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April 8, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Go Go, Tigers, Go?

by Steven Goldman

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After this afternoon's game the Tigers, a team many picked to contend for the American League Central title, have opened the season 0-7. This has undoubtedly caused panic in some circles, as the Tigers have scored all of 15 runs this year, and many of the usual suspects in the talking head brigade were touting the Leyland men as a potential 1000-run offense after the off-season acquisitions of Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria.

The 1000-run idea was always overblown-the Tigers didn't come within a hundred runs of it last year, and they remain an impatient team playing in the wrong ballpark to help them achieve such a feat. Yet the Tigers are, at least on paper, a very good team, as their PECOTA projection of 91-71 suggests. At the risk of overstating what is, after all, merely a seven-game sample, the question to ask now is whether or not very good teams underperform for reasons that cannot be anticipated at the outset of the season?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes; it falls to me to find a case study that fits the situation, and to do so I would like to invoke the 1959 Yankees. The '59 squad was, like these Tigers, a very good team on paper. It was the same team that had won the American League pennant every year since 1948 except 1954, and after 1959 it would win another five straight pennants. The 1958 squad opened the season 25-6 and coasted to a 92-62 record en route to delivering a come-from-behind World Series victory; the 1960 edition went 97-57 and lost a seven-game World Series. The manager of all three teams was the ever-creative Casey Stengel. Given the 1959 team's recent lineage and immediate future, it seems shocking that it could fail to contend, yet fail they did, landing in last place with a 12-19 record in late May before rebounding somewhat to finish 79-75, which was only good enough for a distant third, 15 games behind the pennant-winning Go-Go White Sox.

Knowing what we do about dynastic ballclubs, we could make some educated guesses about why the '59 Yankees fell down. We know that good teams age, and if the roster isn't aggressively spaded, fading vets will wear a club down with injuries and failing performances. In short, even the best baseball rosters turn into the 25-man version of Jim Edmonds over time. That is emphatically not what happened to the '59 Yankees, though. In the lineup, the team had only two older regulars: catcher Yogi Berra, who was 34, and right fielder Hank Bauer, who was 36. Berra had a good year in '59, delivering at a .284/.347/.462 clip, so he wasn't part of the problem. On the other hand, Bauer was a major problem, hitting the end of the line with .238/.307/.375 rates that conceal a tolerable start and a disastrous .210/.265/.363 second-half breakdown. Still, the failure of one player should not have completely disrupted a 90-win team-though, as we shall see, Bauer did have a disproportionate impact.

The pitching staff was also not old. The rotation, headed by 30-year-old Whitey Ford, averaged about 30 years of age. Stengel could also turn to one of the deeper bullpens of the day, with his "big feller with the glasses," 100-mph ace Ryne Duren (something like the Rob Dibble of his day), being supported by the righty-lefty tandem of Jim Coates and Bobby Shantz. Stengel used Duren exceptionally well that year, plugging him into more high-leverage situations than any pitcher in baseball (Duren's 1959 leverage score of 2.05 still stands out as one of fewer than 80 single-season scores above 2.00 from 1959 to the present. The highest score in a like number of innings was Jeff Reardon's 2.55 of 1986).

In addition to these players, the Yankees had two-time MVP Mickey Mantle in his age-27 season in center field, slugging Moose Skowron (28) at first base, left fielder Norm Siebern (25), who had batted .300/.388/.454 in 1958, and multi-position regular Elston Howard (30), delivering a strong year at .273/.308/.476. These numbers don't portray Howard's true value; in addition to being a standout defender at catcher when Berra wasn't available, Howard had a superior right-handed batter severely affected by Yankee Stadium's Marianas Trench out in left; in 1959 he hit .305/.340/.547 in neutral parks, but just .237/.271/.396 at home. ("I can trade him for any player in the league," Stengel said, "but I'm not going to.") Up the middle, the team had two 23-year-old defensive standouts, second baseman Bobby Richardson and shortstop Tony Kubek. Neither was much of a hitter, but Richardson did hit .301 in singles, while Kubek had power for a shortstop of the day, so both were roughly average at the plate.

So what went wrong? As it turned out, a little bit of everything. There were multiple injuries in both the lineup and on the pitching staff, the most visible being the multiple breakdowns that sidelined Skowron for half the year in what was otherwise shaping up as an excellent season (.298/.349/.539). Already hampered by a bad back and a torn hamstring, Moose was lost for the season in late July when a throw from third baseman Hector Lopez tailed into runner Coot Veal. Skowron lunged for the throw and Veal ran into his arm, breaking it in two places. "I'm just a putty ballplayer," lamented Skowron. "That's the fifth time this year I've been hurt."

Lopez, a poor third baseman fated to be pushed to the outfield by Clete Boyer in 1960, was only at the hot corner for the Yankees because incumbent third baseman Andy Carey, a very good glove man who had hit .286/.363/.486 in 1958, slumped early, was benched, then later diagnosed with hepatitis and lost for the season. Over the previous half-dozen seasons, Stengel's reaction to an infield injury was to cover using Gil McDougald at the most sensitive spot. A Gold Glove-quality defender at second, third, or short, McDougald had been underrated, another right-handed hitter hurt by Yankee Stadium-of 112 career home runs, just 29 of them would be hit at home. McDougald was only 32 and had been a top-ten finisher in the MVP voting as recently as 1957, but his bat had started to fail in 1958-a result, some would argue, of his feelings of guilt for having smacked the liner that hit Indians pitcher Herb Score squarely in the eye in 1957-and he failed to provide the usual spark.

The final decline of Bauer's bat had multiple consequences. History remembers Phil Rizzuto as Stengel's primary leadoff man, but in many seasons it wasn't Scooter, it was Bauer. Although Bauer was not the world's fastest or most patient batter, Stengel liked the idea of a leadoff man who could open the game with a home run. Stengel now had the dual problem of finding both a right fielder and a hitter for the top of the order, and for once he failed to do both. The shifting of McDougald around the infield gave him an opportunity to give Kubek work in the outfield while he tried to find an extra bat among a plethora of young infielders he had on hand, including Richardson (who stuck), Jerry Lumpe, and Boyer. This same approach had worked quite well in 1957, when Kubek won the Rookie of the Year award while splitting his time among shortstop, third base, left field, and center.

Unfortunately, this led to yet another injury. Kubek was batting .300/.334/.431 on July 16, 1959 when he got the start in right field; McDougald took over at short for the first game of a doubleheader with the Indians at Yankee Stadium. Some pinch-hitting moves necessitated Kubek's sliding over to left for the top of the eighth. With one out in the inning, Rocky Colavito lofted a pop-up to shallow left. McDougald went out, Kubek came in, and the subsequent collision knocked Kubek unconscious. A concussion, neck pain, and shoulder stiffness kept him out of the lineup for two weeks. When he returned, he hit just .252/.285/.338 over the rest of the season, while McDougald, suffering dizzy spells, hit .145/.204/.181 in his next 30 games.

Mickey Mantle made it into 144 games, but as was typical for his career played through anything short of a broken bone. It's hard to believe that anyone would criticize a .285/.390/.514 season from a center fielder in a league that hit .253/.323/.384, but Mantle was the subject of A-Rod-style booing that year. Mantle was the AL runner-up in VORP (to Tito Francona, of all players), but of course VORP hadn't been invented yet. What the fans and writers were aware of were RBI totals, and Mantle had only 75 of those while hitting in the third slot after driving in between 92 and 130 every season since 1952. The shortfall was due in part to the lack of production the Yankees got out of the first two spots in the batting order, as Stengel's multiple lineups producing only .324 and .298 on-base percentages from the leadoff and second slots, respectively. However, many observers also reported that Mantle seemed to press in big spots that season, and the numbers seem to bear that out, as the Commerce Comet fizzled to .206/.416/.439 with runners in scoring position.

As Mantle struggled, he acted out more, showing his frustration with occasionally indifferent work on the field and with temper tantrums in the dugout. Stengel grew increasingly frustrated with his prize pupil. First he tried humor. "I'm gonna buy you some paper dolls to tear up," he told Mantle. "Maybe that'll curb your temper." Stengel actually followed through on this. Then, as Mantle threatened to make water coolers an endangered species in the American League, Stengel tried fines. When that didn't work, the skipper began airing out Mantle in the press, which in turn led to more booing.

It wasn't Stengel's best year. Sixty-nine years old, Stengel had long been legendary in the game for his ability to combine large amounts of alcohol and small amounts of sleep without suffering any impairment. Now, though, age was finally robbing him of his legendary endurance. This was the season he began dozing off in the dugout during the second games of doubleheaders (making a point about his leadership, he arrested this tendency in 1960). This loss to Father Time didn't erase Stengel's managerial abilities, as his usual aggressive shuffling and astute usage of Duren demonstrates, but the man who had previously prided himself as a teacher was becoming chronically irritable, a development which hindered his efforts to patch the lineup with inexperienced players. It also led to retrograde work by Siebern, whom Stengel almost bullied. In yet another small piece of the unraveling of the Yankees, the outfielder slumped to .271/.341/.403 and was traded after the season. Stengel was also slow to accept that his favorite pinch-hitter, Enos Slaughter, had finally lost the ability to hit at age 43.

Still, any manager would have been helpless to compensate for the decline of 1958 Cy Young winner "Bullet" Bob Turley. Though Turley did not suffer from an official arm injury (though he did miss time with a chipped finger after he mishandled a return throw from Berra), it was clear that his 245 1/3 innings of work the season before had debilitated him. His one-hitter against the Senators on July 1 briefly raised hopes of a comeback, but only a late-season move to the bullpen produced any consistently positive results. Stengel compensated for the loss of his ace by shifting swingman Art Ditmar to the rotation. This move earned good results, but the exchange-Ditmar from 0.9 WARP to 5.7, Turley from 5.9 to 2.1-wasn't good enough, especially since ace Whitey Ford also dropped from 7.1 to 4.0 despite having what would generally be classified as a "good" year. Like his pal Mantle's season, it was disappointing only in the context of the failure of the rest of the club to pick him up.

Even the front office's annual season-saving trade with the Kansas City A's failed to help out. The May 26 deal for Hector Lopez and pitcher Ralph Terry failed to pay off in the short term. Lopez hit a bit but was overmatched at third, while Terry pitched well but the Yankees were unable to score for him, suffering shutouts in five of his 16 starts with the club. Terry would fare better in the future, while the front office would tap the KC connection more successfully in the 1959-60 offseason, hauling in Roger Maris for Siebern, Bauer, Marv Throneberry (now a punchline, but then seen as a promising prospect who had failed to grab the first base job while Skowron was out), and Don Larsen (another veteran who couldn't help after years of fine utility pitching for the team).

Despite all of this and more, the Yankees had an above-average offense, pitching staff, and defense that year. They even flirted with getting back in the race, climbing to 1.5 games behind then-leader Cleveland a month after bottoming out on May 20. However, with all the injuries and disappointments, they never could put together a consistent stretch of winning, and they idled along at just over .500 for the rest of the season. As Stengel put it to the New York Times in his own special way (with a soupçon of punctuation added):

Only one man in our organization had a really good season. He was the bat boy. He had a tremendous season and never made a mistake. The others? Ugh. I would have to say that three or four things stopped us. We was overconfident after coming back in the World Series. There was Turley, for instance, which win twenty-one games but didn't… The same thing happened to Ford, which never found out how to get back on the boat. When Turley pitches a one-hitter we think he's right, but he ain't. The pitching was bad all the way because the pitchers pitch too high and don't fool nobody. When you pitch high your outfielders can't help you they can't catch balls which is hit over their head and into the seats. You gotta pitch low… We lost eight games on sacrifice flies, but if you throw low you can't hit sacrifice flies.

Or you can take the infield juggle. We didn't have defense and blew the double plays with men out of position. Take Skowron. There have been more first basemen than ever before in the American League, but still the White Sox had to buy Kluszewki. The spirit blew up. There is the situation of Mickey Mantle, which you can look up in the statistics… But all my fellers is too ambitious at the plate and they get suckered into swinging from their heels.

In short, nothing worked. Now, none of the foregoing is to say that the 2008 Detroit Tigers are the 1959 Yankees, or that they're going to finish with a record as bad as that which their first seven games suggests they deserve. I merely attest that the perfect storm does sometimes happen, that even the deepest of teams suddenly wake to find themselves with a strange lack of talent, heretofore predictable players melting down like butter in the sun, and no way to arrest the losing.

This almost certainly won't be the fate of the Tigers. But it could be.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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