Hank Aaron

It’s the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s 715th homer — but please, don’t call him the Home Run King

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40 years ago tonight Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. It’s a moment always worth re-visiting, so let’s:

I can never get enough of that video. Just how easy Aaron’s swing was, even 20 years into his career. Buckner climbing the outfield wall. Those wackos running onto the field and congratulating Aaron. I mean, the guy had death threats leading up to that moment and suddenly two dudes run up from behind you like that? If that happened today those two would be in Guantanamo or something.

One thing I love from the video is Al Downing’s recollection of it all. He gave up the homer and, unlike some other pitchers who would up on the other side of famous hits, he had absolutely no problem with it, acknowledging that, sometimes, the guy on the other side of things is going to get the best of you. And when it’s someone as insanely-talented as Hank Aaron, that’s going to be way more often.

My enjoyment of all of this stuff is unsurpassed. But it is just enjoyment.

One thing we’ve heard more and more of in the past few years is that Hank Aaron’s 715th home run remains — even to this day — the moment when baseball’s Home Run King was crowned. That when Aaron was passed by Barry Bonds in August of 2007 it somehow didn’t count. We heard it again just yesterday afternoon and I expect we’ll hear more of it today.

I understand this. From an enjoyment perspective I found Bonds hitting number 756 off Mike Bacsik to be far less moving. Indeed, it wasn’t particularly moving at all given all of the controversy surrounding Bonds by that time, the arguments it entailed and the fact that, unlike Aaron, Bonds was never anyone you rooted for, even if you admired his accomplishments. I appreciated his dominance, but I can’t say I found it aesthetically pleasing most of the time. Certainly not as pleasing as watching old video of Aaron. And, yes, even someone like me who has made a second career out of defending PED-users from excessive, counterfactual criticism, I can appreciate that Hank Aaron’s accomplishment is more impressive than Bonds’ on a qualitative level given Bonds’ drug use, the small parks he hit in, the equipment he had at his disposal and a host of other factors.

But with all respect to Mr. Aaron, I do draw the line at asserting the counterfactual. He is not baseball’s all-time home run leader. Or its “true” Home Run King or however people wish to characterize it. To say that is to go beyond expressing your enjoyment of his accomplishment and your appreciation of him as a player and claiming that those qualitative things — and whatever disdain one has for Barry Bonds — trump the actual record of history. The record of history — which is devoid of judgment and opinion — states that Barry Bonds hit more home runs than Hank Aaron did. Baseball recognizes this fact without qualification.

We should as well. To do otherwise is to invite chaos, as each of us brings our own values and assumptions into an assessment of the records. Maybe that’s easy to do with an Aaron-Bonds comparison, but what if I were to point out that the top five all-time pitching wins leaders had ridiculous advantages that Warren Spahn never had, thus rendering him the “True Wins Leader?” What if I were to note that Ty Cobb had similar disadvantages that Pete Rose never had and thus he was the True Hit King? We could do this with most records. Doing so would be silly in most instances and would render the idea of an actual record book — the thing people who call Hank Aaron the True Home Run King say they are trying to protect — and utterly meaningless thing.

So celebrate Hank Aaron. Hold him in higher esteem than you would Barry Bonds. Consider his accomplishments more impressive if you feel that way. But stop there. Don’t claim that black is white. Don’t claim that Hank Aaron is the real and true Home Run King. Because that’s just nonsense.

Don Mattingly thinks pace of play can be improved by changing views on strikeouts

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly sits in the dugout prior to a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, Monday, April 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo
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Marlins manager Don Mattingly has one potential solution to the pace of play issue: change the way people value strikeouts, the Associated Press reports.

Strikeouts have been rising steadily since 2005. Then, a typical game averaged 6.30 strikeouts. In 2016, there were 8.03 strikeouts per game. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. For one, teams are searching specifically for young pitchers who can throw hard — like triple-digits hard. They figure they can teach them the other pertinent skills in the minors. Second, Sabermetrics has shown that a strikeout is only marginally worse than an out made on a ball put in play. Sometimes, the strikeout is preferable, especially if there’s a runner on first base with less than two outs and a weak hitter at the plate. Sabermetrics has also shown home runs to be the best and most efficient way to contribute on offense. Furthermore, younger players tend to focus more on power in order to get noticed by scouts. Unless it’s paired with other elite skills, a scout isn’t going to remember a player who hit the ball into the hole on the right side, but he will remember the kid who blasted a 450-foot homer.

Here’s what Mattingly had to say:

Analytically, a few years back nobody cared about the strikeout, so it’s OK to strike out 150, 160, 170 times, and that guy’s still valued in a big way. Well, as soon as we start causing that to be a bad value — the strikeouts — guys will put the ball in play more. So once we say strikeouts are bad and it’s going to cost you money the more you strike out, then the strikeouts will go away. Guys will start making adjustments and putting the ball in play more.

[…]

If our game values [say that] strikeouts don’t matter, they are going to keep striking out, hitting homers, trying to hit home runs and striking out.

Simply believing strikeouts are bad won’t magically change its value. However, creating social pressure regarding striking out can change it. Theoretically, anyway. Creating that social pressure is easier said than done.

There is a dichotomy here as well. Home runs are exciting. Strikeouts and walks are not. Often, though, the three go hand-in-hand-in-hand. A player actively trying to cut down on his strikeouts by putting the ball in play will also likely cut down on his strikeout and walk rates. There doesn’t seem to be an elegant solution here. Wishing for fewer strikeouts, walks, and homers doesn’t really seem to give way to a more exciting game.

Sean Doolittle: “Refugees aren’t stealing a slice of the pie from Americans.”

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 25:  Sean Doolittle #62 of the Oakland Athletics pitches during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 25, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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In the past, we’ve commented on Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle and his girlfriend Eireann Dolan’s community service. In 2015, the pair hosted Syrian refugee families for Thanksgiving and their other charitable efforts have included LGBTQ outreach and help for veterans.

Athletes and their significant others have typically avoided stepping into political waters, but Doolittle and Dolan have shown that it’s clearly no concern to them. In the time since, the Syrian refugee issue has become even more of a hot-button issue and Doolittle recently discussed it with Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times.

I think America is the best country in the world because we’ve been able to attract the best and brightest people from all over the world. We have the smartest doctors and scientists, the most creative and innovative thinkers. A travel ban like this puts that in serious jeopardy.

I’ve always thought that all boats rise with the tide. Refugees aren’t stealing a slice of the pie from Americans. But if we include them, we can make the pie that much bigger, thus ensuring more opportunities for everyone.

Doolittle, of course, is referring to Executive Order 13769 signed by President Trump which sought to limit incoming travel to the United States from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. A temporary restraining order on the executive order was placed on February 3, a result of State of Washington v. Trump.

Doolittle spoke more about the plight refugees face:

These are people fleeing civil wars, violence and oppression that we can’t even begin to relate to. I think people think refugees just kind of decide to come over. They might not realize it takes 18-24 months while they wait in a refugee camp. They go through more than 20 background checks and meetings with immigration officers. They are being vetted.

They come here, and they want to contribute to society. They’re so grateful to be out of a war zone or whatever they were running from in their country that they get jobs, their kids go to our schools, they’re paying taxes, and in a lot of cases, they join our military.

Around this time last year, Craig wrote about Doolittle and Dolan not sticking to baseball. They’re still not, nor should they be. Hopefully, the duo’s outspokenness inspires other players and their loved ones to speak up for what’s right.

[Hat tip: Deadspin’s Hannah Keyser]