Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Save Was a Save Was a -- But No, It Wasn't

Don't ask me why, but this morning I was looking at the New York Times obituary of Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Jim Hughes, who died in 2001 at the age of 78. The headline identified Hughes as "Relief Pitcher Who Set Dodger Mark for Saves." Despite the title of this post, the headline contained not one but two misconceptions which continually piss me off, but I will discuss only one of them here.

Jim Hughes did not set a franchise record with 24 saves in 1954, though the obituary writer, the estimable Richard Goldstein, claimed that his total of 24 led the major leagues that year. Saves did not exist in 1954. Even Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, who created the "save," would have been stumped if you had said to him, following the 1954 season, "Hey Jerry, how about that Jim Hughes! He led the majors with 24 saves this season." It would have been as incomprehensible to Holtzman as informing him that Willie Mays had led the National League in BFW, WAR, and oRAR, not to mention Total Zone Runs, but was only third in Base-Out Runs Added. Those numbers were not calculated in 1954 either. The only difference is that Saves became an official stat in 1969, while the others are more recent sabermetric concoctions.

How can you lead the league in something that doesn't exist? This isn't a simple counting statistic like RBI, which was not an official statistic until 1920. It is reasonable enough to go back through pre-1920 games and calculate the number of runs each batter drove in, but when I write about pre-1920 players, I try to be careful to say "in 1918, Sherry Magee topped the National League by driving in 78 runs." He drove them in whether anybody was counting them or not. Later on, people came up with a stat they named "runs batted in" and figured out that Magee was the 1918 leader. But it isn't the same with saves. Nobody in 1954 was counting saves, because they weren't countable. You had to come up with criteria to measure what you wanted to measure, and devise a formula or rules to apply to those criteria, before you could have something called a save. It took more than two decades after Jim Hughes set a franchise record by pitching in 60 games in 1954 for the powers-that-be to determine what a "save" ought to be, at least to the satisfaction of statisticians measuring the past 39 seasons.

By coincidence, the year the save became official, 1969, also marked the publication of the first Macmillan encyclopedia, the first such tome to include comprehensive statistical data. One thing that the Macmillan editors did was go back and retroactively assign saves for all pre-1969 seasons, using the original criteria proposed by Holtzman and adopted by MLB. Those rules were more liberal than today's. They remained in force for four seasons, and in 1973-1974 a much stricter set of criteria were adopted. In 1975, a middle ground was found, and the 1975 criteria have remained unchanged since then. In other words, we are currently in the 45th season of the save as an official stat, and EVERYTHING you read about pre-1969 "saves" is based on criteria that existed for only four of those seasons.

That is the problem, and to me it's a huge one. The only accurate thing Richard Goldstein could have written about Jim Hughes' 1954 "save" total is that "according to rules in force in 1969 when saves were calculated retroactively, Jim Hughes had 24 in 1954, the highest total in the major leagues." That doesn't sound very convincing, does it? It doesn't have the force of declaring definitively that he led the majors. A compromise way of saying it would be that "Hughes saved more games in 1954 than any pitcher in the majors," the equivalent of my statement that Sherry Magee drove in more runs than anybody else in the National League in 1918.

The most accurate statement you can make--and the one I always make when I can say so with certainty--is "according to today's criteria, in 1954 Jim Hughes blah blah blah." As a matter of fact, according to today's criteria, Hughes would have had only 18 saves in 1954. Not only would that not have been the top total in the majors, it wouldn't even have led the National League. Further, Goldstein could not have written in the obituary that the "record" held up for 35 years, tied by Jim Brewer in 1970 and was finally broken in 1989 when Jay Howell had 28.

Most writers utilize the save stats available at retrosheet.org and baseball-reference.com, the latter website having imported the Retrosheet data. A year ago, I asked Dave Smith, who has done more for baseball historians than anyone I know of by posting box scores and play-by-play data for more than six decades of games, to post a caveat on the Retrosheet website advising visitors that the save data presented therein is based on the 1969 rules and not today's. I just looked around the site and couldn't find any such disclaimer. However, baseball-reference.com, using the same data, does present a history of saves and save rules, ending with this statement:

"It was possible, under both earlier versions of the save rule, to see boxscores in which pitchers were credited with saves in situations where they would not earn them under the current rule. See for example the game of April 25, 1970, where Claude Raymond entered the game with a four-run lead in the ninth but was awarded a save anyway. For games played before 1969, saves have been figured retroactively using the current definition, and there is no such discrepancy."

That statement is incorrect. The pre-1969 games have not been recalculated using the current criteria. Baseball-ref presents the same data as Retrosheet, based on the 1969 rules. The key difference in the rules is that in 1969, all a reliever had to do was enter with a lead and record the last out of a game without relinquishing the lead. Today we wink at a pitcher who slides in under the current rule's most lenient definition, namely pitching three innings with any kind of a lead; enter in the seventh inning with your team ahead, 15-0, and you can get a save. Well, in 1969 you could enter in the ninth inning with two outs and a 15-0 lead, get that last out, and be handed a save.

From a semantic standpoint, this made no sense at all, which was the reason it was eliminated in the 1973 rule change. To "save" something or someone, there must be peril involved. The award for relievers used to be called the "Fireman of the Year," implying that the game was truly in danger and might have been lost if the reliever hadn't "saved" the day. The weakest 1969 criterion lives on in the three-innings-no-matter-how-huge-the-lead loophole, and even the rule in force since 1975 applies a good deal of lenience. The key provision is that when a reliever enters, the tying run must be on base, at bat, or in the on-deck circle. So you can enter with two outs in the ninth inning with a two-run lead and nobody on base, a three-run lead and one runner, or a four-run lead with two runners. I can understand the reasoning. The most important batter a reliever faces is the first one. If that first runner gets on base in the above scenarios, the reliever is suddenly facing the tying run at the plate. That isn't much leeway for getting your feet (or the ball) wet out there on the mound with the game on the line. Incidentally, in the rule version in force in 1973-1974, a reliever had to enter with the tying run on base or at the plate; in other words, Mariano Rivera couldn't get a save by coming in to pitch the ninth inning with a two-run lead.

Let me use the example of Jim Hughes' 1954 season to illustrate what I mean about how what you read about pre-1969 "saves" is so misleading. Of the 24 saves assigned to him by Macmillan, Retrosheet, and Baseball-ref, six would not have been saves in 1975 or 2013. Here they are:

  1. June 5, Wrigley Field: Hughes entered in the eighth inning with the Dodgers ahead 8-3, two outs, and two runners on base. The potential tying run was somewhere in the dugout. He struck out Ernie Banks to end the inning and retired the Cubs in the ninth for the 8-3 win.
  2. June 19, Ebbets Field: Hughes entered in the ninth inning with the Dodgers ahead of the Cubs, 6-0, one out, and a runner on second. Ooooh, scary! The first batter he faced, Ralph Kiner, belted a two run homer, and Hughes still wouldn't have been in a "save situation" in 2013. He got the last two outs for an easy 6-2 win.
  3. June 27, Ebbets Field: Hughes entered in the eighth inning with the Dodgers ahead 8-3, nobody out, and two Cardinals on base. Once again he surrendered a home run to the first batter he faced, Ray Jablonski. He still coasted to an 8-6 victory.
  4. July 5, Forbes Field: Hughes entered in the ninth inning with no outs and the bases loaded. He gave up a two-run double to the first batter he faced, but don't worry. The Dodgers still led, 8-4. Hughes allowed two more runs to score before securing the final out of an 8-6 win.
  5. August 25, Crosley Field: I warned you this might happen. Hughes entered in the eighth inning with a 13-2 lead. Without the pressure of the potential tying run tying his shoelaces in the dugout, he retired six straight Redlegs to close out the romp.
  6. September 15, Ebbets Field: Hughes entered in the eighth inning with the Dodgers leading, 8-2, no outs, and two runners on base. The Dodgers won, 10-4. 
Those efforts were good enough to pad Hughes' retroactive total in 1969, but in reality he only "saved" 18 games.  That did not lead the National League. Cincinnati's Frank Smith, credited with 20 saves by the usual suspects, had only one which would be disqualified today, leaving him with 19, one more than Hughes. Both would be topped by Johnny Sain's 20 for the Yankees, marked down from 22. Hughes' 18 would still have been the franchise's top total until Jim Brewer's 24 in 1970. In case you're wondering, when I write about pitchers' save totals from 1969-1974, I do not recalculate them according to today's rules. The stat was official and those were the rules at the time, so I don't monkey with them. But it's open season on the pre-1969 saves, and I think it's far more legitimate to apply a 39-year-old (and counting) set of criteria than a set that was justifiably discarded after just four seasons. 

Dave Smith was right, I believe, to justify Retrosheet's data to me when I pressed him on it a year ago.  People went to a lot of trouble to accumulate that retroactive data for the 1969 encyclopedia, and it would take nearly as much effort to recalculate them now. The computer formula would be tricky to write and to apply uniformly to game data going back 100 years or more, but the computer could do it. I could do it myself, one box score at a time, for all the seasons for which Retrosheet provides play-by-play data--currently back into the 1940s, and maybe when I'm retired I will. I've gone through over 100,000 box scores on Retrosheet before for a little research project, and I could do it again. In the meantime, I wish Dave Smith would post a disclaimer at retrosheet.org and that Sean Forman would correct the disclaimer at baseball-reference.com. 

I also wish you would spread the word that all published statements regarding pre-1969 "saves" should be taken with an iceberg of salt. Do not believe it when someone writes that Ed Walsh led the American League in saves five times from 1907-1912. He didn't. How can you lead the league in a formulaic stat that did not exist during your long lifetime? Of course, everybody knows that Walsh led the league in "quality starts"--but "saves"? Give me a break.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Life Saved By a Beaning

During my travels through baseball history, I have joined many other historians in a fascination with so-called "cup of coffee" players who played just a game or two or a few in the major leagues, or sometimes only one inning. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham's one inning captivated Ray Kinsella enough to make him a major part of the novel "Shoeless Joe," and my first book was centered around the two-game "career" of Charles "Victory" Faust. How were these cup-of-coffee characters able to get to the majors in the first place? And what happened to make their stays so brief?

Inevitably, that isolated major league experience seems to be but a blip on the screen of a much more interesting life. Whether it's a long career in the minor leagues or the abandonment of baseball in favor of a more rewarding pursuit, there is something compelling about an athlete whose major league experience fits so precisely into the context of his "real" life. Often that cup of coffee intersected with a giant of the game, as with one of my favorites, Paul Hopkins, a fellow Colgate graduate who pitched 11 games in the majors. In his first inning, at the tail end of the 1927 season, he faced Babe Ruth with the bases loaded, and Ruth drilled a grand slam that happened to be #59 of the season. He kept his cool, striking out the next batter, Lou Gehrig, went on to a 1-1 lifetime record in the majors, and three-quarters of a century later was the oldest living major league when he passed away at age 99, having found much success in business.

Recently I discovered one of the most amazing stories I've ever seen involving a one-inning major leaguer. His name was Frank Verdi, whose one inning with the 1953 Yankees was amply sandwiched by four decades in the minor leagues (plus another decade as a scout). He's in the Hall of Fame--of the International League, where he played eight seasons and managed 15, winning pennants with four teams and copping the Little World Series in 1970 with the Syracuse Chiefs. An infielder who saw the most time at third base with a good deal of action at second base, he totaled 1,832 hits in 18 seasons on an odyssey that took him to 14 different franchises, including multiple stints with six of them.

Frank Michael Verdi was born in Brooklyn in 1926, graduated from Boys High School in Brooklyn and briefly attended New York University. He was 18 when he joined the Navy in the heart of World War II, and he served until 1946, when he launched a professional baseball career that lasted through 1985. Signed by the Yankees, he spent nine years in their farm system, buried like so many other talented players beneath an array of talent which enabled the Yankees to win the title nearly every one of those years. Verdi wasn't going anywhere except on a merry-go-round circuit of the minors, though in 1952 his .313 batting average was third in the Eastern League and he made the league's All-Star team.

That may have persuaded the Yankees to give the 26-year-old a longer look in 1953, or at least some kind of a look. On May 10, in a game at Fenway Park, the Yankees were trailing the Red Sox in the sixth inning when Casey Stengel removed shortstop Phil Rizzuto for a pinch-hitter. Verdi went in to play short in the home half of the sixth, though the ball did not find him. In the top of the seventh, the Yankees rallied for three runs with two outs to take a 5-3 lead, and loaded the bases before Verdi's time at bat. He strolled to the plate, stepped into the batter's box--and saw Stengel waving him back to the dugout. Stengel put up a pinch-hitter, Bill Renna, whose major league resume at the time was all of 16 at-bats, and he made the third out. Verdi never appeared in another major league game, done after a half-inning and a few seconds in the batter's box.

He went back to the minors for another decade, with his three final seasons as a player-manager, launching his 22-year managing career at Syracuse in 1961. Along the way, he experienced his longest continuous tenure on a minor league team, playing for the International League's Rochester Red Wings, a Cardinals farm team, from 1957-1959. That's where the big drama of his life occurred.

It happened on July 25, 1959, during one of Verdi's better seasons, when he batted .295 as the Red Wings' regular third baseman (his career average was .270). A few weeks earlier, he had been beaned so severely that he was still suffering dizzy spells and was not on the active roster. But the Red Wings had a big weekend in Havana coming up, and nobody wanted to miss the trip to that alluring hot-spot. So he was enlisted as a bullpen catcher for the trip. That's where he was stationed on Saturday night when a capacity crowd gathered to watch Fidel Castro give a pre-game pitching demonstration. It was a wild crowd full of soldiers making a ton of noise and celebrating their leader's presence--or so the Rochester players thought.

The game was wild, too, with the Red Wings leading most of the way until things turned sour for them in the late innings. When manager Cot Deal was thrown out of the game, Verdi was asked to coach third base. In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, a two-run home run pulled the Havana Sugar Kings into a 4-4 tie, and the game went into extra innings.

They were still playing at midnight when all hell broke loose. What the Rochester players didn't know was that midnight ushered in the first anniversary of Castro's revolution, and the celebration consisted of everyone--soldiers and citizens alike--shooting off their guns. Verdi and some other players took shelter under the Jeep used to drive pitchers in from the bullpen for five minutes or so, until the gunfire subsided and the game resumed.

Stationed in the third base coach's box, Verdi figured the worst was over, that the bad news was a ground out that ended a Red Wings threat. Before he could get off the field, however, the gunfire resumed, and the next thing he knew he was on the ground. "I felt this burning pain on the side of my head and thought I'd been beaned again," he told a New York Daily News reporter in 1999. "Then they found the .45-caliber bullet lying next to me." Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas had been struck in the shoulder by another bullet, but Verdi was struck in the head. He should have been killed--but because of that beaning, he was wearing a protective liner inside his cap. The bullet had bounced off the liner instead of penetrating his skull.

Verdi recovered and become a cause celebre as baseball officials put pressure on the Sugar Kings to abandon Havana. They stuck it out the rest of the season and half of 1960 until Castro started confiscating U.S. properties, and finally moved the franchise to Jersey City. By that time, Verdi had moved along to the Charleston (WV) Senators of the American Association, a Washington farm team. He wasn't even halfway through a life that could easily have been cut short when he was just 33 years old. Instead, he lived to 84, a good long life that ended in Florida amidst thousands of Cuban refugees who also felt lucky to have gotten out alive.