Thursday, April 24, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAME #12

Not to be outdone by Johnny Cueto, the Rangers' lefty Martin Perez tossed his second consecutive complete game victory yesterday afternoon in Oakland, as Texas blanked the A's, 3-0.

It was also the second consecutive complete game shutout for Perez, which is the first time for that feat since Cole Hamels did it in consecutive starts on August 7-13, 2012.

Perez, never this dominating previously, now has a scoreless inning streak of 26 innings.

The won-loss record for pitchers with complete games in 2014 now stands at 9-3 (.750).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 44/45/46/47/48/49/50/51: THE GROUP-CLICK OF BEN

As we wind up our blogathon coverage of "Purpose Pitch"--the Baseball Reliquary's tribute to its kindred spirit, Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi and his Unauthorized History of Baseball series--we must note that we've been remiss in quoting from the curator's notes that accompany this singular installation (still on display at the Arcadia Public Library through April 29!).

We're going to remedy that right now, by permitting Reliquary Executive Director Terry Cannon to guide us through eight superbly rendered artworks, all of which embody Ben's eye for history and his abiding love--actually, fixation might be a more accurate term--with the team photo.

We don't know exactly how many of Ben's "orange crate art" paintings feature team photos (or clever variants of same). There are over 200 paintings in the complete series, and we'll just have to spend an evening doing a manual count in order to put this artistic wrinkle into full numerical context.

What we can tell you is that Terry Cannon is on to this feature of Ben's work, and in his last two display cases for the "Purpose Pitch" installation, he's selected what we've taken to calling "Group-Click" with a positive vengeance.

He's also written with a vengeance--in fact, with a definite flair--and his own plain-spoken eloquence is at its most moving in his notes for these eight "group-click" works of Ben:

Union Brand Ball
The Civil War marked the first extensive connection the game made to America's long history of wars, thereby linking baseball, patriotism and the military. During the Civil War, baseball was played both informally and in organized contests by soldiers. The game boosted soldiers' morale, and was responsible for relieving their boredom and healing their homesickness. The game was even played in prison camps, thus allowing prisoners to better endure their captivity.

Some have speculated the North won the war because baseball prepared the soldiers for challenging drills and group cohesion, which wound up paying dividends in the heat of battle. "Union Ball Brand" depicts Union soldiers with baseball bats in their Civil War encampment. The game would ultimately help reunite the torn country when peace brought an end to the fratricidal conflict, thus earning its billing as the "national pastime."

Barefoot Boys of Summer Brand
...reminds us that kids are the true hub of the baseball universe. As children we learned the secrets of breaking in a glove, and we got together with friends and chose sides to play baseball. We studied the backs of bubblegum cards like our lives depended on it. We would go to sleep at night and dream of striking out the side or getting a clutch hit to win a game in the bottom of the ninth.

Baseball was never more fun than in the spring of our lives, and at times it seemed like the only world worth knowing about. The only trouble with baseball is that we all get older.

Dammit.

Remember the Maine Brand
Once baseball became identified in the popular imagination as the national game, it also became a vehicle to sell and export the American dream. At home, baseball has often promoted patriotism and nationalism, while beyond our shores it has bolstered U.S. foreign and military policies.

The painting "Remember the Maine Brand" recalls the sinking of the USS Maine, a Navy ship blown up in Havana, which became a rallying point for revenge and precipitated the Spanish American War of 1898, and the subsequent Philippine War. The ship's baseball team had won the Navy championship, and was scheduled to play Cuba's top ballplayers in a series of exhibitions, before the huge explosion ripped through the ship. All but one member of the baseball team perished.

Patriot Game Brand
With America's entrance into World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson claimed the nation was fighting to "make the world safe for democracy." Major League Baseball became involved in the patriotic war effort from the beginning. Displaying a nationalistic sentiment, American League president Ban Johnson, with "preparedness" as the watchword, issued an official resolution for ballplayers to be trained in military tactics" to get other Americans "to emulate their example."

Players became civilian soldiers, as depicted in the painting "Patriot Game Brand," devoting an hour daily to military instruction, performing military drills before each game, traveling to and from the ballpark in military formation, and attending military training camps after the 1917 World Series. Wherever the U.S. military and flag went, Major League Baseball was eager to follow, presenting itself as crucial to the nation's morale.

Baghdad by the Bay Brand
...we see the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League as they parade through downtown San Francisco on May 16, 1914, on their way to their brand new ballpark in the Richmond district, Ewing Field. Built for $100,000, just eight years after the San Francisco Earthquake, Ewing Field was the city's first fireproof ballpark.

But it was the fog, not fire, that doomed the park. The opening dame drew a large crowd, nearly 18,000 fans, and featured the burial of a box at home plate containing relics of bygone baseball days. The game would eventually be called on account of the fog, a chronic problem which forced the Seals to abandon Ewing Fields after only one year.

Fresno Cubs Brand
All sorts of Californians played amateur and community baseball in the first few decades of the twentieth century--sometimes called the "mixed multitudes," these were Californians of both sexes, and of varied racial, ethnic, and social identities.

The state's African-American, Asian-American, and Mexican-American communities embraced the sport, and found through baseball a way to connect to their pasts, gain wider social acceptance, link to other communities, achieve control of their lives, shown pride in their heritage, and just have fun. The painting "Fresno Cubs Brand" present the first all-black amateur baseball team in Fresno, Calfornia. The 1914 club played at the Fink-Smith Playground.


Debutantes Ball Brand
'The presence of women as spectators at baseball games in the 19th century was encouraged by promoters as a way to bring in added gate receipts and--hopefully--to have a calming effect on the sometimes unruly crowds. 

"If there is any one effort that clubs ought to make more than another to promote the popularity of our game and to ensure its respectability, it is the one to encourage the patronage of the fair sex," wrote the editor of Mayer's Chronicle in 1867. "The presence of an assemblage of ladies purifies the moral atmosphere of a baseball gathering, repressing, as it does, all outbursts of intemperate language which the excitement of a contest so frequently induces."

While many women were content with their role as spectators and moral uplifters, others yearned for the opportunity to try their hand at playing the national pastime. Those who lived out their fantasy often had to endure verbal abuse from those who sought to preserve the status quo of baseball as a masculine domain. The criticisms notwithstanding, countless women pursued their own field of dreams, as depicted in the painting "Debutantes Ball Brand," contributing their unique chapter to baseball's rich heritage.

Los Tomboys Brand
For women players in the postwar Mexican-American communities of southern California, baseball was a way to defy the social mores of their times and make gains in the field of gender equality. "Los Tomboys Brand" documents the Orange Tomboys from the Cypress Street Barrio, who were the regional women's team champions in 1947.

Led by the Cornejo sisters, the Tomboys played 26 games in Orange County and won every one of them. "Nobody liked us because we beat everybody," remarked Lucy Cornejo, one of five sisters who played on the team. "We were rivals to everybody."

House of David Brand
Any discussion of the national pastime's hirsute highlights must include the House of David, the Benton Harbor, Michigan-based religious colony whose barnstorming baseball teams crisscrossed America from World War I through the mid-1950s, playing against all forms of amateur and professional competition. 

The House of David ballplayers caught the nation's attention with their long hair and bears, which were forbidden to be cut or shaved as a code of their religion. Much like the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball, the House of David players were great showmen who delighted crowds with their zany antics and entertaining style of play. They mixed trick plays into games, and many an opposing ballplayer was tagged out with a ball conveniently hidden in a long beard.'

Even a cursory perusal of Ben's imagery for these paintings indicates that he's operating at the pinnacle of his game. Like a musical composer who's mastered the art of variation, Sakoguchi takes the dusty old cliché that is the "team portrait" and creates something both vibrant and uncanny with it. If, as William Carlos Williams says, the pure products of America go crazy, then this is a type of madness worth reveling in. There is something lasting and true in these snapshots of history, of extraordinary common folk resisting adversity, embracing their otherness, and learning to play with extremity as if it were a strange but wondrous musical instrument. There is a noisy joy in life and living here that all of us slogging through the shadowy muck of meta-irony need to recapture.

All of these eight paintings are grand-slam home runs, each hit with two out in the bottom of the ninth, with the home team down three runs. We all rise, collectively, as one, and salute the man who brought us the joyous and unexpected riches of victory.

2014: COMPLETE GAMES #9, #10, #11

Three more complete games last night (actually, it's this night, but we missed the witching hour due to a switching problem). We are now actually ahead of last year's pace: in 2013, the eleventh complete game did not occur until April 26. The projected total of complete games for the season is now at 88.

We'll have to do some more research to determine who was the last person to have two consecutive complete games before Johnny Cueto did it earlier today (that's April 22nd). At the moment we're guessing that it was Roy Halladay.

Meanwhile, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner had one of those "complete game losses," dropping a 2-1 decision to the Rockies in Colorado.

We can more easily research the question of who's had the most complete game losses in a single season. Using data from Forman et fils dating back to 1914, that record appears to be owned by Elmer Myers, who had nineteen (yes, 19!!) complete game losses in 1916. (Myers had a total of 23 losses for the Philadelphia A's that year, who wound up 36-117 for the season, just two years after having been in the World Series.)

Of course, in recent years, those totals have been much lower: last season, Chris Sale, R.A. Dickey, and James Shields led MLB with two complete game losses apiece. Brandon McCarthy had four of 'em in 2011.

Finally, the Rays' David Price joined the CG crew with a 6-3 win over the Twins. Price's three earned runs allowed is the most of any in a complete game thus far. Six of the eleven CGs this season are also shutouts.

[UPDATE: And it's Price who turns out to be the last pitcher to throw consecutive complete games before Cueto. David did it with his starts on 7/7/13 and 7/12/13. Unlike Cueto, however, Price took the loss in one of those starts. We will go back further and look for the last pitcher to win consecutive complete game starts...]

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

ALBERT PUJOLS' 500TH & THE % OF HOMERS HIT FROM AGE 30 ON

With Phat Albert (a nickname only a motherless child could love) hitting the 500 HR level this evening, we need to take a quick (and possibly dirty...) look at just where he might wind up when his career winds down.

Now we're not here to use Bill James' favorite toy (and, yes, we're leaving out the capital letters that Bill has favored when developing the more informal tools in his icebox...better that you were the e.e. cummings of sabermetrics, Bill, than one of those fellows who SHOUTS due to "caps lock-jaw"). We don't want no stinking probabilities.

Better to concoct a number via a collective group-grab, by looking at all of the top homer hitters through age 29 and calculating several "percentage relationships" to get a sense of what these sluggers do in their 30s.

The key "percentage relationship" (watch out now, this may soon become an oh-so-salient term in online dating...) is deceptively simple: it's the number of HRs hit from age 30 as a percentage of total HRs hit.

Just off the top of your heads, kiddies: tell us whom you think hit the most percentage of his HRs from age 30 on? And the least?

Does the highly prolific (read: 500+) HR hitter hit a higher percentage of his HRs from age 30+ than the merely average prolific HR hitter (those who occupy slots 27-100 on the all-time HR list)?

Let's answer the last question first. It looks like the more HRs you hit, the more of them you're likely to hit from age 30 on. The top 25 HR hitters (Albert is #26 at the moment, but we're leaving him out of this for purposes of the calculation...) have hit just a tad more than half their lifetime HRs once they turn 30. (The exact percentage is 50.2%). The hitters in that next echelon (335 to 493 HRs) hit a much smaller percentage of their lifetime HR total from age 30 on. (That exact percentage is 40.9%.)

The hitter with the highest percentage of HRs hit from age 30 on? It's our old friend, the Hall of Fame pariah Rafael Palmeiro, with 73%. Raffy hit 414 of his 569 lifetime HR total from the age of 30 on.

That total is good for third place on the all-time 30+ HR chart. Who's first? Why, Barry Bonds, of course (503). Babe Ruth is a distant second with 430 HRs from age 30 on. Bonds hit 66% of his HRs after turning 30.

Of the 500+ HR hitters, who hit the lowest percentage of his bombs beginning at age 30? It's Eddie Mathews, with only 28%. Jimmie Foxx (29%) and Mickey Mantle (30%).

The aggregate is 44% of the HRs hit by the top 100 HR hitters were hit from age 30 on. So we can say that the relationship is 88% of the HR totals hit through age 29 will he hit in the thirties. The player closest to that model is Frank Robinson, who hit 262 HRs (45%) from age 30 on.

Albert Pujols hit 366 HRs through age 29. Using 88% of that total as the projection, we come up with a total of 324 more HRs over the balance of his career, which would bring his lifetime total to 690. Given his slowdown from ages 30-33, however, we don't expect that he'll come close to that figure: it's more likely to be in the mid 600s.

We'll put the whole list out there for you a bit later in the season.


Monday, April 21, 2014

"PURPOSE PITCH" 42/43: THE FRACTAL FRIZZ OF BEN (HAIR BALL BRAND, MUDVILLE BRAND)

You probably haven't thought about the connection between the Mandlebrot set and Oscar Gamble's afro, but we're here to tell you that...

...Ben Sakoguchi hasn't either.

But by now you know that he could have, anytime he wanted to.

We are now entering the half-world of pure baseball extremity, where crackpots and visionaries merge in the gloaming that Gabby Hartnett wrought, where improbable products become niche industries that thrive despite all odds, altering surfaces even as they seep into the pores of the half-conscious mind.

Hair Ball Brand brings us one highly singular Shrine of the Eternals inductee (Dock Ellis) and two matter-of-fact masters of "alternative natural apparel" (Oscar Gamble, who is rumored to have once blown a bubble gum bubble that matched the circumference of his hairdo; and Johnny Damon, who should have donated his hair to the Jimmy Fund when he cut it all off after abandoning Boston for New York).

Did Oscar start hitting homers when he grew that Afro? Possibly, but the real reason might have been his switch to the American League. He really liked hitting in Yankee Stadium (.969 OPS). Gamble was arguably the last great platoon superstar to play for the Bronx Bombers. Interestingly, he also hit like a madman when he played against the Yankees (.992 OPS).

By contrast, Johnny Damon simply had the Caveman look (aided immeasurably by those Geico® commercials that first aired during his tenure with the Red Sox). He was a much more orthodox ballplayer than Gamble, despite the freewheeling image. He could hit and field and run, with his only vice being his ongoing delusion that if he amassed 3000 hits, he'd wind up in the Hall of Fame. He wound up 231 hits shy of that mark, and he's likely more of a lugnut than a Cooperstown plaque recipient.

Perhaps Johnny would have found a way to get over the hump had he only been given the opportunity to "take the cure." You know, that all-over rejuvenation on display in Mudville Brand. While also bringing us in contact with Shrine inductee Jim (Mudcat) Grant, Ben's painting celebrates the many uses of mud in the little world of baseball.

And that means Lena Blackburne's mysterious concoction, the so-called "secret sauce" of baseball, where the sheen of the ball is smoothed and molded via the "goop" from Blackburne's personal swamp.   Nearly three-quarters of a century later, this concoction from the Jersey side of the Delaware River is still the only game in town for MLB.

So while Mighty Casey may have brought natural air conditioning to Mudville with his epic whiff, there's joy to found in the land of slop after all. After all--much more so than hope, mud springs eternal.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAME #8

Henderson Alvarez, who rolled out his third lifetime CG--all of them shutouts, one a no-hitter (on the final day of the '13 season)--to give us a total of eight thus far in '14, clearly likes his new home ballpark a good bit more than his previous one.

Alvarez' lifetime ERA in Toronto's Rogers Center (where he toiled from 2011-12) is 4.68, while his ERA at Marlins Park in Miami (eleven GS beginning last year) is now at 3.47. 

His CG today was a two-hitter against the Seattle Mariners. Alvarez was particularly efficient, as is increasingly the case in CGs during our pitch count-conscious age: he threw only 90 pitches.

It's clear from his splits data that he's going to have to find a way to get left-handed batters out if he's going to be a successful starter in the big leagues. 

"PURPOSE PITCH" 41: THE ARBITRAGE OF BEN (MAN IN BLACK BRAND)

It's rare for Ben Sakoguchi to insert an "asynchronous" popular culture reference into his baseball paintings. (If you're just joining us, these are also known as The Unauthorized History of Baseball and there are fifty-four of them currently on display in the Baseball Reliquary's "Purpose Pitch" exhibition--through April 29--at the Arcadia Public Library).

By "asynchronous," we mean a reference that is significantly displaced from the time frame of the event being depicted, or from the life and times of the subject. Usually these are rather tightly aligned, but here, in Man in Black Brand, Ben ties pioneering African-American umpire Emmett Ashford (whose "historical moment" occurred in the mid-1960s) with a fanciful, post-integration comedy-action film franchise (Men in Black) starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

Ben is doubly playful here. "Man in Black" refers both to the hue of Mr. Ashford's skin and to the color of his uniform.

Ben also captures the flamboyant nature of Mr. Ashford's approach to his work, which was occasionally derided in the press.

Some fifty years hence, however, we only remember his pioneering spirit and his enthusiastic exuberance for his chosen line of work.

Ben matches that exuberance with his own flamboyant use of color, a dynamic sense of composition, and an eye-catching use of the airbrush.

Place name check: Ben continues to delight in the arcane and forgotten locations in California. Black Diamond is a community that no longer exists, being the original name for the town in the northern portion of the East Bay that is now called Pittsburg. Its only remnant, as you'll see if you visit the Facebook page devoted to it, is one of the town's main thoroughfares, which is named Black Diamond Blvd.