Just Like Starting Over
If you’re reading this column, welcome to a kind of test—not for you, but for me. As you can see from the byline above, my name is Steven Goldman. I’ve been writing about baseball for a long time, just about 20 years, beginning with a Yankees-centric feature called the Pinstriped Bible that ran so long it took me from my mid-20s to middle-age, and continuing through Baseball Prospectus and SB Nation, and, for about a year now, Vice Sports (where I will also continue to be).
I’ve been very fortunate to make a living by writing about a kid’s game, but somewhere along the line I lost touch with the part of it I found fun—the banter, the contact with readers, the making connections between the game and things that aren’t strictly between the foul lines. This last part was always my favorite, because I have always held that if you can think about baseball in an analytical way, you can apply that clarity of mind to anything—other sports, history, movies, music, politics, possibly the cat.
You try telling a publisher you want to write a column like that, even if you have been writing one for years. They blink and say, “Yes, but we need more pieces on groin pulls.”
Given that resistance and other responsibilities, such as working on books (Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, a whole bunch with BP, and some forthcoming titles I hope I can tell you about soon) and being an editor, I let it go.
You have to understand, doing things in the straightforward, standard, quote-and-a-stat way of baseball writing is much easier. And maybe, I told myself, I wasn’t that guy anymore, the one who had a million thoughts racing around in his head and couldn’t wait to get in front of an audience and share them. But lately, I’ve been wondering if maybe I still am. Could be this is simply the next chapter of an ongoing midlife crisis, but it could also be something better.
So, that’s the test: If I can still write such a column and if you will read it. The plan is that I’ll write one of these bigger multi-topic installments once a week and the rest of the time I’ll do something a little more compact.
I’m going to be honest with you here: Sometimes it may seem like in this space I cover a few baseball topics and you can’t tell the difference between this and any other baseball writing, and you’ll be right—sometimes the difference may all be in my head, but it’s a difference that matters to me. Other days, particularly as we get into the offseason, I’m going to roam all over the place and the “Stick to sports” crowd is going to give me hell. That’s okay. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll find more of the same: Baseball, movies, politics.
I considered calling this section “Return of the Native,” but first of all I was forced to read that book in high school and I hated it (I reserve the possibility that adult me might like it better) and second I’m not a native. I was not indoctrinated with baseball by my parents; Bill James and pickup games on the neighborhood sandlot did that. I am not tribal, which is to say that this feature is ecumenical, non-denominational, and uninterested in shilling for or against specific teams. I’m in favor of players with high on-base percentages and against those who commit crimes of domestic violence. Everyone else gets an even break. I root for critical thinking. And dessert. But mostly critical thinking.
And, last thought before we move on, it kills me when the batter is granted time when a pitcher is already in his windup. That’s against the rules, but umpires do it all the time. Years ago, I asked Goose Gossage what went through his mind when that happened. He said you might send a little message the batter’s way. “Step out on me, motherf—-r?” he shouted, miming throwing a fastball at my head.
I barely resisted the urge to duck. That’s what my coming to Today’s Knuckleball is about. We’re not going to duck; we’re going to keep on talking.
Blues for Andre
As has been pointed out numerous times by now, whichever of the four teams remaining in the playoffs is going to break a long championship drought: 1908 (Cubs), 1948 (Cleveland), 1988 (Dodgers), 1993 (Blue Jays). No disrespect intended to the Dodgers and Jays, but their waits are not like those of the teams from Illinois and Ohio. In this context, it seems like anything under 50 years doesn’t qualify as tragic suffering.
That said, it’s not like Cleveland and the Cubs didn’t deserve it at times. It’s not the case now, but for decades these teams were among the most poorly run in baseball. No curses or other externalities account for their years in the wilderness more than that.
As I’ve written elsewhere, in 1986 the Indians had a starting rotation primarily consisting of Tom Candiotti, Phil Niekro, Ken Schrom, Don Schulze, and Neil Heaton— two knuckleballers, one of them 47 years old, and a great many guys with strikeout rates around 3.5 per nine innings. If there’s a curse that causes you to build your team that way, it doesn’t have a name other than chronic incompetence.
As for the Cubs, when you have 108 years to play with it’s hard to pick any one moment as iconic. Maybe it was the “College of Coaches” in the early ’60s, or perhaps it should be the arrival of Ernie Banks and Gene Baker in September, 1953, simultaneously a great moment for the team and one that symbolized ownership’s resistance to integration; it had been more than six years since Jackie Robinson reached the majors. I often fixate on the December, 1988 trade that sent Rafael Palmeiro and Jamie Moyer to the Texas Rangers for six players, with Mitch Williams being the main target, because the Cubs sent away two players they thought were insufficiently talented for one of the worst closers in baseball.
This was a direct sequel to another bad trade from exactly a year earlier — Lee Smith being sent to the Boston Red Sox for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. It’s not really bad trades that matter right now, though; it’s hungry ghosts—some of whom are still living.
With the possibility of Cleveland and Chicago facing off in the World Series, it’s hard not to think about the first baseman and designated hitter Andre Thornton. He played 14 years in the majors, and for about 13.5 of them he was with one of the two clubs.
Appropriately, he wasn’t a player anyone ever believed in. Undrafted in 1967, the 6’3” right-handed hitter signed with the Phillies, who sent him on a long, slow trip through the minor leagues. When he started to show consistent power, the Phillies traded him to the Braves for two pitchers whose sole contribution to the franchise was to go a combined 0-10 with an ERA of about 6.00. The Braves never gave him a chance, trading him to the Cubs for the bitter dregs of Joe Pepitone’s last season.
The Cubs did give him a try, bringing him up in 1973 and giving him regular playing time the next year. His story anticipates Palmeiro’s in that he was a good young hitter, still only 24 in his first full season, but the people running the Cubs then just missed it. In his rookie year he hit .261/.368/.439, which doesn’t look like much, but in the currency of 1974 it’s about as productive as Hanley Ramirez was this year. The Cubs were disappointed and complained he didn’t hit with enough power. In 1975, Thornton was spectacular, hitting .293/.428/.516 with 18 home runs and 88 walks in 120 games. Relative to the league, Anthony Rizzo wasn’t any better this year. When Thornton went cold in July, manager Jim Marshall started platooning him. Once he got back in the lineup, he was spectacular, hitting over .300 with 13 home runs down the stretch.
Thornton got off to a slow start the next year and Marshall, still somehow not believing, benched him, then traded him to the Montreal Expos. The Cubs got two players of little significance back for him and gave his job to Pete LacCock. That’s why they were the Cubs.
Thornton didn’t hit for the Expos either—somehow no one, including Thornton, had known he was playing with a broken thumb—so in December of 1976 they dealt him to Cleveland for a journeyman pitcher. Thornton had finally found a home, albeit one that would never get him within six miles of a pennant race. He spent 10 years with the team. Injury problems and a devastating personal tragedy it would be cruel for us to go into here meant he wasn’t the most consistent player in the world, but five of those seasons rank among the best Cleveland has ever received. He generally hit somewhere between .260 and .280, but he spiked his production with up to 33 home runs a year and 90 to 100 walks.
He made two All-Star teams, and pinch-hit a single in one of them. That was as much recognition as he got. The Cubs couldn’t see him. Cleveland couldn’t put anything around him. In this, he is no different than Lou Brock was to the Cubs or his teammate Bert Blyleven was to Cleveland. Players have classic seasons all the time that go for naught because their teams were, through little or no fault of their own, terrible. Think of Mike Trout—that could be the rest of his career, and he’s only 25.
A lot of toil went into making these two teams suffer for so long — millions of swings, millions of pitches. If they both go to the World Series, and that’s hardly a sure thing right now, we’ll act like one of them have completed some kind of redemption story. It won’t be true, though. All those Ron Santo games that were just for the fun of it, all those Brett Butler bunts, the dozens of players who tried to make a difference but were handicapped by their masters, their efforts don’t get redeemed, they just linger on in whatever purgatory they’re in.
Britton Always Wins One Battle—The Last
Since October 4, the jokes about Zach Britton, the Baltimore Orioles’ BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF NEVER closer, have only abated, not stopped. This is to our great benefit, and if we’re lucky they never will. In the moment, I found myself humming the big band song based on the 1899 poem “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns. You can sing along:
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a pitcher who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
Now that we’re deep into the postseason, it often seems as if Buck Showalter made his unforced Britton error in the Wild Card Game against the Toronto Blue Jays so that the rest of the managerial population could learn from his mistakes. By deeming Britton so good he couldn’t be used to do anything but protect a lead the Orioles would never have, Showalter lost his most important game of the season with his worst pitcher on the mound instead of his best.
The idea that one never uses a closer in a tie game on the road has long needed a manager to do something so obviously self-defeating to destroy its insidious power over weak minds. In a sudden-death situation, which is what the home team’s at-bat in every inning after the eighth is, prolonging the game is a more urgent need than protecting a hypothetical future lead. After all, if you don’t get another turn to hit, that lead is never coming. And if you do bat again and score, sure, you might need to protect a one- or two-run lead in the bottom of the frame, but you also might score 10 and at that point you could let the backup catcher pitch. Alternatively, if whatever non-closer you pick to pitch the bottom of the inning blows the save and the game is tied up again, well, you’re still playing.
Since Showalter’s Boner, as they would have called it back in the Fred Merkle days, it seems as if the message has gone forth to the other managers that this is not the rope with which to hang yourself. Terry Francona of Cleveland was the one manager in the field who had already figured this one out for himself, using Andrew Miller whenever the danger was greatest once he was acquired from the Yankees on July 31. Dave Roberts of the Dodgers and Joe Maddon of the Cubs have used Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, respectively, at their moment of greatest need rather than in save situations, save situations bearing only occasional resemblance to victory situations.
Meanwhile, Britton, though the Ghost of Christmas Past insofar as the 2016 playoffs go, continues to be a topic of conversation. On Sunday, Roch Kubatko of MASN argued that not only shouldn’t Britton be traded for a package of talent that would presumably deepen a roster that was just good enough to slip into the playoffs, he should be extended.
As things stand now, Britton, who turns 29 in December, won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season, so there’s not necessarily a rush to get an extension done. He’s also been a great pitcher the last three years and, with his attributes, should be one going forward. However, he isn’t likely to have another 2016, and if anything, Showalter’s blunder makes it even more likely that he won’t repeat at this level. That’s if Showalter is smart enough to learn from his mistakes. Knowing that, you’d think a team would have to consider selling high.
Britton’s strikeout rate of 9.9 this year isn’t particularly special in an age in which, over the last three years, pitchers with 30 or more saves in a season averaged 10.5. Heck, the average reliever, from closers to middle men to the guy used only in blowouts, averaged about 8.5. That’s not what makes Britton special, though. It’s the way he’s upped his sinker game to a level pretty much unparalleled in recent years. As per Baseball-Reference, over the last three seasons he’s averaged close to four grounders for every fly ball. Brad Ziegler has approached that kind of ratio at times, but really no other reliever is in the neighborhood. It’s tough to blow big leads when you almost never give up a home run.
It’s a great skillset, as if prime-age Tommy John were a closer. It’s also one that, if pitchers like TJ are any guide, should age well. However, the kind of run-prevention season Britton just had, with only four earned runs in 67 innings and 47 saves in as many opportunities projecting him into the Cy Young Award discussion, shouldn’t be the basis for a discussion of his future value. There’s too much luck involved, particularly for a ground-ball pitcher who will be somewhat dependent on having elite defenders like Manny Machado behind him to be this good again.
Britton just had the lowest relief ERA, 0.54, of the last 100 years. In that time, just 12 other pitchers have pitched a season of at least 50 innings and had an ERA below 1.00. There’s even one Hall of Famer, Dennis Eckersley, in the group. None of them repeated at that level. Wade Davis, who had a 1.00 ERA in 2014 and a 0.94 ERA the next year, came closest to making the list twice.
One reason the list is so small is because 50 innings is a low threshold. Historically, relievers were asked to pitch a lot more than that, and maintaining a high level of dominance over more innings is a tougher test. The lowest ERA for a reliever to throw at least 100 innings more than doubles Britton’s. No reliever has thrown that many innings since Scott Proctor in 2006, and it seems unlikely we’re going to go back there soon.
There are four reasons reliever workloads became reduced:
1. We’re in an age of bullpen specialization, with certain pitchers reserved for specific matchups.
2. This required larger bullpens, so managers spread the load over more pitchers.
3. Based on very limited evidence, the 100-inning threshold was deemed a risk to arm health.
4. Given managers’ slavish devotion to the saves rule, the number of opportunities for a team’s best reliever to pitch became severely limited.
Nos. 1-3 aren’t going to change any time soon, but thanks to Showalter, Maddon, Francona, and Roberts, No. 4 might. Britton, the best single-season reliever in history by ERA, pitched the 43rd-most relief innings in the majors this season. There’s no good reason for that. He missed three games at the intersection of April and May due to an ankle injury, but that alone doesn’t excuse it. The real reason is that he was largely reserved for circumstances that didn’t always come up. This is true, to one extent or another, of all closers.
That might change now. The Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher said, “Never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it might rain.” That can now be read as, “Never save a pitcher for the next inning. There might not be a next inning.”