Friday, July 25, 2014

Hall of Fame Weekend: Cox, Maddux, Glavine and the '90s Atlanta Dynasty

With manager Bobby Cox and two of his three aces, the sublime right-hander Greg Maddux and the sublime southpaw Tom Glavine, accounting for half of the six Hall of Fame inductees being honored this weekend in Cooperstown, a subtext is surely the remarkable run of the Atlanta Braves between 1991 and 2005. The third ace, right-hander John Smoltz, becomes eligible for consideration in next year's Hall of Fame class. They were together for ten years beginning in 1993, when Mad Dog (that would be the perpetually-innocent looking Maddux) signed with the Braves as a free agent (after six years with the Cubs), until Glavine departed as a free agent after the 2002 season. In the first year they were all together, 21 years ago, the Braves won major league baseball's last great traditional pennant race with a dramatic come-from-way-behind surge to take the National League's Western Division.    

Hall of Fame Weekend: Cox, Maddux, Glavine and the 1990s Atlanta Dynasty

Bobby Cox was in his third full season as the Braves manager in 1993. He had stepped from the plush air conditioning of the front office where he was General Manager into the outdoor heat and humidity of the Atlanta dugout in the summer of 1990. The Braves finished with the worst record in the National League that year, making it quite the surprise then when he managed Atlanta to the NL Western Division title the very next year, and into the World Series besides. In a year that is a prime candidate for his best managerial performance, Cox's 1991 Braves trailed the Dodgers by as much as 9-1/2 games on July 7 before storming back into the pennant race that went down to the last weekend. Cox managed the Braves to 18 wins in 25 games down the September stretch in which first place was directly at stake with his team no more than a game ahead or a game behind at the start of play.

But 1991 was nothing compared to the drama of 1993, when Atlanta trailed San Francisco by 10 games on July 22--their worst deficit of the season--and by 9-1/2 as late as August 7. From then until the end of the season, Cox managed the Braves to a phenomenal 39-11 record (.780 winning percentage) the rest of the way to overtake the Giants. A nine-game winning streak got them started, bringing the Braves to within 6-1/2 games on August 18. A stretch of 17 victories in 21 games finally put them in first place alone on September 11, but the division title was not secured until the final day of the season when the Braves won their 104th, while the Giants had to settle for 103 after losing to the Dodgers.

If this was the current wild card era, Atlanta and San Francisco would both have been virtually assured a place in the playoffs even as early as September 10 because, even though they were tied for first in their division, they shared a 9-1/2 game advantage in what would have been the wild card race. The Braves and Giants would have spent the rest of the season battling each other for position rather than a playoff berth, their focus geared more towards lining up their starting pitchers and providing whatever rest was needed for the weary to enhance their prospects in the post-season. Moreover, losing out on first place then was not as consequential as now when MLB has a single-elimination game for two wild card entries in each league, because then the wild card team was an automatic entry--although without home field advantage--in the best-of-seven division series round. But 1993 was the last season before the wild card format began, which meant the only avenue to the post-season was winning the division. The Giants' only consolation for winning the extraordinary number of 103 games was ... knowing they had won 103 games (well, there is that), as they sat at home while the post-season went on without them.

The offensive catalyst for Atlanta's momentous drive to the division title was the July 19 acquisition of San Diego first baseman Fred McGriff, who hit .310 with 19 home runs and 55 RBI in 68 games for the Braves. It was the Braves' brilliant pitching, however, that kept up the momentum. Maddux, who began the month of August in his first year in Atlanta with a 12-8 record and 2.83 ERA, was 8-2 in his last 12 starts with an ERA of 1.46 to earn his second consecutive Cy Young Award. Glavine was 11-2 after the Braves had trailed by 10 games and ended the season with a 22-6 record. Smoltz, who was muddling about with an 8-8 record as of July 22, finished with seven wins in his last ten decisions. And now-forgotten southpaw Steve Avery was 8-3 from that point to finish with an 18-6 record.

Superior pitching defined the Braves' run of excellence--Atlanta led the National League in fewest runs allowed 11 consecutive years between 1992 and 2002--and it was Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz who defined the Braves' superior pitching. As noted in an earlier post on this blog,, from the time Maddux came to Atlanta in 1993 until Smoltz was forced to sit out the 2000 season with Tommy John surgery (after which the three were not in the same rotation again because Smoltz returned as the closer), the Braves had the most sustained run of starting pitcher excellence in major league history. No other team ever had a trio of starters that could match them for performance excellence for multiple seasons. In the seven years they were together in the rotation, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz had a combined 342-166 record (that's a .673 winning percentage) and won five Cy Young Awards between them.

Maddux, of course, won three of them--all in a row in 1993, '94 and '95--making him the first pitcher not only to win four straight Cy Young Awards (his string began in 1992 with the Cubs), but the first pitcher to win that many in all. I argued in back-to-back posts last year that, notwithstanding that his excellence has never been questioned, Maddux is under-appreciated for the dominating pitcher he was because he did not fit the classical mode of being a power pitcher or a big strikeout pitcher in the context of his times. and

Greg Maddux was most definitely not a "dominating" power pitcher; he never led the league in strikeouts and his strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratio was typically only marginally better than the league average. Even so, from 1992 to 1998--the years he was at his best--Maddux was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time. In his first six years in Atlanta (1993-98), Maddux's 2.15 ERA was more than two full runs less than the National League average ERA of 4.18; his walks plus hits ratio per inning was less than one at 0.97 while the league average WHIP was nearly 50 percent higher at 1.38; and his control was so good that he allowed only 1.4 walks per 9 innings compared to the league average of 3.3 per 9, and 15 percent of the walks he gave up were intentional.

Tom Glavine was nearly the equal of Maddux as a master of his craft. With back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1991 and 1992, Glavine had already established himself as one of baseball's elite pitchers by the time Maddux became his teammate in '93. He was not as stingy in giving up hits, walks and runs as Mad Dog and his strikeouts-to-innings ratio was typically even less impressive than Maddux, but Glavine won at least 20 games to lead the league five times in his Brave years. Maddux had only two 20-win seasons--in his last year in Chicago and his first in Atlanta--but almost certainly would have had four in a row were it not for the collective bargaining dispute that cost a total of 66 games in the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Maddux won 19 games for the Braves on four separate occasions, including a 19-2 record in 1995, a season shortened by 18 games because of the strike.

Bobby Cox led the Braves to an unprecedented and unsurpassed 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005, with the hiccup of there being no division title awarded in 1994 when the season was suspended with the Braves in second place in their first year in the realigned National League's Eastern Division. With 48 games left on the schedule, however, there was still plenty of time to close a much smaller gap than had to be overcome in 1993. Cox's most formidable Brave teams were when Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz anchored the starting rotation and his best managerial performances were likely in 1991 and 1993 when he led the Braves to division titles from far behind in the mid-summer standings. But a strong argument can be made that Cox's managerial genius was most on display in the last seven of Atlanta's 14 consecutive division titles because of the high turnover of players that was a reflection of aging, free agent losses and budget mindfulness. Bobby Cox was a master at integrating new players to keep Atlanta's supremacy of the National League East going and going ... at least until 2006 when the Mets finally prevailed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reprise: Derek Jeter in Shortstop Perspective

The 2014 All-Star Game was a great tribute to Derek Jeter, who went 2-for-2 in what might be his last at bats on a national stage (depending on whether the Yankees can make it to the post-season). When he retires at the end of this season, Derek Jeter will do so as the most respected player in the last twenty years, not to mention the model of baseball professionalism and a proven winner. Pending the Yankees' outcome in 2014, Jeter has played in the post-season every year of his major league career but two.  Perhaps more to the point, few doubt that his legacy is as the indispensable Yankee (with due respect to Mariano Rivera) who "led" his team into the post-season year after year through commitment without excuses, an unrivaled work ethic, and unflagging consistency.  He is what Joe DiMaggio was to the Yankees from 1936 to 1951, and like DiMaggio is retiring on his terms--before the inevitable decline of age overshadows the grace and athleticism and all-around excellence on the diamond that defined the entirety of his career. This article, with minor revisions, was first posted on Baseball Historical Insight on February 17.

Derek Jeter in Shortstop Perspective

A first-ballot Hall of Famer for sure, Derek Jeter will go down in history as one of baseball's greatest players. Ironically, greatness is an attribute not necessarily dependent on also being one of the very best players in terms of measurable on-the-field performance alone. Derek Jeter was not that, even dismissing as irrelevant the fact that he never won an MVP award. In seventeen full seasons with the Yankees, not including 1995, when he appeared in 15 games as a replacement shortstop during his final year of full-time minor league preparation, last season when persistent injuries kept him sidelined for all but 17 games and this year (which is still being played out), Jeter's player value based on the WAR metric exceeded the 5 wins above replacement that denotes an All-Star level quality of performance only five times in his career, three of them in his first six seasons.

Jeter's best consecutive years were in fact from 1997 to 2001 when he was 23 to 27 years old. His 7.5 WAR in 1998 and 8.0 WAR the year after were the highest player values of his career. It was during those five years that Jeter made his reputation as a team leader, a clutch player, and a winning player by being at the center of the action as the Yankees went to four straight World Series (1998 to 2001), winning three. But Jeter was not even one of baseball's two best shortstops in terms of player value alone based on WAR during those years, because he was a direct contemporary of both Seattle's Alex Rodriguez and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra.

By the year 2000, even though he had been a full-time regular for only as long as Jeter (since 1996), there were already advocates for A-Rod staking a claim to being perhaps the best player ever once the final chapter of his career was written. Little did anyone know then that so many chapters in A-Rod's epic saga would be sordid and career-diminishing. And Nomar was the model of consistency at better than an All-Star level of performance from 1997 to 2003, averaging between 6.1 and 7.4 wins above replacement every year, not including an injury-ravaged 2001 season that limited him to 21 games. Thereafter, of course, Garciaparra's Hall of Fame trajectory nose-dived with injury after injury, making him a virtually forgotten afterthought in the once-vivid debate over who was the best shortstop in the game--A-Rod, Nomar or Derek? Both Rodriguez and Garciaparra were not only better all-around shortstops based on performance, but their presence on an otherwise average major league team for an entire season would have made more difference to that team's winning percentage than Jeter (see the 162W/L% column under "Player Value" on their player pages in Maybe so, but Jeter is the one with all the championship rings . . . five of them.  A-Rod has one (which he earned with Derek as a teammate).  Nomar has none.

Going back to more recent Hall of Fame shortstops, the Brewers' Robin Yount (from 1980-84), the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith (1985-89), the Orioles' Cal Ripken, Jr., and the Reds' Barry Larkin (both from 1988-92) all had better five-best consecutive years than Jeter based on the WAR metric for player value. All four also had more seasons in their career than Jeter where their player value exceeded an All-Star level of performance on the field--Smith 10 times, including eight times in nine years between 1984 and 1992; Ripken eight times in nine years between 1983 and 1991, with MVP awards at both bookends; Larkin eight times; and Yount seven times, although two of his were after he switched to the outfield. All four were much better defensive shortstops than Jeter. And three of the four were elected into the Hall of Fame their first time on the ballot; Larkin had to wait until his third year of eligibility to break the 75 % vote barrier.

None of the four, however, has more than one World Series ring, and only the Wizard Oz (with three appearances) played in more than one World Series. Jeter, meanwhile, has five World Series rings in seven trips to the Fall Classic--and is working towards six in eight in this, his final season--and the "Captain" hit .353 or better in four of those five Yankee triumphs. His batting average in 38 World Series games is .323, brought that low only because of the .148 he hit in the 2001 Series, which the Yankees lost on a pop fly single just beyond Jeter's reach over a drawn-in infield.

While it's hard to go against Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop of all time, there will be significant temptation to proclaim Derek Jeter as the best shortstop in American League history. Putting aside what to make of A-Rod's self-sabotaged career--including his admitting in 2009 to using steroids back when he played shortstop for the Texas Rangers, not to mention his current year-long suspension for the assist he was given by Biogenesis--Cal Ripken, Jr., at least based on player performance, is the best-ever to play the position in the American League. Ripken was sent to Cooperstown with 98.5 % of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 2007.  None of the players elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America since then have matched that total, including not Greg Maddux this year. Like Ripken--an ambassador for the game, universally liked even by those who hate his team (of whom there are legions when it comes to the Yankees)--Derek Jeter stands an excellent chance of not only reaching but surpassing the Ripken plateau in percentage of votes.

The final two players I would like to bring into this discussion are Pete Rose and Craig Biggio. Derek Jeter for me is today's Pete Rose, who I idolized when I first became baseball-conscious because, while he was not the best player in the game, he played with abandon, he never short-changed effort, he probably played above his ability and he was a leader, a winner--playing in six World Series--and a role model for the love of the game. Love or hate the Big Red Machine, you had to admire and respect Pete Rose. If not for his gambling addiction finding its way into his baseball profession, Rose would have been a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. Even had Jeter not busted his ankle, it would have been a long shot for him to break Rose's all-time hit record, but it's worth noting that over the course of his career, Jeter has averaged 206 hits per 162 games compared to 194 for Rose, which helps explain Jeter's .311 lifetime average (as of the All-Star break) to Rose's .303. Even acknowledging that Rose played in a tougher era for offense, this difference is not nothing.

Craig Biggio, with 3,060 hits to call his own, was a Jeter-type player who did not make the Hall of Fame in either of his first two years of eligibility, perhaps because he happened to play in Houston and played in only one World Series where his team was unceremoniously swept. Had Jeter been Jeter with his now-3,408 hits (and counting) but played for anyone else but the Yankees, he certainly would wind up in the Hall of Fame--but like Biggio, he might be having to wait a year, two or three to get in.

There will be no waiting for Derek Jeter . . . because he was the indisputable leader of a team that made it to the post-season in all but one season he was their shortstop (not counting 2013, when he missed virtually the entire year--and, who knows, the Yankees might have made it then had he been healthy) . . . and because of those five rings he was so instrumental in winning not just for himself, and not just for his teammates, but for the New York Yankees.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

100 Years Ago: The 1914 Braves' New World

This year is the century anniversary of the 1914 Boston "Miracle" Braves. That team is famous for being dead last on the Fourth of July, far behind the New York Giants who seemed well on their way to a fourth straight National League pennant, and going on to not only win the pennant decisively but to sweep the heavily favored, far superior Philadelphia Athletics--winners of three of the four previous World Series--in the 1914 Fall Classic.

100 Years Ago: The 1914 Braves' New World 

There had in fact been positive vibes about the Boston Braves going into the 1914 season. George Stallings had taken over a team the previous year that had not lost fewer than 90 games since way back in 1903 (when they lost 80 in a 140-game schedule), and guided them into fifth place with a 69-82 record. The Braves were clearly getting better, and even though a writer for The Baseball Magazine, the preeminent publication on the sport at the time, thought Stallings had a sufficiently formidable club to maybe finish as high as third or even second in 1914, nobody expected them to beat out the Giants--who had averaged 101 wins in winning the NL pennant each of the three previous years (after which they lost the World Series each time). And so it was surely a disappointment that the Braves started so badly, losing 16 of their first 19 games, that they were already in a 10-1/2 game hole less than 20 games into the season.

On the day the country celebrated its 138th birthday, the Braves dropped both games of a doubleheader to Brooklyn, leaving them with a 26-40 record . . . in last place . . . with seven teams ahead of them . . . 15 games behind the pace-setting New York Giants. From then until the end of the season, the Braves not only got back into the race, but overtook the Giants in early September on their way to winning the National League pennant by 10-1/2 games. They did all that by winning 68 while losing only 19 games the entire rest of the 1914 season. That is the equivalent of a 120-34 record over a full 154-game season, which would have shattered the 116 games won by the 1906 Chicago Cubs.

The Boston Braves were an astonishing 21 games better than any other National League team after July 4th, and made up 25-1/2 games on the Giants. While the Braves may have begun their dramatic comeback on Independence Day, however, it was not until July 19 that they finally crawled out of the basement, after having shaved only four games from their deficit to the Giants. They were in the midst of a streak in which they won 26 of 32 games (one of which ended in a tie) to close to within half-a-game of the Giants after a doubleheader split with the Pirates on August 22.

On September 7 the Giants came into Boston for a three-game series to face a team that was now tied with them for first place. The Braves won two of the three to take a pennant-race lead they would not relinquish; winning 19 of their next 22 games assured that the pennant was on ice with a nine-game lead when they made a return visit to the Polo Grounds at the end of September. There they split four games to put an end to any Giant hopes for their own miracle, which would have required Boston losing every one of their 10 remaining games while New York won every one of their eight just to secure a tie.

While Boston's fantastic finish made it seem as though the Giants collapsed, John McGraw in fact never had his team in command of the race, as they had been in each of their three previous pennant-winning seasons. After starting the season with a 21-11 record through May, the Giants went 63-59 the rest of the way--hardly the mark of a contending team. On July 19, when they began their drive from the bottom of the heap to the top, the Braves started the day only 11 games behind New York in tightly bunched standings, and the Giants' lead over second-place Chicago was three games. The defending NL champions were 38-38 thereafter, while Boston was 21 games better with a 59-16 record--a pace for 121 wins over a 154-game schedule.

The miracle in Boston is an even more compelling story because the Giants had the much better team. Of no small significance, however, while neither of McGraw's pitching aces--Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard--pitched up to the lofty standards they had set in their careers (1914 was Mathewson's last as an effective pitcher), the Braves were paced by a trio of hurlers by name of Dick "Baldy" Rudolph, Lefty Tyler and Bill James. None should be considered among the National League's five best pitchers over any five year period that includes 1914, but all three were terrific that year, claiming 68 of their team's 94 victories.

The Braves' only players of note were shortstop Rabbit Maranville and second baseman Johnny Evers. Both may be in the Hall of Fame, but neither is widely considered by baseball historians with a long perspective on the game as one of the greats at his position. Indeed, at the time the Giants' double-play combination of Art Fletcher and Larry Doyle was probably better since both were in their prime while Maranville was just getting started and Evers was near the end of his career. While Stallings had a set infield--Butch Schmidt was the first baseman and first Charlie Deal and then Red Smith the third baseman--his Braves outfield was a mess. Specifically, not one of George Stallings' outfielders played every day. Not one.

What Stallings had were eight different players on his club at any one time who he could put in the outfield--four who batted left-handed and four right-handed. Stallings' epiphany was to platoon them to maximize the offensive possibilities of his starting line-up, depending on whether the opposing starting pitcher was a lefty or a righty. And if there was a pitching change, Stallings would typically make the appropriate outfielder substitution to keep his platoon advantage when the Braves were at bat. The dramatic competitive impact of Stallings' unprecedented systematic platooning--a major contributing factor to their miracle drive--is widely acknowledged as the catalyst for one of the most revolutionary developments in the history of managers thinking strategically about how to win games. See also an earlier post: "One Hundred Years Ago: When Managers Upended Orthodoxies"