Listening to the audiobook of John Grisham’s new novel, Calico Joe, I heard something which made me pause, not unlike how Jaguar Paw might have reacted to coming across a Chili’s outside a Mayan city.
What I heard was that Joe Castle was coming to bat for the 4th time — in a game tied at 6 — with 2 outs in the top of the 9th inning. Any MLB fan fan worth his Bill James Baseball Abstract collection would feel cognitive dissonance rippling through their DNA at the notion that a hitter in that scenario would only have 4 at-bats, if he had been in the lineup for the entire game.
Here are the limited facts that Grisham provides about Castle’s at-bats and the game scenario:
- Castle was in the starting lineup and hit 7th.
- Came to bat for the 1st time in the top of the 2nd inning. Home run.
- 2nd at-bat came in the 5th inning. Home run.
- His team had scored 4 runs before his 3rd at-bat.
- 3rd at-bat came in the 7th inning. Home run [HR].
- Before Castle’s next at-bat in the 9th inning, Grisham notes that he had hit 3 home runs in “consecutive” at-bats. This rules out that Castle could have had a non-HR at-bat [i.e., walk, error, HBP]. If that had been the case, Grisham could not have accurately described his HR at-bats as “consecutive.”
- 4th at-bat comes in the 9th inning with Don Kessinger on 3rd base and 2 outs with the score tied at 6. Castle bunts for a base hit and Kessinger scores. That 7th run is described as the “eventual winning run.”
Here’s the problem. In order for Castle’s 9th inning at-bat to match Grisham’s game scenario [Castle is the Cubs 34th batter], he unrealistically limits the runners left on base [LOB] by the Cubs during a game in which they had scored 6 and eventually would end up with at least 7 runs — “eventual winning run” means the Cubs could have gone on to score more than the 7 runs, but the opponent was held to 6. Here are the results of the previous 33 at bats:
- 26 – outs made – with 2 outs in the 9th inning
- 06 – runs scored
- 01 – runner [Kessinger] on base in the 9th
- 00 – zero runners left on base [LOB] during first 8 innings
How unusual is it for a team which, after Castle’s bunt, had scored 7 runs and left only 1 runner [Castle in the 9th] on base to that point in the game? Let’s look at the actual team which was the basis for the story, the 1973 Chicago Cubs. The Cubs scored 7 runs in 8 games that season. They averaged 8 runners LOB in those 8 games. The lowest total was 6, the highest was 9.
This might be the last MLB trivia question which cannot be answered online: What is the most runs scored by a MLB team with zero runners left on base? I’d love to know. Even the great Baseball Almanac, does not provide records of Team LOB records based on the number of runs scored.
But Grisham has another problem. During 1973, Don Kessinger’s place in the batting order was 1st, 2nd or 8th. Since Kessinger was the runner on 3rd base during Castle’s 9th inning at-bat with 2 outs, this would mean that Kessinger was hitting anywhere from the 4th to the 6th [since Castle was hitting 7th] spot in Grisham’s lineup.
So the question is why Grisham lays out a baseball scenario which is so unrealistic? I get why homering in consecutive at bats makes a better story than squeezing a walk in between. I get why his last at-bat comes in the 9th inning. What I don’t get is why he sacrificed the plausibility of his game scenario by giving Castle’s team 6 runs and putting Kessinger on 3rd base, instead of 3 runs and Ron Santo or Billy Williams on 3rd base when Castle batted in the 9th?
I don’t object to a major leaguer’s storybook first game. But Grisham draws readers into the story with a number of baseball insights which indicate that a degree of authenticity was important to the story. Hell there was even Willie Montañez reference. One of the main characters even describes himself as obsessed with baseball statistics in his youth. And yet he fails the authenticity test in the most basic way.
The most logical conclusion must be that Grisham never even considered that there might be an issue given Castle’s at-bats and the score. All of which just makes Grisham [and a few well-paid editors and one fact checker] more normal than those of us who love the statistical aspect of the game. So it may not even a case of the author not doing his homework, perhaps he didn’t even realize there should have been an assignment.