Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

I'm trying to recognize anything real in this paragraph:
Remember how Aaron’s career achievements were portrayed as Bonds obliterated baseball’s geriatric slugging standards and ultimately a nation’s believability? Compared with a 37-year-old who clubbed 73 home runs in 2001, Aaron was mildly derided as an earnest toiler who never hit 50 in any one of his 23 major league seasons. 
I thought I followed the Bonds HR chase pretty closely, and, well, I don't really remember anyone saying anything even mildly negative about Aaron.  Do you? 

It's from a NYT piece by Harvey Araton, earlier this week.  Overall, it's really a mess.  He talks a lot, and alludes even more, to steroids...regular readers will know that I don't consider the use of steroids by A-Rod and (presumably) Bonds any different, in ethical terms, from the use of stimulants by virtually every player since the 1960s.  So there's that. 

But if it was all, I probably wouldn't have written an item about it.  There's the "mildly derided" thing (about which more below).  There's the idea that Rodriguez may achieve the record, but that he might not be "physically superior" to Aaron by the time he gets there, by which Araton seems to mean that while Aaron surged in his late 30s, Rodriguez is beginning his decline.  Well, that's one way to look at it.  Another way is that there's a lot of park and league illusions there...Aaron moved out of the dead ball 1960s and into the Launching Pad (as the Braves ballpark in Atlanta was known).  A-Rod moved out of Arlington and also out of the 60 HR era (because of steroids?  Could be.  We don't know).   But no question, Rodriguez is having his worst year this year at age 34, OPS+ of only 119, after losing a bunch of games the previous two years to injuries.  But yes, Aaron basically sustained his peak through 1973, his age 39 season, although the next year, when he broke the record (in April) was very ordinary, followed by two mediocre years in Milwaukee.

So, yes, Rodriguez might get the record as "40-something designated hitter, hanging on as much for the record as for his paycheck."  Or it may be that this year will be a fluke, and he still has three or four 40 HR seasons remaining.  Or perhaps he really is on the sharp decline, and he'll be out of baseball in three years without reaching 700, much less 762.  I don't know...seems to me that if he gets it, he gets it.


At any rate, and sorry if I'm rambling a little, that "mildly derided as an earnest toiler" business?  I really didn't hear any of that during the Bonds chase.  But I do think there was plenty back in the 1970s.  I agree with the conventional wisdom, there; Henry Aaron wasn't "supposed" to be the one to get the record.   It was supposed to be Willie Mays.  After all, Babe Ruth was the greatest player ever and had the most famous record in baseball, and Henry Aaron, well, wasn't the greatest player ever.  Oh, he was terrific, an inner-circle HOFer, and almost certainly the second-best RF ever.  But Mays was just a better player (and don't forget, had he not missed two years for military service Mays might have hit the record first, although he wouldn't have reached 755).  And that's not counting the New York sportswriters who idolized Mays. 

Which gets me to my final complaint about the article.  Here's how it ends:
Even as his slugging indicators have dipped, Rodriguez is still among the leaders this season in runs batted in. But if the coming act, post-35, looks more like the aging Mays than the amazing Aaron, the lingering question will be this: just how much of his prime-career performance was improperly enhanced?
Aaron, meanwhile, will remain baseball’s prime example of how to age with a pure and potent grace.
The aging Mays?  This is one of the great myths of all time.  Remember that last great Aaron season?  That was age 39.  But his age 40 season was just OK, and then he was pretty useless as a DH the next two years.  Willie Mays had his last great season at age 40.  That was 1971.  He wasn't as good a hitter in his late 30s as Aaron, but I'll take a CF with a 158 OPS+.  Even the next year, age 41, in which he was traded to the Mets, he still was pretty useful: as a part-time player (400 OBP 402 SLG, and a bit better than that after the trade).  Only in his final season, at age 42, did he really stink.  One season.  Compared to two, for Aaron..  Hey, it was horribly unfair that Aaron had to seek the record against not only the racist ugliness, but also the ugliness of New York sportswriters who thought that someone else deserved it.  But for whatever it's worth, Aaron has had a measure of revenge in the entirely phony reputations they had for how they ended their careers.

That is: it's easy to see how to be a "prime example of how to age with a pure and potent grace."  Whatever else you do, never, never, never arranged to return to New York for your final years.  Instead, go to Milwaukee.  No question about it.

5 comments:

  1. Hm. During the 1998 home run chase, when we believed that Sosa and McGwire were in no respect different from Mantle and Maris, Sosa/McGwire's accelerated mid-summer home run pace was frequently compared to other similar chases of the recent and distant past.

    Making such comparisons, commenters were often disappointed to find that the only 50-homer seasons in the three decade, "romantic-recent-past" period of 1965-1995 were Foster in 1977 and Fielder in 1990, neither of whom made any serious run at Maris. To the extent that Aaron's late career homer burst occured in that '65-'95 window, but never provided anything close to the romance of a run at Maris, I seem to recall that Aaron was often regarded as an "earnest toiler".

    As far as the Milwaukee v. New York issue, for me Mays gets flack more because he failed to live up to expectations where the chase for the Babe's career home run record was concerned. Sure, his age-40 year was good by stat-wonk-Nate-Silver standards (e.g. OPS of .907), but chicks dig the long ball, and Mays never once hit 30 homers in a season after age 35, compiling a mere 118 homers in that time (a total that, if Rodriguez duplicates it, would leave A-Rod just barely past Ruth and still well short of Aaron/Bonds).

    For me, the issue with Mays is much less the torment of big city media and more what every (competent) boss advises new hires: don't overpromise and underdeliver. I know: Moneyball-types say that Mays didn't overpromise and underdeliver for them; I'm specifically referring here to the aforementioned chicks who dig the long ball.

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  2. Sorry - just realized I was talking around you a bit; you were questioning whether Aaron was regarded as an "earnest toiler" during the Bonds-career-record chase, where I recalled him being thought of as such during the McGwire/Sosa single-season chase. Two separate issues, I apologize.

    However, it seems as though Araton was referring to the "aging Mays" as the "post-35 Mays":

    But if the coming act, post-35, looks more like the aging Mays than the amazing Aaron

    If Rodriguez replicates the "aging" (post-35) Mays' home run perfomance, that will leave Rodriguez in the comparatively pedestrian low-700s, well short of the expectations of those who have him ticketed for 800+, easy.

    Suppose Rodgriguez ends up with ~720 homers where early and mid-career projections had him hitting at least 100 more. Would it be fair then to inquire about how much we were misled by inferences from steroid-inflated early career results?

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  3. One other thing, Jonathan: I think its exactly right to question whether a Mays-esque decline in productivity proves that A-Rod isn't the real deal (or is a steroid deal). If A-Rod may fairly be regarded as A-Fraud based on a Maysian late career decline, shouldn't we draw the same conclusion about Mays? We don't know what Mays' "boli" was, but why should that matter?

    This is the primary problem with steroid-era stat revisionism. Here's a classic example: Game of Shadows claimed that Bonds began juicing in 1999 in response to the great McGwire/Sosa homer chase of 1998. From 1996-1998, Bonds hit about 40 homers a year.

    Suppose Bonds hadn't juiced, but naturally gotten bigger with age and hit 40 homers a year until age 40 (an Aaron-type pattern). Further suppose he fell off a bit beyond age 40, playing three more years and hitting 24, 24, and 23 homers. Not unreasonable, not outside the Aaron precedent (consider that Bonds in 1998 pretty much cemented "all-time 5-tool guy" status by inaugurating the 400/400 club).

    In any event, in how many homers would this entirely reasonable counterfactual have resulted?

    762.

    Steroid revisionism is a messy business indeed.

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  4. Looking at baseball-reference.com, I see a stat that adjusts for ballparks. Can someone come up with a stat that adjusts for steroids so that we can just move on?

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  5. Do you know what else I noticed over at baseball-reference.com, that I never realized before?

    There's a second, critical, difference (beyond home runs) between the 'amazing' post-35 Aaron and the 'aging' post-35 Mays:

    In 9 of Mays' 13 seasons before age 35, he walked more often than he struck out. Then he turned 35 and discovered the whiff: by age 36, the formerly walk-oriented Mays was whiffing nearly twice as often as drawing a walk. Indeed, though Mays was a BB > SO guy up to age 35, beyond 35 he never again had more walks than Ks in a full season.

    Aaron is a near mirror-image in this respect to Mays. For Aaron's 15 full seasons before age 35, he struck out more often than he walked in 12. Then he turned 35 and never again had more K's than walks (until his final, shortened season).

    Moneyball types love hitters who take pitches, and the aging Aaron v. aging Mays is like a perfect natural observation of their point: Aaron became a walker and found enhanced late-career home run power, Mays became a whiffer and lost his home run stroke.

    For Bonds' part, he was a prolific drawer of walks even before his absurd walk totals in the big-head early 2000s. To the extent the Moneyball crowd is right about taking pitches, and Aaron v. Mays provides a good illustration, then a late 30s Bonds should have been a pretty good home run hitter, being an exceptionally good drawer of walks, irrespective of whether he actually took steroids.

    In which case, the 40 HR/season assumption for Bonds seems perfectly reasonable, and the 762 career dingers seems altogether plausible as well.

    FWIW.

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