Thursday, April 4, 2013

The (AL) Nationals'1924-25 Capital Success

With the Washington Nationals widely expected to repeat as National League Eastern Division winners this season, the following Baseball Historical Insight looks at the keys to success the last time a major league baseball team in Our Nation's Capital won back-to-back titles:  the Washington Nationals (also known as the Senators) winning American League pennants in 1924 and 1925. 

The Nationals' 1924-25 Capital Success

As the 1924 season approached, there was little reason to expect the Washington Nationals to compete for the American League pennant.  The Yankees had won three straight to kickstart their dynasty, including a dominating performance in 1923 when they won the pennant by 16 games, while the Nationals had finished fourth, sixth, and fourth under three different managers since 1921. An original American League franchise, the Nationals with only six winning seasons in their first 23 years had mostly been either deadenders or the definition of mediocre.  But the Nationals had a nucleus of accomplished veterans 30 years or older in all-time pitching great Walter Johnson, southpaw George Mogridge, shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, and right fielder Sam Rice; an eight-year veteran just under 30 in Joe Judge at first base; and young hustlers in Muddy Ruel behind the plate, second baseman Bucky Harris, third baseman Ossie Bluege, and left fielder Goose Goslin.  With this foundation, the Nationals surprised the baseball world by beating out the Yankees by two games to grab the 1924 title, and winning the World Series beside, and repeating in 1925 (except for the World Series part), taking the pennant by 8-1/2 games over second-place Philadelphia as the Yankees never recovered from not having Babe Ruth--out with a mysterious stomach ailment--for the first month-and-a-half of the season and finished seventh.

Three factors were key to Washington's unexpectedly Capital Success.  The first was Washington owner Clark Griffith's decision to change managers yet again, turning to his second baseman to take charge of the team after at first considering trading him for Eddie Collins so that Collins could be manager.  At 27 with only four major league seasons behind him as a player, Bucky Harris was younger than all but two of the Nationals' position regulars; only Goslin and Bluege--both 23--were younger than he.  Griffith, therefore, was careful to secure support for his decision to make Harris manager from Johnson and Rice, Washington's two biggest stars.  Harris proved a dynamic and an innovative leader, his innovation being introducing the concept of a dedicated relief ace to major league baseball.

That would be Firpo Marberry, the second key factor in the Nationals' success because they would not have won the 1924 pennant and might not have repeated in 1925 without him as their relief ace.  Not until the 1920s was the pitcher with the most saves typically a "genuine" relief pitcher, and they were not elite pitchers groomed for that role.  Being a "relief ace" was definitely not the road to career success, particularly at a time when most teams were still using established starting pitchers to come in from the bullpen to win or save close games that the day's starting pitcher could not himself close out.  Harris's insight was to dedicate a young pitcher with the potential to be a first-rate starter almost exclusively to relief.  (Marberry did start 14 games in 1924, along with 36 relief appearances, but was not used as a starting pitcher at all in 55 games in 1925.)  Marberry, much in the manner of closers today, not only threw hard--very hard--but displayed a fearsome, stalking, intimidating presence on the mound.  Harris made 273 pitching changes in his back-to-back pennant-winning seasons, using Marberry 91 times.  In almost exactly half of those games, Marberry got either the win (15) or the save (30).  He also was the losing pitcher 11 times, meaning Marberry figured directly in the game's outcome 62 percent of the time he was called in from the bullpen.

The decision to use Marberry's talent in the relief role was critical because Harris inherited a pitching staff whose two best pitchers--Walter Johnson and George Mogridge--were both 35 or older, and in 1925 Mogridge was replaced by 35-year old Stan Coveleski.  Having a pitcher as fine as Marberry to rely on in the bullpen allowed Harris to better pace his aging staff aces.  With the reliable Marberry as Washington's relief ace in the hole, the Nationals' old-guy starters benefited by not necessarily having to complete their own victories.  Marberry saved 11 of Johnson's 43 wins in 1924 and 1925, four of Mogridge's 16 wins in 1924, and four of Coveleski's 20 victories in 1925.

Marberry's role helped rejuvenate the twilight of Walter Johnson's career.  The Big Train had not won 20 games since 1919, but had nonetheless completed 70 percent of his starts and had also appeared in 27 games in relief.  With a pitcher of Marberry's excellence in the bullpen, Johnson no longer needed to make relief appearances to save wins for Washington and could be bailed out by Marberry in games he started.  The 36-year old Johnson was 23-7 in 1924, leading the league in wins, winning percentage, ERA, and strikeouts, and was the league's MVP.  In 1925 he went 20-7.  Johnson appeared only once in relief those two years, and completed 36 of his 67 starts--a more reasonable, given his age, 54 percent.

Thirty-five-year old Mogridge, meanwhile, went 16-11 in 1924, completing 13 of his 30 starts, after having completed 57 percentage of his starts in his three previous years in Washington.  And Coveleski, after a relatively mediocre season in 1924 with Cleveland that might have marked the beginning of the end of his great career, was 20-5 with the Nationals in 1925, leading the league in winning percentage and ERA (same as Johnson the previous year), but completing only 15 of his 32 starts.

The final key to Washington's success was decisively winning the season series against their principal rival for the pennant both years and playing well down the stretch to secure the American League flag. In 1924 the Nationals won 13 of their 22 games against the Yankees, including a four-game sweep in June at Yankee Stadium that thrust them into first place in the midst of a 10-game winning streak that began when they were in sixth.  The most pivotal games, however, were in the last days of August when Washington took three of four from the Yankees, again in the enemy's lair at Yankee Stadium, to take a game-and-a-half lead into September.  The Nationals remained in first place the rest of the season, but never by more than two games until clinching the pennant on the next to last day of the season.  Harris guided his team to an 18-7 record in the final month, including winning seven of the ten games they played in September with first place directly at stake--either tied for first, no more than a game ahead, or no more than a game behind--which proved absolutely necessary because the Yankees kept the pressure on Washington down the stretch with an 18-8 record of their own and owned a share of the top soil for three days in mid-September.  The Nationals went on to win a thrilling seven-game World Series against the New York Giants.

And in 1925, Washington was 13-7 against the Philadelphia Athletics, themselves making an improbable run for the pennant after years in the wilderness following owner-manager Connie Mack's break-up of his great 1910-14 team.  Although the Nationals won in the end by a blowout margin, it was a tight pennant race for most of the summer.  From July 15 until August 19, the Nationals were never alone in first place, mostly keeping pace in second, typically about two games behind the Athletics.  On August 27, Washington held a mere half-game lead after losing four in a row, but won nine of their next ten to open up a nine-game lead, while Philadelphia was mired in a 12-game losing streak. This time, the Nationals lost a thrilling seven-game World Series, to Pittsburgh.

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