Highs and Lows of 2009

As the 2009 season heads into its final weekend, the editors at ESPN Insider invited me to create a list of sabermetrically-themed highlights and lowlights. The piece runs here and here.

A few of the high points were obvious, centered around the accomplishments of Joe Mauer (who’s on his way to becoming the 16th player to lead his league in all three “triple slash” categories (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), Albert Pujols (whose greatness has become routine) and Zack Greinke (one of the finest seasons of the decade by many measures). Some were drawn from my recent work on topics such as the Angels’ Pythagorean overachievement, the Nationals’ underachievement, the Rangers’ improved defense, and the failures of the Brewers’ and Indians’ rotations.

One of the items that fit neither of those descriptions was this lowlight:

Hell With the Lidge Off: One year after converting every save opportunity that came his way in the regular season and postseason en route to the Phillies’ World Championship, Brad Lidge has not only blown 11 saves and posted a 7.34 ERA, but he’s set a single-season record for the lowest WXRL of any reliever since 1954 (which is to say ever)… Speaking of replacements, the Phillies head into the playoffs in the awkward position of still auditioning potential successors.

Due to space issues, I didn’t run the table I had originally intended to. Here it is:

NAME                TEAM   YEAR   G     IP    FRA      WXRL
Brad Lidge PHI 2009 66 57.7 8.59 -3.273
Doug Jones CLE 1991 36 32.3 8.77 -3.183
Steve Wilson LAN 1992 60 66.7 4.92 -2.856
Rich Gossage CHN 1988 46 43.7 5.39 -2.738
Pete Ladd MIL 1984 54 87.0 5.49 -2.644
Bobby Ayala SEA 1998 62 75.3 7.31 -2.565
Ron Perranoski MIN 1971 36 42.7 8.98 -2.531
Lindy McDaniel NYA 1971 44 69.7 5.42 -2.448
Jason Isringhausen SLN 2008 42 42.7 6.31 -2.342
Mitch Williams HOU 1994 25 20.0 9.53 -2.320
Jack Baldschun PHI 1965 65 99.0 5.90 -2.309
Dan Spillner CLE 1983 60 92.3 5.74 -2.303
Rollie Fingers SDN 1979 54 83.7 5.78 -2.296
Norm Charlton SEA 1997 71 69.3 8.26 -2.276
Rod Scurry PIT 1983 61 68.0 6.25 -2.250
Rick Camp ATL 1978 42 52.7 6.37 -2.240
Kyle Farnsworth CHN 2002 45 46.7 8.77 -2.229
Pete Mikkelsen LAN 1971 41 74.0 4.62 -2.216
John O'Donoghue MIL 1970 25 23.3 9.97 -2.211
Matt Herges MON 2002 62 64.7 5.89 -2.194

So many memories, though I’m pleased to note that the Dodgers’ Wilson isn’t one of them, falling in the college-era days when I could scarcely be bothered to follow baseball. Back in a moment of pre-Futility Infielder creativity, Charlton (“The Arsonist” as I christened him) became my muse. Elsewhere on the list are atypically horrible seasons from Hall of Famers Gossage and Fingers as well as ageless relief stalwarts Jones, Perranoski, and McDaniel, all of whom appeared in over 700 games in otherwise esteemed careers, quintessential journeymen like Spillner, Camp, and Herges, and Charlton’s partner in conflagration, Ayala. There’s also “Wild Thing” Williams’ follow-up to the 1993 World Series; in an interesting bit of irony, he was traded for Jones and the eternally unpopular Jeff Juden less than six weeks after surrendering Joe Carter’s series-clinching homer. And speaking of eternally unpopular, there’s Kyle Farnsworth!

• • •

Thanks to a late tip from Alex Belth, I found myself at the Gelf Magazine “Varsity Letters” night on Thursday night in Brooklyn, where authors Joe Posnanski (The Machine), Larry Tye (Satchel) and Jennifer Ring (Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball), and filmmaker Jonathan Hock (The Lot Son of Havana) held court. Hock’s excerpts of his film about Luis Tiant’s return to Cuba looked fantastic; his movie runs on ESPN Classic this Sunday. Ring’s reading was provocative, Tye’s a bit overly polished but nonetheless engaging. Batting in the cleanup spot nearly two hours into the affair, Poz’s was a treat as he read excerpts from his book about the 1975 Reds and discussed Tony Perez’s Hallworthiness, Pete Rose’s ferocity as a player, Joe Morgan’s contrarian nature, Sparky Anderson’s love/hate relationship with his pitchers, and his previous book with Buck O’Neil (The Soul of Baseball). In a nice bit of synergy, he followed Tye’s presentation on Satchel Paige with the infamous “Nancy” story before turning to the Reds.

The Gelf site has lengthy interviews with the aforementioned authors which more or less capture the flavor of the presentations they made. Here’s Posnanski discussing Morgan at length:

Gelf Magazine: Joe Morgan is sort of inevitably a fraught character for the contemporary reader. As brilliant as he was on the field, as a broadcaster he really has made himself a villain of sorts to a certain type of sports fan, and it’s hard not to try to reverse-engineer the carping, negative, revanchist mic-jockey of today in reading about the dazzling, instinctive, driven player he once was. Considering that you’re in the vanguard of a style of writing and thinking about baseball that Morgan has aligned himself so decisively against, did you find it difficult to talk to Morgan? And if I could ask you to do some soothsaying, how do you think he went from being nearly the ultimate Moneyball-style player to being the chief exponent of this proudly ignorant anti-information movement?

Joe Posnanski: The disconnect between Morgan the player and Morgan the announcer is one that I’m just not sure anyone has figured. Bill James tells a great story about how one time Jon Miller showed Morgan Bill’s New Historical Baseball Abstract, which has Morgan ranked as the best second baseman of all time, ahead of Rogers Hornsby. Well, Morgan starts griping that this was ridiculous, that Hornsby hit .358 in his career, and Morgan never hit .358, and so on. And there it was, perfectly aligned — Joe Morgan the announcer arguing against Joe Morgan the player.

You’re right about Joe Morgan being the ultimate Moneyball-style player, too. It wasn’t just his style of play, either; Joe Morgan quotes from 1975 sound like they could have gone into the book Moneyball, verbatim. He talked all the time about how batting average was overrated, and how you had to get on base, and how RBIs were just a context statistic, and how you had to steal bases at a high percentage, and so on and so on.

If I had to take a stab at what became of that Joe Morgan, I think it would be that Joe always had this belief, common among great players, that to play baseball well takes something more than athletic ability, practice, and a certain mental dexterity. He always believed that it takes moral courage, the nerves of a cat burglar, the strength of a thousand men. He believed even then that the people who played baseball well had something inside that regular, ordinary people were missing. And that belief has grown since 1975. He is anti-Moneyball, I think, not because he has spent a lot of time analyzing it but because it was written by a guy who didn’t play baseball (and it’s about a guy who wasn’t good enough to play baseball). He is anti-Bill James because James didn’t play baseball. These people couldn’t possibly understand the game. They had never stared into the eyes of Bob Gibson. They had never been upended by Willie Stargell. They can’t understand.

And the more years that pass, the more intently he pushes that line of thinking. For Joe, getting a single with a man on second in a tie game isn’t just a good piece of hitting, it’s a moral triumph. And, yes, that’s hard to listen to. The shame of it is, I don’t think Joe was a bad announcer in his early years, before this part of himself set in. He’s an extremely smart guy and very funny in the right setting.
I’ll tell you one more Joe story that struck me. They had a gathering of the Great Eight in Cincinnati last year. It was a fun dinner, and the guys talked about the old days, and it was really great. And at some point, they were talking about how Joe wasn’t much of a player in Houston before he came to the Reds. And Joe explained that he was still a good player then but he was playing half his games in the Astrodome, which was a terrible hitters’ park. He’s absolutely right. And it was as if the words had come right out of the mouth of Bill James. Joe averaged almost 100 walks a season in Houston, and he hit twice as many homers on the road. He did become a better player in Cincinnati, but some of that improvement is just context. But the other guys on the team didn’t buy it for one minute and they ripped him and mocked him for talking about how bad a hitters’ park the Astrodome was. And Joe kind of smiled and then admitted that, yes, it was being around the winners in Cincinnati that made him a better player. It’s like a little bit of that old Joe wanted to get out.

After the reading, I had a brief chat with Poz as he signed my book; I didn’t get to talk to Tye because I was so busy catching up with local amigos Belth, Emma Span, and Joe Sheehan, none of whom I see often enough, and a few other acquaintances from the world of sportswriting. The conversation eventually took itself to a bar around the corner, where a handful of us knocked a few back while bullshitting about baseball and other sports well into the wee hours, with a good chunk of the conversation centered around Tom Verducci’s ace cover story on Mariano Rivera in this week’s Sports Illustrated. But for the morning’s deadlines, I think we could have gone all night. Fun stuff.

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