August 2009

A Roll of the Dice

I ran across this article in today’s New York Times about the annual APBA tournament underway in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I played APBA from about ten years old all the way up into my late 30s, when adulthood left me little free time. Although it evolved into variations including a “master” game and a computer version, I was always fondest of the original board game (now known as the “basic” game).

It’s quaint by today’s standards, but its simplicity and flexibility were what made it fun. Each player had a card with numbers that worked with a roll of two dice and a set of boards for each possible on-base situation to come up with a result. It didn’t precisely reproduce major league results — “APBAball” generally had better offensive numbers than real life — but it was close enough to be realistic. Playing APBA was a lot of fun and you could whip out a game in about a half-hour.

Mention the number 66 around an APBA player and he’ll smile. If you roll the two dice and each die shows a six, that’s “66” in APBA parlance. On a player’s card, a “66” is almost always a home run (unless the player really stinks as a hitter). Every once in a while I’ll see a fan at a game with a “66” T-shirt, which is the APBA fan’s version of a secret club’s handshake. It’s his way of advertising he’s a member of the APBA family.

Unlike a computer program, you could alter APBA to your heart’s content. Once I wondered what it would be like if you changed baseball from nine innings of three outs each to seven innings of four outs each. No problem. The game doesn’t force you into the “reality” format, it’s just individual plays. Want to have a ten-man lineup with two DHs like they do sometimes in minor league exhibition games? Go ahead, there’s nothing to stop you.

You could even make your own cards if you wanted. Eventually APBA sold an add-in for the computer game that translated your statistical input into a card, but if you wanted to see what happened to the game if you created a card where a player never struck out or hit a homer two-thirds of the time, you could do it.

I still remember some of the more memorable games I had, including a 30-inning contest between the 1988 World Series participants, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s. The game had a triple play and I believe it was the Dodgers’ staff that pitched more than nine consecutive innings of no-hit relief in the contest.

You could, of course, make up your own teams and trade players. I would do a “contraction” draft reducing the major leagues down to sixteen teams, using all the leftovers as a minor league for each team with callups and demotions. But many APBA fans were strict purists, doing their best to reproduce actual seasons, even down to the starting pitching assignments, injuries, and rough innings pitched/at-bats to see how close they could come to replicating reality.

When I was teaching adult computer classes in the late 1980s, my employer sent me to the East Coast. I had a week off between D.C. and Philadelphia, so I took the time to drive to Lancaster where APBA is headquartered. They gave me a tour and I got to see where my cards originated. It was still a very manual process, nothing like today’s computer games.

Most of my free time these days is devoted to “reality baseball” with the Angels minor leagues, but in my heart I do miss APBA a lot. Glad to see it’s still around.

Frankie Being Frankie

Francisco Rodriguez arrives at Angel Stadium on September 15, 2002, the day of his first callup to the big leagues.


Perez Shines, But K-Rod Blows It Again

New York Post headline, August 8, 2009

When Francisco Rodriguez signed with the New York Mets last winter as a free agent, I figured it was only a matter of time before the New York beat writers would turn on him.

Last night Frankie gave up five runs in the bottom of the 9th, with the coup de grace a grand-slam by Everth Cabrera, and the Mets lost 6-2 to the lowly San Diego Padres.

Post beat writer Bart Hubbuch wrote:

A night that began with the Mets savoring Oliver Perez for a change ended with them wondering what’s wrong with Francisco Rodriguez.

The All-Star closer blew his second consecutive save in hideous fashion, failing to record an out in the ninth as the last-place Padres rallied for a stunning 6-2 walk off win at Petco Park …

“I don’t know what else I can do,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just going through a really difficult moment right now, and I need to bounce back and be ready. I’m not getting no breaks.”

Granted, the Post is infamous for its tabloid hyperbole, so let’s see what the staid New York Times had to say. From beat writer Billy Witz:

After most of the Mets had paraded into the showers and out of the clubhouse, Frankie Rodriguez sat on a folding chair in front of his locker in his uniform with one leg crossed over the other as he stared across the room.

As one of the few Mets who are both healthy and capable enough to deliver a much-needed victory, the burden of failing to do so again was one that Rodriguez knew could not be easily washed away …

“The last two outings — really depressing,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just going through a real difficult moment right now and I’ve just got to bounce back and be ready for tomorrow. There’s nothing else I can do.”

Frankie’s problems have been for a lot longer than the last two games. His season ERA hit a low of 0.56 on June 16. Since then, it’s ballooned to 3.31. Over that period, he’s appeared in eighteen games, worked 16.2 innings, given up 16 earned runs for a 8.64 ERA over that span, given up four homers, struck out 15 and walked 15.

He was also involved in a confrontation three weeks ago with Mets executive Tony Bernazard, and Bernazard was subsequently fired as he’d also been in an incident a couple days before where he challenged members of the Mets’ Double-A team to a fight.

“We’ve always understood that he’s a guy that’s on the edge a little bit,” [Mets manager Jerry] Manuel said of Rodriguez, who has converted 24 saves in 29 chances. ‘It’s probably something that we have to get used to. We haven’t put him out there on the consistent basis that he’s used to and that probably has something to do with his command and what’s going on right now.”

The statement that “It’s probably something that we have to get used to” sounds a lot like Angels fans watching Frankie “on the edge” the last few years.

Although the Angels’ bullpen has been a mess for the most part this year, it’s been a lot more peaceful without wondering which Francisco Rodriguez was going to show up on a given night. At least we don’t see him pointing to the sky any more after another “on the edge” performance.

Coast to Coast: Crawling Along

Ever since the Apollo days, any manned spacecraft being launched by NASA is assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building and moved to its launch pad aboard the Crawler-Transporter.

Due to thunderstorms, the STS-128 rollout Tuesday was delayed two hours. The crawlerway was a morass of mud, so they had to go very slowly and clean its treads as they went along.

My NASA friend sent me the below photos of this unique event, which created photo opportunities that don’t normally happen.





Mickey Hatcher Vindicated

The “Fire Scioscia!” “Fire Hatcher!” crowd has all but disappeared from the fan boards in recent days, as the Angels have the best record in the American League at 63-40 (.612) despite losing Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter in July, not to mention all the other injuries and disasters that befell the team this year.

Despite the blather from the statheads who’ve condemned the Angels for not marching in goosestep to sabermetric fundamentalism, the Angels lead the A.L. in runs (590), hits (1,040), RBI (563), and batting average (.290). They’re second in on-base percentage (.353) but only seventh in walks (348), about 100 fewer than the Yankees (446). They’re third in slugging percentage (.451), even though they’re only tenth in homers (114).

I coined the phrase “Contactball” in November 2004 to describe the Angels’ offense philosophy. They emphasize putting the ball in play to move up runners and score them when an opportunity presents itself. The strategy works best when the Angels’ strikeout rate is low.

The Angels’ 644 strikeouts to date rank 11th in the A.L. Contactball is back.

I wrote a blog back in March called “Contactball 101” which discussed in detail the philosophy behind their approach. That was in the spring, when Mike Scioscia and Mickey Hatcher acknowledged their younger hitters were having “plate discipline” problems. Some people use the phrase “plate patience,” but from the Angels’ perspective they don’t mean walks, they mean looking for a pitch that fits the situation. Walks are a byproduct of plate patience, but walks do not create plate patience, a mistaken assumption by the statheads.

Orange County Register sportswriter Bill Plunkett wrote an article published March 5
summing it up:

Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said the emphasis includes some directives this spring for the younger players based on certain scenarios — take a strike when leading off an inning, see as many pitches as possible in your first at-bat against a pitcher, lay off breaking balls and change-ups to “keyhole” on fastballs in certain areas.

“It’s going to take us time but this spring training we’re really going to focus on that, especially down there with those (minor-league) guys,” Hatcher said. “They don’t even know what a pitcher’s throwing and they’re swinging. We preach it and preach it and we weren’t getting anything done with it. Now we’re going to make it mandatory.”

Over the winter, I built a spreadsheet to look at certain long-term trends in the Angels’ offense, starting with the 2002 world championship year. One was to look at the number of pitches (NP) taken by an Angels batter per plate appearance (PA), and compared it to the American League average. The results:

2002 3.60 3.76
2003 3.66 3.76
2004 3.66 3.79
2005 3.66 3.74
2006 3.66 3.77
2007 3.66 3.80
2008 3.65 3.79
2009 (YTD) 3.89 3.84


When I compiled this table over the winter, I was astonished to see that the number of pitches per plate appearance by the Angels had stayed remarkably consistent from year to year, and in fact in the period 2002-2008 the fewest number of pitches was in the championship year. But the 2002 team’s 851 total runs scored was the highest in that period; contrast with 765 in 2008.

The 2009 team, for the first time in that time frame, is actually seeing more pitches than the league average. And they’re currently on a pace to score 928 runs, which would blow away the 2002 number. That pace is unlikely to hold, but it’s still reasonable to assume they’ll top the 2002 total.

I suspect the reason why the 2002 team was productive despite their lower rate of pitches seen per at-bat was that they had a largely veteran lineup. As Hatcher noted, the younger hitters were struggling with pitch recognition. The 2002 lineup didn’t have youngsters like Erick Aybar, Kendry Morales, Howie Kendrick, Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis in the lineup. Mathis still struggles to hit well, but the rest have come around, with Howie Kendrick batting .388 since his “time out” in Triple-A the latter half of June.

Let’s also give credit, of course, to the veteran presence of Bobby Abreu. Angels beat writer Lyle Spencer of suggests that Abreu might be an A.L. MVP candidate, which I think is a stretch, but he certainly deserves consideration (along with Torii Hunter) for the team’s MVP. And Chone Figgins is having perhaps the best season of his career, with his .400 OBP setting the table for those to follow.

In any case, it’s time for the “Fire Hatcher!” crowd to step forward, admit they were wrong, and give him credit for helping the kids adapt to the big leagues. Just like he said he would in March.