Pitchers and catchers are drifting into Spring Training sites in Florida and Arizona, but much of the country is still in the grip of Old Man Winter. With right at six weeks to go before the opening of the 2015 baseball season, fans still have time to read a couple of good baseball books before Opening Day. I recommend The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession by Rick Huhn and Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein.
The Chalmers Race
As a lifelong baseball fan and devoted subscriber to Baseball Digest, I have been familiar with the controversy surrounding the 1910 batting title for some years now. If Huhn’s book were merely a more in-depth history of the battle between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, I probably would not recommend it. But Huhn used the race for the crown as the backdrop to provide a history of the two players involved, a history of the early years of modern baseball, and a history of the early box score and how inexact a science scoring games was back in the first decade of the twentieth century.
A little background may be necessary for those not familiar with the story. In 1910, automobile magnate Hugh Chalmers, hoping to generate publicity for his company, offered a free car to the player who finished the season with the highest batting average. The offer was one car for the leading hitter in baseball, so the winning player had to lead both leagues in hitting.
By September, it became clear that the winner would come from the American League. Cobb and Lajoie maintained batting averages in the upper .300s while the eventual National League batting champ, Sherwood Magee of the Philadelphia Phillies, would finish the season at .331.
Cobb, at 23, was in his fifth season with the Detroit Tigers and was chasing a fourth consecutive batting title. Lajoie, at 35, was enjoying a resurgence of sorts with the Cleveland Naps and was chasing a fourth batting crown. The two men were from different backgrounds and had different personalities. Cobb was from Georgia and was a fierce competitor; most players, even on his own team, despised him. Lajoie was a New Englander and easy going. Lajoie was so popular in Cleveland that the team actually carried his name (Naps) from 1903-1914.
- This might be a good place for a spoiler alert. If you don’t know who won the 1910 American League batting title, you might want to skip the next five paragraphs. But keep in mind that The Chalmers Race is not written as a mystery, so if you read the book, you’ll find out who won the title fairly early.
The battle for the batting title and the Chalmers 30 “motor car” went down to the final week of the season. But with two games left, Cobb held a nine-point lead over Lajoie, .385 to .376. Cobb sat out the final two games while Lajoie played in a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns. That meant Lajoie would need to go nine-for-nine to overtake Cobb.
After Lajoie tripled in his first at-bat, St. Louis manager Jack O’Connor instructed his rookie third baseman, Red Corriden, to play deep; Corriden dropped back to short left field; Lajoie then successfully bunted six consecutive times and then swung away for another hit to raise his average to .385. Cobb still held a slight lead–.38507 to .38474–so Lajoie needed another hit to claim the title.
In his final at-bat, Lajoie grounded to shortstop and reached on an errant throw. That lowered his average back down to .384 and gave Cobb the batting title and the Chalmers 30–or did it? After the season, lobbying began to have the error in Lajoie’s last at-bat changed to a hit. Lajoie even made an anonymous telephone call to try to influence the outcome. It’s easy to cast Cobb as the bad guy in any situation, but Lajoie’s role in the 1910 batting race seems less than honorable.
In Charles C. Alexander’s forward to the book, he points out that much has been written about the battle for the 1910 American League batting title. But Alexander points out that Huhn’s significant contributions to the old story make The Chalmers Race a must read for serious baseball fans.
Huhn provides a history of the inconsistent nature of baseball scoring in the early days of baseball and that there was no uniform method or official box score for the games. This is why every now and then we hear that an old, established record is revised after someone pours over ancient accounts of games played over 100 years ago. For example, Cobb’s 1910 average was officially lowered to .383 and his career hit total was lowered to 4,189, but Cobb is still recognized as the 1910 batting champion.
Huhn also gives a detailed account of the trial resulting from a lawsuit that O’Connor filed against the St. Louis Browns after he was fired for his actions on the final day of the season.
One thing is for sure, Hugh Chalmers got his money’s worth out of his promotion. Reading The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession is a great way to get ready for the coming season.
Life in the Minors
In Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, John Feinstein follows several individuals, mostly players, as they plug along in Triple-A trying to get to the big leagues. Feinstein mostly follows players trying to get back to the major leagues, but he also covers a couple of managers, and umpire, and a broadcaster.
One thing Feinstein makes abundantly clear in Where Nobody Knows Your Name is that there is a huge difference between Major League Baseball and Triple-A. From the level of competition to the mode of transportation, it is a long way from Pawtucket to Boston or Gwinnett to Atlanta.
Feinstein spends most of his time on players Scott Elarton, Jon Lindsey, Nate McLouth, Scott Podsednik, Chris Schwinden, and Brett Tomko, but he also follows the ups and downs of managers Ron Johnson and Charlie Montoyo, and umpire Mark Lollo. Feinstein devotes a few pages to broadcaster Steve Hyder, who put in nine years with the Pawtucket Red Sox only to be passed over when a job with Boston became available.
Early in the book, Feinstein talks about how Scott Elarton decided not to use steroids in an attempt to make it to the majors. Feinstein points out that Commissioner Fay Vincent banned steroids in 1991, there was no testing. It’s easy to see that such a system would not, and did not, work.
The saga of Chris Schwinden perhaps best defines how chaotic life in the minor leagues can be. In a five-week span, Schwinden made seven appearances for five different teams with four different organizations in five different cities. His journey went from the Buffalo Bisons to the New York Mets and then on to the Las Vegas 51s and then to the Columbus Clippers and finally to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.
There is the story of Rich Thompson who went eight years between at-bats in the big leagues. Thompson made the Kansas City Royals out of Spring Training in 2004, batted once, grounded into a double play, and then went back to the minor leagues.
Thompson began an odyssey that took him to the minor league systems of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona D’Backs, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies. Along the way he became a CPA in case this baseball thing didn’t work out. In May of 2012, the Phillies traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays, where he went straight to the Major Leagues.
In his first game back, Thompson pinch ran and then was in the starting lineup the next night batting ninth and playing center field. He struck out in his first at-bat in eight years, but then in the bottom of the fourth with a runner at second base, Thompson hit a line drive to center for his first big league hit and run batted in. Making the most of his appearance, he also stole second and third bases. Thompson was back in the minor leagues three weeks later. He made it back to the big leagues for another short stint and then went back to the minors before the Rays called him up for the remainder of the season after rosters expanded in September.
As a Braves fan, I enjoyed brief segments on pitcher Buddy Carlyle and catcher J.C. Boscan. Carlyle had some nice things to say about his manager, Bobby Cox, and how Cox made him feel like part of the team. Boscan’s story of finally making it to the major leagues 13 years after signing with the Braves is one of the best parts of this book.
Feinstein does a good job of making it sound as if you, the reader, are sitting by, eavesdropping on his conversations with the people he interviews. Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball is a good book to read as we head toward Spring Training because it lets us all know how desperately the players, managers, umpires, and broadcasters want to make it to the major leagues.
In a little over a week, pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training. The Atlanta Braves finished last season tied in second place with the New York Mets in the National League East. The Braves wound up with a record of 79-83 and were a distant 17 games behind the Washington Nationals.
The Braves hit just .241 as a team last year, but still had a chance at making the playoffs until they limped through the final month of the season, hitting .206 and scoring but 59 runs in their final 25 games.
Obviously, the Braves needed to make some changes and they wasted no time in firing general manager Frank Wren. John Hart took the reins as president of baseball operations and went to work on the Braves’ roster. Apparently he decided that the way to cure what ailed the 2014 Braves was to shed their most productive hitters and stock the roster with as many backup catchers as he could get his hands on.
Heyward, Upton, and Gattis
The purge began on Nov. 17 when the Braves traded Jason Heyward, along with reliever Jordan Walden, to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Heyward hit .271 last year and is the best defensive outfielder in baseball. For a team that struggled to score runs, it’s hard to see how this trade helps the Braves.
On Dec. 19 the Braves traded Justin Upton, along with pitcher Aaron Northcraft, to the San Diego Padres for left-handed pitcher Max Fried, third baseman Dustin Peterson, second baseman Jace Peterson, and center fielder Mallex Smith. Upton led the Braves in home runs with 29, runs batted in with 102, and he hit .270. Even if the Braves were loaded with offense, it’s hard to see how trading the most productive hitter on the team makes any sense.
Hart completed his trifecta on Jan. 14 when he traded catcher Evan Gattis, along with pitcher James Hoyt, to the Houston Astros for another bevy of prospects; the Braves got pitchers Michael Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman, and third baseman Rio Ruiz from Houston. Gattis hit .263 with 22 home runs last season and he is a much better defensive catcher than Braves’ announcers Chip Caray and Joe Simpson seem to realize. Again, for a team that needs to score more runs, this deal makes absolutely no sense at all.
Hart’s justification for trading Heyward and Upton hinges on the fact that both players are in the final year of their respective contracts. Hart figured the Braves were not going to be able to resign either of them after the season, so they would be lost with nothing in return. That is a valid consideration, but it seems to me that the Braves would have been better off hanging onto Heyward and Upton and getting one more season out of them, especially considering how little they wound up getting for them in return.
Using Hart’s logic, the Gattis trade makes even less sense than the Heyward and Upton trades. Gattis made a little over $520K last season. He isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2016 and could not be a free agent until 2019. Therefore, trading Gattis makes absolutely no sense at all.
The Backup Catchers are Coming
On Jan. 7 the Braves signed veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski to serve as backup to Christian Bethancourt. Pierzynski hit .251 with five homers last season serving in a backup role in Boston and St. Louis. He is still a decent defensive catcher and he gives the Braves a solid left-handed bat off the bench; he is a career .281 hitter.
At the very least this deal meant that the Braves were not going to keep Gerald Laird around for another season. Laird can’t hit, he can’t run, and despite what Caray and Simpson say, he can’t catch or throw.
But Hart apparently wasn’t satisfied with having just one backup catcher. On Jan. 25, the Braves signed John Buck to a minor league deal; the next day they signed Jesus Flores to one, as well. Buck split last season with the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels; he hit .225 with one homer and six RBIs. Flores last played in the big leagues in 2012 with the Washington Nationals. It’s hard to imagine how these two guys fit into the Braves’ plans.
On Jan. 30, Hart traded pitchers David Hale and Gus Schlosser to the Colorado Rockies for catchers Joe Briceno and Chris O’Dowd. In parts of two seasons for the Braves, Hale was 5-5 with a 3.02 earned run average and was able to give the team some solid innings as both a starter and a reliever. This is another trade that doesn’t seem to make much sense.
So, after all of these deals, the Braves will open Spring Training with a weaker offensive team, a gaggle of prospects, and a bunch of backup catchers. It looks like it’s going to be a long season for Braves fans.
Hey, Chipper, Do Us a Favor
Chipper Jones retired after the 2012 season. He finished his career with 468 home runs and a .302 batting average. Most baseball experts agree that he is a surefire bet to go into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. As a lifelong Braves fan it pains me to say it, but the problem with Chipper Jones is that he just won’t go away.
Somewhere around April of 2013, I got tired of hearing that Chipper was on a hunting trip, or that Chipper was in the ballpark, or hearing Chipper himself talking out of the side of his mouth in the broadcast booth. I got tired of seeing shows about Chipper during every rain delay.
I get it; Chipper Jones was a great player. He is the greatest player in Atlanta Braves history. You don’t have to take my word for it because, as Casey Stengel said, “You can look it up.” According to one of those rain delay shows about Chipper, he was a great high school baseball player. Heck, he was even a great high school football player. If you’re still not convinced what a great athlete Chipper was, then you can just ask Chipper. Or his dad. Or his mom. Or Bobby Bowden. They all are more than willing to tell you about Chipper.
But what I especially got tired of hearing about was Chipper and his Twitter account. Last week Chipper outdid himself when he tweeted, “So the FBI comes out and confirms that Sandy Hook was a hoax! Where is the outrage? What else are we being lied to about? Waco? JFK? Pfff…”
I’ve got some outrage for you, Chipper. In December of 2012, a madman killed 26 people, 20 of whom were young students, at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newton, Conn. Tweets like this one dishonor the memory of those victims and inflict unimaginable heartache on their families. Only a complete moron could tweet such a thing. There, Chipper, is the outrage.
It’s a bit ironic that Chipper is guilty of making ignorant and insensitive remarks in a public forum. In December of 1999, Braves’ pitcher John Rocker spewed all kinds of hateful rhetoric to a reporter from Sports Illustrated. At the time Chipper was one of the first players to speak out against what his teammate said.
Rocker was 25 years old when he made his outrageous statements. Chipper was 27 at the time and he had enough sense then to know that Rocker’s comments were inappropriate. But somehow or another Chipper at age 42 didn’t have enough sense to keep from publicly offending a group of people who already have suffered the most unspeakable pain.
Of course, Chipper went on Twitter and issued an apology for his idiotic post. He said he got his information from a source he thought was reliable and tweeted it without researching; kind of makes you wonder who his source is. Chipper also owned up to being irresponsible and apologized to those he hurt and offended. I will give Chipper this. As apologies from public figures go these days, his was pretty good.
But now that Chipper has apologized, I have one favor to ask of him. Hey, Chipper, why don’t you just put down your smartphone, climb back up into your tree stand, and keep your big fat mouth shut?
(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)
The Baseball Hall of Fame announced the results of this year’s voting and four players are headed for Cooperstown. Pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz go in the first year their names appeared on the ballot and second baseman Craig Biggio is in after falling two votes short last year. The four new members represent the biggest single-year expansion of the Hall of Fame since 1955.
No thinking baseball fan can take umbrage with any of these selections and neither should the majority of fans. Johnson got a late start in his career, pitched until he was 45, won 303 games, and struck out 4,875 batters in 4,1351/3 innings. His winning percentage is .646 and he has five Cy Young Awards in his trophy case. My only question about Johnson getting into the Hall of Fame is, who are the 15 writers who left him off their ballots?
Martinez pitched 18 years and his 219-100 record computes to a winning percentage of .687. Here is a list of pitchers since 1900 with a better winning percentage than that: Whitey Ford (.690). Martinez is an eight-time All-Star and won three Cy Young Awards. He struck out 3,154 batters in 2,8271/3 innings. In 1999, he was 23-4 with a 2.07 earned run average and he struck out 313 batters in 2132/3 innings. That’s quite a dominating year right in the middle of the steroid era. Still, 49 writers could not bring themselves to vote for Pedro. My only question is, did Don F. Zimmer have a vote?
Smoltz got into the Hall of Fame because of his impressive record as a starting pitcher, a relief pitcher, and big game pitcher. He won 213 games and had 3,084 strikeouts. Smoltz won the Cy Young Award in 1996 when he won 24 games. He became a relief pitcher halfway through the 2001 season and by the end of 2004, he had racked up 154 saves.
Smoltz returned to duty as a starting pitcher in 2005 and went 14-7. He led the league in wins with 16 in 2006 and won 14 more games in 2007. I’m not usually a big fan of the save as an indicator of how valuable a pitcher is, but the fact that Smoltz was first a dominant starter, then the most dominant reliever, and returned to be a dominant starter puts him in a class by himself.
As for being a big game pitcher, Smoltz pitched in 25 postseason series, including five World Series; his postseason record is 15-4. With his relatively low win total, I can see how some writers chose not to vote for Smoltz. My only question is, did Chris Lincecum (Tim’s dad) have a vote?
Biggio has 3,060 career hits; Hall of Fame case closed. Biggio becomes the first definitive member of the Houston Astros to make it to the Hall of Fame. Sure, Joe Morgan made it, but let’s face it. If Morgan were judged on his years in Houston, he’d have to buy a ticket to get into the Hall of Fame. Nolan Ryan had some dominant years in a Houston uniform, but his work with the California Angels made him a household name.
Besides Morgan and Ryan, the only other players with any time in an Astros’ uniform who are in the Hall of Fame are Nellie Fox, Ed Mathews, Robin Roberts, Don Sutton, and Leo Durocher. Again, case closed. I’m glad Biggio is going into the Hall of Fame; he was a fine player and a good guy. My only question is, why did it take three ballots for him to get in?
Crime Dog Should Have His Day
Finally, it’s time for my annual rant about Fred McGriff. He was on the ballot for the sixth time, but received just 12.9% of the vote. If there’s a silver lining for the power-hitting first baseman I suppose it’s that he got more support this year than the 11.7% of the vote he received last year. Still, his highest total was 23.9% in 2012, so he has never gotten the support I feel he deserves.
McGriff played for six different teams over 19 years in the major leagues. He hit 493 home runs, drove in 1,550 runs, and finished with a .284 batting average. McGriff was the first player to lead each league in home runs and he hit 30 or more homers for five different teams; he had 10 seasons in which he hit 30 or more home runs.
McGriff’s 1,550 runs batted in are more than many players already in the Hall of Fame, including Willie Stargell (1,540), Mickey Mantle (1,509), Billy Williams (1,475), Ed Mathews (1,453), Jim Rice (1.451), Orlando Cepeda (1,365), and Duke Snider (1,333). McGriff’s 493 home runs tie him with Lou Gehrig and are more than Stan Musial (475), Stargell (475), Dave Winfield (465), Carl Yastrzemski (452), Williams (426), and Snider (407).
Stargell had a .282 batting average to go along with his 475 homers and 1,540 RBIs; McGriff topped all of those numbers. Stargell made it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. If Stargell was such an obvious choice, then it seems to me that McGriff should be in by now.
The only explanation I can come up with for McGriff’s low vote totals is that the writers want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they don’t want to vote for players suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, while on the other hand they seem to be saying that 493 home runs aren’t what they used to be. Well, the reason the measly 493 homers that McGriff and Gehrig hit aren’t what they used to be is because of those players who used PEDs. It’s way past time to bring the Crime Dog in from the cold.
(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)
In its December 15, 2014 issue, Sports Illustrated features pitcher Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants as the Sportsman of the Year. Bumgarner was the Most Valuable Player in the World Series this year, going 2-0 with a shutout, a save, and an earned run average of 0.43. In the postseason, he was 4-1, struck out 45 batters, and had a 1.03 ERA. Given Bumgarner’s performance, it would be difficult for anyone to argue with Sports Illustrated for their selection.
Tom Verducci wrote the Sportsman of the Year article on Bumgarner for Sports Illustrated. Verducci provides a wonderful profile of Bumgarner’s simple country upbringing and points out that his heart is still in rural North Carolina. But Verducci veers way off course early on in the article by proclaiming that Bumgarner is the “greatest pitcher in the history of the World Series.”
Verducci’s claim–and he isn’t the first to make it–is based primarily on one statistic: Bumgarner’s career ERA of 0.25, which is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 30 innings in World Series competition. To have the lowest ERA of any pitcher in the history of the World Series is very impressive, as is his 4-0 record. But does that make him the greatest pitcher in World Series history? Not by a long shot. And it’s not even close.
A line from Verducci’s article provides the explanation of how he and many other baseball experts jumped to the misguided conclusion that Bumgarner is the greatest pitcher in the history of the World Series. Verducci writes, “His (Bumgarner’s) performance this year is the stuff of instant legend.” And that’s the problem; the term “instant legend” is an oxymoron. Without time, there can be no legend.
If not Bumgarner, then who?
Here’s the thing. It really doesn’t take much effort or research to dispel the myth that Bumgarner is the greatest pitcher in the history of the World Series. There are at least four pitchers whose performance in a single World Series was more impressive than Bumgarner’s career record. I contend that Mickey Lolich, Bob Gibson, Lew Burdette, and Christy Mathewson all were greater pitchers in the World Series than Bumgarner.
In 1968, Mickey Lolich led the Detroit Tigers back from a three-games-to-one deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals. After the Tigers dropped the opening game of the Series, Lolich pitched a complete game and earned the win in Game 2. The Cardinals won the next two games and headed back home to St. Louis needing to win only one more game to wrap up the Series.
Lolich pitched another complete game in Game 5 to keep the Tigers’ hopes alive and they evened the Series by winning Game 6 behind 31-game winner Denny McLain. Then on only two days’ rest, Lolich earned his third win of the Series by pitching another complete game.
Lolich’s ERA for the Series was 1.67 as compared to Bumgarner’s 0.43 in this year’s Series, but there is no question that Lolich’s overall performance was much more impressive. And it’s not even close.
In 1967, Bob Gibson was 3-0 with three complete games and a shutout against the Boston Red Sox; he also hit a home run in Game 7. In 27 innings, Gibson limited the Red Sox to just 14 hits and he struck out 26 batters. His ERA was 1.00–again, higher than Bumgarner’s in this year’s Series–but Gibson’s overall performance was easily more impressive.
From a career perspective, Gibson also pitched in the World Series in 1964 and 1968. Had he received more offensive and defensive support in Game 7 in 1968, he likely would have had consecutive Series with three wins. He lost Game 7 to Lolich and the Tigers when center fielder Curt Flood misplayed a fly ball in the top of the seventh inning that led to three runs. The Cardinals managed only one run against Lolich, so Gibson took the loss. For the Series, he pitched 27 innings, allowed only 18 hits, and struck out 35 batters. In possibly the most dominating single-game performance in World Series history, Gibson struck out 17 batters in his shutout in Game 1.
Gibson was 2-1 in the 1964 World Series against the New York Yankees with two complete games, 27 innings pitched, and 31 strikeouts. Even with two World Series losses in his career, Gibson was a much better pitcher in the Fall Classic than Bumgarner has been. And again, it’s not even close.
In 1957, Lew Burdette was 3-0 with three complete games and two shutouts against the Yankees. Burdette was not a power pitcher, so he only had 13 strikeouts in the three games, but that takes nothing away from his dominance. He gave up single runs in the second and third innings of Game 2 and then tossed 24 consecutive scoreless innings en route to winning Games 5 and 7.
Burdette’s 0.67 ERA is higher than Bumgarner’s 0.43 in this year’s Series, but there is no question that Burdette was more dominant. If Verducci and the instant-legend crowd want to disqualify Burdette for comparison against Bumgarner as the greatest pitcher in the history of the World Series because Burdette was 1-2 with a 5.64 ERA in the Series the following season, then so be it. But I maintain that Burdette’s 1957 performance gives him the nod over Bumgarner anyway. And again, it’s not even close.
Any argument over who was the greatest pitcher in World Series history begins and ends with Christy Mathewson. Matty. Big Six. In the 1905 World Series, the New York Giants beat the Philadelphia Athletics in five games and Mathewson won three of them. That’s right; Mathewson won three games in a five-game Series.
Not only did Matty win three games, he pitched three shutouts. That’s three starts, three complete games, three shutouts. That’s an ERA of 0.00. Big Six pitched 27 innings and gave up just 13 hits. I don’t think even Joe Buck, who stopped just short of saying Bumgarner walked on water from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound in Game 7 of this year’s Series, would argue that Mathewson had the greatest single pitching performance in World Series history.
Mathewson appeared in four Fall Classics; after 1905, he was with the Giants for the World Series in 1911, 1912, and 1913. Even though his record in his final three World Series is 2-5, he still pitched very effectively. He completed 10 of his 11 World Series starts and his ERA in 101 2/3 innings pitched is 0.97.
Given his performance in 1905 and the quality of his overall volume of work, Mathewson was a better pitcher in the World Series than Bumgarner has been. And for the fourth time, it’s not even close.
The Level of Play
Nowhere in Verducci’s Sportsman of the Year article does he point out that Bumgarner’s performance in the World Series this year came at the expense of the team with the fourth-best record in the American League.
The Kansas City Royals finished the season with a record of 89-73. Lorenzo Cain led the team with a .301 batting average and Alex Gordon was tops in home runs with 19 and runs batted in with 74. The Royals were a decent team, but the ’27 Yankees they were not.
In the years that Mathewson, Burdette, Gibson, and Lolich had their phenomenal World Series performances, they faced the team with the best record from the opposing league. It’s not Bumgarner’s fault that the Los Angeles Angels didn’t make it to the World Series, but his pitching line may have been a whole lot different against the best team from the American League.
In fact, Bumgarner’s entire World Series career has come against teams that did not come close to having the best record in the league. In 2012, Bumgarner appeared in one game, pitched seven shutout innings, and got the win. His opponents that year, the Detroit Tigers, won 88 games and had the fifth-best record in the American League.
In 2010, Bumgarner appeared in one game, pitched eight shutout innings, and got the win. His opponents that year, the Texas Rangers, won 90 games and had the fourth-best record in the American League.
I agree that Madison Bumgarner has done excellent work in the World Series. But anyone who says he is “the greatest pitcher in the history of the World Series” has not spent enough time looking at the record book. And, in the words of Hamlet, “Ay, there’s the rub.”
Time is an essential element when deciding whether or not someone’s deeds are legendary. That’s why, no matter how many people claim to have seen one, the “instant legend” is just a myth.
(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)
The Atlanta Braves got busy this week making changes for 2015. On Sunday they traded second baseman Tommy La Stella to the Chicago Cubs and on Monday they traded popular right fielder Jason Heyward and relief pitcher Jordan Walden to the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not even Thanksgiving and it already has been an eventful off-season in baseball.
Sending La Stella to the Cubs should not have much of an impact on the Braves next season. La Stella performed fairly well after taking over at second base when the Braves jettisoned Dan Uggla. He hit .292 in his first 50 games, but his hitting dropped off significantly after the All-Star break; he hit only .212 in his final 43 games.
Uggla set a very low bar for success for the player who succeeded him; but the bottom line is that, while La Stella was better than Uggla, he did not perform well enough for the Braves to feel as if he was going to be their long-term solution at second base. In return for La Stella, the Braves received pitcher Arodys Vizcaino from the Cubs. If that name sounds familiar it’s because the Braves traded him to the Cubs in July 2012 for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. Viscaino supposedly is healthy and likely will be in the Braves’ bullpen in 2015.
Say it Ain’t So
As innocuous as the La Stella trade is, the Heyward deal hit like bombshell. Heyward burst onto the scene in Atlanta with a tape-measure home run to the back wall of the Braves’ bullpen in his first big-league at-bat in 2010. He hit 27 home runs in 2011 and then regressed in 2012 and suffered through an appendectomy and severe beaning in 2013. After a slow start last season, Heyward finished strong, hitting .298 after the All-Star break. At the plate, he had the look of a hitter who had finally figured things out. He was turning on inside pitches and driving anything away from him to the opposite field. No doubt the Cardinals’ scouts took notice of Heyward’s approach.
But one cannot fully evaluate the value of Jason Heyward based on his offensive production alone. He is the best defensive outfielder in baseball today–and there is a big gap between him and whoever the second best might be. In addition to winning his second Gold Glove Award this year, Heyward was honored as the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year, an honor that goes to the best defensive player in Major League Baseball.
Heyward has five seasons under his belt and he just turned 25 years old. The Braves must have felt they had little chance of signing him to a long-term deal at the end of the 2015 season. But the Heyward deal signals that the Braves have chosen to take the path of least expense rather than the path that puts the best possible team on the field. Of course, the Braves will never know whether they could have afforded Heyward because, according to reports in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, they never even made him an offer. That’s a surefire way to guarantee you can’t sign a player.
The Braves received a very promising pitcher in return for Heyward. Shelby Miller was 10-9 last season and won 15 games in 2013; he is only 24 years old. He will help round out a strong starting rotation that already includes Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor. The Braves also received Tyrell Jenkins, a 22-year-old pitching prospect who likely will start 2015 in Double-A.
I’m not sure Miller and Jenkins constitute enough return in a straight-up trade for Heyward, but the Braves didn’t just trade Heyward in the deal; they also tossed in right-handed reliever Jordan Walden. Walden’s 62 strikeouts in 50 innings this past season show how overpowering he can be. He is a valuable eighth-inning pitcher and he also could close in a pinch; he saved 32 games for the Anaheim Angels in 2011.
I hope Shelby Miller proves to be a big winner in Atlanta for years to come. But I’ll be surprised if Jason Heyward doesn’t have a breakout season in St. Louis this year. And I’ll be even more surprised if the Braves don’t wind up regretting this deal before the 2015 season is in the books.
As much as I regret the Heyward deal, I don’t think it’s the worst transaction of this young off-season. The New York Mets, Miami Marlins, and the Toronto Blue Jays have made worse deals than the Braves did this past week. The Mets gave outfielder Michael Cuddyer, lately of the Colorado Rockies, a two-year deal worth $21 million. I know Cuddyer led the National League in hitting with a .331 average in 2013. He hit .332 this past season, but injuries limited him to just 49 games. Cuddyer, who will be 36 years old before the 2015 season starts, is a career .279 hitter. But before he got to Colorado, his highest average was .284 and his career average prior to playing for the Rockies was .272. The Mets may be paying for the fool’s gold Cuddyer mined in his three seasons at Coors Field.
The Blue Jays will dole out $82 million over the next five years to catcher Russell Martin. In nine seasons, Martin has hit .259 with 119 home runs. Those are not the numbers that command $16.4 million a season. And I don’t see how a five-year deal for a 31-year-old catcher who isn’t named Johnny Bench makes any sense.
As for the Marlins, they will pay outfielder Giancarlo Stanton $325 million over the next 13 years–that’s $25 million a season. I am of the mindset that no professional athlete is worth $25 million a season, but Stanton has the potential to be one of the top two or three hitters in the game. In his first five seasons, he averaged 31 home runs; but his .271 average is nothing to write home about. He also is prone to stretches where he does nothing but strike out. But my problem with the Stanton deal is not so much the amount per season as it is the length of the contract.
No matter how well Stanton performs, his huge contract will affect every other deal the Marlins try to make during for the next 13 seasons and, in their market, that could have a huge effect on which other players they sign–and perhaps, more importantly, the players they don’t sign. Too many things can go wrong over the course of 13 years for this deal to make any sense.
Just the Beginning
When the free agent signings really heat up, I predict there will be plenty of other teams paying way too much for players. The leading candidates to get more money than they are worth are Pablo Sandoval, Max Scherzer, and Jon Lester. Don’t get me wrong; Sandoval, Scherzer, and Lester are very good baseball players, but I don’t believe they are worth what they likely are to command in the free agent market.
The Hot Stove League is heating up, so let the insanity begin. Come to think of it, it already has.
More than a month has passed since baseball’s regular season ended. The San Francisco Giants topped the Kansas City Royals in the Wild Card World Series and now 121 players are free agents. Most teams are well into the off-season evaluation process, trying to decide what went wrong in 2014 and how they will prepare for 2015. The Atlanta Braves entered September with a strong chance to make the postseason, but then went into a collective slump at the plate and won only seven games in the entire month.
When a team wins 96 games one season and follows it up with only 79 wins as the Braves did in 2013-14, there usually is plenty of blame to go around. Such is the case with the Braves.
The Braves’ pitching staff was solid in 2014, especially considering the fact that Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy missed the entire season due to injuries and Gavin Floyd pitched in only nine games before his season ended due to an injured pitching arm. The Braves’ 3.38 earned run average was the third best in the National League, so any assessment of what went wrong with the Braves this past season must focus on the offense.
The Brothers Upton
If the comments from Braves fans on the various baseball websites are to be taken seriously, the blame for the Braves’ dismal 2014 season falls primarily on the Upton brothers. At least half of any such argument for the Braves’ 17-game drop-off from 2013 makes absolutely no sense.
In 2013, Justin Upton hit .263 with 27 home runs and 70 runs batted in. This past season he hit .270 with 29 homers and 102 RBIs. Justin Upton led the Braves in slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage. Last week, he won a Silver Slugger Award for his performance at the plate in 2914. Like most players, he had an occasional slump, but he played virtually every day and, at times, was the hottest hitter in the National League. A better case can be made that Justin Upton is the main reason the Braves finished as well as they did.
B.J. Upton had his second miserable year in Atlanta; he hit just .208 with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs. But how much blame does B.J. Upton deserve for the Braves’ reversal of fortune in 2014?
The Braves fielded essentially the same team in 2014 as the team that won the National League Eastern Division in 2013. Catcher Brian McCann departed for the New York Yankees and Evan Gattis took over as the starter. McCann had a decent season for the Braves in 2013; he hit .256 with 20 home runs and 57 RBIs. Despite missing several games with injury and illness, Gattis proved more than adequate as a replacement, hitting 22 homers with 52 RBIs and a .263 average. McCann was never a stellar defensive catcher so the Braves didn’t miss a beat with Gattis behind the plate. But as I will point out later, McCann’s departure had a huge impact on the Braves’ in 2014.
First baseman Freddie Freeman had a great year in 2013 when he hit .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs. He didn’t have a bad season this year; he hit 18 homers, drove in 78 runs, and batted .288. But those numbers represent a 22% drop in home runs, a 28% drop in RBIs, while dropping 31 points off his batting average.
Second base continued to be a problem for the Braves in 2014. Dan Uggla hit .179 with 22 home runs and 55 RBIs in 2013. This year he had two homers, 10 RBIs, and was hitting just .162 when the Braves cut him loose. His replacements – Tommy La Stella and Philip Gosselin – combined to hit two homers and drive in 34 runs, while batting .255. So the Braves netted four homers, 44 RBIs, and a .234 average from their second basemen. It’s difficult to see that as any real improvement over 2013.
Andrelton Simmons continued to play great defense for the Braves in 2014 and won his second consecutive Gold Glove Award. But at the plate, he dropped from 17 home runs to seven (53% decrease); 59 RBIs to 46 (22% decrease); and dropped from .248 to .244 in batting average.
Chris Johnson made a run at the National League batting title in 2013 when he finished the year at .321; he hit 12 homers and drove in 68 runs. In 2014 he dropped to 10 home runs (17% decrease) and 58 RBIs (15%) and his batting average fell 58 points to .263. Johnson’s on-base percentage also dropped from.358 to .292.
In right field, Jason Heyward had a magnificent defensive season, which resulted in his second Gold Glove Award. At the plate, he dropped from 14 home runs to 11 (21% decrease), but he drove in 20 more runs (53% increase) and added 17 points to his batting average (.254 to .271).
I already mentioned the increased production from Justin Upton in 2014 and the weak offensive production from B.J. Upton. But compare B.J. Upton’s performance in 2013 to what he did in 2014. B.J. hit 12 homers in 2014 vs. nine in 2013; that’s a 33% increase. He drove in 35 runs in 2014 vs. 26 in 2013; that’s a 35% increase. He also raised his batting average 24 points from .184 to .208.
The Braves suffered from a significant drop-off at the plate by their infielders, but that isn’t the only place the Braves saw a huge loss of production. The Braves had their biggest offensive drop-off from their bench.
In 2013, the Braves’ bench hit a collective .251 with 13 home runs and 92 RBIs. In 2014, the bench hit .213 with nine homers and 57 RBIs. While these numbers are significant, the gap was actually much wider because the numbers I’ve cited for 2013 don’t include the 21 home runs and 65 runs batted in from Evan Gattis.
In 2013, Braves’ pinch hitters batted .245 with six home runs and 27 RBIs. This year, they hit .178 with two homers and 10 RBIs. In 2013, Gattis himself hit four homers and drove in 11 runs as a pinch hitter while going six for 10.
While it may be easy to blame B.J. Upton for all of the Braves’ woes in 2014, the offensive drop-off came from the infielders and the bench. And while Evan Gattis adequately replaced Brian McCann, the Braves did not replace Gattis after he replaced McCann. So the loss of McCann hurt the Braves more than most fans realize.
It’s the top of the sixth inning in a scoreless game in Philadelphia. Cincinnati has a runner on third with two outs and their cleanup hitter is in the batter’s box. And then the unthinkable happens; the runner on third breaks for home. When the dust settles, the Reds lead 1-0. That would be the final score of the game.
It was September 21, 1964–50 years ago this week. The batter was Frank Robinson and the runner at third was Chico Ruiz. Robinson stepped to the plate with 27 home runs, 87 runs batted in, and a .303 average for the year. The loss should have been insignificant; but the steal of home by Ruiz ignited the biggest collapse in the history of baseball.
Things were looking great for the Phillies going into the three-game series at Connie Mack Stadium against the Reds. The Phillies were comfortably in first place by six and a half games with just 12 left to play; the Reds and St. Louis Cardinals were tied distantly in second place. Even after Ruiz stole home, the Phillies had a five-and-a-half-game lead over the Reds and led the Cardinals, who were idle that day, by six. Then the slide began.
From an offensive standpoint Dick Allen (known in those days as Richie) and Johnny Callison led the Phillies’ attack in 1964. Allen hit .318 with 29 home runs and 91 RBIs to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Callison hit 31 homers and drove in 104 runs.
Jim Bunning anchored the pitching staff with a 19-8 record, a 2.63 earned run average, 219 strikeouts, and a perfect game against the Mets on April 21.
On September 22, the Reds beat the Phillies 9-2 to narrow the lead to four and a half games; the Cardinals kept pace by beating the New York Mets, but remained five games out with 11 to go.
The Reds completed the sweep on September 23, handing the Phillies their third straight loss and cutting the lead to three and a half games; the Cardinals failed to take advantage, losing to the Mets and remaining five games out. It was shaping up to be a two-team race between the Phillies and the Reds.
The big bats of the Milwaukee Braves came to Philadelphia and continued the Phillies’ misery. On September 24, the Braves handed the Phillies their fourth straight loss, beating Bunning 5-3. The Reds were idle, so the Phillies lost only half a game in the standings and still led by three. But the Cardinals swept a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates to pull within three and a half of the Phils.
On September 25, the Braves beat the Phillies 7-5 in 12 innings to run Philadelphia’s losing streak to five. Meanwhile the Reds swept a doubleheader from the Mets and cut the Phillies’ three-game lead in half. The Reds also gained a half game on the Cardinals, who again beat the Pirates and were now only two and a half games out of first place.
The Phillies lost their sixth straight game on September 26 as they fell to the Braves 6-4. Cincinnati beat the Mets and St. Louis beat the Pirates so the Phillies lead was down to half a game over the Reds and a game and a half over the Cardinals. It would be the Phillies’ last day at the top of the standings.
September 27, 1964 is a day that lives in infamy for Philadelphia Phillies fans. The Phillies had their ace, Jim Bunning, on the mound and Callison hit three home runs. But Milwaukee out slugged Callison and beat the Phillies 14-8; it was Philadelphia’s seventh straight loss. Meanwhile, the Reds swept a doubleheader from the Mets and the Cardinals shutout the Pirates. In the span of a week, the Phillies had blown a six-and-a-half-game lead. The Reds were in first place by a game, the Phillies were in second, and the Cardinals were a game and a half back in third.
With five games left the Phillies still had time to win the pennant heading into a crucial three-game series with the Cardinals. On September 28, the losing streak reached eight as the Phils lost 5-1. The Cardinals slipped past the Phillies and trailed the idle Reds by only a game.
On September 29, the Cardinals beat Philadelphia 4-2, handing the Phillies their ninth straight loss. The Pirates shutout the Reds 2-0, leaving Cincinnati tied with St. Louis in first place with the Phillies in third place a game and a half back.
On September 30, the Cardinals beat the Phillies 8-5 to complete a series sweep; the Phillies’ losing streak was now at 10. The Pirates shutout the Reds 1-0 in a 16-inning affair, so the Cardinals held a one-game lead over Cincinnati and led Philadelphia by two and a half. Even after a 10-game losing streak, The Phillies still had a shot at finishing the season in a tie with St. Louis. But the Phils needed to win their last two games against the Reds and hope the Cardinals lost their final three games.
On October 1, the Reds finally beat the Pirates and pulled to within a half game of the Cardinals, who like the Phillies, were idle that day. The next day, the misery finally ended as the Phillies beat the Reds 4-3. The Cardinals lost to the Mets 1-0, so Philadelphia was still breathing. They had to win their one remaining game and hope the Mets could keep beating the Cardinals.
On Saturday October 4, for some reason, the Phillies and Reds were idle. The Cardinals did their part to keep hope alive in Cincinnati and Philadelphia as they got trounced 15-5 by the Mets. Going into the last day of the season, the Cardinals and Reds were tied for first, one game ahead of the Phillies. If the Phillies could beat the Reds and the Mets could knock off the Cardinals one more time, there would be a three-way tie for first place.
The Phillies did their part and beat the Reds 10-0 on a shutout by Bunning. But the Cardinals beat the Mets 11-5 to win the pennant. The collapse was complete.
Anytime a team goes into a losing streak there is plenty of blame to go around, but Richie Allen certainly had nothing to do with the Phillies’ downfall; he hit .429 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in Philadelphia’s final 12 games. Callison hit four homers and drove in 10 runs down the stretch, but he hit just .250 and three of his four home runs came in one game. Jim Bunning was the losing pitcher in three of the 10 straight games the Phillies lost. In those three losses he gave up 24 hits and 15 earned runs in only 12 1/3 innings.
The collapse of 1964 kept the Phillies out of the World Series, which has to still bother Allen and Bunning since they never made it to the Fall Classic. (Callison, who died in 2006, never made it to the World Series, either.)
As the current baseball season comes to a close, Phillies fans should be commemorating the 50th Anniversary of a National League pennant. Instead they likely are remembering the worst collapse in baseball history.
A Brief Aside…
There may be some debate about which team actually suffered the worst collapse in baseball history. There are those who will tell you that both the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox experienced worse collapses in 2011, but that just isn’t so. The Braves led the race for a National League Wildcard spot by four and a half games with 12 games left in the season, which is the point at which things started to roll downhill for the Phillies in 1964. The Red Sox held a four-game lead for the American League Wildcard with 12 games remaining. Besides the fact that the Braves and the Red Sox held smaller leads than did the Phillies at the time of their respective collapses, the Braves and Red Sox were trying to hold onto Wildcard spots; the Phillies collapse cost them the National League pennant and a trip straight to the World Series.
To compare missing out on a Wildcard spot in the postseason to not making the World Series is like saying Albert Pujols, Reggie Jackson, and Mickey Mantle all hit 18 postseason home runs without noting that Mantle hit every one of his homers in the World Series. It just isn’t the same thing. In fact, it’s not even close.