Week of August 27, 2021

Here’s to guessing right this weekend.

The Greatest Complete Game

This one comes ℅ my brother-in-law, Jack. I saw the headline on ESPN, but hadn’t clicked on it, but I had to read it once Jack sent it my way. Forget another time – this story seems to come from a different world. Hard to believe, but it’s a true story from Ryan Hockensmith. 

The fact that Ray Caldwell was struck by lightning while pitching a shutout for the Indians back in a 1919 game against the Red Sox isn’t even the most interesting part of this story. Neither is the fact that he got off the ground after everyone thought he was dead, and proceeded to get the last out of the game, or the fact that he was once a bunkmate to a young Babe Ruth. 

No, the most interesting part of this story was learning that lightning not only comes down from the sky, but also up from the ground. 

Think about it like Wi-Fi. The same way Wi-Fi reaches through the air looking for a device to connect to, lightning also requires a partner from the ground. The charge from a thunderstorm blasts downward but must locate an opposite charge from the ground, called an “upward leader.” Many strikes end up finding multiple partners in the same area, spreading the charge (somewhere between 100 million and 1 billion volts of electricity) around to whatever upward leaders it can find — flagpoles, trees or, yes, people who are nearby. That’s why many visuals of lightning strikes show them splintering, rather than one huge bolt, with some looking like one arm reaching up from earth and the other reaching from the skies.

I never knew! 

Not only was Caldwell the only known major league ballplayer to be struck by lightning during a game, he might also be the only major leaguer to be contractually obligated to get obliterated after every game he pitched. Caldwell was a known alcoholic, although they didn’t refer to it as that in the papers. He washed out in New York and Boston before playing in Panama. He was considered every bit as good as Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, and so Cleveland took a chance on his talent, and came up with an outside-the-box approach to his drinking problems. 

When Speaker (player/manager Tris Speaker) summoned him a few weeks later, Caldwell would have signed just about any contract put in front of him. And good thing for that, because Cleveland offered him a deal historians now say ranks among the most bizarre in baseball history.

The deal said that on game days, Caldwell was to pitch and then go get plastered. According to historian Franklin Lewis in his book “The Cleveland Indians,” Caldwell was perplexed looking at the contract.

“You left out one word, Tris,” Caldwell said as he looked at the document. “Where it says I’ve got to get drunk after every game, the word not has been left out. It should read that I’m not to get drunk.”

Speaker smiled. “No, it says that you are to get drunk.”

Speaker then explained a very specific regimen Caldwell was to adhere to every week. On game days, he’d pitch and then perform his mandated drinking duties. He was then free to skip coming to the ballpark the next day and sleep off his hangover. But two days later, Speaker wanted him at the ballpark early to run as many wind sprints as the manager thought he needed. Three days after every start, Caldwell was to throw batting practice. Pitch, drink, sleep, run, BP, rinse and repeat.

As Hockensmith mentions, Caldwell’s career sounds like a collection of folktales. Fun read! – PAL 

Source: The incredible story of Ray Caldwell, the MLB pitcher who survived a lightning strike to finish a game”, Ryan Hockensmith, ESPN (08/24/21)

How Not to Be a Journalist, IMO

This week I saw an article about the effects that have been seen in the Atlantic League this season, where they moved the pitcher’s mound back a foot, to 61’6”, in the middle of the season. This has been an experiment for MLB, which wants to know if moving the mound back will give hitters more time and thus reduce strikeouts. This article purported to look at how things have gone. The answer? pitchers were mad at first, but at least a few decided there was little difference for them. But it seems to me that any serious journalist covering this topic would put the anecdotes aside and look at the data. 

In our 7+ years writing this blog, we have rarely covered what we think is bad sportswriting, but this week I felt compelled to do so, based on the following:

White, the league president, did not have empirical data to offer during a phone call with CBS Sports…

I don’t know about you, but that’s a HUGE red flag for me. The league president says he doesn’t have “empirical data” on how stats have changed since the mound was moved back mid-season?

…but he presented several of his own observations of how the Atlantic League’s gameplay has changed since the new mound distance was installed.

HE’S GOT THE DATA, I PROMISE. How is this not a red flag for a reporter? How is this information passed on, unquestioned? Well, let’s see what White says…

He believes more balls are being hit into play, with fewer plate appearances ending via strikeout; he believes pitchers are throwing more fastballs and fewer breaking balls; and he believes umpires when they tell him that pitchers’ control, particularly over those breaking balls, has suffered since the change.

OH REALLY? He won’t show any data but he believes it’s working as planned? Does the writer think critically at all about how White might be biased and wonder at all why data is not provided? Nope.

If White’s perception is correct about the Atlantic League’s play taking a new form (analysis by Rob Arthur, a Baseball Prospectus author, indicates that it’s not, and that strikeouts and home runs have actually increased since the change), then the move to the 61-foot, six-inch mound is having MLB’s desired effect. 

This just about knocked me over. Not only does he not think critically about why the league president might be biased, and not wonder why there is no data provided, he attempts to gloss over the fact that another writer has analyzed the data and determined that White’s “observations” are incorrect, by putting it in an otherwise un-analyzed parenthetical. 

It sure seems to me that a major role of a journalist is to analyze the biases and motivations of your sources and strongly consider not publishing something that is clearly erroneous. If this guy had done so here, he might have realized that the spoutings of a league president, providing no data in a data-heavy sport, should not have been regurgitated by a journalist. Particularly so when there is data that contradicts the league president’s opinion.

But what do I know? I never went to journalism school. Then again, maybe this guy didn’t either. 

Source: How MLB Pushed Back the Atlantic League Mound and Pushed Fed-up Players to the Brink of a Work Stoppage,” R.J. Anderson, CBS Sports (08/26/2021)

PAL: Slow clap for TOB’s write-up. Here’s what’s also crazy to me: the real story is right there in this gloss job. The real story is the league president doesn’t provide data on how the experiment has gone. Either he’s withholding it, or they aren’t keeping track of impacts due to making a fundamental change to the variables of baseball (moving the mound back).

I’m all for a semi-regular “worst of the week” for sportswriting. If I see one more prospect projections or quarterback tiers story in The Athletic, I’m going to pass out.

Gavin Weir Is Filthy

Every year at the Little League World Series some kid dominates. That’s nothing new. But Gavin Weir of the Sioux Falls team has taken it to an especially crazy level of own-age. Two stats for you before you watch the video: 

Weir has pitched 43 23 innings in eight Little League postseason games. 

He’s given up one hit.

He’s faced 132 batters and struck out 114 of them — an 86.4% strikeout rate.

These other teams aren’t scrubs. Some of these Little Leaguers really know how to hit, both the hard stuff and a breaking ball. 

Give me 10 at bats against Gavin at the Little League distance (mound is 46-feet from home), and I’d be thrilled with two hard hits. – PAL

Source: Sioux Falls pitching sensation Gavin Weir throws second no-hitter at Little League World Series”, Star Tribune Staff (08/26/21)

TOB: I watched this kid dominate a very good California team. He’s out there throwing like peak Chris Sale. We’ve seen heat and breaking balls in the LLWS before. But the varied arm angles and the way his stuff moves is friggin nasty. I’m glad Phil wrote about Weir, because I wanted his name in our archives when he’s a top prospect in 6 years.

Get Vaxx’d

On Thursday, Giants’ infielder Donovan Solano tested positive for COVID-19. He had come to the stadium (the Giants were on the road in New York), reported his symptoms, tested positive, and sent back to his hotel where he must quarantine for ten days. In two COVID seasons, Solano is the first confirmed positive COVID test for the Giants. 

The team declined to answer whether Solano had been vaccinated and this was a  breakthrough case, or whether he had not been vaccinated. 

But whether he had or not, the newest Giant, Kris Bryant, illustrated for all of us why it’s important to get vaccinated, for baseball players but also for all of us:

“Obviously being vaccinated is the first step,” said Kris Bryant, who was traded to the Giants from the Chicago Cubs, one of the teams that hasn’t met the 85 percent threshold. “We want to take all the cautions possible because we still have a long way to go here and hopefully a long playoff run. We don’t want any speed bumps along the way. Hopefully it doesn’t catch up with us.”

Bryant, of course, came over from the Cubs. The Cubs have still not met that 85% threshold. Bryant said coming to the Giants has been nice, because he’s been able to enjoy freedoms here that he didn’t in Chicago. But it’s more than convenience, for Bryant and for all of us. As Bryant said:

“It’s really just peace of mind knowing that the people around you did what they need to do to help protect the team and help us get through the season. That means a lot, you know?”

Hell yeah, I do. -TOB

Source: ‘Being vaccinated is the first step’: Giants sweep in New York but lose Donovan Solano to a positive COVID-19 test,” Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic (08/26/2021)

PAL: There now exists a reality where a playoff series could be swung by vaccines. How can anyone possibly bet on sports in this time?

Replay In LLWS: Nouns vs Verbs

I wrote an essay about finding (over a decade late) that video replay is used in the LLWS. I couldn’t believe it. Below are the opening few paragraphs. You can read the full essay here.

Last week I learned video replay is used in the Little League World Series, and I can’t stop thinking about it. 

The treadmill in our building gym is one that has a TV screen attached to it, but the channel options are weak: a second-rate news channel, infomercials, telenovelas, and the golf channel that somehow never has actual golf on when I’m running. My eyes drifted to the reflection of the big screen TV in the gym window. A Little League game—a regional tournament game to be exact— was on ESPN. The winner was on its way to Williamsport, PA for the Little League World Series. 

Watching the reflection in the window made everything backwards: right-handed batters looked lefty, left-handed pitchers looked like righties, and when a hitter put a ball in play, his reflection dashed in the direction of third base. 

After the centerfielder caught a bases empty line drive early in a 0-0 game, the home plate umpire walked to the backstop and put on a headset, just like they do in big league games. With no sound, it took a second to figure out they were actually reviewing a call. ESPN looped the replay in slow motion: they were looking to see whether or not the catcher’s glove made contact with the hitter’s bat, which would be catcher’s interference, granting the hitter first base. 

It took at least a half mile for the Replay Team, as I’ve since learned it to be called, to look at the ESPN-provided camera angles (in addition to the actual LLWS, ESPN broadcasts 88 regional tournament games). Players stood around waiting for the home plate umpire, who stood around waiting for the Replay Team to examine each frame to determine if the last fleck of the leather on the webbing of the catcher’s mitt made contact with the bat. I couldn’t tell if the bat nicked the mitt in real time, and I couldn’t be sure in slow motion either. The replay team determined there was catcher’s interference, but it didn’t matter; the play would have no impact on who won. By then I’d already decided I would be digging into this Little League video replay lunacy. 

So here’s the most complete explanation of video replay, straight from the Little League website. Topline (parentheticals mine): the LLWS has used “instant” video replay since 2008(!). Incredibly, it was the first baseball organization of any kind to use replay. That’s right; Little League edged out MLB by about a month, and college baseball started using it in the College World Series starting in 2012. 

The first version of replay in LLWS was limited to fair and foul calls on home runs. Adults being adults, that couldn’t be left alone. Before long, video replay expanded. It’s now available in the regional tournaments as well as the LLWS, and replay can now be used for, well, all of this: 

Managers must specify the exact call that they would like to challenge. The only plays that may be challenged are: ball over the outfield fence, dead ball areas, batted balls ruled fair but foul or rule foul but fair, foul tip versus foul ball, hit batters, runner or runner-batter interference on batted balls, all plays at bases to get a runner or runner-batter out, appeal for missed bases (not if the runner left too soon), any out call made safe (umpire determines where to place the runners), pitched ball ruled “not caught” by the catcher, catcher interference, head-first slide into a base. The final play of all games are automatically reviewed.

Managers have up to two unsuccessful challenges in the first six innings, and one in extra innings. As always, a manager may request time and ask the umpire crew to review a play without officially challenging the play. Umpires may call for video replay on any play that qualifies for it, and may also ask for a review after a manager conference.

LittleLeague.org, 2016

Reminder, this is a video replay rule that was enacted for games being played by kids ages 10-12. 

So that’s how I came to stare at a gym window watching a backwards version of a Little League game. Backwards indeed. -PAL

Other Good Stuff

TOB: #couplesgoals

Song of the Week

Little Steven – “Inside Of Me (feat. The Disciples of Soul)”

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You know what? I’m going to start dating her even harder.

-Michael Scott