Glenn Guzzo



Strat-O-Matic Ratings May be Deepest Study Of Negro Leagues Ever


`Like Uncovering the DNA of These Players” 

By Glenn Guzzo
            For 18 months, Scott Simkus had been trying to persuade Strat-O-Matic that he had the box scores and more to help the game company produce credible Negro Leagues baseball ratings. Then Simkus nearly lost his years of work in a few terrible minutes, when his Chicago-area home went up in flames.
            Simkus salvaged the filing cabinet with his Negro Leagues data. When Strat-O-Matic creator Hal Richman finally telephoned to invite Simkus to be SOM’s principal consultant on the long-awaited Negro Leagues project, Simkus took the call in the hotel room where he and his family of four were coping after the fire.
            That turned the worst of times for Simkus into the best of times, a chance, he says, “to work on a couple of my passions at the same time.”
            Simkus, 38, has been a devoted Strat-O-Matic player since 1981. He has been a devoted Negro Leagues historian for years, after learning that his grandfather, a semi-pro ballplayer, played in barnstorming games against the Chicago White Sox and the Cuban Stars.
            “I didn’t know who the Cuban Stars were,” acknowledged “So I started looking for the box scores.”
            He knows now. By Christmas, Strat gamers will know what Simkus knows – perhaps the deepest exploration yet of black stars and pre-integration baseball.
            It will be in the form of a 108-card set (the computer rosters will follow in early 2009) that will go beyond the grave to offer a unique look at such Hall of Fame players as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, plus lesser-known stars from a league that, until now, has been part history, part myth.
            Reliable statistics have long eluded Negro Leagues researchers. But Simkus appears to have unearthed a unique combination of statistics and biographical material. It has convinced a long-reluctant Richman that Strat-O-Matic can, at last, produce Negro Leagues player ratings based on much more than legend.
            Simkus said the data from thousands of box scores in his possession will show the glory of Buck Leonard, Oscar Charleston and Willie Wells, but also their limits.
            “Probably the most exciting thing about this set (in my estimation) is that it gives us an opportunity to see these Negro League stars in three-dimensions for the first time,” Simkus said. “They have strengths and weaknesses, and the lefty-righty splits are going to show us heretofore unknown elements of their skill sets.”
            For instance:
      Leonard, a lefty slugger whose raw statistics suggest he had few Negro Leagues peers as an all-around hitter, had consistent trouble with left-handed pitching.
      Gibson, whose legendary power has earned him mythical comparisons to Babe Ruth, achieved his league-leading power in extreme pitchers’ parks. However, he won’t be a 70-home-run man, as legend has it. “No Negro Leaguer hit more than 40 home runs over a 154-game period,” Simkus explained.
      Paige was every bit as good as the tall tales about him. “He had the reputation of bearing down against the better hitters, and that shows up in the stats,” Simkus revealed. In more than 150 at-bats by Negro Leagues hitters elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, Paige limited them to a .170 batting average with one home run.
      Infielder Jud Wilson, recently elected to the Hall of Fame, “was a ferocious hitter who drew a lot of walks, hit for power and stole bases.” But Wilson was a defensive liability.
            “It’s like uncovering the DNA of these players,” Simkus declared.
            Simkus said he can deduce ballpark effects, league averages, groundball/flyball ratios off pitchers, fielding percentage and comparative numbers that help place Negro Leagues stats in context.
            He has read the conclusions that Negro League competition was on the level of the white AAA teams of their day. Perhaps that was true for a time, he agreed. Simkus examined other stats and said he believes the caliber of the better players was very high. When the Negro Leagues teams went head-to-head, the play was very tough.
            “In the 1940s, Negro League averages were about what they were in Triple-A,” Simkus reported. “But that was the weakest time of the Negro Leagues – 38 of the best players, players like Gibson and Bell, were playing for bigger bucks in Mexico. Then there were players lost to World War II and finally to integration in the Major Leagues.
            “So what was it when the Negro Leagues were at their peak in the 1920s? My gut feeling is it was close to Major League Baseball.”
            In Simkus’ view, his box scores address the question of whether barnstorming teams of white all-stars played with equal motivation when they barnstormed against non-Major League competition.
            “Could a 15-man Negro League team play a big-league schedule for 154 games against ML teams? Not likely,” he said. “But in exhibitions, Negro Leagues teams regularly clobbered minor league teams. I have 150 box scores showing they killed white AAA teams.
            “At the same time, white barnstormers killed minor-league teams, too. They killed college teams and Japanese teams. But they lost more than they won to Negro League teams.”
            What weight to assign the raw Negro League stats is one of Strat-O-Matic’s key decisions between now and Christmas.
            Similarly, final word rests with SOM on other key factors. But Simkus is operating on these tentative assumptions:
      The 108-card set will consist of 103 players, with two cards each for five players who both pitched and played other positions frequently. They are Martin Dihigo, Double Duty Radcliffe, Bullet Joe Rogan, John Donaldson and Jose Mendez.
      The 103 players will not include Negro Leaguers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, who already are in SOM’s Major League Hall of Fame set. Nor will it include players such as Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson – men who played briefly in the Negro Leagues, but played most of their careers in the Major Leagues. “We wanted to do guys people haven’t seen, who they don’t know as much about,” Simkus said.
      Otherwise, the 103 players include all the Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame, all who were official candidates for the Hall (e.g. Buck O’Neill), plus other stars.
      While these are stars, there will be a talent range comparable to Strat-O-Matic’s 2001 Hall of Fame ratings. “There will be .290s hitters and .350 hitters,” Simkus said.
      The 108 cards will be divided into four 27-man teams, but there will be pitchers and catchers enough to divide into five or six smaller squads.
      The players will be rated on their best five to seven seasons in the Negro Leagues. Strat-O-Matic will use statistics earned only in Negro Leagues games and SOM wants a base of at least 1,000 at-bats per player. That could be five years when the Negro Leagues seasons were longer in the 1920s, but six or seven seasons for men who played mostly after that.
            The stats show that the Negro Leagues differed from Major League ball of the same eras.
            Even after the home run rate rose through the ‘20s and ‘30s into the ‘40s – at the same rate for the Negro Leagues as the Major Leagues – the Negro Leagues continued to run and bunt, Simkus said.
            “They bunted a lot,” he added, explaining that third base was a more vital defensive position than second base in the Negro Leagues. Some teams would “hide” a poor defender at second.
            Despite the bunt frequency, the strikeout frequency was higher in the Negro Leagues than in the Majors, Simkus found. He speculated about causes: cheaper balls, more night games, more frequent use of the best pitchers (the Negro Leagues schedule was only about four games per week) and shorter rosters that put more players into the lineup who were primarily pitchers.
            All of this and more, that Simkus is not ready to discuss until Strat-O-Matic is.
            “Fun, fun stuff,” he said.