Guest post: Tom Buttry reflects on his life (and last night) as a Royals fan

1 10 2014
Tom Buttry, right, with his brothers, Joe, left, and Mike, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

Tom Buttry, right, with his brothers, Joe, left, and Mike, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

I’m enjoying this year’s post-season as much as if the Yankees were playing. The reason: All three of my sons are Kansas City Royals fans, dating to my days at the Kansas City Star and Times, when I would take the boys to ballgames. I tried to turn them into Yankee fans, but utterly failed. They fell hopelessly in love with the team they kept seeing on the field. Well, the past quarter-century-plus has been kinder to Yankee fans than Royal fans, but the boys remained loyal KC fans, even though we all moved away.

So I am celebrating with them as the Royals get their first taste of post-season play since 1985, our first season in Kansas City. The boys and I exchanged multiple messages — text messages, tweets, Facebook messages — through last night’s incredible game.(They’re all grown men now, but still my boys, especially when we’re watching baseball.) Mike was at the game the best he’s ever seen. Tom sent me a guest blog post today. Below is Tom’s explanation of why last night’s game was so special, with minimal editing from me (I even left his excessive use of asterisk footnotes in place). I’ll add a comment or two at the end. But first, here’s Tom Buttry:

I’ve been wondering all day today why something as trivial as one game of baseball can make me so so gleeful for so long. Why I stayed so excited last night that I had a hard time falling asleep, but am still be able to walk around with a grin on my face and a spring in my step all day today. Why I am being so self-indulgent in sharing these thoughts and why I’m willing to rub salt in the very fresh wounds of any A’s fans who might read this. But here goes nothing.

As a kid I’d regularly go to Kansas City Royals games with my dad.  Despite his being a Yankees fan*, he loves baseball too much to pass up the opportunity to regularly watch games, and in the days before he could follow the Yankees on the MLB package, he went in with some co-workers on Royals season tickets. From there, my two older brothers, my mom and I took turns going to games with him. In other words, I got to see a lot of Royals games from a very young age.

Sometimes the whole family would go, but most of the games I saw, it was just me and my dad.  I know it’s cliche, but it was really a formative bonding experience with him.  I’d be excited because I’d get to stay up late, spend time with him, get a cheap plastic mini-baseball helmet full of soft serve and sprinkles and see this team and these players I was absolutely falling in love with on a regular basis. I’m sure my dad was also thrilled to spend time with his kids in a way he could really have fun with, rather than seeing the same cartoon or reading the same book for the 100th time, even if I made him take me on too many runs for snacks or to the bathroom.

It was at these games that dad taught me to groan every time the Royals bunted the ball** and shout “HE STRUCK HIM OUT!” when the Royals got a big K***.   He also snagged a foul ball for me after the guy behind us dropped his cup of beer trying to get it, and would tell me all about the great players I was seeing.

One game I distinctly remember happened April 7, 1989**** against the Boston Red Sox. An exciting, fireballing rookie named Tom “Flash” Gordon blew a lead for the Royals, and in the bottom of the ninth we were down three with Lee Smith coming in to close the game. My dad explained to me that Smith was one of the best closers in the game and it would be tough for the Royals to come back from such a big margin against him.  A few minutes later, the Royals loaded the bases and George Brett rocketed a line drive that cleared the bases, tying the game and forever cementing his status as my favorite Royal. A few batters later we scored the final run,***** and I celebrated with my Dad, letting him know that I knew they were going to win. That season the Royals won 92 games, but before the Wild Card existed, a loaded Oakland A’s team kept them out of the playoffs.

On July 6, 1991, my heart got broken in a game against the Oakland A’s when Danny Tartabull hit three home runs, but the Royals still had somehow fallen behind before the ninth inning and had the heart of their lineup coming up against Dennis Eckersley. I reminded dad about the Lee Smith game, and perhaps hoping I was a good luck charm, he seemed slightly more optimistic about my predictions of an upcoming Royals comeback, even though we were up against an even better closer. Down two, with one runner aboard and two outs, Brett stood at the plate as the tying run with Tartabull in the on deck circle as the winning run.  With a thunderous crack, Brett lined another rocket into the outfield, but this time right at the center fielder, ending the game without giving Tartabull the chance to make baseball history and win the game.

From the time I remember living in Kansas City, the Royals were always good, but never good enough to make the playoffs.****** We had legends like George Brett, superstars like Bo Jackson, and were truly relevant. The two games I just described represent particularly noteworthy episodes from a huge series of childhood memories that I will always cherish.# The only thing I really missed as a kid was the chance to see the Royals in the playoffs.

In the intervening years my family moved away from Kansas City, the Royals have stunk and have been next to impossible to see on television, which further complicated following them over the course of 162 games a year. While I never gave up on the Royals and put up with a lot of trash talk for continuing to support such a lousy team when it would have been so easy to bolt for better teams at nearly any point, it is safe to say that the Royals had slipped behind my favorite football and basketball teams in terms of my attention.

Then came last night.

Seeing the excitement and energy at Kauffman Stadium brought back powerful memories. Crunching peanut shells under my feet (something I still do almost every time I go to a ballpark). The helmet bowls of soft serve. Kauffman’s gorgeous fountains. The giant Midwestern insects buzzing around the light towers. The smell of cheap beer. And something new: the roar of a crowd that has finally seen their support of this team validated.

I’ve always been an intense sports fan, but watching the game last night was something different. Instead of the caveman-like bellowing I do for a Kansas City Chiefs game, or alternating fast rhythm and cavalcade of timeouts of a Marquette basketball game, I was standing on my feet nervously shuffling back and forth, turning my cap inside out for good luck, pouting on the couch when things were bad, jumping, yelping and laughing with joy every time the Royals did something good. I never even thought to grab a beer until my fiancée asked me if I wanted one.  In short, for one night, I was a kid again. For 29 years I had been waiting for this very moment, and I managed to turn back time to enjoy it. And oh my goodness, what a game to turn back time for.*******

I don’t know if the Royals have a magical run in them.  For one night, Eric Hosmer did a passable George Brett impersonation.  However, the incompetence of Ned Yost will probably catch up to us at some point.********  But this one game created that childhood memory that I had always been missing.  And that is why I am still so deliriously happy.

Let’s go Royals!

* While under almost all circumstances being the progeny of a Yankees fan should be a great source of shame for the entire family, it is semi-mitigated by the fact that my dad was an Air Force brat and the Yankees were the only team he could follow no matter where in the world he was living.  He also taught my brothers and me the #1 lesson of being a real sports fan: that you always stick with your team no matter what (no amount of cajoling from his three sons ever got him to nudge the Royals past the Yankees).

** Something that happened a lot last night.

*** Also something that happened a lot last night.

**** The dates and a few specific facts come from Baseball-Reference.com, but the bulk of the next two paragraphs are my actual recollections. In fact, I was really shocked by how accurate my memories were the first time I dug around on Baseball-Reference trying to find particular Royals games I went to, with these two being the standouts.

***** Baseball-Reference says it was Bob Boone who drove in the winning run. Somehow he doesn’t stick out as much as George Brett.

****** My family moved to Kansas City in time for their World Series run in the fall of 85, but I was barely three years old and don’t remember a thing of the Royals from back then.

******* Oh, and getting back at the A’s for keeping what had previously been the best Royals team I can remember out of the playoffs and ruining Danny Tartabull’s big game also felt pretty good.

******** Seriously, Ned? A double steal with Billy “The Slowest Man in Professional Sports” Butler and Hosmer?  Four sacrifice bunts? Bringing a rookie starter on one day’s rest out of the bullpen with two on and nobody out?

# Since this is an extra self-indulgent aside, I’ll put it at the very bottom. I also really enjoyed singing along to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” which the Royals would regularly play between innings when I was a kid and dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” when the Royals would win.

Dad comments: 

    • Tom loved “Minnie the Moocher,” running around our family room chanting “Hodie, Hodie.”
    • How is Lee Smith not in the Hall of Fame? He was a Yankee only eight games, but might deserve a post here someday.
    • I missed a Steve Balboni grand-slam homerun once while in the restroom with Tom.
    • Watching George Brett play for parts of seven seasons was an absolute treat.
    • I ranted quite a bit myself last night in our living room and on Twitter about Yost wasting outs on bunts, prompting someone to tweet me a link to this tweet:
  • At the time, it seemed like a lot of money we spent on tickets, parking, and all those peanuts and helmet sundaes. But the experiences I gave my sons were priceless.




Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera: best teammate tandem ever

28 09 2014

As Derek Jeter takes his final curtain call today (in Fenway Park), one more observation about a way in which he leaves as one of baseball’s best ever: He was half of baseball’s longest-running greatest-ever teammate tandem.

Jeter, baseball’s greatest-ever post-season hitter, and Mariano Rivera, baseball’s greatest-ever reliever and post-season pitcher, played together for an incredible 19 seasons, both coming up in the 1995 season and playing together as Yankees until Rivera’s retirement last year.

Their results were unmatched since the Yankee dynasty of 1949-64: They won five World Series together, two more American League championships and missed the post-season together only in 2008 and 2013, Rivera’s last season. Thursday night, Jeter played only the second game in which his team was eliminated from post-season play. Neither man ever played on a team with a losing record.

Who are the other longest-running teammate pairs who were the very best ever (not just among the best ever) at something (or at least the best ever when they retired)?

Some of their closest competitors would be Yankee tandems: Read the rest of this entry »





Derek Jeter’s legacy: Post-season excellence against the best pitchers

25 09 2014

As Derek Jeter prepares to play his last home game for the Yankees tonight, let’s appreciate one more time just how great he has been.

It’s a shame that his career will end in the regular season, because his legacy in the game will be as the greatest post-season player ever.

I can argue that he’s the best shortstop ever, though most would give that nod to Honus Wagner.

But Jeter’s post-season achievements are unmatched. He holds — in most cases by large margins — the all-time records for post-season, games, at-bats, hits, runs, total bases, doubles and triples. He’s third in homers and fourth in runs batted in. And it’s not just because he played in an era when you got extra rounds of playoffs. The extra rounds helped, of course, but they also gave him enough post-season play to blow away the arguments of statisticians who like to claim there’s not such thing as clutch hitting.

You can’t say, as the numbers crunchers like to, that we don’t have enough data to evaluate clutch hitting, that a hot post-season series could just be random. As I’ve noted before, Jeter has a full season of post-season action, 158 games spread over 16 of his 19 seasons. He topped 158 games in a season only three times. This is definitely a full season and it was one of his best, an MVP-type season.

And when you take a closer look at his post-season play, you see that Jeter racked up his impressive numbers hitting against baseball’s best pitching staffs again and again.

One of the most unanimous pieces of baseball wisdom is that, especially in the post-season, great pitching beats great hitting. But not Jeter.

In the “season” of his 158 post-season games, Jeter faced seven pitchers who won their league’s Cy Young that season: John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana, Bartolo Colón, C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander. And, of course, those are pitchers you’re likely to face twice (or more) in a series. One-tenth of Jeter’s post-season at-bats (64 of 650) came in his 23 appearances against those seven pitchers (not all in their Cy Young seasons, but always as stars of their staffs).

Most of those pitchers also led their leagues in their Cy Young seasons in some combination of wins, ERA and strikeouts. Jeter also faced three other pitchers who led their leagues in wins that season (Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Rick Helling) and one who led in ERA (Freddy Garcia). Add those pitchers’ appearances against Jeter to the Cy Young winners’ and we’re up to 91 at-bats in 32 starts, more than a month’s worth of games against pitchers who were somehow the best in their leagues when they faced Jeter. Nobody has a month like that in the regular season.

And we haven’t counted Curt Schilling yet, who won 22 and 21 wins the years that he faced Jeter in the post-season but didn’t lead the league in anything or win the Cy Young either year. Add him and one more 20-game winner in the year he faced Jeter in October, Jamie Moyer, and we’re up to 107 at-bats and 38 starts.

Of course, no one could match Jeter’s experience of facing seven guys who would win Cy Young Awards that season, since there are only two in any season, barring a tie (which hasn’t happened since 1969). But he also faced 12 pitchers who won 20 games that year (counting Schilling twice). The major leagues never got close to a dozen 20-game winners any season during Jeter’s career.

A lot of pitchers have great seasons and fall short of 20 wins. Let’s add the 19-game winners (Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Aaron Sele and Roberto Hernandez) and 18-game winners (Kevin Brown, Kevin Millwood and Jarrod Washburn) in the seasons that Jeter faced in October. That brings us to 147 at-bats and 53 starts.

And we haven’t mentioned Tom Glavine yet. Jeter faced Glavine in the World Series in 1996 and ’99, missing his Cy Young seasons of 1991 and ’98. Glavine was solid the years he faced Jeter, though, winning 15 (with an ERA under 3.00) and 14. Other Cy Young winners who faced Jeter after years other than their award-winning seasons were Bret Saberhagen, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Cliff Lee, Barry Zito and Max Scherzer. Altogether, Jeter faced 15 pitchers in October who won a total of 26 Cy Young Awards. Six of the 17 multiple Cy Young winners in baseball history faced Jeter in the post-season.

Adding all the Cy Young pitchers pushes Jeter’s total against high-quality pitchers to 183 at-bats and 67 starts.

Of course, we’ve already mentioned all of the 300-game winners Jeter faced in the post-season (Maddux, Glavine and Johnson), and most of the 200-game winners, but let’s add David Wells, Kenny Rogers and Tim Wakefield, all 200-game winners, to the list of quality pitchers. Jeter faced 15 pitchers in the post-season who won 200 or more games. This takes us to 201 at-bats in 71 starts.

And we haven’t even reached Josh Beckett yet. So let’s add him and the other pitchers Jeter faced in the post-season with 100 or more career wins and at least one 20-win season. That would add Derek Lowe, John Burkett, Mike Hampton, Scott Erickson, Ramon Martinez, Jered Weaver, Brad Radke, Esteban Loaiza and Denny Neagle. That brings us to 85 starts, more than half the season, and 252 at-bats.

And we’re still not down to mediocre starters yet. The numbers above don’t include Cole Hamels, who has 108 career wins but no 20-win seasons. But the post-season before he faced Jeter, Hamels was the MVP of both the World Series and the National League Championship Series.

We could detail more quality starters Jeter faced, but let’s move on to the bullpen. Of course, he couldn’t face the best closer of all-time, since he spent nearly his whole career building leads for Mariano Rivera to save. But still, he faced six of the top 11 career saves leaders in the post-season: Trevor Hoffman, John Franco, Joe Nathan, Troy Percival, Randy Myers and Francisco Rodriguez. Hoffman, Rodriguez, Jose Valverde and Jim Johnson led their leagues in saves the years that they faced Jeter in the post-season. Other relievers he faced in October who led their leagues at some time in saves were Jeff Russell, Jose Mesa, Myers (three times), Tom Gordon, Lowe, Todd Jones, Eddie Guardado, Keith Foulke, Rodriguez (three times), Valverde (three times), Franco (twice), Smoltz, Hoffman (twice) and Armando Benitez.

Jeter faced 11 relievers in the post-season with 200 or more career saves and another 15 with more than 100 and 13 with more than 30 saves in at least one of the years that they faced him.

Jeter’s post-season excellence consistently came against All-Star quality pitchers: 89 of the 186 pitchers he faced were All-Stars at some point in their careers. They accounted for 125 of his 158 post-season starts and 401 of his 650 at-bats.

It’s not just the excellence required to make the post-season and advance to championship play that resulted in this amazing succession of pitchers Jeter faced, but the pauses in post-season play for travel days. You almost never face a No. 5 starter in the post-season and you’re unlikely to see a No. 4 starter more than once in a series (usually never in a three-game series). If a team has a really strong fourth or fifth starter, though, you might face him in middle relief or extra innings, rather than a team’s weakest relievers. Starters Jeter faced in relief in the post-season included Scott Kazmir, Dave Burba, Glendon Rusch and Doug Fister, all double-figure winners in the years they came out of the bullpen in October.

So how did Jeter do against these formidable pitchers? You could certainly understand a performance below his regular-season numbers, where it would be impossible to face this many great pitchers night after night. His 135 strikeouts, more than in any regular season, underscored the quality of the pitching he faced. His 66 walks were about average for a Jeter season. But when he put the ball in play, magical things happened. Jeter’s batting average was just one point lower than his career regular-season average, .308 vs. .309. His slugging average was 26 points higher against the awesome pitchers he faced in the post-season than it was against his regular-season diet with so many 4th and 5th starters on losing teams. He had a 200-hit season, scoring 111 runs. Jeter had only three 20-homer seasons against regular-season pitching, and he reached 20 in the post-season, too. His 61 RBI were low for a Jeter regular season, but that’s probably because he followed pitchers more often in the post-season and because those standout pitchers he faced kept more of his teammates off the bases.

Post-season after post-season, against the best pitchers of his generation and the best pitchers of each season, Jeter racked up numbers that matched up with the best seasons of a career that will take him straight to the Hall of Fame. No one ever faced better pitching in October.

Update: Even in just the second game of his career with his team out of playoff contention, Jeter proved his clutch-hitting prowess, with a walk-off win over the division-champion Orioles.

Facts in this post came from the career statistics and post-season game logs on Baseball-Reference.com. The analysis is mine (as are any errors in the analysis).





I prefer counting pitchers’ actual wins to hypothetical stats like WAR

12 01 2014
Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Pitchers’ wins don’t get much respect as a pitching statistic.

I don’t understand that. Isn’t the starting pitcher’s job to win the game? Wins are simple, usually fair, and easy to understand. Maybe that easy-to-understand part doesn’t appeal to the sabermetricians. Some of them appear to prefer stats like WAR that only they can understand.

I’d try to figure out WAR if it measured actual performance or measured something that really matters. Or if it were accurate. But I just analyzed how it measured Ron Guidry‘s 1978 performance, and it wasn’t anywhere close to accurate. It doesn’t give one shred of understanding about his performance that year, while his 25-3 won-lost record tells you immediately that he was historically dominant.

After I blogged my comparisons of Guidry to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Andy Smith told me that wins weren’t an important statistic for pitchers. And he asked me why I’m not a fan of WAR:

Here’s why I think wins are one of the best measures of a starting pitcher’s value: The starting pitcher’s job is to win the game. And in most games the starting pitcher has more impact on whether his team wins than any other player.

Like any stat, wins are not a perfect measure: A powerful offense can help a pitcher win a game when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Lousy defense can lose a game for a pitcher who’s throwing well. A bullpen can blow a win that the pitcher deserved (or even get the win after blowing the save). It’s a team sport and the team context matters. But over time, starting pitchers who win lots of games are always really good pitchers. And starting pitchers who don’t win games don’t last.

Here’s why I don’t place much value on WAR (wins above replacement): I prefer measuring actual performance to hypothetical stats. WAR doesn’t actually measure real wins compared to a real replacement player. Both the W and the R in this stat are hypothetical, projected by computer analysis rather than measured by performance on the field.

I appreciate every attempt to improve analysis of baseball. I used to read the annual Bill James Baseball Abstracts and have his Historical Baseball Abstract and The Politics of Glory. I’m not going to argue that the Triple Crown stats are the best way to measure an offensive player (though they are good).

But I don’t embrace a stat just because it’s new or just because the sabermetricians do. I’m not a fan of WAR for pitchers or position players. It doesn’t measure what the player actually did. It tries to strip players in a team sport away from their teams and speculates about how many more games this player’s own actions “won” above what a mythical “replacement” player from the bench or minor leagues would have won. I won’t try to explain WAR further here (I don’t fully understand it), but you can read for yourself how they figure WAR for pitchers and for hitters.

I’ll just explain, using Guidry’s 1978 season, which Andy and I were discussing, why WAR isn’t nearly as accurate or as valuable as measuring what the player actually did.

In 1978, Guidry’s record was 25-3, 22 games over .500. We don’t have to speculate about what a “replacement” player on the Yankees would have done. Jim Beattie was a replacement pitcher, a rookie who started 22 games, making the team in spring training after some injuries to veteran pitchers. He lost seven games in a row at one time and slipped out of the rotation for a while but ended up with the fourth-most starts on an injury plagued staff. Since Beattie actually played pretty much the whole season, he’s actually a notch above replacement (which WAR confirms by giving him a rating for the year of 0.7 WAR). But he’ll do.

Beattie was 6-9. So one way to measure his wins over replacement would just be Guidry’s wins (25) minus Beattie’s (6), or a WAR of 19. I think that’s a fair way, because a replacement player isn’t generally going to play a full year anyway. But that doesn’t count losses, and Beattie lost three times as many games in his 22 starts as Guidry lost in his 35 starts.

A better way to count in my view would be to compare how far they were above or below .500. The Yankees were 22 games over .500 with Guidry getting the decision, three games under when Beattie got the decision, so that way, Guidry’s WAR would be 25.

Or maybe you want to project Beattie’s performance over 35 starts, which would give him a record of 10-14. That would change the WAR to 15 just counting wins or 26 counting wins and losses.

But WAR doesn’t work that way. The WAR formula gives Guidry 9.6 wins above a mythical replacement pitcher. It tries to slice and dice a player’s contributions to the wins to figure hypothetically what that player’s number of wins is. And it’s flat wrong.

Maybe you don’t want to credit the pitcher for every win the team got. Some of those (or fractions of every win) surely must belong to the offense or defense. But can’t we agree that Guidry was the most important factor in the nine shutouts he pitched in 1978 (including his epic 18-strikeout game in June and three September two-hit shutouts, two of them against the Red Sox on consecutive starts). Beattie didn’t have a shutout, so there’s nine wins above replacement right there. So Guidry was just .6 wins above replacement in his other 26 starts? Hardly.

Let’s set the hypothetical projections aside and look at Guidry’s actual starts, breaking them into different categories, according to the pitcher’s importance in the game and how much the pitcher contributes to the likelihood of a win:

Dominant starts. I’m going to define a dominant start as pitching eight or more innings and giving up no more than one run. If a starting pitcher does this, his team nearly always wins. If not, the blame goes to the bullpen or the hitters.

Should-win starts. These will be starts where the starting pitcher goes at least six innings and gives up no more than two runs. Usually if the starter does this, his team will win, but you need at least average offensive support and maybe some bullpen help. This is a more-demanding standard than a “quality start,” which is pitching six or more innings and allowing no more than three unearned runs. I think the pitcher often bears partial responsibility for unearned runs, so I just look at runs on the scoreboard.

Keep your team in the game. This will be when the starting pitcher goes at least five innings and gives up no more than four runs, without qualifying for the top two categories. The offense and bullpen play a bigger role, but most teams will come somewhere close to breaking even in these games.

Lucky if your team wins. If the starting pitcher gives up five or more runs or pitches less than five innings, the offense and bullpen really won the game, if you win at all.

Here’s how Guidry’s 1978 year broke down:

Dominant 

Guidry pitched eight or more innings allowing zero or one run 15 times in 1978. All 15 times, Guidry won the game. Thirteen of them were complete games where the bullpen was no factor. It’s a team game and you have to score at least a run to win even with a dominant pitching performance. But in every case, Guidry was by far the most important Yankee in winning the game.

Should-win

Guidry pitched seven games of six or more innings in which he gave up two runs. In three games, he gave up only a run but came out sometime after the end of the sixth inning and before the start of the ninth. The team wins the vast majority of these games, and the Yankees won eight of Guidry’s 10.

In the one-game playoff with the Red Sox (more on that later), Guidry pitched on three days’ rest. He gave up two runs on six hits and a walk in 6 1/3 innings, strong but not dominant. Mike Torrez pitched better for six innings and led 2-0 starting the seventh. A famous (infamous if you’re a Red Sox fan) three-run homer by Bucky Dent gave Guidry and the Yankees the lead and Thurman Munson added an insurance run that inning on an RBI double. After a strikeout and a single in the bottom of the seventh, Goose Gossage replaced Guidry, leading 4-2. Reggie Jackson hit another homer and Gossage gave up two runs in the eighth, but the Yankees never lost Guidry’s lead. The game exactly fits this category. When the starting pitcher gets into the seventh allowing just two runs, he’s done his share and if the teammates provide some offense and relief pitching, he’ll get the win. Guidry did.

On the other end of the season, Guidry pitched seven innings Opening Day and gave up only one run. He left a tie game and Gossage lost the game, 2-1, in the eighth. So there’s a game Guidry pitched outstanding in and got a no-decision.

Guidry’s second loss was a 2-1 complete-game duel with Mike Flanagan. He gave up two runs, one of them earned, on a homer following an error by Dent.

In addition, Guidry left a game with the Twins in the seventh inning, leading 2-1 with the bases loaded and one out. Gossage allowed the tying run on a sacrifice fly and ended up getting a win and a blown save as the Yankees won, 3-2. Both runs were unearned but charged to Guidry.

So we have three should-win situations where Guidry didn’t win. In this context, at least, Guidry’s win total was actually diminished, not padded, by the contributions of his teammates in these three games.

On the other hand, Guidry got notable help in two games with the Tigers. Once he trailed 1-0 after eight innings. Four Yankee runs in the top of the ninth gave him the lead and Gossage got the final three outs (and allowed a run) after Guidry walked the lead-off batter in the ninth. The other time, he had a 2-2 tie after eight innings. A run in the bottom of the 8th gave him the win and Gossage saved it with a scoreless ninth.

So in 10 should-win situations, the Yankees won eight of the games and Guidry got seven wins. Adding dominant wins to should-wins, in 25 of Guidry’s 35 games he pitched six or more innings, giving up two or fewer runs. His teammates did their share most of the time. Guidry was 22-1 in those games and the Yankees were 23-2.

Keep your team in the game

Guidry kept his team in seven games, going five or more innings and giving up no more than four runs (but not strong enough to make one of the other categories). The Yankees won six of the seven, so you have to give the offense some credit for scoring runs. One was a 5-3 complete game win over the Blue Jays, so the bullpen wasn’t a factor then. Guidry also pitched into the ninth in a 5-3 win over the Indians, saved by Gossage, who also saved a 5-4 win over the Orioles after seven innings by Guidry.

In three of the games, the Yankees won but Guidry didn’t. Twice the bullpen blew saves. Once he left with the game tied 3-3 (with the tying run unearned). The offense won the games, overcoming the runs given up by Guidry, the bullpen and the defense.

In the only game in this group that the Yankees lost, Guidry pitched five innings (one of only two appearances shorter than six innings) and left leading 3-2 (only one of his runs was earned) and Gossage blew the save in a 5-4 loss.

In the seven keep-your-team-in-it games, Guidry was 3-0 and the Yankees were 6-1. Even when he gave up a few runs, he contributed notably to the victories. The Yankees were 29-3 and Guidry was 25-1 in the 32 games where Guidry dominated, pitched well enough that he should win or kept his team in the game.

Lucky if your team wins

Guidry had only three of these games, and the Yankees were lucky once. He pitched nine innings against the White Sox, giving up six runs. The game went into extra innings, tied 6-6. Gossage got the win in 11 innings. The other two games were Guidry losses and rightly so. He gave up five runs in six innings in a 6-0 shutout by the Brewers. He deserved the loss, but the offense didn’t give him a chance to win either. In his worst game of the year, and the only one shorter than five innings, he gave up five runs, three of them earned, in 1 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays. That was an 8-1 loss, sandwiched among those September two-hitters.

When you give up five runs in a game, as Guidry did in those two losses, you can’t blame the loss on the offense. But Guidry had little offensive support in his three 1978 losses, with the Yankees scoring a combined two runs.

Adding up the four categories, in the 35 games Guidry started, the Yankees were 30-5, 25 games over .500.

More on Guidry’s amazing year

The Yankees had some other good pitchers that year. Ed Figueroa was 20-9, Catfish Hunter 12-6. Beattie and Dick Tidrow had losing records, each with more than 20 starts.  They weren’t exactly “replacement” level. The Yankees, with exactly the same hitters, fielders and relievers as Guidry played with, were 69-59 in the other pitchers’ starts. His starts were 15 wins more above .500 than the rest of the staff. How does that amount to 9.6 wins above a replacement pitcher?

Without Guidry, the Yankees were a .539 team, fourth place in the American League East instead of winning the division and ultimately the World Series. In the games Guidry started, they were an .857 team, way better than any team ever over a full season. Figure those winning percentages over a full season, and the Yankees would win 87 games with the rest of the staff pitching and 139 if Guidry could pitch every day. If you want to make up a hypothetical stat, say that Guidry was 52 WAT (wins above teammates) that year.

I prefer counting actual wins. With a little luck and team support, Guidry could have approached 30 wins. But I’ll settle for 25-3 as a fair measure of his year, maybe the best year any pitcher ever had.

Do you keep your team from falling behind?

OK, perhaps I exaggerate when I say a pitcher’s job is to win the game. In the American League (there was no interleague play in 1978), a pitcher can’t score and you can’t win without scoring. So really all a starting pitcher can do is keep his team from falling behind.

In 22 games in 1978, the Yankees never trailed while Guidry was in the game. They won 21 of those games. He only trailed by three runs three times, including two of his losses. He trailed in less than 20 percent of his 273 2/3 innings.

And Yankee Stadium didn’t particularly help Guidry. His won-loss record was nearly identical at home (12-1) and on the road (13-2). His ERA was a shade better on the road (1.69 to 1.79). He dominated anywhere.

How the pitcher impacts the game

Let’s take a close look at that Bucky Dent game, which the Yankees had to win to earn the championship. Dent was the star of that game, with his surprising three-run homer (it was his fifth homer of the year) that put the Yankees ahead.

But let’s quantify which Yankees had how much impact on that game:

Dent played the whole game at shortstop. He had three other at-bats, all outs, and threw out two runners in his only defensive chances. Of the 78 plate appearances of the game by either team, he was involved in six of them, three of them positively contributing to the victory.

Jackson was the DH and the homer was his only hit in four at-bats. First baseman Chris Chambliss went 1 for 4, advanced to second on a Roy White single and scored on Dent’s homer. He made eight putouts at first base. He was involved in meaningful ways in 14 plays, 11 of them positive. Second baseman Brian Doyle went 0-for-2 and didn’t make a defensive play. Pinch-hitter Jim Spencer was 0-for-1 and second-base replacement Fred Stanley was 0-for-1 and didn’t field the ball. So the four of them combined for four meaningful plays, none of them positive. Third baseman Graig Nettles was 0-for-4 with a putout and three assists, so he was involved in eight meaningful plays, four of them positive.

Center fielder Mickey Rivers got a double and two walks in four plate appearances. He stole second twice, scored on Munson’s double, caught two fly balls and fielded four hits to center. So he figured in meaningful ways in 13 plays, at least eight of them positive (the game log doesn’t tell whether he made a play on a hit that might have saved a base, which would make another positive play; I’m assuming these were routine plays that neither cost the Yankees nor helped them win). His replacement, Paul Blair, got one hit in his only at-bat and didn’t field the ball. He was forced at second, so he was involved meaningfully in two plays, one of them positive. Lou Piniella got a single in four at-bats, was forced at second base and caught four balls in right field and fielded three hits, so he was involved in 12 meaningful plays, at least five of them positive. White had a single and a walk in his four plate appearances. He scored on Dent’s homer and caught four balls in the left field and fielded three hits. So he figured in 11 meaningful plays, at least seven of them positive.

Gossage faced 14 batters, retiring eight and giving up five hits and a walk.

Munson was in the game for all of Guidry’s and Gossage’s pitches, but I’m not counting each pitch as a play, just those that resulted in outs or runners getting on base. Certainly he played a meaningful role in calling the pitches, but he also called the pitches of the other Yankee pitchers, who didn’t pitch nearly as well as Guidry. I’ll count the strikeouts as plays for Munson, since they are recorded as putouts. He had seven putouts, an assist and a passed ball as well as a double in five at-bats. So he figured in 14 plays, nine of them positive. That’s probably an undercount, but I’m not sure how to quantify the catcher’s involvement in pitching.

The game log doesn’t count every involvement, such as taking a cutoff throw, backing up a base or a late throw trying to catch a runner at home. But that’s a pretty close assessment of the players’ involvement.

Guidry faced 26 batters. He gave up six hits and an intentional walk, so 19 of his plays were positive. No one was involved in more plays or more positive plays.

No Yankee figured in anywhere near the 26 plays that Guidry influenced. Only Munson, Gossage, Rivers and Chambliss figured in even half as many plays. And no one made anywhere near Guidry’s 19 positive plays. Only Chambliss was in double figures and seven of those were putouts at first, catching balls from Guidry, Munson and the infielders. Not quite comparable to the role of a pitcher striking out a batter or inducing a ground ball or pop fly.

Quantitatively, Guidry impacted the most plays that contributed to the win. Qualitatively, you can still say (and I wouldn’t argue) that Dent’s homer was so big he still had the biggest role in the win. You can even argue that Munson’s role behind the plate, plus his RBI double, places him even with Guidry. But clearly, Guidry had a major impact on the win.

And, as I’ve noted before, he had 15 dominant starts with significantly better impact than he had in the playoff game. Break those down and his role will be even bigger. Every time. In addition, this wasn’t one of his stronger performances in the should-win category, so he easily had 20 games where he played a bigger positive role. Guidry went deeper into the game in 28 starts than he did in the playoff game.

Wins matter. Wins get you to the post-season and to championships. No one plays a bigger role in most wins than the starting pitcher. I’d much rather judge a pitcher based on his actual wins than on some hypothetical wins above “replacement.”

Stats and other details here come from Baseball Reference.

Other posts about Ron Guidry:

Ron Guidry compares well to three Hall-of-Fame Dodger pitchers

Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame, but not before Ron Guidry

Ron Guidry elevated the great teams he played on

Great pitchers (Justin Verlander, Ron Guidry) really are the most valuable players





Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly’s best years compare well to new Hall of Famers

9 01 2014
Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Congratulations to Greg MadduxTom Glavine and Frank Thomas on their election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

All three were elected on the first ballot and rightly so (to the extent that the screwed-up Hall of Fame selection processes have created this stupid first-ballot-election category).

Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly will probably never make it into the Hall of Fame, but you can see that they belong there when you compare them to this year’s Hall of Famers. They aren’t better, especially when you factor longevity, which has become unduly important in Hall of Fame voting. When you measure players at their best, though, Guidry and Mattingly clearly were comparable to this year’s Hall of Famers.

I wish I could make the same case I did three years ago, comparing Ron Guidry to Maddux or Glavine as I did when Bert Blyleven made the Hall of Fame. (Guidry was significantly better than Blyleven except for longevity.) Read the rest of this entry »





Memories of Paul Blair’s brief time as a Yankee

27 12 2013

Paul Blair, photo linked from Bronx Baseball Daily

Paul Blair, best known as a Baltimore Oriole and the best defensive center fielder of his day, died yesterday.

But he was a valuable reserve on the Yankees’ 1977-78 championship teams. And he was a bit player in a famous near-fight. And he was the answer in my most memorable press-conference question.

The most-famous confrontation of the volatile relationship between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson was a near-fight in the dugout in 1977, when aging-but-still-powerful Yogi Berra and Elston Howard restrained the manager and superstar, who were ready to fight.

I watched that one on TV. It was in Fenway Park and Jackson (never a good outfielder) had loafed in pursuit of a fly ball that fell in safely. Martin furiously sent Blair, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, in to play right field. He sent him in immediately, not between innings. So the Fenway and TV audiences got to see Jackson’s stunned reaction and his long run in from right field to the visitors’ dugout. And then the near-fight.

Actually, Blair was a frequent defensive replacement late in games for Jackson that year, playing 34 games in right field and starting only five. It’s just that in the other 28 games, Martin sent him in between innings, which wasn’t humiliating for Jackson.

Blair also played 42 games in center (starting 33) and six games in left field that year. He was their fifth outfielder, but a valuable one. Lou Piniella and Roy White shared left field. Mickey Rivers started in center and Reggie was in right. Blair was a mediocre hitter than year, batting .262 with only four homers. But he was reliable in the field, making 125 putouts and four assists, with just one error.

What I remember even better than the near-fight is Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees needed a win to push the series to a deciding fifth game. I was managing editor of the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, and the sports editor, Mike Williams, and I had jumped at the chance when the Kansas City Royals sent us instructions on how to order credentials to cover the playoffs. We didn’t cover the Royals regularly, but they were the closest team and their games ran on the local radio station, KMA. So we went down to KC for the playoffs.

Jackson started and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two ground balls to second. He didn’t hustle down the line on the second ground ball, the second out of the seventh inning. I thought Martin looked angry, but nothing happened in the dugout and, let’s face it, Martin always looked angry. But Blair came out to right field in the bottom of the inning, early for a defensive replacement, but Martin was trying to protect a 5-4 lead.

Blair got an at-bat that normally would have been Jackson’s, singling to center. He caught a fly ball from Fred Patek in the ninth (I don’t remember how difficult it was).

Our credentials didn’t give us access to the locker rooms but did let us into the post-game press conferences. In the press conference, I asked Martin why he took Jackson out of the game. He snapped, “To put Paul Blair in. Next question.”

That wasn’t the most memorable part of the game. What was most memorable was how Martin used Sparky Lyle, his bullpen closer, who won the Cy Young Award that year. Though the Yankees scored five early runs, starter Ed Figueroa was ineffective and Martin replaced him with Dick Tidrow in the bottom of the fourth inning, leading 5-3 with Patek on second after an RBI double. Tidrow gave up a double and a walk and got one out.

The Yankees’ lead, once 4-0, was down to 5-4, with two outs in the fourth inning. And Martin brought in his closer. Can you imagine Joe Torre ever going to Mariano Rivera in the fourth inning? Or any manager today going to his closer that early?

And the amazing thing was that Lyle closed out the game. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up two hits, no walks and no runs.

And Lyle was back out the next night for Game 5, replacing Mike Torrez with two outs in the eighth inning and the Yankees trailing 3-2. After the Yankees got three runs in the top of the ninth, Lyle got the win with a scoreless ninth. (By the way, Jackson played that whole game as DH, with Blair playing right field and going 1-f0r-4.)

Lyle also got the win in relief in Game 1 of the World Series, so he won three straight post-season games. He actually blew the save in the ninth inning of that game, but pitched 3 2/3 innings to get the win.

But this is a post about Paul Blair, so I need to bring it back to him. You know who won that game? Paul Blair drove in Willie Randolph in the bottom of the 12th with a walk-off single to center.

He wasn’t a Yankee for long, but he was a terrific role player with a lot of class. RIP.

Stats and details of the game come from Baseball Reference.





Joe Torre should have made the Hall of Fame as a player

15 12 2013


Catching up on off-season Yankee news:

Joe Torre is a Hall of Famer — finally

I actually intended to write a post sometime this year making the case for Joe Torre‘s election to the Hall of Fame. But the Expansion Era Committee chose Torre to enter the Hall of Fame this year, along with his managing peers Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox.

All three managers are clear Hall of Famers, ranking third (LaRussa), fourth (Cox) and fifth (Torre) on the all-time wins list for managers.

Torre was a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame as a player and probably should have been chosen on that basis, regardless of his performance as a manager. He and Elston Howard were the best catchers of the 1960s and most people who were best of their era at a position are in Cooperstown. He was a nine-time All-Star and most eligible players who’ve made that many All-Star teams are in the Hall. He also was MVP in 1971 (after moving to third base), leading the league in batting, RBI and hits.

No Hall of Fame catcher topped Torre’s career figures in all of the triple-crown categories (.297, 252 HR, 1185 RBI) as well as his 2,342 hits, and each of those figures ranks in the top half of all Hall of Fame catchers. Among third basemen, only George Brett topped Torre in all four categories, and his totals again measure up as a Hall of Famer compared to the third basemen in Cooperstown. And he won a Gold Glove as a catcher, so he wasn’t being kept out of Cooperstown because of defensive deficiencies (though he wasn’t good defensively at third). Read the rest of this entry »








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