John Grisham’s mini-brain fart

Listening to the audiobook of John Grisham’s new novel, Calico Joe, I heard something which made me pause, not unlike how Jaguar Paw might have reacted to coming across a Chili’s outside a Mayan city.

What I heard was that Joe Castle was coming to bat for the 4th time — in a game tied at 6 — with 2 outs in the top of the 9th inning. Any MLB fan fan worth his Bill James Baseball Abstract collection would feel cognitive dissonance rippling through their DNA at the notion that a hitter in that scenario would only have 4 plate appearances, if he had been in the lineup for the entire game.

Here are the limited facts that Grisham provides about Castle’s plate appearances and the game scenario:

  • Castle was in the starting lineup and hit 7th.
  • Came to bat for the 1st time in the top of the 2nd inning. Home run.
  • 2nd at-bat came in the 5th inning. Home run.
  • His team had scored 4 runs before his 3rd at-bat.
  • 3rd at-bat came in the 7th inning. Home run [HR].
  • Before Castle’s next at-bat in the 9th inning, Grisham notes that he had hit 3 home runs in “consecutive” at-bats. This rules out that Castle could have had a non-HR at-bat [i.e., walk, error, HBP]. If that had been the case, Grisham could not have accurately described his HR at-bats as “consecutive.”
  • 4th at-bat comes in the 9th inning with Don Kessinger on 3rd base and 2 outs with the score tied at 6. Castle bunts for a base hit and Kessinger scores. That 7th run is described as the “eventual winning run.”

Here’s the problem. In order for Castle’s 9th inning at-bat to match Grisham’s game scenario [Castle is the Cubs 34th batter], he unrealistically limits the runners left on base [LOB] by the Cubs during a game in which they had scored 6 and eventually would end up with at least 7 runs — “eventual winning run” means the Cubs could have gone on to score more than the 7 runs, but the opponent was held to 6. Here are the results of the previous 33 at bats:

  • 26 – outs made – with 2 outs in the 9th inning
  • 06 – runs scored
  • 01 – runner [Kessinger] on base in the 9th
  • 00 – zero runners left on base [LOB] during first 8 innings

How unusual is it for a team which, after Castle’s bunt, had scored 7 runs and left only 1 runner [Castle in the 9th] on base to that point in the game? Let’s look at the actual team which was the basis for the story, the 1973 Chicago Cubs. The Cubs scored 7 runs in 8 games that season. They averaged 8 runners LOB in those 8 games. The lowest total was 6, the highest was 9.

This might be the last MLB trivia question which cannot be answered online: What is the most runs scored by a MLB team with zero runners left on base? I’d love to know. Even the great Baseball Almanac, does not provide records of Team LOB records based on the number of runs scored.

But Grisham has another problem. During 1973, Don Kessinger’s place in the batting order was 1st, 2nd or 8th. Since Kessinger was the runner on 3rd base during Castle’s 9th inning at-bat with 2 outs, this would mean that Kessinger was hitting anywhere from the 4th to the 6th [since Castle was hitting 7th] spot in Grisham’s lineup.

So the question is why Grisham lays out a baseball scenario which is so unrealistic? I get why homering in consecutive at bats makes a better story than squeezing a walk in between. I get why his last at-bat comes in the 9th inning. What I don’t get is why he sacrificed the plausibility of his game scenario by giving Castle’s team 6 runs and putting Kessinger on 3rd base, instead of 3 runs and Ron Santo or Billy Williams on 3rd base when Castle batted in the 9th?

I don’t object to a major leaguer’s storybook first game. But Grisham draws readers into the story with a number of baseball insights which indicate that a degree of authenticity was important to the story. Hell there was even Willie Montañez reference. One of the main characters even describes himself as obsessed with baseball statistics in his youth. And yet he fails the authenticity test in the most basic way.

The most logical conclusion must be that Grisham never even considered that there might be an issue given Castle’s at-bats and the score. All of which just makes Grisham [and a few well-paid editors and one fact checker] more normal than those of us who love the statistical aspect of the game. So it may not even a case of the author not doing his homework, perhaps he didn’t even realize there should have been an assignment.

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Gaby Sanchez vs Johan Santana

Looking for a bright spot in the loss to the hated and gratefully-seemingly-cursed New York Mets, I found it in Gaby Sanchez’s at bats against Johan Santana.

As a Dodger fan long ago, I remember reading in Bill James 1985 Abstract about Orel Hershiser. Although he didn’t make it to the majors until he was 25, in his 2nd year he had a consecutive scoreless innings streak of 34 in 1984. Easy to see now that it was a predictor of things to come, with Hershiser setting the MLB record for consecutive scoreless innings of 58 in his glorious year of 1988.

But in the spring of 1985, Hershiser had his doubters. In the type of analysis which would make Bill James … Bill James, he warned [I paraphrase as I could not find my 1985 BJBA, no doubt pilfered by close friend and book hog / wanna-be E-bay vendor, J. Garcia] those doubters that the list of pitchers who had tossed more than 30 shutout innings in the history of MLB was very short indeed. In effect, average players rarely accomplish things which are rare in MLB history. The James style was to state that if Hershiser turned out to be an average pitcher, that would be unusual.

While Gaby Sanchez — pride of Miami Brito, a fine school, but no Christopher Columbus] — did nothing rare in yesterday’s game, but he did do something unusually good for a young player given the circumstances.

Playing in the season opener in New York, in front of a big crowd and facing one of the best pitchers in MLB in his first 2 at bats, Sanchez had the following results:

  • 3rd inning vs Santana, 11 pitch at bat with six foul balls and ended by hitting a sharp single up the middle.
  • 5th inning vs Santana, 8 pitch at bat with three foul balls and ended by hitting a fly ball to right.
  • 7th inning vs Nieves, doubled to left on the 3rd pitch of the at bat.
  • 9th inning vs Rodriguez, 5 pitch at bat with 1 foul ball and lining out out to center.

The at bat in the 7th is also interesting because it came after the Marlins defensively disastrous bottom of the 6th, in which Sanchez was also charged with an error. So after showing great patience and plate discipline with Santana, Sanchez showed that he could be aggressive if the situation allowed and that he did not allow his fielding miscue to affect his at bat.

My point is not that yesterday’s game means that Sanchez will be a good MLB hitter, it is to say that players who are not good MLB hitters rarely have the type of hitting game Gaby Sanchez had yesterday.

By the way, speaking of short lists. The list of MLB pitchers with 40 or more consecutive scoreless innings have the following characteristics [see list below]:

  • Streak has been accomplished 19 times in MLB history
  • Streak has been accomplished only 7 times since 1967
  • Streak has been accomplished only 3 times since 1969 [did MLB hitters wear black armbands as a protest in 1968?]. Those pitchers are:
  1. Orel Hershiser in 1988
  2. Brandon Webb in 2007
  3. Luis Tiant in 1972
  • Number of pitchers to appear on the list twice: Two
  1. Walter Johnson
  2. Luis Clemente (Vega) Tiant
    If you haven’t seen it, please check out the Farrelly brothers documentary about Tiant
    The Lost Son of Havana

Is Double-A the New Triple-A?

If you were once a position player with a MLB team and find yourself in Triple-A, unless it’s a rehab assignment, be afraid, be very afraid. The odds are high that you are not in your team’s future plans. In theory, you are still competing at the highest level of Minor League baseball. But the fact that you didn’t stick in your initial opportunity, means that you just went from hotshot to long shot.

When I read in the Sun-Sentinel blog last week that the Marlins had released Dallas McPherson, I was surprised. Despite his poor Grapefruit League play, the man hit 42 home runs at Triple-A Albuquerque last season. Let me repeat that, Dallas McPherson led the minor leagues in home runs last season and was looking for a job a week before the next season opened. This was not a Crash Davis-type accomplishment either, the guy is only 28 years old.

So it made me wonder what it means to excel at the Triple-A level? To the casual fan [me], MLB’s minor league system represents a steadily increasing level of play, culminating at the Triple-A level. Back in 2003, the Marlins had two examples that indicated that something was amiss with the average fan’s perception that the Triple-A level would house your best prospects, when Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis both made their jumps to the big leagues from Double-A.

This is a subject worthy of in-depth analysis, but anecdotal thoughts are the best I can do during tax season. To do so, I need to invoke a name which, in a perfect world, mere mortals such as myself should really not be allowed to bandy about in a public forum. But this is not a perfect world and so his name is Bill James.

If you followed baseball and weren’t afraid of numbers in the early 80’s, Bill James was a revelation. He ripped the job title of ‘baseball analyst’ away from ex-players with network and local broadcasting jobs. He did so by delving into statistics with imagination and wit. It was eye-opening and intoxicating to realize that many of the ‘experts’ weren’t so much experts as they were cliche-machines. It was hard to seriously discuss baseball with anyone who hadn’t read James. Here’s what one well known economist and MLB fan, James Surowiecki, wrote in 2003:

Over the past 25 years, [Bill] James’ work on player evaluation, player development, and baseball strategy–which inaugurated the body of baseball research known as sabermetrics, has revolutionized baseball analysis and overturned decades’ worth of conventional wisdom.

I remembered that James had written that minor league statistics do mean something, that they had a correlation to a player’s eventual major league performance. I could not find that article to link. However, I did find an article by David Luciani in 1998 which discussed James initial article:

It has been more than fifteen years now since Bill James first wrote that minor league data meant something and it could be understood. James told us all that inevitably, major league baseball teams will eventually have to accept that. Surprisingly, major league GMs have paid too little attention to James’ philosophy and are suffering as a result of it.

In Luciani’s own analysis, he actually ascribed a percentage to predict various offensive categories going from minor to major leagues, i.e. 68% for home runs. Luciani summarized:

Quite simply, minor league statistics do mean something and perhaps the difficulty in accepting them has been because no one really knows how to read them. Even the so-called equivalencies that have become popular are useful but tend to over-reduce some columns and under-reduce others.

But enough of the serious math, back to my anecdotal analysis.

So is Double-A the new Triple-A? It reminds me of a kind of reverse Spinal Tap logic. [If you don’t think the volume knob reaching 11 is funny, please leave the blog now – see video here]. So let’s see how the current Marlins players [many who came up in other organizations] path to the big leagues have gone in terms of the number of games played at the various levels of Minor League baseball. While I do confine myself to players who were with the Marlins this Spring, only 4 of the 17 position players minor league careers were spent entirely with the Marlins, as such it is indicative of the mindset of various [18] organizations. The link to all the Marlins Minor League affiliates is here.

This is what I get from the numbers in my spreadsheet.

  • An organization’s best position player prospects are found in Double-A. That’s where an organization houses what they believe to be their gems. Rehab aside, Triple-A is more of a spare parts factory.
  • Where Chris Coghlan is reassigned to will reveal what they think of his prospects of being a MLB player. If it’s Double-A he’s still a hotshot, Triple-A he’s now a long shot.
  • A bigger appreciation of the kind of odds John Baker has overcome to earn a starting catcher’s position in MLB after over 348 games in Triple-A without having reached a MLB roster.
  • Even young stars pay their dues in the minor leagues. Hanley Ramirez spent four seasons in five cities affiliated with the Red Sox organization; Ft Myers [for loyal blog readers, this can not be used as one of our miracles] Lowell MA, Augusta GA and Portland ME. But not [of course] Pawtucket, RI–their Triple-A affiliate.
  • Players–like Dan Uggla–who never return to the minor leagues after getting their initial opportunity, are rare.
  • Partial guess, but the players with the most games at the Triple-A level probably constitute the next generation of coaches in professional baseball. These people have learned their craft, talent being a factor outside their control.
  • Players learn that baseball is a business long before they appear on the radar of us fans. A player is much more likely to have been traded and/or promoted based upon factors other than talent, i.e. arbitration timetables, another prospect at same position and teams using up their allotted player movements [i.e. Andino].

You have to feel for Triple-A players. They might appear to be closer than ever to their ultimate goal, but in effect they were told to get on a ship headed the wrong way based on someone’s evaluation. Those evaluations are an art, not a science. The contrast in expectations reminds me of a scene in the movie Rudy, where the reserves are told not to even look at the starters.

I picture a Triple-A player reading his morning paper during the season and learning that a player from Double-A was just called up. A player with less experience and who is competing against inferior competition than he is, is getting his shot. At that moment, Triple-A guy knows something intuitively that Double-A guy can not possibly imagine. While there are exceptions, as a matter of pure odds, another player’s dream just began to die.

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Injecting reason into the steroids debate

I contend that science, sports nutrition and statistics offer us sane MLB fans a way out [see the last paragraph] of the boring steroids monologue and phony outrage which sports commentators threaten to drown us with this coming season. The latest trigger were the recent disclosures about MLB players failed drug tests in 2003.

To recap, Alex Rodriguez is currently being vilified for admitting to taking performance enhancing drugs [PED] at a time when their use was widespread in MLB and not illegal. Further, the reason we know this is because a United States Attorneys Office subpoenad drug tests which players voluntarily submitted to under the explicit condition that the results be destroyed. J.C. Bradbury summarizes:

This is an absolute embarrassment to the US government. Here we have a private organization implementing a program to fix a problem that government officials wanted fixed. Players did not have to agree to random testing, and without the 2003 anonymous testing we might have a very different MLB drug policy today. The samples ultimately got used for something other than their intended purpose, and people wonder why players are were to reluctant to agree to testing in the first place? President Obama is right to shut down Gitmo for violating civil rights. He should shut down the BALCO case as well. The proper role of government isn’t to satisfy our curiosity about doping in sports. This has what this case is about.

Last night I was driving home from work and tuned into The Inside Pitch with Josh Friedman [O’Brien interview available], an interesting new radio show geared towards MLB fans. I heard someone, not Friedman, commenting on A-Rod and thought they made an interesting, but not well thought out point. His point was that he would support Barry Bonds for the Hall of Fame [HOF], but not A-Rod. The reason he gave was that Bonds career was HOF-worthy prior to his steroid use–he could tell when that began based on his obvious physical transformation–whereas he could not make a similar assessment of A-Rod.

The problem with that analysis is that not all PED’s result in the bulking up associated with body builders and Bonds in particular, for example Rafael Palmeiro. What I heard next was a little depressing. The guy talking was Dave O’Brien [not the Marlins former radio guy], the current president–based on a rotating system–of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America BBWAA.

I have no idea what kind of writer O’Brien is, I happily assume he is a good one. But based on his views with respect to the HOF and PED’s, he is clearly not very analytical when it comes to this issue. But PED’s are the hot issue in his profession at the moment, so the idea that he would be more analytical in other areas is unlikely. Sure enough, when you start reading about it, there is a bit of a turf war going on between newspaper writers and the web-based writers, let alone with the hard-core statistical guys. Given the revolution in the use of statistics to analyze MLB, which began with the great Bill James, it is a shame that those in the forefront of quantifying performances in a sport which lends itself more than most to quantifying performances, don’t have a more prominent role with mainstream fans.

Time to pick sides. I hope the statistical turks start their own HOF. The battle which Michael Lewis documented in the area of scouting with Moneyball, should be also come to the mainstream analysis of MLB and the HOF. From the average fans point of view, the main issue with steroids is how to properly weight the statistically inflated results associated with the era. It’s not hard to foresee various studies done which discount power numbers by 25% and improves ERA’s by 13%, etc. While they are at it, they can adjust for the size of ballparks throughout MLB’s history. Goodbye asterisks, hello promotional flash drives which contain revised leaders in various statistical categories. Pete Rose and I will bet on it.

My dream for MLB this year is that one of those brilliant people at The Hardball Times or Sabernomics come up with an analysis which shows how many home runs Babe Ruth would have hit if he was happily married, allergic to hot dogs, and spent the off-season working out with Red Grange. My own estimate is 822. Or how about estimating how many homers discrimination cost Hank Aaron’s. How about filling out Ted Williams career with full MLB seasons instead of being interrupted twice–TWICE–with stints in the armed services of his country.

There you have it, a new and improved career leaders in the MLB statistical clubhouse, end of outrage, but the beginning of incredibly fun statistical modeling. My current HR leader at 822 is not very scientific I grant you, but it is as reasoned as the criteria used by the current head of the BBWAA for determining his HOF vote in approximately 12 years.

Hannibal Lecter’s lesson

The next time you read or hear about “A-Fraud,” remember The Silence of the Lambs. FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling is trying to profile a serial killer called Buffalo Bill with the help of famed psychologist and serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, who teaches Starling the following:

He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? … We begin by coveting what we see every day.

So take a closer look at those by-lines or program hosts, maybe they just covet.

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