Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dunn is Done, All hail Dan Johnson

One month ago, it appeared as if the most interesting thing likely to happen on the last day of the season might be Adam Dunn's pursuit of history. The pennant races were dull, with clear leaders in every race. Little did anyone know...

On September 9, the St. Louis hosted the Atlanta Braves in the first of a 3-game series. The Braves led in the wild card race by 7.5 games. Going in to the bottom of the ninth, the Braves were ahead in the game, 3-1. Their sensational rookie closer, Craig Kimbrel, took the mound. A win would improve the Braves record to 85-60 -- a .586 winning percentage -- and reduce the Braves magic number for a playoff spot to 10, with 17 games remaining. A .586 winning percentage equates to 9.97 wins per 17 games.

With two outs, the Cardinals had a runner on first base. Rafael Furcal, hitting .217, came to the plate. Kimbrel prepared to close out the game, but then something strange happened: He went wild. He walked Furcal on 4 pitches. Then he walked pinch-hitter Ryan Theriot on five pitches.

So now it was bases loaded. Season on the line for the Cardinals. Down two runs, and down to their last out. And now batting for the Cardinals: Prince Albert Pujols. It was a mismatch. Pujols laced Kimbrel's 2nd pitch in to right field to tie the game. The Cards won in the 10th, then swept the rest of the series. Race on.

That same night, the Tampa Bay Rays hosted the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox had been stumbling in September, but they held a 6.5 game lead over the Rays. A win would improve their record to 86-58 -- a .597 winning percentage -- and reduce their magic number to 12, with 18 games remaining. But the Rays won, 7-2, and went on to sweep the Red Sox, easily. Race on.

Cut forward to the greatest day of regular season baseball in major league history. Oh, there have been other great days, for sure. In 1990, there were two no-hitters on the same day. But nothing like this. Coming in to the day, both wild card races were tied, as the Cardinals had caught the Braves and the Rays caught the Red Sox.

But for a moment, I digress to Adam Dunn. Dunn didn't play yesterday. He did play on Tuesday, though, striking out in all 3 of his at bats. He finished the season with 496 plate appearances, falling 6 short of being a "qualifier." He ended up hitting .159, and even were he to have gotten hits in 6 consecutive plate appearances (thus getting to 502), he would have ended only at .171, easily worsting Rob Deer's .179 20 years ago. He also ended with another ghastly streak: In his last 8 plate appearances, he had 6 strikeouts and 2 walks; that is, not a single time during that span did Dunn put a ball in to play.

But, as they say, what's Dunn is done. As for last night, I think a book could be written.

In Atlanta, Kimbrel re-created his St. Louis meltdown. This time, with a 3-2 ninth inning lead against the Phillies, Kimbrel walked 3 batters and squandered the lead. The Braves ended up losing the game -- and their shot at the post-season -- in th 13th.

But that was the undercard.

In the American League, the Yankees led the Rays, 7-0, in the 8th inning. But the Yankees were using the game merely as a tune-up for the playoffs; they would end up using eleven pitchers. The Rays scored 6 runs in the 8th, but still were down to their last out in the 9th with the score 7-6. Manager Joe Maddon sent up Dan Johnson to pinch-hit.

Johnson was once a Moneyball player. Drafted in 2001 by the Oakland A's -- the year before the one highlighted by Michael Lewis, Johnson was once a player whose on-base percentage and slugging made up for a relatively poor batting average. In 2011, though, Johnson's stats would make Adam Dunn look good. Yes, Johnson started at first base for the Rays on opening day. He even got a hit that day. But he'd had just 8 more hits, all season. His last home run capped an improbable 5-run 9th inning rally to win a game against the White Sox... on April 8th. His last hit was on April 27th. Johnson's batting average was .108. His "OPS+," a measure of his on-base and slugging as compared to league averages -- where 100 is the average score -- was negative 3. And Joe Maddon was putting the entire season on Johnson's shoulders. Down to his last strike, and after having fouled off a pitched, Johnson hit a home run to tie the game.

And that wasn't the end of it, either. The two American League games would end within about 2 minutes of each other, first with Boston completing a spectacular implosion, and then with the Rays winning their game. For certainly the first -- and hopefully the last -- time, Yankees fans everywhere erupted in joy over their team blowing a 7-run lead. Seasoned members of the press appeared to be in shock; an hour after the game ESPN personality Tim Kurkjian still looked like he was about to cry. Still, to me, the night belonged to Dan Johnson. For all I know, he may never get another big league at bat. To me, what happened last night, this is why we watch the game. It will be very hard for the post-season to top it.

Associated Press, photo

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Worst Hitter in Modern Major League History

A record was set tonight in Major League Baseball. It's a bit of a big record, though I'm supposing that the record-holder would just as soon not have it. And you wouldn't know it from that picture, either (that was a home run).

In Chicago, the Designated Hitter -- and if ever there was a more ironic title, I'd like to know it -- Adam Dunn went 0-for-2 with a walk. For the year now, he has 66 hits and 75 walks. Not many players get more walks than hits in a season, though some of those players are very, very good. That list includes Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds. But this in not about Dunn's ability to draw walks.

Dunn has also amassed 174 strikeouts this season. That's 108 more strikeouts than hits; the record is 112, set just last year by Mark Reynolds, then of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The ratio of strikeouts to hits, 2.64, is a record for someone with as many hits as Dunn. But this is not about Dunn's impressive ability to miss the baseball.

Tonight in Chicago, Dunn collected two walks and two strikeouts. That is, in 4 plate appearances, he never once hit a fair ball. Overall this season, Dunn has put the ball in fair territory in less than half of his plate appearances -- 48.3%, to be exact. Only 46.0% of Dunn's plate appearances have ended with a ball in play (Dunn has hit 11 home runs). Barry Bonds nearly matched this in 2004... but then, Barry Bonds was the National League MVP that year, with 45 home runs and an astounding 232 walks, an on-base percentage of .609, and an OPS of 1.422. Those are also all-time major-league records. If you set those kinds of records, it's probably ok to have so many plate appearances end without the ball being touched by a fielder. I'd have liked to have seen a splash-down in McCovey Cove, too. But, though Dunn has hit at least 38 home runs in each of the past 7 seasons before this one, this isn't about Dunn's all-or-nothing batting approach.

Dunn, as every poor Chicago White Sox fan sure knows, is having an absolutely miserable season. With tonight's game, Dunn now has 412 at bats and a .160 batting average. That's less than the pitching staff of the Philadelphia Phillies, and though Dunn still has a chance to outhit them (they're at .161, overall), he's not about to outpitch former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee, who has a .200 batting average to go along with his 17 wins.

What Dunn did tonight might not be recognized for a little while... if at all.
Dunn's plate appearances this evening give him 493 for the season. As baseball statheads know, to officially "qualify" but batting titles involving averages, there is a requirement for 3.1 plate appearances per each game the player's team plays. Or, 502 plate appearances in 162 games. Just a few weeks ago, resigning manager Ozzie Guillen finally decided to bench Dunn. As an ESPN article from August 31st stated, "Dunn would need 502 total plate appearances to officially be anointed the worst of the worst when it comes to batting average over a full season, and the plan the White Sox have laid out figures to save him from being a historical footnote." But, after a couple weeks of having Dunn sit, Guillen re-inserted Dunn in to the line-up. He is now 0 for hist last 20, which, as unbelievable as it may seem, is his longest hitless streak of the year... unless I've missed one or two (there are a lot of long hitless streaks for Dunn this year).

Dunn set the record, tonight, for worst ever batting average in a season. Now, as noted about, Dunn has not yet officially qualified for this honor. And, with just 2 games left, he may very well not get the 9 plate appearances he needs to get to 502; he hasn't had more than 4 in any of his past 7 games, after all.

But it no longer matters, and here is why:
The modern record holder for worst batting average in a season was by Rob Deer of the Detroit Tigers, with a .179 average in 1991. Deer, much like Dunn, struck out a lot, walked a lot, and hit a lot of home runs.

ok, here's where I note that, officially, the record belongs to Bill Bergen, a catcher for the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas, who hit an astounding .139. Bergen "qualified" by the rules in use at the time, though he would not, by today's rules. The New York Times ran an article on Bergen's futility last month, calling it awesome.

Since 1967, according to baseball-reference.com, "a player could lead if they still led after the necessary number of hitless plate appearances were added to their at bat total."

I figure, then, that the converse must be true as well: "a player could be worst if they are still worst after the necessary number of plate appearances with hits (or HRs, walks, whatever) were added to their at bat total." In other words, for Mr. Dunn, I can get to 502 plate appearances by adding 9 hits! And, upon doing so, I could raise his batting average only to .178, thus ensuring that he will finish worse than Deer, even if we have to add hits to get Dunn to 502 plate appearances. Barring a long extra inning game or an unexpected surge from the Chicago offense, Dunn will not get more than that number of plate appearances. Therefore, he has clinched the new record for "worst modern major league batting average."

Not that Adam Dunn needs congratulating, but, at least so far as I'm concerned, he has the record now.
Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images of Dunn swinging... and not missing.

Elianna's latest gems

In recent years, I have used this blog less and less frequently... but sometimes there are things, little things, I just want to remember. And if I just put it on facebook, I may never find it again.

Tonight, I got home very late from work. Elianna was waiting for me. "Guess what?," she said. "Remember that spelling test I took??" "Did you get it back?" I knew she hadn't studied for it, because she lost the study sheet. The day of her test, I thought I had found it on her bed. There was a big yellow sheet of paper there, and in big letters, in her handwriting, it said, "SPELL WORDS." It had a lot of words on it, all scribbled down in her writing. So I had said, "Here are your spelling words! OK, now, accio??" and at that point I gave up trying to help her for her test. But I digress. "I get to re-take my test!!" That was a prelude to, "I was close, I only missed that one by one letter!"

Later, as I was putting her to sleep, I asked Elianna, "when is your make-up test?" At this, she jumped up on the bed, and exclaimed, "make-up test???" And, making exaggerated gestures with her hands and a bit of a pose as if holding up something small and pointing to it, "This is the red make-up!! This is the blue make-up!!"

This is going to be an interesting year for the munchkin.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Obama and the Queen of Soul in Detroit

I'm not much for attending major political events, or going to see big-name politicians. When I was at grad school at USC in 1984, I saw two campaign appearances.

At the first one, Walter Mondale had to answer some particularly obnoxious hecklers by bellowing, "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. This is the school that produced Donald Segretti!" No, they didn't throw tomatoes, as Susan Estrich has recalled, or if they did, their aim was bad enough so I didn't notice. Then again, they probably didn't know who Segretti was, anyway. It was a great put-down, but the jecklers just kept on shouting, "Reagan Country!"

Later that same fall, I saw a campaign appearance for the Republicans. Vice President Bush spoke. The USC mascot, Traveler, paraded around with its rider --presumably Richard Saukko -- in full regalia. The introduction was by Moses himself, Charlton Heston. It was all very... regal and distant.

Politicians -- good politicians, anyway -- tend to be very practiced at saying things they think their audiences want to hear. So, convinced I will end up hearing nothing of value at all, I have mostly tended to avoid them. I went to a couple of Obama campaign events in 2008, but as I recall, I had another reason to be there.

Barrack Obama, as President, has proved particularly disappointing to me. While I have found him to be a forceful, authoritative speaker, but his actions have only rarely seemed to match his rhetoric. Nonetheless, when I found out that he had chosen Detroit as the location for his Labor Day appearance -- not just Detroit, but a location in Detroit that is very familiar to me, on a surface lot by the Detroit Riverwalk just East of the Renaissance Center, I saw it as a family opportunity. So, on Friday I walked across most of downtown Detroit on a blazingly hot afternoon to the AFSCME 207 Local Office to pick up tickets. This would be a chance for both myself, Lori and the kids to see a current President of the United States.

The experience? Probably the hardest part was getting to my regular parking lot -- it took 3 approaches and several detours to get to a passage that was open. By the time we got to the lot, the pre-speech activities has started. Not that we cared. John Dingell spoke. Sander Levin spoke. Debbie Stabenow spoke. Several Union officials spoke. Then, we got the big highlight:

She looked good, and sounded better. And the band leader was just... cool.

Finally, Obama was introduced by a member of the AFL-CIO. Elianna climbed on my shoulders to get a better view. 65 pounds for half an hour is painful, but it'll be ok once my shoulders stop hurting. Obama said all the right things today. There were predictable chants in the audience -- "Four More Years," mostly. The Segretti minions were missing. The audience was decidedly mixed: Black, white, union, non-union, and nearly all festive. Elianna remembers he said something about building a new bridge, and that seems about right.

After the event, we went in to Greektown for pizza. In the meantime, Fox News created a new "scandal" by doctoring the warm-up remarks by Jimmy Hoffa. I can't wait to talk to the kids about that.

Picture from the Detroit Free Press