Friday, February 20, 2015

The Impact of the 1914 Stallings Platoon

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

The Impact of the 1914 Stallings Platoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Link to earlier blog: http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/04/100-years-ago-when-managers-well-john.html

Friday, February 13, 2015

The 1914 Stallings Platoon

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

The 1914 Stallings Platoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie's Banking on Two

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

Ernie's Banking on Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following is a link to the New York Times obituary on Ernie Banks: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/sports/baseball/ernie-banks-the-eternally-hopeful-mr-cub-dies-at-83.html?ref=sports



Friday, January 9, 2015

Of Bagwell, Mize and McCovey

A subsidiary storyline from this year's Hall of Fame balloting was which player who fell short might have been best positioned by the vote for election in 2016, when the ballot will include for the first time Ken Griffey, Jr. The answer is ... Mike Piazza. But why not Jeff Bagwell--arguably the best first baseman in National League history until Albert Pujols came along, although Willie McCovey and even Johnny Mize might beg to differ?

Of Bagwell, Mize and McCovey

Finishing fifth in the voting this year, Mike Piazza saw a significant boost of support for his candidacy by being named on 69.9 percent of the ballots cast, up from 62.2 percent last year. This makes him the presumed front-runner of the returning eligibles next year. (see the following New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/07/sports/baseball/mike-piazzas-turn-could-be-next-for-hall-of-fame-election.html?ref=baseball.) Tim Raines, who came in seventh in this year's vote, made the biggest gain, seeing his name appear on 55 percent of the ballots compared to only 46 percent last year.

Nestled between Piazza and Raines was Jeff Bagwell, whose total barely budged, but was at least in an upward direction, from 54.3 percent to 55.7 percent of the voters' ballots. Bagwell, however, had received as much as 60 percent of the vote in 2013--his third year of eligibility--when the writers did not elect anybody to the Hall.

Jeff Bagwell was indisputably one of the game's best players in his prime during the 1990s. While Frank Thomas, Cooperstown class of 2014, was the best first baseman in the American League in the 1990s, Bagwell had that distinction in the National League. Bagwell's peak years of performance based on the WAR metric are a strong argument to put him in the discussion with Willie McCovey and Johnny Mize as the premier National League first baseman of the twentieth century. Albert Pujols, of course, clearly established himself in the first decade of this century as the greatest first baseman in the entire history of the senior circuit, and Pujols is in the conversation with Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx as the best at the position in all of baseball history.

From 1993, his third year in the majors, to 2001, Bagwell averaged 6.5 wins above replacement and was better than 5 WAR--which represents an All-Star level quality of play--each of those nine years except for 1995, when he just missed with a 4.8 WAR. There were, however, extenuating circumstances in 1995: like everyone else in major league baseball, Bagwell's season was shortened by 18 games at the front end because of the 1994-95 players' strike/owners' lockout, but Bagwell also missed the entire month of August with a broken hand after being hit by a pitch.

Bagwell retired with a .297 batting average, got on base in nearly 41 percent of his plate appearances and hit 449 home runs over his fifteen-year big league career, but in the nine years between 1993 and 2001 he hit 316 of his home runs, had six consecutive 100-RBI seasons (which would have been eight, if not for his injury in 1995, when he finished with 87 RBIs) and batted .308.

Johnny Mize also had nine years of peak performance with almost exactly the same player value as Bagwell (an average annual WAR of 6.7 for The Big Cat) from 1937 to 1948, three years of which he was wearing the uniform of Uncle Sam during World War II instead of that of the New York Giants, to whom the big first baseman was traded from the Cardinals after the 1941 season. One of the most prolific power hitters of his generation, Mize hit 278 home runs between 1937 and 1948, leading his league four times. His career total was 359 in a fifteen-year career, the last three of which were primarily as a part-time first baseman and exceptional pinch hitter with the Yankees.

Mize had six straight 100 RBI seasons from 1937 to 1942 and two more in 1947 and 1948. Were it not for missing the last two months of the 1946 season, stuck on 70 runs batted in, because his hand got in the way of a pitch and was broken, it would have been nine straight years of 100 RBIs. Unlike Bagwell's broken hand in 1995, Mize suffered his in the annual New York Mayor's Trophy exhibition game between the Yankees and Giants.

And then there is Willie McCovey, perhaps the most potent power hitter of his generation when taking into account the negative Candlestick factor. McCovey hit 521 career home runs, 469 of them in nineteen years with the Giants, all but 13 of those after the San Francisco team moved into wind-swept Candlestick Park in 1960. The Candlestick winds limited McCovey to 236 home runs in the park where he played 42 percent of his games. The man known as Stretch reached the 500-home run plateau, once a very big deal, not only playing most of the primetime years of his career in the 1960s, when pitchers were dominant, but getting many fewer plate appearances than he should have in the first six years of his career despite having burst on the scene with 13 home runs and a .354 batting average to win Rookie of the Year honors in 1959. It being he was not called up till the end of July, McCovey did all of that in only 52 games and just 192 at bats.

McCovey's career was stalled for three years because Orlando Cepeda had primacy at first base. Then, after a breakout season playing left field in 1963 when he led the league in home runs for the first time with 44, McCovey was hobbled by a foot injury throughout 1964, limiting his ability to generate power, and he hit only 18 home runs. His manager, Alvin Dark, was less than sympathetic and not convinced McCovey's dramatic falloff in production was attributable to an injured foot. This, of course, was the year Dark stirred controversy by questioning the work ethic of the Giants' African American and Latin players. (See my November 19 article, "Alvin Dark and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes"   http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/11/alvin-dark-and-persistence-of-racial.html.)

Cepeda's season-long absence in 1965 made McCovey the Giants' new first baseman, which proved to be his big Hall of Fame-career-making break. McCovey's best years were from 1965 to 1970, during which he hit 226 home runs--(43 percent of his career total); had at least 30 go out of the park each of those six years; led the National League in both home runs and RBIs in 1968 (with 36 and 105 in the infamous Year of the Pitcher) and 1969 (with 45 and 126); and had an average annual player value of  6.4 wins above replacement.

But back to Jeff Bagwell.

Like Piazza, Bagwell has endured suspicions of steroid use that have not been proven. There is no actual evidence that either player used performance enhancing drugs. While it is clear by now that being linked to steroids by testing, personally admitting to their use, or being named in the Mitchell Report or in federal investigations into illegal performance-enhancing drugs have sunk the Hall of Fame candidacies of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and damaged at least the near-term prospects for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, Piazza and Bagwell are likely to be the test case for whether players about whom there are suspicions but no proof will be elected by the cohort of Baseball Writers Association of America members who vote for the Hall of Fame. Should either, and especially both, Piazza and Bagwell clear that bar in the next few years, the writers may eventually soften their objections to at least Bonds and Clemens as they approach the end of their ten-year ballot eligibility in 2022.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 Hall of Fame Team

The results of the annual Baseball Writers Association of America vote for the 2015 Hall of Fame class will be announced on January 6. Including players carried over from previous years, this year's eligible cast has more potential worthies than BBWAA members qualified to vote can list on their ballot since the rules specify that no more than ten players can be named by any one voter. But this year's Hall of Fame ballot has a worthy candidate for every position on the diamond, with the arguable exception of third base, including five starting pitchers and a closer.

2015 Hall of Fame Team

At first and second base, a pair of Houston Astros--Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Bagwell has fallen short in each of his first four years of eligibility, probably because of suspicions he used performance-enhancing drugs, although he has not been identified as a known steroid user. Biggio just missed last year by two-tenths of a percentage point in his second year of eligibility, and his chances may be worse this year because of impressive first-year of eligibility additions to the ballot--especially pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.

At shortstop, Detroit's Alan Trammell, in his next-to-last year of eligibility and little hope for this year. A terrific all-around shortstop, Trammell had the misfortune of being a direct contemporary of Cal Ripken, Jr., and Ozzie Smith when all three were in their prime.

At third base, Seattle's Edgar Martinez--the first player with a realistic shot at Cooperstown whose career was primarily as a designated hitter. Martinez started only 532 games of his 2.055 total games at third, virtually all at the beginning of his career, but fits my 2015 Hall of Fame team at the hot corner because there is no other third baseman on the ballot worthy of Cooperstown.

Hall of Fame-worthy outfielders this year include Barry Bonds--even if just for the first thirteen years of his career, 1986 to 1998, before jealousy of the accolades given to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in their 1998 race to eclipse Roger Maris's 61 was said to have motivated his use of steroids--Tim Raines and first-time-on-the-ballot Gary Sheffield. Similar to Trammell at shortstop, Raines's achievements, including a .294 lifetime average and 808 steals (fifth all-time) hitting mostly at the top of the order, were somewhat obscured by his being a direct contemporary of two of the greatest lead-off batters in history--Rickey Henderson and Paul Molitor--as well as his playing in Montreal in the years he was at his best.

If we exclude Bonds because he betrayed the game by using performance-enhancing drugs in the last third of his career, Larry Walker's career is also worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. Walker's .313 lifetime average, however, was built on the foundation of his ten seasons playing in Colorado, where his .334 batting average and three batting titles in ten years may be somewhat open to question given the Rockies' mountain-high thin-air advantage. Walker hit only .282 in his eight other big league seasons and seems a long shot for election by the BBWAA, especially now that eligibility has been reduced to at most ten years.

At catcher, Mike Piazza, who's on the ballot for the third time. There are widespread suspicions that Piazza used performance-enhancers, but no catcher in history was the offensive force he was.

A terrific starting rotation could be had from this year's ballot with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz--all being considered for the first time--and Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina, who are on the ballot for their third and second year, respectively. Neither Schilling nor Mussina are likely this year, and either or both may ultimately suffer the fate of Jack Morris, one of the best pitchers of his generation in the 1980s, who was considered to have a borderline Hall of Fame career and failed in his last year of eligibility, which (in an untimely coincidence for his prospects) came in the first year of eligibility for Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, whose Cooperstown credentials were never in doubt.

And then, of course, there is Roger Clemens, who like Bonds has been hurt in Hall of Fame voting by his very close association with steroids. If we discount the entire second-half of his career, which is when the PED allegations against Clemens are focused, Rocket Roger's years with the Boston Red Sox would by themselves be a strong knock at the Hall of Fame door--even a battering ram. Clemens had three of his six career 20-win seasons, won four of his seven ERA titles, three of his five strikeout titles, won 192 of his career 354 victories, threw 100 of his 118 complete games, completed 38 of his 46 shutouts, and pitched 56 percent of his total innings with the Red Sox between 1984 and 1996. He was the major league's most dominant pitcher most of those years.

The closer for this 2015 Hall of Fame team would be Lee Smith, a power reliever with no fewer than 29 saves every year between 1983 and 1995. Smith has only three more years of eligibility remaining on the BBWAA ballot, but was down to less than 30 percent of the vote last year after having been named on more than half the submitted ballots in 2012.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Toward a Third Cuban Wave

The implications for major league baseball of the US change in policy direction signaled by President Obama's decision to establish diplomatic relations and to eliminate or reduce many restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba include the likelihood of a "third wave" of Cuban players coming to the United States--although how soon remains to be seen--as well as the possibility of major league teams establishing a presence in the still-Communist-but-interested-in-promoting foreign investment Caribbean island nation. Should Cuba become open for major league business, however, the realistic opportunities might very well be tempered by potentially significant uncertainties.


Toward a Third Cuban Wave

Before the Castro Revolution in 1959, Cuba was at the leading edge of the globalization of major league baseball. As noted in a previous post on April 14, "The First Cuban Wave" (see link at the end of this article), integration proved to be the catalyst for an unprecedented influx of players from Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them black Latinos, all of whom had left Cuba in hopes of a big league career before or in the first chaotic year or two after Fidel Castro's seizure of power in 1959. The first wave of Cuban players making it big in the major leagues was effectively over by the mid-1960s as a result of Castro's crackdown on political liberties, which included severe travel restrictions to make it difficult if not generally impossible for Cubans to flee his repressive regime, but not before outstanding players like Minnie Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, Tony Perez, Bert Campaneris, Mike Cuellar and Luis Tiant had left Cuba to play ball in the United States.

The next generation of Cuban-born players in the major leagues, including Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro, were mostly raised in the United States after arriving as children on the so-called "freedom flights" from the mid-1960s to early-1970s that were organized by the US and tolerated by Castro as a way to diffuse dissent in Cuba. Love of the game was perhaps in their Cuban genetic makeup, but they learned the game on American diamonds.

Meanwhile, in the face of the US embargo, the excellence of its baseball league became a major foundation of Cuba's revolutionary identity. Cuba continued to impress the  baseball world in international tournaments and many players on its national team were considered likely capable of playing in the major leagues, lack of opportunity notwithstanding.

Motivated by the challenge, the money and a desire to choose their own destiny and not be constrained by a repressive regime, a "second Cuban wave" to the major leagues, characterized by top-rated players from Cuba's national team taking significant risks to defect from their home, took off in the mid-1990s and continues to this day. Pitchers Livan Hernandez (signed by the Marlins in 1996) and Orlando Hernandez (signed by the Yankees in 1998) were among the first prominent defectors. Although players from the Dominican Republic have dominated the trend, defecting Cuban players have contributed to the accelerating pace of globalization in major league baseball in the last 25 years.

The sea change in policy towards Cuba that the President announced makes it likely there will soon be a third wave of Cuban players coming legitimately to the United States, without having to defect. In anticipation of this development, Major League Baseball institutionally was farsighted enough that eight years ago MLB officials were considering options should US sanctions against Cuba be lifted. Among the issues addressed were the need for a systematic process for signing Cuban players, the possibility of teams establishing baseball academies in Cuba like those they have in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps even the establishment of a minor league team there. (An article in The New York Times on April 26, 2007 reported on this initiative: see http://www.nytihttp://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/26/sports/baseball/26cuba.htmlmes.com/2007/04/26/sports/baseball/26cuba.html.)

No doubt there are Cuban players who would be among the best in the major leagues if given the opportunity, like recent defectors Yasiel Puig and 2014 AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. But notwithstanding the Cuban national team's international reputation, the overwhelming majority of players in the Cuban league are probably not close to even marginal major league players in their level of talent and development. Cuba failed to reach the final tournament in the last two World Baseball Classics in 2009 and 2013. The Times article cited above reported that major league scouts in 2007 assessed the overall level of competition in the Cuban league to approximate that of Double-A minor league ball in the US.

The current regime appears amenable to allowing Cubans to play in the United States, preferably in an arrangement where the regime would be allowed to profit from the major league contracts given to Cuban players, either by directly brokering deals through government agents or by a posting system similar to MLB's relationship with the Japanese leagues. (See the December 14 article in Baseball America, "How Will MLB Handle Big Changes in Cuba," http://www.baseballamerica.com/international/mlb-will-handle-big-changes-cuba/.) Such an arrangement could be problematic from the US perspective, however, especially if the current regime outlast the lives of Fidel and brother Raul (who replaced the ailing Fidel as top dog in 2006).

While President Obama has the executive authority to remove or ease many restrictions on interactions with Cuba by US-based persons and businesses, Congressional action to roll back legislated sanctions is likely to be required before meaningful commercial activity is possible. Pending such action--a process likely to be bedeviled by political considerations, specifically partisan push back and bipartisan concerns about human rights, democratization and respect for private business interests--the US trade embargo remains in effect, almost certainly precluding major league baseball from moving quickly, perhaps not even any time soon, to take advantage of the thaw in political relations.

As for the possibility of Cuba becoming a market for major league baseball (in addition to being a new talent pool for major league teams), establishing a minor league franchise in Cuba could ultimately set the stage for a scenario where a financially-struggling franchise might play part of its schedule in Havana, similar to when the Expos played 22 games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in their last two years in Montreal before becoming the Washington Nationals. While that would certainly test whether Cuba could eventually support a major league team, either such development would require that Cuba after the Castros be politically stable.

The legacy of the Cuban Revolution, however, and the political and economic prerogatives that Cuban leaders have come to enjoy from more than half-a-century of repressive Communist rule, not to mention the mixed record of many former Soviet Bloc countries since the collapse of the USSR, suggests a strong possibility that the transition to a post-Castro Cuba might be a time of turmoil and trouble.

Political instability and an unstable business environment would not be conducive to a major league presence--including baseball academies--in Cuba. In that case, there would still be a third wave of Cuban players leaving Cuba in hopes of a big league career, although they would more likely be calculating that their best bet was to escape their country's turmoil rather than be part of an orderly systematic approach engineered by major league baseball to manage the signing of Cuban players.

The following is the link to the "First Cuban Wave" article on Baseball Historical Insight on April 14, 2014:
http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-first-cuban-wave.html




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Minnie Minoso Dossier

Minnie Minoso, who turned 89 on November 29, is being considered for the second time in recent years by the Veteran's Committee for inclusion into baseball's Hall of Fame. Although often remembered for the sideshow of playing three games as a designated hitter for the White Sox in 1976 at the age of 50 and pinch hitting in two games four years later (so it could be said he played in five decades), Minoso should be remembered--and indeed honored--as one of the game's best players in the 1950s, when he faced the twin challenges of being one of the first black players in major league baseball and of being a native Cuban having to adapt to American culture.

The Minnie Minoso Dossier

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

After being acquired from Cleveland in a multi-player three-team round-robin of trading on the last day of April in 1951, Minoso immediately made his impact felt in helping to turn around the fortunes of the Chicago White Sox. Still haunted by the 1919 Black Sox scandal that sent the American League team in Chicago to purgatory for decades in mostly the nether regions of the league, the White Sox had finished a dismal sixth the previous year, 34 games below .500. After changing uniforms, Minoso's batting average of .359 in his first two months with Chicago was instrumental in the White Sox reaching and staying in first place for virtually all of June and remaining competitive until August. The White Sox finished the season in fourth place, out of the running, but with a winning record for the first time in eight years.

The rookie outfielder's .326 batting average was second in the league to Philadelphia's Ferris Fain (.344). Batting third in the line-up, he was second in runs scored with 112, one behind Boston's Dom DiMaggio. Fifth in both on-base and slugging percentages, Minoso had the third highest overall combined on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the American League. Showing off his speed, he led the league in triples with 14 and in stolen bases with 31. Third in total extra-base hits, his 34 doubles were two short of the league-leaders (three players had 36). His player value of 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR) was sixth in the league, and fourth-best among position players. Minnie Minoso was better in all of these categories than any other rookie in baseball, including Willie Mays, but it was the pennant-winning Yankees' versatile infielder Gil McDougald who spent the winter polishing the AL's Rookie of the Year award.

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

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

Despite having another strong year in 1957 with the fifth of his eight .300 batting averages and the fifth time his on-based percentage exceeded .400, Minoso was traded back to Cleveland for outfielder Al Smith and future Hall of Famer pitcher Early Wynn. After a pair of .302 seasons in Cleveland, Minoso returned to Chicago in yet another trade and, at 34 years old in 1960, led the AL in hits with 189 while batting .311. The 1960 White Sox fought valiantly in defense of their American League crown before slipping out of the pennant race in mid-September, thus ending Minoso's last chance to play in a World Series. The following year was the last that Minoso was a regular. He missed most of the 1962 season, now playing for St. Louis, with a broken wrist and never recovered to play close to the level he had. Age will do that to you, if you're a baseball player and on the other side of 35.

With a .298 lifetime batting average, Minnie Minoso never got more than 21 percent of the vote when he was on the Cooperstown ballot of the Baseball Writers Association of America. That was in his fourth year of eligibility. Among the 16 voters on this year's Veteran's Committee are Al Kaline and Jim Bunning, both of whom played in the American League in the last half of the 1950s. Bunning might remember that Minoso touched him up for a .333 average, six home runs and 18 runs batted in. The only other pitcher who Minoso tagged for that many home runs (also six) was Early Wynn, except Minoso had 85 more plate appearances against him than Bunning. And Kaline might remember that Minoso hit more home runs in his career against the Detroit Tigers--37--than any other team, along with 159 RBI and a .308 average, and 24 of those home runs Minoso knocked out at Tiger Stadium.

The Veteran's Committee Hall of Fame selections, if any this year, will be announced on December 8. Should Minnie Minoso be elected, it would be hard to argue with that.