No one hacked into the Houston Astros database 40 years ago. Had that been possible, they could have gleaned valuable information by doing so. Tal Smith is the reason why.
Smith was ahead of his time. While serving as the Astros director of player personnel, he began accumulating and cataloguing data “around 1969 or 1970.”
“This was only a few years after the advent of the amateur draft, and I thought it was important,” explained Smith. “I wanted a backlog of all the draft choices —where they were coming from, out of high school, out of college, and so on — and to track those players’ progress. We inputted all that data. This was back in the old keypunch days.”
His colleagues weren’t as enamored with his efforts. Smith left to work for the Yankees in 1973, and when he returned to Houston two years later he found that no one had maintained the program. It was necessary for him to start over.
The now-82-year-old executive began delving deeply into statistics when he was the Astros farm director in the late 1960s. He wasn’t a lone wolf, but he was certainly swimming against the tide.
“Back then, it was simply trying to get managers, coaches and evaluators to start putting a greater emphasis on on-base average,” said Smith. “As basic as that may seem, in those days, it wasn’t.
“I became very involved in salary arbitration (in the 1970s) and in addition to the basic stat sheet, I’d compute things like on-base average and slugging — things that weren’t traditionally available. This was in the early days of computerization, but they were still easy to compute. Even so, nobody did it.”
Smith did, and he continued to crunch numbers as Houston’s general manager and president of baseball operations. He did so throughout three tenures, spanning multiple decades. Along the way, he hired Steve Mann, who in the late 1970s was — depending on your definition — the first statistical analyst to work for a major league team.
“I used numbers to question our evaluations,” Smith told me.” Sometimes the numbers would conflict with the scouting reports, and that would cause me to reexamine. Numbers often point you toward things that require further study. Analytics help focus you, and allow you to either confirm or question. Obviously, a lot has changed since I started out — a lot of advances have been made in analytics — thank to the contributions of a lot of people.”
Tal Smith included.
Gary Hughes is a scouting legend. A member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from Baseball America, he’s been in the game for nearly five decades. Hughes has seen a lot over the years, and along with the many changes, there have been constants as well.
“The game is the same, and the way we look at it as scouts is basically the same,” said Hughes, who is currently employed by the Red Sox “But there have been a lot of things added. There are all the sabermetrics and analytics. Every year people seem to be coming up with another formula for something, and some of us old guys have a hard time deciding what they all mean.”
Hughes is a dinosaur by today’s standards, but that doesn’t mean he’s stubbornly stuck in the past. He doesn’t eschew data — TrackMan included — if it can help him make a decision on a player.
“You can’t have too much information,” said Hughes. “You get all you can, and you put it all together with what your eyes, and your experience, are telling you.”
He’s not a big fan of video scouting. Given his druthers, Hughes is going to be where the action is.
“There are an awful lot of things involved in a ballgame that tell you why something happened,” said Hughes. “If you know what you’re looking for, you’re going to see them better at the ballpark. It can be inadequate to watch a game on video. It’s nice — you can run some stuff — but it’s no substitute for being there.”
Who would you rather have as your shortstop of the future, Javier Guerra or Trea Turner? The Padres sent the latter to the Nationals last summer in a transaction that prompted the implementation of what is informally known as The Trea Turner Rule. They subsequently acquired Guerra from the Red Sox this winter as part of the Craig Kimbrel trade.
The defensively-gifted Guerra hit 15 home runs in the South Atlantic League as a 19-year-old. Baseball America recently ranked him the top prospect in the Padres system, and Alex Speier, who does BA’s Red Sox rankings, would have had him at No. 5 had he remained in Boston.
The 22-year-old Turner made his big-league debut last August, 14 months after being drafted 13th overall out of North Carolina State University. Still rookie-eligible after getting just 44 plate appearances, he’s ranked by Baseball America as Washington’s No. 2 prospect.
Asked which player he prefers, a scouting executive I spoke to was hesitant to give a definitive answer — even off the record. He did allow that opinions around the game probably vary, adding that a lot depends on tolerance for risk, given Guerra’s age and lack of experience.
A short follow-up on Sean Manaea, the highly-regarded Oakland pitching prospect who was acquired from Kansas City this past summer as part of the Ben Zobrist deal. I wrote about the 23-year-old southpaw last Sunday, but didn’t include this tidbit on his delivery:
“I’d say I’m more long and loose,” Manaea told me. “I’m not really very compact. I just let my arm do its own thing, and it kind of whips around. Talking to my pitching coaches, I guess I get pretty good extension.”
Another followup, this time with Phil Niekro. Last Sunday, the Hall of Fame knuckleballer weighed in on the career of his late brother, Joe, who won 221 games in an underrated career. Unused in that space were his thoughts on a former teammate who younger readers of this column may be unfamiliar with.
“After Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette left, Tony Cloninger was the best pitcher on that team,” said Niekro, who broke in with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964. “Big guy. Solid. When that kid threw a baseball, it felt like a bowling ball when you caught it. Tony was a good hitter, too.”
Cloninger certainly had power. In 1966, he had two multi-home run games, the latter of which was record setting. On July 3, in a game at Candlestick Park, Cloninger clubbed a pair of grand slams and drove in nine runs. No pitcher, before or since, has equaled either feat.
According to Niekro, 1966 was also notable for Cloninger in a bad way. Coming off a 24-win season, the 25-year-old hurler was left on the mound for 13 innings on opening day.
“A lot of people say that hurt his career,” Niekro told me. “I don’t know if it did, but I do know he was never the same after that. Nobody pitches 13 innings on opening day.”
From 1952-1959, Dick Hall appeared in 100 games as an outfielder, and a smattering more as an infielder, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He wasn’t a good hitter. In 542 plate appearances, Hall’s OPS was .556.
He also pitched. As a Pirate, Hall logged a 4.57 ERA over 44 appearances, 23 of which came as a starter. In 1960, working solely off the mound, he went 8-13, 4.05 as a starter for the Kansas City Athletics.
In April 1961, at the age of 30, Hall was traded to Baltimore and became a top-flight reliever. In nine seasons with the Orioles, the right-hander had a 2.89 ERA and was credited with 65 wins and 60 saves. His 1.005 WHIP is the lowest in franchise history.
Hall, who also pitched two seasons with the Phillies, was one of the great control artists of his era. He walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings, and 70 of the 236 free passes he allowed in his career were intentional.
Chris Carter — signed by the Brewers earlier this week — epitomizes all-or-nothing. He’s had the highest strikeout rate in either league (minimum 450 PA) in two of the past three seasons. The husky slugger also hits bombs. Despite a woebegone .218 batting average, he left the yard 90 times in his three-year tenure with the Astros. Half of those homers traveled at least 400 feet.
In many ways, Carter is the modern day Dave Kingman. In 1982, “King Kong” hit .204 while leading the National League in both home runs (37) and strikeouts (156). In an era where Ks weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today, Kingman led his league three times and finished second in three more. He hit 20-or-more home runs with a batting average of .240 or lower a whopping 10 times.
A closing note on Milwaukee’s new slugger: Per MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, “From Aug. 1 on, no one in baseball hit the ball harder than Chris Carter (98.6 mph).”
Gene “Stick” Michael, who went on to become both a manager and a general manager, was a big-league shortstop from 1966-1975. A New York Yankee for most of those 10 seasons, Michael played his final professional game on September 9, 1975 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
Technically, his playing career didn’t come to an end for eight more months. In 1976, Michael was on the Red Sox 25-man roster from April 9-May 4, but he never got off the bench. Upon being released, he reportedly asked Boston general manager Dick O’Connell, “What did I do wrong?”
Bill Mazeroski had 2,016 hits and an adjusted OPS of 84. Omar Vizquel had 2,877 hits and an adjusted OPS of 82. Many more statistics could be used to compare the offensive credentials of the all-time great defenders, but those two paint a fairly representative picture. The clear edge — yes, counting stats have meaning — goes to Vizquel.
If you’re a small-hall guy, you probably don’t believe either is worthy of Cooperstown. Conversely, if you place a high value on defense, both are. Mazeroski is already enshrined, and Vizquel, who debuts on the ballot in 2018, is at worst his equal.
A large number of Hall of Fame voters make their ballots public. They should be commended for doing so, as transparency is a good thing, Others choose to cloak their ballots behind a wall of anonymity. In the opinion of many, myself included, that is wrong. Everyone with voting privileges should be obligated to disclose their decisions.
Furthermore, they should be obligated to explain them.
This wouldn’t be a tall task. Assuming you’ve done your due diligence and studied the careers of every player on the ballot, it should be easy to put your reasoning into words. Let’s say you voted for Garret Anderson or Jason Kendall, but not Jeff Bagwell or Tim Raines. You had every right to do so. I’ll argue that fans have a right to know why you did. Frankly, you should want them to know.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Ken Griffey, Jr. played 521 more games than Jeff Bagwell. Jeff Bagwell stole 18 more bases than Ken Griffey, Jr.
In 1979, his only year on the ballot, Frank “Hondo” Howard received 1.4% of Hall of Fame support. Howard’s 142 adjusted OPS is tied for 60th all-time. Three Hall of Famers — Cap Anson, Eddie Collins and Mike Piazza — are also at 142, as is Alex Rodriguez.
In 1938, in this third year on the ballot, Rogers Hornsby received fewer Hall of Fame votes than Johnny Evers (106 OPS+) and Rabbit Maranville (82 OPS+). Hornsby’s 175 adjusted OPS ranks fifth all-time.
From 1883-1890, playing mostly with the New York Americans, first baseman Dave Orr posted a 182 adjusted OPS. Following the 1890 season, a year in which he hit .371/.414/.534, Orr suffered a career-ending stroke at the age of 31.
Eno Sarris has been added to the list of presenters at this year’s SABR Analytics Conference, which will he held March 10-12 in Phoenix. Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall and Reds general manager Dick Williams are other recent additions to the docket.
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