Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gibson's Opponents

I'm inspired this morning. You see, I had the privilege of snagging an advance copy of Neyer's new book, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else, and I finished it just last night. I'll have a full writeup in the next day or two, but in the meantime, know that aside from entertainment and edification, the purpose of the book is to check the accuracy of "tracers."

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?

7 comments:

64cardinals said...

I'm going to buy the book. And I'm going to read it. And I'm pretty sure I'll like it from a literary aspect.

But I'm not sure I'll like it as a baseball fan. I love the lore and history of the game, but I'm not sure I want to know the truth about all of those stories. I think the premise is great, and in any other subject, I would love it. But I'm not sure about for baseball.

We all embellish and rationalize and adjust our memories. But do any of us really want to go back and know that the hot chick we banged in college was really only tequila pretty, or the first (only) homerun we ever hit was on a 125 hook past the LF foul pole instead of a blast past the 320' marker in dead center.

I figured I could say 'bang' after some of the language yesterday. Is that okay?

Shyster said...

I think you'll still like it, 64. Indeed, Both James and Neyer anticipate that criticism -- Neyer's first words in the book are "This book is not for everyone" -- and I'll admit I worried about that too.

After a few pages, though, the fear went away. Neyer is very respectful of the old stories and to the extent he has to debunk them, he is polite and goes out of his way to give the teller the benefit of the doubt.

More importantly, once you get into it, you are easily able (if you wish) to simply enjoy the stories -- which Neyer relates -- and fun added context -- which Neyer supplies -- and ignore the occasional concluding bucket of cold water.

At the end of the day, so many of the stories were ones I had never heard before that I seldom felt like someone was telling me there wasn't any Santa Claus. It just felt like good baseball history.

Shyster said...

I'm pretty lax on the language 64. If someone complains, I'll take note, but for the most part, I'm only out to prevent truly offensive, racist, and sexist stuff that doesn't have any redeeming value.

The comment I think you were referring to yesterday, while it made me chafe, did raise a decent (if crude) point about my objectivity. Indeed, given that I knew I'd soon be writing about Rob's book in this space, I felt the need to keep it up and address it head on.

Conrad said...

In the "esteemed" words of our "esteemed" president, "You're either with us or against us," and I'm with ya' Shyster!

Conrad said...

P.S. I never like the voodoo and yarns people seem to weave after their age 45 season or so, so I do appreciate the attempt by the analytical community to debunk some of that stuff . . .

Jake said...

So it's like a "Mythbusters" for baseball?!?

I'm highly intrigued...

Roger Moore said...

You can put me firmly on the side of the investigators. I'm a scientist, so the idea that we shouldn't investigate stories because we might learn they aren't true is just alien to me. I'd much rather learn that my beliefs are wrong than to go on believing in something that's untrue.

Besides, it's pessimistic to think only about the stories that are debunked. You also have to think about the stories that are shown to be true. It's great to know that these things aren't just legends and have a basis in fact. And the full story, the version you can tell after investigating and getting the full facts, is often more interesting and enlightening than the anecdote that started the tracer in the first place.

There was a fantastic example of the later in one of the recent SABR publications. The author investigated Roberto Clemente's complaints that the Dodgers had tried hiding as a minor leaguer by benching him every time he had a good game. It's true that he wasn't a full-time player, but it wasn't a conspiracy. Instead, it looks as though he was being platooned. Apparently as a 19 year old Clemente didn't understand that- and nobody bothered to explain it to him- so all he remembered was the frustration of sitting out games for no obvious reason. Figuring out the truth opens up a whole welter of new questions- like why the Dodgers were platooning a 19 year old prospect- and gives us a new perspective on what really happened. I'll take that over a bogus story any day and twice on Sunday.