Book exerpt: Joe Mauer

Mauer burst onto the professional scene in 2004, when he slashed .308/.369/.570 in 35 games in his debut season. However, Mauer was already known to most MLB fans since he was the top pick of the 2001 MLB Draft. As far as Minnesotans were concerned, Mauer was already well known to them, as the handsome St. Paul native was the first-ever athlete to win the U.S.A Today High School Athlete of the Year in two different sports: As a quarterback his junior year, and as a catcher his senior year. The multi-talented Minnesota native decided on baseball, and timed his entrance to the big leagues perfectly, as the Twins made him the number one overall pick.

Of course, there are plenty of stories that start this way and end in sorrow and misery both for the player and team, as the heightened expectations can often crush a Hometown Hero like Mauer. The smooth-swinging lefty has somehow exceeded expectations for most of his career, though. Mauer won four Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, three batting titles and an MVP in his first seven seasons in the big leagues, all coming while playing the most demanding position on the diamond. Don’t believe that catching is the hardest position, consider that when Mauer won his first batting title in 2006 he was the first catcher to win a batting title in American League history. He is currently the only catcher with three batting titles, and the only catcher to lead the league in each of the triple slash categories (BA, OBP, SLG) in a single season when he did so in 2009. In a four-year span from 2006-2009, Mauer managed to win as many batting titles as a catcher as all other catchers in MLB history had at the time! Buster Posey has since won a batting title, but seriously that about that previous stat for a second.

Speaking of 2009, Mauer’s MVP 2009 season was incredibly impressive (and with hindsight, a bit of an outlier), as he hit a career-best 29 home runs in addition to his typical high batting average (.365). This was not some ordinary career-high either, Mauer has not topped 13 home runs in any other season, and certainly doesn’t appear to be headed anywhere near that total again as his career winds down.

More so than his production, however, Mauer was (and still is) beloved because of the turn around the franchise made while under Mauer’s leadership. Along with Justin Morneau, Johan Santana and Rod Gardenhire, Mauer helped lead the Twins to four division titles in those first seven seasons. Coincidentally or not, since Mauer’s numbers took a hit in 2011, the club has bottomed out a bit. There are obviously other factors in play (like, you know, pitching), but it is a fitting metaphor.

Back to his early days, they read like one of the old-timey baseball legends that are starting to show up more and more often in this book. There’s the story of how Mauer was asked to leave tee-ball because he was hitting the ball too hard, or the fact that he only struck out once in his entire high school baseball career. Every statistic from his high school days are remarkable in fact, and having spent a few years in Minnesota, it’s even more impressive that he could become such a good baseball player when the spring sports season is typically cut at least in half because it’s still too cold.

Mauer’s swing is about as smooth and efficient a swing as there has been in baseball in his generation, and he’s a scout’s wet dream. He looks like a baseball player through and through, and does everything the scouts love. Mauer may have slid from his lofty spot among baseball’s elite hitters at this point, but his prime should not be discounted for the awe it inspired.

It’s fitting that Mauer looks like he is the type of player to play his whole career in one city; his hometown no less. Mauer is the epitome of Minnesota, and one of the easiest selections in this book. I mean, how many guys can say people in their hometown have worn fake versions of their sideburns, as Mauer can claim after the Metrodome starting selling fake versions of Mauer’s famous sideburns.

Let’s let then-Rays’ manager Joe Maddon end this one. “I think when God made his blueprint for catchers, he stamped Joe out.”

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Book excerpt: Brooks Robinson

A 23-year career, all with the O’s, resulted in Brooke Robinson being atop or nearly atop the majority of the Orioles’ career category leaders. (He trails a certain shortstop in many cumulative categories.) A consistently good hitter (nearly 3,000 hits), and a consistently great fielder, Robinson was the most popular Oriole for fans of his generation, and one of the most widely loved players around the league at the time. His nickname, “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” was quite appropriate for a man who won 16 straight Gold Gloves, and deserved them all. Brooks’ ranks for each and every fielding category among third basemen all-time shows just how great he was: games played – first; assists – first; putouts – first; fielding percentage – first. Ya, he was the best defensive third baseman of all-time. Total Zone Runs are a measurement of how many runs above or below average a player is worth at their position based on their range, and fielding ability. Robinson not only leads all third basemen in this category historically, but is first among all fielders at any position, all-time. It isn’t even close; he is worth over fifty runs more than Andruw Jones who is second all-time (293-242). According to dWAR, Brooks won the Orioles nearly 40 games (38.8) during his career with his glove, and this total seems low for a number of reasons.

What people who aren’t stat-heads sometimes argue is that statisticians can sometimes overlook anything outside of the numbers. This is a huge straw man argument, since 99.9 percent of baseball statisticians are able to use statistics, along with what they see, to reach their conclusions. For example, numbers are an important part of assessing players, especially when they can help to compare more objectively between two players, but Robinson’s glove was almost certainly worth more than two games a season to the O’s over his career. For instance, how many times do you think the Orioles had a lead in a game, and their opponent started to make a little bit of a rally only to have Brooks make a sublime play at third, and completely kill their rally. A play like that might certainly help out his numbers (range factor, fielding percentage etc.), but the numbers would not do justice to the fact that that the play Brooks just made may have just won the game.

Another thing statistics sometimes can’t account for is some of the subtleties of having a true game changer. How many opposing batters do you think were trying to lay bunts down the third base line for hits with a dude named The Human Vacuum Cleaner over there? Not many. How much more confidence do you think his pitching staff had to be knowing Brooks was going to get anything near him, and – as I have mentioned before, and will certainly mention again, because I believe it’s a huge thing – a pitcher pitching with confidence and being able to attack the strike zone (especially low and in to right-handed batters) is a quality that can’t truly have its impact measured by statistics as yet. As Robinson himself said, “It’s a pretty sure thing that the player’s bat is what speaks loudest when it’s contract time, but there are moments when the glove has the last word.”

Robinson was also a very good postseason performer for the Orioles; winning a World Series MVP in one of his two World Series victories with the club. He posted a career .303 batting average in the playoffs, and actually hit over .500 for the 1970 playoffs as a whole. Although, his teammates almost certainly weren’t surprised, considering Brooks was the man who showed up for spring training before the 1970 season with luggage that read “1970 World Champions.”1 He also kept up his excellent glove work in the playoffs making Johnny Bench say of him, “I will become a left-handed hitter to keep the ball away from that guy.”

A final story that epitomizes Robinson’s fielding ethic. In his early days, when he had to prove himself, Brooks went face-first into a concrete ledge, chipping five teeth, and basically knocking him out. When he heard the trainer call for an ambulance, however, he shook it off, and went back out to the field to finish what he had started.

Somewhat ironically, Brooks Robinson, fielder extraordinaire, hit into record four triple plays during his career. In the words of Michael Scott, “How the turn tables.”

1 This is similar to the Jedi mind trick Doc Rivers pulled during the 2008 Ubuntu year, when he took $100 from each player and staff member of the Celtics and left it in the ceiling of the Staples Center during the Celtics only regular season trip to L.A. The meaning: The Celtics would have to return to meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals to reclaim that money. Of course, they did.

Book excerpt: Carlos Beltran = Steve Carell

Thesis: Carlos Beltran’s baseball career looks a bit like Steve Carell’s film career.1

Evidence: Both men burst onto the scene around the new millennium but in supporting roles. Carell stole the show in “Bruce Almighty,” and, even though no one could top Ferrell in “Anchorman,” Carell damned near did with Brick Tamland.2 Meanwhile Beltran won Rookie of the Year, and flew around the outfield somewhat overshadowed by Johnny Damon, and most certainly overshadowed by the fact that he played in Kansas City.

Both men were meant for stardom, however, and for Carell it came in the form of “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and to a lesser extent “Little Miss Sunshine.”3 For Beltran it was being traded at the deadline of the 2004 season. After arriving in Houston, Beltran cranked out 23 home runs and 28 steals in just 90 games, but that was just the beginning. In the 2004 postseason, Beltran hit eight home runs in the NLDS and NLCS combined, hitting well over .400 with a slugging percentage over 1.000.

Naturally, this set unbelievably high expectations for both of these men. Carell was given leads in “Evan Almighty,” “Dan in Real Life,” and “Get Smart.” Beltran was given a seven-year, $119 million dollar contract from the Mets, the biggest contract they had ever signed a player to. Because of these heightened expectations, despite the fact that both men performed quite comparably to previous levels, they were deemed unsuccessful. In Carell’s case, “Evan Almighty” is considered one of the biggest busts of all-time, and people began to question whether Carell could take the lead in a great film. For Beltran he will always be remembered for watching Wainwright’s curve go past him to end the 2006 NLCS. What will be forgotten is the fact that he was worth 8.2 WAR during the regular season, and had hit three home runs in the NLCS already, as good as any other Met. Also, that pitch from Wainwright might have been the nastiest fucking pitch of all-time, and the sign of a great pitcher announcing his arrival.

Once these men had been labeled busts, or at least had been knocked off the perch they were briefly on, they began to exceed expectations again. Carell partnered with Tina Fey in “Date Night,” which may have been his best career move, and allowed people to ignore “Dinner for Schmucks” and focus on his better projects like “Despicable Me” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”4 For Beltran a move out of New York meant a move out of the spotlight, which was more than all right with him. In his first two seasons removed from New York, he was named an All-Star each year, and was regularly tabbed as an underrated part of the Cardinals’ success.

What is ignored about both men is that they really performed the same throughout their careers,5 it was just the expectations that changed so much. In Kansas City, Beltran put up 24.6 WAR in 795 games (.0309 per game), and in New York he put up 31.1 WAR in 839 games (.0371 per game). The same thing is true of Carell. “Dan in Real Life” and “Get Smart” are the same Carell6 as “40 Year Old Virgin” just surrounded by immensely different talent, and with much higher expectations of Carell. Both men underwent the same rollercoaster ride of expectations while performing consistently well above average just never reaching the true extended pinnacle reserved for the greats. Of course the parallel goes on with both men having their strong suit – Beltran’s playoff numbers, and Carell’s TV career – being taken at less than face value. In Beltran’s case because the playoffs are such a small sample size, and, since it is a requirement for every sabermetric baseball fan to mention that clutch hitting does not exist at least fifteen times a day, the worth of Beltran’s incredible postseason output is diminished. For Carell, there is still a stigma to TV work, although, thankfully, it is starting to be worn down by the likes of the Kevins – Bacon and Spacey – among other stars (the True Detectives) making the move to TV.

Time will tell how each ages (Carell has a bit more flexibility with aging in his profession), but the comparison holds for now.

1 We’re going to table his role on “The Office” because I am far too in love with the show, and Carell’s Michael Scott, to be a fair judge.

2 LOUD NOISES!

3 Only to a lesser extent because he was not the lead – the movie is brilliant.

4 One of the most re-watchable movies in existence.

5 Again, we’re ignoring Carell’s TV career, in which he clearly make vast improvements from Michael Scott Season 1 to Season 2.

6 Evan Almighty is the 2005 Carlos Beltran – let’s just pretend they didn’t happen. If only Carell had an injury to blame.

Book excerpt: The magical mystery arc of Dick Allen’s playing career

Bill James once described Allen as someone who ‘did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball.’ On the surface, Allen’s actions down the stretch in 1976 might appear to at least suggest as much. But beneath it, when focusing on actions that hindered the club’s potential, one wonders if anything Allen might have done in ’76 could match the organization’s long-standing reluctance to embrace and encourage the development of black ballplayers in Philadelphia in the decades leading up to that season. Viewed through this lens, perhaps the succession of events that transpired during the club’s ’76 stretch run caused the organization to finally confront a demon it mistakenly thought it had slayed through its relocation to the Vet and the transition in ownership from father to son. As such, perhaps it was Dick Allen, more than any other factor, who finally compelled the organization to modernize its approach to black athletes at last.”

Mitchell Nathanson

When a player bio starts out with a quote within a quote, it’s probably not too surprising to find out that Dick Allen was one of the most interesting and divisive characters in the history of baseball.

As is noted above, Bill James was famously harsh in his criticism of Allen, but in the years since, there has been a pushback to James’ comments, a sentiment that, while it may not go as far as to call Allen the world’s best teammate, is a far cry from the stand that James (and a lot of the media from Allen’s time) took. More on that in second, however.

With his appearance on this Starting IX, Allen makes his third stint with the team, as he began his career in Philly, playing with the squad from 1963-1969 before a return from 1975-1976. During his two stints with the team, Allen had an OPS+ of 153, and hit over 200 home runs despite playing in an offense-depleted era. Today the mighty slugger is best known for his relationship with the city, media, and fans than his on-field achievements, though. When you have never received more than 20 percent of the vote for the Hall of Fame,1 but have an entire “Baseball Research Journal” dedicated to busting the myths around how you are remembered, the on-field stuff tends to fall by the wayside.

The case that James made against Allen was that Allen tore the locker room apart wherever he went, and was entirely handicapped by his immaturity. From the modern perspective, there’s a lot more evidence against this claim than for it.

For one, the team’s winning percentages with and without Allen paint a clear picture of a team that needed Allen more than the other way around. From 1964-1967, with Allen playing the Phillies had a .542 winning percentage, but without him they had just a .469 winning percentage. In terms of the bigger picture, Philly’s winning percentage for the six years before Allen: .433; then with Allen: .499; and after Allen: .452. Granted there were other factors, but still, those numbers are hard to deny.

Don’t like numbers? How about testimonials from those teammates and coaches that he supposedly tore apart? In the 1995 edition of Baseball Research Journal, Craig R. Wright interviewed many teammates and mangers of Allen, all of whom said that not only was he never a divisive member of the clubhouse, but he also was a player that they would have traded for (had he not already been on the team) in an instant thanks to his incredible talent. The only complaint many had was that he was notoriously tardy, but all those who mentioned that negative also noted that it never affected his on-field performance ever, with the exception of one game to which he was late because he had not realized the time of the game had been moved up. Chuck Tanner (Allen’s manager in Chicago) said of Bill James’ take on Allen, “[James] is full of shit and you be sure to tell him that.”

The biggest black mark on Allen’s name came in 1965, when Allen was just establishing himself as a super-star in Philadelphia. Veteran teammate, Frank Thomas, made a comment that Allen perceived as racist, and when Allen confronted Thomas, the two came to blows, with Allen punching Thomas in the face before Thomas hit Allen in the shoulder with a bat. The incident had numerous repercussions. The most immediate was that the Phillies cut the 36-year old veteran Thomas the next day, a casualty that Phillie fans would hold against Allen for the remainder of his time in Philadelphia. The incident didn’t just impact Allen’s off-field legacy, however, as the injury greatly hindered Allen’s defensive abilities at third base, and he eventually had to make the move to the far less demanding first base spot he fills here. One could even make the “Butterfly Effect” argument that without that incident, Allen would have played his whole career in Philadelphia and gone down as one of the franchise’s most beloved players. Of course, Allen was indeed a volatile man, and Philadelphia was a city in the midst of some incredibly nasty race riots when Allen – a black man – played for the team, so maybe it was only a matter of time until the relationship between this headstrong man and headstrong city crumbled. And boy did it crumble. Allen took to wearing a helmet when playing in the field to protect himself from projectiles from the crowd… In his home stadium. He said of the city, “I can play anywhere, first base, third base, left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.”

By the end of his time with the club, it was pretty clear that the fans didn’t want him there – although they cheered pretty loud when he hit them home runs which he did with the best of them – and that Allen didn’t want to be there either. He would trace, with his cleat, “Boo” and “Oct. 2,” the date of his final game under contract with Philadelphia, into the infield dirt in front of his first base position.

Throughout this time, the local media often portrayed Allen in his surliest moments, choosing to focus on the fact that he wanted to leave town2 instead of the loyal work he put in, playing through numerous injuries during his time in our nation’s first capital. There was also the fact that Allen was absolutely demolishing American League pitching, and helping to single-handedly make the Phillies a respectable offense. In 1968 – the year of the pitcher – Allen drove in 90 runs, while no other Phillie drove in more than 48. Remember, this is when he was supposed to be forcing his way out of town as a malcontent.

Eventually both Allen and the Phillies got their way, and if the two were a couple, Allen was the girlfriend who took up yoga, dropped 15 pounds and completely won the break up. The Phillies were the boyfriend who thought he was going to go out and kill it, and then realized he had the same unused condom in his wallet eight months after the break up. Allen won the MVP for the White Sox in 1972 with one of the best seasons in MLB history, a near Triple Crown that saw him lead the league in plethora of offensive categories.

As is almost always the case, it wasn’t too long before the ex wanted the suddenly-much-more-attractive ex-girlfriend back, and Phillie announcer, Richie Ashburn spear-headed the cause to get Allen back in Philadelphia. One would be fair to wonder how on earth Allen ended up back in Philadelphia just five years after their acrimonious divorce, but lo and behold the two were indeed reunited in 1975. Of course, like any relapse, even though it started out all right, it was doomed from the get go. To make a long story3 short, sooner than later the clubhouse was splintered and Allen had seemingly once again worked his “magic” on an up-and-coming team. Some folks went so far as to say that Allen had managed to poison Mike Schmidt, making him the man who could never really lead the Phillies into a 1980s dynasty.

Of course the mere fact that Philadelphia was so willing to take Allen back seems like a pretty succinct argument to the claim that Allen, “did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball.” Unless the Phillie owners were really into S&M, why bring a guy like that back? Occam’s Razor would certainly seem to imply that he really wasn’t a cancer, and that the idea of him as one was an illusion created by the fans and media about a man who once said one of the saddest and most telling quotes I have ever heard when he said, “I had been hearing I was a bum for so long that I began to think maybe that’s just what I was.”

Allen eventually retired in 1977 after half a season in Oakland as injuries wore him down and forced him to step away from baseball at the relatively young age of 35, an under-appreciated and often misremembered part of baseball history.

1 Allen’s potential spot in the Hall of Fame is a whole nother matter that won’t be covered in this section, but has been laid out in certain spots online, including a strong piece by Christopher Williams on Older but not Wiser.

2 With his own fans throwing stuff at him, could you blame him? If you are the Philadelphia media, yes.

3 And it is a very interesting long story, written by Mitchell Nathanson in the 2013 edition of The National Pastime