Saturday, March 28, 2015

60 Years Ago, When the Wait for "Next Year" Finally Ended (First in a Series): 1955 Pre-Season Pennant Race Handicaps

"Wait Till Next Year." Sixty years ago, that was the mantra at Ebbets Field because the Dodgers had lost every World Series they had been in1916, 1920, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953not to mention having lost the first two playoffs ever for the National League pennant, in 1946 and 1951, and not being counted down and out for good until the final game of the 1950 season. Wait till Next Year. Well, sixty years ago, "next year" finally came when the Dodgers won their firstand, it turned out, onlyWorld Series championship in Brooklyn. This is the first in a series throughout this season on the National League and American League pennant races sixty years ago, beginning with the first ever preseason forecasts by a new publication whose first issue was just the previous August, Sports Illustrated.

1955 Pre-Season Handicaps

The baseball world must have felt a bit off by what transpired in 1954. Surely it was strange that the New York Yankees did not play in the World Series. After all, they had won each of the five previous American League pennants, and each of the five previous World Seriesan unprecedented achievement. Not only that, the 1954 Yankees won more games than any of the five-and-five-in-five championship teams between 1949 and 1953. Their 103 victories, however, were good for only second place, and not even a close second. The Cleveland Indians won 111 games, wound up eight games in front of the Yankees, and were the favorites to win the World Series until Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz, Dusty Rhodes hit home runs coming off the bench to win Games 1 and 2, and the New York Giants swept the Indians four straight.

And surely it was equally strange in 1954 that for the first time since 1948 the Brooklyn Dodgers were not either the National League pennant-winner or still competing for the honor down to the very last game they played. Indeed, two dramatic, heart-rending losses were all that stood between the Dodgers and their matching the Yankees with five straight World Series appearances between 1949 and 1953. In 1950, the Dodgers had a chance to make history with a stirring comeback from 9 games down with only 16 left to play to force a playoff with the Phillies, whom the scheduling gods set them up to meet at home in the final game of the season, only to see the would-be game-winning run thrown out at the plate in the last of the ninth and the Phillies win the game and secure the pennant on a three-run home run in the tenth. And in 1951, well, you know... Ralph Branca... Bobby Thomson... enough said.

The Dodgers had finished second in 1954. They were last in first place, tied with the Giants, on June 13. Thereafter, although they stayed in second and were never far behind the Giants, the Dodgers never really made a serious play for first place either. They pulled to within half-a-game after sweeping the Giants at Ebbets Field in mid-August, but six days later were four games behind. The Dodgers basically spent all summer treading water. They ended up five games out.

Robert Creamer, previewing the 1955 season for Sports Illustrated, summed up the Dodgers as smooth and seasoned, but aging and with "notoriously undependable" pitching. He wrote that "young replacements" had yet to prove themselves, although this was an uncharitable assessment with regard to one young 'un he namedJim Gilliam, entering his third year as the Dodgers' second baseman with a .280 batting average and .372 on base percentage in 297 big league games. Creamer did not count Brooklyn out, however. Noting that Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe all played below their established standards for excellence in 1954, Creamer predicted that if they returned to their past level of performance, "these three could bring the championship back to Flatbush."

One thing was obvious, wrote Creamer, and that was that the defending-champion Giants and the up-and-coming Milwaukee Braves were the "best-balanced" teams in the National League. "They are beautifully matched, these two teams," he wrote, concluding that "the Giants should win the pennant." "The difference between the clubs is spelled W-i-l-l-i-e- M-a-y-s-." 

Creamer's assessment of the American League ultimately came down to "how close the Indians come to winning 111 games again," indicating a slight nod to the Yankees, without coming out and saying so explicitly. The Yankees had depth, the best catcher in baseball (Yogi Berra), Mickey Mantle ("who threatens to grow from good to great"), and good pitching led by Whitey Ford. Their big question marks were how much "the once-great Yankee shortstop" Phil Rizzuto had left and who would replace Allie Reynolds, who had just retired. He did mention that the Yankees now had Bob Turley, who in 1954 was 14-15 for the seventh-place, 100-loss Orioles.

The Indians, on the other hand, had probably "the worst-fielding infield to ever win a major league pennant," were slow and unimaginative on the bases, and despite "one of the most impressive pitching staffs in major league history," also an aging pitching staff. In fact, advanced fielding metrics that did not exist at the time indicate that Cleveland's infield defense was the second-best in the league (after the White Sox) up the middle, but quite problematic at the corners, including the worst in the league at third base, Al Rosen's position. As for the pitching, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, who both won 23 for the '54 Indians, were in their mid-30s, Bob Feller was 36 (although he had made only 19 starts in 1954), and Creamer might also have mentioned that Mike Garcia, who was 19-8 with a league-leading 2.64 ERA in 1954, was 31. Joining the Cleveland staff, however, would be Herb Score, said to be "so good you can't believe it."

With the Yankees and Indians having split their season series in 1954, the difference in outcome for 1955 could well be the same as it was the previous yearwhichever team had the better record against the rest of the American League.

Opening day would be April 11, 1955. More to come.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do Managers Make a Difference in One-Run Games?

The argument for one-run games being a possible indicator of a manager's skill and effectiveness in game-on-the-line circumstances is that these are the games where his decisions would have the most obvious impact, as suggested by several exciting games of the 2014 post-season mentioned in my previous article. The prevailing view among sabermetric analysts, however, is that it is misleading to evaluate any manager's performance based on such indicators as his record in one-run games, which are decided as much by luck as a manager's game-management skills. Inspired by Branch Rickey's famous dictum, "Luck is the residue of design," this Insight seeks to explore that issue.

Do Managers Make a Difference in One-Run Games?

As noted in my previous article, Nats' manager Matt Williams' decision to remove Jordan Zimmermann in a 1-0 game with the tying run on base but needing only one more out to even the division series blew up in his face; O's manager Buck Showalter's decision to put the potential winning run on base with the tying run on second, with only one out and his team just two outs away from advancing to the ALCS, proved a masterstroke; and Royals' manager Ned Yost's decision to use a starting pitcher instead of his go-to seventh-inning guy to protect a one-run lead in the sixth in the wild card game nearly cost KC the game and their ultimate road to the World Series.

Games decided by one-run are not simply low-scoring affairs, such as often associated with the Dead Ball Era, but also games decided by scores like 9-8, 8-7, and 7-6. Most are legitimately on the line in the late innings, even if some one-run games begin as blowouts and become close only because of frenetic comebacks that fall just short.

The percentage of major league games decided by one run was typically between 30 and 35 percent during the Dead Ball Era; mostly between 25 and 30 percent from the 1920s through the 1950s when the power game was prevalent; and consistently back over 30 percent in the 1960sincluding 35 percent in 1968, which was so much the "Year of the Pitcher" that the permissible height of the mound was dramatically lowered beginning the next year. 

There was a marked divergence between the American and National Leagues in the first two decades of the DH rule beginning in 1973, where one-run games accounted for about one-third of the outcomes in the NL but for only between 25 and 30 percent in the AL. The major league average was about 27 percent in the first decade of the 2000s, with the NL only slightly higher than the AL. In the last five years, about 30 percent of major league games have been decided by one-run, including 29 percent in the American League and 32 percent in the National League last year. (All of the above data is available on the baseball-reference website for every season played since 1900.)

As countless teams have experienced and millions of fans have endured, however, the outcome of games decided by only one run could very much depend on a lucky break or the ability (or inability) of players to executeevents that say nothing about the actual merits of a manager's decisions. It is a matter of inches, after all (or so they say), between fair and foul balls, safe and out on the bases or at the plate, home runs or long fly ball outs to the wall that decide the outcome of games

Precisely because so much is up to chance is a strong argument for why a manager's record in one-run games as an indicator of his game-management skills and performance is misleading. 

After all, the Orioles' record in one-run games over the last three years under Buck Showalter, one of the most respected managers in baseball today, is marked by extremes. The 2014 O's had a 32-23 record in games decided by one runa winning percentage only 11 points below Baltimore's 96-66 record for the season. But the previous year, Showalter's record in one-run games was an extraordinarily ugly 20-31, below .400, for a team that in 2013 had a .525 winning percentage, while in 2012 the Orioles were at the other end of  extraordinary with an amazing 29-9 mark in one-run affairs. It would surely be ludicrous to suggest Showalter is only a good manager in tight games in the even-numbered years.

Grounded in a long history of play-by-play data, sabermetric analysis typically discounts teams' records in such close games as an indicator of their manager's decisionmaking prowess. For example, the probabilities of a team scoring a run indicates that managerial decisions to play for one run using strategies such as sacrifice bunts to advance runners at the expense of an out, or stolen baseswhich, if unsuccessful, cost an out and eliminate a runneroften actually reduces the odds of scoring. 

Furthermore, most game strategies are obvious and pro forma, such as whether to sacrifice bunt in the late innings in a tie game, to walk a dangerous hitter with the tying run in scoring position and first base open, or even to bring in a left-handed specialist to pitch to a dangerous left-handed batter at a critical spot in the game. Whether to go "by the book" or not is the manager's choice and the outcome is often indeed dependent on his players' ability to execute or a matter of luck.

Still, bearing in mind Branch Rickey's Bartlett's quotation about "luck being the residue of design"which is itself a variation of Roman philosopher Seneca's dictum that "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" (well-read in the classics was Mr. Rickey)managers making decisions to play for one run do so because they believe just one run is what is needed at that moment to ultimately win the game, particularly if it is the late innings, and therefore is worth the risk and the sacrifice of a potentially bigger inning. Even if their strategy to play for one run actually reduces the odds of scoring according to the probabilities of run-expectancy from their decision, their bias is towards not blowing the opportunity to score just one run. And it is the same concerning decisions about pitching changes, defensive alignments, and how and even whether to pitch to particular batters.

Their players may fail to execute. Fate may intervene in a bad bounce, a great defensive play, or a lousy call (although replay challenges are a remedy to that problem). But managers make the decisions they do at the moments they do for the very purpose, they believe, of maximizing their team's chance to win the game. We should be careful never to assume that the manager did not have very good reasons for making the decisions he dideven those that backfired and have fans and pundits screaming, What was he thinking!

A manager's decisions are made in the context of not only the game situation, but also his years (and years) of learned experience in the game, as well as the philosophical approach and willingness to take risks that he brings to the game as part of his personal and, sometimes, his team's organizational history. In this regard, it would seem their decisions are less about luck (although still dependent on execution) than about the manager's judgment. If so, a manager's record in one-run games may indeed be telling as a valid indicator in the outcomewin or loseof close and sometimes critical games.

There will be further consideration of this issue in the future.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remembering the 2014 Postseason: Decisions Have Consequences

The 2014 postseason showed that of the many roles of a manager, that of game-tacticianespecially the situationally-dependent decisions he makes that can be pivotal in games decided by a single runare those where he is most open to criticism and second-guessing. This first of two articles will hearken back to three dramatic moments in the post-season just past, to be followed by an article engaging the debate on whether a manager's decisions in one-run gamesand specifically his record in games decided by one runis a valid indicator of managers' impact and effectiveness.  

Decisions Have Consequences

In Game 2 of the NLDS, the Nationals hosting the Giants, Washington held a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of a game they needed desperately to win, it being that they had lost Game 1 in the best-of-five series and the next two games would be in San Fran. Just six days after he had pitched a no-hitter in his final start of the regular season, Jordan Zimmermann was again pitching as though this was Masterpiece Theatre. He had retired 23 consecutive batters when Joe Panik came to bat in the top of the ninth, the Giants down to their last out. But Zimmermann walked Panik on a pitch that may or may not have been in the strike zone, putting the tying run on base, and bringing Nats first-year manager Matt Williams to the mound.

In a decision for which he was extensively criticized even as he made it, Williams decided to remove Zimmermann in favor of Nats' closer Drew Storen. Zimmermann had thrown just 100 pitches, was in the flow of another brilliant performance, and was arguably unhittable. He had in fact given up only three hits, none since the third. Storen had a history about which the fans at Nationals Park were well aware, and while history doesn't necessarily have to repeat itself, well... 

First, the history: Storen had been rather unceremoniously dumped from the closer role after having blown a 7-5 lead he was called upon to save in the deciding Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against St. Louis. He loaded the bases, got two outs, and with the Nationals just one out away from victoryand a trip to the NLCSgave up back-to-back singles that scored four Cardinals runs, ending Washington's breakout season in bitter defeat. When Rafael Soriano, who replaced him as closer, struggled late in the 2014 season, Storen returned to the role in September and was excellent, not allowing a run the entire final month of the season ... until ...

History did seem to repeat itself: instead of getting the final out to save Zimmermann's masterpiece and even-up the series, Storen surrendered a single and a double that tied the score, and only a runner being thrown out at the plate prevented the Giants from going ahead and winning in nine. The Giants did eventually win, in 18 innings, to take a two-games-to-none lead back to San Francisco that the Nationals were unable to overcome. 

In Game 3 of the ALDS, Baltimore at Detroit, a debated managerial move in a one-run game had a different outcome. The Orioles had a two games-to-none advantage in the Series and, with a 2-1 lead, were two outs away from sweeping the Tigers, but the Tigers got the tying run to second base. 

Veteran Orioles manager Buck Showalter ordered his relief ace, lefty Zach Britton, to intentionally walk Nick Castellanos who hit only .259 during the season and had struck out 140 timesthe second-highest K total on the Tigers. Although a right-handed batter, Castellanos had fared worse when facing southpaws, hitting only .237 against them. He had walked in his only plate appearance against Britton during the season.

Deliberately walking Castellanos was certainly an unconventional move because it put the possible winning run on base. But it did set up a double play situationwhich is exactly what the Orioles got to win the game and advance to the ALCS against ...

The Kansas City Royals, whose trip to the World Series was nearly stopped short in the AL wild card game by manager Ned Yost's controversial decision concerning who to call on in relief of starter James Shields to protect a sixth-inning lead. The Royals led 3-2, but the Oakland A's got two on with nobody out in the sixth when Yost came to get Shields. Left-handed power-hitter Brandon Moss was waiting to bat.

Kelvin Herrera, the Royals' highly-regarded seventh-inning guy, was available, and with the post-season on the line, this was perhaps a time Yost might bring him in to get crucial outs in the sixth inning. Instead, Yost called upon right-handed power starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. Power against power, Moss greeted Ventura with a three-run home run that gave the A's the lead, and only a stirring comeback in the eighth and ninth innings, and again in the twelfth, allowed KC to prevail, 9-8, to go on to the ALDS, and then the ALCS, and finally the World Series.

These are just three examples of decisions by managers at critical moments of one-run games in the 2014 postseason. As was also demonstrated in the series of articles I wrote last year concerning some of manager Gene Mauch's decisions during the epic collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, such decisions have consequences, affecting the outcome of games. 

So, the question before us is: does his team's record in one-run games say anything meaningful about a manager's impact and effectiveness in game situations? My next article will grapple with that issue.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Minnie Minoso Dossier--Remembered

Chicago lost a second baseball icon when Minnie Minoso passed away on Sunday, just 36 days after Ernie Banks, and only a week into spring training with a new baseball season on the horizon. Like Banks, he faced the challenge of being one of the first black players to integrate major league baseball, but Minoso also faced the challenge of being a native Cuban having to adapt to American culture. When it was announced in December that he was being considered for the second time in recent years by the Veterans "Golden Era" Committee for inclusion into baseball's Hall of Fame, I wrote the following "dossier" (slightly edited) on this site for why Minoso should be remembered--and indeed so honored--as one of the game's best players in the 1950s.  

The Minnie Minoso Dossier--Remembered

Minnie Minoso was one of only five black players making their major league debut before Jackie Robinson retired in 1956 to become a core regular on an American League team for as many as five years as of 1960, which was indicative of the AL's go-slow approach when it came to integration. Originally signed by Cleveland  in 1948 out of the Negro Leagues, Minoso played a handful of games for the Indians in 1949, excelled in the Pacific Coast League in 1950, had an exceptional rookie season in 1951, and was one of the AL's premier players for the rest of the decade. According to similarity scores developed by Bill James to compare players, the player to whom Minnie Minoso was most similar from when he was 28 through the age of 36 was Hall of Fame outfielder Enos Slaughter.

After being acquired from Cleveland in a multi-player three-team round-robin of trading on the last day of April in 1951, Minoso immediately made his impact felt in helping to turn around the fortunes of the Chicago White Sox. Still haunted by the 1919 Black Sox scandal that sent the American League team in Chicago to purgatory for decades in mostly the nether regions of the league, the White Sox had finished a dismal sixth the previous year, 34 games below .500. 

After changing uniforms, Minoso's batting average of .359 in his first two months with Chicago was instrumental in the White Sox reaching and staying in first place for virtually all of June and remaining competitive until August. The White Sox finished the season in fourth place, out of the running, but with a winning record for the first time in eight years.

The rookie outfielder's .326 batting average was second in the league to Philadelphia's Ferris Fain (.344). Batting third in the line-up, he was second in runs scored with 112, one behind Boston's Dom DiMaggio. Fifth in both on-base and slugging percentages, Minoso had the third highest overall combined on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the American League. Showing off his speed, he led the league in triples with 14 and in stolen bases with 31. Third in total extra-base hits, his 34 doubles were two short of the league-leaders (three players had 36). 

His player value of 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR) was sixth in the league, and fourth-best among position players. Minnie Minoso was better in all of these categories than any other rookie in baseball, including Willie Mays, but it was the pennant-winning Yankees' versatile infielder Gil McDougald who spent the winter polishing the AL's Rookie of the Year award. Mays won in the NL.

The White Sox were still a work in progress, but with Minoso and second baseman Nellie Fox as two of the American League's best position players, and southpaw Billy Pierce one of the best pitchers, they were increasingly competitive as the decade advanced. In 1954 Minoso, with a .320 batting average and the most total bases, was the best player in the league based on his 8.2 WAR as the White Sox won 94 games. Perhaps because his team finished third in the standings, however, Minoso finished fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting; 'twas Yogi Berra on the second-place Yankees got to spend the winter admiring the AL's MVP award.

Minoso was at his best between 1954 and 1959 with a six-year average annual player value of 5.7 wins above replacement. Among American League players, only Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline had more wins above replacement during those years. When the White Sox finally did escape from under the weight of the Yankees and Indians--who were first and second in the standings every year between 1951 and 1956 (with Cleveland first and New York second only once in 1954)--Minnie Minoso was no longer in Chicago to enjoy the American League pennant they finally won in 1959.

Despite having another strong year in 1957 with the fifth of his eight .300 batting averages and the fifth time his on-based percentage exceeded .400, Minoso was traded back to Cleveland for outfielder Al Smith and future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn. After a pair of .302 seasons in Cleveland, Minoso returned to Chicago in yet another trade and, at 34 years old in 1960, led the AL in hits with 189 while batting .311. 

The 1960 White Sox fought valiantly in defense of their American League crown before slipping out of the pennant race in mid-September, thus ending Minoso's last chance to play in a World Series. The following year was the last that Minoso was a regular. He missed most of the 1962 season, now playing for St. Louis, with a broken wrist and never recovered to play close to the level he had. Age will do that to you, if you're a baseball player and on the other side of 35.

With a .298 lifetime batting average, Minnie Minoso never got more than 21 percent of the vote when he was on the Cooperstown ballot of the Baseball Writers Association of America. That was in his fourth year of eligibility. Among the 16 voters on this year's Golden Era Committee were Al Kaline and Jim Bunning, both of whom played in the American League in the last half of the 1950s.

Perhaps Bunning remembered that Minoso touched him up for a .333 average, six home runs, and 18 runs batted in. The only other pitcher who Minoso tagged for that many home runs (also six) was Early Wynn, except Minoso had 85 more plate appearances against him than Bunning. And maybe Kaline remembered that Minoso hit more home runs in his career against the Detroit Tigers--37--than any other team, along with 159 RBI and a .308 average, and 24 of those home runs Minoso knocked out at Tiger Stadium.

Minoso needed the votes of 12 committee members. He got eight. That doesn't mean he wasn't one of the best of his era.