What's a tracer? A tracer is the term Bill James and Neyer use for those old, often repeated anecdotes of ballplayers, writers, and the like usually delivered on the after-dinner circuit years after the fact, all of which beg to be debunked. In the book, Rob takes something like a hundred of them -- some of which even the most hard boiled of us have accepted as gospel for a long time -- relates them with care and added context -- and then proceeds to either debunk or verify them with the aid of Retrosheet, news accounts, game logs, or whatever. That description doesn't necessarily do the book justice -- like I said, full writeup coming soon -- but that's generally what he's doing.
After I began reading the book, I found myself seeing tracers everywhere and wondering whether things really happened the way the fella doing the telling says it did. Example: this morning's story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about Bob Gibson's stellar 1968 season:
"You knew you weren't going to get a lot of runs," Gibson said. "Shoot, every time I pitched it was against Ferguson Jenkins or Juan Marichal ... every one of my starts was just about against one of those guys. What were the chances of us scoring a lot of runs? It just didn't exist. You had to keep other teams down, or you'd lose."
I'll grant that the question presented -- just how many times did Gibson face Jenkins and Marichal in 1968? -- is a bit of a petty one. Hey, I'm not writing a book, so I can afford to be more petty than Rob. But it's one that, after reading Baseball Legends, you're going to find yourself asking every time you read a quote from a reminiscing ballplayer.
So how bad was the onslaught from Jenkins and Marichal in 1968? Looking at Gibson's game logs on Baseball-Reference.com tells us the answer rather quickly: out of 34 starts, three came against Fergie Jenkins (April 20th; June 20th, and August 4th); and one against Juan Marichal (July 6th). Those three against Jenkins were the most starts Gibson had against any single pitcher in the NL that season. He got off easier on Marichal -- only one game -- but he did have multiple starts against guys who actually put up better years than the Dominican Dandy did that year. Guys like Gary Nolan (132 ERA+) and Bob Veale (141 ERA+); not to mention matchups against guys named Seaver, Perry, Niekro, Drysdale, and Sutton, all of whom were half-decent hurlers. It was rough out there in 1968.
But Gibson was right: his team didn't score a lot of runs against Marichal and Jenkins. In those starts, the Cardinals scored one run, one run, five runs, and three runs, respectively. 1968 was a historically-bad run scoring year, but the Cardinals did average 3.5 runs that season, so with the exception of that relative shelling of Jenkins on August 4th, runs were harder than usual to come by for Hoot in those games.
Not that support was always Gibson's biggest problem against those guys. Gibson was shellacked (relatively speaking) in two of the three games against Jenkins' Cubs, losing 5-1 in the April start and 6-5 in August (he did manage to shut them out 1-0 in June). Only one opponent, the Pirates, scored more runs against the Cardinals in a single Gibson start that year, with six on August 24th (blasting Gibson's ERA from 1.00 to 1.07). Marichal didn't fare as well, with his Giants getting shutout 3-0 in July. Of course, given that Gibson spun 13 shutouts that year, he had company.
Is debunking (or in this case sorta kinda not really debunking) these kinds of stories worth it? You may be surprised to hear that Bill James, in the foreword to Rob's book, openly questions the wisdom of the endeavor as somehow robbing the past of its comforting charms (he ultimately comes down with his trademark ambivalence). But I tend to think that it is.
For one thing, going back over these stories with a fine toothed comb provides a wonderful opportunity to simply hear them again, and that's always worth it no matter how full of beans the storytellers were. What's more, you find yourself discovering little nuggests you never knew before, like the fact that Bob Veale had a hell of a season in 1968 despite going 13-14.
More importantly, though, it serves as a handy reminder of why most of us got into baseball analysis in the first place. To separate the wheat form the chaff and the fact from the hoodoo. Some have and always will hate that kind of approach. I, for one, credit it for rekindling my love of the game as an adult, and am happy to engage in it whenever possible.
What say you?