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Todd Helton without the Coors Field effect

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Todd Helton

Todd Helton

Joe Posnanski, writing about the value of walks for the second time this week, makes an aside about Todd Helton:

“Here’s the irony of Coors Field: It undoubtedly helped players put up ENORMOUS numbers. And at exactly the same time, it undoubtedly made those numbers look like mirages. Todd Helton’s career numbers are .324/.424/.555 which are absurd. And you get the sense that if he had put up significantly WORSE numbers but played his whole career somewhere else, his career might be valued higher.”

Todd Helton has been a puzzle for me for a long time. Early in his career, when he was putting up crazy numbers, especially when he chased .400 in 2000 and ended up leading the league in hits, doubles, RBIs, average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and total bases, it seemed to me that people didn’t talk about Coors Field enough. Although in retrospect, the fact that he only finished fifth in the MVP vote that year with those crazy numbers says that I wasn’t the only one thinking his numbers were out of whack because of Coors, even though it felt like I was.

But, as with Larry Walker, who appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, it’s hard to get a handle on just how good Helton really has been. It’s probably harder for Helton than for Walker, because we got a glimpse of Walker in the wild. Helton has only played in Colorado, while Walker played in Montreal for six years at the beginning of his career and St. Louis for a year and a half at the end.

Is Joe right? Would Helton be valued higher if he’d played his entire career elsewhere? I decided to try to figure out what that career might have looked like so far.

Here’s the raw data: In his career, Helton has hit .324/.424/.555 with 333 home runs in 1,930 games. That .300/.400/.500 line is sometimes called the magic ratio, and it pretty much means you’re a really good hitter.

At Coors Field, Helton has hit .356/.454/.628 with 204 home runs in 977 games. Everywhere else, he has hit .291/.392/.481 with 129 home runs in 953 games. You can see the difference right away. No magic ratio away from Coors. In addition to hitting 75 more home runs in only 24 more games, Helton has also hit 26 triples at Coors and only nine on the road.

If you just doubled Helton’s road stats, he’d be a pretty fair player. A first baseman with a career line of .291/.392/.481 and 258 home runs through age 36 is nothing to sneeze at. Then again he’s likely not a five-time All-Star who’ll probably get some Hall of Fame consideration. Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, which measures how likely a player is to be enshrined, not how deserving he is, has Helton well above the level of “likely.” It doesn’t take ballparks or era into account, just raw stats.

But it’s not fair to just double Helton’s road stats. Players on other National League teams get to come into Coors Field for road games, after all. A player in the N.L. West would have 11 chances a year to hit at Coors under the current scheduling system.

Bill Terry

Bill Terry

So I decided to try to see what Helton might look like if he were just the player he is on the road, but he got to play some road games at Coors. Helton has played more games at Dodger Stadium then any other road park, 103, so to give him the benefit of the doubt, let’s give him 103 road games at Coors Field, hitting at the same rates he’s really hit there, and then turn the rest of his home games into road games, where he’ll hit at the same rate he’s always hit at on the road.

Make sense? No? Good.

By playing only 103 games at Coors, Helton loses 874 games off his total, so we’ll extrapolate his 953 real road games into (953+874=) 1,827. That is, we’ll multiply his totals by 1.91710388. And then we’ll shrink his 977 Coors games down to 103 by multiplying his totals by 0.10542477. Then we’ll add those two together to get the 1,930 games of the new, non-Colorado Rockie Todd Helton.

We’re back from the commercial and we’ve done the math and here’s what Helton looks like: .298/.399/.496, with 269 home runs. Again, that’s a pretty good player. There are Hall of Fame first basemen who have similar numbers through age 36, though all with more home runs, and we’re still not accounting for era.

For example, Willie Stargell, through age 36, had hit .282/.360/.529 with 388 home runs. More power, especially home run power — the non-Rockie Helton would have 498 doubles to Stargell’s 356 — but less getting on base. Then again, Stargell played in the second deadball era. His career at that point had been 1962-76, when scoring straddled four runs per team per game. In Helton’s era it’s touched five runs and has always been above 4.5 until the last two years. Stargell’s OPS plus through age 36 was 148. Helton’s is 137. Keep in mind OPS plus accounts for ballpark too.

Here’s something off-topic but incredible that I discovered about Stargell. Through his age 36 season, his triple-slash line was, again, .282/.360/.529. Here it is for the rest of his career, which was six more seasons: .279/.362/.529

I looked for other players who had a similar stat line to non-Rockie Helton and I found one. Kevin Youkilis. Through his age 31 season, Youkilis’ career line is .294/.394/.497 with 112 home runs in 791 games. He got a late start to his career and has only been a full-time player for five seasons, and who knows what he’s going to look like at 36, but if you’re looking at that non-Rockie stat line of .298/.399/.496 and trying to figure out what that looks like in real life, it looks something like Kevin Youkilis, so far, with the caveat that Youkilis plays in a pretty nice ballpark for hitters too.

Which is why this whole business of making this kind of adjustment for one player and then comparing him to everyone else, unadjusted, is a rabbit hole and kind of stupid. But it’s my rabbit hole and my kind of stupid. And by the way Youkilis does not have much of a home-road split. He’s 22 points of OPS better at Fenway Park than elsewhere. Helton is 209 points of OPS better at Coors Field than elsewhere.

Kevin Youkilis

Kevin Youkilis

Helton’s career OPS of .979 has him 11th all time, immediately behind Rogers Hornsby, Manny Ramirez and Mark McGwire and immediately ahead of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Heady company. The non-Rockie Helton’s career OPS of .895 would have him 72nd all time, still pretty good, but in a much different crowd. He’d be behind Bill Terry, Chick Hafey and Mickey Cochrane and ahead of Chase Utley, Hal Trosky and Youkilis.

Terry was a first baseman who’s in the Hall of Fame, though he played for the ’20s-’30s Giants, so he had a leg up. Hafey was an outfielder who’s in the Hall of Fame, though he had similar help by playing for the ’20s-’30s Cardinals. Trosky was a first baseman who had a short career in the ’30s and ’40s. He was never even an All-Star.

And don’t forget we’re giving Helton a little benefit of doubt by giving him 103 games at Coors Field. If Coors were in a different division from Helton’s home team, he’d have played a lot fewer games there. He’s played about 40 games in most non-N.L. West cities, with a low of 39 in Cincinnati’s two parks, Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ballpark. If we do all that same math for Helton only playing 39 games at Coors Field, we get a .292/.394/.484 line with 265 home runs.

There’s a better way to look at all this. I mean, it would be a strange world indeed if there were not a better way to look at all this. Baseball-Reference has a stat called “Neutralized Batting,” which converts a player’s stats to show what they would have been if the player had played only 162-game seasons — which Helton, as a post-1961 player, did anyway — in a league with historically average offense and in a neutral ballpark. In other words, it attempts to strip away park and era effects.

Helton’s neutralized career line: .301/.399/.514 with 295 home runs in 1,930 games. Very similar to our non-Rockie Helton and very similar, at least in terms of the rate stats, to Kevin Youkilis so far.

Getting back to Joe’s sense that if Helton had put up worse numbers but played his whole career somewhere other than Denver he’d be valued higher, a good question would be: Is Youkilis, at this point, valued higher than Helton? I don’t mean at the moment. Youkilis is in his prime and Helton is in bad decline. But I mean in terms of historical value.

I don’t know the answer to this question, and I don’t know that this little thought experiment has gotten me much closer to getting a handle on just how to value Todd Helton’s career. If you like Wins Above Replacement, Helton has 58 WAR, which puts him in fringe Hall of Fame company, ahead of Stargell, Terry and recent inductee Andre Dawson, to name a few, but also about three wins behind Keith Hernandez and Dick Allen, who are not in.

Coors Field

Coors Field

He’s also nine wins behind Larry Walker, who was named on only 20.3 percent of the ballots this year, and 12 behind Jim Thome, who’s still playing but is probably a lock because he’s hit 589 home runs so far.

It requires more thinking, but at the moment I think that the neutralized, non-Rockie Todd Helton would be a guy with a Hall of Fame case, but not a strong one, and I don’t think he’d get too far with the BBWAA voters with his home run total, which would be likely to end up not far above 300, and his batting average only around .300.

Because I believe the non-Rockie Helton’s stats represent the real Helton better than his real stats do, I obviously think the real Helton has a legitimate but not particularly strong Hall of Fame case too. I have a feeling he’ll get a little more love from the writers than the non-Rockie Helton would, especially if his batting average stays up around .320 and he gets close to 400 home runs. But barring a late-career revival that gets him to 3,000 hits — he probably needs five more solid seasons, which don’t appear to be in the cards — I think he’ll fall well short.

Early in Helton’s career I thought the baseball world overrated him, and while I think I was right about that, looking back, I think I underrated him. Now, to the extent that I can figure out what the baseball world is thinking, I think the baseball world and I have met in the middle. We look at Helton about the same way. He’s been a very good player, a face of a franchise kind of player, but not an all-time great. If he’s been undervalued because of people discounting his inflated numbers at Coors, it hasn’t been by much.

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Photo Credits
Todd Helton: SD Dirk/Flickr Creative Commons
Bill Terry: Wikipedia
Kevin Youkilis: Keith Allison/Flickr Creative Commons
Coors Field: Matt Kozlowski/Wikipedia Creative Commons

Written by King Kaufman

January 21st, 2011 at 10:17 pm

The Hall of Fame? Oh, they let anyone in

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The latest bum to get in

The latest bum to get in

Comments on Nate Silver’s fine Hall of Fame piece are hiLARRYous. So so so New York Times. Even after Nate carefully explains that:

A) The Hall of Fame has been letting in fewer players than historically usual lately because, while the writers have been voting in about their usual number, the Veterans Committee, which at times has thrown the doors open wide, has essentially stopped functioning.

B) Because of the Veterans Committee’s former generosity, huge numbers of players from the 1920s and ’30s are in the Hall, about twice as many as from any other era, despite the fact that …

C) at the time, there were about half as many teams as there are now, and the player pool was maybe one-fifth the size it is today.

So, just to review, there are twice as many teams, drawing players from a population five times larger, which should mean that the level of play is much higher — obviously true if you just watch a few games from the good old days — and about half as many players are making the Hall of Fame as made it from that earlier era.

And the New York Times commenters sniff: It’s terrible how they’ve lowered the standards! They just let anyone in there now! Sniff!

The elitism just drips. A few choice samples:

  • “Too stringent”? Au contraire. Over the last couple of decades they have admitted so many bums that it defies description. If anything, the standards should be tightened. There are perhaps six active players who should EVER be considered.
  • We’ve dumbed down America and now you want to water down what makes a true athlete great. They should measure up or not be considered!!!! That’s the problem with America continually relaxing standards and codes.!!!!
  • The statistical look at the question is entirely misdirected. There have been a handful of standout players in the game, something less than 50 in total.
  • i thought the hall was for extraordinary accomplishments not just very good …the hall is so diluted these days.
  • When Mickey Mantle hit a home run he ran around the bases with his head down so that he wouldn’t embarrass the pitcher on the other team. He did that 536 times. He got into the Hall of Fame on his first vote. How many of the guys that make fools of themselves jumping around today deserve to get in on their first vote? There are only so many people who have the Right Stuff for the Hall of Fame and their number doesn’t enlarge just because more people are playing the game.
  • I could go on but you get it. The very idea. Why they’re letting rabble into the Hall of Fame now, Lovey. Absolute rabble!

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    Image lifted from an NBC video without permission. Will remove on request

    Written by King Kaufman

    January 6th, 2011 at 12:51 am

    Posted in Baseball

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    1960 Game 7, 3rd inning: A little integration

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    Hector Lopez digs in against Vern Law

    Hector Lopez digs in against Vern Law

    Our story so far: First inningSecond inning

    Clete Boyer’s name appears on the screen as “Cletis” as he comes to bat with one out in the top of the third following Vern Law’s slick backhand stab of Johnny Blanchard’s comebacker. Boyer suspects his bat is broken, beats the handle on the ground to confirm it, and trots — trots! — back to the dugout to replace it. I have never seen a major league player trot on his way to get a new bat. They walk.

    Boyer’s quick pace gives me just enough time for a quick Clete Boyer bat story, because I’m pretending that I’m not using the pause button liberally here.

    I am not sure I’m remembering this right, but I think the first bat I ever owned, a black 26-ouncer, was a Clete Boyer signature model. Boyer was winding his career down with Atlanta during the years I was coming into baseball consciousness, 1970 and ‘71, so while I remember the bat being a new model, I’m reasonably sure it was picked up at a discount.

    Because of that bat, I always had kind of a soft spot for Clete Boyer, even though I don’t remember ever seeing him play. I don’t mean a soft spot, really, but his name had some meaning for me. I also had, for some reason, a first baseman’s mitt when I was very young, and it was a Mike Hegan signature model. Mike Hegan! How did he ever get his name on a mitt? I don’t have any soft spot for Mike Hegan, though I probably wouldn’t recall his name today if I hadn’t had that mitt.

    Clete grabs a new bat and walks back to the plate without any elaborate on-deck-circle ritual of rubbing it down with just the right amount of pine tar and rosin. Announcer Bob Prince speculates that Boyer could have been “just changing bats and fiddling around a little bit” to give Bobby Shantz more time to warm up in the bullpen, since the pitcher’s spot is up next. But Shantz has been warming up since the top of the first, and if Boyer were trying to kill time he probably wouldn’t have trotted to the dugout to fetch his new bat.

    Boyer pops out to Bill Mazeroski in shallow center field, and that brings up a pinch hitter, Hector Lopez.

    Clete Boyer checks his bat.

    Clete Boyer checks his bat.

    A striking thing about watching this game from 1960 today is that almost everybody’s white. Of the 18 men in the starting lineup, only Roberto Clemente was not Anglo. Elston Howard, who was black, would have been the Yankees starting catcher if he hadn’t gotten hurt, but that’s still a couple of overwhelmingly white lineups.

    Both teams used 25 men in the 1960 World Series, and six of them were minorities. Aside from Clemente, Howard and Lopez — a Panamanian who is black enough to have been considered the first black manager at Triple-A when he took over in Buffalo in 1969 — the rest of the 12 percent minority population consisted of two African-American Pirates reserves, outfielder Joe Christopher and infielder Gene Baker, who would combine for three plate appearances in this Series, and Yankees lefty reliever Luis Arroyo, who had pitched two-thirds of an inning in Game 5.

    Contrast that with the 2010 World Series, when the Giants and Rangers used a combined 47 players, and 26 of them — 55 percent — were minorities. I’m not a census taker or anything, so maybe my count’s off a little if someone’s not what he appears to be, but that’s a pretty striking difference, almost five times more non-white players in the 2010 World Series than in 1960.

    I think it’s easy to get into thinking about history in a shorthand way that doesn’t get at what really happened. Every American schoolkid knows that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and baseball was integrated from that day on. And every baseball fan knows that integration hardly happened overnight. The Boston Red Sox, the last team to field a black player, didn’t do so until 1959, as everyone who’s heard the name Pumpsie Green knows.

    But it goes beyond that. The Red Sox were an embarrassment by the end of the ’50s for their refusal to have any black players on the club, but it’s not like they were that far behind everybody else. The Pirates had integrated in 1953, but here they were seven years later with two blacks and a dark-skinned Puerto Rican. Howard integrated the Yankees when he came up in 1955, and now five years later they had two blacks and a light-skinned Puerto Rican, Arroyo. Not exactly a melting pot.

    Hector Lopez (11) coaching Panama in the 2009 World Baseball Classic

    Hector Lopez (11) coaching Panama in the 2009 World Baseball Classic

    Some teams were quicker than others to truly integrate. You can’t write the history of the National League in the 1960s without talking about how the Dodgers and Cardinals dominated in part because they were more eager than other teams to sign black players. In this same year, 1960, the Dodgers had a majority-black starting lineup, with five African-American everyday players: Johnny Roseboro, Charlie Neal, Maury Wills, Jim Gilliam and Tommy Davis.

    But for the most part, and certainly in this Series, baseball in 1960, 13 years into the “integration” era, was still a pretty white game.

    Here’s Lopez, tossing away his second bat. He started a lot of games at third base in 1960, especially when Boyer was hurt in April and May. He also spent some time in left field and played a few games at second base, where he’d played a lot early in his career in Kansas City. But by this time, at 30, he was about done with that. He would play two more games at second the rest of his career, which lasted until 1966.

    His playing career that is. Lopez managed Panama in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He was 79 at the time. He looked about 55.

    He has an exaggerated stance, hunched over and closed, like he’s going to aim to right field. He does whack a couple of fouls that way. He’d been a pretty good hitter with the A’s, once hitting 22 home runs, and would be a solid fourth outfielder/utility type in his Yankee years. In 1960, his first full year in New York, he’d hit .284 with nine home runs and a 115 OPS-plus in 131 games.

    Now there goes the no-hitter as Lopez bangs one through the left side of the infield for a base hit, the first of the game off of Vern Law. Bobby Richardson, at the top of the order, hits a line drive to left that hangs up for Bob Skinner, who puts it away for the third out. Still 4-0 Pirates.

    Rocky Nelson shows off his mastery of left-handed pitchers as he draws a walk

    Rocky Nelson shows off his mastery of left-handed pitchers as he draws a walk

    Shantz takes over on the mound for the Yankees. The lefty had somehow won the American League MVP with the fourth-place A’s in 1952 and then led the league in ERA in 1957 as a swing man for the Yanks. Mel Allen talks about how a sore arm had limited him since that MVP year, but he’d settled in as an effective reliever. He would spend 1961 with the Pirates before bouncing from the Astros to the Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies over his last three years.

    He gets Bob Skinner on a grounder to first, and then Rocky Nelson gets a nice hand as he comes up. He hit a two-run homer in the first inning. Here he hits a rocket down the right-field line, foul.

    “It will be interesting to note the duel between Shantz and Rocky Nelson,” Prince says, “for Nelson has a greater lifetime average against left-hand pitching than he does against right-hand pitching. He says it’s because he waits longer on the left-hander and can pull him a little better on occasion.”

    Well, that’s interesting. Casey Stengel, sitting in the Yankees dugout, is the master of the platoon, but I had not expected to hear the TV announcer of the 1960 World Series talk about a guy’s platoon splits. And what a counterintuitive story Prince tells, the lefty-swinging Nelson hitting lefties better than he hits righties. Could this be?

    Unlike a viewer in 1960, I have the Internet and can answer that question while Nelson waits for Shantz’s next pitch.

    The short answer: Nelson did not hit left-handed pitching better than he hit right-handed pitching. In his regular-season career to that moment, Nelson’s batting average against righties was .266. Against lefties: .214. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t hit lefties better than righties. He hit lefties so little he rarely faced them. Nelson had 1,409 plate appearances in the big leagues to that point in his career, and 84 of them had come against left-handed pitching. That’s 6 percent. By way of comparison, Yogi Berra, a left-handed hitter who hit lefties pretty well, faced a left-hander in about 28 percent of his big-league at-bats.

    Roberto Clemente on one knee in the on-deck circle

    Roberto Clemente on one knee in the on-deck circle

    So Nelson was no lefty-killer, but maybe Prince was just talking about 1960. Sure enough, Nelson had a better batting average against lefties than against righties in 1960, .368 to .293.

    But he achieved that .368 average in 19 at-bats! He was 7-for-19 with a double. If two of his singles had been turned into an out — a bad hop here, an at’em ball there — he’d have hit .263 against lefties and Prince would have had nothing to talk about. Instead Prince is passing on Nelson’s pontifications about what makes him such a good lefty-on-lefty hitter because of his flukey success in 19 at-bats toward the end of a career in which he hit .188 against left-handed pitching. The next year, his last, Nelson, all waiting longer on the lefties and pulling them and everything, went 0-for-10 against them.

    See, kids, this is how it used to be. Before the Internet, before Bill James, TV announcers and newspaper reporters — and ballplayers and managers — would say stuff like this, and we’d just have to take their words for it. Now, we can fact check their asses. It might take 50 years, but we can figure out the truth.

    Nelson, ducking out of the way of sweeping curve after sweeping curve, works Shantz for a walk. Of course he does, because after all that you knew he wasn’t going to make an out.

    Clemente comes up. Prince, the Pirates announcer, does a funny thing. He pronounces his name close to correctly — “Clementay” — and then quickly corrects himself to an anglicized pronunciation: “Clumenty.” The right fielder hits a slow grounder to Bobby Richardson, who starts a nifty 4-6-3 double play, Tony Kubek making the relay. Clemente, who is fast, is out by a step and the third inning is over, the Pirates leading 4-0. Are the Yankees really going to go down this quietly?

    * * *

    Hector Lopez WBC photo by Reuters. Used without permission. Will remove on request.

    Written by King Kaufman

    January 4th, 2011 at 4:00 am

    Posted in Baseball

    Tagged with , , , ,

    1960 Game 7, 2nd inning: Pirates break it open!

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    1960 World Series programPreviously: First inning

    Mickey Mantle leads off the second for the Yankees. Was he just trying to drag a bunt there? You’ve got to be kidding me. The Pittsburgh fans think it should have been a strike but it’s a ball.

    Mantle is a 28-year-old 10-year veteran with 320 home runs. I’m trying to picture someone like him today trying a drag bunt in the seventh game of the World Series, down 2-0 in the second inning. Of course there isn’t anyone like him today, not really. Most other days either.

    The only active players who are among Mantle’s top 10 most similar players through age 28 are Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones. Now, Andruw Jones at 28 was a very different Andruw Jones than the marginal big leaguer he’s been for the last four years. His age-28 season was 2005, the year he hit 51 home runs. It also happened to be the last year he played in the postseason. I can’t remember him ever trying to bunt his way on, which doesn’t mean he didn’t. He did have a sacrifice bunt in the 1999 NLCS.

    Pujols put down a sacrifice bunt in an interleague game against the White Sox on June 16, 2001. It was the 67th game of his career. He’s played in 1,555 games since then, including postseason and All-Star Games, and we’re still waiting for sacrifice number 2.

    Ken Griffey Jr., recently retired, is also in Mantle’s top 10 most similar through age 28. He actually was sort of like Mantle, a power-speed center fielder, and he did bunt occasionally, so maybe it’s not so strange to see Mantle try to bunt. The Mick had one or two sacrifices most years up to this point, 13 total, but he’d only have one more, in ‘61, and he never sacrificed in the World Series. But he knew how to bunt, and of course he was very fast.

    Even though I know he was fast, I think of him more as a slugger than as a fast guy because he hit all those homers and he was so famous for hitting them so far. And, largely a product of the era he played in, for all his speed he didn’t steal that many bases. He swiped 138 in his career, which at the time was a lot. He was in the top 10 in the American League in steals seven times and the top five three times, even though his career high was only 21. He also stole at an 80 percent clip. But still, when I think Mantle, I don’t think of a guy who’d try to drag bunt his way on. This may have a lot more to do with my ignorance of Mantle than with anything else.

    Mantle gets back in there. It always strikes me, watching old games, how casual the batters look. Here’s Mantle, an all-time great slugger, with that prodigious strength, and he just sort of stands there, waves the bat, waits for the pitch. It’s such a contrast to someone like Pujols, who looks like 230 pounds of coiled spring as he waits.

    I wonder what they would have made of Gary Sheffield if he’d showed up in 1960, menacingly twitching his bat in that way he did. Today’s hitters are all pigeon-toed and twisted, crouched and curled. They know what they’re doing. It’s the state of the art. It’s just funny to see these old-timers walk up there, settle in, calmly set themselves.

    Yankees logoMantle flies out to Bill Virdon in right center and here comes Yogi Berra, swinging two bats as he steps into the batter’s box. He’s actually swinging two sticks as he stands there and shares a laugh with the Pirates catcher, Smoky Burgess. He peels one off and hands it to, I guess, the bat boy, out of frame. There’s another thing you don’t see anymore, a guy carrying two bats to home plate. In fact, you never see guys swinging two bats in the on-deck circle. They swing one weighted bat, or some weighted bat-like object. Lead pipes were popular for a while. I used to swing two bats at a time as a kid. Fat lot of good it did me.

    Smoky Burgess is a familiar name to me, so much one of those old baseball names that I’m a little surprised to see him here in 1960, so recent. Offhand I would have thought he was a 1920s guy, and that’s without even confusing him with Smoky Joe Wood, who was actually a teens guy. I quick trio to the BR Bullpen reminds me why I know Burgess: He’s the guy who held the record for pinch hits that, for a good stretch of my youth, Manny Mota, the Dodgers’ pinch-hitting specialist, was chasing. Mota eventually broke Burgess’ record of 145 career pinch hits in 1979.

    Lenny Harris broke Mota’s record and ended up with 212, which is a record that will probably never be broken because with teams carrying so many pitchers, nobody can afford to carry a pinch-hitting specialist anymore. The active leader in pinch hits is Matt Stairs, who’s about to turn 43. He has 99.

    Berra has that same slightly closed left-handed stance Mantle has, bent slightly at the waist, leaning over the plate. I’ve seen both of them play in a rebroadcast game before, the Don Larsen perfect game, but one difference between that broadcast and this one is the main camera. In 1956, most of the action was viewed from behind home plate and up, a press-box view. In this game, the main camera is the same center field view that’s used today. So you get a little better peak at the hitters’ stances, though you get less of a sense of how much Berra moved around before he swung. He’d literally walk around in the box as he started his swing.

    He swings at a bad one here, down and away, and hits a bouncer to the left side. Pirates third baseman Don Hoak scrambles to his left, smothers it awkwardly on his hands and knees, springs to his feet and fires to first to get the slow-footed Berra. It’s a nice play. I instinctively wait for the three replays, and of course they don’t come.

    “Here’s the Moose,” Bob Prince says, not mentioning Benito Mussolini, whom Bill Skowron’s boyhood friends named him after. Hey, same batting stance as Mantle and Berra, only from the right side. Skowron yanks his head out, toward the third base dugout, as he swings. He hits a low-and-away pitch foul to the right, and I have no idea how he reached it. Skowron was one of the 10 best hitters in the American League in 1960 by OPS, OPS-plus and offensive WAR, but it looks like he has no chance up there. He grounds out to shortstop Dick Groat on an easy play.

    Burgess leads off the bottom of the second and Prince says he’s “known to his teammates as ‘the little round man.’” People complain about the deterioration of baseball nicknames, how colorful monikers like “The Dominican Dandy” and “Old Aches and Pains” have been replaced by unimaginative coinages of the A-Rod, K-Rod, Juan-Gone variety. But so far in this one we’ve got a guy named for a dictator and “the little round man.” Not too impressive.

    Then again, “the little round man” is a nickname for a guy named Smoky, whose real name was Forrest. Why would a guy named Smoky need another nickname? Did his teammates say, “Smoky just sounds so formal. Why don’t we call him ‘little round man.’” And how did that work? Did they actually walk up to him and say, “Hey, little round man, can I have some of your sunflower seeds?”

    The little round man, who has a similar stance to Mantle and Berra, only slightly open instead of slightly closed, whacks one inside first and down the line. Roger Maris makes a nice play to field the ball in Forbes Field’s very short corner — 300 feet down the line — and holds Burgess to a single.

    New Pirates logo, 1960

    New Pirates logo, 1960

    Prince describes Maris fielding the ball “brilliantly” and says, “Ladies and gentleman, that’s all great credit to Roger Maris. Normally, that’s a double.” But Burgess played five and a half years in Pittsburgh and I’d bet folding money he never had a double on a ball like that. A fast runner would have had to bust it to make second. Burgess had no chance, even if Maris had been a lot more leisurely. This was Prince’s home field. Did he really think a slow-footed catcher would routinely get to second on a sharply hit ball into the corner 300 feet from home plate?

    Casey Stengel’s headed to the mound, lineup card in hand, and he and Bob Turley talk to each other without looking at each other. Stengel’s seen enough, though, and he summons Bill Stafford from the bullpen. Stafford’s one of the boys who was warming up in the top of the first, and as he walks in — we haven’t reached the brief era of the “bullpen car” yet — Prince asks Yankees announcer Mel Allen to talk about him.

    He’s 22 and was brought up from Richmond late in the year when the Yankees staff was struggling, Allen says. He mentions Stafford’s 3-1 record, mostly as a starter, but not his fine 2.25 ERA in 60 innings. Stafford would win 14 games each of the next two years. He would eventually be sent to Kansas City, that graveyard for unwanted Yankees, in a deal that also included Roger Repoz, who I mention just to mention. Repoz was an Athletic only briefly before moving on to the Angels, where he would be one of the first ballplayers I knew about.

    Stafford faces the crouching Don Hoak, author of that scrambly play on Berra’s ball in the top of the inning. Stafford’s wild, throwing three straight balls and looking annoyed with himself. The fourth one misses, but it looks like not by much. Hard to tell as we were on the upstairs, behind the plate camera for that one. Two on, nobody out, Pirates up 2-0, and Casey looking worried on the top step. Bobby Shantz and Ralph Terry are working furiously in the bullpen as Bill Mazeroski steps up.

    Remember that name, not to give anything away.

    Maz bunts Stafford’s first pitch in the air down the first base line. It lands fair but Stafford and Clete Boyer let it roll foul. Prince praises their “very smart execution” but doesn’t mention whether Mazeroski should have perhaps taken a strike instead of bunting at the first pitch, given that Stafford, a 22-year-old rookie, had just come into the game and walked the first hitter on four pitches.

    Maz bunts again on the next pitch, this time a bouncer down the third base line. It looks to me like it’s going to go foul again, the last bounce much closer to the line than the second to last, the ball looking like it’s got some serious english on it. But Stafford has pounced off the mound sharply and he cuts in front of Boyer, makes a barehand pickup just before the ball bounces onto the dirt and, falling backward across the foul line, throws to first. Safe! The bases are loaded with nobody out. “And Casey’s beside himself,” Prince says. Maybe he thought that ball was going foul too.

    New MLB logo, 1960

    New MLB logo, 1960

    Stengel charges out of the dugout. He’d been booed last time he emerged and he’s booed again. He gives Stafford a lecture, looking right up into his face this time and resting his index finger on Stafford’s chest as he speaks.

    Vern Law is the hitter. For a pitcher, he’s no slouch with the bat, a lifetime .195 hitter with eight home runs at this point, and he’d had 17 hits that season, a career high to that point. He takes one, misses one, fouls one on a check swing. Virdon waits in the on-deck circle — on one knee, with two bats. Law hits a comebacker. Stafford jumps to spear the one-hopper and start a 1-2-3 double play. The crowd is silent.

    Prince had just mentioned that the Pirates hadn’t had many chances to KO the Yankees in one shot in the Series, and now the double play had put a big damper on this chance. But Virdon could still make it a 4-0 game with a hit. Virdon fouls one off to the right, another to the left. Stafford works from a windup. The 0-2 pitch is inside, and then Virdon lofts a soft liner toward right center. Maris charges but has to play it on a short hop, which he bobbles. Two runs score and Virdon slides into second. Hit and an error.

    MLB Network shows Virdon, in the theater in Pittsburgh watching the game in 2010, smiling and shrugging. Back in 1960, Groat grounds out to Boyer on a check-swing grounder to end the inning, but the damage is done.

    “We were up 4-0 and it felt pretty good,” Mazeroski says in a contemporary interview, “but by a long shot it didn’t feel like we had won this game yet. There was still a lot of game left to play, and, you know, you’re never comfortable with any lead. I don’t care if it’s a 15-0 lead. You’re never comfortable with that many innings to go.”

    I don’t know, Maz. Four to nothing after two with the Deacon on the mound? I like your chances.

    * * *

    All images from Chris Creamer’s Sportslogos.net, used without permission, but in the hope that no one minds.

    Written by King Kaufman

    January 3rd, 2011 at 1:20 am

    Posted in Baseball

    Tagged with , , ,