The Big O and the Merry Prankster

Oscar Robertson is an NBA champion, MVP, and twelve-time All-Star, and he was the first NBA player to average a triple-double over the course of a season. In college, he averaged 33.8 points per game for the Cincinnati Bearcats, and he left school as the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history.

The 1957-58 season was Robertson’s sophomore year at Cincinnati and the first in which he saw playing time for the Bearcats. Robertson immediately made his presence felt, to the tune of 35.1 points and 15.2 rebounds in 38.8 minutes per game, helping Cincinnati to a 25-3 record and a Missouri Valley Conference championship.

Meanwhile, up the road in Oxford, Miami University was on a run of its own. Behind future NBA player Wayne Embry, the RedHawks finished a respectable 18-9, but notably went 12-0 in MAC play, the last team to accomplish that feat and only the second-ever team to complete an undefeated conference schedule (the 1949-50 Cincinnati team was 10-0 in the MAC before leaving the conference). One of Miami’s reserves was Ken Babbs. Listed at 6’3″, the Mentor, Ohio native contributed eleven points and four rebounds in the ten games in which he appeared for the RedHawks that season.

On January 30, 1958, the RedHawks traveled to Cincinnati for a matchup with Robertson’s heavily favored Bearcats. A box score is not readily available, but Babbs recounted his memories of the game in a live interview streamed last night. According to him, Miami coach Richard Shrider, who was in his first season with the RedHawks, thought his team had no chance against Cincinnati and told his players as much, which rubbed the competitor in Babbs the wrong way. Miami planned a box-and-one defense against the Bearcats, with Babbs drawing the assignment of the “one” to mark Robertson. Determined to put up a fight, he said he planned to guard Roberston aggressively, “like stink on shit.” Then laughing, Babbs confessed: “I fouled out in two minutes.” Cincinnati won by twenty.

Both teams reached the NCAA tournament that spring. With their first-round win over Pitt, Miami became the first MAC team to win a tournament game. The Bearcats did not win any tournament games that year, but they made deep runs in Robertson’s two remaining seasons there, finishing third overall both times.

Robertson, of course, went on to professional basketball fame. Babbs, meanwhile, found fame of a different sort. That fall, after graduating from Miami, he pursued graduate studies in creative writing at Stanford. There, he befriended fellow student Ken Kesey, with whom Babbs and others soon would form the Merry Pranksters, whose culturally influential escapades with sound, film, and LSD were in part memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s memorable book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and would help propel the career of the Grateful Dead.

You can watch Babbs discuss his 1958 on-court encounter with Robertson and a later, off-court reunion here. A film of a Grateful Dead benefit concert supporting a Kesey-family creamery the Pranksters helped produce is available for a limited time below.

Wowy do baseball players ever miss their fans

Fox says it will fill empty baseball stadiums with virtual ...

Everyone knows that MLB is playing the 2020 season without fans in the seats because of the way our country has responded to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s made for a strange, uncomfortable atmosphere in and around the game, which was to be expected.

Not to be expected, at least by this writer, was that the absence of warm bodies in the bleachers might affect on-field performances. While I enjoy cheering at games as much as the next person, it’s been some time since I’ve been under any delusion that noises I and my fellow spectators might produce from our in-house spectating positions influence the game itself in all but the highest of leverage scenarios. Despite players’ lip service to their teams’ respective “greatest fans in the world” issued upon a local reporter’s commanding prompt, we all recognize that they wouldn’t really miss us if we were gone, right? Maybe in the playoffs, but certainly not on a mundane, mid-season Monday night.

Maybe I’ve been too cynical. As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noticed, home-team win percentage in 2020 is just .505, which would be the lowest-ever rate for a full season.

What’s different this year? A lot, obviously. Petriello’s article mentions travel as one variable, and teams certainly are doing less travel this year as a result of schedule modifications designed to keep teams playing games against geographically proximate opponents. But that’s the only obvious out-of-stadium factor that might affect home-road splits this season. And that leaves us with the fan factor.

This unfortunately unusual season has presented itself as a natural experiment. By comparing the difference between the magnitude of ordinary home-field advantage and 2020 home-field advantage, we can begin to quantify fan contribution to team winning.

Since 1998, when MLB expanded to thirty clubs, home teams have a .536 win percentage. Using that mark as a baseline suggests that home fans contribute about 0.031 points of winning percentage, a rate corresponding to about five games over the course of an ordinary 162-game season (and a bit under two games in a sixty-game season).

Does the presence of a team’s fans really contribute an average of five wins a year? That seems like a lot, and there of course are other factors at work, but it looks like there might be something here. If nothing else, the next time someone criticizes you for describing the accomplishments of your favorite team using first person plural pronouns, you can send them a copy of this post.

RKB: 2020 is the Season: Turn, Turn, Turnbull

Thoughts on Detroit Tigers prospect Spencer Turnbull - Minor ...

I can’t believe I burned that headline on what’s going to be such a modest batch of information, but I can believe that Spencer Turnbull has found his way to the top of the Detroit Tigers rotation this year. I don’t think any serious baseball fan still thinks about pitcher wins and losses anymore, but Turnbull obviously was much better than his 3-17 “record” in 2019. 

The exciting news is that he’s been even better than expected so far in 2020. With a 2.78 ERA/2.85 FIP, he’s the best Detroit pitcher by fWAR (0.7) and bWAR (0.6).

MLive Tigers beat reporter Evan Woodbery noted this morning that Turnbull’s likely to regress as the season proceeds, and he’s right: there are some signs pointing in that direction. Woodbery points to SIERA, an ERA estimator, which sees Turnbull as about two runs worse than his current ERA. To that I would add Turnbull’s .283 batting average on balls in play, which is about fifty points lower than his 2019 BABIP and seems likely to increase. His DRA, 3.56, also pegs him as a little worse than his ERA and FIP suggest, though still clearly the best among the current rotation.

There also are signs these good results might stick, though. Here’s a FanGraphs/RotoGraphs report from yesterday, which highlights Turnbull alongside Trevor Bauer as two pitchers who have produced significantly increased movement on one of their featured pitches. For Turnbull, it’s his slider, which has been his main out pitch:

Last year Turnbull’s main strikeout pitch was his slider which had a 15.3 SwStr%. That isn’t the greatest number to have as your main swing and miss pitch. He already has a really good four-seam fastball so pairing it with a true swing and miss pitch was the key to Turnbull having a better 2020 season. So far this season Turnbull’s slider has a 26.5 SwStr%. It also has a higher O-Swing%, better wOBA against, and better ISO against. But again, small sample size so we have to look deeper to make sure this is indeed legit.

To start, Turnbull increased his sliders RPMs. It has gone from 2,438 RPMs in 2019 to 2,533 RPMs this season thus resulting in more movement. His slider movement went from having an overall movement of 3.3 inches to 3.9. He did this mainly by increasing its horizontal movement. Something he seems to be working on in the past three years. Its movement in inches starting in 2018 went from 2.29 to 3.07 and now to 3.51. 

The increases in spin rate and movement on his slider show that Turnbull still is developing, refining, and improving his arsenal, and they constitute evidence that he may be ready to outdo the performance levels his past baselines suggest.

One other thing I’ve been wanting to document this year is the way Turnbull mixes speeds. The graph below plots the velocity of every pitch he threw in his first start of the 2020 regular season. In five complete innings, he only allowed three hits (just ten total balls in play) and recorded eight strikeouts, and it was clear that he had the Cincinnati batters off balance all day. This yo-yo velocity chart is a big part of the reason why.

Of course, Turnbull’s stay atop the Detroit rotation might not last long. Focusing on the positives in that regard, ostensible number one Matthew Boyd could recall the location of home plate at any moment. Even more exciting possibilities are the arrivals this week of highly anticipated pitching prospects Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize. Skubal is scheduled to make his first major-league start tonight, followed by Mize’s debut tomorrow night. Could we be witnessing the emergence of a 2013-era rotation in the Motor City? That’s an extremely high bar, but there’s no reason not to permit yourself a little bit of excitement during these rebuilding times.

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Previously
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – UPDATED PECOTA Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Spring Training Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Payroll Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – PECOTA Ed.
RKB: How does new Detroit Tiger Austin Romine relate to his teammates?

Related
Breakout prospect Tarik Skubal earns his first shot at the majors – Bless You Boys
The Call-Up: Tarik Skubal – Baseball Prospectus
The Call-Up: Isaac Paredes – Baseball Prospectus
Meet Isaac Paredes, the 21-year-old who is patient, punctual and experienced beyond his years – MLive

An inside look at the MLB COVID-19 testing process

bauer

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, coming off a 2019 season that saw him carry the heaviest workload– 213 innings pitched for Cleveland and Cincinnati– of his career, currently owns the third-best DRA (1.85) of any pitcher in the majors. His team hasn’t yet lived up to its lofty expectations, though, and it will be at least a few day before they’re allowed another opportunity to improve their record. That’s because one of Bauer’s teammates tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday night.

The Reds are the third team experiencing a positive player test requiring the postponement of games this season, and reports indicate that Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office will make an announcement about their revised schedule on Monday.

In the meantime, Bauer has taken fans inside the player-testing process with a video that shows “another day in this fake MLB season”:  Continue reading

Righteous indignation: The worst called ball of the 2020 MLB season?

Before he went to work for the Tampa Bay Rays, Jeff Sullivan was a prolific writer and visual analyst for FanGraphs. One of his regular features there documented in meticulous detail the worst umpire calls on balls and strikes in a recently completed MLB season. (Here, for example, is his treatment of the worst called ball of 2018.)

I thought of Sullivan last night while catching up on the Detroit Tigers’ 17-13, extra-innings win in Pittsburgh. I was trying to figure out why Pirates manager Derek Shelton (a $50 credit at the ALDLAND store to anyone outside Pennsylvania who convinces me he or she knew the name of the Pirates’ manager before yesterday) was out of the game and former Tigers folk hero Don Kelly was at the helm opposite his old team.

Bless You Boys on Twitter: "Beat me to the meme RT @blessyouboys ...

I discovered that home-plate umpire Ramon De Jesus had ejected Shelton for arguing balls and strikes. Yawn. During a pitching change, though, I decided to kill time by watching the clip of the ejection, after which I was wide awake. Could it be that just (depending on how you count) eleven games into this miniature baseball season we already have seen the worst called ball of 2020?  Continue reading

Rob Manfred is failing, both objectively and on his own terms

Is Rob Manfred the worst commissioner in the history of professional baseball? That’s the message I’ve been hearing over the past few months, as his litany of missteps (and worse) have come under the national microscope amidst an unflagging global pandemic. What’s clear to me is that the echoes of the drum– one that frames Manfred’s acts, omissions, and pretextual capriciousness as causing deep mutations of the sport borne as a burden by its afficionados– I have been beating is unlikely to be intelligible to the ears of those in the position to unseat Manfred. Instead of bemoaning the substance of the Commissioner’s decisions, it may prove more efficacious to examine their effects. After all, the team owners didn’t hire Manfred to implement a pitch clock; they hired him to make them money.

Bosses evaluate their employees based on results, and an examination of results under Manfred’s tenure does not reflect success.

Manfred ascended to his current position in January of 2015. Since then, he has presented an obsession with reducing the temporal length of individual games and used that objective (one for which no one asked) as the basis for many of his most visible modifications, yet the games just keep getting longer:

gametime 7-29-20

Of course, Manfred admitted his changes wouldn’t actually change anything, so none of this should come as a surprise to him.

The problems are even more fundamental, though. If you’re in the entertainment business and people stop coming to see the show, is that bad?

gameattend 7-29-20Total attendance has dropped in each season since Manfred took the helm.

Sure, television viewership is up, but if that’s Manfred’s first line of defense, it presents serious questions about the tight restrictions on the availability of baseball media to fans and the league’s push for public funding for new stadiums. And while owners’ investments continue to accrue value, there is a rising tide of concern that that value could collapse and those owners will not be able to pass that value onto the next generation. Whatever positives Manfred counts in the state of the sport are not the result of his doing. There was so much momentum behind baseball’s profitability that it now appears, from a business perspective, to be succeeding in spite of itself and has been for some time.

Thanks to COVID-19 and America’s response thereto, the 2020 MLB season remains in danger, but the sport has survived shortened and truncated seasons before, and there are good reasons to believe it will do so again. Whether it can survive Commissioner Manfred, however, remains to be seen.

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Related
Tilde Talk: The Empty Ureña Suspension
Designated Sitter, or, Manfred Ado About Nothing
2018 MLB rule changes less drastic than anticipated
Rob Manfred’s Use Your Illusion Tour

RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – UPDATED PECOTA Ed.

Just four months late, today is MLB’s big opening day for the 2020 season. Before the Detroit Tigers kick off their sixty-game sprint this evening against the Reds in Cincinnati (6:10 pm on MLB Network), we are taking one last look at what the Baseball Prospectus computer projects for the team in this abridged campaign.

BP’s PECOTA system sill sees Detroit finishing fourth in the division, which of course will not be enough for a postseason berth even under the hopefully temporary expanded playoff structure in place for this year, with a 26-34 record. As a sign of the comparatively small scale on which this season will play out, opening-day starter Matthew Boyd, previously projected to contribute 2 WARP, now is down to 0.8 WARP over eleven appearances. The same numbers apply for Jonathan Schoop, expected to be the Tigers’ best hitter. Miguel Cabrera, in the DH role, is looking at a projection of 0.6 WARP, including seven home runs. He only hit twelve in 549 plate appearances last season, so that would be part of a substantial increase in power– and reversal of a recent downward trend— over sixty games.

Back in February, when the idea of a canceled or severely shortened season hadn’t set in, I was pleased to discover PECOTA’s 69-93 record projection, a nice bump over 2019’s basement rap. Now, though, I’m finding it difficult to be very excited about the season at all. I will be watching tonight, of course, and will do my best to keep up with the development of all of Detroit’s exciting young pitching prospects, but, with my negotiations with MLB.tv at a standstill (the ball is in their court, and they know how to reach me), I don’t know how many games I’ll watch. More or fewer than Chris Ilitch? That’s for you to decide. Regardless, same great coverage here at ALDLAND.com all season long/short.

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Previously
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Spring Training Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Payroll Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – PECOTA Ed.
RKB: How does new Detroit Tiger Austin Romine relate to his teammates?
RKB: An unprecedented offseason move?
RKB: Detroit’s long, municipal nightmare is over, as Al Avila has solved the Tigers’ bullpen woes
RKB: Brief 2019 Recapitulation

Related
Season Preview Series 2020: 60 Words for 60 Games – Banished to the Pen

RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Spring Training Ed.

Our preview series for the 2020 Detroit Tigers season continues here. You’ve read words about what the computers say. You’ve read words about what the accountants say. Now take it easy and enjoy some photographs from a spring training game between the Tigers and Atlanta Braves we were fortunate enough to attend back in February. Continue reading

Wham-O Summer: Back to the Backyard (via Sports Illustrated)

Children shrieked, Weber seethed, cicadas skree’d from the trees. Can you hear the hissing of summer lawns, circa 1975, when Joni Mitchell sang of suburban ennui, of a woman stuck at home in July? In a ranch house on a hill / She could see the valley barbecues from her windowsill / See the blue pools in the squinting sun / Hear the hissing of summer lawns.

After a terrible spring of pandemic, the stuck-inside season just past, the summer of 2020 is already looking lost, unrelieved by the small mercies of attending a big league baseball game or visiting a public pool or taking an epic car ride to a distant amusement park. If many of us are left to gaze across the fence at the neighbors, bereft in our own backyards, marooned on our own Maple Streets, it may help to remember that the backyard—and the suburban subdivision, the city block, the local playground—was once a world unto itself, a place of sport and diversion, of tragedy and ingenuity, of derring-do and derring-don’t, of fun and boredom and mortal danger. … Read More

(via Sports Illustrated)

The week in baseball: 5/29/20

From the Increasingly Nocturnal Department:

  • I haven’t found it productive to follow each new return-to-play proposal for the 2020 MLB season in any detail, but public comments this week, especially from players including Max Scherzer and Trevor Bauer, point to the very real possibility that the entire season will be lost due to the inability of the owners and players union to reach final agreement on compensation arrangements for the year in a timely fashion. Although the calendar has not yet turned to June, keep in mind that any start date will need to allow a few weeks of lead time for pitchers to stretch out, undoubtedly among other logistical considerations. The viability of opening the season on or around July 4 therefore depends on what the sides can accomplish over the next couple of days. Of all the things Rob Manfred has screwed up in his brief tenure as MLB commissioner, the complete absence of baseball in America should other professional sports leagues find a workable way to resume action would be one of the most memorable.
  • Meanwhile, the 2020 Minor League Baseball season effectively ended this week following the announcement that teams are expected to begin releasing large numbers of players shortly. Some big-league veterans, including  Shin-Soo Choo and David Price, have responded by personally paying all of the monthly stipends of all of the minor-league players in their respective teams’ farm systems.
  • The CPBL and KBO seasons are rolling on, though a recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases in South Korea has delayed the expected return of fans to KBO stadiums. ESPN is continuing live telecasts of KBO games, often with replays on ESPN2 later in the afternoon.
  • The KBO appears to have earned itself a celebrity fan in Adam Eget, trusty sidekick of Norm Macdonald and manager of the world-famous Comedy Store, who said as much on a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. He and Rogan also discussed cults and Charles Manson, so listen at your own risk.
  • Japan’s professional baseball league, NPB, announced it will begin an abridged season on June 19. The prevalent view among those who follow foreign baseball leagues is that the NPB is the league that comes closest to MLB in terms of talent and competition levels.
  • Facing the prospect of the complete absence of MLB games this year, I’ve begun posting daily baseball landmarks that occurred on that day on ALDLAND’s twitter account. Some from the past week in baseball history, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:
    • 1904 – Dan McGann steals 5 bases in a game, a feat not matched until 1974 (Davey Lopes) or bested until 1991 (Otis Nixon, 6)
    • 1922 – Supreme Court rules baseball not subject to antitrust laws, interstate commerce regulations
    • 1925 – Ty Cobb becomes 1st major leaguer with 1,000 career extra-base hits
    • 1946 – 1st night game at Yankee Stadium
    • 1951 – Willie Mays gets his first hit, a home run off Warren Spahn
    • 1952 – Hank Aaron, then of the Indianapolis Clowns, signs with the Boston Braves
    • 1959 – Harvey Haddix pitches 12 perfect innings before an error in the 13th (“there has been never been anything like it” = more from Tim Kurkjian here)
    • 1968 – NL announces expansion to Montreal, San Diego
    • 1969 – Aaron becomes the 3rd major leaguer with 500 HR + 500 2B
    • 1976 – Pitcher Joe Niekro, batting against his brother, Phil, hit his only career home run
    • 1990 – Rickey Henderson breaks Cobb’s AL stolen-base record
    • 2004 – Mariano Rivera earns his 300th save
    • 2006 – Barry Bonds hits 715th home run
    • 2008 – Pedro Martinez, making a Single-A rehab start for the St. Lucie Mets, faces off against then-recent top pick David Price, then of the Vero Beach Devil Rays. (Price and the Rays win 2-0.) Price would make his major-league debut that September and his World-Series debut the following month.
    • 2010 – Roy Halladay pitches perfect game (ESPN is airing a program on Halladay’s career and too-short life tonight at 7:00 pm)
  • Whatever happens with baseball this year, Jersey City brewery Departed Soles wants to make sure we don’t forget what happened in the recent past, and therefore has released its newest beer, Trash Can Banger, a session IPA with a can styled after the Houston Astros’ classic 1970s uniforms. For now, the beer only is available in New Jersey.
  • Did the Astros cheat? They did. Did their cheating help? Running counter both to fan intuition and the public statements on the subject by professional pitchers, the latest look at that question, like some others before it, concludes that it didn’t make much of a difference. This analysis also set out to test Commissioner Manfred’s assertion that the Astros didn’t cheat in 2019 but was unable to reach a conclusion on that question.