Saturday, March 28, 2015

60 Years Ago, When the Wait for "Next Year" Finally Ended (First in a Series): 1955 Pre-Season Pennant Race Handicaps

"Wait Till Next Year." Sixty years ago, that was the mantra at Ebbets Field because the Dodgers had lost every World Series they had been in1916, 1920, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953not to mention having lost the first two playoffs ever for the National League pennant, in 1946 and 1951, and not being counted down and out for good until the final game of the 1950 season. Wait till Next Year. Well, sixty years ago, "next year" finally came when the Dodgers won their firstand, it turned out, onlyWorld Series championship in Brooklyn. This is the first in a series throughout this season on the National League and American League pennant races sixty years ago, beginning with the first ever preseason forecasts by a new publication whose first issue was just the previous August, Sports Illustrated.

1955 Pre-Season Handicaps

The baseball world must have felt a bit off by what transpired in 1954. Surely it was strange that the New York Yankees did not play in the World Series. After all, they had won each of the five previous American League pennants, and each of the five previous World Seriesan unprecedented achievement. Not only that, the 1954 Yankees won more games than any of the five-and-five-in-five championship teams between 1949 and 1953. Their 103 victories, however, were good for only second place, and not even a close second. The Cleveland Indians won 111 games, wound up eight games in front of the Yankees, and were the favorites to win the World Series until Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz, Dusty Rhodes hit home runs coming off the bench to win Games 1 and 2, and the New York Giants swept the Indians four straight.

And surely it was equally strange in 1954 that for the first time since 1948 the Brooklyn Dodgers were not either the National League pennant-winner or still competing for the honor down to the very last game they played. Indeed, two dramatic, heart-rending losses were all that stood between the Dodgers and their matching the Yankees with five straight World Series appearances between 1949 and 1953. In 1950, the Dodgers had a chance to make history with a stirring comeback from 9 games down with only 16 left to play to force a playoff with the Phillies, whom the scheduling gods set them up to meet at home in the final game of the season, only to see the would-be game-winning run thrown out at the plate in the last of the ninth and the Phillies win the game and secure the pennant on a three-run home run in the tenth. And in 1951, well, you know... Ralph Branca... Bobby Thomson... enough said.

The Dodgers had finished second in 1954. They were last in first place, tied with the Giants, on June 13. Thereafter, although they stayed in second and were never far behind the Giants, the Dodgers never really made a serious play for first place either. They pulled to within half-a-game after sweeping the Giants at Ebbets Field in mid-August, but six days later were four games behind. The Dodgers basically spent all summer treading water. They ended up five games out.

Robert Creamer, previewing the 1955 season for Sports Illustrated, summed up the Dodgers as smooth and seasoned, but aging and with "notoriously undependable" pitching. He wrote that "young replacements" had yet to prove themselves, although this was an uncharitable assessment with regard to one young 'un he namedJim Gilliam, entering his third year as the Dodgers' second baseman with a .280 batting average and .372 on base percentage in 297 big league games. Creamer did not count Brooklyn out, however. Noting that Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe all played below their established standards for excellence in 1954, Creamer predicted that if they returned to their past level of performance, "these three could bring the championship back to Flatbush."

One thing was obvious, wrote Creamer, and that was that the defending-champion Giants and the up-and-coming Milwaukee Braves were the "best-balanced" teams in the National League. "They are beautifully matched, these two teams," he wrote, concluding that "the Giants should win the pennant." "The difference between the clubs is spelled W-i-l-l-i-e- M-a-y-s-." 

Creamer's assessment of the American League ultimately came down to "how close the Indians come to winning 111 games again," indicating a slight nod to the Yankees, without coming out and saying so explicitly. The Yankees had depth, the best catcher in baseball (Yogi Berra), Mickey Mantle ("who threatens to grow from good to great"), and good pitching led by Whitey Ford. Their big question marks were how much "the once-great Yankee shortstop" Phil Rizzuto had left and who would replace Allie Reynolds, who had just retired. He did mention that the Yankees now had Bob Turley, who in 1954 was 14-15 for the seventh-place, 100-loss Orioles.

The Indians, on the other hand, had probably "the worst-fielding infield to ever win a major league pennant," were slow and unimaginative on the bases, and despite "one of the most impressive pitching staffs in major league history," also an aging pitching staff. In fact, advanced fielding metrics that did not exist at the time indicate that Cleveland's infield defense was the second-best in the league (after the White Sox) up the middle, but quite problematic at the corners, including the worst in the league at third base, Al Rosen's position. As for the pitching, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, who both won 23 for the '54 Indians, were in their mid-30s, Bob Feller was 36 (although he had made only 19 starts in 1954), and Creamer might also have mentioned that Mike Garcia, who was 19-8 with a league-leading 2.64 ERA in 1954, was 31. Joining the Cleveland staff, however, would be Herb Score, said to be "so good you can't believe it."

With the Yankees and Indians having split their season series in 1954, the difference in outcome for 1955 could well be the same as it was the previous yearwhichever team had the better record against the rest of the American League.

Opening day would be April 11, 1955. More to come.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do Managers Make a Difference in One-Run Games?

The argument for one-run games being a possible indicator of a manager's skill and effectiveness in game-on-the-line circumstances is that these are the games where his decisions would have the most obvious impact, as suggested by several exciting games of the 2014 post-season mentioned in my previous article. The prevailing view among sabermetric analysts, however, is that it is misleading to evaluate any manager's performance based on such indicators as his record in one-run games, which are decided as much by luck as a manager's game-management skills. Inspired by Branch Rickey's famous dictum, "Luck is the residue of design," this Insight seeks to explore that issue.

Do Managers Make a Difference in One-Run Games?

As noted in my previous article, Nats' manager Matt Williams' decision to remove Jordan Zimmermann in a 1-0 game with the tying run on base but needing only one more out to even the division series blew up in his face; O's manager Buck Showalter's decision to put the potential winning run on base with the tying run on second, with only one out and his team just two outs away from advancing to the ALCS, proved a masterstroke; and Royals' manager Ned Yost's decision to use a starting pitcher instead of his go-to seventh-inning guy to protect a one-run lead in the sixth in the wild card game nearly cost KC the game and their ultimate road to the World Series.

Games decided by one-run are not simply low-scoring affairs, such as often associated with the Dead Ball Era, but also games decided by scores like 9-8, 8-7, and 7-6. Most are legitimately on the line in the late innings, even if some one-run games begin as blowouts and become close only because of frenetic comebacks that fall just short.

The percentage of major league games decided by one run was typically between 30 and 35 percent during the Dead Ball Era; mostly between 25 and 30 percent from the 1920s through the 1950s when the power game was prevalent; and consistently back over 30 percent in the 1960sincluding 35 percent in 1968, which was so much the "Year of the Pitcher" that the permissible height of the mound was dramatically lowered beginning the next year. 

There was a marked divergence between the American and National Leagues in the first two decades of the DH rule beginning in 1973, where one-run games accounted for about one-third of the outcomes in the NL but for only between 25 and 30 percent in the AL. The major league average was about 27 percent in the first decade of the 2000s, with the NL only slightly higher than the AL. In the last five years, about 30 percent of major league games have been decided by one-run, including 29 percent in the American League and 32 percent in the National League last year. (All of the above data is available on the baseball-reference website for every season played since 1900.)

As countless teams have experienced and millions of fans have endured, however, the outcome of games decided by only one run could very much depend on a lucky break or the ability (or inability) of players to executeevents that say nothing about the actual merits of a manager's decisions. It is a matter of inches, after all (or so they say), between fair and foul balls, safe and out on the bases or at the plate, home runs or long fly ball outs to the wall that decide the outcome of games

Precisely because so much is up to chance is a strong argument for why a manager's record in one-run games as an indicator of his game-management skills and performance is misleading. 

After all, the Orioles' record in one-run games over the last three years under Buck Showalter, one of the most respected managers in baseball today, is marked by extremes. The 2014 O's had a 32-23 record in games decided by one runa winning percentage only 11 points below Baltimore's 96-66 record for the season. But the previous year, Showalter's record in one-run games was an extraordinarily ugly 20-31, below .400, for a team that in 2013 had a .525 winning percentage, while in 2012 the Orioles were at the other end of  extraordinary with an amazing 29-9 mark in one-run affairs. It would surely be ludicrous to suggest Showalter is only a good manager in tight games in the even-numbered years.

Grounded in a long history of play-by-play data, sabermetric analysis typically discounts teams' records in such close games as an indicator of their manager's decisionmaking prowess. For example, the probabilities of a team scoring a run indicates that managerial decisions to play for one run using strategies such as sacrifice bunts to advance runners at the expense of an out, or stolen baseswhich, if unsuccessful, cost an out and eliminate a runneroften actually reduces the odds of scoring. 

Furthermore, most game strategies are obvious and pro forma, such as whether to sacrifice bunt in the late innings in a tie game, to walk a dangerous hitter with the tying run in scoring position and first base open, or even to bring in a left-handed specialist to pitch to a dangerous left-handed batter at a critical spot in the game. Whether to go "by the book" or not is the manager's choice and the outcome is often indeed dependent on his players' ability to execute or a matter of luck.

Still, bearing in mind Branch Rickey's Bartlett's quotation about "luck being the residue of design"which is itself a variation of Roman philosopher Seneca's dictum that "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" (well-read in the classics was Mr. Rickey)managers making decisions to play for one run do so because they believe just one run is what is needed at that moment to ultimately win the game, particularly if it is the late innings, and therefore is worth the risk and the sacrifice of a potentially bigger inning. Even if their strategy to play for one run actually reduces the odds of scoring according to the probabilities of run-expectancy from their decision, their bias is towards not blowing the opportunity to score just one run. And it is the same concerning decisions about pitching changes, defensive alignments, and how and even whether to pitch to particular batters.

Their players may fail to execute. Fate may intervene in a bad bounce, a great defensive play, or a lousy call (although replay challenges are a remedy to that problem). But managers make the decisions they do at the moments they do for the very purpose, they believe, of maximizing their team's chance to win the game. We should be careful never to assume that the manager did not have very good reasons for making the decisions he dideven those that backfired and have fans and pundits screaming, What was he thinking!

A manager's decisions are made in the context of not only the game situation, but also his years (and years) of learned experience in the game, as well as the philosophical approach and willingness to take risks that he brings to the game as part of his personal and, sometimes, his team's organizational history. In this regard, it would seem their decisions are less about luck (although still dependent on execution) than about the manager's judgment. If so, a manager's record in one-run games may indeed be telling as a valid indicator in the outcomewin or loseof close and sometimes critical games.

There will be further consideration of this issue in the future.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remembering the 2014 Postseason: Decisions Have Consequences

The 2014 postseason showed that of the many roles of a manager, that of game-tacticianespecially the situationally-dependent decisions he makes that can be pivotal in games decided by a single runare those where he is most open to criticism and second-guessing. This first of two articles will hearken back to three dramatic moments in the post-season just past, to be followed by an article engaging the debate on whether a manager's decisions in one-run gamesand specifically his record in games decided by one runis a valid indicator of managers' impact and effectiveness.  

Decisions Have Consequences

In Game 2 of the NLDS, the Nationals hosting the Giants, Washington held a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of a game they needed desperately to win, it being that they had lost Game 1 in the best-of-five series and the next two games would be in San Fran. Just six days after he had pitched a no-hitter in his final start of the regular season, Jordan Zimmermann was again pitching as though this was Masterpiece Theatre. He had retired 23 consecutive batters when Joe Panik came to bat in the top of the ninth, the Giants down to their last out. But Zimmermann walked Panik on a pitch that may or may not have been in the strike zone, putting the tying run on base, and bringing Nats first-year manager Matt Williams to the mound.

In a decision for which he was extensively criticized even as he made it, Williams decided to remove Zimmermann in favor of Nats' closer Drew Storen. Zimmermann had thrown just 100 pitches, was in the flow of another brilliant performance, and was arguably unhittable. He had in fact given up only three hits, none since the third. Storen had a history about which the fans at Nationals Park were well aware, and while history doesn't necessarily have to repeat itself, well... 

First, the history: Storen had been rather unceremoniously dumped from the closer role after having blown a 7-5 lead he was called upon to save in the deciding Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against St. Louis. He loaded the bases, got two outs, and with the Nationals just one out away from victoryand a trip to the NLCSgave up back-to-back singles that scored four Cardinals runs, ending Washington's breakout season in bitter defeat. When Rafael Soriano, who replaced him as closer, struggled late in the 2014 season, Storen returned to the role in September and was excellent, not allowing a run the entire final month of the season ... until ...

History did seem to repeat itself: instead of getting the final out to save Zimmermann's masterpiece and even-up the series, Storen surrendered a single and a double that tied the score, and only a runner being thrown out at the plate prevented the Giants from going ahead and winning in nine. The Giants did eventually win, in 18 innings, to take a two-games-to-none lead back to San Francisco that the Nationals were unable to overcome. 

In Game 3 of the ALDS, Baltimore at Detroit, a debated managerial move in a one-run game had a different outcome. The Orioles had a two games-to-none advantage in the Series and, with a 2-1 lead, were two outs away from sweeping the Tigers, but the Tigers got the tying run to second base. 

Veteran Orioles manager Buck Showalter ordered his relief ace, lefty Zach Britton, to intentionally walk Nick Castellanos who hit only .259 during the season and had struck out 140 timesthe second-highest K total on the Tigers. Although a right-handed batter, Castellanos had fared worse when facing southpaws, hitting only .237 against them. He had walked in his only plate appearance against Britton during the season.

Deliberately walking Castellanos was certainly an unconventional move because it put the possible winning run on base. But it did set up a double play situationwhich is exactly what the Orioles got to win the game and advance to the ALCS against ...

The Kansas City Royals, whose trip to the World Series was nearly stopped short in the AL wild card game by manager Ned Yost's controversial decision concerning who to call on in relief of starter James Shields to protect a sixth-inning lead. The Royals led 3-2, but the Oakland A's got two on with nobody out in the sixth when Yost came to get Shields. Left-handed power-hitter Brandon Moss was waiting to bat.

Kelvin Herrera, the Royals' highly-regarded seventh-inning guy, was available, and with the post-season on the line, this was perhaps a time Yost might bring him in to get crucial outs in the sixth inning. Instead, Yost called upon right-handed power starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. Power against power, Moss greeted Ventura with a three-run home run that gave the A's the lead, and only a stirring comeback in the eighth and ninth innings, and again in the twelfth, allowed KC to prevail, 9-8, to go on to the ALDS, and then the ALCS, and finally the World Series.

These are just three examples of decisions by managers at critical moments of one-run games in the 2014 postseason. As was also demonstrated in the series of articles I wrote last year concerning some of manager Gene Mauch's decisions during the epic collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, such decisions have consequences, affecting the outcome of games. 

So, the question before us is: does his team's record in one-run games say anything meaningful about a manager's impact and effectiveness in game situations? My next article will grapple with that issue.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Minnie Minoso Dossier--Remembered

Chicago lost a second baseball icon when Minnie Minoso passed away on Sunday, just 36 days after Ernie Banks, and only a week into spring training with a new baseball season on the horizon. Like Banks, he faced the challenge of being one of the first black players to integrate major league baseball, but Minoso also faced the challenge of being a native Cuban having to adapt to American culture. When it was announced in December that he was being considered for the second time in recent years by the Veterans "Golden Era" Committee for inclusion into baseball's Hall of Fame, I wrote the following "dossier" (slightly edited) on this site for why Minoso should be remembered--and indeed so honored--as one of the game's best players in the 1950s.  

The Minnie Minoso Dossier--Remembered

Minnie Minoso was one of only five black players making their major league debut before Jackie Robinson retired in 1956 to become a core regular on an American League team for as many as five years as of 1960, which was indicative of the AL's go-slow approach when it came to integration. Originally signed by Cleveland  in 1948 out of the Negro Leagues, Minoso played a handful of games for the Indians in 1949, excelled in the Pacific Coast League in 1950, had an exceptional rookie season in 1951, and was one of the AL's premier players for the rest of the decade. According to similarity scores developed by Bill James to compare players, the player to whom Minnie Minoso was most similar from when he was 28 through the age of 36 was Hall of Fame outfielder Enos Slaughter.

After being acquired from Cleveland in a multi-player three-team round-robin of trading on the last day of April in 1951, Minoso immediately made his impact felt in helping to turn around the fortunes of the Chicago White Sox. Still haunted by the 1919 Black Sox scandal that sent the American League team in Chicago to purgatory for decades in mostly the nether regions of the league, the White Sox had finished a dismal sixth the previous year, 34 games below .500. 

After changing uniforms, Minoso's batting average of .359 in his first two months with Chicago was instrumental in the White Sox reaching and staying in first place for virtually all of June and remaining competitive until August. The White Sox finished the season in fourth place, out of the running, but with a winning record for the first time in eight years.

The rookie outfielder's .326 batting average was second in the league to Philadelphia's Ferris Fain (.344). Batting third in the line-up, he was second in runs scored with 112, one behind Boston's Dom DiMaggio. Fifth in both on-base and slugging percentages, Minoso had the third highest overall combined on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the American League. Showing off his speed, he led the league in triples with 14 and in stolen bases with 31. Third in total extra-base hits, his 34 doubles were two short of the league-leaders (three players had 36). 

His player value of 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR) was sixth in the league, and fourth-best among position players. Minnie Minoso was better in all of these categories than any other rookie in baseball, including Willie Mays, but it was the pennant-winning Yankees' versatile infielder Gil McDougald who spent the winter polishing the AL's Rookie of the Year award. Mays won in the NL.

The White Sox were still a work in progress, but with Minoso and second baseman Nellie Fox as two of the American League's best position players, and southpaw Billy Pierce one of the best pitchers, they were increasingly competitive as the decade advanced. In 1954 Minoso, with a .320 batting average and the most total bases, was the best player in the league based on his 8.2 WAR as the White Sox won 94 games. Perhaps because his team finished third in the standings, however, Minoso finished fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting; 'twas Yogi Berra on the second-place Yankees got to spend the winter admiring the AL's MVP award.

Minoso was at his best between 1954 and 1959 with a six-year average annual player value of 5.7 wins above replacement. Among American League players, only Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline had more wins above replacement during those years. When the White Sox finally did escape from under the weight of the Yankees and Indians--who were first and second in the standings every year between 1951 and 1956 (with Cleveland first and New York second only once in 1954)--Minnie Minoso was no longer in Chicago to enjoy the American League pennant they finally won in 1959.

Despite having another strong year in 1957 with the fifth of his eight .300 batting averages and the fifth time his on-based percentage exceeded .400, Minoso was traded back to Cleveland for outfielder Al Smith and future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn. After a pair of .302 seasons in Cleveland, Minoso returned to Chicago in yet another trade and, at 34 years old in 1960, led the AL in hits with 189 while batting .311. 

The 1960 White Sox fought valiantly in defense of their American League crown before slipping out of the pennant race in mid-September, thus ending Minoso's last chance to play in a World Series. The following year was the last that Minoso was a regular. He missed most of the 1962 season, now playing for St. Louis, with a broken wrist and never recovered to play close to the level he had. Age will do that to you, if you're a baseball player and on the other side of 35.

With a .298 lifetime batting average, Minnie Minoso never got more than 21 percent of the vote when he was on the Cooperstown ballot of the Baseball Writers Association of America. That was in his fourth year of eligibility. Among the 16 voters on this year's Golden Era Committee were Al Kaline and Jim Bunning, both of whom played in the American League in the last half of the 1950s.

Perhaps Bunning remembered that Minoso touched him up for a .333 average, six home runs, and 18 runs batted in. The only other pitcher who Minoso tagged for that many home runs (also six) was Early Wynn, except Minoso had 85 more plate appearances against him than Bunning. And maybe Kaline remembered that Minoso hit more home runs in his career against the Detroit Tigers--37--than any other team, along with 159 RBI and a .308 average, and 24 of those home runs Minoso knocked out at Tiger Stadium.

Minoso needed the votes of 12 committee members. He got eight. That doesn't mean he wasn't one of the best of his era.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Impact of the 1914 Stallings Platoon

The previous post described how Boston Braves manager George Stallings made a virtue of necessity by platooning at all three of his outfield positions. The role that his three-position rotation of  outfielders played in the compelling narrative of the 1914 "Miracle" Braves did not go unnoticed, and by the 1920s there was widespread platooning in major league baseball. 

The Impact of the 1914 Stallings Platoon

The 1914 Braves' triumph ratified platooning as a winning strategy, and other managers took notice of the advantages of platooning, the most important of which was to mitigate player weaknesses, such as an inability to hit southpaws. As mentioned in an article on this blog last spring, "100 Years Ago: When Managers Upended Orthodoxies" (see link at the end of this article), platooning was a logical extension of managers increasingly pinch hitting for starting position players at pivotal moments in the game to gain a "platoon advantage"righty vs. lefty or lefty vs. rightyagainst the pitcher. 

But the practice did not become widespread overnightas in the very next seasonbecause at the time of Stallings' epiphany about platooning, the prevailing philosophy had been that the same core of regulars, day in and day out, was essential to stability, continuity, and teamwork. Catcher was the only position routinely shared by two players, and only because of the wear and tear receivers had to endure in the days before catchers' armor became more protective. Only injuries, an occasional day of rest, or sustained ineffectiveness would cause regulars at other positions to be replaced in the starting line-up. 

By the 1920s, however, platooning was pervasive among major league teams. A survey of the game-by-game starting line-ups for all teams during that era, made possible by the painstaking work of researchers (also available on the website, indicates that 46 percent of the teams that took the field from 1915 to 1920 had at least one position platoon for all or a significant portion of the season26 of the 48 National League teams (eight teams times six years) and 18 of the 48 American League teams. The next ten years, 1921 to 1930, half of all teams platooned, although NL teams44 of 80were still more disposed to platooning than AL teams36 of 80 (eight teams times ten years).  

The overwhelming majority of platoons were in the outfield, many at catcher, and some at first base. Platooning in the middle infield positions was very rare because most infielders in that era were right-handed batters, and because managers desired daily stability at such premium defensive-skill positions.

Platooning was an obvious strategy for mediocre or bad teams trying to compensate for the weaknesses of individual players. It was not intuitively obvious that managers of very good teams, with much stronger cohorts of players than Stallings had with the Braves, would find much merit in platooning, but even they were quick to see the value of platooning at a position of relative weakness in their line-upand every team had at least one.

Starting with Stallings' 1914 Braves, at least one of the teams in every World Series until 1926 used a position-player platoon during the regular season. Perhaps the most notable pennant-winning teams that platooned were the 1920 Cleveland Indians, whose manager and center fielder,Tris Speaker, used a lefty-righty tandem at both outfield positions he himself did not play, and Wilbert Robinson's 1916 Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the "Robins") and John McGraw's 1922 and 1923 New York Giants whose outfield platoons included none other than a certain Casey Stengel. Remember the name.

Unlike Stallings, who had more of an inchoate mix-and-match philosophy for platooning his outfield, most managers who platooned relied on a designated tandem pair who split the position between them. This was important not only because it provided a semblance of stability in the line-up, but it gave players an understanding of their role in the scheme.

Of course, players understanding their role is not the same as agreeing with such a division of their playing time. Baseball historian Bill James has suggested that the dramatic decline in platooning that occurred at the end of the 1920s was because platooned players resented the implication they lacked the ability to be everyday players, which ultimately made widespread use of the strategy untenable.

And indeed, the 1930s saw managers in both leagues retrench in terms of platooning. Between 1931 and 1940, only 30 percent of the 160 major league teams that took the field21 in the NL and 27 in the ALhad a position platoon. 

It wouldn't be until Casey Stengel was managing the 1950s Yankees that platooning resurfaced as a high-profile strategy in the managers' toolkit.  

Stallings' master manipulation of his outfielders in a three-position platoon was a major factor in the 1914 "Miracle" Braves' completely unexpected championship season, it should be remembered that the Braves also had very good pitching and the best middle infield, at least in the National League, with Johnny Evers at second and Rabbit Maranville at short.

Link to earlier blog:

Friday, February 13, 2015

The 1914 Stallings Platoon

The Society for American Baseball Research recently announced the five finalists for its annual award given for Historical Analysis and Commentary. They include “The 1914 Stallings Platoon: Assessing Execution, Impact, and Strategic Philosophy,” an article I wrote for the Fall 2014 issue of SABR’s flagship publication, The Baseball Research Journal. This post briefly summarizes the key research findings from that article.

The 1914 Stallings Platoon

The 1914 Boston “Miracle” Braves were the team famous for storming out of last place on July Fourth to win the pennant decisively over John McGraw’s Giants, who were defending three straight NL pennants, and then sweeping Connie Mack’s powerful Athletics, who had won three of the four previous World Series. What makes their story such a compelling historical narrative is that they were actually a fairly mediocre team brilliantly managed by George Stallings. Stallings' insight to systematically platoon at all three positions in his outfield is widely acknowledged as the catalyst for one of the most revolutionary developments in the history of managers thinking strategically about how to win games. 

No new news here, but thanks to the painstaking work of researchers for, comprehensive game-by-game starting line-up data for 1914 became available last spring, making it possible for the first time to dissect with precision Stallings’ master manipulation of all the Braves’ outfielders.

With limited major league experience among his corps of outfielders, and holding a poor hand in terms of talent, what Stallings did in 1914 was to rotate the seven to eight outfielders he had on his roster at any one time among the three positions. Only one of his outfielders--left-handed batting Joe Connolly--was a productive player, at least as measured by the wins above replacement (WAR) metric for player value. Aware of his outfield deficiencies, Stallings did this from the very beginning of the season. Connolly led the Braves with nine home runs and was the most potent offensive player on the team, according to WAR, but started only three of the 120 games he played when a southpaw took the mound for the other guys.

Stallings' starting line-ups had at least two of his three outfielders with the platoon advantage—batting from the opposite side of the starting pitcher’s throwing arm—in all but 11 of the 158 games the Braves played that year. In 44 of those 147 games, all three of the outfielders in the starting line-up batted from the opposite side.

What made his outfield platoon particularly effective was that two of the Braves' infielders were left-handed-batters, first baseman Butch Schmidt and second baseman Johnny Evers. No other NL team had more than one, and most had none, a significant potential advantage for the Braves when right-handers made 71 percent of all starts by National League pitchers in 1914. In practical terms, this meant that in 80 of the 102 games where the opposing team started a right-hander against the Braves, Stallings had at least four left-handed hitters in his batting order to face them. With Evers and Schmidt daily regulars in his line-up, Stallings’ mixing and matching of his outfielders gave the Braves a platoon advantage in their batting order of at least four out of eight position players in 86 percent of their games, whether started by righties or lefties, and a platoon advantage of at least five in 44 percent of their games.

Stallings maximized his platoon advantage by frequently replacing his outfielders during the game if circumstances dictated. In all, Stallings made an outfield substitution 87 times in 1914, many occurring as soon as the opposing manager brought in a pitcher throwing from the opposite side, even if that meant the substituting player first entered the game as a defensive replacement before getting his turn to bat. 

The payoff of platooning for the Braves was that they had by far the best winning percentage of any National League team in games against right-handed starters. Only the American League champion Philadelphia Athletics had a better record against righties. Why? Because Connie Mack had the advantage of five left-handed batters among his core regulars--infielders Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker, outfielders Amos Strunk and Eddie Murphy, and switch-hitting catcher Wally Schang--none of whom Mack made part of any platoon when writing out his starting line-ups. 

The next post will discuss the impact of Stallings' platooning in managers' game-strategy. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie's Banking on Two

The perpetually sunny Ernie Banks passed to a world where it's always a great day to play two on January 23. The temperature was in the thirties and mostly overcast in Chicago. That would have been just fine for Mr. Banks if it were opening day at Wrigley Field, a season of hope beckoning ahead. But no matter how it ended--and for the Cubs in Mr. Cub's time at Wrigley, it never ended with the team playing any games beyond the regular-season schedule--it was all beautiful to Ernie Banks.

Ernie's Banking on Two

Most, if not all,of us Boomers born after Ernie Banks broke into the major leagues in September 1953, remember him as the Cubs' first baseman. And in fact, he started more often at first base--1,126 games, mostly from 1962 to the end of his career in 1971--than at shortstop, where he started in 1,121 games. But it was at shortstop that Ernie Banks built his Hall of Fame resume, although the 214 home runs he hit after moving to first base to give him 512 on his career didn't hurt.

The first thing to remember about Ernie Banks is that he was one of integration's trailblazers. His rookie season of 1954 was the same year Hank Aaron broke in with the Milwaukee Braves. That was also the year Willie Mays really took off; the Say Hey Kid's rookie year may have been 1951, but let us not forget the start of his career was interrupted in 1952 when he was drafted for two years during the Korean War. Banks finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, and Aaron fourth, to the Cardinals' Wally Moon.

At the time Banks became the Cubs' regular shortstop in 1954, shortstop was a position looking for new major league star power. The Yankees' Phil Rizzuto was no longer playing regularly, and the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese was in his mid-thirties and nearing the end of the road. Although he played shortstop for only eight years before shifting over to first base because his range in the middle infield had been compromised by assorted leg ailments, Ernie Banks was the best all-around shortstop to play the game from when he broke in until the late-1970s and early-1980s when Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken made the grade,

In part because he began losing range relative to other shortstops of his time--including Roy McMillan, Luis Aparicio and Johnny Logan--Banks is generally not considered to have been especially good at the position. Bill James in his 2002 book on win shares gives him a "C" for defense, compared to McMillan's "A-", Logan's "B+" and Aparicio's "B". In 1959, however, Banks set a record by making only 12 errors at shortstop while also playing every game on the schedule. Quite likely benefiting from that performance, Banks won his first and only Gold Glove award the following year.

He may not have been a defensive wizard, but Ernie Banks was an offensive force at the position. Taking into account his offense, Banks was the best all-around shortstop the major leagues had seen since Honus Wagner, although a strong argument can also be made for Arky Vaughan (who hit only 98 career home runs but was a very dangerous hitter and much better defensively than Banks).

Ernie Banks is an anomaly among shortstops in historical context because he hit with unprecedented power for the premier defensive position on the diamond. Certainly in the era he played, and well beyond, "good-field / no-hit" was the description of a typical shortstop. This did not mean they were offensive zeros, rather that most shortstops hit at the top or the bottom of the order and were not counted on to be major run producers.

The only shortstop prior to Banks who was a persistent power threat was Vern Stephens, who had back-to-back years in 1949 and 1950 when he led the majors in RBIs (although he had to settle for a tie both years). By the time he retired in 1955, Stephens held the career record for home runs by a shortstop with 214, but he had only two 30-home run seasons in his career and never hit more than 39.

Banks did Stephens far better by hitting 40 home runs five times in six years between 1955 and 1960. He led the major leagues with 47 in 1958 and 41 in 1960. He led majors in RBIs in 1958 with 129 and again in 1959 with 143. In 1958 and 1959, Banks won back-to-back MVP awards despite playing for a team that finished well out of the money, in sixth place with a losing record each time. And it wasn't even close; Banks far outpaced Mays in votes in 1958 and had double the number of first place votes than runner-up Eddie Mathews in 1959.

As it happened, the first home run Banks hit in the 1960 season broke Stephens' record. When Ernie shifted over to first base in 1962, he had hit 282 as a shortstop. That record stood until 1993 when Cal Ripken passed Banks on his way to 353 home runs by a shortstop--still the record. If Banks as the paradigm of a power-hitting shortstop anticipated the future Ripken, so too did he prefigure Alex Rodriguez, who eclipsed Banks in 2002 and hit 345 home runs as a shortstop before going to the Yankees and becoming a third baseman.

Ernie Banks said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1977, thirty-two years since the last time the Cubs had been to the World Series, "There's an indescribable love for baseball in Wrigley Field."

Perhaps the moves Theo Epstein has made this winter to bolster the Cubs, particularly signing free agent ace Jon Lester, bringing back free agent pitcher Jason Hammel and trading for center fielder Dexter Fowler, will reward that love in 2015 with a post-season appearance ... preferably by winning the division ... and then the pennant ... and ultimately--yes!--the World Series.

That would surely please Ernie Banks--a World Series game in blustery conditions in frigid late October in Chicago, the flag with his retired # 14 on the left field pole at Wrigley reminding long-enduring Cubs fans: hey, it's a beautiful day for baseball. Do they play two in the World Series?

The following is a link to the New York Times obituary on Ernie Banks: