Andrew “Rube” Foster is considered the Father of Black Baseball by those that are familiar with his contributions to the sport. The problem is, Foster has toiled in anonymity for so long that most are unaware of these contributions. Having recently read Negro League historian Larry Lester’s latest book on Rube Foster, it is evident that “Big Rube” stands at the apex of black baseball while few people realize the tremendous impact he had on Major League Baseball as well. On the 94th birthday of Jackie Robinson, I’d like to shine a light on the man who paved the way for number 42. This is my ode to Rube Foster the pitcher, manager, Commissioner, and visionary.
Andrew “Rube” Foster the Pitcher
With a career record of 191-60, Rube Foster is considered by many as the best pitcher of the black ball era. Pitching from 1899-1918 Foster spent a majority of his career pitching in Chicago between two teams the Leland Giants and the American Giants. He threw 7 no-hitters and amassed a career ERA of 1.82. The nickname “Rube” was bestowed upon him in 1903 when Foster out pitched Hall of Famer Rube Waddell in an exhibition contest between black baseball’s Cuban X-Giants and the major league’s Philadelphia Athletics.
- Following on of Foster’s epic performances on the mound Hall of Fame manager John McGraw hired Rube Foster in 1903 to serve as pitching coach to a young Christy Mathewson. Prior to the 1903 season Mathewson had amassed a win/loss record of 34-37. Foster came to the New York Giants to teach Mathewson the art of the screwball. For the remainder of Mathewson’s career he was and still is regarded as the best screwball pitcher in baseball. His win loss record after working with Foster was 339-151, totals that earned him induction into the first class Hall of Fame inductees. Rube Foster was not elected to the Hall of Fame until 1981, over 50 years after his death.
- Unbeknownst to Rube Foster his pitching career also benefited boxing Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson. Having been convicted of a crime for transporting his future white wife across state lines for immoral purposes, Johnson was sentenced to serve one year in prison. Johnson utilizing his slight resemblance to Foster, disguised himself as the pitcher and joined the team as they traveled to Ontario Canada. Once there he boarded a ship to Paris avoiding the criminal charges for the next 7 years.
Andrew “Rube” Foster the Manager
As the manager of the Negro National League’s Chicago American Giants Rube Foster finished with a 293-164 record winning 64% of the games his team participated in. He has been compared to the likes of Hall of Fame managers, John McGraw and Connie Mack for his innovation and success in the game of baseball. At a time when blacks were not given much respect for their intellectual capabilities many white managers watched and learned from Foster as he managed his players as if they were pieces on his personal chess board.
- Rube Foster developed a style of baseball known as “Inside Ball,” which centered on speed, bunting, and sacrifices. Sound familiar? Yes, the same style popularized in the Major League’s by the 1951 World Champion “Go-Go” Chicago White Sox, Whitey Herzog, and Ozzie Guillen originated with Rube Foster. Those that saw Foster’s teams play could not ignore the manager’s emphasis on speed and quickness. The stolen base was a hallmark of his teams as his players constantly took an extra base in a bold like fashion, an art that was absent from the white game at the time.
- Rube Foster was on a constant mission to prove his teams superiority. Rube was one of the first black managers to take his team on extended trips to the West Coast in an effort to expose the masses to black baseball at its finest. He repeatedly took his teams into the deep South, Cuba and Canada and was not afraid to take the credit for teaching many young black spectators the right way to play the game.
- Foster also issued many challenges to white baseball clubs. While few teams responded to his challenges the ones that did left with a new-found respect for Foster and the teams he put together. Foster issued these challenges with an end goal in mind. It was his vision that once he garnered the respect of white baseball, the fans would demand an annual Cultural World Series pitting the best black baseball team against the best white ball club. He cited the achievements of boxing great Jack Johnson and his ability to fight the top white boxers as the foundation for his dream Series.
Andrew “Rube” Foster the Commissioner
Rube Foster wasn’t the first to recognize the need for black baseball to be organized but he was the first person to create a sustainable league featuring the top black talent in the country. As any intelligent leader would, Rube learned from others failures and in 1920 developed the Negro National League which lasted well after he resigned his post in 1926 due to health challenges.
- In 1887 the League of Colored Baseball Clubs was formed and in less than a month the operation was shut down. In 1906, the National Association of Colored Baseball Clubs of the United States and Cuba was formed by several white owners. Their association was over before it started as they failed to play one game. And finally in 1907, the National Colored League of Professional Ball Clubs was formed yet never materialized. It was not until Andrew “Rube” Foster’s Negro National League was formed that black ball players had a thriving league they could call their own.
- The Negro National League did have their difficulties. Some teams were not as financially equipped as others and had challenges fielding teams the fans were willing to walk through the turnstiles for. As President of the NNL and head of the Chicago American Giants, Foster was in a rather enviable financial position. Chicago was the Harlem of the Midwest for the black community, and Foster was one of the few owners that had an ownership stake in his team’s home ballpark. Therefore, he was paid anytime a rival club needed a field to host their game (this happened often as many clubs wanted to play in markets with flourishing black communities). The well to do Foster was able to loan struggling clubs money to make payroll, and if a team needed a boost at the box office Rube would loan them a player sure to draw a crowd. Rube recognized the benefits of star power very early. In fact, when the NNL was formed Foster’s American Giants fielded some of the best players black baseball had seen. Placing the success of the league above his own, Foster distributed his top talent to other teams so that each team could have at least one star player. For an example of Foster’s benevolence towards the league as a whole one need look no further than Oscar Charleston. Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics considers Charleston the fourth greatest player ever behind Ruth, Wagner, and Mays. Foster gave Charleston to the Indianapolis ABC’s in his prime for the greater good and ultimate success of the Negro National League.
- Rube felt that the Negro National League could not truly be a league for his people until they hired black umpires. Initially the league contracted white umpires stationed in the city that the game was to be held and paid them on a per game basis. Foster saw fit to hire 8 black umpires that were salaried employees and traveled from city to city. The addition of these traveling employees cost the league an extra $4,000 but it was important to Rube that blacks in all aspects of the game received an opportunity to take part in the “American Pastime.”
Again, props to Larry Lester for the hard work and research. This post could not have been written without the fresh insight of his latest book, Rube Foster In His Time: On the field and in the papers with Black Baseball’s greatest visionary.
As always, thank you for visiting and I welcome your thoughts, comments, or complaints on Rube Foster and his impact on the sport we love. Peace!
The 2013 Hall of Fame vote was announced Wednesday and to no ones surprise the BBWA (Baseball Writes of America) did not elect anyone to join the annals of baseball’s greats. This is not the first time the BBWA has come to such a conclusion but it is the first time steroids was injected as a rationale to deny everyone on a ballot that had well over 6 qualified ball players to choose from. The BBWA will have you believe nobody that played in the “Steroid Era” deserves to be inducted into a Hall of Fame that considers character, morals and respect for the game. I’m not drinking to Kool Aid, and I feel the writers are doing a great disservice to the game and its fans in their personal quest to rewrite history and keep the greatest players of my generation of the Hall of Fame. Rather than scream every time I hear one of the many reasons the writers used to omit the greatness of a whole generation from the Hall I’ve decided to use this platform to poke holes in each excuse I’ve heard for keeping the HoF clean.
In 1944 Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Major League Baseball’s commisioner at the time, played a key role in the Baseball Hall of Fame adopting Rule 5 of the Hall’s election requirements: “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, and character.” Many writers have relied this clause to justify the decision not to vote for the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons, and a whole list of other players they think MAY have taken steroids. They believe that the use of illegal drugs to enhance one’s performance says something about character and displays a lack of sportsmanship.
Newsflash, the Hall of Fame is full of baseball players with sketchy character. They were elected because they were great baseball players, and their character or lack there of never entered the equation. Ty Cobb was an open racist that bet on baseball games and bragged about killing a man with his bare hands, Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Babe Ruth abused alcohol at a time when it was illegal to drink, Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio had rather close ties with the mob and organized gambling yet each made it into the Hall of Fame without a question of their character.
For the writers to choose to invoke the character clause now in an effort “to keep the Hall clean” is disingenuous as the Hall of Fame will never be clean. The writers are attempting to write the history of their choice, one without steroids, one where the precious records of their era/childhood still stand. By not electing anyone into the HoF in 2013, history will say the writers took a hardline stance against steroids. Unfortunately for the writers, those that pay close attention will ask the question: Why did the writers wait so long to take a stand against steroids? Where were they when home run records were falling and chicks were digging the long ball? Answer: They were silent turning a blind eye to steroids all while cozying up to the very players they are condemning today.
They Cheated the Game
In 1991 Commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo to each team stating that steroids had been added to the league’s banned substance list. At the time the commissioner did not have the power to arbitrarily add substances to the banned list and invoke league wide steroid testing. Such things had to be collectively bargained for. Therefore, steroids were not tested for in MLB until 2004, well after those on the ballot made their claim to the Hall of Fame. It’s also worth mentioning that nobody on the ballot except for Rafael Palmeiro, ever failed a steroids test. As for the others, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Mike Piazza, guilty by assumption, for playing in an era that steroids were used. I wonder how the American public would have felt if Hank Greenberg, a hero in the Jewish community, or Joe DiMaggio had been kept out of the Hall based on their association with the mob (i.e. organized gambling).
Have I mentioned that known cheaters have been voted into the Hall of Fame prior to the steroids dilemma. In 1923 Babe Ruth was caught using a corked bat, Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford admitted to throwing spit balls, and numerous Hall Of Famers used amphetamines (an illegal drug), including the beloved Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Mike Schmidt. The top athletes are good at what they do because of their competitive spirit and desire to be the best. Therefore, they will look for any advantage to best the competition. You can argue that amphetamines and corked bats are minor compared to steroids but I would argue the players of the 60’s & 70’s were merely using what they had available to them to get the largest advantage possible. As Bob Gibson and Mike Schmidt said, if steroids were around when they were playing they might have used them as well. When it comes to the Hall of Fame many a known cheater has won, now is not the time for the writers to inject their own moral stance against “suspected cheaters” on our Hall of Fame.
Their Bodies Changed & Produced Crazy Numbers
The baseball writers would have you believe that steroids are the worst of the performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) because they changed players body type and helped the likes of Bonds and Clemens produce insane numbers. This has become the company line and a way for the baseball writers to differentiate steroid users from the amphetamine users already in the Hall. Earlier in the week, Joe Sheehan wrote a phenomenal article where he examined the numbers produced during the amphetamines era of baseball. He argues that amphetamines did have an impact on performance and the statistics produced during the era.
For those that are unaware, amphetamines are a performance enhancing drug that supply its user with a hyperactive sense of energy and was commonly used by baseball players from the 1960’s – 2000’s. At a time when afternoon games were plentiful and drinking into the night was common place, amphetamines helped ball players perform at peak performance after a long night on the town. Sheehan found that since 1920 stolen bases reached an all time peak during the amphetamine era. Gone are the days when players stole over 100 bases as Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman in the early 80’s. Gone are the days where players played all 162 games, and amassed impressive consecutive games played streaks a la Cal Ripken. Pitchers throwing complete games? Not in today’s game, not since amphetamines were taken out of the game. Now baseball writers I ask you, if a player aided by an illegal drug was able to play in more games thus having more opportunities to produce greater statistics, does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Too late, they are already there and still revered as pillars of the game.
Since it is assumed that steroids (rather than skills, training, diet, and talent), were the cause for the increase in home runs totals during the steroids era lets look at some of the players that have tested positive for steroids and their home run rate per game in the year they were caught.
2005: Alex Sanchez (2HR/62G); Rafael Palmiero (18HR/110G); Mike Morse (3HR/72G)
2007: Nefi Perez (1HR/33G); Jose Guillen (23HR/153G); Jay Gibbons (6HR/84G)
2008: Eliezer Alfonzo (0HR/5G)
2009: Manny Ramirez (19HR/104G)
2011: Manny Ramirez (0HR/5G);
2012: Freddy Galvis (3HR/58G); Melky Cabrera (11HR/113G)
Not the eye-popping home run totals you were expecting? Perhaps steroids didn’t have the effect of turning marginal players into modern-day Babe Ruth’s. In fact, there is no actual proof that steroids, or other PED’s, improve baseball performance in a way that enables players to hit more home runs. Perhaps Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell were just supreme talents that benefited from the smaller ball parks of their time, mediocre pitching, and a meticulous diet/work out regime. You know, doing the things that Hall of Famers do.
How Do You Deal With the Steroids Era
Some writers are hoping that time will help them figure out how to deal with players of the Steroids era and the Hall of Fame. To them I say baseball has always had era’s and for the most part the best players of that era were voted into the HoF. The writers should not be on a crusade to erase a whole era of great players from the Hall as if their greatness never happened. The Dead Ball era of the 1900’s saw few home runs and miniscule batting averages. The writers adjusted their standards and voted the best players of the era into the Hall of Fame. Major League Baseball did not integrate until 1947. Some of the greats from this era, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson, never played an official game against some of the top talent of the time because black players were kept out of the League. The writers responded but putting the best players of the era in the Hall of Fame. In the 60’s the pitcher’s mound was raised and pitchers gained a supreme advantage. The writers responded by putting the best players of the era in the Hall. How did the writers respond to the amphetamine and cocaine era of baseball? You guessed it. They voted the best players into the Hall. Including the first player permanently suspended from baseball for cocaine use.
So what do you do with players of the from the steroids era BBWA writers? You vote the best players in and let history determine how we remember the era.
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss…If by Rudyard Kipling
You may wonder why I opened with a portion of the poem If. Yes it is a bad ass poem that was used in last nights equally bad ass episode of Boardwalk Empire but that has no bearing on my usage. The Tampa Bay Rays signed Evan Longoria to a 6 year 100 million dollar extension which will be tacked on to his previous contract which was not set to expire until 2016. In locking up Longoria until 2022 (2023 if you include the one year team option), it appears as if the Rays are “heaping all of their winnings and risking it on one turn of pitch and toss.” Don’t let the appearance fool you, the Rays know exactly what they are doing. Allow me to explain.
1.) The next 10 year deal that works out will be the 1st
Yes, Longoria signed a 6 year extension but remember his extension is added to the remaining 4 years on his current contract. Adding the two deals together Longoria is guaranteed $136 million dollars over the next ten years. Of the six previous ten-year deals only one would likely be done again and we have one we need to wait and see on before we pass judgment (Derek Jeter/Joey Votto respectively). Most of these deals end up being regretted by the ball club because of the absorbent amount of money being paid to older players well past the prime years of their production. I have no question Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay brain trust are well aware of the success rate on ten-year deals. Which is why, in terms of average dollars per year, Evan Longoria’s deal is the smallest of the ten-year deals, averaging 13.6M per year. Therefore, in the event Longoria’s value decreases in his later years (he is signed through his age 36 season) the financial strain will not be as crippling as say Alex Rodriguez’s current 10y/ 275M contract which will pay him 28M dollar in 2013 (age 37 season).
Evan Longoria posses a superior bat and elite defensive skills. So long as Longoria is able to stay healthy, his bat should play for the majority of his contract. Considered one of the top two defensive third basemen since 2008 by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), his defense will likely to decline over the life of the contact as he gets older. This decline should not and likely did not give Tampa Bay much cause for concern. As a stellar third baseman, the natural progression once his defensive prowess begins to deteriorate will be a move to first base followed by a move to DH. The Rays foresee many years of plus third base play before said changes will be needed, thus minimizing their concern for the dreaded ten-year contract.
2.) Evan Longoria has a history of injury
Over the first 5 years of Longoria’s career he has only averaged 127 games per year while the past two years have seen him miss a total of 117 games. What is astonishing about Longoria is that regardless of the games missed when healthy he is off the charts good. So good that he has outplayed his salary each year, even in 2012 when he only played 74 games. The website Fangraphs determines a players value in dollars based on the wins they provided to their team versus a replacement level player (think AAA player) also known as W.A.R.
____ WAR VALUE ACTUAL SALARY
2008 5.5 $24.9M $500,000
2009 7.6 $34.4M $555,000
2010 7.7 $30.6M $950,000
2011 6.1 $27.4M $2M
2012 2.4 $10.8M $4.5M
As you can see Longoria has provided value to the bargain hunting Tampa Bay Rays each injury plagued year he has been in the league. Therefore, the Rays were willing to heap their $100M on the chance that Longoria will continue to produce at an MVP level. If for some reason he can not, just look at all the value they have already realized underpaying for such a phenomenal talent. It would be almost criminal for Tampa Bay to complain about money lost in the event Longoria can’t physically perform over the final few years of the deal considering the savings they have received for a talent like Longoria.
3.) Why Now?
A team as frugal as the Tampa Bay Rays has trouble competing for the top free agent talent. Even though Longoria would not have been a free agent until 2016 under his initial contract, the upcoming free agency of two talented third basemen, David Wright (2014), and Chase Headley (2015) would have surely driven up the price for a healthy Evan Longoria in 2016. Longoria, a younger and arguably more talented player then both Wright, and Headley, would have commanded the type of dollars Tampa Bay could not afford to pay. Therefore, Tampa Bay took advantage of Longoria’s early injuries and signed him to a deal that represents of the fraction of the amount he would have received had injuries not been a concern.
As always there is a risk involved when signing a player to a ten-year deal. Tampa Bay found a way to minimize that risk, lock-up the face of their franchise until 2023 and if for some reason Longoria can’t go in 2020 you will hear no complaining from the Rays. So what does all this have to do with the poem If. Tampa Bay has taken the calculated risk on one turn of pitch & chance, if they lose and are forced to start again at their beginnings, I doubt Tampa will ever breathe a word about their loss.
I must admit, I had no idea what to expect from my first SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) affiliated conference. On my way to the conference I was faced with the usual questions a high school freshman ponders before their first day of school: would I fit in, will I have anyone to talk to, do I know enough to be in a room with some of baseball’s premier researchers and writers? It did not take long before I could answer each of my questions with a resounding YES! There were no strangers at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference and everyone there had one common goal: To share what they knew about Black Baseball. What follows is a running diary of my experience at the Conference.
I decided to arrive at the conference early for the research workshop taking place at the Cleveland Public Library. Our research session was led by Stephanie Liscio, author of Integrating Baseball in Cleveland, and frequent contributor to ESPN’s baseball blog the Sweet Spot. Having been familiar with her writing yet unaware of her participation with the conference, the baseball nerd in me knew rather early that this conference was going to be a hit. The highlight of the research session and the envy of our group was the library’s Sports Research Center which is the only one of its kind in the country. As you can probably guess, the Research Center contains rough draft’s of speeches written by Jackie Robinson, newspaper clippings from baseball games of the 1800’s, and baseball books galore. The Sports Research Center is a truly novel concept I wouldn’t mind my local library mimicking.
Thursday night’s Meet and Greet was my first opportunity to associate with the other Negro League Conference participants. Now, I’m not a huge fan of meet and greets or conversation that feels forced. This weekend it became clear to me that when baseball is the common denominator the oddest of couples can be brought together. It did not take long before I was enthralled in a conversation with 86-year-old Ted “Lefty” Toles, who had no shortage of stories from his playing days. Mr. Toles played in the Negro Leagues for the Cleveland Buckeyes, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He also played a part in the integration of baseball playing for the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees minor league affiliates. Lefty told me about the time he was carried off of the field by Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby after he made three great catches in the outfield, how he called the Topps office and convinced them to include him on a baseball card in their 2007 Allen and Ginter set, and he made sure I was aware of his slugging prowess ending each of his stories with “one thing I could do was hit that ball.” Ignored for so long by Major League baseball Mr. Toles was eager to share his story and I was happy to listen. Thursday night also provided me the opportunity to pick the brain of the premier scholar on Satchel Paige, Dr. Donald Spivey. He has spent the last 12 years of his life researching the life of Satchel Paige, and writing the book, If You Were Only White. Talking with the Doctor about the lack of scholarly work on other Negro League baseball players led to his friendly challenge to research and write the things that I wanted to read about. Being at the Jerry Malloy Conference among so many published authors gave me the confidence to take Dr. Spivey up on his challenge.
Friday morning was spent listening and learning. listening to the various presenters, I couldn’t help but wonder how productive I would have been in school had the subject matter been baseball. Topics for the morning session included Cleveland Baseball Diamonds of the Past, Black Baseball in Cleveland from 1867-1900 (much more interesting than it sounds), Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. I realize that baseball is damn near a niche sport in my circle which is why it was so important for me to attend the Malloy Conference. I wanted to expand my network of baseball friends. I was pleasantly surprised that despite the racial, gender and age diversity of the presenters everyone was easily approachable and happy to share their research. In fact, shout out to Lisa Alexander who emailed me her entire presentation on Larry Doby “The Forgotten Pioneer.”
The afternoon session centered around a panel discussion with the four former Negro League baseball players in attendance. The panel included Ted Toles and Ernie Nimmons, who happened to be a teammate of Hank Aaron’s when they both played for the Indianapolis Clowns. The other two members of the panel, Mel Duncan (Kansas City Monarchs & Detroit Stars) and Gene Johnson provided the comedic relief portion of the panel as they took playful jabs at each other while recalling their days in uniform with the Detroit Stars. The funniest moment of the afternoon came about when the subject of players salaries was brought up. Each of the guys admitted that they played for the love of the game as they did not make much money playing baseball. Gene Johnson, in his raspy voice, was alert enough to apologize before discussing his salary as the former owner of the Detroit Stars and the woman responsible for his paychecks, Minnie Forbes just so happened to be in the room. What struck me about each of these men was how happy they were that someone cared enough to listen to their stories. While they obviously didn’t play for recognition it is always nice to be recognized. Remarkably, the fact that it took 50 plus years to garner some much deserved recognition for these ball players didn’t dampen their spirit one bit!
The days final event was a baseball game at Progressive Field between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians. Not much to get excited about here as the Orioles won this one in a route 10-2. Although I must say, it was rather refreshing going to the game and not being the only one in a 5 section radius keeping score.
I was determined not to be late for Saturday mornings presentations as Dr. Spivey got the morning started with his lecture on Satchel Paige and the women that played a major role in his life. I had my voice recorder set up and ready to record the jewels Dr. Spivey was about to drop on the room. Spivey did not disappoint, debunking the false claims of who taught Paige how to pitch as well as providing an understanding of his earlier years in a rural Alabama reform school. My only disappointment arose fifteen minutes into his presentation when I realized I had forgotten to press record. Damn. Other research topics that morning included a well researched presentation on George “Chappie” Johnson, a catcher from the early 1900’s, as well as a thorough presentation by author Chris Lamb who shed some light on the age-old mystery surrounding Branch Rickey’s motivation for signing Jackie Robinson. I was glued to my seat. Oh, and did I mention the US Postal Service stopped by to unveil the new Larry Doby stamp which was being released that day.
In the afternoon session the hits kept on coming. As I found out this weekend, when at a SABR conference the question immediately following so what’s your name is what are you researching? Being new to SABR and contemplating my contribution to the research I found the authors panel right on time. The authors, Lee Lowenfish, Thomas Aiello, Byron Motley and Terry Pluto, shared their thoughts on how they select the subject matter for their books, using a publisher versus self publishing, and how they sell their book once it is on the shelves. The authors stuck around to answer every question and encourage the next group of writers to join them on the dais at next years conference. The close out session was a candid Q&A with Minnie Forbes, former owner of the Detroit Stars. She was as sweet as your grandmother and as classy as The First Lady. She provided a behind the scenes look at what it was like to run a Negro League team in the 50’s, at time when the League was changing and MLB was raiding black baseball teams for the top talent. Ms. Forbes was not bitter nor was she sad, she was simply classy.
From the outset of the conference Larry Lester (Co-Chair of the SABR Negro League Committee) stressed that all of the conference participants were part of a family. Ordinarily I would brush such comments aside as hot air. Now that I have my first Jerry Malloy Conference under my belt I can honestly say it is one big family that has yet to meet a stranger. I look forward to talking baseball with you at next year’s family reunion!
Coming into the 2012 season the Detroit Tigers had two glaring needs: a corner outfielder and a second baseman. Magglio Ordonez was on his way out, and former #1 draft pick Delmon Young has yet to put together a big league season that justifies Leyland putting him in the lineup everyday. So what did the Tigers do to fill these two holes? They signed another All-Star first baseman, leaving a platoon situation at second and Delmon Young in left field. We are half-way through the season, and the holes left by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski in the outfield continue to be of the cavernous variety. The Tigers have the least amount of production from their right fielders in baseball (-2.9 WAR) and Delmon Young has been the worst left fielder (among qualified players) in the majors (-.5 WAR). Young now splits time with speedster Quintin Berry, who spent the last eight years playing in the minor leagues before making his pro debut in 2012. While Berry has done well in a rather small sample size, if the Tigers are to contend in 2012 and beyond they will need another quality corner outfielder.
Last week, as if the baseball God’s had come to cure Dombrowski’s off-season hiccup, the Arizona Central reported that the Diamondbacks are interested in trading Justin Upton, their 24-year-old right fielder. Yes, that Justin Upton, the two-time All-Star that finished fourth in the National League MVP race in 2011. Upton is a young player that has yet to reach his prime. Why the Diamondback’s would consider trading such a young talent that happens to be signed through his age 27 season is a mystery, but it should not serve as a surprise. This is the second time in his short career the Diamondback’s have shopped their best player and it appears as if the club has reached the point of no return and must trade Upton. Outfielders typically don’t reach their peak until their age 27 season, a plus for any team contemplating trading for Upton. That being the case, his career numbers .275/.356/.475 & 12 WAR already trump those of each corner outfielder on the Tiger’s roster. The Tigers need to acquire Justin Upton and have the pieces to make it happen.
If you took the time to read the linked article from the Arizona Central you noticed that in return for Justin Upton the Diamondback’s are looking for a shortstop, third baseman, or star starting pitcher. The Tigers have a red-hot third base prospect in Nick Castellanos (20) who could serve as the center piece of a deal with the D-backs. In 2012 Castellanos is hitting .363/.406/.516 between A & AA Ball, was the MVP of the All-Star Futures game, and was recently ranked as the 15th best prospect in all of baseball by Keith Law of ESPN. Obviously, with his recent success Castellanos has generated a tremendous buzz among Tiger fans who are eager to see the him in the Bigs. With the recent success of Mike Trout (20) and Bryce Harper(19), I understand the source of their impatience yet realize the Tigers would be better served by moving the young third baseman now.
To the fans dismay, it’s unreasonable to expect Castellanos to play in the majors for the Tigers anytime soon. As a third baseman Castellanos is blocked by one of the best right-handed hitters in the game in Miguel Cabrera (signed through 2015). Moving Cabrera back to first base is out of the question as the Tigers expect Prince to be manning first base for the next eight years. Blocked at third the Tigers organization began playing Castellanos in right field for their AA affiliate. There are two issues with this move: 1) Castellanos loses some of his value moving from third to right field as third base is a more challenging defensive position; 2) Castellanos MAY become an All-Star right fielder or he MAY be the next Cameron Maybin. What we do know is Nick Castellanos IS a prospect and prospects are a gamble because they have yet to prove themselves on the Major League level. I’m sure many Tiger fans remember Maybin, our last major prospect. There was a time when Maybin was an un-tradable prospect until we were able to trade him to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera. You know the rest of the story, Cabrera (the proven commodity) is one of the best players in baseball for the Tigers, and Maybin (the prospect) has since been traded from the Marlins to the Padres and has yet to reach the potential Tigers fans had come to expect. A majority of fans tend to place a premium on prospects because they represent the unknown. In this instance, I’ll take the two-time All-Star who has shown he can play at or near an MVP level. Give me Justin Upton playing right field for the Detroit Tigers!
Quick, throw away all your E-troit* Tiger biases, forget whose your Tiger, and tell me which Tiger has had the best 2012 season at the half way point. *(Not a typo – the D has been removed until the Tiger’s exhibit anything resembling a Major League defense). I know, our biases are strong, we love our new Prince of Motown so let me help you out. Here are the slash lines for the top 3 Tigers in 2012:
Player A – .324/.383/.558
Player B – .335/.411/.552
Player C – .299/.379/.497
Now that we have gotten those biases out of the way, I’m making the argument that Player B, Austin Jackson, has been the best Tiger in the first half of 2012. While I realize slash lines can not tell the whole story I will go behind the slash line in my defense of A-Jax.
(A= Miguel Cabrera; C = Prince Fielder)
Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski’s plan entering 2012 was to field the best beer league softball team with two rather large (pun intended) defensive anchors at the corner infield spots. Unfortunately, the 2012 Tigers bats have not been able to score runs at the rapid pace their defense has been able to gift wrap runs for the opposing team. They lead the American League in unearned runs (43), and have the worst Ultimate Zone Rating (-27.2) (an advanced statistic that quantifies the amount of runs saved by a defense over the season) in the league. In fact, each Tiger player that started Opening Day has a negative Ultimate Zone Rating at their respective position in 2012, except for Austin Jackson (5.2). Jackson has been the sole Gold Glove candidate on a team that at times appears to be playing with gloves made of stone. Therefore, Austin Jackson gets a boost when measured against the other Tigers for playing stellar defense in center field, a position where defense is of grave importance, all while producing eye-popping numbers at the plate.
Since Austin Jackson came to the Bigs in 2010 Tiger fans have taken issue with their free swinging lead off hitter not getting on base in front of Miguel Cabrera. Jackson lead the league in strikeouts in 2010 and finished 3rd in 2011, which drained his value as a lead off hitter because he simply was not getting on base enough. This year, his strikeout rate is down and his walks are up resulting in an On Base Percentage of .411, tops on the team and good enough for second in the American League. And what does it mean to the Tigers to have their lead off hitter getting on base for the big hitters? Without Jackson in the lineup the Tigers are 8-14 (.363), and with him they are 34-28 (.548).
One could pose the argument that Miguel Cabrera has been the best Tiger in 2012 and I would listen. I’m a huge fan of Miguel’s but putting bias aside, my issue with the Cabrera argument is that is based on his counting stats. For instance, Miguel Cabrera has 18HR/52R/71RBI to Austin Jackson’s 9HR/53R/38RBI. Cabrera has produced great numbers, but only looking at a player’s counting stats to measure their effectiveness can be problematic because they are dependant on so many other factors. Case in point the largest disparity between the two players is their RBI totals. RBI are dependant on other players being on base when you get your hits. This negatively effects Jackson as a lead off hitter because he starts the game with no one on base and in the middle innings his RBI total is dependant on the bottom of the order, generally the weaker hitters, getting on base in front of him. The pro Cabrera camp would then argue that the two players have scored about the same amount of runs, a stat Jackson should lead batting first in the Tigers lineup. This argument brings to light another issue with only using counting stats. Miguel Cabrera has played in 22 more games than Austin Jackson and has had 92 more plate appearances ie more opportunities to hit HR’s, score runs, or collect RBI.
Many stats have been created to right the wrongs that counting stats create. One such stat is weighted runs created+ (wRC+), which seeks to quantify a players total offensive value measured by the runs they create. Austin Jackson has the third highest wRC+ score in the American League (163) behind Mike Trout and Robinson Cano. Miguel Cabrera’s 153 score is good enough for 5th in the League. Not a large disparity but all things equal A-Jax has been the more productive offensive player. Finally we will look at the amount of wins above a replacement level player (WAR) the two have added to the Tigers. WAR is a useful tool because it takes into account a players offensive and defensive contributions to determine a player’s overall value. Again Austin Jackson’s 4.0 WAR is higher than that of Miguel Cabrera (3.3 WAR). By no means am I arguing that Austin Jackson is a better baseball player than Miguel Cabrera, who has played at a consistently high level for 10 straight years, but for the first half of 2012 Austin Jackson has been the best player on the Tiger’s roster.
As the dawn of a new season approaches I’m filled with the annual excitement and exuberance that can only be squashed by major league ball players taking the field for the first time in early April. I’ve also been a fan long enough to know that once the dog days of summer roll around (say around game 110 of 162) it can become a chore to get geared up to watch the revamped penny-pinching Mets take on the Astros. Assuming my reader’s have the same struggles mustering the energy to watch such a contest, I’ve taken the challenge to make the next Mets v.s. Astros contest as exciting as possible. Impossible you say? Well here at BaseballBooksandBeats I plan to provide you with a few reasons to entice you to watch each of the thirty MLB squads. With the St. Louis Cardinals getting ready to play the Miami Marlins on ESPN April 4, 2012, here are three reasons you should watch the Miami Marlins.
Worst to First?
Yes, the Marlins finished in last place in the NL East (72-90) last year but this is the team I’m most excited to watch in 2012 (outside of my Tigers of course). As the Phillies roster continues to age and the injurys to their stars keep piling up the Marlins have a chance to compete in 2012 thanks to the clubs many new additions. This offseason the Marlins joined the free agent party early and often spending more money than Jay-Z & Kanye balling in Paris. Ownership knew that for the Marlins to go from worst to first in the NL East they will need to overcome last years deficit, having finished 30 games behind the Phillies, while drawing fans to their shiny new ballpark. Their offseason may have put them in a position to accomplish both feats. They opened free agency signing Jose Reyes (2011 WAR 6.2), a lightining rod at the top of the order and on the base paths. Next, the Marlins focused on improving their pitching staff signing for Whitesox ace Mark Buehrle (2011 WAR 3.4) and former Padres closer Heath Bell (2011 WAR .5). The Bell signing was a bit curious based on the size of the contract (3years/27M) considering the closer coming off of a down year. It’s evident the Marlins paid for Heath Bell the shut down closer of 09-10 (avg WAR 2.2) rather than the 2011 version. Assuming everyone does what ownership expects of them theve added about 11.8 wins to their 2011 record. Adding approximately 12 wins is not gonna cut it in the NL East but you must remember the Marlins played a substantial amount of 2011 without two of their best players. The Marlins will be able to integrate a healthy Hanley Ramirez into the lineup who posted a WAR 7.4 in his last healthy season and Josh Johnson (2010 WAR 6.3), their ace starting pitcher that missed 2011 with a shoulder injury. We’ve now added 25.5 wins to the Marlins 2011 total, 4.5 wins shy of the 2011 Phillies. Look for the Phillies to regress from their 102 wins in 2011 due to the injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, both of whom will start the season on the disabled list. The team is also a year older and may struggle without their two run producers in the lineup. If that’s not enough to make up the 4.5 win gap the Marlins are also adding the foul mouthed, entertaining but damn good manager, Ozzie Guillen to the mix. All that said I’m excited to watch the Marlins attempt to dethrone the Phillies in 2012.
The Artist Formely Known As….
For those that do not know in 2011, the Miami Marlins had a 21 year old right fielder that was built like a tight end and hit like a linebacker who went by the name of Mike Stanton. It’s now 2012, and Mike has changed his name to Giancarlo. The Marlins won’t mind the name change so long as Giancarlo hits like Mike who’s power second to none. In 2011, his first full season Giancarlo hit 34 home runs. Baseball Reference website compares players throughout history of similar age and names that compare favorably to Stanton include Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton. Entering his age 22 season Giancarlo has yet to reach his peak, and assuming he stays healthy his numbers will most certainly rise.
I love watching speed on the base paths. It can come in the form of stolen bases, legging out a triple or an exciting play at the plate, whatever it is, I’m all in. With power numbers down all over baseball teams with players that can create runs with their speed have a leg up on the competition. Few managers take advantage of team speed as well as Marlins manager, Ozzie Guillen, which has me excited to see how he uses Emilio Bonifacio. Emililo doesn’t hit for much power but all Ozzie is asking of his young center fielder is to get on base so the team can take advantage of his speed. Getting on base is something Bonifacio did well last year .296/.360/.393 and may improve as he enters his age 27 season. Look for Bonifacio to continue to get on base and improve upon his 40 stolen bases in 2011 with Ozzie at the helm.