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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Root, Root, Root for . . . Which Team?

I have a mild rooting interest in the World Series. So mild that I will probably have little or no effect on the outcome.
Once upon a time, I was a White Sox fan.
Blame it on my youth. And my circumstances. When I was growing up in Green Bay, the nearest major league teams were in Chicago. Most people I knew were Cub fans, but there were a few strays who rooted for the White Sox, including my mother, who was a major baseball fan.
The first major league game I ever saw was at Comiskey Park, White Sox vs. Red Sox, in 1947. I was eight years old and much more interested in football than baseball. I don't remember how the game came out. All I do remember is that Ted Williams hit the ball very, very hard several times.
I wasn't really a White Sox fan yet. That happened in 1950, when Chico Carrasquel took over at shortstop. I was playing shortstop for park teams in both baseball and softball, and Carrasquel quickly became my idol.
In 1951, Paul Richards became the White Sox manager. That was the first of 17 straight winning seasons for the team, the second longest streak in history.
Under Richards, the White Sox became much the kind of team they are today, built on pitching and speed. I'm not sure if I liked the White Sox because of that style of play or if I liked that style of play because of the White Sox. Of course, it may have had something to do with the fact that I was a singles hitter and base stealer.
The Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953 and became my new favorite team. I still rooted for the White Sox in the American League, but the Braves definitely came to the forefront. They finished second three times in their first four years in Milwaukee and then went two straight pennants, in 1957 and 1958.
The White Sox finished second both of those years. But, in 1959, while the Braves slipped to second place in the National League, the White Sox finally won the American League pennant, their first since 1919.
Like the 1951 edition, the "Go-Go" White Sox of 1959 were built on pitching and speed. Luis Aparacio, who had replaced Chico Carrasquel at shortstop, led the league with 56 stolen bases, far ahead of Mickey Mantle, who finished second with 21. As a team, the Sox had 113 steals and only 97 home runs. Second baseman Nellie Fox was the league's MVP and Early Wynn won the Cy Young Award. Wynn and Fox each hit two home runs that season. Wynn did it in only 90 at-bats, while Fox had 624.
The manager was Al Lopez. During the 1950s, Casey Stengel's Yankees won eight of ten pennants. Lopez was the only manager besides Stengel to win a pennant during that decade, with the Indians in 1954 and the White Sox in 1959. Lopez finished second to Stengel seven times, five times with Cleveland and twice with Chicago.
Anyway, for the third year in a row, I had a team to root for in the World Series. The Braves had beat the Yankees in 1957, thanks to Lew Burdette's three wins, but they lost to them in 1958. Facing the Dodgers in 1959, the White Sox rolled to an 11-0 victory behind Wynn in the first game, but they ended up losing in six.
Now, 46 years later, I find myself rooting for the White Sox once again. But very quietly. I'm not sure the baseball gods will even notice.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Case for David Ortiz

Lou Piniella and I are in complete agreement.
Not too long ago, when he was still the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Piniella observed, "In the American League, the DH is a position, like any other."
He was talking about Boston's David Ortiz as an MVP candidate. Piniella went on to say of Ortiz, "He's had a real good year and obviously deserves serious consideration."
I've been surprised at how many people, sportswriters and fans alike, feel that a designated hitter shouldn't be the most valuable player.
The argument is that a DH is only a partial player, so to speak, since he does nothing to help his team on defense. But there are a couple of things wrong with that argument.
First, pitchers have won 23 MVP awards. I guarantee you that David Ortiz, in his 10 games at first base this past season, did more defensively than any of those pitchers did offensively.
Dennis Eckersley won the American League award in 1992, when he pitched only 80 innings. He never had a turn at bat.
Second, the MVP award has gone to players who were defensive liabilities. Frank Thomas, for example, won two years in a row, 1993 and 1994. With 15 errors in 1993, not to mention very limited range, Thomas must have cost the White Sox at least a couple of games. The following year, he committed only 7 errors, but that was partly because he played only 99 games at first base.
Then another immobile first baseman, Mo Vaughn, won the 1995 award. Vaughn wasn't quite as error-prone as Thomas, but he was perhaps even less mobile. I have no doubt that he cost the Red Sox a couple of games or more by failing to get to balls that another first baseman would have turned into outs.
If Ortiz doesn't win the MVP award, it will almost certainly go to Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees. Now, if A-Rod even approximated Brooks Robinson with his glove, the reluctance to honor a DH would be understandable.
The truth is, A-Rod is not a major contributor on defense. He's probably a liability. I know, I know, he's probably going to win a Gold Glove, but that's not a very reliable indicator of how good a fielder really is.
A far better indicator is Zone Rating (ZR). That's a measure, developed by STATS, Inc., of how many batted balls are fielded by a player in his standard defensive zone. A-Rod ranked ninth in that category among American League third baseman, and only ten of them had enough chances to qualify for a rating. So he was next to last in zone rating. He was also dead last in range factor.
What does that mean? Well, it means that quite a few balls went by for base hits to his right or left that would have been gobbled up by a really good third baseman. In fact, quite a few them would have been fielded by a merely average third baseman.
So now let's look at offense.
One important stat makes me wonder whether Rodriguez was even the Yankees' MVP.
That would be the OPS with runners in scoring position. (In case you're not up on some of this new-fangled Sabermetric stuff, OPS is simply on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. It's commonly used as a measure of overall offensive value.)
Rodrigues ranked fourth on his own team in OPS with runners in scoring position, behind Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and Hideki Matsui.
Rodriguez led the American League with a 1.031 OPS. But, with runners in scoring position, that dropped all the way down to .894. Ortiz had a 1.001 OPS overall, but it climbed to 1.043 with runners in scoring position.
In fact, the more crucial the situation, the better Ortiz became. With the bases empty, his OPS was .993. It went up to 1.006 with runners on, 1.043 with runners in scoring position, and 1.226 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
Another measure of how a player does in clutch situations is his OPS in the late innings of a close game. In those situations, both players were pretty good, but Ortiz had the edge with an OPS of 1.161 to 1.006 for Rodriguez.
Now, I don't think it would be a terrible miscarriage of justice of Rodriguez wins the MVP award. But I do think it would be a pretty bad misjudgment by the people who do the voting.