Saturday, December 14, 2013

Parallelism: Torre and Stengel in Pinstripes

The managerial career of Joe Torre, one of three iconic managers who will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame next summer whose careers crossed the millennial divide, has eerily remarkable parallels to that of Casey Stengel, Hall of Fame class of 1966.  As with Stengel in 1949, there were more than a few skeptics wondering, what are the Yankee owners thinking, when Torre was named manager of the storied New York Yankees for the 1996 season.  It certainly wasn’t a question in either case of, “who he?”  It was more a question of, “why him?” or perhaps more appropriately in both cases, what did he ever do as a manager to deserve the chance to restore the Yankees to their rightful place as the best team in the baseball universe?

Parallelism:  Torre and Stengel in Pinstripes

Like Stengel when he first surfaced as manager in pinstripes, Joe Torre had had an undistinguished career managing several teams in the National League. Okay, perhaps not quite as undistinguished a managerial career as Stengel's, whose pedigree was eight losing seasons in nine years, never finishing better than fifth.  Of course, he was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves when both were bad teams, but his banter and irreverence made Stengel often appear like the clownish manager of teams not to be taken seriously, so why should he be taken seriously?  Torre, for his part, had only five winning seasons in fourteen years managing three different National League teams.  After five years managing that hapless '70s show otherwise known as the New York Mets, Torre did win a division title in his first year as manager of the Atlanta Braves in 1982, replacing Bobby Cox no less.  A division title notwithstanding, Torre was fired three years later and would not return to the managerial ranks until 1990 in St. Louis, where he lasted till 47 games into the 1995 season.  Therefore, like Stengel, who came to the Yankees with a career managerial winning percentage of only .439 (581-742), Torre—with a career record of 894-1,003 (.471) as manager—was hardly an obvious choice to take over the New York Yankees.   Both were controversial choices because they lacked a winning managerial resume, and if Casey had a personality that begged for being taken seriously by the serious-to-a-fault Yankees, Torre’s perceived lack of personality seemed hardly inspiring.

Just as Stengel took the reins when the Joe DiMaggio era at Yankee Stadium was coming to an end (although Joltin' Joe would play three seasons for Casey), the Yankees were at the end of the Don Mattingly era when Torre became manager, Donny Baseball having retired after the 1995 season.  In contrast to the DiMaggio era, however, which saw the Yankees win eight pennants and seven World Series from 1936 until Stengel became manager in 1949, including a world championship just two years before, the Mattingly era had been notably unsuccessful.  Mattingly’s time coincided with the longest drought of pennants and championships in Yankee history since they began winning regularly way back in 1921.  Unlike in the DiMaggio era, when Joe McCarthy was master of the Yankees’ universe until 1946, Mattingly lived through ten managerial changes in his thirteen years as their star first baseman, including Billy Martin three separate times.  (Martin was also on the Veteran's Committee ballot this year, but had virtually no chance with Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony LaRussa being undeniable locks to be elected.)  The Yankees had not won a World Series since 1978 and had not been to the post-season since 1981, the year of their last pennant.

As when Stengel became manager, the Yankees faced an uncertain future when Joe Torre was given command of the ship.  The Yankees were reloading both times and future success was not guaranteed, particularly because the 1949 and 1996 Yankees each faced the prospect of competing against teams potentially better positioned for success in the immediate future:  the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians in Stengel’s time; the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles in the AL East and the Indians in the AL Central in Torre’s time.  Both managers inherited a veteran at the peak of his career playing a critical position:  shortstop Phil Rizzuto for Stengel, center fielder Bernie Williams for Torre.  And both managers had a veteran even better known for being a resilient gamer than for his considerable skills on the field of play:  “Old Reliable” right fielder-first baseman Tommy Henrich on the Stengel Yankees, the perfectionist “Warrior” right fielder Paul O’Neill on the Torre Yankees.  Both managers also had a compelling but still unproven talent playing at a critical position at the start of his career:  Yogi Berra at catcher for Stengel, Derek Jeter at shortstop for Torre.    

Like Stengel, Joe Torre had little margin for error.  Just as Stengel might not have survived without quickly winning the Yankees another pennant, the same was almost certainly true for Torre—especially since Yankee Boss George Steinbrenner was famously volatile about losing, impatient about not winning, and quick to dispose of managers who did not have his team come out ahead, as he did with the well-respected Buck Showalter for failing to win the 1995 ALCS despite having returned the Yankees to competitiveness and their first post-season appearance in fourteen years, albeit by way of the wild card.  Moreover, public dismay in New York that the Yankees' most successful  manager since the 1970s was being replaced by Torre, who was widely perceived in the Big Apple as an ineffectual manager, notwithstanding his division title with Atlanta in 1982, caused Steinbrenner to try to reverse his decision.  Showalter was no fool and refused to come back as manager with his intended replacement already signed up and presumably in position to step in the next time Steinbrenner decided he had enough of Showalter.  So Torre became manager, knowing two things:  the New York fan base was not supportive of the decision to replace Showalter, and Steinbrenner would not hesitate to relieve him of his responsibilities quickly if the Yankees slipped from contention.

With his future as a major league manager on the line in 1949, all Casey Stengel did was win an unprecedented five pennants in a row, and an unprecedented five straight World Series.  And in so doing, Casey's clownish persona transformed into that of an eccentric creative genius; he became sort of an Einstein in the art of managing.  Stengel's achievement in winning five and five in five was all the more remarkable because his team was not nearly as dominant as McCarthy's great Yankee teams of the 1930s and early 1940s.  After leading the Yankees to 103 wins in 1954--the only season Casey cracked the 100-win barrier--and not winning the pennant (because the Cleveland Indians won 111 and set an AL record that still stands for highest winning percentage), the Yankees won five more pennants and two more Fall Classics for Stengel.  In twelve seasons managing the Yankees before he "made the mistake of turning seventy," Stengel won ten pennants and seven World Series.  

And with his career as a big league manager at stake in 1996, all Joe Torre did was take the Yankees to five World Series in his first six years at the helm, winning four world championships.  And in so doing, Torre's unflappable, steady persona transformed into that of one of the country's most respected leaders; he had a subtle touch for managing up, managing down, and keeping his team from being distracted by Steinbrenner's bluster and intemperate actions.  Torre's achievement of five pennants and four World Series championships between 1996 and 2001 is all the more remarkable given that, in the wild card era, he had to navigate his team through two rounds of post-season series just to get to the Fall Classic.  

Same as Stengel, Torre managed the Yankees for twelve years, and his teams finished first in the AL East ten times, just as Casey's team finished on top of the unitary American League ten times.  And, like Stengel, who was unceremoniously dumped in an awkward “was he fired, or did he retire” press conference, Torre's departure from the Yankees was less than elegant; it can be argued that the Yankee front office maneuvered Torre into firing himself by offering a new contract whose foundation principles were degrading to a manager who had accomplished so much.  Torre's Yankees made the post-season every year he was their manager, twice as a wild card entry, winning six pennants and four World Series, all while enduring one Mr. George Steinbrenner (who was also on the Veteran's Committee ballot this year, but failed to pass muster).

For the record, Joe Torre won 1,173 games in his twelve years in charge of the pinstripers, just barely ahead of Casey Stengel's 1,149 victories as Yankee manager.  The Yankees had a .623 winning percentage under Stengel, the equal of a 101-61 season in today's schedule--(Stengel's Yankees were in the era when the baseball season was 154 games long)--and a .605 winning percentage under Torre, the equivalent of a 98-64 record.  Joe McCarthy, Hall of Fame class of 1957, is the Yankee manager with the most longevity (sixteen years in pinstripes), most wins (1,460 in 154-game seasons)) and highest winning percentage (.627, the same as a 102-60 record today).   

Friday, December 6, 2013

Maddux. Glavine. And Smoltz: Incomparable Trio

Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both on the Hall of Fame ballot  for the first time, were two-thirds of probably the best three-man starting front for a major league team in history, along with John Smoltz, whose first year of Cooperstown eligibility won't be till next year. This Baseball Historical Insight poses the question:  were there any other teams in history whose top three starters over a period of at least five years compare favorably with the Atlanta Braves' trio from 1993 to 1999? 

Maddux. Glavine. And Smoltz:  Incomparable Trio

Maddux.  Glavine.  And Smoltz.  From the time Greg Maddux came to Atlanta as a free agent in 1993 until John Smoltz was forced to sit out the 2000 season because of Tommy John surgery (after which the three were not in the same rotation again, Smoltz returning as a closer), the Braves had the most sustained run of pitching excellence in baseball history.  While finishing with the best record in the National League every year except 1994--which was terminated 48-games short in early August because of a catastrophic players' strike--the Braves led both leagues in fewest runs allowed every year from 1993 to 1999, and their adjusted earned run average over those seven years, taking into account their home park and the offensive level at the time, was a major league-best 26 percent better than the average pitching staff. Maddux went 128-51 (.715), won at least 19 games four times, led the league in ERA four times, allowed the fewest runners on base four times, and won the Cy Young Award in each of his first three seasons with Atlanta (giving him four in a row, to go with the one he won with the Cubs in 1992).  Glavine, a southpaw who had established himself among elite pitchers before Maddux's arrival with back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1991 (when he won Cy Young) and 1992, went 114-56 (.671) between 1993 and 1999, leading the league with 22 wins in 1993 and 20 in 1998, was honored with a second Cy Young Award in 1998, and his league-leading 21 victories in 2000 helped ease the Braves' pain of not having Smoltz on the mound.  Smoltz, before blowing out his elbow landed him in surgery, went 100-59 (.629), led the league in winning percentage and innings pitched twice, won 24 and his own Cy Young Award in 1996, and struck out more batters than innings pitched three times.  At 342-166 (.673), Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz won two-thirds of their decisions, had a combined winning percentage 49 percentage points better than Atlanta's overall .625 from 1993 to 1999, and captured five Cy Young Awards when they were in the same rotation.  

Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz are all three likely to be Hall of Fame inductees.  Only two other teams had three Hall of Fame pitchers together in their starting rotation for as many as five years, but neither with the impact at the time that the Braves had with their three.  Back when the American League was still a fledgling, Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics from 1903 to 1907 had the benefit of the services of southpaws Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell together with right-hander Chief Bender.  The three started two-thirds of Philadelphia's games during those years, combining for 299 (72 percent) of the A's 414 wins.  Despite their efforts, however, the Athletics won only one pennant (in 1905) and competed for only one other (in 1907), and only once did the Philadelphia pitching staff they led finish better than fourth in the league in earned run average. Nonetheless, Waddell (107-75, .588) and Plank (116-67, .634) were two of the most dominating pitchers in the league for the entirety of those years, with the eccentric (too often to a fault) Rube dominating the league in strikeouts each year, while Bender (76-54, .585)--whose rookie season was in 1903 at the age of 19--was still coming into his own and was not among his league's five best pitchers in any of those seasons. Mack counted on Waddell and Plank for 300 innings per season; Bender reached 270 innings in his rookie season, but did not throw as many as 250 again until 1909, averaging only 23 starts per year from 1904 to 1907.

With the arrival of Early Wynn in a trade from Washington in 1949 to join up with Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, the Cleveland Indians had a trio of future Hall of Famers in their core rotation for the next five years.  Lemon and Wynn were just entering the peak of their best seasons.  With 20 wins in 1948 to establish himself as one of baseball's best pitchers, Lemon was a 20-game winner in six of the next eight seasons and led the league with 18 wins in one of the two years he did not win 20, and Wynn won 20 for Cleveland four times. Bob Feller, however, was on the downside of his great career; although he was still only 30, Feller had already thrown nearly 2,500 innings in 10 seasons.  He had been a 20-game winner five consecutive seasons and led the league in strikeouts seven straight years (not including three full seasons lost to World War II and a late return to the diamond in 1945), but after 1948, Feller won 20 only once more and never again approached the strikeout totals from earlier in his career.  Bob Feller was actually the fourth-best pitcher in Cleveland from 1949 until the sands of time ran out on his career.

Mike Garcia was the third man joining with Lemon and Wynn from 1949 to 1956 to give Cleveland one of the best starting threesomes in baseball history.  Garcia won 104 games with a .650 winning percentage in his first six years with the Indians before descending toward mediocrity in 1955, had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1951 and 1952, and led the league in ERA in '49 and '54.  From 1949 to 1954, Lemon (128-68, .653), Wynn (112-63, .640), and Garcia (104-57, .646) were three of the five best pitchers in the American League, based on the WAR metric for pitcher value, and Cleveland led the league in ERA four times.  With a temporarily-rejuvenated Feller, Garcia, and Wynn winning 20 in 1951 and Wynn, Garcia, and Lemon doing so in 1952, the Indians became the first major league team since the New York Giants in 1904 and 1905 to have three 20-game winners in back-to-back seasons.  While competitive virtually every year, Cleveland won only one pennant, in 1954, because the Yankees had an all-around better team during those seasons, including their own imposing trio of top starters in Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Ed Lopat.  The Yankees would not have been as successful without those guys, but Lemon, Wynn, Garcia, and a declining-but-still-effective Feller gave the Indians the better pitching staff.

The only team since the '51 and '52 Indians to boast three 20-game winners in back-to-back seasons was the Baltimore Orioles in 1970 and 1971 (when they had four).  The Orioles from 1969 to 1974 are the only team to potentially rival the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz Braves for having the best-three front line starters.  Jim Palmer (106-54, .650) and lefties Mike Cuellar (125-62, .668) and Dave McNally (111-65, .631) had a combined .654 winning percentage, 44 percentage points better than their team's, during the six years the Orioles won five division titles and three American League pennants.  Palmer, who had four straight 20-win seasons from 1970 to 1973 (before being temporarily sidetracked by arms problems that condemned him to a 7-12 mark in 1974), is the only one of the three in the Hall of Fame.  Although neither Cuellar and McNally was able to sustain their level of excellence for a long enough time to have been serious Hall of Fame candidates, both (along with Palmer) were among the five best pitchers in the league between 1969 and 1972 based on their consistency compared to other pitchers during those years. McNally had his own stretch of four consecutive 20-win seasons beginning in 1968, and Cuellar won 20 four times, including three in a row from 1969 to 1971 when the Orioles dominated the American League by winning the first three pennants in the new division-era, and 18 twice. In their six years together, the trio won 342 games--the same number as Atlanta's threesome in seven seasons, except in an era when complete games were still prevalent.  Palmer, Cuellar, and McNally completed 44 percent of their starts, compared to Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz completing 14 percent of theirs in an age when relief specialization was coming into its own.  The Orioles were the stingiest team in all of major league baseball in the first five years that Palmer, Cuellar, and McNally pitched off the same rubber at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, with a major league-best adjusted ERA 19 percent better than the league average.

When Cliff Lee came back to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011 as a free agent, the baseball world was quick to anoint the Phillies' front-three starters--Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels--as the next coming of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. Although both were in their early 30s, Halladay and Lee was each still a top-flight ace.  Hamels, also one of the game's best pitchers, had just entered his prime.  The three combined for a 50-23 (.685) record in 2011 for a team that won 102 games and contributed to the Phillies having by far the best pitching staff in major league baseball, with the lowest ERA and by far the highest collective pitcher value as measured by the WAR metric. Unfortunately, their greatness together was short-lived as Halladay, now in his mid-30s, endured shoulder problems that limited him to only 28 starts in 2012 and 2013 and substantially reduced his effectiveness.  Lee and Hamels remain at the top of their game, but two isn't three.

Finally, it remains to be seen whether some combination of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and now Doug Fister will give the Washington Nationals--my local team--a compelling threesome for the next four or five years that might someday be spoken of in the same vein as . . .

Maddux.  Glavine.  And Smoltz.

Note:  the following are links to two earlier blogs on Greg Maddux: and

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hard Stuff, Stinginess, and Control in the Bullpen--A Historical Perspective, Part II

Previously on this blog we observed that ace relievers in the pre-expansion era rarely had the high strikeout per nine innings (K/9) ratios, high strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) ratios, and the very low WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched)--all far better than the league average for pitchers--that are characteristic of today's best closers.  This Baseball Historical Insight tracks the arc of the modern relief ace from Dick Radatz and Hoyt Wilhelm in the 1960s, through Dennis Eckersley (whose use and excellence popularized the term, "closer"), to the best of them all--Mariano Rivera.

Hard Stuff, Stinginess, and Control in the Bullpen--A Historical Perspective, Part II

The age of enlightenment in relief pitching began in the 1960s.  Even though a strong bullpen was increasingly recognized as an important ingredient to winning success in the postwar period, few teams followed the practice of developing or inserting a dominating pitcher into the role of relief ace.  Jim Konstanty, appearing in nearly half his team's games (74) with a 16-7 record and 22 saves while averaging more than two innings per relief appearance for the Phillies in the only stellar season of his career, had won an MVP award in 1950, but few relievers were considered even by their teams to be as valuable as front line starting pitchers. That changed in the 1960s when managers began relying on their ace relievers as never before, and their bullpen saviors were expected to be as dominating in their short stints as the best starting pitchers in the game.

Boston's Dick Radatz, known as the "Monster" (not to be confused with the Green Monster in his home ballpark) because of his intimidating 6-6, 230-lb. build and his intimidating fastball, was at the beginning of a wave of power pitchers in the bullpen to close out games that has persisted to this day.  From 1962 to 1964, when he averaged 10.6 strikeouts per year while appearing in 207 games and saving 78 of them (along with a 40-21 record), Radatz's ratio of 3.3 strikeouts for each walk was far better than the dedicated relievers who came before and comparable to power starting pitchers with excellent command and control, and his 1.1 WHIP during those three years was appreciably better than the league average.  Averaging two innings per relief appearance and pitching in 42 percent of the Red Sox' games during those years, however, took a significant toll, and Dick Radatz pitched only four more years after 1964.

Meanwhile, Hoyt Wilhelm--while striking out nearly 7 batters per 9 innings, better than the league average--set an unprecedented standard for stinginess in his six years as the White Sox' bullpen ace from 1963 to 1968.  In 358 relief appearances (and 98 saves) for Chicago, Wilhelm allowed fewer than one base runner per inning.  This was all the more remarkable because Wilhelm was a practitioner of the knuckleball, a pitch whose difficulty to control typically inflates a pitcher's WHIP. Despite his relying on a fluttering pitch, Wilhelm had an excellent 3.1 K/BB ratio during his ChiSox years that was better than most of the power relievers of his and the next generation of relief specialists.  For those who recall that he had been an ace in the New York Giants' bullpen from 1952 to 1956, Wilhelm's K/9 ratio (5.7), control (1.4 strikeouts per walk), and WHIP (1.3) were not nearly what he would achieve in the 1960s.

Over next two decades, most of baseball's best relievers had high K/9 ratios, including Goose Gossage, who fanned more than a batter an inning (657 Ks in 651.2 innings pitched) from 1977 to 1983--all but the first of those years with the Yankees; Bruce Sutter, who averaged a strikeout an inning in the five years he was ace of the Cubs' bullpen from 1976 to 1980; and Lee Smith, who averaged more than 10 Ks per 9 innings over six years from 1985 to 1990 (pitching for the Cubs, Red Sox, and Cardinals), and 8.7 per 9 innings over the course of 18 years and 1,016 relief appearances for his career.  Gossage and Sutter "closed" their way into the Hall of Fame, and Smith--now in his fourteenth year of eligibility--has been a strong contender, although his prospects for selection by the Baseball Writers Association of America may be dimming because of the prominent players now becoming eligible.  During the years mentioned for each, Gossage allowed fewer than one runner on base per inning three times in seven years and Sutter twice in five years; Smith did not break the sub-one WHIP barrier.  Sutter was the only one of these three to average better than three strikeouts per walk, including an excellent 5.6 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 1977--his best year, when he had a 7-3 record and 31 saves for the NL East fourth-place Cubs.  A third Hall of Famer from this era, Rollie Fingers--possibly the most storied reliever until the coming of Mariano Rivera, if for no other reason than his handlebar mustache and pitching for the great (and dysfunctionally colorful) Oakland A's teams in the first half of the 1970s--did not match Gossage, Sutter, or Smith in K/9 ratio or WHIP in their five consecutive best years, but was much better than the league average for starting pitchers in both those categories, as well as in strikeouts per walk.
Enter Dennis Eckersley, the first of the modern closers to command the ninth inning, thanks to his manager Tony LaRussa's innovative scheme for the Oakland Athletics.  Eckersley mastered a closer's trifecta in his five best seasons with the A's from 1988 to 1992, during which he notched saves in 220 of his 310 appearances.  In 359.2 innings pitched in those five years, Eck fanned 378 batters for a 9.5 K/9 ratio while walking only 38 batters, yielding a superb control ratio of 9.95 strikeouts for every batter he walked.  Take away his 12 intentional walks on LaRussa's orders, and Eckersley had a K/BB ratio of 14.5 over five years, which trumps by far Koji Uehara's exceptional 11.2 K/BB ratio in 2013.  Eck not only had exceptional control but was about as difficult to hit as it gets, surrendering 6.2 hits per 9 innings, which contributed to his having a WHIP below 0.8 base runners per inning.  No other closer in history--not even Mariano Rivera--had Dennis Eckersley's combination of strikeouts per 9 innings, control, and stinginess over any five-year period.

Most of the great closers since Eckersley have been high strikeout power pitchers with a ratio of strikeouts to walks at least double the league average for all pitchers and a WHIP in the area of only about one base runner per inning.  Billy Wagner, for example, in a 15-year career from 1996 to 2010 had a strikeout ratio of 11.9 Ks per 9 innings, fanned four for every batter he walked, and had a WHIP just under 1 at 0.998 in 903 innings of relief; Trevor Hoffman in 16 years (1993-2008) charging out of the Padres' bullpen to save the day had a 1.04 WHIP, a K/9 ratio of 9.7, and a K/BB ratio of 4.04 in 902 games and 952.1 innings of work; and Joe Nathan in six years as the Twins' closer from 2004 to 2009 had a 0.94 WHIP, averaged 10.4 Ks per 9 innings; and had a 4.3 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

And finally, appropriately and as always, the last word belongs to Mariano Rivera. The Sandman may not have matched the 1988 to 1992 Eckersley when it came to WHIP, K/9 ratio, and control in any five-year period, but while Eck had only six outstanding seasons as a closer, Rivera's entire 19-year career was outstanding.  In 1,105 games and 1,233.2 innings out of the Yankees' bullpen (including 1996 when he set up for John Wetteland and not including his 10 starts in 1995), Rivera's WHIP was below 1 at 0.97, he struck out 8.3 batters per 9 innings, and had 4.3 strikeouts for every walk he surrendered.  The last time he averaged better than a strikeout an inning was in 2009 (9.8 K/9) at the age of 39, but Rivera remained a control artist and nearly impossible to hit right to the end of his career.  Not including his injury-lost season of 2012 (when he appeared in nine games before ruining his knee shagging fly balls), Rivera allowed fewer than one runner per inning in six of his last eight years closing out Yankee victories.  In his swansong season of 2013, Mariano had a 1.05 WHIP, 7.6 Ks per 9 innings, and struck out six batters for each walk. Although Eckersley's closing brilliance was decisive in his making it to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, he had been a closer for less than half of his 24-year big league career, and voters took into account his full body of work--which included a first career as a starting pitcher.  That means Mariano Rivera will be the first pitcher to be elected to the Hall of Fame exclusively as a reliever on his first very ballot--a percentage certainty even greater than the certainty that the game is saved when the Sandman doth enter.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Hard Stuff, Stinginess, and Control in the Bullpen: A Historical Perspective--Part I

The best closers today have high strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) ratios, high strikeouts-to-walk ratios, and are stingy in allowing base runners.  This Baseball Historical Insight is the first of two examining the extent to which this combination has been characteristic of ace relievers as the use of dedicated relief pitchers has evolved since the mid-1920s.

Hard Stuff, Stinginess, and Control: A Historical Perspective, Part I

Of the 30 principal closers for the 30 major league teams in 2013, 19 averaged more than a strikeout per inning. Five had a strikeout (K/9) rate of 13 or better for every 9 innings pitched--Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman (15.8); KC's Greg Holland (13.8); Pittsburgh's Jason Grilli (13.3); Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel (13.2); and the Dodgers' Kenley Jansen (13.0).  Jansen, Holland, and Kimbrel were also exceptionally stingy in allowing base runners; they were among only seven closers whose WHIP (walks and hits per inning) was less than one. Only Kenley Jansen among those power relievers with 13 or more strikeouts per 9 innings was among the four closers with such exceptional control that their strikeouts-to-walks ratio was better than 6-to-1.  The most outstanding reliever was Boston's Koji Uehara, who did not assume the closer's role until late June and thus recorded only 21 saves, but whose K/9 rate was 12.2 (eighth-best among the game's 30 closers) compared to walking only 1.1 batter per 9 innings for a stupifying strikeout-to-walks ratio of 11.22--by far the best in the major leagues--which explains his equally jaw-dropping WHIP of only 0.56, significantly better than Jansen's 0.86 WHIP which was second among big league closers in 2013.

Certainly since the start of this century--and arguably dating back to at least Dennis Eckersley--these characteristics have defined most of the best closers in the business.  But it was not always thus.  Until the beginning of the expansion era in the 1960s, ace relievers called upon to "close" out victories typically were not pitchers with extraordinary talent, capable of dominating games, groomed specifically to the role. With a few notable exceptions in the first half of the 20th century--specifically Firpo Marberry in the first half of his career and Johnny Murphy for all of his--pitchers who became their team's bullpen ace were either breaking into the league and being tested first in relief, pitchers trying to rehabilitate their careers after being found wanting in a starting role, or veterans who no longer had the stamina or the stuff  to be front line starters.  Statistical splits between starting and relief pitchers show that relievers generally did not match up with starters in strikeouts-to-walk ratios or WHIP, nor did they in K/9 ratio until the late 1950s.  A closer examination of those pitchers who finished the most games for their team, including getting either the victory or a save, shows this same pattern holding true.  It must be remembered, however, that until the 1950s--and then, much more in the National than the American League--few teams used the same pitcher as their relief ace over many consecutive seasons.

Firpo Marberry was the first quality pitcher to be used almost exclusively in relief when he was in his prime. In his first two full big league seasons in 1924 and 1925 (at the prime ages of 25 and 26), Marberry relieved in 91 games for Washington, earning 30 saves (15 each year), and was instrumental to the Nationals winning back-to-back pennants. A hard-throwing right-hander, Marberry's 5.1 Ks per 9 innings in 1925--when all of his 55 appearances were in relief--was nearly double the 2.7 K/9 average of AL pitchers that season.  His control, however, left lots to be desired; Marberry also walked an average of 4.3 batters per 9 innings, significantly higher than the average 3.5 walks allowed by AL pitchers, and in 1924 and 1925 combined, Marberry as a reliever allowed more walks than strikeouts racked up.  Indicative of his effectiveness, however, his 1.4 WHIP as a reliever in 1924 and 1925 was better than the league average of 1.5.

Unlike Marberry, baseball's next best relief ace, the Yankees' Johnny Murphy beginning in the mid-1930s, was not a power pitcher with a K/9 ratio better than the league average.  His manager, Joe McCarthy, made Murphy's career by astutely convincing the young pitcher that he did not have the stuff to make it long-term as a starting pitcher.  Possessed with an often-wicked curve, Murphy in 375 games in relief walked more batters than he fanned, but then again AL pitchers walked more batters than they struck out most seasons during his career.  Reinforcing his effectiveness in closing out Yankee victories, Murphy's 1.38 WHIP in his years as the Yankees' relief ace was better than the league average WHIP of about 1.5.  (Murphy was the subject of my first post--"Johnny Murphy Time" on this blog:

Joe Page was next in the Yankees' long line of shut-down relievers, although his career longevity was short-circuited by temperance and temperament problems. His "outstanding" years were limited to two: 1947, when his K/9 ratio of 7.4 in 141-1/3 innings (95 per cent out of the bullpen) was far better than Bob Feller's 5.9 that led the league among ERA-qualifying pitchers, and 1949, when his 6.6 K/9 ratio was far better than Yankee teammate Tommy Byrne's league-leading 5.9 among starting pitchers.  Page, however, also had command issues, walking an average of 4.6 batters per 9 innings in 1947, and 5-per-9 in 1949. In both years, Page gave up fewer than 7 hits per 9 innings and had a WHIP substantially below the league average.

To this point, even as strong relief pitching was increasingly recognized as an important ingredient to winning success, few teams had followed the practice of developing talented young pitchers specifically to be relief specialists, as the Nationals had with Marberry and the Yankees with Murphy.  Most teams instead cycled through a progression of "ace" relievers from season to season, with few holding that role for more than two or three seasons.  By the late 1940s, National League teams began increasingly to designate or develop pitchers as relief specialists and to use them in that role for many consecutive years.  The most prominent included the Cardinals' Al Brazle (1950-54), who was converted to a relief ace in his mid-30s after having been a starting pitcher--which was typical in precedent; the Dodgers' Clem Labine (1953-59), who began his career as a swingman but whose talents were clearly for the end-game; the Reds' Frank Smith (1950-54), who started only seven of the 271 games he pitched; and the Pirates' Roy Face (1955-68). In their best years out of the bullpen, they were typically better than the league average in strikeout ratio, strikeouts-to-walks ratio, and WHIP, but not by much. More significantly, none were overpowering pitchers who approached the K/9 ratios of baseball's top power pitchers in starting rotations during that era.

American League teams were far behind the curve when it came to seeing value in having a dedicated relief ace who they could rely on over many seasons.  In the 1950s, only two AL teams had the same relief ace for as many as five straight years--Boston with Ellis Kinder from mid-season 1950 (when he switched from a starting role to bullpen ace on a permanent basis) to 1955, and Cleveland with Ray Narleski from 1954 to 1958.  In his best season of 1955, when he had a  9-1 record with 19 saves in 59 relief appearances, Narleski's 7.6 Ks per 9 innings would have placed him within the AL's top three starting pitchers in strikeout ratio. The AL may have been lagging, but in the 1960s it was the junior circuit that featured the most prominent denizens of the bullpen, some of whom became prototypes for the evolution to the modern classic closer.  My next Baseball Historical Insight will pick up from there.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Counterintuitively Successful: Boston's 'Teen Years--The 1912-18 Red Sox

Our 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox have been described as a team that came out the best in the major leagues with more a workman-like, rather than a star-studded, line-up (notwithstanding Big Papi and Dustin Pedroia), almost as though they overachieved for the talent they had--especially after having lost 93 games last year.  The same might be said of the Red Sox' first sustained stretch of excellence, beginning 101 years ago in 1912 and extending through 1918, when they won four pennants and four World Series in seven years.  With only two exceptional players as bookends--Tris Speaker, who patrolled center field and was an imposing offensive force, on the championship teams of 1912 and 1915, and Babe Ruth, an outstanding southpaw who pitched for Boston's winning teams in 1915 (although not in the World Series), 1916, and 1918--the Red Sox' success was certainly earned, including through the crucible of two tight pennant races, but they won against established patterns at the time for teams that dominated the league over successive years.

Boston's 'Teen Years--The 1912-18 Red Sox

The World War I-era Boston Red Sox were a worthy successor to the Philadelphia Athletics, who won four pennants and three World Series between 1910 and 1914, but hardly as imposing in either their dominance of the baseball world or the overall talent level of their team.  Connie Mack's Athletics had the characteristic pedigree of a baseball dynasty, including continuity of core players during their championship seasons and many of the game's best at their positions in both contemporary and historical context.  The Red Sox' mastery of the American League, by contrast, could be described as counterintuitive to the model of baseball's great teams to that point in time--the Boston Beaneaters and Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s; the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, New York Giants, and Mack's Athletics since 1900.  For example:
  • Unusual for the time, the Red Sox won their four championships under three different managers, none of whom managed the team for more than three complete seasons.  In the 25 previous years (1890-1914), every team that won multiple pennants over any five-year stretch did so under only one manager.  
  • Unusual for the time, the Red Sox maintained their standing as the best team in baseball despite, after two championships, trading away the centerpiece of their offense and their far-and-away best player--one of the very best in the game's history, in fact--and nonetheless winning two more.  In the 25 previous years (1890-1914), every team that won multiple pennants over any five-year stretch had continuity in their starting line-up, and none traded away their best offensive player as Boston did with Tris Speaker. 
  • And, unusual for the time, the Red Sox were at the forefront of strategic innovations involving platooning and in-game position player substitutions when they won their two middle pennants. At the time, teams that were generally favored by the baseball gods with good health and few injuries relied on no more than ten or eleven position players who would receive nearly all of the playing time and rarely be taken out of a game, with those on the bench asked to fill in only when necessary.  

Managerial Musical Chairs in Boston:  The Red Sox' first of four 'teens championships came in 1912--with a franchise-record 105 victories interrupting the Athletics' string of four pennants in five years--in their first season under player (first baseman)-manager Jake Stahl.  Stahl had to be coaxed out of a one-year retirement, trying his hand at banking after leading the league with 10 home runs in 1910.  Despite his World Series triumph in 1912 that contributed to the Giants' string of three straight Fall Classic defeats, by mid-season of the next year Stahl was back in the banking business, undermined by front office politics and a dismal start to the season.  Stahl's replacement was Bill Carrigan, the team's veteran catcher, who was highly regarded as a leader and for his knowledge of the game.  The Red Sox came back strong in 1914, finishing second to set the stage for picking up where Philadelphia left off when Connie Mack began breaking up his great team following the Athletics' debacle in the 1914 Fall Classic (although his team's tenuous financial position was Mack's real impetus).

After leading Boston to back-to-back Series championships in 1915 and 1916--taking out both the Phillies and Dodgers in five games--it was Carrigan's turn to decide that retirement looked good, especially going out on top. Second baseman Jack Barry took over as player-manager in 1917, brought the Red Sox home second, then joined the reserves as the US fought in World War I.  Ed Barrow, in a precarious position as President of the International League at the time, took little persuading to become Boston manager in 1918, leading the Red Sox to their sixth pennant since the birth of the American League in 1901.  That tied Boston with Philadelphia for the most pennants won by an American League team.  (For any who are wondering: the AL team in New York, at this point in history, had precisely zero pennants--which, of course, would soon change with what would become an 86-year-long Curse of the Bambino.)

Offensive Impact of the Speaker Trade:  The 1912-18 Red Sox can almost be considered two different teams--before and after Tris Speaker.  The best offensive player in baseball at the time besides Ty Cobb, and arguably a better all-around player because of his defensive brilliance in center field, Speaker was the only position player on the Red Sox who could be considered, even at the time, to be an elite player.  Speaker was flanked in the outfield by Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper, making up one of the most famous outfields in history.  Even though Lewis, Hooper, shortstop Everett Scott and third baseman Larry Gardner remained from the 1915 pennant-winning Sox, Boston lost a significant bit of its offensive edge after Speaker was sent packing to Cleveland just before the start of the 1916 season--with cash the primary consideration--in part because he was a leader of one of two rival factions in the clubhouse, but mostly because the Tribe wasn't willing to meet his salary demands. Lewis and Gardner would both be gone by 1918, and it wasn't until 1918 that either player the Red Sox got for Speaker (pitcher Sad Sam Jones and infielder Fred Thomas) made any appreciable contribution to Boston's cause.

With Speaker one of the AL's three best position players from 1912 to 1915, based on wins above replacement (WAR), the Red Sox, according to the WAR metric for player value, had the third-best offensive team in the league the first three years, and were second in 1915.  They led the league in scoring in 1912 and were third each of the next three years.  Without Speaker in 1916, Boston won the pennant despite being sixth in scoring and next-to-last in the AL as a team in offensive wins above replacement and having only one position player among the top 10 in player value--Gardner, who ranked seventh (while Speaker was best in the league with his new team in Cleveland). The Red Sox were only fourth in the league in runs scored and fourth in offensive WAR when they next won in 1918, in no small measure due to Babe Ruth starting nearly half of his team's games in the outfield, in addition to his starting pitching responsibilities.  Ruth and Hooper were the only two Red Sox (at fifth and sixth) whose player value was among the top 10 AL position players. (Gardner had the eighth highest WAR among AL position players in 1918, but was now playing in Philadelphia.)

Playing the Percentages.  Once Speaker was gone, the foundation for Boston's success rested on strong pitching--a staff that included three of the league's best pitchers in Ruth, Dutch Leonard, and Carl Mays--and exceptional defense.  With a much less proficient offense, particularly among infielders, the Red Sox benefited from Bill Carrigan, along with visionary NL managers George Stallings (who managed the other team in Boston) and John McGraw, being at the leading edge of an evolution towards in-game position player substitutions and platooning to gain match-up advantages against opposing pitchers.  McGraw had been out front since late in the previous decade in using his bench strategically during a game, and Stallings popularized platooning with his outfield rotation when the Boston Braves had their "miracle" come-from-way-behind season in 1914.

Carrigan was one of the first managers in the game's history, and the first American League manager, to systematically embrace both concepts.  In 1915 and 1916 he platooned at first base with lefty-swinging Dick Hoblitzel against right-handed starters and righty Del Gainer against southpaws, and in the final month of the 1916 season he platooned the left-handed batting Chick Shorten and right-handed Tilly Walker in center field, which he continued into the World Series.  And Carrigan was far more aggressive than the typical manager in making in-game position substitutions for tactical advantage.  In three full seasons under Carrigan from 1914 to 1916, the Red Sox averaged 152 defensive substitutions--including a record-shattering 193 in 1916--substantially more than double the average of 63 by the seven other American League teams over those three years, which was consistent with the league average since 1908.  Carrigan often used his managerial discretion to pinch hit for a weak-hitting starting position player at a crucial point in the game to gain a favorable match-up against the opposing pitcher.  In 1916, for example, the light-hitting (.232/.283/.295) Everett Scott completed only 77 percent of the games he started at shortstop, and both Hoblitzel and Gainer were often replaced when the starting pitcher was relieved by a twirler throwing from the same side they batted.  Carrigan's line-up manipulations in 1915 and 1916 might well have been the difference in the Red Sox winning back-to-back pennant races decided by less than three games.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Red Sox - (Cardinals) : 1946 Pivot Year as Good as it Got for Boston

As the Cardinals and Red Sox meet in the World Series for the fourth time, this Insight looks at the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox surrounding the first time they met in 1946.  While that year was the capstone of the Cardinals' dynasty of the 1940s, as noted in my previous post, it seemed at the time to mark Boston's rise to dominance for the rest of the decade, which proved to be an ephemeral illusion.

Red Sox - (Cardinals) : 1946 Pivot Year as Good as it Got for Boston

Same as for the Cardinals, 1941 was the foundation year for the Red Sox' drive to their 1946 meeting with St. Louis.  By the time the exigencies of World War II eviscerated major league rosters beginning in 1943, Boston had assembled a talented team that included Bobby Doerr at second base, Johnny Pesky at shortstop, Dom DiMaggio in center field, and (of course) Ted Williams in left field.  The Red Sox had not won a pennant (let alone a World Series) since 1918 and were still no match for the Joe DiMaggio-led Yankees, but were shaping up to be their primary rival for the American League pennant. They finished second to the Yankees in 1941, albeit 17 games behind, and narrowed the Yankees' pennant-winning margin to 9 games in 1942.  Both the Yankees' and Red Sox' rosters were hard hit by military call-ups--Boston losing Pesky, DiMaggio, and Williams for three years and Doerr for one--but the team in New York had sufficient depth of talent to win again in 1943, and stay in the hunt until late in the season each of the next two years.  The team in Boston, on the other hand, plummeted in the standings, finishing seventh in both 1943 and 1945 (and fourth in 1944).

When stars from both teams returned from the war in 1946, it was the Red Sox who dominated the AL, winning the pennant by 12 games.  With the Yankee veterans getting older, it looked like the Red Sox might be the team to beat in the American League for the foreseeable future.  Instead, despite strengthening the club with the addition of power-hitting shortstop Vern Stephens in a trade with the Browns (with Pesky moving over to third) and the arrivals of Mel Parnell and Ellis Kinder to bolster the rotation, the Red Sox did not win again that decade--and lost three straight pennants in heartbreaking fashion: losing a one-game playoff to Cleveland in 1948; going into Yankee Stadium with a one-game lead and two games remaining in 1949, only to lose both and the pennant; and having the best record in the American League after mid-June in 1950, only to fall four games short because of a bad start to the season.

The Red Sox may have had more of the game's best players, but the Yankees had superior depth.  The Red Sox may have had a more potent offense, but the Yankees had the advantage--arguably, a significant advantage--in pitching and defense.  The Red Sox had Joe McCarthy managing in their dugout, but the Yankees had Casey Stengel.  The much-heralded McCarthy was only three years older than the much-maligned (at the time he took over in the Yankee dugout) Stengel, but Stengel was just discovering his inner genius as a manager while McCarthy was increasingly out of touch with the game and its players. See my earlier post, "The Red Sox-Yankee Rivalry, 1946-50:,", for a more complete discussion "Explaining Why Boston Underachieved."

Red Sox fortunes in the late 1940s may have turned on key in-game decisions by McCarthy in the final games of the 1948 and 1949 seasons.  Finishing the scheduled 1948 season with Cleveland having an identical record, McCarthy had his best pitcher, 15-game winner Mel Parnell, available with three days of rest to pitch in a one-game playoff for the pennant (the American League's preference for deciding such things), but chose instead to start little-used Denny Galehouse, who failed to last four innings, thus denying baseball of its only shot at an all-Boston World Series (the Braves having won the NL flag).  Other than the specific choice of Galehouse, McCarthy's decision had a certain logic since Cleveland's most dangerous hitters and top run-producers--Lou Boudreau, Joe Gordon, and Ken Keltner batting third, fourth, and fifth--were all right-handed batters.  Parnell, a rookie southpaw, would have been facing them at Fenway Park, with that inviting wall for right-side hitters.  Moreover, Parnell started most often on four days of rest that year and had made only one start on three days rest since early August--that just four days before, meaning that he would be pitching back-to-back games on three days of rest if he got the ball for the win-or-go-home playoff.  On the other hand, eight of Parnell's 15 wins came at Fenway, twice against the Indians, whom he had beaten three times all told.  If not Parnell, McCarthy's only other option was right-hander Ellis Kinder, because his two other right-handed mainstays in the starting rotation--Jack Kramer (18-5) and Joe Dobson (16-10)--had pitched the last two days of the season.  Kinder was 10-7, pitching well, and was sufficiently rested (four days), but he had not been in McCarthy's starting rotation at the start of the season and only one of his wins was against either of the two other top teams (Cleveland and New York) in the league.

A similar tale unfolded in the final game of the 1949 season against Stengel's Yankees when McCarthy made two momentous decisions--first to pinch hit for his starting pitcher, Kinder, in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game the Yankees were winning, and then to replace Kinder with Parnell, who had pitched into the fifth inning the day before, been hit hard by the Yankees, and was near exhaustion from his workload in the heated drive for the pennant.  Kinder was pitching brilliantly when he was removed for the pinch hitter, and while it was not unusual at the time for managers to stay with a pitcher who was pitching well in a close game in the late innings, even if he was losing, McCarthy's decision on the pinch hitter was clearly intended to start a needed rally.  That the Red Sox did not rally did not mean the decision was wrong.  Bringing in the weary Parnell, on the other hand, was a gamble, never mind that he was the ace of the staff and had won 25 games.  He had also pitched 295 innings on the season and had made seven starts, appeared twice in relief, and hurled 59-1/3 innings since September 1.  Parnell did not get an out, giving up a home run and a single, and the Yankees plastered his relief, Tex Hughson, for three more runs, which provided the cushion needed to withstand a three-run Red Sox rally that fell short in the ninth.  Hughson had been buried in the bullpen and was probably not McCarthy's first choice out of the bull--hence Parnell--because, how much faith can a manager have in a pitcher with a 5.31 ERA and a 1.6 WHIP with the pennant directly on the line?  The problem for McCarthy in that fateful game was that, unlike when he managed the Yankees, he had not seen fit to include a reliable reliever in his pitching corps, as had now become a must-have for competitive teams.  Indeed, the lack of a reliable reliever probably precluded the Red Sox from winning the pennant outright and avoiding a playoff with Cleveland the previous year.

Having squandered their potential to forge a late-1940s dynasty, the Red Sox did not have the talent in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s to compete for a pennant.  But what was worse, the team was generally dispirited and factionalized, and neither the front office nor whoever was the manager came to grips with this.  Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and, among managers, Pinky Higgins in particular, were part of the problem, fostering a much-remarked upon country club atmosphere and hard-hearted resistance to integration at the big league level.  Things did not begin to change until Dick O'Connell became general manager in 1965, and in 1967 new manager Dick Williams demanded a level of accountability from his players that had been sorely lacking in Red Sox culture.  Oh, and perhaps most significantly, the 1967 pennant-winning Red Sox featured catcher Elston Howard, first baseman George Scott, third baseman Joe Foy, center fielder Reggie Smith, outfielder Jose Tartabull, and relief ace John Wyatt--black players all--in key roles.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cardinals - (Red Sox) : 1946 Pivot Year -- Capstone of a St. Louis Dynasty

This is the fourth time the St. Louis Cardinals representing the National League and the Boston Red Sox the American League have met in the Fall Classic.  The first time was in 1946, which proved to be a pivot year in the longer-term fortunes of both teams.  Although both remained competitive for the remainder of the decade, neither returned to the World Series until the mid-1960s--the Cardinals, for the first time in 18 years in 1964, and the Red Sox, for the first time in 21 years in 1967, when they once again faced off against St. Louis.  This first of two Insights looks at the St. Louis Cardinals, whose 1946 World Series triumph capped a six-year span in which they won 606 games.

Cardinals - (Red Sox):  1946 Pivot Year--Capstone of a St. Louis Dynasty

The St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers squared off in a fierce competitive rivalry in the 1940s that played out in four close pennant races.  After the two teams jockeyed between second and third place the previous two years, they were the class of the National League in 1941, leaving the Cincinnati Reds--who were defending back-to-back pennants--in the dust.  With Johnny Mize and Country Slaughter solidifying their line-up, the Cardinals won 97 games that year, but fell short by 2-1/2 games to the 100-win Dodgers. Brooklyn looked certain to repeat in 1942 when they held a 10-game lead over St. Louis as late as August 5.  The Cardinals were handicapped by having traded away Mize for virtually nothing before the start of the season--a miscalculation by the Cardinals' normally astute General Manager, Branch Rickey, who generally liked the leverage of trading away good players on the cusp of their declining years (Mize would remain one of baseball's best players for the rest of the decade)--but had a secret weapon in a kid who would become known as The Man, one Mr. Stan Musial.  Although the Dodgers went on to win 104, they were trumped by the Cardinals winning 44 of their last 53 games--a phenomenal .830 winning percentage--to end up with 106 victories and the pennant, and then, for good measure, St. Louis upended the New York Yankees in the only World Series they would lose when Joe McCarthy was their manager.  The Cardinals blew out the rest of the league with back-to-back 105-win seasons the next two years, fell three games short of the Cubs in 1945, and in 1946 dueled through the month of September to a tie that required a three-game playoff format favored by the National League to decide such things, St. Louis needing only two games to advance to a Fall Classic date with the Red Sox, made famous by Harry Brecheen's three wins, Ted Williams' slump, and Country Slaughter's romp while Johnny Pesky held the ball.  This was the high point of the Cardinals' dynasty, but in 1949 they fought another close race with the Dodgers, their 96 wins being one fewer than needed to force another playoff series with Brooklyn.

In a recent post on "Cardinal Pennant Clusters,", I noted that despite winning four pennants and three World Series in five years between 1942 and 1946, the Cardinals may not get the respect they deserve as one of the best teams in history because their 1943 and 1944 blowout pennants were when many of the best players in baseball were serving in the US armed forces during World War II.  In particular, it appeared at the time, and historically in retrospect, that the Cardinals' principal rival before the war years--the Brooklyn Dodgers--were hurt more by player losses than St. Louis. The Dodgers indisputably lost a greater number of important players to the war effort--third baseman Cookie Lavagetto for four years; shortstop Pee Wee Reese, center fielder Pete Reiser, and ace reliever Hugh Casey for three; and second baseman Billy Herman and starting pitcher Kirby Higbe for two.  The Cardinals'  fared better in keeping their core regulars, with their most significant wartime player losses being outfielders Country Slaughter and Terry Moore for three years and Musial for a single season in 1945 (when, not coincidentally, the Cardinals failed to win a fourth straight pennant).

The wartime impact on the Cardinals-Dodgers rivalry, however, was more apparent than real because the teams--by far the best in the National League--were likely on different trajectories even had the Second World War not intervened.  Specifically, the 1942 Dodgers were an older team and possibly on a plateau, while the 1942 Cardinals were a young team getting better, and it seems unlikely their aging veterans would have kept pace with the younger Cardinals even if there hadn't been a world at war to deplete big league rosters.  Five of Brooklyn's position players and two of their pitchers with 20 or more starts that year were 30 years or older, compared to only one core regular that age on the St. Louis roster--30 year-old Terry Moore.  While spared the loss of key players like ace starter Mort Cooper and his brother, catcher Walker Cooper, shortstop Marty Marion, third baseman Whitey Kurowski, and Musial (until 1945), St. Louis did have wartime holes to fill.  The Cardinals' pitching staff was particularly hard hit by war:  Johnny Beazley, who won 21 games in 1942, wore Uncle Sam's uniform the next three years; Ernie White, who won 17 games in 1941, missed much of the next two seasons with arm problems and was in the military the two after that; and Al Brazle and Howie Pollet both served two years just as they were on the verge of becoming established as major league pitchers.

Given their core of young players, especially Musial, it seems highly plausible, if not likely, that the Cardinals achievements in 1941 and 1942 would have given them momentum into the years ahead even if the war had not depleted major league rosters and Brooklyn been able to keep its core intact.  Once the war was over and major league players-turned-soldiers returned to being players, the Brooklyn team that challenged St. Louis for the 1946 pennant had Reese, Reiser, Higbe, and Casey back in uniform, but of the seven players 30 years or older who were core regulars on the 1942 Dodgers, only right fielder Dixie Walker--who was not called into service during the war--was a regular on the 1946 Dodgers.  Beginning in 1947, the Dodgers began the transition to one of the most memorable--and best--teams in National League history that would win six of the next 10 NL pennants featuring Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, Carl Furillo and Pee Wee Reese, who was the only significant player remaining from the 1941-46 Dodgers. The Cardinals stayed competitive--finishing second each of the next three years after 1946--but could not match that level of talent.  The only outstanding new player the Cardinals were able to add to their mix was (future) Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst.  The Cardinals' last great run for a pennant before they fell into a fifteen-year malaise was in 1949, when losing four in a row to the sixth-place Pirates and last-place Cubs cost them the game-and-a-half lead they held over Brooklyn with only five games remaining.  They finished one behind.

Next Up:  The Red Sox had their own 1946 pivot.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pitching Rich, Division Series Poor: The 2000-03 Oakland Athletics

In the crucible of postseason baseball, teams with superior pitching are usually said to have the advantage.  With the Oakland Athletics losing once again in the Division Series and remaining snake bit in the 21st century when it comes to advancing deep in the postseason, this Baseball Historical Insight looks at the A's from 2000 to 2003, a team with exceptional starting pitching that was continually frustrated in the Division Series because their offensive weaknesses were exposed in high-stakes short series.

Pitching Rich, Division Series Poor: The 2000-03 Oakland Athletics

With right-hander Tim Hudson and southpaws Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the Oakland Athletics from 2000 to 2004 had probably the best front three in an American League starting rotation over consecutive years since the heyday of the Baltimore Orioles with Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, and Mike Cuellar (also one righty and two lefties) from 1969 to 1974.  Although Zito did not make his big league debut until July 22 of 2000, the three won a total of 234 games during those five years while losing 149 for a combined winning percentage of .611 and accrued a collective player value of 70 pitching wins above what could be expected from a replacement-level hurler from Triple-A.  Each was a 20-game winner, leading the league in victories, once during that time--Hudson at 20-6 in the year perhaps best known as Y2K, Mulder at 21-8 in 2001, and Zito at 23-5 in 2002.  Hudson and Mulder finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting in their 20-win seasons, while Zito out-polled Pedro Martinez to win the '02 award. With their three aces starting 57 percent of the 2000-04 A's games and accounting for 48 percent of the A's 483 total victories, Oakland was first (in 2002 and 2003) or second in league ERA each year.

The Athletics capitalized on their pitching to make the postseason every year except for 2004--three times by winning the AL Western Division title and once as the wildcard (in 2001, when their 102 victories was amazingly 14 fewer than the Seattle Mariners' 116)--but never made it out of the Division Series round. Not even once. They did, however, go the five-game distance each time, losing the decisive elimination game twice to the Yankees (in 2000 and 2001) and once to the Twins (2002) and Red Sox (2003), often in excruciating fashion (witness the defining play of Derek Jeter's career in the 2001 series).  Four of the 12 games they lost were by one run, including the "Jeter backhand flip" game and the deciding games of both the 2002 and 2003 Division Series. Pitching was not the issue as much as an inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities. These Oakland teams were done in by the lack of a diversified offense--particularly speed and the ability to manufacture runs--to face off against postseason opponents that had good enough pitching (even if not the caliber of Hudson, Mulder, and Zito as three in a row) to stymie the A's core of power hitters. 

The A's during these years had some imposing batters in the line-up--specifically Jason Giambi in 2000 and 2001 knocking out 81 home runs and batting .338; shortstop Miguel Tejada for all four years with 122 round-trippers (an average of 30.5 per year) to call his own; and third baseman Eric Chavez for all four years with 121 homers.  Aside from these players, the A's starting line-up typically included the likes of Mark Ellis, Terrence Long, Jermaine Dye and Ramon Hernandez who were capable journeyman-type players but hardly significant offensive threats.  Consistent with the must-have-runners on base philosophy of General Manager Billy Beane, the Athletics were second, first, third, and fourth in the league in drawing walks from Y2K to 2003, but the team gave virtually no emphasis to small-ball tactics as a way to manufacture runs.  Of 14 American League teams, Oakland was never better than next-to-last when it came to sacrifice bunts and was last or next-to-last every year in stolen bases, as well as stolen base attempts.  The one year when the Athletics did have a modicum of a running game was in 2001, the only year they had Johnny Damon (obtained in a trade and gone as a free agent at the end of the season) batting lead-off and accounting for 27 of Oakland's 68 stolen bases.

The lack of a practiced multifaceted offense to deal with the better quality of pitching expected in October baseball, compared to the overall quality of pitching they faced over the course of a long season, almost certainly cost the Athletics the opportunity to advance, even once, to the ALCS despite the strength of their core starting rotation.  In each of their Division Series losses, the Athletics had at least three starting position players hit less than .200; in the four series they had a total of 14 position players who started at least four games in a series hit less than .200, compared to a total of eight starting position players on their opponents whose series batting average was below the Mendoza line.  Of greater significance because runs are more difficult to score in the pressure and sustained superior competition of a postseason series than during the regular season, the Athletics hit only .224 with runners in scoring position in the four Division Series, and only .196 in 92 at bats with runners on second or third in the 12 Division Series games they lost.

And in postseason series where hits and runs are at a premium, extra-base hits are particularly important to driving in runs since, by definition, runners will advance at least two bases.  In their Division Series losses to New York in 2000 and Boston in 2003, the Athletics' percentage of hits that went for extra bases dropped dramatically from regular-season levels of 36 and 37 percent to only 26 percent in both series in their first-round elimination, while their opponents' percentages of extra-base hits were comparable to what they had been in the regular season.  Except for the 2002 series against Minnesota, when the A's hit eight home runs (and the Twins five) as the two teams combined to score 53 runs, Oakland's power was shut down in the postseason; the A's hit two home runs against the Yankees in 2000 and only one against the Yankees in 2001 and one against the Red Sox in 2003.

While the Athletics were being eliminated in the first round of the postseason four straight years, the New York Yankees went to three World Series and failed to advance to the ALCS only once--in 2002, a year ironically where both they and the A's won 103 games to lead the major leagues and neither made it out of their respective Division Series.  The Yankees did not have a starting threesome that could match Hudson, Mulder, and Zito in excellence and consistency, but with Roger Clemens (past his prime, possibly with a little PED help), Mike Mussina, David Wells, and the perennial Andy Pettitte, the pinstripes had a core of starting pitchers that could hold their own against any other team's starting line-up of position players and shut down teams that lacked a balanced offense.  And anchored by Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada all four years, Alfonso Soriano for three, and Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez in 2000 and 2001 and Jason Giambi (signed as a free agent after starring for Oakland) in 2002 and '03, the Yankees had precisely the more diverse and deeper line-up that the Athletics lacked.


Clarification:  In my previous post on "Cardinal Pennant Clusters," I wrote in the lead paragraph that the Cardinals "have won as many pennants (18) as the Dodgers, and they have won more World Series (11) than any team not named the Yankees, but both of those franchises have received much more historical attention and fanfare than the Cardinals."  While accurate and to my point, especially beginning with the "but" clause, this leaves the impression that the Cardinals and Dodgers are tied for the most pennants in National League history since 1901. In fact, the Giants have won 20 NL pennants since the start of the twentieth century, including (as we all know) two in the last four years.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cardinal Pennant Clusters

Last week, as the Cardinals were closing in on the NL Central Division title, Missouri Senator McCaskill on Morning Joe expressed some irritation that the St. Louis Cardinals have not received the historical acclaim they deserve.  Indeed, they have won as many National League pennants (18) as the Dodgers since 1901, and they have won more World Series (11) than any team not named the Yankees, but both of those franchises have received much more historical attention and fanfare than the Cardinals.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at the Cardinals' four pennant "clusters" of the 20th century--1926 to 1934; 1942 to 1946; 1964 to 1968; and 1982 to 1987--that fashioned a St. Louis legacy remaining to this day of teams that play fundamentally sound baseball and know how to win by being pesky and gritty when they do not dominate the league.

Cardinal Pennant Clusters

St. Louis was the last of the eight National League franchises that began the twentieth century to win a pennant. Through the first quarter of the century, the Cardinals were one of the worst teams in the league--finishing last or next-to-last ten times in 25 years, losing 90 or more games ten times, and posting a winning record in only eight seasons. By the mid-1920s, however, Branch Rickey was transforming the Cardinals--in fact, transforming all of white professional baseball--with his development of an extensive farm system and somewhat ruthless strategy of holding onto promising talent in his minor league system as an investment in the future and discarding veterans abruptly when he felt their skills were on the precipice of decline. Rickey‘s creative genius proved to be the foundation for the Cardinals being the most successful National League team between 1926 and 1946.

Until the major leagues expanded to divisional alignments in 1969, no National League team did better over any six-year stretch than the Cardinals in winning four pennants between 1926 and 1931. The Giants won four pennants in four years from 1921 to 1924, and the Cubs from 1906 to 1910, Cardinals from 1942 to 1946, and Dodgers from 1952 to 1956 each won four pennants in five years. But extend the run of each of those teams to six years and their achievement was exactly the same as (which is to say, no better than) the 1926-31 Cardinals--four pennants ('26, '28, '30, and '31) in six years. They made it five pennants in nine years by winning again in 1934, playing scrappy, die-hard, we-ain't-gonna-lose baseball that earned them the gritty nickname, "Gashouse Gang," which fit so perfectly the Depression Era.

The Cardinals may have logged five pennants and three World Series championships from 1926 to 1934, but were hardly a dominant team.  In only one year--1931, by 13 games--did they win the NL pennant in a rout; their four other pennants were each won by identical two-game margins. Moreover, St. Louis was not competitive in three of the four years they did not win the pennant, finishing fourth in 1929, sixth in 1932 with a losing record, and fifth in 1933. Notwithstanding Hall of Famers Jim Bottomley (1B), Frankie Frisch (2B), Chick Hafey (OF), and Jesse Haines (P) playing on at least three of the first four St. Louis pennant-winning teams, only Hafey was at the peak of his career in performance, the others on their downside. The 1934 Gashouse Gang was largely a different team, led by now-player-manager Frisch, near the end of his playing career, and including third-year outfielder Joe Medwick, whose best years were still to come, and third-year ace Dizzy Dean, whose 30 victories that year has been matched only one time since, in 1968.

It would not be until 1942 that the Cardinals next won the pennant, but that one kicked off three in a row and four in five years.  Of greater significance, however, the 606 games the Cardinals won between 1941 and 1946--an average of 101 per year--is more than any other team in history over six years except for the Chicago Cubs’ 622 victories from 1906 to 1911. (The most any of the great New York Yankee teams won over six seasons was 599, from 1937 to 1942. The Yankees won 598 in six years from 1936 to 1941.)  This Cardinals team dominated the league in every aspect of play and took the '43 and '44 pennants by decisive margins, but did so with Stan Musial as the only historically great player on their roster for each of their four pennants.  It can be legitimately argued that this St. Louis team's achievements should be discounted because two of the four pennants--those in 1943 and 1944, with 105 wins both years--were won when major league rosters were decimated by players being drafted during World War II. Their arch-rivals, the Dodgers, who beat out the 97-win Cardinals in 1941 and fell short of the 106-win Cardinals in 1942 by two games, lost many of their core players to the war effort, but St. Louis did not escape unscathed; outfielders Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore both lost three years in the service to their country, and the year the Cardinals missed out on a fourth straight pennant, falling three games short of the Cubs in 1945, was the year Stan the Man was himself in the armed forces. With all players from both franchises back in the big leagues in 1946, Brooklyn and St. Louis tied for the pennant with the Cardinals sweeping a best-of-three playoff to decide the winner.

After winning their ninth pennant and sixth World Series in 1946, it would be 18 years before the Fall Classic returned to St. Louis.  The 1964 Cardinals made for a compelling story with their dramatic surge at season's end to overtake the collapsing Phillies, and in 1967 and 1968 the Cardinals were not seriously challenged in winning back-to-back pennants, giving them three in five years. But the 1964-68 Cardinals played below expectations in the two years they did not win the pennant, buried in the second division in both 1965 and 1966.  While Ken Boyer had a superb 1964 and Orlando Cepeda a superb 1967 to each win MVP honors, St. Louis had only three stars—Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood (four, if you want to include Tim McCarver)—among its core players for the duration of their run, but Gibson was their only player who was the best at his position (as one of four starting pitchers) for all of that time, based on the wins above replacement metric.  (Brock had the disadvantage of outfielders Mays, Aaron, and Clemente still in their prime.)

Similarly, the St. Louis team that won three pennants in six years between 1982 and 1987 (in '82, '85, and '87) endured two losing seasons and a third when they were never in the race for the NL East.  They had only one true star and historically great player—Ozzie Smith, the best defensive shortstop ever—but otherwise won with a cast of solid, fundamentally-sound players who played effectively and efficiently within manager Whitey Herzog's framework.  Like the 1926-34 and 1964-68 Cardinals, the 1982-87 St. Louis team had great success with few of the league's best players, which made them vulnerable to poor seasons in the midst of their winning three division titles, three pennants, and two World Series championships.

With the exception of 1942 through 1946, many of the Cardinals‘ pennant-winning teams through history can be said to be overachievers. Although by definition, they were the National League‘s best in the years they won the pennant, the 1926-34, 1964-68, and 1982-87 Cardinals cannot be considered among the all-time best National League teams over any extended period of at least five years because they all endured poor seasons in the middle of their otherwise impressive achievements.  Those Cardinals clusters of pennants were accomplished with relatively unimposing teams when it came to their core regulars.  Indicative of this legacy, 11 of the 24 times the Cardinals have finished first in the league or their division, they did so by margins of three games or less.  In fact, they won more such close pennant races than they lost (7), and in 2001 tied the Astros for the best record in their division (and the league, for that matter) but had to settle for the wild card because Houston won their season series.  Living so close to the edge makes for exciting pennant races and terrific lore, and even embodies the American ethic of overcoming great odds to achieve success, but it does not make a case for being the best over time.  It does make the St. Louis Cardinals one of the most compelling franchise stories in baseball history, who probably have not gotten quite the historical acclaim they deserve.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Rise and Fall of the 1933 Washington Nationals

With the Nationals just eliminated from the wild card, it remains 80 years and counting since the last time a Washington team went to the World Series. From 1924 to 1933, for the first time in modern Washington baseball history, Our Nation's Capital was not the back end of the joke about being first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League, as the Nationals (also called the Senators) were overall the third most successful franchise in the league (after the Yankees and Athletics). This Baseball Historical Insight looks at the build-up to the Washington Nationals winning the 1933 A.L. pennant.

Rise and Fall of the 1933 Washington Nationals

An earlier post focused on the keys to success for the Washington Nationals winning back-to-back American League pennants in 1924 and 1925:  Although the core of the team remained substantially the same, the Nationals were not in the pennant hunt in any of the next three years as the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees dominated the league. Notwithstanding his managing the Nationals to pennants in each of his first two years at the helm, beginning at the age of 27 with all of four full seasons of big league experience playing second base, player-manager Bucky Harris was sent packing by Washington owner Clark Griffith after finishing fourth with a losing record in 1928. Griffith brought back Washington icon Walter Johnson, who had won 417 games pitching for the Nationals and retired in 1927 as arguably the greatest pitcher in the history of the game, to try to restore the team's fortunes--this time, as manager.

On the surface,the Big Train's first year at the helm in 1929 seemed less than a success as the Nationals fell to fifth in the AL.  His team was already 34-1/2 games out and 21 games below .500 with a 38-59 record on August 4 when, indicative of what was to come, the Nationals rallied to own the league's best record the rest of the way, playing .600 baseball with 33 wins and 22 losses.  The next three years under Walter Johnson, the Nationals were legitimate contenders--winning 94 and finishing second in 1930, 92 and third in 1931, and 93 and third again in 1932--except they weren't really contenders because the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Yankees were so dominant there was no contest for any of the three pennants. Despite his team coming off three consecutive 90-win seasons, averaging 93 victories a year, and the Nationals having the AL's best record at 19-7 in the final month of the season in 1932, Johnson was replaced as manager by his shortstop, Joe Cronin, and it would be he--Cronin, as player-manager--who had the distinction of leading the Nationals to the promised land of the World Series in 1933.

Clark Griffith was in love with Joe Cronin.  Well, his daughter was anyway; the boss's daughter married the star shortstop, not that that necessarily had anything to do with the managerial change. Griffith, remembering the instant success his team had with consecutive pennants immediately after naming young second baseman Bucky Harris as manager, was enamored by the possibility of another inspiring young on-the-field team leader doing the same.  And the same he did do.  The 1933 Nationals rode a stretch of 23 wins in 26 games between June 8 and July 9 into first place by four games over the Yankees, the only other team that figured in the pennant run that year.  Thirteen straight wins in August broke the race open, and Washington was 8-1/2 games up on New York going into September.  The Nationals ended up winning their third pennant in 10 years by seven games over the Yankees, but lost the World Series to the Giants in five.

It would not seem to have been a necessary move, replacing a Washington icon as manager with the team's star shortstop, especially when it would be dubious to argue that the Nationals could have done any better than they did under Johnson. The Athletics in 1930 and 1931, and the Yankees in 1932, were just too powerful.  They were two of the best teams in history, against which the Nationals were no match, player-for-player (see table at end of post).  Philadelphia's 1929 to 1931 championship teams featured Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove--Hall of Famers all, and at the peak of their careers; the Yankees had Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Ruth, Earl Combs, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez--Hall of Famers all, most at the top of their careers; and Washington's Hall of Fame players included Sam Rice, who was at the end of his career; Heinie Manush, whose best years had been in the 1920s, and Joe Cronin, who was the team's brightest star and the best all-around shortstop in the American League.

The Washington team Cronin inherited was solid and mature, but by no means great.  With the exception of Joe Kuhel at first base, only in his third year, Cronin had a veteran infield with Buddy Myer at second, himself at shortstop, and Ossie Bluege at third.  An off-season trade that brought back back former Nationals' star Goose Goslin, a key contributor to the 1924-25 pennants, helped strengthen the offense, particularly as he joined up with Heinie Manush in the outfield.  Cronin, Goslin, and Manush were three of the most dangerous hitters in the American League.  The trade acquisitions of catcher Luke Sewell, pitchers Earl Whitehead and Lefty Stewart to join Alvin "General" Crowder in the starting rotation, and Jack Russell to become relief ace strengthened the pitching.  And fortuitously for young (26 years old) first-time manager Cronin, the Yankees who had been so dominant in 1932 were vulnerable in 1933, mostly because age was catching up with key core players (notably Ruth, Combs, and Joe Sewell).  The Great Depression, meanwhile, was forcing Connie Mack to break up the core of his great Athletics team.  For the record: there is no reason to suppose, based on his record, that Walter Johnson could not have won the pennant with this team had he remained as manager, especially with the Yankees in decline and the Athletics splitting up.

By 1934, however, the mature pennant-winning Nationals of 1933 were decidedly older, as the Yankees had been, and beset by injuries to key players, notably Cronin and Kuhel.  Unlike the 1933 Yankees, the Nationals did not have the depth of talent to fall back on to prevent a catastrophic plunge from first to seventh.  The team that had been third in scoring and led the league in fewest runs allowed in 1933 fell to sixth in both runs scored and runs allowed in 1934.  The franchise would forever more be the back end of that old joke about Washington baseball, until moving to Minnesota in 1961 ended the pain, after which another AL team in Washington took up that particular mantle (until they moved to Texas).

(cumulative wins above replacement)
(starting position players + top 3 pitchers)

New York
Foxx                       22.1
Gehrig                 26.3
Judge/Kuhel                   6.6
Bishop                    13.8
Lazzeri              11.9   
Myer                              9.2
Boley/McNair           3.6
Lary/Crosetti         9.3
Cronin                          21.3  
Dykes                      6.9
Sewell                   6.2
Bluege                           7.7
Simmons                19.5
Ruth                    28.9
Manush                       10.4  
Miller/Cramer           7.8
Combs                 14.1
Rice/Reynolds               10.2
Haas                       6.7 
Chapman             13.0
West                            10.1
Cochrane               16.5
Dickey                 10.0
Spencer                         0.0
Grove                     28.6
Ruffing                  10.2
Crowder                        13.4
Walberg                10.5 
Gomez                   9.0
L.Brown                          9.5
Earnshaw              10.2
Pipgras/Allen          7.3
Marberry                         8.9