Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Record-Tying Evening in Denver...

I was fortunate enough to make it to last night's Nationals-Rockies game at Coors Field (which I think is now the 19th major league stadium I've visited). Prior to first pitch, numerous questions ran through my head...
  • Coors Field...with the history of this place, and despite the fact that they keep their baseballs in a humidor, would this be a high-scoring three-plus hour game?
  • Would the rain that had just passed through have left enough moisture in the air to prevent much carry, keeping the score reasonable?
  • Or would the fact that the Nationals entered play nearly a dozen games worse than the next-poorest team in the NL translate into a Rockies slaughter?
  • Would the Rockies be able to continue their hot streak, coming off a torrential stretch where they'd won 22 of 29, with much of the turnaround attributed to Jim Tracy replacing Clint Hurdle in the dugout?
  • Could the Nationals achieve a similar kind of turnaround by showing Manny Acta the door?
  • Are the Diamondbacks so devoid of talent that a Rockies-like turnaround (or even .500 baseball) is impossible under A.J. Hinch? And, are certain veterans still (to be kind) lamenting Hinch's hiring? Sure, he's young, came in with zero coaching experience, and came into play last night with a 21-32 lifetime managerial record, but he's a Stanford grad, caught nine years of professional ball, and has always been known as a bright guy. So, I continue to wonder what's going on with that organization, and why the club hasn't responded to the managerial change even remotely like the Rockies did to theirs (unbelievably so, in fact).
  • Could the Cubs bullpen hold their 4-0 lead over the Braves?
  • What the heck was going on with the Reds in Philadelphia, down 10-0 after 1?
After two innings where a number of hard-hit balls didn't carry, I thought we might be in for a low-scoring ballgame. Little did I know that we'd witness only the eighth 1-0 game in Coors Field history--not coincidentally, all after the introduction of the humidor. The game wasn't exactly a masterpiece--I can't tell you the last time I saw two runners from the same team doubled off second base on line drives.

But, we saw two major league records tied, which was certainly memorable.

In the bottom of the fourth, Todd Helton hit a hard two-hopper to first; the amount of topspin off the bat made me utter "tough hop" after the first hop, but 1B Nick Johnson masterfully played the in-between second hop, tossing a strike to P Craig Stammen for the out. On the very next pitch, Brad Hawpe hit a hard three-hopper over (and narrowly missing) the bag on which Johnson made an excellent backhanded diving stop, scrambling to his feet to deliver an underhand toss to the covering Stammen for the out. I made a note to self how rare it is to see back-to-back 3-1 putouts--tough ones at that.

Lo and behold, Troy Tulowitzki grounded a full count fastball to Johnson, who picked it and tossed to Stammen for the third out. I immediately turned to my friend Toby Nixon and said "We just saw a major league record at least tied, and maybe set--three putouts in an inning by a pitcher may've never happened before." The thought crossed my mind that three assists in an inning by a first baseman might also be a record, but I mentioned to Toby that since an assist can be awarded without a putout being recorded (e.g., ground ball to third, clean throw across to beat the runner in plenty of time, first baseman drops the ball, scoring goes 5-E3), it's possible that a first baseman could've had four assists in an inning.

With a little research this morning (thanks, Baseball Almanac), I've learned that:
  • we witnessed two major league records tied--P putouts in an inning and 1B assists in an inning
  • this was the 13th time in MLB history that a pitcher had three putouts in an inning
  • this was the 12th time in MLB history that a first baseman had three assists in an inning
  • this was the seventh time in NL history that three 3-1 putouts in an inning had occurred
  • that three 3-1 putouts in an inning has occurred only once in AL history--ironically with Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart on the fielding end, in the summer of '63
The statistically interesting part of the entire equation is that while this was the seventh time in NL history that three 3-1 putouts have occurred in a single inning, it was the fourth time it's happened in the fourth inning. When you do the math on how infinitesimally small the chances are of this happening, it gets even cooler. I'm not even going to try to calculate this, but at 162 games per team per season, times number of defensive innings, times number of teams, then do the same going back through pre-expansion, 154-game seasons, you end up with a whole lot of defensive innings, but only now seven instances where this has happened--four of which happened in the fourth inning.

You know what? That's pretty freakin' cool.

A few more statistical niceties on the topic of three 3-1 putouts in an inning...

Well, wait a second. Baseball Almanac lists most putouts by a pitcher in an inning, and most assists by a first baseman in an inning. Comparing those lists is how I came up with the number of seven NL cases. But, maybe it's only six. Read on...

According to Baseball Almanac's records, the first recorded instance in NL history was in 1975, when Andre Thornton of the Cubs fielded three grounders, delivering the ball to Rick Reuschel. For all I know, I might've been watching Jack Brickhouse describe the action on WGN that day after school. The interesting piece here is that Big Daddy, while a decent fielder for a guy of his considerable (and I mean considerable) girth, managed to get to the bag all three times.

(As an aside, I think about how well Big Daddy moved for a big dude, then I think about Dennis Lamp, his Cubs teammate from '77-'80. I swear, at least once a game, Lamp would give up a ground ball to the right side which would turn into a base hit while Larry Biittner stood helplessly, ball-in-hand, hoping, praying even, that Lamp might consider covering the bag. I mean, he was right-handed...he fell towards first base when he delivered, for Pete's sake. And by Pete, I mean Pete LaCock, whom Biittner replaced at first after the '76 season. Circle gets the square.)

But, maybe Reuschel didn't. I wanted to see who the batters were who'd committed the outs, so I popped over to Retrosheet's play-by-play of the 4/24/75 Cardinals-Cubs game. While the second (Keith Hernandez) and third (future Cub Kenny Reitz) outs were recorded on 3-1 putouts, Retrosheet claims that Ted Simmons grounded out pitcher unassisted. I can envision a scenario where Big Daddy jams the switch-hitting catcher with a fastball, which Simmons tops weakly down the first base line. From the left-handed batter's box, the lead-footed Simmons stumbles away before righting himself. Big Daddy pounces (-ish) off the mound to pick up the squibber, chugging like a freight train directly into Simmons' path, applying the tag and a momentum-stopping hug. 1U, one out.

Maybe it happened that way, maybe it didn't. Either way, if Retrosheet is right (and I have to believe they are, knowing their penchant for accuracy), Baseball Almanac is wrong--meaning last night was the seventh case of this happening ever, the fourth time in the fourth inning. Wow. I'll have to circle back with the Baseball Almanac guys.

Okay, more interesting (to me, at least) nuggets...

Of the now seven games where three 3-1 putouts occurred in the same inning:
  • six of them were one-run ballgames; the sole game decided by more than one run was a 6-4 Cubs victory (shocking)
  • the only run scored in such an inning occurred in the very first instance, a Red Sox-Yankees affair at the Stadium; sandwiched in-between 3-1 groundouts by Tony Kubek, Roger Maris, and Joe Pepitone were a Bobby Richardson single to center, a wild pitch, and a Tom Tresh RBI double
  • all seven cases happened in the fourth inning or earlier
  • the Cubs participated in three, winning two (again, shocking)
  • John Kruk committed outs in two of the instances, in '86 at Wrigley and in '92 at the 'Stick
  • no game lasted longer than 2:52, with last night's 2:12 contest being the most efficient
So, yeah, you might think I've gone a little bit overboard here; but, it's a good warmup for this Saturday. I'm fortunate to have been invited to the 2nd annual PITCHf/x Summit, hosted by Major League Baseball and Sportvision. Picture an entire day of baseball analytics with a bunch of other baseball numbers folks, then a ballgame--a pretty great way to spend a weekend for this SABR member.

And, lest you think this is all irrelevant, think about how rare a perfect game is--only 17 instances of 27 up, 27 down, ever. Last night was only the seventh time three 3-1 putouts have occurred in the same inning.


Heck, not just memorable. Historic, even.

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