Monday, October 22, 2018

Another Thinking Man's Guide

Power Ball, just published by Harper ($27.99 and worth it), is the latest book by Rob Neyer, former long-time columnist and a man who spends an awful lot of time thinking about baseball. About every aspect of baseball. Even better, he figures things out and shares them with the rest of us in books like this one.

In its basic structure, Power Ball echoes Dan Okrent's 1980s book Nine Innings. Both are batter by batter accounts of a single game which becomes emblematic of baseball in the big picture. Okrent's book dealt more with the players and the situations with that game itself, while Neyer uses game events as leaping-off points for fascinating cogitations on the game in general. In that respect, this book is closer in tone and focus to Leonard Koppett's The Thinking Man's Guide To Baseball, first published in 1966 and revised over the years.

I grew up reading Koppett's columns in the New York Times, and he became my favorite baseball writer until I discovered Roger Angell. I learned so much from Koppett's articles, which combined anecdotes and observations with a kind of statistical analysis he invented as he went along. What he did best was take numbers and put them into context. The sequence went: 1) here's something you haven't noticed; 2) here's something I found out about it; 3) see how the numbers actually tell us something!

That's pretty much what Neyer does in Power Ball, which for my money puts him in the same league as Koppett. Neyer is an Iron Chef of baseball analysis, a puckish Wolfgang who mixes a rich stew of baseball flavors. Each "chapter" covers a half-inning of an Astros-A's game from late in the 2017 season. It could be any game. Though he tells us plenty about the players involved, how they got where they are, and how they performed in this game, it is his historical perspectives that form the meatiest part of this feast.

One reason this is such juicy stuff is that Neyer has access to the best ingredients. Not only has he observed a lot by watching, but when he doesn't know the answer, he knows who does, or at least who has taken the closest look and is making the best stab at an answer. He'll throw in a helpful fact from someone's private study, followed by a pronouncement from management, a blog somewhere that contradicts it, more evidence from someone we'd never get near but who told him all about it, and a cogent quote that puts it all into focus. Every segment (every bite) has a distinctive flavor that rewards an increasing appetite.

Consider the Home Sixth, when Neyer goes from discussing the effect of climate change on ballpark longevity to the history of catchers framing pitches in a span two pages, with no effort, finishing that off with a dash of truffle oil in the form of my favorite quote in the book. It comes from online analyst Ben Lindbergh, about the significance of catchers getting extra strike calls: "Baseball is often described as a chess match between batter and pitcher. But it's more like a chess match between batter and pitcher in which, once in a while, the catcher grabs the board and moves someone's piece."

If this approach seems episodic more than systematic, think again. Neyer covers a lot of ground in short amounts of space because he knows just the right detail, the most telling corrective, the most useful perspective, the expert opinion, and he gets right to them. His style is that of an engaging fellow watching a game with you, addressing you conversationally, but seldom beating a point to death, just helping you understand what you've been looking at all these years without seeing it so clearly.

Every page is thought-provoking, taking nothing for granted and advocating a common-sense approach to the future of baseball (not to mention the future of Baseball -- Neyer makes a distinction between the game on the field and the organized business). Only three times did I find myself strongly disagreeing with his contentions: that even the best umpires miss 10% of ball-strike calls, a figure I don't think has been approached since the retirement of Eric Gregg; that Jack Morris was elected to the Hall of Fame on the strength of one great performance, and short-changing Marvin Miller on the credit he deserves for working hard on player safety issues, especially in his early years as union head.

And that's it for things that made me flinch -- over the course of nearly 300 pages. Many, many more things delighted and enlightened me, but above all was the satisfaction of having someone along for the baseball feast, pointing things out and letting me know what the people who can actually do something about the game think about it. That last item is tricky, because it turns out that although Neyer clearly discerns the things that should and could be fixed, he is pretty convinced that Baseball doesn't think that much is broken, not enough to need actual fixing.

His prescription, delivered in an Epilogue, is one of common sense and sanity, which unfortunately, these days, is more a matter of theory than practice. Whatever Baseball does, it should be aimed primarily at providing a game that is more appealing to fans. This would actually turn out to be a new approach, but I agree with him that it ought to be worth trying.

For instance, the terrific ninth-inning catches which climaxed the recent Red Sox-Astros 8-6 game occurred after 1 AM Eastern time, meaning that few New England die-hards saw it, much less the younger fans who might talk about those two catches a half-century later, after a lifetime of fandom. Start the games early enough for people to watch them! But Baseball will do that only if the television overlords approve. Good luck.

Meanwhile, get this book, read it, and savor it. Not just thinking baseball fans, but Baseball, ought to read Power Ball.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Century-Old Strategy Befuddles Fox Newcomers

I should have known better than to watch Game 5 of the NLCS with the sound on. The partnership of Joe Buck and John Smoltz has seemed like the uneasy alliance between two drunks at opposite ends of the bar, one gruff and grumbling, the other grinning and idiotic.

Listening to John Smoltz during last night's interminable Game 4--13 innings which took five hours and 15 minutes to play--was to behold the process of a nervous breakdown. After hours of enduring some kind of Chinese uppercut-swing torture, after marveling at the growing ratio of strikeouts to base hits, he finally cracked in the last inning. "We've seen 13 hits in 13 innings!" he blurted, like a man who just wasted hours looking for firewood in the desert because someone told him it was there to be found.

In fact, people on the East Coast who were willing and able to stay up until 2:30 AM to watch the turgid affair play out saw quite an accumulation of numbers, though four suffice to sum up Smoltz's torture: 315 minutes, 381 pitches, 15 base hits, 32 strikeouts. No doubt he realizes that if he were in his prime today, he'd have a shot at Nolan Ryan's record. He rightly lamented the Brewers' failure to move a runner from second to third with nobody, begging them to bunt, and the failure to advance the runner cost them dearly.

I felt embarrassed for Smoltz's public breakdown, which lasted an incredulous hour or two, so I hadn't planned to listen to today's game. (Joe Buck? What's my beef with him? Apart from general principles, he pissed me off this week when he said of Bob Uecker, "He won the Ford C. Frick Award, which means he was inducted into the Hall of Fame." Joe, you ignorant slut! Like your father, Uecker is not "a Hall of Famer," and you either know better and don't care about the truth, or you're a public idiot.)

But there I was in that wild bottom half of the first inning, when Craig Counsell sent a shockwave through the broadcast booth by removing starting pitcher Wade Miley after one hitter (a walk). Buck and Smoltz identified the strategy soon enough. The Dodgers had started mostly right-handed hitters, so after the southpaw Miley walked the leadoff hitter (one of two lefties in the lineup), out he went, replaced by right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who would get to face all those right-handed hitters.

I was able to listen to only a few minutes of the ensuing discussion before I was forced to cave in the tv screen with a copy of my Neft-Cohen-Deutsch book about the World Series. The absurdity of their analysis reached the stage where Buck wondered whether there might be some kind of rule needed to require a certain duration by a starting pitcher. This was some kind of bizarre 21st-century aberration, another sign of the times, and they should keep an eye on it.

Eventually their researcher found one other post-season game in which the starter faced only one batter, but that was because of an injury. What all of them missed--and what would have given their discussion some basis in reality--was that this strategy has been used before in the post-season. The idea of replacing your starter with an opposite-handed pitcher in order to mess with the other manager's starting lineup was unveiled. . .ready?. . .in 1924.

The twerps at Fox Sports missed it because in 1924, the starting pitcher faced two hitters before leaving. Why two? Because the second batter was a switch-hitter. It happened, by the way, in Game 7 of the World Series, when the idea is to "pull out all the stops" in the effort to win the title. On October 10, 1924, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, the Senators hosted the New York Giants. For John McGraw's New Yorkers, it was their fourth World Series in a row. For the Senators, it was a first in the franchise's 24-year history, and more than that was seen as a belated showcase for 37-year-old idol Walter Johnson.

The Giants didn't cooperate, beating Johnson in two starts, but the Senators evened the Series in Game 6 when manager/second baseman Bucky Harris drove in both runs in a 2-1 victory. With Johnson unavailable for a Game 7 start (one day of rest), Harris' logical choice for starter was 16-game winner George Mogridge, who had won Game 4. Instead, he went with right-hander Warren "Curly" Ogden, whose major league resume consisted of 11 wins. It seemed to be a case of trying a rested pitcher (he hadn't seen Series action yet) at the end of a long, arduous Series.

But it wasn't that at all. Harris did the same thing Counsell did. After Ogden struck out Fred Lindstrom and walked Frankie Frisch, out he went, and in came the southpaw, Mogridge, now looking at four lefties in the next five hitters. Harris hoped that McGraw would jettison some of those lefties, since he still had Johnson as his ace in the hole.

McGraw didn't bite, with mixed results. The main one was that Mogridge took a 1-0 lead (on a Harris home run--the "Boy Wonder" did everything!) to the sixth inning, having allowed just three hits. But two lefties--Ross Youngs and George Kelly--got on base, so McGraw finally made a substitution, replacing Bill Terry with Irish Meusel, who singled in a run as the Giants went ahead, 3-1. As I write this, Brandon Woodruff has closely duplicated Mogridge's performance.

In this age, when we seem doomed to watch history repeat its worst, I may be a bit of a grinch to begrudge Joe Buck the innocence to think baseball is a phenomenon of his lifetime only, but Joe. . .This has happened before, and for the same reason. Take a look at baseball history and see how beautifully its symmetry endures.

                                                     LATER THAT SAME EVENING

The game is over, so I can finish putting Counsell's bold move in its final perspective. In an eerie parallel, both Mogridge and Woodruff made it safely from the first inning to the sixth before weakening a bit. Both ended the sixth inning trailing 3-1, suddenly subject to being the losing pitcher.

Mogridge was saved by Bucky Harris, who again came through with the big hit, a bases-loaded single that sent the game into extra innings. Harris unveiled his secret weapon, Walter Johnson, in the ninth inning. Four shutout innings later, Johnson became a World Series champion when a bad-hop hit drove in the winning run.

Woodruff could not escape his fate, largely since he had the misfortune of facing Clayton Kershaw on the night when Kershaw lived up to his credentials. In another piece of 21st-century baseball managerial maneuvering, Dave Roberts used four pitchers to preserve a 5-1 lead over the final two innings, removing Kershaw after letting him bat in the seventh (he walked to start a two-run rally).

I'm sure Joe Buck and John Smoltz had an opinion about Roberts' strategy. But I'll be damned if I care what it was.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Are All 1-0 Games Pitchers' Duels?

As we reach the halfway point of the 2018 season, I would like to note that there have already been 32 games this season in which the two teams combined to score just one run, compared to 28 such games all of last season. This isn't a tendency or a trend; it is a force to be reckoned with, as it threatens to get worse.

It isn't the sheer number of 1-0 games that alarms me as much as the style of these games. I read an article the other day that was packed with numbers showing how dull major league baseball has become. The scariest number to me? A ball is put into play once every three minutes and 45 seconds. I've seen that "pace of action" measure once before. It's almost the exact frequency with which Phil Mickelson hits the ball during a round of golf.

I wouldn't suggest that baseball is as dull as golf for the average sports fan (though I'd rather watch Mickelson hit from a sand trap than watch Joey Gallo pop up). My point here is that the very notion of the 1-0 game has changed in a way that's more important than the score.

To serious baseball fans who came to the game before the 1990s, a 1-0 game had a special meaning. It was a pitchers' duel. (Lexicographer Paul Dickson uses the singular--pitcher's--but I prefer the plural since a game in which only one pitcher excels is merely a shutout.) Two pitchers at the top of their game went to battle, with the suspense building throughout. Which guy would crack first?

The best-pitched game of my lifetime was the duel between Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn at Candlestick Park on July 2, 1963, with Willie Mays contributing the only run on a home run in the 16th inning. Both men threw about 200 pitches. The astonishing thing was that Spahn was 42 years old, and he blew out his elbow that night. After pitching just three times in the next six weeks, with two stints on the disabled list, Spahn came back and reeled off eight consecutive complete-game victories to get to 20 wins for the last time. That's pitching!

We remember Game 7 of the 1991 World Series less because of the final score than because Jack Morris pitched ten innings to win 1-0. At the time, the performance was hailed as a triumph of stuff, stamina, determination, and a will to win. In 2018, not one of those four traits is even encouraged by major league franchises. Maybe stuff, but not the variety of stuff that gave Warren Spahn options to keep getting guys out on his sixth trip through the San Francisco batting order.

John Smoltz pitched into the eighth inning the night Morris made his stand, so the duel lasted a long time. That was the thrill of the game, making each base runner and each advanced batter matter more. Two-out single--steal a base? What are the chances of getting an extra-base hit against this guy? Everything is crucial when you know a single run is all that other guy will need.

That, I think, is the crucial thing that is missing from the current crop of 1-0 games. We have seen 32 of them so far, making 64 starting pitchers, of whom only six have pitched past the seventh inning. Just two--Patrick Corbin and Andrew Heaney--have pitched a complete-game 1-0 victory, and in both cases they probably wouldn't have gotten the opportunity if they hadn't tossed one-hitters.

I've been logging data from these 1-0 games and can accurately estimate the numbers of contests that would qualify as a good old-fashioned, two-pitcher pitching duel: two. Fittingly, both involved Johnny Cueto of the Giants, but he didn't get a decision in either one. On March 30, the second day of the season, Cueto battled Alex Wood at Dodger Stadium. Each man surrendered just one hit, with Cueto lasting seven innings and Wood eight. Joe Panik's home run off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning settled it.

On April 17 at Chase Field in Phoenix,Cueto and Arizona's Corbin staged a vintage battle. Corbin allowed just a single by Brandon Belt with two outs in the eighth inning. Meanwhile, Cueto gave up a pair of singles and fanned 11 Diamondbacks in seven innings. Reliever Tony Watson gave up the deciding run in the bottom of the eighth on a walk, a sacrifice bunt by Corbin (take that, DH!), and a single.

How many times out of these 32 well-pitched games has the starting pitcher even gotten the 1-0 win? That would be 22, so more than one-third of the time, a relief pitcher is winning a 1-0 game. Does that sound nifty? It doesn't to me (two of the 32 games have gone extra innings, and in six others, the run scored in the ninth inning).

In the 30 games that required work from the winner's bullpen, 85 relief pitchers were used, or not quite three per game. That's a lot of subcontracting even in this age of specialization. Half the time, the starter has gone six innings. Now that's a pattern, like it or not.

The good news--if you wish to consider it such--is that these games go quickly. The lack of action is compressed into a relatively short time. Of the 32 games tracked so far, only six have taken as much as three hours to play (including the extra-inning games). Conversely, 11 have taken two-and-a-half hours or less; not surprisingly, the Corbin-Cueto duel was the shortest game of the season at 2:05.

So here we are, afloat in a sea of strikeouts, walks, and home runs, seeking more action. My contention is that 1-0 games can still be exciting. They can still contain that suspense of not knowing when what will probably be the run will score. They can still contain the thrill of watching a team nursing an early 1-0 lead through the rest of the game. Yes, these things can still happen. Last night, two pitchers logged seven innings of shutout ball before being excused for the evening. This was the seventh time out of 32 1-0 games when both pitchers managed to last that long. I'm sure that was exciting--as far as it went--but like so many other games this season, it became not so much an impressive showdown between hot pitchers, but rather a struggle to see which weak offense might push across a run.

What are the chances that the next 1-0 game you see will feature two pitchers dueling for eight or nine innings apiece? Not good enough for my money.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Jacob deGrom's Record-Pace Bad Luck

Any Mets fan can tell you what a brutal season Jacob deGrom has had, though it might appear quite unlikely to the outsider. Look at his stats, after all: a 4-0 record, 1.52 ERA, 85 strikeouts and just 47 hits in 65 1/3 innings. That should put him on a pace to contend for the Cy Young Award, an achievement predicted for him in March by Ron Darling, who almost knows about such things.

Yet his bad luck has already reached historic proportions, only one-third of the way through the season. Let me tell you how bad it is.

Since back in the Dark Ages when I worked at the Hall of Fame, I've been compiling several massive studies of pitching usage and success, most going from the 1950s through some recent season. Two studies of starting pitchers are somewhat related, and both reflect what has happened to Jacob deGrom.

One I call the Blown Wins Study. That included all the big winners and seasons from 1955-2008, roughly from Sandy Koufax through Greg Maddux. I focused on the times when each starter left the game with the lead, as the "winning pitcher of record," only to see the bullpen blow the win. For the record, the career leaders in Blown Wins is Roger Clemens, with 67, with Maddux the runner-up at 61.

The lowest Blown Wins totals were Koufax's 13 and Bob Gibson's 15; back then, the starter stayed in long enough to blow his own leads, thank you very much. Maddux and Clemens were often excused from further effort after six or seven innings, giving the bullpen more time to blow those leads.

The other study I call my "Big Pitchers" study only because of the million or two pieces of data I have assembled in it. It focuses on the place in an average game where the deployment of the starting pitcher has changed most dramatically during the past generation or so: the end of the 7th inning.

More precisely, the study covers every time a starting pitcher has worked seven innings and has a lead of three runs or less, the so-called "save situation" in which it has become increasingly automatic for managers to go to the bullpen. In fact, in the last decade this fulcrum has moved to the end of the 6th inning, requiring another study that is in its early stages.

Every time the starter faces the 8th inning with a small lead, I track whether he keeps pitching, what happens if he does, and what happens if and when he is relieved. The amazing (to me) thing I've discovered is that there is little change in the bottom line between the old-time strategy of expecting the starter to finish the game and the current vogue for parading relievers to the mound in the late innings. No matter how you slice it, no matter how hard a manager abuses his starters or falls in love with his bullpen, his team still holds such a lead about 85% of the time.

There's a fair amount of correlation in the two studies regarding starting pitchers leaving the game with the lead but not getting the win. The "big" study simply limits the data to games when the starter worked at least seven innings. By contrast, of Clemens' 67 blown wins, 22 came before the 8th inning, while for Maddux it was 16 of 61.

What does this have to do with Jacob deGrom? I'm getting there. Consider this. Looking at the 25 biggest winning pitchers from a half-century or so (515 individual seasons), I found just 35 in which a starting pitcher suffered as many as 5 blown wins in a season. Three times (Don Drysdale 1960, Phil Niekro 1973, and Maddux 2008), a starter was robbed of 7 wins by horrid bullpen work. Eleven times, there were 6 blown wins (twice each for Jim Kaat, Tommy John, and Tom Glavine, once each for Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Clemens, Niekro and Jamie Moyer. On 21 occasions, a starter had 5 blown wins in a season.

I looked at those 35 seasons to see how often the starter lasted seven innings. It happened 40.6% of the time; three times out of five, they didn't last seven innings. Out of the 35 seasons, I found two in which the starter went seven innings five times, and four in which he did it four times. These were the winningest pitchers of two or three baseball generations, and only six times did they have as many as four games in a season in which they left after seven (plus) innings with a lead that was blown by the bullpen.

It has happened to Jacob deGrom four times already this season. In fact, all four occurred in a six-week period.

Amazingly, the two times a pitcher was victimized by his bullpen five times in a season, it was the same pitcher! That poor bastard was Jamie Moyer, first for the Baltimore Orioles in 1994 and reprising the feat with the 1999 Seattle Mariners. A youth of 31 in 1994, with only 46 of his 269 career victories on his resume, Moyer got 23 starts for the Orioles before the strike wiped out the last one-fourth of the season. Yet it lasted long enough for Moyer to endure this sad carnage:
  1. April 24, vs. Seattle: Moyer led, 6-3, in the 8th inning when he left with the bases loaded. Three relievers later, Seattle had a 7-6 it managed to keep. 
  2. June 15, vs. New  York: Moyer left in the 8th inning with a 3-2 lead, two runners on, and one out. Reliever Jim Poole surrendered the lead before the Orioles rallied to win,
  3. July 10, vs. Oakland: In seven innings, Moyer allowed just two hits, leaving with a 4-2 lead. Lee Smith got drilled for the game-winning home run in the 9th inning by Mark McGwire.
  4. July 24, at Oakland: This time, he left after seven solid innings, but a 6-2 lead wasn't enough. Four runs in the 8th inning tied it, and the A's won it in the 9th.
  5. August 3, at Minnesota: This time, manager Johnny Oates let Moyer pitch the 8th inning, and he was unscathed. Leading 3-2 to the bottom of the 9th, Oates opted for Lee Smith, who gave up two runs and lost. 
In his final start before the strike, Moyer allowed five runs but picked up the winning, making his 1994 record a mediocre 5-7. In addition to the five wins his bullpen blew, he left two games as the potential losing pitcher but was saved by his offense. So his "pitcher of record" record would be 10-9.

By 1999, Moyer had passed the 100-win mark and, though nobody would have suspected it, was just midway through his career at age 36. Here was the sorry chronicle of his undermining that season:

  1. April 21, at Chicago White Sox: He led 1-0 going to the 8th but gave up a leadoff walk and was yanked. Of course that run scored, as did another, and the Mariners lost.
  2. June 21, at Cleveland: He left after the 7th inning with a 3-2. The lead was blown in the 8th inning, but it took until the 12th for them to lose.
  3. June 26, vs. Texas: This time he took a 4-1 lead to the 8th inning and left with the bases loaded and one out. All three runs scored, another lead vanished.
  4. July 15, vs. San Diego: He got to pitch eight innings, but Jose Mesa blew the 2-1 lead and the game in the 9th.
  5. September 8, vs. Toronto: Again he lasted eight innings and left with a 2-1 lead. Again Mesa blew the lead, this time scavenging a win.
Poor Jamie! He's tied with Tom Glavine for third in career Blown Wins with 53, as many as Tom Seaver and Juan Marichal combined. He pitched longer than anybody it seemed--but for just six or seven innings at a time. He tallied a paltry 25 complete-game victories out of his 269. 

Those who attained the 5-Blown-Win plateau include Dennis Martinez in 1989, Roger Clemens in 1996, Pedro Martinez in 2003, and Randy Johnson in 2008. Now the semi-octopus has snared deGrom before the end of May. Avert your eyes if you can:
  1. April 16, vs. Washington: deGrom took a four-hitter and a 6-1 lead to the 8th inning. After one out and two singles, out he came. It took a mere four relievers to negotiate the rest of the inning, allowing six runs along the way. The Mets lost. deGrom shook his head.
  2. April 21, vs. Atlanta: In his next start, deGrom met an uglier fate. Scoreless to the 8th inning, the Mets erupted for three runs, with deGrom exiting for a pinch-hitter. Three relievers combined to lose this one on a pair of two-run rallies. deGrom flinched.
  3. May 23, vs. Miami: Following his April 27 start, deGrom pitched just five innings in the next three weeks, including a stint on the DL. He returned with a 13-strikeout win, and then this happened. He went seven strong innings, leaving with a 1-0 lead. But Jeurys Familia gave up two runs in the 9th inning to blow the game. deGrom's jaw dropped.
  4. May 28, vs. Atlanta: Once again, deGrom met a cruel fate in consecutive starts. Once again, it was a one-run lead (2-1) through seven innings. This time, it was Seth Lugo who gave up three runs to take the loss. deGrom went looking for a shrink
It's hard to overstate how well deGrom is pitching. In his last 40 1/3 innings, he has allowed exactly two runs and 26 hits while striking out 55. I didn't catch the exact number, but he has held the opposition hitless in the last 56 or 58 at-bats with runners in scoring position. You can't pitch much better than that, unless you're Justin Verlander. 

My father used to say that a pitcher has a right to punch an infielder in the nose for making an error that cost him a game. deGrom has a lot of punching to do to show his bullpen what he thinks of their work. This isn't new to him. In 2015 and 2016, he also suffered 3 blown wins. But it has gotten out of hand, so to speak.

He's entitled. But he'd better be careful to punch them with his left hand. Things are tough enough.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The 2018 Reunion Season: Diceball Rides Again

For those of you not keeping score at home, this was season #28 of Modern Diceball History, dating from 1989. Most of the seasons took place in Las Vegas before I moved to California in 1995. Since then, we have occasionally gathered for a marathon season, a four-team, 36-game season played in a long weekend rather than stretched out over a couple of months as in days of yore. (This rich history is recorded in four articles archived in April 2014. The 2014 season history was posted that May.)

Our last season was in 2014, the first since Tim moved to Australia in 2000. He returned in 2013 and now lives in Colorado. We wasted no time getting that first reunion season to happen. The reunion was fantastic but the season lacked suspense. My team ran away with the pennant, tying a Diceball record with a 26-10 record. The main excitement was the other three managers’ protests of steroid use; after an asthma attack shortly before flying to Las Vegas, I was put on prednasone. I was unstoppable.

George and Stew, who introduced me to the game 35 years ago, still live in Las Vegas. Tim couldn’t make it this time, leading to the inaugural season for Stew’s son, Alex. Alex was born in 1991, about the same time that Roberto Clemente hit .349 for the Moody Stews, one of Stew’s favorite teams. Though he has been around Diceball much of his life, he had played it mainly on camping trips with his father, and most of what he knew about baseball comes from playing this game. He does not know what Mickey Mantle looks like, but he knows that Tony Fernandez can get—according to the raw number of possibilities on the cards—more hits against right-handed pitching than the other shortstops in the league.

Our 2014 season was marred a bit by scheduling too many games in too few days. We learned our lesson, and this time I arrived a day early, more feasible since I was the only out-of-town manager. All it took was a 1,000-mile drive. I left home in Oregon at noon on Tuesday, arriving at Stew’s house at 8:30 AM Wednesday, and we drafted that afternoon.


The first three picks in our draft our usually the same, though sometimes the order varies. Alex got the first pick and took Hank Aaron. I went second and took Willie Mays. Stew went third and started cursing. The manager who picks third has won just once in 27 seasons, and that in one of our reunion marathons. Stew and George grew up in Pittsburgh and idolize Clemente, and he was Stew’s obligatory choice here. George took George Brett and Tony Gwynn in the wraparound spot, and off we went.

There are only two things worth noting about the draft, which so often determines the season. George went for one of the oddest drafts in memory, an extreme combination of several extreme experiments. He made starting pitching his last priority, and while the rest of us scrambled after Seaver, Gibson, Koufax and company, he put together a starting lineup in his first eight picks. He’s done that before. And he has saved his starters for his final four picks, as he did this time—the league is deep, and though their cards aren’t as gaudy as the coveted starters, he still got Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Catfish Hunter along with Ron Guidry and Dwight Gooden.

What he hadn’t done before was make picks #9-14 all relief pitchers. Usually we get along with four-man bullpens, since there are no strict innings or usage limitations. Our most-used reliever this season logged 74 1/3 innings in 36 games. He was one of George’s, Dan Quisenberry. Before the rest of us could adjust, George gobbled up Dennis Eckersley, Quiz, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, John Franco, and John Hiller in a trio of double picks that stunned us. That left him seven picks for his bench.

The other strange thing George did was to pick five of the league’s top leadoff hitters amongst those first eight picks. Here’s the order: Brett, Gwynn, Joe Morgan, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, and Rickey Henderson. Everybody can hit first or second except Mantle and Simmons, and several of them can hit third. Only George would put together a team like that. For one thing, he favors the steal more than anyone and would be likely to attempt a few key steals of home with Henderson, one of the three top-rated base stealers in the league (Lou Brock and Maury Wills are the others). He had three other guys who could steal. But what would the batting order look like?

It might not seem possible, but apparently I made one wrong draft pick which ruined three of the four teams. I was supposed to take Frank Robinson, my MVP in the 2014 season, in Round 3. But I did not. I took Johnny Bench instead. Sue me. Stew grabbed Robinson with the next pick, and Alex initiated trade talks with him almost immediately. Robinson, it turns out, is Alex’s favorite player. I applaud that. The possibility of a trade became a running theme during the draft. And, in fact, even though George made an offer for Robinson, Stew did trade him to Alex within minutes of finishing the draft.

That trade—Robinson and Sparky Lyle for Jim Rice, Yogi Berra, and Dave Righetti—changed the tone of the whole season. It remained the incessant discordant note for Stew, who instantly regretted it. It goes against his grain to make a quick trade. Of all of us, he has always given more time to preparing his newly drafted team for the season. In the olde days, he often declined to play a series right after the draft, letting two of us get one three-game series ahead rather than make a rash decision which might cause him a victory at the start that would jeopardize him down the road.

Now he made a trade in a few minutes and started playing not long after that. They played their first series at Stew’s card table; a few feet away, George and I played at the dining table. We’re always somewhat aware of what’s happening in the other game, with home runs and key strikeouts broadcast loudly. In the second game, there was a ton of yelling at the other table, and it became harder to avoid. They had seven runs in the first inning. Jim Palmer got knocked out in the second inning, and Pedro Guerrero hit a pinch-hit grand slam in the third to give Stew a 9-6 lead. That was erased by Ernie Banks’ grand slam in the fourth inning. It was 13-10 in the sixth inning when frantic shouts announced the third grand slam of the game. This one was hit by Willie McCovey, already 5-for-5 with two homers. The carnage was awful (Sandy Koufax gave up nine runs).

I called time-out in our game to check the handy encyclopedia of Diceball, where I saw that the scoring records were 17 runs for one team (done three times), and 25 for two teams. It was already 17-10, and Alex capped the scoring on Joe Torre’s RBI hit. We couldn’t believe it. In Alex’s second game as a manager, he broke the scoring record. Just to prove it was no fluke, in their rubber game, he tied the old record again! Hank Aaron blasted three homers and drove in eight runs in a 17-3 pasting of dear old dad. And Stew went into paroxysms of second-guessing. Everything had gone wrong, and it was because of that trade he should never have made. He had drafted his favorite relief combo, Lyle and Bruce Sutter, and gave Lyle away. Elroy Face had given up 17 runs in four innings in the two romps. He had ruined his season. With a 1-2 record, Stew went out on the Diceball ledge, and it was difficult to talk him off there the rest of the week.

We had to admit that Alex had one of the scariest lineups we’d ever seen. The reason was simple. Since he went by the numbers, he took the guys with the highest hit and total base ratings, the big bopper at each position, while the old-time managers took a lot of old favorites. We picked a lot of guys who have produced for us in pennant-winning seasons. I was delighted to get the same infield I had in 2014: Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken, and Wade Boggs. George has always liked the speedsters like Henderson and Morgan, and Stew has favored the sluggers. This time Alex outdid him in drafting
the home run hitters, and Stew compounded the disparity by trading his 3rd-round pick for Alex’s 8th-round pick (Rice has usually been a platoon player in our league).

Alex’s lineup which scored 35 runs in two games: Lou Whitaker, Robinson, Aaron, McCovey (LF), Mattingly, Banks, Schmidt, Torre (C), and the pitcher. His pitching was solid. We conceded that he’d be tough to beat, even with our experience. Late that evening, while Stew agonized over his inexcusable trade, I did the stats for Alex’s team. In the three-game series (Stew won the opener, 6-2), Aaron, Robinson, McCovey, and Schmidt combined to go 26-for-47 with 25 runs scored, 8 home runs, and 23 RBI. In the game we play (SuperStar Baseball with cards I made), the first dice roll is for the pitcher’s card, and about one-third of the time, he records an out. If he doesn’t, the batter gets to swing. My attempt to talk Stew off the ledge focused on the fact that even if the pitchers had never gotten an “automatic” out against those four guys, the numbers on their own cards would not have produced such great stats. Short-term aberration, Stew. We see it in every game, over the course of every evening (two or three series), and especially in a compressed season like this, throughout a season. A player keeps hitting his home run number or he keeps missing it over the course of this five-day season. For example, Willie Mays has a home run against a lefty on a 23, but it’s a harmless fly against a righty. This season, I rolled a 23 for him nine or ten times—all against a righty. He homered in only two games all season. But that’s another story.

Was I right about the short-term aberration? Alex scored 37 runs in that first series, and by the end of the 36-game season, he had the lowest-scoring team in the league. Over his final 33 games, he averaged 3.4 runs a game. And Frank Robinson drove in just six runs while batting .263. I can tell you why he didn’t perform for Alex. For some reason, he dubbed him “F-Rob”. He came of age when there was A-Rod and F-Rod and K-Rod, I guess, and he eagerly called out “c’mon, eff-robb!” That’s how he wrote his name in the lineup. The first time we played, I promised him that Frank Robinson would not like being called that and would not perform well. He didn’t listen. I should’ve had him, and Stew did have him, but he wound up with a manager who turned into a sound byte, and it didn’t work.

Here’s the best part. In their first game, facing Bob Gibson, Alex benched Robinson and Schmidt in favor of two lefty hitters with higher hit numbers against a righty: Tony Fernandez and Fred Lynn (Lynn had higher hit numbers? Yes, because Robinson had a bunch of on-base chances taken up by walks and hit by pitches.) After he stalled at two runs, Stew gave him a heart-felt talk about how to win a Diceball season, a manager can’t turn his highest draft picks into platoon players. They’re the guys you build your offense around. Schmidt was a 2nd-round pick, Robinson a 3rd-round pick. They had to play. Stew was correct, and Alex took his advice. In the two run parades, Robinson went 4-for-7 with five walks and scored eight runs. In addition to everything else Stew got to second-guess after that first three-game series, he had to wonder whether Alex really needed his help.

Finally, there’s the cherry on top of the whip cream. In the late-night scene out on the ledge, with Stew lamenting the trade (in the 18-10 game, he burned his only star reliever, Sutter, after the second inning, leaving Face to get torched, while Lyle allowed just one run in six innings for Alex to get the win), I happened to ask “how did Rice do for you?” “He went 1-for-5,” said Stew. “In three games?” “He only played one game.”

“Wait a second,” I chuckled. “So you’re telling me that at the same time you lectured your son about the necessity of not turning your third pick into a platoon player, you turned the guy you got in exchange for your third pick into a platoon player. Is that right?” He was stunned. I didn’t think there was room for his self-doubt to grow exponentially, but it did.
In the morning, he made George and Alex (both 2-1) 2-1 favorites to win the pennant. He put my odds at 3-1 and his own at 8-1. We had the same 1-2 record.


Over the next three days, we played a three-game series against each team, essentially a round-robin. That brought us up to 30 games by Saturday night, leaving the final games for Sunday. It was a very comfortable pace. We started at 2pm the first two days and were done between 10 and 11. On Saturday we started a little before noon, taking time after two series to watch the Vegas Golden Knights on TV (don’t get me started on them!). I have only one other game to present in excruciating detail. Otherwise I’ll give summaries for the whole day. 

All the way through, it was the most topsy-turvy season we could remember. Each of us was in first place and in last place at some point, except for one manager who got within one hitter of first place before falling back. It wasn’t until late that there was more than a three-game difference between first and last, and every series saw a place in the standings at stake. It was one of our more thrilling and competitive seasons, not settled until Sunday.

On Thursday night, I wrote in my journal, “It was devastating to realize that I had taken the self-styled cellar-dweller and turned him into the comeback kid.” That referred to Stew sweeping me to open play on Thursday. He was as fooled as I was, especially when he came back from a 6-0 deficit to win the third game. Stew went 6-3 on the day and was tied with Alex at 7-5. I ended the day by taking two of three from George to tie him at 5-7. I was as happy as anybody. I have a long-standing habit of starting seasons horribly and having to scratch and claw my way back to finish second. I’ve finished last fewer times than anybody, but I’ve also won fewer pennants. So when I lost six games in a row after winning my opener, it was an odd kind of comfort zone. Between games, I happened to gaze at one of my accounts from “Diceball’s Greatest Games,” in which I mention starting some season 2-9 but playing for the pennant in my final series. I could do that again.

In random Thursday notes: Don Sutton won his first three starts for Stew with complete games. . .Nolan Ryan struck out 13 in his first start for Alex. . .George, with a 3-5 record, benched Henderson and Rose against a righty, started Cecil Cooper and Tony Oliva instead, and they combined to drive in nine runs against Stew. . .Willie Mays, inexplicably, neither scored nor drove in a run until my eighth game. . .Jim Palmer gave up 11 runs in less than three innings in two starts and was dropped to the minor leagues. Stew went through several options for his fourth starter, in the process setting a record for the most staff members with an ERA higher than 9—including Bert Blyleven, Vern Law, and Face. . .Johnny Bench, the guy I took instead of Frank Robinson, was atrocious all season. Through 12 games, he was 5-for-40 with two RBI. That was his most productive one-third of the season, He went downhill from there.


At the halfway point of the season, we were all within two games. The standings:

FOODIE BLUES (Alex)         10   8                
RE-DUCKS (Gabe)                   9   9                  
KIMOSABI’S (Stew)               9  9                
H20 (George)                          8  10                 

[A word about team names, which have always been high personal and frequently clever. Stew has performed professionally as Moody Stew, featuring his favorite Moody Blues songs, so it was a nice touch for Alex to go for Foodie Blues. Stew chose his name because last year, while recovering from heart surgery, he got hooked on reruns of “The Lone Ranger”. My team name had mixed karma. I attended the University of Oregon in the 1970s and recently moved back to Oregon, so I have become a re-Duck. On the other hand, I once had a Diceball team called the Ducks who didn’t win a pennant, so I was taking my chances here. It did give me a chance to call out “Re-Ducks on the pond!” when I loaded the bases. The coolest name belonged to George, who’s about to retire from his last career as a water meter reader in the town of Henderson, Nevada. Hence the name, and hence his captains, Henderson, Hunter, and Oliva. George also picked the best home field name (another part of the ritual of a Diceball season) a long time ago. The Pittsburgh native had a team called the Arrows who played in Three Quivers Stadium.]

I trailed Alex by two games when our series began, and I won the first two games, blowing a 6-2 lead in the second game before winning on Ripken’s home run. Seaver had the kind of game an ace can have in the finale, hot with the dice, and he took a 2-0 lead and a five-hitter to the bottom of the ninth. He got Aaron and Robinson to start the inning, and Alex put the old Pirates favorite, Smoky Burgess, up to hit for Torre, a courtesy at-bat. Burgess, who went a magical 6-for-8 as a pinch-hitter on the season, singled to keep the inning going. McCovey walked. Lou Whitaker was due up, but in came Roger Maris to pinch-hit. And I saw the 34 coming before they showed up, a three-run home run to win the game, a magical roll of the dice that put Alex back into first place instead of me.

That miracle roll stunned me and paralyzed my team, and George steamrolled me to end the day. I scored one run in each of our three games. That enabled him to go from last place to second by day’s end. Alex, the wunderkind, led at 12-9, George was 11-10, Stew was 10-11, and I wasn’t.

Random events from a long day of Diceball: Alex won a 13-inning battle from Stew; after Stew tied it in the 9th inning on a home run by Berra, Alex won it on a Don Mattingly homer. . .Stew lost three straight games in the other team’s final turn at bat (game-winning hits by Yastrzemski, Ripken, and Molitor), and the internet lit up with news of his woes. Then he rallied to win with a six-run 8th inning, and all was right with the world. . .George Brett drove in seven runs in that final series to put him well ahead in the league lead with 28 in 21 games. The record for 36 games is 39 (Hank Aaron, twice), and Brett might have a shot at it.


It took only one series on Saturday to tighten up the pennant race. George and I both took two of three. He tied Alex at 13-11, while I tied Stew at 11-13. When I followed up by taking the first two games from Alex, I had tied him at 13-13. The trick was that George was in the process of sweeping Stew, whose season finally experienced its long-anticipated implosion.

By this point, George had decided not to be half-assed about managing this odd team. He decided that letting his starting pitchers go three or four innings was too much, that he wasn’t using that strong bullpen enough. In nine games on Saturday, his starting pitchers logged a grand total of 20 1/3 innings (allowing 12 runs). One time, he actually used all six relievers, saving Goose Gossage for the final out. That was in a ten-inning game in which the winning run scored after a two-out walk, when Henderson pinch-ran and stole around the bases. That loss deflated Stew, who surrendered 18 hits and 12 runs as George finished off the sweep.

After Marichal shut out Alex for the league’s only shutout this season, Drysdale beat Koufax (who struggled all season with a 2-4 record and 7.43 ERA), and I was poised for a sweep. But again I couldn’t make it happen. Spahn lost to Gibson, 3-2, on homers by Whitaker, Schmidt and Aaron.

It was 24 hours earlier that I followed a rough loss to Alex by getting swept by George. This was a different kind of series, and it began with the most exciting game of the season. I was the home team, with Seaver facing Gooden. Well, facing Gooden for two innings. He gave up an unearned run and left for a pinch-hitter, launching a procession of relievers, the first three of whom all pitched two innings as well—Quiz, Hiller, and Eckersley. It was 1-1 to the 6th inning, when he began with back-to-back homers by Brett and Mantle off Seaver. It was 3-1 to the 9th, when he began with back-to-back homers by Molitor and Dick Allen that made it 5-1.

Sometime during the day, I had noticed something weird about my team. It grew out of my series with Stew, when we were both plagued by frustrating rallies. We kept getting runners to second and third with nobody out and being glad to scratch out one run. I went back through my box scores and found that, going into this game, I had gone 20 games without scoring more than three runs in an inning. Now I was behind by four runs going to the bottom of the 9th. So we all know what happened next.

First came an event that was astonishing in its own way: Willie Mays led off with a home run. This was game #28 on my season, and it was Mays’ second home run. I’m looking at his encyclopedia page, which covers the first 24 seasons; Mays slugged at least 8 homers in 21 of them. Now he had 2. Rollie Fingers immediately got in more trouble, loading the bases on two hits and a walk. Bench pinch-hit (he had lost his job to Gary Carter) and lined out. Vada Pinson pinch-hit and popped out. With the tying run still at first base, I did something that may never have been done before in Diceball: I pinch-hit for Wade Boggs. Yeah, he’s a doubles machine and I needed a long double at least, but you see, George had brought in John Franco to pitch to Boggs. That prompted me to bring in a righty hitter, Dave Winfield. Who promptly doubled. Rounding third with the tying run, Cal Ripken needed a favorable roll of the dice to score, a slight underdog at 48%. He scored to tie the game. And we went to extras. George scored in the top of the tenth; Simmons walked, Henderson ran for him, stole second and third, and scored on Cooper’s single. Bert Campaneris ran for him, stole second, and went to third Bench’s wild throw. With two outs, I walked a man intentionally, which forced him to hit for Franco. He didn’t score, and now he was down to his final pitcher, Gossage. And Gossage got torched for the game-tying home run by. . .Willie Mays, who had suddenly tripled his season total in two innings. The came continued. Wilhelm matched goose-eggs with the Goose, and George had his big chance in the top of the 14th. With one out, Henderson tripled, and it brought up Gossage. George took a long look at the seldom-used suicide squeeze chart and concluded that he couldn’t get in too much trouble. The worst result he could find would be a missed bunt and an attempted steal of home by Henderson. So he rolled the one result he hadn’t checked or known about: Gossage popped up the bunt, and Henderson was doubled off third to end the inning. And George’s last chance, as it turned out. The game ended in the bottom of the 15th on a home run by. . .yep, Willie Mays. Gossage pitched 5 1/3 innings and allowed just two hits: Mays’ homers. Those were his last of the season, of course. George took the last two games of the series, the last one in 12 innings; that time, he got to be the 7-6 winner. But what a game!

That’s what it took to keep George from winning eight straight games, but as it was his 7-2 record on the day busted open the pennant race. It raised him to 18-12. Alex was second with 15 wins, I had 14, and Stew, finally running according to form, was last with 13. So George had a three-game lead with six to play, and he would play Alex first on Sunday. A sweep for Alex would tie them. Anything less could kill the suspense for the final series.


In the series that mattered, George took the first two games from Alex to clinch the pennant. For the first time all season, he let a starter go six innings. In fact, Catfish Hunter did so well in the opener (one run in six innings) that he let Ferguson Jenkins do the same thing in the clincher. Mickey Mantle’s two homers fueled Hunter’s win, but Dennis Eckersley picked up the win in relief of Jenkins as George provided a fitting end to the pennant race. In the bottom of the tenth inning, Mickey Mantle singled and Henderson pinch-ran. Have we already danced this dance? He stole second and third, modestly stopped there, and scored the game-winner on a sacrifice fly by Ted Simmons. Alex took the finale as Sandy Koufax pitched his best game of the season.

Meanwhile, I took two of three from Stew to tie Alex for second place at 16-17. Drysdale beat Carlton in the opener, and Stew evened the series with a win in ten innings. In our rubber game, I broke open a close game with a six-run sixth inning against Don Sutton that was quite ugly: six runs on four singles, two walks, a hit batter, and two wild pitches. With two outs and no runs in, Stew opted to walk Ryne Sandberg intentionally to pitch to Gary Carter, my hottest hitter. I have proven statistically that the intentional walk is a disastrous strategy, and I proved it again with the dice. Carter singled, Sutton hit Seaver (huge mistake), and singles by Boggs, Raines, and Murray brought a deluge and a 10-1 win.

This meant that my final series with Alex would determine second place, while George and Stew would play for fun. Normally there would have been more riding on it: money. We have always played for money, and the standard became $55 each per season. The winner would get $80, second place was worth $40, and there were ten statistical categories worth $10 apiece: batting average, hits, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, wins by a starter, wins by a reliever, winning percentage, strikeouts, and ERA. That way, even if your team was out of the race, you might have contenders in a few of the categories to keep you excited. This time, we didn’t play for money at all, not even for the pennant winner. So Stew didn’t get to broadcast the race for hits between his two top picks, Clemente and Carew. They were tied with two games left; Clemente won it.

George and Stew had fun indeed. Their opener went 13 innings after George scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to tie it. This time he won without a stolen base, on a Thurman Munson triple and an RBI single by Henderson. Stew took the second game behind Sutton as Clemente had a triple, double, and single while Carew belted a single and the go-ahead home run. George went upside-down in the final. He began his lineup with his captains: Henderson, Hunter, and Oliva. Catfish got down two sacrifice bunts and pitched a complete game, and Ted Simmons, batting ninth, went 3-for-3 and drove in three runs in a 4-3 victory that gave George a final record of 22-14. When his record was 7-9, he benched Henderson and Pete Rose against righties, put in Oliva and Cecil Cooper instead, and went 15-5 the rest of the season. Henderson still led the league with 33 stolen bases.

And the battle for second place? It was all Re-Ducks in a sweep, 4-1, 6-3, 7-3. Spahn, Marichal and Seaver combined to allow five earned runs in 25 innings, and they jumped on Koufax and Ford early. That made my final record 19-17, a perfectly typical season—I started 1-6, went 18-11, and stormed all the way up second place, three games behind George, who won his umpteenth pennant. It’s fair to say that nobody else would have drafted that team, much less won with it. Hats off to George and H2O!

League leaders included:
Batting average: Brett .325
Home runs: Schmidt 12
RBI: Brett 36
Hits: Clemente 51
Stolen Bases: Henderson 33
Wins (starter): Carlton 6
Wins (reliever): Wilhelm/Quisenberry 4
Winning %: Carlton .750 (6-2)
Strikeouts: Ryan 83
E.R.A.: Eckersley 2.01


H2O 22 14 .611 – 
Re-Ducks 19 17 .528 3 
Foodie Blues 16 20 .444 6 
Kimosabis 15 21 .438 7 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

One Month Already?

The new season has blazed across my horizon so vividly that a month has flashed by before I even fastened my seat belt. We can start to dig into the "on pace to" marvels and sift through the early returns to see what is a passing trend and what is a new truth. For people who love to play with baseball numbers, this is a hungry time.

In that vein, over the weekend posted a column by Anthony Castrovince consisting of ten amazing/remarkable/noteworthy/mind-boggling numbers from the first four weeks of the season. Some of them coincide with things I've been tracking, some made me think and look further, and some I could dismiss as temporary aberrations that might already be obsolete.

For an example of the last, there is Johnny Cueto's ERA. It was 0.35 until his final April start, when it ballooned up to 0.84 thanks to two runs. Now he has gone on the DL with an elbow inflammation, and we are saved from holding our breath.

One I've already noted was Shohei Ohtani picking up a win and hitting a home run in consecutive games, a feat not accomplished since Babe Ruth in 1921. But Castrovince came up with another nifty perspective on Ohtani's April: he is one of four pitchers who struck out 25+ batters and hit four home runs in one month, joining Ferguson Jenkins, Don Drysdale, and Wes Ferrell. That's special!

Here's one that gives me an excuse to throw a snap quiz at you. Castrovince pointed out that Ozzie Albies of the Braves already has 22 extra-base hits: 12 doubles, 1 triple, and 9 home runs. That projects to 132 over six months, which would zoom past the old record. My snap quiz is not who holds the record with 119? Most of you could guess the answer: Babe Ruth. In that same 1921 season, Ruth amassed 44 doubles, 16 triples, and 59 home runs. I doubt that anybody thinks Albies will take a run at the record, but 100 is a figure rarely attained.

Here's my quiz. If you took every player's best season for doubles, his best for triples, and his best for home runs, who would have the highest total in MLB history? I'll answer next time if nobody gets it.

I'm looking at the much-publicized fact of baseball history that April was the first time there were more strikeouts and hits. I can believe that, since I'm watching James Paxton of the Mariners, who just notched his 16th strikeout of the game--in the 7th inning. He has allowed five hits. So yes, I think we'd better get used to this. Baseball contact has passed the fail-safe point; the planes aren't coming back. In April, more than one-third of all plate appearances resulted in strikeouts.

Speaking of strikeouts, let's talk about three relief pitchers. If you could neutralize just these three unhittables, you'd make hits more plentiful than strikeouts again. The numbers here are through May 1, and they're all scary. There's a guy in Seattle not many people have fussed over, Edwin Diaz. He has 12 saves in 15 games. In 15 1/3 innings, his K:H ratio is 29:2. That's 29 strikeouts in the space of 46 outs. Oh, but he gave up a run already this season.

I'll admit that I hadn't heard of Josh Hader until last week (I would have guessed he was the actor in "Napoleon Dynamite"--since I could look it up, I just did. . .Jon Heder). Now I know all about him, after he fanned 8 Reds in 2 2/3 innings after Castrovince wrote about how he had struck out 58.5% of the batters he had faced this season. All four of his saves have lasted more than an inning, and he could mark the return (in the wake of Andrew Miller's success) of the long closer, the guy who puts out the fire in the 7th inning and keeps going. Through 18 innings, Heder's K:H ratio is a giddy 39:4. That's 19.5 strikeouts per nine innings, sports fans. His ERA is 1.00 compared to Diaz's 0.59.

The third dominator is an old hand at it, Craig Kimbrel. Despite some rough outings in his first year adjusting to the American League, he has resumed his humiliation of opposing batters. He has already done twice what Hader threatens to do--strike out more than half the batters he faces over an entire season. He has a 3:1 strikeout-to-hit ratio for his career. He has had strikeout seasons of 127, 126, and 116, even though he has exceeded 69 innings in a season only once.

Castrovince also talked about the 14 times in April when a pitcher logged at least six no-hit innings, and mentioned (as I had noted earlier) that there have already been 15 1-0 games, compared to 29 all of last season. Despite plenty of slugging, more starting pitchers are mowing everybody down (for awhile, or for as long as they are allowed to), and more relievers are doing the same. The difference is that the relievers have a license to go all-out for just a few hitters and strike everyone out. That's where the biggest disparity between strikeouts and hits might occur. Every team is going to have one of these guys in the next season or two.

Of course, while I was writing that last paragraph, Edwin Diaz entered a 2-2 game in the 9th inning and promptly gave up a leadoff home run. James Paxson, with his 16 whiffs, left behind a 2-0 lead when he was excused after seven innings. His reliever quickly gave up the lead, blew the win Paxton had worked so hard for, and may have wrecked Paxton's chances for reaching that soon-to-be-hallowed 100-win career mark.

This just proves that my jinxing power is stronger than any actual baseball trends. I derailed Diaz so severely that even though he retired the next three batters after the home run, he didn't strike any of them out. Diaz's ERA jumped from 0.59 to 1.10, and his K:H dropped to 29:3. Heder got the night of and Kimbrel had already struck out the side at Fenway for another save before I started writing. So sorry, Edwin. Maybe they'll get two runs and make you a winner.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cold Weather Games

A record has already been set in MLB for the most postponements in April, and the northeast quadrant of the country seems in the grip of some weird global cooling. Griping, sarcasm, and panic have ensued, but one suggestion seems at least practical to me. That is to schedule as many April games as possible within each team's division, so that there will be series later on when postponed games can be made up. There are already several instances when teams making their only trip to a city will have to make a detour on a road trip to fill in a game on a much-needed off-day.

For a long time, I thought that the simplest thing would be to schedule the first ten days' or two weeks' worth of games in the warmer cities and domed ballparks. I have come around to the notion that this might put some decent teams in a hole if they go 4-8 before their home opener. It probably doesn't help the home teams either, glutting their home schedules before school lets out and the big summer crowds assemble.

I do think that there are enough teams with sunshine or domes to host games for the first week. This season, the Marlins opened with six home games, but the Rays, after four games at home to start the season, went on the road for eleven days. Their seasons so far tell us a lot, however.

Both Florida teams have played a dozen home games. Weather has not been a discernible factor in how baseball fans in Florida decide whether to attend games. On Opening Day, the paid attendance in Miami was 32,151, while in Tampa it was 31,042. That was Opening Day. The weather has been fine, but it turns out that when the baseball is awful, the proverbial fan stays away in droves.

In eleven home games each since Opening Day, the Rays' average attendance is 13,848, and that's the good news. In Miami, the average is 11,446. A recent three-game series with the Mets drew 19,669 -- for the whole series! It was more like a boycott as the word spread, with the Monday night throng of 7,003 thinning out to 6,516 the next night and 6,150 for the thrilling conclusion of the series.

Counting games of April 21, Tampa Bay's record is 7-13. Again, the good news. Miami is 5-15 in the wake of new owner Derek Jeter's eagerness to dismantle the game's greatest young outfield. He thought he was imitating Wayne Huizenga, who also got rid of his young stars all at once. But Jeter skipped the important first step -- winning a World Series title first, as Huizenga did in 1997. When Magic Johnson signed on as a Dodgers owner, he brought people with him who were ready to spend money to make him the face of a great team. What was Jeter thinking?

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I had to laugh at the headline the other day: "Yankees Will Drop Stanton". I knew they were sending him to Scranton-Wilkes Barre. No, they were demoting him from proximity to Aaron Judge in the lineup, his status plummeting to the midtown cleanup spot. Will he get over it? The way Didi Gregorius has been pounding the ball, it makes more sense to put him between the two right-handed boppers, no matter who's hot. 

Before the season, I played with some Judge and Stanton numbers to see which one is the more formidable, or perhaps the more exciting or productive or something of a pairing that makes old-time Yankees fans drool over memories of the 1961 Mantle-Maris chase of Babe Ruth's hallowed record of 60 home runs. That was the year I was first aware of the shape of a baseball season, and since I lived about ten miles from Yankee Stadium, that race was big news every day that summer. Nobody rooted for Maris, either. It was all Mickey back then. What about now?

These numbers are from 2017. If you take strikeouts, walks, and hit by pitches (i.e. plate appearances when the batter didn't put the ball in play), they took up 50.1% of Judge's PA but only 36.8% of Stanton's. That means that in every eight trips to the plate, Stanton hit the ball once more than Judge. Given the damage they do when they hit it, that tilts in Stanton's favor. 

Judge struck out in 38.4% of his at-bats, Stanton in 27.3%. Combined, they had a .399 on-base percentage and .629 slugging percentage. That'll get it done. But going on form, there's more reason to think that Stanton will be the big gun this season in the Bronx. He's a more experienced hitter, he doesn't strike out as often, and even left field is bigger than right field at Yankee Stadium, it will still look inviting to him compared to what he faced in Miami. 

So, going by form, 43.4% of the time they go to the plate, they'll reach their next destination by walking, not running. I haven't looked at the numbers so far this year, but clearly Judge has been a stud so far, while Stanton has -- well, the man was dropped just the other day. What do the numbers say?

In 19 games, Judge has 6 home runs and 15 RBI. In 89 PA, he has put the ball in play 49 times, up from 50% to 55%, and his strikeout rate is lower at 31%. That explains why his average today is 54 points higher than last year's. Stanton, meanwhile, has been awful, with two five-strikeout disasters at Yankee Stadium which have endeared him to the Bronx faithful in a very special way. Stanton has 4 home runs and 12 RBI -- "on a pace" for 32 and 103 for the season, which would be respectable for anyone except a giant getting a gazillion dollars to drive in Aaron Judge every time he walks. 

It's only 19 games, of course, and players tend to regress to their own normal performance, and once Stanton recovers from the shame of batting fourth, he'll hit the ball more often. That .194 average won't last, and I don't think he'll keep striking out in 40% of his at-bats all season. At that, he has put the ball into play almost as often as Judge, 52.3%. The difference is that when he doesn't, Stanton is striking out instead of taking walks. Only people willing to watch all the Yankees games can say how many times the opposition pitched around Judge to get to Stanton, and how often it worked. I can tell you that Judge was walked intentionally once to get to Stanton, in the 11th inning with the potential winning run at second base. Stanton grounded out to end the inning.

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Like many of you, I have strong jinxing powers. When I was a little kid listening to games on the radio, I felt strongly that the degree of fervency I put into rooting for my team had a tangible effect on the outcome. Long after I outgrew that childish notion, long after I realized that my fervor was chiefly for my own benefit and not the team's, I became aware of a strong jinxing power, but only after its effect had occurred.

This power manifests itself most often in the matter of no-hitters. This would not have been possible in the old days, when a fan could follow only one or two games at a time. It is a byproduct of the mega-network, internet era, when you can be closely following a couple of games, get an alert that a no-hitter has progressed to the late stages, and switch over to watch history happen. 

Except that, in my case, almost every time, my sudden vigilance is enough to bring a quick base hit. Usually, it's the next batter. Last week, it was the first pitch I watched after switching networks. So I was pretty wary last night when the alert came that Seth Manaea had a no-hitter through seven innings. I was watching Bartolo Colon, which was quite entertaining in itself. In one inning, the corpulent 44-year-old had to race to first to take a throw after the leadoff batter grounded a ball behind the bag. He made the out and puffed his way nonchalantly back to the mound, suggesting a beer executive at the company picnic.

Dee Gordon batted next, and he also hit a bounder behind the first base bag. Colon raced off the mound, taking the shortcut while Gordon dashed down the line. He took the throw and pounced on the bag a split-second ahead of Gordon. This time, he had a little grin as he trudged back to the mound. I wondered how the wind-sprints would affect him; he got the last batter on the second pitch.

Meanwhile, there went Seth Manaea to the mound for the 8th inning, facing a Red Sox lineup which had battered the opposition to a 17-2 record. He had thrown only 85 pitches and thus wasn't a candidate for arbitrary removal by his manager. He might actually pitch that no-no! On, I went to Gameday and turned on the Oakland broadcast. Manaea already had two outs by the time I caught the announcer, and that inning ending quickly. The A's didn't dawdle in their half of the 8th inning, and now came the 9th.

I knew that MLB Network's "Quick Pitch" would show the 9th inning. Just press one more button, and I could watch history unfold. Or, more likely, jinx the man. So I stuck with the Mariners-Rangers game on tv and listened to Manaea polish off the Red Sox with only a two-out walk delaying his moment of glory. As soon as I heard the final out, I pressed that button in time to see the celebration and a replay of the final out. I was very happy to watch that replay after sparing Manaea.