Friday, August 15, 2014

The Radio Guy and The Judge, Cookie and The Brat

We take for granted today that broadcasters on both radio and TV will dissect game situations, offer opinions on strategy, and feel free to second-guess managers and criticize players for mistakes--all of which helps to educate those of us listening at home (or in our cars) on the many nuances of a complex game. It is not unusual to hear something along the lines of, "What was he thinking?" This was not the case back in the 1947 World Series when millions listened to The Radio Guy, influenced by a Judge's words from on high, narrating in real-time the busting up of a no-hitter by a Cookie batting for The Brat.

The Radio Guy and The Judge, Cookie and The Brat

The Radio Guy is Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber.
The Judge is Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Commissioner of Baseball from 1920 till his death in 1944.
Cookie is Cookie Lavagetto, who had been the Brooklyn Dodgers' regular third baseman for five years before World War II, but was now a utility player in his final major league season.
The Brat is none other than Eddie Stanky, all 5 foot-8, 170 pounds of him.

I've been reading Red Barber's account of the pennant races and World Series in Jackie Robinson's rookie season, 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose (Da Paco Press, 1982). Early on and several different times in the book, Barber writes that he always followed the admonition given by Commissioner Landis to the radio play-by-play announcers from three different networks about to take to their broadcast booths before the 1935 World Series to only "report" what was happening on the field of play and any visible reactions to the action, "but have no opinion." Just report on the action; "leave your opinions in the hotel." Landis explained that announcers did not have the training or the proper perspective to offer an opinion, specifically on umpire rulings--he had just used his emperor-like prerogatives to banish one announcer from the proceedings for criticizing the umpires in a previous World Series--but the Judge presumably was also warning against speculating about what moves a manager might make in a given situation, or the reasoning behind managers' decisions, or criticizing players for their mistakes and managers for decisions that backfired.

Comes the drama of Game 4 of the 1947 World Series, the New York Yankees versus the Brooklyn Dodgers, and so very much less was said by Red Barber and Mel Allen over the radio waves to a national audience in describing the action than would be the case today. Take Game 4, the game in which the Yankees' Bill Bevens was one out away from pitching the first no-hitter in World Series history, notwithstanding walking 10 Dodgers, only to lose both the no-hit bid and the game when pinch hitter Cookie Lavagetto drove in two runs with a double off the right field wall at Ebbets Field.

Staying true to the Judge's broadcast philosophy (although baseball's first Commissioner had now been deceased for nearly three years), Barber described the action with minimal explanation that might have enlightened listeners with greater context and insider insight. In his chapter of that game, Barber is excellent in doing just that for his readers 35 years after the fact, but admits: "I didn't second-guess managers at microphones, but I wondered then, and I still think now, why didn't [Brooklyn manager Burt] Shotton send in a pinch runner for [Carl] Furillo as soon as he got ball four? Furillo wasn't fast or an accomplished base runner."

Barber was writing specifically of the moment after Bevens walked Furillo with one out in the ninth inning, gunning for his no-hitter but also trying to protect a one-run lead. This would have been precisely the kind of insight that would have engaged avid listeners--most of whom almost certainly would not have considered that Furillo lacked speed, might not score on a hit where a faster player would, or even that a savvy manager keeps such things in mind. It would have been a lesson in strategy, on the many options a manager has to try to win games. As it happened, Shotton belated did send in a pinch runner for Furillo--the speedy Al Gionfriddo--but only after Bevens got his second out.

When he sent in Gionfriddo to pinch run, and down to their last out, Shotton also sent up Pete Reiser to pinch hit for the pitcher. Reiser was not in the starting line-up because he had badly injured his ankle in the first inning of the previous game while being thrown out trying to steal second base. Barber noted in his book that because Reiser's injury was to his right ankle--which turned out to be broken--he could still put the necessary weight and get the needed leverage off his back foot, as a left-handed batter, as he came forward in his stride. (Barber does not say whether he said this on the air.)

Gionfriddo stole second on a two balls-one strike pitch to Reiser, which was wide of the plate for ball three. It being the tying run was now in scoring position and that the dangerous Reiser--who had hit .309 during the season--had a 3-1 count in his favor, Yankee manager Bucky Harris decided it was perhaps best to intentionally walk Reiser, even if that meant the potential winning run was now on base, rather than risk him getting a hit because Blevens had to come in with strikes with a three ball count on the batter. Barber clearly makes this point in the book, but again does not say whether he so said on the air.

Then came a most interesting move, an explanation for which Barber says nothing in his book and presumably said nothing to his intensely-listening audience. Burt Shotton called back his everyday lead-off hitter, Eddie Stanky, in favor of pinch hitter Cookie Lavagetto. Blevens was a right-handed pitcher. Stanky was a right-handed batter. But so too was Lavagetto, so it was not obvious why Shotton would prefer the season-long off-the-bench Lavagetto and not the everyday veteran Stanky. Stanky did not have a hit in this game, but had walked twice. He had also hit in each of the first three Series games. Moreover, Stanky could be virtually guaranteed to make contact--he struck out only 39 times in 680 plate appearances all season--and if he drew a walk (he did so 103 times during the season), Pee Wee Reese, himself a contact hitter who was a tough out, was up next.

Stanky was quite possibly the best second baseman in the National League at that time  --indeed, the very reason why Jackie Robinson's rookie season was at first base, not second, the position he played in Triple-A Montreal in 1946 preparing for his ground-breaking call-up to end segregation in the major leagues. Stanky started 146 games during the season for the Dodgers and was in at the finish in 134 of them.

On three occasions, Stanky left the game because he was hurt on tag plays on defense at second base. On three other occasions, Stanky was replaced defensively in the late innings of games Brooklyn was losing big. Twice, Shotton sent in a pinch runner for Stanky after he had either singled or walked in the ninth inning of a game the Dodgers were losing by one run; "Stanky couldn't steal, slow-footed as he was, if his life and entire family depended on it," Barber wrote elsewhere in his book. And in three of the last four games the Dodgers played in the 1947 National League schedule, Stanky was removed to give him a breather for the World Series to come; Brooklyn had already clinched the pennant, Shotton was doing the same for other veteran players on his team, and Stanky got one day off entirely.

Only once had Shotton removed Stanky for a pinch hitter, and boy did that ever work out for KOBS--Kindly Old Burt Shotton. (Well, technically twice, when Shotton had to pinch hit for Stanky in the bottom of the first in a game on August 23 only because his second baseman could not continue--and in fact missed the next four games--after being hurt while tagging out a would-be base stealer to end the top of the first.) It was the bottom of the ninth on July 12 against the Cubs, the tying run on second base, and Stanky due up against the left-handed Johnny Schmitz. Stanky not only was 0-for-3 with a strikeout in the game against Schmitz, but would be hitless in 24 plate appearances against Schmitz the entire season. So Shotton in that game surely knew what he was doing when he sent the veteran right-handed batting Arky Vaughan up to hit for Stanky. Vaughan singled in the tying run, and then came around to score the game-winner himself.

Lavagetto, meanwhile,  had played in only 41 games all season, entering as a pinch hitter in 26 of them, and hit all of .261 in only 69 at bats. As a pinch hitter, Lavagetto had 6 hits in 22 at bats with 4 walks during the season. Moreover, only 17 of Lavagetto's total 82 plate appearances during the season were against right-handed pitching, although he did have six hits (one a home run) and walked once against the right-handers he faced.

Rarely does a manager take out his day-to-day lead-off hitter in such a critical situation, and certainly not for a pinch hitter with such modest credentials on the season as Cookie Lavagetto, so some words about why Shotton was doing what he was doing would have been appropriate and would certainly be the case today--even if the Radio Guy could only speculate. Other than some accounts saying that Lavagetto was tough in clutch situations, I don't recall ever reading why Shotton made this move, and even with 35 years hindsight, Barber does not say. But KOBS must have known something. Lavagetto's drive off the right field wall at Ebbets Field broke up the no-hitter and drove in both the tying and winning runs, making Shotton two-for-two in his decisions in 1947 to pinch hit for Eddie Stanky: first with Vaughan, now with Lavagetto.

Red Barber writes that he summed up the drama by saying, "I'll be a suck-egg mule." Or, to quote current Baltimore Orioles' radio broadcaster Joe Angel: "Put this one in the WIN column" for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Note: Bill Bevens pitched only one more game in the major leagues--three days later as a reliever in Game 7. He later told a reporter that his failed no-hit bid, in which he faced 37 batters and had a very high pitch count because of all the walks, left his arm "dead" by the end of the Series.

The following is a link to a You Tube video in which Red Barber and Mel Allen talk about that game.  Both mention that Lavagetto was a pinch hitter; neither say for whom.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

August 7: The '64 Phillies Continued: Where Should Dick Allen Have Hit?

It seems manager Gene Mauch never decided definitively where the appropriate place in the batting order was for his rookie phenom, Dick (then known as"Richie") Allen in 1964. He changed his mind about that at least three times. The August 7 trade with the Mets for Frank Thomas to fill the Phillies' glaring weakness at first base resulted in Mauch reverting to the batting order platoon he used for most of the first two months of the season by moving his young slugger out of the cleanup spot to bat second or third, depending on the opposing starter.

The '64 Phillies Continued: Where Should Dick Allen Have Hit?

As noted in the second post of this series on the Philadelphia Phillies' season of 50 years ago, "Mauch the Platoonmeister" (see link below), Mauch started the season by platooning rookie right-handed batting third baseman Dick Allen with left-handed batting right fielder Johnny Callison between second and third in the Phillies' batting order. Both were everyday players, but Mauch had Allen batting second and Callison third when a right-hander started against Philadelphia, and Callison second and Allen third when a southpaw took the mound. So it was in the first 45 games of the season, through June 6, during which time Allen hit .290 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs; Callison hit .280 with 4 home runs and 20 RBIs; and the Phillies were more often than not hanging close in second place, typically about a game behind, and sometimes in first. The Phillies had never trailed by more than two games (on May 5 and 12) and never led by more than two games (on May 1).

Allen got off to a red-hot start, batting .426 in April, but had hit only .252 in May. On June 7 and in both games of a doubleheader two days later, Mauch tried Allen in the cleanup spot for the first time; Allen went 5-for-11 with a home run and three RBIs, but was back hitting second against right-handed starters the next two games. By this point in the season--June 12--Allen was leading the Phillies in all three triple-crown categories with a .294 batting average, 12 home runs, and 32 runs batted in.

Seeing what his emerging young slugger could do, Mauch started batting Allen fourth in the line-up on a daily basis on June 13, where he stayed for 53 of the Phillies' next 55 games (twice batting second) regardless of who was pitching. Allen hit .327 over those 55 games with 9 home runs and 26 RBIs and by August 6 his batting average was .311 and he had a .913 OPS with 19 home runs and 56 RBIs. His power and prowess at the plate contributed to the Phillies' .600 winning percentage and 33-22 record during that time, which vaulted Philadelphia into first place on July 16, where they had since stayed.

The arrival of Frank Thomas to take over first base, where the lefty-righty platoon of John Hernsteinn and Roy Sievers had proved ineffective (as had several others who Mauch also tried at the position), caused Mauch to go back to alternating Allen and Callison second and third in the line-up, again depending on the whether the opposing starter was right-handed or left-handed. When he was healthy and in the starting line-up with the bottom-dwelling Mets, the right-handed power-hitting Thomas typically hit fourth or third. Thomas, in fact, had batted fourth or fifth in the line-up for most of his career. Even though he had homered only three times and driven in only 19 runs in his 60 games with the Mets--(they were the offensively-challenged Mets, after all)--Mauch began platooning Thomas (who played against all pitching) with left-handed batting outfielder Wes Covington (who did not start against southpaws) in the fourth and fifth spots in the Phillies' line-up, which lasted until September 8 when Thomas injured his thumb.

In the 33 games where Allen was back to hitting either second or third, his batting average was .333 and he had 8 home runs and 23 RBIs, while the Phillies went 21-13 (.618) and built up a six-game lead. The trade from New York to Philadelphia, meanwhile, rejuvenated Thomas, who hit .302 with 7 home runs and 26 RBIs in 33 games before he was injured. Covington batted .333 with 5 homers and 22 RBIs in 27 games, including those into which he was inserted after a lefty starter was replaced by a right-handed reliever.

For most of the remainder of the season after Thomas was sidelined with his injury, Mauch stayed with his Allen-Callison batting order platoon with Allen second, Callison third and Covington batting fourth when a right-hander took the mound, except against southpaw starting pitchers when he put Allen fourth and sat Covington with Callison still batting third. In the final 24 games of the season after the Thomas injury, Dick Allen batted second in 11 games (with HR / RBI / BA slash lines of 3 / 8 / .356 ), third in 3 games ( 0 / 2 / .167), and fourth in 10 games ( 1 / 6 / .350). Allen finished the season with a .318 batting average (fifth in the league), 201 hits (tied for third), 29 home runs (tied for seventh), and 79 runs batted in.

Would it have made a difference had Mauch kept Dick Allen in the cleanup spot of his batting order for the rest of the season after moving him there on June 13, even after Frank Thomas came over to Philadelphia?

Aside from power numbers suggesting that the third, fourth, or even fifth slots in the batting order were the more logical fit for him than batting second, Allen also had a propensity to strike out a lot--not a good thing for a number-two hitter, and seemingly certainly not when Mauch liked so much to manufacture runs (see my previous post on the '64 Phillies, link below). Allen led the league in strikeouts in 1964 with 138, and averaged one K for every five at bats when he hit second. Almost exactly half (33) of Allen's 67 walks, however, were in the 41 percent of games he batted fourth with few potent bats behind him, a factor which may have figured into Mauch's decision to move him further up in the order.

For the season, Dick Allen hit only .270 but had 12 home runs and 36 RBIs in the 64 games he batted second in the order--all against right-handers; batted .363 with 8 homers and 32 RBIs in the 32 games he started batting third--all but two against southpaws; and .345 with 9 home runs and 24 RBIs in the 66 games he batted cleanup, 35 times against left-handed starters and 31 against righties. Against right-handed pitchers Allen's slash lines were 18 / 60 / .287 with an OPS of .856 in 450 plate appearances; against southpaws, they were 11 / 31 / .372 with an OPS of 1.081 in 259 plate appearances. His strikeout ratio per plate appearance was 18 percent against lefties, 20 percent against righties.

Would it have made a difference had Mauch batted Allen fourth in the final weeks, particularly when the games became desperate as the Phillies' lead evaporated? During the Phillies' 10-game losing streak that began with them holding a 6-1/2 game lead with just 12 games remaining and which defined their epic collapse of historic proportions (rhetorical overkill intended), Allen continued to hit well even as the rest of his teammates did not. He batted .415; they batted .191. While the rest of the Phillies were terrible in the clutch with runners on base, Allen was ... well, clutch, hitting .421 with runners on base. And he had a sacrifice bunt--about which, more when that game comes up in September.

Previous Posts in This Series on the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies:

1.  "Introducing the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies"

2. "Mauch the Platoonmeister"

3.  "Pitching Problems on the Horizon"

4.  "The '64 Phillies' Perfect Father's Day"

5.  ""Mauch Loved to Sacrifice"

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office: To Walk or Not to Walk Thomson, Was That Ever the Question?

What if, surely knowing that Bobby Thomson was not a good match-up for Ralph Branca, Dodger manager Charlie Dressen decided to walk him with first base open, putting the potential pennant-winning run on base, and have Branca take on Willie Mays instead? What factors might have led Dressen to make such a decision--the emphasis on "might" since there's no way to know--instead of the one he did? This is the second of two Insights offering possible explanations for Dressen's decisions made (or not made) in that fateful ninth inning leading up to Thomson's home run and "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" 

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office--Part II

When last we left Charlie Dressen, he had just brought in Ralph Branca instead of Carl Erskine to relieve starter Don Newcombe and protect what was now a 4-2 lead (after Whitey Lockman's double) with the dangerous Bobby Thomson coming to bat for the New York Giants in the bottom of the ninth of the third playoff game to decide the 1951 National League pennant. The Dodgers needed just two more outs to advance to the World Series, where the Yankees were waiting. Although quite controversial, certainly in the historical retelling, his decision to bring in Branca was reasonable given the alternative, if Dressen was indeed concerned with Erskine's inability in his recent appearances to pitch consistently within the strike zone, as I argued he had every reason to be (although we don't know if he actually was) in my previous post

With Branca toeing the rubber, Dressen had one immediate decision to make: whether to pitch to Thomson with the tying runs in scoring position, one out and first base open, or intentionally walk the veteran slugger and the Giants' leading home run hitter (31 at the moment) to pitch to the rookie on deck, Willie Mays. And after Mays was another rookie, Ray Noble, who had come into the game in the top half of the ninth as a defensive replacement after Giants' manager Leo Durocher pinch hit for starting catcher Wes Westrum (probably because Westrum's .199 average against right-handers in general and .167 against Newcombe in particular were more compelling as weaknesses than his 20 home runs on the season were as a strength).

A key factor for consideration was certainly that Bobby Thomson was on a roll with a hot hand. He already had two hits in this game, extending his hitting streak to 15 games, and Thomson had now hit safely in 22 of 23 games. (Most of these were on the road, by the way, where Thomson would not have benefited from knowing what pitches were coming, courtesy of the spy operation set up in the Giants' clubhouse beyond center field at the Polo Grounds, where coach Herman Franks sat behind a powerful telescope stealing opposing catchers' signs.) Thomson was batting a torrid .457 (37 hits in 81 at bats) in those 23 games, including six home runs. And let's not forget he was 3-for-6 in the last three games Branca had pitched against the Giants, all since September 1st, including two home runs, the second of which beat Branca in game one of this pennant-race playoff.

Willie Mays, waiting on deck, by contrast was a 20-year old rookie with tremendous promise who was in a batting funk. Not only did he have just one hit in ten at bats so far in this playoff against the Dodgers. Not only did he have just three hits in his last 32 at bats (.094). Not only had he struck out in 10 of his last 32 plate appearances. Not only did he have just seven extra-base hits since September 1st, only one a home run. But Ralph Branca totally owned Willie Mays. Mays had come up to bat 19 times against Branca, and Branca had gotten him out 17 times. Finally, although perhaps unbeknownst to the Dodgers, the kid was scared to death waiting in the on-deck circle, thinking the Giants' season might come down to him.

In his manager's mind, parsing the situation, thinking through the possible outcomes of his various options, Dressen could have decided he would rather intentionally walk Thomson to load them up than risk Branca pitching to him--especially given the game-winning two-run home run Thomson hit just two days before--even if Mays were to drive in a run while making an out--an important caveat--which would make it two outs with Noble up next  and the Dodgers' lead now possibly down to one run, 4-3. What are the odds, Dressen might have asked himself, that a backup catcher, and a rookie, could win this thing for the Giants? Ray Noble had only 141 at bats for the season (and in his career) with a .234 batting average, was hitting only .207 against right-handers and had never faced the right-handed Branca.

Although deliberately putting the potential winning run on base, as an intentional walk to Thomson would have done, was certainly not an optimum move--and few managers, especially in Dressen's time, would think to do so--discretion in this case may have been the better part of valor.  After all:

Thomson was hot.
Mays was not.

And Durocher had no viable pinch hitting options to bat for Noble. He had used both Bill Rigney and Hank Thompson, his best players on the bench, to pinch hit in the eighth inning and then been forced to put Clint Hartung into the game as a pinch runner for Don Mueller, who broke his ankle sliding into third base on Lockman's double.

Walking the lock-in veteran to pitch to the struggling rookie (and then, if necessary, another rookie after that) would have been a move worthy of a manager who prided himself on his baseball genius, on his ability to out-think the guy in the other dugout (or, in this case, the third base coach's box, where Durocher now stood). It would have been risky, to be sure, but Dressen--whose mantra is said to have been, "Keep it close, I'll think of something"--was a believer that taking risks, doing the unexpected, the unconventional thing, often made the difference in winning close games. Of course, if the unconventional move backfires--say, Willie Mays breaking his slump with an extra-base hit to drive in three runs to win the game and the pennant--the relentless second-guessing that is the bane of managers' existence begins.

Charlie Dressen went with the more conventional wisdom of not putting the possible winning run on base, especially not in the bottom of the ninth--a defensible move to be sure. He allowed Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thomson. And we all know how that turned out for him. He has been relentlessly second-guessed to this day, although for bringing in Branca instead of Erskine to pitch to Thomson.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office--Explaining Why Branca and Not Erskine

Managers are relentlessly criticized by us passionate fans for decisions made and not made in heartrending losses, but as knowledgeable as we fans like to believe we are, we do not know all the considered factors that go into those decisions. At this year's annual SABR conference in Houston from July 30 to August 2, I presented on Charlie Dressen's worst inning in baseball, identifying some possibilities of what Brooklyn's manager might have been thinking--emphasis on "might"--in the decisions he made in that fateful ninth that led to Bobby Thomson's home run and "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" This first of two Insights assumes Dressen knew exactly what he was doing when he chose Ralph Branca to pitch to Thomson instead of Carl Erskine and offers a possible explanation of why Erskine's inopportune bounced pitch while warming up was so troubling to his manager.

Charlie Dressen's Worst Day at the Office--Part I

A double by Whitey Lockman had narrowed the Dodgers' lead to 4-2 over the Giants in the last of the ninth at the Polo Grounds in the third and final playoff game that would decide the 1951 National League pennant after New York's 37-7 record to finish the schedule had entirely erased Brooklyn's 13-1/2 game lead on August 11 to force a playoff. With the tying runs in scoring position, one out and Giants' slugger Bobby Thomson coming to bat, it was obvious Brooklyn starter Don Newcombe could go no further. Including his 8.1 innings in this game, Newcombe had now faced 91 batters in 23 innings pitched in 3 games over five days--which included a season-saving shutout of the Phillies on the next-to-last day of the season (on only two days of rest after a complete game victory against the Braves) and 5.2 innings of shutout relief from the 8th to the 13th inning the very next day against the Phillies in a game the Dodgers absolutely had to win (and did, in the 14th) to force the playoff. But who was Dressen gonna call to relieve Newk?

A good question, because ... the underlying reality was that Brooklyn no longer had a bullpen worthy of the name. For most of the season the Dodgers did have a decent bullpen--Brooklyn relievers were 27-16 with 15 saves and a 3.79 ERA through the end of August.  But in September, the Dodger bullpen was a shambles. With a collective ERA of nearly 5.00, the Dodgers' relievers were sufficiently ineffective that every Dodger victory down the September stretch except for the 14-inning win on the final day of the scheduled season required a complete game effort from Dressen's starting pitcher. What happened to the bullpen?

Well, Dressen using Clyde King, his best reliever, for 23.2 innings in 11 games over 26 days between July 24 and August 22 is what happened. Clyde King is best remembered as one in a long line of Steinbrenner managers, both after and before Billy Martin, but in 1951 he was the Dodgers' relief ace. As of August 22, King had a 14-5 record with 5 saves and a 3.36 ERA in 38 appearances. On that day, however, King pitched a total of four innings to win both games in a doubleheader. He was never the same thereafter, and I do mean never, and certainly not in 1951. He appeared in only 10 more games with a 10.67 ERA, including 12 earned runs in only 9 September innings.

With King unavailable, Dressen had few options. Bud Podbielan, who was the winner of that 14-inning schedule finale that (temporarily) saved the Dodgers' season, and Johnny Schmitz pitched the most innings in relief for the Brooklyn in September, but the southpaw Schmitz wouldn't do because Thomson was a right-handed slugger and despite Podbielan having pitched well in seven relief appearances down the stretch, his limited major league experience (only 54 games in parts of three seasons, all of which included time in the minors) made it unlikely that Dressen would have trusted him in such a critical situation--two outs away from a pennant. Another right-hander, Phil Haugstad, was similarly inexperienced and had given up 25 runs in 30.2 innings.

Then there were the starting pitchers. Preacher Roe was a superb 22-3 on the season and had limited Thomson to a .250 batting average and only one home run in eight at bats, but he had been ineffective his last two starts and was probably suffering from the arm trouble that would plague him the entirety of next year. There is no indication Dressen ever considered Roe. So warming up for the Dodgers were Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine. Bobby Thomson was batting .333 against both Brooklyn pitchers in 1951 with 9 at bats against Erskine and 12 against Branca (not including his epic at bat still to come). And Thomson had hit two home runs off both pitchers, his pair off Erskine coming in May and and his pair off Branca since the beginning of September, including a two-run blast that beat Branca in the first game of this playoff for the pennant.

Branca had pitched poorly down the stretch, although his start in the first playoff game was not bad--3 runs (2 thanks to Thomson's home run) in 8 innings. But before then, Branca had lost five of his six September starts, including his last four, and in four of those decisions failed to last six innings and had an ugly ERA of 11.35. Branca had started three games against the Giants since the beginning of September and lost them all, by 8-1 (September 1), 2-1 (September 9) and 3-2 just two days before. In those three games, Bobby Thomson had tagged Branca for 3 hits in 6 at bats, including the two home runs, plus he had walked twice.

Erskine, for his part, in four starts and three relief appearances had his best ERA month of the season in September, although that ERA was a shade under 4.00 at 3.99. But he lost both of his last two starts, giving up 11 runs (8 of them earned) in 10.1 innings. Erskine had not faced the Giants since August 8, when he got the win by allowing only one run in 7 innings of relief. Thomson faced off against him three times that afternoon, and Erskine got him out each time.

The standard narrative of why Branca and not Erskine mentions that Dressen's decision was made after Oisk bounced a pitch while warming up to come (maybe) into the game. The subtext of how this decision was made is usually portrayed along the lines of Dressen losing his grip, that he was not thinking clearly in the heat of the moment. What was he thinking, letting Branca pitch to Bobby Thomson, who had gone deep against him just the other day to win game one?

What was he thinking? We of course can only speculate, but what he certainly must have known was that Erskine was having difficulty of late with his control and location. In his last three appearances of the season (two starts and one in relief), Erskine had given up 8 walks--only one intentional--in 12.1 innings. And he had averaged 4 walks per 9 innings in 38.1 September innings, compared to 3.6 per 9 in 151.1 innings through August. Hearing of Erskine's bounced pitch while warming up to enter the game may have caused Dressen major heart palpitations and convinced him that Oisk was not the pitcher for this moment in time--even though Thomson had been treating Ralph Branca like a batting practice pitcher in the last three games they faced each other, including the game-winning shot two days before. (It's not as though Branca had been a control artisan recently, by the way, as he had walked five Giants batters in eight innings in his playoff start ... but, at least he didn't bounce any pitches in the bullpen ... presumably.)

While the decision to bring in Branca seems reasonable given the alternatives--especially if Dressen was indeed concerned about Erskine's recent inability to pitch consistently within the strike zone, Charlie Dressen still had one immediate decision to make: whether to pitch to Bobby Thomson with the tying runs in scoring position, one out, first base open and the pennant on the line ... or pitch to the rookie waiting on deck, one Willie Mays.

That will be the subject of my next post.