The Search for Baseball Truthby John Walsh
July 06, 2006
The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard. — Katha-UpanishadThere are many ways to arrive at the truth, but I think perhaps the most popular one these days is with Google. Of course, the old adage "you can't believe everything you read" is especially appropriate when you do your reading on the Internet. Nevertheless, when I need to find the answer to a question, I often go straight to Google, and I'm betting you do, too. In fact, I know you do, because here at The Hardball Times our web server logs contain every search string that ultimately led somebody to our site. This means if you type "naked seraphim" into Google and find your way to The Hardball Times (and this actually happened), then I will find the words "naked seraphim" in our server log. Needless to say, there are thousands of searches each month, which lead to quite a variety of search strings. Believe it or not, browsing through a list of them can be amusing, puzzling and even englightening.
For example, take the following phrase, which somehow led somebody to THT:
strengths and weaknesses of John, in the BibleHow cool is that? Here's somebody trying to understand the Biblical John (but which one? the Baptist or the writer of Revelation?) and she ends up on our baseball site. I like to think it was a serendipitous moment and our Bible scholar got lost in the THT Stats section or ended up reading one of Steve Treder's fabulous historical pieces. How did this religio-historical topic end up pointing to our baseball site? I suppose the explanation is here.
Actually, I'm not the first person to find humor and illumination in Google search strings, I stole the idea from our own Aaron Gleeman, who occasionally writes about them in his blog. Speaking of which, I suppose we have Aaron to thank for the following string:
elisha cuthbertI'm guessing that the person looking for Elisha did not tarry long at THT, but moved on to sites with more relevant Elisha-content.
Okay, let's get this out of the way. When you start browsing through search string logs, you'll inevitably come across people who are looking for, ummm, stuff that hasn't much to do with baseball. I guess that's not surprising, since it seems to me that roughly 90% of Internet traffic is devoted to searching for and downloading pictures of nude people (and seraphim, I guess). Some of them are going to happen onto THT (the searchers, not the nude people, of course).
I'm not going to give a bunch of examples, first because although occasionally they are amusing, they are mostly just puzzling and weird. Plus, this is a baseball site and I would like to try to stay on topic. Actually there is a connection with baseball, because some people end up here looking for certain kinds of pictures of their favorite players. And, curiously, the players whose compromising pictures are most sought-after seem to be: Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez. I have no comment other than to remark that this is just another example of the great Yankees — Red Sox rivalry that has been going strong since around World War II.
What's this Got to Do With Baseball?
I'm getting there. In fact, as you might expect, many folks end up at THT while looking for answers to real questions about baseball. I'm sure some of the answers are found fairly easily. For example, the person who was looking for "best outfield arms" surely found these definitive articles on the subject.
But the answers to many questions that I've seen are not readily available on the site. So, I thought I would provide a public service by answering some of them as best as I can. Here we go.
- What is Chipper Jones' first name? — This person is clearly not a
Mets fan, otherwise he would know that Chipper's first name is actually
Larry. He would have heard the derisive chants of "Laaa--rryyyyy, Laaa--rrryyyyy!"
whenever Chipper comes to bat at Shea Stadium. For some reason, Mets
fans just can't stand the Braves third baseman.
- What was Honus Wagner's uniform number? — A good question that
has a trick answer: he didn't have one. Uniform numbers were not used
regularly until after the Flying Dutchman hung up his spikes. The
first uniform numbers reflected a player's position in the lineup,
hence Babe Ruth was 3, Gehrig was 4, etc.
- Since 1900 what pitcher has won most games in a single season? —
Jack Chesbro won 41 games for the NY Highlanders (now called the
Yankees, I believe) in 1904. Special mention to my great-uncle (not
really) Ed Walsh, who won 40 for the White Sox in 1908.
- When has someone from left field thrown out a runner at 1B? — It
actually happens fairly often. Occasionally a batter is thrown out at
by the left fielder after rounding first base, but usually this
happens when a runner on first is doubled up on a flyout to the left
fielder. I believe this happened recently in a Dodger game when Jeff
Kent, who had been off with the pitch, was doubled off first while he
stood on second base. Kent caught some grief for not attempting to get
back to first base, although there was no chance for him to make it.
- What kind of person was Jim Bottomley? — I suppose he was a
positive thinker with a good disposition because his nickname was
"Sunny Jim." He also apparently wore his cap at a "jaunty angle"
which was very popular during "Ladies' Day" games.
Here's how to find biographical information on players: go to the appropriate player page at bb-ref.com: Sunny Jim. Then scroll down to the "Other References" section at the bottom of the page. There you'll find the links you need. Especially cool is the website dedicated to collecting the obituaries of major league players. Here's Sunny Jim's obit.
- Italian natives in major league baseball? — Baseball has a rich
tradition of Italian-American players, from Lazzeri to Piazza, from
Joe, Dom and Vince to Jason Grilli. However, only six major leaguers were
actually born in Italy:
+----------+-----------+------------+ | Last | First | ML debut | +----------+-----------+------------+ | Ardizoia | Rugger | 1947-04-30 | | Bertoia | Reno | 1953-09-22 | | Biasatti | Hank | 1949-04-23 | | Bonetti | Julio | 1937-04-22 | | Pieretti | Marino | 1945-04-19 | | Polli | Lou | 1932-04-18 | +----------+-----------+------------+Hmm, not exactly Hall of Fame material. I suppose they are better off sticking to soccer.
- What inning do the most runs score? — The first inning, followed
by the sixth. Here is a table of average runs scored per
inning (NL, 2000-2005):
+-----+------+ | inn | runs | +-----+------+ | 1 | 0.60 | | 2 | 0.45 | | 3 | 0.53 | | 4 | 0.53 | | 5 | 0.52 | | 6 | 0.56 | | 7 | 0.52 | | 8 | 0.52 | | 9 | 0.42 | +-----+------+It's tempting to deduce that the reason for the first inning being productive is that the leadoff batter always leads off the first inning. In other words, managers have optimal lineups, since teams score the most in the first inning.
But, let me lay another table on you. This is the number of runs scored per inning depending on who leads off the inning:
+------------+------+ | lineup_pos | runs | +------------+------+ | 2 | 0.62 | | 1 | 0.61 | | 3 | 0.59 | | 4 | 0.52 | | 9 | 0.51 | | 5 | 0.46 | | 8 | 0.45 | | 7 | 0.42 | | 6 | 0.42 | +------------+------+Teams actually score a bit more when the second batter leads off the inning, so maybe lineups are not optimal, after all. Question: would you rather have the pitcher or the #5 hitter lead off a key inning? You'd do better, about 10% better, with 9-1-2 lineup going, compared to 5-6-7. That surprised me.
- What pitches did Dave Stewart throw? — This is a good opportunity
to recommend the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (link),
which is the definitive book on what pitchers threw what. Heck, it's the only such book. It's also a lot more than that—I highly recommend
it. Anyway, according to Neyer
and James, Stewart threw 1) Rising Fastball, 2) Slider and 3) Forkball (1986 on).
- Who is the losingest team in baseball history? — Investigating
this question, I learned why Philadelphia fans are so damn
hostile. They've lost a lot of ballgames in that town. The Phillies
are the losingest team in history with both the most losses (9,805) and
lowest winning percentage (.467) through last season. The Philadelphia
Athletics were quite a miserable team (on average) as well, with a
.478 winning percentage. No wonder they booed Mike Schmidt.
- What percentage of 3-0 pitches are thrown for strikes? —
Actually, you could find this at THT if you looked
carefully. The answer is, surprisingly, only 65%. That is the
percentage of pitches taken on 3-0 that are called strikes. An
additional 8% of 3-0 pitches are swung at.
- What is the average number of wins for baseball division winners? — Here are the
results, per division, since 1998.
+------+----------+ | div | avg_wins | +------+----------+ | ALE | 99.2 | | NLE | 97.5 | | NLC | 97.1 | | ALW | 97.0 | | NLW | 95.0 | | ALC | 93.4 | +------+----------+Everybody knew that the AL East was the toughest division to win, right?
- What are major league hitters average in 0-2 count? —
Good question. This info is available for players and I guess for teams on the various
baseball stat pages (like ESPN or Yahoo!), but I don't think I've ever seen it given
for MLB as a group. In 2005, batters hit .164 when the count was 0-2. That's exactly 100
points lower than their overall average.
- Who has lowest batting average with most home runs? — I love this kind of question,
because the list you come up with to answer it is usually pretty
Since 1920, only six different players have
led their league in home runs while hitting below .250.
+--------------------+--------+------+----+-------+ | name | yearid | lgid | hr | ba | +--------------------+--------+------+----+-------+ | Kingman, Dave | 1982 | NL | 37 | 0.204 | | Killebrew, Harmon | 1959 | AL | 42 | 0.242 | | Killebrew, Harmon | 1962 | AL | 48 | 0.243 | | Kiner, Ralph | 1952 | NL | 37 | 0.244 | | Thomas, Gorman | 1979 | AL | 45 | 0.244 | | Thomas, Gorman | 1982 | AL | 39 | 0.245 | | Kiner, Ralph | 1946 | NL | 23 | 0.247 | | Evans, Darrell | 1985 | AL | 40 | 0.248 | | Schmidt, Mike | 1975 | NL | 38 | 0.249 | +--------------------+--------+------+----+-------+As you can see, nobody is even close to Kong for the overall title. Interesting that half of these guys are in the Hall of Fame.
Let's look at some other Hall of Famers: the league home run leaders with the highest batting averages of all time. Anybody ever win the home run crown (since 1920) while batting .400? You betcha.
+--------------------+--------+------+----+-------+ | name | yearid | lgid | hr | ba | +--------------------+--------+------+----+-------+ | Williams, Ted | 1941 | AL | 37 | 0.406 | | Hornsby, Rogers | 1925 | NL | 39 | 0.403 | | Hornsby, Rogers | 1922 | NL | 42 | 0.401 | | Ruth, Babe | 1923 | AL | 41 | 0.393 | | Ruth, Babe | 1924 | AL | 46 | 0.378 | | Ruth, Babe | 1921 | AL | 59 | 0.378 | | Ruth, Babe | 1920 | AL | 54 | 0.376 | | Medwick, Joe | 1937 | NL | 31 | 0.374 | | Ruth, Babe | 1931 | AL | 46 | 0.373 | | Ruth, Babe | 1926 | AL | 47 | 0.372 | +--------------------+--------+------+----+-------+Not that we needed any more evidence, but wasn't Babe Ruth amazing? By the way, Hornsby and Medwick won the batting Triple Crown in those years. The last home run king to hit .350 was Larry Walker (1997) or, in the non-Coors category, The Mick (1956).
Google and the Meaning of Life
In reading through these search strings, I am fascinated by the information that people are seeking. I begin to wonder if the truth may be found in the queries themselves, even moreso than in the answers to the questions. Didn't Socrates search for truth by asking questions? The fact that people want to know these things is significant, meaningful in a way I can't put my finger on, nor (apparently) express very well. Consider these:
- Who invented the clutch?
- Who created the Big Mac?
- Things that are untrue?
- I need a 2.5 gpa i have 2.43 now what do i need?
- What is the effects of frozen rubber?
And there's one that I just can't get out of my mind. I'm not sure, but I feel it's more an answer than a question. I'm confident if I can just discover the question, my life will have more meaning. Here it is:
- Dom Deluise
References and Resources
Attentive readers will have noticed that the quotation at the beginning of this piece has nothing to do with the subject matter at hand. I know, but it's a cool quotation and it appears on the first page of one of my all-time favorite novels, The Razor's Edge.
John Walsh dabbles in baseball analysis in his spare time. He welcomes questions and comments via e-mail.
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