An army of Mark McGwires

So Mark McGwire’s going to coach the Cardinals’ hitters next year, and good for them. The dude could hit.

Good for him, too. For some reason, McGwire feels like the most tragic of the outed performance-enhancers, maybe because he managed — or at least tried — to maintain his dignity throughout everything.

Anyway, I bring it up because it allows me to rehash what I’ve always considered an interesting topic of baseball discussion, and one I’ve written about before. In 1998, after watching McGwire hit two home runs in a double-header at Shea, my friend Eric and I were chilling on his back porch discussing McGwire’s awesomeness.

We agreed that he was the best hitter imaginable, but I argued that his talents were mitigated at least a bit by the fact that he couldn’t even capably defend first base, at least not to the eye.

From there, we speculated on how a team would fare if you could somehow clone Mark McGwire and field an entire team of Mark McGwires. Would nine Mark McGwires score enough runs on offense to compensate for their awful defense and pitching?

It’s an interesting question, but one that can’t be answered. It does, in retrospect, seem oddly foreboding of the more recent sabermetric trend toward trying to better evaluate defense.

As the conversation progressed, I pointed out that if you could clone Mark McGwire, why stop at nine? Why not fill the stadium with Mark McGwires, or create a whole damn army of Mark McGwires, stomping into battle, bats on shoulders, chanting “McGwire!”?

That’d be badass, you must admit. The dude was pretty intimidating in his heyday.

19 thoughts on “An army of Mark McGwires

  1. Intimidating, yes, but so’s anyone whose neck becomes as big as his head.

    Actually, for a guy who exploded in size, his hands in that photo look positively TINY. Is there no performance enhancer that increases hand size?

  2. Would this hypothetical team have McGwire pitching as well as playing every position in the field?

    Well, I’m working this up. I’m assuming that a hypothetical all-McGwire pitching staff would perform at the level of the typical position player called on to pitch. I’ll have something for you in a little while.

  3. But seriously though, what could McGwire’s advice possibly be?

    “OK, Yadier. I like what you tried to do with that last pitch. THIS TIME, when you’re bringing the barrel of the bat through the zone, try to put a little more steroids into it.”

    • That’s a bit unfair to McGwire, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like massive strength (chemically enhanced or otherwise) is all he brought to the table. You’ve still got to have the skill to swing the bat in the right time and at the right place; also, even when he was a rookie, he had great plate discipline to go along with his power, and that certainly appears to be something that can be taught.

      • To clarify, I mean “unfair” in the sense that it’s an inaccurate summation of the skills he might bring to the table as a hitting coach, not that it’s “unfair”, from a moral/propriety standpoint, to mock him for his transgressions.

  4. OK, here’s what I have so far. I started with this B-R.com list of pitching appearances by non-pitchers. I sorted the list by the player retirement dates and cut off my sample size at players who retired in or after 1950. That gave me 148 position players. Then I removed from the sample position players who’d pitched more than 50 MLB innings (Johnny Lindell, 251.2; Johnny O’Brien, 61; Erv Dusak, 54) because I thought the fact that they were used with greater-than-“normal” frequency as pitchers indicated some pitching skill greater than that of an average position player on their part.

    So that left me with 145 players, who pitched a total of 357.2 innings, gave up 52 HR, 235 BB, while registering 162 K. (Whether this is representative is debatable, since these were probably either mop-up situations where the hitters were maybe not giving up 100% effort, or extremely long games, where hitters were maybe fatigued and therefore less effective, but it’s what I’m going with.) That equates to a FIP of 6.16. I’ll get on with value calculations later on, but for the moment, a bit of trivia:

    Some of the all-time great position players made brief appearances as pitchers. For no reason that I can discern, Stan Musial came in from the outfield to pitch to the second batter (who reached on a fielding error) of the Cardinals’ game against the Cubs on the last day of the 1952 season. Jimmie Foxx pitched 23.2 innings in his career (including two starts as a 37-year-old in 1945) with a 1.52 ERA. George Sisler made 24 pitching appearances (12 starts) with a 2.35 ERA. Over his career, Honus Wagner pitched 8.1 innings without allowing an earned run and struck out 6.

    The last non-pitcher to record a win was Brent Mayne, who did so for the Rockies against the Braves on August 22, 2000. Mayne pitched the top of the 12th inning (fittingly, I suppose, recording his first out against pinch hitter Tom Glavine), allowing a single to Rafael Furcal, throwing a wild pitch, and walking Andruw Jones, before getting Larry Wayne Jones to ground out and end a scoreless inning. The Rockies had already used their entire bullpen and briefly also used Brian Bohanon in relief before turning to Mayne. They then won the game on an RBI single from Adam Melhuse in the bottom of the 12th; John Rocker took the loss. Priot to Mayne, a position player hadn’t recorded a pitching win since Rocky Colavito did so in 1968.

    • Here’s what the B-R bullpen has on Musial’s appearance: Musial’s only pitching appearance took place on September 28, 1952. Safely in first place in the batting race, Musial was called in to pitch for a single batter in the sixth inning. The opposing batter was Frank Baumholtz of the 1952 Cubs the runner-up in the batting race, who batted from the righthand side of the plate. Starter Harvey Haddix moved to right field and Hal Rice covered center while Musial pitched. After Baumholtz reached base, Haddix returned to the mound, Rice to left, and Musial to center for the remainder of the game. Later in life, Baumholtz recalled that the play was a hot smash to third that should have been counted as a hit.

      • The Wikipedia claims it was a publicity stunt:

        The only major league pitching appearance of Musial’s career occurred as a publicity stunt during the last Cardinals’ home game of the 1952 season.[88][89] Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky had a reluctant Musial pitch to Frank Baumholtz, the runner-up to Musial for the best batting average in the National League that season.[88] With Baumholtz batting right-handed for the first time in his career, Musial’s first pitch was hit so hard it ricocheted off the shin of third baseman Solly Hemus and into the left field corner.[88] The play was ruled an error, and Musial was embarrassed enough by his complicity in the gimmick to avoid pitching again for the remainder of his career.[88]

      • Yep, I found that much on Retrosheet (other than the last sentence about Baumholtz’s recollection of the play), except that the Retrosheet box score says this happened in the first inning. What neither source provides any explanation of is why Eddie Stanky brought Musial in from the outfield to pitch to Baumholtz. The Cards and Cubs were both out of the playoff hunt at that point, but it’s still a strange thing to do; was it just for sh@#s and giggles?

  5. Going on with this. I took a look at an explanation on Fangraphs for calculating WAR for a pitcher. I’m just going to stick with the 6.16 FIP I came up with, because park-normalizing it doesn’t make sense, and season-normalizing it is something I’m not sure how I would go about. League-average runs per game in 2009 was 4.61 per B-R.com.

    Now, this hypothetical all-McGwire pitching staff (I’ll call it MP for short) doesn’t actually exist, so it has no effect on the win value of runs in 2009 MLB. By the estimation in the Fangraphs article, that value is (4.61 + 2) * 1.5 = 9.915 runs per win. MP’s FIP of 6.16 is 6.16 – 4.61 = 1.55 runs per inning below league average. 1.55 / 9.915 = 0.156. Subtracting that from .500 is .344. A replacement-level starting pitcher is .380, again according to the linked article, not that much worse than MP. Subtract .380 from .344, and you get -0.036 wins below replacement per nine innings.

    Based on the conditions of this thought experiment, MP is effectively the only pitcher on this team of McGwires. In other words, MP is pitching every inning of every game. (Sometimes 8 innings rather than 9, but I’m just going with 9 for simplicity.) -0.036 per nine innings (per game, in effect) is -5.832 wins. If you divide MP into a five-man rotation, each of which pitches nine innings every fifth day, that’s -1.17 WAR each.

    Is that right? Oliver Perez was -0.8 WAR this year, and if you were to extrapolate his performance out to the 291 innings that each fifth of MP pitches, that’s -3.62 WAR. Was Perez really significantly worse than a composite of position players? Well, MP’s FIP is 6.16 and Ollie’s was 6.40 in 2009, so I guess maybe he was.

    Unfortunately, in the end this leads me to believe that the initial data set I used was probably not indicative of what Mark McGwire would actually do if you threw him out there on the mound. I can’t REALLY believe that a position player (pitching in all game situations, as opposed to just the limited set of game situations represented by the data set I used) would actually be a better pitcher than Oliver Perez, as crappy as his 2009 was. In lieu of anything better, though, I guess one could go ahead and use -5.832 WAR for the whole pitching staff of this team, at least as a jumping-off point.

  6. OK, here’s my first tweak. If you restrict the data set further, to the 70 most recent players (to better reflect the current offense/defense balance in baseball; the previous data set went all the way back into the 1940s), you get a composite FIP of 7.07. That yields -0.128 wins above replacement per nine innings, which is -20.754 WAR pitching every inning of the whole season, or -4.15 WAR for each of the five pitchers (each of whom pitches nine innings every five games). That sounds more like it, doesn’t it? although now our sample size is only ~100 IP by position players over the past ~20 years.

      • You would think. More than anything else, this has highlighted for me how bad Oliver Perez’s 2009 was. Position players pitching (in the smaller sample size) allowed 7.70 BB/9 and 1.42 HR/9. Perez, in 2009, allowed 7.91 BB/9 and 1.64 HR/9. Perez obviously has an edge, in FIP terms, because he strikes guys out, but still… ouch.

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