Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bo Knows Excitement, Part II

To my surprise, I've received a few billion emails about the Bo Jackson/folk hero column I wrote last week -- it seems the man still resonates 20 years later -- and one of them was from a reader who wanted to make it very clear to me that Bo Jackson was vastly overrated as a baseball player. He made this clear by enclosing a detailed (I mean DETAILED) statistical comparison between Bo Jackson and ... Albert Pujols. I must admit that he was able to prove quite convincingly that Albert Pujols is indeed a better baseball player than Bo Jackson was. He did not, however, give me any particular reason to believe that the earth revolves around the sun.

Yes, I was really, really tempted to send the reader one of the greeting cards I've been meaning to design and get Hallmark to sell in its stores.

Friend,
I'm sorry we missed each other. I hope we can have lunch soon.
Sincerely,
The Point

Then I realized that in his own way, the reader was sort of making a point of his own and one worth thinking about: Are exciting players, by definition, overrated?

In a way, I think that touches on the most fascinating part of the book "Moneyball" -- for me that part that had nothing to do with on-base percentage or not bunting or the relative unimportance of defense or how to avoid high school pitchers in the draft. The part I found fascinating was the discussion of how difficult it is to clearly see and fairly evaluate anything through our biases.

Moneyball focused more on players we underrated (Chad Bradford the prime example in Moneyball) because they don't look like players, or because they don't throw hard enough, or because they can't run or are too small or whatever.

So is the opposite true? Do we overrate certain players because we just like watching them play?

I say yes. Take Barry Sanders. Please. I realize this is a football example, but I think the point is the same and anyway I've already gotten into near fist-fights about Barry Sanders, so I might as well bring him up again. Barry Sanders was probably the most exciting football player I've ever seen (Bo was up there too, Randy Moss as a rookie, Dante Hall for a little while, Earl Campbell, Gayle Sayers, Deion, that Boise State quarterback ...). Every game, Sanders would show you a move you had never seen before, and pretty often he was going to make a run that would leave you breathless. He was absolutely amazing. People often compare sports to the freelancing of jazz -- I think Barry Sanders was the closest thing I've seen.

He was, in my opinion, also pretty vastly overrated.

When I say overrated, I don't mean he stunk. Far from it. I just mean that many people -- most people? -- rank Barry Sanders as one of the top two or three running backs in NFL history and they put him high on the "Player you would start a team with" list. For me, Barry Sanders is nowhere near the top of either of those lists.

Why not? He really couldn't block. He really couldn't catch. He was not a guy you could rely on to get the big yard on third-and-one. The guy had more negative plays than any great back ever -- he would just dance around and dance around looking to break something. It was fun to watch, unless you were his coach.

How frustrating was he? For several years, his coach Wayne Fontes would TAKE HIM OUT near the goal line. Could you imagine this happening for any truly great back?

"THAT'S BECAUSE WAYNE FONTES WAS AN IDIOT!" the emails always begin. Maybe so. Maybe not. But idiot or not, Wayne Fontes LOVED Barry Sanders. I’ve heard several times that he was the only one in the Lions' organization who wanted to draft Barry. He had an offense designed especially for Barry. And yet he felt certain that the best way for his team to win was to yank Sanders out near the goal line. That says something, no?

His playoff numbers say something too:
1991 vs. Dallas: 12 carries, 69 yards, 1 touchdown.
1991 vs. Washington: 11 carries, 44 yards, 0 touchdowns.
1993 vs. Green Bay: 27 carries, 169 yards, 0 touchdowns.
1994 vs. Green Bay: 13 carries, -1 yard, 0 touchdowns.
1995 vs. Philadelphia: 10 carries, 40 yards, 0 touchdowns.
1997 vs. Tampa: 18 carries, 65 yards, 0 touchdowns.

"THAT'S BECAUSE THE LIONS SUCKED!" the emails always begin. Maybe so. But they did make the playoffs five times in Barry's career -- in large part because of Barry, certainly -- and he was pretty much a non-factor in just about every one of those playoff games. The bottom line for me is the guy was exciting and thrilling, but honestly, I think you would have had a hard time winning a Super Bowl with him.

Every time I write this I get violent emails from Barry fans who talk about how he would have gained 12 billion yards had he run behind, say, the Cowboys offensive line (I usually throw in how I think Emmitt Smith was a better back) and how I'm obviously a Communist who despises his mother and so on ... people get very emotional about Barry Sanders. Then, I think this expresses the point: Exciting players touch off emotions. Emotions prevent people from seeing or thinking clearly. Ergo (I love the word "ergo"): Exciting players are overrated.

If you want a baseball example, let's go back to my favorite: Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry. They pitched the same number of innings. They had similar ERAs and were similarly effective. You can spend countless hours trying to determine which one was better (believe me, I know) and never come to any real conclusion. Bruce Sutter was more exciting though. He struck people out. He popularized a pitch. He's in the Hall of Fame. And Quiz, who was not exciting, did not even get enough Hall of Fame votes to stay on the ballot.

OK, we move on. By the way, I also think Albert Pujols really is a better ballplayer than Bo. Really. Willie Mays was better too.

* * *

We now list off our Top 10 most exciting players in baseball today. I want to confirm many readers' views that it really is stupid to rate exciting players by using some sort of statistical formula. I think I wanted to see if I could invent a formula that would, more or less, give me a top 25 that mirrored my own opinions. I came somewhat close, even if I don't know exactly how I did it.

One other thing: Several people wrote in asking why I don't include inside-the-park homers in the formula. It's a good question, and I have a terrible answer: I have absolutely no idea where to find a list of inside the park homers. I'm sure it's out there and easy to find, but I could not find it. If someone wants to point me to the list, I'll happily do a whole blog entry on inside-the-parkers ... I'm fascinated by them. In the meantime, though, here we go with the Top 10:

10. Rafael Furcal
Excitement score: 126

One of the most amazing baseball experiences of my life was going to the Dominican Republic with Tony Pena. A couple of years later it would turn out that Tony wasn't necessarily the most hearty of characters -- he quit in the middle of the year after some unsuccessful stunts and a lot of losing and a messy situation that involved a divorce (not his own).

Still, I think the world of Tony because I saw where he came from -- literally, we walked through his old house -- and I saw the way people in the Dominican idolized him, and I saw how much he gave back.

In any case, we were driving around one day and we ended up in the little town somewhere -- I think it may have been close to where Juan Marichal grew up. We got out of the car, and there were young kids playing baseball on some sort of dirt field. They were using a pipe for a bat. Really. A pipe. They had some sort of beat up round thing that may have been a ball or a rock or something in between. And they had like three gloves, which they shared. It was so archetypal, so representative of everything I had ever heard about Dominican baseball, I would have been tempted to believe some movie producer had set it up before we arrived.

We watched the game for a while (the shortstop, naturally, was dazzling) and we got back in the car. A few minutes later, we came upon another town, and another dirt field, and exactly the same scene.

And I understood in a deeper way how Rafael Furcal, Luis Castillo, Cesar Cedeno, Tony Fernandez, Alfredo Griffin, Vlad Guererro, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada and so many other exciting players had come from the Dominican Republic. It isn't just desperation to get out and make money and all that. It has something, I think, to do with imagination.

9. Ryan Howard
Excitement score: 126

Well, I just got back from St. Louis -- had a terrific book signing. Even the time at a U.S. Cellular store wasn't too bad; lots of people came in. So, in honor of the fine city that I have sometimes, in my wicked past, mocked ... here's a rapidly thrown-together all-time St. Louis team:

All-time team of players born in St. Louis:

Catcher: Yogi Berra.
First base: Charlie Grimm.
Second base: Ron Hunt (just for the hit-by pitches)
Shortstop: Lonny Frey (more of a second baseman, but he could play short)
Third base: Bobby Byrne
OF: Pete Reiser
OF: Roy Sievers (beats out Bernard Gilkey)
OF: Elston Howard (moved the outfield by Yogi again)
DH: Ryan Howard
Bat off the bench: Nate Colbert
Fourth outfielder: Jack Tobin
Special mention: Don Mueller (struck out seven times one year in 453 at-bats ... but only walked 15 times).
Should have played someplace other than catcher: Muddy Ruel.
Restaurateur and ballplayer: Mike Shannon.
Played too long ago but had one heck of a name: George Edward Martin Van Haltren.
Manager: Dick Williams.

8. Scott Rolen
Excitement score: 127

So I was watching my "This Week in Baseball" videotape -- seriously, what are we supposed to do with videos now? Do they even make VCRs anymore? Anyway, I decided my five favorite kinds of defensive plays (in order) are:

1. Third baseman making a diving backhand stop, hopping to feet, and ripping off a bazooka throw to first base.
2. Outfielder running to the wall and legitimately stealing a home run.
3. Shortstop diving for ball hit up the middle, bouncing to feet, throwing out runner.
4. Third baseman charging on bunt, bare-handing, whipping throw underhanded.
5. Shortstop or second baseman running back on looper and making dramatic over the shoulder catch.

You will notice two third-base plays in my Top 5 -- and the "Third baseman diving to his left, scrambling to his feet, throwing out runner" is pretty high on my list too. The truth is, I love watching a third baseman play defense. That probably explains why I tilted the system to get Rolen in here.

7. Carlos Beltran
Excitement score: 129

I've written here before that Carlos is, by far, the most exciting player I've ever covered day-in, day-out. I heard writers talk about what a thrill it was to cover DiMaggio or Mays or Williams (well maybe not Williams) or Musial. Every day, they might do something to thrill you. That's how it was, for a little while, with Carlos.

There was a rain-makeup game against Arizona that comes to mind -- it was Sept. 4, 2003, and he did everything that day. He bunted for a single. He stole three bases. He ran down a fly ball. He went first to third on a sharp single -- Beltran is a beautiful runner, long stride, hardly seems to be exerting himself. He hit a long sac fly against Randy Johnson. He was a show. But the best part happened in the ninth inning -- the Royals were down 1 run -- and he faced Matt Mantei, who was still throwing about 284 mph back then.

I remember Beltran battled him and battled him, fouling off pitches (at least this is how I remember it) and working his way for a walk. He stole second. He stole third. And he scored on a very, very short fly ball -- one short enough that the second baseman could have caught it. The right fielder did catch it, and he threw, and in memory it wasn't even close. Carlos had just taken over the game -- acted like he was an older brother playing with kids. He would do that sometimes (even in the playoffs, as you might recall) and it was amazing to watch.

Incidentally (or perhaps not incidentally) the Royals lost that game in extra innings. This is my life.

6. Albert Pujols
Excitement score: 130

Let's say Albert Pujols plays until he's 40. Let's say he stays healthy. Let's say that until he's 35, he just about the same player he was the last six years. And let's say after that, he loses a little bit each year until he's 40. I realize that's a lot of "let's says" and this isn't realistic, and, hell, I probably figured it wrong anyway. But I want to put the stats I came up with anyway.

Pujols projected numbers if he played to 40.

Average: .329
Hits: 3,708
Doubles: 832 (most ever)
Triples: 38
Home runs: 800 (most ever)
Runs: 2,393 (most ever)
RBIs: 2,426 (most ever)

You know what? He definitely is a better baseball player than Bo Jackson was.

5. Grady Sizemore
Excitement score: 131

I had always heard that Sizemore was the throw-in player in the Bartolo Colon deal. I'd heard that the Indians really wanted Brandon Phillips, who was the mega-prospect, and they wanted Cliff Lee, the lefty who could throw hard. And Sizemore was more of a project -- he had hit .268 in Low A the year before and even though he walked a lot and stole some bases, he showed no power and he struck out a ton. In fact, I've heard many people say that Indians GM Mark Shapiro's best move was, in fact, lucky.

"Don't kid yourself," one baseball executive told me. "I think a lot of people understood that Sizemore was the prize in that deal. He could run like hell, he played a huge center field, he played baseball with passion and everybody knew the power would come. I'm not sure we knew it would come this fast -- but I'll tell you this: When that trade was made, I got calls from a whole bunch of people around the game saying, 'Damn, how did Mark get Sizemore?'"

Whatever the motivation, Sizemore absolutely took off the day the Indians acquired him. He had been hitting .258 with zero homers in high-A when the trade was made. The rest of the year, he hit .343 in Kinston, and the next year he hit for power, showed off some speed in Akron and became one of the top prospects in baseball. Now, he's the guy many would choose to start their team.

4. Jose Reyes
Excitement score: 133

I wish I could have gotten him higher. I wish I could have made him No. 1. To me, Reyes is the most exciting player in the game. But the system is the system, and this is where Reyes ended up. In any case, the Mets have two of the 10 most exciting players in all of baseball and a bunch of guys who are like 58 years old. It's like you have Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and the cast of Cocoon.

I have slogans:

Beltran and Reyes and afternoon buffet-yus
Beltran and Reyes and wash away gray-yus
Beltran and Reyes and lots of toupee-yus
Reyes and Beltran and is The Price is Right on?

3. Jimmy Rollins
Excitement score: 134

Buck O'Neil loved Jimmy Rollins. He used to say that Rollins was the one player who really reminded him of how they played ball in the Negro Leagues ... lots of speed, some power, lots of energy and so on.

The last two-plus years, Rollins has stolen 86 bases and been caught only 11 times. That's 88.7 percent success rate -- which is historically good.

Top five career stolen base percentages since 1951 and a few current players (minimum 150 steals):
1. Carlos Beltran, 87.3%
2. Tim Raines, 84.7%
3. Eric Davis, 84.1%
4. Willie Wilson, 83.3%
5. Barry Larkin, 83.1%
10. Carl Crawford, 82.1%
12. Jose Reyes, 81.3%
20. Ichiro Suzuki, 80.5%
21. Jimmy Rollins, 80.4%
22. Alex Rodriguez, 80.1%

2. Carl Crawford
Excitement score: 135

How many players in baseball history have hit .300, banged 20 homers and stolen 60 bases? Go ahead and take a guess. I guessed before I looked it up -- I guessed nine players. I thought it might be a couple more than that, actually, but my Price is Right childhood has always inspired me to guess low. You don't want to go over. Bet a dollar!

Anyway, I was way off. The correct answer. Two.

1. Joe Morgan, 1976: .320, 27 homers, 60 stolen bases.
2. Rickey Henderson (twice).
1985: .314, 24 homers, 80 stolen bases.
1990: .325, 28 homers, 65 stolen bases.

So, I think it would be fair to say that as an athlete, Carl Crawford is in rare, rare company. He has not pulled off the .300/20/60 trick just yet, but he's come awfully close already -- last year, at age 24, he hit .305 with 18 homers and 58 stolen bases.

People don't think or talk much about Carl Crawford, which tells you a lot about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was the same situation with Carlos Beltran in Kansas City. He will get his big stage somewhere and everyone will realize just how exciting and amazing a player he is. And poor Tampa fans will be left with the grim reward of knowing they were on him first, sort of like those people who followed Springsteen around New Jersey in the early 1970s or those early REM fans in Athens, Ga.

1. Ichiro Suzuki
Excitement score: 139

Well, he is exciting. He is one of the few guys in baseball who inspire me to count batters until his next time up, although that might be because I simply don't want to watch Richie Sexson hit anymore. The Royals have already played the Mariners two series this season, and in the first I thought Ichiro looked pretty brutal in center field. He didn't actually commit an error, but I thought he took lousy routes, I think he let one ball drop that he might have caught, and even on plays he made he looked kind of shaky.

Second series though, he was absolutely terrific in center field. I mean Gold Glove terrific. He made one of the best catches I've seen this year. He ran down several throws. He prevented a couple of runners from going first to third. ... Plus, how can you not like watching that crazy batting style.

I will also tell you since this is a Buck O'Neil-inspired blog that Ichiro had great respect for Buck and the Negro Leagues. I mean GREAT respect -- he has never wanted publicity for it, but he has always very quietly (and generously) supported the Negro Leagues Museum and he sometimes asked Buck for advice. I think he's a pretty amazing guy. I will say thism though: I see the 10 million reporters follow him around and I wonder, "Do you think at any point Japanese newspaper readers pick up their paper and say (in Japanese): "Oh man, ANOTHER story on Ichiro. I get it. He went 1 for 4. Terrific. Can you leave me alone with the Ichiro deal already?"

16 comments:

matt said...

joe, first, i want you to know i obsessively check for new posts from you. second, i will buy your book as soon as i can ... afford it ... because, three, i live in cleveland, a town you know well. as for the colon-sizemore trade, the way it was presented here was that phillips was the trade, lee was projected as at least a league-average starter (which he more or less is), and sizemore was a raw prospect with a lot of potential. he wasn't exactly considered a "throw-in," but was pretty much considered a tantalizing extra part. funny how things work out, isn't it? just tonight, watching the tribe bash on the tigers at a West Side dive bar, i remarked to a pal (this was about how well jeremy guthrie's been throwing for baltimore) that it's really amazing, considering how moribund the franchise was for so long, that a big problem the team has had for quite some time now is ... too much young talent to figure out how to use. and isn't it interesting that the royals -- who haven't had a dearth of young talent themselves over the years -- haven't been able to find a way to hang on to enough parts long enough to let them gel together the way the indians have managed to do? maybe "interesting" isn't the right word; but the hart/shapiro indians certainly wouldn't have lost damon, beltran, dye and so many others, and it certainly isn't because this franchise has had a whole lot of money with which to work. the royals just seem never to have had enough pieces at once, or enough of a financial plan. what a shame. i mean, the royals were so good for so long when i was growing up that they just may have been my mother's most-hated AL team (nowadays, it's the red sox). i repeat, what a shame ... sorry for the long comment, but as i alluded earlier, i love the blog and hadn't chimed in yet. i quite enjoy your newspaper work as well. and i do look forward to the book. thanks, a lot.

Anonymous said...

Joe,

This series was fantastic. Thanks for writing.

Jonathan said...

Ok, Joe, don't forget David Wright on the Mets for young guys...so it's Beltran, Wright, and Reyes and afternoon buffet-yus
Beltran, Wright, and Reyes and wash away gray-yus
Beltran, Wright, and Reyes and lots of toupee-yus
Reyes, Wright and Beltran and is the Price is Right on?
I will let it go though because I too am obsessed with your blog. I couldnt find a list of all the inside the park homers, but I did find this list of all the inside the park grand slams which I thought was cool and I thought you'd like as well. http://www.baseball-fever.com/archive/index.php/t-3641.html...you might know of this already, but there you go. Keep up the good work as usual.

Anonymous said...

I thought your "Greatest Day In Baseball" event at the Gem Theatre last Saturday was outstanding. It was a great time. All of the participants were candid, interesting, and funny. The highlights were the stories by Mike Sweeney, Dayton Moore, and Al Fitzmorris. And to include football and basketball players in the discussion was very nice. Thank you for putting together such a nice program.

Jonathan said...

Joe, I was looking more on the baseball almanac thing I just posted and found this list of draft picks over the 1000th pick who signed with the team...pretty interesting as Piazza is not the only diamond in the rough type player...could be a cool thing to look at with the draft coming up and being televised for the first time...http://www.baseball-fever.com/archive/index.php/t-17890.html

Charlie Kerfeld said...

Joe,

I missed you at the Verizon Wireless store in Knob Noster the other day. Man, I bought me one of those "chocolate" phones and are they ever yummy! I could have eaten 8 of them. Great stuff! Now I'll eagerly wait for them to come out with some "popcorn" or "hot dog" phones, too.

Todd said...

I'm confused because I would think because of your projections for Prince Albert, that he would be in the top 5 and not 6. I like Grady a lot, but he is really more exciting than Albert? Because when Albert is hot his shots go a long ways.

Jim H. said...

Joe:

I thought your friend Kerfeld still worked in a big league front office somewhere, but he's hanging out back in Knob Noster. Eating his way back into playing shape, I guess.

"The book" will arrive at my home today or tomorrow and I am looking foward to reading it.

I think Kirby Puckett was one of the exciting players who may have been overrated -- he wasn't built like a star (I think he enjoyed the post-game buffet as much as the game itself), he struck out too much, but he sure was fun to watch.

Somebody should pay you for this blog.

Jim H.

ajnrules said...

Heh. When you talked about inside the park home runs, I think back to the first one I've ever seen. Angel Berroa hit it back in 2003.

Anyways, I've just been wondering where Bo Jackson would rank using the same system. Heck, maybe you can even say name the 25 most exciting players of all-time.

N. J. Thomas said...

First, that would be a great postcard. Second, I'm totally with you on the Barry Sanders thing. I love that guy. I worked at the Warren Theater in Wichita, and he went to a movie once. That moment alone was one of the most thrilling sports moments of my high school years.

Yet if it were 3rd and 1 at the 1 yard line, and I had to choose between Barry Sanders in his prime and Super Old Marcus Allen, I'd pick Super Old Marcus Allen every time.

Alan said...

Love your blog, it is on top of my baseball favorites folder. you probably know this, but here is the Arizona-Kc game you mentioned-no story, but all of your facts are correct, which I assume is one of the nicest compliments a reporter can get.
http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/KCA/KCA200309040.shtml

thewineguy said...

Any formula that has Vladimir Guerrero as only the 14th most exciting player in baseball is just wrong.

Vladi "missing" is more exciting than watching most guys get a hit and in his prime a throw to the plate from Guerrero was worth the price of a ticket on its' own.

I also think Torii Hunter is a little underated but hey, it's your formula.

Anonymous said...

My two favorite non-Royals, guys who play multiple positions well, and sacrifice their bodies day in and day out are Chone Figgins who is your #19 and Ryan Freel who is not listed. I know Freel probably gets to much play on Sportscenter, but he is absolutely relentless and just flat-out tough-as-hell.

Max said...

Emil Brown is very exciting, but for all the wrong reasons.

Anonymous said...

"Incidentally (or perhaps not incidentally) the Royals lost that game in extra innings. This is my life."

I love it.

Anonymous said...

I totaly expected Hanley to be #1, and then he wasn't even in the top 25? How is this possible? Other than that, it was a great blog.