Sunday, November 21, 2004

Recently, on the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) list-serv, there was a series of posts regarding the origins of baseball terms in everyday life, including a few on the term "out of left field". To be completely honest, I'd never bothered to contemplate how this phrase came to be, but since it is the title of my blog, I thought I'd explore it further. The discussion kicked off with this inquisitive post from Bill Rubinstein:

Regarding the posting on whether baseball terms are taking hold outside of the USA, the phrase "coming from left field" or "out of left field" - meaning, usually, something or someone odd or unexpected, is in pretty common use in Britain. When you think of it, this is a very strange phrase - what is so notable about something which comes from or out of left field?
Skip McAfee was the first to respond, offering two very logical theories on the origin of the phrase:

Prof. W.D. Rubinstein wondered "what is so notable about something which comes from, or out of, left field". There are two theories to explain how LF got to be the metaphoric location for oddness:

1) The phrase was an insult heaped on kids who were stupid enough to buy LF seats in Yankee Stadium, which for many years would have put them far away from a right fielder named Babe Ruth. "When I was in my teens, living in the Bronx, we kids were always most anxious to get our seats in the right field where we would be closest to Babe Ruth, so I suppose anybody in the left field was far out." (David Shulman, quoted in William Safire's "I Stand Corrected", 1984)

2) The phrase was a specific reference to the Neuropsychiatric Institute, a mental hospital in back of LF in the old West Side Park in Chicago. "When someone said that one was 'out in left field', the implication was that one was behaving like the occupants of the Neuropsychiatric Institute, which was literally out in left field." (physician Gerald M. Eisenberg, quoted in Safire)

However, right field has often been depicted as the place to deposit the odd player. Ron Fimrite ("San Francisco Chronicle", April 28, 1969) observed: "There was but one position to which the clods, the kids with glasses, the little guys, the sissies, the ones that got good grades, the kids who played with girls, were exiled. That would be right field, the Siberia of my youth. Right field was the back of the bus, the slow-learners class, the children's department, a sideshow." Hence, anyone directed to play right field, would have given anything to be "out in left field".
While an interesting tidbit, this last paragraph about right field being the haven of the oddball isn't really relevant to the discussion surrounding the origin of the phrase. The obvious explanation as to why the weaker player patrolled right field rather than left field is that, at lower levels of competition (i.e. Little League, Senior League, Babe Ruth), right-handed hitters dominate. Undisciplined right-handed hitters tend to pull the ball to left field the majority of the time. Therefore, the weaker defensive player would be positioned in right field.

At the professional level, and higher amateur levels, left-handed hitters, and hitters who can hit to all fields, are more common, making right field just as important as left field. In fact, due to the requirement of needing a strong arm to throw to third base, right field, at higher levels of competition, is actually the more important defensive position.

An additional comment is made by John Hissrich, who, while acknowledging the validity of McAfee's theories, offers a suggestion of his own:

The best guess (not good enough to be a theory) I could come up with was that the bullpen in some park or another was in left field. In the days before relievers became an integral part of a team, the best pitchers were the starters. The relievers were decidedly less impressive. And didn't they often develop a reputation for being a little flaky? So those who were called from the bullpen would come "out of left field" instead of from the dugout. And those who came out of left field would have been looked down on.
Finally, John Thorn, throws out one more idea regarding the origin of the term:
Another, Anecdotal Theory: I always figured that "out of left field" described a pitch that seemed to come in from left field rather than the pitcher's mound, startling and puzzling the batter, whose concentration was focused straight ahead. In other words, the unexpected, surprising, strange ball coming at him could only be picked up via his peripheral vision.
Overall, some interesting theories. I'll probably do some research of my own on the subject, at some point, and I'll be sure to post any additional findings. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Now for the's what I said in April:

I think Vazquez is going to be outstanding, this year and beyond. Brown's going to be strong as well, better than Clemens...but I'm still a little worried about his health history. They're going to be the aces.

I don't think Mussina's comfortable as the ace. Once he realizes that he's only the third best pitcher on the staff, he'll be fine. He'll continue to frustrate with his occasional rough stretches and his proclivity for giving up the longball, but he'll have a typical season by his own standards.

Contreras is going to be an issue. He'll have a pretty good year, because he'll have flashes of brilliance like last year, but just like Armando Benitez, he's only capable of stepping on ants. Good hitting teams always seem to figure him out eventually (Chicago so far this year, Boston and Toronto last year). Come postseason, he's going to be a liability as the #4 starter.

The #5 spot is going to be a real problem. I don't think Lieber's going to give the Yankees much, but if he can just bounce back from injury and be an average pitcher, that's all they'll need. Let's not forget that the 2001 Yankees trotted Ted Lilly and Randy Keisler out to the mound every 4th and 5th day while El Duque was hurt. Speaking of whom, I don't think that he's the answer either, and God forbid if DePaola continues to unimpress and they end up having to use Osborne as the #5.

Overall, I think the Red Sox have a marginally better rotation, but not by as wide a margin as the people who overrate Lowe and Wakefield would have us believe.
Well, what can I say? I was way off the mark with my assessment of the 2004 Yankees starting staff.

Vazquez was not outstanding this year, although he might still turn out to be the pitcher who, not only I, but most people expect him to be. My thinking is that it was a pretty major surprise, to just about everyone, how poorly Vazquez performed this year.

Kevin Brown is another story. I went way out on a limb in predicting that he'd be better than Clemens. I think what I meant when I said this was, "better than the Clemens of 2003". Who would have predicted that Clemens would have such a tremendous year, let alone win his seventh Cy Young award? Brown had a better season than Vazquez, but given his wall punching incident and his postseason meltdowns, he has to rank as a bigger disappointment.

The assumption that Vazquez and Brown would anchor the staff, coupled with the reality that neither could be counted on in the postseason, pretty much sums up the Yankees' season.

Mussina, on the other hand, had a much more frustrating season than even I expected, yet turned around and proved me wrong by becoming the team's indisputable ace in the postseason.

Despite my dubious prediction regarding Contreras, he actually failed to perform as well as I forecasted. He showed a few flashes of brilliance, but often struggled mightily, even against weaker opponents. He continued to display his inconsistency even after being shipped out of New York.

Lieber gave the Yankees much more than I expected. He was still a little inconsistent during the regular season, but ended up tied for the team lead in wins (14), and was easily their second most effective starter in the postseason.

Orlando Hernandez turned out to be much more of a factor than I anticipated, although his age caught up with him, and he ran out of gas late in the season. Despite his late season struggles, he turned out to be an key figure in holding the staff together during a second half stretch in which it seemed he was the only pitcher whom the Yankees could count on.

Despite my correct assessment that Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield are vastly overrated, the Red Sox turned out to have more than a marginally better starting rotation than the Yankees.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Earlier this baseball season, I shared some predictions with a few friends via e-mail regarding how the respective rotations of the Red Sox and Yankees would fare. Looking back at what I said, I was on the money with a few of my forecasts, but way off on some others. Here's what I said about the Red Sox projected starting pitchers:

I think Schilling's going to have a big year, and be a major Cy Young contender.

Pedro's going to stress out Sox fans all year (and miss more starts than Kevin Brown), but still be very, very good.

Lowe, however, is going to prove that he's nothing more than an above average pitcher, as he was last year despite his 17 wins.

Wakefield will continue to be a solid, durable, flexible guy, nice to have at #4, but only above average as well. Let's not forget that he really didn't have that good a regular season last year, just a real good postseason (with the exception of one at-bat). 2002 was his best year since his first with the Sox.

Red Sox fans began salivating over Arroyo way prematurely. He's nothing more than a decent spot starter/long reliever for a playoff contender, or a #4 or #5 for a below average team. Kim, on the other hand, has a big upside, but a ten-cent head. He could be the best fifth starter in baseball, but come playoff time, he may not see any action.

Nevertheless, still probably the best Red Sox rotation in a long time.
Obviously, I was right on about Schilling. Thursday we'll find out if he wins the Cy Young. He'll probably fall short, as Johan Santana is more deserving, but he certainly had a big year and was a major contender for the award.

Martinez had his healthiest year, and made his most starts (33), since 1998. Kevin Brown had an injury plagued year, culminating in his wall punching incident, and only made 22 starts. So, I was way off on that part of the prediction, but otherwise, I couldn't have been more accurate in my assessment of how Pedro would fare. He had a very good year (16-9, 3.90 ERA, 227 K's), but was much more inconsistent than he'd been in previous years, including a sub-par month of September, which certainly had Sox fans worrying about him entering the playoffs.

Derek Lowe remains an enigma. His statistics (14-12, 5.42 ERA) certainly prove my point. In fact, the 5.42 ERA, and his baserunners per inning ratio of 1.61, seem to indicate that calling him above average was an overestimation of his ability. However, his clutch performances in the postseason whistle a different tune. The potential is certainly there, and the execution does not appear to be held back by an inability to handle the pressure, but the inconsistency is the reason he is still an unknown.

Wakefield again proved to be solid, durable, flexible, but most of all, inconsistent. Overall, basically an above average pitcher, period.

Arroyo is better than I gave him credit for. How good still remains to be seen, but he certainly proved himself to be a capable 4th or 5th starter for a championship ballclub. Nothing to scoff at there.

Kim...maybe he can play elsewhere, but he's done as far as the Red Sox are concerned.

Overall, my predictions for the Red Sox staff were pretty good. The Yankees staff is another story, but I'll get to that in my next post.