Saturday, July 01, 2006

July 1st, 1933

Frank Baumann Born

"Frank Baumann was a charter member of the "He Lost It in the Army" club--a curious assortment of mediocre ballplayers that resurrects itself every ten years or so, shortly after the United States has managed to extricate itself once again, more or less successfully, from another round of debilitating foreign entanglements. Membership in the club is open to any ballplayer who has ever belonged to any armed service for any length of time and who now plays lousy...Members are never established players --who seem curiously immune to the sapping effects of these prolonged layoffs--but always untried youngsters--bonus babies and highly touted rookies--whom owners and general managers have been promoting ruthlessly in an effort to prop up the rapidly diminishing reputations of their sagging franchises...The story on [Baumann] was that he had lost the velocity on his fastball while sitting around some of Mother Army's more decrepit southern encampments on his ample derriere while other less talented and less patriotic youngsters were gaining good seasoning experience in the low minors. (Actually, I have always thought that a more cogent explanation for his arm problems might have been that he injured it by lifting a particularly hefty forkful of mashed potatoes up to his bovine craw.)"

~Brendan C. Boyd and Fred Harris, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book

Friday, June 30, 2006

June 30th, 1974

Mule Haas Dies

When I see a nickname like "Mule" I expect one of two things: the man in question (born George Haas, incidentally) is a pitcher who throws huge numbers of innings every year, a "mule" carrying the team's inning load. Failing that, "Mule" would be a big lumbering slugger, wad of tobacco in his cheek, swinging for the fences every time out.

As it turns out, Mule Haas did once rank in the top ten in home runs (10th, with sixteen in 1929) but his game was neither about pitching huge numbers of innings or hitting huge numbers of home runs. He did, however, lead the league in a certain category six times, but not the kind of category that his nickname would suggest: sacrifice hits. Haas led the league in sacrifices 1930-1934, and again in 1936. For his career he had 227 sacrifice hits, currently fifty-fourth all time.

So I guess that Mule Haas was the beast of burden for his squad, carrying them in a statistic. Not quite the statistic I had in mind for his nickname, but there you go.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

June 29th, 1954

Rick Honeycutt Born

Coming on the heels of Alex Rodriguez' walk-off home run yesterday afternoon in the Bronx, which should put to bed, at least for a few days, the cries of his inability to hit in big situations, I was thinking about pressure situations and players' ability to perform in them generally. I've always been slightly dubious of the idea of all players being "clutch" and others not; it seems hopelessly subjective. While there are some players who I'm willing to concede are shaky in big moments (Armando Benitez springs to mind) those players are few and far between, the exception as opposed to the rule.

But what does any of this have to do with Rick Honeycutt? Honeycutt has pitched--exclusively as a reliever--in eleven post season series. Although he has a 3-0 record, Honeycutt has a fairly awful 6.93 ERA in his almost twenty-five post season innings, suggesting that the pressure of the big stage gets to him, especially when compared with his lifetime 3.72 ERA.

It isn't, of course, that simple. In fact, it's not that simple on a variety of different levels. In his first two post season appearances (for the Dodgers in 1983 and 1985 NLCS) Honeycutt gave up six runs in three innings, for an ERA of 18 even. In 1988 however, now pitching for the A's against his former team in the World Series and the Red Sox in the ALCS Honeycutt threw five and a third scoreless innings, having apparently learned how to handle the pressure and winning two games.

Unfortunately for Honeycutt, he evidently forgot how to handle the pressure in the ALCS the next year giving up six runs (and five walks) in under two innings, while giving up another two in the World Series for good measure. Happily, he rediscovered how to handle pressure in the 1990 playoffs, once again going without being scored upon in the both the ALCS and World Series. He continued that in the 1992 playoffs, giving up no runs in the A's six game loss to the Blue Jays. Reunited with Tony LaRussa in St. Louis in 1996 however, Honeycutt had lost the post season touch, and posted a 6.75 ERA.

Ok, so that's just silly. Maybe Honeycutt was feeling the pressure in his first two playoff appearances but he clearly got the hang of it by 1988, and the capacity to withstand pressure doesn't come-and-go for no reason. In fact, there's no way to slice-and-dice Honeycutt's numbers to draw meaning from them. The only consistent factor was that he performed far better in the World Series (2.35 ERA in seven and two-thirds) than the LCS (10.05 in fourteen and a third), but that doesn't show us anything since one assumes there's more pressure in the World Series than the LCS.

So what does all of this show us? There really isn't anything to it. There might be a handful of players who crumble under pressure but they're a rarity. Most of what we view as clutch performance, or huge failure is just the usual player performance, blown up on a big stage when players only have a chance or two to fail or succeed. Rick Honeycutt failed sometimes and he succeeded others, just like nearly all players. Everything else is noise.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

June 28th, 2002

Bartolo Colon Traded

I'm pretty sure I've written at some point about how bad trades end up being over simplified. Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, Dick Simpson and Jack Baldschun? That one is going down in history (and in Bull Durham) as Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas. Those deals are usually remembered by the name of the hot prospect at the time, and when said hot prospect fails to pan out, the deal is shortened for the sake of infamy.

Today's trade is a rarity in that while the top prospect included failed to pan out the trade is nonetheless regarded as robbery in favor of the team getting the prospects. The deal sent then Indians' ace Bartolo Colon (along with little known Tim Drew) to the Wild Card contending Expos for basically everything in the Expos' farm system not nailed down. Actually, the Expos sent Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee to Cleveland, along with Lee Stevens to help balance salaries.

Colon was good, but not great in Montreal, and the Expos fell well short of the Wild Card they were chasing and would unload Colon in the off-season. Indians' management, meanwhile, was thrilled with the trade. Sizemore and Lee were well-regarded players, but the real prize was Brandon Phillips. Seen as a "can't miss" prospect, Phillips was a twenty-one year old shortstop who had dominated Double-A most of the season. He posted respectable numbers during a late season call up with Cleveland in 2002, but that marked Phillips only effective time with the Tribe. Over four seasons he hit just .206 in limited time after being moved to second base and acquired a reputation as a sulky player unwilling to accept coaching. He was unceremoniously dumped to the Reds this spring in exchange for the ubiquitous player to be named later. (As it turns out, the still only twenty-four year old Phillips may yet have the last laugh; as of today he was hitting .308/.354/.456 for the surprising Reds while Cleveland has struggled.)

With the top prospect in the trade a bust--at least in Jacobs Field--the Indians would ordinarily be looking forward to years of being crucified for dealing their ace for seemingly nothing. (Mind you, said crucifixions are hardly uncommon in Cleveland, a franchise that has managed to trade away Jeff Kent, Pedro Guerrero, Graig Nettles, Joe Carter and Brian Giles just in the last thirty-five years; and to think people wonder why they haven't won jack in ages.) In this case however, Cleveland could honestly say they had fleeced Montreal, even with Phillips seeming flame out. Cliff Lee, the left handed pitcher acquired in the trade, won eighteen games last year, although he has struggled somewhat this year. Grady Sizemore meanwhile has become a legitimate superstar in center field, hitting .300 and slugging nearly .550 this year while playing Gold Glove defense. Sizemore is also hugely popular in Cleveland, with a "Grady's Ladies" fan club having been formed by Sizemore's female admirers.

Most times teams make a trade for a big prospect we either remember when it works brilliantly or when it fails miserably. Such determinations are usually made on the prospect in the trade, and that's how such deals are remembered. As the Indians, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore make it clear however, sometimes deals run far deeper than the big names.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

June 27th, 1963

Tigers at Twins

The truism that one sees something new every time you go to the game has been repeated to the point that it would probably more honestly be called a cliché. It is still true however, and that's the most important part. Sometimes one has to look close, but every game has something new. This game, for example, seems fairly ordinary. A 10-6 Twins victory, it does include a complete game victory by Jim Perry, despite giving up six runs, something you probably wouldn't see these days. But that wasn't especially rare in 1963, and a look at the box score doesn't seem to provide any clues as to the odd feature of this game. But look closely, can you spot it?

Don't feel bad if you can't, unless I had known what to be looking for, I wouldn't have seen it either. The interesting part in this game concerns Tiger first baseman Norm Cash. Offensively, Cash had a forgettable day, going o-for-4, three times making out while leading off an inning. The rarely seen thing concerns Cash's defense, namely that he didn't play any. Despite being at first base, a position which traditionally records the most put outs in a given game--the Twins' two first baseman, for example, recorded a combined seven--Cash did not have a single put out. More than that, Cash didn't record a single assist or error, which means he went the entire game without a single chance. It's not often the first baseman basically could've left his glove at home the entire game.

That's not like seeing a player hit for the cycle or throw a no-hitter--I assume no one ran home to breathlessly tell their family the news--but it is further evidence that every game brings something new.

Monday, June 26, 2006

June 26th, 1969

Mike Myers Born

Not, of course, the comic actor or the fictional serial killer, although this Mike Myers does have a link to both. For one, his nickname is Shrek, based on a supposed facial resemblance to the eponymous cartoon character voiced by the acting Mike Myers. Myers also enters games at Yankee Stadium (and elsewhere during different points of his career) to the theme from Halloween, the film series in which serial killer Michael Myers appears.

The links go deeper than that, however. What Michael Myers is to innocent townsfolk, Mike Myers is to left handed hitters. Throwing from an extreme side arm slot--almost underhand--that was suggested by Hall of Famer Al Kaline when Myers first came up with the Tigers, he is devastating on lefties. For his career, lefties have hit under .210 in more than a thousand career at-bats. The Yankees, tired of the antics of the Felix Heredias and Gabe Whites of the world, signed Myers this season for just that purpose, and have so far been rewarded. Although Myers gave up a towering home run to Yankee nemesis David Ortiz, for the year he has retired twenty-five of thirty-five lefties he's been called upon to face, including ten by strikeout.

Of course, the downside of Myers' motion is that while it kills lefties, righties absolutely destroy him to the tune of a better than .300 average for his career. This is what Mike Myers, the pitcher, has in common with Mike Myers the actor. Acting Mike Myers does comedy, while pitching Mike Myers facing right-handers is basically a joke.

That creates one of the odder elements of Myers' career, although he has appeared in nearly eight hundred games and currently ranks in the top fifty all time for appearances (and almost in the active top ten) Myers has thrown fewer innings than anyone else on that list, not even five hundred for his career. If one sets the bar at a minimum numbers of games or innings, Mike Myers has a legitimate shot at ending his career with the highest ratio of games to innings pitched. Such is the life of a left-handed specialist.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

June 25th, 1921

Ray Fisher Banned

Most of the players placed on the "Permanently Ineligible" list are at least mildly (in)famous, having been placed there for gambling or game-fixing or things of that nature. At least one of them however, was placed on the list for an entirely different reason, and later assembled such a formidable reputation that he was invited to Old Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium as the Guest of Honor. That man was Ray Fisher.

Fisher was a sometimes good but generally league average starter for the Yankees and Reds in the teens, having his best year in 1915 when he won eighteen games with a 2.11 ERA. Fisher left the Yankees for the Reds after the 1917 season, and pitched in two games in the 1919 World Series, taking the loss when Dickie Kerr (one of the "Clean Sox") threw a shutout in Game Three. Fisher apparently retired after the 1920 season, ending his career with exactly one hundred wins. It is at this point that things get a little hazy, with multiple people having different versions of the same story. The consensus view seems to be that Fisher asked to be placed on the voluntarily retired list so that could accept the head baseball coach job at the University of Michigan. Reds' management apparently annoyed with Fisher's past salary demands instead renewed his contract and when Fisher (obviously) didn't pitch in 1921, had him banned for contract jumping. The irony of placing a member of the 1919 Reds on the same list as the 1919 White Sox evidently escaped both Reds' management and Judge Landis.

Ultimately, Fisher would have the last laugh. He helped build Michigan into a baseball powerhouse, coaching there for thirty-eight years, winning a number--sources vary between nine, fourteen and fifteen--of Big Ten titles, and the National Championship in 1953. (Fisher also coached freshman football for a period; one of his players was future President Gerald Ford.) The Michigan baseball field is to this day named in his honor. Finally in 1960 Fisher was removed from the banned list, and awarded a lifetime pass to all Major League games. One assumes Fisher enjoyed a number of games on that pass, as he lived to be ninety-five years old and was the oldest living Red and Yankee at the time of his death in 1982. The year before his death, however, was the likely highlight for Fisher, as that marked his Guest of Honor appearance at Yankee Stadium on Old Timers' Day. Suffice it to say it was a long way from the permanently ineligible list.

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