Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

The Brewers are awesome.

In my mind, there have been two big team stories this first month of the year: the Yankees have stunk and the Brewers have been awesome.

The Yankees story is fairly simple: all hit and no pitch. No team has scored more runs than the Yankees, and they rank fourth in the majors in runs allowed per game. Of course, injuries have decimated the Yankees staff, as has the sudden drop in Mariano Rivera‘s awesomeness. A return to health by Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina and/or Carl Pavano will help, and so will an inevitable improvement in their record in close games. But, for now, the Yankees have stunk, and the Phil Hughes injury is just another karmic blow to the pinstriped universe.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Brewers have dominated the National League Central in the first month. They’re 17-9 (the best record in the majors) and four games ahead of the second place teams in the NL Central. Karma has played a role in Milwaukee, too, as the Brewers are 7-3 in close games and only outfielder Laynce Nix is on the disabled list. Even star pitcher Ben Sheets‘ dalliance with injury seems to have turned out well, for now.

When J.J. Hardy is your leading hitter (.306/.364/.556), you might expect a drop in hitting. But the Brewers’ pitching is strong (Jeff Suppan is off to a great start) in both the rotation and the bullpen (truly, the pen has been sensational). The Brewers may not continue to run away with the division but, if Sheets and friends stay healthy, they’ll be in the race until the end.

Here’s a nice review of the Brewers’ fantastic first month.

The Mets and the Braves are duking it out.

After the first month, here’s my favorite division race graph:

The White Sox aren’t hitting in the clutch.

If you’ve read this column over the past couple of years, you may know that I’m sort of obsessed with the White Sox’s clutch hitting, or lack thereof.

  • In 2004, the Sox’s run-scoring machine was driven by their clutch hitting: .292 with runners in scoring position, second only to the Red Sox’s .295.
  • In 2005, when they won it all, the Pale Hose batted only .259 with RISP, the lowest figure in the league.
  • Last year, when Chicago’s offense came alive, they batted an astonishing .307 with RISP, first in the majors.
  • This year, as the Sox offense struggles mightily, they’re batting .220 with RISP, once again the lowest figure in the league.

Clutch hitting is, of course, nearly impossible to predict, but for the Sox it appears to be feast or famine. On the other hand, the Nationals are batting .176 with runners in scoring position. Ouch.

If you’re a White Sox fan who ever played The Oregon Trail, you’ll appreciate this version of the AL Central Trail.

Jim Ray Hart‘s home/road split

While preparing my weekly Heater article (which dissected how much Ron Santo‘s stats were buttressed by Wrigley Field), I came across a very unusual home/road split: Jim Ray Hart.

      Overall    Home    Road
PA      4,236   1,987   2,249
HR        170      72      98
BA       .278    .258    .296
OBP      .345    .329    .360
SLG      .467    .430    .500

Jim Ray Hart was the Giants’ third baseman in the ’60s, though he wasn’t exactly Brooks Robinson at the hot corner and he saw a decent chunk of time in the outfield. Reportedly, he hated playing third, saying … “It’s just too damn close to the hitters.”

But Hart was a masher who probably hated Candlestick Park as much as he hated playing third. Most hitters hit better at home, but Hart was a dramatic exception, with an OPS 91 points lower at home. Although a shoulder injury in 1969 put an end to his outstanding batting feats, it appears that Candlestick did its own damage. Of all the players I examined for the Santo article (maybe about 200 of the top players since 1957), no batter was hurt nearly as much by his home park as Jim Ray Hart.

Juan Pizarro‘s minor league year

As long as we’re talking about some baseball history, I came across a partial spreadsheet of minor league seasons (thanks to the Retrosheet mailing list) that included most seasons of players who had reached the majors, starting sometime in the 1950s.

I thought it would be fun to investigate which pitchers had the highest strikeouts totals in the data. Take a look at this impressive list:

Name            Year Lvl Age  W   L    IP    ERA    SO    BB
Juan Pizarro    1956 D    19  23   6 275.1   1.77   318   149
Dwight Gooden   1983 A+   18  19   4 191.1   2.49   300   112
Ted Abernathy   1952 D    19  20  13 256.2   1.68   293   103
Nolan Ryan      1966 A    19  17   2 181.0   2.49   272   127
Bobby Bolin     1959 A-   20  20   8 226.2   2.82   271   144
Fred Norman     1963 AA   21  13  14 200.2   3.05   258   104
Pete Richert    1960 AA   20  19   9 226.2   2.74   251   115
Jim Merritt     1962 D    18  19   8 224.0   3.66   249    96
Bob Knepper     1974 A+   20  20   5 240.2   3.14   247    80
Juan Marichal   1958 A    20  21   8 246.2   1.86   246    50

There are a lot of tremendously good pitchers on this list, but I had forgotten about Juan Pizarro. Pizarro, like Hart, was an excellent player in the early 1960s (primarily for the White Sox, who picked him up from the Braves). He was a fireballing lefty (fastball around 95 mph) and finished in the top 10 in ERA three out of four years from 1961 to 1964. Unfortunately, he hurt his arm in 1965 and wasn’t as dominant after, eventually moving to the bullpen.

When they decided to trade Pizarro, the Sox picked up Wilbur Wood in exchange. Nice turnaround by Chicago.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Dwight Gooden‘s 1983 in Lynchburg (the same team and year in which Lenny Dykstra stole 100 bases) really sticks out, doesn’t it? These days, you won’t see a pitcher stay with one team that long, or pitch that many innings.

The number of day games has been pretty stable the past 35 years.

Remember when it seemed that all games were day games, played under the sun? Okay, I’m showing my age again, but I still remember having to skip school to watch the World Series in the 1960’s. So, I wondered, when did night games really take over major league baseball?

Thanks to Retrosheet (again), we have the day/night status of all ballgames, starting in 1960. When I looked at the files, I was surprised to find that, even in the ’60s, the majority of games were played at night:

           Day     Total   Percentage
1960's    14,172  31,922     44%
1970's    13,970  39,612     35%
1980's    13,158  40,674     32%
1990's    13,733  43,188     32%
2000's     9,534  29,144     33%

Night games aren’t a recent phenomenon at all. In fact, the proportion of night games hasn’t changed substantially since the 1970s. Talk about playing tricks with my memory.

I decided to take a closer look at the 1960s and found that 1960 was the last year in which day games outnumbered night games.

            Day    Total   Percent
  1960     1,250   2,472     51%
  1961     1,396   2,860     49%
  1962     1,564   3,242     48%
  1963     1,496   3,238     46%
  1964     1,462   3,252     45%
  1965     1,410   3,246     43%
  1966     1,388   3,230     43%
  1967     1,354   3,240     42%
  1968     1,310   3,250     40%
  1969     1,542   3,892     40%

The first night game was played in 1935, in Cincinnati. Though it took a while for the rest of the major league teams to add lights and play at night, a lot of them had done so by the 1960s. Anybody have any day/night stats from the 1940s and 1950s?

Jose Lopez’s Contract Clauses

Back to the present: Seattle second baseman Jose Lopez recently signed a four-year contract (with a club option), covering his arbitration years. The most interesting thing about his contract is the physical tests requirements the Mariners managed to include. Four times a year, Lopez will be tested for four things:

  • Body Fat Percentage
  • 60-yard Sprint
  • 20-yard Shuttle Run
  • Vertical Jump

Each time he passes all four tests, he’ll receive $25,000. And if he passes all four tests all four times, he’ll receive an extra $25,000.

I’ve looked at a lot of contract clauses, and I’m not aware of this complicated a “stay in shape” clause for anyone else. This past offseason, the only example I can remember is Carlos Lee‘s five weigh-ins per year, but only for the years 2010-2012. Each time Lee fails a weigh-in, he’ll donate $200,000 to the Astros’ charity.

By the way, I’m all for these long-term deals for arbitration-eligible players, but particularly if the club manages to get an option on one or two of the player’s free agent years. There was some discussion about this in the Bradford files.

Jeff Francoeur may be learning to take a walk.

You don’t hear much about it, but Jeff Francoeur’s walk rate is among the early season surprises. As of Wednesday, he had walked nine times in 113 plate appearances, a shocking improvement over his 2006 performance of 23 in 686 plate appearances. Over at the Baseball Toaster, Mike Carminati found that, if Francoeur were to maintain this pace, it would be a near-historic improvement.

Analyzing pitcher mechanics is controversial.

Carlos Gomez has been posting a wonderful series of articles on The Hardball Times about pitching mechanics. I’m not someone who’s ever been good at analyzing mechanics, though I still remember when a friend of my brother’s told me he didn’t like Jim McAndrew‘s delivery, and McAndrew broke down soon after. I remember wishing I could do that.

Still, pitching mechanics aren’t an exact science—far from it. Will Carroll suffered some embarrassment a couple of years ago when he published a book highlighting Mark Prior‘s “perfect” mechanics, only to see Prior break down the next year. Mitchel Lichtman has been venting about the subject’s lack of science recently at The Book Blog.

Jeff Sullivan, of Lookout Landing, shares MGL’s skepticism, but he conducted some research of his own and found a research paper that talks about elbow and torso alignment from the Journal of Applied Biomechanics (links to a PDF file). What’s more, Jeff took it one step further by applying the research to Felix Hernandez’s delivery. Jeff’s analysis, and the subsequent comments, are pretty darn interesting, too.

Pitching mechanics have been discussed since the 1870s, when pitchers threw underhanded. Why, all of a sudden, are people complaining because it’s not a “science”?

Players will return to form.

Barry Bonds is slugging .762. Jeff Weaver‘s Slugging Percentage Allowed is .825.

Thanks, Chris.

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