Earlier this year, on Monday, May 22, I had the honor and pleasure of attending
New Comisk, uh, The Cell in the South Side of Chicago, and witnessing the return of Frank Thomas. The greatest hitter in the history of the Central Time Zone did not disappoint as he crushed a homer in his first-ever at-bat as a visitor. He followed that up by hitting a long single to the wall. Stephen Hawking could’ve gotten a double out of it, but Frank’s wheels ain’t what they were. He then hit a homer in his third at-bat before the Sox finally got him out.
It reminded me of when I was a kid, and Harold Baines—the best Sox player of the 1980s—went 3-for-3 in his first game in Chicago since the club traded him to Texas for Sammy Sosa. I wondered if we should expect this sort of performance from returning players. I’d think you would, based on the emotion of the moment, and the player’s desire to do a good job in front of the faithful. After all, home field advantage is a very real affair not just in baseball, but in all other sports as well.
In the Olympics, host countries routinely do better than they normally do. Heck, Spain won more gold medals in the 1992 Barcelona games than in all other Summer Olympiads combined. It would make sense for hitters to do better, but I don’t see any reason to assume when Retrosheet makes it easy to check. To do it right, you need a large sample size of players. For my sample I used players who fit into all the following categories during the Retrosheet era (1957-2005), plus I added Frank Thomas:
- Played at least eight years for their former club
- Returned to their old ballpark within a year of leaving the club
- Had only moved the one time since leaving the old club.
This last rule only affects one player, Kirt Manwaring, who spent time with the Astros before returning in San Francisco as a member of the Rockies. I believe multiple moves dampen the emotional heft of returning. Besides, I’m not doing this study for the Manwarings of the world.
Eight years is an admittedly arbitrary cutoff point. Five years seemed like too few, and I thought 10 was a little steep. I looked through my Palmer/Gillette Encyclopedia and found 139 players who returned to their old homes in 141 different incidents. (Dusty Baker and Joe Morgan each had two returns.)
These men combined for a .268 batting average, .414 slugging average, and .342 approximate OBP (I didn’t include HBP or SH, just (W+H)/(AB+W) when figuring it) in those 141 campaigns. I looked at how they did in their very first game back to the old stomping grounds, because that’s when the emotional impact should have been highest. For comparison, I pro-rated their season stats for the same number of at bats as they had in those 141 games. Here are the results:
AB H 2B 3B HR R RBI W K SB AVG SLG OBP OPS The Returns 486 146 28 5 15 69 67 61 60 6 .300 .471 .378 .849 On the Year 486 130 22 3 14 64 64 54 72 8 .267 .420 .341 .761
It’s official: players do better when returning. Interestingly, their power numbers hardly go up at all. Thomas had the only multi-homer game, and without him the group would’ve hit fewer homers than expected. It looks like their goal is to just make good contact and get on as their hits are up and strikeouts are down.
There’s a problem. Over the course of the season some of these men end up with far more at-bats than others, but in a game they’d all get about the same number of plate appearances. A better gauge of how they would be expected to do might be taking an average of their rate stats rather than their counting stats. Neither version is perfect as some of the less heralded returnees were mid-game or late-game replacements who barely played. Charlie Moore, for example, only had one at-bat in his return to Milwaukee.
Still, this avenue ought to be investigated. Does an average of their rate stats beat the .300/.471/.378 line they posted? Not surprisingly, no. The rate stat average is .261/.401/.334 for a .735 OPS. That’s an even bigger differential than before, which makes sense as the worse hitters should get less playing time and hence lower counting stats. As mentioned, it was guys like Charlie Moore used as later inning replacements, not Rod Carew.
There’s another wrinkle here—quality of players. By allowing anyone with at least eight seasons played, Rafeal Belliard, Al Martin, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Greg Gross rub shoulders with Wade Boggs, Steve Garvey, and Harmon Killebrew. I’m going to divide them up into three categories: big stars, minor stars, and others.
My theory is that the bigger stars would have been more likely to exceed expectations because their return would be much more emotional. I doubt Tom Brookens’s return to Tiger Stadium caused the fans to roar like they did for the Big Hurt last month. I’ll base these three categories on the number of times these players were selected to the All-Star Game as representatives of their former club.
Four or more All-Star game appearances are big stars, one to three starts I classify as minor stars, and those with no appearances go in the last bunch. I realize this is hardly scientific, but that’s not the point. If any performance spike is really caused by emotion, All-Star Games are more appropriate than VORP because they better reveal what people thought of a particular player. Big stars had 52 returns, 57 came from minor stars, and 32 were from others.
The big stars—men like Pete Rose, Eddie Mathews, and Willie Mays—hit .274 with a .421 SLG and a .349 OBP for an OPS of 770 for the year. Averaging their rate stats yields slightly inferior numbers—.263/.410/.339 and an OPS of 749. However, they blew those figures away in their returns home with a fantastic hitting line of .333/.559/.401 and an OPS of .960. That’s damn-near MVP quality play in those 52 games. Whereas the 141 returnees as a whole have their OPS rise by 11.6%, the big stars double that with a 24.7% spike. Not bad.
Also, these guys almost never struck out in their returns. They whiffed every seventh at-bat normally, but in these contests they only fanned 15 times in 186 at-bats. Conversely, the other two groups below actually struck out a little more often in their returns than they normally did. Those numbers make me wonder if the pitchers grooved a few at them. This might have happened a few times, but I doubt it was very often. I think the hitters were as motivated as they could possibly be, and the same could not be said for the opposing starters.
The minor stars—Joe Rudi, Johnny Callison, Lloyd Moseby, and the like—went .264/.414/.338 for a .752 OPS in their related years. An average of their rate stats reveals typically lower marks of .261/.402/.334 and a .736 OPS. In their return appearances, they beat those scores, but not by the magnitude the more revered players did—they pulled off a .296/.471/.370. Their OPS went up 11.8% over the full year’s OPS.
This makes sense so far. The players who have the most emotional returns should be the most likely to rise to the occasion. What does this say about the no-All-Star players? I’d imagine that they’d get the most modest bounce of all. Well…
Shockingly these men did worse in their big returns. Denny Walling, Omar Moreno, Dave Valle and the boys could only muster a meager line of .245/.319/.355 in their not-so-triumphant returns. On the year they did notably better producing a batting average of .263, slugging .396, and posting a .333 OBP. Even if you compare their performance to an average of their rate stats they underachieved as they still went .257/.384/.328. Most remarkable was their complete lack of power in these return games.
With only four doubles and a homer in 94 at-bats, their isolated power was barely half of what it normally was. I’m at a loss to explain this. With only 32 players perhaps there’s a sample size issue. Also, conventional wisdom says that when a hitter and pitcher face each other for the first time, the pitcher has the advantage. Many of these men would have never faced their old teammates before. Perhaps a combination of their unfamiliarity with the pitchers and their own lackluster talent caused this unexpected dip.
In general though, the notion that players do receive a boost when returning to the ballparks where they had been cheered for years holds true. The better the player, the more likely he will perform well.