Friday, February 20, 2015

The Impact of the 1914 Stallings Platoon

The previous post described how Boston Braves manager George Stallings made a virtue of necessity by platooning at all three of his outfield positions. The role that his three-position rotation of  outfielders played in the compelling narrative of the 1914 "Miracle" Braves did not go unnoticed, and by the 1920s there was widespread platooning in major league baseball. 

The Impact of the 1914 Stallings Platoon

The 1914 Braves' triumph ratified platooning as a winning strategy, and other managers took notice of the advantages of platooning, the most important of which was to mitigate player weaknesses, such as an inability to hit southpaws. As mentioned in an article on this blog last spring, "100 Years Ago: When Managers Upended Orthodoxies" (see link at the end of this article), platooning was a logical extension of managers increasingly pinch hitting for starting position players at pivotal moments in the game to gain a "platoon advantage"righty vs. lefty or lefty vs. rightyagainst the pitcher. 

But the practice did not become widespread overnightas in the very next seasonbecause at the time of Stallings' epiphany about platooning, the prevailing philosophy had been that the same core of regulars, day in and day out, was essential to stability, continuity, and teamwork. Catcher was the only position routinely shared by two players, and only because of the wear and tear receivers had to endure in the days before catchers' armor became more protective. Only injuries, an occasional day of rest, or sustained ineffectiveness would cause regulars at other positions to be replaced in the starting line-up. 

By the 1920s, however, platooning was pervasive among major league teams. A survey of the game-by-game starting line-ups for all teams during that era, made possible by the painstaking work of researchers (also available on the website, indicates that 46 percent of the teams that took the field from 1915 to 1920 had at least one position platoon for all or a significant portion of the season26 of the 48 National League teams (eight teams times six years) and 18 of the 48 American League teams. The next ten years, 1921 to 1930, half of all teams platooned, although NL teams44 of 80were still more disposed to platooning than AL teams36 of 80 (eight teams times ten years).  

The overwhelming majority of platoons were in the outfield, many at catcher, and some at first base. Platooning in the middle infield positions was very rare because most infielders in that era were right-handed batters, and because managers desired daily stability at such premium defensive-skill positions.

Platooning was an obvious strategy for mediocre or bad teams trying to compensate for the weaknesses of individual players. It was not intuitively obvious that managers of very good teams, with much stronger cohorts of players than Stallings had with the Braves, would find much merit in platooning, but even they were quick to see the value of platooning at a position of relative weakness in their line-upand every team had at least one.

Starting with Stallings' 1914 Braves, at least one of the teams in every World Series until 1926 used a position-player platoon during the regular season. Perhaps the most notable pennant-winning teams that platooned were the 1920 Cleveland Indians, whose manager and center fielder,Tris Speaker, used a lefty-righty tandem at both outfield positions he himself did not play, and Wilbert Robinson's 1916 Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the "Robins") and John McGraw's 1922 and 1923 New York Giants whose outfield platoons included none other than a certain Casey Stengel. Remember the name.

Unlike Stallings, who had more of an inchoate mix-and-match philosophy for platooning his outfield, most managers who platooned relied on a designated tandem pair who split the position between them. This was important not only because it provided a semblance of stability in the line-up, but it gave players an understanding of their role in the scheme.

Of course, players understanding their role is not the same as agreeing with such a division of their playing time. Baseball historian Bill James has suggested that the dramatic decline in platooning that occurred at the end of the 1920s was because platooned players resented the implication they lacked the ability to be everyday players, which ultimately made widespread use of the strategy untenable.

And indeed, the 1930s saw managers in both leagues retrench in terms of platooning. Between 1931 and 1940, only 30 percent of the 160 major league teams that took the field21 in the NL and 27 in the ALhad a position platoon. 

It wouldn't be until Casey Stengel was managing the 1950s Yankees that platooning resurfaced as a high-profile strategy in the managers' toolkit.  

Stallings' master manipulation of his outfielders in a three-position platoon was a major factor in the 1914 "Miracle" Braves' completely unexpected championship season, it should be remembered that the Braves also had very good pitching and the best middle infield, at least in the National League, with Johnny Evers at second and Rabbit Maranville at short.

Link to earlier blog:

Friday, February 13, 2015

The 1914 Stallings Platoon

The Society for American Baseball Research recently announced the five finalists for its annual award given for Historical Analysis and Commentary. They include “The 1914 Stallings Platoon: Assessing Execution, Impact, and Strategic Philosophy,” an article I wrote for the Fall 2014 issue of SABR’s flagship publication, The Baseball Research Journal. This post briefly summarizes the key research findings from that article.

The 1914 Stallings Platoon

The 1914 Boston “Miracle” Braves were the team famous for storming out of last place on July Fourth to win the pennant decisively over John McGraw’s Giants, who were defending three straight NL pennants, and then sweeping Connie Mack’s powerful Athletics, who had won three of the four previous World Series. What makes their story such a compelling historical narrative is that they were actually a fairly mediocre team brilliantly managed by George Stallings. Stallings' insight to systematically platoon at all three positions in his outfield 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. 

No new news here, but thanks to the painstaking work of researchers for, comprehensive game-by-game starting line-up data for 1914 became available last spring, making it possible for the first time to dissect with precision Stallings’ master manipulation of all the Braves’ outfielders.

With limited major league experience among his corps of outfielders, and holding a poor hand in terms of talent, what Stallings did in 1914 was to rotate the seven to eight outfielders he had on his roster at any one time among the three positions. Only one of his outfielders--left-handed batting Joe Connolly--was a productive player, at least as measured by the wins above replacement (WAR) metric for player value. Aware of his outfield deficiencies, Stallings did this from the very beginning of the season. Connolly led the Braves with nine home runs and was the most potent offensive player on the team, according to WAR, but started only three of the 120 games he played when a southpaw took the mound for the other guys.

Stallings' starting line-ups had at least two of his three outfielders with the platoon advantage—batting from the opposite side of the starting pitcher’s throwing arm—in all but 11 of the 158 games the Braves played that year. In 44 of those 147 games, all three of the outfielders in the starting line-up batted from the opposite side.

What made his outfield platoon particularly effective was that two of the Braves' infielders were left-handed-batters, first baseman Butch Schmidt and second baseman Johnny Evers. No other NL team had more than one, and most had none, a significant potential advantage for the Braves when right-handers made 71 percent of all starts by National League pitchers in 1914. In practical terms, this meant that in 80 of the 102 games where the opposing team started a right-hander against the Braves, Stallings had at least four left-handed hitters in his batting order to face them. With Evers and Schmidt daily regulars in his line-up, Stallings’ mixing and matching of his outfielders gave the Braves a platoon advantage in their batting order of at least four out of eight position players in 86 percent of their games, whether started by righties or lefties, and a platoon advantage of at least five in 44 percent of their games.

Stallings maximized his platoon advantage by frequently replacing his outfielders during the game if circumstances dictated. In all, Stallings made an outfield substitution 87 times in 1914, many occurring as soon as the opposing manager brought in a pitcher throwing from the opposite side, even if that meant the substituting player first entered the game as a defensive replacement before getting his turn to bat. 

The payoff of platooning for the Braves was that they had by far the best winning percentage of any National League team in games against right-handed starters. Only the American League champion Philadelphia Athletics had a better record against righties. Why? Because Connie Mack had the advantage of five left-handed batters among his core regulars--infielders Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker, outfielders Amos Strunk and Eddie Murphy, and switch-hitting catcher Wally Schang--none of whom Mack made part of any platoon when writing out his starting line-ups. 

The next post will discuss the impact of Stallings' platooning in managers' game-strategy.