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And the Winner is…

August 18, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The rules for awarding wins and losses to pitchers are a bit quirky and, at times, unfair. A starting pitcher who goes a minimum of five innings, leaves the game with his team in the lead, and his team never surrenders that lead, gets the win. However, as serious baseball fans know, when relief pitchers enter the game and the lead changes, things get complicated.

Last week the Atlanta Braves beat the New York Mets 6-4. Dallas Keuchel pitched six shutout innings and left the game with a 1-0 lead. Sean Newcomb started the seventh inning and gave up the tying run; Chris Martin relieved Newcomb and surrendered the go-ahead run. The Braves scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh to go up 6-2. Shane Greene pitched a scoreless eighth inning, but then Mark Melancon gave up two runs in the ninth before giving way to Jerry Blevins, who got the final out.

Martin got the win, despite giving up the lead, because he was the pitcher when the Braves permanently took the lead. Keuchel, the game’s most effective pitcher, got no decision.

The following night, Julio Teheran gave up six runs to the New York Mets and left the game before the third inning with the Braves trailing 6-0. Josh Tomlin came in, gave up a run in the third, two more in the fifth, and another in the seventh. The Braves scored single runs in the third, fourth, sixth, and seventh innings, and went into the bottom of the ninth still behind 10-4.

© T.C.G.

The Braves scored four runs in the ninth, but ultimately lost 10-8. Teheran got the loss, even though the Braves overcame the runs he surrendered. Had the Braves tied the game before Teheran left and Tomlin had given up the lead, Tomlin would have gotten the loss.

Because of these rules, win-loss records for pitchers can be misleading. Elroy Face won 18 games in relief for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959, setting a record that still stands; he had only one loss. But was he as dominant as such a gaudy record suggests? Here is a breakdown of his wins:

  • 6 wins: entered a tie game and held the opponent scoreless until the Pirates eventually scored the winning run
  • 5 wins: entered the game with the Pirates ahead, gave up the lead, and the Pirates came back and took the lead while he was still in the game
  • 3 wins: entered a tie game, gave up a run(s), but stayed around until the Pirates came back and won
  • 2 wins: entered a game in which the Pirates trailed and held the opponent scoreless until the Pirates took the lead
  • 1 win: entered a game with the Pirates behind, gave up a run, but the Pirates came back while he was still in the game
  • 1 win: from the official scorer for being the most effective reliever in a game where the starter did not go long enough to qualify for the win

In Face’s one loss, he entered the game with the Pirates in the lead, gave up the lead, and the Pirates lost.

I’m not sure Face’s 18 wins are as impressive as they look, but he also had 10 saves. Examining each of his 57 games from that season, I found only four in which, by today’s standards, he blew a save. That is an impressive season no matter how quirky the rules for wins are.

It just goes to show that sometimes you have to look deeper than a pitcher’s win-loss record to see how good his season really was.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference; all game details are from Retrosheet.)

In Defense of the Men in Blue

August 11, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Major League Baseball should implement some new rules to protect the umpires. After 150 years, it’s time for baseball to keep the managers off the field. No other major sport allows head coaches to stomp onto the field and berate their officials.

Arguing with the umpire is as old as baseball itself. Baseball likely allowed it to continue all these years because, at times, it makes good theater. As a fan, I used to enjoy seeing a manager go out and give an umpire a piece of his mind. Over the past couple of seasons, however, I began to feel that the managers have no business on the field. A recent ugly incident completely convinced me that, as soon as a manager’s foot touches the ground outside the dugout, the umpire should send him to the showers.

On July 18, New York Yankees’ manager, Aaron Boone, berated plate umpire, Brennan Miller, over Miller’s strike zone. Video coverage showed Boone pointing his fingers right in Miller’s face and screaming obscenities. Boone served only a one-game suspension for his hissy fit.

Throughout the hysterics by Boone, Miller somehow remained calm. Boone came across as a bully.

Media coverage, especially from hometown newspapers, usually defend the manager. Kristie Ackert, writing for the New York Daily News, said Boone knew MLB would suspend him because “the bill of his cap touched Miller’s,” as if that were the only justifiable reason for Boone’s punishment. Describing Boone’s meltdown, she said Boone “went on an amusing tirade.”

Original 27×41 movie poster for the 1950 film KILL THE UMPIRE, starring William Bendix. Available for purchase on ebay.

Maybe baseball should use technology to call balls and strikes. Combined with the existing replay review, then there really would be little need for the manager to argue with the umpires. Unlike some of the other proposed rule changes, reigning in the managers’ treatment of the umpires would have no effect on how the game is played; actually, it would speed up the game.

Managers would not tolerate in-game criticism from the umpires whenever the manager made an error in judgement.  Billy Martin, who wore out his welcome in several cities, was infamous for his on-field antics. But I wonder how Martin would have reacted in the Pine Tar Game had umpire Tim McClelland rushed over to the Yankee dugout, waving his arms, tossing dirt, and screaming, “I can’t believe you let Gossage face Brett again!” I’m sure as soon as McClelland turned his back, Martin would have attacked him.

Bobby Cox, the Hall-of-Fame manager of the Atlanta Braves, holds the record with 158 ejections; for that, Braves’ announcers routinely refer to him as a “players’ manager.” For me, however, that record is not aging well.

On the flip side, baseball really has no excuse for letting guys like Joe West and Angel Hernandez hang around, seemingly since Cobb was a rookie, making terrible calls. Umpires are going to make honest mistakes, but baseball should not allow incompetence to stand.

Fielders make errors in virtually every game, and these days it is acceptable for a batter to strike out 200 times in a season; but fans accept errors and strikeouts as part of the game. Umpires are the only people in the game from whom fans expect perfection. I have been as guilty as any other fan in that regard, but I am making an effort to change. After all, fans still can express their frustration with umpires–just like they do with the players and managers–by yelling at the television from the comfort of their recliners.

Umpires and referees have a thankless job, even when they perform it well. I believe it’s time to cut them some slack.

Remembering Jim Bouton

August 4, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Former major-league pitcher, Jim Bouton, passed away early last month. Most fans likely remember Bouton for his baseball memoir, Ball Four, but my first memory of him is from his 1966 Strat-O-Matic Baseball card. Bouton experienced great success early in his career, but a sore arm drove him out of baseball after the 1970 season at the age of 31.

Bouton began his big-league career with the New York Yankees in 1962 with a 7-7 record. The next season he went 21-7 with a 2.53 ERA. Bouton followed up that campaign with 18 wins in 1964 and then won the last two World Series games the Yankees would win until 1977.

Bouton’s decline began in 1965 when he went 4-15, and he would win only 11 more games over the next five seasons while trying to hang on as a knuckleball pitcher. Ball Four chronicled his 1969 season, mostly with the expansion Seattle Pilots. The tell-all book made him popular with fans, but not so much with baseball insiders.

© T.C.G.

 

I did not see Bouton pitch in his glory days with the Yankees, but photos of his delivery seem to demonstrate why he developed arm trouble. He dropped down his arm, reached way behind his back, came straight over the top of his shoulder, and fired the baseball homeward with as much force as possible. Bouton exerted so much effort that his cap flew off on most of his pitches.

Bouton started a comeback in 1975 with the independent Portland Mavericks in the Northwest League, and he was 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts. He left baseball in 1976 to work on a television series based on Ball Four, but CBS cancelled the show after five episodes, so he resurrected his comeback in 1977. Bill Veeck, owner of the Chicago White Sox, gave Bouton a shot, and he started the season in AA Knoxville of the Southern League. After a 0-6 start that included a 5.26 ERA, he was back in Portland where he was 5-1 with a 4.50 ERA.

In 1978 another unconventional owner, Ted Turner of the Atlanta Braves, gave Bouton a shot, and he spent most of the summer with AA Savannah in the Southern League. I saw Bouton pitch the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Nashville Sounds on July 5. Before a standing-room crowd of 10,140, he gave up just three hits, walked six, struck out six, and earned an 8-3 complete-game victory. The win evened his record at 5-5, and he finished the season at 11-8 with a 2.82 ERA.

Ball Four, among some other excellent baseball books, including The Long Season and The Natural.

The Braves called up Bouton to the big club, and on September 10 he made a start against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Unfortunately, Bouton gave up six runs in five innings and took the loss.

In his second start, Bouton gave up one unearned run over six innings and earned a win against the San Francisco Giants; it was his first big-league victory in over eight years.

Bouton pitched well in his next two starts, receiving a no-decision and a tough-luck loss. He pitched his final game in the major leagues on September 29, and it did not go well; the Cincinnati Reds scored seven runs in three innings. Bouton’s comeback came to an end with a 1-3 record and an ERA of 4.97.

Bouton was a 20-game winner, an All-Star, and 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA for the Yankees in World Series action. That’s how fans should remember Bouton. And, oh yeah, he also wrote a bestseller.

Jim Bouton passed away on July 10 after battling dementia. He was 80 years old.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference; game details are from the Nashville Banner, Retrosheet, and the Tennessean. Details of Bouton’s comeback are from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).)

All You Need to Know About Bill Buckner

June 2, 2019

Hugh Atkins

I was saddened to see the news of the passing of Bill Buckner on Memorial Day. Buckner played 22 seasons of Major League Baseball, beginning with one at-bat at the end of the season in 1969 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and ending in 1990 with his second tour of duty with the Boston Red Sox. Along the way Buckner also made stops with the Chicago Cubs, California Angels, and Kansas City Royals.

Buckner was not a slugger, but he was a good, steady hitter. His biggest season for home runs was 1986 when he hit 18 for the Red Sox; he finished his career with 174. Buckner drove in more than 100 runs three times, and he won a batting title, hitting .324 with the Cubs in 1980. Contact was Buckner’s game. He never struck out more than 39 times in a season and never walked more than 40.

© T.C.G.

Buckner was a part-time player for the Dodgers in 1970 and ‘71 but became a regular during the 1972 season. He hit .319 that year, .275 in 1973, and .314 in 1974, helping the Dodgers to the World Series. Buckner makes a cameo appearance in baseball history hanging atop the left-field fence in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as home run number 715 by Henry Aaron sailed into the Braves’ bullpen.

Buckner’s career took a turn for the worse in April of 1975. He hung his spikes on the second-base bag on a steal attempt and shredded his right ankle. Buckner was out of action for almost a month, came back and hobbled through the rest of the season, and finished the year with a .243 batting average. From that point on, Buckner was known for his limp and his high-top cleats.

Buckner bounced back and hit .301 in 1976, but the Dodgers traded him to the Cubs during the offseason for Rick Monday. Buckner had seven good years for the Cubs but was off to a slow start in 1984 when they traded him to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley.

Buckner’s first two seasons in Boston were the most productive of his career. In 1985, he hit .299 with 16 home runs and 110 RBIs. The following season, Buckner’s average dropped to .267, but he hit 18 homers and drove in 102 runs. He played in his second World Series that fall, but the team fell one game short, losing to the New York Mets.

The Red Sox traded Buckner to the Angels midway through the 1987 season. He hit .306 for his new team and finished the year with a .286 average with five homes and 74 RBIs. It would be Buckner’s last decent year.

© 2001 FLEER/SKYBOX

The Angels sent Buckner to the Royals during the 1988 season, and by 1990 he was back in Boston for an encore with the Red Sox.

I’m not sure how Buckner’s career stacks up using today’s modern metrics. Since he hit mostly line drives, his launch angle probably wasn’t much to write home about, and his highest WAR (wins above replacement) was 3.7 in 1982. His WAR for 1986, the year he helped the Red Sox make it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, was -0.3–that’s negative 0.3. How can that be? That makes it look as if the Red Sox would have been better off with Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, playing first base for them.

Bill Buckner was a joy to watch. He wrapped up his career with a .289 batting average and 2,715 hits. And at 69 years old, he died way too young.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com.)

The Life of Riley

May 19, 2019

Hugh Atkins

This past Wednesday Austin Riley became the latest Atlanta Braves player to hit a home run in his first game in the Major Leagues. On his second trip to the plate, Riley homered off right-hander Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the fourth inning. With that long ball, at the ripe old age of 22 Riley joined a not-so-exclusive club of Braves who hit home runs in their first game.

I could not find a list of Braves who hit home runs in their first game, but I seemed to remember quite a few, so I checked retrosheet.org for verification.

© T.C.G.

Bob Horner is the first Braves player I remember hitting a home run in his first game. Horner never played in the Minor Leagues; he came to the Braves straight from Arizona State University, joined the Braves on June 16, 1978, and hit a home run in his third at-bat off Bert Blyleven of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Horner hit 23 home runs that season and was the National League Rookie of the Year.

On May 17, 1993, Jermaine Dye hit a home run in his first big-league at-bat off Marcus Moore of the Cincinnati Reds. Dye hit 12 homers that season and looked as if he had a promising career ahead of him, yet the Braves traded him to the Kanas City Royals where he became one of the most feared hitters in the American League before retiring after the 2009 season with 325 career homers.

On July 7, 2005, Jeff Francoeur hit a home run in his second at-bat, a three-run shot off Glendon Rush of the Chicago Cubs. Francoeur had a couple of good seasons but began to struggle with consistency, and by 2009 he began to bounce around both leagues, changing teams with regularity. He was out of baseball at the age of 32 after the 2016 season.

On Opening Day of the 2009 season, Jordan Schafer hit a home run in his first at-bat, and it was pretty much downhill for him for the rest of his career. He bounced around for parts of six seasons with three different teams and wrapped up his career in 2015 at the age of 28 with 12 career home runs and a .228 batting average.

© T.C.G.

On Opening Day 2010, Jason Heyward hit a home run in his first at-bat against the Chicago Cubs. He had a good rookie season, hitting .277 with 18 homers and 72 runs batted in. Heyward slipped to .227 with just 14 home runs in 2011 but seemed to be on the upswing the following season when he hit 27 homers. Heyward followed with two unremarkable seasons, and the Braves traded him to the Cardinals where he had one lackluster season. For some reason, the Cubs then gave Heyward an eight-year contract worth $184 million.

Evan Gattis got sidetracked on the way to his first Big League game; he was 26 years old when he arrived in Atlanta in 2013. Gattis hit a home run in his second at-bat off Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite playing only part time that season, Gattis hit 21 homers and followed that with 22 in 2014. The Braves traded him to the Houston Astros, where in four seasons he hit 96 home runs and was on a World Series Championship team in 2017. For some reason, Gattis is without a team this season; I hope one picks him up soon.

I’m fairly certain there have been other Braves who homered in their first game, but these are the only ones I remember.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com; all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

[Home Runs]

May 5, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Last month, Lane Thomas of the St. Louis Cardinals joined an exclusive group of Major League Baseball players by hitting a home run in his first big league at-bat. Since 1900, fifty-one American League players have hit home runs in their first plate appearance, and Thomas became the 67th National Leaguer to do it.

Two members of the Hall of Fame – Earl Averill and Hoyt Wilhelm – christened their careers with home runs. Wilhelm, a pitcher, homered on April 4, 1952, and then played 21 years without ever hitting another one.

© T.C.G.

Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns in 1951 and Keith McDonald of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000 are the only two players to hit home runs in their first two big league at-bats.

At the other end of the spectrum, since 1900, fifty-three players have hit a home run in the final at-bat of their careers. Most baseball fans know that Ted Williams put an exclamation point on the end of his career by slamming his 521st round tripper. Williams and Mickey Cochrane are the only two members of the Hall of Fame to wrap up their playing days with home runs.

Remarkably, one player managed to hit a homer in his first big league at-bat and also homer in the final at-bat of his career. On September 11, 1966 John Miller of the New York Yankees made his Major League debut and homered in his first at-bat. Four years later, Miller was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers when he hit a home run in what ended up being his last hurrah. Making Miller’s accomplishment even more remarkable is the fact that he hit only two home runs in his entire career.

“I don’t remember that, but I’m sure it happened,” Miller said of his feat.

Miller appeared in six games with 23 at-bats for the Yankees in 1966. In addition to his home run, Miller managed only a single in his other at-bats to finish the year with a batting average of .087. In the spring of 1967, the Yankees traded Miller to the Dodgers, and he spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues. Miller made it back to the big leagues in 1969, and on September 23 of that year hit his second career home run in what turned out to be his final at-bat. The final numbers for his career were two home runs, three RBI’s, and a .164 average.

© T.C.G.

“I was in the on-deck circle in the last game of the season, but the guy in front of me made an out,” Miller said. According to the box score from that game, Miller was to pinch hit for pitcher Jim Brewer in the bottom of the 11th inning against lefty Ron Bryant of the San Francisco Giants. But when the Giants brought in righty Don McMahon, the Dodgers countered with lefty-swinging Len Gabrielson as a pinch hitter for Miller.

An unexpected circumstance during the off-season sealed the deal for Miller’s odd achievement.

“I had a falling out with the general manager, Al Campanis, and during the winter, they were going to send my contract back to Spokane, which was their Triple-A club, or I had an opportunity to go to Japan,” Miller said. “At that point, I wasn’t making a lot of money, so I took the opportunity to go to Japan.”

John Miller’s unique accomplishment just might stand forever. Every time a player completes his first at-bat without a home run, the record survives. And most players are not thinking about retirement in the midst of a home run trot.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com and baseball-almanac.com; all game details are from retrosheet.orgThe quotes from John Miller are from my telephone interview of June 22, 2010.)

Where Have You Gone Joe Torre?

April 14, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Fifty years ago, the Montreal Expos played their first home opener in the first regular-season game ever played outside the United States. A glance at the box score from the game shows that the Expos beat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7 that day. As an Atlanta Braves fan, a couple of names in that box score caught my eye and reminded me of some of the terrible trades the Braves made after coming south from Milwaukee in 1966.

© T.C.G.

Former Brave, Mack Jones, batted fourth for the Expos that day, and he hit his second home run of the season. Jones was the Braves’ starting center fielder in 1966. The Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1967 season for first baseman Deron Johnson. Jones performed adequately as a backup outfielder in 1968, hitting 10 home runs with a .252 average. He was the fourth player the Expos picked in the expansion draft.

Former Brave, Joe Torre, batted fourth for the Cardinals, and he also hit his second home run of the season. Torre hit 36 homers, drove in 101 runs, and batted .315 in the Braves’ first year in Atlanta. He had a solid season in 1967, but injuries limited his playing time in 1968. Torre was a four-time All Star with the Braves and was just 28 years old when they traded him to the Cardinals for Orlando Cepeda on St. Patrick’s Day in 1969.

The Braves were the first champions of the National League West in 1969. The Miracle Mets swept the Braves in the NLCS, but still, it was a fine season. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the Braves would have been a much better team had they held onto most of the players they brought with them from Milwaukee.

Jones hit .270 with 22 home runs and 79 runs batted in for the Expos in 1969. The Braves started the season with Felipe Alou in center field and then acquired Tony Gonzalez after Alou was injured. Gonzalez performed well for the Braves, hitting .294 with 10 homers, but the Braves would have had a more imposing lineup with Jones in the outfield.

© T.C.G.

Torre hit .289 with 18 home runs and 101 RBIs for the Cardinals in 1969 while Cepeda hit .257 with 22 homers and 88 RBIs for the Braves. That’s not too bad, but the Braves would have been better with Torre in their lineup.

The Braves traded shortstop Denis Menke and pitcher Denver Lemaster to the Houston Astros after the 1967 season for shortstop Sonny Jackson. Menke hit .269 with 12 home runs and 87 RBIs for Houston in 1969. Jackson hit .239 with one home run and 27 RBIs for the Braves.

Lemaster was just 13-17 for the Astros in 1969, but he had a 3.16 earned run average. That means he would have been at least as productive in the Braves’ rotation as Milt Pappas, which brings me to another poor trade.

Early in the 1968 season, the Braves traded infielder Woody Woodward and pitchers Tony Cloninger and Clay Carroll to the Reds for Pappas, who was 6-10 with a 3.62 ERA for the Braves in 1969 while Carroll was 12-6 with 16 saves for the Reds. The Braves would have been much better with Carroll in their bullpen that season.

Not a single player the Braves received in these trades ever outperformed the players they gave up. Perhaps the Braves success in 1969 masked the damage all these trades caused. And perhaps since 50 years have passed, it’s time for me finally to get over it.

Nah.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.comall game details are from retrosheet.org)

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