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March 19, 2004
You Could Look It Up
Earlier this week, the merry BP Brigade was found shooting the baseball breeze in the bullpen at our secret HQ, the Prospectus Nexus. As our lovely girl Friday Esmé Chimère (author of BP's upcoming column for our female readers, "The Boys on the Basepaths") tended the hibachi, weighty topics were bandied about like the tainted games of the 1919 World Series that suggested to Ring Lardner pretty bubbles marred by cancer spots.
One of the questions we briefly kicked around and the YOU-crew has gnawed like a bucket of Sammy Byrd's legs ever since is that of where a manager makes his primary contribution to his team's fortunes. Some would say that the manager's main job is morale-building. Before agreeing, we should probably ask Larry Bowa what he thinks. It was easy to eliminate in-game tactics, because aside from the odd obsessional bunter (Don Baylor) or compulsive lefty-righty switcher (Tony LaRussa), these are largely rote decisions.
It has been suggested elsewhere that constructing the batting order was where the manager most exerts his influence. This is closer to the heart of the matter, a minor truth in search of a major one. It's not what order the players bat in that defines the manager, but who is allowed to bat in the first place.
The term "manager" as it applies to baseball, really covers two different jobs, coaching and managing. The former has the easy job; he runs the team on the field, deciding when to bunt, pinch hit, make pitching changes, etcetera. The manager must assess and assign talent to roles in which it will succeed. It's far more difficult than the Xs and Os part of the game, and even those managers who are good at it will miss a trick every now and then.
There are a thousand clichés when it comes to making out a batting order: you need a speedy table-setter to lead off, a good bat-handler to bat second, your power hitter should bat fourth, the number nine hitter (in the American League) should be a second leadoff man, and so on. None of them turn out to matter much. In the end, the batting order is a tool for distributing playing time on a plate appearances per game basis. Over the course of the season, the leadoff hitter will bat more often than the number two hitter, the number two hitter more often than the number three hitter and so on.
This is a secondary aspect of the larger question of who starts. Even the number nine hitter, who is going to bat less often than the 1-8 hitters, is going to have a greater impact on his team's fortunes than the player who is on the bench or in the minors. The manager's key task is to accurately separate the players who deserve playing time from those who don't, or more accurately, to separate those who deserve to play from those who deserve to play more. First it's "Who?" and then "How much?"
Every manager brings his prejudices to this process, and these, for good or ill, define his choices. Quintessential example: Hank Sauer. Sauer, a left fielder in the National League in the 1940s and '50s, was in the most complimentary sense of the word, a pure slugger. He was an alternate-universe version of Pete Incaviglia, if you can imagine an Incaviglia who had refined his game to the point that he could actually hit. Sauer walked a little, struck out a lot, and his glove was holier than the pope, but he was generally good for a slugging percentage of .500 in a league that slugged .400. Sauer won a controversial Most Valuable Player award in 1952 when he edged 28-game winner Robin Roberts on the strength of the National League lead in home runs and RBIs (37 and 121, respectively), but his best season came in 1954, when he hit .288/.375/.563 (.930 OPS against a league average of .770) with 41 home runs.
Any team can make hay with a hitter of Sauer's abilities, but it took him years to find a taker for his talents. He was unable to become a major league regular until he was 31 years old. Two years in the Coast Guard during the World War II years of 1944-1945 were part of what set him back, but he was actually deemed ready for the show several years before that. After a .330-19-114 season at Birmingham of the Southern League in 1941, Sauer's contract was purchased by the Cincinnati Reds. He hit well in a September cup of coffee that year, but was unable to get more than 20 at bats out of the Reds in 1942, despite the fact that the Cincinnati outfield had less power than a hippo has savings bonds and reached base slightly less often than William Jennings Bryan won the presidency. A year of Sauer might have meant three or four more wins to the Reds--enough to push the team's record over .500--but Sauer's abilities did not jibe with the organizational philosophy as it was perceived by his manager, Bill McKechnie.
Sauer was terribly slow and his range afield cried out for the creation of the designated hitter (BP's FRAA stat sees Sauer as having been a valuable defensive left fielder in 1951 and 1952, perhaps because he gunned down 36 runners over the two seasons). McKechnie's managerial hallmark was team defense; he improved his pitching staffs by surrounding them with superior leather. He wasn't too concerned with scoring; allow few enough runs and all you have to do to win is be average offensively. Sauer would have helped him towards the latter goal but would have pushed him away from the former. In McKechnie's mind, the trade-off was not worth it.
McKechnie was a Hall of Fame manager and he knew what he was doing insofar as he was maintaining a consistent vision of baseball as he understood it. His methods had won four pennants and two championships, the most recent in 1940 with the Reds. Now, though, he was nearing 60, and as with all of us, age brought a calcification of values. Though the Reds were in decline, McKechnie forgot a key tenet of leadership: flexibility and the ability to improvise; when ideology is allowed to supercede pragmatism, a leader has abandoned his critical judgment and abrogated his responsibility to think. The Reds would not contend again during McKechnie's tenure.
Of course, the Deacon was neither the first nor the last manager to miss the boat on a talented player because they could not see past one aspect or another of the player's game. Sometimes the conflict is as simple as one of personality. Connie Mack, who had gone to great lengths to make the eccentric (some would say crazed) pitcher Rube Waddell a productive part of his ballclub from 1902-1907, could not bring himself to make the same effort on the part of young outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, who he had brought up from the minors in 1908. Jackson had a tendency to disappear for various reasons: homesickness, fear of the big city, hazing by teammates, a strong desire to see a burlesque show. Mack tried both honey and vinegar on Jackson, bringing his wife to Philadelphia, offering to hire a reading teacher, sending him to the minor leagues. In July, 1910, Mack gave up. With Jackson at New Orleans, Mack dealt him to the Indians for outfielder Bris Lord ("The Human Eyeball") and $325.
Not only was the trade fantastically lopsided, but it had the unintended effect of setting in motion events that would lead to one of baseball's greatest tragedies. Mack spent the rest of his long life making up alibis: "I knew exactly what I was doing when I let Jackson go… Lord, of course, helped me at the time. I knew our players didn't like Jackson, but that isn't why I traded him. I also knew Joe had great possibilities as a hitter. But at the same time things were going none too good for [Indians owner] Charlie Somers in Cleveland, and I was anxious to do him a good turn in appreciation for the way he had helped us out in Philadelphia in the early days of the league. So I let him have Jackson."
Right, Connie. Baseball owners often do each other little favors out of gratitude and charity. When the time comes, John Henry is going to donate a kidney to George Steinbrenner. Mack was making an excuse. Giants manager John McGraw utilized the same technique to explain why Hack Wilson got away from him in 1926. McGraw had sent the hard-drinking Wilson down to Toledo where, through what the Little Napoleon always insisted was a clerical error, Wilson was purchased by the Cubs. When McGraw liked a ballplayer, he kept him through arrest, indictment, and delirium tremens. Like Mack, McGraw was trying to evade responsibility for his own feeling that Wilson just wasn't worth the trouble.
Less clear-cut is who with the Tigers screwed up Carl Hubbell's screwball. The southpaw was a mediocre minor leaguer until he came up with the pitch in 1924. The Tigers purchased Hubbell because of it, but because it was difficult to control, did not want him to use it. There were some who also questioned whether Hubbell would be injured because the pitch required an unorthodox delivery (in the event, Hubbell ended his career with his left arm facing in the opposite direction as his right, but that doesn't seem to have hindered his pitching). The pitcher went to three spring trainings with the Tigers but never threw a pitch in anger. It was only after the Tigers sold him to the Giants that Hubbell was given even a fair chance. He went on to one of baseball's great careers.
The man who got the blame was Tigers manager Ty Cobb. "They tell me the reason Cobb got rid of him is that he thinks the boy will throw his arm out with the screwball. That's a joke," said McGraw. "When [Christy Mathewson] was pitching it, they called it a fadeaway--and it never hurt his arm." Cobb denied responsibility:
"Every bit of evidence you could ask to see shows that Hubbell was still the property of the Detroit organization in 1926, when I departed as manager… but though I was gone from Detroit, I still take the rap for that colossal blunder. The plain fact is that one of my last acts as manager was to urge [Tigers owner Phil] Navin. 'Never let Hubbell go.'"
Casey Stengel was noted both for his facility with young players and his acid tongue. On a few occasions the former ability failed him and the latter got him in trouble. In 1935, Stengel was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers. Borough native Phil Rizzuto, 18 years old, came to Ebbets Field for a tryout. After an indifferent session in the batting cage, Stengel took the boy aside. "Look kid, this game's not for you. You're too small… Why don't you get a shoeshine box?" Rizzuto would forget the humiliation he felt in that moment. When Stengel came to the Yankees he would remember his resentment. (In various re-tellings over the years, Rizzuto has ascribed the offending "shoeshine box" comment to other, but in recent years settled on Stengel as the culprit).
Later, as skipper of the Boston Braves, Stengel conflicted with a young pitcher named Warren Spahn. Spahn refused to hit Pee Wee Reese when Stengel ordered him to. "Young man, you have no guts," said Stengel, and sent him down to Hartford. Spahn was drafted soon after and lost to the Braves for three years. "That's how smart I was and it was the worst mistake I ever made in baseball," Stengel said later. "I said 'no guts' to a kid who wound up being a war hero and one of the best pitchers anybody ever saw. You can't say I don't miss 'em when I miss 'em."
Sparky Anderson never cottoned to Howard Johnson. Tommy Lasorda spent three years finding reasons to keep John Wetteland off of his team despite high strikeout rates whenever he pitched; the Dodgers eventually dumped him for the desiccated remains of Eric Davis. Anderson missed the boat on Wetteland as well, who couldn't make the pitching-thin Tigers as a Rule 5 draft pick.
When Babe Ruth was shifted to the outfield in 1918, Tris Speaker, who was about to embark on a fairly successful managerial career with the Cleveland Indians, was skeptical. "Ruth made a grave mistake when he gave up pitching," he said. "Working once a week, he might have lasted a long time and become a great star." Had Speaker been Ruth's manager instead of Cousin Ed Barrow, the greatest career in the history of baseball might have been aborted, official scorer's ruling: MJ, Manager's Judgment. The key decision was not if Ruth should bat third or fourth, but whether he should bat at all.
The frightening thing is that had it been Speaker's choice to make, no one would ever have known what could have been. The manager would have changed the destiny of his team, not to mention the game, with a completely invisible hand. All that potential would simply have been deselected by history because a manager failed to perceive it. In the whole history of baseball, how many hundreds of times do you suppose that has happened?