Bill “Moneyball” Veeck

I was sitting on a park bench reading Veeck as in Wreck, the memoir of legendary ballclub owner Bill Veeck, when I came across this passage:

Ken Keltner, our third baseman and one-time power hitter, had a miserable season in 1946. There seemed little doubt that he was on the downgrade. Still, when I signed him for the next year, I gave him the same amount of money and told him that if he had what I considered a good year I’d give him a bonus of \$5,000.

The next year, Kenny hit the ball better than anybody on our club, with less luck than anybody in the league. If you walked into the park late and saw somebody making a sensational leaping, diving backhanded catch, you could bet that Keltner had hit the ball.

On the last day of the season, he was hitting under .260 and had driven in around 75 runs. I called down to the locker room, got him on the phone, and said, “Hey, where have you been? Weren’t you supposed to come up and see me at the end of the season?”

“I didn’t win anything,” he said. “I’m having a lousy season.”

I suggested that he wander up anyway. As he came through the door I said, “I’ve got \$5,000 for you.”

And he said, “I didn’t earn it, Bill.” And he started to weep.

“You hit the ball better than anybody else on this club,” I told him. “It wasn’t your fault they kept catching it.”

As a loyal FanGraphs reader, I immediately thought: BABIP! For those who need a quick reminder, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) measures just that: batting average on balls hit somewhere the defense can get to them. It’s expected that BABIP will generally hover around .300, modified by such factors as the enemy defense (this averages out over a season), whether the balls you hit go over outfield fences, and, most of all, luck.

Now, Veeck’s comment that Keltner “hit the ball better than anybody else” was probably a kindness rather than a hypothesis. But his observation that “they kept catching it” checks out. I looked at the leaderboard for the BABIPs of every qualifying hitter in 1947. Sure enough, Ken Keltner’s down near the bottom, ranking 68th of 86 with a BABIP of .264. The median that year was almost thirty points higher: .292.

Ken Keltner had lousy luck, but was still an average hitter (102 wRC+). And the next year was the best of his career (7.9 WAR), so it looks like Bill Veeck saw the Keltner case exactly right. Only there’s a twist. One of Veeck’s 1947 Indians had it even worse. Down there at 74th is the .256 BABIP of Joe Gordon. Joe Gordon slugged 27 doubles, 6 triples, and 29 home runs, so things turned out well for him, but if Veeck’s latecomer had bet that “a sensational leaping, diving backhanded catch” was on a ball hit by Ken Keltner, you’d want to bet against him. Joe Gordon’s luck was worse; he compensated by putting more balls in the outfield bleachers.

There’s weirder to come. Dead last, 86th of 86, is Roy Cullenbine, Tigers first baseman, who paired a grotesque .206 BABIP and .224 average (83rd of 86) with the second-highest walk rate in baseball. His 22.6% walk rate was topped only by Triple Crown winner Ted Williams. (By the way, in the previous year, Williams had been introduced to the defensive shift, as pioneered by, yes, Bill Veeck’s Indians.)

No player in 2012 came close to matching Cullenbine’s bizarre season. The lowest BABIP of any qualifying hitter in 2012 was .242 (Justin Smoak); of all hitters with BABIPs below .256 (fifty points higher than Roy Cullenbine’s), none came within fifty points of Cullenbine’s .401 OBP. The best analogy is this: Cullenbine hit for average like Dan Uggla, had Justin Smoak’s luck, and still drew walks at the rate of Barry Bonds.

Roy Cullenbine was only 33 in 1947, and in past years his offensive numbers were impressive. Had he been on Bill Veeck’s Indians instead of playing for the Tigers, his unlucky 1947 might have ended as Ken Keltner’s did,with a \$5,000 bonus. The Tigers, not valuing Cullenbine’s patience, released him, and he never played a major-league game again.

There’s another interesting name among the ten unluckiest batters of 1947. Coming in at sixth-worst, with a BABIP of .247, is a patient slugger who got on base even more than Cullenbine did, with four more walks than he had hits. He too retired after the season. His name was Hank Greenberg, and that winter he accepted a job in a major-league front office, where he was groomed to be the team’s next general manager. The team was the Cleveland Indians. His new boss was Bill Veeck.

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Brian Reinhart is a writer, editor, Nationals fan, classical music critic, and University of London graduate. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

10 Responses to “Bill “Moneyball” Veeck”

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1. AJT says:

Interesting article, very curious indeed. How many beers did you have prior to writing?

2. asdfasdf says:

Veck was responding to an observation rather than a highly dubious stat though. Justin Smoak isn’t unlucky, he stinks, nothing he hits is hit well, they’re all easy outs. That’s not bad luck, similarly, some of the other low babips in 1946 were probably just terrible players. It’s at best extremely difficult to tease the “terrible” element of babip apart from the “unlucky” element, some guys with low babips are definitely unlucky, but some, like Justin Smoak, are just bad players.

3. mcneo says:

@asdfasdf The eye witness at the time is saying that Keltner “hit the ball better than anybody else” and the BABIP comes in as low. The next year Keltner puts up >7 WAR. BABIP may not always be luck, but luck certainly can play a dramatic role. Eye witnesses aren’t scientific proof, but they’re the best we have to go on sometimes.

4. asdfasdf says:

@ mcneo. Completely agree, babip can represent luck, it can also represent being terrible, either better batted ball data to determine the difference or eyewitnesses are necessary. Keltner was unlucky, Smoak is bad.

5. asdfasdf, I think we agree. Keltner and Joe Gordon were unlucky. I have the good fortune of living in a market where I needn’t watch Justin Smoak play baseball, but Roy Cullenbine‘s poor luck simply has no comparison with anyone in the league today. And I do believe it is luck; running to first base more slowly cannot account for a .141 drop in BABIP or a batting average .052 below his career total. And declining skills don’t seem likely either, given his 18 doubles and 24 home runs.

All this would have made more sense if player names were linked in the article. I thought this was handled automatically – thus Johan Santa’s presence on FG – but community researchers have to add these links by hand. Duly noted for next time!

6. TKDC says:

I’m not sure if you can edit this, but BABIP does not include home runs, so to say it is affected by balls going over fences is a bit misleading (it sounds as if those hits count towards BABIP, at least to me).

7. jcxy says:

Interesting piece. Nice work!

Somewhat off topic, but can you recommend another worthwhile read this time of the year?

8. Yoko Ono says:

So hilarious how OBP was not very highly regarded in that era…think about what the Beered Englishman wrote above:

He had a .407 OBP (and 24 homeruns!) and got…a contract extension?

Nope.

He got released!

Career OBP was outstanding at .408.

AND his career was over!!

9. Well-Beered Englishman says:

TKDC, I of course meant that BABIP is influenced by home runs because the number of “balls in play” is reduced thereby. I can’t edit or I’d go back and make this clearer.

jcxy, it goes without saying that you must read every printed word of Dirk Hayhurst’s!

AJT, I am currently riding a porter and two stouts in celebration of the Astros’ opening-day victory, but to my knowledge no beers were involved in the drafting of this article, and only one lager in its editing. Cheers!

10. Antonio Bananas says:

Didn’t he also put a midget on his team? MARKET INEFFICIENCY!!!