Blessed are the rule makers

Baseball history is rife with players bending or breaking the rules to gain an advantage. Whether it be John McGraw and the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s cutting across the diamond behind the lone umpire’s back, or Norm Cash corking his bat, or the list of PED users, players will do what they can to win – rightly or wrongly. But this is not a story about rule breakers. Many words chronicling the exploits of the cheaters have already been written by much more talented writers than I. Let’s talk instead of the rule makers – those players whose actions (often creative, but in at least one occurrence tragic) led directly to the implementation of a new rule or the enforcement of an old.

It’s good to be the King

King Kelly is one of the more colorful players in baseball history, and one of its first stars. His Hall of Fame career covered 16 seasons and included active participation in the labor wars in 1890-91. For most of the early part of the game, the rules were fairly fluid and Kelly used that fluidity to his advantage. The story goes that Kelly, then Boston’s captain, was on the bench when a high pop foul was hit. Seeing that the catcher wasn’t going to be able to make the play, Kelly announced, “Now catching for Boston, Kelly” and calmly caught the ball. Under the substitution rules in force at the time, the umpire was forced to allow the play.

As you can imagine, most people, including the league office, determined that while Kelly’s action may have followed the letter of the law, it definitely was contrary to the spirit. So the rule was amended to only allow substitutions between plays.

This was the story I was told growing up. Great story, right? Unfortunately it appears to be apocryphal. It appears that there were no changes to the substitution rule between 1891 (when substitutions were allowed during innings) and 1910 (which covered how substitutions were announced). Still, it’s too good an anecdote to leave out.

You can’t steal first base

Today you most often hear that phrase in relation to a fast leadoff hitter with a low on-base percentage – think Corey Patterson or Juan Pierre. But it wasn’t always that way.

On August 4, 1911, Germany Schaefer, then a member of the Washington Senators, was on first base while another Senator held third. Schaefer took off for second base, hoping to draw a throw from the White Sox catcher, allowing the runner on third to score. The opposing catcher recognized the play, and allowed Schaefer second without a throw. Still thinking about how to get the runner home, Schaefer decided he’d like to try the double steal play again. But a prerequisite for that play is having a runner on first base. So on the next pitch, Schaefer takes off for first base, reaching safely. Sox manager Hugh Duffy was having none of that and rushed out of the dugout to protest. It appears Duffy didn’t wait for the play to complete and time to be called, because the runner on third, Clyde Milan, headed for the plate, where he was tagged out.

This is yet another instance where what I was told as a kid doesn’t match up with reality. The story as I always heard it was that Schaefer successfully stole first, and then on the next pitch, stole second again – this time drawing the throw from the catcher and allowing the run to score. Former Tigers outfielder Davy Jones remembers this happening and retells the story in the book The Glory of Their Times, but it cannot be independently confirmed. I also heard that the rules were changed almost immediately to stop this travesty from occurring again, while, in fact, they weren’t changed until 1920, when rule 7.08i was installed, stating:

After he has acquired legal possession of a base, he runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call “Time” and declare the runner out.

* The details for this section were found at Schaefer’s Wikipedia page.

The pitch that killed

This story takes its name from Mike Sowell’s book about the Carl Mays / Ray Chapman at-bat that ended with Chapman dead. Before the 1920 season, baseball, for the first time, took steps to constrain defacing of the ball. Spitballs, which had been widely used previously, were limited to two pitchers per team. Umpires were expected to remove defaced balls from the game, but were generally more lenient with balls that were discolored by normal use. On August 16 that policy had tragic consequences.

In the 5th inning, Carl Mays of the Yankees was on the mound with the Cleveland Indians’ Ray Chapman at the plate. Chapman tended to crowd the plate and lean out over it a bit – and there was nothing different about this at-bat. Mays, who had a reputation as a bit of a head-hunter even before this incident, wound up and sidearmed the ball up to the plate. Accounts differ about exactly how far off the plate the pitch was (some observers report it being actually over the plate), but no one disputes that the ball hit Chapman solidly on the head – the ball bouncing all the way to the third baseman. Chapman, bleeding heavily from the head wound, was able to leave the field with help from his teammates, but died the next morning in the hospital. Chapman remains the only major league player or coach to be killed as a result of on-field activities. The immediate impact of this catastrophe was to instruct the umpires to remove discolored balls from play, thereby improving the visibility for the batter. This increased visibility not only kept batters safer, but led to an increase in offense, pulling baseball out of the deadball era.

* This section was taken largely from the Baseball Reference Bullpen page on the Chapman beaning.

1/8

In 1951, noted showman Bill Veeck (as in wreck) signed 3 foot 4 inch tall Eddie Gaedel to a major league contract for the St. Louis Browns, intending to use him as a promotion. Between games of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, Gaedel jumped out a cake to a lackluster response. But that was because those in attendance had no idea what he’d do for an encore. Gaedel, wearing a jersey with the number 1/8, entered the game as a pinch hitter. As you might imagine, the Tigers’ pitcher was at a loss for how to pitch to Gaedel. His catcher, Bob Swift offered the helpful advice, “Keep it low.”

Although Gaedel told Veeck he was tempted to swing the bat, he resisted the temptation and kept the bat on his shoulder. Unsurprisingly, he walked on four pitches. After reaching first base to the accompaniment of a standing ovation, Gaedel was removed from the game for a pinch-hitter.

The next day, Gaedel’s contract was voided by the American League president, who chastised Veeck for making a mockery of the game. Veeck’s stunt also led to a rule where the commissioner’s office must approve any contract before the player can appear in a game.

* The information in this section was obtained from Eddie Gaedel’s Wikipedia page.

As time has passed, rules have become more solid and loopholes have gotten smaller and smaller. A part of me still holds out hope, though, that somewhere, a baseball player will figure out a way to take an inch and stretch it into a mile – and that baseball will be forced to react with another rule change.

WOWY – over at Beyond the Box Score

I’ve just posted the next entry in my look at Catcher’s Block Percentage over at Beyond the Box Score.  I’ll be posting there once or twice a week – largely on stats-related work.

I’ll continue to post here, but the topics may shift more towards reactions to news and stories from baseball history rather than stats.

Historical Catcher Block Percentage

Ok, so not so much historical, but at least I can share 2005 and 2006. Joe Arthur clued me into the fact that the GameDay information was still available starting from 2005, so I dutifully went and grabbed the data, so now we have three years to look at.

UPDATE: MGL let me know about what turned out to be a rounding error that was pushing the numbers off a bit. I’ve updated the charts to fix the issue, but things might look a little different than you remember.

For those of you who haven’t been following this series, I’m using the GameDay data to measure how each catcher performed in blocking pitches by looking at their misses (wild pitches + passed balls) and their opportunities (balls in the dirt with runners on base).

Before we get to the results, a couple words of warning. There’s definitely something up with the scoring of balls in the dirt. Each year had widely varying counts for opportunities, as you can see below. If we assume that these scoring differences affected every catcher equally, then we’re ok if compare the runs saved columns since those are based on average numbers. I think this might be a reasonable assumption because the opportunities look to be somewhat depressed for all the catchers in 2006.

Year Opportunities Avg. Block %
2005 9271 .84
2006 7375 .77
2007 11523 .86

Opportunities and Block Percentage By Season

Also, I’m still wary of the effect of pitching staffs and of course random variation. One of the next steps is to try a With or Without You (WOWY) analysis to see if I can tease out the impact of the pitchers.

Enough of the warnings, let’s look at the results. I’ll go year by year, including 2007 for those who don’t want to look back at other posts, and then look at the leaders and trailers over the three seasons (by summing runs per season). Remember, I’m calculating an average block percentage for each season individually. I’m still limiting this to those catchers with more than 100 opportunities and assuming a run value of .27 runs per miss. I’ve changed the sort order to sort by actual runs saved rather than runs per 120, since I think the actual value is more interesting.

2005

Catcher Innings Misses Opportunities Block % Blocks AA Runs Runs/120
Mike Matheny 1122 24 327 0.93 26.93 7.27 6.76
Jason Kendall 1286 34 353 0.9 20.98 5.66 4.4
Gregg Zaun 1088 23 251 0.91 16.09 4.34 5.18
Jason LaRue 914.67 28 271 0.9 14.21 3.84 4.4
Yadier Molina 959.33 27 242 0.89 10.69 2.89 3.61
Mike Lieberthal 998.67 20 193 0.9 10.06 2.72 4.4
Johnny Estrada 826.33 23 211 0.89 9.86 2.66 3.61
Brad Ausmus 1065.67 29 243 0.88 8.85 2.39 2.82
Victor Martinez 1233 24 200 0.88 7.15 1.93 2.82
Gary Bennett 523.33 14 130 0.89 6.25 1.69 3.61
Damian Miller 917.33 33 252 0.87 6.25 1.69 2.03
Toby Hall 1061.67 47 332 0.86 4.71 1.27 1.24
Henry Blanco 422.33 13 108 0.88 3.82 1.03 2.82
Joe Mauer 999.67 26 180 0.86 2.04 0.55 1.24
Geronimo Gil 349.33 17 122 0.86 2 0.54 1.24
Jason Phillips 774 19 132 0.86 1.56 0.42 1.24
Humberto Cota 681.67 28 186 0.85 0.97 0.26 0.45
Brian McCann 449.33 15 102 0.85 0.89 0.24 0.45
Mike Piazza 809.33 15 102 0.85 0.89 0.24 0.45
Paul Lo Duca 1033.33 30 197 0.85 0.68 0.18 0.45
Ramon Hernandez 806 17 100 0.83 -1.42 -0.38 -1.12
Ryan Doumit 422 19 110 0.83 -1.87 -0.5 -1.12
Rod Barajas 1025.33 34 202 0.83 -2.54 -0.69 -1.12
Michael Barrett 1017.67 38 225 0.83 -2.96 -0.8 -1.12
Jorge Posada 1076.67 37 215 0.83 -3.51 -0.95 -1.12
Sal Fasano 417 25 136 0.82 -3.82 -1.03 -1.91
Bengie Molina 873.33 40 231 0.83 -4.02 -1.09 -1.12
Javy Lopez 628.67 26 140 0.81 -4.19 -1.13 -2.7
Jose Molina 480.33 25 133 0.81 -4.28 -1.16 -2.7
Miguel Olivo 690 28 152 0.82 -4.33 -1.17 -1.91
Javier Valentin 508.33 22 111 0.8 -4.71 -1.27 -3.49
Jason Varitek 1089 44 243 0.82 -6.15 -1.66 -1.91
Brian Schneider 926.67 34 169 0.8 -7.68 -2.07 -3.49
J.D. Closser 565.67 24 104 0.77 -7.8 -2.11 -5.85
John Buck 976.67 42 215 0.8 -8.51 -2.3 -3.49
Chad Moeller 520.67 32 145 0.78 -9.42 -2.54 -5.07
Danny Ardoin 591 28 119 0.76 -9.47 -2.56 -6.64
Chris Snyder 915.67 40 191 0.79 -10.25 -2.77 -4.28
Ivan Rodriguez 1032.67 40 159 0.75 -15.24 -4.11 -7.43
A.J. Pierzynski 1117.67 46 181 0.75 -17.81 -4.81 -7.43

Catchers With More than 100 Opportunities in 2005
One big surprise in 2005: Jason Varitek, who the top catcher in 2007, is near the bottom here. He had 44 misses this season, while never having more than 24 in the other two seasons. I thought maybe he had been catching Tim Wakefield more in 2005 than in the other seasons. Turns out that Wake wasn’t the biggest cause of Varitek’s misfortune. Matt Clement actually led to 13 misses for Varitek that season, by far his highest number. This seems to be somewhat of a trend for Clement. Just looking at his WP numbers over the previous seasons he often has at least 10 wild pitches (and 23! in 2000), which puts him near the league leaders. Obviously Clement missed the large majority of 2006 and 2007, reducing Varitek’s misses. This quick look definitely highlights the need for a WOWY study.

Other than that, nothing too surprising. Mike Matheny, long considered a top defensive catcher, is number one. Pudge and Pierzynski are near the bottom. I’m happy to see the range of runs is roughly 12-15, right where it was for 2007.

2006

Catcher Innings Misses Opportunities Block % Blocks AA Runs Runs/120
Brad Ausmus 1124.67 24 202 0.88 21.77 5.88 8.4
Yadier Molina 1037.33 32 231 0.86 20.34 5.49 6.83
Jason Varitek 822.33 24 180 0.87 16.78 4.53 7.61
Brian Schneider 990.33 27 186 0.85 15.14 4.09 6.04
Jason Kendall 1254 39 235 0.83 14.25 3.85 4.46
Brian McCann 1016.33 32 190 0.83 11.05 2.98 4.46
Josh Paul 400.33 46 250 0.82 10.64 2.87 3.67
Damian Miller 840 36 198 0.82 8.86 2.39 3.67
Mike Rivera 352.67 15 101 0.85 7.88 2.13 6.04
Paul Lo Duca 1027 39 195 0.8 5.18 1.4 2.1
Mike Lieberthal 484 21 115 0.82 5.06 1.37 3.67
Gregg Zaun 541.33 21 112 0.81 4.38 1.18 2.88
Mike Napoli 716.33 32 158 0.8 3.8 1.03 2.1
Henry Blanco 526 21 108 0.81 3.47 0.94 2.88
Bengie Molina 842 32 152 0.79 2.44 0.66 1.31
Toby Hall 628 27 126 0.79 1.55 0.42 1.31
Miguel Olivo 971.33 43 193 0.78 0.73 0.2 0.52
Eliezer Alfonzo 700.33 26 117 0.78 0.51 0.14 0.52
Sal Fasano 518 28 124 0.77 0.1 0.03 -0.27
Rod Barajas 825 23 102 0.77 0.11 0.03 -0.27
John Buck 930.33 46 200 0.77 -0.68 -0.18 -0.27
Ivan Rodriguez 1054.33 34 146 0.77 -0.92 -0.25 -0.27
Joe Mauer 1059.33 37 154 0.76 -2.11 -0.57 -1.06
Russell Martin 1015 39 159 0.75 -2.97 -0.8 -1.85
Ramon Hernandez 1094.33 60 247 0.76 -4.04 -1.09 -1.06
A.J. Pierzynski 1125 45 170 0.74 -6.48 -1.75 -2.64
Jorge Posada 1050.67 45 168 0.73 -6.94 -1.87 -3.42
Victor Martinez 1110 38 126 0.7 -9.45 -2.55 -5.79
Jose Molina 603.33 37 121 0.69 -9.58 -2.59 -6.58
Dioner Navarro 653.67 36 113 0.68 -10.4 -2.81 -7.37
Michael Barrett 852 45 150 0.7 -11.01 -2.97 -5.79
Kenji Johjima 1172.67 53 148 0.64 -19.47 -5.26 -10.52

Catchers With More than 100 Opportunities in 2006
Looking at this list makes me question even more the validity of the raw data from 2006. The range from top to bottom is still the same 12-15 runs, but the relative ranking is very different from 2005 and 2007. Of course that could just imply there’s a whole lot of random variation built into this measure, but I think there’s some systematic scoring issue that’s changing things.

2007

Catcher Innings Misses Opportunities Block % Blocks AA Runs Runs/120
Jason Varitek 1064 19 282 0.93 21.5 5.81 5.8
Brad Ausmus 906.67 17 256 0.93 19.77 5.34 5.8
Yadier Molina 861.33 27 315 0.91 18.24 4.92 4.23
Gregg Zaun 838.33 22 260 0.92 15.34 4.14 5.02
Mike Redmond 482.67 7 135 0.95 12.39 3.35 7.38
Gerald Laird 987.33 38 351 0.89 12.41 3.35 2.65
Brian Schneider 1051.33 40 362 0.89 11.99 3.24 2.65
Gary Bennett 370.33 10 139 0.93 9.96 2.69 5.8
Ramon Hernandez 855 32 294 0.89 10.23 2.76 2.65
Yorvit Torrealba 935.33 22 200 0.89 6.73 1.82 2.65
Mike Napoli 598.67 23 205 0.89 6.44 1.74 2.65
Jason Phillips 363.67 10 110 0.91 5.8 1.57 4.23
Damian Miller 446.33 19 172 0.89 5.7 1.54 2.65
Carlos Ruiz 912.67 25 212 0.88 5.45 1.47 1.86
Russell Martin 1254 40 318 0.87 5.67 1.53 1.07
Josh Bard 927.33 24 202 0.88 5.01 1.35 1.86
Chris Iannetta 496.67 12 116 0.9 4.66 1.26 3.44
Jason Kendall 1146 48 372 0.87 5.43 1.47 1.07
Dioner Navarro 956.33 34 270 0.87 4.78 1.29 1.07
Ronny Paulino 277.67 35 275 0.87 4.5 1.22 1.07
Kurt Suzuki 539 25 202 0.88 4.01 1.08 1.86
Jeff Mathis 467 27 214 0.87 3.74 1.01 1.07
John Buck 924.33 32 244 0.87 3.04 0.82 1.07
Johnny Estrada 961 37 267 0.86 1.35 0.36 0.29
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 372.67 16 117 0.86 0.8 0.22 0.29
Brian McCann 1139 34 243 0.86 0.9 0.24 0.29
Matt Treanor 440.67 17 120 0.86 0.24 0.06 0.29
Paul Bako 421 23 162 0.86 0.27 0.07 0.29
Victor Martinez 1042.67 29 204 0.86 0.3 0.08 0.29
Jesus Flores 395.33 15 103 0.85 -0.21 -0.06 -0.5
Chris Snyder 891.33 34 237 0.86 0.04 0.01 0.29
Michael Barrett 768 25 170 0.85 -0.58 -0.16 -0.5
Mike Rabelo 394.67 20 130 0.85 -1.33 -0.36 -0.5
Paul LoDuca 974 24 155 0.85 -1.74 -0.47 -0.5
Jose Molina 492.33 19 117 0.84 -2.2 -0.59 -1.29
Miguel Montero 510.67 22 122 0.82 -4.48 -1.21 -2.87
Jason LaRue 474.33 24 134 0.82 -4.75 -1.28 -2.87
Kenji Johjima 1106.67 40 237 0.83 -5.96 -1.61 -2.08
Javier Valentin 471.67 22 108 0.8 -6.49 -1.75 -4.44
Benji Molina 1104 50 295 0.83 -7.63 -2.06 -2.08
Joe Mauer 777.67 30 142 0.79 -9.61 -2.59 -5.23
Dave Ross 837.33 35 148 0.76 -13.74 -3.71 -7.6
A.J. Pierzynski 1058 44 192 0.77 -16.42 -4.43 -6.81
Jorge Posada 1111.33 61 293 0.79 -18.92 -5.11 -5.23
Miguel Olivo 990.33 65 321 0.8 -18.9 -5.1 -4.44
Ivan Rodriguez 1052.67 58 214 0.73 -27.26 -7.36 -9.96

Catchers With More than 100 Opportunities in 2007
I’ll present 2007 without much comment except to say that I feel more confident in the raw data than in either 2005 or 2006 because of the improvements to the GameDay system. Of course most of the improvements were technological and the scoring decision that leads to a measured opportunity is in the hands of the human stringer.

Leaders and Trailers

As a close, I’ll leave you with the top and bottom three in actual runs saved over the last three seasons.. I’ll admit I eyeballed this a little, so I may have missed someone. Also note that there were a bunch of catchers who might have made these lists but didn’t receive enough opportunities in all three seasons.

The Best:
Brad Ausmus 13.61
Yadier Molina 13.3
Jason Kendall 10.98
The Worst:
Ivan Rodriguez -11.72
A.J. Pierzynski -10.99
Jorge Posada -7.93

Everything You Wanted To Know About Sabermetrics But Were Afraid To Ask

Ever wonder how to calculate BaseRuns?  Or what the different methods of evaluating fielding are?  Or are you looking for a good book to read?

Tangotiger has created a Sabermetrics Wiki that contains those answers and more.   It’s still in the early stage, but there’s some really good information there.  A lot of the articles have been written by PizzaCutter, Patriot, and Tango himself.

If you’ve got a question about the study of baseball, the Wiki is a great place to start.  And if it doesn’t have the answer, why not add it?

In All Things, Balance

I’m currently reading Devices of the Soul by Steve Talbott. The book, subtitled Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines, is about balancing technology and humanity in all areas of life. I wasn’t expecting to find anything relating to baseball in it, but his opening passage struck me:

How is it, then, that we can so easily think of the computer as doing the same thing we do? Only because nearly the entire content of our own activity has fallen from view. It may seem trivial to forget ourselves in the matter of simple additions. But if we greatly increase the sophistication of the calculation, and if we continue to reduce it to the non-human terms of the machine, eventually we arrive at a computer’s-eye-view of the entire world of industry, commerce, and society at large. From this viewpoint it is wonderfully easy to assume, for example, that the financial spreadsheet of a business provides all the information required for making decisions. But where in the numbers do we find the aims and ideals of the founders, managers, and employees? Where do we read about the qualitative impact of the company’s operations upon the local community, consumers and the physical environment? And where do we find the passions and motivations, the intentions and moral impulses, through which we can infuse a business with the light of human consciousness and make of it a vocation, a worthy expression of our lives?

The computer’s automatic logic, necessary and valuable though it may be, sucks all these flesh-and-blood concerns into a vortex of wonderfully effective calculation – so wonderful and so effective that only what is calculable may survive in our awareness.

While I was reading this, I thought of the dichotomy many see in analyzing baseball; captured in the so-called “stats versus scouts” debate. A lot of long-time baseball men, whether they be players, managers, scouts or reporters, feel that their powers of observation outweigh any advanced statistical evidence. And there are analysts and “statheads” who believe that things that cannot be seen in the stat line like chemistry or even minor injuries, have no effect on how a player performs.

Obviously I’m guilty of hyperbole here – very few people are either entirely on one side or the other, but even fewer have achieved the balance that Talbott suggests. Luckily a fair number of them seem to be those in charge of MLB teams – people like Theo Epstein, Mark Shapiro, Josh Byrnes and Kevin Towers to name just a few – those GMs who appear to rely on synthesizing the complementary viewpoints that can only come from looking at a player and, more importantly, a team as the sum of their parts and not as mindless automatons, or the “heart and soul of the clubhouse” for whom projections are meaningless. That balance is something I need to remember and try to incorporate into all aspects of my life – from my job to my enjoyment of baseball.

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