18 August 2020

Tatis' Grand Slam, and Writing about Unwritten Rules


I dunno if y'all heard about this one, but Fernando Tatis hit two homers! The second one when his team was already leading by quite a little piece! A lot of people were really upset about this, apparently. Fernando Tatis owes the pitcher an apology! The nerve! Hitting a grand slam - his second homer of the game! - when his team already had a significant lead! How *dare* he??

Oh, wait, No, not last night.

*This* game, from 1999.

In that game, Fernando Tatis SENIOR hit two homers, actually two grand slams, IN THE SAME INNING, both off Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers. In Sr.'s case, they had a 7-2 lead in the third inning - due largely to his first grand slam of the inning - and would go on to win 12-5.

Actually, now that I think of it, nobody told him he should have laid down and coasted after that first homer. MLB actually celebrates it! Someone writes a story and shows the video every year on the anniversary. Sure, it was a smaller lead, earlier in the game, and he swung at a 3-2 pitch (his first one came on a 2-0 pitch), but still. The parallel is there at some level.

OK, it's weak, I admit, but I'm trying to make a point here:

Fernando Tatis The First had easily his best season in 1999. In January, his son was born, which was probably pretty exciting. After floundering with the Rangers for a couple of seasons, he'd been traded to the Cardinals at the deadline in 1998 and played well enough down the stretch and in spring training in 1999 to win the starting 3B job outright.  

He rewarded the team by hitting homers in each of his first three games that year, and he continued to hit. The two-grand-slam game was bracketed by games with homers before and after, and by early May his average was over .300, and he was on a 66-homer, 192 RBI pace. Obviously he cooled down after that, but overall, he would hit .298 with 34 homers, 104 Runs and 107 RBI as a 24-year old. He even stole 21 bases and walked 82 times!

All would turn out to be career highs, as he was never fully healthy again. Sad face.

He played only parts of the next four seasons, hitting just 37 homers *total* from 2000 to 2003, then missed two whole years, then played a few games with the 4th place Orioles in 2006, then missed all of 2007, and then caught on as a part timer with some forgettable Mets teams (...or anyway I had forgotten them.) in the late 2000s. He won the dreaded Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award in 2008, but even at that, he hit 11 homers in 92 games and was already 33 years old. His star had passed.

In short, Fernando Tatis The Younger should hit 'em while he can. Life is too short. Baseball careers are too short. For every Ken Griffey or Barry Bonds, a good player whose son would turn out to be one of the all-time greats, there are probably a dozen Tim Raines Jrs and Josh Barfields and Sean Burroughs and Kyle Drabeks who never make much of a mark in the majors, despite the accomplishments of their parents.  Tatis and Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette all look like wonderful young players, the future of MLB. All three have already spend time on the injured list. Anything can happen.

The real problem with these unwritten rules comes out in the quote from Rangers' manager Chris Woodward: 

“I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game. I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”

Except we were not all raised that way.  Apparently in Woodward's home territory in Southern California, and for that matter in Padres' manager Jayce Tingler's original stomping grounds in Missouri, maybe kids are raised not to ever swing at a 3-0 pitch. Even when it looks like a meatball and you've got the bases loaded. Or not to try to hit homers when your team is already winning by several runs.  

Kids in Latin America aren't raised that way. Those cultures tend to be a little less stuffy, a little less concerned about showing each other up. People get that it's a game, and that they're playing ball for a living, and that it's OK to find that exciting. The alternative for so many of them is destitute poverty, so why not get a little psyched if you've found a way out of that??

But suburban American white kids often have it drilled into their heads that they should be calm and dignified and that they should not show up the opposition and that they should "act like they've been there before" even if they haven't. You hit your homer and keep your head down and trot around the bases - not too slow, not too fast - or he'll drill you (or worse yet, your teammate) in retaliation.

Well, Tatis hasn't been there before, and he wasn't "raised in the game" that way. (Plus, apparently he missed the "take" sign. :-/ ) He's 21, and he'd never hit a grand slam in the majors before. He'd never homered on a 3-0 pitch before. When you're that young, it's all new, and when you're that talented, you should be allowed to explore the depths of that talent.

Not for his sake, or anyway not just for his sake, but for ours. The fans. We're the whole reason he's here, he has this job to entertain us. And we want some damn excitement once in a while! This friggin' pandemic is hard enough on all of us without having to suffer through watching a talented youngster take a get-me-over fastball down the pipe on 3-0 with the bases loaded. Take a chance and enjoy it while you can! 

And let us enjoy it a little too.

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12 August 2020

What the DiMaggio-Williams Rivalry Can Teach us About Modern MVP Voting...

Welp, here I am again, going down another JoePos rabbit hole...

Today's baseball-in-the-time -of-COVID essay details the inexplicable way in which Ted Williams managed to win his second Triple Crown in 1947 but lose the MVP by one point to Joe DiMaggio.  Posnanski attributes it to the fact that the Yankees won their division by a dozen games and the writers did not often vote for players who were not on pennant winners or at least serious contenders in those days, not for first place in the MVP running, anyway.  

He blames, perhaps rightly, the three first-place votes for the resurgent firstbaseman, George McQuinn, who had been released by the Philadelphia Athletics a year before but hit over .300 for the Yankees as they won the AL pennant running away.  McQuinn was out of MLB a year later after hitting just .248, but in the mean time it looked an awful lot like McQuinn was the reason they won.  

Personally, I thought the seven first place votes given to Yankees super-reliever Joe Page had more to do with it than that, but in any case, The Kid Lost and the Yankee Clipper won, and that was that.  

However, this McQuinn "correlation = causality" argument reminds me of the 2003 AL MVP vote.  Shannon Stewart got traded to the Twins for Bobby Kielty and a PTBNL at the All Star break.  They were 44-49 at the time, but they went 46-23 in the second half, the best record in baseball.  Stewart hit .322 with 6 homers and 38 RBI (2.6 bWAR), which made it seem like Stewart was the reason they were winning.  

In reality, the team as a whole hit almost exactly as well in the second half (779 OPS) as they had in the first (768), even though Stewart himself was markedly better than the guy he largely replaced in the lineup, Bobby Kielty, had been.  The lineup did average almost 5.4 runs per game after the break, compared to 4.6 before, but that must have been due to the timeliness of their hitting more than its overall quality.  

In fact it was the pitching staff that got its act together in the second half, pitching to a 3.96 ERA, compared to the 4.74 they had racked up before the break.  In particular Brad Radke and Kenny Rogers both pitched notably better, and Johan Santana just pitched more, as the Twins finally realized tat he should be starting every 5th day.  

At around the same time, the White Sox traded for Carl Everett, another outfielder who really picked up his game after being traded.  He hit .301 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs (2.0 bWAR) for the Pale Hose, and Chicago went 41-27 in the second half, after playing 5 games under .500 in the first half.  Simultaneously, the first-place, 51-41 Royals (!) went back in the tank for the second half (32-38) and fell to third.  

And for what it's worth, at around the same time the Blue Jays, who had traded Stewart away, also played better in the second half.  Using the same logic, then, this would suggest that Stewart's absence was the reason the Jays started winning, which is only slightly more silly a suggestion than the previous one.  

In any case, Everett didn't get a single MVP vote of any kind (nor, for that matter, did Bobby Kielty), while Stewart got three first place votes and finished 4th overall!  So, what gives?  

Well, there were two things at play here:

  1. The Twins ended up winning their division by four games over the White Sox.  In particular, they went 5-2 against Chicago in September, in the heat of the pennant race, including a three-game sweep at home that was part of an 11-game winning streak which effectively put the last nail in the coffin for the ChiSox.  They went from two games behind Chicago on September 9th, after losing to the White Sox twice in a row, to 3.5 games up on Chicago on September 18th, after that sweep.  So the optics were there, the Twins literally overtaking the White Sox down the stretch, even if Stewart himself didn't especially do anything remarkable in those particular games or in the pennant drive in particular (he hit .289 with zero homers in September).    
  2. Jayson Stark, senior baseball writer on ESPN.com and regular contributor to ESPN's various online and cable TV products, such as SportsCenter and Mike & Mike in the Morning, was lobbying hard for Stewart to get the MVP.  

Admittedly, others made this argument as well (Mark Sheldon from MLB.com, Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who may have had a bit of a home bias) but none with as large an audience or as much clout in the world of baseball journalism as Stark. Stark has made something of a career of finding interesting looking numbers in baseball and writing about them, but of course just because they're interesting - or more to the point, just because they correlate with winning - does not necessarily mean they're meaningful or causal.  

My favorite, which I learned about in Psychology I as a freshman at Lehigh, is the Superbowl indicator.  From 1967-1997, the conference that won the SuperBowl correlated at 90% with the way the Dow Jones finished, though there is really no good causal explanation for this.  My psych professor used it to remind us that correlation never implies causality, an expression he repeated so often that I can still hear his voice in my head as I type it out, now almost 27 years later.  

Likewise, there is no more reason to believe that McQuinn deserved all the credit for the success of the 1947 Yankees than that Stewart deserved it for the 1997 Twins.  Or that the Superbowl conference winner deserves credit for the stock market finishing up (or down).  But it's an easy case to make, and harder to disprove when the optics seem to support it.  

In 1947, nobody had the kind of audience that Stark did in 2003, but writers like Dick Young or Jimmy Cannon probably had wider readership than just about anybody else out there, writing for the New York papers, and may have advocated for McQuinn's votes with their fellow writers as well as their readers.  

We'll probably never know, exactly.  But it's interesting to consider how these decisions may have been made.  None of them occurs in a vacuum, and the modern day decision makers (if indeed 2003 can even be considered "modern day" anymore) are not immune to the same kinds of flawed lines of logic.   

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