What’s So Perfect About The Perfect Game?

I was reading Anthony Castrovince’s excellent article on the role of the no-hitter in the new “Era of the Pitcher”.  I’ve always been fascinated by the perfect game, and how truly rare an event it is – even though we’ve been spoiled with 3 (shoulda been 4!) over the last two seasons.

So realizing how many unknowns have pitched no-hitters (Bobo Holloman, he of three career wins, for example), I had a look at how perfect the guys involved in perfect games were in both the season it was thrown, and their overall career.
It was interesting to me that Dallas Braden became only the second pitcher ever to throw a perfect game in a season that he would wind up with a losing record.  The first – Charlie Robertson of the Tigers, who finished 14-15 in 1922.
What was really interesting to me, though, is that only 5 of the perfecto boys are in the Hall of Fame…and another 5 have career records under .500.
And a trivia question can now be answered..in the last 100 years, only one 300 game winner has pitched a perfect game….Randy Johnson.
But over the same 100 years, only 2 other pitchers with perfect games have gotten to 225 wins…Dennis Martinez and David Wells.  Neither is a Hall of Famer.
Among other authors of perfect games are Len Barker (74-76 career record), the legendary Don Larsen (81-91) and the aforementioned Charlie Robertson (49-80).  Mike Witt just barely scrapes above .500 at 117-116.
2010 remains a defining year for the perfect game.  It’s as likely to be thrown by a future Hall of Famer (Roy Halladay) as a guy who so far, looks just like a middle-of-the-rotation starter (Dallas Braden).
So the excitement will rage on.  It could be forever before we see another one.  Remember, Jim Bunning’s 1964 perfect game was the first thrown in the National League in the 20th century.  It remains the rarest – and most difficult – of all baseball achievements.

Greater Than We Thought, Part IV

Back to pitching for instalment four of this series on ERA.

Along with wins, the pitching stats of baseball changed remarkably from 1920 on.  Even the year before – 1919 – seven pitchers had ERA’s lower than 2, led by legendary Walter Johnson at 1.49. This mark would go unequaled for 49 years, the closest being Spud Chandler’s 1.64 mark in 1943, with key AL hitters off serving during WWII.
To find a level of true excellence, I cut off ERA performances since 1920 at 1.80.  Only 14 times since 1920 has a pitcher registered an ERA below 1.80.  Two pitchers – Greg Maddux and Sandy Koufax – did it twice.  
After Chandler’s 1943 performance, the AL has seen only 4 other occurences – Luis Tiant at 1.60 in 1968 (the lowest AL mark since 1920), Dean Chance’s 1.65 in 1964, Ron Guidry’s 1.74 in 1978 and Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000.
The NL performances are rooted – for the most part – in superstars.  Of the 7 NL pitchers who did it, 5 are in the Hall of Fame.  None of the 5 AL pitchers who accomplished this feat are in the Hall (although Pedro has a strong case).  Bob Gibson set the modern standard with 1.12 – a full 0.40 runs per nine innings lower than any pitcher of the past 90 years.  But Greg Maddux’s feat of ERA’s of 1.56 in 1994 and 1.63 in 1995 is the most remarkable two-season performance in history.  Even the great Sandy Koufax’s best performances were 1.73 in 1966 and 1.74 in 1964.
Some notes on some particularly dominant moments….because ERA is often a function of their times.  From 1920 until the players left for wartime service in the early 1940’s, low ERA’s were a rarity.  In fact, after Dolf Luque registered a 1.93 ERA for Cincinnati in 1923, only one pitcher registered an ERA below 2 until Mort Cooper put up a 1.78 ERA in 1942.  Carl Hubbell registered an incredible 1.66 in 1933, cementing his reputation.  
As great as Gibson’s 1968 season was, there’s been suggestion that something was “off” in this particular season, and with good reason.  Although it’s well known that Gibson’s 1.12 ERA is the modern major league record, it’s less known that Luis Tiant’s 1.60 ERA  – the best mark in the AL since 1920 – was also set in 1968.  So was Denny McLain’s modern record of 31 wins.  Sam McDowell of the Cleveland Indians registered a 1.81 ERA, and four other pitchers registered ERA’s under 2.  
In fact, of the 40 times that a pitcher has registered an ERA under 2 since 1920, 22 of them occured from 1963 to 1972.  Consider this.  ERA’s under 2 by decade…
1921-1930 – once (Dolf Luque, 1923)
1931-1940 – once (Carl Hubbell, 1933)
1941-1950 – five times (Hal Newhouser twice)
1951-1962- once (Billy Pierce, 1955)
1973-1980 – once (Ron Guidry, 1978)
1981-1990 – three times (Dwight Gooden, John Tudor & Roger Clemens)
1991-2000 – five times (Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez twice each)
2001-present – once (Roger Clemens, 2005)
A handful of things stand out to me.  Hubbell’s 1933 performance was one of the best seasons ever considering the era it was in.  Hal Newhouser’s two performances – in the midst of back to back seasons in which he won a remarkable 56 games – is also stunning.  The trio of performances by Gibson, McLain and Tiant make 1968 the greatest year of the pitcher ever.  Ron Guidry’s 1978 season was beyond outstanding, and regardless of era, Steve Carlton’s 27-10, 1.93 ERA for a team that went 32-93 in games that he didn’t register a decision – is incredible.  Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 ERA in 1985 was a dominant performance, as was Maddux’s back to back seasons in which EITHER season has been topped only 3 times since 1920.  Koufax is the only pitcher with three seasons of ERA’s under 2;  and finally, Martinez and Clemens are the only pitchers ever to register ERA’s under 2 for teams in both leagues.  All of these performances are truly…among the greatest of all time.

Greater Than We Thought Part III

This instalment is all about RBI’s.

Looking at single-season RBI leaders, I knew that a big concentration of the best would be lodged in the Early Modern era of baseball: 1920-1945.  I just didn’t know exactly HOW concentrated it would be.  45 players have driven in 150 runs in a season, and of that 45, an astonishing 31 of these occurences were between 1920 and 1940.  Wow.  When you consider that another 8 are from the current era – the Multi-Divisional Era, or yes, the steroid era – that means that in the remaining 95+ years or so of baseball history (1876-1919 and 1941-1995), only 6 players have driven in 150 or more runs.  
Prior to 1920, only one player had driven in 150+ runs, Sam Thompson having done it twice – 166 in 1887 and 165 in 1895.  
This leaves a mere 4 instances between 1941 and 1995  Three of them were close together – remarkably, both Vern Stephens and Ted Williams drove in 159 runs for the Red Sox in 1949, and Joe DiMaggio with 155 for the Yankees in 1948.
So from 1950 to 1995 – the only player to drive in 150 runs was the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis, with 153 in 1962.  Considering that the NL was a league with fewer runs scored throughout, this should be seen as a truly remarkable achievement.  Davis was the only NL player to accomplish the feat in a nearly 60 year time frame.
Others did come close, though.  Here’s the NL list of players with 140+ RBI between 1941 and 1995:
George Foster – 149 – 1977
Johnny Bench – 148 – 1970
Ernie Banks – 143 – 1958
Roy Campanella – 142 – 1953
Orlando Cepeda – 142 – 1961
Ted Kluszewski – 141 – 1954
Willie Mays – 141 – 1962
It’s a pretty rare occurence, as you can see.  How about the AL?
Don Mattingly – 145 – 1985
Al Rosen – 145 – 1953
Walt Dropo – 144 – 1950
Vern Stephens – 144 – 1950
Jim Gentile – 141 – 1961
Roger Maris – 141 – 1961
Rocky Colavito – 140- 1961
Harmon Killebrew – 140 – 1969
So in total, we have 19 occurences only of 140+ RBI in a season in a 55 year period.  It’s interesting that several of these clutch players aren’t Hall of Famers.  Only Stephens did it more than once, and he isn’t in the Hall.  And of the 18 players, only 8 have sustained a career that resulted in Hall induction.  It seems that in the modern age, sluggers can rarely sustain a long career.  And contrary to what many pundits say, the seasons above indicate that some years are considerably more lively than others.  Of the 19 occurences, 5 happened between 1948 and 1950, and another 6 between 1960 and 1962.  Considering that over a 25 year period – 1970 to 1995 – Only Bench, Foster and Mattingly accomplished the feat, we should recognize these for the seasons they are.  Truly – Greater than we thought.

Eras

I’ve been working on this in my head for a while.  I’ve been reading – for the umpteenth time – Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract of late, and I’m still struggling with the idea of rating players by position from the start of time to the present.  How can you say a 19th century first baseman is better or worse than one of this era?  How can you really judge the horse of early baseball, Cy Young, against the modern-day horse, Roy Halladay?  You just can’t.  You can try, but no methodology can ever really do it.

But as I’ve researched, I’ve realized that baseball has six distinct eras.  And they’re VERY distinct.  You have to ponder it a bit, but it’s not hard to see when you think it all through.  Here are the six era that I see.
1.  Pre-institutional. (1876 – 1900).  During this era, baseball was sorting out how it was going to exist.  Numerous leagues formed and folded, and it was this era that saw the gradual formation of the National League.  The most difficult part of this era is the constant change in the level of competition;  it’s almost impossible to assess the validity of a top-notch season by any player during this era, although the Hall of Fame did do a reasonably good job at identifying the best of the era.
2. Pre-modern Institutional. (1901-1919).  In 1901, the American League was formed, and the eight franchises included all still exist today, At the same time, the National League also moved to eight franchises that all still are around today as well.  Within a couple of years, the first World Series was played.  While the game itself retained the general qualities of the 19th century game, the difference was that now it was governed with a consistent number of franchises and the players didn’t jump from these two established leagues.  Geography played a big part in this era – New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St, Louis and Boston accounted for 11 of the 16 franchises, with Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati and Washington completing the league’s locations.  After 1903, no team would change locations until the 1950’s – so stability was the biggest accomplishment of this era.  But the other side is the lack of offense that defined this era – commonly known as “Dead Ball”.
3. Early Modern. (1920 – 1945).  After the Black Sox scandal broke, and with the emergence of Babe Ruth as the game’s first power-hitting star, teams could not move fast enough to embrace power hitting.  Park dimensions shrank, and big, powerful farm boy types became the target of teams instead of the graceful, fast slash hitters like Ty Cobb.  Pitching wins shrank rapidly in this era;  while a 30-win season was routine in the 1910’s, Jim Bagby’s 31 win season in 1920 would the first of only three such occurences through this era.  As the era wound down, we saw the emergence of two of the game’s greatest hitting stars – Dimaggio and Williams – would form a rivalry that remains unsurpassed in the history of the game.  World War II signalled the end of this era.
4. Postwar Era. (1946 – 1968).  The game moved into a state of flux after WWII, with attendance down and the game seemingly spinning its wheels;  relocation was one of the biggest stories of this era.  The St. Louis Browns started the parade by moving to Baltimore and becoming the Orioles, followed by the Braves moving from Boston to Milwaukee, the Athletics moving from Philadelphia to Kansas City and later to Oakland, and most shocking of all, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moving west to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.  The early sixties also saw the first expansion in sixty years, adding four teams – the California Angels, the Houston Colt 45’s, the New York Mets and the Washington Senators – and the old Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins.  Pitching re-emerged during this era, culminating in record setting seasons by Bob Gibson (13 shutouts and a 1.12 ERA) and Denny McLain (31 wins) in 1968.
5. Divisional Era. (1969-1993).  In 1969, both leagues expanded from 10 to 12 teams, adding the Montreal Expos, Seattle Pilots, San Diego Padres and the Kansas City Royals.  Along with this, each league divided into two divisions and for the first time played an imbalanced schedule, playing 18 games against their own division and 12 games against the other division.  MLB had now moved from 16 to 24 teams in less than 10 years;  this did water down talent through the early seventies and it didn’t stop there;  the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners were added in 1978 to the AL.
6. Multi-Divisional Era. (1993-present).  With a further four teams added in the late eighties and early nineties – in Phoenix, Denver, Miami and Tampa – the game had outgrown four divisions, with now 30 teams around.  So both leagues moved to a three division set, with 16 teams in the NL and 14 teams in the AL.  This era – as we all know – has been accentuated with outrageous home run totals and the subsequent discovery that numerous athletes had sought assistance from suppliers of performance-enhancing drugs.
So what’s the importance of knowing the eras?  Quite simple, actually…I don’t think it’s relevant to discuss whether Cy Young was a greater pitcher than Roy Halladay is.  But it’s relevant to discuss who is the best at what they did in their own era.  Here’s an example.  Since the beginning of the early modern era, 10 catchers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Five are from the Early Modern Era; Two from the Postwar Era; Three from the Divisional Era.  To me, the choice of Rick Farrell as a Hall of Famer (no offense to the man) demonstrates the most basic flaw of the Hall voters when it comes to older players.  Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi are no-brainers.  It was an era that was top-heavy with star catchers, to be sure, but with those four in there, how do you justify the fifth-best catcher of his era as a Hall of Famer?  It also explains why a seemingly deserving guy like Alan Trammell isn’t there yet.  Cal Ripken, Robin Yount and Ozzie Smith are all already in the Hall, and Barry Larkin seems to be ahead of Trammell in the pecking order.  Great though Trammell is to many of us, the reality is that there are four quality shortstops that come before him, and it’s just hard to justify five of them in the Hall.
As soon as we start thinking about a player’s greatness relative to the others of their era, we’ll know a lot more about the real definition of greatness.

Come on guys….what’s the problem?

Okay.  So a question.  Why is it that Hal Bodley and Mike Bauman have written articles praising the Commissioner for being either “innovative” or the “best commissioner in the history of the game”, and have disallowed comments on the article?

I do know why.  To praise The Commish is pretty unpopular.  And I respect – greatly, in fact – that to invite a barrage of hostile and negative commentary is not in the best interests of the writer or the article that they’ve labored over.
And Hal and Mike – first of all, I respect your opinion.  I didn’t read your article with a hand on my holster, and tried my best to value the points that are made.  I have a hard time listening to the extent to which the virtues are expounded because I do have a completely opposite opinion of the Commissioner – I think he’s done just as much – if not significantly more – to drag the game down than to lift it up.  And I could spend all day justifying my points, but that’s not the purpose of my writing.
What I DO want to point out is that to some degree, you’re invalidating your own arguments.
When you look down the roster of commentary by MLB writers, it’s rare that comments aren’t allowed.  And when they aren’t, it’s clear that an opinion on the Commissioner is at heart.
Banning commentary on such articles only confirms that baseball’s going in the wrong direction, not the right one.  I don’t want to see a pile of illiterate, emotional arguments from partisan fans any more than you do.  But disallowing ANY opinion on the Commissioner only serves two conclusions – either that the Commissioner is a dictator that rules the game with an iron fist; or that you realize just how deeply the Commissioner is reviled by the game’s fan base.
After seeing the response to Selig at the HOF Induction ceremonies last summer, I’d submit it’s likely the latter.
Now don’t take this as an attack on the Commissioner.  It’s not meant to be.  But I think it’s vital to preserve at least a sense of democracy.  When you restrict the opinions of the fans that pay their hard-earned money to make the game what you argue Selig has made it – you don’t expand his legacy, you restrict it.  I think Bud has easily the most controversial  of tenures as Commissioner, and I’m including Judge Landis in that.  You make good arguments.  But so will countless others, and it’s insulting to all the fans to suggest that only the two of you are in a proper position to debate his legacy.
Personally – I’d like to see equal time for a couple of writers that are unconvinced about Selig’s legacy, but only from a researched and literate point of view.  And I think you’re perfectly entitled to edit responses – I’ve had mine edited and I respect the position of MLB to do so.  I don’t respect the idea of locking the article though.  It makes you look scared to accept a contrary point of view.  You’re best off not writing the article at all if you don’t want fan feedback.

The Real National Star

It’s great that baseball’s back.

Living in Atlantic Canada, there really are only two teams to locals.  And it’s been a confusing week and a half here – because it’s the overperforming Blue Jays that are the choice of half the fans, and the other half root for the deeply underperforming Red Sox.  What’s left in fan choice tends to pull for the foul Evil Empire, or a team of the day like the equally Phoul Phillies.  The departure of the Expos in 2004 for DC left fans deserting the ship as the good ship Expo sailed south of the border.  Heck, the Montreal Canadiens even confiscated the beloved Expos mascot, Youppi, and made him theirs.  Really, it’s been hard for a fan base (that really was more devoted than Bud Selig would have you believe) to stay connected to a team like the Nationals.
But I have hope now, in many ways.  I’ve got hope in the form of a team that’s becoming more and more competitive, and made some great signings – contrary to what the public at large suggests.  Getting a gung ho guy like Jayson Werth made sense to me, and then getting a lefty like Adam Laroche to hit between Zim and Werth – very logical.  But living in the wilds of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, suddenly has an extra connection to the Nationals.
That would be your pinch hitter, Matt Stairs.  Matt is one of Fredericton’s biggest sports jewels – maybe the biggest.  For a city that is home to hockey’s first black hockey player (Willie O’Ree) and a Olympic silver medallist (Marianne Limpert, swimming, Atlanta 1996), and a major hockey star (50 goal scorer Danny Grant) – that would be no small feat.
But Matt – the Nationals, I’m sure are quickly finding out – is a great guy for a community.  You should know that I’m an active member of a local Lions club that has been foundational to the creation of a regional drug treatment center.  Two athletes have given their image to support the message of this 20+ year-old project –  Wayne Gretzky and Matt Stairs.
So for everyone in DC, cherish this time with Matt and know that he means a lot to a region of Canada that once loved your team because it was just a few hundred miles away in Montreal.  Now we have a whole new reason to wear the Nationals Red and sport hats with a big W on it.  Maybe it can be a reason to revive the reasons to cheer for the team I always loved.