The Year of the Strikeout

Much noise is being generated by the record setting number of home runs being slugged in the major leagues this season. A more quietly received correlation involves the  record setting number of strikeouts occurring as well. I don’t know what the current number of runs scored is but it would be interesting to see if more homers meant more total runs despite more strikeouts. I don’t have access to Bill James‘ garage full of super computers, so could one of you run the metrics on that and get back to me? Thanks. Here is the what makes me lazy about that chore: I don’t really care.

 

Here is why I don’t care: if the whole game was strikeouts and home runs, I’d be asleep by the third inning. With a lineup full of guys like Hank Sauer or Aaron Judge being pitched to by guys like Hunter Strickland or Craig Kimbrel, I would be reminded of backyard games I played alone or with my brother Jimmy that involved making a strike with my pitch against an imaginary zone on the yellow brick wall. Didn’t we love the three and two count! Or tossing up a rubber ball or a rock and swinging at it as it fell with a cracked bat or a pick ax handle and either driving it across the alley to a neighbor’s yard (mixed approval ratings on that one) or missing for a strike. You couldn’t take a pitch in that game so there were no walks. In those days, no matter what form of ball was being played, peer pressure favored swinging the bat. Today that peer pressure seems to exist just as strongly in major league dugouts. You no doubt have heard the recitations of the theory: launch angle, uppercut, sweet spot, barrel, etc, etc. ad nauseum.  Two strike adjustment? Up yours! However, before we go all gaga over the latest genius hitting ideas, perhaps we should consider the thoughts of the last ballplayer to bat .400 for a season.

 

Ted Williams hit a lot of home runs. He belted 521 in his Hall of Fame career with about five seasons off for military service and he compiled a lifetime batting average of .344. I know, batting average prestige has gone the way of the silver dollar but he also had a lifetime on base percentage of .483 so there. When the Splendid Splinter hit .406 in 1941 he struck out 27 times in 606 plate appearances with 37 home runs and 120 runs batted in. The most he struck out was 64 times in his rookie season of 1939. When he hit .388 in 1957 at the age of 38 he struck out 43 times and walked 119 times. For his career, Williams fanned 709 times compared to 2021 walks. Here is Ted in his book The Science of Hitting writing about the two strike adjustment: “You choke up a little bit.  You quit trying to pull…you think about hitting the ball back through the box.” Then, “You can wait longer,you get fooled less, you become more consistent getting good wood on the ball. Psychologically, becoming a good two strike hitter inspires confidence. A batter knows he can still hit with authority. He learns, as I did,that he can cut strikeouts to less than 50 a year.”

 

Some of the other great hitters in history were able to be prolific with the long ball  without gargantuan whiff totals. Henry Aaron launched 755 homers (we don’t know the exit velocity) and batted .305 for his career while being considered a pretty free swinger. Hammerin’ Hank averaged 60 strikeouts a season with a high total of 97 in 1966. Stan Musial hit 475 home runs with a .331 lifetime batting average. When he was 41 years old in 1962, he set a personal high for whiffs with 46. In 1943, at the age of 22, Musial set his low total with 18 strikeouts in 700 plate appearances. His teams won a lot of games. Frank Robinson, whose rookie home run record in the National League was recently surpassed by Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers, hit 586 home runs  with a .294 batting average. He struck out 100 times in 1965 and that was the most of his career. Robinson also walked almost as often as he fanned. So it can be done. Even Reggie Jackson seems like a conservative swinger these days. He was the strikeout king with 2597 but his average of 124 per season while smacking 563 homers seems almost paltry compared to today’s numbers.

Those of us who enjoy base running, hitting the gaps, intelligent bunting, great fielding, and pitchers who can work themselves out of trouble are perhaps being relegated to the old school back of the bus while velocity and pitching changes go through a phase of popularity. I think I’ll go out and hit some rocks.

 

 

 

 

Duck Soup

What a fantastic, and I mean FAN-tastic idea the Players Weekend was! Everyone has a nickname! Little League style jerseys! I never would have guessed that Paul Goldschmidt was “Goldy”. Pretty damned clever. What will those devils in marketing at Major League Baseball think of next? I think that letting lucky fans be base coaches or maybe replay umpires is the next great idea. Baseball Anarchy was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with the head honcho of new ideas for baseball, Scrooge McDuck. We caught up with him, which wasn’t easy, by telephone from the abandoned skyscraper in Chicago that now serves as the cash warehouse for MLB and the first thing we learned, believe it or not, was that they actually do keep all the money in bags that have $ embossed on them. Here, edited for levity, are excerpts from that interview.

 

BA:We remember the days of Schoolboy Rowe, Preacher Roe, Rabbit Maranville and others, but we never would have guessed that every ballplayer today has an actual nickname. How was that discovered?

SMc:We relied a lot on social media. People, even ballplayers, will tell you everything about themselves if you just pay attention. It didn’t end with Blue Moon Odom.

BA: Does it get confusing for the fans when their favorite players appear with not only a different looking uniform but also a different name on their backs?

SMc:There was some of that but, you know, you have to take the bad with the money, I mean, good. Our special pseudo patriotic military stuff on the 4th of July and Memorial Day has taught us that fans will adjust. Many of them are not really watching the game anyway, and the extra jerseys, caps, and other items we sell with these promotions enable us to make large charitable contributions to the various causes like the Owners Retirement Community in the Bahamas and things like that.

BA: We must admit, some of those socks were pretty cool. Why didn’t the umpires participate? Bob Walk made a suggestion that, although their nicknames may not have been usable in a family sport, it might have been okay for the players to call them Blue last weekend.

SMc: Well, the umps decided it would be beneath their dignity. However, next year we will be utilizing little advertising signs on their headsets during replay reviews that will also display their mothers’ maiden names. We think it’s a nice touch.

BA: Well thank you, Mr. McDuck, and we look forward to the next idea to monetize this great game of ours.

Upon Further Review

Upon further review, the no pitch intentional walk is probably a good change. It really doesn’t change things too much , but if the commissioner and all of the other non-playing corporate types really want to speed up the game they might try limiting the length of commercial breaks between innings and my old favorite, limiting the number of pitchers on the rosters to ten.

 

Upon further review, now that Tim Raines finally made it to Cooperstown, let’s get Omar Vizquel into the Hall of Fame. Great defense is often under rated and, when it comes to catchers, shortstops, center fielders, and second basemen, it frequently matters more than play on the offensive side because those are the players making most of the plays for better or worse. Vizquel was not just a shortstop, however. His batting numbers improved tremendously after his first three seasons. He had 2877 hits in his 24 seasons and a lifetime on base percentage of .336. He stole 404 bases. Add those facts to his 11 Gold Glove awards (190 errors in 2968 games or one every 15.6 games) and the entertaining delight with which he gracefully played the game and then reserve this Venezuelan artist a seat in the Hall.

 

Upon further review, it’s a sign that the empire is not declining as rapidly as we had thought since the winner of the All Star game once again has no effect on home field advantage in the World Series. However, rotating between the two leagues was better than the best overall  record method of determining home field advantage since there is no such thing as a balanced schedule. The trend lately has been to blend the two leagues together except for the horribly ridiculous designated sitter thing. They use the same umpires for the National and American Leagues. There is apparently a rule that all ballparks in each league must treat the paying customers as if they all fell off a roof or dump truck and suffered brain damage.That has to be why they use electronic messages instructing them to “make some noise” or cue the organ for the intellectually stimulating “Let’s Go (insert team nickname here)” chant while at the same time the public address system needs to play inappropriate very loud “music” so that it’s difficult to remember why we’re all there. So maybe we could differentiate a little, like maybe having the National League confine itself to more natural baseball sounds while the American League goes apeshit with over amplified video game noises and AC/DC.

 

Upon further review, it is heartwarming to see a good guy and a strong player like Giancarlo Stanton having a wildly successful season after the tough luck he in particular and the Marlins as a team have had in recent seasons. They have been moving up in the standings too and can look forward to 2018 under new ownership. Sort of the feel good story of the year, and I hope I haven’t jinxed them.

 

 

 

Trial Separation

Let us be clear about one thing: I am not one of those front runner type dweebs who likes his team when they are winning and goes out and buys their cap to wear around and then, when hard times hit, loses the cap. I did not grow up being a fan of the Giants. In fact, I disliked the Giants, except for Willie Mays, basically because they were in New York and Leo Durocher seemed like a bad person. When I moved to San Francisco in 1973, it became easy to like the Giants because there was the radio and the incomparable, funny Lon Simmons and the young Al Michaels and Joe Angel doing the broadcasts. The team was pretty good, too, with Bobby Bonds, Willie McCovey, the two very good outfielders Gary Mathews and Garry Maddox, and a smattering of good pitching with the aging Dominican dandy Juan Marichal, Ron Bryant, Jim Barr and, in the bullpen, Elias Sosa, Don McMahon, and Billie Jean’s brother Randy Moffitt. They finished third in a good Western Division , 11 games behind the Cincinnati Reds with the Dodgers in between. They played in Richard Nixon’s favorite ballpark, Candlestick. It was more suited to kite flying than baseball, but the average attendance was 10,299 so you could pack a lunch, including beer, take general admission, and then slowly work your way to the seat you really liked. Unlike Warriors games in Oakland, it was good advice to smoke your joint in the parking lot, not in your seat.

 

A lot of people were rather pissed off at the Giants after, early in the previous season, they had traded Willie Mays to the New York Mets for some bad sourdough and a bar of Fels Naptha soap. Not me, though. As a newcomer to the scene, I was happy to become acquainted with my new team. The next several years were mostly losing seasons except for ’78 when, with young Jack Clark and Vida Blue, Bob knepper and the enigmatic Mike Ivie, they contended for most of the season and won 89 games. I stayed true, though, and remained that way  as the mostly losing seasons of the eighties rolled by  and new ownership rescued the team from moving to Florida and then the brilliant signing of Bobby’s son and Dusty Baker made them credible. The tantalizing 1993 season when they were so very good was our reward for sticking with them after the disappointment of getting shredded by Oakland in the ’89 World series .However, the Braves won 104 games to their 103, but no complaining here except about Atlanta getting Fred McGriff  for the stretch run. Then, of course, the roller coaster ride continued even after they got the new ballpark in a much better location. The 2002 Giants made it to the World Series but again lost to another California team, the Tustin Angels. Then came the remarkable three World Championship seasons in five years after they had shed the embarrassment of last few Barry Bonds seasons and seemed to have really settled in with good management that put together rosters of quality athletes with good character and winning attitudes. Now, in 2017, it doesn’t feel that way, and not because they are 43-69.

 

What bugs me is that, after a couple of years of living in the past by constantly referring to 2010, 2012, and 2014 as though we were still playing against the same defeated teams with the same hungry players that had not aged or become comfortable with fat contracts, Giants management, including the esteemed Bruce Bochy, lost its mojo and soul. The last straw for me was cutting a good player and fine human being, Connor Gillaspie and, in the same week, bringing back tired, older than his years, former fan favorite Pablo Sandoval. Even if Sandoval is truly remorseful for his ugly words toward the team after he left for Boston, he is no longer the highly skilled and energetic presence on the field that he was years ago. And even if he regains those skills, they have cut a player the same age who did not bring drama to the clubhouse, who hit well when he received consistent playing time, and , while no Brooks Robinson either, played better defensively than Sandoval. Also, another solid citizen, George Kontos, was let go to the Pirates on waivers while Hunter Strickland, an over rated heaver whose immature bonehead plunking of Bryce Harper led to the concussion injury to Michael Morse, another good clubhouse presence who was trying to be a peace maker, remains on the roster to scowl his way to more and more gopher balls. They say they are going with youth, but none of the young players that have been jerked back and forth from the field to the bench and from the roster to the minors have really been given a chance to show what they can do for more than a couple of days at a time.

 

So they will have to get along without my rooting for them for a while. They won’t miss me. Ever since the new park came along I haven’t been able to afford tickets, and I live too far away now anyway. I was there with them on the car radio and on television at home all this time, enduring all of the repetitive, obnoxious advertising for the love of Kruk and Kuip and what I thought was an enlightened management. I haven’t filed for divorce. This is a trial separation. I am pissed, but this is not football, so I might be back someday.

This, That, and The Other Thing

It’s here. It’s that awful, sick feeling in my stomach that used to hit me every late July or early August when I would be folding newspapers for delivery and the sickening words would be right there in front of me with every step: BACK TO SCHOOL SALE. I would react about like Charlie Brown did when a batter hit his pitch right back to the box and undressed him. I believe the word that came immediately to mind was “shit!” Now, of course, I don’t have to go back to school but I do have to watch helplessly for the coming onslaught of football. Just avoid it, you say. Just watch your baseball and soccer and avert your eyes from 70 to 80 per cent of the sports pages. Sure. Easy as avoiding headlines about the latest from President Tweety. Training camp, oh boy. Thousands of college students eagerly going back to work on their brain damage. Raiders to Vegas, perfect. You can’t avoid it. There was a checker at one of the local markets who always wanted to talk about the 49ers and, before I renounced it all a few years ago I would jump right in. Yeah, don’t worry, Joe (Montana) doesn’t stay hurt for long and besides they still have Steve Young and Bill Walsh will think of something. I tried a couple of times to explain to him that I didn’t follow the Niners or even the game anymore but to no avail. “They were up by two touchdowns when I left for work!”  Oh, who’s that? “The Niners!”  Who are they playing? So it didn’t work. He retired and I miss him now, but not that.

Speaking of school, one of the first hard lessons that a class clown learns is that it’s not good manners to make fun of somebody’s name. After all, even if it is funny, a person really has no control over what he or she has been named, and it’s disrespectful. Plus it might get you a broken nose. I doubt that anyone giggled to his face when introduced to Matt Batts. What the hell, he was a good hitter. Still, I can’t help sharing what I think would be a riot of a bullpen crew. The White Sox recently promoted Aaron Bummer for relief help. He needs to join together with the Cardinals’ Seung Hwan Oh and the Oakland A’s guy Ryan Dull. “Who is that warming up in the pen, Mike?” Duane Kuiper might ask. “Oh” says Krukow. “Didn’t he pitch two innings last night?’  “That was Dull..” “All right, I’ll ask a more interesting question—isn’t he the one with a 7.54 earned run average?”  “Bummer.” Of course, the battery that no one dares make light of these days is Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. And don’t forget, the Dodgers, at least for a brief time a few years ago, really did have Hu on first.

 

Our greatest analytical minds available are trying to explain why we are seeing so many home runs and, simultaneously, so many strikeouts. It makes for dull baseball, some of us think, but theories are always interesting when your favorite team is 31 games out of first place. So let’s do some comparing. Tweety tells all of his wives that they shouldn’t compare, but let’s go for it. Just because,we will compare the 1949 season, the 1999 season, and the current season. 1949 wasn’t exactly the dead ball era. Some guys, like Ralph Kiner and Ted Williams, were hitting lots of home runs. In all, teams hit 945 homers that year. The Brooklyn Dodgers had 152, led by Gil Hodges and Duke Snider with 23 each and Roy Campanella with 22. The New York Giants, led by Bobby Thomson‘s 27, accumulated 147. Those were tops in baseball. The Chicago White Sox, on the other hand, hit 43 as a team, or as many as the Splendid Splinter himself. Pitchers walked more batters than they struck out. The ball was put in play more because, while there were 4.07 walks per game, there were only 3.6 strikeouts per game. The 945 round trippers meant that 0.69 home runs per game occurred. Bases on balls, depending on the circumstances, are not particularly exciting, but I will add that a solo home run in a 12-3 game does not set my heart racing either. Both are more fun than a pitching change, but we’ll stay off that topic today.

Now to party like 1999, when 5.528 home runs were smacked. That was among 30 teams in a 162 game schedule, of course, so the average was 1.14 per game, or almost double the ’49 rate. Walks diminished to 3.68 per game. Strikeouts, however, soared to 6.21 per game, or about the same increase in rate as the homers. Bill James, stay out of this for now.

Now here we are in the 21st century, when ballplayers make enough to buy teams and orthopedic surgeons are all the rage. Right now, as of July 27, 2017, teams are receiving bases on balls at the rate of 3.258 per game, so slightly less than 18 years ago. The home runs are indeed up despite the commissioner’s office relentless attack on the use of performance enhancing drugs. We now get 1.2618 homers per game with a total currently of 3,836. That’s not really that much more than ’99, but what about the K rate? It’s a whopper. So far 25,059 batters have gone down on strikes, an average of 8.243 per game. Okay, now Bill James should explain whether the strikeouts are worth the power. I say probably not.

 

 

Mailing It In

I know that I should be gearing up for the home run derby, but I promised my neighbor that I would whitewash his outhouse. I must admit, I do make a point of watching Giancarlo Stanton bat when the Marlins are on the tube but that is in an actual game. Plus hearing Chris Berman go apoplectic got old years ago.

With about 72 games to go for most major league teams, the magic seems to be missing in 2017. The two Central Divisions have close races going on but the Clevelands and the Cubs aren’t new faces this time. Will the Pirates get hot when Starling Marte returns? Not if they keep pitching the way they have been. It is good to see Andrew McCutchen doing well again, and Felipe Rivero is really good but they can’t seem to get the charcoal going. Kansas City seemed to be resurrecting things but the Dodgers just shut their mouths. Minnesota and Milwaukee remain interesting as they linger around .500 but mostly that’s because everyone else is, too. I would bet that Joe Maddon and Terry Francona  will guide their crews to the top before too long. They do, after all, have the talent, although Chicago’s starting pitchers have not been scary like last year.

Houston and Los Angeles just win, win, win. The Dodgers are more surprising to me  because I never saw Chris Taylor or Cody Bellinger coming. Seattle looked like competition going in but let’s all play for individual stats, it’s over. As for the Rockies and Diamondbacks, well done but, really, done. If Bellinger fades like Joc Pederson did a couple of years ago, Adrian Gonzalez will still be there or they could rent someone. Alex Wood may be a mirage but, again, rent. The Mariners are so disappointing that they are even behind the Whittier Angels.

As for the East, both of those divisions will continue to lead the majors in publicity and ESPN appearances. Everyone says that Washington should worry about their bullpen but I think it may be more practical to work on taking 9-0 leads. And the Bostons have a slim lead but it feels like separation is occurring. As the heat of summer relinquishes its hold on power numbers, the Red Sox offense may make more and more sense. Tampa Bay keeps improving and will be dangerous and it is doubtful that the Yankees will completely collapse, so there remains hope that a real race will continue. Miami, Atlanta, and the Mets could each make noise, but the Nationals , thanks to the rejuvenation of Ryan Zimmerman, have depth.

 

Right now, though, it’s a good time for a break. And the All Star Game is meaningless, as it should be.  Ahhh.

Stealing Signs and Other Felonies

One hundred years ago this July 1,a pitcher named Fred Toney of the Cincinnati Reds pitched a complete game three hitter to beat Pittsburgh 4-1 in the first game of a double header. In the second game of the twin bill, Fred Toney pitched  another complete game three hitter to win, 5-1. Now, I realize that a lot of things have changed since 1917. For instance, Fred Toney was not able to tweet anyone after the victories. Also, Babe Ruth was still pitching then, winning 24 games as a 22 year old southpaw for the Boston Red Sox, and no team in the major leagues scored more than 657 runs for the season, which in 1998 would have taken about a week. Those 657 runs were scored by the World Champion Chicago White Sox, managed by the venerable Pants Rowland and led by slugger Happy Felsch, who hit 6 homers and drove in 102 runs. The playing conditions were very different, according to people who were around at the time. Nevertheless, he allowed only six hits in eighteen innings on one day without, I might add, having his arm fall off.

Toney had a very good career, pitching 2,206 innings in 336 games over a twelve year span, winning 139 games and losing 102 with a lifetime earned run average of 2.69. That 1917 season was probably his peak as he was 24-16 in 42 starts with 31 complete games. Toney was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1888 and was buried there in 1953. He did not have a baseball coach as a youth. His initial training consisted of playing “drop ’em dead” with his friends. Drop ’em dead was a game of throwing fist sized rocks at tin cans mounted on sticks and Fred was apparently skilled at the game, so much so that a furrier from Winchester, Kentucky invited him up there to teach him how to pitch. They did not have a Nintendo version of drop ’em dead in 1917.

 

A couple of major league managers, Andy Green of San Diego and Dave Roberts of LaLa Land,recently got excited about the possibility that base runners on one team were stealing signs and relaying that information to batters. Alex Wood, a Dodgers lefty starter was indiscreet enough to tell an umpire that he was going to “drill” an opposing batter if it didn’t stop. Well. My limited experience playing organized baseball probably affects my judgement here, but I have never understood the outrage. Your runner at second sees the catcher indicate (he thinks) that the location of the pitch should be outside and attempts to convey that information to the hitter. So what? Are you saying that that is cheating? Gosh. Is the hidden ball trick cheating? Is throwing to first to see if the batter was thinking about bunting cheating? Look, just get better at signing, okay? Plus, I’m probably wrong, but I think perhaps that more than a few batters are a little like I was in that 1) they quite possibly don’t see the message; 2) they are not looking anywhere except at the pitcher’s throwing hand and 3)they don’t remember the signs anyway. The anger seems to be real, and it goes back to the earliest days, like the old story that someone was stealing signs for the Giants with binoculars out in center field back in the Polo Grounds days. Whatever. I’m a slow learner sometimes. It took me many years to understand why they call it the hit and run and I am still not completely clear about how to score a fielder’s choice. But come on, people. There are many other issues to get the red ass about.

Like, for instance, the apparent collective insanity about bullpens and “closers”. If the game is on the line in the seventh inning or even earlier, and I am so itchy with hemorrhoids and anxious to show no faith in my starter that I have to amble out to the mound and make a pitching change, I am going to bring in the best pitcher I have available to put out the fire in the game and my butt. I am not “saving” him and hoping that we have a ninth inning lead to protect. That’s just jive, but everybody seems to accept it.

Also, poor to ridiculous attempts at humor by former athletes “back in the studio” on television during and after games. If you can’t be insightful or actually funny, shut up. It’s embarrassing. That means you, Shaquille O’Neal, Pete Rose, and Nick Swisher. This Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about Fred Toney. I’ll be thankful for the wonderful folks at Baseball-Refernce.com for historical information as well.