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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.