Friday, May 29, 2015

Don Newcombe Channels Babe Ruth

Strategy aside, opposite arguments in the debate about whether the National League should adopt the DH rule so there is uniformity across the major leagues have been very much in play in the first two months of the 2015 season. On the one side, the month of May saw Mets pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard both go 3-for-3 at the plate in a game, and Giants right-handed ace Madison Bumgarner hit a home run to help his own pitching cause in outdueling Clayton Kershaw. On the other side, the month of April saw Cardinals ace right-hander Adam Wainwright rupture his Achilles tendon trying to run out an infield popup, ending his season, just two days after Nationals ace righty Max Scherzer injured his thumb while batting. An angry Scherzer, a veteran of the DH American League, complained about NL pitchers having to bat for themselves, prompting Bumgarner to take issue with his comments that nobody really wants to see pitchers hita sentiment long popular with the "all-DH" crowd. Sixty years ago, in 1955, there was no such debate because there was no DH anywhere to be had. Had there been, Dodgers ace right-hander Don Newcombe would have been squarely on Madison Bumgarner's side, even if Bumgarner is ... a "Giant."

Don Newcombe Channels Babe Ruth

On May 30, 1955, in the second game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field, Don Newcombe ran his record to 8-0 with a 2.86 ERA as he beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-3. As satisfying as the pitching victory surely was, Newk might have been more proud of his excellent all-around day. Newcombe went 3-for-4 at the plate to raise his batting average to a robust .357. Who says pitchers can't hit? Two of his three hits were home runs. His two-run fourth-inning blast off Pirates starter Ron Kline with two outs and Gil Hodges on base vaulted the Dodgers ahead in the game, 3-2. He tagged Kline for another home run in the sixth to make the score 5-2.

Don Newcombe now had four home runs and seven runs batted in for the season. It was the second time in 1955 that Big Newk had hit two round-trippers in a game to help his own cause, the first time coming in his first start of the season against the defending-champion and arch-rival New York Giants. See the following article in my series on the 1955 season, sixty years ago:

Newcombe was one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game, and 1955 turned out to be his most productive at the plate (even if not his best on the mound, although he wound up the season with a 20-5 record to lead the league in winning percentage as he also did with his 1.1 walks and hits allowed per inning pitched). Big Newk batted .359 on the year with seven home runs and 23 runs batted in. His on-base plus slugging percentage was 1.028. So potent was his bat, manager Walt Alston used Newcombe as a pinch hitter 23 times during the season, in which role Newk was 8-for-21 for a .381 average and drove in four of his 23 runs. All seven of his long balls, however, were in support of his personal pitching efforts.

Over the course of his career, Newcombe batted .276 as a pitcher with 15 home runs and 98 runs batted in. He struck out in only 14 percent of his plate appearances and had a .308 batting average for the times he did not strike out. His hitting prowess was such that Newcombe appeared in 106 games as a pinch hitter, batting .227 without any home runs but with 10 RBIs. Don Newcombe is in the argument about the best-hitting pitchers of all time. 

Historical comparisons for pitchers as hitters must start with The Bambino, George Herman Ruth. From 1914 to 1917 when Ruth was exclusively a pitcher, but also got into games as a pinch hitter, Babe batted .299 with 9 home runs and 50 RBIs, striking out in 16 percent of his plate appearances. One of those home runs was as a pinch hitter. His season-high as a pitcher was 4 home runs in 1915. Of course, these were the "Dead Ball" days.

Ruth had five more home runs as a pitcher in 1918 and 1919, the years he began his conversion from the mound to become a day-to-day regular. Leading the majors in home runs both years with 11 and 29, Ruth was inaugurating both his legend and a revolution in how the game was played. Once he moved to New York and became a full-time outfielder, Ruth pitched only five more games in his career, during which he hit two more circuit-clouts, giving him a total of 16 home runs (out of his 714) in the games he pitched. The Babe's last home run as a pitcher came the last time he took the moundthe final game of the 1933 season, in the bottom of a three-run fifth inning that gave the Yankees a 6-0 lead, after which Ruth the pitcher gave back five runs to the Red Sox.

The players who hit the most home runs in major league careers exclusively as a pitcher, with the occasional pinch-hitting and rare fielding-position appearances, were Wes Ferrell (who surrendered four of the Babe's home runs) with 38, Bob Lemon with 37, Red Ruffing with 36, Warren Spahn with 35, and Earl Wilson with 33. Don Drysdale just missed 30 with 29. Lemon and Spahn were contemporaries of Newcombe's pitching generation. 

Wes Ferrell's most productive years with the bat were when he hit nine home runs in 1931, seven in 1933, and seven in 1935—probably his best year at the plate, since he also batted a career-high .347 and drove in a career-high 32 runs. One of his home runs in 1935 was as a pinch hitter. Ferrell, whose lifetime average was .280 with 208 RBIs, hit two home runs in a game five times. 

Red Ruffing, a direct contemporary of Ferrell's, hit .269 for his career with 273 runs batted in—the most by a pitcher since RBIs became an official statistic in 1920—and twice hit as many as four home runs in a season (4 in 1930 and 5 in 1936). Two of his career home runs were as a pinch hitter.

Bob Lemon, who failed to make the major league grade as a third baseman but had a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher, had a .232 lifetime average with 147 RBIs. He hit five home runs in 1948, seven in 1949, and six the following year. Lemon's only multi-homer game was in 1949. Two of his career home runs came as a pinch hitter.

The great southpaw (363 victories) Warren Spahn never hit more than four round-trippers in a single season (twice, in 1955 and 1961), did not hit much for average (a lifetime mark of .194), but does hold the mark for the most consecutive years with at least one home run by a pitcherseventeen, from 1948 to 1964. Unlike the other top pitchers who could hit with unaccustomed power for a twirler, Spahn was rarely used off the bench to pinch hit.

Like Spahn, Earl Wilson's lifetime average was below .200 at .195, but he hit seven home runs in both 1966 and 1968, six in 1965, and five in 1964. Two of his career home runs were as a pinch hitter, and he had only one game in which he went deep twice.

But back to 1955. Newcombe's offensive outburst and triumph on the mound on May 30 made it 42 games down and 112 to go for the Dodgers. Their 32-10 record was the best in all of major league baseball and had them comfortably in front of their prime would-be competitors for the NL pennantthe Giants, who were 10 games behind in third place, and the Milwaukee Braves, who were 11½ games out in fourth place with a losing record. The Chicago Cubs were second, six back of Brooklyn, but nobody took them seriously. Indeed, while the Dodgers would have the best record in the NL in games played after May 30, the Cubs would have the worst on their way to a 72-81 record and sixth place.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Judge and the Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

The Miami Marlins' decision to name General Manager Dan Jennings as their new field managerwithout the word "interim" as a qualifier to his positionis both highly unusual and virtually unprecedented in the major leagues since before the Great Depression because he has absolutely zero experience managing, coaching, or even playing the game at a professional level. None. You have to go back to former-Judge Emil Fuchs, who happened to be owner of the Boston Braves, in 1929 and to first-rate college football coach Hugo Bezdek from 1917 to 1919 to find the last major league managers of any consequence without a players resume even in the minor leagues.

The Judge and The Coach in Dan Jennings' Rearview

Dan Jennings played college baseball, but has no professional experience in a baseball uniform at any level as either a player, coach, or manager. But he clearly loves the game and has made it his livelihood since the mid-1980s, evaluating talent as a scout and executive involved in player development. Jennings joined the Marlins front office in 2002 and was promoted to General Manager in 2013. He was largely responsible for putting together the team he is now managing. According to the Marlins' President of Baseball Operations, the strengths Jennings brings to the position, besides being intimately familiar with the skills and abilities of Miami's players, include his energy, ability to motivate, and being an inspirational leader.

Is that enough? Because, while much has been made with regard to recent new managers having no managing experience at any level, it has always been an implicit cardinal rule that major league managers have experience as at least having played professional baseball

Having played the game, even if never making it out of the minor leagues, is taken for granted as essential for any manager to establish credibility with his players. Otherwise they could not possibly understand the experience, which is founded on struggle and failure. Managers who never played at the major league level such as Hall of Fame skippers Joe McCarthy (15 years as a minor league infielder) and Earl Weaver (14 years as a minor league infielder) had the respect of their players in big league dugouts precisely because they had played the game professionally, knew first-hand how difficult it is to succeed, and had mastered the nuances of strategy and the ebb and flow of seasons.

Not counting Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner's one-day vanity stint as manager of his team at the very end of the 1977 season(the Braves lost their 101st game of the year, 6-2, under his managerial acumen)we must go back all the way to 1929 to find a manager with any appreciable time in the role who had never played professional baseball, let alone coached or managed. He was a much earlier Braves' owner, when the team was still in Boston, by name of Emil Fuchs. Emil Fuchs was better known as "Judge" Fuchs, because, well, that's what he wasan attorney who was a magistrate in New York City for four years in the 'teens, got close to John McGraw and became the New York Giants' lawyer, and who was persuaded by McGraw to put in a bid to buy the NL team in Boston before the 1923 season got under way.

After six years with the Braves getting progressively worse, Fuchs decided to take the top step of the dugout for himself. He had gone through four managers, all who had played the game, including star Hall of Fame shortstop Dave Bancroft and Rogers Hornsby, whose greatness as a player needs no introduction. The 1928 Braves had been terrible under the controversial Hornsby, who was traded to the Cubs after the season, giving Fuchs reason to believe he couldn't do any worse.

His one year at the helm did not go so well. The 1929 Braves did lose five fewer games, but finished dead last in the National League on the short side of 98 games, 10 games behind the seventh-place Reds and 43 games back of Joe McCarthy's Cubs, who benefited greatly from Hornsby's presence in the batting order. For whatever it's worth, Fuchs did enjoy being the manager when his team was at the top of the NL heap 13 games into the season, but thereafter was a disaster. For 1930, Fuchs hired a real manager to take over the Bravesa gentleman by name of Bill McKechnie, one of baseball's all-time great managers.

Before Fuchs, the last manager of any consequence to have not played, coached, or managed baseball at any professional level was Hugo Bezdek. 

Bezdek is historically remembered for being a great college football coach in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1917, while coaching the University of Oregon football team, Bezdek was also the West Coast scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the Pirates started the season losing 40 of their first 60 games, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss called upon Bezdek, with no prior professional baseball experience of any kind, to take over at Forbes Field. He didn't do that badly. After finishing up a dismal season, the Pirates were 65-60 in the World War I-shortened 1918 season and 71-68 in 1919 under Bezdek, finishing fourth both years. Once the baseball season was over, Bezdek also coached football both years at Penn State, about 135 miles east of Pittsburgh, before returning full-time to what he did bestcoaching college footballin 1920, remaining at Penn until 1930.

Baseball pundits have taken notice that teams in very recent years appear quite willing to take a chance on youngish guys who have not managed at any level before, observing that this indicates a change from thinking about managers as masterminds of game-situations in the dugout to thinking about how they handle the outside world as well as the dynamics of the clubhouse. That was true of Brad Ausmus, Robin Ventura, and Bryan Price when they became first-time major league managers last year, and Paul Molitor, Kevin Cash, and Craig Counsell this season. All except Price played in The Big Time, and Price pitched in the minor leagues. Should Dan Jennings be successful in the dugout, he might be at the forefront of a new paradigm for major league managers.

Friday, May 8, 2015

May 10, 1955 (60 Years Ago): NL Race All But Over (Except for the Playing Out the Schedule Part)

The 1955 Dodgers' longest winning-streak of the season reached 11 games on May 10 when Don Newcombe shut out the Chicago Cubs, 3-0. It was only 24 games into the season, but the Dodgers already had a stunning 9-1/2-game lead with a 22-2 record. As it turned out, the NL pennant race was already over, because Brooklyn continued to play the best baseball in the league.

May 10, 1955: NL Race All But Over (Except for the Playing Out the Schedule Part)

The Brooklyn Dodgers were obviously not buying into the narrative that their failure to win the 1954 pennant after having won back-to-back in '52 and '53 was indicative of the "boys of summer"as Roger Kahn would later christen thembeing past their peak and on the down slide. When Newcombe took the mound at Wrigley Field on May 10, the Dodgers had lost only twice all year. 

Both losses were to the defending-champion New York Giants, who beat them 5-4 on April 22 and 11-10 in ten innings two days later. Those victories trimmed the Dodgers' lead on April 24 to 2-1/2 games over the second-place Milwaukee Braves. Since then, the Dodgers had won ten straight, the Braves were still second, but just one game over .500 at 12-11, and the Giants were in third, struggling to get untracked with an 11-11 record.

As hot as the Dodgers had been, Don Newcombe was still finding his footing in his second year back from two years as a US Army draft pick occasioned by the Korean War. Newcombe had an impressive 56-28 record and 3.39 career earned run average after three seasons when duty called, but struggled with a 9-8 record and 4.55 ERA in his first year back in 1954. Particularly with the Giants defending a championship and the Braves a fast-rising club, Brooklyn's prospects in 1955 were said to rest to a great extent on whether the power right-hander would recover his pre-military-draft excellence. 

So far, Newcombe had won two of his first three starts, which included a no-decision in the Dodgers' April 24 loss to the Giants, but he also had a less-than-ace-like 5.50 ERA. This was his first start since then, with his only appearance in the previous 15 days a victory in two innings out of the bullpen in an extra-inning game against the Phillies on May 6.

Newcombe was brilliant this day against the Cubs. Pitching his first shutout since the late September heat of the 1951 pennant race, Don Newcombe allowed the Cubs only one base runner while striking out six. Gene Baker's single up the middle in the fourth inning was the only hit Big Newk allowed. It was the second and last one-hitter of his career (he never pitched a no-no); Newcombe had one-hit the Pirates in June 1951, althoughlike in this onethere was no drama of flirting with a no-hitter because Ralph Kiner singled in the first inning. 

The Dodgers were an offensive juggernaut early in the 1955 season. Their three runs against the Cubs gave them 152 in the first 24 gamesby far the most in the major leagues. Even with Newcombe not pitching at his Newcombesque-best, at least until this game, the Dodgers had given up the far fewest runs in the National League, only 83. 

It may have been only 24 games into the seasonthere were still 130 remaining on the scheduleand the Dodgers' .917 winning percentage was certainly unsustainable for much longer. Their winning streak came to an end the next day and the Dodgers lost six of their next nine, which shaved three games off their lead.

But still, a 9-1/2-game lead so early was a huge deficit for would-be competitors to make up. The Braves ultimately finished second with 85 wins. The Dodgers could have had a losing 64-66 record the rest of the way and still finished first. 

Brooklyn's hot start did in fact basically settle things, and even with 84 percent of the schedule yet to be played after May 10, there would be no drama of a National League pennant race. The Dodgers did not let up. While they could not match their torrid start to the season, the played as the best team in the National League the rest of the way, with a record 3-1/2 games better than any other NL team in games played after May 10. 

The closest any team came to the Dodgers after May 10 was Chicago pulling within 5-1/2 games of Brooklyn on the last day of May. But nobody considered the Cubs a legitimate contender, and they ended up sixth with a losing record. After that slump in the standings, the Dodgers put the pennant race away for real by winning 10 of their next 11 to take a 10-1/2-game lead with a 42-12 record on June 11. They were still on a pace, more than a third-of-the-way through the season, to pass the 1906 Chicago Cubs' major league record of 116 wins in a single season. In the remaining 100 games they had left after that, Milwaukee would be one-game better, but Brooklyn's lead was never less than those 10-1/2 games.

Meanwhile, over in the American League, as predicted, a three-team race was developing. The Indians went into Yankee Stadium for a two-game set on May 10, a week after the teams had split two games in Cleveland. The Indians won, 9-6, even though their ace Bob Lemon did not pitch well in running his record to 6-1. The next day, a three-run fourth proved decisive in the Indians' 4-3 win over the Yankees.

The loss kept the Yankees in third place. They were now four games behind with a 14-10 record, which would turn out to be their biggest deficit of the season. The Indians, at 19-7, now led by three games over the second-place White Sox, which would turn out to be their biggest lead of the season.

After May 11, it was 24 games down for the Yankees and 130 to go.