15 August 2019

Wain You're Wright, You're Right

I don't know if this really means anything or not, but it's something I've been noticing all season because - after a decade-long hiatus from the practice to be a dad* - I've started playing fantasy baseball again.  I finished 5th last year in a 12-team league of mostly strangers who never talk (trash or otherwise) and almost never trade, which I figured was not too bad for someone who had been paying attention to baseball but not PAYING ATTENTION the way you have to if you want to be competitive in a Fantasy League. 

I mean, I'm still a dad, but my 8 and 11 year olds don't take two hours to rock to sleep every night anymore, so I have a smidge more time.  

Anyway, because I'm playing again (currently 3rd in my league, though honestly I'm closer to 7th than I am to 2nd) I look at all kinds of things when trying to decide whether or not to start a player on any given day.  Particularly starting pitchers, as in a 5 x 5, head-to-head league, a couple of bad starts can really ruin your week.  Most of the info available is either not very useful, like batter vs. pitcher splits, which almost always have too small a sample size to be meaningful, or are so obscure and inexplicable that you can't use them to justify a decision. 

It may very well be true that so-and-so has hit .375 with seven homers and 15 RBI in Tuesday afternoon games this year...but do you want to count on that??  A few years ago I wrote about how AJ Burnett was terrible whenever he pitched for the Yankees on national TV, but just fine when his starts were broadcast only locally.  No good reason for it that I could detect, but there it was. 

But sometimes, there may be something to these splits.  Case in point: Adam Wainwright. 

Wainwright is a seemingly known commodity, albeit an aging one.  Having been in the majors for 15 years, he's nearly 38 now, and had struggled with injuries the last few seasons, but he's basically been healthy in 2019.  He finished 2nd or 3rd in the NL Cy Young Voting four times, but he also missed all of 2011 and parts of 2008, 2015, 2017 and 2018 due to various ailments, including Tommy John surgery and a torn Achilles tendon. 

This year his overall stats seem eminently mediocre: 8-8 4.35 ERA, 118 Ks, 49 walks and 15 homers allowed in 120 innings of work.  The league as a whole allows slightly fewer walks and slightly more homers, plus Busch Stadium is a decent pitcher's park (park factor of 94, where below 100 favors the pitcher) so his adjusted ERA is 97, just 3% below average.  None of this is unusual for an aging, once-nearly-great, occasionally injured starting pitcher.     

What's unusual is how he's gotten there:

Home 6 2 2.19 11 65.2 58 17 16 6 23 2 68 1.234 9.3 2.96
Away 2 6 6.96 11 54.1 62 42 42 9 26 4 50 1.62 8.3 1.92

At home, Wainwright is the perennial Cy Young contender he was half a dozen years ago, albeit without the requisite longevity, averaging only 6 innings per start.  His best ERA in his heyday was a 2.38, and his best ERA+ was 155 (2.42 actual ERA), back in 2010 when the NL averaged slightly fewer runs per game.  

But on the road, he's a disaster.  You know who else is 2-6 with a 6.96 ERA right now?  Drew Smyly, who was so bad that he got DFA'ed by the Rangers, lasted about three weeks with the Brewers before getting released again, and had to achieve two decent and two mediocre starts with Philly just to get to that level.  That's pretty bad.  

Put another way, Wainwright's home/road opponent slash lines are as follows:

Home: .238/.311/.369
Road: .298/.383/.510

For perspective, that means hitters on the road against Wainwright are about as productive as Justin Turner has been this year (.292/.375/.506) whereas his opponents at home are Jake Bauers (.233/.308/.379).  If his name doesn't ring a bell it's because he was sent back to the minors at the end of last month when the Indians, so desperate to improve on his abysmal production, traded away their second best starting pitcher for a known head-case outfielder in Yasiel Puig and a DH waiting to happen in Franmil Reyes.  That's also pretty bad, which of course means Wainwright has been quite good at home.  

The how or why is the real question though.  One thing for certain is that this is not normal for Wainwright, at least not to this extent. His career ERA at home (2.83) is considerably better than that on the road (3.98) but not THAT much better.  Most players are better at home, and Busch Stadium is a pitcher;s park, so that makes sense.  

He has experienced severe splits like this before.  In 2017, his last (mostly) healthy season, he was 8-1 with a 3.08 ERA at home and 4-4 with a 7.32 ERA on the road.  Ditto for 2016: 3.20 ERA at home, 6.18 on the road.  He was hurt for most of 2015, and 2014 was the reverse: a 3.27 ERA at home, but a remarkable 1.72 on the road.  Before than, the two years before that were more of the same, modest splits with an ERA advantage around a half or three quarters of a run at home, the kind of thing you expect.  

So what's happened in the last several years?  How has Wainwright become so completely inept on the road in the last few seasons?  According to Fangraphs, since the start of 2016, he's got a 3.06 ERA in 264 innings at home, but a 6.58 ERA  in 220 road innings.  His walks and homers and hits allowed all go way up, his strikeouts drop.  

The biggest difference, looking at all his summarized batted ball data for the stretch since the start of 2016, is that his home run rate, and especially his homers per fly ball, go way up on the road.  His fly ball rate goes up slightly (about 4%) but also more of those flies become homers - about 50% more - which makes for a bad combination in this Era of the Rabbit Ball.  An aging pitcher who gets by on cunning and defense more than stuff is going to have a hard time in a league where the balls fly out of the parks like Titleists, and even moreso in parks that tend not to favor pitchers.  

I'm not really sure what it all means for Wainwright.  Maybe it means he's nearing the end.  He is almost 38 after all.  Maybe it means that Cardinals' manager Mike Schildt should just reverse-Ed-Whitson his ass and only start him at home, come hell or high water.  Maybe it means he has some kinda special signal system at home and can somehow figure out just how to pitch to everybody there, but has no such system on the road.  Maybe he and his wife (does he even have a wife???) are on the outs and he never gets a decent night sleep on the road.  

I really have no idea.  I do know that Wainwright has not pitched a Quality Start on the road since the end of June.  I also know that I will not be putting him in my starting lineup when he faces the Reds at Great American Bandbox tomorrow night.  

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25 March 2019

Howard & Power

Joe Posnanski posted a fascinating, albeit sad, story about Pumpsie Green, the first African American player to play for the Red Sox, which was the last team to integrate, more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson's debut. The Red Sox, and owner Tom Yawkey in particular, were really, really terrible at the time.  I mean, by most accounts, Yawkey was just a truly awful person, short sighted, irredeemably racist, who ran the team like a rich man's toy.  Which, I guess it was.

Despite the Red Sox ill treatment of him (Green was forced to not just stay apart from the team, but to travel apart from them), he thrived in the spring of 1959:

And still, Pumpsie Green hit — .400 for the spring — and he played good defense anywhere they put him, and numerous reporters called him the star of Red Sox camp. Red Sox reporters later said that it was clear from background conversations that Red Sox GM Bucky Harris fully intended on keeping Pumpsie on the roster.
But quotes from our hero Tom Yawkey, who is in the Hall of Fame, were not as promising.

“The Sox,” Yawkey said, “will bring up a Negro if he meets our standards.”

Evidently the Red Sox standards for a Negro were that he be Caucasian, because Green didn't make the major league roster out of camp.  Still, he hit .320 at AAA, stole bases, walked twice as often as he struck out, played well all over the diamond, so eventually they had to bite the bullet (read: fire their racist manager) and bring him up.

One of Posnanski's commenters lamented that the Yankees at the time were just as racist, just less obvious about it:

The racism was indeed shameful. But the Yankees owners were just as racist, but they knew how to say the right things in public. They also refused to hire black players until the end of Jackie Robinson’s career. Nothing against Elston Howard, who was an excellent player, but the Yankee brass picked him as a token to shut up protesters, and deliberately looked for a player who would never complain about how he was treated. 
And in this time, the Yankees won 5 in a row. 
It would be nice to live in a world where doing the wrong thing meant you suffered the consequences. We usually don’t.

This got me looking into Howard and the Yankees' history, and I don't think it's as cut and dried as that.  While he didn't debut with the Yankees until 1955, Howard had been with them much longer than that, and was hardly a "token" player, as he got over 300 at-bats in 1955, mostly as an outfielder.  

In any case, it seems fairly clear, from the Red Sox failure to sign both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays when they had the chance, that at least some teams did suffer the consequences of doing the wrong thing, even if the Yankees weren't suffering so much.  I think if they had not been so good, they may have tried a little harder to find an African American for the major league team, but we'll never know.  

Anywho, Elston Howard was signed by the Yankees in July 1950, barely a year after Robinson's debut.  He did well enough in half a season at Class A Muskegon (.283 with 9 HR in 54 games) but got drafted and spent all of 1951 and 1952 in the military.  He hit well in AA in 1954 (.286, 10 HR, 70 RBI) then  tore the cover off the ball at AAA Toronto (.330, 22 HR, 109 RBI) while being converted to catcher.  The Yankees brought him to the majors in 1955 and he spent the whole year there.  Also the 13 years after that.  Evidently he was ready by then.  

Which is not to say the Yankees' record is impeccable in this regard.  Far from it.    

One early possibility for the First Black Yankee was a young pitcher named Frank Barnes, who played at Muskegon with Howard in 1950 and 51, but he had control issues.  He walked 121 in 179 innings, mostly in Class A in 1951, for example, so you could at least kinda justify holding him back from a purely baseball perspective.  He did eventually go on to have a few cups of coffee in the majors with the Cardinals in 1957, 1958 and 1960, but didn't do much there.  

But they also had a young first baseman named Vic Power, who hit like crazy everywhere he went: He hit .328 with a .501 slugging percentage in more than 400(!) games at AAA from 1951 to '53.  His reward for such prowess on the diamond, you ask?  Power was never even invited to Yankees Spring Training. And you thought today's free agents had a tough time of it!  

Part of the trouble was that the Yankees were loaded at the time, in the midst of winning five straight World Series, with 1951 AL RoY Gil McDougald at 3B, and an outfield consisting of Gene Woodling (who led the AL with a .429 OBP in 1953), perennial All-Star Hank Bauer and some kid named Mickey something in center.  

First base was manned mostly by decent-but-unspectacular Joe Collins and sometimes Johnny Mize or Bill Skowron.  Why they thought Joe Collins needed a yet another caddy or why they didn't think Vic Power could do it better than Robinson is not entirely clear, but you know: Racism.  

Apparently Power was not the humble, turn-the-other-cheek kinda "Negro" that then Yankees owners Del Webb and Dan Topping wanted to be the one to break the Color Pinstripe. He dated white women, played first base too "flashy" (i.e. fielding the ball with one hand instead of two) and quipped back at some of the racism he experienced in his travels.  When a waitress told him that her restaurant didn't serve Negroes, he told her, "That's OK.  I don't eat Negroes."  He was what the white establishment at that time might have called uppity, and that just wouldn't do for the straight-laced, starched collar Yankees of the 1950s. No sirree.     

So they traded him in an 11-player deal to the Philadelphia A's.  We're used to hearing of all the talent that went from the Athletics to the Yankees in those days for seemingly little return (Roger Maris, Bobby Shantz, Clete Boyer, Art Ditmar, Ralph Terry...the list goes on...) but here at least is one case where the A's clearly got the better of the deal.  

Anyway, the details of the trade are unimportant, but basically it was Power and a bunch of forgettable spare parts for the husk of what had once been 4-time All-Star first-baseman Eddie Robinson* and a bunch of different forgettable spare parts.  Robinson hit an occasional homer over the next couple of seasons, and he gave Yankees manager Casey Stengel the platoon options he loved so much, but otherwise, well...they coulda done without him.  

*Whom I discovered when researching this is 98 years old, the oldest living member of three different franchises (Yankees, Tigers and Senators) and the last surviving member of an Indians World Series winner.  Cool, right?

In Philly, and later in Kansas City, Vic Power kept up doing just what he'd been doing at Syracuse for the last two years.  He hit for average, nearly winning a batting title in 1955, and  (ironically only modest) Power.   He hardly ever struck out, just 14 times in 620 plate appearances in 1958, for example.  He slashed doubles and triples all over the place, scored and drove in runs, and when someone invented the Gold Glove, well, he won a bunch of those, too.  Seven in a row!  

So while Howard was seemingly not exactly held back by the Yankees, the real story is that Power was not there two or three years before that.  

Not that the Yankees could have been a whole lot better in that span!  They finished out of first place only once between 1949 and 1958, and that year they won 103 regular season games, finishing second to the 111-win Indians.  

But in a more "fair" world, one where (as Joe's commenter suggests) both the Yankees and the Red Sox get punished for their poor treatment of African Americans, maybe Vic Power debuts with the Yankees in 1951 or '52, becomes a hero the the city's huge Puerto Rican and black population, supplants Joe Collins at first and helps the Yankees overtake the Tribe in 1954, keeping that streak alive!  

As a Yankee fan, it's unseemly for me to be too greedy here. Let's just say it would have been nice for Power to have been given a fair shake in Yankee pinstripes.     

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