Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

For the past two years, I’ve written a weekly in-season column called Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week. Usually weekly, anyway. It’s my attempt to tell you all the minutia and irrelevant baseball facts my brain has accumulated each week; you might call it my weekly therapeutic cathartic brain dump, if you happen to like psychobabble. And because I could always use more therapy, you’re going to be subjected to a weekly dose again this year.

Thanks, in advance.

It snows in the Upper Midwest in April.

It’s Wednesday morning here in Chicago, and I’m watching the snow fall outside my window. Such a pretty sight. Did I mention that it’s April 11? I’m thinking of the Cubs, who are supposed to play at Wrigley today, and the poor Indians, who moved up to Milwaukee to avoid the snow in Cleveland. Luckily, there’s a dome in Milwaukee. I had half a mind to drive up to watch a game, just for the novelty of it. I probably won’t now. Driving in all the slush would take forever.

There’s no need for baseball fans to get upset or overreact to a random act of weather (as we say in Chicago: “Don’t like the weather? Just wait ’til tomorrow.”). But it does give me an opportunity to cry out for two changes I’ve requested in this space before:

– Shorten the season! As much as I hate April snow games, I hate late October chillfests even more. The cold conditions seriously undermine the drama and fun of the World Series.
– Shorten the interleague schedule (which would give teams in the same league more opportunities to make up canceled games)! It’s too dang long. Cut it in half.

So, what are the chances anyone will listen to me? Not much, I know. It’s more likely that every single new stadium will have a retractable dome until all 30 teams have one. Then, Bud can make them play all year long.

Major League Baseball doesn’t know when to stop.

Long ago, someone asked me who my heroes were, and I responded with just one: “Jackie Robinson.” Seriously. I personally think that the Rickey/Robinson saga is the greatest story in baseball history; it’s one that reverberates throughout American society. I also think celebrating his inaugural major league game is a fine way to honor his accomplishments. But, really, is every single major leaguer going to wear his number this Sunday?

Okay, it hasn’t gone that far yet. But Ken Griffey Jr. and the entire Dodger team will wear number 42 on Sunday, which just might confuse the heck out of scorekeepers. I actually thought that requiring every single major league team to retire his number was a bit much, but the stakes keep getting higher. What’s next?

Major League Baseball really does like to take things to the extreme, doesn’t it? Was that Extra Innings brouhaha really necessary?

That image of retired numbers on the left is courtesy of a neat little website that contains several other examples of baseball art. Check out the ballparks display (hat tip: Ballhype).

It’s baseball book season.

Every April, you not only have a new baseball season to look forward to, you have new baseball books to read. I haven’t read the entire crop this year (I do have a life, sort of), but I really enjoyed Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08 (as mentioned last week). Vince Gennaro’s new book, Diamond Dollars, is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the business of baseball. Vince does a terrific job of outlining business and branding strategies for baseball teams, and his chapter on Babe Ruth‘s true economic value is priceless.

I’d also like to pick up on the Jackie Robinson theme by giving Jonathan Eig’s new book, Opening Day, a shout. Eig’s book covers Jackie Robinson’s first year in the major leagues, from his awful plane ride to spring training to the last out of the World Series. It’s a terrific read.

Eig purposely didn’t try to put himself in Jackie Robinson’s shoes. Instead, he has created a third-person chronicle of what Jackie experienced his first season, based on newspaper reports of the time and interviews with people who were there. Along the way, we meet future Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (who drove up to New York with friends to see Robinson play), and people like young Gil Jonas, who managed to interview Jackie on the front porch of his house and went on to become the leading fundraiser for the NAACP.

There are quotes from letters written to Robinson that first year, some that make you choke up a bit, others that enrage you. But there are lots of inspiring stories too. Speaking of Robinson, Eig writes…

He could not have dreamed that George Marchev, owner of the Gordos Corporation in Bloomfield, New Jersey, would watch the Dodgers play in 1947 and decide to integrate his electronics factory. He didn’t know that Lou Brown, the black man Marchev decided to hire, would show up for work every day in a shirt and tie, even though his job was to load and unoad trucks and required no formal attire and even though none of the white men doing the same work were so sharply dressed. He didn’t know that Brown felt the same responsibility as Robinson, that he sought to represent his race proudly every time he lifted a box of relay switches and set it down again. He didn’t know that Marchev and Brown would become life long friends. Nor did he know that at Brown’s funeral years later, Marchev would eulogize Brown this way: “Jackie Robinson opened the door of baseball and all sports to all men. You opened the door for countless men and women in our lives. I think we got the better of the deal, Mr. Brown.

To me, the most fascinating thing about the Robinson story is that Robinson was a strong man, a temperamental man. Branch Rickey didn’t pick someone who would be affable and try to get along. He wanted someone with passion, who would feel (righteous) anger and have the strength to hold it in. I don’t think that’s a choice many people would have made, but it was the right one. Of course, the real story was how Jackie Robinson actually made it work.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.
Human Growth Hormone doesn’t help players play better.

Meanwhile, back in the present, J.C. Bradbury has written a blog post about HGH and its effects on athletes. Bottom line: there are none. J.C. is going on the word of a friend of his (albeit a highly qualified friend) and doesn’t claim to be an expert himself. But he questions those who get bent out of shape about HGH and the fact that it’s not detectable.

It’s a good perspective, one that everyone should keep in mind. But I have a feeling it will be difficult to develop a commonly shared medical opinion about something new like HGH. I’m not sure there is a consensus about steroids and their effects on ballplayers. At least, Jose Canseco doesn’t agree with the public outrage.

Baseball Databases Rule!

Are you keeping up with Baseball Reference and Fangraphs? I know I’m not, because things keep happening too quickly on those great sites. Baseball Reference, for a mere pittance of an annual fee, will give you access to all sorts of tremendous Retrosheet data from 1957 to the present. But even the free features are great. The site now includes 2007 stats, updated every night, and every player page now includes something called Pitch Data Summary (post-1956 only).

For instance, let’s talk about Vladimir Guerrerro. For all major league batters, 28% of strikes are “looking” strikes, when the batter doesn’t swing. Not Vlad. His figure is 11%. He swings. That might not surprise you, but you might not know that he has actually gotten less patient with experience. In his rookie year, 15% of his strikes were looking. Last year, 9% were. He’s swung at the first pitch 47% of the time in his career. Major league average? 26%.

Meanwhile, Fangraphs now has live WPA game graphs. I take a bit of pride in this one. I created the WPA graph a couple of years ago, and I think it’s a tremendously useful way to view a game. I think that the graph and the Leverage Index concept (courtesy of Tangotiger) are the two best things to come out of the WPA thought process.

I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping the Fangraphs Live Scoreboard up and running while I watch games on TV or on the web. I think it’s better than the old standard scoreboard (with only the score and inning listed), and it’s a wonderful contribution by Fangraphs.

By the way, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a new kind of baseball database in town. It’s called Enth, and it’s basically a common language search database. You can ask simple questions, such as “What was Roy Oswalt‘s ERA each year?” in the search box and get an answer. That is way cool, and might be useful for a lot of folks.

Who Pinch-Ran For Whom When

A poster (Brandon Isleib) at Retrosheet did a pretty cool thing. He ran through all the years from 1957 through 2006 and calculated how many pinch runners were used, who they were, who they pinch ran for, etc. Baseball Prospectus was so impressed that it gave him a guest gig in which Brandon listed his findings. The leader was pinch running specialist Matt Alexander, a Charlie Finley experiment from the 1980s. The guy who was replaced on the basepaths most often was Willie McCovey, the lumbering first baseman with the awesome bat. Fun fact: Tony Oliva was removed for a pinch runner 48 times in 1975, when he was playing on a terribly painful knee.

You used to hear a lot more about pinch running, but its use has declined steadily since its heyday in the 1970s. This stands in stark contrast to the bullpen, where increasing specialization has been the norm. Basically, baseball managers have opted for specialization on the mound instead of elsewhere.


I’m a bit of a nut for WPA and WPA graphs, and I’m also a fan of something called sparklines. On our site, we make baseball sparklines available for any blogger who wants to use them on his site, ’cause that’s just the kind of people we are. Let me throw a few sparklines atcha to show you how useful they can be.

Atlanta’s off to a good start, right? Yes, it is, as you can see from its sparkline. image Every up bar is a win, the down bar is the Braves’ one loss, and red bars indicate games that were won by one or two runs. There’s a line in the middle for home games. So yes, Atlanta is looking good, particularly because it hasn’t lost a close one yet.

Detroit has played almost nothing but close games, with mixed results image, but the only reason Tampa Bay has won anything is thanks to the couple of squeakers the Rays have pulled off image.

You’ve got the opposite situation in New York, where the Yankees have won all blowouts and lost the nailbiters image. Same deal with the Mets image. Finally, pity poor Nationals fans image. All those losses on a six-game homestand.

The Tampa Bay infield stinks.

Over on our Team Page, we keep track of how often teams successfully field balls hit to them. The simple form of this statistic is called Defense Efficiency Ratio, which is simply the number of fielded outs divided by batted balls (not including home runs). Here, we take the analysis a step further by looking at how many different types of batted ball (groundball, outfield fly, infield fly, bunt, line drive, fliner) each pitching staff allows. We think this is a fairer way to judge fielders, who can’t really control what their pitchers allow.

Anyway, the worst fielding team so far this year, by far, is Tampa Bay. The real problem lies in the infield, which has converted 11 plays less than the average team—a staggering amount for only seven games. A little later in the year, we’ll have player and team zone ratings for you (courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions), and we’ll take another look at the situation then.

A-Rod is off to a fast start.

No kidding. He’s batting .357/.471/1.107 with a 1.578 OPS and a GPA of .503. On the other hand, he’s only batting .167 with runners in scoring position. No wonder the Yankees aren’t winning close games! Commence booing, Yankee fans!!!

Seriously, I love early season stats. Jim Thome has hit two flyballs; both have been home runs. The following players have hit almost 40% of their batted balls for line drives: Michael Cuddyer, Pat Burrell and Brian McCann. Miguel Cabrera is creating 27 runs a game, 55% of Rickie Weeks‘ flyballs have been infield flies and B.J. Upton is batting .714 with runners in scoring position. And Jose Vidro hasn’t hit a line drive yet.

If you’d like to see more, check out our stats. I’ll let you explore the pitching yourself. (Hint: Check out Dan Haren, who’s allowed 4.15 runs a game, but has an 0.69 ERA. Talk about bad fielding…).

Great new blogs.

This is kind of old news, but you really should be reading Curt Schilling’s blog. It’s a great read, and Schilling is very available and upfront about many subjects. Also, I am really enjoying Joe Posnanski’s blog, supporting his new Buck O’Neill book. I hope both bloggers keep writing for a long time.

You also might be interested in what Denny McLain is posting at the Brittanica blog, where he is a sometimes contributor. Denny was famous in his day, but I’m pretty sure that Schilling is now famousr.

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Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

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