Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week

Barry Bonds did something noteworthy and remarkable.

Love him and/or hate him, Barry Bonds is the new official career home run record-holder. I’m not going to try to encapsulate the moment, because so many others have already done it well:

Unfortunately, Bud Selig acted like a petulant child when Bonds hit his 755th homer. Standing only when prodded and refusing to clap, he reminded me of myself at, say, the age of four. Then he released this howler of a press release:

“Congratulations to Barry Bonds as he ties Major League Baseball’s home run record. No matter what anybody thinks of the controversy surrounding this event, Mr. Bonds’ achievement is noteworthy and remarkable.

“As I said previously, out of respect for the tradition of the game, the magnitude of the record and the fact that all citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty, either I or a representative of my office will attend the next few games and make every attempt to observe the breaking of the all-time home run record.”

This is the guy responsible for promoting major league baseball? Methinks he needs a new public relations department.

At least he evidently learns from his mistakes. He didn’t attend the record-breaker (given the way he reacted to the 755th home run, he never should have shown up at all) and he did a better job with the subsequent press release:

“I congratulate Barry Bonds for establishing a new career home run record. Barry’s achievement is noteworthy and remarkable.

“After Barry came out of the game, I congratulated him by telephone and had MLB executive vice president Jimmie Lee Solomon and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson — both of whom were at the game and witnessed the record-breaking home run — meet with him on my behalf. While the issues which have swirled around this record will continue to work themselves toward resolution, today is a day for congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement.”

Nicely done, Bud. There’s no denying the controversy swirling around Bonds, but “work themselves toward resolution” is a much more pleasant phrase than “all citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty,” don’t you think?

The Diamondbacks are wack.

I don’t like to disagree with the great David Smith of Retrosheet, but there was something not quite right in this article about the Diamondbacks’ record. You see, the Diamondbacks are doing something really wacky: They have a 63-51 record, despite being outscored by their opponents by 34 runs.

I went back in history (using the Retrosheet files, of course) to see how many teams had won 12 more games than they had lost at any point during a season, despite being outscored by at least 30 runs. I found four:

  • On Sept. 20, 1997, the Giants were 86-70 despite being outscored by 34 runs.
  • The 1984 Mets had a long string of days with a similar record: Most notably, on Sept. 13, they were 81-66 despite being outscored by 34 runs.
  • On July 28, 1978, the Orioles were 57-44 despite being outscored by 42 runs.
  • The 1917 St. Louis Cardinals were 75-63 on Sept. 11 despite scoring 41 fewer runs than their opponents.

In contrast, David noted that only the 1905 Tigers had a bigger Pythagorean variance than the Diamondbacks’ current variance, but he only looked at season-ending totals. You get a different picture when you look at the progress of records during the season, primarily because it’s easier to have a bigger winning percentage variance when fewer games have been played.

But it is a kick to see how each of these teams fared at season’s end:

  • The 1997 Giants finished 90-72 (10 games above their Pythagorean record) despite being outscored by their opponents 793-784.
  • The Mets also finished 90-72 (12 games above their Pythagorean projection) despite being outscored 676-652.
  • The 1978 Orioles finished 90-71 and actually wound up outscoring their opponents 659-633 (for a seven-game Pythagorean variance).
  • The Cardinals finished 82-70 in 1917 (which projects to 87 wins over a 162-game schedule) and were outscored 567-531. They beat their Pythagorean record by 10 games.

So, every single team wound up closing the run differential gap (the difference between runs scored and runs allowed) and three of the four teams won 90 games. Seems like a reasonable projection for the Diamondbacks too.

This thread at Baseball Think Factory includes some good theories as to how the Diamondbacks are doing it, but here’s the thing: Two years ago, the Diamondbacks finished with the second-highest Pythagorean variance of all time (behind those 1905 Tigers). Perhaps that is just a remarkable fluke, or perhaps Bob Melvin is a genius. The beauty is that I have no clue which one is more likely.

Eric Byrnes is a rich(er) man.

In the meantime, the Diamondbacks signed Eric Byrnes to a three-year $30 million contract this week. Byrnes is evidently a crowd favorite and is having a career year, due primarily to his .336 batting average on balls in play (he’s not likely to sustain that for the rest of the year, let alone the next three years). In fact, thanks partly to the Diamondbacks’ Pythagorean record, he’s currently leading the National League in Win Shares.

So the guy did a smart thing. He signed a contract at perhaps the very best time for himself. But give Arizona some credit, too. Byrnes is a good fielder, he has speed, and he’s only 31. If he manages to stay healthy and create around 80 runs a year for the next three years, he’ll be worth more than $30 million (based on what free agents are being paid these days). This is not like last week’s Dmitri Young deal.

Why Matt Morris?

This may be the real mystery transaction of the year. Why the heck did the bottom-dwelling Pirates trade for a highly paid veteran pitcher, taking on his contract for the next year (and an option year, to boot)?

On Yahoo Sports, Steven Henson weighed in with this:

Verdict: The last-place Pittsburgh Pirates’ acquisition of the decidedly average 33-year-old with one year and $13.5 million left on his contract was a commentary on the sorry state of pitching everywhere and the alarming escalation of salaries.

Our David Gassko is one of the few people who actually liked this deal for the Pirates.

I would like to add one other perspective. According to the the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams that collect money from the Revenue Sharing Plan have to put that money to work. Here’s the CBA language:

Accordingly, each Club shall use its revenue sharing receipts (from the Base Plan, the Central Fund Component and the Commissioner’s Discretionary Fund) in an effort to improve its performance on the field. The Commissioner shall enforce this obligation by requiring, among other things, each Payee Club, no later than April 1, to report on the performance-related uses to which it put its revenue sharing receipts in the preceding revenue sharing year.

I haven’t seen the most recent CBA, but I assume that similar language is in there, too.

In other words, teams have to spend money on players (either as free agents or in development) or the Commissioner will yell at them. That may sound funny, but you better believe that the union is watching these teams closely. Seems to me that’s no small reason the Royals signed Reggie Sanders and Doug Mientkiewicz two years ago. And since the Pirates have been unable to convince expensive free agents to play for them, maybe they just had to trade for one to meet their CBA obligations.

Of course there will be future 300-game winners.

I can’t get over how many people are saying there may never be another 300-game winner. These people cite five-man rotations and the increasing use of the bullpen, which are good points. But there are other considerations:

  • Pitchers have longer careers these days, thanks to advanced training, surgical techniques and, yes, lighter workloads.
  • Money gives them incentive to keep playing.
  • Free agency allows pitchers to play with winning teams each year.

I’m sure there are other considerations too, both pro and con. To me, the bottom line is that we may be facing a drought period of 300 game winners, but there will be 300 game winners in the future. We just don’t know who they are yet.

Remember: Tom Glavine is a member of perhaps the greatest pitching “generation” in major league history. As ranked in last year’s Hardball Times Annual, this generation includes Roger Clemens (ranked first all-time), Greg Maddux (fourth) and Randy Johnson (eighth). I say let’s celebrate what we’ve been lucky enough to witness and not worry about tomorrow’s leaders.

Rafael Betancourt has been Eckersleyesque.

Have you noticed what Rafael Betancourt is doing in Cleveland? He’s pitched in 51.2 innings, but he’s only walked four batters. Four. I looked into this using the Baseball Reference Play Index and found that only Dennis Eckersley has walked fewer batters in 50 or more innings.

Betancourt’s walks per game (actually, 38 batters) the last four years have been 2.5, 2.4, 1.8 and 0.8. That’s a nasty little trend, isn’t it?

For a take on another unique player, see what Derek Zumsteg has to say about J. D. Pruitt.

How few players the Mariners have played.

Reader John McCann pointed out to me that, prior to bringing up Adam Jones, the Mariners had used only 13 position players on the roster so far this year. Of course, that number will increase when September rolls around, but my curiosity was piqued. I wondered, how does that 13 (now 14) stack up against history?

  • The ’62 and ’63 Red Sox had only 15 non-pitchers on their roster the entire year, the lowest total in all the years since 1960. Yeah, the Sox not only have the lowest total, but they did it two years in a row, which is crazy when you think about it. Both teams won 76 games, though they were run by two different managers (Pinky Higgins and Johnny Pesky; if you want to refer to both of them, just say Pinky Pesky). That 1963 team included one September call-up, Rico Petrocelli, but as far as I can tell, there were no September call-ups in 1962.
  • Going back in time, from 1938 through 1943, the Yankees only carried 14 men on their roster four different years. That’s another remarkable record, though it doesn’t include arguably the greatest team of all time, the 1939 Yankees (which carried 15 position players all year long). The Yankees won four World Series and one other league championship those six years, under manager Joe McCarthy. A remarkable run of excellence (and health!).
  • Among all post-1900 teams the 1905 Philadephia Athletics have the record for fewest position players on its roster, 12. Connie Mack‘s team won the AL championship with just 12 position players and 7 pitchers. Now, that’s managing your roster.

Maybe it does make sense to slide into first base.

Like a lot of Mets watchers, I was driven nuts by Roberto Alomar‘s tendency to slide into first base on a close play. But according to physicist Alan Nathan, I maybe have been too hard on the guy.

A final example: Can a batter get to first base quicker by running through the base or in a head-first slide? Most people believe the former. I believe the latter. The essential physics is that by sliding with outstretched arms, the batter reaches the bag before his center of gravity reaches it, whereas those two times more or less coincide when running through the bag.

I’m still not convinced—runners have to reach down and fall forward, which seems to slow them down—but who am I to argue with a physicist?

The quote is courtesy of Dan Fox’s interview with Dr. Nathan. A subscription is required to read it, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be a Baseball Prospectus subscriber.

Don Mattingly was only voted to the All-Star team once.

Hardball Times co-founder Matthew Namee sent me an e-mail this week, letting me know he had stumbled onto something.

Don Mattingly, who made six All-Star games, won the fan voting at first base in only one of them, 1987. He didn’t win the fan voting in his MVP season in 1985, though that was understandable—he was hitting .309 with nine homers at the break, and the winner, Eddie Murray, was at .296 and 15. (Incidentally, Mattingly hit .340 with 26 homers in 76 games after the break in ’85.) But in 1986, Mattingly was the reigning MVP and was on track for an even better year, batting .341 with 14 homers. But who won the fan voting? Rookie Wally Joyner, who was hitting .313 with 20 homers at the break. Joyner went on to bat .257 with two home runs in the second half, while Mattingly got even better: .365 with 17 homers. So at the end of the day (well, year), Mattingly had a .352 average, 31 homers and a 161 OPS+ (and finished second in MVP voting), while Joyner finished at .290 with 22 homers and a 119 OPS+ (and an undeserved 8th place MVP finish).

Not that this is all that important … I was just “random paging” around on Baseball Reference and thought it was odd that Mattingly started just one All-Star game. I guess the silver lining is that it was Wally Joyner’s only All-Star game, and he had a nice career and deserves that little “All-Star” banner on Baseball Reference. And of course Mattingly did make the team as a backup anyway.

I’m sure that a few other players had a similar record. For instance, Harold Baines made six All-Star teams, but only started in one. However, I doubt that anyone else with a similar All-Star record played in New York. With all of the New York media and exposure, Mattingly should have made it more often.

Could it be that Donnie Ballgame was actually underappreciated in his own time? Nah…

Kevin Youkilis has been taking less pitches.

Kevin Youkilis, made famous by Michael Lewis as the Greek God of Walks, is having the best year of his career: .306/.400/.478. The odd thing is that he’s achieving success while seeing fewer pitches at the plate.

According to Baseball Reference, Youkilis has been seeing 4.23 pitches per plate appearance. That’s still above the league high of 3.8, but less than his totals of the past three years: 4.6, 4.7 and 4.4. The reason appears to be straight-forward: when Youkilis swings, he’s putting the ball in play more often.

Youkilis has swung at 37% of pitches this year, up slightly from 36% last year (the league average is 45%). But the percentage of his strikes that are foul has fallen from 26% to 23%, and the percentage of strikes that have been put in play has risen from 26% to 28%. In other words, he’s hitting the ball better when he swings (less fouls), so he’s seeing less pitches per plate appearance. That’s just darn good hitting.

Seriously, how awesome is Baseball Reference?

Thanks for the Youkilis tip, Jacob.

References & Resources
Sean Lahman’s database was the source of the analysis of least position players on a roster.

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