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The Smell of Resin

It’s a quote that was supposed to be cleverly relevant to the “aging in baseball” chapter of my first book Stealing Greatness.

“We play the game because of the smell of the resin, or the horsehide the ball was made of, or the click of the bat, or running down a fly, throwing as far as you could, just the sheer pleasure of the game. I could still smell all that.”

I wrote this quote down in early 2009 and noted—for reasons that are now very mysterious to me—that they were spoken by pitcher Steve Carlton sometime during the weekend of his Hall of Fame induction in 1994. For me, Carlton uttering these words was a perfect explanation as to how this baseball legend hung around the game at least a year and a half too long, performing like a Triple-A pitcher as he searched for a fastball that had long left the ballpark. I was so cozy with it that I didn’t even think to wonder how peculiar it was for Carlton to utter something so verbose and eloquent after spending most of his career known as “Silent Steve.”

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With my manuscript deep into the editing stage, I was just finishing up my bibliography when I realized I couldn’t locate the source of the quote anywhere! I was like that guy who couldn’t find his winning lottery ticket. I searched in vain through the hundreds of articles I had gathered throughout my book research. I paged through my entire bookshelf. Googling even parts of the phrase came up empty. I listened to Carlton’s HOF speech at baseballhalloffame.org, as well as several other induction-related interviews. No smell of resin anywhere.

I sent out a flare to the SABR crew (Society for American Baseball Research), relying on their email forum that’s used for exchanging research ideas and information. I was banking that the words might ring a bell with some of the game’s most respected historians. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Phil Collins, there was no reply at all. (Sorry, but this whole ‘citing sources’ issue has me paranoid.)

I found Carlton’s own website, with an “E-Mail Steve” link at the top. So I did, asking him, “Did you say this?”

“I may have,” he replied. He said it sounded familiar. I paid no attention to the part of my brain that reasoned that for all I knew, the email could have come from a four-and-a-half-foot-tall Peruvian woman sitting on a donkey with an iPhone in her hand.

Then, being the rookie book writer that I am, I got a little anxious to put this matter to bed: I asked Super Steve if I could use the quote in his name.

“No, you may not,” he responded, reminding me that it was hardly an exact recollection on his part.

Ouch. The terseness of his electronically-generated words made me feel like I just got rapped on the knuckles with a yardstick by Sister Carmel Rose. What was I thinking? I can’t just tag someone’s name onto a quote if I wasn’t completely sure how it came about. Embarrassingly, it took a four-time Cy Young award winner (or a Peruvian woman, one or the other) to hammer home one of the first rules of publishing: verify your source!

Next, I pinged Philly sportswriter Bill Conlin. Surely the man most responsible for journalistically removing Carlton’s vocal cords back in the mid-’70s would remember such a sentimental, 49-word sound bite if it indeed came from the most dominant pitcher he had ever covered. He didn’t. Conlin was surprised to hear that Carlton answered my email. “Of course,” he reminded me, “For all you know the email could have come from a four-and-a-half-foot-tall Peruvian woman sitting on a donkey with an iPhone in her hand.” I know Mr. Conlin, I know.

I thought I hit pay dirt after approaching the don of baseball statistics, Bill James. I posed my question on his “Hey Bill” Q&A forum. “It sounds like Field of Dreams,” he answered. It sure does! It’s got that sense of baseball nostalgia; I thought he nailed it. I immediately went to IMDB.com, dialed up the movie, clicked on “memorable quotes,” and found morsels like this one from the Shoeless Joe Jackson character: “I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet…Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was the game…The sounds, the smells. Did you ever hold a ball or a glove to your face?”

Shoeless_Joe_Field_of_Dreams

But there was no match for my orphan passage. So I cut it from the book, and stitched the remaining words back together. I’m happy with my ‘fix,’ but sure would like to find out the quote’s rightful owner.

If you have any inkling as to who might have said it—and I don’t care if it was Steven Norman Carlton or some Peruvian woman on a donkey—I’d be happy to hear from you.

Peruvian Woman Donkey

– John Cappello

World Series 2009: Grab Your Helmets

[The series heads to NY with the Yanks leading the Phils 3-2.]

Chase Utley better borrow Brian Westbrook’s helmet when he goes to the plate Wednesday night. If I was his opponent, I’d throw at him. Somewhere Alex Rodriguez has got to be making some noise about his pitchers protecting the not-so-loveable third baseman—and their ERAs—by making some Phils dance in the box. Apparently, that warning the umps issued after Blanton plunked A-Rod had a longer-than-usual expiration date, because it spilled over into Game 5. I disagree with Tim McCarver; Joe Blanton lined up A-Rod like gunslinger eyeing a silhouette with a ten gallon hat in his crosshairs. It was a purpose pitch with a capital P.

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I remember how ultra-historic it felt to witness Reggie Jackson hit those three home runs on three pitches in the ’77 series. I was never a big fan of #44 because of his “I’m the straw” attitude. But I was a huge fan that night. It seems like Utley matching Reggie’s incredible feat of five homers in a single World Series hasn’t registered. We’re too distracted trying to figure out other things—like who’s starting Game 7. The prophesy Joe Morgan made during Utley’s explosive, 25-homer first half of 2008—that he could become the greatest hitting second baseman ever—just got a brand new set of wheels and is geared for the long haul.

baseball

I love the peek of the catcher’s signs. How cool is it to know something the batter doesn’t? Seeing Sabathia shake off his hook for the heater in Game 1 against Utley, then watching that heat go yard, was priceless.

baseball

If Pedro does his job in Game 6 and delivers us to Game 7, and considering Cliff Lee’s performance, the MVP of the series should go to…rookie GM Ruben Amaro Jr. If the Yanks win, the award should go to the screwed-up economy of baseball. The way they were able to dig into their pockets for, oh, about a quarter of a billion dollars or so to fill in “some gaps” last winter doesn’t do much for the spirit of FAIR COMPETITION. Of course the team is talented! It’s like holding a fantasy draft and owning the top five picks, without losing any picks in the later rounds!

baseball

Was Shane Victorino really sacrificing when he took a hard one to the knuckle in the first inning? With this lineup? Who did Manuel think was batting, Tito Fuentes? Charlie, please don’t ever do that again, unless that’s the only run you are interested in getting.

baseball

It was weak for Joe Buck and Ken Rosenthal to bring up the Cole Hamels quote without including the all-important context, regardless of how stupid it was for Hamels to utter those words. It was like they wanted to start their own little bonfire of a story to see if it would catch into the trees. Cole definitely has some issues, like the fact that his threshold for getting frazzled has now been reduced to finding a stitch out of place on the baseball. But please, Joe and Ken, read the rest of your notes.

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Rosenthal photo from http://thesportshernia.typepad.com/

World Series Bluff Sends Johnny to the Bench

Fans of baseball, more than any other sport, seem to treat the game like family. No matter how many times it embarrasses or disappoints us, we’re still willing to welcome it back into our living rooms.

Why is that? My theory is that our unconditional love of the game stems from the memories we’ve stashed inside the neural closets of our minds from when we were kids. It’s that nostalgic sense that something’s been with us our entire lives. Like Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) said to Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”

A classic gem from my streaming collection of favorite baseball memories happened during the 1972 World Series. It featured a unique slight of hand that was pulled off under the game’s brightest lights.

In that ’72 series, the Oakland A’s were up two games to none against the Cincinnati Reds. The future Big Red machine held a 1-0 lead in Game 3 going into the top of the eighth. Oakland pitcher Vida Blue, a disappointing 6-10 that season after sweeping the AL Cy Young and MVP awards the year before, was in relief of starter John “Blue Moon” Odom. After Pete Rose led off with a lineout, Joe Morgan worked a walk, one of his many specialties. Bobby Tolan followed with a single to centerfield, with Morgan taking third on the hit. That was all for Blue, with Oakland manager Dick Williams waving Rollie Fingers into the game to face one of the biggest slugging stars of the day, Johnny Bench.

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Later that fall, young Bench would collect his second NL MVP award and fifth Gold Glove, all before turning 25. In the meantime, here he was digging into the batter’s box smack in the middle of a key World Series moment against a future Hall of Famer, with his team down in the series but holding the slimmest of margins in the game.

Tolan, who stole 42 bases that season, immediately swiped second, an event which opened up some options for the A’s. First base was now open with one out and Tony Perez on deck. Bench had already been caught looking at a third strike twice in the game.

The A’s elected to go after Bench. But strangely, when the count reached 3-2, Dick Williams sprung from the dugout to hold a conference on the mound. What could he have possibly been talking about with a 3-2 count? Apparently, Williams had second thoughts. He held up four fingers then walked back to the dugout. They apparently decided to walk Bench after all. Behind the plate, catcher Gene Tenace repeated the four-finger sign as he held his arm wide for the 3-2 pitch from Fingers.

Suddenly, Tenace ducked behind the plate just as Fingers was delivering. Despite Morgan’s desperate yell from third to “be alive,” Bench froze—dumbstruck with confusion—as the ball found the outside part of the plate for strike three. Bench went down looking a third straight time. Fingers called the pitch “the best slider I’ve ever thrown.”

After the Bench strikeout, the A’s got out of the jam by intentionally walking Perez, then getting Denis Menke to popup. Although the Reds held on to win the game 1-0, the A’s eventually won the series four games to three.

As a baseball maneuver, you have to believe Oakland’s bluff could never happen again. And it took a prestigious cast to pull it off. Manager Dick Williams was the brainchild behind the scheme, with Rollie Fingers his executor. Johnny Bench, ironically one of the most intelligent catchers ever, played the victim while Joe Morgan stood 90 feet away as the helpless bystander. Tony Perez, on deck while Bench was at the plate, was hot enough during the series—five hits in 10 at bats—to influence the decisions that were made. All five are now Hall of Famers.

As a young boy watching the drama unfold on TV, I remember it being the coolest thing I ever saw in baseball. Might still be.

– John Cappello

>>> Recollection assisted by John B. Holway’s article in the October 1992 issue of Baseball Digest, as well as the play-by-play logs at BaseballReference.com.

Drama King

So I’m sitting in the stands at Game 4 of the NLCS in Philly. It’s the bottom of the ninth, and Jimmy Rollins is up with two on and two out—and I’m having the surreal moment of my life. Leaning back on my retracted seat, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch. Out maker or party starter? It was as if my very young blogging career had quickly arrived at the front step of judgment’s door.

The beautiful panoramic view of Citizens Bank Park 28 rows up from behind the Dodger dugout was breath-taking. The blimp with its jumbo display floated across the sky. Thousands of white towels waved nervously. Over in the left-field stands, J-Roll’s face was all over the huge video board, and I swear his eyes are looking at me saying, “Don’t worry, JC, I will be starting THIS party tonight.” Then came the 1-1 pitch from Jonathan “100mph” Broxton. Bam! The sight of the baseball’s scorching trajectory toward right-center was a millisecond in time I will never forget (glad I watched). What followed was a crazed exhibition of hugging, screaming, moshing, and texting that felt like a World Series celebration.

Hold that thought, Phils.

Jimmy Rollins: Out Maker or Party Starter?

Number crunchers call him an “out maker.” But that’s not keeping J-Roll from helping the Philadelphia Phillies become an offensive powerhouse.

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It’s baseball’s newest insult, along the lines of being labeled “one-dimensional” or having “warning track power.”

The Out Maker.

Baseball followers have grown to the idea that “not making outs” at the plate is the most effective mindset for creating runs, winning games, and judging a batter’s true offensive worth. Actually, sabermetricians have been preaching the theory for years. It just took Michael Lewis’ Moneyball to get it mainstream. Getting on base any which way, which places a high value on drawing a walk, is the key to sustaining a rally and increasing the probability of scoring.

Those who don’t comply are branded as “out makers.” In some circles, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Omar Moreno is king of the out makers for holding the record for most offensive outs made* in a season (560 in 1980) along with two other top-ten finishes. I personally think someone like shortstop Ed Brinkman is more worthy of this dubious title. At least Moreno walked 81 times one year, had 196 hits in another, and possessed all kinds of worldly speed. Brinkman, on the other hand, brought absolutely zilch to the table offensively. In 15 seasons, he batted .224 with an on-base percentage (OBP) of .280 and a slugging percentage (SLG) of .300—and he was even caught stealing 35 times out of 65 attempts. This guy gave away outs on offense like they were hot dogs at Dollar Dog Night. But he was also a deluxe out maker at shortstop, which is how he hung around long enough to accumulate 6,640 plate appearances.

For years, fans and experts have been harping that Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins makes too many outs. Even winning league MVP in 2007 and a World Championship in 2008 couldn’t calm his detractors. Though he has cut down on his excessive strikeout totals from his first three seasons, the charges against him are all too familiar: He doesn’t get on base enough. He doesn’t work a count. He doesn’t bunt and use his speed. And when he goes into a funk, he gets into “drunken Samurai” mode, slicing and dicing at pitches until the base hits start to fall instead of being more selective.

The “problem” with Jimmy is that he’s not following the stereotype. Undersized at 5’8″ and blessed with blazing speed, the switch-hitting, offensive-minded shortstop has been atop the Phillies batting order for nine years now shouldering the damning title of “leadoff hitter,” a role critics expect him to fill in a certain way. If you listen long enough to their gripes about his shortcomings, you might come away thinking that Jimmy Rollins just doesn’t do his job very well.

He was viewed as a “flawed” MVP in 2007, despite embodying the very definition of what an MVP winner is supposed to be about. He led the Phillies to their first post-season trip in 14 years by winning his first Gold Glove at shortstop and throwing up a dizzying explosion of offensive production: 139 runs scored, 212 hits, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 homers, 94 RBIs, and 41 steals out of 47 attempts. One of the arguments was that Jimmy’s lustful EBH line of 38-20-30 isn’t as impressive if you consider the plate appearances it took to accumulate them—778—a major league record. Yet, Sunny Jim Bottomley in 1928 is the only other time a player cracked 30-20-30 in a season. The team of baseball thinkers at Baseball Prospectus used their own smorgasbord of statistical benchmarks and ranked Rollins sixth in that ’07 MVP race, hammering the point that his .344 OBP wasn’t even close to those of the other candidates.

After a dismal .229 first half in 2009, Rollins rebounded nicely during the second half to help get the Phillies to their third-consecutive playoffs. But that didn’t stop online discussion groups from shouting “out maker” after Jimmy recorded his sixth 500-out season of his career. One SABR member went as far as to observe that Rollins had “the equivalent of a hitless season,” slyly noting that Rollins made more outs than the minimum number of plate appearances required to claim a batting title, 502. Just like that, the positive notes to J-Roll’s 2009 season—100 runs scored, 43 doubles, 21 home runs, and 31 stolen bases in 39 attempts—were tossed aside like last week’s leftovers.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Rollins still ain’t gettin’ the respect.

There’s more. In their 2009 Baseball Playoff Preview, The Sporting News graded the leadoff hitters of the eight playoff-bound teams and squashed J-Roll at the bottom of the barrel, saying “he is capable of greatness, but his on-base percentage this season (.296) was anemic and he led the majors in outs made.”

Rollins does make a ton of outs. The reasons are fairly obvious. He leads off and comes to play every day, so he accumulates an inordinate number of plate appearances. And, of course, he avoids walks like an eight-year-old would broccoli. But is this degrading label of “out maker” really justified for this talented and valuable shortstop?

Taken individually, a walk is not nearly as good as a hit. A walk sets up the potential to score a run, but you still have three bases to go before you cross the plate. A walk doesn’t advance baserunners except if first base is already occupied. Base hits, especially those that go for extra bases, are more of an immediate impact on scoring runs; they are more effective in chasing runs home, and standing on second or third after a double or triple is much closer to home than being on first after a walk.

But there is context to when it pays to walk, especially at the top of the order. In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, authors Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin chew through real and simulated baseball data to support the theory that walks are very important to leadoff hitters. They also mention that leadoff hitters and home runs aren’t such a great combination, if it means sacrificing selectivity. Why is this? The leadoff hitter will, more often than any other hitter in the lineup, bat with nobody on base and bat with nobody out, because they are most often leading off the inning or following the lineup’s weakest hitters. Walks are valued in those situations because with nobody out, there is time to get that runner to score—where “time” is measured in outs.

We know J-Roll likes to jack a ball out on occasion; it’s part of his arsenal. Unfortunately, home runs are valued least in the leadoff position than any other lineup spot, as The Book states, again because the odds are nobody will be on base. Not that if a home run occurs, the Phillies should send Rollins back to the plate to try again. But if a leadoff hitter sacrifices a bevy of walks trying to launch a rare four-bagger, that’s just not good team play.

So according to baseball theory, Rollins is a mismatch for batting leadoff on at least two counts. But the guy must be doing something right. Because if he doesn’t stop doing what he’s doing, he just might play his way right into the Hall of Fame.

Rollins will turn 31 the day after Thanksgiving. At the pace he’s been going, he’ll carve out a delicious set of lifetime statistics by the time he’s through that will one day place him among the most productive middle-infielders ever.

Check out his total bases. Rollins is on pace to accumulate more TBs than every Philadelphia Phillie in history, even “the greatest third baseman who ever played,” Mike Schmidt, who is currently the Phillies career leader by far (Schmidt: 4,404, Delahanty: 3,230). With 2,607 total bases entering the 2010 season, Rollins could eclipse Schmidt in 2016 by averaging 257 TBs a year over the next seven years (he has averaged 287 TBs per full season so far).

Let’s project a few other numbers. Let’s assume that over the next five seasons, Rollins will put up stats that reflect his average production over the past five seasons. We’ll throw an aging factor into the mix and knock that production down to 85% over those five seasons. We do this because Rollins is already past a ballplayer’s typical peak age of 27, a number Bill James and numerous researchers have come up with in separate studies. Next, we’ll degrade that same production to 65% between ages 36 and 37, and then 50% between 38 and 40. We’ll call it a career at 40. It’s a conservative look, considering that many stars—including Schmidt, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth—produced to their norm through age 37. We’re not using any trends here, so we’re not going to postulate that J-Roll’s ’08 and ’09 seasons are indicative of some type of early career decline.

Jimmy’s projected lifetime totals then become:

The Projected Career Totals for Jimmy Rollins

(2000–2019)

Statistic

Career Total

All-Time Rank

H

2,928

35

R

1,730

22

2B

635

10

3B

171

25

HR

286

141

TB

4,761

27

RBI

1,138

169

SB

602

18

It will all depend on J-Roll’s longevity, but you have to admit that this is a historically impressive suite of numbers for an elite-fielding shortstop. Let’s round-down these accumulating numbers to even more conservative totals for our “projected” Rollins:

2,800 hits, 1,500 runs, 500 doubles, 125 triples, 250 home runs, 400 stolen bases

Trivia question time. What players in baseball history have reached all of these numbers for their career?

Answer: No one.

Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker lacked the homers (they had 117 each), although they did play half their careers during the Dead Ball Era. Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, and Paul Molitor fell short on the triples. Honus Wagner was 34 hits shy. Several other no-names (Ruth, Mays, Musial, Yount, Brett, Hornsby, and Simmons) didn’t have the steals.

If you’re surprised that Rollins has been doing all this before your very eyes, you are probably still numb from the way his approach at the plate has been knocked almost as much as Michael Vick’s character. It’s that darn OBP. How could someone so guilty still be so good? Is OBP overrated in his case?

I don’t disagree with the beauty of how OBP, along with SLG, capture a player’s overall offensive contribution neatly using two easy-to-calculate numbers. That’s why the stat OPS (OBP+SLG) was created. But it makes you wonder whether somewhere along this line of judging a player’s overall value, that Rollins is somehow getting screwed. This “out maker” stuff has the slightly negative connotation that a player has been fairly useless with the bat in his hands. This same school of thought has labeled Pete Rose as one of the most over-rated players in history—a mighty hard sell for many fans who watched Rose pull his teams to championships while collecting 4,256 hits along the way.

In theory, maybe J-Roll does belong in the sixth spot of the batting order, where it’s not as important to get on base, and his extra-base tendencies are better utilized behind the stronger middle portion of the Phillies lineup. Then again, maybe in a lineup as potent as the Phillies—they led the National League in runs, HRs, and SLG in ’09—which position Rollins bats in isn’t all that important.

But something appears to be working with J-Roll at the top. Many Phillie players are quick to admit that “as Jimmy goes, so do we.” There are numbers that seem to back up this claim. In 2009, the Phillies scored 36% more runs per inning when Rollins led off an inning—regardless of whether he reached base—than if any other Phillie led off. The number jumps to 180% if Rollins got on base in that scenario. No other primary leadoff hitter in the National League matched this type of influence on his team’s run-scoring success in ’09. So apparently, even in a “down” year for him, as Jimmy goes, so do the Phils.

But as with matches, we have to be careful with statistics or else we can get burned. Thinking this through a little more, I realized that when Rollins leads off an inning, Victorino, Utley, and Howard are sure to follow, whether Jimmy gets on or not. Any statistic that gauges a team’s success based on when Rollins leads off is as much a reflection of the Phillies’ heart of their order as it is of Rollins. It might seem that Rollins makes the Phillies go, but there are mutual forces involved here. How his teammates perform behind him significantly impacts his apparent effectiveness as a leadoff hitter.

For now, let’s just say Rollins and his teammates need each other. We’re not quite sure who needs whom more, but the combination has been dynamite. Ever since the Phillies started building the team around Rollins starting back in his All-star rookie season in 2001, the team has climbed the mountain of success, culminating with their title in 2008. The Phillies are not only looking strong in defending their title this fall, they are young enough to compete for the championship with the same nucleus for the next few years. It’s hard to argue against the perception that through it all Rollins has been the straw that stirs the drink, the glue that holds the pieces together—whatever irreplaceable agent you can think of—in this entire Philly operation.

When you consider his sterling defense at a demanding position in the field, Rollins is the total package. With that gun on his shoulder, his quickness, and consistency with the glove, J-Roll could be the best fielding shortstop the Phillies ever had. Having seen Larry Bowa play during the 1970s, I thought I’d never say that. Before you start thinking that a third consecutive Gold Glove is in the bag for Rollins this year, keep in mind that he batted just .250 with a .296 OBP. Yeah, yeah, the Gold Glove is supposed to be just for defense, right? Unfortunately, that’s not how they vote. Watch for Troy Tulowitzki to give Rollins a battle for the award after coming back strong with the bat this year.

Sabermetrics helps us see things in baseball we normally can’t see. It tells us that Jimmy Rollins is a bad choice for a leadoff man. But that shouldn’t distract us from appreciating J-Roll’s overall game as an exciting conglomerate of laser line-drives, lightning on the basepaths, and a shut-down defense that is very valuable to the Philadelphia Phillies. He and the Phillies have already picked up ample hardware for their trophy cases—and they just might be heading toward even bigger and more rewarding days.

– JDC

*Offensive Outs Made = (AB–H)+GIDP+SF+SH+CS  (baseball-reference.com)

THE SOURCES

  • Fagan, Ryan. “Strong arms…and bats and gloves,” The Sporting News, October 12, 2009
  • Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, W.W. Norton and Company, 2004
  • Sheehan, Joe. “Prospectus Today: NL MVP,” www.BaseballProspectus.com, November 20, 2007
  • Tango, Tom M., Mitchel G. Lichtman, and Andrew E. Dolphin. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Potomac Books, 2007
  • www.baseball-reference.com
  • www.billjamesonline.com