From the Department of Duh

“The decision to acquire Matt Morris last July did not turn out to be a sound baseball judgment”

-Pittsburgh Pirates team president Frank Coonelly

Really?  I’m sure no one could have seen this happen.  I actually had higher hopes for Morris.  I thought he’d at least be able to hold on through the season.  Or maybe that’s lower hopes for Pirates management.

Switching a Ball to a Strike

One of the cool things (ok, I’m a baseball nerd) about analyzing data is how often you discover little interesting facts that you didn’t know before.

While researching my current work on whether catchers have an effect on whether a pitch is called a strike or a ball (look for it tomorrow or Friday at Beyond the Box Score </shameless plug>), I realized I didn’t know what replacing a ball for a strike was really worth. A Google search turned up some information as to the run value of a given count, but not the information I was looking for. So I took a little detour from my planned study and decided to calculate the value myself.

Using data found in this thread at the Book Blog and the 2006 Major League splits from Baseball-Reference, I determined the value of a ball and a strike for every count (from the point of view of the pitcher). The difference between those numbers is the value of switching a ball to a strike at each count. Then I took average of the values at each count weighted by the number of plate appearances at that count to get the final number of .161 runs.

In the interest of full disclosure, and for those who might be interested in the breakdowns, here’s the data.

B S WOBA LW RV Ball RV Strike RV B->S PA Weighted RV
0 0 0.332 0 -0.0339 0.0426 0.0765 188071 0.0217
0 1 0.283 -0.0426 -0.0269 0.0617 0.0886 87779 0.0117
0 2 0.212 -0.1043 -0.02174 0.2007 0.2224 33467 0.0112
1 0 0.371 0.0339 -0.0626 0.0496 0.1122 77323 0.0131
1 1 0.314 -0.0157 -0.0504 0.0670 0.1174 72385 0.0128
1 2 0.237 -0.0826 -0.0461 0.2224 0.2685 48727 0.0197
2 0 0.443 0.0965 -0.1104 0.0617 0.1722 27566 0.0072
2 1 0.372 0.03478 -0.1026 0.0713 0.1739 38594 0.0101
2 2 0.29 -0.0365 -0.0983 0.2685 0.3667 39862 0.0220
3 0 0.57 0.2070 -0.1170 0.0696 0.1866 9512 0.0027
3 1 0.49 0.1374 -0.1866 0.0757 0.2623 16577 0.0066
3 2 0.403 0.0617 -0.2623 0.3667 0.629 23156 0.0220

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.

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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