Sunday, June 29, 2014

50 Years Ago: The '64 Phillies--Mauch Loved to Sacrifice

The '64 Phillies passed the first real test as to their competitive mettle on the Fourth of July weekend by sweeping three straight from the Giants with first place at stake. Their one-run victory in the concluding game showcased Gene Mauch's managerial proclivity to emphasize small ball tactics (sacrifice bunts, hit-and-run plays, productive outs) to work for one run at a time, even with a lead. This is the fifth article in a series on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Phillies' epic collapse.

The '64 Phillies: Mauch Loved to Sacrifice

On July 3, the Philadelphia Phillies came into San Francisco's Candlestick Park for a three-game July 4th holiday showdown series with the Giants, the two teams seemingly the only two taking the National League pennant race seriously. A game-and-a-half separated the Giants and Phillies, with San Francisco having surged into first place with 12 wins in their last 14 games. The Phillies themselves had been playing quite well with an 18-12 record in June, having spent 18 of that month's 30 days on top of the heap, including a lead that reached 2-1/2 games on June 19, the day after which the Giants got hot to bring them to this moment at Candlestick.

(Of the other teams that would figure in September's drama, the Cincinnati Reds were third, 6-1/2 games behind, and the St. Louis Cardinals, now with Lou Brock in their outfield, were still trying to get traction, 9-1/2 games out in fifth place with an exactly .500 record. The defending World Champion Dodgers were out of the picture, trailing everybody but Houston and the New York Mets.)

The Giants could have put themselves in the driver’s seat of the pennant race sports car with a sweep because the season was approaching its mid-point and contenders were being separated from pretenders. That was still an open question for the Phillies: 31 of their 44 victories (70 percent) had been against teams that had losing records as of July 3. Their record against teams .500 or above was 13-15 and the Phillies had been swept when the Giants came to Philadelphia for three games in early June. But it was the Phillies who won the first game to move within half-a-game of the top; won the middle game on July 4 to flip-flop the top two in the standings; and took the series finale, 2-1, beating Giants' ace Juan Marichal—who entered the game with an 11-3 record—to leave San Francisco with a game-and-a-half lead.

Both runs in the third game were set up by intended sacrifice bunts. In a scoreless game, Johnny Callison led off the fourth inning with a single, bringing up the ever-dangerous power-hitting Dick (then known as "Richie") Allen, who had been batting clean-up in Gene Mauch's line-up since mid June. Notwithstanding Allen's .306 batting average and 16 home runs and 47 RBIs at the time, the rookie slugger was asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move Callison to second base. It was such a good bunt, Allen beat it out for an infield single. A strikeout and a groundout later, with both runners moving up a base, Callison scored on an infield hit. With two outs and starting from second base, Allen kept coming on the play but was thrown out at the plate for his base running aggressiveness.

The Phillies were still nursing that 1-0 lead when Marichal walked catcher Clay Dalrymple to start the seventh inning. Mauch ordered Tony Taylor, batting seventh with a .243 average, to lay down a sac bunt despite knowing that the next two hitters were the weakest bats in his line-up, but his decision paid immediate dividends when Ruben Amaro, hitting a mere .222 in only his 13th start at shortstop for the season, singled up the middle to score Dalrymple. That run proved critical because Jim Ray Hart, like Allen another power-hitting rookie third baseman to make his presence felt in 1964, hit his 10th of 31 home runs that season off Philadelphia starter Dennis Bennett in the bottom half of the seventh to make it a one-run game again—which was how the game ultimately end.

Gene Mauch was an aggressive manager who liked to force the action, in particular early in games to put the Phillies on the scoreboard first and in close games, whatever the inning. The Philadelphia Phillies in 1964 attempted more sacrifice bunts (156) than any other team in baseball except for the Los Angeles Dodgers (185) and were successful 62 percent of the time, compared to 65 percent for the Dodgers, to finish second to L.A. in sacrifices (97 to 120). The Phillies were also second to the Dodgers in percentage of productive outs to advance base runners, 36 percent for Philadelphia compared to 37 percent for L.A. And the Phillies had the highest percentage in the National League of scoring runners from third base with less than two out (56 percent) and from second base with nobody out (57 percent).

For Los Angeles, managed by Walt Alston, reliance on these strategies—along with the stolen base—was understandable and perhaps even necessary because the Dodgers struggled to score runs and generally lacked extra-base firepower, in part because of the vast expanses of Dodger Stadium. Even in their 1960s pennant-winning years, the Dodgers were below the league average in extra base hits and slugging percentage—substantially so in 1965 and 1966.

While small-ball strategies made sense for Alston, Mauch had much more capacity with his line-up to score runs, but often chose to sacrifice in a play for one run—even with his best hitters at the plate—instead of trusting in his firepower. The two best hitters in his line-up—Allen and Callison—combined for a total of 60 home runs in 1964, but both laid down six sacrifice bunts to move a base runner up with nobody out.

If John McGraw, the grand-daddy of master strategist managers, disdained the sacrifice bunt precisely because it “sacrificed” a precious out, Gene Mauch was more than willing to sacrifice in the interest of playing for one run, including giving up as outs the two batters most likely to drive in runs. Over the course of the full season, Mauch's willingness to sacrifice Allen and Callison as outs to advance a runner into scoring position for somebody else to drive in may seem insignificant. But as we shall later see in September, in the final weeks of the '64 season, sacrificing Dick Allen may have cost his team the pennant.

At the end of July, the two teams met again for a three-game series with first place on the line, this time in Philadelphia. The Giants came into Connie Mack Stadium trailing by a half-game; the Reds were three back in third and the Cardinals tied for fifth, seven games out. The top of the standings remained the same after they split the first two games, but in the series finale—on July 30—after having surrendered a run to the Giants in the top of the tenth inning, the Phillies won the game with the following sequence: a leadoff double and hit batter put runners on first and second; Allen, once again asked to bunt, reached on an infield single toward third to load the bases; a two-run double by Johnny Briggs won the game. Philadelphia now led by 1-1/2 games. It would be nearly two full months before their lead would be that narrow again. 

The following is the link to the previous Baseball Historical Insight on the 1964 Phillies:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The '64 Phillies' Perfect Father's Day

The Phillies' trade acquisition of Jim Bunning in December was expected to bolster their starting pitching and contribute to building towards a contending team--although competing for the pennant in 1964 was considered by most experts to be a bit premature. After a 118-87 record with the Detroit Tigers, and having been one of the American League's best pitchers the previous seven seasons, Bunning was certainly not disappointing expectations. His Father's Day start in 1964 was his 14th in a Phillies uniform. Bunning, of course, made history that day by twirling a perfect game--not only the first since Don Larsen's in the 1956 World Series, but only the seventh perfect game in major league history. This is the fourth in a series of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. Links to the first three are at the end of this post.

The '64 Phillies' Perfect Father's Day

When Jim Bunning completed his warm-up pitches to face the Mets in the bottom of the first inning in the first game of the Father's Day doubleheader on Sunday June 21st 1964, he was pitching in only the 31st game ever played at Shea Stadium, the Mets' brand-spanking-new home. That made him the 62nd starting pitcher to take the mound at the new stadium. Three of the previous 30 games in Shea's short history had been shutouts. Bunning pitched the fourth shutout, but his was PERFECT. He was now 7-2 on the season with 10 "quality starts," including three shutouts, and an excellent 2.07 ERA--a worthy addition (having come from the American League) to the ranks of outstanding National League pitchers at the time and future fellow Hall of Fame guys Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Bob Gibson.

Bunning's was only the third perfect game in National League history, and the first since the so-called "modern era" began in 1901 when the American League declared itself a major league and had the credibility to do so by virtue of so many NL stars having abandoned the league for better pay in the new league--including Cy Young, who in 1904 pitched the first perfect game of the 20th century. Bunning's perfect game was the first in the National League in 84 years; Monte Ward had been the last to be perfect way back on June 17, 1880, only five days after Lee Richmond pitched the first-ever recorded perfecto on June 12. That was so long ago that the four teams involved in those two perfect games were Worcester (for whom Richmond pitched), Cleveland, Providence (for whom Ward pitched) and Buffalo, none of which survived into the modern era. (Cleveland was downsized out of the National League after going 20-134 in 1899, before being invited to become a charter member of the American League in 1901.)

At the end of Bunning's perfect day, which included 18-year old Rick Wise earning his first-ever major league victory pitching six innings without surrendering an earned run in the second game of the twinbill, the Phillies held a 2-game lead over the second-place Giants. The Reds were third, 4-1/2 back, and the Cardinals were struggling in sixth place, having already endured two five-game losing streaks, and were 8 games behind with a losing 32-33 record with 40 percent of the 1964 season gone by.

The Cardinals' situation had become sufficiently troubling (if "desperate" is too strong a word) that just six days before they had traded with the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Lou Brock, whose career was so far a disappointment but who the Cardinals thought could shore up their struggling offense, which had been held to two runs or less in 15 of their previous 20 games before they cut the deal. To get Brock, St. Louis parted with one of their top starting pitchers--Ernie Broglio, whose 18-8 record in 1963 was the best on the team and a major reason why the Cardinals had finished second and seemed primed to make a move to displace the Dodgers in 1964. They also sent veteran left-handed reliever Bobby Shantz to Chicago, who two months later, after being hardly used and pitching poorly when he was, found himself in Philadelphia--where he would figure prominently in the Phillies' September fortunes.

It can perhaps be argued that the Phillies' 2-game advantage in the standings was somewhat deceptive since their 12 previous games were with the Mets--the worst team in baseball--against whom they went 7-2, and the Cubs--also a bad team--against whom they were 2-1 in that stretch. In fact, by this point in the season the Phillies had played 44 percent of their games against the three teams that ended the 1964 season at the bottom of the National League standings, going a combined 21-6 against them through Father's Day (9-2 vs. New York; 6-1 vs. Houston; and 6-3 vs. Chicago). Philadelphia was no better than .500 against the rest of the league at 17-17. Of the three other teams that would matter come September, the Phillies were 4-1 against Cincinnati, but only 1-5 against San Francisco and 1-4 against St. Louis.

The Giants, meanwhile, had played only 29 percent of their games as of June 21 against the Cubs, Colts and Mets; the Cardinals 32 percent; and the Reds 33 percent. As we shall see come the final weeks of the season, the Phillies having faced off against the league's bottom-dwellers so often at the beginning of the season would not be helpful to them at the end.

Personal Notes on Father's Day: The memories I will always cherish about my dad--and there were many centered around baseball (and many around other things)--was his coming home from work and, after an hour commute from The Big Apple on the Long Island Railroad, taking me out to the diamond and hitting me 100 ground balls at shortstop and second base every evening. Thank heavens for daylight savings time. He expected accurate return throws. If there was still daylight, then maybe some outfield fly balls and even a bit of batting practice. Helped me stay sharp, at least defensively, for afternoon pickup games with friends--usually five to a side. Anyway, if there is any one thing from my youth that I would really like to do again, because everything was so right with the world, it would be fielding those ground balls and listening to him talk about Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon and Jerry Coleman.

And among my fondest memories as a dad with my daughter--and throughout her childhood I kept thinking, it could never get any better than this, and it did--was one summer a game we played called 27 outs. Using a tennis ball and her without a glove, I'd throw her an assortment of ground balls and pop ups that she had to catch cleanly and throw back accurately or be charged with an error. We'd play maybe three or four of these every evening, usually on a lighted tennis court. Happily, she had a nice amount of perfect games: 27 chances, 27 clean fields, 27 accurate throws. Not exactly Jim Bunning's achievement of 50 years ago, but more meaningful--at least to me.

Earlier, on the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

No Chance: '39 Yankees and '06 Cubs Dominated the Scoreboard

Through Sunday, the Oakland Athletics have scored an average of two runs more per game than their game opponents. With still over 60 percent of the schedule yet to be played, the A's are very unlikely to sustain that pace. Should that happen, however, they would be in the close-in suburbs of the exclusive neighborhood of the three teams in baseball history--the 1939 New York Yankees, the 1927 Yankees and the 1906 Chicago Cubs--that most dominated the scoring in their games.

No Chance: '39 Yankees and '06 Cubs Dominated the Scoreboard

Although they were "only" 106-45 that year, many baseball historians and researchers consider the 1939 Yankees as having had the greatest single season of any team in major league history, and not the far-more-famous 110-win 1927 Yankees (the team with the Babe and his 60 home runs and Gehrig) or the far-more-recently-famous 1998 Yankees (winners of 125 games including the post-season and featuring the incomparable Jeter and Rivera in their youth). Giving up just 556 runs, the '39 Yankees were not just the only American League team that season to allow fewer than 600 base runners to cross the plate against them, they were the only AL team to allow fewer than 700. (The Indians gave up exactly 700 runs.) With outstanding pitching and defense--particularly up the middle--the Yankees led the league in complete games, shutouts, saves, lowest on-base percentage and batting average against them, not to mention earned run average. And despite the completely unexpected loss of Lou Gehrig, who was forced from the line-up very early in the season with amyotrophic lateral schlerosis, the Yankees led the league in scoring with 967 runs--9 percent more than the runner-up (in both the standings and in scoring) Red Sox.

All told, the 1939 New York Yankees scored a phenomenal 411 runs more than their game opponents, an average of 2.7 runs per game. They won 41 of their 106 games by a blowout margin of five runs or more. The closest any major league team came to the Yankees in outscoring their opponents were the National League pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds, who scored an average of 1.1 run per game more than they gave up. The Cleveland Indians were the closest any American League team came to the Yankees in run differential, outscoring their opponents by just .63 runs per game. The more famous 1927 Yankees, for comparison, averaged 2.4 runs per game more than their opponents--the second highest per-game scoring advantage in modern major league history. But only two other times in the ten years Ruth and Gehrig started together in the Yankees' Murderers' Row did the Bronx Bombers even approach outscoring their opponents by two runs per game--in 1931 (at 1.98) and in 1932 (at 1.8).

The 1939 Yankees were the bravura final act of the most dominant four-year stretch in baseball history, averaging 103 wins per the 154-game schedule since 1936. They had won four straight pennants, all of them so decisively that the AL races were effectively over by September. They dominated every facet of the game. In all four of those years they were first in the league in scoring. In all four of those years they also led the league in fewest runs allowed. In 1936 the Yankees outscored their game opponents by 334 runs, in 1937 by 308 runs, in 1938 by 256 runs. From 1936 to 1939, the Yankees scored 51 percent more runs than they surrendered, averaging 2.1 runs per game more than their opponents. And they won four straight World Series, during which they outscored their National League opponents by 61 runs in 19 games, a 3.2-to-1 per-game scoring advantage.

A third-of-a-century before, in 1906, the Chicago Cubs led the National League in scoring with 704 runs--substantially more than the 625 runs scored by the runner-up  Giants--and in allowing only 381 runs against them, 89 fewer than the Pirates. Their favorable run differential of 323 runs meant they outscored their game opponents by 85 percent, an even higher percentage than the 74 percent more runs scored by the 1939 Yankees, and in fact the highest percentage in modern baseball history. Because this was the dead ball era, however, and there were 25 percent fewer runs scored in 1906 by the same number of major league teams playing the same-length schedule, the '06 Cubs averaging 2.1 runs per game more than they surrendered pales in comparison to the '39 Yankees' 2.7 runs-per-game average.

The achievements of the 116-win 1906 Chicago Cubs are sometimes diminished by virtue of their playing in the dead ball era. The fact that they were heavily favored to crush the cross-town Hitless Wonders White Sox in the World Series but fell to them relatively meekly in six games certainly did not help the '06 Cubs' reputation. From 1906 to 1910 the Cubs made the case for being the most dominant team in National League history over any five-year period. They won four pennants in five years, averaging 107 wins per 154-game schedule; the only season they won fewer than 100 was in 1908 when they missed by one; with exceptional pitching and defense (Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, anyone?) they gave up the fewest runs in the league four times in those five years; and although they led the league in scoring only once, they were a close second the four others years, 1907-10. All told, the Cubs averaged 1.45 runs per game more than their game opponents over those five years, again a pale comparison to the 1936-39 Yankees.

Major league baseball has not lacked for great teams in single seasons or teams that were dominant in their league over five or more seasons since the Second World War. At the same time, however, the disparity in player-talent level has narrowed, which means the competitive gap between the dominant teams since then and the rest of the league has also narrowed; even the worst teams are not as bad relative to the rest of the league as was the case for most of the first half of the 20th century. And changes in game strategy and roster makeup, particularly increasing reliance on relief pitching leading to greater specialization in bullpens, have greatly diminished the possibility of any team dominating the scoreboard in the way the 1939 Yankees and 1906 Cubs did, let alone the extent to which those teams did over four or five years.

Of the most recent "dynastic" teams, only the 1998 Yankees, who led the league in scoring and fewest runs allowed, have approached a 2-to-1 advantage in runs per game, with their scoring differential of 309 runs amounting to 1.9 runs per game more than their game opponents. Last year, the World Series champion Red Sox outscored their game opponents by 1.2 runs per game and the National League pennant-winning Cardinals outscored theirs by 1.15 runs per game.