Saturday, December 26, 2015

Is great pitching more valuable in the post-season?

Reader questions:

Q1: Is it fact or baseball myth that great pitching is more valuable in the post-season than in the regular season?

Q2: The great Braves teams of the 1990s seemed to have the deck stacked in their favor, yet did not win multiple World Championships. Were they a disappointment?

Those two questions are so closely related and involve so many of the same arguments and calculations that I'm going to treat number two as a subset of question number one, and answer them together. Before we even begin with any specific discussion of baseball, let's try to answer that first question with logic alone. Our first step is to convert the question to one that is treatable with objective analysis, and that requires us to define "valuable." For the sake of being able to evaluate it statistically, we will define that as "more likely to assure success."

Frankly, the unassailable rules of statistics lead us to conclude quite the opposite from the baseball myth, because the longer any activity continues, the more likely it is that its actual outcome will approach its theoretical outcome. In baseball terms: the longer the period of time, the more likely that the better team will win. This does not just apply to pitching, but to any form of talent. If you have the best team in the division, a 162-game schedule should end with you on the top.

  • Let's be practical: If the best baseball team has .600 talent, meaning that they are likely to win 60% of their games against generic opposition, they have a 60% chance of winning a generic one game series, a 65% chance of winning a three game series, and so forth on up until they reach roughly a 100% chance of winning a 162 game series.
  • Let's be even more practical. That team would have an 89% probability of winning 90 or more games out of 162 games against generic opposition. Getting into the post-season is just about a lock.

But then there is the matter of the playoffs. The competition is tougher, of course, but even if it were not, there is always a significant chance that an inferior team will win a short series.

First of all, the .600 team is no longer playing with a 60% chance of winning each game, because their competition has improved. In a full-season league consisting only of playoff teams, it's unlikely that any given one could play better than .550 ball. So, if the best team is down to a 55% chance of winning each game, that only gives them a 59% chance to win three out of five, and a 61% chance of winning four out of seven. Therefore, the odds that they will win a five game series, followed by a seven, then another seven, are less than one in four (22%).

A great pitching team with .600 talent, like the recent Braves in their glory years, is almost certain to make the playoffs, with that aforementioned 89% chance of winning 90 games. But if they get there, given the assumption of a 55% likelihood of winning each playoff game, they have a mere 22% chance of winning the whole magilla. And that's assuming they are already in the playoffs. Starting before the first pitch is thrown in the spring, our theoretical team with .600 talent only has about 1 chance in 5 to be the World Series champ, given that they have a small chance of missing the playoffs entirely.

That's very different from the situation in the post-WW2 era, when the team with .600 talent (the Yankees, of course) were about even bets to take the World Series from the first day of spring training. If you make the assumptions above, they had an 89% probability of winning the league, followed by a 61% chance of winning the one and only seven-game series, and were therefore likely to win the World Series more years than not.

Those assumptions reconcile well with reality.

---- The Yankees of 1949-1964 won fourteen pennants in sixteen years. That's 88%, obviously almost identical to our theoretical number, and exactly what we expected. They won nine of their fourteen World Series match-ups. That again matched the theoretical number. Assuming fourteen events with a .61 likelihood of success in each, nine is the most likely outcome.

---- The Braves of 1993-1999 made the post-season every year. It was six for six, and would have been seven for seven, save for the fact that there was no post-season in 1994. Six out of seven would have been the most likely outcome based on our theoretical 89%, but seven for seven is well within the realm of statistical comfort. Their performance in the post-season was the same as that of the great Yankees dynasty discussed above. By coincidence, the match is exact. They were in fourteen post-season series and won nine of them. Unfortunately for their fans, they did that in an era when it was necessary to win three levels of post-season competition, as contrasted to the single level faced by the post-war Yankees, so they were able to win only one World Series.

So were the Braves a disappointment? Hell, no. Stop and consider the facts. They had exactly the same post-season performance (nine wins in fourteen series) as the great Yankee teams of the Berra-Ford-Mantle era, who are considered perhaps the best post-season performers in the history of baseball. There is one word always applied to that team:

How could being as good as those guys be considered a disappointment?

It is an unusual perception we have developed over the years. Here are two teams with identical records of nine wins in fourteen post-season series. One is a DYNASTY in capital letters. The other is a disappointment.

This demonstrates America's love for the ultimate winners, and disregard of the rest. We treat the teams who lose in the post-season as losers, even though they are perhaps just a hair worse (or maybe even better, thanks to the effect of chance) than the ones we worship. The problem in the modern world is that we now have too many losers, and too many people eager to criticize them on social media. In 1949-1964, there was one post-season team which came up empty handed each year. As of 2015, there are nine.

I know that baseball fans don't want to hear this, but when you build the best team in baseball you're only likely to win one World Series every five years these days. That is true simply because of the stratification in the present playoff structure, which didn't exist in the time of the Yankee dynasty. The Braves of the 1993-1999 era won the one World Series they were expected to win. That may have been disappointing to you if you were a Braves fan, but it was exactly as ordained by the universe. Assuming a 22% chance each post-season, as described above, and six post-seasons to work from, the odds were against them winning two or more, and one was the most likely outcome. (They had an 23% chance of winning none at all, a 38% chance of winning one, a 27% chance of winning two, and only a 12% chance of winning more than two.)

Of course it is possible to win more than one out of five, as the recent Giant teams demonstrated, but one out of five is the most likely outcome. If you do better than that, it's because luck was on your side and there were not enough outcomes for probability to stabilize at its theoretically correct level. Think of it in terms of an infinite deck of cards consisting only of aces, twos, threes, fours and fives. You would expect only one ace among the first five cards, but you would not be shocked at all to see three. Yet if you deal a thousand cards, you know for sure that there will not be 600 aces. The number will be very close to 200. Luck was on the side of the Giants recently, and they got the equivalent of those three aces out of five cards, meaning more championships than they likely deserved. In contrast, luck was merely neutral for the Braves in the 90s. They didn't get less than they deserved, but neither did they get more.

Like the recent Giants, the post-war Yankee teams also had a period when they got more than they deserved. Over the first five years of that era, they won the World Series every single time. Even if we grant them a 60% likelihood to win each Series, the odds were about 12-1 against winning five in a row, but that 60% assumption may be a major stretch because they were not playing weak opponents. They won the final one, for example, against the '53 Dodgers, one of the best offensive congregations in National League history.

There was plenty of luck involved in that five-peat, but then, as the full sixteen years of that era passed, they won the Series in only four of their remaining nine attempts, and the outcome settled back to the exact level where it should have been.

Lucky or not, the Yanks crushed the opposition in that stretch. In those five World Series, they won twenty games and lost only eight (.714) against the best the NL had to offer, with only one Series going the distance. The mighty 1953 Dodgers, who scored 955 runs in the regular season, compared to only 801 for the 1953 Yankees, could do no better than to take the series to a sixth game, which Billy Martin won with a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.

Circling back to the first part of the question - well, I already answered it, really. Great pitching, like any other form of great play, is more likely to assure success over a long period than over a short one. If you have the best team and stay healthy, there is very little chance, almost zero, that you'll miss the post-season, but there's still a fairly good chance you may lose in each successive playoff round, and there are three rounds to get through, so the best team, because of pitching or any other reason, is nowhere near as likely to win the World Series as to dominate the regular season.

However, if you want turn the question around just a bit to specifically address whether great pitching is more important than great hitting in the post season, various analysts (1, 2) have tackled this question and found no correlation between the quality of the ace or the quality of the pitching staff and winning in the post-season. Specifically, they found that when two teams win the same amount of games in the regular season, the one with the great rotation or the great ace has no advantage over the team with mediocre pitching and tremendous offense.

The studies also debunked other alleged predictors of post-season success:

"Do teams that back into the playoffs after a September swoon fall to the ones with momentum? No. Are teams that rely on home runs to score at a disadvantage in October? No. Does the quality of a team’s closer, its defense, or its staff’s strikeout rate offer any hints? Not likely."

So, what factors are actually relevant as predictors of post-season success?

"The best predictor of how often a team will win in October is, intuitively enough, how often it’s won on the way there."

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The great pitching season you never really noticed.

When a pitcher has a truly spectacular year, we are normally aware of it because the signs are evident. If you are reading this sentence, you probably know what Jake Arrieta did in the 2015 season after June 15th. It's hard to remain oblivious when a guy goes 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA.

You also know about these:

Dwight Gooden was the Arrieta of 1985, when he was a mere stripling of none-and-twenty years. He started the season 6-3, which was not so bad, but then he decided to take the whole thing seriously and went 18-1 the rest of the way, with a 1.39 ERA. In a tight pennant race when every win was critical, he pretty much won 'em all. Over his last nine starts he drove in as many runs as he allowed.

In 1963, Sandy Koufax was 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA, eleven shutouts and 306 Ks. He then won two complete games in the World Series sweep of the mighty Yankees, thereby placing the icing of a World Series MVP on top of a cake that already included the Cy Young and the regular season MVP. The Dodgers were 34-6 in his starts (.850), 65-57 (.533) with other starters, a W-L differential of .317.

In 1931, Lefty Grove was 31-4 (.886) for the As. His ERA was 2.06 in a league that averaged 4.38. He would have become the only player in history to post a .900 winning percentage with twenty or more wins, but he got shelled by the Yankees in the very last game of the year, a completely meaningless contest, given that the As were leading the league by 14 1/2 games. The only other starts he lost all year were by the scores of 2-1 and 1-0, but the Yankees creamed him in that final game, 13-1. Still and all, the As played .900 ball in his starts (27-3) and .909 ball in his relief appearances (10-1). Incredibly, that magnificent season was only marginally better than Grove's previous one, when he was 28-5 and led the league in both wins and saves, making 32 starts and 18 relief appearances.

In 1972, the Philadelphia Phillies somehow won 29 games started by Steve Carlton. What made that amazing is that they only won 30 more in all the games started by all their other starters. They were 29-12 (.707) when Carlton took the ball, 30-85 (.261) in the other games, for a W-L differential of .446. To establish perspective, take note that .261 is approximately the same level as the infamous 1962 Mets, who finished the season at .246. In other words, those Phillies were right there with the losingest team of all time, yet Carlton finished the season 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA, 310 Ks and 30 complete games. This is an achievement that goes beyond what we normally conceive to be humanly possible, ranking in sheer miraculousness somewhere between DiMaggio's hitting streak and the raising of Lazarus.

Pedro Martinez had a 1.74 ERA in 2000. That would not normally be as eye-catching as some of the other stats on this page until you realize that the second-best ERA in the league was 3.70. To lead the league by one run is a feat seldom accomplished. Pedro almost led by two.

Christy Mathewson was well-nigh unstoppable in 1905. He started three games in the World Series (or the Post Series as it was then called) and won all three - with complete game shutouts. In those 27 innings he allowed exactly one walk. He wasn't so bad in the regular season either. He went 31-9 with a 1.28 ERA. Of course that was all just business as usual for Matty. Based on WAR, he had three better seasons and another one just as good. The newspapers of the day had no trouble recognizing his brilliance, but that didn't encourage them to learn how to spell his name.

In you are interested in the newspaper stories of the day, reflecting how the games were actually reported (it can be fascinating), you can get the complete account from the New York World and the San Francisco Call by clicking on the images to the left and right respectively. The New York story includes a detailed inning-by-inning account of the final game as well as analysis. Because I had some blank space to fill, that file also includes the cover of the Giants' home program from the 1905 Series, showing the team bedecked in their best Sunday finery, presumably to prove to refined New Yorkers that they were no ruffians.

Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn finished the 1884 season 59-12 with a 1.38 ERA. He started 73 games and finished every single one. In the early days of baseball, the high sheriffs were still tinkering with the rules. 1884 was the first year when pitchers were allowed to throw overhand with no restrictions on their motion, but the pitching distance had still not been extended to 60 feet. You will see in the bottom image of Old Hoss below that the pitchers of his day worked from neither a mound nor a rubber. Their box was outlined like the foul lines, and they could get as close as 45'6". Some pitchers threw overhand, while others (like Old Hoss) kept firing the ball from below, like fast pitch softball hurlers. Moreover, the poor batsmen needed six balls, not four, to get a free pass, so the batters were generally at a disadvantage that season. Radbourn was not the only pitcher covered with glory that year. In fact, he wasn't the only one on his team. His Providence teammate and bitter rival, Charlie Sweeney, struck out nineteen men in a regulation game that year, a record was not broken for more than 100 years until Roger Clemens did it in 1986. As you might imagine from the presence of those two guys on the mound staff, the Providence Grays were kinda good that year, finishing the season with a .750 winning percentage. Curiously, Old Hoss never seemed to make it onto a baseball card until he left Providence to pitch in Boston. There he was a burned-out sub-.500 pitcher, possibly because he drank to excess, or possibly because he tossed 678 innings in 1884 - and those were long innings; remember a walk required six balls. Though he was no longer a dominant pitcher in his Boston years, his images were ubiquitous in promotion of every conceivable type of tobacco product.

You all know what Bob Gibson did in 1968. He posted a 1.12 ERA, with 28 complete games (three of them in extra innings) and thirteen shutouts. It is not likely that his ERA will ever be bested by a starter again, barring a major rule change. He followed that up by winning games one and four of the World Series, striking out seventeen and ten in complete game victories, and besting 30-game winner Denny McLain both times. You may wonder how he lost nine games that season. You may not remember that he started that season 3-5, even though his ERA was 1.52 at that point. His teammates scored a total of four runs in those five losses.

The Big Train, Walter Johnson, could not be derailed in 1913. He was 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA. The team was 29-7 in his starts. He led the league in wins, winning percentage, shutouts, complete games, strikeouts, WHIP and ERA. Based upon a very significant measurement, WAR, this is the best pitching season of all time under the modern rules. Johnson also won the league's MVP award for his performance that year, beating out Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe and all the other superstars of the era.

Some of Johnson's fellow deadball stars posted spectacular numbers as well:

Smoky Joe Wood was 34-5 in 1912, with a 1.91 ERA, 35 complete games and 10 shutouts.

In 1904, Happy Jack Chesbro was 41-12 with 48 complete games.

Big Ed Walsh was 40-15 with a 1.42 ERA in 1908. In his spare time, he also led the league in saves.

I could go on because there are other pitchers who could make their way onto this list: Ron Guidry in 1978, Roger Clemens in 1986, Three-Finger Brown in 1909, Cy Young in 1901, Greg Maddux in 1995, and recent seasons from Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, to name a few. But I think you get the point. Every serious fan knows about these seasons and a few other great ones. Their numbers come alive and jump out from the pages on which they are printed.

But there is one other great season, about as good as the best ones listed above, that didn't attract as much notice because the numbers hide beneath the surface of the main stats. The guy won 18 games. Big deal. His ERA was 2.48. That's nice enough, but pedestrian; certainly not in the same league as those legendary performances. Or is it?

Let's start with the previously unmatched Grove record. The 1931 Philadelphia As played .900 ball in games started by Lefty Grove. That's impressive enough, but remember that those As were 80-42 in games started by other pitchers. That team played .655 ball when Grove wasn't pitching. Over a 154-game schedule, that's 101 wins, which still would have been enough to win the pennant by seven games. Grove was that great because he had a great team behind him (and of course, because he really was great, possibly the best ever).

Some six decades later, another pitcher tied Grove's record, and tied it exactly, as his team played .900 ball by going 27-3 in his 30 starts. But the modern pitcher did not have Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and the mighty 1931 A's behind him. When the ace did not take the mound, the team was 52-63, a .452 pace. In tying Grove's previously unmatched mark, he also managed to best Carlton's most amazing record. His W-L differential was .448, just barely breaking Carlton's record of .446.

Enough with the suspense. The pitcher was Randy Johnson and the team was the 1995 Seattle Mariners.

"Wait," you are thinking, "weren't they a great team with A-Rod and Griffey and company?" No, not that year. Griffey was injured most of the year and played only 72 games. When he did play, he stunk. He hit only .258, sandwiched in between two seasons when he batted at least .300 with at least 40 homers. A-Rod was no help. He was a green 19-year-old kid who batted .232 with five homers. The Mariners had some other decent bats, but no other starter with an ERA below 4.50.

To make matters worse, there was another team in their division which was good. The two teams finished in a dead heat at 78-66 in the regular season, necessitating a one-game playoff. If Randy had lost one more game in the regular season, or if he had lost the playoff game, the team would have finished in second.

So he didn't.

Of course he started that playoff game against the California Angels. Was there ever any doubt? He pitched on somewhat short rest, three days, but probably would have pitched some innings even if he had started the day before. It was a do-or-die situation, and the Mariners had nobody else they could rely upon. Fortunately, the Angels' line-up was stacked with left-handed bats. Three of their power hitters, Garret Anderson, J. T. Snow and Jim Edmonds, batted left-handed, and lefties had no prayer against The Unit that year - or most years, but especially that one. In the entire year, he allowed only 11 hits to left-handers in 30 starts, and not one of those hits cleared the fence. Still, the Angels were hopeful. Randy had already beaten them twice that year, but they had finally handed him one of his rare losses in August, and had somehow managed to touch him up for seven runs. Hope springs.

It was not to be their day, however. Their three lefty sluggers were held hitless, and their right-handed counterparts didn't do much better. Through eight innings Randy was nursing a 9-0 lead and had allowed only two hits. He surrendered a harmless dinger in the ninth to finish with a complete game three-hitter. The Mariners had won Randy's last nine starts in the regular season, followed by the all-or-nothing game. The Unit had single-handedly taken his sub-.500 team kicking and screaming into first place.

I wish my story had a happier ending, ala Matty's 1905, but it didn't work out that way. Randy Johnson did win his first Cy Young award that year, and the Mariners did manage to beat the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, despite falling behind two games to none in games without Randy. They came roaring back in that series with three victories in a row, and the Unit was the winning pitcher in games three and five.

The dream came to an abrupt halt, however, when they were bested by the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS, four games to two. Because of his workload against the Yankees, Randy was only capable of pitching one of the first five games of the Cleveland series. He did start game three, which Seattle won, but when the Mariners were down three games to two, he got the ball again and lost game six by a score of 4-0. You might argue that he was not to blame, since (1) his teammates failed to score even a single run; (2) the first run scored against him was the result of an error by his second baseman, and (3) his catcher made a critical passed ball which allowed the next two runs to score. But the fact of the matter is that all of that was rendered irrelevant when he let Carlos Baerga hit one out of the park in the late innings, precipitating an early walk to the shower room. The Indians took the series and brought one of baseball's most brilliant seasons to a disappointing conclusion.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Now pinch hitting for Frank Saucier, # 1/8

On January 3, 1951, Frank Saucier was on the top of the world. He was not only a happy newlywed, but was also on the cover of The Sporting News, right there with the ol' Scooter, Phil Rizzuto. In fact, TSM dedicated a detailed two-page article to him.

Huh? Who the hell is Frank Saucier?

Saucier had been the minor league player of the year in 1950, so he made that year's "best of" list, which TSN traditionally published in the first issue of the following year. Rizzuto, of course, had taken the major league version of the same honor with a season so impressive that he had taken American League MVP honors over his powerful teammates Berra and DiMaggio, each of whom had driven in more than 120 runs. That may sound odd to you by today's standards, but the Scooter was perhaps the most highly respected player in the game in those days. The previous year he had finished second in the MVP balloting, and had given the great Ted Williams a run for first, despite the fact that Williams had won the triple crown while drawing 162 walks, and Rizzuto had batted .275 with an anemic OPS+ of 88.

Saucier earned his spot beside Rizzuto by winning the Texas League batting championship with a .343 average. It was the second consecutive minor league batting trophy he had won, and it almost seemed like a letdown after his astounding 1949 season in the Big State League for Wichita Falls. That was one of baseball's best-ever minor league seasons, in which he posted a batting average that looked like a typographical error (.446), while toiling as a catcher! The year before that, he had managed a mere .357 in the Illinois State League. All told, he accumulated a lifetime minor league batting average of .380.

Saucier had never been a stranger to success, in or out of baseball. He had always been good at a lot of things. Back in high school in Washington, Missouri, a town on the Missouri river about an hour's drive west of St. Louis, Saucier had been much more than a jock. He was so gifted at academics that he graduated at 16. That happened during WW2, so his next stop was the U.S. Navy, which placed him in the V-12 program, an accelerated officer development course which led him from Westminster College to midshipman's training at Notre Dame. The Navy's policy at the time was that nobody could be commissioned before turning 19, but Saucier's C.O. was sufficiently impressed to waive the requirement, thus making Saucier an ensign at the tender age of 18. He served his time in the Pacific theater, then was placed in the reserve when Japan surrendered. The full story of Saucier's participation in the Navy V-12 program is summarized in the following article from his home town newspaper, which also includes pictures of him in 1943 and 1993.

By releasing him from active duty, the Navy allowed Saucier to finish his university education at Westminster, which he did with a bang. In the academic realm he earned a math degree, while on the baseball field he batted .519 in his junior year, a conference record. He left such an impression that the school named the baseball field after him.

His gaudy numbers on the college circuit came to the attention of professional scouts, and he landed a contract in the farm system of the St Louis Browns. After three brilliant seasons in the minors he won a spot on the cover of The Sporting News that began this tale.

After his incredible college and minor league career, Saucier was offered a major league contract for 1951, but he was not happy with it so he held out and refused to report to the Browns. Most ballplayers in those days had no viable options, but Saucier was a brilliant guy, a college grad, a naval officer, and already a successful businessman from his off-season ventures. If baseball wasn't going to treat him fairly, he reckoned that he was going to drill oil wells. On April 17, 1951, he was placed on the suspended player list for failing to report and sign a contract. Shortly afterward, he came more directly into the sights of baseball's legendary rascal of an owner, Bill Veeck, who was in his first year as the owner of the St. Louis Browns franchise and was at the time desperately trying to resuscitate it. Veeck was known for brilliant promotions spiced with acerbic humor, and for finding ever more inventive ways to market his perennially inept Browns, who were inexorably falling farther and farther behind the storied Cardinals in the hearts of the city. One thing he was not going to let slip through his fingers was an Eastern Missouri boy who also happened to be the best damned prospect in baseball, and of whom The Sporting News had said, "If the Browns can get by for a couple of years and not part with Saucier, they may come up with the greatest individual drawing card they've had since George Sisler." That was music to Veeck's ears. On July 4th of that year, he got in his car and made his way to Saucier's living room, where the two men were able to come to terms on a win-win deal after five hours of face-to-face negotiation between one and six in the morning. Veeck was finally able to add his promising local boy to the Browns roster, while Saucier got both a big league shot and $10,000 to help expand his oil interests. That was a substantial sum in 1950, equivalent to some $100,000 today.

Saucier's story then takes a dark turn as, for the first time in his life, he had to face true frustration and failure. His talent was still with him, but he had not attended spring training and had not been practicing, so he tried to do an accelerated training program to get back into baseball condition. The intensity of his work-outs caused him physical problems. He injured his throwing arm by trying to rush it back to full strength, and he developed severe blisters on both hands from taking three to four hours of batting practice each day. In one of Saucier's early games, the Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra, informed the ump that the young man's hands were bleeding while he batted. For obvious reasons, Saucier's manager decided to use him sparingly until his arm and hands could heal.

Until August 19th.

At that point Bill Veeck had concocted for the Browns' season an operatic plot twist, in which Saucier was to play a minor but critical part. Veeck informed the Washington Missourian, Saucier's hometown newspaper, that their favorite son would be starting the second game of a double-header against the Detroit Tigers, prompting busloads of Washingtonians to attend the games that day. Saucier was puzzled by the move, since his manager and his teammates knew that he simply could not throw a ball overhand. He was even more mystified to find himself starting the game in right field, where he would have to make even longer throws than he would from in his usual place in left. The Browns survived the first inning without allowing a hit or a run, which brought them to bat with Saucier scheduled to bat leadoff.

Except he didn't.

Saucier was sent back to the bench, replaced by that legendary slugger Eddie Gaedel, ol' number one-eighth.

Gaedel is listed in the baseball encyclopedias as a 3'7", 65-pound pinch hitter who batted right and threw left. I'm not sure how they determined which hand did the throwing because this plate appearance represented his only major league action.

Having been blessed with a rather tiny strike zone, the little guy drew a walk on four pitches and ambled toward first base, soon to be replaced by a pinch runner, but not before tipping his cap and bowing a few times toward the adoring crowd (left; click to enlarge).

Eddie's part in the story has been covered thoroughly elsewhere. He would go on to die young, tragically beaten to death. The only happy side of his tale is that his grand-nephew Kyle is now (2015) playing pro ball for the San Antonio Missions, the same team Frank Saucier played for when he won the Texas League batting title so long ago.

The story of the tiny batsman didn't end that Sunday, but a day or two later when Will Harridge, the president of the American league, banned Gaedel and established new contract-approval processes to ensure that his office would have time to prevent any further gimmick contracts from slipping through the cracks. Veeck responded with his customary iconoclastic wit. He speculated that if Gaedel had been banned for being too short, then perhaps Harridge should also ban Phil Rizzuto, but if Gaedel was being banned because his batting represented unfair competition to the rest of the league, then perhaps Harridge might consider banning Ted Williams as well. Gaedel also seemed to be playing along with the joke. He publicly excoriated Harridge for ruining his chances in baseball, and carped that it was his ill fortune to have this happen during an interregnum between commissioners, meaning there was nobody to hear an appeal. That would have been funny material, except Gaedel wasn't kidding.

Above left is the original AP report of the incident, as published on August 22nd, 1951 following Harridge's action. Click on it to read it in its full size.

As for Saucier, his vast potential was never realized. He finished the season, and his career, with 14 at bats and a lifetime average of .071. He was used primarily as a pinch runner for the rest of the 1951 season, but he was healing and fully intended to report for spring training in 1952. Unfortunately, the United States had managed to get embroiled in yet another major combat action, this time in Korea, and Saucier was still a reserve officer, so the Navy called him up. Bill Veeck could pull a lot of strings and call in a lot of favors, and by all accounts he tried to do something for his star prospect, but even the wily and calculating Veeck could do nothing to influence the U.S. Navy, so Saucier spent another two years on active duty. By the time he was discharged in April of 1954, he was about to turn 28 and was already late to begin spring training with everyone else. At that point in his life, having spent a lot of time away from his young wife, he didn't see how the nomadic baseball life could provide the correct career path for him, so he returned to the oil fields and eventually became a CEO.

Because Saucier was a potential baseball superstar who should be remembered for more than being the only guy pulled for a 3'7" pinch hitter, a prolific and thorough baseball blogger named Bob Lemke took the time to look back on what might have been for Saucier, and to create the baseball card he was never issued, formatted in the style of the 1951 Bowman set.

Finally, sports cartoonist Ronnie Joyner paid tribute to Frank:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Commish tells Rose "Yer out"

Pete Rose's ban from baseball remains in place

Did the commissioner rule correctly?

Yes. He had absolutely no other option. It always amazes me that people step in to object to this. In reality, this is a black-and-white issue.

Here is how Rule 21(d) reads, and has read for some 90 years: "Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform, shall be declared permanently ineligible."

There is no wiggle room in that rule. It doesn't matter whether the player knew about the rule, or how much he bet, or whether he bet on his team to win or lose. You may think it is unfair that none of those factors are considerations, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that the various commissioners didn't really ban Rose. He banned himself, since he knew the rule and bet anyway.

Everything else is merely camouflaging the issue. Was he great on the field? Sure. Has he repented? Some say yes, others say no. Has he suffered enough? Opinions vary. Has he ever come clean? Nobody knows but Pete. When he bet on his own team, was it always to win? Maybe - that's what he says, anyway. But none of that matters. The commissioner is hamstrung by the clarity of the rule. There's nothing he can do no matter how sorry Rose is, even if 100% of the fans want him reinstated. Rule 21(d) means that if he placed any bet, on either side, in a game that involved him, he's permanently ineligible. What do Pete's apologists want? Do they really expect any man in a position of power to say Rule 21(d) applies to everyone but Pete? That is never going to happen, no matter who is commissioner. The only way to lift his ban is to change the rule.

There have been players in the past who were banned "permanently" and subsequently reinstated, but they do not form a precedent for the Rose case. They were not banned for violating 21(d), but for conduct detrimental to baseball. That's conceptual and leaves plenty of room for subjectivity. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn once banned Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for life because they were working for legal casinos after they retired.

He also banned Ferguson Jenkins for life while Fergie was still an active player because Jenkins was found to possess drugs during a border crossing. Kuhn was kind of the Roger Goodell of his day in that every decision he made regarding players was arbitrary, or stupid, or both. Charlie Finley, never one to mince words, called Kuhn baseball's village idiot. Jenkins took his case to arbitration and won. Kuhn publicly whined and sniveled about the decision, but only after he had pulled a Goodell by failing to appear at the hearing, knowing full well that he would be publicly chastised by the arbiter. Some two decades later, Jenkins himself would become commissioner of the Canadian Baseball League, and would be honored on a postage stamp.

Kuhn, meanwhile, founded a law firm and ended up filing for bankruptcy, with a bank and some of his associates accusing him of shenanigans in the legal proceedings.

As for the Mantle and Mays ban, Peter Ueberroth reviewed that decision when he became commissioner, and it took him about 30 seconds to find it utterly insane, thereby reinstating two of baseball's greatest and most beloved figures.

The real point here is that Rose's case is completely different. It is debatable whether Jenkins, Mays and Mantle were committing an offense which justified a permanent ban, but there is nothing debatable about Rose's case. The rule is clear; the punishment is specified explicitly. You may think the rule should have some nuances or subtleties, but it just doesn't, and no commissioner can possibly make any other decision unless the rule is changed.

What about the Hall?

The Hall of Fame debate is completely different, although the issues are interconnected. The directors of the Hall could make Pete eligible right now. They do not need MLB's permission to do so, but they too are hamstrung by a rule, specifically 3(E), which states "Any player on Baseball's ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate." That again is a black-and-white rule which applies to everyone, not just Pete, but the Hall's directors are free to strike it or modify it, no matter what the commissioner thinks. The Hall existed for 55 years before that rule existed, so it could certainly exist without it again. The only problem is that eliminating the rule opens up Pandora's Box. It would not only make Rose eligible, but others as well. Should that happen? Now we have wandered into the realm of the subjective, and I'll leave you to your opinions.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Mint 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card - $1.13 Million

Mickey Mantle is the most prized figure in baseball card collecting, in no small part because he was the boyhood hero of so many baby boomers. A 1952 Topps Mantle card, graded PSA 8.5 (10.0 is totally mint), was just sold for more than a million simoleons. Except for the legendary T206 Honus Wagner card, which Wagner forced out of circulation, the 1952 Mantle is the most valuable in the world. This was not his first baseball card and can't properly be called his rookie card, but it was his first Topps card. For the full story, let's look back at the baseball cards issued during Mantle's first four years in the majors.


1951 was Mantle's actual rookie year, and also Topps' rookie year in the baseball card business, when that company produced two very limited and very ugly sets ...

The so-called red-back set:

And the blue-back set:

They consisted of 52 cards each, like decks of poker cards, and they were designed to be used as part of a game of table-top baseball. Certain cards were designated as hits, while others were strikes or outs. Mickey was playing for the Yankees that year, but was excluded from the 104-card issue.

There actually is a Mickey Mantle rookie card, but it was not issued by Topps. It was produced by another company called Bowman, which was in the baseball card business three years before Topps and stayed in it until Topps bought them out between the 1955 and 1956 card sets. The 1951 Bowman card was actually Mantle's first baseball card as well as his true rookie card. The Bowman cards came with gum, like the Topps offering, but were a different size. The 1951 cards, illustrated by Mickey's card below, were smaller than the Topps set at 2 1/16" by 3 1/8", but were larger and more elongated than previous Bowman issues, which had measured 2 1/16" by 2 1/2".

The first Willie Mays card was also in that collection.


Topps issued its first comprehensive set in 1952. That is really the first set of modern baseball cards, and remains the most popular and valuable set of sports cards ever issued. That set formed the template for just about every subsequent set to this day. They were 2 5/8" by 3 3/4", with a picture, team logo and ID on the front. The reverse contained the card number, stats and brief bios. Mickey's card from that 1952 set is the valuable one.

Bowman also issued a Mantle card in 1952, and while they did not use the same image as in 1951, they were still using their basic 1951 size and design, which meant that their cards seemed awkward and primitive compared to the revolutionary and contemporary Topps issue.

Topps and Bowman were the only players in the bubblegum sector of the baseball card market back then, but other companies produced baseball cards in the early 50s as well: Red Man Tobacco was producing the last tobacco cards, for example, from 1952 to 1955. Yes, that is the same company which, in competition with their rival, Mail Pouch, seems to have attempted painting their name on every barn in America. Their cards were 3 1/2" by 4" when you received them, but they included a "proof of purchase" tab which could be redeemed for premiums, so the cards were completely square after the tab was removed. They were essentially one-sided because the reverse side consisted of advertising. That company was obviously unable to target kids with their product, and serious adult collecting would not occur until many years in the future, so they had to devote card space to promotional gimmicks which would make the tobacco chewers feel like good dads. The odd shape and limited space made these cards seem to be too cluttered with pictures and info. Mickey Mantle never appeared on one, but many stars did. Here's one of Spahnie's cards:

Some other companies to issue cards in that era were Berk Ross in 1951 and 52, Mother's Cookies in 1952, Wheaties in 1952, Johnston's Cookies in 1953 and 54, Spic and Span in 1954 (Braves only), and Wilson's Franks in 1954. There were some good sets in there - check out the Wilson's Franks set, which looks very much like a Topps design - but Mantle did not appear in all of them. From that particular list, he appeared only in one of the very weakest issues, the 1952 Berk Ross set, which probably produced the worst Mickey Mantle baseball card of all time. It looks like a 1951 Bowman that has been re-faxed too many times (below).

Mantle's other 1952 appearance was in a funky Tip-Top Bread set that can not really be described as "cards."

(See the image on the left, which is clickable if you want to see a larger version).


Bowman got the memo in 1953. The entry of a competitor into the marketplace and the success of the Topps 1952 set had forced Bowman to rethink their offering. They enlarged the cards, and created a pleasant design for the reverse. Then they went Topps one better by switching from drawings to sharp photographs. I really like their simple, uncluttered and elegant 1953 set, although that may have been an accident. Many of their 1953 cards seem to be centered poorly, with far too much empty space on the top. It appears that they intended to add graphics at the top of the photographs, then changed their minds. Here's a sample:

The idea of leaving blank spaces on the reverse for "this year," presumably so you can fill in your own stats, seems odd to me, but with that exception I find the Bowman card just as good as, or even better than, the comparable Topps issue, which looks kinda cheesy to me as I view it with adult eyes.

By the way, is Campy better described as "the stocky catcher" or "the husky backstop"? Both cards led with that idea. Husky? Stocky? It sounds like the way your aunt would describe your overweight cousin. How did they miss "big-boned"? They might just as well have said "Hey, Campy's a tub of lard, but the guy can play." I would have gone with "powerfully built" instead of "husky," but I guess people didn't get offended as easily back in the day.

Maybe Topps' little cartoons and quizzes were cheesy, but I loved them when I was at the prime card-collecting age, about ten or so. I was always disappointed in the years when Topps omitted the year-by-year numbers and just printed the most recent year and the career stats, but it was fun to see how they would fill up the extra space created by that omission.

You just knew that any free space on the back of a Harry Simpson card would include a little cartoon of him carrying a suitcase. I can't remember which teams that guy played for, what position he played, or what he looked like, but I can still remember that he is Harry "Suitcase" Simpson!

Mickey was included in the 1953 Topps set, but he then got into some kind of exclusive deal with Bowman and did not appear in the next two Topps sets, finally returning to Topps in 1956, after that company had purchased Bowman and left him with no reasonable alternative. I'm not sure exactly why he left Team Topps, but he certainly wasn't able to complain that Topps didn't do him justice with their presentations. Here is his 1953 Topps card, a great card which makes him look like a powerful Adonis in a baseball cap:

Bowman also issued two 1953 Mantle cards, one of Mickey alone and the other with two of his teammates, Hank Bauer and Yogi Berra. Although the photographs are fine, the layout of these cards, like that of the Campanella card above and so many others from the set, seems to have reserved room at the top for graphics that never materialized.


Although Mickey did not get a Topps card in 1954 (along with Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella), he was issued a 1954 Bowman card. In my opinion Bowman had backslid a bit from their excellent 1953 set, but they produced another simple, uncluttered layout:

Mickey also appeared on other types of cards that year. One I like a lot is his card in the 1954 Red Heart Dog Food set. You're probably chuckling, but they were actually pretty attractive unnumbered cards! I doubt if Mickey was too thrilled with their verbiage, however, since they basically said he was easily injured and struck out too much. If they made the great Mickey Mantle seem to suck, I wonder how harshly they described the guys who really did suck.

He also appeared on a 1954 Dan Dee Potato Chip Card, seen below.

If you own mint copies of any of those 1951-54 Mantle cards you're probably a happy guy, but especially so if you own the the 1952 Topps which was auctioned off this week, or the 1951 Bowman, which has sold for more than a half-million dollars in mint condition. If you have them both, you're making more money on Mickey's career than he did! Mickey himself never earned more than $100,000 in a year, totaling only $1.1 million in his career. In the year that valuable 1952 Topps card was issued, Mickey made only ten grand.

In 1956, Mantle won the triple crown at age 24, hitting .353 with 52 homers and 130 RBI. His OPS+ was 210; his OPS was 1.169; his WAR 11.2. He followed that up with three homers in the World Series, which the Yankees won. He kinda won the MVP balloting - by getting every single vote!

The Yankees raised his pay from $32,000 to $60,000.

The next year he raised his average to .365 and his OPS+ to 221. Unbelievably enough, his WAR actually improved a bit, to 11.3. He was the MVP again. In terms of WAR, those two seasons are both among the top twenty in baseball history, each of them better than any season ever achieved by Ted Williams or Stan Musial.

The Yanks chipped in an extra five grand.

You wonder why players wanted free agency? What would those seasons be worth today?

By the way, wandering back to the topic of that valuable 1952 Topps baseball card (the topmost Mantle card in the 1952 section) ...

What the hell was Mickey doing with that yellow bat?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lumpe and Siebern, conjoined twins of 50s baseball

Occasionally we inextricably link two people in our minds, like Abbott and Costello, or Ralph Branca and Bobby Thompson. When I think of Norm Siebern, my mind immediately jumps to Jerry Lumpe.

They were both born in Missouri, about two months apart in 1933, both grew to 6'2" and were right-handed throwers who batted left-handed.

The two youngsters were both signed by the Yankees and played together in 1951 at McAlester in the class-D Sooner State League, where Lumpe hit .355 and Siebern (seen right, in his 1951 graduation picture) chipped in with .331.

They played together again in 1952, back in Missouri at Joplin in the class-C Western Association. This time Siebern was the star, hitting .324 and developing a power swing while Lumpe hit .293, but with only two homers.

They were still in college at that time, and in 1953 they played together again in a different sport, as teammates on the two-time NAIA national basketball champions at Southwest Missouri State.

That was the military draft era, so in 1954, upon leaving college, they both entered the service and missed about two years of minor league baseball.

Right after his service hitch, Siebern showed a strong enough home run stroke in Denver that he earned a brief major league stint in 1956. The Yankees won the World Series that year, but Siebern got only a single plate appearance in the 1956 Fall Classic, an unsuccessful pinch-hitting assignment in game two. He did get to join the stars in two key celebrations: one when the Yankees won, and another when Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history (see below, Siebern is #36).

By 1957 Siebern and Lumpe were each in triple A, but with two different Yankee affiliates. Siebern absolutely crushed the American Association in Denver, where he hit .349 with 45 doubles, 15 triples and 24 dingers. Lumpe played well enough in the International League that he got a call-up to the Yankees, who needed some infield help at the time. Lumpe provided it. He hit .340 in 40 games, mostly substituting for Yankee third baseman Andy Carey, and then had substantial playing time in the 1957 Series, hitting a solid .286 in six games.

In 1958 and 1959 they were both teammates on the Yankees. Their 1959 Topps cards are seen below.

Siebern was already showing signs of becoming a star in that 1958 season. He became the Yankees' starting left fielder, hit .300 with both walks and power (136 OPS+), and won a gold glove. He finished second on the team in WAR, behind Mickey, but ahead of Yogi, Elston, Skowron and the rest! He and Lumpe both played in the 1958 World Series, in which the Yankees got their revenge against the Milwaukee Braves.

The future looked bright for Siebern as 1959 dawned. He already had two World Series rings, and in the previous two seasons he had posted one monstrous year in AAA and a very promising season in the majors. But he failed to develop in 1959. In fact, he backslid a bit, and the Yankees slumped to a rare poor year (79-75). Siebern was considered expendable because the Yankees really coveted a certain 24-year old Kansas City outfielder named Roger Maris, so in 1959 Siebern was traded to the Kansas City A's in the Maris deal. Meanwhile, Lumpe was also traded to KC in 1959 in the Ralph Terry deal, so the twins were again conjoined for the 1960 season, but with a different team.

As always, the wily Yankees got the best of the deals. Lumpe and Siebern were good players, but Terry and Maris turned out to be superior. Terry followed a 16-3 season in 1961 with a brilliant 23-win effort in a 1962 campaign that culminated as the World Series MVP. Terry then led the league in WHIP and complete games in 1963 before he essentially threw his arm out. Maris, of course, won back-to-back MVPs and broke Babe Ruth's sacred single-season homer record.

Lumpe and Siebern probably missed the annual thrill of World Series competition with the Yanks, but it seemed appropriate that the two Missouri boys ended up together again in Kansas City. They would remain teammates on the As until 1963, and would even appear together on joint baseball cards in 1961 and 1962.

The reunited teammates played well for the Missouri fans. Siebern had two excellent years in 1961 and 1962, especially 1962 when he had 25 homers, 117 RBI, and a .412 OBP. Lumpe also had his best year in 1962, batting over .300 for the only time in a full season, and reaching double figures in both triples and homers, two more feats he could never duplicate. Their 1962 Topps cards are seen below.

Back to 2015 ...

More than 50 years after their last alliance as teammates, Lumpe and Siebern died, as they had been born, a short time apart.