May 3, 2011

Caught Stealing - A Strange Interlude [UPDATED]

[See below for update]

There was a really unusual turn in the NYT game account for today's matchup, but since it didn't really fit in with the narrative, I figured it should get its own post. In the middle of his otherwise normal recap, the unnamed sports writer for the New York Times drops everything and goes off on a weird tangent:
The only unusual thing that happened was the unpardonable act of Eddie Collins in being caught trying to steal a base. This sort of thing calls for some action by the proper authorities. Things have come to a pretty pass when the wigwag system of the Athletics fails so utterly. It looks as if there was signal tipping going on. That's what it looks like.

The catastrophe happened this way. Collins pumped a two-bagger to left field in the eighth inning. He looked at the bench for instructions - you know that's the way they play this "inside ball" nowadays. Connie Mack rubbed his eye and twitched his ear. That meant for Collins to look and listen. See? He took a lead of thirty feet. He was then sixty feet from third. Close scrutiny shows that it took just 3.1987564 seconds for the ball to travel from Jack Quinn to Sweney and from Sweeney over to Hartzell at third. Connie Mack tipped over a cup of water which was the signal for Collins to tear up the trail to third. If Collins had traveled the required sixty feet in 2.99873 seconds, instead of eighty-nine one-hundredths slower than that, Hartzell would never have tagged him with the leather. As it was, Collins was nailed sliding in, by a margin of three and thirty-seven one-hundredths city blocks. How the king-pin base traveler* of the American League could ever have timed his flight so carelessly is a colossal puzzle to mathematicians.

Why devote two paragraphs in a six-paragraph story about a 13-4 rout to a single irrelevant caught-stealing play? Well my guess is that he's just trying to find a way to keep things interesting in the wake of a frustrating game for the home team. He does so, too, with this delightfully bizarre discourse.

Incidentally, we know that Collins stole a lot of bases, but there's no data for most of his seasons on how often he was caught stealing. Baseball-reference has no figure for how often he was caught in 1911, though he successfully swiped 38 bags (less than half of his total from the prior year). It does, however, list 22 caught-stealings to 63 steals for 1912, a rather pedestrian 74% success rate.

* Collins led all of baseball in stolen bases the prior year with 81. He'll lead the AL three more times in his career, but he'll never approach the 80s again.



Ok, so maybe this interlude isn't as bizarre and out-of-place as I thought. In a nice little bit of serendipity, just after I posted this, I spotted a tweet from @wezen_ball that referenced an article from the NYT Magazine from Sunday, April 30, 1911. Here's the full post and a link to the original NYT article.

It turns out it was about how a scientific approach, or "inside ball," was changing the game with new elements of strategy and signaling. The writers of that piece and of today's game recap are uncredited, but I would say there's an excellent chance that they're one and the same. In the first Yankee game since the Magazine piece was published, today's writer is clearly having a little fun in a moment where the "inside ball" approach failed.

Anyway, mystery solved! Many thanks to Larry from Wezen-Ball.

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