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October 24, 2008

You Could Look It Up

1915, the Year of Nothing

by Steven Goldman

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In my chat earlier this week, I was asked to write something about the 1915 Phillies. "Sure," I said blithely. "I can do anything with dead guys!" As it turns out, the 1915 Phillies had one of those pennant races that didn't offer much in the way of drama. They opened strong, winning eight straight out of the gate, played back their lead to the Cubs, and played leapfrog with them through mid-July; when the Phillies lost to the Cubs on July 17, the two teams were tied at 41-34. Philadelphia then took the next three games from Chicago and never looked back, going 51-26 (.662) the rest of the way to put the pennant away. It was a year without any truly outstanding teams in the NL, but no team was truly horrible either. The Giants, at 69-83, were the best last-place team in NL history to that point. The Phillies, at 90-62, were the worst pennant winner.

The Phillies had appointed a rookie manager that year, 39-year-old ex-catcher Pat Moran. Moran is one of the more interesting unsung skippers in baseball history; we'll get to more about him in a minute. Moran orchestrated four moves that winter that strongly shaped Philadelphia's season. First, Moran had to deal with the Phillies' middle-infield problems. Their double-play combo of 1913 had jumped to the Federal League (the Phillies have a long, long history of being tight with a buck). In 1914 they muddled through without solving the problem, even playing 29-year-old left fielder Sherry Magee at shortstop for 39 games. Casting about for a shortstop, they got good scouting reports on young Dave Bancroft, then playing for Portland in the Pacific Coast League; they purchased him for $5,000. "Beauty" was an above-average hitter for only a few seasons of his career, but he was a terrific defender from the start. He helped the Phillies go from worst to first in defensive efficiency in 1915.

Next, in a trade that proved to be a steal for the Phillies, third baseman Hans Lobert, 32, was sent to the Giants in exchange for three players: reserve catcher Bert Adams, pitcher Al Demaree, and 21-year-old infielder Milt Stock. Adams wasn't useful, but Demaree became a decent back-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Phillies for a couple of years, while Stock took over at third base midway through the 1915 season, spurring their second-half run. He would have a long career as a B-level third sacker with a solid bat and glove. Lobert, generally an excellent hitter, barely played for the Giants before injuries ended his career.

Moran next traded the player-manager he replaced, Red Dooin, to the Reds for third baseman Bert Niehoff, who Moran moved to second as the latest patch for the middle infield. The acquisition was in no way as successful in fixing the problem at the keystone as Bancroft was at shortstop, but the Phillies were able to live with it through three pretty good seasons. Finally, Moran dealt the disgruntled Magee to the Braves for outfielder Possum Whitted, utilityman Oscar Dugey, and cash. This was actually a fairly terrible trade, only slightly redeemed by Magee's quick fade due to injuries and park effects (not necessarily in that order).

Everything about the Phillies in this period is distorted by the Baker Bowl, their miniature home park. The Bowl was 335 down the left-field line, 379 to left-center, 388 to center field, 325 to right-center, and 273 down the right-field line, the last topped by a 35-foot wall. Consider first baseman Fred Luderus, who had a huge .315/.376/.457 season in 1915. He came up with the Cubs and hit just one home run in his first 159 major league at-bats. Moving to the Phillies, he was suddenly a slugger, with five straight seasons among the top half-dozen home-run hitters in the league from 1911-1915. After that, strangely, he lost the knack for a while-a problem given that he was reputedly a clanky defender.

The player who most benefitted from the park during this period was right fielder Gavvy Cravath, a primordial slugger who won five National League home-run titles from 1913-1919. Out of 117 career homers with the Phillies, Cravath hit 92, or 79 percent, in the Bowl. Splits like these help explain the team's .645 record at home. Cravath's splits help explain why major league teams let him stay in the minors until he was 31, despite some good numbers: without the tiny park to play in, he must not have looked like anything special. It took unheard of numbers-a .363 average and 29 home runs (.637 slugging) with the Minneapolis Millers in 1911, to finally spring him for good.

Appropriately, the World Series with the Boston Red Sox would turn on park effects. The Phillies took the first game, then lost four straight one-run ballgames to the Sox. The fifth and final game, which the Phillies dropped 5-4, took place at the Baker Bowl. Skinflint owner William Baker had added extra boxes in the outfield, shrinking the already tiny playing field. Non-slugging Bostonian Harry Hooper cranked two homers into these newly-minted boxes, one in the ninth for the deciding run; Duffy Lewis also hit one in the eighth. Making a small field smaller for many years ranked right up there with getting into a land war in Asia on the list of great blunders.

The 1915 Phillies had three future Hall of Famers on their roster. Two of them, shortstop Dave Bancroft and pitcher Eppa Rixey, are in the lower echelon of the greats, but the third, the great Grover Cleveland Alexander, is one of the inner-circle, indisputable enshrinees. The sidearmer was at his peak in 1915, years before the drinking problem and epilepsy which caused him (and his teams) so many difficulties took hold. Our metrics rank 1915 as Alexander's second-greatest season, one of four years in which he was worth more than 12 wins above replacement to his club. He led the league in so many pitching categories that it would be easier to list the ones he didn't lead than the ones he did, all in the most generous hitter's park this side of pre-humidor Coors Field. It's difficult to imagine a modern analogue to Alexander; picture Brandon Webb throwing three-quarters while having the DTs, and you'd be close.

Pat Moran isn't much remembered today, or if he is, it's as the manager of the team who won the 1919 World Series. His managerial career, though brief, deserves more examination than that. Moran's winning percentage of .561 ranks 14th on the all-time list. He managed nine seasons, four with the Phillies, five with the Reds; he started at 39, and was dead from the stress and the alcoholic lubrication it required at 48. In those few years, he managed one champion (the Reds, who, you never know, might have won without Chick Gandil's help), two pennant winners, and four second-place teams. Very few managers can equal that kind of record.

Moran's makeover of the Reds between 1918 and 1919 hints at a special grasp of defense; as with the Phillies in 1915, the Reds jumped from the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency to the top. Note that the Tampa Bay Rays experienced this same transformation from 2007 to 2008, and it becomes apparent what a powerful tool converting just a few extra hits into outs can be. In a no-brainer move, the evil Hal Chase was chased out of Cincinnati in favor of Jake Daubert, a player who was much better on offense and, while not Chase's equal with the glove, at least wasn't trying to throw games. The offensively challenged but defensively excellent Morrie Rath took over at second for another cheater, Lee Magee. Moran also switched his shortstop and his corner outfielders. In the pitching department, he picked up soft-tossing lefty Slim Sallee from the Giants on a waiver claim and got a 21-7 season from him, that despite Sallee only striking out 24 in 227 2/3 innings. He also promoted lefty Dutch Ruether to the starting rotation and received a 1.82 ERA in 242 2/3 innings, the best season of that lefty's career.

Among Moran's later insights was the formation of the great Reds' rotation of the early 1920s. Eppa Rixey was stagnating with the Phils. Moran traded for his old charge and helped him pitch his way to Cooperstown. The Reds had the Cuban great Dolf Luque rotting in their bullpen; Moran put him in the rotation and he became one of the league's best pitchers for the next ten years. Moran also brought up phenom Pete Donohue at 20 in 1921, starting him on the way to three 20-win seasons by age 25. Moran was almost certainly on his way to a Hall of Fame-caliber managerial career when he expired.

And Now For Something Completely Different

As a closing note, I thought it might be fun to pick an All-Star team from the five Phillies World Series clubs (1915, 1950, 1980, 1993, and 2008), seeing how many of the current bunch make it aboard:

  • First Base: Fred Luderus, Eddie Waitkus, Pete Rose, John Kruk, Ryan Howard
    The Pick: Kruk is a surprisingly easy pick. He was terrific in 1993, effective against both lefties and righties, and he picked up 111 walks. His nearly 100-point edge in OBP over Howard easily overcomes Howard's 34 extra homers. Luderus was a one-dimensional slugger in a tiny park, while Waitkus and Rose didn't hit.

  • Second Base: Bert Niehoff, Mike Goliat, Manny Trillo, Mickey Morandini, Chase Utley
    The Pick: Utley is the only two-way player in the group. Niehoff was filler, Goliat was a one-year starter, and Trillo was a Gold Glover who had his best offensive season in 1980, but his best wasn't all that good. Morandini was a good player at times, but 1993 was actually one of his worst years.

  • Third Base: Milt Stock, Willie Jones, Mike Schmidt, Dave Hollins, Pedro Feliz
    The Pick: Not too much thinking to do so far; it's Schmidt, natch. Stock was a pretty good player who helped boost the Phillies in '15. Jones was a very solid complementary player who contributed on both sides of the ball without being an MVP candidate. Never much of a fielder, Hollins was a selective hitter with some home-run pop, but injuries destroyed his career. Feliz is a fine fielder, but merely filler.

  • Shortstop: Dave Bancroft, Granny Hamner, Larry Bowa, Kevin Stocker, Jimmy Rollins
    The Pick: Rollins, though in other seasons Bancroft, whose peak was years away, could be competitive here. Hamner had a bit of power for a shortstop of his day and was a good fielder, but he had little in the way of plate judgment. Bowa's defensive prowess was greatly overstated, and he had a .229 EqA in 1980. Stocker was at his best in 1993, batting a fluky .324/.409/.417, but that was in less than half a season; before calling him up, the '93 team was relying on Juan Bell, Kim Batiste, and Mariano Duncan.

  • Catcher: Bill Killefer, Andy Seminick, Bob Boone, Darren Daulton, Carlos Ruiz
    The Pick: Daulton, who had his second-best career season in 1993, hitting 24 home runs and walking 117 times. Killefer was good field/no (really no) hit. Seminick was arguably more productive than Daulton in 1950, but in less playing time. Boone was a decent hitter at times in his career, particularly 1976 through 1979, but his bat flatlined in 1980, when he hit .229/.299/.338. Ruiz had a .225 EqA this year, the same that Boone did in 1980.

  • Left Field: Beals Becker, Dick Sisler, Greg Luzinski, Milt Thompson, Pat Burrell
    The Pick: Burell, with Sisler as a tough second. There are no real glovemen in this group, and no hitters having huge years. Becker was a cipher, Luzinski was normally a major slugger, but he slumped badly in 1980, and Thompson's bat died in 1993, never to return. We rate Sisler at 6.0 WARP for 1950, his only year close to that good. We also place Burrell at 6.0. Burrell gets the edge on career value and on a little defensive bonus that Sisler received, one that was almost certainly illusory.

  • Center Field: Dode Paskert, Richie Ashburn, Gary Maddox, Lenny Dykstra, Shane Victorino
    The Pick: Dykstra had a near-MVP season; he was beaten out by Barry Bonds. Paskert was a half-decent hitter, but not in 1915. Ashburn had one of his weaker years in 1950; the same goes for Maddox, a super outfielder who had his worst offensive year in 1980 (Mike Schmidt should have been paid two or three salaries for the way he carried the team). Victorino, at least in the seasons under consideration, was the second-best of the bunch, but no MVP candidate, so this one's easily Nail'd down.

  • Right Field: Gavvy Cravath, Del Ennis, Bake McBride, Jim Eisenreich/Pete Incaviglia, Geoff Jenkins/Jayson Werth
    The Pick: Ennis, though Cravath's numbers, even when adjusted, are slightly better; it's just hard to remove all of the distortions for the era and the park and come away convinced that he was a better hitter than Ennis given the greater difficulty level of 1950. The 1993 platoon ranks third; McBride, a fine singles hitter, fourth. Werth was excellent this year, but the productivity the '08 Phils got from right field was dragged down by too much Jenkins.

  • Starting Pitcher: Pete Alexander, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling, Cole Hamels
    The Pick: Carlton gets the nod over Roberts and Schilling, who had better years, but could not compete with Alexander and Carlton in the season in question; Hamels is perhaps a few months from reaching Carlton's level. Alexander was better than Carlton in most regards, and better than most pitchers ever, but once again, we give the edge to modern complexity and a lively ball.

  • Closer: ("Closer, what's that?"), Jim Konstanty, Tug McGraw, Mitch Williams, Brad Lidge
    The Pick: Lidge, despite the fact that we're really playing with unlike things here given the evolution of the closer's role over time. The 1915 Phillies threw 98 complete games, so they're out. By the standards of WXRL, Lidge had the most meaningful season of any Phillies reliever in the last 55 years. Konstanty's 152 innings should probably be factored in somewhere, and then McGraw's 1980. Despite 43 saves, Williams' 1993 really doesn't rate.

The Final Tally

1915: None
1950: 1 (Ennis)
1980: 2 (Schmidt, Carlton)
1993: 3 (Kruk, Daulton, Dykstra)
2008: 4 (Utley, Rollins, Burrell, Lidge)

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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