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To Hook or Not to Hook: Three One-Act Dramas

It’s 24 years ago, and for the Minnesota Twins the World Series is on the line.

Jack Morris has finished his ninth shutout frame, but it looks like that won’t be enough. The Atlanta Braves have also held Minnesota scoreless, and Game Seven of the Series is likely headed for extra innings. John Smoltz having departed in the eighth, it will be all down to the bullpens.

Except that Jack Morris has other ideas.

Mythologizing and revisionism have clouded the exact details, but the outlines are there to see. Twins manager Tom Kelly tells Morris, with gratitude, that he’s done for the night; relief ace Rick Aguilera will take over. Morris declares “I’m not coming out of this game.” Kelly mentions the 118 pitches Morris has thrown, on three days’ rest. Morris holds his ground: “There’s no way I’m coming out of this game.”

And Tom Kelly relents. He probably wouldn’t give way for any other pitcher on his team, but for this 15-year veteran with a certain old-school demeanor, he does. Kelly gives Morris the green light, then turns away and is heard to mutter, “It’s only a game.”

The last starting pitcher to go into extras in a World Series game was Tom Seaver in 1969. In Game Four, he worked around two baserunners to put up a zero in the top of the 10th, and his Miracle Mets won the game in the bottom.

Jack Morris didn’t make it nearly as dramatic. One pitch to Jeff Blauser got the first out, five more struck out Lonnie Smith, and he polished off Terry Pendleton with his eighth. Kelly’s risk had paid off—and he’d be doubling down by sending Morris back out for the 11th.

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Lorenzo Cain and a Brief History of Mad Dashes Home

The World Series is delivering its thrills, but one can still feel a residual tingle from Lorenzo Cain‘s first-to-home dash on Eric Hosmer’s single in the deciding game of the ALCS. Part of that thrill is due to this being a repeat performance by Cain. In the fifth and deciding game of Kansas City’s ALDS, he went first-to-home on a Hosmer single, chipping away at Houston’s 2-0 lead on the way to a 7-2 triumph. Not as dramatic as plating the go-ahead run in the eighth, but it loomed pretty large at the time.

What hasn’t gotten so much attention is the parallel to one of the most fabled plays in baseball history: Enos Slaughter’s Mad Dash Home. In Game Seven of the 1946 World Series, the Red Sox scored two in the top of the eighth to tie the Cardinals 3-3. (Sound familiar?) In the home half, Slaughter got on first for St. Louis, and when Harry “The Hat” Walker laced a two-out hit, Slaughter never slowed down, racing home ahead of the throw to score the decisive run.

The similarities, and differences, between the plays are enlightening. The greatest apparent difference is that Walker was credited with a double. This is widely regarded as a scorekeeper’s mistake. Walker took second on the throw home, and should have had a single, thus making Slaughter’s basepath aggression much clearer. Hosmer left no room for doubt both of his times by staying at first base.

For other matters, it will probably help to look at the plays in question. First, Slaughter in 1946. The quality of the footage is not at all great — you can hear the rattle of the film projector from which it’s taken — but given the age of the play, we are probably a little fortunate to have something this good.

The footage shows Slaughter running with the pitch. We see a close angle on him breaking from first, then cut to a shot behind the plate for Walker’s hit, so it’s not seamless, but it’s clear from how fast Slaughter enters the second shot that he was indeed going.

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How Unlikely Is Daniel Murphy’s Streak?

Daniel Murphy chose a really good time to play some really good baseball. He’s hit home runs in six straight games, with a chance to extend that streak once the World Series commences on Tuesday. This is a record for postseason play, as you may have learned if you’ve paid any attention to baseball reporting in the last three days.

However, it’s certainly not unheard of. Since 1914, as far back as Baseball-Reference’s game-by-game records go, 28 players have managed a regular-season home run streak of six or more games*. I will not overload you with the full list, but it includes names both very familiar (Gehrig, Mays, Griffey, Bonds) and obscure, folks you’d fully expect on the list and others who would make you scratch your head.

* The standard I used allows a streak to remain intact if a player had no plate appearances in a game, similar though not identical to the official rules governing hitting streaks. This actually arose among the 28, notably with Graig Nettles. In 1984, Nettles hit homers in two straight games, got two games off, homered in his next two, took two more off, and homered in the following two. I also permit a streak to carry over between seasons, which put 1997-98 Mark McGwire on the list.

Going into October, Murphy would have been one of the head-scratchers. In his seven seasons, his highest home-run total is 14, produced this season. He simply lacked the power to be a reasonable candidate for such a feat — until he flipped the switch and lit up the Dodgers and Cubs.

Is Murphy the unlikeliest of the players who have put together a homer streak of six games or more?

To produce an answer, I looked at the seasons in which those on the list did the deed, and took their rates of home runs per plate appearance (HR/PA). I went by season rather than career because such a streak is an event likeliest at a player’s peak, and the chances go up much more than linearly with rising rates. The HR/PA stat seemed better than raw homer totals because probability per time up is more germane to the nature of a streak than mere accumulation.

As I’ve noted, homer streaks are no shock with some players. In 2001, Barry Bonds homered in 10.99% of his plate appearances. He had two separate six-game homer streaks, one in April and one in May. This inaugurated the golden age of home run streaks. Ten of the 28 streaks occurred in just six years, from 2001 to 2006. (As for why they happened in that span, discuss among yourselves.)

Bonds’ 2001 is the top HR/PA rate on the list. The lowest would belong to… Daniel Murphy, with 14 homers in 538 PA for a 2.60% rate. The hitch is that he’s made his streak in the postseason, so regular season numbers are, if not irrelevant, at least incomplete. Adding his postseason numbers to the regular season gives him 21 for 577, coming out to a 3.64% rate.

That’s a very low rate for a homer streaker, but two other players beat him out. Second lowest on the list is George “Highpockets” Kelly. He made his streak for the New York Giants in July 1924, in a year when he hit 21 round-trippers in 627 appearances for a rate of 3.35%. (Interestingly, despite the Polo Grounds being a great place for dead-pull power, Kelly’s whole streak was on the road, mainly at Wrigley Field.)

For the lowest rate on the list, we go to someone who actually beat the streak criterion. Out of the first 28 players with homer streaks at least six games long, six have gone longer. Tied for the record at eight are Dale Long (1956), Don Mattingly (1987), and Ken Griffey Jr. (1993). Behind them, at seven games, are Jim Thome (2002), Barry Bonds (2004), and the 2006 season of our homer-rate anchorman… Kevin Mench.

Mench, who honest to goodness I did not remember had played baseball until he popped up on this list, did not string together his streak in his best power season, or second-best, or third-best. He did it with a mere 13 home runs in 482 PA, a rate of 2.70%. He hit more than half of his season’s homers in an eight-day, seven-game stretch in late April, against the Devil Rays, A’s, and Indians. Six of the games were at home in Arlington, Texas.

That combination of obscurity, low power, and pushing his streak to a seventh game makes Mench’s run easily the most improbable of the 28 who did it in the regular season. As for being more unlikely than Murphy’s, so far it is, with two caveats.

First is degree of difficulty. Murphy’s done his streaking against, not just playoff teams, but super pitchers. His streak includes dingers off Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta, who will be gold, silver, and bronze in some order in the NL Cy Young race. Jon Lester’s no slouch either. Mench’s streak included three games against the Devil Rays, who were still in the laughingstock phase of their existence.

The second caveat is that Murphy’s streak is not over yet. It may fade out in the long wait for Game One, but it’s a bold prognosticator who would take that as a given. If he can stretch it for one more game, the title may be his. If he manages two, it’s definitely his.

That just one more reason to look forward to Tuesday. And maybe Wednesday.

The Mets Sweep the Cy Young Board (With More to Come?)

Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw are going to be the top three finishers in this year’s NL Cy Young Award voting. This is about as much of a lock as sports award voting gets. They have been that dominant, and that far ahead of the pack. Dave Cameron has written here several times on the race between those three and no others, and that settles things for me.

This means the New York Mets have done something no other baseball team ever has: they have beaten the top three finishers in their league’s Cy Young voting in a single postseason. They defeated Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLDS, aced out Greinke in the deciding Game 5, and on Sunday night, in Game 2 of the NLCS, Arrieta took an L for the first time since July 25 (or June 16, if you give him a pass for getting beaten by Cole Hamels‘ no-hitter).

Yes, yes, I know: it’s probably best to “Kill The Win,” which strongly implies collateral damage upon the loss. I acknowledge the arbitrary component that goes into assignment of pitcher losses. However, if I let that forestall me, we won’t have any fun and we won’t learn anything. So instead let’s have some fun and learn something.

It isn’t just a single-league mark the Mets have set. If you count the top three finishers in both leagues, only the 2015 Mets have ever beaten three top-three vote-getters in one postseason. They join eleven clubs that have managed to beat two.

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The Fluky, Freaky First in Toronto

The second game of the Texas-Toronto ALDS ended in a memorable fashion, the Rangers surviving a razor-thin review of a potential third out to score two in the 14th and hold off the Blue Jays. This ended up obscuring the memorable way it began, with a top of the first replete with odd incidents. Had it not begun in this memorable way, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have ended as memorably, so let’s look at all the weird stuff that happened.
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Buster Posey’s Baserunning Blues

Buster Posey hasn’t been quite himself this postseason. Through Wednesday’s game in Kansas City, he’s batted .288/.333/.288, which isn’t terrible but has included an un-Poseyish power outage. His batting line was better during the NLDS against Washington, which is ironic because most of the failures I’m about to talk about took place during that series.

My topic isn’t how Posey’s been getting on base. It’s what he’s been doing after getting on base: specifically, getting thrown out on the bases. During the four-game NLDS, Buster Posey got himself cut down four times. After a clean NLCS, he added an out at home in Game One of the World Series to push his postseason total this year to five.

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What Was Matt Williams Thinking? Maybe This

As you’ve probably heard by now, Matt Williams had a bad seventh inning on Tuesday night. Dave Cameron took Williams’ bullpen maneuvers apart nicely in his Just a Bit Outside column at Fox Sports. At the risk of putting words in his mouth, he said that Williams leaving Matt Thornton in the game to face Buster Posey was inexplicable.

It’s not quite that. There is a certain logic to what Williams tried. It may not be good logic, but looked at the right way, you can sorta understand what he was doing.

Now, this post is not meant as a rebuttal of Cameron’s piece. If I got into a saber-war with Dave Cameron, I’d fully expect to lose. I don’t like to lose, so the heck with that. Consider this more of a supplement to his work, an added angle to what he’s already provided.

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The Longest Postseason Game Ever, or Not

First, a brief introductory note. Some of you will know me from the writing I’ve done for FanGraphs’ sister site, The Hardball Times. This postseason, I’ve been granted the chance to do some occasional quick-and-dirty playoff analysis here. My thanks to Dave Cameron and Paul Swydan for making this possible. Now I’ll stop wasting time and get to the content.

On Saturday night and (for us Easterners) Sunday morning, the Giants and Nationals played a ridiculously long baseball game. How long was it? For one, Nationals pitchers Tanner Roark aged a year during the two innings he pitched. Yes, that means Sunday was his birthday, and quite possibly the worst one he’s had, since he got stuck with the loss. Happy bleepin’ birthday, Tanner! I’d give you cake, but Brandon Belt already ate it.

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