The Fielding Machine

In the 1940s, Paul Bowa played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization for the Sacramento Solons in the Pacific Coast League. One evening Bowa was at bat when a screaming fastball veered inside, smashing Bowa in the skull. He dropped to the dirt unconscious, and apparently dead. A minister was found who gave him last rites. But Bowa, known as a tough nut, recovered. The fastball couldn’t kill him but it killed his career.
Fortunately, the tough nut sired a chip off the old block—Larry Bowa, who put in 16 years in the big leagues, made four All-Star teams, and won two Gold Gloves while setting all-time records in fielding.
Lawrence Robert Bowa was born on Decmeber 6, 1945. His inherited mettle manifested itself when he tried out at shortstop for McClatchy High School in Sacramento. Bowa tried out for four years and was rejected each time. The coach said the 5’ 10” 155 pound Bowa was too small.
He then went to a junior college, made the team and played well enough to attract a scout named Eddie Bockman Bockman drove 90 miles to check out the scrappy Bowa in a double-header. Bowa was ejected in the first inning of each game for arguing with an umpire. Bockman crossed him off his list.
Later that year the Philadelphia Phillies sponsored a team in a San Francisco-area league. Bowa tried out for shortstop. The coach was none other than Eddie Bockman, who told him to behave or hit the road. Bowa behaved, played well and signed with the Phillies for $2,000.
He broke in to the big leagues in 1970 and played until 1985, mostly with the Phillies. Larry Bowa didn’t have the range of Dave Concepcion, the power of Robin Yount, or the arm of Mark Belanger; nor could be perform the back flips of Ozzie Smith. But he did one thing with uncanny consistency—he caught the ball and threw it accurately, almost never making an error.
In the late seventies, Bowa held six of the top ten all-time single-season fielding percentage titles for a shortstop. When he retired he had the best career fielding percentage in major league history (.980). He also had the single-season record (.991), set in 1979 when he made just six errors. His records have since been broken, but in his time he was the best.
Known as “Gnat” for his pesky persistence, Bowa once said, “Ya know, they say I have soft hands, but the thing that makes a good shortstop is footwork. You get to the ball, get your body out of the way, and make the throw.”
Now you might point out that today’s stat-mongers claim that range is more important than fielding percentage. That may be true, but of all the statistics regarding middle infielders (assists, putouts, double-plays, range factor), only one—fielding percentage—stands alone, having no relation to other factors. A shortstop with a million double-plays or assists must have a steady partner at second base, and probably plays on a team with a pitching staff loaded with ground-ball pitchers.
I’m not saying that range is unimportant. And keep in mind: Bowa was no slouch when it came to reaching balls. The guy played basketball in high school, which means he had more than a modicum of agility and quickness—tools essential for range. He was fast–stole over 300 bases.
Defensive stats are all measurable; they’re tangibles. But there’s an intangible: If you’re a pitcher out there on the mound and you look over your shoulder and see a guy like Bowa, who almost never makes an error, I’m thinking a sense of security washes over you; it makes you a better pitcher
After retiring, Bowa managed and coached. In 2001 he was named Manager of the Year with the Phillies. Now 72, he’s an advisor to the team’s General Manager.
A FINAL NOTE: In a previous post (The Halo Effect), I was unfair to Jim Bunning. I should have pointed out that he had 4 seasons with 19 wins, giving him nine seasons with at least 17 wins. His career was not all icing and no cake.

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The Halo Effect

Bill James, the “Sultan of Stats,” once wrote that Roberto Clemente, “rated by consensus as the 13th greatest player of all time, has, I think, benefited from a halo effect because of his heroic death.” (James rates Clemente 74th.)
Roy Halladay, I believe, benefits from a similar halo effect because of his tragic death in a recent plane crash. Within minutes of the report of his death, baseball talk-show hosts and reporters began beating the drums for his first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. He isn’t eligible for election until next year, so the drum beat may fade as the halo effect dims.
A big man—6-6, 225—Halladay pitched 16 seasons with the Blue Jays and Phillies, logging a career won-lost record of 203-105 and an ERA of 3.38. He had two nice streaks, one early in his career (19-7 in 2002; 22-7 in 2003) and one late (20-11, 17-10, 21-10, 19-6 from 2008 through 2011).
Halladay bolstered his Cooperstown chances by tossing two no-hitters, one a perfect game—icing on the cake of his career. But is the cake worthy of Cooperstown? I say yes, but not on the first ballot. That’s for guys like Warren Spahn or Bob Gibson. Still, Halladay has another stat that helps his cause. Baseball Reference includes an interesting statistic for every major league player: 162-game average. Halladay’s won-lost record per season is 17-9, which is outstanding.
That stat brings to mind a Hall of Famer who also threw two no hitters—Jim Bunning. He was a good pitcher, but a questionable Hall of Famer. The Baseball Writers Association turned him down 15 times before he fell off their ballot. Bunning was then ushered into the Hall through the back door with the help of votes from friends on the Veterans Committee.
He won 224 games, but lost 184, a .549 winning percentage. His 162-game average won-lost mark is 14-11, hardly Hall of Fame numbers. Bunning did match Halladay by hurling two no-hitters, one a perfect game—icing on the cake of his career. But is the cake worthy of Cooperstown? I say no. Bunning is all icing, no cake.

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The Fabulous Five

In a previous post (“The Triumvirate,” June 25, 2016) I wrote about my choices for the three greatest ballplayers in history. Now, I turn to pitchers—-the greatest five-man fantasy rotation of all time.  Some may argue with the choices. For example, younger fans may take issue with the picks, which start in the dead-ball era and end in the 1980s. But legendary status takes time to develop: it must age like good whiskey. So, for this old baseball guy, anyone touting Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale is premature. Their turn will come in time.

First, I wanted three right handers and two lefties; therefore, batters would have to face a rotation of R-L-R-L-R.  I then looked for hurlers with top winning percentages.  Lifetime wins are impressive, to be sure, but if a pitcher had a shorter, but brilliant career, I took him over Cy Young, for example, who won 511 games but pitched ten years in the 19thcentury.  By the way, no pitcher tainted by steroid use made my list (Roger Clemens).

I found eight lists of top ten (or more) pitchers.  I then looked for those with excellent winning percentages and outstanding earned run averages.  Finally, to determine a rough consensus, I looked for five pitchers who made at least four of the eight lists.  Here is my five-man rotation:

WALTER JOHNSON (1907-27).  “The Big Train” is the greatest pitcher ever.  Winner of 417 games, he posted a winning percentage of .599 and an ERA of 2.17.  And dig this: He threw 110 shutouts!  That’s a record that won’t be broken unless pitchers again go nine innings.  He ranks 5th or higher on six of the eight lists, topping two of them.  Incidentally, Johnson was not listed on one of the lists.  That it had Bert Blyleven 5th, Gaylord Perry 6th, and Curt Schilling 14th, explains The Train’s omission.

LEFTY GROVE(1925-41).  I think Grove is the most underrated pitcher ever; this is emphasized here by his making only four of the eight lists.  Grove won 300 games while losing only 141.  That’s a winning percentage of .680!  His ERA of 3.06 was posted in the slugging 1920s and ‘30s.  Of all the pitchers on the lists, his 162-game won-lost record of 19-9 is the best.

TOM SEAVER (1967-86).  Known as “Tom Terrific,” Seaver won 311 games, posting a .603 winning percentage and an ERA of 2.86.  He got on five lists, topping one of them.

SANDY KOUFAX (1955-66).  From 1961 through 1966 Koufax won five ERA titles, and finished his career with a 2.76 and a .655 winning percentage.  He topped one list, making four.

BOB GIBSON (1959-75).  He made five of the eight lists and ranked second on one, behind Seaver.  Gibson won just a shade under 60 percent of his games, compiling an ERA of 2.91, including an awesome 1.12 in 1968.

Now, I would have no argument against two of three lefties—Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton or Warren Spahn—replacing Koufax and Grove.  This is a subjective enterprise.  As for righties, if you prefer Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander or Greg Maddux, that’s fine. One right-hander I would argue against, however, is Nolan Ryan, who won 324 games, but lost 292, a .526 winning percentage.  His 162-game average was 14-13.  His seven no-hitters can’t compensate for that.

In an earlier post (“The Triumvirate,” June 25, 2016) I presented my choices for the greatest three ballplayers in history.  Now I present the pitchers—in the form of the greatest five-man rotation.  You may argue with it, and no doubt will.  Younger fans may take issue because my picks begin in the dead-ball era and end in the 1980s.  But I think greatness—legendary status—takes time to develop; it must age, like good whiskey.  So anyone touting the likes of Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale is premature.

Here are my criteria:  First, I wanted three righties and two lefties, so that batters would have to face a rotation of R-L-R-L-R.  I then looked for hurlers with a high winning percentage.  Lifetime wins are impressive, to be sure, but if a pitcher had a shorter, but brilliant career, I took him over Cy Young, for example, who won 511 games but pitched ten years in the 19thcentury.  By the way, no pitcher tainted by steroid use made my list (Roger Clemens).

I found eight lists of top ten (or more) pitchers.  I then looked for those with excellent winning percentages and outstanding earned run averages.  Finally, to determine a rough consensus, I looked for five pitchers who made at least four of the eight lists.  Here is my five-man rotation:

WALTER JOHNSON (1907-27).  “The Big Train” is the greatest pitcher ever.  Winner of 417 games, he posted a winning percentage of .599 and an ERA of 2.17.  And dig this: He threw 110 shutouts!  That’s a record that won’t be broken unless pitchers again go nine innings.  He ranks 5th or higher on six of the eight lists, topping two of them.  Incidentally, Johnson was not listed on one of the lists.  That it had Bert Blyleven 5th, Gaylord Perry 6th, and Curt Schilling 14th, explains The Train’s omission.

LEFTY GROVE(1925-41).  I think Grove is the most underrated pitcher ever; this is emphasized here by his making only four of the eight lists.  Grove won 300 games while losing only 141.  That’s a winning percentage of .680!  His ERA of 3.06 was posted in the slugging 1920s and ‘30s.  Of all the pitchers on the lists, his 162-game won-lost record of 19-9 is the best.

TOM SEAVER (1967-86).  Known as “Tom Terrific,” Seaver won 311 games, posting a .603 winning percentage and an ERA of 2.86.  He got on five lists, topping one of them.

SANDY KOUFAX (1955-66).  From 1961 through 1966 Koufax won five ERA titles, and finished his career with a 2.76 and a .655 winning percentage.  He topped one list, making four.

BOB GIBSON (1959-75).  He made five of the eight lists and ranked second on one, behind Seaver.  Gibson won just a shade under 60 percent of his games, compiling an ERA of 2.91, including an awesome 1.12 in 1968.

Now, I would have no argument against two of three lefties—Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton or Warren Spahn—replacing Koufax and Grove.  This is a subjective enterprise.  As for righties, if you prefer Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander or Greg Maddux, that’s fine. One right-hander I would argue against, however, is Nolan Ryan, who won 324 games, but lost 292, a .526 winning percentage.  His 162-game average was 14-13.  His seven no-hitters can’t compensate for that.

In an earlier post (“The Triumvirate,” June 25, 2016) I presented my choices for the greatest three ballplayers in history.  Now I present the pitchers—in the form of the greatest five-man rotation.  You may argue with it, and no doubt will.  Younger fans may take issue because my picks begin in the dead-ball era and end in the 1980s.  But I think greatness—legendary status—takes time to develop; it must age, like good whiskey.  So anyone touting the likes of Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale is premature.

Here are my criteria:  First, I wanted three righties and two lefties, so that batters would have to face a rotation of R-L-R-L-R.  I then looked for hurlers with a high winning percentage.  Lifetime wins are impressive, to be sure, but if a pitcher had a shorter, but brilliant career, I took him over Cy Young, for example, who won 511 games but pitched ten years in the 19thcentury.  By the way, no pitcher tainted by steroid use made my list (Roger Clemens).

I found eight lists of top ten (or more) pitchers.  I then looked for those with excellent winning percentages and outstanding earned run averages.  Finally, to determine a rough consensus, I looked for five pitchers who made at least four of the eight lists.  Here is my five-man rotation:

WALTER JOHNSON (1907-27).  “The Big Train” is the greatest pitcher ever.  Winner of 417 games, he posted a winning percentage of .599 and an ERA of 2.17.  And dig this: He threw 110 shutouts!  That’s a record that won’t be broken unless pitchers again go nine innings.  He ranks 5th or higher on six of the eight lists, topping two of them.  Incidentally, Johnson was not listed on one of the lists.  That it had Bert Blyleven 5th, Gaylord Perry 6th, and Curt Schilling 14th, explains The Train’s omission.

LEFTY GROVE(1925-41).  I think Grove is the most underrated pitcher ever; this is emphasized here by his making only four of the eight lists.  Grove won 300 games while losing only 141.  That’s a winning percentage of .680!  His ERA of 3.06 was posted in the slugging 1920s and ‘30s.  Of all the pitchers on the lists, his 162-game won-lost record of 19-9 is the best.

TOM SEAVER (1967-86).  Known as “Tom Terrific,” Seaver won 311 games, posting a .603 winning percentage and an ERA of 2.86.  He got on five lists, topping one of them.

SANDY KOUFAX (1955-66).  From 1961 through 1966 Koufax won five ERA titles, and finished his career with a 2.76 and a .655 winning percentage.  He topped one list, making four.

BOB GIBSON (1959-75).  He made five of the eight lists and ranked second on one, behind Seaver.  Gibson won just a shade under 60 percent of his games, compiling an ERA of 2.91, including an awesome 1.12 in 1968.

Now, I would have no argument against two of three lefties—Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton or Warren Spahn—replacing Koufax and Grove.  This is a subjective enterprise.  As for righties, if you prefer Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander or Greg Maddux, that’s fine. One right-hander I would argue against, however, is Nolan Ryan, who won 324 games, but lost 292, a .526 winning percentage.  His 162-game average was 14-13.  His seven no-hitters can’t compensate for that.

In an earlier post (“The Triumvirate,” June 25, 2016) I presented my choices for the greatest three ballplayers in history.  Now I present the pitchers—in the form of the greatest five-man rotation.  You may argue with it, and no doubt will.  Younger fans may take issue because my picks begin in the dead-ball era and end in the 1980s.  But I think greatness—legendary status—takes time to develop; it must age, like good whiskey.  So anyone touting the likes of Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale is premature.

Here are my criteria:  First, I wanted three righties and two lefties, so that batters would have to face a rotation of R-L-R-L-R.  I then looked for hurlers with a high winning percentage.  Lifetime wins are impressive, to be sure, but if a pitcher had a shorter, but brilliant career, I took him over Cy Young, for example, who won 511 games but pitched ten years in the 19thcentury.  By the way, no pitcher tainted by steroid use made my list (Roger Clemens).

I found eight lists of top ten (or more) pitchers.  I then looked for those with excellent winning percentages and outstanding earned run averages.  Finally, to determine a rough consensus, I looked for five pitchers who made at least four of the eight lists.  Here is my five-man rotation:

WALTER JOHNSON (1907-27).  “The Big Train” is the greatest pitcher ever.  Winner of 417 games, he posted a winning percentage of .599 and an ERA of 2.17.  And dig this: He threw 110 shutouts!  That’s a record that won’t be broken unless pitchers again go nine innings.  He ranks 5th or higher on six of the eight lists, topping two of them.  Incidentally, Johnson was not listed on one of the lists.  That it had Bert Blyleven 5th, Gaylord Perry 6th, and Curt Schilling 14th, explains The Train’s omission.

LEFTY GROVE(1925-41).  I think Grove is the most underrated pitcher ever; this is emphasized here by his making only four of the eight lists.  Grove won 300 games while losing only 141.  That’s a winning percentage of .680!  His ERA of 3.06 was posted in the slugging 1920s and ‘30s.  Of all the pitchers on the lists, his 162-game won-lost record of 19-9 is the best.

TOM SEAVER (1967-86).  Known as “Tom Terrific,” Seaver won 311 games, posting a .603 winning percentage and an ERA of 2.86.  He got on five lists, topping one of them.

SANDY KOUFAX (1955-66).  From 1961 through 1966 Koufax won five ERA titles, and finished his career with a 2.76 and a .655 winning percentage.  He topped one list, making four.

BOB GIBSON (1959-75).  He made five of the eight lists and ranked second on one, behind Seaver.  Gibson won just a shade under 60 percent of his games, compiling an ERA of 2.91, including an awesome 1.12 in 1968.

Now, I would have no argument against two of three lefties—Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton or Warren Spahn—replacing Koufax and Grove.  This is a subjective enterprise.  As for righties, if you prefer Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander or Greg Maddux, that’s fine. One right-hander I would argue against, however, is Nolan Ryan, who won 324 games, but lost 292, a .526 winning percentage.  His 162-game average was 14-13.  His seven no-hitters can’t compensate for that.

 

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Trumpenstein

In 1952 the United States loaned two billion dollars to France, mired in a war against the Vietnamese, who sought their independence.  Despite the loan, the French eventually lost.  But the loan meant more than money; it was the first step taken on a long road of American involvement in Vietnam.  It ended in a war that killed 58,000 American soldiers and possibly a million Vietnamese.  The United States lost.

The Vietnam War destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, divided the country, and brought Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968.  The war launched a half-century of Republican pandering to the lowest common denominator.  Nixon exploited the division between working class “hard-hats” and anti-war protester (aided no doubt by a few infantile, leftist radicals enchanted by the fantasy of revolution).  Nixon strategists rolled out the “Southern Strategy”—the wooing of racist Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party into the Republican fold.

In the 1980s the baton of pander was handed to Ronald Reagan, who delivered a cynical “States Rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in the 1960s.  Before long, the South went solidly Republican.  As the political pendulum swung further right in the 1990s, the center became right and the right became radical; “conservative” blowhards, formerly confined to bellowing from the backwaters, now spewed from the mainstream; liberals were demonized as traitors by the likes of Ann Coulter.  (For the sake of brevity, I’ve skipped both the Carter and the Clinton Administrations.)

The stage was now set for two of the worst presidential administrations in American history (sandwiched around one of the best).  As the 21st century dawned, mediocrity, personified by George W. Bush, was inserted into the White House by a conservative Supreme Court.  Bush, a precursor of things to come, ignored warnings of a possible attack by Al Qaida.  He then invaded Iraq on false pretences, Iraq having nothing to do with 9/11.  The invasion destabilized the Middle East, sparked the rise of ISIS, and led to a westward wave of desperate refugees This says nothing of the meltdown in the U.S. economy.

The Bush Administration failures led to the election of Barack Obama, who righted the ship and brought eight years of relative calm and progress.  But his tenure did not stop Republican mischief; on the contrary, it increased.  On the very night of Obama’s election, Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, convened a hasty meeting, where they swore to block every initiative of the new president, no matter their worth.

The Affordable Care Act symbolizes eight years of GOP intransigence.  It’s worth taking a little space to address it.  A conservative plan, first put forth by the Heritage Foundation in 1989, became the target of relentless attack; over 60 votes were taken in the House to repeal it.  Even now, with a Republican president, the GOP pulled its own health plan from the House for lack of votes.  Nonetheless, they could still destroy the Affordable Care Act by voting to repeal the mandatory provision which conservatives loathe.  Regarding that, here’s a quote from the Heritage Plan: “There is an implicit contract between households and society based on the notion that health insurance is not like other forms of insurance protection.  A mandate on individuals recognizes that contract.” And check this one:  “Direct and indirect government assistance should be concentrated on those who need it most.” Sounds like socialism!  Had a conservative president put forth a health-care plan identical to “Obamacare,” Republicans would have hailed its genius.

Almost a hundred years ago, H. L. Mencken said, “Sooner or later the American people will elect as President a narcissistic moron.”  Mencken got part of it right.  Trump got a lot of votes from fellow morons and a few from fools, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that his “election” was manipulated by Vladimir Putin and a handful of anti-democratic billionaires.  (See “Trump’s Money Man” in the New Yorker of March 27, 2017.)

It’s amusing to watch Republicans wrestle with the problem of Donald Trump.  One could almost feel sorry for them.  But Trump, his cabinet, and the people who advise him are dangerous—a threat to democracy.

So shed no tears for the Grand Old Party.  Donald Trump is the culmination of 50 years of Republican pandering.  They created him, and they must deal with him.

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Rule 5 and Other Baseball Terms

Recently I stopped for a red light on a busy street in Portland.  In front of me an SUV sported a vanity license plate:  RULE 5.  Now there’s a ball fan, I thought, who knows the game and isn’t averse to showing it with pride, if not a dash of conceit.  I followed him a few blocks hoping to catch him and ask him about it, but I lost him at the next light.

 

But it gave me an idea for a post.  A lot of fans may be familiar with certain baseball terms, but aren’t sure of their meaning.  So here’s a small list of partial definitions garnered from the Dickson Baseball Dictionary (and door stop; the tome is hefty, nearly a thousand pages).

 

Rule 5 draft:  A draft of unprotected minor-league players, in which major-league clubs select in reverse order of their winning percentages at the close of the preceding championship season, with teams from each league choosing alternately.  A player not on a major-league 40-man roster is eligible to be drafted.  [Certain conditions apply, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll keep this short.  See the dictionary for complete definitions; I highly recommend the Dickson; it’s chock full of interesting facts and etymology.]

 

Incaviglia Rule:  A rule that a player selected in the first-year player draft cannot be traded within a year of being drafted.  The rule was adopted after Pete Incaviglia was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1985 and refused to sign, forcing the team to trade him.  [Inky was not a great player, but got a rule named after him.]

 

wand:  A baseball bat.  1ST USE.  1872.  “Trumbull took up the ashen wand” (George G. Small, A Presidential Base-Ball Match, p. 23).

 

WHIP:  Abbrev. For walks plus hits per innings pitched.

 

wins above replacement (WAR):  The number of wins a player is responsible for beyond the replacement level at the player’s position.  The measure was devised by Clay Davenport.

 

can of corn:  an easily caught fly ball; a high, lazy fly ball that allows a defensive player time to stand under the ball and catch it easily.  [The etymology of this term was thought for years “to come from the old time grocery store where the grocer used a pole . . . to tip an item, such as a can of corn, off a high shelf and let it tumble into his hands . . . .”  Other theories have emerged, but the grocer catch seems to hang on as the best.

Well, that’s enough for now.  I may throw in a few more the next time I’m too lazy to come up with a proper post.  Cheers! Pitchers and catchers are reporting!

 

 

 

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2017 Hall of Fame Vote

I would vote for only two players on the 2017 ballot:  Mike Mussina and Vladimir Guerrero, a first timer on the ballot this year.  They’re similar players:  Neither logged an absolutely off-the-chart season, but both had long careers of sustained excellence.  Guerrero never led the league in batting, RBI, or home runs, but hit .318 and averaged 34 homers and 113 RBI per season for 16 years.  For Mussina’s record, see my posts of September 18, 2013 (The Cooperstown Case for Mike Mussina) and January 10, 2016 (Mussina v. Schilling).

To avoid ambiguity, I don’t advocate any player tainted by PED use or rumored as such.  That’s why I don’t include Manny Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez, first timers this year.

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11-8-16: The Election of Illusions

No one understands the human heart at all who does not recognize how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.

-Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)

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