Category Archives: History

Adrian Nieto’s Unusual Day

White Sox backup catcher Adrian Nieto has done some unusual things in the last few days. To start with, he made the team. That doesn’t sound like much, but as a Rule 5 draft pick, it’s a bit more meaningful than it might be otherwise, and it’s somewhat unusual because he was jumping from A ball to the majors as a catcher. (Sox GM Rick Hahn said he didn’t know of anyone who’d done it in the last 5+ years.)

Secondly, he pinch ran today against the Twins, which is an activity not usually associated with catchers (even young ones). This probably says more about the Sox bench, as he pinch ran for Paul Konerko, who is the worst baserunner by BsR among big league regulars this decade by a hefty margin. Still: a catcher pinch running! How often does this happen?

More frequently than I thought, as it turns out; there were 1530 instances of a catcher pinch running from 1974 to 2013, or roughly 38 times a year. This is about 4% of all pinch running appearances over that time, so it’s not super common, but it’s not unheard of either. (My source for this is the Lahman database, which is why I have the date cutoff. For transparency’s sake, I called a player a catcher if he played catcher in at least half of his appearances in a given year.)

If you connect the dots, though, you’ll realize that Nieto is a catcher made his major league debut as a pinch runner. How often does that happen? As it turns out, just five times previously since 1974 (cross-referencing Retrosheet with Lahman):

  • John Wathan, Royals; May 26, 1976. Wathan entered for pinch hitter Tony Solaita, who had pinch hit for starter Bob Stinson. He came around to score on two hits (though he failed to make it home from third after a flyball to right), but he also grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the 9th. The Royals lost in extra innings, but he lasted 10 years with them, racking up 5 rWAR.
  • Juan Espino, Yankees; June 25, 1982. Espino pinch ran for starter Butch Wynegar with the Yankees up 11-3 in the 7th and was forced at second immediately. He racked up -0.4 rWAR in 49 games spread across four seasons, all with the Yanks.
  • Doug Davis, Angels, July 8, 1988. This one’s sort of cheating, as Davis entered for third baseman Jack Howell after a hit by pitch and stayed in the game at the hot corner; he scored that time around, then made two outs further up. According to the criteria I threw out earlier, though, he counts, as three of the six games he played in that year were at catcher (four of seven lifetime).
  • Gregg Zaun, Orioles; June 24, 1995. Zaun entered for starter Chris Hoiles with the O’s down 3-2 in the 7th. He moved to second on a groundout, then third on a groundout, then scored the tying run on a Brady Anderson home run. Zaun had a successful career as a journeyman, playing for 9 teams in 16 years and averaging less than 1 rWAR per year.
  • Andy Stewart, Royals; September 6, 1997. Ran for starter Mike McFarlane in the 8th and was immediately wiped out on a double play. Stewart only played 5 games in the bigs lifetime.

So, just by scoring a run, Nieto didn’t necessarily have a more successful debut than this cohort. However, as a Sox fan I’m hoping (perhaps unreasonably) that he has a bit better career than Davis, Stewart, and Espino–and hey, if he’s a good backup for 10 or more years, that’s just gravy.

One of my favorite things about baseball is the number of quirky things like this that happen, and while this one wasn’t unique, it was pretty close. When you have low expectations for a team (like this year’s White Sox), you just hope the history they make isn’t too embarrassing.

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Throne of Games (Most Played, Specifically)

I was trawling for some stats on hockey-reference (whence most of the hockey facts in this post) the other day and ran into something unexpected: Bill Guerin’s 2000-01 season. Specifically, Guerin led the league with 85 games played. Which wouldn’t have seemed so odd, except for the fact that the season is 82 games long.

How to explain this? It turns out there are two unusual things happening here. Perhaps obviously, Guerin was traded midseason, and the receiving team had games in hand on the trading team. Thus, Guerin finished with three games more than the “max” possible.

Now, is this the most anyone’s racked up? Like all good questions, the answer to that is “it depends.” Two players—Bob Kudelski in 93-94 and Jimmy Carson in 92-93—played 86 games, but those were during the short span of the 1990s when each team played 84 games in a season, so while they played more games than Guerin, Guerin played in more games relative to his team. (A couple of other players have played 84 since the switch to 82 games, among them everyone’s favorite Vogue intern, Sean Avery.)

What about going back farther? The season was 80 games from 1974–75 to 1991–92, and one player in that time managed to rack up 83: the unknown-to-me Brad Marsh, in 1981-82, who tops Guerin at least on a percentage level. Going back to the 76- and 78-game era from 1968-74, we find someone else who tops Guerin and Marsh, specifically Ross Lonsberry, who racked up 82 games (4 over the team maximum) with the Kings and Flyers in 1971–72. (Note that Lonsberry and Marsh don’t have game logs listed at hockey-reference, so I can’t verify if there was any particularly funny business going on.) I couldn’t find anybody who did that during the 70 game seasons of the Original Six era, and given how silly this investigation is to begin with, I’m content to leave it at that.

What if we go to other sports? This would be tricky in football, and I expect it would require being traded on a bye week. Indeed, nobody has played more than the max games at least since the league went to a 14 game schedule according to the results at pro-football-reference.

In baseball, it certainly seems possible to get over the max, but actually clearing this out of the data is tricky for the following two reasons:

  • Tiebreaker games are counted as regular season games. Maury Wills holds the raw record for most games played with 165 after playing in a three game playoff for the Dodgers in 1962.
  • Ties that were replayed. I started running into this a lot in some of the older data: games would be called after a certain number of innings with the score tied due to darkness or rain or some unexplained reason, and the stats would be counted, but the game wouldn’t count in the standings. Baseball is weird like that, and no matter how frustrating this can be as a researcher, it was one of the things that attracted me to the sport in the first place.

So, those are my excuses if you find any errors in what I’m about to present; I used FanGraphs and baseball-reference to spot candidates. I believe there’s only been a few cases of baseball players playing more than the scheduled number of games when none of the games fell into those two problem categories mentioned above. The most recent is Todd Zeile, who, while he didn’t play in a tied game, nevertheless benefited from one. In 1996, he was traded from the Phillies to the Orioles after the O’s had stumbled into a tie, thus giving him 163 games played, though they all counted.

Possibly more impressive is Willie Montanez, who played with the Giants and Braves in 1976. He racked up 163 games with no ties, but arguably more impressive is that, unlike Zeile, Montanez missed several opportunities to take it even farther. He missed one game before being traded, then one game during the trade, and then two games after he was traded. (He was only able to make it to 1963 because the Braves had several games in hand on the Giants at the time of the trade.)

The only other player to achieve this feat in the 162 game era is Frank Taveras, who in 1979 played in 164 games; however, one of those was a tie, meaning that according to my twisted system he only gets credit for 163. He, like Montanez, missed an opportunity, as he had one game off after getting traded.

Those are the only three in the 162-game era. While I don’t want to bother looking in-depth at every year of the 154-game era due to the volume of cases to filter, one particular player stands out. Ralph Kiner managed to put up 158 games with only one tie in 1953, making him by my count the only baseball player to play three meaningful games more than his team did in baseball since 1901.

Now, I’ve sort of buried the lede here, because it turns out that the NBA has the real winners in this category. This isn’t surprising, as the greater number of days off between games means it’s easier for teams to get out of whack and it’s more likely than one player will play in every game. Thus, a whole host of players have played more than 82 games, led by Walt Bellamy, who put up 88 in 1968-69. While one player got to 87 since, and a few more to 86 and 85, Bellamy stands alone atop the leaderboard in this particular category. (That fact made it into at least one of his obituaries.)

Since Bellamy is the only person I’ve run across to get 6 extra games in a season and nobody from any of the other sports managed even 5, I’m inclined to say that he’s the modern, cross-sport holder of this nearly meaningless record for most games played adjusted for season length.

Ending on a tangent: one of the things I like about sports records in general, and the sillier ones in particular, is trying to figure out when they are likely to fall. For instance, Cy Young won 511 games playing a sport so different from contemporary baseball that, barring a massive structural change, nobody can come within 100 games of that record. On the other hand, with strikeouts and tolerance for strikeouts at an all-time high, several hitter-side strikeout records are in serious danger (and have been broken repeatedly over the last 15 years).

This one seems a little harder to predict, because there are factors pointed in different directions. On the one hand, players are theoretically in better shape than ever, meaning that they are more likely to be able to make it through the season, and being able to play every game is a basic prerequisite for playing more than every game. On the other, the sports are a lot more organized, which would intuitively seem to decrease the ease of moving to a team with meaningful games in hand on one’s prior employer. Anecdotally, I would also guess that teams are less likely to let players play through a minor injury (hurting the chances). The real wild card is the frequency of in-season trades—I honestly have no rigorous idea of which direction that’s trending.

So, do I think someone can take Bellamy’s throne? I think it’s unlikely, due to the organizational factors laid out above, but I’ll still hold out hope that someone can do it—or at least, finding new players to join the bizarre fraternity of men playing more games than their teams.

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.

Tied Up in Knots

Apologies for the gap between posts–travel and whatnot. I’ll hopefully have some shiny new content in the future. A narrow-minded, two part post inspired by the Bears game against the Vikings today:

Part I: The line going into the game was pick ’em, meaning no favorite. This means that a tie (very much on the table) would have resulted in a push. Has a tie game ever resulted in a push before?

As it turns out, using Pro Football Reference’s search function, there have been 19 ties since the overtime rule was introduced in the NFL in 1974, and none of them were pick ’em. (Note: PFR only has lines going back to the mid-1970s, so for two games I had to find out if there was a favorite from a Google News archive search.) (EDIT: Based on some search issues I’ve had, PFR may not list any games as pick ’ems. However, all of the lines were at least 2.5 points, so if there’s a recording error it isn’t responsible for this.)

Part II has to do with ties, specifically consecutive ones. Since 1974, unsurprisingly, no team has tied consecutive games. Were the Vikings, who were 24 seconds 1:47 shy of a second tie, the closest?

Only two teams before the Vikes have even had a stretch of two overtime games with one tie, both in 1986. The Eagles won a game on a QB sneak at 8:07 of OT a week before their tie, in a game that seems very odd now–the Raiders fumbled at the Philly 15 and had it taken back to the Raiders’ 4, after which the Eagles had Randall Cunningham punch it in. Given that the coaches today chose to go with field goal tries of 45+ even before 4th down, it’s clear that risk calculations with respect to kicking have changed quite a bit.

As for the other team, the 49ers lost on a field goal less than four minutes into overtime the week before their 1986 tie. Thus, the Vikings seem to have come well closer to consecutive ties than any other team since the merger.

Finally, a crude estimate of the probability a team would tie two consecutive games in a row. (Caveats follow at the end of the piece.) Assuming everything is independent (though realistically it’s not), we figure a tie occurs roughly 0.207% of the time, or roughly 2 ties for every thousand games played. Once again assuming independence (i.e. that a team that has tied once is no more likely to tie than any other), we figure the probability of consecutive ties in any given pair of games to be 0.0004%, or 1 in 232,000. Given the current status of an 32 team league in which each team plays 16 games, there are 480 such pairs of games per year.

Ignoring the fact that a tie has to have two teams (not a huge deal given the small probabilities we’re talking about), we would figure there is about a 0.2% chance that a team in the NFL will have two consecutive ties in a given year, meaning that we’d expect 500 seasons in the current format to be played before we get a streak like that.

I’ll note (warning: dull stuff follows) that there are some probably silly assumptions that went into these calculations, some of which—the ones relating to independence—I’ve already mentioned. I imagine that baseline tie rate is probably wrong, and I imagine it’s high. I can think of two things that would make me underestimate the likelihood of a tie: one is the new rules, which by reducing the amount of sudden death increase the probability that teams tie. The other is that I’ve assumed there’s no heterogeneity across teams in tie rates, and that’s just silly—a team with a bad offense and good defense, i.e. one that plays low scoring games, is more likely to play close games and more likely to have a scoreless OT. Teams that play outside, given the greater difficulty of field goal kicking, probably have a similar effect. Some math using Jensen’s inequality tells us that the heterogeneity will probably increase the likelihood that one team will do it.

However, those two changes will have a much smaller impact, I expect, than that of increasing field goal conversion rates and a dramatic increase in both overall points scored and the amount of passing that occurs, which makes it easier for teams to get more possessions in one OT. Given the extreme rarity of the tie, I don’t know how to empirically verify these suppositions (though I’d love to see a good simulation of these effects, but I don’t know of anyone who has one for this specific a scenario), but I’ll put it this way: I wouldn’t put money down at 400-1 that a team would tie twice in a row in a given year. I don’t even think I’d do it at 1000-1, but I’d certainly think about it.

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.