Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Wing And A Player

Did you know that 153 of the 387 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame never played a game in the major leagues? That seems like a large percentage, doesn't it, nearly 40%? What are the folks in Cooperstown thinking, putting such a major emphasis on non-players? Does that seem right to you?

Well, it isn't right--unless you believe what today's writers and broadcasters tell you. They want you to think that the winners of the Spink Award (for writing) and the Frick Award (for broadcasting) are Hall of Famers. They congratulate the winners of those awards for getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. At his year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Spink Award winner Bill Madden congratulated Frick Award winner Jon Miller on his "election into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame." In a video posted on the website of Madden's newspaper, the New York Daily News, Madden discussed being "elected to the Hall of Fame last December" (the day the Spink Award winner was announced). Madden didn't say he won an award; he said he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He is not alone in perpetuating this myth. The Detroit Tigers media guide--to name just one of the team publications that trumpet an award winner as a Hall of Famer--states that Ernie Harwell, by winning the Frick Award in 1981, became "the first active broadcaster to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Some of us know better. To date, there are 292 elected members of the Hall of Fame. Of those, 62 never played in the major leagues. The majority of those were Negro leagues stars; the rest include executives, eight of the nine enshrined umpires, and a handful of managers. That's about 21%, compared to the 39.5% we get if we count the Frick and Spink Award winners. Those number 95--61 writers plus 34 broadcasters (of whom four played in the majors). Some of those 95 believe they were elected, and they rarely waste a breath trying to disabuse others of the notion that it is otherwise.

A recent winner of the Spink Award visited here last week, and I asked him what he says when people call him a Hall of Famer. "I tell them I'm represented in the writers wing," he said matter-of-factly, as if that should clear up any confusion. But it doesn't.

It's time for a history lesson to clear up the matter of the mythological "writers wing" and "broacasters wing" at the Hall of Fame. Let's go back to 1971, when Satchel Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame, the first of the Negro leagues immortals elected. Paige had also played in the majors, but lacked the minimum ten years in the big leagues to quality for election by the BBWAA, which has always conducted the now-annual Hall of Fame elections (the BBWAA also selects the Spink Award winner).

The impetus for honoring Negro leaguers began in 1966, when Ted Williams used his induction speech as a platform for advocating the inclusion of Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro leagues greats in the Hall of Fame. A few years later, the Hall of Fame set up a special panel to select a set number of Negro leaguers (essentially a starting nine) during the coming years. Paige was first, and his election was announced early in February. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made the announcement, adding that "technically he's not in the Hall of Fame," Kuhn noted. Instead, Paige would win what was termed the Negro Baseball Leagues Award.

What? That's what Kuhn said. Paige and the other Negro leaguers to be selected would have their own display in another section of the museum, apart from the plaque gallery where the actual Hall of Famers were honored--as Kuhn phrased it, "as part of a new exhibit commemorating the contributions of the Negro leagues to baseball." He reminded reporters that "the rules for selection to the Hall of Fame are very strict, and I think those standards are correct. Thru no fault of their own, these stars of the Negro leagues didn't have major league exposure."

The reaction to this relegation of Paige to what amounted to a "separate but equal" status (to use the phrase from the 1895 Supreme Court decision which paved the way for decades of Jim Crow segregation) was swift and indignant. Jackie Robinson protested, "If they're going to start up with that old segregation stuff again, they might as well forget about the whole project. They have absolutely no right to put those black oldtimers in a different part of the building."

Legendary sportswriter (and future Spink Award winner) Jim Murray was outraged, writing, "Who in the world got the bright idea to put back the 'colored only' sign in this day and age?. . .What is this--1840? Either let him in the front of the hall--or move the damn thing to Mississippi."

Other writers joined the clamor, and the Hall of Fame was peppered with letters protesting the plan. The Satchel Paige file in the Hall of Fame library contains a letter written a month after the announcement, from the then-Treasurer of the Hall of Fame, Howard Talbot, to its President, Paul Kerr. It reads, in part, "You will notice that most of them [the protest letters] run along the same theme and seem to think that Satchel Page [sic] should become a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I think the award is a deserving one and it is too bad that the press misconstruded [sic] the facts and gave the public the wrong idea behind it."

Right. It was the writers' fault for suggesting that electing someone to the Hall of Fame actually meant that he would be in the Hall of Fame. Or suggesting that his being in the Hall of Fame, even in the back of the bus, er, museum, meant that he was a Hall of Famer. To their credit, the writers kept up the hue and cry, and by the time induction day rolled around that summer, Paige got a plaque right there in the main room with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and the rest of the Hall of Fame players.

The writers made certain that there was a clear distinction everyone could understand: having a separate display, an exhibit in a wing somewhere apart from the Hall of Fame plaque gallery, was unacceptable, because it would mean that the people honored in such a wing were obviously not enshrined as Hall of Famers. That distinction has apparently dissolved over the years, if today's writers believe that inclusion in a display out in the museum means that they're Hall of Famers, elected like everyone else but merely in "the writers wing."

Dick Young, the 1978 Spink Award winner, summed up the distinction very well in a column published in The Sporting News on June 28, 1982. The column revisited the Paige election and emphasized the key role of the BBWAA (of which he was president at the time) in making sure that Paige got the full honor he deserved. Young got the ball rolling in 1969, he reminded his readers, by pushing to get the Negro leaguers elected. "It was easier said than done," Young wrote in 1982. "As expected, there was resistance. Directors of the Hall of Fame, among them former Commissioner Ford Frick [in 1971, the Chairman of the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors], spoke of the 'flood' of black players."

Young and others assured Frick and the Board that there wouldn't be a "flood," that in fact only eight or nine men were deemed worthy of Hall of Fame election, and they'd only be elected one or two at a time. That was the first step of the compromise that got the deal done.

What Young wrote next is what interests me most now: "Frick suggested that a special wing be set up for the Negro league players. The BBWAA flatly turned down such a thought as repulsive segretation--something we were trying to correct, not perpetuate. When discussions reached an impasse, the BBWAA threatened to withdraw voting support from the Cooperstown museum and set up its own Hall of Fame. That did it. Bowie Kuhn [the newly elected Commissioner, a post which also gave him a spot on the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors] stepped in to help resolve the situation."

That's the story. Of course, part of the compromise (of 1969) which put the process in place to elect Paige (and others) meant that Kuhn was able to announce in February, 1971, that Paige would be honored in a separate wing. Again the writers stood up for what was right, and there never was a separate wing.

That's why I'm mystified and appalled by the assorted ironies of the current penchant of the BBWAA for letting its members be thought of as legitimate Hall of Famers. Ford Frick himself was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970. The man who wanted a separate wing for Negro leaguers, who didn't want anybody to be confused into thinking that they were real Hall of Famers like he was, now has an award named after him, and the winners of that award think that they're real Hall of Famers because they're in a separate wing.

Meanwhile, in the speech Bill Madden gave in accepting the award he believed earned him election into the Hall of Fame, cited Dick Young as his mentor and his idol as a sportswriter. Dick Young, who fought so hard to remind everyone that a "separate but equal" exhibit was repugnant, spawned a writer who thinks he now stands alongside Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle because his name is listed in a separate exhibit.

Here's an idea: lets give the next Spink Award to the first member of the BBWAA who has the integrity and the nerve to write a column saying "Sorry, my BBWAA brethren, the Spink Award may be the highest honor we can get, but it does not make us Hall of Famers. Stop fooling yourselves and letting your readers think that you got elected to the Hall of Fame. You're great writers, but you weren't elected to anything. You got an award. That's that."

That's the guy who deserves to be honored.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You Heard It Here First

Even though the Mets have entered the phone-it-in stage of the 2010 season, my wife and I found ourselves watching a couple of very good pitching duels between the Mets and Rockies the last two nights. First it was Mike Pelfrey outgunning Ubaldo Jimenez (17-2 coming into the game) to win 1-0. That game hinged on a dubious move by Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who apparently forgot to bring the scouting reports along on a Monday visit to the Hall of Fame. He didn't realize that Carlos Beltran (batting for Pelfrey in the 7th inning of a scoreless game) is the second-coldest hitter in the majors (second to teammate David Wright), gave him an intentional walk, and let the next batter win the game with a sacrifice fly.

It was a different story last night. Jonathan Niese pitched a beautiful game for seven innings, allowing a trio of harmless two-out hits and striking out seven over the first six innings. In the 7th, a couple of singles put him in trouble, two outs plated one run, and Niese finished off the inning with a 2-1 lead over Jeff Francis, who allowed just one hit after the 1st inning.

So we were surprised when Niese didn't come out to pitch the 8th inning. With the way the Mets "set-up" relievers have blown up lately, here was a pitcher who looked great out there on the mound, so why take him out? Did Jerry Manuel have a premonition that Niese might tell him later that his leg was a little sore? Did he think that just because two relievers had gotten the team safely through the final two innings the night before, it would automatically happen again?

Or was he simply subscribing to the supposedly un-second-guessable 21st-century manager's strategy of being satisfied with seven good innings and letting the bullpen handle it from there? Gee, he could say, Niese's pitch count was up to 106. He had given up a run in the 7th so maybe he was tiring. There were fresh arms ready in the bullpen. The new inhabitant of the 8th-inning role, Hisanori Takahashi, had breezed through the 8th inning the night before. How could you question the move?

Well, sports fans, I'm here to question it. I happen to have looked closely at this specific situation: 8th inning, your team is up by three runs or less, and your starting pitcher has gotten you through the first seven innings. Do you take him out? How far do you go with him? Does it matter? In the long run, which is the winning strategy?

How often does this situation come up? From 1950-2009, it occurred 35,809 times. That's a pretty good sample size. That's about 600 times a season, though it doesn't happen as often as it used to because more starters are being excused from class after the 6th inning. During the past decade, this situation has come up about 500 times a season. That's still enough to yield some conclusions that are--for my money--pretty damn conclusive.

The first key question is "how often does the manager let his starter continue into the 8th inning?" It used to be a no-brainer, in fact it was a no-brainer from 1950 all the way through the 1970s. If your starter was ahead after seven innings, he started the 8th inning more than 90% of the time. In the 1980s, that number dropped down to 80% or so. In the 1990s, the starter still got to work into the 8th inning two-thirds of the time. During the past decade, however, it has dropped below 50%, reaching a low of 40.7% in 2007.

More pitching changes are made in the 8th inning than in any other inning. Not surprisingly, more saves are blown in the 8th inning, too. In other words, by shoving their "best" reliever into the 9th-inning-only closer's slot, managers are trusting more games to their lesser relievers. Should they be shocked to discover that all that achieves is to blow more leads before the closer can get into the game and protect that save-worthy lead?

The second key question is: what happens when you let the starter work the 8th inning? Back in the old days (1950-1979), he finished the 8th inning more than 75% of the time. And guess what? If he finished the 8th, he got to start the 9th inning more than 90% of the time! Even as late as 1988, he started the 9th inning 83.2% of the time.

This figure has declined even more precipitously than the one about getting to start the 8th inning. That is, even if a manager lets his stud starter pitch the 8th inning, he is increasingly inclined to bring his closer in to get those last three outs. Only once in the last dozen years have these starters gone into the 9th inning more than half the time, and the overall percentage for the last decade is 42%.

Note that the 42% figure represents the number of starters who finish the 8th inning and get to start the 9th. But fewer and fewer are getting to start the 8th, much less the 9th. If you look at the number of starters who get through the 7th inning and are still out there in the 9th, the seismic shift in strategy becomes even more apparent. Through the 1970s, 69.1% of them lasted into the 9th inning. From 2000-2009, only 12.9% did so. We've gone from more than two-thirds to roughly one out of eight.

That brings up the third key question, and the most important: has this shift translated into more wins? Good question. When I started looking into this, I assumed that it must. After all, why would modern managers, who have an infinity of statistics available to them, universally adopt this strategy if it didn't produce more wins? Although it makes life easier for them to do things that produce plausible answers for the press, the bottom line is winning. If deploying an array of relievers didn't produce more wins, why were they all doing it?

That's what I thought. But no. It turns out that this universal strategy is producing fewer wins. The most accurate way of measuring this is to look at the number of wins recorded by the starting pitcher. I also tracked team wins, but that is less relevant. After all, when Jerry Manuel removed Niese last night, he wasn't thinking, "okay, even if my bullpen blows the lead we still have a chance to win." He had to be thinking, "my bullpen has a better chance of holding this lead than Niese does." Whether it was because the relievers were better pitchers or Niese was tired or the batters due up had good records against him or whatever, he had some compelling internal logic telling him that his relievers were more likely to hold the lead.

Too bad the numbers tell a different story. Let me attempt a simple chart to explain what I found. It is arranged by decade. First comes the number of times when the starting pitcher got through seven innings with a lead of three runs or less. Then I give you the number of times that starter got the win--whether he finished the game himself or had two or three or five or a busload of relievers hold that lead. Finally, there's the percentage.

1950-1959 4,825 3,746 77.6
1960-1969 6,108 4,784 78.3
1970-1979 7,401 5,749 77.7
1980-1989 6,420 4,896 76.3
1990-1999 5,816 4,408 75.8
2000-2009 5,239 3,988 76.1

For the first 30 years of this study, the starters won 77.9% of the time. For the past 30 years, they have won 76.1% of the time. That's a noticeable difference in a very large sample. In the world of formal statistical study, that is considered well within the range of normal deviation. In the world of baseball history, it is, I'll granted, slightly skewed by the pitcher-friendly decade of the 1960s. But since managers began reinventing pitching-staff deployment in the mid-1980s, the percentage has failed to improve. That's the bottom line.

Looking at team wins (including all the extra-inning games that wear down a pitching staff after a lead is blown), the percentage has stayed the same. From 1950-1952, when the starter in this situation got a complete-game win more than 60% of the time, the team winning percentages were 82.7, 84.4, and 83.5. From 2007-2009, when the complete-game figure plummeted to a mere 8%, team wins were 83.1, 84.7, and 82.8. The best percentage I found was during the 1970s, the worst during the 1990s; as with the starter wins, the numbers fell within a 2% range.

What's the point? Relying more and more on relief pitching is not a winning strategy for managers. Tying up your roster with 12 or 13 pitchers does not produce more wins. It doesn't produce more effective pitching, and it deprives the manager of extra options off the bench. The solution, in theory, is simple: train your starters to go further. They're your best pitchers, and getting them to carry more of the load will take the strain off your inferior pitchers, allow you to jettison the two or three worst arms, and give you that extra pinch-hitter when you really need one.

Of course, theory and reality are two different things. The modern managerial geniuses who have led their generation of leaders into this quagmire might protest that it is simply too hard for starters to work as many innings as they used to. If that's the case, it's because they aren't being trained to go further.

The discussion of pitch counts and innings restrictions, the coddling of young starters because of the delusion that arm injuries can somehow be prevented, and the myriad factors which caused baseball offenses to explode in the 1990s, will remain beyond the scope of this article. They will be covered in the book I'll eventually write, titled Why Today's Pitching Sucks. For now, just remember the bottom line: even though managers make way more pitching changes than they used to, all that maneuvering does not win more games. Treading water may help them survive and keep their jobs, but it won't get them to the shore where the championships lie.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Let's Re-Elect Dizzy!

Here we go, folks--sing along with me. . . .

As anyone knows who pays close attention
To America's favorite game,
The announcers and writers do not have a "wing"
In the Cooperstown Hall of Fame.

Despite all the protests of well-meaning fans
And colleagues of mikemen and scribes,
The announcers and writers do not have a "wing,"
So take note of my snide diatribes.

Jon Miller won a well-deserved Frick Award
And Bill Madden's time came for the Spink,
But Hall of Fame status is different
Though that's not what they'd like you to think.

Hall of Famers have plaques in the gallery,
Two hundred ninety-two in all,
While the mikemen and scribes have a little display
In a side-room just down the hall.

Yet Hall of Famer is what they called Miller
On ESPN Sunday night,
And Madden's newspaper quoted Madden detailing
Why his induction was such a delight.

They ought to know better, and maybe they do
But cannot resist extra glory.
It's a pretty delusion and pardon the confusion--
I'm just partial to the truth of the story.

While they say they're alongside Aaron and Ruth
I ask you to remember one thing:
They're great, but Frick 'n' Spink winners
Do not have a Hall of Fame wing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The responses to my diatribe last week were of two types. Some said "right on!" while others said "yeah, you're right, but since everyone thinks Miller and Madden were elected, either you should get over it or the Hall of Fame should just go ahead and make them Hall of Famers."

I was still curious about what would happen on the ESPN Sunday night game. Sure enough, it took less than an inning for Orel Hershiser to say something to Joe Morgan about "the Hall of Famer to our right." It took the rest of the game for Morgan to say nothing to dispel that misconception. I wasn't surprised, just disappointed.

Somehow I wasn't prepared for the link someone sent me to a 90-second tape of Madden talking about how "I was elected back in December" and how great it was "to be inducted in Cooperstown." I don't know why I expected the writer to know better than the broadcaster. Maybe it was the part of Madden's speech at the induction where he declared, "The printed word is forever, the ready reference to the game's rich history preserved forever." As Orwell wrote, "History is written by the winners." Madden won an award, and he's entitled to write whatever history he wants. The library at the Hall of Fame contains a sizable file labeled "Phantoms," full of accounts of people who claimed to have played major league baseball, but who didn't. Their histories have been written, too.

As Peter Morris noted, there is one writer in the Hall of Fame, one who was elected for being a writer. That was Henry Chadwick, elected in 1938 as a "pioneer" of the game. Born in England, Chadwick wrote annual guides before men were even paid to play the game, spent several decades writing columns and guides championing the game, and, oh yeah, invented the box score. Top that, Bill Madden! Also, as I pointed out last week, many Hall of Fame players have had long broadcasting careers, and it might be that remaining in the public eye for decades after their playing careers ended was a factor in the eventual elections of Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, and others to the Hall of Fame. But note: their plaques make no mention of their broacasting careers. They were elected as players. And Chadwick never received the Spink Award.

At this point, my fondest wish is for Dizzy Dean to win the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting. Dean has been on the ballot for at least the last few years. Fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt has also been nominated in the past. Think about that for a minute. What do you suppose the meeting was like at which Dean was first nominated for the award?

"Uh, how about that Dizzy Dean? Sure he had this semi-literate style and he didn't always tell the folks at home what was happening, but he did 'The Game of the Week' and he was a huge factor in popularizing baseball on television for nearly two decades."

"Yeah, he's a good candidate and maybe he even deserves the award. But we can't nominate him."

"Why not?"

"Because he's already in the Hall of Fame."

"So?"

"Suppose he's elected. Writers and announcers will fall off the edge of the world. What kind of headline would they write: 'Dizzy Dean First To Be Elected Twice To Same Hall of Fame'?"

"They would know better than that, wouldn't they?"

"Apparently not. They keep saying that the Frick and Spink Award winners have been elected. If they keep saying it, either they believe it or they're deliberately perpetrating a hoax."

"Yes, but we know better. We can't let other people's ignorance prevent us from doing the right thing. If we think he deserves to be nominated, let's nominate him."

"Fine. I'm just warning you. If Dean wins the award, heads will spin. They won't know what to think. They'll wonder how we can induct someone who's already been inducted?"

I don't know if that's how the conversation went, but Dean and Hoyt have been on the ballot, and they might not be the last elected members of the Hall of Fame to be nominated. So whoever did the nominating experienced no confusion on the point. Hall of Fame election is one thing; winning a Frick or Spink Award is another. They are not the same thing, or there would be no reason to risk re-inducting someone.

That's why I hope Dean wins the Frick Award, and the sooner the better. I think that's what it will take to make people blink and think and realize the implications. I suppose, however, that the "knights of the keyboard" would find a way to explain that Dean was the first man to be enshrined in both wings. I suppose, in a nation which has already had a President who was never elected to federal office, anything is possible.

That's also, of course, while I still hold out the hope that people can be enlightened about the difference between winning an award and winning election to the Hall of Fame. Awards are great, and some are more significant than others, but you either won something or you didn't. Do you think Leonardo DiCaprio and Jim Carrey go around bragging to people about winning Oscars? I doubt it, because it's on the public record that they didn't, and they know better than to trumpet something that didn't happen. What they did win was the Golden Globe Award (DiCaprio for "The Aviator" and Carrey for "The Truman Show").

The year Carrey won the Golden Globe, he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar. So I'm going to give him credit for acknowledging the difference between winning one thing while not even being considered for another thing. That kind of distinction is apparently lost on Bill Madden, Jon Miller, and others. They should be justly proud of winning what they did win; they're both terrific at what they do. But neither has even been on a ballot for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Two different things, folks. Keep that in mind as you join me in rooting for Dizzy Dean to make history as the first Hall of Famer to be honored with the Frick Award.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let's finish off with a little more poetry to sum up the situation. If Grantland Rice wasn't already turning over in his grave from my opening effort, he might be soon.

O sports fans! It's time to get busy--
Screw your congressman: re-elect Dizzy!
Though he's already enshrined--or is he?
What's the diff--let's re-elect Dizzy!

Let the powers-that-be at the Hall of Fame
Decide where it's best to lay the blame
When people hear Bill Madden's name
And think that he achieved the same
Immortal status in this game
As Ruth, Mays, Aaron, or whoever you name.

Still, you know that this character Ruth
Was rowdy, sex-crazed, and uncouth,
While Madden breathes nothing but truth,
So maybe he's nobler than Ruth.

Just keep in mind that no writer or talker will ever mean as much to baseball as or be a true Hall of Famer like The Babe
No matter how many awards he wins, and you heard it here from Gabe.