Ichiro, Ty Cobb and home runs

This morning in the recaps, I said this about Ichiro refusing MLB’s request that he participate in the Home Run Derby:

The guy hits six homers a year. The only reason they’d want him in there is as a cynical ratings ploy for the Japanese market, which I’m assuming gets the All-Star broadcast. Good for him for not wanting to be used like that.

I’ll admit that those are some cynical words. And maybe I’m wrong about that. Just seems plausible to me, because really, why else are you gonna ask Ichiro to be in the Home Run Derby?

In response, commenter Jack Marshall (and some others) made reference to a famous old story about Ty Cobb, and mentioned Wade Boggs’ alleged batting practice home run power — and anomalous 1987 season — as well:

The intriguing aspect is that, at least according to the last Ty Cobb biography, some players in Ichiro’s general category have really been like that: the book says that late in his career Cobb told everyone he was going for homers that day just to prove hitting them was no great accomplishment, hit a couple, and then pronounced distaste for that kind of brute game and never swung for the fences again. I would have loved to see Wade Boggs, who had the rep of being a batting practice slugger, in a home run contest.

What Jack is referring to is the story in which Cobb claimed to have told reporters before a game sometime in the 1920s that he simply preferred not to hit home runs because they were inartful or crude or supported racial equality or something. As proof, Cobb set out one day with the intention of hitting home runs to show them that he could do it if he wanted to, but he simply didn’t want to. And by gum, he did! Next day, of course, and for the rest of his career, he returned to being the ball-sprayin’ Georgia Peach everyone knew and loathed.

Except I seem to remember that Ty Cobb story being debunked a couple of years ago by Neyer or someone. I couldn’t find the link immediately, so if anyone can find it, please let me know. Even if I’m wrong about that, however, I find it implausible. Why? Because Cobb was a lot of things, but chief among those things were that he was (a) very, very smart; and (b) very, very greedy, and each of those things cuts against that story having any veracity.

As for being smart: there is no way Cobb didn’t know and appreciate the inherent value of a home run vs. a triple, double or single. Sure, he may have had a big home run day once upon a time, but if he could hit home runs at will like he claimed, he certainly would have because it would have simply been smarter baseball in the 1920s, which is when that story took place, and Cobb was all about smart baseball.

As for greedy: Cobb was as good a money maker as he was a hitter, and I’d wager that he, more than anyone, knew the kind of money Babe Ruth was making in the 1920s. As such, Cobb knew that if he could have been reborn as a home run hitter after years of being a batting champion, he’d have been richer than Croesus (as it stood, he had to content himself with being slightly less rich than Coesus).

All of which is to say that while it’s possible that Ty Cobb was capable of a bit more power than he showed in his career, he was no home run hitter and he knew it. I suspect Ichiro knows it too, and for that reason, he wisely doesn’t want any part of the Home Run Derby.

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Comments

  1. Dave B. said...

    While the argument about Cobb is valid, it doesn’t change my opinion that Ichiro would be an outstanding home run derby participant. 

    I live in TO and I’ve gone to see Ichiro the Mariners play a couple of times over the years, and have caught Mariners BP before the game more than once.  Ichiro consistently crushes BP home runs, and they aren’t cheap shots either.  He hits a lot of them, and often mashes them into the second deck of the Rogers Centre.  A friend of mine who works for the Jays goes down for visiting BP before many of the games and has witnessed the same thing.  Another friend went to the All Star game when it was in Comerica a couple years back and said Ichiro put on an incredible show of power during batting practice.

    I know it’s not exactly scientific data and is mostly personal experience, but I really do believe Ichiro has the ability to be competitive in a derby.  The only issue is that he’s not interested, even though MLB has repeatedly extended the invitation to him to join the festivities almost annually.  I don’t know if his decision to continually decline their offers has much to do with him not “wanting to be used like that” more than it is just Ichiro being Ichiro, and he’s a different cat.

  2. Jeremy Fox said...

    Re: Wade Boggs, I remember Bill James writing about Boggs’ 1987 season in the 1988 Baseball Abstract. James thought that Boggs’ power surge that year might be real rather than a fluke because (according to James) Boggs had said before the 1987 season that he was going to hit more home runs. But of course, Boggs’ power dropped again after that. Was that because Boggs decided to go back to hitting singles and doubles?  Or was he continuing to try to hit home runs and just not succeeding? Just because you say you’re going to do something new and difficult, and then you do it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fluke.

  3. Roger Moore said...

    Cobb did have a spree of 5 HR in 2 games in 1925; you can look it up on his HR log page on Baseball-Reference.com.  AFAIK, though, it’s not clear whether he really said in advance that he was going to hit for HR in those games or whether that’s a later story.  I can easily imagine him having unusual success in hitting HR and then saying something dismissive about it (“See, I could have done that any time but chose not to”) after the fact.

    What’s undeniable about the story is that if he could have hit like that any time he wanted, he would have been a fool not to do it all the time.  Even if he dismissed the value of HR relative to other hits, he hit for much better average during those games then he did for the season or his career.

  4. Roger Moore said...

    Cobb did have a spree of 5 HR in 2 games in 1925; you can look it up on his HR log page on Baseball-Reference.  AFAIK, though, it’s not clear whether he really said in advance that he was going to hit for HR in those games or whether that’s a later story.  I can easily imagine him having unusual success in hitting HR and then saying something dismissive about it (“See, I could have done that any time but chose not to”) after the fact.

    What’s undeniable about the story is that if he could have hit like that any time he wanted, he would have been a fool not to do it all the time.  Even if he dismissed the value of HR relative to other hits, he hit for much better average during those games then he did for the season or his career.

  5. Ryne said...

    I can also attest to the fact that Ichiro can crush the ball during BP. I’ve seen him take BP at the Metrodome and he ripped a ball into the upper deck over the baggy in right field that hit someone’s plastic cup and shattered the top of it. He was hitting bullets up there. I think he would surprise a lot of people in a home run derby.

  6. PatHajovsky said...

    Mitch Williams made a great point the other night about the Home Run Derby, that Matt Stairs should be invited to participate.  All that dude does is swing for the fences – BP or no.  I absolutely agree, and it would be awesome to see that.  Imagine if the journeyman Stairs lights up the place in the face of the big-namers.  That would be exciting!!

  7. Jason @ IIATMS said...

    Strange, my 9 year old told me the other day that Ichiro should be in the Derby, too.  Something about it ‘would be cool to see a finesse player in the Derby’.  I’d love it.

  8. jay22 said...

    Is this truly a contest to determine the best home run hitter?  Or a contest to generate as much excitement (and eyeballs) as you can around hitting batting practice fastballs out of the park?

    If its the former, Ichiro is a bad choice.  If its the latter, Ichiro is an obvious choice.

    I think its the latter and I think it should be the latter.

    Its hard to remember most years when random slugger X beating random slugger Y in the HR derby, but it might create a memory to watch Ichiro outslug Pujols for one night.

    Also, hitting HR’s in batting practice is not at all the same skill set as hitting HR’s in a live game.  It is probably untrue that Cobb could hit HR’s at will in live games but chose not to, but it might very well be true that he could mash in batting practice when every fastball is right where you want it while not being very effective at it during real game conditions.

  9. Ron said...

    Ty Cobb won a Triple Crown, and finished close a few other times.

    He was a power hitter in his day. The quotes I remember being attributed to him were more about the all-or-none mentalitiy of the homerun vs the basehit/stolen base version, and jealousy over the fact that Ruth had eclipsed him as the favored player because of the homerun totals, and not the fact that he hit them.

  10. Sai-Kit Hui said...

    I want to see Ichiro in the Home Run Derby.

    He is slugging .472 and has touched .500 at one point. That’s the highest slugging percentage in his MLB career while still in a commanding lead in BA.

    I feel he can win a home run title if he weren’t a lead-off hitter. So yeah, I want to see Ichiro in the Home Run Derby.

  11. J. McCann said...

    I don’t remember any debunking of the Cobb story.  What I remember about it was he was about to play a series in Sportsman’s Park, and then made the pronouncement that he could hit home runs, which he did.  I think he was just smart enough to know in that park with those crappy pitchers, in the right weather conditions, he could go nuts.  Of course Cobb was actually one of the best power hitters in the league in his prime.

  12. largebill said...

    Guys like Ichiro, Boggs and Cobb obviously have sufficient strength to hit the occasional home run.  The difference is they are/were smart enough to understand that if they went to the plate all the time looking for homers they would very likely hit a lot of fly balls caught for outs.  They were successful hitting liners that fall in for singles and doubles.  The bat control that works for liners does not work for long fly balls where the outfielder has time to run over and make the catch.  BP (and homer contests) where you have a pitcher grooving hittable pitches can make any major leaguer look like a power hitter.  It isn’t as easy when facing a pitcher hitting corners and throwing curves.

  13. Michael said...

    Craig, Craig, Craig, you have completely missed the bigger story: Jack Marshall actually added value to a baseball discussion.

    I now expect a debate on Cobb’s morals.

    Ichiro is well-known as a guy who can cream the ball in BP. But it IS a cynical move, considering most mainstream media and fans in the US have mostly ignored him this year.

    ESPN has to be behind this – the HRD is the highest rated event in all of U.S. cable (that’s right, ALL of cable) and the only way up from there is to expand viewership in ESPN’s other countries.

  14. Michael said...

    Oh, and BTW, Ichiro was asked to compete last year as well. Geoff Baker’s superior reporting skills mean the story must be true. (Might also be notable as possibly the last time Ichiro spoke to Baker.)

    http://blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/mariners/2008/07/ichiro_turns_down_home_run_der.html

    But a reporter who he IS still talking to has this piece on an ongoing HR contest between Ichiro and Griffey:

    http://www.seattlepi.com/baseball/407930_moore08.html

  15. Joao said...

    So giving fans something they might potentially want to see is cynical? What’s so wrong about giving fans what they want? Count me among those who might actually care to watch if Ichiro were in it.

  16. Steve Treder said...

    I’m pretty sure the story that Cobb predicted he’d hit all those homers before he did has been debunked.

  17. mike said...

    someone else said it but I think it does need to be re-stated.

    Cobb WAS a power hitter during his time
    A little bit depending on how you define power

    He was top 5 in the league in SLG 15 season
    He lead the league in SLG 8 of those seasons
    He was in the top 5 in the league in HR 7 different seasons and lead the league in HR 1 of those seasons

    I think what Cobb was talking about and what has turned into a general idea about HR was all in reference to Ruth. Ruth was over shadowing Cobb. The game was changing but it was Ruth who was getting the attention and it was Ruth’s HR’s (not the other things he did great)

    His 117 HR might not look like a lot next to Ruth, Cy Williams or Hornsby (3 big HR hitters of the time) but over his 24 year career of supposedly not being a HR hitter only 22 players had more HR vs league average than he did

    and only 4 players with at least 2000 PA during that span had a higher SLG vs league average.

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