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Career Leaders, Quick Hooks, Stolen Credit, and a Great
By Tom Tippett
This month, I'll share with you some surprising members of the all-time career leader boards, talk about managers who seem very quick to yank a starter even when he's pitching well, take Major League Baseball to task for failing to give credit where it is due, and see if I can do justice to what was probably the best game I've ever seen in person.
One day last week I had a little time to kill while my computer was cranking through a big job, and I decided to indulge in one of my favorite activities. STATS Inc. runs a service called STATS Online, and one of the features of that service is a series of all-time career leader boards. As you probably know, STATS scores every game and supplies real-time feeds to sites such as ESPN.com and STATS' own AOL service. Every night, after the last pitch has been thrown, they update the career leaders in a whole bunch of batting and pitching categories. I get a kick out of watching modern players inch their way up these rankings, closing in on and passing some of the greatest names in baseball history. I'm especially tickled when I see some unexpected names on these lists.
As of June 23, there were three active pitchers on the all-time top 100 list for career ERA. Greg Maddux ranked 54th with a 2.79 career ERA and Roger Clemens was 79th at 2.98. Given that Clemens has faced the DH his whole career, I personally think his career mark is superior to Maddux's and many others on that list. Who's the other active pitcher on this list? (The answer appears at the end of this article.)
Few baseball fans are unaware that Tony Gwynn (2982 and holding while he recovers from a calf strain) and Wade Boggs (2969) are both closing in on 3000 hits. Much less attention has been given to Cal Ripken, who's at 2937 and gaining on them. All three have been injury prone this year, so it's far from clear who will get there first, but it's quite possible that all three will reach that mark within a few weeks of each other.
The next two active players on that list are Rickey Henderson, 46th all-time with 2724, and Harold Baines, who is tied for 48th at 2716. (Lou Gehrig is the guy in between.) This brings to mind one of the most idiotic comments I've ever heard on a talk radio station. A caller said that Henderson didn't deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because he'd never had 200 hits in a season. Rickey may not reach 3000 hits (he too has been hurt, and he turns 41 in December), but there's no doubt in my mind that he has HOF credentials.
Henderson has reached base by hit or walk 4647 times in his career, good for 11th all-time, and he's not done yet. To put this in some perspective, another base-stealing HOF leadoff hitter, Lou Brock, is way down the list at 3784. Henderson is (or should be) a first-ballot selection.
By the way, two guys who are often compared are far apart on this list. Boggs is 18th with 4350, a whopping 626 ahead of Tony Gwynn. Even Cal Ripken, who's not normally regarded as a high average or on-base guy, has reached 4005 times, a full 281 times more than Gwynn.
Here are the 20 players who have reached base by hit or walk the most often in baseball history. I'm pretty sure it's accurate, but I did it by hand, so it's possible I missed someone:
1 Rose 5822 2 Cobb 5438 3 Yastrzemski 5264 4 Musial 5229 5 Aaron 5173 6 Ruth 4929 7 Speaker 4895 8 ECollins 4818 9 Mays 4746 10 Williams 4673 11 Henderson 4647* 12 Murray 4588 13 Ott 4584 14 Molitor 4413 15 Morgan 4382 16 Wagner 4378 17 FRobinson 4363 18 Boggs 4350* 19 Winfield 4326 20 Kaline 4284 * active
Our second quiz focuses on the career leaders in slugging percentage. Anyone looking for evidence that we live in a high-offense era can stop right here. While there are only three active pitchers on the list of career ERA leaders, there are no less than 25 active hitters among the top 100 sluggers, six of them in the top 14. Some of the names are quite familiar -- Frank Thomas (6), Mark McGwire (9), Albert Belle (10), Ken Griffey (11), Juan Gonzalez (12), Larry Walker (14), Barry Bonds (18), Jeff Bagwell (21), Mo Vaughn (24), Jose Canseco (36), and Edgar Martinez (40). There are 14 others. How many can you name? (Answer below.)
Since the season began three months ago, it seems as if I've seen an awful lot of boxscores in which the starting pitcher appeared to be having a terrific game but was removed even though he hadn't thrown many pitches. I'm sympathetic to the argument that the added strain of pitching to iron-pumping sluggers in shrinking ballparks makes it much more difficult for pitchers to finish their starts. But I still wonder why managers seem to be so quick to squander an opportunity to give the pen a break and ride an effective starter a little longer.
So I decided to go through all of the boxscores for the week of June 15-21, and it didn't take long to come up with plenty of examples. I'll go through them here and then try to make some sense out of them:
6/15 -- The Padres Bruce Bochy chooses to pinch hit for Matt Clement in the bottom of the 6th, even though Clement has thrown only 97 pitches and leaves with a 5-1 lead. Three San Diego relievers hold the Phillies scoreless the rest of the way.
6/17 -- Kelvim Escobar tosses seven shutout innings (six hits, no walks, 95 pitches), but Jays manager Jim Fregosi goes to the pen to start the 8th in a 2-0 game. Two relievers maintain the shutout, and the Jays win 3-0.
6/17 -- Detroit's Jeff Weaver uses only 105 pitches in eight strong innings against the Mariners. Despite the fact that Weaver has been the Tigers best pitcher and has yielded only five hits and two walks, Larry Parrish decides to bring in a lefty (CJ Nitkowski) to face Griffey to lead off the ninth. Nitkowski walks Griffey and is replaced by Todd Jones, who promptly coughs up three runs and loses the game.
6/17 -- Kevin Millwood gives up two hits and one walk in seven innings and throws only 80 pitches despite striking out 11 Astros. With a 7-2 lead, Bobby Cox pinch hits for Millwood, and the bullpen surrenders three runs but escapes with an 8-5 win.
6/17 -- The Cardinals muster only three hits and a walk off Al Leiter, who finishes the seventh with a 4-1 lead and a pitch count of only 96. Bobby Valentine turns the game over to Armando Benitez, who tosses a perfect eighth, and John Franco, who nearly blows the lead and needs to be rescued by Dennis Cook. Final score: 4-3 New York.
6/18 -- Andy Pettitte enters the eighth with a 4-hit shutout and a 3-0 lead over the Angels. Even though he's thrown only 97 pitches, a one-out solo homer by Troy Glaus is enough to send Pettitte to the showers. Torre uses three relievers to get out of the eighth inning and the Yankees win 4-1.
6/19 -- Hideki Irabu scatters three hits and three walks over 7 innings, but doesn't come out for the eighth. He leaves with a 5-2 lead and a pitch count of 102. Ramiro Mendoza tosses two shutout innings to seal the victory.
6/19 -- Buck Showalter decides that Omar Daal's seven strong innings are enough, despite a low pitch count (92) and a four-run lead. Three relievers are used to close out a 7-3 Arizona win.
6/19 -- The Dodgers' Darren Dreifordt enters the seventh with an 8-1 lead but leaves two outs later even though he has pitched well and has thrown only 92 pitches. Alan Mills needs only one pitch to snuff out the potential rally, and is then removed in favor of Jamie Arnold, who finishes the game.
6/19 -- Bobby Jones yields only six hits and two runs for the Rockies (at home!), but is removed for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh despite having an 8-2 lead. He's thrown only 99 pitches at that point, but maybe Jim Leyland figures he was tiring because both Florida runs came in Jones' last inning. The Rockies win 10-2.
6/19 -- Mike Hampton carries a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the seventh, but Matt Galante deems that his 101 pitches are enough work for one day and uses a pinch hitter. I suppose if I had a dominant 1-2 punch like Scott Elarton and Billy Wagner at my disposal, I'd be tempted to make the same move. The pinch hitter strikes out (Hampton could have done that), but the Astros go on to win 5-2 anyway.
6/19 -- Steve Woodard needs only 96 pitches as he holds the Reds to one run over eight innings. With a 10-1 lead, Brewers manager Phil Garner decides to let closer Bob Wickman mop up in the ninth, presumably because Wickman hasn't pitched in the last four games and could use a little work.
6/20 -- Anaheim's Tim Belcher holds the Yankees to five hits, one walk and a single run over eight inning, needing only 88 pitches in the process. Despite this fine showing, Terry Collins chooses to give the ball to his ace closer, Troy Percival, who promptly gives up two hits and two walks. But the Yankees plate only one run from all that and Percival picks up the save.
6/21 -- Tampa Bay's Ryan Rupe allows four hits and two walks in seven strong innings, leaving with a pitch count of 97 and a one-run lead over the Twins. Norm Charlton and Roberto Hernandez finish out the game in textbook fashion, and the game ends in a 3-2 win.
There you have it. Fourteen games in which the starter was in control but didn't get a shot at a complete game, even though he didn't get into any trouble. Thirteen times the team held on to win, though there were some very close calls. What can we learn from these examples? Well, a sample this small doesn't prove anything, but these games and the seventy-some-odd others from that week lead me to make the following observations:
- I don't have the inning-by-inning pitch counts, but it sure seems as if there's an unwritten rule that any pitcher who's thrown 110 or more pitches is relieved to start the next inning. At most, there were one or two exceptions, and there were plenty of examples in support of this rule. It's something I'll be watching for in the future.
- managers with very strong (and rested) bullpens seem content to get seven innings out of their starters. One might think it would be to their advantage to let a successful starter keep going until he gets in trouble, potentially saving the bullpen for tomorrow's game, but it seems as if these managers want to make sure they take care of today's business first.
- managers seem eager to give their starter a light day's work if they're winning big. Can't say that I blame them, assuming the bullpen has a couple of fresh arms to mop things up. But I used to think that managers were more likely to go for a complete game in situations like this.
- sometimes a manager will go out of his way to bring in his closer, even if it's not a save situation, if the closer hasn't worked in a few days. In fact, it seems as if managers who are carrying 11-12 pitchers will use the quick hook every so often as a way to get regular work for everyone.
To be fair, recent studies suggest that throwing more than 120 pitches per start on a regular basis is bad for performance and bad for health. These days, it usually takes 130-150 pitches to throw a complete game, meaning that a pitcher with a lot of complete games may be spending too much time in the danger zone. And when managers see the Braves baby their starters and finish in the top two or three in staff ERA year after year, while other teams are sending a seemingly endless stream of pitchers out on rehab assignments, it's hard to convince them to leave their starters out there a lot longer.
Nevertheless, I don't like seeing a manager use three or four pitchers to get through one inning. It slows the game, and I have serious doubts about whether it's good strategy to replace a starter who's pitching well with a series of three less-good relievers just because they each might get the platoon advantage. (I say might because the other skipper can and often does use a pinch hitter to recapture that advantage.)
Besides, the one thing doesn't necessarily follow from the other. Even if it turns out that limiting starters to 100-110 pitches is very smart, it doesn't mean that the remaining 40-50 pitches in the game must be divided among three or four relievers. Jimy Williams, for example, sometimes manages the Red Sox bullpen in 1950s style, letting one reliever (Lowe, Wasdin, or Cormier) go 3+ innings and finish a game as long has he's throwing well. Cincinnati's Jack McKeon has been doing a lot of this, too. I like that, and it seems to be working for both of these teams.
And it still doesn't explain why a manager will yank a pitcher who's thrown only 85-95 pitches. I'm a firm believer that if a guy is going well, stick with him, because you never know whether the next guy will have his stuff today or not. And I've seen too many cases where a pitcher is brought in to face one guy and promptly walks him. Before you know it, your ninth best pitcher is the one you're counting on to get out of the jam.
Last summer, I attended the national convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). You may recall that Juan Gonzalez was on a pace to break Hack Wilson's record of 190 RBI in a single season. So there was more than the usual amount of interest in a report by some SABR researchers that Wilson had been shortchanged by one, that the correct total was 191. Those researchers presented a very compelling report to the SABR records committee, and there was much discussion about how to approach baseball with these findings and whether or not anyone in the baseball establishment would care.
Imagine my surprise when Commissioner Bud Selig recently announced that the official records would be corrected, and the record would henceforth be 191. I immediately thought that the SABR records committee had done a very good thing and should be given a major pat on the back for their efforts.
Imagine my shock and disgust when the official press release and an article on the MLB web site gave the credit to Jerome Holtzman and the Elias Sports Bureau, with no mention of the SABR group. I must grudgingly admit that I understand the politics -- Elias is the official statistician, so it would be embarrassing to announce that SABR had found a mistake in the Elias records -- but it still galls me that there wasn't even a mention of the guys who spent countless hours chasing down multiple copies of the boxscores for every Wilson game that season.
The Best Game I've Ever Attended
The national SABR convention is one of the highlights of the baseball season for me each year. I've been to something like ten of the last fourteen of them. Among the many events, each one features a group outing to a major league game in the convention city, and this year's would be a treat -- my first visit to the Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.
There normally isn't anything special about the SABR games. Some 400 or more SABR members attend the game, and it's very difficult to get good seats when you're buying such a large block of tickets. This year was no exception. My seat was in the very last row of the upper deck behind home plate. I must have been thirty or forty feet above the top of the foul poles. (I gave serious thought to establishing a base camp in row 7, resting for the night, and making the ascent to the summit the next morning.)
The pregame featured the batting practice heroics of one Mark McGwire. It wasn't hard to know when he stepped into the cage. There was a distinct change in the normal background noise of stadium conversation -- an odd combination of a hush (as people stopped talking to focus on the action) and a buzz (of anticipation). McGwire didn't disappoint, launching rockets up to the highest level of seats and walkways down the left field line. I've never seen a ball jump off a bat like that. The swing seemed effortless, but the result was astonishing. Ray Lankford shared the cage with McGwire that night, and he blasted a few shots of his own into the center field stands, but nobody seemed to care or even notice.
Just as the game was about to begin, I asked the people near me if they had a rooting interest in the game. They didn't, so I said that I wouldn't mind seeing a 9-7 Cardinals win with McGwire and Travis Lee hitting three homers each (they're on one of my fantasy teams). My good friend David Nichols turned to me and asked if I wouldn't rather see a no-hitter. I had to admit that it was possible -- Randy Johnson was going for the Diamondbacks and the Cardinals seemed to be fielding a team of McGwire and seven guys who can't hit. Fernando Tatis was attending to family business, so David Howard was playing third. Thomas Howard was in the #5 spot, as Ray Lankford wasn't in the lineup either.
Johnson struck out the side in the second and K'd two more in the third en route to retiring the first nine Cardinals. Meanwhile, St. Louis starter Jose Jimenez walked one and hit another with a pitch, but also made it through three without allowing a hit. So far, we were witnessing a double no-hitter!
That didn't last long, as Joe McEwing doubled to lead off the fourth for the Cards. Renteria added a double in the fifth and Dave Howard doubled to lead off the sixth. Johnson escaped each time, and the game remained scoreless through five and a half. Jimenez set down the side in order in the fourth and fifth to keep his no-hitter intact.
Andy Fox led off the bottom of the sixth by lining a ball to the gap in right. It looked like a hit from the moment it left the bat, but Eric Davis got a good jump and made a nice diving catch, snaring the ball about a foot off the turf at nearly full extension. I turned to my seatmate and commented that this is the sort of play you'd expect to see in a no-hitter, something we'd look back on as a key moment. My neighbor agreed, but said "watch, Randy Johnson will line a clean single right now and it will be all over just like that." Sure enough, Johnson lined the next pitch into shallow center field. We were surprised when it hung up just long enough for a charging Darren Bragg to make a nice shoestring catch. Womack followed with a routine grounder to short to end the inning on a less dramatic note.
Jimenez walked Luis Gonzalez with one out in the seventh. I was beginning to wonder if he was losing it. But he came right back to get Matt Williams to ground into a very pretty 3-6-1 double play, with Jimenez himself making a nice play to cover first on the back end. Still scoreless, no-hitter still intact through seven.
Johnson continued to dominate, though he did give up the game's first single in the eighth. (How many games have you seen where the first single by either team came so late?) His strikeout count continued to rise, and the crowd was standing and screaming every time he got two strikes on a hitter. But, increasingly, the focus was on the big 0 in the Arizona hit column.
You may have seen the boxscore for this game, but what it doesn't show is that some bozo jumped out of the stands and began running across left field in the middle of the Arizona 8th. Was it a coincidence? Or a conscious attempt to rattle Jimenez? Did it really need to take so long to subdue the guy and get him off the field, or were the security guards taking their time in an effort to ice the young pitcher? How would the rookie react to this interruption? Like a pro, as it turned out. He bore down and got the side in order. No-hitter through eight.
The big story in the top of the ninth was Johnson's pursuit of career strikeout number 2500. After he struck out McEwing to lead off the inning, the scoreboard flashed that Johnson was now one short of this milestone. The stadium was rocking, and it stayed that way even as Johnson walked the next two hitters. And it erupted when he came right back to strike out Eric Davis for his 2500th and his fourteenth of the game.
At this point, I turned to my friend in the next chair and pointed out that we really needed the Cardinals to come up with a run right now if the bottom of the ninth was going to have all the drama that it could. Things didn't look good when Johnson quickly got ahead, a ball and two strikes, on Thomas Howard. But the gods were smiling on us that night. Howard shattered his bat on a Johnson inside fastball yet somehow managed to dump a run-scoring single into left field.
So we went to the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 Cardinals lead. Andy Fox struck out looking on a pitch that looked a little low but could have gone either way. Dave Dellucci pinch hit for Johnson and promptly rapped a line drive into the gap in right, where Eric Davis dove, made the catch, did a somersault, came up, and dropped the ball! I was all set to roar my approval, but now I wasn't sure it was a catch. It sure looked like a catch, but I couldn't take my eye off the ball lying on the grass in right field. All eyes turned to the second base umpire, who came running out with his arm raised to signal the out. And then to Arizona manager Buck Showalter, who came running out to argue the point. We couldn't tell whether Buck really thought he had a case or whether he was just trying to ice Jimenez once again. But after a long discussion the call stood, and the crowd stood as one to see whether Jimenez could get the last hitter who stood between him and instant fame.
After the Davis catch, Womack's routine grounder to second was a little anticlimactic. But even the Arizona partisans had to rise and acknowledge the rare feat they had just witnessed. We SABR folks up in the Bob Uecker seats were grinning from ear to ear, exchanging high fives, and wondering aloud whether this was the best game we'd ever witnessed. Two dominating pitching performances. Not a single fly ball that an outfielder had to go back on. At least four sparkling defensive plays. Johnson's 2500th strikeout. A young rookie showing amazing poise during two long delays. And a no-hitter, the first one I've ever seen.
Career Leader Quiz Answers
The third active pitcher on the career ERA leaderboard is David Cone, who ranks 96th with a 3.15 ERA.
The other fourteen active players in the top 100 career sluggers are Fred McGriff (45), Rafael Palmeiro (51), Dave Justice (52), Darryl Strawberry (58), Sammy Sosa (60), Dante Bichette (62), Gary Sheffield (70), Ellis Burks (72), Jay Buhner (74), Matt Williams (75), Will Clark (80), Tino Martinez (88), Eric Davis (90), and John Olerud (97).
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