December 15, 2017

Book Review: Urban Shocker, Silent Hero Of Baseball's Golden Age, By Steve Steinberg

Urban Shocker: Silent Hero of Baseball's Golden Age
By Steve Steinberg (University of Nebraska Press, 2017)

Urban Shocker pitched parts of 13 seasons for the New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns before dying at age 37 of heart failure in 1928.

In his introduction, Steve Steinberg writes that having been diagnosed with heart irregularities himself in 2009 provided him "with a stronger understanding of and connection to Shocker's story". Steinberg has delivered an informative and empathetic portrait, breathing life into the largely forgotten story of a man who threw his last major league pitch almost 90 years ago.

Steinberg has co-written two books (with Lyle Spatz) that cover much of the same time period as this biography: 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York and The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership That Transformed the New York Yankees.

Shocker was supremely confident in his abilities, often to the point of cockiness. After being signed by the Yankees, he reported for spring training in 1916 and made the club, but after two relief appearances, he was sent down to Toronto (International League). The demotion rankled him, but he performed extremely well, setting a new IL record of 54 consecutive scoreless innings. When he rejoined the Yankees in August, a sportswriter asked if he expected more challenges from major league hitters. "One league is just the same as another," Shocker said. "They fall for my stuff in one just as they do in the other ... I got a ball none of them will do much with."

Shocker's reputation as a cerebral pitcher (with "the nerve of a burglar") was established early in his career. He read several newspapers each day, studying the box scores to discern which hitters were hot. He was also a keen observer while on the mound, intuiting a batter's intentions by the way he waggled the bat or by the placement of his feet in the box. "I doubt there is another pitcher in the game," wrote St. Louis sports editor Sid Keener, "who studies his batters as carefully as Shocker and gives them just what they don't want."

Steinberg quotes one description of Shocker's legendary slow ball (or change-up) as coming upon the batter "as mist drifts past a street lamp on a foggy night". To another writer, his slow pitches "looked as big as trucks and were as elusive as greased fleas". Many observers believed his change-up was actually a spitball, and while Shocker did throw a spitter, he threw it infrequently, and less often as he matured.

Shocker had been with the Yankees for two seasons when Miller Huggins was hired as manager in 1918, and one of Huggins's first decisions was to trade the right-hander to the Browns. Huggins later regretted his "foolish" decision, saying he had taken advice from too many people and "my informant had done Shocker a very grave injustice".

Steinberg's narrative balances the events of Shocker's life with the larger trends in baseball during the 1920s, such as Babe Ruth's emergence as a hitter and the subsequent increase in offense, the banning of certain pitches, and the evolution of the rosters of both the Yankees and Browns (with spotlights on George Sisler and Bob Meusel, among others).

For much of his career, Shocker's confidence was coupled with a pugnacious attitude on the field. He often argued loudly with umpires about balls and strikes, both on the mound and at the plate. He was also friends with fellow pitchers Ray Caldwell and Dave Davenport, both heavy drinkers. Shocker sometimes disappeared on road trips, likely off on a bender and staying with his sister, who lived in Detroit. One newspaper quoted a heckler yelling "Urban Schicker!" (Yiddish for a drunk).

After the Yankees reacquired Shocker for the 1925 season, he began experiencing health problems, suffering from shortness of breath and dizziness. He knew he needed to pace himself (keeping his condition a secret was essential) and was more reserved now, more subdued. In 1928, Shocker confided to sportswriter Bill Corum: "I've slept sitting up for three years". Lying down created congestion in his lungs and made him feel like he was choking. (Corum kept Shocker's comments a secret for decades.)

During the winter of 1927-28, Shocker's weight dropped to 115 pounds (his playing weight was usually listed as 170). He talked about retiring, hoping that would buy him some time to get his weight back up. Shocker eventually joined the Yankees and, on May 30, pitched two scoreless innings of relief against the Senators. No one knew it, but that would be the final game of his career.

Less than two weeks later, Shocker collapsed while pitching batting practice in Chicago. He passed away in September 1928 in a Denver hospital. An autopsy revealed an overworked and enlarged heart. As Steinberg states: "He simply could not pump enough blood through his body."

(This review was originally written for the Society for American Baseball Research's Deadball Era Committee.)

December 14, 2017

The Most Prolific Slugging Teammates In History (The List Ain't Changing Any Time Soon)


Will Stanton And Judge Become The Most Prolific Slugging Duo Of All Time?

The short answer to the not-so-subtle headline on today's ESPN article by Bradford Doolittle: No.

A longer answer follows:

Doolittle writes:
According to ESPN Stats & Information, last season, [Aaron] Judge and [Giancarlo] Stanton combined for 47 batted balls with an exit velocity of 115 mph or more. The rest of baseball combined for 39 such rockets. ...

Right away, it would seem that the all-time record for team home runs in a season - 264 by the 1997 Seattle Mariners - will be in serious jeopardy, maybe on an annual basis. As it was, New York led the majors with 241 homers last season, the 16th-highest team total in big league history.

However, the team that ranks 17th on that all-time list might be the most pertinent: the 1961 Yankees. That club bashed 240 homers, 115 of them from Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54). That's the all-time record for teammates in a season and the only time two players on the same team surpassed 50 bombs each in the same season. ...

Most Homers By Teammates In A Season
HRs   PLAYER (HR)          PLAYER (HR)            TEAM
115   Roger Maris (61)     Mickey Mantle (54)     1961 Yankees 
110   Barry Bonds (73)     Rich Aurilia (37)      2001 Giants 
107   Babe Ruth (60)       Lou Gehrig (47)        1927 Yankees 
100   Alex Rodriguez (57)  Rafael Palmeiro (43)   2002 Rangers 
 99   Alex Rodriguez (52)  Rafael Palmeiro (47)   2001 Rangers
If Stanton and Judge had hit all 111* of their 2017 homers for the Yankees, they would have been the second-most prolific tandem in baseball history and just the fifth to crack the century mark. ...

It would be not at all surprising if one of these seasons, the Stanton-Judge duo turns out to be the most prolific home run duo in the history of baseball.
*: 2017 home runs: Stanton 59, Judge 52.

I don't think it's particularly accurate to look simply at home runs (or exit velocity) when trying to pinpoint "the most prolific slugging duo of all time", which, despite Doolittle's focus on home runs, is what the article's headline states. Looking at that list, I'm wondering if I have ever heard A-Rod and Palmeiro discussed as one of the best slugging duos of all-time. I don't think I have. But you damn well know that if Stanton/Judge were in those spots (consecutive seasons!), you'd never hear the friggin' end of it.

Home runs are one way to look at prolific sluggers, but there are others - even if we confine ourselves to counting stats. How about producing, or driving in, runs?

Teammates Combining For 300+ RBI In One Season
1931 NYY  347  Lou Gehrig (185) and Babe Ruth (162)
1927 NYY  339  Lou Gehrig (175) and Babe Ruth (164)
1930 NYY  326  Lou Gehrig (173) and Babe Ruth (153)
1930 CHC  325  Hack Wilson (191) and Kiki Cuyler (134)
1937 NYY  325  Joe DiMaggio (167) and Lou Gehrig (158)
1930 PHA  321  Al Simmons (165) and Jimmie Foxx (156)
1932 PHA  320  Jimmie Foxx (169) and Al Simmons (151) 
1949 BOS  318  Ted Williams (159) and Vern Stephens (159)
1929 CHC  308  Hack Wilson (159) and Rogers Hornsby (149)
1921 NYY  306  Babe Ruth (168) and Bob Meusel (138)
Here is a list of more recent duos:
2005 BOS  292  David Ortiz (148) and Manny Ramirez (144)
1996 COL  291  Andres Galarraga (150) and Dante Bichette (141)
1999 CLE  285  Manny Ramirez (165) and Roberto Alomar (120)
1970 CIN  277  Johnny Bench (148) and Tony Perez (129)
2000 SEA  277  Edgar Martinez (145) and Alex Rodriguez (132)
1999 TEX  276  Rafael Palmeiro 9148) and Juan Gonzalez (128)
In 2017, Stanton (132) and Judge (114) combined for 246 RBI. (For Stanton, that was a career high among his eight seasons, topping his 2014 season by 27 runs. It was also only the second time he had knocked in more than 100 runs.)

To be considered one of the top slugging duos of all-time, Stanton and Judge should have to crack the 300 RBI list. It seems highly unlikely (actually, I'll deem it impossible) that those guys could both match their 2017 totals and somehow drive in an additional 54 runs. Keep in mind that every one of those ten 300-RBI seasons were accomplished during a 154-game schedule. Even with a slightly longer schedule of 162 games for more than five decades, no pair of teammates in the last 68 years has been able to join that elite list.

Most Extra-Base Hits By Teammates, Season
1927 NYY  214  Lou Gehrig (117) and Babe Ruth (97)
1921 NYY  199  Babe Ruth (119) and Bob Meusel (80)
1930 NYY  186  Lou Gehrig (100) and Babe Ruth (86)
2004 STL  182  Albert Pujols (99) and Jim Edmonds (83) 
2001 COL  181  Todd Helton (105) and Larry Walker (76)
I could not find a stand-alone list of these leaders, so they were a little harder to figure out. (Please let me know if I missed anything.) However, it seems very clear that the record is 214.

A player has collected more than 103 extra-base hits in a season only five times in history - and four of those are on the list above. The one that is not: Chuck Klein of the 1930 Phillies. He had 107 and his teammate Lefty O'Doul had 66, for a total of 173. Stanton (91) and Judge (79) combined for 170 extra-base hits in 2017. (And, again, Stanton's previous high was 68, in 2014.)

Most Combined Total Bases By Teammates, Season
1927 NYY  864  Lou Gehrig (447) and Babe Ruth (417)
1929 PHI  802  Chuck Klein (405) and Lefty O'Doul (397)
I believe those are the only seasons in history in which teammates combined for 800+ total bases (again, I hope I have not missed anything). Just under that number, Gehrig and Ruth combined for 798 in 1930 and Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio had 784 in 1939. In 2017, Stanton (377) and Judge (340) combined for 717 total bases.

Highest Combined Slugging Percentage By Teammates, Season
1927 NYY  1.537  Babe Ruth (.772) and Lou Gehrig (.765)
1930 NYY  1.453  Babe Ruth (.732) and Lou Gehrig (.721)
I believe those are the only two times in history that teammates have had slugging percentages over .700. (Only 16 players in history have even slugged .700 in a season, and those 16 players have done it 35 times, with Ruth having nine seasons, Bonds with four, and Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx each with three.)

Sidebar: One thing we can all agree on is that Lou Gehrig was an insanely great hitter, just a fucking beast at the plate. When I think about how underrated he is, I get a headache. It's criminal. How in the hell did he knock 185 (!) runs in 1931 (the all-time AL record) when Ruth, batting ahead of him, knocked in 162 (tied for 19th-best, all-time)? How many men did they leave on base in innings in which they both batted? Like, nine, all year?

Also, note how those .700+ slugging seasons are grouped:
1876-1919 (44 years):  0
1920-1934 (15 years): 18
1935-1993 (59 years):  5
1994-2004 (11 years): 12
2005-2017 (13 years):  0
In 116 years of non-juiced balls/players: 5 times. In the other 26 years: 30 times.

Some other seasons:
2001 SFG  1.435  Barry Bonds (.863) and Rich Aurilia (.572)
1921 NYY  1.405  Babe Ruth (.846) and Bob Meusel (.559)
1928 NYY  1.357  Babe Ruth (.709) and Lou Gehrig (.648)
2004 SFG  1.341  Barry Bonds (.812) and J.T. Snow (.529)
1932 PHA  1.297  Jimmie Foxx (.749) and Al Simmons (.548)
1998 STL  1.292  Mark McGwire (.752) and Ray Lankford (.540)
2001 CHC  1.266  Sammy Sosa (.737) and Rondell White (.529)
1996 STL  1.262  Mark McGwire (.730) and Geronimo Berroa (.532)
In 2017, Stanton (.631) and Judge (.627) had a combined slugging percentage of 1.258. Could they each add upwards of 75-100 points of slugging EACH in 2018? No. (They will not even increase their total by 75 points (i.e., each improving by 38 points).) Again, no major league batter has slugged .700 in any of the last 13 seasons. The closest was .671, by Albert Pujols in 2006. And the last non-Bonds player to slug .700 was Larry Walker, way back in 1999. (From 1958-1993 - 36 seasons - no one slugged .700.)

Although they are both young (Stanton is 28 and Judge will turn 26 next April) and talented (even though most people forget or overlook the fact that Judge has played exactly one full season), they would both need an unprecedented leap in production to truly be considered among the greatest and most productive slugging duos in baseball history. And - it should go without saying - they would have to keep up that historic production for several seasons.

Finally, take another look at the ESPN graphic at the top of this post. I know it's silly to expect sober perspective or historical accuracy from ESPN, but have we really "never seen anything quite like" these two guys when it comes to a pair of slugging teammates? That claim seems far beyond even the ever-elastic bounds of normal sports hyperbole. They've never been in the same lineup! They haven't played even one spring training game together! Yet ESPN is telling us - not merely asking, but telling! us - that they are beyond anything the game has ever seen! In fact, it's been "proven"! (When it comes to mindless hype, yeah, this may be unprecedented.)

December 9, 2017

Not Good News: Giancarlo Stanton Traded To Yankees

Giancarlo Stanton - the 2017 National League MVP - is now* a member of the Yankees.

(*: Assuming he approves this deal and then passes a physical.)

New York has agreed to send Starlin Castro and two minor-league prospects (Jorge Guzman (rated as the MFY's #7 prospect by Baseball America) and Jose Devers) pretty much goddamn nothing to the Marlins.

The Yankees will pay $265 million of the $295 million owed to Stanton over the next ten seasons. Stanton signed a 13/325 mega-deal in November 2014. ... So think of this as New York signing a free agent Stanton to a 10/265 contract.

Stanton, who turned 28 about a month ago, led the majors last season in home runs (59), RBIs (132), and extra-base hits (91). He led the NL in slugging percentage (.631). His 59 dongs were the most by a player since 2001, when Barry Bonds blasted 73 and Sammy Sosa cranked 64.

Here's a lovely tweet from Jared Diamond: "Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius combined for 169 home runs in 2017. ... The Red Sox hit 168."

The Daily News' Mike Mazzeo writes: "[S]o much for the Bombers being considered 'likeable'."

Oh, please. Fuck that. Every person possessing an IQ larger than his shoe size knows that the Yankees have never been fucking likeable. And just because a bunch of idiots start chanting in unison that these entitled pinstriped dushbags are now likeable does not make the claim remotely accurate.

December 3, 2017

Red Sox And Yankees Are Both Out Of The Competition For Shohei Ohtani

The Red Sox and Yankees were not among the teams invited to make an in-person presentation to Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old pitching and slugging star of Japan.

Ohtani may be looking at smaller markets and/or teams on the west coast. Nine teams will make presentations, including the Giants and Mariners.

In 2016, Ohtani batted .322 with 22 home runs while posting a 1.86 ERA in 140 innings. He has been clocked running to first base in 3.8 seconds, which would make him one of the fastest players in the majors. He was hampered by an ankle injury and played in only 65 games last year.

Ohtani has until 11:59 p.m. EST December 22 to agree to a contract with a major league team.


Here is a nice headline:
Report: Marlins Laid Off A Hospitalized Scout Who Was Waiting For A Kidney Transplant After Colon Cancer Surgery
A commenter: "[Dan] Le Batard said something this morning that stuck with me: We're fast approaching a point where Alex Rodriguez will be more well liked than Derek Jeter. Who saw that coming?"

December 2, 2017

Yankees Name Aaron Boone As New Manager

Here is a list of the coaching and managing jobs that Aaron Boone has held in the time between the end of his playing career in 2009 and being named yesterday as the Yankees' new manager:














Well, at least there is nothing overtly embarrassing on that list. One really has to wonder if Boone would have even been a longshot candidate for the job if he had not hit a fairly famous home run 14 years ago. I like this decision. Keep up the good work, Cashman.