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This is just an exercise in checking an old ballplayer's memory against the record. The record always wins, of course.

I've been re-reading Keith Hernandez's second book Pure Baseball. I highly recommend it, by the way - it's just chock full of baseball. The frame for the book is Hernandez watching two games, one at the ballpark (Philadelphia-Atlanta) and one on the television (Detroit-New York) while providing a detailed commentary on what's happening. This often veers into intense and detailed discussions on how to hit against RH sinker-ballers, how to defend a rundown with runners on the corners, and so on. I love this sort of stuff. Along the way, Hernandez passes along anecdotes from his own career - and as this book was written long before the advent of Retrosheet and, one assumes that the author is relying largely on his memory for some of these tales. I enjoy checking those tales against the record. It's a pleasant change from the Annual Report Card.

So here's one. Hernandez has been discussing how veteran hitters depend on their knowledge of the pitchers they face. Because of this, they are often uncomfortable facing all the unknowns they tend to see in September. He remembers battling Pete Rose for the batting title in 1979, and going into Shea Stadium that September:

The first night was Roy Lee Jackson. Remember him? He was a pretty good reliever for five or six years, but in 1979 he was just starting out... I went 5-5 off Roy and two relievers, including a three-run dinger off Roy. Rose went hitless that night, I jumped eight or ten points ahead of him, and that was all she wrote for the batting championship that year.

The point of the story for Hernandez is that Rose came up to congratulate the next spring, and to shake his head over Hernandez managing a 5-5 night against a bunch of September callups. Because Rose knew how difficult that was.

Anyway, it's easy enough to check this one out. There some pretty obvious problems. Keith Hernandez had four 5 hit games in his career, but only one while he was with the Cardinals, and that came in 1980 in Philadelphia. And Roy Lee Jackson didn't start any games at all for the 1979 Mets.

Those are some of the details he got wrong. There are more, of course. The batting title race wasn't quite as close as Hernandez remembers. Hernandez remembers hitting around .340 all year while Rose was "down around .295 in July" before starting his charge for the batting title. Hernandez didn't exactly hit .340 all year - he hit just .232 in April. He did hit .365 over the rest of the season, but it took him until August to get his season average up above .340 after that slow start. Meanwhile Rose was down to .301 in July, and in early September he was still hitting just .308 and thereabouts. But by September 22 1979, Hernandez was hitting .342, and Rose was now hitting .334 - Rose had gone 30-50 (yup, .600) over the previous two weeks. Which safely qualifies, I would think, as making a charge for the batting title. The Cardinals went into Shea Stadium that night and knocked out starter John Pacella (second major league start) in the first inning (Hernandez himself hit a single to load the bases.) Pacella was relieved by Roy Lee Jackson. Hernandez had two hits off Jackson, including a two-run homer, and got a fourth hit off second year reliever Dwight Bernard.

Meanwhile Rose wasn't going hitless, but he was losing ground, going 2-9 in a double-header. At the end of the day, Hernandez had stretched his lead to 13 points (.346 to .333) and with just over a week left in the season, the fight for the batting title (which used to matter a whole lot more than it does now) was more or less over.

This was just a passing anecdote, of course, and certainly some of the details are off. But I'd say the basic shape of the story, and thus the point Hernandez was making, essentially holds up. If you were doing such a project today, it would be far easier to consult the actual record rather than rely on a fifteen year old memory. Not bad.
The 1979 Batting Title (An Off-Day Diversion) | 21 comments | Create New Account
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bpoz - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 09:42 AM EDT (#278746) #
Thanks Magpie. Enjoyable reading.
Mike Green - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 09:55 AM EDT (#278747) #
Hernandez' comments about defending the rundown with runners on the corners would be interesting.  He might have an advantage over other first basemen in these situations because he had a right-fielder's arm.

Hernandez is, of course, a marginal Hall of Famer, but didn't have the basket of numbers that would appeal to many writers or average baseball fans. A batting champ without much power and great defence at first base, but less than 2200 hits for his career.  The walk column, of course, hardly merited a thought. 

Magpie - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 11:23 AM EDT (#278749) #
defending the rundown with runners on the corners would be interesting.

He says he eventually figured out that when you're chasing the baserunner from first to second, the thing to do was to look at the area on the field where the shortstop normally stands (in the actual situation, the shortstop would be on the 2b bag) so that you'd have both baserunners at the corners of your vision. Which doesn't come naturally at all, but it worked better for him than turning his sight back and forth from one runner to the other.
Magpie - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 11:32 AM EDT (#278750) #
"I eventually figured out" is a phrase that occurs rather often when Hernandez talks about playing first base (and Hernandez played the position better than anyone I've ever seen.) No one taught him these things when he was coming up in the 1970s, and I'm not all that sure many of them are being taught now. Hernandez will spend five pages talking about possibilities involving an outfield relay, and then mention in passing that the situation might happen once a month.
John Northey - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 11:39 AM EDT (#278751) #
Hernandez was always an interesting HOF case.  1070 BB vs 1012 SO - a rarity in the modern era.  Like many in the 80's he ended his career early, last full season at 33 when he had his career high in HR at 18 but had just 16 more in his career.  In 88 he was hurt (missing most of June, a chunk of September)  but still had a 120 OPS+, then fell off a cliff with a 91 the next year in just 75 games (started poor, got better then got hurt and never recovered) and 49 in 43 games to end it.  A young Dave Magadan took over at 1B with a OPS+ in the 120's, then the 140's when Hernandez left town for his last season.  Funny, 1989 was Hernandez' last year in NY, and Davey Johnson was kicked out the following year.

The '86 Mets had a lot of HOVG players but few HOF'ers - just Gary Carter so far (John Gibbons was on that team btw).  Keith Hernandez probably has the best argument after that, maybe Dwight Gooden but I doubt either will be HOF'ers.  Quite odd for a club with 108 wins to have so few HOF'ers.

Of course, for comparison, the '85 Jays (most regular season wins in Jays history) have 0 HOF'ers with Dave Stieb being the closest, well Bobby Cox will get in but I was just thinking of players.  1992 has Dave Winfield, Roberto Alomar, maybe Jeff Kent, probably Jack Morris someday with David Cone and David Wells (who was 29 then with just 47 wins, he ended up with 239 to lead all 'developed by the Jays' pitchers) on the outside looking in. 1993 had Alomar, Morris, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor with near HOF'er Carlos Delgado starting out behind the plate.  That is more normal for great teams. 
Mike Green - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 04:56 PM EDT (#278754) #
the thing to do was to look at the area on the field where the shortstop normally stands (in the actual situation, the shortstop would be on the 2b bag) so that you'd have both baserunners at the corners of your vision. Which doesn't come naturally at all, but it worked better for him than turning his sight back and forth from one runner to the other.

OK.  So, he also had excellent peripheral vision.  Which would fit with the top-notch pitch recognition with the bat in his hand.  Less obvious talents and quiet dedication leading to subtle but still extraordinary results. 

Thanks for this, Magpie.
Magpie - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 05:41 PM EDT (#278755) #
Here's a Hernandez story I'm sure I've told before (by now I must have told all my stories) hat came from his first book, after the 1985 season. It involved Nolan Ryan. Davey Johnson was going to do Hernandez a favour and give him a day off against Nolan Ryan. Hernandez said he knew Davey had his numbers but he actually liked hitting against Ryan. He thought he had good at bats against him. And so Johnson let him play, and sure enough Hernandez came up with the game-winning hit. What gives the story its extra verisimilitude is the well-known fact that no one liked hitting against Nolan Ryan. Clubhouses got very quiet when Ryan was scheduled to pitch. Batting against Ryan was viewed as humiliating at best, life-threatening at worst. No one liked hitting against him.

Almost ten years later, Hernandez was still baffled to discover that he hit "about .170" against Ryan over his career. He still believed that he had been a tough out for The Express.

But here's the thing - Hernandez did hit just .186 (8-43) against Ryan. But two of the hits were HRs, he walked 13 times, and struck out just 9 times. Ryan struck out roughly one of every four batters he faced; Hernandez fanned once every six at bats, which is the difference between striking out 90 times in a season and striking out 150 times.  Ryan walked 12% of the hitters he faced, which is already a lot; he walked Hernandez twice as often as that. And 2 homers in just 43 ABs is about triple the rate at which Ryan gave up home runs. But Ryan got lucky with the balls Hernandez put in play against him. Keith's BABiP against Ryan was .235; all other hitters hit .269 on their balls in play against Ryan (and Hernandez normally hit .322 on his balls in play.)   He really was a tough out for Ryan.
Mike Green - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 07:38 PM EDT (#278756) #
So, Hernandez' record against Ryan got me wondering who had hit well against Ryan.  There were two players who leaped out.  Both had more than 60 PAs against Ryan and were the only players with an OPS of over 1.000.  One was left-handed and posted a .340//.469/.600 line with 12 walks and 7 strikeouts in 50 at-bats.  The other was right-handed and posted a .364/.567/.682 line with 22 walks and 11 strikeouts in 44 at-bats.  One is a Hall of Famer and one is not.  Trivia time!  No peeking!
clark - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 08:28 PM EDT (#278757) #
Could be way off here, but Rod Carew jumps out at me as a guy who might have hit Ryan. As for another guess, how about Fred Lynn.
John Northey - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 08:35 PM EDT (#278758) #
The 'scared to face Nolan Ryan' got me thinking of the LH version - Randy Johnson who super-scared some left handed hitters.  Who hit best against him?
25+ PA...
Best OPS: Albert Pujols 1.678
Worst OPS: Bret Boone 0.175

For LH hitters...
Best OPS: Larry Walker 1.056 with Jim Edmonds and Barry Bonds both over 1000.
Worst OPS: Brent Gates 317

Interesting hitters...
Neifi Perez 952 OPS (!!!), Eric Davis 308 (he was a good hitter), Barry Larkin 427
Jays (at least at some point): Glenallen Hill 928, Devon White 888, Alex Gonzalez #2 909, Rickey Henderson 557, Roberto Alomar 553, Jeff Kent 462

Fun stuff.  John Kruk (who famously swung like crazy to avoid being killed in the all-star game vs Johnson he was so scared) never faced Johnson in the regular season.
Mike Green - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 08:51 PM EDT (#278759) #
Neither Carew nor Lynn.
Mike Green - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 09:01 PM EDT (#278760) #
Carew did hit .300 against Ryan and Lynn hit .275, but neither hit for any power at all against him.
Mike Green - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 09:26 PM EDT (#278761) #
One more clue.  The first season that the RHB faced Ryan was 1968.  He had 8 PAs- hit 2 homers, singled once and walked five times.  I imagine that Ryan might have been aware of that and this coloured their future match-ups.  Curiously, Ryan was the pitcher who this batter hit best against (in 60+ PAs). 
electric carrot - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 10:05 PM EDT (#278764) #
Stab in the dark --was Rusty Staub the left handed hitter?
Mike Green - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 10:18 PM EDT (#278765) #
Good guess, ec, but no cigar. Staub hit well against Ryan. The LHH was the Hall of Famer.
Thomas - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 10:31 PM EDT (#278766) #
I don't think the years line up exactly right, but was Dale Murphy the right-handed batter?
ayjackson - Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 11:37 PM EDT (#278768) #
I'd have to guess Yaz or Reggie for the LHH HOFer.
Magpie - Friday, September 06 2013 @ 02:42 AM EDT (#278770) #
I'll step in and confirm Yaz for the LH batter, and mention that the RH batter had a fondness for expensive sports cars. But what I especially enjoy is that Steve Hovley, of Ball Four fame, hit much better against Ryan than Roberto Clemente or Edgar Martinez.

Roberto and Edgar - that's pretty cool. Nolan Ryan, destroying generations of RH batters...
Magpie - Friday, September 06 2013 @ 02:43 AM EDT (#278771) #
Hang on, I had the wrong RH batter (I was thinking Jack Clark.) So... carry on.
Magpie - Friday, September 06 2013 @ 02:51 AM EDT (#278772) #
OK, here's a goofy list. What do these men have in common, besides the fact that some of them couldn't hit a lick: Mike Aldrete, Bob Molinaro, Garry Templeton, Milt May, Joe Pepitone, Roy White, Von Hayes, Dave Parker, Bill North, Mike Scioscia.

They were all intentionally walked by Nolan Ryan. Twice Even stranger, he once issued an intentional walk to Dal Maxvil. I'll bet Ryan's still angry at the manager who ordered that.
Mike Green - Friday, September 06 2013 @ 08:21 AM EDT (#278773) #
Thanks for taking care of the late night shift, Magpie.  The RH hitter is Dick Allen.   My instinctive reaction was Dick Allen- a RH batter swinging a 1/2 ton bat succeeding against Ryan's heat- you must be kidding me!  The deceptiveness of mental images. Other hitters who had notable success against Ryan were Jimmy Wynn and Will Clark.  Conclusion: it really helps to be a great hitter to succeed against a great pitcher, but a lot of it is luck.

I am reading Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.  It's a summary of his research in very simple terms- there are whole sections of regression to the mean, small sample sizes and so on.  It is a sabermetric book disguised as the work of a Nobel prize winning economist.  They're everywhere, you can't escape them...I suspect that Kahneman might agree with my conclusion about succeeding against Nolan Ryan. 

The 1979 Batting Title (An Off-Day Diversion) | 21 comments | Create New Account
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