Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Stolen Base is a Stolen Base, is a ?

In The Summer Game, the initial collection of his classic "New Yorker Magazine" baseball essays, Roger Angell wrote:

"Good pitching in a close game is the cement that makes baseball the marvelous, complicated structure that it is.  It raises players to keenness and courage; it forces managers to think about strategy rather than raw power, it nails the fan's attention, so that he remembers every pitch, every throw, every span of inches that separates hits from outs.  And in the end, of course, it implacably reveals the true talents of the teams in the field."

Roger Angell 

Anyone looking for support for that argument need look no further than 2014's last major league game, the seventh game of this year's World Series won by the Giants largely on the strong left arm of Madison Bumgarner.   No one who saw any part of his pitching performances will forget the Giant lefty's dominating performance reminiscent of Sandy Koufax's three hit shut out on two days rest in the seventh game of the 1965 World Series almost a half a century ago.  And just as Angell predicted, the strong pitching of both teams produced a full measure of keenness, courage and strategy.

Henry Chadwick 

Especially memorable was the diving stop and scoop of Giant second baseman Joe Panik which changed what could easily have been first and third with no one out to two out with no one on.  As brilliant as that play was, however, it wasn't the only "little" thing that played a "big" part in the game.  Far less attention seems to have been paid to two base running maneuvers which led to two of the game's five runs, most importantly the winning run tallied by the Giants in the top of the fifth.  In each case a runner on second (Alex Gordon of the Royals and Pablo Sandoval of the Giants) tagged up on a fly ball and advanced to third, putting himself in position to score a run that wouldn't have scored if he had waited for a batter to drive him in from second.  Both plays were important, but Sandoval's surprisingly (at least to me) quick move from second to third, led to the go ahead run brilliantly defended by Bumgarner.

Sliding Billy Hamilton 

Both runners, of course, received credit in the box score for scoring a run, but somehow it doesn't seem sufficient recognition for the actual contribution.  In his initial efforts at developing baseball statistics, the only offensive number tracked by Henry Chadwick was runs scored.  I remember reading somewhere that Chadwick's position was that once a runner reached base, it was his responsibility to get himself around the bases to score.  That's a little extreme, but carries the seeds for recognizing the importance of what Sandoval and Gordon did in getting themselves not just in scoring position, but close enough to score on an out.

Regardless of whether it was because of Chadwick's influence or some other reason,19th century major league score keepers had more discretion in recognizing these feats of feet.  According to an article by David Pietrusza and Bob Tiemann in the "Baseball Research Journal," through 1897 scorers could give a stolen base for runners who advanced on fly balls, infield outs and even when advancing from first to third on a base hit.  All but advancing on fly balls were eliminated beginning with the 1898 season and the fly ball out joined the extinct group in 1904.  While on the surface this seems far too liberal, the stolen base was supposed to be awarded only if there was "a palpable attempt" to retire the runner.  At least one study on the subject confirmed that the discretion given to the score keeper was used only sparingly.

Details of Billy Hamilton's 13 game base stealing streak including the opposition pitcher and catcher

Peter Morris in A Game of Inches notes that this difference in scoring makes it impossible to compare more modern base running statistics with those of the 19th century.  Understandable as this may be, however, Morris also notes that far more regrettably, the difference has led to an unwillingness to take 19th century statistics and records seriously.  One example of this is the difficulty Billy Hamilton, who played for the Philadelphia and Boston in the National League in the 1890's, had in being elected to the Hall of Fame.  Although obviously eligible since 1939, it wasn't until 1962, more than 20 years after his death that "Sliding Billy" got his well deserved recognition as an offensive force.  Perhaps the most impressive of Hamilton's accomplishments is 1697 runs scored in 1594 games, the highest ratio of runs scored to games played in baseball history.  Given that number of runs scored, it's not surprising that Hamilton didn't ignore the base stealing side of things. Two of his records which still stand are stolen bases in one game (7 in 1894) and consecutive games with a stolen base, 13 in 1891.  Working only with online newspapers, I was able to check "Sliding Billy's" performance in the latter streak without finding a single instance where a stolen base was awarded for any of the discretionary options,validating at least on that limited research the significance of Hamilton's achievement.

Philadelphia Inquirer - September 1, 1894

Hamilton did, of course, ultimately get his just deserts and the Hall of Fame's new process for evaluating players from the game's early days, which includes input from historians, should help to avoid similar situations in the future.  Unless, however, there's some sabermetric or other modern statistical measure that I'm not aware of for recognizing good base running, consistent performances like those in the seventh game could be over looked or not receive the appropriate emphasis.  While giving a "blank check" to score keepers to award stolen bases would be an over reaction, it seems to me there is merit in finding a way to give due credit to a player who advances on his own "skill and smarts."  After all what a base runner does when he beats a throw to move from second to third on a fly ball is using speed and judgement to "steal" a base.  And as Roger Angell observed, in a pitcher's duel, it's plays like that which make the difference between winning or losing and, as the Giants showed, sometimes the difference in winning it all.

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