Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Who's on First? In the 60s Everybody Knew

It's gratifying when an impression that you have held for a long time turns out to be true. The 'Golden Age' of baseball for me was the 60s, probably because I was a young fan at the time. (I turned nine in 1960.) The particular impression to which I refer was that every team in the Sixties had a powerful first baseman. There are a lot of them around now too, we are witnessing a renaissance of power at first.

I define a power hitter as a player who hits 30 home runs. Twenty is good, 28 is very good, but I don't think you're really a power hitter unless you can knock a ball out of the park thirty times in a year.

I may have missed the odd player or two who had one or maybe even two years with 30 or more, but I have gone through the annals pretty carefully. Here are the first basemen I found in each decade who hit at least 30 in a season. Judge for yourself which decade featured the most powerful first basemen. 

Note: I list a couple of players, such as Rudy York, Jim Thome, and Mark McGwire, under two decades because they hit 30 or more in more than one year in each decade.

The 30s  
Lou Gehrig, Yankees  from  1930 - '37 hit  41, 46, 34, 32, 49, 30, 49, 37;  493 lifetime
Jimmy Foxx, Philadelphia Athletics  1930 to '39 hit 37, 30, 58, 48, 44, 36, 41, 36, 50, 35; 534 lifetime
Hal Trotsky,  Indians  hit 35 in '34, 42 in '36, and 32 in '37
Hank Greenberg, Tigers 36 in '35, 40 in '37, 58 in '38, 33 in '39, and 331 for his career (shortened by war)
Rudy York,  Tigers  35 in '37, 33 in '38

The 40s 
Hank Greenberg, Tigers  41 in '40 and 44 in '46
Rudy York, Tigers  33 in '40 and 34 in '43
Johnny Mize, Cardinals/Giants  43 in 1940, 51 in '47, and 40 in '48

The 50s 
Gil Hodges,  Brooklyn Dodgers  1950 - '54 32, 40, 32, 31, 42 and 32 in '56 with 370 for his career
Walt Dropo,  Tigers  hit 34 in 1950 as a rookie
Luke Easter,  Indians  hit 31 in '52
Ted Kluszewski,  Reds  from '53 to '56 hit 40, 49, 47, and 35 and finished with 279

The 60s
Joe Adcock,  Braves  hit 38 in '56, 35 in 1961  336 in all
Dick Stuart,  Pirates/Red Sox hit 35 in '61, then 42, 33 in '63, '64
Jim Gentile, Orioles hit 46, then 33 in '61, '62
Harmon Killebrew,  Twins  from '59 to '64 he hit 42, 31, 46, 48, 45, and 49; after an off year of 25 he hit 39 and 44, then 17, then 49 and 41 in  '69 and 70;  573 in all
Frank Howard,  Dodgers/ Sentors  31 in '62, and 36, 44, 48, 44 from '67 to '70;  382 for his career
Boog Powell, Orioles hit 39 in '64, 34 in '66, then 37 and 35 in  '69 and 70, total of 339
Norm Cash, Tigers hit 41, 39 in '61, '62, then 30 and 32 in '65, '66, and finally 32 in '71; 377 in all
Rocky Colavito,  Indians 59 to '63 hit 41, 42, 35, 45, 37, then 34 in '64 and 30 in '66; 374 in all (at right with Norm Cash and a couple of other guys who could hit the ball out)
Joe Pepitone, Yankees hit 31 in '66
Mike Epstein, Senators hit 30 in '69
Dick Allen, hit 40 in '66, then 33, 32, 34 from '68 to '70, 37 and 32 in '72 and '74, 351 in all
Ernie Banks, Cubs (had moved over from shortstop) hit 32 in '68
Willie McCovey,  Giants  hit 44 in '63, then had 39, 36, 31, 36, 45, 39  521 homers for his career
Orlando Cepeda, Cardinals  1961 to '64 hit 46, 35, 34, 31  hit 379 lifetime

The 70s 
Orlando Cepeda, Atlanta Braves  34 in 1970
George Scott Brewers/Red Sox hit 36 and 33 in '75 and '77
Willie Stargell   Pirates  '70 to '73 31, 48, 33, 44  then 32 in '79 totaled 475 over 21 years
Nate Colbert  Padres  38 in '70 and 38 in '72
George Scott   Brewers  36 in '75 and '33 in '77
Tony Perez, Reds  40 in '70, no more than 28 after that

The 80s
Eddie Murray Orioles   '80 - '85  hit 32, 22. 32, 33, 29, 31;  504 home runs
Don Mattingly  Yankees  1985 - '87    35, 31, 30
Wally Joyner Angels ht 34 in '87
Steve Balboni Royals hit 36 in '85
Will Clark  Giants hit 35 in '87
Jack Clark  Cardinals hit 35 in '87
Mark McGwire, Athletics  49, 32, 33 from '87 to '89

The 90s
Mark McGwire, Athletics/ Cardinals  hit 39, 22, 42 from '90 to 92, then 39, 52, 58, 70, 65 from '95 to '99
Fred McGriff, Atlanta Braves   493  home runs 1988 - '92 34, 36, 35, 31, 35
Cecil Fielder, Tigers from '90 to '95 hit 51, 44, 35, 30, 28, and 31
Frank Thomas, White Sox  521 homers  1993 - 1997 41, 38, 40, 40, 35
Jeff Bagwell,  Astros   449 home runs  1993- 2000 his totals were 39, 21, 31, 43, 34, 42, and 47
Andres Galarraga,  Rockies from '94 to '98 hit 31, 31, 47, 41, and 44
Todd Helton, Rockies  354  2000- 2004  42, 49, 30, 33, 32
Rafael Palmerio, Rangers/Orioles  had 37 in '93, then 39, 39, 38, 43, 47 from '95 to '99  
Jim Thome, Indians  1996 - '99   38, 40, 30, 33, 37

The 2000s 
Rafael Palmerio, Orioles/ Rangers  hit 39, 47, 43, 38 from '2000 to '03; 569 homers (incl. tainted ones)
Jim Thome,  Phillies  2000 - '08  37, 49, 52, 47, 42, 7, 42, 35, 34 has 611 to date (5 last year 2 this year)
Albert Pujols, Cardinals  2001 - 2010  37, 34, 43, 46, 41, 49, 32, 37, 47, 42  now at 471
Adrian Gonzales, Red Sox  2007 - 2010  30, 36, 40, 31
Prince Fielder, Brewers hit 50, 34, 46, 32, and 38 from 2007 to 2011 (already 252 lifetime)
Mark Teixeira, Yankees  38, 43, 33, 30 from '04 to '07 and 39, 33, 39 '09 to 2011
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers from '04 to '11 hit 33, 33, 26, 34, 37, 34, 38, 30 and has 30 already in '12
Ryan Howard, Phillies   58, 47, 48, 45, 31, 33  2006 to 2011
Joey Volto, Reds  37 in 2010
Adam Lind, Jays hit 35 in 2009
Adam Dunn, Red, Nationals, White Sox hit 46, 40, 40, 40, 40, 38, 38 from 2004 to '10, 36 this year
Carlos Pena, Rays  46 in 2007, 31 in '08, 39 in '09
Paul Konerko, White Sox  41,40, 35, 31 '04 to '07, then 39 in 2010, 31 in 2011 total of 414
Justin Morneau,  Twins  34 in 2006, 31 in '07, 30 in '09

This Week's Trivia: What manager had the toughest decision ever regarding first base?

Answer: Alvin Dark, he had to choose between All-Star Orlando Cepeda (46, 142, .311 in '61) and young Willie McCovey (18, 50,. 271 in 328 ABs).

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The importance of training and execution

Mathis guns for another runner.
I was listening to a Jays broadcast this week as they played the White Sox and one of those plays happens that a catcher trains for and should execute every time, but which seldom bears any sort of fruit. (Sorry, but I’m far away from a reliable Internet connection so I can’t tell you which game it was.)

The catcher was Jeff Mathis, a player whom the Jays got from the Angels precisely because he is very reliable defensively, as he ably proved on this occasion. A ball was grounded to an infielder and thrown across to first base. Unfortunately, the throw was errant and skipped past the first baseman. As good catchers do, Mathis charged down the line to back up at first base. He collected the ball neatly and as the runner, thinking he was seizing an opportunity, quickly chugged towards the next bag. Considering Mathis’s fantastic arm, that runner was easy prey. Out recorded and if memory serves, the Jays left the field for another crack at the Sox pitcher. Unless you really know baseball, you wouldn’t know the importance of making that play. Too often you see a catcher not going all out down the line, arriving too late, and the batter gets a free extra base. It won’t be ruled an error, but everyone on the team knows the play should have been made.

Having been the catcher for the Hogtown Bombers for most of my career, I know well what a pain it is to leap to your feet many times during a game, charge down the first base line with all that gear on, only to watch the ball settle nicely into the first baseman’s glove. After awhile, it is not much fun, especially when you’ve been playing a lot and the weather is very warm. It’s easy to get a bit lax, to dog it a bit. The Jays aren’t going anywhere this year and were behind at the time, and it would have been perfectly understandable for Mathis to not go all out.

But the Jays back-up catcher doesn’t play ball like that, and being highly sympathetic to those who wear the tools of ignorance, I thumped the desk at my computer (I was working at the time) and shouted out, “Yes!”

I knew how much that play can mean to a team that’s struggling and how much it says about the guy making the play. Well done, Jeff!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Can They Do It Without Their Ace?

The Washington Nationals are baseball's best team. And they may have the most promising starter in baseball. But it appears that if they are to go all the way, they will have to do so without him. General Manager Mike Rizzo has apparently decided to shut down Steven Strasburg for the season.

Long ago he made the decision to limit Strasbourg to between 160 and 180 innings in his first full season after ligament-replacement surgery.  He is nearing that total now. How will the Nationals fare without him?

In the fourth inning last night Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single and Adam Laroche followed with a long fly ball to center field.  Angel Pagan caught the fly but never imagined that Zimmerman would try for second and took his time getting the ball in. Zimmerman tagged up, bolted for second, and slid in safely. The salient point about this seemingly inconsequential play is that the Nationals had a 9-run lead over the Giants at the time.

An inning later - with a 12-run lead - Bryce Harper took third when the Giants recorded an out using the shift against Adam LaRoche but then forgot to cover third. Harper scored a few pitches later. In the ninth Danny Espinosa, who was already 4-for-6, hustled to first to break up a double play with his team up by 14. Manager Davey Johnson, who saw a 9-run lead evaporate earlier this season, says there is no letting up - no matter what the score.

On Sunday the Nats had lost their first game in a week and last night they seemed determined to start another streak. They broke the record for hits at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park (21) and they did it against Ryan Vogelsong, who happens to lead the league in ERA. They tied the Nationals record for largest margin of victory and moved 5 1/2 games up on the Braves (tying for the biggest lead the team has ever had). 

Right fielder Jason Werth (right), signed baseball's 14th biggest contract ($126 million over 7 years) with Washington in 2010. He was originally signed by the Orioles, went to Toronto for two years, was traded to the Dodgers for Jason Frasor, and then starred with the Phillies.

He suffered a broken wrist earlier this year and was a late scratch Monday with a sore ankle. He hit just .232, with 20 home runs last year - he had 36 in 2009 - but is hitting .308 this year, 42 points above his career average. Against lefties he's batting .471. Werth says "This is the time of the year when it can go either way. We're right where we want to be, we're poised."

Werth's replacement, Roger Bernadina, did okay, 4-for-6 last night. He's hitting .333 since Mike DaRosa suggested the muscular part-timer try a lighter bat.

Ian Desmond (left)  leads all shortstops with 17 home runs. Outfielder Michael Moore is hitting .333 and has seven dingers since the All-Star Break. (He's hitting .301 for the year.) The aforementioned third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .362 since the break and also has 7 round trippers. First baseman Adam LaRoche has 23 home runs, on his way to his seventh sesaon with 20 or more.

They would be doing even better if their phenom, Bruce Harper, were doing better than a disappointing 10, 32, .251. The scary thing for the Braves and other NL teams is that hitting isn't even the Nats' strong suit.

The Nationals' pitchers lead the Majors in ERA, quality starts, and opposition average (.231). They are second in strikeouts and third in saves. Gio Gonzales (right) leads in wins at 13. Strasburg has a 2.90 ERA (12th best in baseball) and 166 strikeouts in his 133 innings pitched. Jordan Zimmerman is third in wins (9-6) with a sparkling 2.35 ERA.

Johnson is apparently sticking with former Yankee prospect Tyler Clippard, who the Senators converted from a starter, as his closer, even though Drew Soren, who had 43 saves last year, is back from the DL. Johnson has 65 K's in 54 innings with just 32 hits allowed. Soren recorded his first save of the year Sunday night and can provide Clippard with some welcome nights off. Clippard, has blown three of 12 saves and has a whopping 6.43 ERA since the Break  (He blew just one out of the previous 16 prior to it).

Though the Rangers have now won the pennant twice and the Minnesota Twins, the other reincarnation of the Washington Senators, won three, the World Series has not been played in the nation's capital since 1933. Even the Cubs have been in a Series since then! Could this be the year?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Marvin Miller for the Hall of Fame?

I was watching a Yankee broadcast the other night. Ken Singleton was talking about this year's Hall of Fame inductees and he lamented that Marvin Miller was not in the Hall. Though a former labour (on behalf of teachers and principals) negotiator myself, I was taken aback by his statement. 

I think inductees should be there because of their on field contributions. But then I got to thinking that men at the other end of the spectrum, i.e. men who worked to keep players as serfs are in the Hall. Maybe Miller should be too. I am just as much against the ungodly salaries that professional athletes get as anyone. But before Miller came along things used to be ridiculous in the other direction.

The White Sox were called Black Sox before a bunch of them threw the 1919 World Series. Charles Comiskey was so cheap he refused to pay to wash the uniforms and several players refused to have them washed themselves. (Note: It is not true that Comiskey had Kid Gleason bench Eddie Cicotte to avoid paying him a bonus if he won 30 games. Cicotte got two more starts after winning his 29th.) 

Connie Mack, owner and manager of wonderful and awful Philadelphia Athletics teams for 50 years, said he preferred contending teams who wound up third or forth to pennant winners because the players wouldn't be expecting raises. He allowed the second of his great teams (the first had been the 1902 team that featured Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell) to be broken up in 1915. His infield of Harry Davis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Frank Home Run Baker had become famous as the $100,000 infield. But the $100,000 didn't refer to their salaries. It referred to what sportswriters felt Mack could get for them if he sold them. And he did sell Collins, Barry, and Baker.

He built his third great team (Foxx, Simmons, Cochrane, et al) in the late 1920's but again could not afford to keep his stars. In 1931 Lefty Grove won the MVP award (see photo) on the basis of a 31-4 record. Bu remarkably, he agreed to a cut in pay. "I'd play for free", said Grove, "but don't tell Connie that."

The next year - albeit with the depression on - Lou Gehrig, who'd had a pretty good year (.349, .623 Slugging Average, 155 RBI) accepted a salary cut from $25,000 to $23,000.

In 1935 Dizzy Dean, who'd won 30 games in 1934, had just 28 wins. Yikes! What an awful season. General Manager Branch Rickey asked him to take a pay cut.

In 1938 the Yankees cut Lou Gehrig's salary by $14,000 when he hit under .300 (.295) for the first time. He had 29 home runs and 114 RBI.

After the 1939 season, in which Hank Greenburg hit .312 with 31 homers and 112 RBI, he was asked to take a pay cut because his home run total was down from 1938 when he hit 58.

Ralph Kiner was famous for his home runs and also for his statement that home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Fords. In 1950 Kiner, of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates, led the National League in home runs. When he went to get a raise from Branch Rickey, the Pirates' General Manager, Rickey told him, "Mr. Kiner, we finished last with you this year, we can finish last without you." (Note that Kiner didn't just drive Cadillacs, he paralleled modern superstars by dating one of the hottest women of his era, the voluptuous Jane Russell.)

In 1953. Enos Slaughter, who'd hit an even .300 for Brooklyn the year before, slumped to .291. Predictably, he was asked to take a pay cut.

In 1959 Stan Musial asked for - and got - a salary reduction from $100,000 to $80,000 because he'd had a poor year, which he had, hitting a very uncharacteristic .255. Musial claimed that he had been overpaid in 1957 and '58. Well, he did hit 29 and then 17 home runs those two years, but his averages were okay - .351 and .337!

That same year Mickey Mantle's salary was cut from $70,000 to $60,000 when he dipped to .285 and 31 home runs.

In 1990 Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman was forced to take a whopping 20% salary cut. But even that is mitigated by the fact that Gedman had been awarded a hefty increase in 1989 (from $980,000 to $1.15 million) after an awe-inspiring 9, 39, .231 season in '88!

My point is that things were way too bad for the players before Marvin Miller and now the players have it too good. Starting with the huge arbitration awards that were handed out to mediocre players after they had one good season, agents now get the clients long term contracts and they can afford to have a bad year, or even two or three. Maybe, it'd be better to put a little more pressure on players to perform.

Miller, who has been on the ballot, doesn't think he will ever get into the Hall of Fame. Of course the voters who have been on the management side of baseball and some players who played before he came along will never vote for him. But you must admit that baseball has been a lot more popular since Miller got involved in it.