Thursday, January 31, 2013

Best Pitching Season of the 1980s

Dwight Gooden 1985 (11.9 bWAR)

During the mid-1980s, young "Doc" Gooden might have been the best pitcher baseball saw in the thirty years between Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez. Over his first three seasons (1984-'86), the young phenom piled up 58 wins, 744 strikeouts and maintained a 2.28 ERA. He started an All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Year, captured a Cy Young award (unanimously) and won World Series ring, all before his 22nd birthday. If there was ever a pitcher destined to win 300 games and wind up in Cooperstown, Gooden was the guy.

Now, the only way he's getting into the Hall of Fame is with a ticket. When he came up for induction in 2006, he received just 17 votes--fewer than fellow first-timers Orel Hershiser, Albert Belle, and Will Clark--and fell off the ballot. His once limitless potential had been sabotaged by overuse, cocaine addiction, and his inability (or unwillingness, or both) to adjust to batters after they "figured him out."

Much like his era's pitching equivalent of Don Mattingly, Gooden's flame burned out and he was unable to sustain the early success that put him on the fast track to baseball immortality. He enjoyed several more good seasons but never again approached the heights he reached before he could legally buy a beer. He never won 20 games again, made just one more All-Star team and was washed up at 30. While he was arguably the best pitcher of the 1980s (right there with Roger Clemens, and don't even mention Jack Morris), he peaked too soon. As a whole, his career can only be viewed as a disappointment.

But in 1985, the year Marty McFly traveled back in time, Gooden's problems were all in the future. At the tender age of 20, Dr. K was at the peak of his powers, blessed with an overpowering fastball and devastating curveball known as "Lord Charles." As an encore for what was probably the best rookie season any pitcher ever had, he delivered one of the most statistically dominating campaigns in baseball history. For starters, he won the major league pitching Triple Crown by leading all hurlers with his 24 wins, 268 strikeouts and a 1.53 ERA. His microscopic Earned Run Average is still the second-lowest of the live ball era, trailing only Bob Gibson's impeccable 1.12 from 1968 aka the Year of the Pitcher.

For good measure, he also topped both leagues with his 229 ERA+, the sixth highest mark since World War I. A man who finished what he started, Gooden paced the Senior Circuit with his 16 complete games and 276.2 innings. He ranked second in a bunch of other categories too: WHIP, K/9 rate, winning percentage, H/9 rate, and shutouts, to name a few.

While his season lacked a signature moment, like a no-hitter or memorable playoff victory, he capped his career year with a magical run.  Between August 31st and October 2nd he fired 49 consecutive scoreless innings. Nobody took him deep in his final 75 innings of the season. Untouchable all season long, Gooden was flawless as he pitched the New York Mets to within three wins of the postseason.

Gooden cruised to his first and only Cy Young award, which he won unanimously.. In the process, he became the youngest player to win a Cy in the history of the sport. He was named Pitcher of the Year by the now-defunct Sporting News, the youngest to receive that honor as well. He also placed fourth in the MVP race behind Willie McGee, Dave Parker and Pedro Guerrero, but received just one first place vote! Teammates Gary Carter (sixth) and Keith Hernandez (eighth) also placed in the top-ten, so it's possible he lost some votes to one or both of them. Had the Mets won the division instead of McGee's St. Louis Cardinals, I'm willing to bet Gooden walks away with the trophy that year.

Here are some more fun facts from Gooden's sensational season:

  • Opponents batted just .201/.254/.270 off him
  • He was the youngest pitcher ever to have an ERA+ over 200
  • His average GameScore was a 70
  • In the 24 games he won, Gooden compiled a 1.07 ERA. In the four games he lost, he posted a 5.60 K/BB ratio
  • With those two dozen wins, he became one of 14 African-American pitchers to have a 20-win season. CC Sabathia is the most recent member of the club
  • After Gooden's first start of the season, his ERA never rose higher than 1.89
  • Incredibly, he did not start the Midsummer Classic in Minnesota that summer. Instead, the honor went to LaMarr Hoyt, who won a dozen more games and retired after 1986. Last summer Tony LaRussa bypassed R.A. Dickey in favor of Matt Cain, even though the former had a first half for the ages and went on to win the Cy Young award over Clayton Kershaw
  • Had eleven starts with double digit strikeout totals
  • Surrendered just four home runs in his 17 starts away from Shea Stadium
  • The Mets went 28-7 (.800) when the Doctor was in versus 70-57 (.551) when he wasn't. Four of their losses when he was on the mound were of the one-run variety. From July 9th through August 25th, New York was victorious in all 11 of his starts
  • Had just one start all year in which he allowed more than three earned runs. On August 15th the Philadelphia Phillies roughed him up for five runs in five frames as Mike Schmidt and Rick Schu took him deep. The Mets backed him with a five-spot in the first, and Gooden was actually in line for the win before New York's bullpen blew the lead (though the Mets rallied to win 10-7). Check out his earned run breakdown from his 35 starts:
         0 runs--13 starts
         1 run--6 starts
         2 runs--9 starts
         3 runs--6 starts
         4+ runs--1 start

Best offensive season of the 1980s--George Brett (1980). And happy birthday Jackie Robinson!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Projecting the Braves Outfield

With Justin Upton  on board, Atlanta has assembled a dynamic outfield
Nearly two months after signing B.J. Upton to the largest free agent contract in Atlanta Braves history, the organization consummated a seven-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks in which Justin Upton, B.J.'s little brother, was the centerpiece. The Braves also received Chris Johnson in exchange for Martin Prado and four prospects: Randall Delgado, Nick Ahmed, Zeke Spruill and Brandon Dury.

With the multi-talented Upton brothers joining Jason Heyward, who's been compared to Ken Griffey Jr., the Braves boast one of the best outfields in baseball. All three are toolsy ballplayers that blend power with speed. They're also former first round draft picks (both Uptons were selected first overall) that still have room to grow.

It will be interesting to see how the Uptons adjust to their new surroundings, but both could be in line for career years. They wore out their welcomes with their previous employers and desperately needed changes of scenery.  Freed from the burdens of unfulfilled expectations that destroy so many highly touted prospects, they should benefit from fresh starts. It's possible the elder Upton struggles to live up to his new five-year, $75 million contract (especially if Michael Bourn outplays him), but his kid brother should be extra motivated to make the D-Backs rue the day they gave up on him.

So how will they fare in 2013? I'm optimistic that Atlanta's trio of stars will post strong numbers this year, and readily admit they have the potential to exceed my predictions. Bossman Junior owns the longest track record and has been the most consistent, so he was the easiest to project. His little brother's been an every-other-year player so far, which means he's due for a big year after slumping through 2012. The J-Hey Kid has less than 500 big league games under his belt and isn't much older than the typical college graduate, but he's already one of the better all-around players in baseball.

LF Justin Upton
At 25, Upton is just coming into his prime and could emerge as the superstar/MVP candidate he's supposed to be. His 2012 (1.8 bWAR) was equal parts frustrating and disappointing even though he scored more runs than any National Leaguer not named Ryan Braun. A thumb injury sapped his power, holding his slugging percentage below .400 through late-August and causing his ISO to plunge 90 points. It's worth noting that he looked better at the plate as the season wore on and finished the year on a tear that could be a harbinger of good things to come. Much has been made about his massive home/road splits--.937 OPS at Chase Field, .731 OPS everywhere else--but he's posted solid numbers (.871 OPS against formidable pitching, I might add) at Turner Field throughout his career. And ohbytheway, he's just one season removed from a fourth place MVP finish/31-homer campaign. Expect numbers much closer to, or possibly better than, that year rather than his underwhelming follow-up.

My Projections: 103 runs, 30 home runs, 94 RBI, 22 steals, .291/.370/.516, 4.4 bWAR

CF B.J. Upton
At this point in Upton's career, after nearly 1,000 games and more than 4,000 plate appearances, we know what he is; a low average, high strikeout player with good pop, great speed and decent defense. His improved power stroke suggests he's still evolving as a hitter and could crack 30 home runs for the first time in 2013. On the surface, moving out of pitching-friendly Tropicana Field to Turner Field, a more neutral park for hitters, should boost his numbers, but during his time in Tampa his home/road splits were indistinguishable: .758 OPS at home and .757 away.

My Projections: 84 runs, 26 home runs, 83 RBI, 37 steals, .252/.314/.448, 2.7 bWAR

RF Jason Heyward
Shrugged off a down 2011 (sophomore slump?) and bounced back strong last year. Compiled his first 20/20 season (there's more where that came from), won his first Gold Glove and helped lead the Braves to 94 wins. The sky's the limit for Heyward, but at 23 he's still a few years away from his peak. I don't see him taking the same kind of leap that Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen made in recent seasons, so I don't feel comfortable projecting monster numbers from him just yet. Like Griffey, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, he probably won't reach his superstar MVP-level ceiling until his mid-twenties, but he's on the right track.

My Projections: 98 runs, 25 home runs, 90 RBI, 22 steals, .274/.356/.473, 5.8 bWAR

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Celtics lose Rondo, Beat Heat

The Celtics were Rondo's team, but now he won't be there to guide them 
The Boston Celtics won Sunday afternoon's game against the Miami Heat, but lost their star point guard for the rest of the year.

In what has already been a rollercoaster (read: frustrating) season for the Celtics, it was fitting that the team suffered a crushing loss while in the midst of securing its most exciting win of 2013.

Rajon Rondo sat out today's tilt on account of his hyperextended right knee, an injury he suffered during Boston's demoralizing double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night. It didn't appear to be serious but his precautionary MRI revealed a torn ACL. Rondo will undergo surgery and is out indefinitely.

It goes without saying that losing Rondo is a devastating blow to the Celtics, especially on offense. Rondo is directly responsible for 17 made field goals per game (5.9 scored, 11.1 assisted), nearly half of his team's 36.7 field goals per game. That's a huge hole to fill, especially since Boston lacks a true backup point guard. Rondo's irreplaceable, but for the time being Doc Rivers will slide Avery Bradley (a shooting guard by trade) over to the point and use Courtney Lee at the two. Combo guard Jason Terry should also see an uptick in playing time, but all three must pick up the slack. Hopefully Danny Ainge can find a decent replacement on the trade market, but right now it doesn't look like there's much out there.

He can't afford to sit around and do nothing. It's hard to see Boston, 20-23 with Rondo and currently in the eighth seed, holding onto a playoff spot without their best player. The Philadelphia 76ers trail them by 2.5 games but expect Andrew Bynum to return before the All-Star Break. When healthy, he's one of the top centers in the game, the kind of impact player that can push Philly over the top and get them back to the postseason. Boston looks like a .500 team with each passing day and its schedule is only going to get harder. There's a rough road to hoe, and it doesn't look like Doc Rivers has the tools to meet the challenge.

But if today's game is any indication, the Celtics' season may not have gone up in smoke along with their point guard's. In a throwback display of pride and determination, Boston still managed to defeat the Heat 100-98 in a double-OT thriller. The win snapped a six game losing streak for the Celtics, who hadn't won an overtime game since December 12th.

After blowing a 27-point lead in Atlanta Friday night, Boston bounced back with a tenacious effort to kick off its four game homestand. The Green ground it out by getting back on D and digging in, preventing Miami from pushing the tempo and beating them with their athleticism. Celtics defenders filled the lanes, deflected passes and forced 20 turnovers. They couldn't stop LeBron James (who can?), but held red-hot Dwyane Wade to 6-of-20 shooting. They turned Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, and Shane Battier into non-factors. They even held their own on the boards despite allowing James and Chris Bosh, who's averaged 6.1 rebounds per game since December 13th, to inhale 16 boards apiece.

Boston's bench play keyed the victory as well, for Celtics reserves outscored Miami's bench 39-23. Jason Terry struggled with his shot (1-for-7 from beyond the arc) but still contributed 13 points, while Jeff Green dropped 11 in a whopping 42 minutes of court time. Leandro Barbosa chipped in nine points. The Heat got 21 points from Ray Allen but a whole lot of nothing from Battier, Joel Anthony, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis.

Speaking of Allen, Ray Ray made his much-anticipated return to the TD Garden after going Benedict Arnold on the Celtics last summer. Jesus Shuttlesworth teased the Garden crowd with a stellar performance that had to make Celtics fans wonder why Danny Ainge ever let him leave. The timeless sharpshooter logged more than 38 minutes off the bench and rained 21 points through the Garden nets, proving he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. His signature highlight was the corner three he buried to trim Boston's lead to one with 25 seconds remaining in regulation, the kind of clutch shot that endeared him to Celtics fans before he turned to the dark side.

The other members of Boston's new Big Three also played well. Paul Pierce gritted his way through 49 minutes to notch a triple-double with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Kevin Garnett enjoyed his tenth double-double of the season by amassing 24 points and 11 boards. Both needed to step up with Rondo out, and they certainly rose to the occasion. They must sustain that high level of play in the second half if Boston is going to secure a postseason berth.

The Celtics have a couple days off to catch their breath before they resume play again on Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings. Hopefully 48 minutes will be enough to decide that game, because if the Celtics play any more overtime games they're not going to make it to the All-Star Break, much less the playoffs.

NBA Midseason Awards

With the first half of another NBA season in the books, it's time to look back and recognize basketball's best performers.

Rookie of the Year-Damian Lillard
Given Anthony Davis's struggles to stay on the court, this one's a no-brainer. Portland's 22 year-old point guard popped off 23 points and 11 assists in his first NBA game and hasn't looked back. This year's Kyrie Irving is averaging a cool 18.3 points and 6.5 assists per game, blending his scoring prowess with an ability to facilitate on offense. He's yet to miss a game and leads the Trail Blazers in minutes. His 42.4 field goal percentage isn't great, but he's an above average shooter from downtown (drilling 2.3 triples per game--only Stephen Curry and Randy Foye are averaging more among point guards) and sinks over 83 percent of his free throws.

Honorable Mention: Anthony Davis

MVP-Kevin Durant
After losing James Harden the Oklahoma City Thunder still have the best record in basketball, and Durant's continued growth is a big reason why. Last year he improved his rebounding, defense and field goal percentage, but this season he's become even more efficient (29.3 PER while shooting 52-42-91 percent from the floor, three-point land and charity stripe) and is leading the league in Win Shares for the first time in his career. The NBA's top scorer is also passing more, too, getting his teammates more involved and setting them up for success.

Honorable Mention: LeBron James

Sixth Man-J.R. Smith
With Amare Stoudemire sidelined until New Year's Day, the New York Knicks leaned on Smith to provide firepower off the bench in the early going. Mike Woodson has used him so much that Smith leads the team in minutes, logging more than Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Jason Kidd. New York's second-best scorer is averaging 16.1 points per game, even if he doesn't always get them efficiently or consistently. He also rebounds surprisingly well (5.1 boards per game) for a two-guard.

Honorable Mention: Jamal Crawford and Kevin Martin

Most Improved-J.J. Hickson
A profound disappointment in Cleveland and Sacramento, Hickson played well last spring after signing on with the Blazers. That late-season success turned out to be a harbinger of things to come, for he's evolved into a double-double machine alongside LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland's frontcourt. The former first round draft pick has cemented himself as one of the Association's ten best rebounders and is finally playing up to his potential.

Honorable Mention: Paul George

Defensive Player-Tim Duncan
The Big Fundamental has turned back the clock this year and looks rejuvenated on both ends of the court. After regressing into an average defender during the past four years, Duncan is once again a force to be reckoned with in the paint, anchoring San Antonio's stingy defense with his elite interior D. He owns the NBA's top Defensive Rating and ranks third in both blocks per game (behind Larry Sanders and Serge Ibaka) and Defensive Win Shares (behind Joakim Noah and Paul George). His 3.3 swats per 36 minutes are half a block higher than his previous career high of 2.8

Honorable Mention: Joakim Noah

Coach-Mark Jackson
The Golden State Warriors finished the strike-shortened season (and Jackson's first year at the helm) 20 games below .500. This year, they're 26-17 and look like legit playoff contenders. The addition of Jarrett Jack and a healthy Steph Curry have helped, but Jackson deserves credit for his team's turnaround as well. His commitment to defense helped turn one of the league's worst defenses last year into an above average defensive unit this year without sacrificing any offense.

Honorable Mention: Tom Thibodeau

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best Pitching Season of the 1990s

Martinez delivers during his sensational All-Star Game performance
1999 Pedro Martinez (9.5 bWAR)

Martinez was already recognized as one of the best pitchers in the game at the end of the Twentieth Century, but it was his 1999 season that established his reputation as one of the best pitchers of all time. His success that year elevated him into the same stratosphere as Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Bob Gibson, not to mention outstanding contemporary hurlers like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux.

Fully acquainted with the Junior Circuit after switching leagues following his 1997 Cy Young season, the 27 year-old Martinez put together one of the finest seasons a pitcher ever had. He won the pitching Triple Crown by leading the league with 23 wins, 313 strikeouts and a 2.07 ERA, which was nearly a full run and a half better than runner-up David Cone's 3.44. Aside from the traditional stats, he topped all pitchers in just about every statistic imaginable, from WAR and Winning Percentage to WHIP and ERA+.

His greatness was on display for all to see in that year's Midsummer Classic at Fenway Park. Baseball celebrated its legends past and present, but Martinez stole the show with his electrifying performance. He began the game by striking out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, and Sammy Sosa, the first time any pitcher opened an All-Star Game by striking out the side. When he whiffed Mark McGwire to lead off the second, he became the first pitcher to strike out the first four batters of an All-Star Game. Matt Williams reached on an error by Roberto Alomar, but Pedro bounced back to punch out Jeff Bagwell while Ivan Rodriguez gunned down Williams on a strike-him-out, throw-him-out. Martinez earned All-Star Game MVP honors for his modern day re-enactment of Carl Hubbell's historic performance in the 1934 All-Star Game when Hubbell struck out five future Hall-of-Famers in a row: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin.

(By the way, who in 1999 would have believed that of the five men Martinez struck out, Larkin would be the only one with a plaque hanging in Cooperstown more than a dozen years later?  That Larkin would be in and McGwire and Sosa, the sluggers who obliterated Roger Maris's single season home run record the previous summer, would be out? A lot has changed since then).

In a game that actually counted, he tossed a one-hitter at Yankee Stadium two months later on September 10th. After plunking Chuck Knoblauch to open the game, Martinez mowed down the Bronx Bombers and outdueled Andy Pettitte to lead Boston to a 3-1 victory over its arch-rivals. Long before Martinez tipped his cap to the Yankees and called them his Daddy, he punched out 17 of them and allowed just one hit, a solo home run to Chili Davis. He silenced a Yankees lineup that won 98 games and scored 900 runs that season with big bats such as Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, and Bernie Williams.

Martinez's dominance continued into the postseason. Despite facing two high-powered offenses in the Cleveland Indians and aforementioned Yankees, he was untouchable. Martinez answered the call, firing 17 shutout innings with 23 strikeouts and just five hits allowed. Nursing a strained back, he no-hit Cleveland for six innings in the final game of the ALDS, holding the line while Boston's bats built a four-run lead that propelled the Red Sox into the League Championship Series. Though the Sox lost in five to their nemeses, who were in the midst of winning four World Series in five years, Martinez quieted New York in his lone start of the series. He blanked the Yanks over seven innings, allowing just two hits (both singles) while the Bosox battered the Rocket/their former ace in a 13-1 rout.

Martinez collected his second Cy Young award (unanimously) but narrowly lost out to Ivan Rodriguez in the controversial MVP race. Despite receiving the most first place votes, Martinez was omitted from a pair of ballots because two writers--George King from New York and LaVelle Neal of Minnesota--did not deem pitchers to be worthy all-around players (even though King cast votes for two pitchers--David Wells and Rick Helling--the year before). Martinez may have also been hurt by teammate Nomar Garciaparra, who finished seventh after winning the batting title and posting a 1.022 OPS.

Voters traditionally have a hard time voting for starting pitchers, and there's a lot of bias against the men who take the ball every fifth day. For instance, no National League hurler has taken home the hardware since Bob Gibson 45 years ago. Not Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, nor Dwight Gooden. Not Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine nor Randy Johnson. It's always tricky comparing position players to pitchers, but bWAR says Martinez was worth 3.4 more wins than Rodriguez. The disparity in FanGraphs' measurement is even greater; 5.2 wins in Martinez's favor. The writers obviously blew it here and robbed Martinez of the trophy he so clearly deserved.

Some more points of interest from Martinez's masterful 1999:
  • Martinez was named AL pitcher of the month in April, May, June, and September, something nobody had ever accomplished before
  • Opponents batted just .205/.248/.288 against him
  • His average GameScore was a 69
  • Incredibly, he surrendered just nine home runs despite pitching half his games in Fenway Park. He have up just three long balls in his 14 road starts and never allowed multiple bombs in any game he pitched that year
  • Including the postseason, the Boston Red Sox went 29-5 (.853) when Martinez toed the rubber and 69-69 (an even .500) when he didn't
  • Strung together seven consecutive starts with ten or more strikeouts from April 15th to May 18th, then rattled off eight straight starts with double digit strikeouts to end the regular season
  • Had six games with at least 15 strikeouts. Justin Verlander, who's made 232 regular season starts in his career, has never struck out 15 batters in a single game
  • Became the eighth modern pitcher with multiple seasons with 300 strikeouts, joining Nolan Ryan, Rand Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Rube Waddell, Sam McDowell, Curt Schilling, and J.R. Richard
  • His 13.2 K/9 rate broke the record set by Kerry Wood the year before, but the new record lasted all of two seasons before the Big Unit shattered it in 2001
  • Martinez had just three starts all year in which he allowed three earned runs and only two others in which he surrendered more than three earned runs. Interestingly, they were both against interleague teams (Montreal and Florida). Check out his earned run breakdown from his 29 starts:                                                  
  • 0 runs--5 starts                                                                                                                                 1 run--10 starts                                                                                                                                2 runs--9 starts
    3 runs--3 starts
    4+ runs--2 starts
As good as his 1999 masterpiece was, his follow-up campaign was even better.

Best offensive season of the 1990s--Mark McGwire (1998)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Man

Stan "The Man" Musial was one of the ten best baseball players of all time, the National League's answer to Ted Williams during the 1940s and '50s. While Musial falls short of Williams as a hitter (everyone does), he was unquestionably a superior outfielder and baserunner, not to mention much kinder to St. Lo's fans and press.

Even so, Musial's career lacked the flair of his peers. He didn't make dazzling catches like Willie Mays or hit tape-measure home runs like Mickey Mantle or steal home like Jackie Robinson. He consistently hit for high averages, but never batted .400 like Williams. He swatted 475 home runs, but never topped 40 in any season or led the league in that department. He piled up 3,630 base hits, but couldn't challenge Joe DiMaggio's magical 56-game run.  His teams won three World Series, but he did not shine in the postseason the way October legends Mantle and Reggie Jackson did. Musial batted just .256/.347/.395 with one home run in his 23 Series games. He didn't have a cool nickname like "Joltin' Joe," the "Say Hey Kid" or the "Splendid Splinter."

He was simply "The Man."

It stuck because it fit; his body of work was defined by quiet, sustained excellence. As Joe Posnanski points out, he led the league in something pretty much every year. He showed up to work everyday, played hard, and gave opposing pitchers fits. He aged well, remaining productive to the very end even though his last five seasons represented a considerable drop-off from the 17 eye-popping years that preceded them.

But whereas most players remembered for their consistency (Eddie Murray, Hank Aaron, Fred McGriff) never put together that signature, standout year that jumps off the page, Musial's 1948 remains one of the greatest offensive performances a player ever had. His 10.8 bWAR led the majors that year, as did his 230 base hits, 46 doubles, 18 triples, .376 batting average, .702 slugging percentage, 1.152 OPS, 200 OPS+, 103 extra base hits, and 429 total bases (!), still the record for the integrated era. Musial received a midseason pay-raise for his outstanding performance, something that was virtually unheard of in an era when most players fought tooth and nail for every cent they earned. He recorded his 1,000th career hit in April. He crushed a two-run homer in the All-Star Game. He had five hits in a game on four separate occasions.

He was, in a word, unstoppable.

Musial breezed to his third MVP award, becoming the first National Leaguer to collect a trio of said trophies (Roy Campanella, Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds, and Albert Pujols later joined him). Somehow, he did not win the award unanimously. Johnny Sain received five first place votes for helping lead the Boston Braves to the NL pennant and Sain's teammate, Al Dark, snagged one for his Rookie of the Year campaign.

Musial fell one home run shy of winning the Triple Crown that year. His 39 dingers placed third behind Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner, who tied for the league lead with 40. Musial would have made it a three-way tie were it not for a rainout erasing one longball from his ledger.

Here are some more fascinating figures:
  • Made 24 consecutive All-Star teams. 
  • Of Musial's 3,630 hits, he pounded out 1,815 at home and 1,815 on the road
  • Musial claimed seven batting titles and finished in the top five ten other times. Only Ty Cobb, Tony Gwynn, and Honus Wagner won more batting crowns
  • The Man was not made of Iron like Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig, but he was extremely durable nevertheless. He averaged 153 games played from 1943-to-1956 and led the league in the category five times
  • The writers loved Musial. He received three MVP awards and totaled 6.96 award shares. Barry Bonds (9.30) was the only player to garner more MVP consideration, though Albert Pujols (6.90) is poised to pass Musial soon
  • One truly remarkable stat is that of Musial's 12,717 plate appearances, only 696 ended with strike three. He didn't exceed 40 strike outs in any season prior to his forties
  • Ranks second all-time in total bases and MVP shares, third in doubles, runs created, and extra base hits, and fourth in hits
  • Was fortunate that he only lost one season to World War II. Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller missed nearly four full years.
  • Never won the traditional Triple Crown, but won a pair of sabermetric Triple Crowns by leading the league in the triple slash stats in 1943 and 1948
  • Upon retirement in 1963, Musial held or shared 17 major league records, 29 National League records and 9 All-Star Game records. He was the first player to appear in 1,000 games at two different positions, recording 1,896 in the outfield and 1,016 at first base
  • Made it into the Hall of fame on the first ballot in 1969 (Roy Campanella was also inducted that year) with 93.3 percent of the vote. 23 members of the BBWAA did not believe his career was Cooperstown worthy
  • My personal favorite: Stan Musial was never ejected from a game. Earl Weaver, who I just wrote about, was given the hook at least 91 times


Baseball lost a pair of legends over the holiday weekend when Earl Weaver and Stan Musial passed away. Here are some thoughts on Weaver, who was 82 when he died on Saturday:

Weaver was the best manager the Baltimore Orioles have ever had, and his outstanding track record speaks for itself. He managed 2,541 games--all with Balitmore--over 17 seasons and his teams won 1,480 of them, good for a .583 winning percentage. He presided over five 100-win seasons, four AL pennants, and the 1970 World Series champions. Six times he steered his club to a first-place finish and eleven times his team won at least 90 games. The Orioles were the American League's answer to Sparky Anderson's Big Red Machine always competitive under Weaver's guidance.

Well, except at the end. His only losing season was his last one, 1986, when the O's went 73-89 and finished last in the division. Weaver initially retired following the 1982 season, after Robin Yount and the Milwaukee Brewers crushed Baltimore 11-2 in a one-game playoff for the AL East flag. The front office lured him back in 1985 as the team slid into mediocrity, hoping he'd light a spark under the ballclub. But when Baltimore couldn't turn it around,Weaver walked away. It was good timing, for the Orioles only got worse without him. They dropped 95 games in 1987, then 107 the year after that. It took Baltimore ten years to make the playoffs after Weaver called it quits.

After a brief resurgence in the mid-1990s, the once-proud franchise deteriorated into the doormats of the American League East. The perennial punching bags for the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays strung together 14 consecutive losing seasons prior to a fluky 2012 in which they made the postseason despite scoring just seven more runs than they allowed during the regular season.

The last quarter century has been filled with lean times for the Orioles, enough to make their glory years feel like they transpired in an alternate reality. But Baltimore was the class of the American League back then, the first dynasty to emerge after the great Yankee run collapsed in the mid-1960s. The O's reaped the rewards of their prolific farm system that churned out waves of multi-talented ballplayers. Weaver, with all his fiery passion, competitive spirit and infamous tirades, was the perfect man to lead a team desperate to escape its losing reputation. No man could erase 60 wasted years in the American League cellar, but damned if this one wasn't going to try.

Of course, it helped that Weaver was blessed with elite personnel throughout his managing tenure. A great manager is only as good as his players, and Weaver had the good fortune of managing a bunch of them. When he first came on the job in 1968 he inherited the core that swept Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the '66 Fall Classic. was penciling the names of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Boog Powell into his lineup cards. Then it was a new crop of stars--Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Ken Singleton, and Lee May--in the 1970s. His final days at the helm featured Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., and Fred Lynn.

As for pitching, Baltimore rarely suffered a shortage of quality arms. The Big Three of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally carried the day, and the 1971 edition featured four 20-game winners (the trio plus Pat Dobson). Players came and went, especially once free agency came into vogue during the mid-'70s, but Weaver remained ever-present.

Weaver wasn't a master tactician or strategist. He didn't know much about pitching. Common managerial maneuvers such as hit-and-runs, sacrifice bunts and stolen bases were foreign to him. And yet, he was one of the winning-est skippers who ever lived. He earned his plaque in the Hall of Fame. He belongs in the pantheon of legendary baseball field generals with the likes of Casey Stengel, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and Bobby Cox.

And even if the Baltimore Orioles revert to their losing ways this year, his legacy as a winner lives on.

Monday, January 21, 2013

When Duty Called: Part Two

A continuation of the post I wrote last winter, when I projected Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller,  Johnny Mize, Ted Williams, Whitey Ford, and Willie Mays to see what their career numbers would have looked like had they not sacrificed several seasons to serving their country.

Dom DiMaggio (1943-1945)
It is often said that while Joltin' Joe was the better hitter, his little brother was the superior center fielder. Like Tris Speaker before him, DiMaggio earned a great reputation on defense for his ability to play shallow and still get back on deep fly balls. Despite his diminutive Dustin Pedroia-esque stature and bookish appearance, he was no slouch with the bat either. DiMaggio batted .301 as a rookie and cemented himself as Boston's leadoff man. The seven-time All-Star never had a bad year and hit .298 for his career, same as Jim Rice and Mickey Mantle. DiMaggio could steal a base and had a great eye at the plate, too, using his .383 OBP to set the table for Red Sox run producers Vern StephensBobby Doerr, and of course the Splendid Splinter. He missed his age 26 through 28 seasons serving in the Navy, lost time that probably cost him a plaque in Cooperstown. Nevertheless, he spent his entire 11-year career with the Sox and has a claim as the best leadoff hitter in team history (no disrespect to Johnny Damon).
1943-1945 averages; 98 runs, 174 hits, 30 doubles, 8 triples, 11 home runs, 61 RBI, 68 BB, 250 TB, 13 steals
Career totals; 1,340 runs, 2,202 hits, 398 doubles, 81 triples, 120 home runs, 801 RBI, 954 BB, 3,113 TB, 139 steals

Johnny Pesky (1943-1945)
Passed away last summer, but his legacy lives on. Pesky enjoyed one of the best rookie seasons of all time when he took over as Boston's everyday shortstop in 1942. Besides leading both leagues with 205 hits, Bobby Doerr's double-play partner also batted .331, scored 105 runs and finished third in the MVP voting behind Joe Gordon and Ted Williams. The Needle hitched a ride in the Navy and lost out on three prime years that would have bolstered his Hall of Fame case. To his credit, he didn't skip a beat when he rejoined the Red Sox in 1946. He made his only All-Star team, paced the Junior Circuit with 208 base knocks and set personal bests across the board, production that merited his fourth place finish in the MVP race. Pesky never again seriously challenged the award, but topped the league in hits once more the following year and continued to play at a high level until the Sox dealt him to Detroit in 1952. He eventually made his way back to the Red Sox and dedicated most of his adult life to serving the organization in various capacities until his death at the age of 93. Rest in Peace Johnny Pesky.
1943-1945 averages; 110 runs, 207 hits, 36 doubles, 7 triples, 53 RBI, 53 BB, 262 TB, 11 steals
Career totals: 1,207 runs, 2,076 hits, 334 doubles, 71 triples, 560 RBI, 821 BB, 2,618 TB, 86 steals

Enos Slaughter (1943-1945)
"Country" Slaughter will always be remembered for his "mad dash" around the bases that propelled the St. Louis Cardinals to a Game 7 win over the Boston Red Sox in the 1946 Fall Classic. The play embodied Slaughter's speed, hustle, and aggressive style he used to lay the foundation for his Hall of Fame career. He had already been recognized as one of the top players in the Senior Circuit prior to the war with two All--Star nods and a second place finish in the MVP race to teammate Mort Cooper in 1942, a year in which Slaughter paced the league in hits, total bases and triples. After spending his age 27 through 29 seasons in the service, he returned strong in '46 to lead the major leagues with 130 RBI and help St. Louis secure its fourth pennant in five years. He finished third in the MVP race that year behind Stan Musial and Dixie Walker. Slaughter went on to play 13 more seasons, latching on with the Yankees near the end of his career as a role player and helping Mickey MantleYogi Berra and co. add a few more championships to Casey Stengel's ledger.
1943-1945 averages; 100 runs, 186 hits, 31 doubles, 13 triples, 16 home runs, 114 RBI, 79 BB, 288 TB, 9 steals
Career totals; 1,547 runs, 2,941 hits, 504 doubles, 187 triples, 217 home runs, 4,463 TB, 1,255 BB, 98 steals

Pee Wee Reese (1943-1945)
Reese was a top prospect in the Boston Red Sox farm system before player-manager-shortstop Joe Cronin forced a trade that sent Reese to the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he put together a Hall of Fame career. While he didn't hit for much power early on, his plus defense and plate discipline helped him make his first All-Star squad in 1942. Reese joined the Navy in '43 and served in the Pacific theater. After the war, He emerged as one of the top shortstops in the game as well as a cornerstone of a Brooklyn dynasty that captured six National League pennants from 1947 through 1956. He made nine consecutive All-Star squads and received MVP consideration in eleven straight years. Eight times he placed in the ballot's top ten, an impressive feat considering he shared a roster with perennial MVP candidates such as Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. More importantly, the Kentucky native befriended Jackie Robinson and supported his new double play partner throughout the legend's strenuous debut in 1947. After ceding his starting role to Charlie  Neal, an African-American, ten years later, Reese made the move out west with the Dodgers as their backup infielder but played just one season in the City of Angels before retiring.
1943-1945 averages; 83 runs, 149 hits, 20 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs, 57 RBI, 85 BB, 196 TB, 13 steals
Career totals; 1,587 runs, 2,619 hits, 390 doubles, 92 triples, 138 home runs, 1,056 RBI, 1,465 BB, 3,626 TB, 271 steals

Warren Spahn (1943-1945)
After making just two starts for the Boston Braves in 1942, Sphan put his baseball career on hold to fight for Uncle Sam in the U.S. Army. A combat engineer, he received a Purple Heart and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He returned from overseas a more mature, disciplined pitcher after surviving his baptism by fire on the frigid front lines. He went on compile 363 wins and stake his claim as the best southpaw starter in the sport's history, on par or better than Lefty GroveSandy Koufax and Randy Johnson. Some think the war prevented him from winning 400 games and/or passing Walter Johnson for second place on the all-time wins list behind Cy Young. Spahn was not so sure. He crediting the military for accelerating his development as well as prolonging his career, which lasted until he was
1943-1945 averages; 16 wins, 15 complete games, 3 shutouts, 208 innings pitched, 100 strikeouts
Career totals; 411 wins, 427 complete games, 38 shutouts, 5,867 innings pitched, 2,883 strikeouts

Baseball's All-African-American Team

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, here's my MLB All-African-American team. Only players who began their careers after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 are eligible, so that means I did not include Negro League stars such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Oscar Charleston.

C Roy Campanella-Three-time NL MVP, though that third one should have gone to teammate Duke Snider
1B Eddie Murray-One of four players with 3,000 career hits and 500 home runs (Aaron, Mays, and Rafael Palmeiro are the others)
2B Joe Morgan-The greatest keystone player since World War II
3B Dick Allen-Spent more time at first base, but played about one-third of his games at the hot corner
SS Ernie Banks-Alex Rodriguez is the only shortstop with better power numbers
LF Barry Bonds-Disregarding steroids, he's the best baseball player who ever lived
CF Willie Mays-Apologies to Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, but the Say Hey Kid is the best center fielder in the sport's history
RF Hank Aaron-His career numbers boggle the mind
U Jackie Robinson-The man who opened the door for generations of non-white ballplayers
DH Frank Thomas-Should go into Cooperstown on the first ballot next year
RHP Bob Gibson-The most intimidating pitcher of all-time
LHP CC Sabathia-Has a good chance to win 300 games if he stays healthy
CL Lee Smith-Only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman have more saves

C Elston Howard
1B Willie McCovey
1B Willie Stargell
2B Lou Whitaker
3B Bill Madlock
SS Barry Larkin
LF Rickey Henderson
LF Tim Raines
CF Ken Griffey Jr.
RF Frank Robinson
RF Reggie Jackson
RF Dave Winfield
SP Dwight Gooden

Honorable Mention: Larry Doby, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Fred McGriff, Kenny Lofton, Bernie Williams, Ozzie Smith, Jim Rice, Reggie Smith, Vada Pinson, Dave Parker, Darryl Strawberry, Andre Dawson, Kirby Puckett, and Torii Hunter

Also I can't wait to see the new Jackie Robinson movie, 42, when it comes out in April. Looks great!