Book Review: The Last Best League

Every year, the top college baseball players gather about 70 miles southeast of Boston to hone their skills and showcase their talents in front of amateur scouts from all 30 Major League Baseball teams. This is the Cape Cod League, the most prestigious of all the college summer leagues, made of 10 teams that play 40-game schedules. In the summer of 2002, Jim Collins chronicled the season for the Chatham A’s of the Cape Cod League.

The A’s manager is John Schiffner, a high school teacher and baseball coach in Plainfield, CT for most of the year. His challenge is to recruit these 19-21 year old prospects by cultivating relationships with Head Coaches from schools all across the country to put together the best team possible. Once assembled, he has to ensure adequate playing time for each of his players in order to appease the head coaches from their respective schools.

In assembling his 2002 roster, Schiffner takes the risky path by recruiting a good number of players who were taken in the June draft. It is often in these players interest to play in the Cape Cod League against a high level of competition while increasing their bargaining leverage. But the downside is, once they sign a professional contract, they become ineligible to play for their Cape team. It’s a bold move since these drafted players are among the most talented, but they can be gone in an instant.

Jim Collins takes you through all that goes into one season in the Cape Cod League. From recruiting players throughout the year, to the volunteers who help procure uniforms, to the host families that take in the ballplayers during their time on the cape. It’s almost as if the entire community is involved in one way or another and they are rewarded with free baseball from the top college players in the country.

Collins also describes the day to day life of the Chatham A’s players. How they are required to find a day job during the season and the relationships they establish with their host families. You learn that while all these players have elite talent for their age, they also all have different motivations, goals, and expectations for their careers.

As a baseball fan, the beauty of reading a book from a decade ago was recognizing and following players that I’ve seen on top prospect lists and even the select few that have made a career in the Major Leagues. Even twelve years later, Tim Stauffer and Chris Ianetta, two Chatham A’s are still in the big leagues. Other future Major Leaguers from around the league are Anthony Gwynn, David Murphy, David Aardsma, and Jeff Niemann.

Brad Ziegler was even viewed as sort of an antagonist. As a member of the 2001 Chatham A’s, he made a comment in the local newspaper that rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way. He would return to the Cape in 2002, but this time with the Harwich Mariners and he would face off against his old team more than once along the way.

The most current release of The Last Best League is the “10th Anniversary Edition” (the book was originally released in 2004). This edition includes a chapter titled “10 Years Later”, which catches up with each of the ’02 Chatham A’s. All throughout the book, I had the urge to hop on the internet and check out how each player fared in professional baseball. Knowing that this chapter was included, I avoided doing any research until after I was finished. These players are still just in their early 30’s, but it’s surprising just how many of them are already out of professional baseball. Jim Collins continually refers to the baseball “pyramid”. By this he means that at every level, only the very best of the best will advance to play at the next level, all the way up to the “tip” of the pyramid, the Major Leagues. Ten years later, it’s easy to see that only a very few make it to the “tip”.

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Book Review: “Down to the Last Pitch”

The 1991 World Series was the first that I remember watching as a kid. My elementary school friend was rooting for the Twins, so naturally, I chose the Braves. While I was in awe of the spectacle and being able to watch the players that I knew from all of my trading cards, I knew very little of what was happening in terms of storylines and strategy. So when I was given a chance to review Tim Wendel’s new book “Down to the Last Pitch”, I jumped at the opportunity.

While the format is simple (one chapter for each game), the book is much more than just seven game recaps. In fact, actual play-by-play narrative only takes up a small percentage of the pages. Wendel goes in and out of the games with backstories on players and each of the clubs involved. While “Down to the Last Pitch” is advertised as a book about the 1991 World Series, it’s really about that AND the game of baseball during the late eighties and early nineties.

There were a couple of instances where the author got a little sidetracked, talking about a subject that had little to do with the rest of the story. For example, he went from Otis Nixon’s cocaine problems to Alan Wiggins and his complications with AIDS. He also spent time on Pete Rose and the Dowd Report, 19th century baseball player turned evangelist Billy Sunday, and kids playing multiple sports. Some of these stories certainly weren’t necessary to the telling of the 1991 World Series, but I enjoyed them and had no problem with their inclusion.

Just about every player who had a role in the series has at least a page or two dedicated to them and their story. Some of course, more than others. Kirby Puckett has almost the entire sixth chapter because Game Six was pretty much his, while John Smoltz and Jack Morris dominate Game Seven and its pages. One of my favorite stories was how Lonnie Smith once had a plot to kill John Schuerholz (his GM with the Royals) and how Schuerholz later became Smith’s GM once again in Atlanta.

This book is for anyone who wants to re-live one of the greatest World Series in history. Or if you are younger than thirty, you can live it for the first time. If you just want what happened on the field, buy the DVD or read the play-by-play on Baseball-Reference.com. But if you want much more than that, you’ll enjoy this book.

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Book Review: “1954″

“1954” is the latest book from J. G. Taylor Spink Award recipient Bill Madden. Madden has covered Baseball for the New York Daily News for over 30 years and his most recent book, Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, was a New York Times Bestseller.

As the title suggests, “1954” chronicles the 1954 Baseball Season. But the first time I read the book’s subtitle “The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever”, I was a little confused. As someone who spends a large amount of time researching and reading about Baseball History, I’ve never equated the year 1954 with this subtitle. Sure, it was Mays’ first full season that included an MVP and “The Catch”, the rookie seasons for Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, and Larry Doby helped lead the Indians to an American League record 111 wins. However, in reading the story of the 1954 season, I was never truly convinced that this was the case. While there’s no denying the impact of African Americans during the 1954 season, I’m not sure that this was THE season that changed Baseball.

Aside from the minor issue with the subtitle, I thoroughly enjoyed “1954”. Madden chose a season from his childhood, one that includes a dominant team that finally overtook the Yankees and possibly the most famous play in Baseball history. He spends a lot of time introducing the many characters and giving their back stories (In fact, the season doesn’t even start until page 112). But this is necessary, because Baseball was undergoing a lot of changes in the decade after WWII. Changes such as franchises shifting to different cities for the first time in over a half century and most importantly, the integration of Major League Baseball. Integration certainly was not complete once Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby made their debuts, and Madden makes sure to detail the progress and show how some teams (like the Yankees) were reluctant to integrate.

There is a lot of focus on the three New York teams and their situations. Some readers might complain of “New York bias” by a New York writer since so much time is spent on the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers. But this is clearly not the case as all three teams and their stories are vital. You could not write this book without going into great detail on people like Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Jackie Robinson and Walter Alston. The astute Baseball fan can easily point out how these teams dominated the entire decade of the 1950’s.

A good number of Baseball books make the mistake of filling their pages with countless game and play by play accounts, to the point that they can become monotonous and start to run together. That’s certainly not an issue in “1954”. Madden chose the most important games and events (including the Giants and Indians World Series) and kept them interesting without losing focus.

I would have preferred that the book gave the reader a better sense of how life was during the 1950’s by touching on more non-Baseball events. It discusses Brown vs Board of Education, Hotel Desegregation, pop culture, and even a murder trial, but I personally wanted a little more. But this is nitpicking and ultimately it’s a Baseball book and that is certainly what you will get.

There’s a lot of information in the book. A lot of stories that Madden has gathered through interviews with former players and sources like the Hall of Fame Library and The New York Daily News Archives. No matter your level of Baseball knowledge, you’ll be sure to read a story that you haven’t read before.

“1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever” will be released on May 6th, 2014

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The Greatest Living Ballplayer

I’ve been doing A LOT of reading this offseason and currently, I’m reading Richard Ben Cramer’s bio of Joe DiMaggio. The book reminded me on how, in 1969, he was voted as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer” and how he insisted on being announced as such. I immediately thought this wasn’t true. I don’t think there was any point in DiMaggio’s life where he deserved the title. In fact, you could argue that there was never a time where he was the “Greatest Living Center Fielder”.

So I decided to use Wins Above Replacement to take a chronological look of “The Greatest Living Player” from 1871-2013. WAR isn’t the be-all end-all in evaluating players, but it’s the best we have and it’s a fantastic starting point.

I separated Position Players and Pitchers into two different lists.

First, the position players:

Player WAR Start End Years
Ross Barnes 2.1 1871 1871 1
Davy Force 7.2 1872 1872 1
Ross Barnes 26.4 1873 1880 8
Cap Anson 93.8 1881 1908 28
Honus Wagner 130.6 1909 1922 14
Ty Cobb 151.2 1923 1929 7
Babe Ruth 183.8 1930 8/16/48 17+
Ty Cobb 151.2 8/17/48 7/17/61 13+
Rogers Hornsby 128.2 7/18/61 1/5/63 1+
Stan Musial 128.1 1/6/63 1965 3
Willie Mays 157.9 1966 2005 40
Barry Bonds 162.5 2006 Present 8

Now for the Pitchers….

Player WAR Start End Years
George Zettlein 16.4 1871 1872 2
Al Spalding 59.2 1873 1878 6
Tommy Bond 62.0 1879 1883 5
Jim McCormick 93.2 1884 1898 15
Kid Nichols 108.5 1899 1901 3
Cy Young 168.7 1902 11/4/55 53+
Lefty Grove 103.6 11/5/55 5/22/75 19+
Warren Spahn 100.9 5/23/75 1979 4+
Tom Seaver 121.4 1980 2002 23
Roger Clemens 140.3 2003 Present 11

A couple of notes
- If you want to exclude Bonds and Clemens for PED reasons, then Mays and Seaver would still be the “living leaders”.
- It’s pretty amazing that Cap Anson led all position players for 28 years. That span would be 3rd longest behind Cy Young and Willie Mays.
- Even if you want to credit DiMaggio additional “WAR” for the WAR (WWII), he’d still be well short of the leaders.
- If you credit DiMaggio for time lost to military service, you would also have to do the same for Ted Williams. He missed almost 5 years and finished with 123.2 WAR. He would need to average 7.5 WAR per season to pass Mays, which is actually not that outrageous considering his seasons during that time.
- On Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, as DiMaggio was announced as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer”, he wasn’t even the greatest ballplayer on the field at the time (see Mickey Mantle).

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Pudge and WOWY

I came across this because I’m working on a simulation game with players rated based on their stats. In my attempt to rate each catcher’s throwing arm, I decided to use their caught stealing percentage, but I didn’t want their battery mates to have an affect on the ratings. That is why I decided to use the WOWY method (with or without you) which compares the caught stealing percentages of each battery mate with and without a particular catcher.

After finishing my queries, I like to check some of the All-Time greats to see where they stand. This is when I noticed that Ivan Rodriguez’s WOWY rating wasn’t as amazing as I expected.

Pudge’s peak in throwing out base runners lasted from about 1991 – 2001 where he consistently threw out 20+% more base runners than league average. During that same time, the WOWY method has him 10-15% better than average. That’s still a fantastic rate, but it shows that his overall numbers may be a little deceiving.

The most obvious reason for the disparity would be that his battery mates were better than average, and this seems to be the case with Pudge. Here is the data from ’91-’01:


Year WOWY CS Att CS% Pitchers League
1991 -12.3% 89 176 51% 38% 33%
1992 -5.4% 140 290 48% 43% 33%
1993 -1.2% 130 278 47% 46% 34%
1994 -5.0% 108 241 45% 40% 32%
1995 -11.1% 102 215 47% 36% 31%
1996 -11.0% 127 242 52% 41% 30%
1997 -12.9% 138 253 55% 42% 32%
1998 -13.0% 134 239 56% 43% 32%
1999 -15.0% 104 191 54% 39% 31%
2000 -13.7% 93 165 56% 43% 31%
2001 -10.2% 65 129 50% 40% 31%

Take the 1998 season for example. From ’97-’99 (I use a 3-year average to increase sample size and smooth out seasons), Pudge threw out 134 of 239 runners, 56%. League average was 31.5% during that time. The pitchers he caught most frequently (Rick Helling, John Burkett, Darren Oliver, Bobby Witt, and Aaron Sele) combined for a 43.8% caught stealing rate with catchers other than Pudge. So while Pudge was 25% better than league average, he was just 12% better using the WOWY method.

While the pitchers changed over the course of his peak seasons, the story seemed to stay the same. He caught a bunch of pitchers who had better than average caught stealing percentages.

A couple of notes:
-I count double steals as just 1 steal since the catcher only has the opportunity to catch 1 runner. This is why there may be a slight difference in SB/CS numbers.

-One problem with WOWY in this case is the “WY” (without you) in that the other catchers may also be above or below league average. But this is why I use a 3-year average to increase the sample of battery mates. One could take an extra step and look at the other catchers in the “WY” data to see if/how they skew the numbers.

-This also works for pitchers, and a similar comparison is Chris Carpenter. From ’05-’07, he had a 75% CS%, about 45% better than league average. But his primary catcher was Yadier Molina. Using the WOWY method, Carpenter’s CS% was 28% better than average, rather than 45%.

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Baseball Gauge Power Rankings

I’ve recently added a Power Rankings chart to the front page. The concept is quite simple but there is a lot that goes into the formula.

First off, I look at 3 different time periods and assign different weights for each.

1. Entire season (50% weight)
2. Last 25 games (33% weight)
3. Last 10 games (16.7% weight)

The “Last 10 games” actually have more impact on the final number than just 1/6th since the last 10 games are included in both the last 25 and entire season.

Four numbers go into each of the 3 time periods….

1. Team’s Winning Percentage
2. Team’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage
3. The average Winning Percentage of their opponents
4. The average Pythagorean Winning Percentage of their opponents

I then simply just find the average of these 4 stats for each of the 3 different time periods.

Example:
Let’s say a team goes 8-2 and in their last 10 games, while scoring 45 runs and allowing 45 (Pythagorean win % would be .500). Their opponents over the past 10 games have an average winning percentage of .463 and an average Pythagorean winning percentage of .455. Combining these 4 numbers would give them a .5545 rating over the past 10 games. Even though they won 80% of their games, they didn’t outscore their opponents and their schedule was weak, so their rating is not as high.

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Teammates Sharing Birthdays (Maddux, Justice, Avery)

If you are like me, then you are a child of the 90′s and you rooted for America’s Team, the Atlanta Braves. And you probably know that today, April 14th, is Greg Maddux, David Justice, and Steve Avery’s birthday.

Alright, you don’t need to be a child of the 90′s OR have rooted for the Braves to know this. But my point is that when I was younger, I thought it was very cool that three teammates shared the same birthday, with Maddux and Justice being born in the same year. So for the past 20 or so years, I am reminded of this whenever I see 4/14 on the calendar. This year I decided to see if there are any other groups of teammates sharing the same date of birth and with similar success as the 90′s Braves trio.

It turns out there are only six different foursomes to have played together. Note that the 1924 Cardinals played together again in 1925, and the 1952 Dodgers also played together in 1950.

Year Team Birthday WAR Players
1924 Cardinals 4/27 11.6 Rogers Hornsby (1896), Allen Sothoron (1893), Hy Myers (1889), Johnny Stuart (1901)
1952 Dodgers 12/13 9.4 Carl Erskine (1926), Billy Loes (1929), George Shuba (1924), Joe Landrum (1928)
1995 Rangers 10/4 5.3 Roger Pavlik (1967), Mark McLemore (1964), Dennis Cook (1962), Billy Hatcher (1960)
2007 Indians 8/30 5.3 Robeto Hernandez (1980), Mike Koplove (1976), Luis Rivas (1979), Cliff Lee (1978)
1990 Indians 10/4 2.3 Chris James (1962), Steve Olin (1965), Mark McLemore (1964), Mike Walker (1966)
1982 Pirates 10/24 -1.4 Rafael Belliard (1961), Junior Ortiz (1959), Reggie Walton (1952), Omer Moreno (1952)

Two things jump out at me about this list. First, Roberto Hernandez was known as Fausto Carmona in 2007, and his birth date was 12/7/1983. This means that we didn’t know this team was a foursome until Hernandez’s real date of birth was discovered in January of 2012. Second, October 4th appears twice on the list. Even more incredible, Mark McLemore was a part of both foursomes. Not only was he versatile enough to play multiple positions, he was also able to make this list twice.

Maddux, Justice, and Avery didn’t make the previous list because they were unable to find a fourth player to join the team. Let’s take a look at players born on the same exact day (year included).

Year Team Birthday WAR Players
1969 Yankees 6/28/1941 -0.1 Al Downing, Fred Talbot, Len Boehmer

It turns out there has only been one team in history with three different players born on the same exact day. Since Talbot was traded to the Seattle Pilots in May, I even checked to see if the trio actually played together. Sure enough, they each played in the same game five different times.

As for pairs of teammates on the same team, there are 375 different instances in Baseball history. Instead of listing all of them, I’ll list those with combined WAR over 7.

Year Team Birthday WAR Players
1995 Braves 4/14/1966 13.4 Greg Maddux, David Justice
1997 Yankees 6/15/1972 10.8 Andy Pettitte, Ramiro Mendoza
1977 Dodgers 4/2/1945 10.6 Reggie Smith, Don Sutton
1977 Angels 7/3/1953 8.2 Frank Tanana, John Verhoeven
1959 Cardinals 6/2/1931 8.1 Larry Jackson, Marshall Bridges
1979 Royals 1/17/1952 8.0 Darrell Porter, Pete LaCock
1894 Phillies 2/16/1866 7.8 Billy Hamilton, Jack Scheible
1975 Cardinals 1/13/1950 7.7 Bob Forsch, Mike Tyson
1997 Braves 4/14/1966 7.6 Greg Maddux, Greg Myers
2011 Blue Jays 10/19/1980 7.3 Jose Bautista, Rajai Davis
1996 Brewers 11/24/1967 7.3 Ben McDonald, Cal Eldred

Maddux and Justice were teammates from 1993-1996. In 1997, Justice was traded to the Indians, but that didn’t’ stop Maddux from finding another teammate. Catcher Greg Myers (also born on 4/14/66) would be a teammate of Maddux’s in 1997 and 1999, meaning the Braves were one year away from inclusion on the previous list.

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All “Mickey” Team

One of my favorite things to do is compile All-Time Teams, as you can probably tell from the site. As Baseball fans in the internet age, we have access to all sorts of data, which allows us to come up with compilation teams based on Organization, League, Era, State, Country, College, High School, etc. To continue with that, I will be periodically coming out with All-Name Teams.

Back in December, my wife gave birth to twins, one boy and one girl. We named our son “Mickey” after Mickey Mantle, my father’s boyhood hero. So naturally, I’ll start off with the All-Mickey Team.

Before searching, I knew of a number of “Mickeys” throughout Baseball history. But I wasn’t sure if there would be enough to assemble an entire roster. Sure enough, there have been 40 since 1871, and 26 with significant big league time.

Catchers (first and middle names)
Mickey Cochrane (Gordon Stanley)
Mickey Tettleton (Mickey Lee)
Mickey Owen (Arnold Malcolm)

Cochrane was named “Mickey” from the derogatory Irish term “Mick”, even though he was of Scottish descent. Interestingly, both Tettleton and Owen’s name were inspired by Cochrane. Tettleton was named after fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle, who was named after Cochrane. Mickey Owen was nicknamed “Mickey” when he first reached the Majors because he reminded his teammates of Cochrane.

First Base
Mickey Vernon (James Barton)
Mickey Rocco (Michael Dominick)

First Base is a strength for this team because of Vernon, especially since guys like Mantle and Tettleton also spent time at the position. Vernon gets all the playing time here since Rocco was essentially a WWII replacement player.

Second Base
Mickey Morandini (Michael Robert)
Mickey Witek (Nicholas Joseph)

Not a strength here. I would platoon the two with Morandini facing Righties and Witek vs Lefties. Witek would also be used as a utility infielder since he spent some time at 3B and SS.

Third Base
Mickey Klutts (Gene Ellis)

Easily the weakest position on the team. Klutts was never a full time player, amassing just an 85 OPS+ in 579 career PA’s. Outfielder Mickey Hatcher spent 125 career games at 3B, so he could see some time there. It looks like I’ll have to teach my son to play the “hot corner”, although that would contradict my plan on having him throw with his left hand.

Shortstop
Mickey Doolan (Michael Joseph)
Mickey Haslin (Michael Joseph)

Interestingly, both players have the same given first and middle names. Doolan had a weak bat, but was fantastic with the glove. Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA) has him leading the league in 4 separate seasons. Haslin would join Mickey Witek as more of a utility infielder. Outfielder Mickey Stanley could also spell Doolan, as he was the starting SS in the World Series for the 1968 Tigers.

Outfield
Mickey Mantle (Mickey Charles)
Mickey Rivers (John Milton)
Mickey Stanley (Mitchell Jack)
Mickey Hatcher (Michael Vaughn)
Mickey Brantley (Michael Charles)

The Outfield is full of Center Fiedlers, which would allow them to cover a lot of ground. I would keep Mantle in Center and put Rivers in Left and Stanley in Right (purely due to arm strength).

The Lineup
1. Mickey Rivers (L / LF)
2. Mickey Cochrane (L / C)
3. Mickey Mantle (B / CF)
4. Mickey Vernon (L / 1B)
5. Mickey Tettleton (B / DH)
6. Mickey Stanley (R / RF)
7. Mickey Morandini (L / 2B)
8. Mickey Klutts (R / 3B)
9. Mickey Doolan (R / SS)

Rotation
Mickey Welch (Michael Francis)
Mickey Lolich (Michael Stephen)
Mickey McDermott (Maurice Joseph)
Mickey Haefner (Milton Arnold)
Mickey Harris (Maurice Charles)

The rotation is full of southpaws, except for “Smiling Mickey” Welch, who would be the ace of the staff. Lolich is a formidable “number 2″ and the only other pitcher with more than 100 career victories. McDermott, Haefner, and Harris were all roughly league average pitchers, making a decent 3 through 5.

Bullpen
Mickey Scott (Ralph Robert)
Mickey Hughes (Michael J.)
Mickey Callaway (Michael Christopher)
Mickey Mahler (Michael James)
Mickey Storey (Mickey Charles)
Mickey Weston (Michael Lee)

The Bullpen is weak, so they’d have to hope their starters go as deep as possible. Storey, with the same given name as Mantle, is the lone active player on the team. Last year, he took this line drive off his head. He is currently in the Blue Jays organization.

Manager
Picking Cochrane as the manager would be an easy decision. In fact, Vernon is the only other manager in history with the name.

Overall, this is a pretty good team. Especially since it was essentially derived from a nickname, having only three players with actual given names of “Mickey”. Mantle, Cochrane, and Welch are the lone Hall of Famers.

Soon, I’ll be releasing more All-Name Teams as well as some other name-themed teams.

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Piazza catches Chavez stealing

The Mike Piazza book, Long Shot, was released recently. He, along with the help of Lonnie Wheeler, goes through his childhood and career in Baseball while tackling all the issues (bacne, steroids, sexual orientation, etc). Really, he was trying to validate his Hall of Fame credentials and explain his side of all the issues.

But this isn’t a book review. There have been plenty written, and probably much better than I could do. I wanted to bring up one small, mostly forgettable incident during his season with the Padres. In August of 2006, the Padres visited Shea in his first trip back to New York. This is an excerpt from that chapter….

Before the first game, the scoreboard guys played another video of me, to the tune of the Beatles song “In My Life,” which was nice but a little schmaltzy, and the fans did a singsongy “Mike Pee-OTS-a” cheer when I got to the on-deck circle for the first time, which was also nice and not too schmaltzy. Then the Mets swiped four bases on me and beat us, 3–2. The next night, I threw out Endy Chavez trying to steal second in the second inning and he immediately jumped all over the umpire, as though there was no conceivable way the call could be right. His body language said, “What the hell? Are you kidding me?” I’m thinking, come on, I can’t throw anybody out? Get the fuck off the field.

Nothing too important. He’s just defending his throwing arm, which was pretty bad in his final year behind the plate. But since the internet is a wonderful thing, and mlb.com has released a bunch of old clips, I decided to see if I could find the video. Sure enough, mlb.com had the exact play…..

The first thing I notice, and you probably do as well, is that Chavez shows very little emotion after being thrown out. Granted, the video cuts away from Endy and there are a few seconds that we don’t see. But there is no way that he can “jump all over the umpire” in that time. He even slaps at his helmet, looking more disappointed in himself than the call.

Like I mentioned earlier, this play (and his account of the play), are of little importance. My problem is that this type of thing happens a lot in these types of autobiographies. For some reason, I continue to be surprised whenever I spot them. In an era of retrosheet, baseball-reference, mlb.com and the abundance of available data, how could the author/editor/fact checker not spot these before publication? I suppose it’s because a lot of these don’t cause much uproar, even when they are spotted. No one is going to care that Piazza either misremembered or used a little artistic license, except for maybe Endy Chavez himself.

Rob Neyer goes through a number of these stories in his book “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends”. It opened my eyes to how often stories can be embellished and the ease that they can be verified.

As for Piazza, it’s not surprising, since he seemed to paint a lot of people as an enemy in order to make himself the protagonist. I just think it was unnecessary, because we all know how good he was. If I had a vote, I would have put him in the Hall, and I imagine he’ll get in at some point in the next few years.

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Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson and the 1946 Pennant

I’m currently in the middle of reading a handful of Jackie Robinson/Branch Rickey/Brooklyn Dodger themed books. The reason being is that I am pumped to see the movie “42″ next month. After watching this trailer, how could you not get excited?

Recently, one of the books went through Robinson’s 1946 season with the Montreal Royals and how he absolutely dominated the International League where he had a .349/.468/.462 slash line. On top of that, he stole 40 bases, and led the league in runs with 113. But what is most impressive was his 92/27 BB/K ratio. This was all accomplished in just his second year of Professional Baseball (played for KC Monarchs in ’45).

But it was Montreal’s parent club that got me thinking. After 154 games, the ’46 Dodgers finished in a tie with the Cardinals, which led to the first tiebreaker in Modern Baseball. At the time, the National League rules stated that a best of 3 game series would decide the Pennant. But as you can see from the graph, Brooklyn lost in 2 games and would never have more than a 54% chance of winning the series.

1946 NL Tiebreaker

My initial thought was “Could the Dodgers have won Pennant, had they brought up Robinson in 1946″? I decided to dig a little deeper.

The first question is, what position would Jackie play in Brooklyn? In college and in the Negro Leagues, he served mostly as a Shortstop. In Montreal, he was the Royals primary Second Basemen. But Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky had those positions locked down for the Dodgers (both were 5+ win players in ’46).

Third Base was a possibility, where the veteran Cookie Lavagetto was getting most of the playing time down the stretch. “Cookie” had a fine first half slash line of .287/.405/.396 and the Flatbush faithful would have been in an uproar to see him relegated to the bench.

That leaves First Base as the only real possibility, where Jackie would go on to play in 151 games the following season. Down the stretch, Manager Leo Durocher was platooning Howie Schultz (vsL) and Big Ed Stevens (vsR). Neither were established stars, nor did they have a ton of potential be stars.

The problem was that by 1946, Robinson had never played the position. In fact, he didn’t even own a First Basemen’s glove until the following spring. But suppose Branch Rickey had Robinson play the position in Montreal to prepare him for a late-season call-up. Could Jackie have been the difference between the Pennant and a second place finish?

Brooklyn was in first place for the majority of the season, but they were overtaken by St. Louis in August. By September, they were 2.5 games back. With the Cardinals surging, the Dodgers would have very little room for error. In fact, they didn’t error much by going 21-8 in the final month.

In September, Schultz and Stevens combined for a .250/.313/.379 slash line. This is nothing spectacular, especially at First Base. For Robinson in AAA, he would record a .323 Batting Average in September for Montreal in 102 at bats, with just 1 extra base hit. Also, Robinson’s first month in the big leagues the following season would produce a .225/.354/.325 line. September ’46 and April ’47 are different environments for sure, but it shows how he struggled in his first taste of the big leagues.

What I have failed to mention to this point is the biggest factor of all, which is the impact of breaking the color barrier during a pennant race instead of on Opening Day. It would have helped that the Dodgers played 22 of their final 29 games in Brooklyn, where Robinson received less abuse than on the road. But how would his teammates have reacted to his call-up mid-season? For the same players who signed petition refusing to play, would they have done so in a pennant race? We’ll never know for sure, but let’s “assume” he would encounter the same environment that he actually did in the following season.

So could Robinson have made a difference in the 1946 National League Pennant Race? My guess is probably not. There are too many assumptions and unknown variables to ever know for sure. But the 1946 Dodgers were already playing very well down the stretch, and an improvement on a .724 September winning percentage would have required a big difference.

For further reading on Jackie’s 1946 season with the Montreal Royals, MiLB.com has a game log with day-by-day accounts.

Split stats were obtained from Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet

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