Wednesday, April 9, 2014

100 Years Ago: When Managers (Well, John McGraw Anyway) Upended Orthodoxies

Much of the discussion about baseball in today's day and age is about how advanced technologies and analytics increasingly inform managers' roster and dugout decisions, including positioning and strategy in game situations.  A century ago, managers themselves were at the forefront of sophisticated innovations that became part of managers' game-management toolkit that has endured to this day--using relievers to secure victories, making position player substitutions to try to win games, and platooning for advantage at the outset of games.    

100 Years Ago: When Managers Upended Orthodoxies

The Washington Post's longtime baseball writer Thomas Boswell wrote that the Nationals' switch from old-school Davey Johnson to first-time manager Matt Williams is "emblematic of the era."  Specifically: "The 21st century manager generally has a lower profile ... than most famous managers in the previous century, but he remains important because he is an extension of the analytical thinking of the entire organization.  Like good upper-middle managers, they implement the business plan."  One hundred years ago, major league baseball was also in the midst of an innovative transition in how managers did their jobs. The job of "baseball manager" had become ever more its own discipline, and its professionalism was evolving into greater complexity.

It was increasingly apparent that the most successful teams would be those that were not only the most talented and skilled in execution, but also the most sophisticated in their use of strategy to win games. So managers began to think more strategically about how to win games, which led to a reconsideration or refinement of three established orthodoxies. It should come as no surprise that John McGraw, who burnished his reputation as a baseball strategy genius by always looking for an angle and being willing to try unconventional things at a time when the game was still discovering itself, was at the leading edge of all three.

The first orthodoxy taken on by McGraw was that pitchers were expected to finish the games they started. and certainly victories.  At a time when relief pitchers were rarely in the game at the end of victories--(pitchers completed 88 percent of their starts and fewer than 3 percent of wins were "saved" in 1903, his first full season as Giants manager)--McGraw's genius was to realize that victories don't necessarily have to come from complete games and that sometimes bringing in a fresh arm to complete a game is the best way to secure a win.   Despite a starting rotation including Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity that was better than any in the league, with the possible exception of the Cubs, McGraw called upon a relief pitcher to save 102 of the Giants' 663 victories between 1903 and 1909.  That not only was 15 percent of the Giants' total, but accounted for fully one-third of the total 311 saves by National League teams those seven years. 

By the end of the decade, almost certainly because of McGraw's influence, NL managers in particular had seized on the notion of using a reliever to "save" a victory. (The "save" was half a century away from being a recognized pitching statistic, however.)  By 1914--one hundred years ago--the percentage of victories secured by a save had increased to about 13 percent.  While most managers had bought into this concept by now, albeit judiciously (complete games still being perceived as the best way to get the win), none had any one pitcher designated for a relief role; the pitchers getting the saves were established starters, many of them the ace of the staff.  With Doc Crandall from 1909 to 1913, however, McGraw was far ahead of his contemporaries in imagining or anticipating a future of designated relief pitchers--although even he backed off on that after Crandall.

The second orthodoxy McGraw upended was the one where managers rarely replaced anyone in the starting line-up during the game.  The prevailing wisdom at the time he became a manager was that, barring injuries or poor performance, seven of the eight position players in the starting line-up were the same from day-to-day (the understandable exception was inevitably banged-up catchers) and played every inning of every game; the players rounding out major league rosters who sat on the bench were there more for emergencies--to substitute for an injured regular, to give a regular an occasional day of rest, or to take over if the incumbent was ineffective--than for inclusion in the game at critical moments.  Not including pitchers, major league managers made an average of only 23 substitutions for position players in the field in 1903, but McGraw that year made 44.  Quick to see the possibilities in his never-ending quest to gain a key advantage, McGraw was much more inclined to pinch hit and sometimes pinch run for a position player in pivotal moments, which--if this occurred in any but the last inning--then required a defensive replacement in the field.

From 1908 to 1912, when his Giants were one of the powerhouse teams in baseball, McGraw made twice the number of position substitutions in the field (573) than the sixteen-team major league average (270). By 1914--one hundred years ago--substituting for position players during games for tactical advantage was an accepted practice; National League managers, following his lead, averaged 108 position player substitutions that year, but McGraw was still ahead of the curve with 130 of his own.  Indicative of the two leagues being somewhat different in their strategic approach to the game, American League managers lagged behind in position player substitutions, not achieving consistent parity with their NL counterparts until the early 1920s.

Taking position player substitutions to their logical conclusion--platooning in the starting line-up--upended the third established orthodoxy:  that a team should have a set line-up of core regulars, unchanging except for injury or a player proving ineffective at his position.  Although platooning certainly occurred to McGraw, he did not platoon in his starting line-up until a decade after he began making substitutions to gain the "platoon advantage" in key moments of games, and so it is Boston Braves' manager George Stallings who gets the credit for masterminding the concept.  Unlike McGraw, whose strong teams at the time generally had a dependable player to start regularly at every position, Stallings had no such advantage with the woebegone Braves when he became their manager in 1913.  He had no (as in zero) outfielders he felt comfortable starting on a daily basis.  

Stallings was widely regarded as a brilliant strategic manager even at the time, but what made his claim to fame in historical retrospect was how his master manipulation of eight players--four left-handed and four right-handed at any given time during the season--in an outfield rotation involving all three positions, including making substitutions to counter pitching changes, contributed to the 1914 Braves' miracle of rising from the bottom of the heap on July 4th, overtaking McGraw's indisputably better club in early September, and eventually sweeping the historically great Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. What is unusual is how little attention was paid to this strategy at the time; there were no references to  Stallings' lefty-righty outfield trade offs depending on the opposing starting pitcher in any articles appearing in The Baseball Magazine, the premier publication on the sport at the time, in either 1914 or 1915.  By the end of the decade and through the 1920s, however, platooning was widely practiced by nearly all major league teams.

While George Stallings is the historical midwife of platooning and 1914 is considered the baseline year for that strategic concept, starting line-up data for 1914--the earliest year for which such data is available on the website baseball-reference--shows that both McGraw and Cardinals' manager Miller Huggins also had an outfield platoon that year, although at only one position.  The important point here is that these refinements in game strategies and tactics were more evolutionary than revolutionary; they were institutionalized by the collective wisdom of managers observing and learning from each other and becoming more strategic in their thinking.  Even if basic game strategies and strategies for employing players at key moments in games are now in place, the complexity of the game and its many nuances means there is always new insight and knowledge to be gained. Except today, as Boswell implies in his article, there is social engineering by managers making logical adaptations to not only what they observe on the field of play, but also based on the baseball-use revolution in advanced metrics and technology that can dissect performance. 


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