This annotated week in baseball history: April 17-23, 2011

Owing to a strange coupon-related situation, I was recently presented with the choice of either paying eight dollars for socks, or 52 cents for socks and a pack of baseball cards. Not surprisingly, I went with the socks-and-cards option. All of which is to explain how I came into the pack of cards that will be the center of this week’s column.

I will not, to be clear, be reviewing the cards—although opinion inevitably slips in—but rather looking at the players on the cards and seeing what history emerges. The first card that jumped out at me was that of Jose Contreras of the Phillies. It wasn’t for the frankly inane bit of commentary on the card about Contreras’ improvement in 2010, but rather his stat line for the 2007 season.

That year Contreras went 10-17 for the White Sox, with a brutal 5.57 ERA. In fact, Contreras was so bad that no pitcher allowed more runs, and he led the American League outright. But astonishingly, despite allowing more runs than everyone else in the AL—he was only fifth worst in earned runs—Contreras also managed to lead the league in shutouts.

It is true that Contreras recorded only two shutouts, but his miniature Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act is still notable. In fact, those two shutouts, one at the Twins, one at Kansas City, were enough to lower his ERA quite a bit. Outside of those two games, his ERA as a starter was a hideous 6.42, nearly two-thirds of a run higher.

(For comparison’s sake, if you take out Contreras’ worst two starts, his ERA is 5.18, still not a significant change.)

The pack also features a re-creation of the front of 1933 Mel Ott card, the back of which implies—without quite saying—that the card was a shining light for those trying to make it through The Great Depression. Ott was a terrific player, one worthy of his own column but whenever I see him mentioned casually, like on this card, it brings to mind two things.

Professor Greg Maddux’s pupil (Icon/SMI)

For one, Ott has what has to be the dorkiest nickname ever given to a truly great player, and serious contender for the dorkiest ever: Master Melvin. I’m aware that the nickname is a reference to the title given to young men—as Alfred, who refers to the young man who would become Batman as “Master Bruce”—because Ott debuted at just age 17. It is still incredibly dorky though.

Second, Ott is one of the answers to a trivia question: Name the five men with 500 or more home runs but fewer than four letters in their last name. The list in its entirety is Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Sammy Sosa, Jimmie Foxx and Ott. That list is safe for a few more years, although if Adam Dunn keeps hitting home runs at his current pace it might see a new addition.

Carlos Marmol’s card notes that “walks don’t bother him,” which is good, because he gives them out like they’re going out of style. Of course, Marmol can get away with that because of his absurd strikeout numbers; last year he set a new mark for K/9, striking out a comical 138 in less than 78 innings. (For sake of perspective, that’s more strikeouts than Carl Pavano recorded in 221 innings; and 10 other pitchers topped 200 innings without bettering Marmol’s total.)

What really drew my attention on the card, however, was Marmol’s quote that “Professor Greg Maddux told me that if you’re a strikeout pitcher, you’re going to give up some walks.” Now, firstly, “Professor Greg Maddux?” I’ve heard Maddux occasionally referred to as “The Professor” but never as a title before.

Second, I don’t doubt that Maddux gave the advice; hard-throwing but walk prone pitchers are a well-known feature of baseball, what you might call the Nuke LaLoosh/Rick Vaughn archetype. But it seems a strange thing to say coming from Maddux, who had such exceptional control. In fact, Maddux led the league in BB/9 on nine separate occasions. From the year he signed with the Braves through to his retirement, he never walked more than two per nine.

This does nothing to negate what The Professor told Marmol, and if the Cubs closer can maintain his strikeout rate, the walks won’t matter. The guidance remains curious coming from Maddux nonetheless, like reading Mariano Rivera preaching the wisdom of having multiple pitches.

Not counting specialty cards for Manny Ramirez, Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay—the last a bizarre card designed, down to its size, to resemble a turn of the century baseball card, the kind you would have gotten with a cigarette pack—the only player to be a league leader in his statistics is Aaron Cook.

Unfortunately for Cook, it was his league-leading hit total: Cook allowed 236 in just over 211 innings. This represented another year in which he allowed 10 hits or more per nine innings, a figure he has managed every year but one in his career. Given the sheer number of hits Cook allows, this makes his relative success—his lifetime ERA is 4.41 pitching his whole career at Coors Field—all the more remarkable.

In fact, among those pitchers with comparable success to Cook—an ERA+ of 109 or better, and at least 1,200 innings pitched—only Clint Brown and Paul Quantrill allowed more hits per nine innings. These pitchers are easily the exception rather than the rule. Among all pitchers who allowed 10 hits per nine innings (and pitched 1,000 innings in a career), only 22 have an ERA+ greater than 100, with 45 under that number.

(And of course, that only 67 pitchers even reached 1,000 innings pitched while allowing 10 or more hits per nine is a reflection of how difficult it is to succeed with those numbers.)

A pack of baseball cards is, almost by definition, a slice of the present. And yet they can tell us much about the past, even beyond the stat line on the back of the cards.

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  1. Jim G. said...

    Wasn’t it Mel Ott’s grandson who had the shortest name in major league history? Ed Ott.
    On the opposite end – if we start calling Tiger reliever Al Alburquerque “Alberto”, he would qualify as the longest name in MLB history. Also, possibly, the first surname with two q’s.

  2. gdc said...

    Thanks for the fun.  Of course “fewer than four letters in their last name.” should be “four or fewer” given the answer.

  3. Cliff said...

    Remember that you can’t wear baseball cards!  And what would baseball players look like without socks?  I wonder if Shoeless Joe Jackson wore ‘em.  I know Sidd Finch didn’t.  Anyway, visit my site and I’ll get you a sock discount!

  4. Richard Barbieri said...

    It would certainly be tough to have a shorter name than Ed Ott. I don’t know about Alberto Alburquerque, but I know that D’Angelo Jimenez was the first player to have an apostrophe in his first name.

  5. CLAY MARSTON said...

    Just a minor detail, but ED OTT is in no way related to MEL OTT …

    This error has been mentioned many times and can be found corrected in most biographies and forums.


  6. CLAY MARSTON said...

    Additionally, the current longest full name in MLB history is that of current Boston Red Sox catcher JARROD SALTALAMACCHIA, which would end up being one letter longer than that of ALBERTO ALBURQUERQUE, at 20 to 19 total letters.


  7. Joe Pilla said...

    OK, I can see it now…

    In the upcoming film MEL OTT: A LEG UP, the 17-year-old comes to bat in an enemy ballpark. The
    grizzled lifers in the opposing dugout begin chanting, “Mel-VIN…MEL-vin!” The derisive chant is taken up by the beer-fueled rabble in the grandstand.

    Ott, momentarily stunned by the cacophony, takes two withering strikes. The opposing pitcher, smiling smugly, then knocks the rookie down. The chanting swells. Even the fielders take it up.

    The pitcher, smirking, delivers what he figures will be the coup-de-grace. Ott, displaying his soon-to-be-famed batting style, whacks it high and far out of the ballpark, which instantly falls silent.

    The rookie, head down, circles the bases and returns to his dugout to the apparent apathy of his teammates. He sits down, breathing hard. John McGraw saunters down to him and, going nose-to-nose, whispers, “Welcome to the New York Giants, Master Melvin!” The team mobs their young, future star.

    (And, yeah, I know that Ott didn’t homer in his first year. But do you think Hollywood would care about that, hmm?)

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