My Team: Choosing My Dream Team from My Forty Years in Baseballby Larry Dierker
Mantle or Mays? A-Rod or Jeter? Biggio or Morgan? Clemens, Maddux, and Randy Johnson -- or Pedro, Palmer, and Carlton? These are questions baseball fans can spend endless hours debating. Former All-Star pitcher and National League Manager of the Year Larry Dierker has his own opinions, and he shares them in My Team, his fascinating discussion of the greatest players he has seen in his four decades in the major leagues.
Dierker selects twenty-five players for My Team and another twenty-five for the opposition, the Underdogs, or "Dogs." There are two players at each position, five starting pitchers, and four relievers. (When your starters are the likes of Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Juan Marichal, you don't worry about bullpen depth.) All are players that Dierker has played with or against or watched in his years as player, coach, manager, and commentator. Each athlete must have played at least ten years in the major leagues to qualify, and players are judged on their ten best seasons. Leadership skills and personality -- critical components of team chemistry -- are highly valued.
So how is it possible to select two teams composed of outstanding ballplayers from the past forty years and not have room for Sandy Koufax, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, or Cal Ripken Jr.? Dierker explains his choices, analyzing each position carefully, always putting the team ahead of the individual player. He provides statistics to back up his selections, and often relates personal anecdotes about the players. (From his first All-Star Game in 1969, Dierker offers a wonderful anecdote about Hank Aaron, by then an All-Star veteran.)
My Team may start more debates than it settles, but Dierker's insights, and his passion for the game, will enlighten and fascinate true baseball fans.
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My TeamChoosing My Dream Team from My Forty Years in Baseball
By Larry Dierker
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2006 Larry Dierker
All right reserved.
Twenty-Five Good Men
For many years, avid baseball fans engaged in what were called "hot-stove league" sessions. These meetings were nothing more than informal fan forums. Each fan would express an opinion on such topics as which players were the most valuable, which league was the best, which pitcher had the best fastball or curve, and anything else that might come up. Is Pedro Martinez as good as Bob Gibson was? These meetings still happen, but sometimes there is no meeting place except a website. SABR (The Society for American Baseball Research) meetings are sometimes held without a human voice. Each member (known as a sabermetrician) participates on the web whenever it is convenient. It's a far cry from sitting around a hot stove during the winter.
Sometimes, a group of friends or fans would start what is called a Rotisserie League under an agreed-upon set of rules for drafting players and allotting points for each player's accomplishments. This became popular and, as you might expect, a lot of folks started gambling on the outcome. Now, it isn't necessary to organize anything. You can sign up for a league and its website will put you on a team and keep score. The broadcastersand writers for almost every team form a league each year and put a bob or two on the outcome, so the badinage continues throughout the summer in the press box.
When I was an eighteen-year-old rookie, I participated in what amounted to a traveling hot-stove league with the Astros. It was called a press caravan, but it was more like a medicine show. Several of us Astros players traveled through Texas and Louisiana in January to get the outer-market cities primed for the upcoming season. Our goal was to get a bunch of somnolent Lions Club members to come to a few ball games in Houston. So what if we were a last place team, an expansion team with no real chance to win a pennant? We still needed fans. One time, in Tyler, Texas, I spotted a guy snoozing through our speeches. I couldn't blame him. We were not the best players and we were even worse speakers.
But even a middling, cellar-dwelling player was important to a few of the attendees. Real baseball fans are everywhere, even in the remote Piney Woods of East Texas. We always took questions from these folks at the end of our spiel. Oftentimes I was asked what it was like to face Willie McCovey or Pete Rose. Sometimes, we were asked to predict who would win the pennant or offer an opinion on who was the best hitter, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. On the bus, between cities, we talked about these things ourselves. Each year there was another caravan, offering more hot-stove-type sessions. I loved them.
About halfway through my thirteen-year pitching career, we stopped going on these PR trips. I was tired of them at that point anyway. When we cranked them up again in the 1980s, I was halfway through my broadcasting career. As a broadcaster I was the MC of these events, then became the featured speaker when I took over as manager in 1997. I managed the Astros from '97 to 2001 and we won our division in four of those five years, which made it a lot easier to promote the team.
After a few years in the broadcast booth, I started writing a column for the Houston Chronicle. Many fans told me they enjoyed reading it, and a few asked when I was going to write a book. "When I retire," I said. Well, I retired in 2001 and wrote This Ain't Brain Surgery about things I had done during my baseball career in Houston. Now, I am back in the booth, and have done just about everything you can do in professional baseball. I have pitched, sold tickets, broadcast, and managed. I have been involved in the building of the team, working with the general manager on free agent signing and trade opportunities. This was no hot-stove baloney. This was the real thing.
So I got to thinking about my own all-time team. I wondered if I could come up with twenty-five guys who would be practically unbeatable. I jotted down a few names. Then I compared them.
During the off-season, I usually do a few radio shows for the Astros. They have a weekly show called Astroline. And, of course, the local sports talk shows always want a guest when something big happens in the off-season. One thing that almost always comes up is an analysis of who are the best players at each position in the history of the sport. As much as I know, I don't feel comfortable comparing Ty Cobb to Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez to Honus Wagner. I do think I can compare Griffey with Willie Mays, however. And those two guys span more than fifty years of the sport. I started thinking about the best ballplayers I have ever seen and decided to pick my all-time team -- that's how this ball got rolling. Before it stopped, I had to consider how many players and pitchers to select and how to arrange them. I thought it would be easy to write about the guys I have seen. All I'd have to do is look at the hitting statistics and consider the fielding, running, and throwing, based on firsthand knowledge. I knew this would lead to some debate, but I thought I could select a team that would be almost impossible to beat. This was my first mistake.
In reality, there is always another team that can beat you. Put the American League All-Stars of the sixties up against Sandy Koufax in his prime and they might not be able to score a run. No matter which pitchers I choose, there will be many whom I do not choose who could beat my guys on any given day! Who was the best pitcher, Juan Marichal or Jim Palmer? If I choose Barry Bonds and Frank Robinson as my left fielders, Billy Williams or Rickey Henderson could be the star of the game for the other team. I am living proof that any good pitcher can beat any team on a given day. Though I didn't even come close to posting Hall of Fame numbers, I did beat Koufax, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Fergie Jenkins -- Hall of Famers all -- and a few other good pitchers who did not make it to Cooperstown. I supposed, starting out, that I could field a team that would win maybe 80 percent of the time. Now that I have looked at the stats, I think My Team would be lucky to play .600 ball. But I still think I can pick a team that is better than any you could pick from my leftovers, even though my leftovers are mostly Hall of Fame players, or will be soon. As I worked through the list, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, I realized that there wasn't any chaff. For that reason, I have constructed an opposing team that I call the Dogs, short for Underdogs. This team is filled with players I could easily have chosen for My Team. To make it a little tougher for myself, I have even selected a manager for that team, a guy who foiled me more than once when I was managing. Once I selected the Dogs, I still had Hall of Fame players left over. This process was much more difficult than I thought it would be.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was evaluating American League players. Because I have been in the National League throughout my career, there are some American League players whom I have seen only on television. Players like Robin Yount, who spent his entire career in the American League and went to Arizona for spring training, are not as familiar to me as those who trained in Florida or played in a lot of postseason games. When I felt the need to get another perspective on a player, I consulted players, managers, and scouts who saw him more often. Limiting the field and consulting other experts made it easier for me to defend my choices. Now that I have finished my research, I feel that I can truly say that I know what I'm talking about. That doesn't mean I'm right. Someone else who has seen the same players will have a different opinion. That's what kept the hot stove burning in the winters of my youth, and keeps the rotisserie turning in the age of computers and sabermetricians.
Criteria for My Team
Oftentimes, a player needs a couple of years in the major leagues to reach his potential, but the great ones usually last a long time. Eligibility for My Team will arbitrarily require every position player and starting pitcher to have at least ten good years. Because relief pitchers generally have a shorter shelf life than starting pitchers, I am only requiring them to have eight good years. Most great players have very high totals in such categories as home runs and RBI in their prime years, but their batting stats will show a great decline in the last few years. They are household names and fan favorites and, even when their production drops, they are still good enough to make the starting lineup. The same thing often applies to a pitcher's ERA. The best are still good enough to win games even after they lose the zip on their fastballs.
Some of the greatest players of all time, like Sandy Koufax, Dizzy Dean, and Don Mattingly, have had short careers, which can work against them if they had a few average seasons. In forming My Team, I will concentrate on each player's prime years and not discredit him if he has several lackluster seasons at the beginning and end. A few players, like Carlton Fisk, have long but checkered careers. They end up with ten good years, but don't show the kind of consistency that you find in the truly great hitters and pitchers. Most of the guys I am considering have at least eight good years back to back.
I have included a player from the past at each position to provide a historical perspective. In my opinion, it is impossible to accurately evaluate a player you have never seen. Sure, you can look at his numbers, but numbers are comparable only among players of the same era. Before 1920, the game was played with a relatively dead ball. For this reason, none of the players hit many home runs. This is why you can't compare Ty Cobb to Willie Mays or Christy Mathewson to Tom Seaver. I do believe, however, that direct comparisons of players from 1920 on are relevant to some extent. These guys might be lumped into a category of modern, or live-ball, players. I believe it is possible to make a general comparison using the statistics from 1920 on, which is why I have included some statistics from the best of that era.
The Numbers Game
My Team and the Dogs will have two players at each position and a nine-man pitching staff, five starters and four relievers. With the starting pitchers I select, I am confident that I will need only four relief pitchers. Two of them will be guys who can pitch three innings or more in the rare, but always possible, case of one of the starting pitchers getting hurt or simply having a bad day. The typical benchmarks for starting pitchers are wins, winning percentage, and ERA in relation to the rest of the league. For relief pitchers, the emphasis is on saves, save percentage, and, of course, durability. The two short relievers I pick will have to be able to pitch in a lot of games per season. Inherited runners scoring is a good measure but is a relatively recent statistic and not available for the relievers who pitched in the first half of my study, so I will be unable to use it.
More than any other player, the pitcher depends on the performance of his teammates. In 1987, Nolan Ryan led the National League with a 2.76 ERA but got little support from his teammates and went 8-16. Conversely, Roger Clemens went 17-9 with the 2003 Yankees with an ERA of 3.91. The Rocket won the Cy Young Award in 2004, his first year in the National League, and the ERA title in 2005. I will look at the typical standards when I pick my staff, but I will also look at two other indicators: base runners per inning and home-run frequency. (The league's on-base average and slugging percentage against each pitcher would be better tools than runners per inning and home runs per inning, but these statistics are also relatively new.)
Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts didn't allow many base runners but he did give up a lot of home runs. I will be looking for five starters and four relievers who don't allow many runners per inning and don't give up many extra-base hits either. By examining runners per inning and home-run frequencies, I can level the playing field so that a pitcher is not punished as much for playing on a weak hitting or poor fielding team. This is not the perfect way to evaluate a pitcher because the range factor on defense has a significant impact on runners per inning and cannot be quantified. John Tudor took full advantage of the great defensive coverage of the Cardinals in the 1980s. Conversely, Burt Hooton toiled for a Dodgers team that didn't cover much ground. Once I cut the staff to say, fifteen pitchers, I will have to consider what I have seen with my own eyes to make the last cuts.
For the position players, I will use a variety of offensive statistics. The numbers that I consider to be most important are each hitter's on-base average (OBA), his slugging average (SLG), and his combined OBA and SLG or (OBS), which is baseball's E=MC2. To put the numbers in context, I have compared them with the league average.
Each player's OBS number will be of primary importance in my evaluation of his offensive ability. Still, the bottom line is runs. For this reason, I have included runs scored per plate appearance and RBI per at-bat. Since you can score after drawing a walk, I use runs per plate appearance instead of runs per at-bat. There are several ways a batter can drive in a run without an at-bat, like a sacrifice fly, a squeeze bunt, or by walking or getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. These events account for such a small portion of RBI that they are almost insignificant. That's why I have used RBI per at-bat. Runs scored and RBI are strongly influenced by the batters that come before and after any player in the batting order. A player's OBS is not dependent on the rest of the lineup, which is why I don't consider runs scored and driven in to be as good a measure as OBS. Still, the name of the game is how many runs you score and how many you allow. Some guys have the knack for delivering big hits or walking, stealing, and scoring. I think it is useful to look at these numbers but I will not build my team on them.
I am also presenting base-stealing statistics for each position player. From a statistical perspective, stolen bases don't have much impact on total offense. But there are some players whose base-stealing numbers are important, like Rickey Henderson, who stole a lot of bases and didn't get thrown out often, or Harmon Killebrew, who attempted very few steals. The impact of stolen bases is small for most players, but when a player tries to steal often, his success rate is worthy of consideration. If a player hardly ever attempts a steal, it follows that he is not very fast, and from that you can infer that he is a station-to-station runner who could clog the bases and prevent runners behind him from moving up another 90 feet. You might also infer that he doesn't cover much ground in the field, but that can be misleading. Anyone who watched Brooks Robinson can tell you that.
Several players I have considered for My Team have not played ten years at one position. I have had to make a judgment call with Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, and Craig Biggio because they switched positions. Banks will be considered a shortstop because that is the position he played during his most productive seasons at the plate. I have included Biggio as a second baseman for the same reason, and also because he won four Gold Gloves playing second and none at catcher or in the outfield. I have not considered Pete Rose at all, even though he made the All-Star team at all five positions he played. He did not produce nearly as much offense as the players I have chosen for the corner positions. If he had stayed at second base and been a great fielder, I would have included him as a second sacker. However, during most of his career he played average defense at the corners and didn't hit well enough to even be considered for My Team. Rose was known more for his batting average and determination than his slugging.
These statistics are impressive more for the length of Rose's career than for his run production. In terms of quantity he has no peers; in terms of quality he doesn't measure up. To express this another way, I submit the 1970 numbers on my Astros' teammate Jesus Alou. Jesus usually hit for a high average but, because his swing path was slightly downward, he hit more ground balls than fly balls. Since most of his hits were singles and because he didn't walk much, or steal many bases, his production was not what you would expect of a .300 hitter:
Jesus was a corner outfielder. In 1970, he scored 59 runs and drove in 44 runners. Take a look at the outfielders who made My Team and you will see why a .300 batting average can be misleading. This is the last time I will list a player's batting average, because it is almost irrelevant.
The statistics I will use are designed to give a clear picture of a hitter's value. These numbers can be further refined to account for the characteristics of the home ballparks in which he played most of his games. The hitters who came up before and behind him in the lineup are important, too, as they created his opportunities to score runs and drive runners home. One thing that jumped out at me, as I looked at the possible candidates, was the symbiotic relationship of the Cincinnati Reds hitters of the 1970s, when they were called the Big Red Machine. Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench benefited from the quality of the rest of the lineup -- Morgan more in terms of runs scored and Bench in RBI. Tony Perez, George Foster, Dave Concepcion, Dan Driessen, Ken Griffey Sr., and Rose all scored a lot of runs and drove in a lot of runners, but not as many as you might expect. When you look at their contemporaries on other teams, you can't help but notice that the horsepower of the Red Machine came from an eight-cylinder engine. This was a machine that hit on all eight.
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Once I select the players, I will have to line them up in the batting order. This may be difficult, as most of them batted in the middle of the lineup, but someone has to hit second and eighth. Hypothetically, this could spoil the togetherness of the guys on the team but, in this case, I don't think it would. If Hank Aaron were hitting sixth on this team instead of third, it would be because of the quality of the players in front of him. On My Team, he might be able to accept this position in the batting order because he would have numerous RBI opportunities. Similarly, someone who is used to hitting away may hit second and be asked to bunt occasionally. Ordinarily, great players don't like to make outs, even if an out advances a runner. I don't like it either, and I wouldn't give many bunt signs, anyway. But if an advance could lead to a decisive run late in the game, the player would probably accept a sacrificial role for the good of the team.
The ability to get on base (OBA) is especially valuable at the top of the batting order. The power number (SLG) refers to a batter's total bases and is most important in the middle of the order, where RBI are of utmost importance. Ideally, a leadoff man should get on base at least 40% of the time. An RBI hitter should have a slugging average in the .500 to .600 range or higher. If you have an on-base average of .400 and a slugging average of .600, your OBS is 1.00, which means that your average at-bat is as good as a walk. Many of the players on My Team will exceed this number several times during their careers.
One good way to organize a lineup is to stagger left-handed and right-handed batters. This makes it hard for the other manager to use his bullpen. If he brings in a lefty to face a lefty and the next hitter is right-handed, he has to let the lefty face him or use another pitcher. Oftentimes it is better to go left, right, left even if the numbers suggest going left, left, right. Very few teams have enough good players to do this. The Big Red Machine was an exception.
Those Reds of the seventies had a characteristic that I will consider important in choosing My Team -- versatility. Like most pitchers, I had trouble pitching a good game against them. If I was throwing well, I could handle all the right-handed hitters. But even then, the left-handed hitters could beat me. Rose was good at getting on base. Morgan was good at pulling the ball through the right side of the infield with a man on first. He could also hit home runs and steal bases. Dan Driessen and Ken Griffey Sr. were good left-handed hitters with midrange power, who could bunt for a hit or steal a base. The Reds left-handed spray hitters hurt me more than their right-handed power hitters. If I prevented the Machine from getting into high gear, it shifted itself into a low gear, working for walks, bunting, and stealing bases. Several times, I pitched as well as I could and still gave up three or four runs and didn't finish the game. I did manage to beat them a few times and that was especially rewarding. It put a feather in my cap but, in the end, it was only a hat with a couple of feathers, not a full-feathered headdress.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
I faced many of the guys I have selected (whether I wanted to or not) during my thirteen years on the mound. I also had to come up with a plan for pitching to a lot of them during my five years as the Astros' manager. I can't help but look at the diamond through the eyes of a pitcher, which is what makes it difficult to pick a team. I consider fielding and base running to be very important, much more important than a lot of bona fide experts do. If I had a choice between two guys with similar offensive numbers, I would pick the better fielder. In some cases, I would even take a lesser hitter, especially at the key positions up the middle of the diamond.
When I compare the best fielders, I will not total the Gold Glove awards each player has received. I will consider Gold Gloves as a yardstick, but I will also use what I have seen with my own eyes. Sometimes Gold Gloves are only gold leafed. Steve Garvey, for example, won four of them and I consider him to have been below average in the field. I know he was great at digging low throws out of the dirt (he had to because he was only five-foot-ten and the other infielders had to throw the ball low or risk throwing it over his head). He didn't make many errors, but never threw to second or third on force plays like the better first basemen. When we played the Dodgers, our scouting report stated that we should bunt the ball to Garvey because, even if we bunted it too hard, he still wouldn't go for the force play. Rafael Palmeiro won a Gold Glove at first base in 1999 and he was mostly a DH that year. Some managers and coaches probably didn't even see him play first base in '99, as he played only 28 games in the field.
The Gold Glove winners are selected by major league managers and coaches. I still remember getting a ballot in Phoenix one September, just before batting practice. We were told that the ballots would be collected after batting practice. It was like voting for the president of Yugoslavia. Since we didn't get any fielding stats, we had to do it based on what we remembered, having seen each player only fifteen times or so. Usually memory serves well, but not always. Bob Gibson used to win the Gold Glove every year, but I'm sure there were seasons when another pitcher had a career year with the glove and Gibby didn't. The same is true of Greg Maddux. I know Bill Doran should have won the award over Ryne Sandberg at least once because I watched him every day. But Sandberg was the incumbent, and that counts for a lot when the voters don't have any information and little time to vote. As a result, the guy who wins it every year often keeps winning it every year until he gets too old and it's obvious that another fielder is better. My eyes tell me that Derek Jeter is a better shortstop than Alex Rodriguez even though A-Rod had already won two Gold Gloves when he went to the Yankees and Jeter had not yet won one. Joe Torre decided to play Jeter at short and A-Rod at third (and A-Rod won another Gold Glove at third). I would have made the same decision. "Bodywise, I thought Alex would make a smoother transition to third than Derek," Torre said. "Plus, I was already comfortable with Derek at short. He ran the infield and I didn't want to change that. A-Rod was a great shortstop, too. He has a little more arm strength than Derek. I was sure of what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how Alex would take it. To my relief, I found that he was a team player and he was happy to make the switch.
"The other thing I have to say about Jeter is that he does so many things that help you win a game that don't show up in the box score. He makes the big plays and gets the big hits. He may not have the power of A-Rod and Tejada, but you can almost always count on him in the clutch." Range usually equates with footspeed. It is a big part of defense and, in my mind, it is almost impossible to quantify. If you look in the notations at the front of the Baseball Encyclopedia by Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette, you will find formulas that are designed to measure a fielder's range and throwing ability. I am skeptical about the value of these numbers. Offensive production is one thing; fielding is another. One shortstop may get 600 assists during a season while another, who seems better, may only get 550. If you look carefully at the two shortstops you may find that the guy with 600 was playing behind a pitching staff with a lot of sinkerball pitchers. Because this pitching staff may allow more assist opportunities than a staff with a lot of fly ball and strikeout pitchers, you cannot immediately assume that assists will equate with range. You can't blame Larry Bowa for lack of assists at shortstop because Mike Schmidt was playing third, cutting off some ground balls that Bowa could have played.
I would also consider the psychological offensive implications of where to play A-Rod and Jeter. A-Rod is a power hitter, and can easily hit enough homers to fit the third base stereotype. Jeter is a very good hitter as it is. If he were playing third base, he might try to hit more home runs and I don't think that would be a good idea. If it's not broke, don't fix it! I agree with Joe. Someone else's eyes might not see it the same way as Torre's and mine do. For this reason, it is almost impossible for me to evaluate Babe Ruth or Ted Williams. I'd have to see them to really understand them.
In the late 1980s, the Braves had a great double-play combination in Rafael Ramirez and Glenn Hubbard. They led the league in twin killings for several years in a row. However, the Braves had woeful pitching back then and it is likely that the duo turned so many double plays not only because they were good at it, but also because there were so many double play opportunities. Again, you can't trust the statistics completely. You have to review the numbers and use your own eyes to make up your mind.
One thing that everyone knows is that it is important to have good defensive players up the middle. The positions where managers are usually willing to sacrifice offense for defense are, and always have been, catcher, shortstop, and center field. In choosing the players for these positions I will consider fielding to be even more important. That said, I will not ignore hitting. Ozzie Smith is the best fielding shortstop I have ever seen, but I could not pick him over Alex Rodriguez at short. Ozzie was a little better with the glove, but A-Rod is a very good fielder and a much better hitter.
The corner players on defense -- third base, first base, left field, and right field are in the lineup for their offensive talent. I will not have any bad fielders on the team, but may lean toward the better hitters at these positions. I will also consider a platoon situation or two. The platoon strategy ensures extra playing time for a player who might come in to pinch-hit in a game he doesn't start. Using a platoon arrangement allows a manager to have a game-ready pinch hitter on the bench at all times. Earl Weaver's Orioles made good use of this tactic with John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in left field, and the Astros got a lot of mileage out of the Phil Garner/Denny Walling tandem at third base in 1986.
Margin for Error
It is obvious that there are subtle factors that influence a player's statistics. (Where does he play half his games? Who hits in front of or behind him?) These must be considered when a general manager makes a trade or signs a free agent. Most of the time, they even out over the course of a career and for that reason I will consider them but will not try to quantify them. If I did, this book wouldn't be much fun to read -- it would be like a math textbook.
Baseball isn't like most sports. It is always played in a quadrant but the outfield fences vary. Some parks have tall fences; some have low ones. Some outfield fences have odd angles, which makes it difficult for outfielders to play the carom. Some parks favor the pitchers; some parks favor the hitters. Mike Piazza has played for the Dodgers and Mets. Both teams have large, pitcher-friendly ballparks, so Mike has had to play half his games where it is relatively difficult to hit home runs. Conversely, when Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth's single-season home-run mark, he played half his games at Yankee Stadium where it is easy for a left-handed hitter to pull a pitch over the right-field fence. In fact, it is no coincidence that Babe Ruth was a left-handed hitter who played in the same stadium as Maris. Joe DiMaggio got the opposite effect out of the same ballpark because he was a right-handed hitter and Yankee Stadium is deep from right-center field to the left-field foul pole. These days, most players play for several clubs, some good, some not so good. Over a long career, many of the things that influence production balance out. What helps him in one ballpark, hurts him in another.
Another thing that skews the averages is the designated hitter. Since 1973, American League hitters have had the slight advantage of no pitcher in the batting order. When you play 162 games in a season, having nine hitters instead of 8.5 makes a difference -- not a big difference, but enough to consider. In addition, the depth of high-quality starting pitchers was greater in the sixties and early seventies, so you have to give the hitters of that era a little extra credit. The pitchers of the subsequent decades deserve extra credit because they pitched in a harder-hitting environment.
Ultimately, I will make judgments that are based on aspects of a player that cannot be quantified, such as fielding, base running, durability, poise, and personality. Generally, I favor a team that makes it hard to score over a team that scores a lot of runs. I'd rather have good pitching and defense and only average hitting, than poor pitching and fielding and great power hitting. For several years in the eighties, the Cubs had many slow players who were good power hitters. They played well at Wrigley Field but did not do so well in the larger parks on the road, especially the Astroturf fields where speed is more important. A few years later, the Tigers had the same type of team. Neither team won. Yet the speedy Dodgers of the sixties and Cardinals of the eighties won a lot, even without much power. A fast team with good pitchers and fielders can win on grass or Astroturf, in a big park or a small one.
One SABR-based statistic that I used as a rule of thumb as a manager regards stealing bases. Almost all advanced baseball statisticians agree that a runner who successfully steals two bases for every time he is caught stealing is breaking even in terms of the runs his team scores. When he succeeds, he ignites the offense and generates more RBI opportunities for the hitters who come after him in the order. He also takes the double-play possibility away from the opponent. When he is thrown out, he most often kills a rally.
Statistically speaking, simply stealing bases isn't worth much unless your success rate is very high. But, even then, there are subtleties. The SABR guys may know what the math says, but they don't know how a pitcher feels when a base stealer is dancing off the bag. As a manager, I preferred a team that attempted to steal a lot of bases. We ran often when we had a break-even 67 percent success rate -- or even a little lower -- because I know how I felt when a fast runner was taking a big lead and juking around trying to get a good jump. As a manager, I figured that if we could put more pressure on the opposing pitcher he wouldn't perform as well. In my mind, stealing, or even the threat of stealing, is important because it creates opportunities for hitters. There is no way to quantify the effect of this pressure. The only way to get a feel for it is to watch thousands of games and consider the value of a speedy base runner while you are watching. In other words, use your own eyes and brain.
There are also situations in which you might want to steal a base even if it is a low-percentage play. Let's say you have a good hitter in the batter's box with two outs and an average runner at first base, and the count is 0-2 -- not too promising a situation. If you try to steal and fail, the good hitter leads off the next inning with a fresh count. If you are safe, the hitter has a 1-2 count and a chance to drive in a run with a single. In my mind, the risk, though great, is worth the potential reward. If it doesn't work, you're in good shape to start the next inning.
I favor a team with at least three left-handed hitters. Players who hit right-handed usually do better against right-handed pitchers than lefty hitters do against left-handed pitchers. Since there are more right-handed pitchers and hitters it is not necessarily an advantage to have too many left-handed hitters in the lineup, especially if your opponent has a few left-handed starters and a few lefty relievers. My Team will have more right-handed hitters than lefties, but the left-handed hitters I do choose, like Barry Bonds, will be able to hit left-handed pitching.
Going beyond the numbers, you start dealing with what is often referred to as a team's chemistry. Chemistry is the sum of the intangible qualities each player brings to the team. Teams with good chemistry play with great energy all the time. They don't make excuses for poor play. The players get along well with one another, and each player accepts his role on the team. All hitters have streaks and slumps. When you have a confident team, the guy in the slump doesn't worry if he fails to get a runner home from third base with no outs. He depends on the guy behind him to score the runner. And he really believes it will work out that way. When a fielder makes an error that threatens to open the floodgates, he depends on his pitcher to pitch out of the trouble without giving up a run.
It will be impossible for me, or anyone else, to select a twenty-five man team full of guys who are content to play the backup roles. Almost all the guys I pick are, or will be, Hall of Fame players and none of them would be satisfied sitting on the bench. But there are two intangible qualities that I will consider in choosing My Team. One of them gurgles like a brook and the other is a raging inferno.
It is always helpful to have a gurgling guy or two who can keep things loose. A practical joke or impromptu comic line helps when a team is struggling. A guy who not only wants to beat the other team, but wants to kill them, can be an asset, too, even without a sense of humor. In the last fifteen years, the Astros have had a few guys whose presence on the team meant more than the numbers they posted. Casey Candaele could have made a living as a stand-up comedian. Luis Gonzalez is the best practical joker I have ever seen. Being around them was exhilarating, like running the rapids. It will be hard to find guys like that for My Team because oftentimes the guys who fill these roles are not the star players. I do know of at least one player who will make the team on talent and can improve the chemistry, too. As Branch Rickey once said, "His secret weapon is the frivolity in his bloodstream. Willie Mays has doubled his strength with laughter."
Carl Everett is not a comedian -- he is a flame eater. In 1998, his competitive fire helped us maintain a sharp edge throughout the season. Carl had one of his best years in '98 and, because of his burning desire, I felt like we were always on the precipice of a brawl. Craig Biggio isn't likely to start a fight (or crack a joke), but he does play like a demon and expects no less of his teammates. Pete Rose was the same way. If you have guys who can keep things loose and other guys who can draw the bowstring tight, you have a chance at good chemistry.
Putting It in Perspective
Most old ballplayers (with the exception of WWII era players) feel that the golden age of the sport was when they played. A lot of the old guys think the modern players aren't as well-schooled as the guys they played with and against. The guys who are playing now think the old-time players were inferior athletes who couldn't even make the majors these days. I am not inclined toward either argument. I think there are more good players in the game now, but I also think the best of the past would still be big fish, even in the bigger talent pool of this generation. As I reviewed the field of old-timers, I found that they were only slightly smaller in stature than the current crop. You cannot say the same thing about basketball or football, where size has become much more important. I think Cobb and Mathewson would have been stars in any era.
Still, I am inclined to think the universe of players is deeper in talent now than ever before. Sure, there are fourteen more teams now than there were when Cobb roamed the outfield, but there are more athletes to choose from these days. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, many black athletes chose to play baseball and became stars. In recent years, the percentage of black players in the major leagues has declined to 1 in 10. The percentage of black players in the major leagues was more than 1 in 4 in 1970. One reason is that many of the great black athletes have chosen football or basketball careers. It stands to reason. Football and basketball are the primary spectator sports in high school and college. A lot of inner-city kids, who may have the ability to become professional baseball players will never know it because they don't have a ballpark nearby, let alone all the equipment it takes to play. There are still a lot of good black ballplayers today -- players that could not have displayed their talents prior to 1947. Players from the Caribbean countries have made great inroads in the last forty years. They have, in effect, replaced the black players. And now, some fine players from Asian countries and Australia are showing that they can stand up against the best in America. Ten years from now, My Team may have more of an international flavor.
In baseball, the size of the player is not very important. Great size and strength isn't an advantage in swimming or track, either. Yet records in these sports continue to fall, which suggests that improved nutrition, conditioning methods, and medical advances have helped the modern athletes maximize their potential. The runners and swimmers aren't getting much bigger but they are getting a little bit faster. Still, no amount of conditioning could make Shaquille O'Neal a faster bike rider than Lance Armstrong. If you argued that the baseball players of today are better athletes than those of the early days of the sport, I would have to agree. But I could also say that Mickey Mantle and Willie Stargell have hit monster home runs in some of the ballparks where Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa still play. In some of these parks, the old guys hit home runs to the outer reaches beyond where anyone has hit one recently. I can also mention that some of the fastest old-time players were timed with a stopwatch, and that it appears that they could run about as fast as the fastest players today. I'm sure that is what Red Smith had in mind when he said that 90 feet between bases is the closest mankind has come to perfection.
Baseball rewards players with skills that you can't improve upon just by being bigger and stronger, like quick, soft hands, good hand-eye coordination and throwing accuracy. In the National League, where real baseball is played (with no DH), everyone has to be able to play offense and defense. There is a little more specialization now, however, especially with regard to relief pitching. In my day, a good starting pitcher could complete a lot of games. Now the closers finish most games. I will have to keep these things in mind as I select My Team.
Because starting pitchers will have to have ten good years to qualify for My Team, I cannot select the most dominant pitcher I have ever seen, Sandy Koufax. Because I require My Team's players to play in the field, I can't consider Paul Molitor, because he was a DH more often than he played a position. Since relief pitchers normally have a shorter career, I will require them to have only eight good years and will not include winning percentage because it is not a good indicator of a reliever's value. When you come out of the bullpen, the most important quality is consistency. If you have nine good outings and then give up three runs in one-third of an inning in the next outing, your ERA may not look so good, but your manager will send you right back out there because he knows you have been successful 90 percent of the time.
I have not attempted to adjust a pitcher's statistics to include the quality of the teams he pitched for or the effect various ballparks may have had on his ERA. I have, however, thought about some factors that influence performance. I have given some extra ERA credit to pitchers in the American League since 1973, when the designated hitter rule put the extra hitter in the lineup. I have considered the quality of each pitcher's teammates and the nature of his home ballpark. I have not attempted to quantify these things. As Toby Harrah once said, "Statistics are like a girl in a bikini. They show a lot, but not everything." For instance, Steve Carlton won 27 games with a good ERA in 1972 for a last-place Phillies team in a relatively small ballpark. He certainly had more obstacles to overcome that year than Jim Palmer, who won 21 games for a great Orioles ball club that year. Tom Seaver won a lot more games than he lost despite playing for a weak-hitting team in his early days with the Mets. He did, however, pitch a lot of games at Shea Stadium, one of the best pitcher's ballparks in the league, which had to help his ERA.
Comparing the accomplishments of the pitchers of my generation with those who came along later is difficult because of the prominence of the closer in today's game. The best starting pitchers of the sixties and seventies went the distance at least one-third of the time. If they had had Mariano Rivera to pitch the ninth instead, they would likely have won more games and posted lower ERAs. When I look at Bob Gibson and Pedro Martinez, I will have to consider the quality of the teams they pitched for and their place among their contemporaries. Perhaps someone could come up with a formula to make these comparisons, but because you would have to make arbitrary judgments to come up with the formula, I will make arbitrary judgments without it.
If I do nothing else in selecting My Team than make you try to think of a better one, I will have accomplished my goal. If I help you understand the intangible qualities certain types of players bring to the ballpark, I will make you a more informed fan. Either way or both, choosing My Team should be thought provoking. I scratched my head as I considered the ability of each individual player as a piece of the puzzle. Choosing My Team made me decide which pieces would fit together best to form the most beautiful team picture.
As a reminder, you can find the full statistical charts by visiting SimonSays.com and searching for My Team by Larry Dierker.
Excerpted from My Team by Larry Dierker Copyright © 2006 by Larry Dierker. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Larry Dierker pitched for the Houston Astros from 1964 to 1976. He made his debut on his eighteenth birthday and in his first inning struck out Willie Mays. In 1969 he became the Astros' first 20-game winner. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1969 and 1971. As a pitcher he remains the franchise career leader in innings pitched and complete games, and is second in wins. After doing color commentary on Astros' radio and television broadcasts, Dierker managed the team from 1997 to 2001. He led Houston to a first-place finish in four of these five seasons. In 2004 he returned to color commentary. He is the author of This Ain't Brain Surgery: How to Win the Pennant Without Losing Your Mind.
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