advantage during a game, or at least screw with the people who make the rules.

Three managers who thrived from the 1960s through the 1980s come to mind. Gene Mauch was a fiendish innovator who delighted in challenging umpires by following the letter of the rules but not the spirit. Managers today have Mauch to thank for the rule that a manager can only visit his pitcher once in an inning, with the pitcher coming out on a second visit. Then there was Earl Weaver, whose machinations when the designated hitter was introduced in 1973 were so perplexing that the DH rules were soon rewritten. Finally, we have Billy Martin, whose warping of the rules reached its zenith in the "Pine Tar" game in 1983. I'm not even talking about his original contention that George Brett should be called out because the pine tar on his bat extended past the 18 inches allowed by the rules. I'm thinking of the ninth-inning replay weeks later, when Martin greeted the umpires (a different crew from the original one) with a protest that Brett had failed to touch second and third base the first time around. Martin's thinking was that since these umpires had not even been there to see Brett round the bases, they would be unable to rule on his protest, and the replay would be stymied. What he didn't know was that someone had tipped off the league office about Martin's intended ploy, and the umpires came prepared to squelch his protest by producing affidavits from the original umpires attesting that Brett had touched the bases.

That's the thing about loophole lizards who slither around the rules whenever possible. You have to try to stay one step ahead of them. That's why the rules about ambidextrous pitchers outline a rather strict set of procedures for making at bats expeditious and fair. But you know some manager will find an opening. I can't, but someone will. Venditte uses a six-fingered glove with two pockets. Will an opposing manager concoct an interpretation that this glove is illegal? Will he find some way to use pinch-hitters within an at-bat to confound Venditte or take him out of his comfort zone? Will Venditte's own manager show him how to stand on the mound without giving away his intended pitching hand? After a foul ball, will he take off the glove, rub up the new ball, and hurry onto the rubber to quick-pitch the batter who doesn't have time to jump over to the other side? Will step-offs, step-outs, and time-outs be used to turn the procedures into precisely the kind of farce the rule-makers tried to avoid?

Yes, somewhere, this will happen. Looking around the majors, I don't see the wide array of loophole-conscious managers who flourished in the majors 25-50 years ago. There are a few, however (Tony LaRussa comes to mind), who are not above finagling the rules just to aggravate the people who are trying to enforce them. And it only takes one.

I hope Venditte makes it to the majors. It would be cool to witness, suspenseful to see whether he'd be successful, and fascinating to watch all those managerial brain cells being fried in the search for a loophole that would provide an advantage for even one pitch.