19 to 21
Baseball 2013

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  John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available. 

Contact John at JohnShiffert@mail.clayton.edu.

19 to 21… A Review of Baseball History

Volume 12, #3, January 9, 2014

The Hall and Greg Maddux

  The results of the BBWAA Hall of Fame balloting were surprising… and then again, they weren’t. Given that there were 24 viable candidates on the ballot, it wouldn’t have been shocking if only the primo name, Greg Maddux, made it on 75 percent of the ballots, just due to the numbers crunch inherent in trying to fit 24 names onto a 10-name ballot. That’s a task sort of like trying to fit eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can (and if you remember that commercial, you’re probably older than Greg Maddux or even Jamie Moyer.)

  That’s not what happened though, since three deserving candidates, Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, were all easily elected, leaving just a dozen or so otherwise slam dunks (let’s say Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Curt Schilling for certain; maybe Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff and Larry Walker as well) on the outside looking in. As the voting actually came down, the numbers crunch was at the bottom of the ballot, not the top. There was enough consensus on the qualifications of Maddux, Glavine and Thomas to get them all elected, and although those votes surely cost Biggio his well-deserved election, the candidates who really got hurt were further down the ballot, notably last-time candidate Jack Morris and certainly Moises Alou and Luis Gonzalez, both of whom didn’t even get to five percent in their first year, and have thus been banished to Veterans Committeeland.

  First, it’s interesting to note that the PED Three – Clemens, Bonds and McGwire – all lost votes from last year. As did Sammy Sosa and Raffy Palmeiro, the latter to the extent that he’s now dropped off the ballot… an instructive lesson to anyone who might consider shaking his finger at a congressional committee. (At least Clemens had the good sense, or good attorneys, enough to play it straight in front of Congress.) Of course, that still doesn’t clear up the PED mess, mainly because the PED/Hall of Fame discussion that Jayson Stark called for at this time last year still hasn’t happened. Indeed, it may take a congressional committee, or, better yet, a Constitutional Amendment, to make anything happen on this front.

  Whatever your take on PEDs, and, for the record, here's an endorsement of the Stark Statement, as expressed in his most recent ESPN.com column… “Can we all please acknowledge that the Hall needs to be a history museum, not some sort of sacred cathedral? It's too late for those bells to chime in total purity. Way too late,” the results of the 2014 vote clearly showed a big gap caused by the numbers crunch. The three inductees, plus Biggio, Piazza (62.2 percent) and maybe Bagwell (54.3 percent) were in one group, and just about everyone else, most of whom were mentioned above, are likely out of luck, at least until (or if) the voting rules are changed and/or the “sacred cathedral” mindset goes out the window. (Little hard to picture Ty Cobb or Leo Durocher in a scared cathedral, isn’t it?)

  Enough of this, since this is supposed to be a review of baseball history. Let’s look at the career of the most interesting of the three actual inductees, one Gregory Alan Maddux. A lot can be said about Maddux, including the fact that he was a headhunter. Don’t believe it? Well, what was Maddux best known for… his control, right? He led the National League in fewest walks per nine innings nine times. And yet, he was also in the top 10 in hit batters six times, including a league-leading 14 in 1992. This sort of activity led Dave Hollins to accost Maddux in a Vegas casino during the off-season, and threaten him with bodily harm if he threw at any more of Hollins’ teammates. A warning that did no good since, after Hollins went over to the American League, Maddux bounced a fastball off the “P” on Scott Rolen’s helmet in what could hardly have been an accident.

  As great as Maddux was, to the extent that there was much angst that he wasn’t the first unanimous Hall choice (gee, does that mean he was a better pitcher than Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove or a better choice than Babe Ruth?), he did have another skeleton in his closet… his postseason record, wherein he was 11-14 with a 3.27 ERA and just two complete games in 30 starts. His WHIP was 1.242, and he gave up 8.9 hits per nine innings and 2.3 walks per nine innings. These are pretty good numbers, but they pale compared to his regular season stats. (And, they were compiled in 198 innings, so it’s hardly a small sample size.)

W-L ERA GS CG % WHIP H/9 BB/9

Regular 355-227 3.16 740 109 14.7 1.143 8.5 1.8

Post 11-14 3.27 30 2 6.7 1.242 8.9 2.3

  Still, at his regular season peak between 1992 and 1998, there were none better, as he led the NL is wins three times, won/loss percentage twice, ERA four times, complete games three times, shutouts three times, innings pitched four times, Adjusted ERA five times, WHIP four times, walks per nine innings three times, strikeout/walk ratio three times, Cy Young Awards four times and, oh yes, hit batters once.

W-L Pct. ERA CG SHO ERA+ WHIP H/9 BB/9
127-53 .706 2.15 56 19 190 0.968 7.3 1.4

  And all this after he was positively shelled as a young (ages 20 and 21) pitcher in 1986 and 1987, going 8-18 with a 5.59 ERA and a 1.661 WHIP, a rare beat down for a young pitcher who would eventually make the Hall.

  But maybe you knew all this. Did you also know that, in one sense, Maddux retired too soon? He was hardly in the sere and yellow when he called it quits after a 2008 season wherein he went 8-13 in 33 starts and 194 innings. He would have been 43 just after Opening Day 2009. What’s the significance of this? Maddux had a shot, maybe not a good one, but a shot, at becoming only the third 400 game winner in major league history. Although Bill James’ Favorite Toy career assessment metric would have predicted that Maddux had no chance to reach 400 wins, that he would have finished with 371 had he kept on pitching, you still have to wonder. Let’s look at the late stage careers of some Maddux peers among the greats, peers that were, like Maddux, not power pitchers but more so control pitchers.

  Like Grover Cleveland Alexander, who at age 42 went 9-8 with a 123 Adjusted ERA. Yes, he was through the next year, but that was mainly due to his losing battle with the bottle. He tied Christy Mathewson for the NL record of 373 wins, a figure Maddux had a good chance to top.

  Or how about Warren Spahn, who was still pitching six months after his 44th birthday? Maybe not real well, he was 7-16 with an 89 Adjusted ERA, but no less a capable observer than teammate Gaylord Perry said he could still pitch, but no one would give him a chance. And what about Perry, he went on until he was 45, going 7-14 with a 91 ERA+. Not great, but certainly usable.

  Probably the best season turned in by a really old finesse pitcher was from Eddie Plank, who last threw three weeks short of his 42nd birthday. He was 5-6 with a 1.79 ERA, and the only reason he retired was because he was then traded to the Yankees, and didn’t want to pitch for them.

  Don Sutton was 43 in his last year, so was Early Wynn, who posted a 2.28 ERA in his last year. Tommy John’s left arm may have been a lot younger than the rest of him, but he was still pitching at 46, again, maybe not real well (2-7, 5.80), but at 45 he was 9-8 with an 88 ERA+. Jim Kaat was almost as old, still pitching, although in relief, when he was 44 1/2, and posting a 95 Adjusted ERA.

  Then, there’s the ultimate old pitcher, former Maddux teammate Jamie Moyer. They broke in together with the 1986 Cubs (probably the only distinction of that team), except that Moyer was three-and-half years older than Maddux, and pitched for another three seasons after Maddux retired. At the age of 49 1/2, Moyer went 2-5 with an 82 ERA+ after coming off Tommy John Surgery. However at 47 he was 9-9 with a shutout. (Maybe, when the BBWAA realizes that 300 game winners are practically extinct, they’ll be a few votes for Moyer in the 2017 election.)

  In his last three seasons, Greg Maddux went 15-14, 14-11 and 8-13, averaging more than 200 innings per year. While the Favorite Toy gave him no chance at 400, James in effect admitted that, after 40, it’s a crapshoot in terms of how long someone will last, and the formula reflects this, assuming that anyone that age has just a year-and-a-half left to them. But, suppose Greg Maddux, like Jamie Moyer, had pitched another three years for a good team (recall he finished up with a good Dodgers team that played in the NLCS). Suppose he still threw nearly 200 innings each year and won an average of a dozen games each season. That would have put him at 391 wins. Imagine the possibility…

19 to 21… A Review of Baseball History

Volume 12, #2, January 7, 2014

They Managed Quite Well

  Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre managed quite well... in the recent Hall of Fame balloting. Indeed, all three were elected together on their respective first ballots late in 2013, and will be inducted together this coming summer, perhaps a fitting capstone to the careers of the three most prominent managers of the period from roughly 1980 to 2010.

  So, no matter what sort of atrocities may or may not be revealed later today in the BBWAA player voting, (it’s worth noting here that the guru of Hall predictions, Bill Deane, says that only Greg Maddux will get in among the 24 worthy candidates) at least it’s nice to know that there will be three prominent figures on the dais in Cooperstown this summer.

  And prominent they were, but that begs the question, just how good were they at managing? Sure, between the three of them they accounted for 7558 wins over a collective 91 seasons of managing; 33 for LaRussa, 29 each for the other two. However, if longevity was the only criteria for inclusion in the Hall, well then Nick Altrock, Deacon McGuire, Bobby Wallace, Jack Quinn, Bill Thomas (look him up sometime) and Julio Franco would be in the Hall, too. What, you say Bobby Wallace IS in the Hall?

  Not wishing to entirely throw cold water, or even a cooler of Gatorade, on this summer's proceedings, but in all three managerial cases, their strongest qualification is indeed their longevity. Now, maybe you have to be a good (as opposed to great) manager to stick around for 30 years or so, or maybe you just have to have the right horses. The fact is, all three of these gentlemen were somewhat less than geniuses before they became geniuses when they took over teams with superior talent.

  To assess their longevity claims first, note the following chart, which shows where each stands in terms of the number of games and wins they accumulated, as well as their ranking in each category.

                #G   #W G Rank W Rank
LaRussa 5097  2728     2          3
Cox        4505  2504     4          4
Torre      4323  2326    6           5

  Impressive, yes? Only Connie Mack, who, after all, owned the Athletics for years, managed more games than LaRussa, and only Mack and John McGraw (who was also a part-owner of the Giants for many years) won more games. And both Cox and Torre are ahead of such Hall of Fame names as Sparky Anderson and Joe McCarthy in wins.

  Now look at their won-loss numbers when compared to their peers.

W-L Pct. W-L Rank
Cox .556 25
Torre .538 54
LaRussa .536 60

  Not so impressive. Steve O'Neill and Pat Moran had better winning percentages as managers. Davey Johnson. Jim Mutrie had a MUCH better winning percentage. So did Frank Selee, who had to wait forever (in fact, after he was long-dead) to get into the Hall. Patsy Tebeau and Billy Martin (who didn't get in on this election) were very close to Cox in winning percentage. Charlies Grimm and Manuel were much better than Torre and LaRussa in this measure.

  What does this prove… that the Hall, in managers as well as players, is about fame. There's no denying that Cox, Torre and LaRussa are famous; much more so than Steve O'Neill, Pat Moran, Jim Mutrie or Patsy Tebeau. And arguably more famous than Martin, who with his one World Series title, was mainly on the ballot because he was famous. How do you think Leo Durocher, with his one World Series title (the 1954 Giants) got in? He was famous, though maybe like Martin, for some of the wrong reasons.

  What's more interesting is what Cox, Torre and LaRussa are famous for; since only the latter can be said to have really been considered a genius by objective observers during his managerial tenure.

  Cox is famous for getting tossed out of more games than anyone in baseball history (mainly for arguing ball/strike calls, which is expressedly against the rules, thanks mainly to Durocher), for his abiding love of such losing strategies as the intentional walk, and, most significantly, for his inability to take teams with incredibly outstanding pitching to World Series titles.

  Cox was hardly a genius his first time through with the Braves, racking up a 266-323 record from 1978 to 1981 and never finishing higher than fourth. He was better with the 1982-1985 Blue Jays, coming in first in the latter year after finishing sixth, fourth, and second prior to that. Still, no one would have predicted the Hall for Cox when he took over the Braves a second time during the 1990 season. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz doing a lot of the pitching for you over the years, and, as a result, the Braves came in first 14 times, 11 in succession (no, they didn't win 14 straight, the Expos were in first and pulling away when the season ended in 1994) during his second tenure.

  However, 16 trips to the postseason during his career resulted in exactly the same number of World Series titles as Martin and Durocher each had, one, along with four World Series losses. And, a couple of years after Maddux left (in 2004), the Braves also stopped winning division titles for Cox as well.

  No one thought Torre was a genius when he managed the Mets (286-420), Braves (257-229) and Cardinals (351-354) prior to taking over the New York Steinbrenners, the best team money could buy. It's not unfair to posit that Charles Victory Faust, Louis Van Zelst, Max Patkin, Max Weber, Rube Waddell or Rube Goldberg could have done pretty well managing the Yankees from 1996 to 2007. As it was, Torre brought them in first 10 times and won four out of six World Series.

  Moving to a merely fine team, the 2008-2010 Dodgers, he was skunked twice in the NLCS by the Phillies, and finished fourth in 2010. However, in all fairness to Torre, he really deserves to be in the Hall before either Cox and LaRussa, due to his outstanding playing career. Let us not forget, as a catcher/first baseman/third baseman (and he caught more than he did anything else), Torre had a career 129 OPS+, a .297/.365/.452 slash line and was a nine-time All-Star. So, we'll gladly give him a pass on his Hall election.

  Finally, there's LaRussa, who was famous as a genius, thanks to such innovations as batting his pitcher eighth so Albert Pujols could bat in the first inning (by hitting third) and still be more likely to have men on base when he came up later in the game. Even though his won-lost record is a pretty pedestrian 60th overall, he did win more games than anyone but Mack and McGraw (and he was within 35 of Muggsy when he retired).

  Still, his record with the White Sox from 1979 to 1986 was an equally pedestrian 522-510 with a single first place finish (in 1983), and, when he finally got the chance to take over a really good team, the Oakland A's of the late 80s and early 90s, he managed to lose two of his three World Series to inferior Dodger and Red squads. However, fueled by the Juice at both locations, he did a lot better in St. Louis, winning two out of three World Series and finishing first seven times in the period from 1996 to 2011. Three World Series rings is nice, but it's only one more than Ralph Houk, Cito Gaston or Tom Kelly have, and no one is clamoring to elect them to the Hall. No, LaRussa's fame as a manager and his 33 years on the job got him to Cooperstown , as did Cox' string of pitching-fueled first places.

 So, of the three who managed quite well on the recent Veterans Ballot, Joe Torre deserved the nod the most.