The GWRBI

Baseball is a sport full of statistics, and there’s one weird footnote of a stat that was, from 1980 to 1988, elevated to prominence. This was the Game Winning Run Batted In. Defined simply as “The RBI that gives a club the lead it never relinquishes” , it existed but never felt that prominent. The career leader in GWRBIs during this period was Keith Hernandez.

“Normal” RBIs were one of the first stats that sabermetricians slammed, and with good reason. The stat is simply too context-dependent and reliant on how good at getting on base the players batting before the RBI hitter are. Rickey Henderson didn’t have that many RBIs because he was always a leadoff hitter, so the bases were either empty or he appeared after the team’s worst hitters. GWRBIs have that and the same “reliant on the other half off the inning” issue as pitcher wins. And while meant to embody the likes of Bill Mazeroski’s famous home run, the definition of a GWRBI means that a marginal player singling in the first run early in an 11-0 squash is also credited with it.

So few people mourned the stat when it was discontinued. Yet I have a strange affection for it, for while near-useless for evaluating players, it reveals a little about the paths of individual games.

The Big Baseball Business What-If

There’s an underappreciated what-if concerning the business of baseball that I’ve considered worth exploring. Too much sports alternate history simply shuffles players, teams, and outcomes around. It feels both obvious and unsatisfying to me, the equivalent of the Red Sox unloading not just Babe Ruth but the entire core of what would become the 1923 champions on the Yankees or the A’s “Mustache Gang” all leaving in free agency when they got the chance. This is something different and could have changed the entire business model to be more like what’s in our time a vastly different type of sports.

In the 1950s, the Dodgers were intrigued by a company called Skiatron, offering pay-TV services. The technology did exist at the time but was very rudimentary. The possiblities were obvious. After all, even at a dollar per game, a six figure audience could translate to that much every home game, a huge sum at the time.

In OTL, this did not come to pass in this form. Besides the obvious ferocious opposition from the existing broadcasting industry, Skiatron’s technology and finances just weren’t viable at the time. But if something like that could be done (and I don’t know the exact plausibility-I’m not that kind of technical expert), it would be, no pun intended, a game changer. The obvious is that there’d be a big jolt of money, getting the historical broadcast windfall in earlier.

There are easy ramifications. There’d be more money in the sport, which would increase the pressure by players to get more of the growing pie for themselves. A historically unsuccessful team that used this to its advantage would result in the championship races being different. But there’s also more thoughtful ones.

One on-the-field change I could see resulting from this could be in pitcher usage. Here I’m kind of extrapolating from the “overworked for the sake of attendance” policy of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (which may have contributed to his severe injury). I’m also extrapolating from boxing and MMA, which historically have leaned the most on PPVs. Put simply, more people have been willing to pay to see Connor McGregor than to see Valentina Shevchenko. And I’d bet more people would be more willing to see Sandy Koufax than Ned Garver.

Another, sleazier one is the notion of small-market/poor team owners simply giving up and advertising the players on the opposing team for the PPV spectacle. “Hey, [Small City], do you want to see the Yankees? The Dodgers? The [other good team with an exciting player]?” There are possibilities here.

You Can’t Have George Ruth Without George Smith

Yesterday 91 years ago, the first inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame were announced. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson went in. While the Hall arguments have become rather… divisive, it’s hard to argue with any of those choices.

And then there’s George Smith, a pitcher in the 1920s who was a rare concrete example of a “replacement-level” player. Smith’s most notable career feat was giving up a really long home run to Babe Ruth in spring training. Then there’s another George Smith, another pitcher in the 1920s who was also replacement-level, although this George Smith was primarily a reliever (and a wild pitcher, as his walk rate even by the high standards of the time shows).

While the ceiling and the basement can draw interest, the most fascinating historical players for me are those in the so-called “Hall of Very Good”, the kind that make the Hall ballot, get single-digit support at best, yet still had excellent careers by “normal” standards. In some way it’s unfair to them, as some of them do, to actually make the Hall of Fame, as they go from “great player” to “bad Hall of Famers”.

Different Sports What-Ifs

Of all the theorized “what if this successful and physically talented athlete played a different sport” questions, the most interesting, in my eyes, is American football. This is because that sport involves a wide array of roles that each require a different physical quality and skill set.

The least satisfying is baseball, because the skill sets there are not immediately obvious. Yet you can argue that baseball is interesting because it has the most definite stats. Jim Thorpe and Bo Jackson were incredibly strong physically, but neither was more than decent as a baseball player. Looking at Jackson’s batting stats and just his batting stats, you’d see power but a ton of strikeouts and few walks-the sort of numbers you’d associate more with a Dave Kingman-style lummox over a wall-jumping acrobat.

Then there’s Brian Jordan, who was also a football-turned baseball player and was also a low-walk slugger, but didn’t strike out as often as Jackson did. However, there was an aspiring football running back who ended up playing baseball instead. And he was one of the best walk-drawers (and baserunnners, and players in general) of all time. I speak of Rickey Henderson. So I want to say that, for any obviously talented player in another sport, the likeliest path for them in baseball is the “low-walk slugger” approach, but Henderson’s path means you never know.

Sabermetric Roy Hobbs

What would a more “plausible” Roy Hobbs resemble? A part of me wants to say Bob Thurman or Chuck Hostetler. Those were two players who entered the big leagues past the point where most players retire as position players. Of course, neither matches Hobbs’ “shot and returned with thunderous flash much later” story. Thurman was kept out of the major leagues by segregation while Hostetler only got a spot due to the World War II roster crunch.

Hostetler hit for more average, with no home runs (although that could be due in part to the materially deader ball of the wartime period). Thurman hit for more power with a lower average. Hostetler had slightly more stolen bases. Both were pinch hitters/backup corner outfielders. Hostetler had a degree of infamy for failing on the bases in Game 6 of the 1945 World Series and costing the Tigers the win-yet with ultimately few hard feelings or remembrances as they won Game 7 anyway (this would have been the fate of Bill Buckner had the Red Sox won in 1986).

Could you make a book about a fictional version of someone like one of those two, a old low-list role player either hit (Thurman) or helped (Hostetler) by circumstance? Of course. And, in my opinion, such an unusual but not overly powerful standout would arguably be more interesting than a super-player who dominates the league until his character lets him down.

Review: The Natural

The Natural

Sports fiction strangely suffers from the exact same problem that political fiction does. Because there’s so much available in the true world, both past and present, fiction has to be either an obviously forced and exaggerated version or often come across as feeling simply redundant. While success is not impossible, it’s an uphill climb.

One of the classic sports novels is Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, famous for its enduring reputation and movie version that sits alongside Starship Troopers in the field of “movies completely different from the book”. Having read the original book, I have to say: I don’t like it.

There’s one big problem with this book about baseball, which is that Malamud didn’t know that much about the sport. While others have gone into more detail, I’ll say this. There’s some errors like talk of a past World Series between the A’s and White Sox (two AL teams), but the bigger issue is simple. Hobbs comes across as what someone who doesn’t know that much about baseball would think a great player is.

Hobbs is good (unless the plot calls for him not to be) and good in a very boring way, simply hitting and hitting and hitting, not even rising to the level of classic Paul Bunyan baseball stories like how Cool Papa Bell supposedly got hit in the back by his own line drive simply because he ran so fast. Nope, it’s just four home runs in a game and “wondrous averages”. This isn’t a John Rourke or Blaine McCracken of the diamond, it’s a guy skilled in the baseball equivalent of “Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting”.

Without that frame of reference, a lot of it is just references to various baseball legends-Babe Ruth, in the form of the Whammer. Fred Merkle’s baserunning fail, in the form of Fisher’s Flop, the Black Sox (in the form of the ending), and so much more (as the Gerry O’Connor article points out). A modern version would incorporate versions of Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and the 2004 lunar eclipse, to give you an idea of how blatant it all is to anyone who knows the slightest bit about early 20th century baseball.

So why am I suddenly so hard on realism and accuracy, when I’m clearly not when it comes to other books? Because the book is self-serious, for one. It’s like trying to write a literary novel about the life of a man who was a soldier, making the battle scenes right out of a stereotypical John Wayne movie, and sometimes descending to Ian Slater levels of technical inaccuracy. Would that interfere with the tone? Definitely.

Especially since, with the benefit of hindsight, this just looks like an exaggerated version (remember the introduction) of the Capital N Narrative approach to sportswriting, the clumsy and inaccurate reduction of a game into a tale of personal morality and internal struggle, applied constantly to real games by sportswriters of dubious quality (sometimes with extra crass humor).

Finally, the prose simply isn’t very good. It’s blocky, incredibly “lush”, and everything is either overdescribed or underdescribed. None of the characters are particularly interesting. And to be honest, in many ways the book feels just as shallow as the movie, only with a different morality. Give me saccharine goo that knows it’s saccharine goo over pretentiousness that doesn’t know its own subject any time.

The Hall of Fame And The Hall of Herb

One of the most amusing things that I look at in sports history is to see how many Cooperstown plaque-holders can match the title record of Herb Washington-one. A little background is in order.

Herb Washington was a track athlete who was hired by the Oakland A’s as a “designated runner”. His lack of baseball knowledge meant that in practice, despite his speed, he couldn’t steal bases effectively. The trend of pinch-running specialists continued throughout the 1970s (in 1976, the A’s had two, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander), but those were actual baseball players who could run fast. Washington, on an excellent three-peating A’s team, appeared in the 1974 World Series-and promptly got picked off at first. But he still got a title that many Hall of Famers didn’t have.

Just in the inaugural 1936 class, only one inductee (Babe Ruth) exceeds Herb Washington in championships (with seven). Then you have Ty Cobb (zero), and Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson, all with one, “equaling” Herb Washington.

Short Baseball

I discovered a sport called “short hockey” existed. That is hockey played with four skaters and a goalie per team with 10 minute periods across the width of a half-rink. As it’s much less exerting, teams can play a lot of games in just one day. As the ownership/sponsorship of all the Russian short hockey leagues I’ve seen by sportsbooks shows, it’s aimed more at gamblers than actual fans.

So I figured, what would “short baseball” look like? As is, baseball already has many more games feasibly scheduled than many other sports. Yet I decided to amplify it more with two tiers.

  • Semi-short baseball, which is like conventional baseball only with six innings, games ending in ties after two extra ones, a designated hitter, and some pace of play rules. Semi-short leagues, despite their betting-friendly nature, are treated as serious competitions with ceremony, champions, and the same rigorous record-keeping.
  • Mega-short baseball, which is just a means to an end of making as many gambling-friendly matches. Games are five two-out innings which automatically end in ties after the bottom of the fifth, there are rapid pitch clocks, and, most crucially, pitchers have to throw the ball in the least stressful way possible. This both saves on the need for countless pitchers and encourages scoring by having pitches be easier to hit. There are also no formal standings and essentially no official record-keeping.

If I can find an appropriate place for it in my fiction, I’ll gladly put “short baseball” in, with an alternate history background as to how it got started and developed (which almost certainly means earlier and more widespread legal sports betting in baseball-friendly countries).

Review: The Book Of Basketball

The Book Of Basketball

I’ll be honest, The Book Of Basketball was one of my favorite sports books, as fit someone who grew up reading Bill Simmons’ web columns. Now it looks worse in hindsight. And I don’t mean the tasteless jokes.

The secret about Simmons is that his difference from the stuffy old sportswriters is and was a matter of style, not substance. There’s the same focus on the capital-N Narrative, the “he’s got that clutch spirit” eye test, and the sort of only-a-sportswriter-can-see-it “intangibles” that aren’t talent anyone can see or statistical/tactical analysis an expert can. It’s just dipped in sleazy jokes and pop culture references.

The not so-secret part about him is his unashamed Celtics fandom. This ranges from harmless (much of the description) to mildly annoying (ranking Celtics high and then clumsily placing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of Larry Bird to go “see, I’m not biased-see”) to the seriously flawed (Having an entire chapter devoted to excoriating Wilt Chamberlain while praising Bill Russell).

The opinionated history of the NBA section is funny, somewhat informative, and really well-written. It should have been stretched to the then-present, instead of, say, the sections complaining about the MVP award and the abominable “Russell, then Wilt” chapter. There’s the inevitable “Of course a surviving Len Bias would have been a legend and not the kind of Christian Laettner/Danny Manning-esque player who’s great in college but merely good by pro standards” section.

Then there’s the Hall of Fame Pyramid, where his concept of the best 96 players of all time, from Tom Chambers to Michael Jordan are listed. It’s a fun but obvious attempt to have the cake (see, it’s a logical ranking-a formal ranking) and eat it too (“This guy knew The Secret [a banal “teamwork” cliche Simmons tries to pass off as profound], I don’t need numbers”). Take a combination of Simmons’ previous antics and an obsession with winning championships (and not the kind of obsession an actual player or even a fan understandably has, but a specific “I’d rather be Robert Horry [7 titles] than Charles Barkley [0 titles]” statement) and the result is not that good.

The anecdotes are often well-done, but lose their power when submerged in a combination of inconsistent use of stats (Simmons goes from fluffy “stats” like total All-Star appearances to an overimpressed Thomas Friedman-esque reaction to advanced stats to the sort of “You can’t measure heart”-style quotes that the likes of Fire Joe Morgan would rightfully tear to pieces), and the cliches. The Team Player against the Selfish Greedy Superstar, the man who can rise to the occasion and grab the ring vs. the man who just doesn’t have it in him. This Manichean writing is dinosaur sports commentary at its worst.

This book feels like a long-range two pointer, inefficient and outdated. There are some good moments, just like how there are still justified long two shots. But, with a decade of hindsight and a more open mind, there’s more bad than good here.