Category Archives: Baseball

Casey Stengel: Hyperbole Proof

Today, as an aside in Jayson Stark’s column about replay:

“I said, ‘Just look at this as something you’ve never had before,'” Torre said. “And use it as a strategy. … And the fact that you only have two [challenges], even if you’re right — it’s like having a pinch hitter.’ Tony and I have talked about it. It’s like, ‘When are you going to use this guy?'”

But here’s the problem with that analogy: No manager would ever burn his best pinch hitter in the first inning, right? Even if the bases were loaded, and Clayton Kershaw was pitching, and you might never have a chance this good again.

No manager would do that? In the same way that no manager would ramble on and on when speaking before the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee. That is to say, Casey Stengel would do it. Baseball Reference doesn’t have the best interface for this, and it would have taken me a while to dig this out of Retrosheet, but Google led me to this managerial-themed quiz, which led me in turn to the Yankees-Tigers game from June 10, 1954. Casey pinch hit in the first inning—twice! I’m sure there are more examples of this, but this was the first one I could find.

Casey Stengel: great manager, and apparently immune to rhetorical questions.


The Joy of the Internet

One of the things I love about the Internet is that you can use the vast amounts of information to research really minor trivia from pop culture and sports. In particular, there’s something I find charming about the ability to identify exact sporting (or other) moments from various works of fiction—for instance, Ice Cube’s good day and the game Ferris Bueller attended.

I bring this up because I finally started watching The Wire (it’s real good, you should watch it too) and, in a scene from the Season 3 premiere, McNulty and Bunk go to a baseball game with their sons. This would’ve piqued my interest regardless, because it’s baseball and because it’s Camden Yards, but it’s also a White Sox game, and since the episode came out a year before the White Sox won the series, it features some players that I have fond memories of.

So, what game is it? As it turns out, we only need information about the players shown onscreen to make this determination. For starters, Carlos Lee bats for the Sox:

Carlos Lee

This means the game can’t take place any later than 2004, as Lee was traded after the season. (Somewhat obvious, given that the episode was released in 2004, but hey, I’m trying to do this from in-universe clues only.) Who is that who’s about to go after the pop up?

Javy Lopez

Pretty clearly Javy Lopez:

Lopez Actual

Lopez didn’t play for the O’s until 2004, so we have a year locked down. Now, who threw the pitch?

Sidney Ponson

Sidney Ponson, everyone’s favorite overweight Aruban pitcher! Ponson only pitched in one O’s-Sox game at Camden Yards in 2004, so that’s our winner: May 5, 2004. A White Sox winner, with Juan Uribe having a big triple, Billy Koch almost blowing the save, and Shingo Takatsu—Mr. Zero!—getting the W.

One quick last note—a quick Google reveals that I’m far from the first person to identify this scene and post about it online, but I figured it’d be good for a light post and hey, I looked it up myself before I did any Googling.

Don’t Wanna Be a Player No More…But An Umpire?

In my post about very long 1-0 games, I described one game that Retrosheet mistakenly lists as much longer than it actually was–a 1949 tilt between the Phillies and Cubbies. Combing through Retrosheet initially, I noticed that Lon Warneke was one of the umpires. Warneke’s name might ring a bell to baseball history buffs as he was one of the star pitchers on the pennant winning Cubs team of 1935, but I had totally forgotten that he was also an umpire after his playing career was up.

I was curious about how many other players had later served as umps, which led me to this page from Baseball Almanac listing all such players. As it turns out, one of the other umpires in the game discussed above was Jocko Conlan, who also had a playing career (though not nearly as distinguished as Warneke’s). This raises the question: how many games in major league history have had at least two former players serve as umpires?

The answer is 6,953–at least, that’s how many are listed in Retrosheet. (For reference, there have been ~205,000 games in major league history.) That number includes 96 postseason games as well. Most of those are pretty clustered, for the simple reason that umpires will ump most of their games in a given season with the same crew, so there won’t be any sort of uniformity.

The last time this happened was 1974, when all five games of the World Series had Bill Kunkel and Tom Gorman as two of the men in blue. (This is perhaps more impressive given that those two were the only player umps active at the time, and indeed the last two active period–Gorman retired in 1976, Kunkel in 1984.) The last regular season games with two player/umps were a four game set between the Astros and Cubs in August 1969, with Gorman and Frank Secory the umps this time.

So, two umpires who were players is not especially uncommon–what about more than that? Unfortunately, there are no games with four umpires that played, though four umpires in a regular season game didn’t become standard until the 1950s, and there were never more than 5-7 umps active at a time after that who’d been major league players. There have, however, been 102 games in which three umpires had played together–88 regular season and 14 postseason (coincidentally, the 1926 and 1964 World Series, both seven game affairs in which the Cardinals beat the Yankees).

That 1964 World Series was the last time 3 player/umps took the field at once, but that one deserves an asterisk, as there are 6 umps on the field for World Series games. The last regular season games of this sort were a two game set in 1959 and a few more in 1958. Those, however, were all four ump games, which is a little less enjoyable than a game in which all of the umps are former players.

That only happened 53 times in total (about 0.02% of all MLB games ever), last in October 1943 during the war. There’s not good information available about attendance in those years, but I have to imagine that the 1368 people at the October 2, 1943 game between the A’s and Indians didn’t have any inkling they were seeing this for the penultimate time ever.

Two more pieces of trivia about players-turned-umpires: only two of them have made the Hall of Fame–Jocko Conlan as an umpire (he only played one season), and Ed Walsh as a player (he only umped one season).

Finally, this is not so much a piece of trivia as it is a link to a man who owns the trivia category. Charlie Berry was a player and an ump, but was also an NFL player and referee who eventually worked the famous overtime 1958 NFL Championship game–just a few months after working the 1958 World Series. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, do they?

Justice, Unobstructed

There’s already been a large amount of figurative ink spillage about this, but I wanted to throw in a couple of thoughts. The first is that I’m of the opinion the call is unimpeachably accurate, though one can probably make a reasonable argument that a no-call would also have been correct. The rest of the thoughts are more about the reactions to the call.

An awful lot of people have been criticizing Saltalamacchia for throwing to third. While it (obviously) didn’t turn out well, I don’t think it’s quite as unambiguous as others do. Craig was safe by a pretty small margin, and if Salty had had a bit of a quicker release I think he could have had him. Middlebrooks probably should have caught it, also. Rob Neyer has a more thorough breakdown of all of this.

While the process was not perfect, though, I’m fairly certain that if Craig had been out at third or Middlebrooks had caught it, nobody would have said anything about the throw. I know that we can’t (and shouldn’t) ignore results entirely, because that’s why they play the games, but I’m pretty sure nobody would have ever said anything about that throw if Middlebrooks makes the catch, and that’s a shame for Saltalamacchia, who’s the goat in this scenario.

Also in the process/results bucket: from a baseball standpoint, Molina should have clobbered Saltalamacchia, which I haven’t seen anyone point out. (I say from a baseball standpoint because I can see broader philosophical objections to home plate collisions, even if they’re legal.) Sliding, he’s guaranteed to be out, and there’s a slight possibility that Craig is out and the inning is over. (There’s also a veeeeeeeeery slight possibility that the ball gets thrown away and Craig scores on obstruction. Baseball’s weird.) If he does the full charge into Salty, he scores with a dropped ball, and either way he definitely prevents a throw to third, functionally guaranteeing that Craig gets in safe. He got really lucky, but it’s still a baserunning error.

Finally, a bit of philosophical musing. There’s a healthy undercurrent of people saying “let the players decide the game, not the umps,” though less in this case than in other games. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s a crock of shit. For one, not making a call has just as much of an effect as making a call. For another, that philosophy rewards teams for going a little over the line with the knowledge that the penalty can’t match the crime, which usually degrades the quality of play and is unfair to the rule-abiding team. This leads to things like the holding on the Ravens intentional safety in the Super Bowl, endless moving screens in basketball, and defenders’ mugging forwards in the box on restarts in soccer because they know the ref won’t call the PK. It’s unsightly and unfair, and we shouldn’t encourage it.

The only time I can think of that the rules should maybe be called differently at crucial times is when the rules are intended to govern a part of the game that’s not really related to who wins and loses. The best example of this is the Pine Tar Game, where the rule was so clearly unrelated to Brett’s home run that it was moronic to alter a game outcome because of it. Other examples are things like time wasting and decorum calls in tennis (though those are hazier), the Jim Schwartz rule, and potentially broader safety rules like the pushing penalty in last week’s Pats-Jets game. If there’s no competitive advantage derived, then maybe don’t call the foul.

All told, it’s pretty hard to say that the Red Sox didn’t derive a competitive advantage, so I’m damn glad Joyce and DeMuth made the call. Maybe the NBA refs can take a hint.

Notes on Long Games, Part I

Game 1 of the ALCS was one of those games that make baseball (and all sports, really) so great. It was an immensely important game, a near no-hitter (which would have been the first combined no-hitter in postseason history), and a 1-0 game, keeping the tension up for all nine innings. There’s something I’ve always found charming and pure about 1-0 games (whether in soccer, baseball, or hockey); they tend toward the intense, fluid, and (usually) quick.

Game 1, however, was anything but quick, lasting four minutes shy of four hours. It’s a nationally televised game, the Red Sox have a rep for playing slowly, and there were a hefty number of pitching changes. Still, it’s a ridiculous length of time for a 1-0 game, especially a one hitter.

As it turns out, that was the longest 9 inning 1-0 game on record by a margin of 36 minutes, or 15%, which is an astonishingly large leap. (Retrosheet has confirmed this.) I was curious about the prior record holder, so I did some digging, the results of which below. (All info comes from Retrosheet or Baseball Reference, more about which at the bottom of the post.)

There’s now a tie for #2 on the list; one of those games is a 3:20 1997 game between the Brewers and A’s. It’s a bit easier to see why this game lasted so long: there were a combined 341 pitches thrown, 19 more than 2013 ALCS Game 1. (14 walks were issued and 22 runners were left on base, so I imagine it was a pretty ugly game.) A writeup for the game says it was the longest 9 inning 1-0 game in history.

The other 3:20 game? There were only 270 pitches thrown, but it was in the postseason, so that probably accounts for some of it. Either way, it’s maybe my favorite game I’ve ever watched. Yeah, it’s Game 4 of the 2005 World Series. Unsurprisingly, the record was not the lede in any of the recaps I read. (One cause of the length might be things like Carl Everett’s taking about 75 seconds from the time of the previous out to see his first and only pitch (see 1:57:48 of the video). Guess he was moving like a dinosaur.)

One further note: Retrosheet actually lists two 1-0, 9 inning games as having lengths longer than 3:20 before this week. The first was the game between the Phillies and Cubs on July 19, 1949 listed at 3:34. The game looked otherwise entirely ordinary, and in fact, digging through the NYT archives finds a time of game of 1:54. If I had to guess, 1:54 became 5:14 became 214 minutes. The other game—the second of a doubleheader between the Phillies and Brooklyn Robins in 1917, also has the wrong time listed per the NYT archive (note the amusing old-timey recap in the latter link). Here it appears 2:06 became 206. I’ve reached out to Retrosheet and will hopefully have those corrected soon.

Check back in the near future for more on baseball game length.

Doing the Splits with Josh Hamilton

I’m in the course of looking at some splits for active players (mostly day/night splits) and came across something I found interesting.

The link is Josh Hamilton’s statistics during day games by year. (All numbers in this post come from b-r.) The thing I keyed in on is tOPS+, which is his OPS relative to his overall OPS–100 would be equal, and 120, say, would be a 20% increase. Here’s that number in day games over his career, with the number of day plate appearances in parentheses:

36 (85), 73 (172), 108 (96), 59 (145), 49 (143), 112 (169), 101 (182).

Now, that’s a pretty dramatic uptick in the last two years, but this is a player known for his volatility (in more than one sense), and we’re not looking at huge samples. Is there a simple explanation? At first, it seems so:

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton walked into the clubhouse wearing contact lenses that made his eye look red on Friday. His hope is that they can cut down in the amount of light and help him see the ball better during the day.

That quote is from ESPN Dallas, dated June 24, 2011.

Is this evidence that those stats aren’t a fluke, or (alternatively) evidence that the red contacts aren’t total quackery?

Of course, it’s not simple. For one, there’s no information I could find suggesting that he actually kept wearing them.* Moreover, some of that difference probably is just randomness, since his BABIP was 100 points higher in night games that year. Relatedly, his SLG was about 300 points higher as well–which is a sign he was making much better contact, though it could just be luck. (I couldn’t find his Line Drive % split by Day/Night, but a higher LD% would account for both SLG and BABIP.) Perhaps most importantly, Hamilton actually played about half his 2011 day games after he got the lenses, and still wound up with that awful split.

Still, the fact remains that his (relative) performance went from really awful to respectable after this. The most obvious reason it evened out, though, is that his nighttime strikeout rate almost doubled (2011: 13.4%, 2012: 25.5%, 2013: 24.2%), while his daytime strikeout rate stayed the same (2011: 28.0%, 2012: 25.4%, 2013: 26.4%).

If you’re a believer in the contacts, you’d say that he’s gotten worse overall, but that overall backsliding was counteracted by his daytime improvement, so his splits normalized. If you’re skeptical, especially since he probably hasn’t been wearing the contacts, you say that there was a lot of luck in that 2011 split and that this is regression to the mean. I’m inclined to go with the latter, not least because it’s much simpler.

However, I’m on the fence as to whether Hamilton actually is a worse hitter during day games. On the one hand, he’s got a season and a half of data and the second worst split among active players with at least 600 day at-bats. On the other hand, there’s a 40 point differential in BABIP that I’m fairly willing to chalk up to luck, and there are major multiplicity concerns when you pull one split for one player out of the vast morass of baseball data. I’m inclined to file this whole thing away as an example of the difficulties of trying to do rigorous data work: sometimes you see an interesting nugget in the data and think you have a great explanation, and then it evaporates when you do a bit more digging. C’est la vie.

*This is a big deal, and probably enough to nullify any conclusions I could draw. I kept going just for the hell of it.

Tim McCarver and Going the Other Way

During the Tigers-Red Sox game last night, Tim McCarver said he thought it was a little odd that the Tigers would bring in lefty Drew Smyly to face David Ortiz while also leaving the shift on, since lefties are more likely to go to the opposite field against a left-handed pitcher. (At the very least, I know he said this last part. Memory is a tricky thing, and I’m now not sure whether he said this about Ortiz or someone else, possibly Alex Avila.) Being Tim McCarver, he didn’t say why this might be true, nor did he cite a source for this information, putting this firmly in the realm of obnoxious hypotheses.

The first question is whether or not this is true. For that, there are these handy aggregated spray charts, courtesy Brooks Baseball.

David Ortiz Aggregated Spray Charts by Pitcher Handedness, 2007–2013

Alex Avila Aggregated Spray Charts by Pitcher Handedness, 2007–2013

Based on these data, I have to say it seems like McCarver’s assertion is true: they are slightly more likely to go to left against a left-handed pitcher. I don’t have enough information to say if the differences are either statistically significant (I’d guess it is, given the number of balls these guys have put into play in the last  5-7 years) or practically significant (I kinda doubt it). Regardless of the answer, though, the fact remains that the appropriate thing to do is to bring in the lefty and shift slightly less drastically, so who knows why McCarver brought this up to begin with. After all, Ortiz hits drastically worse against lefties (his OPS against lefties is 24% smaller than his lifetime rate, via baseball-reference), as does Avila (36%).

There’s also the question of why this might be true, and in fairness to McCarver, there are some pretty plausible mechanisms for what he was saying. One is that a breaking pitch from a left-hander is more likely to be on the outer part of the plate for a left-handed batter than a similar pitch from a right-handed batter, and outside pitches are more likely to get hit the other way. Another is that left-handed batters can’t pick up a pitch as easily against a left-handed pitcher, so they are more likely to make late contact, which is in turn more likely to go to the opposite field. I can’t necessarily confirm either of these mechanisms empirically, though looking at Brooks splits for Avila and Ortiz suggests that the fraction of outside pitches they see against left-handers is about 3 percentage points larger than the fraction against righties.

So, what McCarver said was true (though not terribly helpful), and there are seemingly good reasons for it to be true. I still posted something, though, because this is a great example of something that pisses me off about sports commentators–a tendency to toss out suppositions and not bother with supporting or explaining them. (Another good example of this is Hawk Harrelson.) That tendency, along with their love of throwing out hypotheses that are totally unfalsifiable (McCarver asserting that the pitching coach coming out to the mound is valuable, e.g.), is one of the things I plan to deal with pretty regularly in this space.

(Happy first post, everyone.)