Friday, July 25, 2014

Hall of Fame Weekend: Cox, Maddux, Glavine and the '90s Atlanta Dynasty

With manager Bobby Cox and two of his three aces, the sublime right-hander Greg Maddux and the sublime southpaw Tom Glavine, accounting for half of the six Hall of Fame inductees being honored this weekend in Cooperstown, a subtext is surely the remarkable run of the Atlanta Braves between 1991 and 2005. The third ace, right-hander John Smoltz, becomes eligible for consideration in next year's Hall of Fame class. They were together for ten years beginning in 1993, when Mad Dog (that would be the perpetually-innocent looking Maddux) signed with the Braves as a free agent (after six years with the Cubs), until Glavine departed as a free agent after the 2002 season. In the first year they were all together, 21 years ago, the Braves won major league baseball's last great traditional pennant race with a dramatic come-from-way-behind surge to take the National League's Western Division.    

Hall of Fame Weekend: Cox, Maddux, Glavine and the 1990s Atlanta Dynasty

Bobby Cox was in his third full season as the Braves manager in 1993. He had stepped from the plush air conditioning of the front office where he was General Manager into the outdoor heat and humidity of the Atlanta dugout in the summer of 1990. The Braves finished with the worst record in the National League that year, making it quite the surprise then when he managed Atlanta to the NL Western Division title the very next year, and into the World Series besides. In a year that is a prime candidate for his best managerial performance, Cox's 1991 Braves trailed the Dodgers by as much as 9-1/2 games on July 7 before storming back into the pennant race that went down to the last weekend. Cox managed the Braves to 18 wins in 25 games down the September stretch in which first place was directly at stake with his team no more than a game ahead or a game behind at the start of play.

But 1991 was nothing compared to the drama of 1993, when Atlanta trailed San Francisco by 10 games on July 22--their worst deficit of the season--and by 9-1/2 as late as August 7. From then until the end of the season, Cox managed the Braves to a phenomenal 39-11 record (.780 winning percentage) the rest of the way to overtake the Giants. A nine-game winning streak got them started, bringing the Braves to within 6-1/2 games on August 18. A stretch of 17 victories in 21 games finally put them in first place alone on September 11, but the division title was not secured until the final day of the season when the Braves won their 104th, while the Giants had to settle for 103 after losing to the Dodgers.

If this was the current wild card era, Atlanta and San Francisco would both have been virtually assured a place in the playoffs even as early as September 10 because, even though they were tied for first in their division, they shared a 9-1/2 game advantage in what would have been the wild card race. The Braves and Giants would have spent the rest of the season battling each other for position rather than a playoff berth, their focus geared more towards lining up their starting pitchers and providing whatever rest was needed for the weary to enhance their prospects in the post-season. Moreover, losing out on first place then was not as consequential as now when MLB has a single-elimination game for two wild card entries in each league, because then the wild card team was an automatic entry--although without home field advantage--in the best-of-seven division series round. But 1993 was the last season before the wild card format began, which meant the only avenue to the post-season was winning the division. The Giants' only consolation for winning the extraordinary number of 103 games was ... knowing they had won 103 games (well, there is that), as they sat at home while the post-season went on without them.

The offensive catalyst for Atlanta's momentous drive to the division title was the July 19 acquisition of San Diego first baseman Fred McGriff, who hit .310 with 19 home runs and 55 RBI in 68 games for the Braves. It was the Braves' brilliant pitching, however, that kept up the momentum. Maddux, who began the month of August in his first year in Atlanta with a 12-8 record and 2.83 ERA, was 8-2 in his last 12 starts with an ERA of 1.46 to earn his second consecutive Cy Young Award. Glavine was 11-2 after the Braves had trailed by 10 games and ended the season with a 22-6 record. Smoltz, who was muddling about with an 8-8 record as of July 22, finished with seven wins in his last ten decisions. And now-forgotten southpaw Steve Avery was 8-3 from that point to finish with an 18-6 record.

Superior pitching defined the Braves' run of excellence--Atlanta led the National League in fewest runs allowed 11 consecutive years between 1992 and 2002--and it was Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz who defined the Braves' superior pitching. As noted in an earlier post on this blog,, from the time Maddux came to Atlanta in 1993 until Smoltz was forced to sit out the 2000 season with Tommy John surgery (after which the three were not in the same rotation again because Smoltz returned as the closer), the Braves had the most sustained run of starting pitcher excellence in major league history. No other team ever had a trio of starters that could match them for performance excellence for multiple seasons. In the seven years they were together in the rotation, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz had a combined 342-166 record (that's a .673 winning percentage) and won five Cy Young Awards between them.

Maddux, of course, won three of them--all in a row in 1993, '94 and '95--making him the first pitcher not only to win four straight Cy Young Awards (his string began in 1992 with the Cubs), but the first pitcher to win that many in all. I argued in back-to-back posts last year that, notwithstanding that his excellence has never been questioned, Maddux is under-appreciated for the dominating pitcher he was because he did not fit the classical mode of being a power pitcher or a big strikeout pitcher in the context of his times. and

Greg Maddux was most definitely not a "dominating" power pitcher; he never led the league in strikeouts and his strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratio was typically only marginally better than the league average. Even so, from 1992 to 1998--the years he was at his best--Maddux was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time. In his first six years in Atlanta (1993-98), Maddux's 2.15 ERA was more than two full runs less than the National League average ERA of 4.18; his walks plus hits ratio per inning was less than one at 0.97 while the league average WHIP was nearly 50 percent higher at 1.38; and his control was so good that he allowed only 1.4 walks per 9 innings compared to the league average of 3.3 per 9, and 15 percent of the walks he gave up were intentional.

Tom Glavine was nearly the equal of Maddux as a master of his craft. With back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1991 and 1992, Glavine had already established himself as one of baseball's elite pitchers by the time Maddux became his teammate in '93. He was not as stingy in giving up hits, walks and runs as Mad Dog and his strikeouts-to-innings ratio was typically even less impressive than Maddux, but Glavine won at least 20 games to lead the league five times in his Brave years. Maddux had only two 20-win seasons--in his last year in Chicago and his first in Atlanta--but almost certainly would have had four in a row were it not for the collective bargaining dispute that cost a total of 66 games in the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Maddux won 19 games for the Braves on four separate occasions, including a 19-2 record in 1995, a season shortened by 18 games because of the strike.

Bobby Cox led the Braves to an unprecedented and unsurpassed 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, with the hiccup of there being no division title awarded in 1994 when the season was suspended with the Braves in second place in their first year in the realigned National League's Eastern Division. With 48 games left on the schedule, however, there was still plenty of time to close a much smaller gap than had to be overcome in 1993. Cox's most formidable Brave teams were when Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz anchored the starting rotation and his best managerial performances were likely in 1991 and 1993 when he led the Braves to division titles from far behind in the mid-summer standings. But a strong argument can be made that Cox's managerial genius was most on display in the last seven of Atlanta's 14 consecutive division titles because of the high turnover of players that was a reflection of aging, free agent losses and budget mindfulness. Bobby Cox was a master at integrating new players to keep Atlanta's supremacy of the National League East going and going ... at least until 2006 when the Mets finally prevailed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reprise: Derek Jeter in Shortstop Perspective

The 2014 All-Star Game was a great tribute to Derek Jeter, who went 2-for-2 in what might be his last at bats on a national stage (depending on whether the Yankees can make it to the post-season). When he retires at the end of this season, Derek Jeter 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. This article, with minor revisions, was first posted on Baseball Historical Insight on February 17.

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, last season when persistent injuries kept him sidelined for all but 17 games and this year (which is still being played out), 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 alone 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 (which he earned with Derek as a teammate).  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 the Wizard Oz (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, not to mention his current year-long suspension for the assist he was given by Biogenesis--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 not only reaching but surpassing 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 .311 lifetime average (as of the All-Star break) 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 now-3,408 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 then 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, July 2, 2014

100 Years Ago: The 1914 Braves' New World

This year is the century anniversary of the 1914 Boston "Miracle" Braves. That team is famous for being dead last on the Fourth of July, far behind the New York Giants who seemed well on their way to a fourth straight National League pennant, and going on to not only win the pennant decisively but to sweep the heavily favored, far superior Philadelphia Athletics--winners of three of the four previous World Series--in the 1914 Fall Classic.

100 Years Ago: The 1914 Braves' New World 

There had in fact been positive vibes about the Boston Braves going into the 1914 season. George Stallings had taken over a team the previous year that had not lost fewer than 90 games since way back in 1903 (when they lost 80 in a 140-game schedule), and guided them into fifth place with a 69-82 record. The Braves were clearly getting better, and even though a writer for The Baseball Magazine, the preeminent publication on the sport at the time, thought Stallings had a sufficiently formidable club to maybe finish as high as third or even second in 1914, nobody expected them to beat out the Giants--who had averaged 101 wins in winning the NL pennant each of the three previous years (after which they lost the World Series each time). And so it was surely a disappointment that the Braves started so badly, losing 16 of their first 19 games, that they were already in a 10-1/2 game hole less than 20 games into the season.

On the day the country celebrated its 138th birthday, the Braves dropped both games of a doubleheader to Brooklyn, leaving them with a 26-40 record . . . in last place . . . with seven teams ahead of them . . . 15 games behind the pace-setting New York Giants. From then until the end of the season, the Braves not only got back into the race, but overtook the Giants in early September on their way to winning the National League pennant by 10-1/2 games. They did all that by winning 68 while losing only 19 games the entire rest of the 1914 season. That is the equivalent of a 120-34 record over a full 154-game season, which would have shattered the 116 games won by the 1906 Chicago Cubs.

The Boston Braves were an astonishing 21 games better than any other National League team after July 4th, and made up 25-1/2 games on the Giants. While the Braves may have begun their dramatic comeback on Independence Day, however, it was not until July 19 that they finally crawled out of the basement, after having shaved only four games from their deficit to the Giants. They were in the midst of a streak in which they won 26 of 32 games (one of which ended in a tie) to close to within half-a-game of the Giants after a doubleheader split with the Pirates on August 22.

On September 7 the Giants came into Boston for a three-game series to face a team that was now tied with them for first place. The Braves won two of the three to take a pennant-race lead they would not relinquish; winning 19 of their next 22 games assured that the pennant was on ice with a nine-game lead when they made a return visit to the Polo Grounds at the end of September. There they split four games to put an end to any Giant hopes for their own miracle, which would have required Boston losing every one of their 10 remaining games while New York won every one of their eight just to secure a tie.

While Boston's fantastic finish made it seem as though the Giants collapsed, John McGraw in fact never had his team in command of the race, as they had been in each of their three previous pennant-winning seasons. After starting the season with a 21-11 record through May, the Giants went 63-59 the rest of the way--hardly the mark of a contending team. On July 19, when they began their drive from the bottom of the heap to the top, the Braves started the day only 11 games behind New York in tightly bunched standings, and the Giants' lead over second-place Chicago was three games. The defending NL champions were 38-38 thereafter, while Boston was 21 games better with a 59-16 record--a pace for 121 wins over a 154-game schedule.

The miracle in Boston is an even more compelling story because the Giants had the much better team. Of no small significance, however, while neither of McGraw's pitching aces--Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard--pitched up to the lofty standards they had set in their careers (1914 was Mathewson's last as an effective pitcher), the Braves were paced by a trio of hurlers by name of Dick "Baldy" Rudolph, Lefty Tyler and Bill James. None should be considered among the National League's five best pitchers over any five year period that includes 1914, but all three were terrific that year, claiming 68 of their team's 94 victories.

The Braves' only players of note were shortstop Rabbit Maranville and second baseman Johnny Evers. Both may be in the Hall of Fame, but neither is widely considered by baseball historians with a long perspective on the game as one of the greats at his position. Indeed, at the time the Giants' double-play combination of Art Fletcher and Larry Doyle was probably better since both were in their prime while Maranville was just getting started and Evers was near the end of his career. While Stallings had a set infield--Butch Schmidt was the first baseman and first Charlie Deal and then Red Smith the third baseman--his Braves outfield was a mess. Specifically, not one of George Stallings' outfielders played every day. Not one.

What Stallings had were eight different players on his club at any one time who he could put in the outfield--four who batted left-handed and four right-handed. Stallings' epiphany was to platoon them to maximize the offensive possibilities of his starting line-up, depending on whether the opposing starting pitcher was a lefty or a righty. And if there was a pitching change, Stallings would typically make the appropriate outfielder substitution to keep his platoon advantage when the Braves were at bat. The dramatic competitive impact of Stallings' unprecedented systematic platooning--a major contributing factor to their miracle drive--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. See also an earlier post: "One Hundred Years Ago: When Managers Upended Orthodoxies"

Sunday, June 29, 2014

50 Years Ago: The '64 Phillies--Mauch Loved to Sacrifice

The '64 Phillies passed the first real test as to their competitive mettle on the Fourth of July weekend by sweeping three straight from the Giants with first place at stake. Their one-run victory in the concluding game showcased Gene Mauch's managerial proclivity to emphasize small ball tactics (sacrifice bunts, hit-and-run plays, productive outs) to work for one run at a time, even with a lead. This is the fifth article in a series on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Phillies' epic collapse.

The '64 Phillies: Mauch Loved to Sacrifice

On July 3, the Philadelphia Phillies came into San Francisco's Candlestick Park for a three-game July 4th holiday showdown series with the Giants, the two teams seemingly the only two taking the National League pennant race seriously. A game-and-a-half separated the Giants and Phillies, with San Francisco having surged into first place with 12 wins in their last 14 games. The Phillies themselves had been playing quite well with an 18-12 record in June, having spent 18 of that month's 30 days on top of the heap, including a lead that reached 2-1/2 games on June 19, the day after which the Giants got hot to bring them to this moment at Candlestick.

(Of the other teams that would figure in September's drama, the Cincinnati Reds were third, 6-1/2 games behind, and the St. Louis Cardinals, now with Lou Brock in their outfield, were still trying to get traction, 9-1/2 games out in fifth place with an exactly .500 record. The defending World Champion Dodgers were out of the picture, trailing everybody but Houston and the New York Mets.)

The Giants could have put themselves in the driver’s seat of the pennant race sports car with a sweep because the season was approaching its mid-point and contenders were being separated from pretenders. That was still an open question for the Phillies: 31 of their 44 victories (70 percent) had been against teams that had losing records as of July 3. Their record against teams .500 or above was 13-15 and the Phillies had been swept when the Giants came to Philadelphia for three games in early June. But it was the Phillies who won the first game to move within half-a-game of the top; won the middle game on July 4 to flip-flop the top two in the standings; and took the series finale, 2-1, beating Giants' ace Juan Marichal—who entered the game with an 11-3 record—to leave San Francisco with a game-and-a-half lead.

Both runs in the third game were set up by intended sacrifice bunts. In a scoreless game, Johnny Callison led off the fourth inning with a single, bringing up the ever-dangerous power-hitting Dick (then known as "Richie") Allen, who had been batting clean-up in Gene Mauch's line-up since mid June. Notwithstanding Allen's .306 batting average and 16 home runs and 47 RBIs at the time, the rookie slugger was asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move Callison to second base. It was such a good bunt, Allen beat it out for an infield single. A strikeout and a groundout later, with both runners moving up a base, Callison scored on an infield hit. With two outs and starting from second base, Allen kept coming on the play but was thrown out at the plate for his base running aggressiveness.

The Phillies were still nursing that 1-0 lead when Marichal walked catcher Clay Dalrymple to start the seventh inning. Mauch ordered Tony Taylor, batting seventh with a .243 average, to lay down a sac bunt despite knowing that the next two hitters were the weakest bats in his line-up, but his decision paid immediate dividends when Ruben Amaro, hitting a mere .222 in only his 13th start at shortstop for the season, singled up the middle to score Dalrymple. That run proved critical because Jim Ray Hart, like Allen another power-hitting rookie third baseman to make his presence felt in 1964, hit his 10th of 31 home runs that season off Philadelphia starter Dennis Bennett in the bottom half of the seventh to make it a one-run game again—which was how the game ultimately end.

Gene Mauch was an aggressive manager who liked to force the action, in particular early in games to put the Phillies on the scoreboard first and in close games, whatever the inning. The Philadelphia Phillies in 1964 attempted more sacrifice bunts (156) than any other team in baseball except for the Los Angeles Dodgers (185) and were successful 62 percent of the time, compared to 65 percent for the Dodgers, to finish second to L.A. in sacrifices (97 to 120). The Phillies were also second to the Dodgers in percentage of productive outs to advance base runners, 36 percent for Philadelphia compared to 37 percent for L.A. And the Phillies had the highest percentage in the National League of scoring runners from third base with less than two out (56 percent) and from second base with nobody out (57 percent).

For Los Angeles, managed by Walt Alston, reliance on these strategies—along with the stolen base—was understandable and perhaps even necessary because the Dodgers struggled to score runs and generally lacked extra-base firepower, in part because of the vast expanses of Dodger Stadium. Even in their 1960s pennant-winning years, the Dodgers were below the league average in extra base hits and slugging percentage—substantially so in 1965 and 1966.

While small-ball strategies made sense for Alston, Mauch had much more capacity with his line-up to score runs, but often chose to sacrifice in a play for one run—even with his best hitters at the plate—instead of trusting in his firepower. The two best hitters in his line-up—Allen and Callison—combined for a total of 60 home runs in 1964, but both laid down six sacrifice bunts to move a base runner up with nobody out.

If John McGraw, the grand-daddy of master strategist managers, disdained the sacrifice bunt precisely because it “sacrificed” a precious out, Gene Mauch was more than willing to sacrifice in the interest of playing for one run, including giving up as outs the two batters most likely to drive in runs. Over the course of the full season, Mauch's willingness to sacrifice Allen and Callison as outs to advance a runner into scoring position for somebody else to drive in may seem insignificant. But as we shall later see in September, in the final weeks of the '64 season, sacrificing Dick Allen may have cost his team the pennant.

At the end of July, the two teams met again for a three-game series with first place on the line, this time in Philadelphia. The Giants came into Connie Mack Stadium trailing by a half-game; the Reds were three back in third and the Cardinals tied for fifth, seven games out. The top of the standings remained the same after they split the first two games, but in the series finale—on July 30—after having surrendered a run to the Giants in the top of the tenth inning, the Phillies won the game with the following sequence: a leadoff double and hit batter put runners on first and second; Allen, once again asked to bunt, reached on an infield single toward third to load the bases; a two-run double by Johnny Briggs won the game. Philadelphia now led by 1-1/2 games. It would be nearly two full months before their lead would be that narrow again. 

The following is the link to the previous Baseball Historical Insight on the 1964 Phillies:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The '64 Phillies' Perfect Father's Day

The Phillies' trade acquisition of Jim Bunning in December was expected to bolster their starting pitching and contribute to building towards a contending team--although competing for the pennant in 1964 was considered by most experts to be a bit premature. After a 118-87 record with the Detroit Tigers, and having been one of the American League's best pitchers the previous seven seasons, Bunning was certainly not disappointing expectations. His Father's Day start in 1964 was his 14th in a Phillies uniform. Bunning, of course, made history that day by twirling a perfect game--not only the first since Don Larsen's in the 1956 World Series, but only the seventh perfect game in major league history. This is the fourth in a series of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. Links to the first three are at the end of this post.

The '64 Phillies' Perfect Father's Day

When Jim Bunning completed his warm-up pitches to face the Mets in the bottom of the first inning in the first game of the Father's Day doubleheader on Sunday June 21st 1964, he was pitching in only the 31st game ever played at Shea Stadium, the Mets' brand-spanking-new home. That made him the 62nd starting pitcher to take the mound at the new stadium. Three of the previous 30 games in Shea's short history had been shutouts. Bunning pitched the fourth shutout, but his was PERFECT. He was now 7-2 on the season with 10 "quality starts," including three shutouts, and an excellent 2.07 ERA--a worthy addition (having come from the American League) to the ranks of outstanding National League pitchers at the time and future fellow Hall of Fame guys Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Bob Gibson.

Bunning's was only the third perfect game in National League history, and the first since the so-called "modern era" began in 1901 when the American League declared itself a major league and had the credibility to do so by virtue of so many NL stars having abandoned the league for better pay in the new league--including Cy Young, who in 1904 pitched the first perfect game of the 20th century. Bunning's perfect game was the first in the National League in 84 years; Monte Ward had been the last to be perfect way back on June 17, 1880, only five days after Lee Richmond pitched the first-ever recorded perfecto on June 12. That was so long ago that the four teams involved in those two perfect games were Worcester (for whom Richmond pitched), Cleveland, Providence (for whom Ward pitched) and Buffalo, none of which survived into the modern era. (Cleveland was downsized out of the National League after going 20-134 in 1899, before being invited to become a charter member of the American League in 1901.)

At the end of Bunning's perfect day, which included 18-year old Rick Wise earning his first-ever major league victory pitching six innings without surrendering an earned run in the second game of the twinbill, the Phillies held a 2-game lead over the second-place Giants. The Reds were third, 4-1/2 back, and the Cardinals were struggling in sixth place, having already endured two five-game losing streaks, and were 8 games behind with a losing 32-33 record with 40 percent of the 1964 season gone by.

The Cardinals' situation had become sufficiently troubling (if "desperate" is too strong a word) that just six days before they had traded with the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Lou Brock, whose career was so far a disappointment but who the Cardinals thought could shore up their struggling offense, which had been held to two runs or less in 15 of their previous 20 games before they cut the deal. To get Brock, St. Louis parted with one of their top starting pitchers--Ernie Broglio, whose 18-8 record in 1963 was the best on the team and a major reason why the Cardinals had finished second and seemed primed to make a move to displace the Dodgers in 1964. They also sent veteran left-handed reliever Bobby Shantz to Chicago, who two months later, after being hardly used and pitching poorly when he was, found himself in Philadelphia--where he would figure prominently in the Phillies' September fortunes.

It can perhaps be argued that the Phillies' 2-game advantage in the standings was somewhat deceptive since their 12 previous games were with the Mets--the worst team in baseball--against whom they went 7-2, and the Cubs--also a bad team--against whom they were 2-1 in that stretch. In fact, by this point in the season the Phillies had played 44 percent of their games against the three teams that ended the 1964 season at the bottom of the National League standings, going a combined 21-6 against them through Father's Day (9-2 vs. New York; 6-1 vs. Houston; and 6-3 vs. Chicago). Philadelphia was no better than .500 against the rest of the league at 17-17. Of the three other teams that would matter come September, the Phillies were 4-1 against Cincinnati, but only 1-5 against San Francisco and 1-4 against St. Louis.

The Giants, meanwhile, had played only 29 percent of their games as of June 21 against the Cubs, Colts and Mets; the Cardinals 32 percent; and the Reds 33 percent. As we shall see come the final weeks of the season, the Phillies having faced off against the league's bottom-dwellers so often at the beginning of the season would not be helpful to them at the end.

Personal Notes on Father's Day: The memories I will always cherish about my dad--and there were many centered around baseball (and many around other things)--was his coming home from work and, after an hour commute from The Big Apple on the Long Island Railroad, taking me out to the diamond and hitting me 100 ground balls at shortstop and second base every evening. Thank heavens for daylight savings time. He expected accurate return throws. If there was still daylight, then maybe some outfield fly balls and even a bit of batting practice. Helped me stay sharp, at least defensively, for afternoon pickup games with friends--usually five to a side. Anyway, if there is any one thing from my youth that I would really like to do again, because everything was so right with the world, it would be fielding those ground balls and listening to him talk about Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon and Jerry Coleman.

And among my fondest memories as a dad with my daughter--and throughout her childhood I kept thinking, it could never get any better than this, and it did--was one summer a game we played called 27 outs. Using a tennis ball and her without a glove, I'd throw her an assortment of ground balls and pop ups that she had to catch cleanly and throw back accurately or be charged with an error. We'd play maybe three or four of these every evening, usually on a lighted tennis court. Happily, she had a nice amount of perfect games: 27 chances, 27 clean fields, 27 accurate throws. Not exactly Jim Bunning's achievement of 50 years ago, but more meaningful--at least to me.

Earlier, on the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

No Chance: '39 Yankees and '06 Cubs Dominated the Scoreboard

Through Sunday, the Oakland Athletics have scored an average of two runs more per game than their game opponents. With still over 60 percent of the schedule yet to be played, the A's are very unlikely to sustain that pace. Should that happen, however, they would be in the close-in suburbs of the exclusive neighborhood of the three teams in baseball history--the 1939 New York Yankees, the 1927 Yankees and the 1906 Chicago Cubs--that most dominated the scoring in their games.

No Chance: '39 Yankees and '06 Cubs Dominated the Scoreboard

Although they were "only" 106-45 that year, many baseball historians and researchers consider the 1939 Yankees as having had the greatest single season of any team in major league history, and not the far-more-famous 110-win 1927 Yankees (the team with the Babe and his 60 home runs and Gehrig) or the far-more-recently-famous 1998 Yankees (winners of 125 games including the post-season and featuring the incomparable Jeter and Rivera in their youth). Giving up just 556 runs, the '39 Yankees were not just the only American League team that season to allow fewer than 600 base runners to cross the plate against them, they were the only AL team to allow fewer than 700. (The Indians gave up exactly 700 runs.) With outstanding pitching and defense--particularly up the middle--the Yankees led the league in complete games, shutouts, saves, lowest on-base percentage and batting average against them, not to mention earned run average. And despite the completely unexpected loss of Lou Gehrig, who was forced from the line-up very early in the season with amyotrophic lateral schlerosis, the Yankees led the league in scoring with 967 runs--9 percent more than the runner-up (in both the standings and in scoring) Red Sox.

All told, the 1939 New York Yankees scored a phenomenal 411 runs more than their game opponents, an average of 2.7 runs per game. They won 41 of their 106 games by a blowout margin of five runs or more. The closest any major league team came to the Yankees in outscoring their opponents were the National League pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds, who scored an average of 1.1 run per game more than they gave up. The Cleveland Indians were the closest any American League team came to the Yankees in run differential, outscoring their opponents by just .63 runs per game. The more famous 1927 Yankees, for comparison, averaged 2.4 runs per game more than their opponents--the second highest per-game scoring advantage in modern major league history. But only two other times in the ten years Ruth and Gehrig started together in the Yankees' Murderers' Row did the Bronx Bombers even approach outscoring their opponents by two runs per game--in 1931 (at 1.98) and in 1932 (at 1.8).

The 1939 Yankees were the bravura final act of the most dominant four-year stretch in baseball history, averaging 103 wins per the 154-game schedule since 1936. They had won four straight pennants, all of them so decisively that the AL races were effectively over by September. They dominated every facet of the game. In all four of those years they were first in the league in scoring. In all four of those years they also led the league in fewest runs allowed. In 1936 the Yankees outscored their game opponents by 334 runs, in 1937 by 308 runs, in 1938 by 256 runs. From 1936 to 1939, the Yankees scored 51 percent more runs than they surrendered, averaging 2.1 runs per game more than their opponents. And they won four straight World Series, during which they outscored their National League opponents by 61 runs in 19 games, a 3.2-to-1 per-game scoring advantage.

A third-of-a-century before, in 1906, the Chicago Cubs led the National League in scoring with 704 runs--substantially more than the 625 runs scored by the runner-up  Giants--and in allowing only 381 runs against them, 89 fewer than the Pirates. Their favorable run differential of 323 runs meant they outscored their game opponents by 85 percent, an even higher percentage than the 74 percent more runs scored by the 1939 Yankees, and in fact the highest percentage in modern baseball history. Because this was the dead ball era, however, and there were 25 percent fewer runs scored in 1906 by the same number of major league teams playing the same-length schedule, the '06 Cubs averaging 2.1 runs per game more than they surrendered pales in comparison to the '39 Yankees' 2.7 runs-per-game average.

The achievements of the 116-win 1906 Chicago Cubs are sometimes diminished by virtue of their playing in the dead ball era. The fact that they were heavily favored to crush the cross-town Hitless Wonders White Sox in the World Series but fell to them relatively meekly in six games certainly did not help the '06 Cubs' reputation. From 1906 to 1910 the Cubs made the case for being the most dominant team in National League history over any five-year period. They won four pennants in five years, averaging 107 wins per 154-game schedule; the only season they won fewer than 100 was in 1908 when they missed by one; with exceptional pitching and defense (Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, anyone?) they gave up the fewest runs in the league four times in those five years; and although they led the league in scoring only once, they were a close second the four others years, 1907-10. All told, the Cubs averaged 1.45 runs per game more than their game opponents over those five years, again a pale comparison to the 1936-39 Yankees.

Major league baseball has not lacked for great teams in single seasons or teams that were dominant in their league over five or more seasons since the Second World War. At the same time, however, the disparity in player-talent level has narrowed, which means the competitive gap between the dominant teams since then and the rest of the league has also narrowed; even the worst teams are not as bad relative to the rest of the league as was the case for most of the first half of the 20th century. And changes in game strategy and roster makeup, particularly increasing reliance on relief pitching leading to greater specialization in bullpens, have greatly diminished the possibility of any team dominating the scoreboard in the way the 1939 Yankees and 1906 Cubs did, let alone the extent to which those teams did over four or five years.

Of the most recent "dynastic" teams, only the 1998 Yankees, who led the league in scoring and fewest runs allowed, have approached a 2-to-1 advantage in runs per game, with their scoring differential of 309 runs amounting to 1.9 runs per game more than their game opponents. Last year, the World Series champion Red Sox outscored their game opponents by 1.2 runs per game and the National League pennant-winning Cardinals outscored theirs by 1.15 runs per game.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Back to the '64 Phillies: Pitching Problems on the Horizon

Fifty years ago, the 1964 Phillies ended the month of May with a 25-15 record. They were in first place, only half-a-game up on the Giants and 2-1/2 ahead of the third-place Cardinals. The Reds--the fourth team to figure in the drama to come--were in sixth, 6 games out. As predicted by many pre-season analysts, including in Sports Illustrated, pitching was a Phillies' strength: through the first 48 days of the season, they had given up the fewest runs in the league and their team 3.15 ERA was second-lowest in the league after San Francisco's 2.92. Before too much longer, however, a healthy starting rotation was to become very problematic for manager Gene Mauch, which would have significant ramifications in the final weeks of September. This is the third installment in this blog's continuing series on what happened with the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies.

The '64 Phillies: Pitching Problems on the Horizon

Gene Mauch began the season with a four-man rotation featuring right-handers Jim Bunning, Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp and southpaw Dennis Bennett. Already by mid-May, as happens all the time in baseball, an arm injury was disrupting the Phillies' rotation--specifically, the sore elbow bothering Culp. The 22-year old had had an excellent rookie season in 1963, making 30 starts, going 14-11 and making the All-Star team, but pitched poorly in his first six starts of the season. Having pitched as many as five innings only twice, Culp was 1-4 with a 5.81 ERA when Mauch replaced him in the rotation with lefty Chris Short, who would prove to be the second most-valuable pitcher on the staff after Bunning.

Meanwhile, Dennis Bennett--after failing to last five innings in his opening day start--was one of the best pitchers in baseball as the season turned to June.  He led the Phillies with 10 starts, had 5 complete games (one of them a loss), had thrown a shutout, and was 6-3 with a 2.54 ERA. (Bunning was 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA in nine starts through the end of May.) Perhaps of some consequence in light of his 1964 season arc, on May 23 Bennett pitched 13 innings, giving up only two runs to beat the Dodgers but throwing 159 pitches to 51 batters, according to his game log on the website,

Bennett pitched well in his first two starts in June--giving up five runs in 15 innings against the Giants and Dodgers--but the rest of the month did not go so well. Although he was 2-1 in six starts that month, his earned run average in June was a far-less than elite 6.07. It is quite likely that the left shoulder problems that ended up diminishing his effectiveness and depleting Mauch's corps of reliable starting pitchers (Culp also being damaged goods) began surfacing this month. The genesis of Bennett's pained pitching shoulder stemmed from a car accident that sent him crashing through the windshield before the start of the 1963 season--his second year in the majors--in which he nonetheless went 9-5.

Both Bennett and Culp pitched through pain in July. Bennett started six games, relieved in three others and had a 3.98 EA in July, but lost four of his five decisions. The pitcher who was confident he would win 20 games in 1964 ended July with a 9-8 record and shoulder pain serious enough that he pitched only 24 innings in August, making only three starts with four stints out of the bullpen to an ERA of 4.88. Bennett lost two of his three starts, lost another game in relief, and twice went six days on ice as his shoulder made him unavailable to Mauch. His last three appearances in August were particularly concerning: Bennett faced 41 batters in 7.1 innings of work, meaning 19 (46 percent) got on base against him; his ERA in those three games--12.27.

As for Ray Culp, his sore elbow limited him to only 18 innings in the month after Mauch took him out of the starting rotation after his May 16 loss to Houston. The only game Culp started during this stretch was the second game of a doubleheader on June 9, which he lost 4-0 to the Pirates in less than five innings of work. The lowly New York Mets--the worst team in baseball--were the cure Culp needed to try to salvage his season. After pitching five innings of one-run relief against them in the first game of a twinbill on June 14 and getting his second win of the season, Culp started the second game of another doubleheader against them on June 19 and pitched a complete game for a 7-2 win. His next start, four days later, was also the back end of a doubleheader, this time against the not-very-good Cubs, in which Culp pitched a shutout and allowed only two to reach base, giving up a walk in the first and a single in the sixth.

Culp was back in the rotation on a regular basis all through July, pitching well with a 4-1 record and 2.42 ERA in six starts and two relief appearances. After another strong outing in his first start in August--six innings, giving up one run against Houston--Culp's next two starts were less than successful as his elbow pain became increasingly debilitating. Culp came out in the second inning of a start against the Mets on August 15, failing to get an out, and that was that. Culp did not make another start in 1964, appearing in only five more games as a reliever, just one during the September stretch, during which he gave up 19 hits, walked 6, and allowed 18 runs (12 earned) in only 9.2 pain-wracked innings.

Hurtful as it was, Ray Culp's elbow put him in his manager's doghouse; Gene Mauch thought Culp was unwilling to pitch through pain. Dennis Bennett, meanwhile, persevered. After his pained August, Bennett returned to the rotation at the beginning of September, making six straight starts on the norm of every four days, and his final start on five days' rest. By this time--when, as it turned out, the Phillies had become desperate for wins--shoulder pain made Bennett unable to deliver.  He gave up nine runs in his last nine innings of work as the Phillies' seemingly sure-thing pennant slipped away.

The physical travails of Culp and Bennett forced Mauch to improvise in his starting rotation, although Bennett did make 32 starts in 1964--the second-most on the team after Bunning, who was the undisputed ace and had a 19-8 record. Short, who at first replaced Culp, secured his place in the rotation with a 17-9 record, and his ERA of 2.20 turned out to be even better than Bunning's 2.63. Mahaffey, with a 12-9 record in 29 starts, was the fourth man in the rotation and a mostly-reliable pitcher until Mauch lost confidence in him at the worst possible time in the desperate final weeks of the season--about which this blog will be almost exclusively devoted to come September. Until then, this series will continue with period updates on the Philadelphia Phillies, 50 years ago.