History in the Making



Ichiro Suzuki, a surefire first ballot hall of famer, is closing in on 3,000 MLB hits. This is a momentous achievement for any player, all the more so since Ichiro played in Japan for 9 seasons before making the trek to Seattle in 2001. Adding up his numbers from both leagues and you get the all time hit king of baseball. And even with all of this, as one of the greatest baseball players ever, he has found a way to astonish here in his age 42 season.

His walk rate this season is 11.3%.

Is your mouth agog? No? Really? It’s 11.3%. Still nothing? No reaction? This is not a player who walks much. It would easily be a career high if he maintains it for the season. Moreover, it is virtually unprecedented for a player of Ichiro’s stature to increase his level of production in any capacity so deep into his career.

Frankly it’s shocking for any player to produce at a high level at such an age. How shocking you ask? If we compare to the best age 42 seasons in the history of baseball, excluding the dead ball era, Ichiro, is on pace to have the best batting average, third best on-base percentage, seventh best slugging percentage and second most stolen bases to name just a few standard batting stats. The reality is, if we toss out the dead ball era and Barry Bonds, there have only been a handful of players at this age who were any good at all as regular or even part-time players.

Now, of course not too many guys played into their 40’s, so it’s a small sample size to look at his level of production in the proper context. But what if we look at every player in the 3,000 hit club during his final two seasons? This is with the exception of Alex Rodriguez, given his playing career continues despite the Yankees best efforts to the contrary.

Anyway, here’s a list of how many posted a career best in any major statistical category, which includes home runs, walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated power, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, WAR and wRC+ (according to fangraphs and with 150 minimum plate appearances).

Pete Rose (walk rate)
Tris Speaker (strikeout rate)
Lou Brock (strikeout rate)
Paul Molitor (strikeout rate)

And that’s it. Ichiro is on pace to do it in two categories (strikeout rate along with the walk rate) and he’s also knocking on the door of accomplishing it in OBP and wRC+. It’s not quite the all star break, so there’s plenty of time still to tank and/or start acting his age, but he’s positioning himself to have one of the greatest age 42 seasons in the history of baseball and one of the most impressive late-career seasons of his peers in the hall of fame. He’s always been a unique player, and now, in the twilight of his career, he’s adding value to his game we’ve never seen before. Incredible.

What makes the walk rate all so much more bizarre is that Ichiro has always had a pathological obsession with base hits at the expense of power and walks. In fairness, the latter is partly a result of his preternatural ability to make contact and put the ball in play, limiting the number of swings and misses and foul balls, and thus, limiting the number of pitches he would see in his at bats, a crucial component in drawing free passes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given how exceptional he has been in reaching base safely through singles.

As to the former, much like Wade Boggs, another hit machine who eschewed (attempting) knocking pitches out of the ballpark for a few extra percentage points on the batting average at the end of the season, there isn’t as good a defense for choosing singles over (potential) extra-base hits. Brass tacks – both players likely hurt their teams by refusing to swing for the fences more often. A few more strikeouts, sure, fewer singles, definitely, but more home runs, doubles and triples (and the likely result of more walks with the threat of power) would almost certainly have increased their value.

More valuable, maybe. And yet, it would have made Ichiro less fun to watch. He’s a singular phenomenon, there really is nothing else like him in baseball. Watching him at the plate, slapping at the ball and beating out grounders to the shortstop, is one of those indelible images of the game for the last fifteen years.

Plus, I can’t complain now that the kid is walking at a healthy rate and getting on base at a rate 70 points above the league average. Now I get it all, the singles machine and an advanced metrics analyst’s dream come true. Good lord, at this rate of production, he might not need to retire until he hits 50.


To Live and Die in Eternal Hope

Even casual observers are aware of the Chicago Cubs’ failure over the last one hundred plus years to win a championship, a level of accomplishment that has built up an aura of inevitability that welcomes suckers, gamblers, statisticians and romantics in equal measure. Writers far more tortured and elegant than I have written about the agony of cheering for the Chicago Cubs.

This legacy of ineptitude is somewhat misleading. The club was actually pretty good, all things considered, from 1903-1945. Since WWII? Only 5 seasons of 90 or more wins. Tampa Bay alone has equaled that mark, and not just from the franchise’s inception in 1998, which would be cringe inducing enough, but since the name change in 2008 from Devil Rays to Rays. Yeesh.

What can you do? Love is love. Trying to explain the why of it is as pointless as telling Don Mattingly why on-base percentage is important.
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Don Mattingly and the Tyranny of Math

Here stands a great hitter.

Here stands a great hitter.

I understand people who are resistant to placing their faith in numbers. It must be especially threatening to those who have built a professional identity through a lifetime of success either without the use of, or more likely, in direct opposition to analytics. To be told your entire life you are great, knowledgeable, or both, and to then have those core values, really your entire sense of self, challenged must be difficult. To value what you see, what you have done, everything you have been taught, well, this is a difficult thing to toss away, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
I was taught this was a rock. It's still a rock, right? It sure looks like a rock. I'll bat it leadoff just in case.

I was taught this was a rock. It’s still a rock, right? It sure looks like a rock. I’ll bat it leadoff just in case.

So when I write that Don Mattingly is an idiot, please understand it’s done with affection, understanding and compassion. He was a great, great player. He’s from Indiana. But idiot he is.
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I have amassed a pretty respectable number of frequent flyer miles over the years and decided to take them out of mothballs and use 60,000 in exchange for a ticket to Istanbul. I’ve spent precious little time in Istanbul in the summertime, and by precious little I mean none. This was a wrong that needing righting. The only downside was the only flight available from Delta included a seven-hour layover in Seattle followed by another seven-hour layover in Amsterdam. Still, no reason to sit in an airport when reliable public transportation can provide me all manner of entertainment. I’d start with a Sunday afternoon baseball game, move on to a favorite restaurant and close it out with a visit to an antiquated relic of the 19th century.
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Well, That Didn’t Take Long

So you're saying there's slightly less of a chance.

So you’re saying there’s slightly less of a chance.

It was reported today that Luke Hochevar is out for the season, due to undergo Tommy John surgery. This is manageable given the depth of the Royals bullpen, but will still likely cost the Royals one win this season, dropping their expected win total to 88.
Kansas City Royals 2014 Preview
Injuries are a reality for every team, but the Royals have almost no margin for error, which is to say I really hope a little extra firepower is added to the team at some point or at the very least that James Shields and Greg Holland are driving to Kauffman stadium in one of these.

Ah, Hope, It Does Spring Training Eternal

So you're saying there's a chance.

So you’re saying there’s a chance.

Pitchers and catchers are reporting for duty, and the marathon that is the major league baseball season will soon commence with the cactus and grapefruit leagues splitting squads and testing arms on the way to telling us almost nothing of value in terms of accurately predicting the events of the upcoming season. In the vein of pointlessly speculating, and in lieu of more productive activity in the real world, let’s examine the prospects for the 2014 Kansas City Royals.
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It belongs in a museum!

Indiana Jones hesitates to take the idol, unsure whether the Incas forged it during the steroid era.

Indiana Jones hesitates to take the idol, unsure whether the Incas forged it during the steroid era.

Maybe Indy wouldn’t be so upset about the Baseball Hall of Fame insanity that we’re subjected to in the new millennium, but I’m growing very weary. Today, around ten players who are obvious, no doubt, sure-fire first-ballot hall of famers were given the shaft by the collected baseball writers of America, most of whom were left out in the cold because they are proven/admitted/suspected steroid users and a few because the voters have no understanding of how to measure greatness.
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Onwards and Sideways

Pittsburgh_Pirates3The Pirates are steamrolling towards the postseason, the only question is whether they can win the division and avoid the idiotic one-game wildcard playoff. Today they traded for Justin Morneau, who hasn’t played more than 135 games since 2008, has a below-average OBP, is 32 years old, clearly past his prime and a free agent at the end of the year. This means the Pirates are convinced Morneau can help them improve immediately.
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Don’t Give Up The Ship

So you're saying there's a chance.

So you’re saying there’s a chance.

After 81 games, the Royals stand at 39-42. This is very disappointing, but it’s hardly a disaster, especially with only a 4 game deficit in the division in the loss column.

At the beginning of the season, the big questions surrounding the Royals had to do with the bottom half of the starting rotation and the offense, and at the halfway mark of the season, it’s very clear that the former has been bad but the latter has been a disaster approaching Hindenburg/Pompeii proportions.
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More is Better Than Less.

Aroldis_Chapman_2010_(3)The Cincinatti Reds curious decision to keep superstar pitcher Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen for the foreseeable future is a curious one indeed. Now, I used curious twice in that sentence, but what I really want to convey here is just how mind-numbingly/earth-shatteringly stupid this decision is, and what better way to highlight such staggering ineptitude than to draw a parallel between lousy front-office management and repetitive, mildly lazy writing. Worse still, the Reds do not even use him properly as a relief pitcher!

We can infer how painfully overrated the closer is in baseball given that the main statistic associated with the role, the save, is perhaps the most misleading/useless statistic in baseball. The average closer in baseball throws around 70-80 innings in a full season. Of those, how many are stressful and deserving of a special accolade, namely the ‘save’? We can define stressful as a tie game, one-run game, seventh inning or later, in which the pitcher makes an appearance. Saves are a meaningless’statistic’, occasionally descriptive but more often misleading, since a save can be earned if a pitcher successfully records one out with a three-run lead. ‘Ending’ the game would be a significantly more accurate description than ‘saving’ in this scenario.
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