Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Card #67: Rich Gale


Who Can It Be Now?
Richard Blackwell Gale was born on January 19, 1954 in Littleton, New Hampshire.  He was not drafted coming out of Littleton High School, so he attended the University of New Hampshire.  At 6'7" tall, it should not be a surprise that he attended UNH on a basketball scholarship, only performing with the baseball team on the side.   

Gale believes that he was noticed while he was playing in the Cape Cod League in 1974.  As he put it in an interview with "The thing that probably made the biggest impression on people, that got me noticed, was playing in the Cape Code League in 1974.  I had a real good season.  I got a tremendous amount of exposure playing against top college competition.  In college, we were in the old Yankee Conference in New England.  We had some good players from there, but it is not like some of the Southern and Western schools."

His performance in 1974 led the Kansas City Royals to draft him in the fifth round of the 1975 June Draft -- 6 picks after Lou Whitaker.  The Royals assigned Gale to their Gulf Coast league team after he signed, and he pitched decently.  He really picked up his game, though, once he was sent to Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A Omaha in 1977.  His 12-7 record and 2.36 K/BB ratio -- along with his 7.7 K/9 innings -- tipped off Royals brass that Gale could pitch in the big leagues.

So, at the end of April in 1978, the Royals brought him up to start a game against the Brewers.  He pitched very well -- holding the Brew Crew scoreless for 7 innings while striking out four, walking only one, and giving up 6 hits.  He got the win in that game and got the win in four of his next five starts.  He finished his 1978 season with an excellent 14-8 record and a 3.09 ERA.  That was good enough to gain him some consideration for the Rookie of Year Award -- which rightfully went to Lou Whitaker -- and even a couple of points in the AL MVP race -- good enough to tie for 34th place.

Unfortunately for Gale, 1978 would be the best year of his career.  Using sabermetric tools, one can see very clearly where the problem was here.  The cracks in the edifice -- the ones that make that win/loss record and his ERA a pleasant mirage -- are apparent.  His K/BB ratio was below 1 -- in 192-1/3 innings, he walked 100, struck out just 88 for a K/BB ratio of 0.88.  

It takes a bit more math, but there was one huge issue against his repeating 1978 ever again: Gale was very lucky in terms of his opposition's batting average on balls in play.  Using the formula of BABIP = Hits minus Home Runs divided by (at bats minus strikeouts minus home runs plus sacrifice flies), hitters against Gale in 1978 hit just .265 on all balls in play that did not clear the fence.  As FanGraphs and others have pointed out (all relying on the excellent work that Voros McCracken did fifteen-odd years ago), typically around 30% of all balls in play against a pitcher fall for hits -- i.e., BABIP for pitchers normalizes to around .300. 

Gale recognized that his defense was outstanding.  In the interview with and in the context of discussing a one-hit shutout he threw against the Texas Rangers, Gale gave credit to Royals manager Whitey Herzog: 
Whitey Herzog was amazing at the charts he kept on the hitters.  We took a lot of hits away from people because of our defensive positioning. If you look at the chart on Al Oliver, it was almost totally dark up the middle that our shortstop and second baseman took hits away from him all the time.
Now, in fairness, the rest of the quote describes how the defensive positioning led to the only hit of the game for the Rangers -- Oliver tripled -- but you get the point. One variable in BABIP is how efficiently the defense behind a pitcher turns balls in play into outs, and Gale was giving us the heads-up that Herzog might have had something to do with Gale's "lucky" BABIP.

Whatever Whitey did in 1978, though, it did not work in 1979.  That year, Gale produced a season that looked horrible by his 1978 standards -- 9-10 record, 5.65 ERA, 1.629 WHIP -- In reality, that year was more along the lines of what should have been expected -- his BABIP was .299

Similarly, Gale had what appeared to be a bounceback season in 1980.  He finished at 13-9 with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.295 WHIP.  Once again, Gale was carrying a four-leaf clover and a rabbit's foot with him to the mound -- balls in play fell for hits only 25.6% of the time (BABIP of .256, if you like that number style better).

Then came 1981.  That year had to be one of the worst years in Rich Gale's life.  He finished 6-6 with a 5.40 ERA, striking out just 47 in 101-2/3 innings while walking an acceptable 38. He was still lucky on balls in play -- likely due in large part to the excellent, fast Royals defense behind him -- but even that number rose to a BABIP of .275.  Gale gave up more home runs per nine innings than ever before.  And, well...more on what made the year truly bad is below.  

After the 1981 season, the Royals decided to go in another direction with their pitching staff. They traded Gale along with Bill Laskey to the San Francisco Giants for Jerry Martin. Gale had his final year as a starter with the Giants in 1982, but ended up traded again by the time the next season rolled around -- this time to the Reds in exchange for Mike Vail.  He did not impress the Reds in 1983, so they released him in November of 1983.  

Gale then signed as a free agent with the team he cheered for as a youth -- the Boston Red Sox.  This came about in large part because Lou Gorman -- the man who had scouted and signed Gale for the Royals in 1975 -- became the Red Sox' Vice President of Baseball Operations and signed Gale.  He spent much of that 1984 season at Triple-A Pawtucket, where he showed he could get kids in their mid-20s out.  In the American League in 1984, though, Gale had problems getting big leaguers out.  As a result, the Red Sox cut him loose after the 1984 season.  

After crashing out of the Major Leagues in 1984, Gale spent two years with the Hanshin Tigers in the Japanese Central League.  He did not pitch terribly, and he got to see first hand the exploits of American Randy Bass in 1985 -- 54 home runs in 126 games -- and in 1986 -- when Bass hit 47 more!  Gale and Bass were the only players who did not have Japanese names on both of those teams (I'm not going to look through the whole roster to determine if there were any Japanese gaijin on that team...).  

When his two years in Hanshin were done, Gale came back to the United States.  He pitched again in 1989 with the Red Sox Double-A affiliate in New Britain and then again in 1991 with the Pawtucket Red Sox (for whom he was serving as pitching coach).  But, he never pulled on a major league uniform as a player after 1984.

Mustache Check: Rich Gale's wispy red mustache chalks up another point for the hairy lip society.

Family Ties
Rich Gale and his wife Susan had two sons who played baseball at fairly high levels.  Rich's older son Christopher was selected in the 30th round of the 2000 June Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Chris instead chose to attend college at the University of Virginia and pitched there.  He eventually played independent league ball in San Diego, Texas, and Maryland in the mid 2000s.

The younger of the two boys to play ball was Andy Gale.  Andy went to Phillips Exeter Academy -- a fancy boarding school that the Economist magazine says belongs to "an elite tier of private schools" that counts Eton and Harrow in England as a peer.  Andy was drafted out of high school in the forty-third round of the 2004 June Draft by the Expos but chose instead to attend the University of North Carolina as a freshman to play baseball.  After his freshman year, Andy decided to transfer to the ugly-ass orange and blue of the University of Florida, where he was limited by injuries.

The Verdict
A bizarre item that came up in my research was that Rich Gale was arrested on charges of indecent conduct in Maine in May of 2000.  According to the newspaper story about the arrest, Gale was charged with "allegedly exposing himself to undercover Maine state trooper Sgt. Thomas Arnold at the Interstate 95 rest stop in Kittery."  

Gale's defense to the charge, according to the Bangor Daily News in October of 2000, came in a motion filed by his attorney to challenge the evidence for the charge.  According to the newspaper account, "[t]he motion suggested that there would have been no charge if the trooper had not 'voluntarily stuck his head in the defendant's vehicle.'"  

This begs the question as to why Gale had his pants down to begin with, it seems, and, as a result, the last word on the issue came in January 25, 2001.  The Bangor Daily News reported then that Gale and prosecutors had reached a plea agreement on a lesser charge.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I teased the idea that 1981 had to be the worst year in Gale's career above.  During the 1981 strike, Gale had to take a job to pay his bills.  After all, he wasn't exactly a star making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year -- which was big bank in the early 1980s.  Needing to stay in the Kansas City area for when the strike was resolved, he took a job as a bartender at the Hyatt Hotel in Kansas City.

He had been working there only two to three weeks when catastrophe struck.

If you have never heard of this disaster before, it is worth reading about.  As the Wikipedia article regarding the disaster states, it was the worst structural collapse in U.S. History prior to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.  The cause for the collapse was a poor structural design in the steel tie rods of the walkway.  This disaster today still is a case study in the incorporation of proper safety factors in structural engineering design and in proper reviews of submittals presented by trade contractors for incorporation into the project.

Rich Gale was there.  He was 40 feet from the dance floor where literally over a thousand people were engaged in a dance contest.  Gale spoke frequently about his feelings in the days that followed:
It was frustrating.  Here I am a big, strong professional athlete and I can't lift anything to help anybody.  It was tough to take . . . seeing people underneath there.  I saw some gruesome things.  It was the worst thing I've ever seen or imagined.
Even in 1984, when discussing the aftermath, the words did not seem to come easily:
Here I was complaining about how hard it was making car payments.  It was a real selfish conversation, as it turned out a few minutes later.  . . .  It was like the roof caved in. I was numb, like everyone else.  No one knew what was happening. Within a few seconds, I ran out into the lobby to help.  It's something I will never forget.  I pulled bodies out of the pile of rubble and covered one of the unfortunate souls who perished.  For 30 minutes, it was all a nightmare.  My life has never been the same since.
Even his pitching suffered, Gale believed:
Before it happened, I was running every day and throwing at least four days a week.  I had a good season going before the strike and I wanted to get it over. After the tragedy, I couldn't work out.  I became irritable with my wife and had to get away from Kansas City -- so I went home to my folks' cottage in upstate New Hampshire.  
I realized how fragile life can be.  I also saw what had happened in my life - where baseball became more important than my family.  It took a bigger role and after the tragedy, I kept thinking just how unimportant baseball really is.
Gale did return to baseball, and stayed in baseball for most of the rest of his career.  He has served as a pitching coach both in the minor leagues and, for two seasons, in the majors with the Boston Red Sox in 1992 and 1993.  His last position was with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds in the Milwaukee Brewer organization.  For some reason, he walked away in the middle of June in 2011 and, from all indications, that was the end for his baseball career.

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