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