July 19, 2024

Remembering a true GOAT; ball/strike challenges are coming

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Farewell to the greatest of all time. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal, welcome to The Windup!

Willie Mays (1931-2024)

In a way, it seemed like some surreal magic that Willie Mays still walked among us, here in this impossibly modern world of real-time exit velocities and rotations-per-minute. As progress leapt ahead, we continued to share that world with a man who was evaluated by a simpler standard: as Vin Scully put it in 2016: “… the greatest player I ever saw.”

That’s been a common sentiment in the last couple of days since Mays’ passing. But it wasn’t just the eye test. As many have written, there’s a strong statistical argument that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all timeHe’s ranked third all time in bWAR among position players, behind Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. But Ruth did not play in an integrated league, and questions surrounding Bonds’ peak are prominent enough that writers declined to elect him into the Hall of Fame.   

The astonishing scale of Mays’ 156.2 bWAR requires context, so here are the bWAR leaders among current players:

  • Mike Trout: 86.2
  • Mookie Betts: 68.7
  • Joey Votto: 64.5
  • Paul Goldschmidt: 62.0

You could add up the careers of Trout and Betts and still need to throw in Daniel Vogelbach’s career to add up to Mays’ total.

But beyond the mind-boggling numbersMays was also an icon off the field. He was simply larger than life. In his retirement speech, a 42-year-old Mays — through visible tears — finished with this:

I never felt that I would ever quit baseball. But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at the kids over here; the way they are playing and the way they are fighting for themselves, tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America. Thank you very much.

As in baseball, so in life: He got more time than most, and yet — both at 42 and at 93 — the inevitable still felt too soon. As Mays’ Giants prepare to play tonight’s game at Rickwood Field (where Mays began his professional career), we say goodbye to the Say Hey Kid — the best to ever do it.

Photo of Alan Porter, C.B. Bucknor and Adrian Johnson (l-r): Getty; G Fiume, Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire, Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire, Jessica Carroll / MLB Photos

Ken’s Notebook: More history at Rickwood Field

History will be made tonight, and not simply because Major League Baseball will be played at the nation’s oldest professional ballpark for the first time.

The entire umpiring crew for baseball’s tribute to the Negro Leagues at 114-year-old Rickwood Field will be Black, a first in NL/AL history.

Only 11 Black people have been full-time umpires in NL/AL play, starting with Emmett Ashford in 1966. All five Black umpires currently working in the league will be part of the crew in Birmingham, Ala. — four on the field, one as a replay official.

Adrian Johnson, 49, will be the crew chief. Alan Porter, 46, will be behind the plate. C.B. Bucknor, 61; Jeremie Rehak, 36; and Malachi Moore, 34; will round out the group.

The umpires said they appreciated not only the opportunity to work a game of such significance, but also the chance to work with each other. Each will wear a patch in honor of Ashford.

The choice to use only Black umps at Rickwood might seem obvious, but the impetus had to come from somewhere. Rob Field, the league’s senior manager of global events, was the first to broach the idea, according to Matt McKendry, vice-president of umpire operations

Commissioner Rob Manfred, senior vice-president of baseball operations Michael Hill and the umpires’ union all supported the idea of using an all-Black crew, McKendry said. At the umpires’ annual meeting in January, McKendry and Jones asked each Black umpire if he was interested in working the Rickwood game.

“To a man, immediately, we all said yes,” Johnson said. “Myself and the other guys, we were honored to be asked to work this game.”

Ball/strike challenges are coming

It feels backward that technology allows those of us who have no bearing on the outcome of a baseball game to have a better view of the strike zone than the umpires tasked with calling balls and strikes.

Or at least it seems that way. If you talk to umpires and others in the game, they’ll remind you: The box on the screen isn’t inerrant. For one thing, we see the three-dimensional plate in two dimensions.

But do you know who should have some bearing on the outcome of a baseball game? The players. And as the ABS (automated ball/strike) technology has been tested out in the minor leagues, it appears we are circling a sustainable method of implementation.

Jayson Stark has all the details here, but on Tuesday, MLB announced that Triple-A games would no longer use the fully automated strike zone, opting to go full-time with the challenge system. 

Players and coaches seem to prefer the hybrid, where a human is able to correctly call balls and strikes most of the time, but players have the ability to challenge egregious misses.

  • The good news: These won’t be lengthy “send it back to New York” reviews. Umpires will simply be informed of what the ABS system saw.
  • Further, there won’t be infinite challenges. Pacific Coast League games will allow three per team, while International League games will allow two per, with successful challenges retained.

Per Stark, we could see this in the big leagues as early as 2026.

Remembering Tyler Skaggs, 5 years later

Sam Blum should win an award for today’s story on Tyler Skaggs, which eloquently illustrates the long tail of grief that lingers well past the expiration date of a shocking news headline.

I was in the Rangers clubhouse on July 1, 2019. From the moment we entered, it was unsettlingly quiet. I watched Nomar Mazara pull Joey Gallo aside and whisper something that felt serious. Gallo’s aghast reaction indicated that something truly horrible had happened.

A few minutes later, the media was ushered out of the clubhouse and told that an explanation would be forthcoming. Shortly thereafter, the awful news: Skaggs, an Angels starting pitcher, had passed away.

In the days and weeks afterward, the shocking details emerged. Skaggs died of a drug overdose — fentanyl-laced oxycodone that had been supplied by Angels communications director Eric Kay, who is now a year-and-a-half into a 22-year prison sentence.

It’s the sort of tragedy for which there is no redeeming silver lining. Blum spoke to Skaggs’ wife and mother, and pitcher Andrew Heaney, who was Skaggs’ close friend in Anaheim. All say they had no idea about Skaggs’ drug use.

If you or someone you love is battling substance abuse, 988 is a national hotline to get help, including substance abuse support.

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(Top photo: Bettman / Getty Images)