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:," http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-red-sox-yankee-rivalry-1946-50.html, 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," http://brysholm.blogspot.com/2013/09/cardinal-pennant-clusters.html, 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.