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Let’s get superficial here at Ricochet and talk about looks. This is a tw0-part essay.
Coming into the 2020 season, 19,960 people had played at least one game in the major leagues. Among those 19,960 were all sorts, tall guys and short guys, guys as fast as greased lightning and guys slower than molasses, smart cookies and dummies, honest men and crooks, handsome devils, and those who were a little less fortunate in the looks department. Among that latter group was Don Mossi.
Mossi was a pitcher and pretty good one. He pitched 12 years in the majors as both a reliever and a starter and he was good in each role. He pitched in the majors from 1954 to 1965 and posted a career 101-80 won-loss record, a 3.43 ERA and 50 saves in 460 games and 1548 innings pitched. In his best individual season (1959) the left-handed Mossi went 17-9 and he was also a part of the best pitching staff of the 1950s as a rookie– the 1954 Cleveland Indians – the Indians that year won the AL pennant with a 111-43 won-lost record, one of the best regular-season records of all time, powered by a pitching staff which included Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Hal Newhouser. Mossi held his own with a 6-1, 1.94 ERA, 7 save performance.
Anyway, that’s not what this post is about. When they passed out facial features, Mossi missed out on his first choice in every feature. Heck, he also missed out on his second and third choices and had to settle for whatever spare parts they had in store. His ears were grossly out of proportion to his face, both of his eyes were a little out of place, his eyebrows were…well, let’s not talk about his eyebrows, his nose was as crooked as a dog’s hind leg, he always had a bit of stubble here and there because of all the nooks and crannies, and even though he was slender and kept himself in shape it looked like he had about three chins. Most people, even baseball reporters, and announcers, are generally polite and decent enough not to talk openly about those of us who might have a feature or two we might be sensitive about. However, that wasn’t the case with Mossi. His unfortunate appearance was discussed more or less openly by all. For example, Jim Bouton named him to an All Ugly team and the announcers of the day did not hesitate to discuss the flaws in the Mossi countenance, As a life-long baseball fan, I’ve always felt sympathetically towards him; but, the fact is he was not very attractive… Oh OK, let’s be honest, he was downright ugly. After his playing career, Mossi moved to Ukiah, California, close to where he was born (St. Helena, CA) and worked as a superintendent at a masonite plant. Mossi passed away in July 2019 at age 90, the last surviving member of that great 1954 Indians pitching staff, survived by his wife and three adult children. By all accounts, he was a good and decent man.
OK, I hope I haven’t belabored the point. Let’s move on to part 2.
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This also involves baseball but takes a different tack from the previous discussion. From almost the beginning, organized baseball has involved statistics. Early on these statistics were rather rudimentary, but by the late nineteenth century, there were about a dozen different statistical categories for batters, about the same number for pitchers and about a half dozen for fielders. Over the years, new statistics were added here and there – first slowly and later starting in the 1980s and continuing to the present more rapidly. These statistics, the original, early ones and the more recent were created and exist for two purposes – first, just as record-keeping – a method and language to tell what happened on the field, and second, for analytical purposes – to try to explain or understand what contributed to each win and loss for each team and the role of each player in these outcomes. This is just a brief way of introduction to this part 2.
I’ve wasted an awful lot of time over the years studying and playing around with baseball statistics in part to try and better understand the game, and in part just for the fun of it. However, what if baseball statistics had not evolved and expanded as they have? What if all that existed were the bare bones – runs and outs for individual players and wins and losses for teams? Would the people interested in the game – the fans, the general managers, the reporters, the players – have the same sense of how the players should rate? Would the same players be selected regularly to the All-Star teams, finish high in the annual MVP voting, get elected to the Hall of Fame? I think in general they would. Some players would rate at least a little bit higher or lower than if more analytical methods or data were available. Players who would tend to rate higher would be those who had good defensive reputations, those who played on winning teams, and those who were considered “clutch” (a concept sabermetric types and more traditional types have argued about for decades). Players who would tend to rate lower would be those with poor defensive reputations, those who played on losing teams, and those considered “chokers” (see “clutch” the same argument exists with this concept also).
This gets me where I can briefly discuss two players who can illustrate my point; one player who looks terrible in just about everything he does on the field but is much better than he looks, and one player who looks great in everything he does on the field, but isn’t quite as good a player as he looks.
This week the San Francisco Giants let go of veteran outfielder Hunter Pence. The 37-year-old Pence was batting just .096 on the season and although it’s possible another club may pick him up, his career is very near the end. Pence, I think, represents better than just about any other player, my case 1 – a player who looks terrible in carrying out his job but with much better results than appearances would portend. His throwing motion is one no coach would teach. He looks to be heaving or shot-putting the ball rather than throwing it; yet, he played mainly right field throughout his career, a position which requires a strong throwing arm and he led his league in outfield assists five times. He somehow has a strong, accurate throwing arm. At bat, he looks, if anything even worse. He is herky-jerky in his motions and he looks to be lunging toward the pitch. He looks like he couldn’t possibly hit major league pitching, yet he does. He’s a pretty fair hitter with a career .279 average and decent power (244 home runs and a .461 slugging percentage). When he leaves the batter’s box after putting the ball in play, especially on a ground ball, more often than not he appears to be in danger of losing his balance and falling, and his running style is also awkward. Despite this, he has pretty decent speed (120 career stolen bases and he beats the throw to first on his share of ground balls). Heck, he doesn’t even know how to wear his uniform properly. He wears his pants above the knees which just looks silly, but I suppose that’s just in keeping with everything else about him. Pence has been able to parley all this awkwardness into a 14-year, a 1700-game career in which he was selected to four All-Star Games, received MVP votes (all down-ballot) in four different seasons and was the starting right fielder on two World Series Championship teams. Not bad.
Let me include a couple of short videos of Pence to better illustrate my description of his playing style, especially for those who haven’t seen him play. First, a short 25 second or so video of Pence warming up between innings which shows his strange throwing motion.
Next, a one minute video of Hunter Pence in the on-deck circle practicing his swing and the game announcers discussing its strangeness.
Here’s a gif of Pence slipping and falling after putting the ball in play. This isn’t really fair to Pence since I’m sure this happened now and then to every player, including the all-time greats. It’s just that this sort of thing happened to Pence more often than just about any other player.
Here’s another short video of Pence throwing his bat at the pitch for an RBI single which not exactly the way it is taught.
OK, now onto a player who is the exact opposite of Pence. Chris Chambliss was a fine baseball player and it’s possible if you were a baseball fan in the mid-1970s and into the mid-1980’s you’d have seen him play baseball more than just about anyone else. Chambliss was the first baseman for the Yankees during their Bronx Zoo years and he was later the first baseman for the Braves starting in 1980 when TBS began broadcasting every Braves game. Chambliss sure looked like a good ballplayer. In fact, he looked like he should be a great player or at least a great hitter. He was big and strong and he had a nice stance and stroke at the plate. He looked like the prototypical power hitter. Whenever I saw him stride to the plate in a September game I expected to see his triple crown stats (which were shown for each player at the time) with numbers like .315-33-121. Instead, his numbers would always be more like .279-14-79. Decent numbers, but disappointing for such a good looking hitter. The problem was he had a long swing and had trouble getting around on major league fastballs. He was also smooth looking on defense and the advanced defensive stats agree that he was a good defensive first baseman. He was a fine player, but not nearly as good as what he appeared to be. He parlayed his smooth looking skills into a 17-year, 2175-game career in which he hit .279. He was the starting first baseman on two World Series Champions and on another World Series loser. He only made one All-Star Game, but he received MVP votes in three different seasons including a fifth-place finish in 1976. Also not bad.
Let me include a video of Chambliss homering in game 6 of the 1977 World Series. A home run is a home run is a home run but his looks so much better than Pence.
So which of these two was the better player? I don’t know. I think it’s probably too close to call without closer study. There are two meta-stats which attempt to determine the overall value of everything a player does on the field (Win Shares & WAR). In Win Shares, Chambliss leads 221-218 although looking at each player’s best seasons, Pence does better (26,25 & 24 in his three best seasons versus 21, 21 & 19 for Chambliss). In WAR, Pence is ahead 30.9-27.5 and his best seasons score at 4.0, 4.0 & 3.8 versus 4.1, 3.3 & 3.2 for Chambliss.
Looking at each man’s overall stats shows fairly similar results;
Chambliss 2175 G 8313 PA 2109 H 185 HR 972 RBI .279/.334/.415
Pence ….. 1707 G 7006 PA 1791 H 244 HR 944 RBI .279/.334/.461
Chambliss played over 400 more games in his career, which in and of itself worth something. You pick ’em. One got it done looking ugly as sin, while the other got it done looking smooth as silk.
I think Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover” is a good way to end this post.
Feel free to chime in on a situation you’re aware of where perception and reality don’t necessarily square up. It doesn’t have to be about sports or baseball. I am sure this sort of thing occurs in just about every area of human endeavor.Published in