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November 10, 2009

You Could Look It Up

You Can't Spell 'Genius' with IBB

by Steven Goldman

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I've always been eager to learn more about the longtime baseball manager and executive Paul Richards, a personage who, in the 1950s, helped bring the White Sox and Orioles out of long dark ages, and also served as general manager of the expansion-era Astros and the division-winning 1969 Braves. He was the man who invented the oversized catchers' mitt for receiving knuckleballs, consummated the (in)famous 1954 18-player trade with the Yankees, who first considered putting younger pitchers on pitch counts, revived the practice of keeping alternate relievers in the game by stashing one in the outfield, and put Goose Gossage and Terry Forster in the starting rotation during a late return to managing in 1976. When I saw that a new book about Richards was published last month, the only full-length work on Richards, I jumped.

This is not a review of that book-that would be unfair, as you'll see momentarily, and I want to emphasize I am in no way judging the work. As you might guess, I pick up a lot of books. My line of work demands it, as does my curiosity. To be completely candid, it's a comforting form of addiction. Though I'm a voracious reader, I can't keep up with the sheer volume of books being published; as is, in order to not to go the way of the Collyer Brothers, I rapidly dispense with books that have failed to meet my expectations. My pet phrase for this is, "I threw it against the wall," as in, "I was reading it and it was going along fine, and then I got to page 131 and was so disgusted that I threw it against the wall."* Books thrown against the wall are rarely resumed.

The Richards book nearly got the against-the-wall treatment, not through any fault of the author's, but because of Richards. I was happily working my way through the first chapter when I came across this:

One of the most frequently cited examples of Richards's innovative genius was his stratagem, while managing Buffalo in 1949, of walking the Montreal pitcher so the next batter, speedy lead-off man Sam Jethroe, could not steal if he reached base.

I was disgusted. The intentional walk is a bad play at the best of times, but walk the pitcher, a likely out, because you're worried about the next guy stealing a base if he gets on? If this is genius, I thought, give me Dusty Baker.

Now, it turns out I was just slightly hasty in heaving the book (a hardcover, mind you, so you really have to be committed to get it airborne), because if you read on you learn that Richards probably never actually made this particular move, and even if he did, the situation was more nuanced than that passage suggests. It was the eighth inning of a one-run game. Richards wanted to walk a slow pinch-hitter for the pitcher, not the pitcher himself, in order to pitch to Jethroe in a situation where the speedster would have to drive in a run rather than score one. "For Jethroe to hurt us in the eighth inning he would have to get an extra-base hit," Richards wrote in an unpublished manuscript cited by the author. "The records indicate that Jethroe scored eight five percent of the time he led off an inning and reached first. Many times he would steal both second and third." [sic] Jethroe did steal a league-leading 89 bases that year, a ton for the era and undoubtedly intimidating to the managers of the time.

This is still not a very bright play, for obvious reasons. It would almost make sense if the pinch-hitter to be walked was an Ernie Lombardi-like stationary object, and Jethroe had no more power or consistency than a Vince Coleman, but Jethroe was no Coleman. He was more akin to a Curtis Granderson or a B.J. Upton, players who mix some power with their speed. Jethroe had the bad timing to be born a baseball player and an African-American in 1918, which is to say that the color line was not broken until he was nearly 30. He joined the Dodgers system in 1948, was traded to the Braves in 1949, and integrated the team in 1950. He only got in two seasons before age started to wear at him, but they demonstrated what could have been: in nigh-identical seasons, Jethroe hit a combined .276/.347/.451 in a tough hitting environment, socking 18 home runs and stealing a league-leading 35 bases in both seasons.

Jethroe was even better with the Montreal Royals in 1949, the season in which the Richards anecdote supposedly took place. In addition to the 89 steals, he hit .326, slugged .520 on 34 doubles, 19 triples, and 17 home runs, walked 79 times, drove in 83 runs from the leadoff spot, and crossed the plate 154 times in 153 games. There is no conceivable reason to walk anyone, especially a pinch-hitter who would almost certainly be a less potent hitter than Jethroe, just so you could keep him out of a basestealing situation. There's enough hitting consistency there to punish any manager who attempted this tactic a good percentage of the time.

Yet, even if Richards never did put a runner on in front of Jethroe under these conditions, the reason I was so willing to fling the book away from me is that it's very easy to believe that a manager would think this way. After all, I used to watch Rafael Santana take a dozen intentional walks a year so that the manager could go after the pitcher when a more obvious strategy was to attack both. Even the present-day American League, with its designated hitter, issues around 500 intentional walks a year. Dave Trembley's team issued a league-leading 45 freebies, as if Oriole pitchers didn't already suffer from an excess of runners on base. According to statistics provided in Bill James' annual handbook, managers fail to get a beneficial outcome from the free pass more than half the time, and yet they keep going for it anyway, gifting hitters who have an average 33 percent chance of getting on base, give or take, with a 100 percent chance of getting on.

Ironically, as a major league manager, Richards was conservative with the free pass, his Orioles usually ranking in the lower half of the league in this category (the IBB was not tracked during his White Sox phase) so perhaps he was smarter than he comes off in the Jethroe story, one which he embraced even if he hadn't actually perpetrated it.

I do admire the fact that the guy was trying to be inventive, even if the flights of fancy didn't always work out. For example, in 1958 he put three pitchers in his starting lineup, batting them fifth, seventh, and ninth, so he could pinch-hit if those spots happened to come up in the first with runners on-the Orioles had a pathetic lineup that year, so he was trying to force something. Alas, nothing came of the attempt. Before that, he helped set up the subsequent "Go-Go" White Sox , trying to combat his team's park and powerlessness; he didn't win any pennants on the South Side, but he put the franchise on a firmer footing than at any time since 1919, and when the Yankees slipped in 1959, the club Richards had helped build was ready to go past them. You also have to admire a guy who walked out on White Sox general manager "Trader" Frank Lane, one of the most compulsively meddlesome executives of all time, to take over the Orioles, essentially an expansion team at the time. Then, just as he got the Orioles ready to compete, he left them to start over again with the Houston expansion club. He was a man who liked a challenge.

As to whether he was a genius or not, I don't know, but I'm comfortable leaving the question open as long as the Jethroe anecdote remains in doubt; the words "genius" and "intentional walk" should be kept far, far apart. Let's celebrate that puffy marshmallow of a knuckleball glove instead. At least that makes some kind of sense. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go patch this book-shaped hole in the drywall before my wife gets home and chews me out.

*: This is normally a figure of speech, but derives from a real incident. A few years ago, on the recommendation of a colleague-I hasten to add a male colleague-I read the Jodi Picoult novel My Sister's Keeper, a book that sets up a compelling ethical dilemma-what if you were the only compatible organ donor for a sibling but for legitimate personal reasons you just don't want to ante up that kidney-and then cops out on it in such a spectacularly amateurish way that I have not only sworn off the author, I have sworn off male colleagues.

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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