Virtual chat transcript: John Walsh

Hello baseball fans, this is my very first virtual chat, and I’m
pretty excited. I’m pretty much open to any question, although your
chances of being selected will be higher if a) your question is short
and b) I know the answer (or can do a good job faking it). So, powered
by the soundtrack from The Sound of Music and a nice mug of
strawberry Nesquik, let’s get to it!


Bill F. (Branton, MO): When is the best time to hit a batter?

John Walsh: In the old days the batter coming up after a home run was knocked
down by the pitcher. Every time. The following quote is from Wes Ferrell, a
pitcher from the 1930s:

When a guy hit a home run in those days, the next two hitters went
down. They knew it was coming. Once, in a game in Detroit, somebody
hit a home run off me, and up comes [Bob] Fothergill. A real hitter. I
lowered the boom on him, putting it right over his head. He gets up,
dusts himself off, and I get him out. Next fellow comes up — I
forget his name — and lies down flat on his back in the batter’s
box.

“Hey, Wes,” he yells, “I’m already down. You don’t have to throw at me.”


Curious in Ohio (OH): When did Frank Thomas play second base?

John Walsh: Dude, have you ever seen Frank Thomas? You might have asked
“When did Frank Thomas perform for the href="http://www.nycballet.com/company/company.html" target="new"> New York City Ballet
Company?” Never.


Little Stein (NY): Why isn’t Cano hitting?

John Walsh: If I knew that, do you think I’d be sitting here
answering questions? I’d be
on the phone to Cashman.


B. Spinoza (A-dam): Why does God enjoy baseball?

John Walsh: For the beauty of it, just like us mortals.


Emile (Cincinnati): Why does the NL Central have six teams and
the AL West only four?

John Walsh: A very good question and one you don’t hear much discussed.
The Astros made a big stink about having to play two “home” games in
Milwaukee this year—what they really should be complaining about is
that they have to beat out five other teams to win their division,
while the Angels only need to beat two (three if you count the
Mariners).


Little League Lefty: Why can’t you have a left-handed catcher?

John Walsh: You can. Traditionally, there are various reasons given why left-handed
throwers cannot catch. Perhaps the most-cited reason is that
left-handed catchers must “throw through” right-handed batters on
steal attempts, putting them at a disadvantage. Righty throwing
catchers must throw through left-handed batters, of course, but there
are fewer of those.

Well, you can check this assertion with real hard data, which I did. I
found that catcher caught stealing percentages are independent of
batter handedness. I’ve looked at various other “reasons” why lefties
shouldn’t catch and concluded that none of them is valid. You
can read all about it href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/top-left-handed-catchers-for-2006">here.


Joe P (KC): Why didn’t Joe Morgan win rookie of the year in 1965?

I have no idea. Wait a sec… OK, I’m back. Jim LeFebvre, the Dodger
second baseman won the 1965 NL ROY award, while Little Joe was
second. Here’s a comparison of their stat lines:

          G   AB    R    H   2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG *OPS+
LeFebvre 157  544   57  136  21  4  12   69   3  5  71  92  .250  .337  .369  106
Morgan   157  601  100  163  22 12  14   40  20  9  97  77  .271  .373  .418  131

Gee, you got me. I don’t see much to favor LeFebvre in the stat
lines. Maybe it was because LeFebvre had 29 more RBIs? You know how the
voters love them ribbies. Both played second base and a cursory look at
the standard fielding stats (I know, they don’t tell us a whole
lot), doesn’t seem to favor one or the other.

I’m guessing the LeFebvre won over Morgan because the Dodgers won
97 games and the NL pennant, while the Astros won 65 games and
finished ninth in the 10-team league.


Matty M (West Coast): What stadium is called a “pitcher’s park” and why?

John Walsh: Five parks have favored pitchers by reducing run
scoring by at least four percent during the period 2005-2007: Safeco
Field, the Metrodome, RFK Stadium, Oakland Coliseum and Petco Park.
Petco Park has been the most extreme with a park factor of .91.

Factors that influence how a park plays: weather, altitude, distance
and height of outfield fences, amount of foul territory, hitting
background, playing surface, etc. I have never seen a detailed study
of how much these different factors contribute to park effects, but I
have a feeling that weather and altitude are more important than the
other factors.


Isaac (Newton, MA): When pitching, what makes a changeup drop?

John Walsh: Gravity. Seriously. The rotation on a changeup is similar to
that
on a fastball. This means the movement induced by the spin is also
similar for the two pitches. The spin-induced movement of a fastball
is upward and to the arm side, and the same is true for the
changeup. The reason the changeup drops more than a fastball, is that
it’s thrown on average about 10-12 mph hours slower than a fastball.
It takes longer to get to the plate, which means that the force of
gravity acts on it for a longer amount of time, causing to “drop” more
than the fastball.

Actually, depending on the pitcher, the changeup may have somewhat
less upward spin-induced force than the fastball. This will also
contribute to the apparent “drop” of the changeup, but the main effect
is the one described above—slower pitch, more drop from gravity.


Ma Rainey (Bedroll, IN): Why aren’t run-scoring grounders considered sacrifices?

John Walsh: I don’t know. I guess that somebody believes that
batters try (and succeed) in flying out when there is a runner on
third base with fewer than two outs, hence they are “sacrificing”
themselves to get the runner home. Coincidentally, whether this is
true or not was the subject of my first-ever Hardball
Times target="new">article. It turns out not to be true: batters do not hit more fly
balls in sac fly situations — they do put the ball in play more
(fewer walks, fewer strikeouts), but grounders are increased just as much
as fly balls. Personally, I think sac flies should count as an at
bat, but changing the rule is not high on my list of worthy causes.


Man Out of Time (Memphis): Why is Prince Fielder so huge?

John Walsh: Genes? Very dense bones? Snack cakes? I don’t know.

I hadn’t had a chance to see Fielder on TV much when I happened to see
a Brewers game this summer (on mlb.tv, actually) and man that guy is,
well, fat. Dave Letterman used to call pitcher Terry Forster a “fat
tub of goo,” but if memory serves Fielder is a lot fatter than
Forster.


Inquiring Mind (McLean, VA): Why isn’t Barry Bonds on a team?

John Walsh: You got the wrong John. Ask Brattain.


Arthur G (NYC) : Why do I have to learn history?

John Walsh: Don’t like history, eh? Try
target="new">this and let me know how it works out.


How is the ump supposed to locate “the bottom of the knee”of Carlos Pena? (Icon/SMI)

Bill Klem (Rochester): Why is the strike zone so low now?

John Walsh: The strike zone, according to the official rules of baseball, extends from the bottom of the knee to a point mid-way between the
belt and the armpit. It’s true that umpires tend not to call strikes
for pitches that are near the upper part of the zone. But you know
what? They also don’t call strikes for pitches at the lower part of
the zone. The actual vertical strike zone is smaller than
the rulebook zone, but it’s not appreciably lower.

See
this article for the hard evidence. BTW, doesn’t it seem like locating
the “bottom of the knee,” much less the mid-point between the belt and
the armpit, might not be very easy, especially since those body parts
are kind of moving around as the pitch is on the way to the plate (see photo)?
My own view is that the umps do a damn good job.


Mr. Jones (Hibbing, MN): Why do home teams win so often in baseball?

John Walsh: The home team on average wins 54 percent of the time. That is a smaller
advantage than you see in football or basketball, but it’s real and
fairly consistent throughout baseball history.
Sabermetrician Craig Wright wrote a chapter on this issue in his
seminal book The Diamond Appraised (sadly, it’s no longer in
print). Many theories are often put forth for the reasons of the home
field advantage: the comfort of sleeping in your own bed, the extra
partying that goes on on the road, familiarity with home parks, the
effect of the fans on the players and umpires. Wright uses some
ingenious methods to evaluate these factors, although he isn’t able to
come to a definitive conclusion.

More recently, Kevin Johnson has
target="new">looked at how teams perform better at home. Kevin
finds that the home team hits a lot more triples, perhaps indicating
that the home team’s knowledge of their own outfield gives them an
advantage, both on offense and on defense.


Randy N (Los Angeles): Why aren’t more short pitchers not in the majors?

John Walsh: Are you kidding? There are probably millions of
short pitchers who are not in the majors, do you think there should be
more?


Oil Smith (Sheridan, AR): Mike Piazza has how many gold gloves?

John Walsh: Um, zero? Actually, Piazza has been disparaged for
his defense for his entire career. It’s undeniable that Piazza had a
very weak throwing arm that cost his teams a lot of runs.
However, Craig Wright, the baseball genius I mentioned a couple of
questions ago, has recently done a study which may force us to change
our perceptions of Piazza’s defense. The article appears in the
Hardball Times Annual 2009 (did we mention that we have a book out?)


Pessimist (San Diego, CA) What is the percentage of times no
runs scored when the bases are loaded with no outs?

John Walsh: It’s best to know the answer right off the bat, but if
you don’t, the next best thing is to know where to look. Tom Tango
has target="new">the answer: 13 percent.


Johnny (in the basement): Which direction is out when the wind
blows at Wrigley?

John Walsh: Hmm, sounds like Johnny has been enjoying some
adult beverages this afternoon. How to interpret this query? If by “out” you
mean towards center field, that direction at Wrigley is northeast,
whether the wind is blowing out, in or if there is a tornado centered
on second base.

But perhaps you are wondering
which field (left, center, right) is more favored by the prevailing
winds at Wrigley? That’s a good question, to which I don’t know the
answer, although I did read somewhere recently (can’t locate the
source right now), that the wind blows in more often than out at
Wrigley Field.


Bill W. (Jackson Heights, NYC) How often does the home team lose
when they strike out the first batter of the game?

John Walsh: Here’s why this question blows my mind: I was
probably no older than eight when I was watching the hapless Mets, the
Eddie Kranepool Mets, on TV together with my grandfather. Seaver (or
was it Koosman?) struck out the game’s leadoff batter, whose name has
been lost to history. In my innocence, I cheered the Mets’ good
fortune of retiring the game’s first batter, but Grandpa winced,
“No! It’s bad luck to strike out the first hitter of the game. The
Mets are going to lose this one.” That seemed odd to me, but, hey I
wasn’t going to argue. The Mets lost the game.

The thing is, I have never heard anyone, anywhere, mention this
superstition about striking out the first batter of the game. Until
now. I thought this was just a grandfatherly quirk, but apparently you
have the same superstition on your mind. Unbelievable.

So, inspired by this happy discovery, I ran a quick check on my
play-by-play database while my secretary typed the paragraphs above. I
found 15,497 games where the leadoff hitter struck out. The home team
won 57.6 percent of those games, slightly better than the expected
home winning percentage of 54 percent. That makes sense, since the home team
in these games has a one-out advantage.

So Gramps was wrong. Oh hell, I feel like Neyer debunking all those
baseball legends.


OK, last one, then I’ve got to pick up my pajamas at the dry cleaners.

Rich Dawkins (UK) Where was God before he created heaven?

John Walsh: Some questions cannot be answered with a
play-by-play database. If anybody does happen to know the answer,
please shoot me an email, since my son recently asked me this question and he’s
still waiting for an answer.


Thanks everybody, see you next time!

Disclaimer: this was not a real chat, hence the word “virtual” in
the title. Maybe you figured that out already. I made up the names
and home towns and I don’t really drink strawberry Nesquik and I don’t
send my pajamas to the dry cleaners.

The questions are real, though, I didn’t make those up (although I did
edit some of them for grammar and spelling). I got them from THT’s web
traffic logs, which record, among other things, all strings used in
search engines that bring users to the THT site. We get some 20,000
unique search strings per month, so there are lots of interesting
questions to look at.

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