Category Archives: Trivia

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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The Joy of the Internet, Pt. 2

I wrote one of these posts a while back about trying to figure out which game Bunk and McNulty attend in a Season 3 episode of The Wire. This time, I’m curious about a different game, and we have a bit less information to go on, so it took a bit more digging to find.

The intro to the Drake song “Connect” features the call of a home run being hit. Given that it probably required getting the express written consent of MLB for this sample, my guess is that he got it recorded by an announcer in the studio (as he implies around the 10:30 mark of this video). Still, does it match any games we have on record?

To start, I’m going to assume that this is a major league game, though there’s of course no way of knowing for sure. From the song, all we get is the count, the fact that it was a home run, the direction of the home run, and the name of the outfielder.  The first three are easy to hear, but the fourth is a bit tricky—a few lyrics sites (including the description of the video I linked) list it as “Molina,” but that can’t be the case, as none of the Molinas who’ve played in the bigs played the outfield.

RapGenius, however, lists it as “Revere,” and I’m going to go with that, since Ben Revere is an active major league center fielder and it seems likely that Drake would have sampled a recent game. So, can we find a game that matches all these parameters?

I first checked for only games Revere has played against the Blue Jays, since Drake is from Toronto and the RapGenius notes say (without a source) that the call is from a Jays game. A quick check of Revere’s game logs against the Jays, though, says that he’s never been on the field for a 3-1 homer by a Jay.

What about against any other team? Since checking this by hand wasn’t going to fly (har har), I turned to play-by-play data, available from the always-amazing Retrosheet. With the help of some code from possibly the nerdiest book I own, I was able to filter every play since Revere has joined the league to find only home runs hit to center when Revere was in center and the count was 3-1.

Somewhat magically, there was only one: a first inning shot by Carlos Gomez against the Twins in 2011. The video is here, for reference. I managed to find the Twins’ TV call via MLB.TV, and the Brewers’ team did the MLB.com video, and (unsurprisingly) neither call fits the sample, though I didn’t go looking for the radio call. Still, the home run is such that it wouldn’t be surprising if either one of the radio calls matched what Drake used, or if it was close and Drake had it rerecorded in such a way that preserved the details of the play.

So, probably through dumb luck, Drake managed to pick a unique play to sample for his track. But even though it’s a baseball sample, I still click back to “Hold On, We’re Going Home” damn near every time I listen to the album.

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.

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.

Man U and Second Halves

During today’s Aston Villa-Manchester United match, Iain Dowie (the color commentator) mentioned that United’s form is improving and that they are historically a stronger team in the second half of the season, meaning that they may be able to put this season’s troubles behind them and make a run either the title or a Champions League spot. I didn’t get a chance to record the exact statement, but I decided to check up on it regardless.

I pulled data from the last ten completed Premier League seasons (via statto.com) to evaluate whether there’s any evidence that this is the case. What I chose to focus on was simply the number of first half and second half points for United, with first half and second half defined by number of games played (first 19 vs. last 19). One obvious problem with looking at this so simply is strength of schedule considerations. However, the Premier League, by virtue of playing a double round robin, is pretty close to having a balanced schedule—there is a small amount of difference in the teams one might play, and there are issues involving home and away, rest, and matches in other competitions, but I expect that’s random from year to year.

So, going ahead with this, has Man U actually produced better results in the second half of the season? Well, in the last 10 seasons (2003-04 – 2012-13), they had more points in the second half 4 times, and they did worse in the second half the other 6. (Full results are in the table at the bottom of the post.) The differences here aren’t huge—only a couple of points—but not only is there no statistically significant effect, there isn’t even a hint of an effect. Iain Dowie thus appears to be blowing smoke and gets to be the most recent commentator to aggravate me by spouting facts without support. (The aggravation in this case is compounded by the fact that this “fact” was wrong.)

I’ll close with two oddities in the data. The first is that, there are 20 teams that have been in the Premiership for at least 5 of the last 10 years, and exactly one has a significant result at the 5% level for the difference between first half and second half. (Award yourself a cookie if you guessed Birmingham City.) This seems like a textbook example of multiplicity to me.

The second, for the next time you want to throw a real stumper at someone, is that there is one team in the last 16 years (all I could easily pull data for) that had the same goal difference and number of points in the two halves of the season. That team is 2002-03 Birmingham City; I have to imagine that finishing 13th with 48 points and a -8 goal difference is about as dull as a season can get, though they did win both their Derby matches (good for them, no good for this Villa supporter).

Manchester United Results by Half, 2003—2012
Year First Half Points Second Half Points Total Points First Half Goal Difference Second Half Goal Difference Total Goal Difference
2003 46 29 75 25 4 29
2004 37 40 77 17 15 32
2005 41 42 83 20 18 38
2006 47 42 89 31 25 56
2007 45 42 87 27 31 58
2008 41 49 90 22 22 44
2009 40 45 85 22 36 58
2010 41 39 80 23 18 41
2011 45 44 89 32 24 56
2012 46 43 89 20 23 43

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.

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?