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. 

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