Monday, August 29, 2016

John Fulgham: The Best Pitcher Who Never Was

It is pretty rare nowadays for me to stumble across a quality major league player who I've never heard of, especially for players from recent decades. However, that is exactly what happened last night. In continuing to review Keith Hernandez's career, I took a look at the 1979 Cardinals, a team for whom he won the National League MVP. I noticed they had a young pitcher by the name of John Fulgham who had had a very solid season, going 10-6 with a 2.53 ERA in 146 innings. I then discovered he was a rookie that season, at age 23. Despite his numbers he did not receive a single vote for National League Rookie of the Year, an award won by Rick Sutcliffe.

Generally speaking, Fulgham is not a well-remembered major leaguer; a quick Google search did not turn up very much. Most of what has been written about him on the Internet regarded his supposed 39-pitch complete game on August 17, 1979, which if true would have been a major league record (it was not). Otherwise, these articles mostly just mention that Fulgham was a promising young starter whose career was cut short by a torn rotator cuff (an injury whose onset apparently produced a scuffle with Keith Hernandez).

In doing some more digging, however, I believe that no starting pitcher who was as good as Fulgham ever had so brief of a career. First, let's look at Wins Above Replacement. According to Baseball-Reference, Fulgham had 3.5 WAR in his rookie season, and 1.4 in 1980, for a total of about 5.0. As the table below shows, of all starting pitchers since 1901 with 5+ WAR in their first two seasons combined, only George Kaiserling, who pitched exclusively in the short-lived Federal League, also failed to pitch a third season:

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Keith Hernandez: A Hall of Fame Case

At first glance, Keith Hernandez seems like a pretty solid candidate for the Hall of Fame. He was both a good contact hitter (career .296 BA, 2182 H) and a decent on-base guy (.384 OBP, 1070 BB). He could both score runs and drive them in (1124 R, 1071 RBI). He was a batting titlist and MVP (both in 1979) and the starting first baseman for two World Series winning clubs (the ‘82 Cardinals and ‘86 Mets). He was recognized as one of the best players of his era, having been selected to five all-star games, winning two Silver Slugger awards, and receiving MVP votes in eight straight seasons. Sabermetrically speaking, he posted a 60.0 career WAR and a 128 OPS+, both of which are right at the borderline for a career first baseman. Above all, he is arguably the greatest defensive first baseman of all time, standing as that position's all-time leader in Total Zone Runs and backed up by his 11 consecutive Gold Gloves.

However, there’s seemingly one big problem: he wasn’t a power-hitter, despite playing a position largely defined by power. He hit less than 200 career home runs (162 to be exact), and his career ISO was only .140. He doesn't exactly look like your typical Hall of Fame first baseman. In fact, he looks more like a Mark Grace, or a John Olerud, or even a Will Clark, and those other non-power-hitting first basemen don’t exactly have a great track record of getting into the Hall. Accordingly, although Hernandez's name appeared on nine Hall of Fame ballots, he never received more than 10.8% of vote, nowhere near the 75% he needed for induction.

With that being said, one must consider the era in which Hernandez played. The 1970s and 1980s were not exactly the heyday of big-time slugging first basemen; in fact, it is pretty clear that there was a significant power drought at the position during this period. Taking a closer look, there were only three 40-home run seasons by a first baseman between 1969 (when Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey both won the MVP) and 1987 (Mark McGwire's rookie season). None of those seasons were by a career first baseman; the three players to do so were Hank Aaron and Carl Yastrzemski (traditionally outfielders) and Darrell Evans (who played much of his career at third base). 

It wasn't as if there were no other players hitting home runs then. Overall, there were 27 40-home run seasons from 1970 to 1986. That means that only about 11% of those were by a first baseman. By contrast, the rate was about 28% (30 of 108) from 1920 to 1969 and a little under 32% (59 of 128) since 1987. Looking at the overall percentage of home runs hit by first basemen, that rate was at about 18-20% from 1969-1971, peaking at 22% in 1972. From there the percentage declined precipitously, falling to below 14% in 1983-84, before rebounding to over 17% by the end of the decade.

Looking at ISO numbers instead, we see a similar pattern. The ISO of the average first baseman was about 40-50% higher than the league average from 1969-1971, also peaking in 1972 at 57%. This number then also declined, to below 15% by 1984, then rebounding to over 30% within a few years. These trends are graphed on the chart below, with the red line representing the home run percentage and the blue line representing the relative ISO.
Additionally, we can see that this period was low on individual players with high ISO seasons, especially compared with other periods. The percentage of qualified players who had an ISO greater than .200 who were first basemen between 1973 and 1986 was only 17.5%. This was far lower than it was from 1920 to 1972 (24.7%) or than it would be from 1987 to 2015 (22.6%). As the next graph shows, this period saw more qualified first basemen with ISOs less than .200 than any other; indeed, Hernandez's MVP season of 1979 was the peak year.
In other words, Hernandez played in an era with few, if any, elite power-hitting first basemen. And among the group of primarily contact hitters, he was right toward the top. In terms of batting runs from 1970 to 1994, Hernandez was behind only Rod Carew and Eddie Murray, both of whom are already Hall of Famers (it should also be noted that Carew played second base through 1975). Over the span of his career, 1974 to 1990, Hernandez was just behind Murray (63.2) and ahead of Carew (54.0) in total WAR. Of all first basemen who played entirely in the second half of the twentieth century, Hernandez ranks behind only Murray and McCovey, and ahead of Hall of Famers Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda.

Hernandez will never be placed among the ranks of Gehrig, Foxx, Mize, Greenberg, and McCovey who came before him, or McGwire, Bagwell, Thomas, Palmeiro, and Pujols who came after, but he doesn’t have to be to be a Hall of Famer. He did exactly what an elite first baseman of his era would be expected to do offensively, and that, combined with his all-time great defense, should be enough to put him into Cooperstown.

(As a side note, it would be interesting to see what cap he would be given on his plaque in Cooperstown were he to be inducted. His best seasons clearly came with the Cardinals, but he has generally been associated with the Mets in his post-playing career, particularly in being a part of the legendary Mets broadcasting crew alongside Gary Cohen and Ron Darling.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Seventh Inning

The bottom of the seventh inning was a disaster for the Mets last night. First of all, I seriously question why Noah Syndergaard started the inning in the first place. He had already thrown 101 pitches, it was the 7th inning, and Terry Collins had pretty much his entire bullpen at his disposal, having used only Clippard and Familia on Friday and with an off-day today. Granted, Syndergaard did strike out Yasmani Grandal, but Collins should have yanked him after the walk to Kike Hernandez. Instead, he let him face Utley, and that's where all the trouble started.

Despite Syndergaard's efforts to keep him on first base, Hernandez ended up stealing second base, and the now distracted and tired pitcher gave up a single to Utley. At which point Collins had no choice but to go to the bullpen. For the life of me, however, I can not understand why he went to Bartolo Colon. In a 1-run game, with runners on first and third and 1 out, what the Mets really needed was a strikeout. I don't care that Howie Kendrick was 2-for-22 against Colon; you don't put in a guy with 6.3 SO/9 who'd only made two relief appearances all year.

So no one should be surprised that Kendrick made contact. Daniel Murphy flipped the ball to Ruben Tejada at second base, at which point the game lost all sense of logic. While the run comes in to score, Utley barrels into Tejada as he is turning around to throw to first base. Utley is called out, and Tejada finds himself on the ground unable to get up.

As the delay continues for several minutes, Don Mattingly eventually comes out of the dugout to challenge the out-call at second base. (I seriously question whether the Dodgers would have challenged without this delay.) After review, Utley is called safe. (Which by the way wasn't really that clear of an overturn in my opinion.) This is inexplicable for several reasons. First, and most obviously, he never touched second base. The MLB's rationale that the umpire can award him the base because the call was wrong is total BS. Utley didn't miss second base because the umpire called him out; he never even made an attempt to touch second base because he knew he would be called out. That play at second base by Tejada, even if it wasn't technically a "neighborhood play", has pretty much always been called an out through baseball history. If Utley actually thought he had a chance to be safe he would have, you know, slid into second base. But he didn't. Plain and simple. Instead, Utley is essentially rewarded for taking out Tejada (note that Tejada never had an opportunity to attempt to tag Utley even if he didn't touch second base, while Utley went straight to the dugout even though he had ample opportunity to touch the bag.)

At the very least, Utley should have been called out, the game would have been tied, and the inning would have ended when Addison Reed got the next batter to fly out to left. But the inning continued, and the Dodgers ended up scoring three more runs (including one by Utley) to take a 5-2 lead. A completely deflated Mets team, who then learned that Ruben Tejada had broken his leg, had no chance after that.

And now, this morning, I see this rule:

"Rule 6.05 reads:
A batter is out when --
(m) A preceding runner shall, in the umpire's judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play:
Rule 6.05(m) Comment: The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire's judgment play."
and this one:
"Rule 7.09:
It is interference by a batter or a runner when --
(e) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner."
Rules like these are designed to protect players from things like, I don't know, HAVING THEIR LEG BROKEN when someone leaves the baseline to break up a double play. Which is exactly what Utley did. He knew he was out at second, so he never even tried to reach second base. He "slid" (which is probably a generous term anyways) exceptionally late, when he was already parallel to the bag.

Clearly both of these rules should have applied. Take your pick. So, in reality, Utley should have been called out, Kendrick should have been called out, Hernandez should never have scored, and the game should have gone to the eighth inning with the Mets up 2-1.

And still, none of that would have changed the fact that Chase Utley broke Ruben Tejada's leg. Honestly, the worst part of this whole thing is that Utley didn't even have to do what he did. If he had just slid into second base, Kendrick almost certainly would have been safe anyway. Tejada would have had to make an essentially impossible throw to get him out at first base. And while Utley would have initially been called out, the Dodgers might still have challenged and gotten the call legitimately overturned. So the outcome would have been the same.
Except Ruben Tejada would not have a broken leg. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Greinke and Kershaw: An Historic Duo

The Los Angeles Dodgers clinched the NL West last night, behind a one-hit shutout by Clayton Kershaw. This caps what has been a simply incredible season for the Dodgers pitching duo of Kershaw and Zack Greinke. These two pitchers are the first pair of qualifying starters to post a 170 ERA+ for the same team since Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte on the 2005 Houston Astros, and just the eighth to do so since 1893 (including the 1907 Chicago Cubs, who had three pitchers accomplish this feat). They are also the first pair with 7+ WAR apiece since Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, and the 18th since 1920. The last pair of Dodgers starters to do this was Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax in 1964. Even more impressively, they are the only pair in the modern era to ever post WHIPs of less than 0.900 (Henry Boyle and Charlie Sweeney of the 1884 St. Louis Maroons are the only others to pull this trick). 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Baseball Notes (9/28/2015)


  • The Arizona Diamondbacks have an historically good defense this season. They currently have four players with 15+ defensive runs saved: Ender Inciarte, Nick Ahmed, Paul Goldschmidt, and A.J. Pollock. Only three other teams have ever had four players with 15+ WAR Runs Fielding: the 2012 Atlanta Braves, 1989 St. Louis Cardinals, and 1973 Baltimore Orioles. The team is ranked first in Major League Baseball in fielding runs this year.
  • Jeff Francouer is not a very good baseball player. In fact, since the beginning of 2012 he has the worst Wins Above Replacement of any player in the Major Leagues at -5.0 (the next worst is Yuniesky Betancourt at -3.2). Frenchy's OPS+ is just 75 over that span, one of the worst among players with 1000+ plate appearances. Perhaps most surprisingly, he is ranked as one of the five worst defensive right fielders over the last four seasons. Apparently his vaunted arm cannot overcome his other liabilities as an outfielder. I would suggest that he take up pitching to help prolong his career, but his one attempt at that earlier this year did not go so well: he gave up three walks, a home run, and hit a batter while allowing two earned runs in two innings of work on June 16.
  • Jake Arrieta must really want to win the Cy Young Award. Since the beginning of August he is 10-0 with a 0.44 ERA in 11 starts. His ERA+ is now up to 215, joining Zack Greinke (228) with 200+ this season. The last time two pitchers in the same league had a 200 ERA+ was 1907, when Jack Pfiester and Carl Lundgren did so - as teammates on the Chicago Cubs. Greinke himself is set to become just the sixth pitcher ever to have two seasons with a 200 ERA+, joining the elite group of Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Roger Clemens.
  • Meanwhile, the AL Cy Young race is also down to just two contenders. Dallas Keuchel made a strong bid to solidify his position last night, allowing just one run over seven innings to pick up the win. It is remarkable just how similar Keuchel's numbers are to those of David Price, at least on the surface. Keuchel is 19-8 with 213 SO and a 2.47 ERA, while Price is 18-5 with 229 SO and a 2.45 ERA. However, Keuchel leads Price in WAR by a 7.3 to 6.0 margin. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Some Random Baseball Thoughts (9/23/2015)


  • Robinson Cano is going to be a Hall of Famer. His next hit will be his 2000th, becoming just the 25th second baseman to reach that plateau. He should be able to quickly move up both the lists for hits and RBI (he's closing in on 1000) among second basemen over the next few seasons. He's already 9th all time in home runs at the position, as well as 7th in OPS (3000+ PA). Lastly, his 55.2 career WAR already puts him in the company of other Hall of Fame second basemen, and I would expect he still has some good years left in him to add to that total.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Reggie Smith: A Hall of Fame Case

Reggie Smith is one of the most underrated players in baseball history. A seven-time all-star, Smith received just three votes when he appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1988. An analysis of his career reveals that he deserved far more than that. Head below the fold to find out why.