Friday, November 21, 2008

Farewell, Mike Mussina

Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina has announced his retirement. I was going to write a long piece examining his Hall of Fame chances, but Salon's King Kaufman beat me to it. Read that one.

I saw Mussina pitch when he was at Stanford and I was at Cal, about 19 or 20 years ago. Actually, even before that, I remember hearing his name come up during a pre-season discussion of college baseball with Cal's baseball coach at the time, Bob Milano. I'm not sure if Milano had actively recruited Mussina, who was from Pennsylvania, but either way, Mussina chose Stanford, our hated rival. I remember spelling his name "Masina" in my notes of that discussion.

Anyway, I remember watching Mussina pitch against Cal, both at Berkeley's Evans Field and Stanford's Sunken Diamond, and it was like a man pitching to boys. Mussina was so much better than anyone on the field at that time, it was scary. His fastballs just zipped in, and the catcher's glove seemed to pop louder than for the other pitchers. It's never a good idea to predict major league success for college stars--too many of them falter in the pro leagues--but Mussina was an exception. Everybody knew he'd be good in the big leagues.

I don't know what Mussina's like personally, but he always struck me as a mature, soft-spoken guy who never made trouble. Boring. Even his retirement reflects that idea. He didn't have a big in-season sendoff, or toy with his teams into luring him back to the diamond. He won 20 games in his final season, then he retired.

They don't make 'em like that much anymore.

History of the MVP Award

Earlier this week, Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia won their respective MVP Awards. I thought I'd take a moment to talk about the history of the MVP Award.

Record books often list Frankie Frisch and Lefty Grove as the first official MVP winners, both in 1931. But that’s just the first award sanctioned by the Baseball Writer's Association of America; MVP awards as voted on by sportswriters actually date back to the Chalmers Award. What's that?

Baseball’s earliest official most valuable player award, the Chalmers Award was originally instituted in 1910 to reward the major leagues’ batting champion. But after the controversial 1910 batting race, in which the St. Louis Browns conspired to hand the batting championship to Nap Lajoie instead of Ty Cobb, Chalmers changed its policy and awarded the prize—a Chalmers automobile—to the player in each league selected most valuable by a vote of sportswriters. The winners were: 1911, Wildfire Schulte (NL) and Ty Cobb (AL); 1912, Larry Doyle and Tris Speaker; 1913, Jake Daubert and Walter Johnson; 1914, Johnny Evers and Eddie Collins. After those awards, the Chalmers Company had fulfilled its five-year commitment to the award, and the honor was discontinued. Within a few years, the Chalmers company itself was discontinued.

A few years after Chalmers stopped awarding its autos as prizes, the leagues picked up the idea. American League president Ban Johnson wanted his league’s winners, selected by a poll of sportswriters, to have their names engraved on a monument to be built in the nation’s capital. The National League, by contrast, offered $1,000 cash for its winners. These League Awards, as they were called, were handed out from 1922 until 1928 for the AL and 1925 until 1929 for the NL.

They fell out of favor for a number of reasons: the AL’s monument was never built; MVP winners started demanding more money from their teams; and the AL disallowed repeat winners, which made a sham of the award because it shut out the league’s best players—Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

In the absence of League Awards, The Sporting News began selecting MVPs. The BBWAA started up in 1931, which is the award we recognize today. TSN continued to hand out its awards in direct competition with the BBWAA, and in the early years, the TSN award may have been more prestigious. For several years in the late 1930s and 1940s, the BBWAA and TSN unified their awards, but then they split again, and today, the honors compete with each other—although now it’s the BBWAA trophy that means more.

With a few minor changes, the voting structure in the 1930s is basically what we have today: two writers in each city rank 10 players on their ballots, the first place winner receiving 14 points, second place getting nine, third place eight, and so on.

For a long time, the record for MVP victories was three, held by Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Mickey Mantle, and Mike Schmidt. But Barry Bonds put that record out of reach earlier this century and owns 7 MVP Awards.

There has long been controversy about what constitutes an MVP winner. Is he the league’s overall best performer? Or is he the player who was most valuable to his team? Does his team’s position in the standings have any effect? How can a player be valuable to a last-place team when they could have finished last without him? MVP voters have never addressed these questions meaningfully. For example, in 1958 and 1959, they selected Ernie Banks, even though his team never contended for the pennant, because he was the best player in the league. But in 1947, Bob Elliot of the second-place Braves captured the award over Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize, who dominated the league’s offensive categories but didn’t play on pennant contenders. Ted Williams lost out on about three awards because his teams didn’t win the pennant (and because many writers hated him). And Joe DiMaggio won at least one award when he didn’t deserve it simply because his name was Joe DiMaggio. More recently, the strange voting criteria robbed Mark McGwire of the 1998 award, when he smacked a record 70 home runs, because his team didn’t compete for the pennant while the MVP winner, Sammy Sosa, played on a wild card team.

So what does it take to be the MVP? Let’s look at the statistics. Generally speaking, of course, you have to play on a pennant contender. In the history of the modern MVP award, only a handful of players won despite playing on losing teams. It helps to play a key defensive position like catcher or shortstop because you can win even if you don’t have the best batting totals. The most important offensive statistic is RBIs: over 40 percent of all MVP winners also led their league in RBIs; in fact, 11 MVPs led their league only in RBIs. The next most important statistic is slugging percentage (over 30 percent of winners led their league in that category), then home runs (about 30 percent). The least important offensive statistic? Stolen bases; only three stolen base leaders have won the MVP. Finally, it helps to be a nice guy: The media’s dislike of Ted Williams probably cost him a couple of awards. More recently, Mo Vaughn won the 1995 award over Albert Belle in no small part because Vaughn is a likable guy while Belle is not.

I'm sure somebody has done a true study of the MVP Award. I'm going to try to track one down and post a link.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Girl drafted by Japanese league team

In what is most likely a publicity stunt for a burgeoning new Japanese baseball league, a 16-year-old girl was drafted by a pro baseball team, making her the first girl ever to achieve that distinction. Money quote:

High school student Eri Yoshida was drafted by the Kobe 9 Cruise, a professional team in a new independent Japanese league that will start its first season in April.

I call it a publicity stunt because the chances of a 16-year-old anything succeeding in a professional league are slim to begin with, let alone a 5-foot tall sidearming knuckleballer. But I wish her the best of luck.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cy Young Award history

Now that Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum have been named the latest Cy Young Award winners, it's worth a moment to look at the history of the award.

The idea for the Cy Young Award came out of the belief that pitchers should be honored separately from position players. In one of his few positive accomplishments, commissioner Ford Frick helped orchestrate the new award, which initially honored one pitcher in both leagues, as selected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Frick instituted the award partly because pitchers received little representation in the MVP voting. So it’s ironic that the first Cy Young winner was the man who also won that year’s MVP award: Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe in 1956.

(In fact, pitchers’ eligibility for both awards has never been addressed by the BBWAA, and every time a guy wins both, griping can be heard all over the land. The gripers do have a point: Why should one group of players have the chance to win two awards, while everybody else can only win one? The flip side is just as frequent: When a pitcher has a dominant season, some writers refuse to vote for a pitcher; that’s what happened to Pedro Martinez in 1999, when two writers left him off their MVP ballots entirely. The BBWAA can resolve the issue pretty easily—by rendering pitchers ineligible for the MVP Award—but for some reason, they haven’t.)

After Newcombe won, his career pretty much fell apart, making him the first victim of the so-called Cy Young Jinx. Supposedly, the Jinx strikes pitchers the year after they win, and a cursory look at the record gives that theory some credence. Some infamous Jinx victims include Bob Turley, Mike Marshall, Steve Stone, Pete Vuckovich, LaMarr Hoyt, and John Denny. However, superstitions aside, it’s pretty easy to figure out why the Jinx struck these guys: they were above-average pitchers who had one great season that was good enough to win them the award. It’s hard enough to have a good season, let alone a great season, and it’s unfair to expect these pitchers to have consecutive great seasons.

Pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson—all multiple award winners—were (or are) legitimately great pitchers from whom great seasons are expected. The Cy Young Jinx is, in fact, simply a matter of a pitcher returning to his old self.

Back to the award history: At commissioner Frick’s insistence, the first 11 awards were given to the best pitcher in both leagues. When he retired, the award was changed to honor one pitcher in each league, which is how we have it today; it never did make sense to have Koufax compete with Whitey Ford, but most of what Frick did made no sense, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

At first, the voting structure was kind of screwed up: one writer in each major league city placed a single name on the ballot, and the pitcher who got the most votes won. MVP Award voting, on the other hand, features a weighted ballot on which writers place 10 names in descending order. In 1969, the screwed-up voting system victimized the BBWAA when Mike Cuellar and Denny McLain tied for the award with 10 votes apiece. After that, the voting changed to an MVP-like weighted system—voters placing three names on their ballots with five points going to the first-place pitcher, three to second place, and one to third place. That’s how it is today, and it’s a good system.

Here's a list of multiple award winners (H/T

7 - Roger Clemens
5 - Randy Johnson
4 - Steve Carlton
4 - Greg Maddux
3 - Sandy Koufax
3 - Pedro Martinez
3 - Jim Palmer
3 - Tom Seaver
2 - Bob Gibson
2 - Tom Glavine
2 - Denny McLain
2 - Gaylord Perry
2 - Bret Saberhagen
2 - Johan Santana

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Young Cy Young

Yesterday, Tim Lincecum of the Giants won the NL Cy Young Award. Lincecum is just a baby, only 24 years old. I thought it would be good to take a look at other Cy Young winners who were age 24 and younger, to try and get a sense for what's in store for Lincecum. It's a mixed bag, but things do look bright:

1964 - Dean Chance (age 24): Chance beat out Sandy Koufax, having an "off" season (only 19 wins). Chance had four more good seasons before ineffectiveness (and possibly injury due to overwork?) ended his career at 30. Final record: 128-115

1968 (AL) - Denny McLain (24): The poster child for talent wasted. McLain won 31 games in 1968 and 24 more in 1969 before he pissed away his career. He had some arm problems (not his fault), but got caught up in gambling and bookmaking scandals, was suspended, and never recovered his form. He ended up in jail for a while. I don't think Tim Lincecum has to worry about becoming another Denny McLain.

1969 (NL) - Tom Seaver (24): There's nothing about Seaver I can say that you probably don't already know. He's one of the 10 best pitchers of all time.

1971 (AL) - Vida Blue (21): Blue dominated the league in 1971, suffered an injury the next season, and continued to pitch well up until the age of 30. Then he got caught up in drugs and spent time in jail. He was on a Hall of Fame track until age 30. Sad.

1981 (NL) - Fernando Valenzuela (20): Fernandomania! The Dodgers overworked his arm and he was basically finished at age 26 (though he hung on as best he could for another decade). With some babying, he might have won 250 games. Instead, he won 173.

1985 (NL) - Dwight Gooden (20): Boy he was fun to watch that season. Most curveballs are nicknamed "Uncle Charlie." Gooden's was called "Lord Charles." And his fastball was a sight to behold. You know the story about Gooden: he didn't take care of his arm, and he got caught up in drugs. A near-deadly combination.

1985 (AL) - Bret Saberhagen (21): Overuse killed his arm. He pitched 1,329 innings before the age of 26. And that's pretty much all she wrote. But he did lead the Royals to their only World Series victory, so at least Kansas City got that out of him.

1986, 1987 (AL) - Roger Clemens (23, 24): No problems here. The greatest pitcher of his generation. Somehow he survived early arm trouble (surgery at age 22) and tons of innings of work and still managed to win over 350 games.

2002 (AL) - Barry Zito (24): A cautionary tale. He just lost his stuff. Not due to arm trouble or overwork or anything. It just seems to have disappeared.

Summing it all up, this is a very distinguished list of pitchers. Chance and Zito never quite matched their early promise, and Saberhagen and Gooden suffered from serious injuries. But most of the rest of the pitchers had excellent careers.

A lot depends on Lincecum's arm and whether it can withstand the heavy use. We may find out next year, because that's often when injuries manifest themselves. But the examples of Seaver, Clemens, and even Vida Blue show that early success doesn't have to lead to injury or ineffectiveness. Considering the Giants have little to no chance of winning anytime soon, they'll have even less incentive to push Lincecum too far. Let's hope they're smart about it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Congratulations, Tim Lincecum

As you probably heard, Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award today. Good for him, the only bright spot on a really poor Giants team.

Lincecum is only 24, making him one of the youngest winners of the award. Tomorrow I'm going to do a piece examining what happened to the other winners who were his age and younger. On preliminary analysis, a mixed bag. More tomorrow.

RIP Herb Score

Sad news out of Cleveland today:

Herb Score, the Cleveland Indians pitcher and former broadcaster whose promise on the mound was shattered by a line drive, died Tuesday. He was 75.

For two seasons in mid-1950s, Score was among the top pitchers in baseball, a left-handed fireballer who led the American League in strikeouts his first two years while winning 16 and 20 games with the Indians.

But in early 1957, a line drive off the bat of the Yankees’ Gil McDougald changed everything. It struck Score in the face and ended his season after only five games. He tried pitching again the following year, but lasted only 12 ineffective games. And though he hung on until 1962, the promising talent of his first two seasons appeared only in brief flashes.

After retirement, he remained in the game by working as Cleveland’s play-by-play broadcaster from 1964 - 1997.*

Goodbye, Herb.

*Updated: The original post indicated that Score worked as play-by-play announcer until this year. I discovered that he actually retired from p-b-p duties in 1997. I regret the error.