Baseball’s Who’s Who of What Ifs

            My tenth and final book was just published, by McFarland & Company.  Entitled Baseball’s Who’s Who of What Ifs, it features forty players who arguably were on track for a Hall of Fame career, before circumstance, injury, or tragedy derailed them.  There are also the stories of 108 “honorable mentions,” and 16 others who made the Hall despite abbreviated careers.

            Here’s a sample from the book, its most recent entry, José Fernandez.

            On September 20, 2016, the Marlins’ José Fernandez pitched eight shutout innings, striking out 12, walking none, and allowing only three hits, to earn a 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.  He told a teammate it was the best game he ever pitched.

            It was also the last game he ever pitched.

José Delfin Fernandez y Gomez was born July 31, 1992, in Santa Clara, Cuba.  Like many people trapped on that communist island, José’s family longed to escape to America.  His stepfather, Ramon, made it in 2005, settling in Tampa, Florida.  Over the next three years, José and his mother, Maritza, made four daring attempts to escape by boat.  One resulted in three months of jail time for the teenager.  The fourth, in April 2008, included stepsister Yadenis and her mother.  Maritza fell overboard at one point; 15-year-old José jumped into the Gulf of Mexico to save her life.  After three days, the foursome reached Mexico.  From there, they made their ways to Tampa to rejoin Ramon.

Fernandez had already showed talent for baseball, and in Tampa he hooked up with a man named Orlando Chinea.  The 51-year-old trainer had been the Cuban national team’s pitching coach in the 1990s, and had also coached four years for Japan’s Yomiuri Giants.  In Cuba, Chinea had tutored future major league stars Jose Contreras and brothers Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.  Chinea had also escaped from Santa Clara, Cuba in 2008, with future major leaguer Kendrys Morales.  He put Fernandez on a strenuous, unorthodox training regimen which he would continue for the rest of his life.  It included running while wearing a snorkel, pushing an SUV up to 500 feet, and swinging an axe 400 times per session.  Chinea also taught Fernandez the language and customs of his new country.  José would become a U.S. citizen in 2015.

Fernandez enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, and made their Ravens’ baseball team as a sophomore in 2009.  By the end of the season, he was hitting 94 mph on the radar gun and leading the Ravens to the state title.  The next year, Fernandez was a cocky young athlete, sometimes showing up opposing players and rebelling against authority.  It was Chinea who would dispense tough love to get him back on track.

As a senior, Fernandez went 13-1 with two no-hitters and a 1.35 ERA en route to another state title.  The Marlins chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft (14th player selected), and he signed with them for a $2 million bonus on August 15.  He made one brief appearance each in the Gulf Coast and New York-Penn Leagues before the year was over.

Fernandez was a big right-hander, standing 6’2” and weighing between 215 and 245 pounds.  His smooth mechanics produced a monstrous 8½-foot stride, as compared to the five feet averaged by other pitchers.  His repertoire included a four-seam fastball, a splitter, a hard curveball, all with electric stuff (occasionally reaching 100 mph), and a change-up.

In 2012, Fernandez pitched 14 games for Greensboro in the South Atlantic League, and 11 with Jupiter in the Florida State League.  His combined stats were phenomenal: a 14-1 record and 1.75 ERA, with 158 strikeouts and just 89 hits allowed in 134 innings. 

The Marlins figured Fernandez, 20, would start the 2013 season in Double-A.  But due to injuries to some of their starters, he made the jump all the way from A-ball to the parent club, becoming the youngest player in the majors.  On a team which would finish with a 62-100 record, Fernandez would emerge as a shining hope for the future.  He made his big league debut against the Mets on April 7, 2013, allowing just three hits, one walk, and one run in five innings, while fanning eight.

Fernandez continued pitching well, though he didn’t have much to show for it in the first half of the season: a 5-5 record despite a fine 2.75 ERA.  Nevertheless, he made the NL All-Star team, and pitched a flawless inning at Citi Field on July 15, striking out Dustin Pedroia and Chris Davis, and retiring Miguel Cabrera on an infield pop-up in between. 

After the break, Fernandez was lights-out: a 7-1 record with a 1.32 ERA.  He recorded 13 strikeouts against Pittsburgh on July 28, and 14 more vs. Cleveland on August 2, becoming the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 to notch 13+ K’s in consecutive starts.  After Fernandez reached a team-imposed innings limit on September 11, the Marlins shut him down for the rest of the season.

Fernandez wound up leading the NL with a microscopic .182 opposing batting average (lowest since Pedro Martinez in 2000), or just 5.79 hits allowed per nine innings.  José also finished second in ERA (2.19), strikeouts per nine innings (9.75), and adjusted pitcher runs and wins, and third in pitcher WAR (6.3) and WHIP.  His 176 ERA+ was the best by any rookie in the 101 years since ERA became an official stat.  Fernandez easily won NL Rookie of the Year honors, and finished third in Cy Young Award voting.

Fernandez also showed he could handle a bat, hitting .220 – better than the average of batters who faced him – and homering in his final at bat of the season.  But when he styled while completing the circuit, he incited a bench-clearing brawl between the Braves and Marlins.  Afterward, Miami manager Mike Redmond dressed the rookie down for his disrespectful behavior.  “He’s a young kid and he’s going to be one of the top pitchers in this league for a long time,” Redmond said.  “You want your pitchers and players to be judged for the way they pitch and the way they compete, not the theatrics.”

Fernandez was apologetic, but explained that his heritage played a role: “Baseball in Cuba’s a lot more different, a lot more emotion, a lot more passion.  At the end of the day it’s a game, and you’re supposed to have fun, right?”

This was an example of the different sides of Fernandez’s personality.  Adjectives used to describe him included charismatic, guileless, child-like, energetic, confident, joyful, hard-working, and intense – yet there was often a “but” attached.  “There were two Joses, the combustible child and the hardest worker they’ve ever seen,” explained one feature article, saying he was “capable of greatness, yes, but also self-destruction.”  As his former high school principal, Loui Diaz, said, “He can be an idiot.  He can be stupid.  But at heart he’s a good kid, capable of great humility.”

Fernandez picked up in 2014 right where he left off the previous year.  He had nine strikeouts and zero walks on Opening Day, joining Hall of Famers Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, and Steve Carlton as the only pitchers to do that, according to the Associated Press.  Fernandez was named NL Pitcher of the Month for April, after going 4-1 with a 1.59 ERA.  He was leading the major leagues in strikeouts through May 9, when something went wrong in a game against San Diego.  His fastball velocity dropped from 95 to 91 mph in the fifth inning, and he was shelled for four runs with none out in the sixth before being removed.  Afterward, the team doctor found a “significant tear” in Fernandez’s pitching elbow, recommending Tommy John surgery.  Fernandez went under the knife at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles on May 16.

True to his nature, Fernandez worked his tail off to make it back.  After five minor league rehab appearances, he returned to the Marlins on July 2, 2015.  Fernandez had another setback when he suffered a right biceps strain on August 7, missing five weeks.  He wound up pitching only 65 innings in the majors that year, though he went 6-1.

Fernandez had a rocky start to the 2016 season, giving up five runs in five-and-two-thirds innings (despite 13 strikeouts) on April 6 to pick up the first home loss of his career.  Fernandez had been 17-0 with a 1.40 ERA in 26 starts at Miami through 2015, setting a post-1900 record for most consecutive home wins to start a career.  José was 1-2, 4.37 through April 23, but then reeled off eight wins in a row.  His average velocity of 95.3 mph was even faster than before his surgery.  José Fernandez was all the way back.

Fernandez pitched in his second All-Star Game on July 12 at Petco Park, going an inning-and-a-third, including a strikeout of Mike Trout.  Six days later, José notched his 500th career strikeout in his 400th inning, setting a major league record for fastest to reach that milestone.  Among the six most similar pitchers at the same age are Tom Seaver, Addie Joss, and Roger Clemens.

At about 3:30 AM on September 25, 2016 (the same day that golf legend Arnold Palmer died), the U.S. Coast Guard discovered the capsized wreckage of a 32-foot Sea Vee motorboat named “Kaught Looking” off Miami Beach.  The boat had slammed into a stone jetty at 66 mph, ejecting and killing all three passengers, none of whom was wearing a life vest.  One of them was José Fernandez, the owner and pilot of the boat.  It was later revealed that Fernandez had cocaine and alcohol – twice the legal limit – in his system.  Had he survived, he would have faced criminal charges.

The baseball world mourned.  The Marlins cancelled their game that day and retired his #16, and the rest of the season players around the majors sported formal and informal tributes to the likeable, talented young pitcher with the .691 career win percentage and 2.58 ERA.  Among Fernandez’s survivors were his girlfriend, Maria Arias, expecting their first child (Penelope Jo Fernandez was born February 24, 2017).  Maria had texted one of the passengers that night, saying that the couple had been arguing.  “He’s been drinking and is not in the best state of mind,” she warned.

Fernandez finished his final season leading the NL with 12.88 strikeouts per nine innings.  He was also second in strikeouts, fifth in wins, and seventh in ERA, earning 18 points in Cy Young Award voting – and following Lyman Bostock as the only men to receive votes for a major award after their deaths.  In a rude irony, Fernandez also received the 2016 Players’ Choice Award for NL Comeback Player of the Year. 

More irony came from a 2015 tweet by Fernandez, recalled soon after the accident: “If you were given a book with the story of your life, would you read the end?”

A 2021 Baseball Season Forecast

This is my 50th year of fearlessly forecasting baseball’s pennant races.  Like most prognosticators, my record is checkered at best, with some solid hits but a lot of big whiffs.  Last year’s forecast was no exception, overall, but my key prediction was a home run:

“Los Angeles, led by new acquisition Mookie Betts and a healthy Corey Seager, will have the best record in baseball, possibly topping .700… The Dodgers will end decades of frustration to reclaim the Commissioner’s Trophy.” 

It didn’t even occur to me that “topping .700” in a 60-game season would mean they would have the best percentage by any team since the 1954 Indians (.721), but that’s exactly what they did, going 43-17 (.717), then adding a 13-5 post-season log to win it all for the first time since 1988.

But instead of going out with a bang, I will push my luck with a 2021 forecast, including an even bolder prediction about the Dodgers:

NL East – The Braves will fight off the Nats, Mets, and Phillies to wind up on top by a safe margin.  The Marlins will return to the bottom of the sea.

NL Central – The Cardinals will fly past the Cubs, with the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates in arrears.

NL West – Those who thought the Dodgers’ performance was a short-season fluke will be disappointed: as good as they were in 2020, they will be even better in ’21.  Led by MVP candidates Betts and Seager (did I mention that I went to high school with his parents??), they will break the all-time record of 116 victories held by the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Mariners.  The Padres will win 100 and have the second-best record in the NL, yet find themselves far behind L.A.  Much farther behind will be the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Rockies.

AL East – Led by Cy Young Award-winner Gerrit Cole, New York, New York will return to the top of the heap, ahead of the Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Red Sox.

AL Central – The Twins will beat out the Indians and White Sox, with the Royals and Tigers bringing up the rear.

AL West – The A’s will get top grades, winning by a comfortable margin over the Astros, Angels, Mariners, and Rangers.

Post-Season – Los Angeles over Atlanta in the NLCS, and New York over Minnesota in the ALCS, setting up a good, old-fashioned Yankees-Dodgers World Series for the first time in 40 years.  But like the 1906 Cubs, 1954 Indians, and 2001 Mariners, the Dodgers will be upset at the end.  Dave Roberts will find a way to lose the world championship, giving it to the Yankees for only the second time in this century.

Deane Ball 2020

Following is my annual compendium of oddball facts & figures from the previous season:

  • The Dodgers finished with the best record in baseball at 43-17, good for a .717 win percentage.  That’s the highest percentage by a team in a season of any length since the 1954 Indians went 111-43, .721.  Add in post-season, and the Dodgers were 56-22, .718 – best since the mighty 1927 Yankees went 114-44, .722.
  • Granted, it was in a shortened season, but 2020 pitchers accounted for five of the 11 best marks (among title qualifiers since it became an official statistic) in difference between individual ERA and league ERA:

PITCHERS WITH HIGHEST DIFF. BETWEEN ERA AND LEAGUE ERA, SEASON, 1913-2020

YEAR             Pitcher, CLUB (LEA.)                       ERA        LG       DIFF

2000                Pedro Martinez, BOS (AL)  1.74         4.91         3.17

2020               Shane Bieber, CLE (AL)                    1.63        4.42        2.79

1999                Pedro Martinez, BOS (AL)  2.07         4.86         2.79

2020               Trevor Bauer, CIN (NL)                     1.73        4.47        2.74

1994                Greg Maddux, ATL (NL)                     1.56         4.21         2.65

1995                Greg Maddux, ATL (NL)                     1.63         4.18         2.55

1997                Roger Clemens, TOR (AL)  2.05         4.56         2.51

2020               Yu Darvish, CHI (NL)                         2.01        4.47        2.46

2020               Dallas Keuchel, CHI (AL)  1.99        4.42        2.43

2018                Blake Snell, TB (AL)                            1.89         4.27         2.38

2020               Dinelson Lamet, SD (NL)  2.09        4.47        2.38

  • Following his 53-homer rookie season, the Mets’ Pete Alonso slipped to a .231 average with 16 home runs in 2020.  Still, if he can manage 17 big flies in his first 195 at bats of 2021, Alonso will break Ryan Howard’s record for most home runs in a player’s first 1,000 major league ABs.  Howard had 85 in 2005-07; Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo are tied for second with 82.
  • With the DH rule in effect in both leagues, only four players classified as pitchers came to bat in 2020.  The Cubs’ Alec Mills (as a pinch-hitter, August 6), and San Diego’s Austin Adams and Tim Hill (on September 27) all struck out in their only appearances, leaving the Reds’ Michael Lorenzen as baseball’s top offensive pitcher.  Lorenzen, playing center field in the final innings of a blowout loss, came to the plate on September 1 and was hit by a pitch.  He then scored on a double, and added another run as a pinch-runner on September 27.
  • As usual, the Elias Sports Bureau ranked pitchers’ win percentages based on a minimum number of decisions (six in 2020), rather than some number of wins.  As a result, they list Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow fourth in the AL with .833 on a 5-1 record.  Meanwhile, his teammate Josh Fleming went 5-0 – the same number of wins as Glasnow – but he is not listed, essentially because he did not have enough losses to qualify for the win percentage title!
  • Among the men who played in 2019 but not 2020, five homered in their final at bats.  If they do not resurface in the majors, that makes 67 players who have ended their careers with a home run, with five in one season being the record.  The new additions are the Padres’ Ian Kinsler, the Rockies’ Ian Desmond, the Reds’ Alex Blandino, the White Sox’ Wellington Castillo, and the Tigers’ Ronny Rodriguez.  Kinsler’s homer was his 1999th career hit.  Castillo and Rodriguez went out with a bang in the same game on September 29, 2019, a first.  After his September 28 homer, Desmond appeared the next day as a pinch-hitter in the 13th inning of the season finale.  With an 0-1 count, Milwaukee’s Jake Faria uncorked a wild pitch, allowing the winning run to score for Colorado.  Meanwhile, Steven Souza, who had homered on his last at bat on September 30, 2018, dropped off the list by appearing in 11 games for the Cubs in 2020.
  • Arizona’s Tim Locastro played sparingly in 2020, but was successful in all four of his steal attempts.  He had previously stolen one, four, and 17 bases without being caught in 2017-19.  That gives him a perfect 26-0 steal record in his brief career so far.
  • The Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks and the Giants’ Wandy Peralta were the major leagues’ best pitchers in controlling the running game.  Hendricks had two pickoffs, while baserunners failed to steal a base (in four tries) in 81.1 innings with him on the mound.  Peralta pitched only 27.1 innings, but had three pickoffs (one behind the big lead league), and held base-stealers to an 0-1 record.
  • The Angels’ Mike Trout hit his 300th career home run in 2020, enabling him to join the exclusive 300/.300 Club – major leaguers with 300+ homers and a .300+ batting average.  Meanwhile, his teammate Albert Pujols fell off the list when his career average dropped to .299.  Here are the 27 members of the club, including the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera and the Mets’ Robinson Cano:

300 HOMERS & .300 AVERAGE, 1876-2020

Player                             HR      AVG

Hank Aaron                  755          .305

Babe Ruth                     714          .342

Willie Mays                  660          .302

Manny Ramirez            555          .312

Jimmie Foxx                   534          .325

Ted Williams 521          .344

Frank Thomas               521          .301

Mel Ott                          511          .304

Lou Gehrig                    493          .340

Miguel Cabrera           487         .313

Stan Musial                   475          .331

Chipper Jones               468          .303

Vlad. Guerrero               449          .318

Mike Piazza                   427          .308

Larry Walker 383          .313

Todd Helton                 369          .316

Joe DiMaggio               361          .325

Johnny Mize                 359          .312

Robinson Cano             334         .303

Moises Alou                 332          .304

Hank Greenberg           331          .313

George Brett                  317          .305

Edgar Martinez             309          .312

Al Simmons                   307          .334

Mike Trout                   302         .304

Rogers Hornsby           301          .358

Chuck Klein                  300          .320

  • The Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, in his first year in the National League, won the Gold Glove for right fielders.  His teammate, Cody Bellinger, had won the award at that position in 2019.  Excluding pitchers, and the years (1961-2010) when all outfielders were lumped together, this is only the third time that a team has had two different Gold Glove winners at the same position in consecutive years.  The previous occasions were the 1963-64 Phillies, with Bobby Wine and Ruben Amaro winning at shortstop, and the 1998-99 Reds, with Bret Boone and Pokey Reese doing it at second base.
  • The Rangers’ Lance Lynn (6-3) and Jonathan Hernandez (5-1) combined for an 11-4 won-lost record in 2020.  The rest of the team’s pitchers combined for 11-34.
  • The abbreviated schedule scuttled Juan Soto’s chance to become the first man ever to hit 100 home runs before his 22nd birthday.  Nevertheless, if the Washington slugger manages to hit 31 homers in 2021, he will become one of just four players ever to hit 100 before age 23.  Hall of Famer Mel Ott was the youngest to reach 100 homers, doing so on July 12, 1931, at age 22 years, 132 days.  Tony Conigliaro (22-197) and Eddie Mathews (22-292) are the only other players to reach 100 before their 23rd birthdays.  Soto will turn 23 on October 25, 2021.
  • Not to suggest he deserves enshrinement, but Dan Uggla – whose five 30-homer seasons are the most of any second baseman ever – didn’t even make it past the screening committee to get onto the 2021 Hall of Fame ballot.  Yet LaTroy Hawkins (75 wins, 94 losses, 4.31 ERA) did.
  • Oakland’s Mike Minor authored one of the American League’s five complete-game shutouts in 2020, a seven-inning, 9-0 win vs. Seattle on September 14 (second game), and in so doing tied for the AL lead in that category.  But it was Minor’s only victory of the season; the rest of the year, he went 0-6 with a 6.34 ERA.
  • The Angels’ Albert Pujols completed his 20th major league season in 2020.  Most players drop off somewhat in the second half of their careers, but looking at Albert’s average season by decade appears like two different players:

YEARS         AB          R             H             2B           3B           HR          RBI         AVG       OBP        SLG

2001-10        573          119          190          43            2              41            123          .331         .426         .624

2011-20        511            66          134          24            0              25              87          .262         .319         .459

  • Best not to throw a southpaw against the White Sox.  Chicago went a perfect 14-0 against left-handed starters, 21-25 vs. righties.
  • Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer pitched two of the major leagues’ 12 complete-game shutouts in 2020, though both were seven-inning efforts.  Bauer two-hit Detroit, 4-0, on August 4, and one-hit Kansas City, 5-0, on August 19.  There were only five nine-inning, complete game shutouts in the majors all season, as many as Orel Hershiser had by himself in September, 1988.
  • On September 9, Atlanta’s Adam Duvall knocked in nine runs in a 29-9 massacre of the Marlins.  That tied the Braves’ record for RBI in a game held by Harry Staley (June 1, 1893) and Tony Cloninger (July 3, 1966).  In other words, on a franchise which has been around for 145 seasons and boasted sluggers like Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Chipper Jones, the two players who drove in the most runs in a game were both pitchers!
  • Though the Angels’ Mike Trout finished “only” fifth in MVP voting in 2020, at age 29 he already ranks fifth all-time in MVP Award shares (where a unanimous selection is equal to one share).  Trout passed Willie Mays in 2020, and could move up to #2 in 2021:

9.29         Barry Bonds                          5.25         Alex Rodriguez

6.97         Stan Musial                           4.97         Mike Schmidt

6.92        Albert Pujols                        4.83         Frank Robinson

6.43         Ted Williams                         4.79         Frank Thomas

6.31        Mike Trout                           4.67        Miguel Cabrera

5.95         Willie Mays                          4.20         Jimmie Foxx

5.77         Mickey Mantle                     3.98         Yogi Berra

5.45         Hank Aaron                          3.86         Eddie Collins

5.44         Joe DiMaggio                       3.69         Hank Greenberg

5.43         Lou Gehrig                            3.69         Pete Rose             

  • Cleveland pitcher Carlos Carrasco has won Comeback Player of the Year Awards in each of the past two seasons!  Carrasco won MLB’s version in 2019, and Sporting News’s and the Players’ Choice versions in ’20.
  • Counting post-season, the Dodgers played 78 games in 2020.  Shortstop Corey Seager’s combined statistics included 23 home runs and 61 RBI (projecting to 48 and 127 in a 162-game season), with a .312 batting average and .624 slugging percentage.  How good is that?  Only one regular shortstop (minimum 100 games) has ever posted a higher slugging percentage in a season: Alex Rodriguez, .631 in 1996.
  • The Yankees’ Jordan Montgomery led AL pitchers with three errors, even though he successfully handled only five chances.
  • Finishing tied for ninth in Cy Young Award voting were Kyle Hendricks (Cubs, NL) and Liam Hendriks (A’s, AL).
  • Since leaving the Rockies two years ago, DJ LeMahieu’s performance with the Yankees seems to prove he’s much more than a Colorado hitter.  Or, it could be that he thinks he’s still playing his home games at Coors Field.  LeMahieu batted .423 and slugged .784 in home games last season, and has hit 27 of his 36 Yankee home runs at home.
  • Of the 898 games played in 2020, 298 were inter-league games – and the victories were evenly divided between the two leagues, 149-149.
  • Only five pitchers in the past century have finished a season with as many victories (minimum 10) as walks allowed.  Seattle’s Marco Gonzales may have joined them, given a longer season.  Gonzales finished with a 7-2 record and just seven bases on balls in 69.2 innings.
  • Despite having no pitchers come to bat, the American League used pinch-hitters on more than 500 occasions, with an aggregate batting average of just .205 and a putrid .611 OPS.  And this is nothing new: in the seasons since 2010, AL pinch-swingers have hit .208, .206, .216, .207, .208, .208, .215, .196, .210, .208, .220, and .205, respectively.  Which brings up my annual question: Whom are these guys hitting for, which makes this such a brilliant strategy?

Henry Aaron: More than Home Runs

            Henry Aaron died on January 22, aged 86.  Most people remember him as the man who broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, once thought unbreakable.  Many still consider Aaron the “true” home run king, with his total of 755 surpassed only by the juiced-up Barry Bonds’s 762.

            I say it’s a shame Henry Aaron broke the homer record, because it overshadowed what a great player he was.  “As far as I’m concerned, Aaron is the best ballplayer of my era,” said Mickey Mantle.  “He’s never received the credit he’s due.”  Long-time big league player and broadcaster Bob Uecker agrees, saying Aaron “was the most underrated player of my time, and his.”  Because he wasn’t talkative or flashy, and didn’t play in a media center like New York, Aaron’s performances went almost unnoticed for most of his career, and still are not fully appreciated.

            Henry (he didn’t care for the sportswriters’ “Hank”) was a lot more than a home run-slugger – he was a top-notch all-around hitter, along with a Gold Glove outfielder and an excellent base-stealer.  He was NL Player of the Year in 1956 and ’63, and MVP in ’57, and is the only player to be named to 25 All-Star teams.

            Let’s start with hitting.  Aaron hit line drives to all fields, many of them going for doubles, triples, or homers.  He won two batting titles and finished in the league’s top five in average in ten of eleven seasons, 1955-65, hitting .323 over that span.  While Bonds took the homer record, no one has surpassed Aaron’s 1477 extra-base hits or 2297 RBI.  Total bases are one of my favorite stats: accumulating a lot of them requires a combination of hitting for average, hitting for power, and durability.  Aaron led the NL in that category a record eight times, and finished with 6856 total bases – 722 more than anybody else before or since.

            Henry was very good on defense, too.  He played all three outfield positions and all three bases during his career, but his main position was right field.  His arm didn’t draw raves like Roberto Clemente’s, but Aaron led NL outfielders in double plays three times.  In 1958, the first year the Gold Glove Award was given to each position in each league (with players making the selections and not permitted to vote for teammates), Aaron beat out Clemente at right field, 81 votes to 57.  Aaron topped Clemente again in 1959 (95-30) and ’60 (74-72), before they started giving the award to three outfielders in each league, regardless of position.  Henry never won another Gold Glove (nor did Clemente lose another one), but he finished in the top five in voting for the three spots in each year from 1962-65, and possibly other seasons for which data is unavailable.

            Aaron didn’t steal many bases over his first six seasons, and because of that people said he wasn’t a “complete player” like, say, Willie Mays.  To prove them wrong, Aaron added the steal to his arsenal in the 1960s, and became one of the best in the game at it: only six major leaguers had more stolen bases in that decade.  He was doing it with a high success rate, too.  Aaron led the NL in stolen base percentage in 1966 (21-3, .875) and ’68 (28-5, .848), and finished second in 1963 (31-5, .861) and ’64 (22-4, .846).  In ’63, he finished second in the NL in steals, and became just the third player ever with 30+ homers and 30+ stolen bases in the same season.

This was an example of Henry Aaron seeming to be able to do whatever he wanted to do on a baseball diamond.  In 1963, though Aaron missed the Triple Crown by just seven BA points (44-130-.319), he was embarrassed by his 94 strikeouts, by far his career high to that point (nowadays, players often have that many by the All-Star break).  He resolved to cut his K’s in ’64 and succeeded, going down on strikes just 46 times.  Two years later, when Aaron saw the Braves’ new park in Atlanta, he decided he could help the team more by trying for home runs.  Though his batting average dropped to .279, his HR-RBI numbers went from 32-89 to 44-127.  Aaron led the NL in homers again in 1967, and it was about this time that people started to realize that he had a chance to reach Ruth’s career record of 714.  Still, it took an amazing kick to get it done.

From ages 35 to 39, when most players are winding down, Aaron averaged 41 home runs a year.  In 1969 at 35, he batted .300, hit 44 home runs, and led his team to the divisional title.  Two years later, he hit .327 with a career-high 47 dingers.  At age 39 in ’73, Henry batted .301 with 40 homers, paving the way for him to break Ruth’s record in early ’74.

One of the common criticisms of the new record was that Aaron had the advantage of playing his home games at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, AKA “The Launching Pad.”  But, Aaron played only nine of his 23 seasons – from ages 32-40 – while calling that cozy arena home, and hit just 190 of his 755 career home runs there.  He played most of his career home games in Milwaukee’s County Stadium, a poor homer park. 

            Aaron played for Milwaukee from 1954-65.  While most players hit more homers in their home parks, Aaron did most of his damage on the road. In his rookie season, Henry managed only one dinger at Milwaukee but 12 abroad.  In his MVP season (1957), the breakdown was 18-26; the following year, it was 10-20; in 1962, it was 18-27; and in ’63, it was 19-25.  Overall, Aaron hit 185 four-baggers at home as compared to 213 on the road in those dozen seasons.

            Aaron took full advantage of The Launching Pad, especially in 1971, when 31 of his 47 homers were hit there.  He then returned to Milwaukee for his final two seasons, finishing his career with 385 homers at home, 370 on the road.  Until Bonds (383) passed it in his final season, Aaron also held the all-time record for most career road home runs.

            In 1969, a cockamamie poll named Joe DiMaggio as the “Greatest Living Player.”  He insisted on being introduced that way the remaining 30 years of his life.  Almost all analysts would agree that DiMaggio didn’t ever deserve that title, but there is less consensus as to who did.  Over the past half-century, Willie Mays has been named most often for that honor, while others will say Barry Bonds, with or without an asterisk.  But where was the love for Aaron?  He had roughly 500 more hits, 100 more homers, and 400 more RBI than Mays.  And unlike the other two players, Aaron shined in post-season play (.362 with a 1.116 OPS).

            Willie McCovey, Mays’s teammate for 13 years, said “I don’t think there was anything Mays could do that Aaron couldn’t do as well, to be honest with you.  I just don’t think Aaron did it with quite as much flair.”  Eddie Mathews agreed: “Willie Mays, in my opinion, wasn’t as good a player as Hank Aaron, but whenever Willie did something, the New York press and skies lit up.”

            It may be too late, but I’ll give Henry Aaron his props now: Farewell to baseball’s Greatest Living Player.

Farewell to SABR

After 39 years as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, I will not be renewing for 2021.  This is not a sudden decision based on any one thing, but something that has been brewing for years.  SABR and I have simply grown apart.  I used to feel like a valued and respected member, but no longer feel that way; quite the contrary.  SABR no longer has appreciation for me, nor vice versa. 

SABR was founded in my current hometown, Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1971, with a meeting of 16 people interested in the statistical and historical study of baseball – “statistorians,” as founder Bob Davids called them.  Mostly through word-of-mouth, membership grew impressively, reaching 1,000 by 1979, and over 6,000 by 1987.

Had I known about SABR, I surely would have joined early on, even as a teenager.  I have been crazy about baseball, particularly its stats, since the age of ten.  I started by watching games on my family’s black and white TV set, collecting and studying Topps baseball cards, and reading everything I could find about the game and its rich but scattered history.  At 16, I was introduced to the secret “reference room” of my high school library, and discovered The Baseball Encyclopedia.  I hardly left the library for the rest of my high school career.

I got my own copy a few years later and built, well, an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s history.  I started doing little desktop research projects.  At age 24, I had my first article published in Baseball Digest; hundreds more articles and nine books have followed.  I began corresponding with some other baseball writers, most notably John Thorn, who lived just 45 minutes away from me. 

Later that year, my new bride and I were honeymooning in central New York, and took a field trip to see the Cooperstown museums.  I asked at the Hall of Fame about visiting its Library.  They told me I needed an appointment, so I made one and went back by myself two days later, on August 11, 1982.  I met Historian Cliff Kachline, who asked if I was a SABR member.  I said I’d recently heard about it, and it sounded right up my alley, but I didn’t know how to join.  Cliff, a founding member himself, whipped out an application and I signed up on the spot.  (Little did I know that Kachline would be fired a couple of months later, and that I’d essentially have his job within four years.  Or that my SABR membership would outlast my marriage by more than a decade.)

Within two years of joining, I had met and/or started long-running correspondence with Bob Davids, Pete Palmer, Bill James, and many others.  I was educated and inspired by these giants of the narrow field, and exchanged projects and ideas with them.  To me, SABR’s most valuable publication was its annual Membership Directory, enabling such relationships in the pre-Internet era. 

I became a very active participant, and was considered a rising star, considerably younger than the average member.  I wrote some articles for SABR’s annual publications, Baseball Research Journal and The National Pastime.  I joined committees, helped with editorial work, donated money, and served on the long-range planning committee.  I was a regular at local chapter meetings and went to three national Conventions in my first seven years.  In 1988, SABR published my Award Voting, a history of major baseball awards.  It won one of the first class of SABR-Macmillan Awards in 1989.  In 2001, I was given the “SABR Salute,” which at the time was considered SABR’s second-highest honor, sort of a lifetime achievement award (since discontinued).  At 44, I was the youngest person ever to receive that distinction. 

My SABR career has been pretty much downhill ever since.  I have been snubbed by the Society in many ways, including research awards, and a job as Publications Director (after I applied, I was told the position was being discontinued; then it was given to someone else).  I am sometimes made to feel like a dinosaur – even though I’m pretty sure I’m still younger than the average SABR member!

I feel that the type of research I do, and have done, is no longer valued by SABR at large, or those who make its decisions.  Most of it has been rendered obsolete by on-line resources; a project I spent weeks or months on in the 1990s can now be replicated in one minute by someone who is good at manipulating a data-base.  Much of my work has found its way to these resources, sometimes with credit, usually not.  Nobody cares that I spent hundreds of hours sitting in front of microfilm readers and poring through dusty bound volumes, researching and compiling MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year voting (among other things) – just that it’s now available to them at the click of a mouse.  For the same reason, my baseball knowledge doesn’t count for much anymore – almost any baseball question can be answered in seconds (though not necessarily with accuracy), making for what the late Dick Thompson disdainfully called “Google researchers.”  Judging from the readership of my recent books and blogs, few people have much interest in what I have to write about baseball these days.  Some people even dismiss things I write in snarky or pompous ways.

The kicker for me was my work on the hidden-ball trick, a previously-untapped part of baseball history.  To date, with the help of many fellow-SABR members, I have documented 280 successful executions of the trick in the major leagues, and a lot of great stories and history to go with them.  To me, the project was what the Society was all about.  When I made a book out of it, I offered it as a SABR publication.  The Publications Director seemed to support the idea, but the SABR Board of Directors voted it down.  So I got the book published by Roman & Littlefield in 2015, and had them submit three copies for consideration for one of SABR’s annual research awards.  Three winners were chosen, but I was not one of them.

Some of this tarnishing of my reputation is my own fault.  I joined SABR’s on-line Listserver, SABR-L, in 1997, and have written hundreds of thousands of words there since.  Unlike 90% of the material there, most of what I post has baseball research value, but my tact can be lacking – I can be snarky or pompous myself.  I have little patience for people who post there with half-baked opinions, hazy memories, or fan-talk instead of facts, and have gotten into some nasty exchanges, on- and off-list.  Along the way, I’ve managed to get on the bad side of some influential members.  And while I have been correcting and critiquing the work of others, I’ve learned that not all mine is perfect, either.

Meanwhile, SABR itself has gotten in its own way.  Its membership has been about the same since Reagan was President, yet costs go up and benefits go down.  In 1987, SABR had 6,393 members and two modestly-paid employees.  Dues cost $20 per year, which covered four or five book-size publications and a monthly newsletter.  Now, even at a ten-year high, SABR has just 6,200 members, the vast majority of whom are aging white males like me.  Yet they have a whole staff of employees to serve them, at a payroll of $438,940 (per the 2020 annual report).  Annual dues have more than tripled to $65, which include just two paper publications, the semi-annual Baseball Research Journal.  Even that frankly doesn’t contain much of interest to me anymore.  I spend 45 minutes browsing through it, then stuff it into my bookshelf.  I spend more time with my local daily newspaper.  (This is not to say they are not of interest to other members, or that there are not other member benefits which I don’t use.)

The annual SABR Convention ain’t what it used to be, either.  I went to my first one in Providence, R. I. in 1984.  Registration cost $88, which included a banquet and lodging at a Brown University dorm.  I followed with Conventions in Minneapolis in ’88 and Albany, N.Y. in ’89, with registration costing $55; I had my own lodging.

Now, one can’t go to a SABR Convention without spending four figures, including travel.  They are always held in expensive major-city hotels during the peak of tourist season, and SABR has jacked up its fees, too.  When the 2020 Convention was cancelled due to COVID-19, SABR whined about how much income it would be losing, and guilt-tripped members into making up the difference in donations, as if COVID hadn’t disrupted our lives and income, too.

I have been to only two Conventions since 1989, in Boston in 2002 and Philadelphia in ’13 (and was a member of the champion trivia teams both times!).  If I’m going to spend $1,500 on a trip once a year, it’s going to be Jamaica in February, not San Diego in July.  I’ve suggested on brsp, a SABR on-line discussion group, that the Society occasionally have its Conventions at other times of the year (enabling lower costs, and inclusion of different members for whom summer is a difficult time), only to be ridiculed.  The same when I suggested the Directory be brought back. 

            Many people in the general public equate SABR with Sabermetrics.  Early SABR member Bill James coined the term four decades ago to describe the type of groundbreaking mathematical study he did, with a nod to the fledgling group which helped shape it.  He came to regret the name, and it has come to be attached to any revolutionary theory about baseball strategy, whether or not the theory has proven validity, or has anything to do with SABR members.  Valid or not, the widespread adoption of Sabermetrics has made the game less fan-friendly, and in my opinion has hurt SABR’s reputation.

            Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about statistical analysis of baseball, and was decades ahead of most people in that regard.  By the mid-1980s, I was professionally involved with early Sabermetric projects like John Thorn’s and Pete Palmer’s The Hidden Game of Baseball, and the Bill James Baseball Abstract.  But I don’t think their successors have really advanced the field, just made it more widely-available.  Yet, where 1980s baseball officials snorted at the brilliant work of James and Palmer, today’s management and award voters seem to lap up whatever the current numbers-crunchers put out there.  Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is treated like Gospel (the “Quarterback Rating” of baseball), and “bullpenning” has taken over pitching strategy.  When I challenge the validity of such things in print, some say or imply that I am just not up-to-speed enough.  In any case, as a result of the “new” Sabermetrics, baseball games have become three-plus-hour yawners full of strikeouts, walks, home runs, and substitutions.  Increasingly, baseball reporters choose award-winners and Hall of Famers by these metrics, not by what they see on the field.  If you’re just going to go by what some data-base says, why have managers or award voters?

            Anyway, SABR has provided me with many positive things over the years, and it’s not like my divorcing them will drastically change my life, or theirs.  I’m not the first long-time member who has left, nor will I be the last.  I’ll still work on my own research projects, like the hidden-ball trick, and the players who homered in their final major league at bats, whether or not SABR cares about them.  I’ll still write baseball blogs or articles when the mood strikes.  I’ll keep in touch with many SABR friends I’ve made over the years, and go to my local chapter meetings.  No doubt there will be times I’ll miss the group.  In leaving after 39 years, my deepest regret is that I never was found worthy of the Society’s highest honor, the Bob Davids Award.

            Happy 50th anniversary, SABR.  Sorry I won’t be there for the party.

The 2021 Hall of Fame Election Forecast

For most baseball fans, autumn means the playoffs, awards, and winter meetings. For me, it means it’s time for my annual Hall of Fame election forecast. This is my 40th straight year predicting the elections and, despite some rough roads recently, I hold just under an 80% success rate (62-16) in guessing who would or would not make it among candidates receiving between 65-85% of the vote.

A review of the voting process: Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) do the voting. Late each fall, ballots are distributed to beat-writers who have been BBWAA members for ten years or more, and are either active or retired no more than ten years. The ballots, which are to be returned by the end of the year, list candidates in alphabetical order, instructing voters to choose up to ten players. Eligible candidates include men who played in at least ten seasons in the majors, the last of which was not less than five nor more than 15 years prior to the election. Any candidate being named on at least 75% of the ballots is elected to the Hall; anyone receiving less than 5% of the vote is dropped from further consideration. The BBWAA honors an average of about two players per year. The 2021 results will be announced on January 26, and the induction ceremony is scheduled for July 25.

Eighteen of the 32 players who were listed on the 2020 ballot are not on the 2021 version: Derek Jeter and Larry Walker, who were elected; and 16 others (Paul Konerko, Jason Giambi, Alfonso Soriano, Eric Chavez, Cliff Lee, Adam Dunn, Brad Penny, Raul Ibañez, J. J. Putz, Josh Beckett, Heath Bell, Chone Figgins, Rafael Furcal, Carlos Peña, Brian Roberts, and Jose Valverde) who were dropped for failing to reach the 5%-threshold. These men collected 730 votes in 2020, which conceivably could be redistributed to the new and returning candidates this year. Members of the weak 2021 rookie class figure to get only a fraction of those, meaning that most of the 14 returnees should move up in the voting – the last realistic chance for some to earn BBWAA recognition. But in my estimation, just one of them will advance enough to earn enshrinement.

Most first-time eligibles – even some solid candidates – seem destined for just one try on the writers’ ballot, the consequence of receiving less than 5% of the vote. These include pitchers Dan Haren (153-131 record, 2013 strikeouts), Barry Zito (165-143, Cy Young Award), A. J. Burnett (164-157, 2513 K’s), and LaTroy Hawkins (1042 games pitched), and position-players Michael Cuddyer (197 homers, batting title), Nick Swisher (245 HR), and Shane Victorino (four Gold Gloves). Incidentally, Dan Uggla – whose five 30-homer seasons are the most of any second baseman ever – didn’t even make it past the screening committee to get onto the ballot. Others screened out were Adam LaRoche (255 HR) and Alex Rios (253 stolen bases).

Here’s the way I foresee the rest of the election to shape up, with predicted percentages in parentheses:

Curt Schilling (77) – His résumé is almost a dead ringer for John Smoltz’s: Schilling was 216-146 with 3116 strikeouts, a 3.46 ERA, and an 11-2 post-season record; Smoltz was 213-155 with 3084 K’s, a 3.26 ERA, and a 15-4 post-season log. Yet Smoltz made it to Cooperstown with 83% of the vote in his first attempt in 2015, while Schilling has not reached the door in seven tries. Schilling had three second-place Cy Young Award finishes and a brilliant 4.38 SO:BB ratio, and starred for three different World Series teams. He’ll squeak in this year.

Roger Clemens (66) – The most-accomplished pitcher of the past century, if not any century, Clemens won a record seven Cy Young Awards and seven ERA crowns while going 354-184 with 4672 strikeouts. His reputation has been skewered by well-documented accusations of steroids and HGH use, though he was acquitted of perjury on the subject. He’ll fall short again, in his next-to-last try.

Barry Bonds (65) – The most accomplished non-pitcher with the possible exception of Babe Ruth, Bonds won a record seven MVP Awards and set all-time marks for career homers (762, including a record 73 in 2001) and walks (2558, a record 668 of them intentional). For good measure, he added 514 stolen bases and eight Gold Glove Awards. But, like Clemens, accusations of his using performance enhancers in the second half of his career, along with his surly relationship with the media, has kept him out of Cooperstown so far, while less-accomplished PED-users waltz past them into the hallowed Hall.

Omar Vizquel (61) – The writers gave Vizquel (2877 hits, 11 Gold Gloves) more than half of the vote last time, establishing him as a likely future inductee. My question: Where were those writers while he was playing? Vizquel received a total of three MVP points in his entire career!

Scott Rolen (44) – Amassed 517 doubles and 316 homers.

Billy Wagner (41) – Had 422 career saves and a 2.31 ERA.

Todd Helton (37) – Raked 2519 hits, 592 doubles, 369 home runs, while batting .316. But the Coors Field effect (he slugged .607 with 227 homers at home, but just .469 with 142 HR on the road), along with the nosedive his numbers took after PED-testing began, doom him to also-ran status.

Gary Sheffield (37) – An admitted steroids user who blasted 509 homers with 1676 RBI and a batting crown.

Manny Ramirez (33) – His quirky behavior and PED busts obscured the fact that Ramirez was one of the best sluggers in major league history (.585 lifetime). He led the AL in homers, RBI, and batting in various years, and his 165 ribbies in 1999 are the most in a season by anyone since 1938. Manny finished with 555 homers and a .312 career average. The only man to top him in both categories? Babe Ruth.

Jeff Kent (31) – Kent set the record for most career home runs by a second baseman and won the 2000 NL MVP Award. He finished with 377 homers and a .290 average.

Andruw Jones (25) – Hit 434 homers and won ten Gold Gloves in center field.

Sammy Sosa (18) – Slammed 609 home runs, including three 60-homer seasons and an MVP Award, in a career also tainted by performance-enhancer accusations.

Andy Pettitte (17) – Posted a 256-153 career mark (making him one of just 18 pitchers since 1893 who were 100+ wins above .500), adding a record 19 post-season victories. His admitted PED-use costs him more-serious consideration.

Bobby Abreu (15) – A Sabermetric stud (60 WAR) in his second try on the ballot, Abreu amassed 2470 hits, 574 doubles, 288 homers, 400 steals, and a .291/.395/.475 slash-line. Like Helton and several Hall of Famers, Abreu’s numbers declined noticeably around the time PED-testing began.

Torii Hunter (14) – A first-year candidate, Hunter amassed 2452 hits, 353 homers, and nine Gold Glove Awards in center field.

Tim Hudson (11) – Another ballot rookie, Hudson was a solid 222-133 (.625) with a 3.49 ERA.

Mark Buehrle (10) – Still another newcomer, Buehrle was a workhorse with a 214-160 log, including two no-hitters, one a perfect game. He also won four Gold Gloves.

Aramis Ramirez (5) – The final newbie with a chance to make the cut, Aramis quietly accumulated 2303 hits, 386 homers, and 1417 RBI, numbers ranking among those of the best third basemen ever.

Looking ahead toward upcoming elections, 2022 will feature David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Jimmy Rollins, and Jake Peavy. The following year, Carlos Beltran, John Lackey, and Francisco Rodriguez will be the biggest new names. Adrian Beltre, Joe Mauer, Bartolo Colon, David Wright, Matt Holliday, Jose Bautista, Adrian Gonzalez, Victor Martinez, Jose Reyes, Chase Utley, and James Shields will join the 2024 ballot. 2025 will have Ichiro Suzuki, C. C. Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Curtis Granderson, Fernando Rodney, and Troy Tulowitzki (and, potentially, Buster Posey and Chris Sale). And any ten-year veteran who played in 2020, but does not return next season, will qualify for the 2026 slate.

When Prognostication and Fandom Converge

Being a baseball fan is one thing; being an analyst is another.  It is rare that the best possible outcomes for the two come together.  2020 was my year.

The Los Angeles Dodgers finished the abbreviated ’20 season with the best record in baseball at 43-17, good for a .717 win percentage. That’s the highest percentage by a team in a season of any length since the 1954 Indians went 111-43, .721. Add in post-season, and the Dodgers were 56-22, .718 – best since the mighty 1927 Yankees went 114-44, .722. Let that sink in.

And I not only predicted it all, but got to root “my” team to the title!

I have been a baseball fan since 1967, in most of those years trying to forecast the pennant races. Like most prognosticators, my record is spotty at best. There are too many variables which can derail a prediction, like injuries, random chance, and short post-season series. So, in the rare instances I get something right, it’s cause for crowing.

Such was the case this year. From my pre-season forecast, posted here on July 23: “Los Angeles, led by new acquisition Mookie Betts and a healthy Corey Seager, will have the best record in baseball, possibly topping .700… The Dodgers will end decades of frustration to reclaim the Commissioner’s Trophy.” In case you haven’t heard, after the Dodgers’ .717 regular season, they won four post-season match-ups to earn their first world championship since 1988. And the two players named were huge reasons, with Seager being named MVP of both the National League Championship Series and World Series.

Predicting the Dodgers would win their division was not a longshot. They had gone 106-56 in 2019, 21 games ahead of their nearest competitor. But I saw things that figured to make them even better in ’20: 1) The “Pythagorean” formula, based on runs scored and allowed, projected L.A. to win 110 games; in other words, they were even better than their ’19 record indicated. 2) They had acquired Betts, a dynamic five-tool player and former MVP with the Red Sox. 3) Fully recovered from his 2018 surgery, Seager figured to get back on the superstar career path he had established in 2016-17. Corey had had a decent comeback year in 2019, but really rediscovered his power stroke in the final month of that season, amassing seven homers and 26 RBI in September.

My becoming a Dodgers’ fan is a fairly recent phenomenon. I rooted for several different teams during my first quarter-century of fandom, usually whatever team Pete Rose was on. Of course, Rose was banned from baseball in 1989. After the Reds won it all in 1990, and I felt nothing, I realized I had become a non-denominational baseball fan, loving the game but no particular team. That remained true for my second quarter-century of fandom.

But two Dodgers’ players – or more accurately, their parents – changed my outlook. The first was Seager, who joined the team late in the 2015 season. Corey’s parents, Jody Bowers and Jeff Seager, were classmates of mine at Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, New York. (Sure, they were two grades behind me, and I barely knew them, but I claim a connection nonetheless.) Their oldest son, Kyle, had made the majors with the Seattle Mariners four years earlier, and was well on his way to a solid career; through 2020, he has hit 207 home runs despite a poor hitters’ park in Seattle, and earned a Gold Glove for his defense. The Seagers’ second son, Justin, also made it to the pros, playing five years in the minors. But by then, I was hearing from a family friend that Corey would be the cream of the crop – and he has been proven right. In his first full season in 2016, Seager was named NL Rookie of the Year and finished third in MVP voting. In ’17, he earned his second All-Star pick and second Silver Slugger Award. Shoulder surgery ended his 2018 season early, and its effects hampered his performance for most of 2019, but he was all the way back in 2020. The shortened schedule obscured the greatness of his numbers. Counting post-season, the Dodgers played 78 games in 2020. Seager’s combined statistics included 23 home runs and 61 RBI (projecting to 48 and 127 in a 162-game season), with a .312 batting average and .624 slugging percentage. How good is that? Only one regular shortstop (minimum 100 games) has ever posted a higher slugging percentage in a season: Alex Rodriguez, .631 in 1996. Not Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, or Derek Jeter.

Cody Bellinger was the second reason for me to pull for the Dodgers, as he has roots in Oneonta, New York, a half-hour’s drive from my home base in Cooperstown. Cody’s father, Clay, was born in Oneonta and starred for the high school baseball team; several family members remain in the area. Clay became a local hero when he made it to the pros in 1989, starting a nomadic 16-year career as a solid, versatile minor league player. He finally made it to The Show at age 30 in 1999, joining the Yankees as a super-sub. Bellinger helped the team to two World Series in the next three years, playing every position except pitcher and catcher. But Clay’s son, Cody (born in Arizona), has far outperformed his father. Cody joined the Dodgers four weeks into the 2017 season, and proceeded to set an NL record (since broken) with 39 home runs as a rookie. He was the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year, 2018 NLCS MVP, and 2019 league MVP.

Nevertheless, rooting for the Dodgers became a teeth-gnashing experience. They made it to the 2017 World Series, but lost to the technologically-superior Astros in seven games. L.A. made it to the 2018 World Series, but lost to the Red Sox in five games. Despite their gaudy record in ’19, the Dodgers didn’t make it past the first round of playoffs, losing to the ultimate-world-champion Washington Nationals in the NLDS. Dave Roberts’s questionable managerial decisions often cost the Dodgers, in my opinion. In Game Four of the 2018 Fall Classic, for example, Rich Hill was pitching a gem, having allowed just one hit in six-and-a-third innings, and thrown only 91 pitches. He had a 4-0 lead over the Red Sox, and L.A. was eight outs away from evening the Series at two games apiece. This was following their epic 18-inning win the night before, so the Dodgers’ momentum was palpable.

So, naturally, Roberts had to prove what a great strategist he is. He brought in Scott Alexander, who walked the only batter he faced on four pitches. Then came Ryan Madson, who promptly surrendered a three-run homer (and was credited with a “hold”!). Four more relief pitchers followed and, by the time the Dodgers got those eight outs, they were losing, 9-4. The six relievers faced 18 batters, surrendering three walks, seven hits (including two homers), and eight earned runs for a 27.00 ERA. The final score was 9-6 and, instead of being tied at two games apiece, the Dodgers were in the hole, three games to one. Their momentum and morale shot, they sleepwalked through Game Five as the Red Sox – admittedly a better team – finished them off.

So it was heartening to see the Dodgers benefit from another manager’s questionable decision in 2020. In the final game of the World Series, Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell had L.A. handcuffed into the sixth inning. The former Cy Young Award-winner led 1-0, and had thrown only 73 pitches and surrendered just two singles and no walks. But after the second single, Rays’ manager Kevin Cash abruptly yanked Snell, turning the game over from his ace starter to his bullpen. They instantaneously blew the lead, and the Dodgers went on to win, 3-1.

I’ve taken some ridicule from colleagues for not being “woke” enough to embrace modern pitching strategies. All I know is, if I’m in a do-or-die game, and I have one of the best starting pitchers in baseball on the mound, it would have to be a desperate situation for me to replace him with my seventh- or eighth-best pitcher and hope for the best.

But, whatever. My team is the best, and I told you so.

Gibson Was Great in ’68

Bob Gibson died yesterday, a month shy of his 85th birthday.  It was the 52nd anniversary of his greatest pitching performance: a 17-strikeout shutout against the hard-hitting Detroit Tigers in Game One of the 1968 World Series.  Gibby was the subject of my second book, a biography designed for kids aged 10-13.  I finally met him soon after, in 1992, the first time he came to Cooperstown after his 1981 induction ceremony.

Now, Gibson was great at pitching, not so much at public relations. “I owe the fans 100 percent on the field, and I give them exactly that,” he once said. “Anything else I give is completely up to me.”

“I wrote a book about you,” I said in introducing myself. “Oh?,” Gibson asked without much interest. You’d think someone would be curious about a book about himself, and the author who wrote it. “Yes, it was a biography for juveniles,” I explained. “Juvenile delinquents?,” he said, chuckling to himself and walking away.

Here’s something I wrote about Gibson incredible 1968 season:

With apologies to Denny McLain, the Pitcher of the Year in the “Year of the Pitcher” was Bob Gibson.  Gibby had been a very good pitcher for several years through the 1967 season, and would be a very good pitcher for several more years starting in 1969.  But in 1968, particularly during a two-month stretch in mid-season, Gibson was arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.

His period of dominance actually began after he suffered a broken leg on July 15, 1967.  Returning to action on September 7, Gibson went 3-1 with a 0.96 ERA the rest of the regular season, then led the Cardinals to the world championship over the Red Sox with a 3-0, 1.00 World Series performance.  Picking up right where he left off, Gibby was 4-0, 1.64 in spring training of the next year.  

Then followed Gibson’s epic 1968 season: a 1.12 ERA, the lowest ever for anyone pitching as many as 300 innings. In fact, he flirted with a sub-one ERA, entering August with a 0.96 mark, and still standing at 0.99 after Labor Day.

One of the reasons Gibson’s season doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves is his relatively modest 22-9 won-lost record. How does someone lose nine games with a 1.12 ERA? It was mostly a case of shaky offensive and defensive support:

• April 20 – 5-1 vs. Chicago (CG, 3 ER). Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins three-hit the Cardinals, not allowing a run until two were out in the ninth inning.
• May 12 – 3-2 vs. Houston (8 IP, 2 ER).
• May 17 – 1-0 vs. Philadelphia (CG, 1 ER). The game’s only run scored with two out in the tenth inning.
• May 22 – 2-0 vs. Los Angeles (8 IP, 1 H, 1 ER). Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched his third of six straight shutouts.
• May 28 – 3-1 vs. San Francisco (CG, 3 ER).
• August 24 – 6-4 vs. Pittsburgh (CG, 3 ER). Unearned runs ended his 15-game winning streak.
• September 6 – 3-2 vs. San Francisco (8 IP, 2 ER).
• September 17 – 1-0 vs. San Francisco (CG, 1 ER). Ron Hunt hit one of his two homers of the year, and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry no-hit the Cards.
• September 22 – 3-2 vs. Los Angeles (CG, 2 ER).

In those games, Gibson went 0-9 despite a 2.14 ERA. Had the Cardinals scored but four runs in each of Gibson’s 34 starts, he would have gone 30-2. Yes, 1968 was a historically low-scoring season, with only 3.43 runs per team per game in the NL. OK, if the Cards had scored 3.43 runs in each game Gibson pitched, he still would have gone 30-4. If they had scored merely three runs in each game, Gibby would have been 24-4. Even if St. Louis had scored only two runs in each game, he would have gone 23-10. And – ready for this? – if they had scored just one run in each game he pitched, Gibson would still have had a winning record, at 13-10.

There is also the perception that every hurler dominated in The Year of the Pitcher. But Gibson’s ERA was 63% better than the rest of the National League’s 3.03 mark, and 44% better than that of the runner-up in the ERA race.

Gibson pitched 13 shutouts in ’68, and easily could have challenged Grover Alexander’s record of 16. Besides the May 17 heartbreaker mentioned above, Gibson twice pitched a complete game victory in which the only run he allowed was unearned. In all, he had 11 games in which he allowed just one run, several of them flukish. Five times during the season, he had a streak of 20+ scoreless innings. Remarkably, Gibson had a 1.83 ERA (but only a 9-9 record) in games he did not pitch a shutout. In other words, if we removed those 13 whitewashes, he still would have led the NL in ERA.

From June 2 through July 30, 1968, Bob Gibson put on the greatest two-month display of pitching in baseball history. In a stretch of 99 innings, he gave up just two runs. One scored on a wild pitch (“a catchable ball,” according to opposing first baseman Wes Parker), and the other on a bloop double which was fair by inches. Those were the only things standing between Gibby and ten straight shutouts.

It started with two scoreless frames capping a complete-game, 6-3 victory over the Mets on June 2. Gibson then ran off five shutouts in a row, beating the Astros, Braves, Reds, Cubs, and Pirates between June 6 and 26. Over the 45 innings, he surrendered just 21 hits and five walks. He was threatening the records of six straight shutouts and 58 consecutive scoreless innings set by the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale just a month earlier. And Gibby’s next start, on July 1, would be against Drysdale!

The drama ended early, when a low fastball eluded back-up catcher Johnny Edwards in the first inning, scoring a Dodger run. Undaunted, Gibby blanked L.A. the rest of the way to win, 5-1, then shut out the Giants five days later. On July 12, Gibson gave up just three hits in a win over Houston, but one was Denis Menke’s seventh-inning blooper that landed just inside the left field foul line and plated a run.

On July 17, the Giants paid Gibson the supreme compliment, scratching scheduled starter Juan Marichal so as not to waste their ace against an invincible opponent. It paid off: Gibson had a 6-0 lead after four innings, but the game was rained out, just short of official status, and Marichal won the next day.

Gibby followed with shutouts over the Mets (July 21) and Phillies (July 25) before allowing a fourth-inning run against New York on July 30. He won that game and added three more victories in August to complete a 15-game winning streak, including ten shutouts and a 0.68 ERA.

Gibson was never knocked out of the box during the season, completing 28 of 34 starts and being pinch-hit for late in the other six, as he averaged 8.96 innings per start. Gibson’s worst ERA in any month was 1.97 in April. His worst against any team was 2.11 vs. Los Angeles. Help from his home park, Busch Stadium? Gibson’s road ERA that year was 0.79.

Gibson continued his dominance into Game Seven of the 1968 World Series against Detroit. In his first 242/3 innings of the Fall Classic, he struck out 34 batters, and allowed just 11 hits, three walks, and one run for a 0.36 ERA. Suddenly, he ran out of magic, coughing up four runs on seven hits the rest of the way. Fittingly, the Cardinals didn’t score until there were two out in the ninth inning, and lost, 4-1.

And so ended a pitching season for the ages.

The All-Star Game that Wasn’t

Believe it or not, we are approaching the midway point of the abbreviated 2020 season – which reminds us that, for the first time in 75 years, there will be no All-Star Game this year. Here’s the story of the last time that happened.

If you check the record books for the result of the 1945 All-Star Game, you will see something like “Game canceled due to wartime travel restrictions.” But, who decided that there would be no game? And when? Was anything held in its stead?

The 1945 All-Star Game was scheduled. It was to be played at Boston’s Fenway Park on Tuesday, July 10. Even after the game was nixed in February, schedule-makers left the dates of July 9, 10 and 11 open in hopes that circumstances might change by then, permitting the contest.

During the winter of 1944-45, America’s involvement in World War II was at its most critical stage. Although President Franklin Roosevelt had given the “green light” for baseball to continue three years earlier, times had changed, and there was serious doubt as to whether the 1945 season would be held at all. The game had no commissioner, following Kenesaw M. Landis’s death on November 25, 1944, and most of its biggest stars – Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, et al – were in military service.

On February 21, 1945, league presidents Ford Frick and William Harridge met with Col. J. Monroe Johnson, Director of the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT). By the end of the meeting, the baseball season was still alive, but the World Series appeared doubtful and the All-Star Game was dead. “The transportation situation this year is so critical,” announced Johnson, “that I am asking Baseball to effect such further economies as will permit the continuance of the national game.” Johnson “requested” that baseball cut travel by 25% in comparison with 1944, and Frick and Harridge – as part of the reduction plan –volunteered to eliminate the mid-summer classic, estimating that “500,000 man-miles” would be saved. Spring Training was also curtailed again; no team trained any further south than Cairo, Illinois.

The March 8 edition of The Sporting News had a column from Boston Post writer Jack Malaney. The former president of the Baseball Writers’ Association, and future member of the Hall of Fame Veterans’ Committee, Malaney introduced what came to be known as the “Jack Malaney Plan.” He proposed that each of the 16 major league teams play inter-league exhibition games on July 10, scheduled to minimize travel. The five cities that had teams in each league – Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis – would host games between the cross-town rivals, while the others would play in cities en route to regularly-scheduled games. Proceeds from the games would be split between the American Red Cross and the National War Fund (in 1942-44, regular league games had been designated for the same cause).

On April 24, club owners – meeting in Cleveland to select the new Commissioner, Happy Chandler – approved the Malaney Plan. Besides the same-city games, Cincinnati would play at Cleveland, Brooklyn at Washington, and Detroit at Pittsburgh. The latter contest would later be scrapped when the ODT refused to grant the Tigers permission to detour 62 miles to get to Pittsburgh.

After Germany’s surrender on May 7, baseball followers wondered if the All-Star Game might be exhumed. Col. Johnson, however, quickly burst that bubble. “They ought to quit yapping about that sort of thing,” said Johnson on May 12. “Conditions are far worse now than at any time since we began going over transportation problems with various sports groups.”

On June 1 came a surprise twist to the story. Brigadier General Michael Todd, a New York theatrical producer and consultant for the Army Special Services on Entertainment, announced his plan – approved by the Supreme Allied Headquarters – to stage the mid-summer classic at Germany’s Nuremberg Stadium (capacity 120,000). “GI’s want American entertainment,” said Todd, “and there isn’t anything more American than the All-Star Game … We’ll have a game right here where Hitler used to strut.” Todd offered to arrange the transportation, and suggested that the likes of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb be brought over to act as coaches or managers. The plan provided for two games between league All-Stars and servicemen, leading up to the main event.

Major league officials, upon hearing of the grandiose scheme, quickly pronounced it wholly impractical, due to traveling and scheduling red tape. Todd’s brainstorm never got off the ground.

As the scheduled mid-season break arrived, people wondered who the All-Star selections might have been. The Associated Press polled 13 big league managers (the other three declined) to choose a mythical All-Star squad, while The Sporting News also announced a “dream team,” presumably selected by the publication’s staff.

The seven benefit games were held on July 9 and 10. At old Comiskey Park, the White Sox edged the Cubs, 5-4, in ten innings, before Chicago’s biggest crowd (47,144) since 1941. At Cleveland, the Reds blanked the Indians, 6-0. At New York’s Polo Grounds, Hershel Martin’s grand slam helped the Yankees trounce the Giants, 7-1, in a rain-shortened game. At Philadelphia, slugger Jimmie Foxx was the starting pitcher for the Phillies (or Bluejays) as they defeated the Athletics, 7-6.

At St. Louis, the Browns avenged their 1944 World Series loss to the Cardinals with a 3-0 triumph. The Browns had nine different pitchers hurl one shutout inning each, while the Cards had four pitchers work two innings apiece. Despite the 11 pitching changes, the game took only one hour, 31 minutes to play!

At Fenway Park, the Red Sox topped the Braves, 8-1, in the only day-game of the series. Dave “Boo” Ferriss, discarding plans to pitch both right- and left-handed in the game, stayed with his right in subduing the Braves. The Sox’ Jack Tobin singled off his brother, Jim, while Tommy Holmes managed a safety for the Braves. Holmes entered the All-Star break with a .401 average and a modern NL-record 37-game hitting streak, but the skein was snapped the day the regular schedule was resumed.
And, at Washington, the Senators defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers, 4-3, in a game marred by the career-ending knee injury suffered by Brooklyn’s rookie pitcher, Lee Pfund. Ironically, the game’s winning pitcher was Bert Shepard, who had lost a leg in military service.

The games raised a total of $244,778 for charity. The Boston game, though it had the third-lowest attendance of the games, contributed the most: $73,000. The reason: 44 box seats were sold at the price of $1,000 each. The New York and Chicago games each netted $50,000-plus.

On July 12, it was back to business as usual. By 1946, the war was over, baseball was back in full swing, and the All-Star Game was again an annual event – until 2020.

A 2020 Baseball Season Forecast

This is my 49th year of fearlessly forecasting baseball’s pennant races, albeit four months later than usual. This year, the hardest thing to predict is whether the season will even be completed. Assuming it does, what kind of flukish performances will emerge from the small sample size of 60 games? Will someone bat .400, or post a sub-one ERA?

Like most prognosticators, my record is spotty at best, with some solid hits but a lot of big whiffs. Last year, I correctly picked four of the six division winners, and Mike Trout’s third MVP Award, but there was not much else worth bragging about. Sorry, it won’t stop me from trying it again, and in keeping with the abbreviated season, I will make it short:

NL East – Washington will reverse last year’s slow start, holding off Atlanta, New York, and Philadelphia to wind up on top. As usual, Miami will occupy the basement.

NL Central – St. Louis will edge Chicago, with Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh in arrears.

NL West – Los Angeles, led by new acquisition Mookie Betts and a healthy Corey Seager, will have the best record in baseball, possibly topping .700. Arizona will be the only other division team to top even .500, with Colorado, San Diego, and San Francisco far behind.

AL East – New York will win handily, ahead of Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore.

AL Central – Minnesota will beat out Cleveland. Chicago’s rookie sensations will not lift them above third, while Kansas City and Detroit may combine for as many wins as the Twins.

AL West – Houston will edge out Oakland for another title, far ahead of Texas, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Post-Season – Los Angeles over St. Louis in the NLCS, and New York over Houston in the ALCS, setting up a good, old-fashioned Yankees-Dodgers World Series for the first time since 1981. And the Dodgers will end decades of frustration to reclaim the Commissioner’s Trophy.