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Soto Gets a Free Pass

October 27, 2019

The World Series sometimes causes managers to go against their usual strategies. In Game 2 against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch decided to issue an intentional walk. While that normally would not stand out as unusual, it was the first free pass the Astros had issued in over a year. Unfortunately for Houston, it did not work out so well.

With runners at second and third and two outs in the top of the seventh inning, Hinch flexed four fingers, and Juan Soto trotted to first base. It was an understandable move, given that Soto killed the Astros in Game 1 with a double, a home run, and three runs batted in. At the time of the intentional walk in Game 2, Soto was 1-3 with a double. The decision would have worked out had third baseman Alex Bregman been able to field a fairly routine groundball off the bat of Howie Kendrick following the walk to Soto.

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Even though Hinch decided to end the Astros’ moratorium on intentional walks, I believe the Astros are on to something with their approach. It seems logical to me that anytime an additional runner reaches base, it increases his team’s chances of scoring. That being said, I think there are situations where an intentional walk not only is justified, but it is also necessary.

If the visiting team is in a tie game heading into the bottom of the ninth (or extra innings) and the home team puts a runner at third with no outs, then it makes sense to intentionally walk the next two batters to load the bases. In a similar fashion, a single intentional walk would be in order if the home team put runners at second and third with no outs. The reasoning behind this strategy is that it sets up a force at the plate, which is the visitor’s best option since a run by the home team ends the game. The manager of the visiting team also should pull the outfielders in shallow to take away a possible hit since a deep or medium-depth fly ball ends the game on a sacrifice fly.

Another situation where an intentional walk would be in order is in National League games when there are runners in scoring position with two outs with the eighth-place hitter at the plate. If there is only one out, then it makes sense to go after the eighth-place hitter and the pitcher rather than load the bases and then face the pitcher and leadoff hitter.

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It is difficult to imagine that the Astros did not face any of these scenarios this season. With the intentional walk to Soto, Houston made the decision not to let a hot hitter beat them, which is also an understandable justification.

The Astros had not issued an intentional walk since August 17, 2018 when they walked Jed Lowrie of the Oakland Athletics to load the bases; Khris Davis was coming to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. This was a bold move by Hinch since, at the time of the free pass to Lowrie, Davis had 34 home runs and 93 runs batted in. Davis flied out to right field to send the game into extra innings.

I think the Astros’ approach on intentional walks is the flipside of not using the sacrifice bunt. By not issuing intentional walks, Houston is choosing not to give the opposition free baserunners, and by not using sacrifice bunts, they are choosing not to give the defense easy outs. I like this philosophy.

(Game details are from Retrosheet and MLB.com.)

Look Who Isn’t Going to be in the World Series

October 21, 2019

The 2019 World Series is all set. Tomorrow evening the Houston Astros will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the 115th Fall Classic. The Astros won the World Series in 2017, and this is the first trip to the Series in the history of the Washington Nationals. This Series is also notable for who will not be in it.

The New York Yankees have been in 40 World Series and have won it 27 times. They became a regular fixture in the Series beginning in 1921, Babe Ruth’s second season in the Bronx; the Yankees won their first Series in 1923. Since the Yankees have been in 35% of all the World Series ever played, I suppose it is significant anytime they aren’t in it. To provide further perspective, yesterday morning the headline for an article by Scott Boeck of USA Today read, “The Yankees go decade without a World Series trip for the first time in 100 years.” That is significant. Unfortunately, it’s inaccurate.

This is a good place to point out that, as my friend Dr. Alvin Rose used to say, since there was no Year 0, the first decade was years 1-10. It logically follows that all subsequent decades began in years ending with 1 and run through years ending in 0. Therefore, the current decade began in 2011 and runs through December 31 of next year. Since the Yankees actually have one more shot at keeping their streak intact, Boeck obviously is writing under the incorrect assumption that the current decade began in 2010.

Meriam-Webster defines a decade as “a period of 10 years.” From the article, it is obvious Boeck was not referencing that definition, but even if he were, he still would be incorrect.

From their first appearance in the World Series in 1921 through 1964, the Yankees never went more than three consecutive seasons without returning. They then experienced a 12-year drought before making it back in 1976, so while they were absent from the Series for over a decade, they still met Boeck’s parameters for being there in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and 1978 and lost the 1981 Series. They then went 14 seasons before returning to and winning the World Series in 1996. They were in the Series seven times in 14 seasons between 1996 and their last appearance in 2009 when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies.

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The Yankees just completed a period of 10 years without appearing in the World Series, but they have not quite gone the entire decade of the 2010s without being in the Fall Classic.

Speaking of not appearing in the World Series, Bryce Harper will not be there unless he buys a ticket. Agent Scott Boras whined all winter and well into the season about how bad it was for baseball that teams weren’t lining up to pay Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, and Craig Kimbrel the ridiculous amounts of money they were demanding over the insane amount of years they expected.

The Phillies signed Harper and finished in fourth place; the San Diego Padres signed Machado and finished in last place. Kimbrel signed late and was an absolute disaster for the Chicago Cubs who finished in third place. Keuchel also signed late and went a modest 8-8 for the Atlanta Braves who won the National League East.

Maybe Harper and Keuchel can hang out together and watch their former teams play in the World Series and figure out how in the world those teams managed to make it there without them.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference.)

World Series May Be in the Cards for the Nats

October 15, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The Washington Nationals are up 3-0 on the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series with a chance to close out the series in Washington, D.C. Barring a total collapse, the Nationals will make their first ever appearance in the World Series. Not only that, but if the Nats manage to eliminate the Cardinals, then the Fall Classic will return to the nation’s capital the for first time since 1933.

The road back to Washington, D.C. for the World Series has been a circuitous one. The Washington Senators won the American League pennant in 1933 and lost the World Series to the New York Giants in five games. The Senators then went on a run of futility that produced only three winning seasons over the next 27 years. After the 1960 season, the Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul and became the Minnesota Twins. But expansion created a new version of the Senators in 1961.

The Senators who headed to the North Star State actually had some good young players. Harmon Killebrew was an established slugger, having led the AL in home runs with 42 in 1959, and a young Jim Kaat was about to become the ace of their pitching staff. The Twins made it to the World Series in 1965 and won the AL Western Division title in the first two seasons of divisional play. The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, so the original Washington Senators franchise experienced some postseason success after 1933.

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The new version of the Senators lasted 11 seasons and had only one winning campaign, which they achieved in 1969; that was the first season Ted Williams served as manager. Frank Howard was their biggest star, and his power earned him one of the best nicknames in sports history–the Capital Punisher. The Senators moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season. The Rangers finally made it to the World Series in 2010, but lost in five games to the San Francisco Giants. Texas was back the following season and were one strike away from a win over St. Louis in six games, but the Cardinals came back to win that game and also Game 7.

After 33 years without a team, baseball returned to Washington, DC., this time to the NL, when the Montreal Expos became the Nationals. The closest the Expos came to getting to the World Series was in the strike-interrupted season of 1981. A home run by Rick Monday of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 denied the Expos a trip to the Fall Classic.

The Expos were leading the NL East by six games on August 12, 1994 when the players went on strike, and MLB cancelled the postseason. The Expos never seemed to recover from the strike and drew fewer than 750K fans to Olympic Stadium in their final season.

The Nationals had some lean seasons after arriving in D.C., but have made the postseason five times in the last eight seasons; this is the first time they have advanced past the National League Division Series. The Nationals have a decent lineup and, as the Cardinals have discovered, a fine pitching staff.

If the Nationals can polish off St. Louis, a rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez will make them a tough foe for either the New York Yankees or Houston Astros. And the first World Series in the nation’s capital since the days of the Great Depression just might go the way of the Washington Nationals.

(All game details are from Baseball Reference.)

Postseason Losing Streaks

October 6, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The New York Yankees overpowered the Minnesota Twins in Game 2 of the American League Division Series in an 8-2 win that gave the Bronx Bombers a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. Scott Boeck, writing the story of the game for the USA Today website, stated that the Twins now own a 15-game postseason losing streak. But while the Minnesota franchise has lost their last 15 postseason games, does it really make any sense to say the Twins have a 15-game postseason losing streak? Can the 2019 edition of the Twins carry on a streak started by the players on the 2004 team?

The loss certainly extended the misery for Twins fans, and it likely doesn’t help that 12 of those losses have come at the hands of the Yankees, who also have eliminated the Twins in Minnesota’s last four postseason appearances. For the fans, it really doesn’t make much difference that the losses started back in the days of Torii Hunter and Joe Nathan, neither of whom had anything to do with Saturday’s game.

The first time I remember hearing anything about a decades-spanning postseason losing streak was in 1991. After the Atlanta Braves lost the opening game of the National League Championship Series, broadcaster Tim McCarver stated that the loss gave the Braves a 10-game postseason losing streak. I didn’t think much of his pronouncement then, and my opinion hasn’t changed in 28 years since.

The 10 losses McCarver tallied began in the 1958 World Series. The Milwaukee Braves won the first two games of the Fall Classic against the Yankees, dropped Game 3, and then took a 3-1 lead in the Series on a 2-hit shutout by Warren Spahn. The Yankees came back to win three straight to take the Series.

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Eleven years later, the Atlanta Braves were the first National League Western Division champions. They lost the best-of-five NLCS to the New York Mets in three straight, which became losses four, five, and six in McCarver’s version of a postseason losing streak. Henry Aaron was still with the Braves, and played in all six of those losses. The only other members of the 1958 Braves team still active in 1969 were pitchers Don McMahon, who split the year between the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants, and Juan Pizarro, who was with the Cleveland Indians; backup catcher Hawk Taylor was with the expansion Kansas City Royals. How can the 1958 Braves be responsible for the three postseason losses by the 1969 squad?

Thirteen years passed before the Braves played another postseason game, and again they lost three straight, this time to the St. Louis Cardinals. These were losses seven, eight, and nine in McCarver’s postseason losing streak. Phil Niekro started one game in both the 1969 and 1982 series, but the only other Braves players still active in 1982 were outfielder Dusty Baker, who was then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, third baseman Darrell Evans, who was then with the Giants, and pitcher Ron Reed, who was then with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Braves ended McCarver’s postseason losing streak in Game 2 of the 1991 NLCS. Several members of the 1982 Atlanta squad were still active somewhere in the major leagues in ’91–including Brett Butler, Dale Murphy, and Pascual Perez–but none of them still played for the Braves. Most members of the team weren’t even born in 1958.

Maybe the Twins can at least beat the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS, but they will have to do it without the assistance of Cristian Guzman or Johan Santana from the 2004 team.

(All game details and player references are from Retrosheet.)

The Braves in the Postseason

September 29, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The Atlanta Braves are headed to the National League Division Series, and they will try to end a long postseason dry spell. The Braves haven’t won a postseason series since 2001 when they swept the Houston Astros, despite having played in seven series since then.

The Braves played in the first 11 NLDS, which began in 1995. They won the first five of those, including sweeps of the Los Angeles Dodgers (1996), Houston Astros (1997), and Chicago Cubs (1998); the Braves beat the Astros 3-1 in 1999. The St. Louis Cardinals swept the Braves in 2000, but the Braves bounced back to sweep the Astros in 2001.

The Braves were up 2-1 against the San Francisco Giants in 2002, but lost the final two games. The Braves lost in five games to the Cubs in 2003 and to the Astros in 2004, marking the last time the Braves pushed a series to the limit. The Astros knocked off the Braves in four games in 2005; the Braves lost in four games to the Giants in 2010.

© Strat-O-Matic Game Co.

The Braves only appearance in a Wild Card game (2012) ended in disaster with the Cardinals beating them 6-3. That’s the game in which Sam Holbrook invoked the infield fly rule on a ball hit at least 100 feet into left field, even though the Cardinals could not have turned two on Bobby Cox on the play, but I digress.

The Braves returned to the NLDS in 2013, only to lose to the Dodgers in four games; they suffered the same fate last year.

In that 2001 NLDS, the Braves were making their tenth straight postseason appearance. These were still the Braves of Tom Glavine, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, and Greg Maddux, but looking back over an account of the series, I saw some names from that team that don’t usually come to mind when thinking of the Braves postseason history.

Rudy Seanez got the win in Game 1 in relief of Maddux after the Braves scored four runs in the top of the eighth inning to win 7-4; John Smoltz got the save. Chipper Jones delivered the big blow–a three-run homer off Billy Wagner. Brian Jordan and Andruw Jones also homered.

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Game 2 was a classic Braves win. Glavine pitched eight shutout innings and Smoltz got the save. B.J. Surhoff doubled to open the second inning and scored on a double play grounder by Rey Sanchez. The Braves made that unearned run hold up as the only run of the game.

The Braves took the lead in Game 3 on a two-run homer by catcher Paul Bako in the bottom of the second inning; Julio Franco added a solo shot in the third to make it 3-0. Bako drove in another run on a squeeze bunt in the bottom of the fourth. John Burkett gave up a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to make it 4-2, but Steve Reed and Mike Remlinger closed out the inning with no further damage. After Steve Karsay held the Astros scoreless in the top of the eighth, Chipper Jones hit a two-run homer in the Braves half of the inning to make the score 6-2. Smoltz closed out the win with a perfect ninth inning, and the Braves moved on to the NLCS where they lost in five games to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s always great when your favorite team makes it to the postseason, but it has been a long time since Braves fans have had much to celebrate during the long winter offseason. Maybe this year will be different.

(Postseason details are from the 2019 Atlanta Braves Media Guide; game details are from RetrosheetFor more on “The Braves in the Postseason” visit ¡NO ME DIGAS!)

40 x 3 in 1973

September 22, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Heading into their final six games of the season, the Atlanta Braves have a decent chance to finish the season with three players hitting over 40 home runs. Ronald Acuña already has 41 homers, Freddie Freeman has 38, and Josh Donaldson has 37. Only three times in major league history has a team had three players top 40 home runs in the same season; in 1973 the Braves were the first to do it, and the Colorado Rockies did it in 1996 and 1997.

In 1973 Henry Aaron hit 40 homers, and Darrell Evans hit 41; Dave Johnson was the unlikely member of the trio with 43 round-trippers. In 1996 Ellis Burks and Vinny Castilla each hit 40 home runs, and Andres Galarraga hit 47. The next season, Castilla and Galarraga each hit 40, and Larry Walker joined the parade with 49.

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As the Braves headed into their final six games of the 1973 season, Johnson already had his home run total for the year, while Aaron and Evans were sitting on 39 each. Evans reached 40 in game 160, and Aaron joined the club in game 161, leaving him at 713 for his career; Evans also hit his final homer of the season in that game.

Johnson joined the Braves in 1973 after spending his first eight seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, where he played on four World Series teams, winning in 1966 and 1970. Johnson was an All Star in 1968, 1969, and 1970 and won Gold Gloves at second base in 1969, 1970, and 1971. After hitting a career-high 18 home runs in 1971, Johnson slumped to five in 1972 while hitting just .221. During the offseason, the Orioles traded him to the Braves for catcher Earl Williams, the 1971 National League Rookie of the Year, and infielder Taylor Duncan.

In addition to Johnson, Baltimore sent pitchers Pat Dobson and Roric Harrison and catcher Johnny Oates to the Braves. The Braves needed pitching, and Dobson had won 20 games for the Orioles in 1971, while Harrison posted a 2.30 earned run average in 39 games in 1972. Oates would replace Williams behind the plate, and the Braves likely figured Johnson would bounce back some at the plate, while at least playing good defense at second base.

© Strat-O-Matic Game Co.

Until joining the Braves, Johnson had hit just 66 homers. Unfortunately, Johnson came back to earth in 1974 and hit just 15 home runs. After one game in 1975, Johnson left the Braves and went to play in Japan. Johnson also committed 30 errors in 1973, so the Braves didn’t get the good defense they expected.

As for the rest of the players the Braves got from Baltimore, Dobson was 3-7 with a 4.99 ERA in 12 games before the Braves basically gave him to the New York Yankees. Harrison was decent, 11-6 with a 4.16 ERA in 1973, but dropped to 6-11 and a 4.71 ERA in 1974; his time in Atlanta was over before the 1975 All-Star Game. In two seasons with Atlanta, Oates hit .227 with seven home runs and 50 RBIs; after appearing in eight games in 1975, the Atlanta sent him to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Those 43 home runs by Johnson were the only bright spot of the trade for the Braves, because even though they had three players with 40 or more homers in 1973, they finished in fifth place.

If Freeman and Donaldson join Acuña with 40 home runs, they won’t have to worry about such a poor finish because the Braves wrapped up the division title with seven games left on the schedule.

(Statistics are from Baseball Reference and Baseball Almanac; game details are from Retrosheet. You can find more on40 X 3 in 1973by accessing the link.)

The Immaculate Inning

September 15, 2019

Hugh Atkins

This past Wednesday relief pitcher Chris Martin of the Atlanta Braves entered the game in the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies and struck out the side on nine straight pitches. The term for this accomplishment is an Immaculate Inning. It may not seem like such a big deal, but since 1901, there have been only 98 Immaculate Innings; in that same span, there have been 260 no-hitters.

In 1902 Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia Athletics was the first pitcher to have an Immaculate Inning. Since then 89 other pitchers–56 in the National League and 36 in the American League–have done it. Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers did it three times. Lefty Grove of the Athletics, Nolan Ryan of the New York Mets and California Angels, Randy Johnson of the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, Kevin Gausman of the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds, and Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox all did it twice. Ryan and Gausman are the only pitchers to have an Immaculate Inning in each league.

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After Grove had his second Immaculate Inning on September 27, 1928, it would be almost 25 years before the next one when Billy Hoeft of the Detroit Tigers broke the dry spell on September 7, 1953. Grove had both of his Immaculate Innings in the same season (1928), and Sale has done it twice this season.

The list of pitchers with Immaculate Innings is full of flame throwers like Koufax, Ryan, Johnson, Jim Bunning, Bob Gibson, and Craig Kimbrel.

Led by Koufax, the Dodgers have the most Immaculate Innings with eight. The New York Yankees and the Red Sox have the most in the AL with six each. Every team except the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers have at least one Immaculate Inning; neither iteration of the Washington Senators had one.

The Milwaukee Brewers are the only franchise to have Immaculate Innings in each league. Doug Jones did it in 1997 when the Brewers were still in the AL, and Ben Sheets (2004), Rick Helling (2006), Mike Fiers (2015), and Josh Hader (2019) did it after the Brewers moved to the NL. The Houston Astros/Colt .45s have had six pitchers with Immaculate Innings, but they all occurred before the Astros moved to the AL in 2013.
The Braves are the only franchise to have Immaculate Innings in three different hometowns. Joe Oeschger did it for the Boston Braves in 1921; Tony Cloninger did it for the Milwaukee Braves in 1963; and Joey McLaughlin (1979), Buddy Carlyle (2007), and Martin have done for the Atlanta Braves.

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There have been 19 batters involved in two Immaculate Innings, including one member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Carlton Fisk was one of Ryan’s victims in 1972, and he also struck out against Ron Guidry of the Yankees in his Immaculate Inning. In 2002 Ichiro Suzuki, a certain future member of the Hall of Fame, struck out against Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox in his Immaculate Inning; in 2017 he struck out against Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers during his.

Strike outs are epidemic in baseball these days, so it should come as no surprise that there have been 19 Immaculate Innings in the last three seasons. The eight in 2017 are the most in a single season, but there have been seven this season. Fifty of the Immaculate Innings have occurred since 2001.

Finally, an Immaculate Inning is really impressive, but Bugs Bunny once struck out three batters on one pitch–his slowball. Not even the great Sandy Koufax ever did that.

(All statistics are from Baseball Almanac.)

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