Distinguishing the SHEEP from the GOAT

February 4, 2019

Flagstaff Films has been running a feature that I love, and strongly recommend, on Twitter—they show clips, usually in full color, of MLB players from so long ago I either haven’t seen these players at all or else I saw them in my youth but not since then. Either way it’s a great treat. The clips, usually filmed with a home camera from the stands, fall into two categories: players warming up, horsing around, taking BP, smiling (and talking to the camera, which seems like a nervous reaction to being filmed—they had to know that sound recording was far in the future, right?) or else in-game action. The in-game stuff is random by its nature: a couple of seconds of a long-vanished game, stitched together, nothing special at the time, and in retrospect an arbitrary sample of the way players played the game.

 

Here's an example: https://twitter.com/i/status/1091703266759589888 , a clip from a Mets-Cards game, on 9/7/1967, shot from the third-base box seats, with glimpses of some of my favorite players—Bob Gibson, Ron Swoboda, Jerry Grote, Tim McCarver—and a lot of shots of some forgettable humpties of whom I have no memory of at all.  (The Mets second-baseman and third-baseman were Bob Johnson, the worst hitter ever to bat .348 in 90 games, and Jerry Buchek, respectively).  The central sequence in here, however, has Don Cardwell pitching to Dal Maxvill, with the bases loaded, one out, in the top of the fifth inning. (I know this from looking up the play-by-play on Retrosheet: https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN196709070.shtml.)  It starts at 0:30 seconds with a foul tip by Maxvill and ends around 0:45.  Maxvill manages to knock a pitch into LF for a clean single, driving in two runs and driving Cardwell from the game, which is rare enough (Maxvill being a pure defensive player, a weaker stick perhaps than the Mets’ shortstop in this game, Bud Harrelson, which is a very weak stick indeed) but the interesting part of this play to me is how the Mets’ star left-fielder, Cleon Jones, handles the ball.

 

You can barely make out Jones in the clip—he’s just a blur, a gnat on the windscreen, but you can still judge his play by the results. No one has a chance to catch Maxie’s bloop single before it drops, and the runner on third, McCarver, scores very easily, loping home. The runner on second, however, Mike Shannon, has to hustle to make home plate. Jones in LF throws directly home, over the heads of any would-be cut-off men. We don’t see the play at the plate—the amateur cameraman doesn’t pan in time, plus a fan stands up, blocking the right side of the screen—but we can see Shannon running hard, though none too speedily, towards the plate. From the brief post-play reaction, we can tell that there was no play at the plate. Joe Schultz, of Ball Four fame, coaching at 3B, takes a step towards the outfield, turning his back to home plate and Jerry Buchek isn’t even looking towards the plate—plainly, Jones’ throw sailed far wide of home, and Grote must have had to hustle to catch it at all.  (Or Cardwell caught it, backing up Grote.) No biggie, except that Maxie, also out of the picture, intelligently took second base on Jones’ errant throw. That’s also no biggie, as it turns out: the Cardinals don’t score again in this inning. But it is telling that the Mets defense—i.e., Jones—chose to give second base to the Cardinals on the very slim off-chance of nabbing Shannon at the plate. The line for the inning reads "3 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors," but the play-by-play reveals another misplay by Jones, earlier in the half-inning: when Shannon (this is unfilmed, though Shannon’s second inning 4-3 groundout does begin the clip)  previously singled to LF, scoring Maris, Jones also made an ineffective throw, allowing Shannon to take second base on the single.

 

So there were no errors in the inning, which put the game out of reach for the Mets (6-1 here, 9-2 at the game’s end), but there were two throws that should never have been made, and two runners allowed to advance to second base. Maxie’s advance created an even bigger potential inning, in that Lou Brock was walked to create a DP situation, and the Mets got out of the inning with the bases loaded. The Mets, according to the boxscore, walked three Cardinals intentionally in this game, two in this inning, which seems sort of unwise in general, each time to set up a force-play or a doubleplay.  This seems a little wistful on manager Wes Westrum’s part: "Golly," I can almost hear him thinking, "I wish Cleon would have kept that runner on 1B, so we’d have a DP in order—gosh, I have an idea how we can set up a DP anyway!"

 

Anyway, Westrum had only a few games left in his managerial career for the Mets, but this half-inning illustrates how the Mets, even without committing actual errors, let so many games get away from them. More to my point, it also illustrates a weakness in Jones’ game that explains his career arc to me.

 

Before I get started, though, let me pre-empt a branch of perfectly justified concern: I might be all wet here. These two runners Jones allowed to take second base between the first and second outs of this inning might be the only two runners Jones let advance in his entire career, just as these IBB might be the only three IBB Wes Westrum ever dreamed up, though I doubt it very much.  I could be picking on poor Cleon entirely without foundation by citing what might be the worst defensive half-inning of his life, though I doubt that even more. These are just a few plays that happened to cross my field of vision 52 years after the fact, and I might be making much of a muchness out of absolutely nothing.

 

But I think it actually explains, or symbolizes, a lot that’s always sort of mystified me: why exactly the Mets played so poorly in the early and mid-1960s, and even in the wonderful period of 1969 through the mid-1970s only got their act together on occasion. (After winning 100 in 1969, the Mets went 83-79 the next three years, and finally won the division again by going 82-79 in 1973, not exactly a powerhouse in a weak division.) I confess that as a boy, I bought into some fantasies the club was peddling, about their brilliant young players, a few of whom (Seaver, Koosman, McGraw, Ryan, Otis, Singleton) put in substantial careers, but most of whom (Kranepool, Swoboda, Harrelson, Foli, Boswell, Wakefield, Rusteck, Garrett, Gentry,  Goossen, Ribant, Renko, Musgraves, McAndrew, Frisella, Selma, Powell, Rohr) fell short of the stardom that I expected from them. This is mostly due to the nature of childhood fantasies in the first place, of course. All young promising players can’t be full-fledged stars—the many who don’t achieve greatness put into high relief those few who do.

 

Cleon Jones, however, is a special case: he came up young (20), and looked like their first homegrown player with five-tool potential. He not only had a quick bat, but that bat had a little pop, and he was fast around the bases, as well. The Mets put him in centerfield when he first came up (through age 24, he played 211 games in CF), and his speed served him well there at first. But he quickly revealed his limitations as well: his power never really developed, and his speed, both on the bases and in the outfield, seemed to leave him almost as soon as it showed itself. He was moved out of centerfield, too (after age 24, he played only 57 games in CF), because he lacked the instincts of a great center fielder, and it’s those instincts that I want to address here.

 

Bill Bradley put it best in the title of John McPhee’s wonderful book about Bradley’s undergraduate career: "A Sense of Where You Are," as an explanation of what made Bradley so skilled at basketball: he had a feel for where he was at every moment on the basketball court, where he needed to get to, what the play was going to develop into, how his opponent was likely to react when that happened, what Bradley could do to best take advantage of his opponent’s likeliest move, and even a secondary sense of what the next-most likely sequence of events was going to be, so he could change his plan if need be on the run, literally while running down court at full speed.  Bradley’s full speed was fairly unimpressive, as guards went in the NBA, soon turning him into a small forward, but what made him a great athlete was his quick mind, and its ability to change paths, seemingly on a second-to-second basis. "THIS defender is out of position,  THIS pick is going to create a mismatch in two seconds, THAT teammate is guarding a great ballhandler much too closely"—twenty such analytic thoughts every minute gave Bradley his advantage, not to say that being a great shooter and passer didn’t help, of course. But Bradley had that magical sense of where he was and where every other player on the court was, every second that he played—and that was exactly what Jones lacked.

 

I’ve never put the two together before now, but I was experiencing both of these young and gifted athletes at the same time. (They were born 358 days apart.) Both broke in around 1965, and both went through a few years of sometimes awkward, sometimes brilliant play before turning into star players in the late sixties and early seventies. Both were totally finished by the mid-1970s, kaput, fartig, exhausted. (Alexander the Great, going back a few millennia, also broke through at age 20 and was kaput, quite literally, at age 32: a weird story ran just this week about the possibility of his having been buried alive: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190122115006.htm . If you want the longer, more sensational version, look here: https://www.thedailybeast.com/was-alexander-the-great-buried-alive ).  At his best, Jones looked like a great hitter—he almost won a batting championship in 1969, and he hit .319 in 1971— finishing 7th in the MVP voting in the Mets’ championship year, which I think is way higher than Bradley ever finished in the NBA’s MVP voting. (Checking—yes, one season, 1971-2, Bradley tied for 25th in the NBA’s MVP tally with the immortal Fred Carter. His entire career, that was his total MVP showing, a single last-place spot on the ballot.)  They couldn’t have been more opposite in some regards, particularly that of consistency.  You never knew if Jones would play at the top of his game or the bottom in a given year, but you always knew what Bradley would do, and wouldn’t do, every single year. In boxing terms, Jones was a puncher, Bradley a counter-puncher—Dollar Bill always had a plan, and a backup plan, and a backup to his backup, for every move you’d make against him, so he always came out ok. Jones, not so much. He either connected or he swung at air. (Once, but only once, in Jones’ 13-year career, did his walks exceed his strikeouts, by four bases on balls—for his career he had a 1:2 walks-to-strikeouts ratio.)

 

When Jones fielded the ball in the fifth inning of the game against the Cardinals in 1967, it seems to me that he hadn’t thought very far ahead. Maybe he’d thought as far ahead as "If Maxvill pulls a hit, and Shannon tries to score from second base, I’m going to throw Shannon out at the plate," but he certainly hadn’t thought as far ahead as "but if Maxvill’s hit is a lazy bloop and Shannon makes it around third smoothly, I probably won’t have the time to nail Shannon with anything but the best throw home I’ll ever make, so in that case it’s smarter to get the ball into second base and hold Maxvill on first."

 

Extrapolating from this one play in this meaningless game, you can sort of see why Jones’s star career never materialized, or if you want to argue that it did, why it never blossomed into super-stardom. Bradley would have seen ten plays that might have developed, and come up with contingencies for each of them. In fact, forget Bradley, because it sounds even to me like what I’m saying is "white guy = smart, gritty player" and "black guy = great instinctive natural player" and that’s not it at all. The baseball equivalent of Bradley’s forethought is Willie Mays, another great #24, who played centerfield the way I (and a million other young Mets fans) only hoped Cleon Jones would eventually learn to. I always had the sense that Mays not only knew who the runner was on each base, and how well he ran,  but each runner’s peculiar tendencies, the tiny signs that runners give as they’re heading into third base that they’re going to stop there or keep barreling full-speed into home. Inside Mays’s head I imagine those little punch-out cards computers used in the 1960s flipping constantly, to calibrate the ever-changing multiplicity of chances, tendencies, odds-for and –against, the game situation, and 30,000 other factors as the bat made contact with the ball, with those odds shifting with every hop the ball took on its way to him. You can be a great athlete, a star player, without this sort of super-computer braininess, but I doubt you can be a superstar on physical abilities alone.

 

It's the quality I value most, I think, in watching sports—someone somehow knowing how to do the exact right difficult thing with only a second to think it through. Doing the difficult thing—reaching over the fence to pull back a home run, double-teaming someone trapped in the corner off-balance with the ball—is, of course, the hard part that’s easy to see, but knowing just when to jump and when to hold back and wait is the hard part that’s hard to see. That’s why I like to watch old games on tape, or what passes for "tape" in this digital world. In a way, freeze-framing games at crucial points is exactly what the Mayses and the Bradleys were able to do in real time: Maxvill hits the ball, and I freeze the frame where the ball is in mid-air: the baserunners are concentrating on its arc, taking leads off their respective bases as each one tries to figure out if Maxie’s ball will drop in or if any fielder is close enough to nab it in the air. The fielders, meanwhile, are trying to gauge if this ball is theirs, or some other fielder’s, while still other fielders are figuring out which base to cover, who to back up, where to stand as a cut-off guy, and in an instant, it becomes clear to everyone that this ball will drop in, just in front of Cleon Jones, and they all scramble to their places, as I change the "pause" button to "play" 52 years later. I’m figuring out, with the advantage of five decades of consideration, what they’re figuring out instantaneously. Or not figuring out instantaneously.

 

Bill addressed this issue in a "Hey Bill" from 3/20/2017, which I’ll quote at length:

 

…it is central to sports that THE ATHLETE DOES NOT HAVE TIME TO MAKE A GOOD DECISION.  On a certain level, when you think about it, that is the very essence of any sport: depriving the opposition player of the TIME that he needs to make a good decision. Basketball plays develop so rapidly, the situation on the court evolves so rapidly, that sooner or later somebody makes a bad decision, because he doesn't have TIME to make a good decision. A defender is out of position, because he doesn't have enough time to read the play correctly and adopt the right defensive posture. Passes fly out of bounds, because the offensive players are moving so fast that the passer does not always have time to make a good decision about the pass. You run a full court press, hoping that the ball handler will not have time to figure out what he should do. 

 

In football, the ball carrier cuts left and runs smack into a defender, when if he had run to the right he would have had an open lane, but he did not have time to make a good decision. The quarterback throws an interception, because he has only a second to read the defense, and he doesn't have enough time to read it correctly. The whole game is about denying the opposition the time needed to make a good decision. 

 

In baseball, the pitcher throws a pitch that changes direction so rapidly that the hitter does not have the time to make a good decision about swinging or not swinging, about trying to pull the ball or just going with the pitch. 

 

In hockey, just to complete the thought, Wayne Gretzky said that while other players were trying to get to where the puck was, he was skating to where the puck would be in three seconds. (Paraphrasing: I don’t remember where Gretzky said this, or something like it.) This is, IMO, the essence of super-stardom, having that sense of where you are. Of course, you need the reflexes and the raw physical ability as well—not having those kept Bradley from superstardom. (Though I’d have to guess that if someone is in the Hall of Fame, as Bradley is, you have to consider him a super-star of sorts.) You have to enjoy thinking about this stuff, relish it, take great pleasure in the edge it gives you over other players, and keep honing it to a razor’s edge game after game.

 

I get the feeling that with players like Cleon Jones it was always a chore to think like this. His next two managers, Gil Hodges and Yogi Berra, were often frustrated with Jones, and I think this was the key to their frustration, his not being totally in the game the way they wanted him to be, needed him to be. (Both Yogi and Gil had blowups with Jones that manifested themselves on the field, which was rare with both managers, who preferred keeping in-team conflicts very much intime. But Cleon was as frustrating a player as he was talented. His final blowup with Yogi got Yogi fired, and Cleon as well, a rare and tricky bankshot.) It is a struggle for some players to play this sort of mind game in addition to the body game they played so well.

 

Mays and Bradley hardly ever missed a game. I think this was because even when their game was off, when Bradley wasn’t hitting open shots or Mays was letting hittable pitches go past him, they were always figuring out what their problem was, and quickly solving it. On those rare occasions, they contributed by positioning themselves well, by breaking up double-plays or setting perfect picks, while they solved whatever was ailing their games. Players like Jones went into slumps and hot streaks that completely baffled them.

 

I’d like to see this mental part of the game heightened. Even more valuable than making the games shorter in their length, I feel that quickening up the pace of games, almost to the extent that most of us would find it quickened up unnervingly, would result in a more noticeable difference between the super-stars and the just-plain stars, and would make the non-stars also stand out from the stars. If umpires would pressure the pitchers to quick-pitch batters (simply by not granting time-outs to batters between every pitch), you’d see some batters rising to the challenge, while other, lesser batters would collapse without those few extra batting-glove-adjusting seconds to rethink their strategies. Some pitchers, too, would rise to the physical challenge of the faster pace, while other, lesser pitchers would cry "Uncle!" under  the strain, to say nothing of the strain of having a game plan that works far in advance: "If I go 0-2 on him with fastballs inside, I’m going to throw a changeup off the outside corner, and if I miss with that and he doesn’t swing, I’ll come back with a fastball just a bit high out of the zone, and then…."

 

It's not just pitchers and batters who’d need to think fast. (Did you ever have someone come up to you and throw a ball right in your face, saying "Think fast!"? Annoying when you’re the receiver, but pretty funny when you’re the thrower. Last time I tried that little game, I nearly got punched out by a teammate on my grad-school softball team. This guy: https://www.abebooks.com/9780983507512/Benders-Loop-Ken-Schiff-0983507511/plp  Never really forgave me, either. Can’t blame him.) Fielders need to make adjustments, depending on the count or other changes between pitches, and a vastly quickened pace would minimize the role that coaches can play in helping them out. I like the idea of managers and coaches prepping the players with possible strategies in conceivable contingencies, but once the action begins, I DON’T want managers and coaches dictating where the fielders stand, what the pitcher throws, what the batters’ strategies should be. Stars will figure that stuff out, and lesser players won’t, which is as it should be.

 

It happens that Bill agrees with me here, too. Here’s the next two grafs from that 3/20/2017 "Hey Bill":

 

But baseball is different than other sports, in this respect, which is that baseball has constant pauses to re-set the action, which makes it more of a thinking man's game. We can debate strategy in baseball in a way that we don't in other sports, because the manager has the TIME to make an informed decision before the play starts.   

 

But have we overdone it?  It's a key question. I think we HAVE overdone it. We have allowed batters to step out, re-set their thinking a hundred times a game. It is too much, I think. We would be better off if we would move more toward the model of forcing decisions without the time to make them.   

 

 

Speeding up the game would separate, even more than we do now, the chaff from the wheat, or if we abbreviate "Some Horrible Eftsoons Excellent Players" as "S.H.E.E.P." and "Greatest Of All Time" as "G.O.A.T.", would soon separate the goat from the sheep.

 
 

COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

garywmaloney
dburba, Steve and others - you don't know the half of it. An incredible amount of old baseball BROADCASTS are floating around --formerly among collectors, but many many bits on YouTube. And I promise you -- the pro-shot stuff is better. (Here's the only broadcast known to exist from a 1969 Seattle Pilots home game -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSTprNed3yI )

What Steve did in analyzing the Mets-Cards clip can go much further in deepening our understanding of where the game was, and where it has been going. Bill did the same thing in a Gold Mine article about Game 1 of the 1974 World Series. Many truths are right in front of us - we just don't see them yet.
4:50 AM Feb 12th
 
Steven Goldleaf
That same year, 1965, 20-year-old Ed Kranepool was batting .341 (.384 OBP, .511 SLG) in his first 47 games of the year. I saw him and Swoboda going into the Hall of Fame as a duo. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.fcgi?id=kraneed01&t=b&year=1965


7:09 AM Feb 6th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Checking, after the fact, a few stats for the young Mets I listed above, I found that Ron Swoboda (despite my exaggerated "fact" about how quickly he put up power numbers his rookie year, which I hope all of you recognized as a ridiculous exaggeration) actually looked like a potential HoFer in his first 37 games--through May 27, he had a .298 BA, a .375 OBP, and a .649 SLG, with 11 HR and 28 RBI in his first 114 ABs. Projected out to a full season that would give him 49 HR and 123 RBI: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.fcgi?id=swoboro01&t=b&year=1965#1-37-sum:batting_gamelogs

So it was perhaps understandable that a Met fan might have delirious fantasies of a true (if raw) star on our team. (Swoboda's fielding was as crude as his power. Now he's mostly remembered for his one fantastic catch in th 1969 World Series, but he was Kingman-clumsy in his rookie year, just cringe-inducing to watch.) I was also surprised to find that Steve Renko, who never pitched an inning for the Mets, was considered more of a 1B prospect than a pitching prospect, hitting 17 HRs in one minor league season. By the time I became aware of him, just before he was dealt to the Expos as part of the trade for Donn Clendenon in 1969, I was aware of him only as a pitching prospect. Turned out to be a pretty fair major league pitcher, too.
5:03 PM Feb 5th
 
evanecurb
If someone isn’t trying to hit the cutoff man, he’s being obstinate, which I guess you could call a mental error. I tend to think of it differently. But I shouldn’t have gone down that road, anyway. Your greater point is an interesting one: what separates great players from five tool good players. Is it decision making as described here? It may well be in some cases. And I never thought of that before reading this. Good article.
9:45 AM Feb 5th
 
FrankD
A term for this is "getting within the the cycle time of your opponent". Beat him to the punch. See the chess game turns in front of your opponent. Invade through the Ardennes, advance your Panzers and Air-support faster than the French can react. And the great ones have this ability. I believe Bill James or somebody quoted Tim McCarver as saying "they had a rule never to try to throw Mays out as he took an extra base because Mays always ran just fast enough to draw a throw and still be safe". Maybe the fences in baseball should be further back so there are less trots around the bases and more triples and inside-the-park HR attempts. Runners flying, throws coming to the base or plate ........
7:57 PM Feb 4th
 
Steven Goldleaf
To elaborate: "not hitting the cutoff man" is technically a physically error, but when someone isn't TRYING to hit the cutoff man, and then doesn't, that's a mental error, and that's what's happening 99.99% of the time.
1:51 PM Feb 4th
 
18hippo
Watching Javy Baez and Daniel Murphy playing "together" at short and second this past summer really illuminated your point. It was like watching two different species trying to coexist.
1:47 PM Feb 4th
 
Steven Goldleaf
"Not hitting the cut-off man" is the very definition of a mental error.
12:32 PM Feb 4th
 
evanecurb
Jones should have hit the cutoff man. He knew that. It’s a physical error, not a mental one.
12:26 PM Feb 4th
 
pgaskill
Thanks, dburba. Dunno why I didn't think of trying that. Works like a charm.

Steven, yeah, that's the same kind of error I got.

--Phil
10:21 AM Feb 4th
 
dburba
I got an error as well from clicking the link, but cutting and pasting works.
10:18 AM Feb 4th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Huh. Yeah, it doesn't work for me, either, something about "unsafe links" blablabla. All I can say is if you go onto Twitter and search for "Flagstaff" the whole shootin' match should emerge, and the Mets/Cards game (there are two separate clips) is currently the third one from the top.
10:06 AM Feb 4th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Huh. Yeah, it doesn't work for me, either, something about "unsafe links" blablabla. All I can say is if you go onto Twitter and search for "Flagstaff" the whole shootin' match should emerge, and the Mets/Cards game (there are two separate clips) is currently the third one from the top.
10:06 AM Feb 4th
 
pgaskill
Steven, the first link in the second paragraph (the twitter link) fails for me, on both my Mac and my iPad. I'd REALLY like to see it!!!! --Phil
10:01 AM Feb 4th
 
dburba
Those Flagstaff Films clips are amazing. I've been following them for a bit, and they somehow make me nostalgic for a time I wasn't even alive for.
10:00 AM Feb 4th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Yeah, some of those homegrowns had pretty fair careers, Harrelson among them. But in my youthful fantasies Buddy was going to blossom into a perennial All-Star and GG (he made two A-S teams, won one GG) and walk and steal and field well enough to deserve that kind of recognition. In my youth, I imagined all sorts of barely plausible things: Swoboda developing consistent 20-30 HR power (his career high was the 19 he hit his rookie year, with about 18 of them coming in his first 10 games), Kranepool being among the top ten in BA most years, Rusteck and Powell being able to repeat their initial performances at least once in a while. Never happened, and that's on me, mostly, for being a dumb kid, but also on the Mets for not knowing how to evaluate talent and to help it along. It's not easy, of course, and I don't mean to suggest it is. But some teams (like these 1967 Cardinals) seemed to have a knack for it.
9:09 AM Feb 4th
 
Jack
Good article, Steven. I agree with you (and steve161) about sports being more interesting when more decisions have to be made with less time to make them. I think Tom Brady's GOAT-ness has a lot more to do with his instantaneous reactions to on-field situations than with his physical ability.

One quibble: Bud Harrelson was a pretty good ballplayer -- 20.3 career bbrefWAR, about evenly split between his offense and defense. He had no power (career .288 slugging), but could work a walk, learned how to steal bases (86 steals in 109 attempts from 1970 through 1976), was a solid defender at shortstop.
8:51 AM Feb 4th
 
steve161
It's also the reason why the game would be improved by more balls in play. Once the ball is struck, most of the players on the field, on both teams, have instantaneous decisions to make, just as Cleon Jones did. And it's not just the fielders: to pick on another (former) Met, I often wondered how much of his offensive ability Daniel Murphy frittered away through brain-dead baserunning.
7:38 AM Feb 4th
 
 
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