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Touching All the Bases

Ted Williams's Numbers Are Of Course Ridiculous -- And What He Might Have Done Is Wild, Too

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This photo, a long-ago archived gem that was unearthed and re-published here and in many other places last week when Don Zimmer died nine days ago, shows the beleaguered Red Sox manager getting some words of presumed and bellowed wisdom from ... well, hell, if you don't know who that is, you're here by accident.

Surprisingly, the photo was not rediscovered in a manila folder labeled Splinter & Gerbil in the cobwebbed corners of the Globe archive/dungeon. (Oh, come on, Zim was a good man and a not-so-good manager. We can be honest here, right?)

It was taken, according to the notes on the back, on September 30, 1978, which mostly explains the huh-what? look on Zimmer's face.

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Or maybe it doesn't. It's often a footnote to the retold horrors of the '78 season, but the Red Sox did make a hell of a recovery that season to force the one-game playoff. After blundering away their mid-July lead of 10 games in the American League East and 14.5 over the Yankees, the Red Sox were as far as 3.5 back on September 16, with 14 games to play.

(See that, mediocre '14 Red Sox? It's never over in June. Unless you're the '14 Rays.)

Those '78 Sox should have been finished. But they actually recovered, winning eight in a row from September 23 (Game 155) to October 1 (162, a Luis Tiant you-have-no-chance-with-these-stakes whitewashing of the Blue Jays).

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The Sox actually won 9 of 10 in that stretch, with some brash kid named Eckersley winning three times in 10 days -- that is, by pitching three straight complete games and allowing just two runs total.

The Eck's effort should be remembered reverently despite what happened in Game 163.

Anyway, the photo, and my eventual semblance of a point. It was taken before the seventh straight win, Eck's five-hit, nine-strikeout masterpiece in a 5-1 victory over the Jays in Game 161. One can only imagine what Ted was saying to Zimmer:

Splinter: "SEE THAT *$*#*#* GREEN WALL OUT THERE, ZIM?"

Gerbil: [thinking to himself] "Why is *$*@ Lee always mocking me. I'll show ... ... [snaps out of it] ... Huh-what? Wall? Green? Yeah. Yeah, I see it, Ted. What about it?"

hancockgarryfinn613.jpgSplinter: "WELL, *#*$@, HOW ABOUT YOU TELL #*$#@)@) LYNN TO HIT IT ONCE IN A WHILE! *$*%@(#*@! AND THAT GOES FOR WHAT'S HIS NAME, THE OTHER LEFTY, KID WITH THE MUSTACHE, ALWAYS LOOKING AT THE SKY LIKE HE'S WAITING FOR A PRAYER TO BE ANSWERED -- HANCOCK? RIGHT, *$*%*# HANCOCK! TELL HIM TO DO IT TOO AND MAYBE HE CAN FINALLY STOP RENTING THAT #*$@*#* DUMP IN PAWTUCKET!"

Yes, based very, very loosely on Ted's dialogue in Richard Ben Cramer's classic profile, I do think that is exactly how it went.

Had the photo been taken two days later, I do believe the conversation would have been different. Monday, October 2, 1978 was the date of Game 163, or the afternoon when Bucky Dent's middle name changed from Earl to Expletive.

baileybob78finn.jpgBecause I'm mean and unforgiving in matters of inept managing, I snarked upon seeing the photo attached to so many Zimmer eulogies that he'd have been better off using Ted against Goose Gossage as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning of Game 163 than Bob Bailey.

Bailey, who was 35, roughly in the same physical condition as his manager, and a .191 hitter that season, had pretty much the at-bat expected of him at that point of his career against a pitcher of Gossage's blazing magnitude.

Strike 1.

Strike 2.

Strike 3.

Sit.

It was the last at-bat of his career -- his goose was cooked by Goose, you could say -- and probably the one he is most remembered for. That's probably not fair, since he had a decent career and never should have been in that position in the first place.

Still, look at that picture, and can't you just hear Ted saying:

"BAILEY?! YOU'RE GOING WITH X$*#($# BAILEY?!? HELL, SEND ME UP THERE! I'M 59 #**#@* YEARS OLD AND I HAVE A BETTER CHANCE THAN HE DOES!"

[Grabs bat, singles off the wall to score George Scott and cut the Yankees' lead to 4-3, tells Chris Chambliss to #*$*@*#*]

Here's the cool thing, and the actual point of all the nonsense that precedes this sentence. Modern project systems can actually help us get some sense for how Williams might have fared in that situation.

Really. By way of explanation, let me retrace a brief Twitter conversation yesterday to explain.

The discussion came about from reaction to my Ultimate Red Sox team column, which did not include Ted Williams in left field. I went with Manny Ramirez for speed and defense reasons, of course.

Steve O'Grady, who writes thoughtful stuff about the Sox here, politely called me out for leaving off Williams, which led to a discussion of how easy it is to get lost on Mr. Ballgame's baseball-reference page and how extraordinary he was even at the end.

That prompted Steve to throw out the bat signal (baseball, not vampire) for Dan Szymborski, the mastermind behind the insightful ZiPS projection system:

Turns out he did, and it was one of my favorite confirmations of how much fun sabermetrics and stats projections can be.

(In other words, the opposite perception of how sabermetrics can affect fandom as espoused by the Ancient-Baseball-Writer-Mom's-Basement-Referencing-Conventional-But-Dying-Quasi-Wisdom Ckub -- or ABWMBRCBDQWC to us acronym-loving stat nerds.)

Dan's reply, with numbers:

That projection puts Ted at a .532 OPS at age 59. Maybe that doesn't sound great; it's not much -- until you remember he's 59 going on 60. But it's 30 points from Daniel Nava's OPS at age 31 this season, and less than 100 points from Grady Sizemore's, who missed 16 fewer seasons than our hypothetical pinch-hitting 1978 version of Ted Williams.

And it's not like his at-bat could have gone any worse than Bailey's did.

I'm going with Ted in '78. And right now, I'm going to head over to the great Friday afternoon time-killer and get lost in his baseball-reference page for a while.

I won't see one plate appearance listed for him during the '78 season.

But how great is it that stuff like that is easier to dream on than ever?