Monday, April 14, 2014

The First Cuban Wave

The April 15 anniversary of Jackie Robinson's big league debut is a reminder that breaking the color barrier also opened the door to the major leagues for Cuban players--most of the best of whom were black.  The first wave of Cubans in major league baseball that began in the 1950s effectively ended in the mid-1960s as a result of Castro's slamming shut the exit door for Cubans less than enamored with his dictatorial rule.

The First Cuban Wave

At the time the Brooklyn Dodgers went to spring training in Havana in 1947 with Jackie Robinson certain to make their opening day roster, Cuba already had a long history of highly-competitive leagues dating to the early twentieth century that produced outstanding players clearly capable of playing at the major league level. Unlike in the United States, however, the Cuban leagues were not segregated, and the fact that many of the best Cuban players were "colored" put them off the map as far as major league baseball was concerned. The color of their skin meant that Cuban-born Martin Dihigo, Jose Mendez and Cristobal Torriente never played in the major leagues, but went to Cooperstown entirely on the basis of terrific careers in the Negro Leagues that were over before Branch Rickey took his shot at integrating (white) organized baseball with Robinson.

By the time Jackie stepped foot onto the Ebbets Field diamond in 1947, only 40 of the 8,039 players who had played in the big leagues had come from Cuba.  Given that they were born into a society where interracial couplings were neither unusual nor ostracized, it is quite likely that at least a handful of those 40 Cuban-born players were at least partially black; they would not, however, have been able to play in the Big Time if they could not pass for white.  If in the pre-integration era major league teams may have been willing to overlook the "swarthy" complexions of some of those Cuban players, they also gave them relatively short shrift in their opportunities to make good.  Of the 40 Cubans who played before Robinson got his chance, only two had appreciable time in the major leagues:  outfielder Armando Marsens, who played 655 games over eight years between 1911 and 1918, and right-hander Dolf Luque--the most prominent Cuban player the big leagues had yet to see, celebrated as "The Pride of Havana"--who had a 20-year big league career that ended in 1935 with a lifetime 194-175 record and a career value of 43.2 pitching wins above replacement.  When he pitched for Cincinnati, Luque was arguably the second-best pitcher in the National League after Dazzy Vance in the first half of the 1920s.

Major league integration proved the catalyst for an unprecedented influx of players from Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Minnie Minoso who made it for good as an outfielder with the Chicago White Sox in 1951. One of baseball's premier players over the next ten years, Minoso had a borderline Hall of Fame career; he was reconsidered by the Veterans Committee for enshrinement as recently as 2012. Certainly once Minoso became a star, Cubans quickly emerged as a new talent pool for the major leagues. The original Washington Senators--the one major league club that scouted Cuban players before integration--were ahead of the field in bringing to the major leagues talented players from the island nation, including pitchers Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos (neither was black), shortstop Zoilo Versalles and outfielder Tony Oliva, who they signed the same year the franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins.  Pascual was one of the best right-handers of his generation, leading the league in strikeouts each of the first three years the team played in Minnesota; Versalles won the MVP award in 1965 when the Twins went to the World Series; and Oliva led the American League in batting average in each of his first two seasons--1964 and 1965 (not including 16 cups of coffee before that)--before debilitating leg and knee injuries ultimately derailed a career that seemed destined for Hall of Fame honors.

By the mid-1960s there were about 30 Cuban-born players in major league baseball in any given season, making them the dominant foreign nationals in the game.  Pascual, Oliva, shortstops Bert Campaneris and Leo Cardenas, southpaw Mike Cuellar and right-hander-with-the-funky-delivery Luis Tiant took their place among baseball's best players that decade and the next.  Second basemen Tony Taylor, Tito Fuentes and Cookie Rojas; outfielders Tony Gonzalez and Jose Cardinal; catchers Joe Azcue and Paul Casanova; and pitchers Ramos, Diego Segui and Orlando Pena had long and distinguished big league careers.  And then there was Tony Perez of Big Red Machine fame, who broke in with the Reds in 1964 and is so far the only Cuban-born player in the Hall of Fame to have played in the major leagues.  It should be noted that all of these players were signed as free agents and had left Cuba for American diamonds before or in the first chaotic year or two after Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution.

Castro's crackdown on political opposition and Cuba's vibrant (albeit with a big dose of corruption) private sector, suppression of civil rights and liberties, and imposition of stringent travel restrictions making it difficult to leave the island nation led to a lost generation of Cuban players for major league baseball.  The Cuban generation most affected, because they came of age in the years when the Castro regime was most repressive and political tensions with the United States at their highest, were those born between 1950 and 1970--only 17 of whom played in the major leagues.  That compares to 49 born between 1930 and 1950 who wore big league uniforms.  After peaking with 32 Cubans playing in the major leagues in 1968, by 1975 there were only 14, only 8 in 1980, and a mere 3 Cubans in the big leagues in 1985.  After Tiant and Perez retired, Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro--both of whose big league careers started in the mid-1980s--were next as the first prominent post-Castro Cuban-born players in the major leagues, but both grew up in the States after their families had fled Castro's Cuba on "freedom flights" organized by the US and accepted by the dictator as a way to defuse dissent.

It would be more than two decades after the early years of Castro's crackdown, however, before a second wave of Cuban-born players began to make their way into the major leagues.  While players in the first wave found themselves cut off from returning home and became exiles--often separated from their parents and extended families--the second wave of Cuban players had to chance the risks of defection where a failed attempt could cost them their baseball careers in Cuba (certainly on the national team that traveled abroad), their freedom, and even their lives--and they too were separated from their families, in some cases wives and children. There are currently 16 Cuban-born players in the major leagues.  Two of them, Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes and the White Sox' Alexei Ramirez hit late game-winning home runs for their teams on Sunday, April 13.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

100 Years Ago: When Managers (Well, John McGraw Anyway) Upended Orthodoxies

Much of the discussion about baseball in today's day and age is about how advanced technologies and analytics increasingly inform managers' roster and dugout decisions, including positioning and strategy in game situations.  A century ago, managers themselves were at the forefront of sophisticated innovations that became part of managers' game-management toolkit that has endured to this day--using relievers to secure victories, making position player substitutions to try to win games, and platooning for advantage at the outset of games.    

100 Years Ago: When Managers Upended Orthodoxies

The Washington Post's longtime baseball writer Thomas Boswell wrote that the Nationals' switch from old-school Davey Johnson to first-time manager Matt Williams is "emblematic of the era."  Specifically: "The 21st century manager generally has a lower profile ... than most famous managers in the previous century, but he remains important because he is an extension of the analytical thinking of the entire organization.  Like good upper-middle managers, they implement the business plan."  One hundred years ago, major league baseball was also in the midst of an innovative transition in how managers did their jobs. The job of "baseball manager" had become ever more its own discipline, and its professionalism was evolving into greater complexity.

It was increasingly apparent that the most successful teams would be those that were not only the most talented and skilled in execution, but also the most sophisticated in their use of strategy to win games. So managers began to think more strategically about how to win games, which led to a reconsideration or refinement of three established orthodoxies. It should come as no surprise that John McGraw, who burnished his reputation as a baseball strategy genius by always looking for an angle and being willing to try unconventional things at a time when the game was still discovering itself, was at the leading edge of all three.

The first orthodoxy taken on by McGraw was that pitchers were expected to finish the games they started. and certainly victories.  At a time when relief pitchers were rarely in the game at the end of victories--(pitchers completed 88 percent of their starts and fewer than 3 percent of wins were "saved" in 1903, his first full season as Giants manager)--McGraw's genius was to realize that victories don't necessarily have to come from complete games and that sometimes bringing in a fresh arm to complete a game is the best way to secure a win.   Despite a starting rotation including Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity that was better than any in the league, with the possible exception of the Cubs, McGraw called upon a relief pitcher to save 102 of the Giants' 663 victories between 1903 and 1909.  That not only was 15 percent of the Giants' total, but accounted for fully one-third of the total 311 saves by National League teams those seven years. 

By the end of the decade, almost certainly because of McGraw's influence, NL managers in particular had seized on the notion of using a reliever to "save" a victory. (The "save" was half a century away from being a recognized pitching statistic, however.)  By 1914--one hundred years ago--the percentage of victories secured by a save had increased to about 13 percent.  While most managers had bought into this concept by now, albeit judiciously (complete games still being perceived as the best way to get the win), none had any one pitcher designated for a relief role; the pitchers getting the saves were established starters, many of them the ace of the staff.  With Doc Crandall from 1909 to 1913, however, McGraw was far ahead of his contemporaries in imagining or anticipating a future of designated relief pitchers--although even he backed off on that after Crandall.

The second orthodoxy McGraw upended was the one where managers rarely replaced anyone in the starting line-up during the game.  The prevailing wisdom at the time he became a manager was that, barring injuries or poor performance, seven of the eight position players in the starting line-up were the same from day-to-day (the understandable exception was inevitably banged-up catchers) and played every inning of every game; the players rounding out major league rosters who sat on the bench were there more for emergencies--to substitute for an injured regular, to give a regular an occasional day of rest, or to take over if the incumbent was ineffective--than for inclusion in the game at critical moments.  Not including pitchers, major league managers made an average of only 23 substitutions for position players in the field in 1903, but McGraw that year made 44.  Quick to see the possibilities in his never-ending quest to gain a key advantage, McGraw was much more inclined to pinch hit and sometimes pinch run for a position player in pivotal moments, which--if this occurred in any but the last inning--then required a defensive replacement in the field.

From 1908 to 1912, when his Giants were one of the powerhouse teams in baseball, McGraw made twice the number of position substitutions in the field (573) than the sixteen-team major league average (270). By 1914--one hundred years ago--substituting for position players during games for tactical advantage was an accepted practice; National League managers, following his lead, averaged 108 position player substitutions that year, but McGraw was still ahead of the curve with 130 of his own.  Indicative of the two leagues being somewhat different in their strategic approach to the game, American League managers lagged behind in position player substitutions, not achieving consistent parity with their NL counterparts until the early 1920s.

Taking position player substitutions to their logical conclusion--platooning in the starting line-up--upended the third established orthodoxy:  that a team should have a set line-up of core regulars, unchanging except for injury or a player proving ineffective at his position.  Although platooning certainly occurred to McGraw, he did not platoon in his starting line-up until a decade after he began making substitutions to gain the "platoon advantage" in key moments of games, and so it is Boston Braves' manager George Stallings who gets the credit for masterminding the concept.  Unlike McGraw, whose strong teams at the time generally had a dependable player to start regularly at every position, Stallings had no such advantage with the woebegone Braves when he became their manager in 1913.  He had no (as in zero) outfielders he felt comfortable starting on a daily basis.  

Stallings was widely regarded as a brilliant strategic manager even at the time, but what made his claim to fame in historical retrospect was how his master manipulation of eight players--four left-handed and four right-handed at any given time during the season--in an outfield rotation involving all three positions, including making substitutions to counter pitching changes, contributed to the 1914 Braves' miracle of rising from the bottom of the heap on July 4th, overtaking McGraw's indisputably better club in early September, and eventually sweeping the historically great Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. What is unusual is how little attention was paid to this strategy at the time; there were no references to  Stallings' lefty-righty outfield trade offs depending on the opposing starting pitcher in any articles appearing in The Baseball Magazine, the premier publication on the sport at the time, in either 1914 or 1915.  By the end of the decade and through the 1920s, however, platooning was widely practiced by nearly all major league teams.

While George Stallings is the historical midwife of platooning and 1914 is considered the baseline year for that strategic concept, starting line-up data for 1914--the earliest year for which such data is available on the website baseball-reference--shows that both McGraw and Cardinals' manager Miller Huggins also had an outfield platoon that year, although at only one position.  The important point here is that these refinements in game strategies and tactics were more evolutionary than revolutionary; they were institutionalized by the collective wisdom of managers observing and learning from each other and becoming more strategic in their thinking.  Even if basic game strategies and strategies for employing players at key moments in games are now in place, the complexity of the game and its many nuances means there is always new insight and knowledge to be gained. Except today, as Boswell implies in his article, there is social engineering by managers making logical adaptations to not only what they observe on the field of play, but also based on the baseball-use revolution in advanced metrics and technology that can dissect performance. 


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fifty Years Ago: Introducing the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies (First in a Series)

2014 is the 50th season since the Philadelphia Phillies' remarkable run for the pennant in 1964, which ended with perhaps the most colossal, calamitous collapse in baseball history. Even fans beyond a certain age, especially in the City of Brotherly Love, know the sordid story about the Phillies' blowing a 6-1/2 game lead with only 12 games left on the schedule.  This is the first of a series of Insights this season--which will be occasional until September, when the pace of my '64 Phillies posts will pick up dramatically--reconstructing what happened with, and ultimately to, the 1964 Phillies.

Fifty Years Ago:  Introducing the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies (First in a Series)

The Sports Illustrated issue previewing the 1964 season was explicit in saying (in its segment on the defending 1963 World Champion Dodgers) that "there are six teams with a good shot at the National League pennant this year."  One of those teams was the Philadelphia Phillies, who were showing promise for the first time in more than a decade of being competitive again.

With the exception of the St. Louis Browns (before they became the Baltimore Orioles), the Phillies entering that season had the sorriest team history in major league baseball.  They won their first pennant in 1915 and were summarily dispatched in the World Series in five games by the Red Sox.  They then did not win another pennant until 1950, when the "Whiz Kids" ambushed the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers to seize the National League pennant, their reward for which was being swept in the World Series by the Yankees.  In the 35 years in between, the Phillies finished last or next to last 24 times, including one stretch of 13 straight years as one of the two worst teams in the league. The 1950 Whiz Kids quickly proved to be one-year wonders; the Phillies were a middle-of-the-pack team for most of the rest of the decade and finished up the pre-expansion modern history of the National League with four consecutive eighth (that would be last)-place finishes.  In 1961, the last year before expansion, the Phillies lost 107 games.

But the future was already looking brighter.  The Phillies went from 47 wins in 1961 to 81 in 1962. Even accounting for NL expansion adding two teams--the Mets and Astros (then known as the Colt .45s)--against which Philadelphia won 31 games, accounting for 38 percent of their total wins; the truly awful Cubs also playing like an expansion team; and the schedule increasing from 154 to 162 games, 34 more victories in a single season is a fairly significant marker of improvement.  In 1963, the Phillies not only further improved to 87 wins to finish fourth, but from the beginning of July till the end of the season had the third-best record of the twenty teams in major league baseball; only the two pennant-winners--the Yankees and Dodgers--played better than the Phillies after July 1. Furthermore, Philadelphia made a statement by getting the best of the Dodgers in their season series, winning 11 of 18 games.  Still, with the Dodgers and Giants dominating the league, and the Cincinnati Reds a dangerous team, it did not seem likely the Phillies would make a serious run for the pennant in 1964.

Two significant management changes had helped the Phillies dramatically change direction from their decline to mediocrity and doormat of the National League after their Whiz Kids year.  In the dugout, the guiding mind belonged to Gene Mauch.  A seldom-used utility infielder for six different teams during a nine-year major league playing career, Mauch spent his time on the bench observing and mastering the art of the game. As a manager, Mauch was carefully cultivating the image of a brilliant baseball strategist and tactician always out-thinking whoever was in the dugout for the other team.  His intensity level, however, could sometimes be counterproductive.      

It was the arrival of John Quinn to be General Manager in 1959, however, that arguably did the most to change the toxic competitive environment that enveloped Connie Mack Stadium.  Quinn had been the architect of the Milwaukee Braves teams that were a National League power in the second half of the 1950s, in part because of their willingness to sign and promote promising black players--most notably one Mr. Hank Aaron.  Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Phillies--who had viciously persecuted Jackie Robinson in his rookie season--were the very last major league team to sign a black player for their minor league system (in 1955), and were the last National League team to integrate at the big league level in 1957.  Being the last bastion of segregation in the National League was certainly not helpful to their competitiveness.

Just as his investment in black players paid off for Milwaukee with back-to-back pennants in 1957 and 1958, the same would be true in 1964 when the Phillies unexpectedly competed for the pennant with five black players in key roles.  This by itself would have been a terrific story, given Philadelphia's noxious history on the integration front, had it not been for the team's epic collapse in the last two weeks of the season.  In 1960 and 1961, Quinn traded for second baseman Tony Taylor and outfielders Tony Gonzalez and Wes Covington; in 1961 he promoted Ruben Amaro to play shortstop; and in 1964, Dick Allen (then known as "Richie")--originally signed by the Quinn regime in 1960--was named the Phillies' starting third baseman from day one.  SI was sufficiently impressed in its 1964 preview issue to posit that Allen could "be the top-hitting rookie in the major leagues this season."

In addition to his trades for Taylor, Gonzalez and Covington, Quinn pulled one over on the White Sox in December of 1959 by surrendering third baseman Gene Freese to Chicago, a team that had been struggling to fill that position since the end of the Second World War, in a trade for Johnny Callison, a promising 20-year old outfield prospect with limited big league experience. Callison broke into the Phillies' starting line-up for good in August 1960 and by now was one of the best young outfielders in baseball.  In 1963, Callison had the third-highest player value for a position player in the major leagues (after Mays and Aaron) as measured by wins above replacement.  The SI preview projected Callison to be the "hitting star" of the team, and they were right about that, even though it would be Dick Allen who was the Phillies' dominant hitter that year. Johnny Callison played in every game for the 1964 Phillies and, with 31 home runs, 104 RBI, and a .274 batting average, would likely have been voted the league MVP were it not for Philadelphia's almost incomprehensible implosion.

But the biggest impact trade made by John Quinn was in December 1963 with the Detroit Tigers for Jim Bunning.  Perhaps after his 12-13 record with a relatively high ERA of 3.88 in 1963, the Tigers may have thought the 31-year old right-hander had begun sliding down the slope of the far side of his career.  Bunning, however, had been one of the American League's best pitchers since winning 20 games in his first full season in the big leagues in 1957.  He had won 118 games while losing 87 for the Tigers, who were mostly not competitive in his years with the team.  Noting his exceptional performances in All-Star games against the National League's best hitters, SI predicted that "Bunning will be tough the first time around the league and should help the Phils get off to a good start."  They were right about that, too: Jim Bunning was 8-2 with six complete games, three shutouts (including a perfect game against the Mets on Father's Day), and a 2.17 ERA in his first 16 starts for the Phillies through the end of June.  Philadelphia began July only half-a-game back of San Francisco in what looked at the time to be shaping up as a two-team race.

With a strong starting rotation that included more than Jim Bunning--SI projected southpaw Dennis Bennett and right-hander Art Mahaffey to win 35 games between then; Dick Allen and Johnny Callison in the batting order; better than average hitting and speed; and speculating that the outfield might be shored up "by a late trade," Sports Illustrated concluded, whether objectively or optimistically:  "This could bring the start of a winning tradition to Philadelphia."

Stay tuned to this blog for continuing posts through the current baseball season on what happened, and why, to the Philadelphia Phillies of fifty years ago.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Babe's Ambitions and Superstar Players as Managers in the Roaring 'Twenties

Babe Ruth's now-97 year old daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, reminds us that The Bambino was disappointed and embittered by not being given the opportunity to manage in the big leagues. With contemporary great players the likes of Speaker, Cobb, Sisler, Collins, and Hornsby all becoming player-managers, the Babe's aspiration to manage at the same time he was bashing home runs was not an unrealistic expectation.

The Babe's Ambitions and Superstar Players as Managers in The Roaring 'Twenties 

In a recent New York Times article on the Babe's daughter  participating in the century anniversary of St. Petersburg as the site of the first spring training by a major league team in Florida,, she is quoted as saying, "He really thought he deserved to manage. Daddy knew baseball.  He always felt he would be a better manager than Joe McCarthy.  He always talked about that."

While still in the prime of his career, but with the end horizon in view, the Babe aspired to replace Yankee manager Miller Huggins as a player-manager, both well before as well as immediately after chronic ill health cost Huggins his life as the 1929 season came to a close.  Ruth, however, while certainly a blessing in the Yankee line-up, had been a cursed thorn in Huggins' butt. The defining celebrity of the Roaring 'Twenties, a star with unprecedented magnitude, Ruth had few inhibitions about doing whatever he wanted, team discipline be damned; was a constant challenge to manage; and persistently undermined Huggins' authority in the clubhouse, either deliberately or by the example of his actions.  His behavioral history undermined any prospect of his managing the Yankees in the Jacob Ruppert regime, although Ruppert was not prepared to part with the Babe's ruthian clouts.  Anyway, after one year with former Yankee pitching star Bob Shawkey at the helm, Ruppert turned to Joe McCarthy as manager, and it was McCarthy whose teams consolidated the greatness of the forever Yankee dynasty.  Ruth remained with the Bronx Bombers through the 1934 season, making little effort to hide his disdain for Marse Joe, the man who would arguably become the greatest manager in history.

By the time of Huggins' tragic death, Ruth had seen most of the biggest-name big-name players in baseball, besides himself, become player-managers:
  • Tris Speaker, the Cleveland Indians' outstanding center fielder, was 31 and probably the best player in the game at the time he was named manager of the Tribe in mid-July 1919.  The next year, in his first full season in charge, Speaker guided the Indians to their first American League pennant, and the World Series to boot. Speaker was one of the earliest proponents of platooning, using a lefty-righty starting line-up split at both outfield positions he himself did not play (which was center field) when the Indians won their pennant in 1920, and during the World Series he used a platoon at first base.  Unproven accusations that he had conspired to fix the outcome of a baseball game in 1919 forced Speaker to step down as manager after the 1926 season.
  • Ty Cobb, the Babe's rival at the time for the sobriquet, "best player in baseball history," and who fueled the fires of their "rivalry" by his disdain for the power game, became player-manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1921 at the age of 34.  With a weaker team, Cobb was less successful than Speaker as a player-manager; his Tigers were in realistic contention for a pennant only once--in 1924, when they were tied for first as late as August 10 before losing four of five to the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals doomed their prospects.  Cobb was caught up in the same gambling investigation as Speaker and had to give up his managerial reins after the 1926 season.  Both Cobb and Speaker continued on as players for two more years, with different teams.
  • The St. Louis Browns named their star first baseman, 31-year old George Sisler, player-manager in 1924.  Sisler managed the Browns for three years and continued on for another year as just a player after being relieved of his managerial responsibilities.  The Browns were a bad team, but Sisler acknowledged that he had not been ready to be a manager.
  • Second baseman Eddie Collins, although 37 years old, was still one of the best players in the game and widely acclaimed as a brilliant baseball mind when he became player-manager of the Chicago White Sox toward the end of the 1924 season.  He managed a White Sox team desperately trying to recover from being torn apart by the Black Sox scandal for two full seasons before being let go as both manager and player.
  • And then there was Rogers Hornsby, who deserves a paragraph (make that two) of his own.  
Hornsby was 29 and in the midst of his second Triple Crown season in four years, playing second base, when the St. Louis Cardinals made him player-manager early in the 1925 season, freeing up Branch Rickey to devote full time to his general manager responsibilities.  The next year, Hornsby managed the Cardinals to their first first-ever NL title in a tight pennant race decided by two games, and to a stunning World Series triumph over the Yankees in which "Rajah" got to tag out the Babe himself on an attempted steal for the final out of the Fall Classic.  Good feelings quickly dissipated, however, and rather than meet Hornsby's demands for a new three-year contract, the Cardinals traded him to the Giants for second baseman Frankie Frisch. After a year in New York playing for John McGraw, Hornsby was traded to the Boston Braves where he was player-manager  in 1928, but the next year found him in Chicago, where he replaced McCarthy as manager in the final days of the 1930 season.

An undeniably great player, Hornsby was an antagonistic man--definitely not a people person--who alienated his players (and bosses) everywhere he managed.  Hornsby wanted his players to emulate how he did things to prepare for games; he was easily frustrated and quick to anger when players didn't meet his expectations; he was unable to get players to buy into his leadership because he displayed no particular wisdom; he was insulting, crude, and disrespectful.  The Cubs' ownership should have been alert to Hornsby's leadership shortcomings, if for no other reason than because of how he did his deliberate best in 1930 to undermine McCarthy, who had managed the team to the NL pennant in 1929.  Rogers Hornsby within two years of being named player-manager was let go and replaced as manager by first baseman Charlie Grimm in the heat of the 1932 pennant race.  Grimm led the Cubs to the World Series, where they ran into . . . the Babe, and his famous "called shot" of a home run.  

Babe Ruth almost certainly would have regarded being named manager as a validation of his own greatness. To not be named manager when the opening presented itself--as it did with Huggins' death--might well have been perceived by the Babe as disrespectful of his place in the baseball pantheon.  He certainly believed he would have been a successful manager, perhaps even a great manager--especially if he got to manage a team as loaded with talent as the New York Yankees.  (Ironically, 1930 would have been a less than auspicious year for Ruth to break in as a manager, let alone a player-manager, because the Philadelphia Athletics were a much better team than the Yankees and in the midst of three straight pennants.)

As time ran out on Ruth's career in the 1930s, the Babe was certainly aware (and envious) of other star players becoming managers--Bill Terry (Giants, 1931), Grimm (Cubs,1932), Frisch (Cardinals, 1933), and Pie Traynor (Pirates, 1934) in the National League; Joe Cronin (Nationals, 1933) and Mickey Cochrane (Tigers, 1934) in the American League.  Ruth went to the Boston Braves in 1935 believing that he was in line to soon become their manager.  That was not to be.  Nor was it to be in Brooklyn, where he coached in 1938, but come 1939 the Dodgers' new manager was active shortstop Leo Durocher--a former Yankee teammate of the Babe's--not Ruth.  Said Mrs. Julia Ruth Stevens when explaining the sadness that overtook the Babe after he retired as a player: "Daddy really wanted to manage."

See also an earlier post, "Player-Managers in the 20th Century:  A Cursory History":

Monday, February 17, 2014

Derek Jeter in Shortstop Perspective

When Derek Jeter retires at the end of the 2014 season, he will do so as the most respected player in the last twenty years, not to mention the model of baseball professionalism and a proven winner. Pending the Yankees' outcome in 2014, Jeter has played in the post-season every year of his major league career but two.  Perhaps more to the point, few doubt that his legacy is as the indispensable Yankee (with due respect to Mariano Rivera) who "led" his team into the post-season year after year through commitment without excuses, an unrivaled work ethic, and unflagging consistency.  He is what Joe DiMaggio was to the Yankees from 1936 to 1951, and like DiMaggio is retiring on his terms--before the inevitable decline of age overshadows the grace and athleticism and all-around excellence on the diamond that defined the entirety of his career.

Derek Jeter in Shortstop Perspective

A first-ballot Hall of Famer for sure, Derek Jeter will go down in history as one of baseball's greatest players.  Ironically, greatness is an attribute not necessarily dependent on also being one of the very best players in terms of measurable on-the-field performance alone.  Derek Jeter was not that, even dismissing as irrelevant the fact that he never won an MVP award.  In seventeen full seasons with the Yankees, not including 1995, when he appeared in 15 games as a replacement shortstop during his final year of full-time minor league preparation, and last season when persistent injuries kept him sidelined for all but 17 games, Jeter's player value based on the WAR metric exceeded the 5 wins above replacement that denotes an All-Star level quality of performance only five times in his career, three of them in his first six seasons.

Jeter's best consecutive years were in fact from 1997 to 2001 when he was 23 to 27 years old.  His 7.5 WAR in 1998 and 8.0 WAR the year after were the highest player values of his career.  It was during those five years that Jeter made his reputation as a team leader, a clutch player, and a winning player by being at the center of the action as the Yankees went to four straight World Series (1998 to 2001), winning three. But Jeter was not even one of baseball's two best shortstops in terms of player value based on WAR during those years, because he was a direct contemporary of both Seattle's Alex Rodriguez and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra.

By the year 2000, even though he had been a full-time regular for only as long as Jeter (since 1996), there were already advocates for A-Rod staking a claim to being perhaps the best player ever once the final chapter of his career was written.  Little did anyone know then that so many chapters in A-Rod's epic saga would be sordid and career-diminishing.  And Nomar was the model of consistency at better than an All-Star level of performance from 1997 to 2003, averaging between 6.1 and 7.4 wins above replacement every year, not including an injury-ravaged 2001 season that limited him to 21 games.  Thereafter, of course, Garciaparra's Hall of Fame trajectory nose-dived with injury after injury, making him a virtually forgotten afterthought in the once-vivid debate over who was the best shortstop in the game--A-Rod, Nomar, or Derek?  Both Rodriguez and Garciaparra were not only better all-around shortstops based on performance, but their presence on an otherwise average major league team for an entire season would have made more difference to that team's winning percentage than Jeter (see the 162W/L% column under "Player Value" on their player pages in  Maybe so, but Jeter is the one with all the championship rings . . . five of them.  A-Rod has one.  Nomar has none.

Going back to more recent Hall of Fame shortstops, the Brewers' Robin Yount (from 1980-84), the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith (1985-89), the Orioles' Cal Ripken, Jr., and the Reds' Barry Larkin (both from 1988-92) all had better five-best consecutive years than Jeter based on the WAR metric for player value. All four also had more seasons in their career than Jeter where their player value exceeded an All-Star level of performance on the field--Smith 10 times, including eight times in nine years between 1984 and 1992; Ripken eight times in nine years between 1983 and 1991, with MVP awards at both bookends; Larkin eight times; and Yount seven times, although two of his were after he switched to the outfield.  All four were much better defensive shortstops than Jeter.  And three of the four were elected into the Hall of Fame their first time on the ballot; Larkin had to wait until his third year of eligibility to break the 75 % vote barrier.

None of the four, however, has more than one World Series ring, and only Ozzie (with three appearances) played in more than one World Series.  Jeter, meanwhile, has five World Series rings in seven trips to the Fall Classic--and is working towards six in eight in this, his final season--and the "Captain" hit .353 or better in four of those five Yankee triumphs.  His batting average in 38 World Series games is .323, brought that low only because of the .148 he hit in the 2001 Series, which the Yankees lost on a pop fly single just beyond Jeter's reach over a drawn-in infield.

While it's hard to go against Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop of all time, there will be significant temptation to proclaim Derek Jeter as the best shortstop in American League history.  Putting aside what to make of A-Rod's self-sabotaged career--including his admitting in 2009 to using steroids back when he played shortstop for the Texas Rangers--Cal Ripken, Jr., at least based on player performance, is the best-ever to play the position in the American League.  Ripken was sent to Cooperstown with 98.5 % of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 2007.  None of the players elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America since then have matched that total, including not Greg Maddux this year.  Like Ripken--an ambassador for the game, universally liked even by those who hate his team (of whom there are legions when it comes to the Yankees)--Derek Jeter stands an excellent chance of reaching the Ripken plateau in percentage of votes.

The final two players I would like to bring into this discussion are Pete Rose and Craig Biggio.  Derek Jeter for me is today's Pete Rose, who I idolized when I first became baseball-conscious because, while he was not the best player in the game, he played with abandon, he never short-changed effort, he probably played above his ability, and he was a leader, a winner--playing in six World Series--and a role model for the love of the game.  Love or hate the Big Red Machine, you had to admire and respect Pete Rose.  If not for his gambling addiction finding its way into his baseball profession, Rose would have been a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.  Even had Jeter not busted his ankle, it would have been a long shot for him to break Rose's all-time hit record, but it's worth noting that over the course of his career, Jeter has averaged 206 hits per 162 games compared to 194 for Rose, which helps explain Jeter's .312 lifetime average to Rose's .303. Even acknowledging that Rose played in a tougher era for offense, this difference is not nothing.

Craig Biggio, with 3,060 hits to call his own, was a Jeter-type player who did not make the Hall of Fame in either of his first two years of eligibility, perhaps because he happened to play in Houston and played in only one World Series where his team was unceremoniously swept.  Had Jeter been Jeter with his 3,316 hits (and counting) but played for anyone else but the Yankees, he certainly would wind up in the Hall of Fame--but like Biggio, he might be having to wait a year, two, or three to get in.

There will be no waiting for Derek Jeter . . . because he was the indisputable leader of a team that made it to the post-season in all but one season he was their shortstop (not counting 2013, when he missed virtually the entire year--and, who knows, the Yankees might have made it had he been healthy) . . . and because of those five rings he was so instrumental in winning not just for himself, and not just for his teammates, but for the New York Yankees.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Best-Ever Player: Mays v. Ruth--Do Championships Make the Difference?

Historical player legacies--especially in debates about the best--often come down to championships. In the days after the Broncos debacle at the hands of the Seahawks, for example, sports talk radio was crackling with debate about whether Peyton Manning, with still only one Super Bowl win, should be in the discussion about the best quarterback in NFL history.  This causes me to ask: might Willie Mays (instead of Babe Ruth) be considered the best player in MLB history if he had a few World Series rings--rather than just one--in his safety deposit box?

Best-Ever Player:  Mays v. Ruth--Do Championships Make the Difference?
A strong argument can be made that Willie Mays is major league baseball’s best player ever, ahead of even the Babe.  According to the wins above replacement (WAR) metric for measuring player value, Ruth tops Mays 163 to 156 over the course of their full careers--22 years on big league diamonds for both men, the last season for each an embarrassing imitation of when they were the real deal.  (Ruth's 163 WAR is as a hitter and outfielder; he earned another 20.8 as one of the best pitchers in baseball during his Red Sox years.)  If we were to bookend their best years by the baseline player value of 5 wins above replacement that denotes an All-Star quality season, and allow a season or two of relative mediocrity below 5 WAR within that stretch, Ruth's consecutive best years were from 1916 (when he starred on the mound) to his final season in a Yankee uniform in 1934, and Mays's from 1954 (after he returned from two years of military service) to his last full season in a Giants uniform in 1971.   

Over the course of their best years bracketed by a WAR of at least 5, Ruth had an average annual player value of 9.4, compared to 8.3 for Mays.  Mays, however, went 13 consecutive seasons in which his player value never dipped below All-Star level, and only twice was slightly below the 8 wins above replacement that is defined as an MVP-quality season.  After his 1951 rookie season (3.9 WAR), it was not until Mays was 36 years old in 1967 that his player value again slipped below 5 WAR, but he still played at an All-Star level of 5 wins above replacement in three of the four years after that. Ruth, on the other hand, had an uncharacteristically very poor season (at least by his standards) in the middle of his career with a 3.5 WAR in 1925.  At least there was a good reason for his anomalous poor season: the Babe played in only 98 games that year.  Well, actually, there were two bad reasons for that:  the Babe missed all of April and May with a mystery ailment said at the time to be a colossal bellyache from indulging in too many hot dogs, and also the first week of September when he was suspended by his manager for insubordination until he apologized.  The Ruth-less Yankees plunged to seventh in 1925, after which the storied franchise in the Bronx would not have another losing season for 40 years.

Both Mays, from 1960 to 1966, and Ruth, from 1926 to 1932, had a stretch of seven straight years in which their player value exceeded the 8 WAR standard for an MVP-level of performance, each averaging 10.1 for those years.  Mays had a 10+ WAR four years running from 1962 to 1965; Ruth in his career never went more that three years in a row with such a high player value, although he almost certainly would have were it not for his infamous bellyache.  Taking account the entirety of both their careers, but based on Mays's best consecutive years from 1960 to 1966, I believe that Willie Mays--not the Babe--was the best player the game has ever seen.  He excelled in every facet of the game.  Mays finished his career with 660 home runs, only 54 shy of Ruth’s mark, and most likely would have shattered that record had he not lost two years of his young prime to military service during the Korean War, and not been robbed of some indefinable but almost certainly significant number of home runs by the swirling, often gale-force incoming winds at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park--as close to a torture arena for right-handed power hitters as there could possibly be.

Undeniably (although some might argue for Mays's godson Barry Bonds in the first half of the 2000s), Babe Ruth in the 1920s was the most impressive offensive force in MLB history, particularly in the first half of that decade when the rest of baseball was just catching on to how he was revolutionizing the game.  Unlike the Babe, however, who played in a hitters’ era that he had no small role in establishing, Mays’s very best consecutive years in the 1960s came in a pitchers’ era, when he had to hit against the likes of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson and Jim Maloney and Jim Bunning (but happily not against his teammate Juan Marichal).  And even if Mays does not approach Ruth for league-leading black ink in the record books, consider that he was part of what could arguably be called Major League Baseball’s Greatest Generation of Players with peers by the names of Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson and Eddie Mathews and Pete Rose and Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and Billy Williams and Roberto Clemente and Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, not to mention the aforementioned pitchers.  And that's just in the National League. Finally, Willie Mays played a much more demanding and defensively important position, and by all accounts was one of the very best defensive center fielders in baseball history.  Ruth was a good-enough, but not great, defensive outfielder.  (Babe Ruth, of course, was also a great pitcher before he became the “greatest player there ever was”—but I’m not persuaded that makes him the best player ever; he was a pitcher for only four years, 1915 through 1918, before playing the outfield became his full-time vocation so that his prodigiously productive bat would be in the line-up every day.) 

Of course, what Ruth has that Mays does not are 10 World Series appearances with his team winning seven. That includes seven Fall Classics and four World Series triumphs with the Yankees.  Moreover, the Babe was a clutch performer in World Series play, first setting a record by throwing 29-2/3 consecutive shutout innings as the southpaw ace of the Red Sox in the 1916 and 1918 Series, and then setting a record with 15 World Series home runs in 36 games for the Yankees--both records since broken.   If the measure of any single player's greatness is the number of times his team was the only one to walk off as the proven best in the sport, then Ruth truly trumps Mays.  

The Say Hey Kid played in only four World Series, three with the Giants and one with the Mets--and he cannot be said to have been a leader in the Mets' improbable drive to the 1973 World Series because by then he was 42 years old, way over the hill, and in fact in his last major league season.  Mays of course made the most iconic catch in World Series history which sparked the 1954 Giants--then in New York--to their sweep of the heavily-favored 111-win Cleveland Indians, but hit only .239 in 20 World Series games with only three of his 17 hits for extra-bases, none of them home runs.  Unlike the Babe, who (along with Gehrig beginning in 1926) was the driving force behind the Yankees' perennial success, Mays was unable to drive the San Francisco Giants to dynastic mode.  

This is a significant point because Willie's five best consecutive years--1962 to 1966, during which his average annual player value was 10.5 wins above replacement--coincided with the years the Giants had their best team in San Francisco.  The 1962-66 Giants, especially in retrospect but even at the time, seemed a more imposing team than their direct contemporary 1962-66 Dodgers.  The Giants' core regulars included five future Hall of Fame players--Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, and Gaylord Perry--while the Dodgers had only two future Hall of Famers, Koufax and Drysdale, among their core regulars.  San Francisco was competitive every year (except for 1963), yet won only one pennant (in 1962) and lost three pennants by three games or less.  Los Angeles, meanwhile, went to three World Series in those five years.  (See the following link on my website,
Ruth, without doubt, is the most historically significant player in major league history.  He was the driver of revolutionary change—the home run.  He was the foundation piece of the New York Yankee dynasty.  By virtue of his outsized personality, prodigious production, revolutionizing how baseball was played, and historical timing on the heels of the Black Sox scandal, Babe Ruth had bestowed upon him a cult of personality that none, even in these much more irreverent and deconstructionist times, has ever dared challenge.  He is, simply, the greatest player ever.  

But that doesn’t necessarily make him the best ever.  I would argue that Willie Mays was the best.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'50s Face Off: Indians Trio vs. Yankees Troika

The Cleveland Indians in the first half of the 1950s had one of the best front-three of any starting rotation in baseball history, as noted in a  previous post, "Maddux. Glavine. And Smoltz" (  From 1949, when they first pitched together off the same mound in Cleveland, through 1954 Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn together with Mike Garcia were three of the five best pitchers in the American League, based on their cumulative pitcher's wins above replacement. (Boston's Mel Parnell and Chicago's Billy Pierce were the two others.)  The Yankees, meanwhile, had their own starting troika of renown with Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat.  While not the measure of Lemon, Wynn and Garcia, Reynolds, Raschi and Lopat are better known as a Pitching Trio for the Ages because they were the heart on the mound for a New York Yankee team that won five straight World Series championships, whereas the Indians were near-perennial bridesmaids.  This Insight looks at the how the two staffs fared facing off against each other as they competed for the American League pennant.

'50s Face Off:  Indians Trio vs. Yankees Troika

Superior pitching was a hallmark of the rivalry between both teams going back to 1948, the first year Reynolds (acquired by the Yankees from the Indians in 1947), Raschi (called up to stay in 1947) and Lopat (acquired from the White Sox before the season) worked the mound at Yankee Stadium as teammates. Cleveland took the pennant in a one-game playoff against Boston in 1948, and New York finished a close third, but the Yankees were the only team to have a winning record (12-10) against the Indians.  Reynolds (4-1), Lopat (5-2) and Raschi (3-1) accounted for all twelve of the Yankees anti-Cleveland dia-Tribe.  In this year before Wynn (by trade) and Garcia (as a rookie) made it to Cleveland, the Indians' top two starters--Bob Feller (2-4), still the staff ace, and Lemon (1-3), in the first of his six 20-win seasons--managed only three victories between them against the Yankees, losing seven times, but not at the cost of a pennant.

New York again won the season series between the two teams in 1949 (12-10) and 1950 (14-8) on their way to the first two of five straight pennants.  The Yankees' troika won 20 of their 26 victories, while losing 9, with Lopat beating the Indians six times without a loss in 1950.  Lemon, Wynn and Garcia won 11 of the 18 games the Indians beat the Yankees and lost 13.  Feller, still a pillar of Cleveland's staff was 3-8 against the Yankees those two years.  Although the Indians led the league in both nominal ERA (that which appears in the record books) and adjusted ERA (which takes account of home park effects and the offensive level of the time) in 1949 and 1950, winning 89 and 92 games those seasons, they were not a significant threat to the Yankees going to the World Series either year.

From 1951 to 1956, it was the Yankees and the Indians finishing first and second every year in the American League, except for 1954 when it was the other way around.  The Indians faced off against the Yankees in three close pennant races not decided till the final week of the season and lost them all. Cleveland's inability to beat out New York more than once was reflected in their season series with the Yankees.  In 1951, the Tribe was a game ahead of the Yankees with only ten remaining when they went into New York in mid-September for a two-game series. Reynolds and Lopat each threw complete game victories over Feller and Lemon, the Indians scoring only two runs in the two games. Cleveland left New York a game down but clearly defeated for the seasons, winning only three of its remaining eight games, while the Yankees won nine of their last twelve, deciding the pennant by five games in favor of New York. The 1951 Yankees overwhelmed the Indians in their season series, winning 15 of 22 games. Their trio of big-game starters—Reynolds (5-1 against Cleveland), Raschi (3-2), and Lopat (5-2)—won 13 of those 15 games, while losing five. For Cleveland, Feller—who led the league in wins with 22 in his last outstanding season—won only two of six decisions against New York, while Lemon (3-3), Wynn (1-4) and Garcia (1-3) accounted for the remainder of the Indians' seven triumphs over the Yankees, but also for ten losses. The Indians’ formidable pitching—they led the league in ERA, lowest batting average and on-base percentage against, and fewest home runs surrendered—held the Yankees to their second lowest run total against any team in the league, but the Bronx Bombers still outscored the Tribe by an average of one run per game, 99 runs (4.5 per game) to 78 (3.5 per game). 

In 1952, the Indians could get no closer than half-a-game out in the final three weeks, but never trailed by more than 2½ before being eliminated with only two games left to the season.  Cleveland was last in first place on August 22, when Garcia beat Reynolds to boost the Indians into a tie with the Yankees, but the next day a 1-0 shutout by Raschi over Wynn left New York atop the standings alone, and the Yankees never had to so much as share the lead again in a pennant they won by a mere two games. The Indians fared better head-to-head against the Yankees in 1952 but still lost the series, winning 10 and losing 12. As befitting the only other team in the American League to win 90 games, Cleveland held the Yankees to their worst record against AL teams and was the only team to batter New York pitchers, who led the league in ERA, for 100 runs. The Yankees, for their part, scored 105 runs against the Indians. This time the Yankees’ trio of starters had an 8-7 record against the Indians, while Lemon, Wynn and Garcia went 7-6, with Feller—at the beginning of the end of his great career (9-13 on the season)—winning one of four decisions against New York. 

The Yankees won their first run-away pennant under Stengel in 1953 and were never behind in the standings after only their seventh game of the season. Not that it did them any good, but this time the Indians split their season series, once again being the most difficult team for New York to beat. Reynolds pitched mostly in relief in 1953 and had no decisions against Cleveland; Raschi and Lopat won five and lost three.  All three of the Yankee starters, however, were in their mid-30s and none pitched 200 innings or started more than 26 games.  Lemon and Wynn, by now in their early 30s, and Garcia each started at least 34 games on the season and worked in excess of 250 innings.  Against the Yankees, they combined for an 11-9 record, accounting for all but two of the Indians’ decisions over New York. The two teams split their series again in 1954, this time with Cleveland winning the pennant decisively—by eight games—or as decisively as can be, considering the runner-up Yankees won 103 games of their own. Reynolds and Lopat won five and lost three against the Indians, and Raschi was denied any ability to contribute having been unceremoniously banished to the Cardinals in a pre-season trade. Lemon and Wynn went 8-5 against the Yankees, while Garcia failed to gain a victory in three decisions. This was the first time in the four years that the Indians outscored the Yankees in the season series, but just barely by 99 to 95. 

Finally, in 1955, the Indians beat the Yankees in their season series, taking 13 of 22 games, but lost the pennant by three games. This was the first time in the Stengel era that the Yankees lost a season series to any pennant race rival, of whom they faced off against eleven from 1949 to 1955. The Indians’ trio of aces had an 8-8 record against the Yankees, while New York’s vaunted trio was no longer there. But, of course, New York again came out on top of the AL standings.  And in 1956, the last year that the Indians were in any way competitive with the Yankees, Lemon, Wynn and Garcia went 6-10 against New York--who won the season series, 12 games to 10--and major league baseball's newest phenom, Herb Score, beat the Yankees three times in four decisions.

New York's trio had the edge over Cleveland's going head-to-head in the three years, 1951 to 1953, that both teams' top threesome were intact and the Yankees and Indians were the only teams directly competing for the American League pennant.   Allie Reynolds (7-5), Vic Raschi (10-4) and Ed Lopat (9-5) combined for 26 wins and 14 losses against the Indians--a .650 winning percentage, not far off their excellent collective .668  winning percentage (147-73) for those three seasons. Cleveland's top three starters combined for a 180-110 (.620) record from 1951 to 1953 and threw more than a third as many innings as New York's top three, but were only 23-25 against the Yankees, with Bob Lemon having a losing 8-9 record against the Bronx Bombers and Early Wynn a losing 6-9 record. Mike Garcia alone had a winning record against the pinstripers during those years at 9-7.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Yankees won all three pennants.