baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Trying Too Hard for Too Long: Baseball’s Peculiar Penalty

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I honestly don’t pay much attention to the Hall of Fame these days.  On the one hand, political concerns (and I mean “political” as in “woke”) are starting to play far too large a role in the unstated criteria for admission; and on the other, new and somewhat controversial metrics like WAR are beginning to nudge aside common sense as a robotic generation of nerds insists that everything can be reduced to numbers.

In my relative indifference, then, I’m afraid that the selection of Ted Simmons to Cooperstown this past fall blew past me like a quick-pitched fastball.  There I was, getting sucked into discussions about Larry Walker… and the committee finally did right by one of the most all-around productive players of the rather unglamorous Seventies and Eighties.  Maybe there’s some use to Wins Above Replacement, after all (or maybe not: Ted’s WAR is almost identical to Fred McGriff’s, who is supposed to be a mere also-ran).

I mean, a switch-hitting catcher who hits for both average and power… how much versatility can you ask for?  Of course, power stats in those lackluster years would soon be eclipsed by the emergence of Steroids Superstars.  In the long, dark shadow of the Nineties, nobody remembers slugger Steve Balboni, who topped 30 home runs only once in his career; and scarcely more fans will recall Tony Armas (Senior), who reached that plateau just three times.  Ted’s comparatively modest average of 15 homers over a span of 14 seasons might fly under the radar; but the decade-and-a-half figure is highly significant.  Balboni and Armas both did their damage over about half a decade… and I could mention, say, Jeff Burroughs or Reggie Smith, who had more protracted and successful careers, but who likewise didn’t regularly log seasonal home runs in the thirties.

Ted’s 2,472 hits especially catch the eye.  His .285 career batting average matches Yogi’s—but Berra, surprisingly, had over 300 fewer safeties.  Johnny Bench is over a hundred behind Yogi, and his average trails that of the other two by almost twenty points.  Now, Johnny fought hard and bravely against injuries and ill health.  He was also the premier defensive catcher of his generation.  Yet there’s something—indeed, much—to be said for durability, particularly at the backstop position.  Ted had that in spades.

I’m sure that the sabermetricians are aware of such intangibles, and also of the relevance of “the times”… but the essence of such things is that you can’t really quantify them.  I respect anyone who tries, up to a point.  I may begin to grow a little disgusted, though, when Dexter Sliderule forgets that he’s only approximating, and shifts into a more insistent mode.  The numbers are helpful.  They’re indispensable, even.  Yet they cannot be considered as the first and last word, with nothing in between.

I’ll devote the final half of today’s ramble to a thought that first struck me when I was viewing the career of Sam Rice.  The lifetime .322 hitter accumulated 2,987 career hits—yes, a puny thirteen shy of 3.000.  Any fan of today would wonder immediately why Rice didn’t polish off such a superhuman accomplishment.  Did he lose his eyesight?  Was his hand destroyed in an off-season accident?  Nothing so dramatic: he simply hadn’t realized that he was within a sneeze of turning over the “thousands” counter!

Now consider how many later players (Sam hung it up in 1934) desperately plod along just to reach some magic number that almost assures admission to the corridors of Mount Olympus: 400 homers (now 500), 3,000 hits or strikeouts, 300 wins.  Because these somewhat arbitrary figures came to achieve canonical status as the game aged, chasing after one of them often grew to be the obsession of the individual player and—with all the publicizing made possible by television—the prime marketing strategy of many a franchise.

The obsession can be fatal.  In wasn’t to Pete Rose: he found other ways to shoot himself in the foot.  But his career average very nearly dipped under .300 (.303) as he stumbled after Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record.  During his final seven seasons on the active roster, Pete topped .300 only once (and .271 only once more).  His official at-bats over that period ranged between a part-time 365 and a nearly invisible 26.  Anything to get Number 4,190!

Craig Biggio at least registered full seasons right to the end, with his seasonal batting average dipping below .250 just once (by four points).  Why the HOF electors treated him like a pathetic nag toppling over the 3,000-hit finish line on three legs, I’ll never understand.

I mentioned Fred McGriff parenthetically above.  Having come short of 500 home runs by a paltry seven, Fred perhaps damaged more than helped his case by hanging around for a final 410 AB’s only to grind out fifteen more dingers.  His average over this span dipped well under the .250 mediocrity mark.

Duke Snider, likewise, may have rubbed more luster off his career than he added by hanging around long enough to tally 407 round-trippers.  Very similar to McGriff, Duke had a bit over 500 AB’s in his final two seasons, hitting well under .250 during the span.  The trade-off was an additional 18 homers.

You could say that Snider at least found his happy ending (though he had to wait sixteen years for the Sportswriters’ approval).  His teammate Gil Hodges suffered what has been the fate—so far—of Fred McGriff.  The cornerstone of the champion Brooklyn Dodgers’ defense, said to have the surest hands of any first-sacker in his generation, Gil sadly ran out of offensive gas in his bid to reach 400 home runs.  Hodges was already at 298 after his first ten full years of service.  You had to figure that he could round up another 102 within three of four years… certainly within five.  But the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to LA at just that point, and the shift to a track-and-field stadium ridiculously rehabilitated as a baseball quasi-diamond favored neither his style nor Snider’s.  Gil’s offensive totals plunged across the board; he eked out a mere 25 home runs over his last four seasons—which, to be sure, represented scarcely over 500 AB’s.  Two of these seasons saw Hodges returning to New York (again, like Snider) on the expansion-formed Mets in a clever marketing scheme to capture some of the old Ebbets Field enthusiasm.  Like Jackie Robinson, Gil should probably have said “no” to the original West Coast move; he should certainly have declined to be humiliated over those final four seasons (during one of which—1960—he batted .198).

What shall we say, then, of players who were perennial All Stars for a decade, had probably stacked enough lumber over that period to achieve serious consideration for Cooperstown… and then stayed year after frustrating year trying to seal the deal?  Albert Pujols won’t damage his legacy, or even his first-round election… but he should have retired two or three years ago.  Barry Bonds would not be cooling his heels in Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Limbo if he hadn’t allowed majestic numbers to woo him beyond the parameters set by Mother Nature.

Numbers.  They’re too much in our heads, with too little context.  WAR is apparently an attempt to supply context and to substitute a more legitimate number. How, though, do you factor in an allowance for a player who would have been among your elite few if you hadn’t distracted him with other magical numbers?

baseball ethics, baseball history, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, umpires, Uncategorized

“Crime Dog” Permanently Exiled to Sportswriters’ Doghouse

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I found an article by Matt Snyder that says most of what I have to say much better than I can say it.  The bottom line is that Fred McGriff again came woefully short of entry into the Hall of Fame, that this was his last year of normal eligibility… and that he’s been done wrong.

Snyder observes that the Crime Dog logged ten seasons of thirty or more home runs.  I would add that seven of these came consecutively, and that the two ensuing seasons of 27 and 28 were both reduced thanks to a players’ strike.  (Well… Snyder had to remind me here that 1994 was virtually cut in half—and he finely observes that McGriff would have blown the lid off several categories if allowed to continue his work that year).  Twelve 30+ home-run seasons adorned Fred’s résumé by the time he hung up the spikes (two of them played out under the extreme distraction of a mid-season trade).

Here’s my special gripe about the matter, which a professional sportswriter would probably be ill advised to express as openly as I will do.  McGriff’s totals were compiled right in the heart of the Steroids Era.  They did not fluctuate so as to indicate mysteriously magnified physical power: they reached a plateau and stayed there for a decade.  That McGriff was his league’s home-run leader in only two seasons (36 with the Blue Jays in 1990, 35 with the Padres in 1992) isn’t a sign that he was an “average” middle-order slugger for his time; it is instead evidence, I should say, that the average was being grossly inflated around him by PED’s.  Furthermore, Fred’s ability to replicate his power numbers in Toronto, San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago (Cubs) demonstrates that there was nothing place-specific (e.g., dry, thin air or a secret system for stealing pitches) about his performance.

I’ll diverge from my main point for just a moment.  Let’s stick with hitter-friendly ballparks briefly.  From 1987 to 2002, Fred’s On-Base Percentage dipped into the .350s (still very respectable) only twice.  From 1997 to 2004, however, one of this year’s inductees, Larry Walker, reeled off a really impressive string of nine seasons with an OBP of over .400.  Yet these were Walker’s Colorado years; elsewhere his typical value fluctuated much more than McGriff’s.  Walker’s 383 homers, besides, are not overwhelming when one considers his ten seasons in Coors Field (only one of which—1997—saw his tally exploding up to 49; he topped 30 only three other times); and his career doubles total, while regal at 471, is only 30 ahead of McGriff’s in ballparks where hits didn’t carry with the same force.  Yes, Fred enjoyed about 1,700 more AB’s than Larry… but he also walked almost 400 more times, notably higher than Walker’s rate.

Indeed, I suspect we may see here part of the “reverse mystique” of Fred McGriff.  He was the ultimate in patient hitting.  He consistently gave up the outside corner.  The “damage” he did to his reputation as a savage slugger by exhibiting such self-control makes me recall what I’ve read about Ted Williams’ relative unpopularity when Joe DiMaggio was stirred into the same discussion during their days of active play.  People like to see Mighty Casey expand the zone with two strikes and take his chances on chipping one down the off-field line with a furious hack.  Not only did Fred, like Ted, not fit this model: McGriff, unlike Williams, never had a caustic word for umpires who rung him up on something a little off the plate.  Fred McGriff was as polite a human being as ever wore a baseball uniform.

Another debatable Hall-of-Famer, Orlando Cepeda, amassed numbers mostly a bit better than Larry Walker’s across the board—and he did so without benefit of Coors Field’s thin air.  Where Cepeda’s figures distinctly underperform Walker’s (BA, OBP), they seem to me to reflect his time’s preference for more aggressive sluggers who didn’t try to work walks.  Again, fans like the “madman with a machete” image of power-hitting—which fact may indeed have impeded Larry’s ascent to the Hall.  (Snyder rightly scoffs at the word-of-mouth “most feared of his day” criterion, another morph of the “wild man” stereotype.)  Cepeda had two other off-the-field factors working in his favor, as well.  One was his Latino identity: the sportswriter clan wanted somebody besides Clemente representing that demographic.  The other was that Orlando ran afoul of laws prohibiting the use of recreational drugs.  The feeling among the chattering white-collar classes (and I lived through those days, so I can tell you that such “feelings” were palpable) was in favor of sticking it to self-righteous “family values” politicians.  That feeling, by the way—in case you’ve been living in a world engineered by your own preferred hallucinogen—has so mushroomed among the Hall’s electors as to overshadow a lot of factual evidence.

Now, I’m not arguing that either Orlando Cepeda or Larry Walker doesn’t belong on baseball’s Mount Olympus.  What I believe we see in an alignment of all three cases is just how subjective the verdict of these “sportswriters” can be.  I’m not even going to tackle the question of Wins Above Replacement: Wikipedia observes that sabermetricians have not even reached agreement on how to make the calculation.  Grounding into double-plays, for instance, apparently brings a mandatory deduction—and I have to say that only a bunch of nerdy eggheads could seriously exact such a sanction.  Double-play balls are hard hit (just ask Hank Aaron, the all-time leader); and any professional batsman will tell you that his objective is to make solid contact and leave the rest to the baseball gods.  You can’t control such factors as how slow afoot the batting champ is who hits in front of you or how slick the middle infielders of your division rivals are.

So let’s return to subjectivity in the voting: to “perception”.  The major issue that seems to me unaddressed in McGriff’s case is steroids.  He didn’t use them.  If the sun rises in the east, this man was clean.  Fred was as thin as a rail, from his rookie year to his last AB with Tampa Bay.  I don’t know how he did it, because most of us bulk up simply from the normal effects of aging.  Larry Walker certainly became “thicker”.  So did Frank Thomas.  Did Walker fall under an unvoiced suspicion among the electors, like Craig Biggio with his Popeye-like forearms in later years—or like Jeff “I ain’t saying nothing” Bagwell (both of them teammates of Ken Camminiti, who lost his life to the effects of PED’s)?  Thomas was admitted to Cooperstown immediately; Craig had to wait three years.  Why?  Was it because the “writers” were afraid to slander the Big Hurt lest their reluctance be interpreted as bigotry—the same dread that made them back off when Albert Pujolz indignantly denied rumors of “using” a few years back?

But the same writers and broadcasters will counter, “No, we never looked at size—you can’t tell by size.  Steroids make you heal faster: they don’t necessarily make you bigger.”  Oh, so… so that lets you conjure up a cloud of steroid-usage pretty much anywhere you want, just to reinforce or justify an existing prejudice.  The astonishing steadiness of McGriff’s output straight through the minefield of the Steroids Era, then, is of no interest to you: you’ll just keep analyzing his performance against the Rafael Palmeiros and Andres Galarragas of his day… and that makes for a mediocre WAR.  Okay.

Fred McGriff deserves to be rewarded for not breaking the rules: besides a career which is distinguished by any measure, he deserves special consideration for that.  How are we to expect law-abiding conduct of our children when they see that (in Leo Durocher’s immortal phrase) “nice guys finish last”?  But the twits who make these calls have little respect for society’s rules.  They’re the same pack, essentially—their intellectual DNA is the same—as persistently ignored Gil Hodges, the supreme first-stacker of his generation who was briefly the National League’s all-time right-handed home-run king, and who served his nation fighting in the heart of World War Two’s bloodiest theater… and who skippered the Miracle Mets… ignored Gil Hodges because he was a quiet man and didn’t vocally, fists flying, champion Jackie Robinson.  So they say, these twits with their algorithms who never had the guts to champion anyone chin-first.

Look at what they’ve done to Curt Schilling.  At least Curt knew what he was getting into by speaking his mind in our “free society”.  As for Fred… Fred is so like Gil, in a way: a quiet gentleman who didn’t spout quotable comments and didn’t fuel exciting controversies.  Just a decent human being who went about his business.  They hate those.