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.