Friday, August 15, 2014

The Radio Guy and The Judge, Cookie and The Brat

We take for granted today that broadcasters on both radio and TV will dissect game situations, offer opinions on strategy, and feel free to second-guess managers and criticize players for mistakes--all of which helps to educate those of us listening at home (or in our cars) on the many nuances of a complex game. It is not unusual to hear something along the lines of, "What was he thinking?" This was not the case back in the 1947 World Series when millions listened to The Radio Guy, influenced by a Judge's words from on high, narrating in real-time the busting up of a no-hitter by a Cookie batting for The Brat.

The Radio Guy and The Judge, Cookie and The Brat

The Radio Guy is Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber.
The Judge is Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Commissioner of Baseball from 1920 till his death in 1944.
Cookie is Cookie Lavagetto, who had been the Brooklyn Dodgers' regular third baseman for five years before World War II, but was now a utility player in his final major league season.
The Brat is none other than Eddie Stanky, all 5 foot-8, 170 pounds of him.

I've been reading Red Barber's account of the pennant races and World Series in Jackie Robinson's rookie season, 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose (Da Paco Press, 1982). Early on and several different times in the book, Barber writes that he always followed the admonition given by Commissioner Landis to the radio play-by-play announcers from three different networks about to take to their broadcast booths before the 1935 World Series to only "report" what was happening on the field of play and any visible reactions to the action, "but have no opinion." Just report on the action; "leave your opinions in the hotel." Landis explained that announcers did not have the training or the proper perspective to offer an opinion, specifically on umpire rulings--he had just used his emperor-like prerogatives to banish one announcer from the proceedings for criticizing the umpires in a previous World Series--but the Judge presumably was also warning against speculating about what moves a manager might make in a given situation, or the reasoning behind managers' decisions, or criticizing players for their mistakes and managers for decisions that backfired.

Comes the drama of Game 4 of the 1947 World Series, the New York Yankees versus the Brooklyn Dodgers, and so very much less was said by Red Barber and Mel Allen over the radio waves to a national audience in describing the action than would be the case today. Take Game 4, the game in which the Yankees' Bill Bevens was one out away from pitching the first no-hitter in World Series history, notwithstanding walking 10 Dodgers, only to lose both the no-hit bid and the game when pinch hitter Cookie Lavagetto drove in two runs with a double off the right field wall at Ebbets Field.

Staying true to the Judge's broadcast philosophy (although baseball's first Commissioner had now been deceased for nearly three years), Barber described the action with minimal explanation that might have enlightened listeners with greater context and insider insight. In his chapter of that game, Barber is excellent in doing just that for his readers 35 years after the fact, but admits: "I didn't second-guess managers at microphones, but I wondered then, and I still think now, why didn't [Brooklyn manager Burt] Shotton send in a pinch runner for [Carl] Furillo as soon as he got ball four? Furillo wasn't fast or an accomplished base runner."

Barber was writing specifically of the moment after Bevens walked Furillo with one out in the ninth inning, gunning for his no-hitter but also trying to protect a one-run lead. This would have been precisely the kind of insight that would have engaged avid listeners--most of whom almost certainly would not have considered that Furillo lacked speed, might not score on a hit where a faster player would, or even that a savvy manager keeps such things in mind. It would have been a lesson in strategy, on the many options a manager has to try to win games. As it happened, Shotton belated did send in a pinch runner for Furillo--the speedy Al Gionfriddo--but only after Bevens got his second out.

When he sent in Gionfriddo to pinch run, and down to their last out, Shotton also sent up Pete Reiser to pinch hit for the pitcher. Reiser was not in the starting line-up because he had badly injured his ankle in the first inning of the previous game while being thrown out trying to steal second base. Barber noted in his book that because Reiser's injury was to his right ankle--which turned out to be broken--he could still put the necessary weight and get the needed leverage off his back foot, as a left-handed batter, as he came forward in his stride. (Barber does not say whether he said this on the air.)

Gionfriddo stole second on a two balls-one strike pitch to Reiser, which was wide of the plate for ball three. It being the tying run was now in scoring position and that the dangerous Reiser--who had hit .309 during the season--had a 3-1 count in his favor, Yankee manager Bucky Harris decided it was perhaps best to intentionally walk Reiser, even if that meant the potential winning run was now on base, rather than risk him getting a hit because Blevens had to come in with strikes with a three ball count on the batter. Barber clearly makes this point in the book, but again does not say whether he so said on the air.

Then came a most interesting move, an explanation for which Barber says nothing in his book and presumably said nothing to his intensely-listening audience. Burt Shotton called back his everyday lead-off hitter, Eddie Stanky, in favor of pinch hitter Cookie Lavagetto. Blevens was a right-handed pitcher. Stanky was a right-handed batter. But so too was Lavagetto, so it was not obvious why Shotton would prefer the season-long off-the-bench Lavagetto and not the everyday veteran Stanky. Stanky did not have a hit in this game, but had walked twice. He had also hit in each of the first three Series games. Moreover, Stanky could be virtually guaranteed to make contact--he struck out only 39 times in 680 plate appearances all season--and if he drew a walk (he did so 103 times during the season), Pee Wee Reese, himself a contact hitter who was a tough out, was up next.

Stanky was quite possibly the best second baseman in the National League at that time  --indeed, the very reason why Jackie Robinson's rookie season was at first base, not second, the position he played in Triple-A Montreal in 1946 preparing for his ground-breaking call-up to end segregation in the major leagues. Stanky started 146 games during the season for the Dodgers and was in at the finish in 134 of them.

On three occasions, Stanky left the game because he was hurt on tag plays on defense at second base. On three other occasions, Stanky was replaced defensively in the late innings of games Brooklyn was losing big. Twice, Shotton sent in a pinch runner for Stanky after he had either singled or walked in the ninth inning of a game the Dodgers were losing by one run; "Stanky couldn't steal, slow-footed as he was, if his life and entire family depended on it," Barber wrote elsewhere in his book. And in three of the last four games the Dodgers played in the 1947 National League schedule, Stanky was removed to give him a breather for the World Series to come; Brooklyn had already clinched the pennant, Shotton was doing the same for other veteran players on his team, and Stanky got one day off entirely.

Only once had Shotton removed Stanky for a pinch hitter, and boy did that ever work out for KOBS--Kindly Old Burt Shotton. (Well, technically twice, when Shotton had to pinch hit for Stanky in the bottom of the first in a game on August 23 only because his second baseman could not continue--and in fact missed the next four games--after being hurt while tagging out a would-be base stealer to end the top of the first.) It was the bottom of the ninth on July 12 against the Cubs, the tying run on second base, and Stanky due up against the left-handed Johnny Schmitz. Stanky not only was 0-for-3 with a strikeout in the game against Schmitz, but would be hitless in 24 plate appearances against Schmitz the entire season. So Shotton in that game surely knew what he was doing when he sent the veteran right-handed batting Arky Vaughan up to hit for Stanky. Vaughan singled in the tying run, and then came around to score the game-winner himself.

Lavagetto, meanwhile,  had played in only 41 games all season, entering as a pinch hitter in 26 of them, and hit all of .261 in only 69 at bats. As a pinch hitter, Lavagetto had 6 hits in 22 at bats with 4 walks during the season. Moreover, only 17 of Lavagetto's total 82 plate appearances during the season were against right-handed pitching, although he did have six hits (one a home run) and walked once against the right-handers he faced.

Rarely does a manager take out his day-to-day lead-off hitter in such a critical situation, and certainly not for a pinch hitter with such modest credentials on the season as Cookie Lavagetto, so some words about why Shotton was doing what he was doing would have been appropriate and would certainly be the case today--even if the Radio Guy could only speculate. Other than some accounts saying that Lavagetto was tough in clutch situations, I don't recall ever reading why Shotton made this move, and even with 35 years hindsight, Barber does not say. But KOBS must have known something. Lavagetto's drive off the right field wall at Ebbets Field broke up the no-hitter and drove in both the tying and winning runs, making Shotton two-for-two in his decisions in 1947 to pinch hit for Eddie Stanky: first with Vaughan, now with Lavagetto.

Red Barber writes that he summed up the drama by saying, "I'll be a suck-egg mule." Or, to quote current Baltimore Orioles' radio broadcaster Joe Angel: "Put this one in the WIN column" for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Note: Bill Bevens pitched only one more game in the major leagues--three days later as a reliever in Game 7. He later told a reporter that his failed no-hit bid, in which he faced 37 batters and had a very high pitch count because of all the walks, left his arm "dead" by the end of the Series.

The following is a link to a You Tube video in which Red Barber and Mel Allen talk about that game.  Both mention that Lavagetto was a pinch hitter; neither say for whom.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

August 7: The '64 Phillies Continued: Where Should Dick Allen Have Hit?

It seems manager Gene Mauch never decided definitively where the appropriate place in the batting order was for his rookie phenom, Dick (then known as"Richie") Allen in 1964. He changed his mind about that at least three times. The August 7 trade with the Mets for Frank Thomas to fill the Phillies' glaring weakness at first base resulted in Mauch reverting to the batting order platoon he used for most of the first two months of the season by moving his young slugger out of the cleanup spot to bat second or third, depending on the opposing starter.

The '64 Phillies Continued: Where Should Dick Allen Have Hit?

As noted in the second post of this series on the Philadelphia Phillies' season of 50 years ago, "Mauch the Platoonmeister" (see link below), Mauch started the season by platooning rookie right-handed batting third baseman Dick Allen with left-handed batting right fielder Johnny Callison between second and third in the Phillies' batting order. Both were everyday players, but Mauch had Allen batting second and Callison third when a right-hander started against Philadelphia, and Callison second and Allen third when a southpaw took the mound. So it was in the first 45 games of the season, through June 6, during which time Allen hit .290 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs; Callison hit .280 with 4 home runs and 20 RBIs; and the Phillies were more often than not hanging close in second place, typically about a game behind, and sometimes in first. The Phillies had never trailed by more than two games (on May 5 and 12) and never led by more than two games (on May 1).

Allen got off to a red-hot start, batting .426 in April, but had hit only .252 in May. On June 7 and in both games of a doubleheader two days later, Mauch tried Allen in the cleanup spot for the first time; Allen went 5-for-11 with a home run and three RBIs, but was back hitting second against right-handed starters the next two games. By this point in the season--June 12--Allen was leading the Phillies in all three triple-crown categories with a .294 batting average, 12 home runs, and 32 runs batted in.

Seeing what his emerging young slugger could do, Mauch started batting Allen fourth in the line-up on a daily basis on June 13, where he stayed for 53 of the Phillies' next 55 games (twice batting second) regardless of who was pitching. Allen hit .327 over those 55 games with 9 home runs and 26 RBIs and by August 6 his batting average was .311 and he had a .913 OPS with 19 home runs and 56 RBIs. His power and prowess at the plate contributed to the Phillies' .600 winning percentage and 33-22 record during that time, which vaulted Philadelphia into first place on July 16, where they had since stayed.

The arrival of Frank Thomas to take over first base, where the lefty-righty platoon of John Hernsteinn and Roy Sievers had proved ineffective (as had several others who Mauch also tried at the position), caused Mauch to go back to alternating Allen and Callison second and third in the line-up, again depending on the whether the opposing starter was right-handed or left-handed. When he was healthy and in the starting line-up with the bottom-dwelling Mets, the right-handed power-hitting Thomas typically hit fourth or third. Thomas, in fact, had batted fourth or fifth in the line-up for most of his career. Even though he had homered only three times and driven in only 19 runs in his 60 games with the Mets--(they were the offensively-challenged Mets, after all)--Mauch began platooning Thomas (who played against all pitching) with left-handed batting outfielder Wes Covington (who did not start against southpaws) in the fourth and fifth spots in the Phillies' line-up, which lasted until September 8 when Thomas injured his thumb.

In the 33 games where Allen was back to hitting either second or third, his batting average was .333 and he had 8 home runs and 23 RBIs, while the Phillies went 21-13 (.618) and built up a six-game lead. The trade from New York to Philadelphia, meanwhile, rejuvenated Thomas, who hit .302 with 7 home runs and 26 RBIs in 33 games before he was injured. Covington batted .333 with 5 homers and 22 RBIs in 27 games, including those into which he was inserted after a lefty starter was replaced by a right-handed reliever.

For most of the remainder of the season after Thomas was sidelined with his injury, Mauch stayed with his Allen-Callison batting order platoon with Allen second, Callison third and Covington batting fourth when a right-hander took the mound, except against southpaw starting pitchers when he put Allen fourth and sat Covington with Callison still batting third. In the final 24 games of the season after the Thomas injury, Dick Allen batted second in 11 games (with HR / RBI / BA slash lines of 3 / 8 / .356 ), third in 3 games ( 0 / 2 / .167), and fourth in 10 games ( 1 / 6 / .350). Allen finished the season with a .318 batting average (fifth in the league), 201 hits (tied for third), 29 home runs (tied for seventh), and 79 runs batted in.

Would it have made a difference had Mauch kept Dick Allen in the cleanup spot of his batting order for the rest of the season after moving him there on June 13, even after Frank Thomas came over to Philadelphia?

Aside from power numbers suggesting that the third, fourth, or even fifth slots in the batting order were the more logical fit for him than batting second, Allen also had a propensity to strike out a lot--not a good thing for a number-two hitter, and seemingly certainly not when Mauch liked so much to manufacture runs (see my previous post on the '64 Phillies, link below). Allen led the league in strikeouts in 1964 with 138, and averaged one K for every five at bats when he hit second. Almost exactly half (33) of Allen's 67 walks, however, were in the 41 percent of games he batted fourth with few potent bats behind him, a factor which may have figured into Mauch's decision to move him further up in the order.

For the season, Dick Allen hit only .270 but had 12 home runs and 36 RBIs in the 64 games he batted second in the order--all against right-handers; batted .363 with 8 homers and 32 RBIs in the 32 games he started batting third--all but two against southpaws; and .345 with 9 home runs and 24 RBIs in the 66 games he batted cleanup, 35 times against left-handed starters and 31 against righties. Against right-handed pitchers Allen's slash lines were 18 / 60 / .287 with an OPS of .856 in 450 plate appearances; against southpaws, they were 11 / 31 / .372 with an OPS of 1.081 in 259 plate appearances. His strikeout ratio per plate appearance was 18 percent against lefties, 20 percent against righties.

Would it have made a difference had Mauch batted Allen fourth in the final weeks, particularly when the games became desperate as the Phillies' lead evaporated? During the Phillies' 10-game losing streak that began with them holding a 6-1/2 game lead with just 12 games remaining and which defined their epic collapse of historic proportions (rhetorical overkill intended), Allen continued to hit well even as the rest of his teammates did not. He batted .415; they batted .191. While the rest of the Phillies were terrible in the clutch with runners on base, Allen was ... well, clutch, hitting .421 with runners on base. And he had a sacrifice bunt--about which, more when that game comes up in September.

Previous Posts in This Series on the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies:

1.  "Introducing the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies"

2. "Mauch the Platoonmeister"

3.  "Pitching Problems on the Horizon"

4.  "The '64 Phillies' Perfect Father's Day"

5.  ""Mauch Loved to Sacrifice"

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office: To Walk or Not to Walk Thomson, Was That Ever the Question?

What if, surely knowing that Bobby Thomson was not a good match-up for Ralph Branca, Dodger manager Charlie Dressen decided to walk him with first base open, putting the potential pennant-winning run on base, and have Branca take on Willie Mays instead? What factors might have led Dressen to make such a decision--the emphasis on "might" since there's no way to know--instead of the one he did? This is the second of two Insights offering possible explanations for Dressen's decisions made (or not made) in that fateful ninth inning leading up to Thomson's home run and "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" 

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office--Part II

When last we left Charlie Dressen, he had just brought in Ralph Branca instead of Carl Erskine to relieve starter Don Newcombe and protect what was now a 4-2 lead (after Whitey Lockman's double) with the dangerous Bobby Thomson coming to bat for the New York Giants in the bottom of the ninth of the third playoff game to decide the 1951 National League pennant. The Dodgers needed just two more outs to advance to the World Series, where the Yankees were waiting. Although quite controversial, certainly in the historical retelling, his decision to bring in Branca was reasonable given the alternative, if Dressen was indeed concerned with Erskine's inability in his recent appearances to pitch consistently within the strike zone, as I argued he had every reason to be (although we don't know if he actually was) in my previous post

With Branca toeing the rubber, Dressen had one immediate decision to make: whether to pitch to Thomson with the tying runs in scoring position, one out and first base open, or intentionally walk the veteran slugger and the Giants' leading home run hitter (31 at the moment) to pitch to the rookie on deck, Willie Mays. And after Mays was another rookie, Ray Noble, who had come into the game in the top half of the ninth as a defensive replacement after Giants' manager Leo Durocher pinch hit for starting catcher Wes Westrum (probably because Westrum's .199 average against right-handers in general and .167 against Newcombe in particular were more compelling as weaknesses than his 20 home runs on the season were as a strength).

A key factor for consideration was certainly that Bobby Thomson was on a roll with a hot hand. He already had two hits in this game, extending his hitting streak to 15 games, and Thomson had now hit safely in 22 of 23 games. (Most of these were on the road, by the way, where Thomson would not have benefited from knowing what pitches were coming, courtesy of the spy operation set up in the Giants' clubhouse beyond center field at the Polo Grounds, where coach Herman Franks sat behind a powerful telescope stealing opposing catchers' signs.) Thomson was batting a torrid .457 (37 hits in 81 at bats) in those 23 games, including six home runs. And let's not forget he was 3-for-6 in the last three games Branca had pitched against the Giants, all since September 1st, including two home runs, the second of which beat Branca in game one of this pennant-race playoff.

Willie Mays, waiting on deck, by contrast was a 20-year old rookie with tremendous promise who was in a batting funk. Not only did he have just one hit in ten at bats so far in this playoff against the Dodgers. Not only did he have just three hits in his last 32 at bats (.094). Not only had he struck out in 10 of his last 32 plate appearances. Not only did he have just seven extra-base hits since September 1st, only one a home run. But Ralph Branca totally owned Willie Mays. Mays had come up to bat 19 times against Branca, and Branca had gotten him out 17 times. Finally, although perhaps unbeknownst to the Dodgers, the kid was scared to death waiting in the on-deck circle, thinking the Giants' season might come down to him.

In his manager's mind, parsing the situation, thinking through the possible outcomes of his various options, Dressen could have decided he would rather intentionally walk Thomson to load them up than risk Branca pitching to him--especially given the game-winning two-run home run Thomson hit just two days before--even if Mays were to drive in a run while making an out--an important caveat--which would make it two outs with Noble up next  and the Dodgers' lead now possibly down to one run, 4-3. What are the odds, Dressen might have asked himself, that a backup catcher, and a rookie, could win this thing for the Giants? Ray Noble had only 141 at bats for the season (and in his career) with a .234 batting average, was hitting only .207 against right-handers and had never faced the right-handed Branca.

Although deliberately putting the potential winning run on base, as an intentional walk to Thomson would have done, was certainly not an optimum move--and few managers, especially in Dressen's time, would think to do so--discretion in this case may have been the better part of valor.  After all:

Thomson was hot.
Mays was not.

And Durocher had no viable pinch hitting options to bat for Noble. He had used both Bill Rigney and Hank Thompson, his best players on the bench, to pinch hit in the eighth inning and then been forced to put Clint Hartung into the game as a pinch runner for Don Mueller, who broke his ankle sliding into third base on Lockman's double.

Walking the lock-in veteran to pitch to the struggling rookie (and then, if necessary, another rookie after that) would have been a move worthy of a manager who prided himself on his baseball genius, on his ability to out-think the guy in the other dugout (or, in this case, the third base coach's box, where Durocher now stood). It would have been risky, to be sure, but Dressen--whose mantra is said to have been, "Keep it close, I'll think of something"--was a believer that taking risks, doing the unexpected, the unconventional thing, often made the difference in winning close games. Of course, if the unconventional move backfires--say, Willie Mays breaking his slump with an extra-base hit to drive in three runs to win the game and the pennant--the relentless second-guessing that is the bane of managers' existence begins.

Charlie Dressen went with the more conventional wisdom of not putting the possible winning run on base, especially not in the bottom of the ninth--a defensible move to be sure. He allowed Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thomson. And we all know how that turned out for him. He has been relentlessly second-guessed to this day, although for bringing in Branca instead of Erskine to pitch to Thomson.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office--Explaining Why Branca and Not Erskine

Managers are relentlessly criticized by us passionate fans for decisions made and not made in heartrending losses, but as knowledgeable as we fans like to believe we are, we do not know all the considered factors that go into those decisions. At this year's annual SABR conference in Houston from July 30 to August 2, I presented on Charlie Dressen's worst inning in baseball, identifying some possibilities of what Brooklyn's manager might have been thinking--emphasis on "might"--in the decisions he made in that fateful ninth that led to Bobby Thomson's home run and "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" This first of two Insights assumes Dressen knew exactly what he was doing when he chose Ralph Branca to pitch to Thomson instead of Carl Erskine and offers a possible explanation of why Erskine's inopportune bounced pitch while warming up was so troubling to his manager.

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office--Part I

A double by Whitey Lockman had narrowed the Dodgers' lead to 4-2 over the Giants in the last of the ninth at the Polo Grounds in the third and final playoff game that would decide the 1951 National League pennant after New York's 37-7 record to finish the schedule had entirely erased Brooklyn's 13-1/2 game lead on August 11 to force a playoff. With the tying runs in scoring position, one out and Giants' slugger Bobby Thomson coming to bat, it was obvious Brooklyn starter Don Newcombe could go no further. Including his 8.1 innings in this game, Newcombe had now faced 91 batters in 23 innings pitched in 3 games over five days--which included a season-saving shutout of the Phillies on the next-to-last day of the season (on only two days of rest after a complete game victory against the Braves) and 5.2 innings of shutout relief from the 8th to the 13th inning the very next day against the Phillies in a game the Dodgers absolutely had to win (and did, in the 14th) to force the playoff. But who was Dressen gonna call to relieve Newk?

A good question, because ... the underlying reality was that Brooklyn no longer had a bullpen worthy of the name. For most of the season the Dodgers did have a decent bullpen--Brooklyn relievers were 27-16 with 15 saves and a 3.79 ERA through the end of August.  But in September, the Dodger bullpen was a shambles. With a collective ERA of nearly 5.00, the Dodgers' relievers were sufficiently ineffective that every Dodger victory down the September stretch except for the 14-inning win on the final day of the scheduled season required a complete game effort from Dressen's starting pitcher. What happened to the bullpen?

Well, Dressen using Clyde King, his best reliever, for 23.2 innings in 11 games over 26 days between July 24 and August 22 is what happened. Clyde King is best remembered as one in a long line of Steinbrenner managers, both after and before Billy Martin, but in 1951 he was the Dodgers' relief ace. As of August 22, King had a 14-5 record with 5 saves and a 3.36 ERA in 38 appearances. On that day, however, King pitched a total of four innings to win both games in a doubleheader. He was never the same thereafter, and I do mean never, and certainly not in 1951. He appeared in only 10 more games with a 10.67 ERA, including 12 earned runs in only 9 September innings.

With King unavailable, Dressen had few options. Bud Podbielan, who was the winner of that 14-inning schedule finale that (temporarily) saved the Dodgers' season, and Johnny Schmitz pitched the most innings in relief for the Brooklyn in September, but the southpaw Schmitz wouldn't do because Thomson was a right-handed slugger and despite Podbielan having pitched well in seven relief appearances down the stretch, his limited major league experience (only 54 games in parts of three seasons, all of which included time in the minors) made it unlikely that Dressen would have trusted him in such a critical situation--two outs away from a pennant. Another right-hander, Phil Haugstad, was similarly inexperienced and had given up 25 runs in 30.2 innings.

Then there were the starting pitchers. Preacher Roe was a superb 22-3 on the season and had limited Thomson to a .250 batting average and only one home run in eight at bats, but he had been ineffective his last two starts and was probably suffering from the arm trouble that would plague him the entirety of next year. There is no indication Dressen ever considered Roe. So warming up for the Dodgers were Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine. Bobby Thomson was batting .333 against both Brooklyn pitchers in 1951 with 9 at bats against Erskine and 12 against Branca (not including his epic at bat still to come). And Thomson had hit two home runs off both pitchers, his pair off Erskine coming in May and and his pair off Branca since the beginning of September, including a two-run blast that beat Branca in the first game of this playoff for the pennant.

Branca had pitched poorly down the stretch, although his start in the first playoff game was not bad--3 runs (2 thanks to Thomson's home run) in 8 innings. But before then, Branca had lost five of his six September starts, including his last four, and in four of those decisions failed to last six innings and had an ugly ERA of 11.35. Branca had started three games against the Giants since the beginning of September and lost them all, by 8-1 (September 1), 2-1 (September 9) and 3-2 just two days before. In those three games, Bobby Thomson had tagged Branca for 3 hits in 6 at bats, including the two home runs, plus he had walked twice.

Erskine, for his part, in four starts and three relief appearances had his best ERA month of the season in September, although that ERA was a shade under 4.00 at 3.99. But he lost both of his last two starts, giving up 11 runs (8 of them earned) in 10.1 innings. Erskine had not faced the Giants since August 8, when he got the win by allowing only one run in 7 innings of relief. Thomson faced off against him three times that afternoon, and Erskine got him out each time.

The standard narrative of why Branca and not Erskine mentions that Dressen's decision was made after Oisk bounced a pitch while warming up to come (maybe) into the game. The subtext of how this decision was made is usually portrayed along the lines of Dressen losing his grip, that he was not thinking clearly in the heat of the moment. What was he thinking, letting Branca pitch to Bobby Thomson, who had gone deep against him just the other day to win game one?

What was he thinking? We of course can only speculate, but what he certainly must have known was that Erskine was having difficulty of late with his control and location. In his last three appearances of the season (two starts and one in relief), Erskine had given up 8 walks--only one intentional--in 12.1 innings. And he had averaged 4 walks per 9 innings in 38.1 September innings, compared to 3.6 per 9 in 151.1 innings through August. Hearing of Erskine's bounced pitch while warming up to enter the game may have caused Dressen major heart palpitations and convinced him that Oisk was not the pitcher for this moment in time--even though Thomson had been treating Ralph Branca like a batting practice pitcher in the last three games they faced each other, including the game-winning shot two days before. (It's not as though Branca had been a control artisan recently, by the way, as he had walked five Giants batters in eight innings in his playoff start ... but, at least he didn't bounce any pitches in the bullpen ... presumably.)

While the decision to bring in Branca seems reasonable given the alternatives--especially if Dressen was indeed concerned about Erskine's recent inability to pitch consistently within the strike zone, Charlie Dressen still had one immediate decision to make: whether to pitch to Bobby Thomson with the tying runs in scoring position, one out, first base open and the pennant on the line ... or pitch to the rookie waiting on deck, one Willie Mays.

That will be the subject of my next post.

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"