January 26, 2010
You Could Look It Up
The Statheads vs. Blondy Ryan
Last week, the normally excellent LoHud Yankees Blog had an entry by a guest columnist named Yair Rosenberg. Rosenberg's topic is a sadly typical one, "the tendency of statistical measures to unintentionally obscure the human side of baseball." He proceeds to set up a straw man that he can knock down:
The more statistically-minded baseball community has often adopted the following implicit assumption: Players are essentially machines, largely unaffected by clubhouse atmosphere, personal psychological factors or the day-to-day effects of real life. Columnists who refer to "team cohesion" or a player's "mindset" (think Alex Rodriguez) as factors in performance are treated with indifference, if not derision, and are considered a product of a bygone era where intuition trumped hard data. By contrast, a modern talent evaluator like Billy Beane looks at advanced metrics and finds the right players to draft without ever observing them in person. A player's performance can thus be predicted, fantasy baseball style, without reference to anything but the numbers.
Show me a statistically-minded fellow who has adopted these assumptions, implicitly or otherwise, and I will show you a statistically-minded idiot. Nevertheless, let's revisit a player whose "mindset" was credited as being a direct cause of "team cohesion," and then talk about the value that the player's team placed on his services. This was well before the "Moneyball-influenced era" decried by Rosenberg, taking place back in 1933.
The Great Depression year of 1933 should have been a transitional season for the New York Giants, not least because of the Depression itself. Teams, feeling the pinch of lowered ticket sales, were cutting back. Even the size of the rosters themselves would be diminished in an effort to save money. The Giants, though, were unsettled in ways that went beyond the global economy. For years the National League's most successful franchise was under the stewardship of John McGraw. However, the club hadn't won a pennant since 1924, and McGraw himself had quit 40 games into the 1932 season, naming the team's first baseman, Bill Terry, as his successor. The '32 team had gone on to finish in sixth place with a 72-82 record, one of just a very few second-division finishes the team would have in the McGraw years, which had begun in 1902; indeed, McGraw's average Giants team had a .591 winning percentage, equivalent to a 91-63 record in a 154-game schedule.
The talent on the field was less than stellar. Being elevated to manager would cost Terry the services of a good friend and productive player, the outfielder/third baseman Freddie Lindstrom. Lindstrom claimed he had been told he would be McGraw's successor, and when the job went to Terry instead he demanded a trade, a request Terry intended to honor. It was also unclear if the club's two-way shortstop, Travis Jackson, could be counted on for the upcoming season, or ever; in late June, he had caught his spikes sliding over the second base bag and gone out for the year. He had ultimately required surgery not just on the knee injured in the incident, but the other as well. Jackson was a defensive standout (from 1927 to 1931 he had averaged 18.4 FRAA per season), but he was also a career .299/.347/.450 hitter to that point, less than dominant numbers given the period in which he played (the NL averaged about .294/.354/.418 in those years), but extremely dominant numbers for a shortstop of the day. Jackson's absence compounded other problems on defense, and the club finished fifth in an eight-team league in defensive efficiency.
With Lindstrom about to be gone and Jackson's availability in doubt, the Giants would be down to just two standout offensive players, 23-year-old right fielder Mel Ott, coming off of a .318/.424/.601 season in which he led the league in home runs (38), walks (100), and on-base percentage, and Terry himself, a career .343/.395/.532 hitter to that point. Surveying the roster, Terry realized that the offense couldn't possibly be fixed in one offseason. He could build through pitching, but trying that presented a problem as well: the club had only two established pitchers, 29-year-old screwball expert Carl Hubbell, and 30-year-old right-hander Freddie Fitzsimmons, whose out pitch was a knuckle-curve. Terry chose a third path, one very much in vogue today: defense.
Terry would later tell F.C. Lane of Baseball Magazine, "The managerial policy which I have adopted is built upon defense rather than offense. The Giants do not usually need to score many runs. All that we must do is score more than the other fellow. Our system is built upon air-tight pitching. We commonly play for one run. I have said to the players many times, 'If we can hold them to the seventh inning, we can win.'"
It took some work to get the roster to the point that the foregoing would be true. He dealt a solid starting pitcher, southpaw Bill Walker, and three spare parts to the Cardinals for catcher Gus Mancuso, a weaker hitter but a far more agile defender than the team's incumbent backstop, the porcine Shanty Hogan, who Terry subsequently sold to the Braves. Satisfying his promise to Lindstrom, a three-team trade was executed, with the disgruntled star going to the Pirates and the Giants receiving 30-year-old sophomore center fielder Kiddo Davis from the Phillies, which was the best Terry could do with no leverage. Finally, in a deal that attracted little comment at the time, he dealt the player who had proved to be a weak substitute for Jackson, utility infielder, Doc Marshall, to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, receiving shortstop John Collins "Blondy" Ryan in return.
Blondy Ryan, a former quarterback at Holy Cross College, would prove to be a key pickup. He was mistakenly reported to be a young player, as his baseball age was two years younger than his actual age of 27. He had first reached the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox in 1930, but had batted only .207/.258/.333 in 94 plate appearances and had Luke Appling to compete with in any case. He was packed off to Atlanta of the Southern Association, then Buffalo, where he hit roughly .264/.295/.376 (some stats are unavailable) while playing second base and shortstop. Clearly this was no coming star. Yet, he had a good glove, and when Jackson proved unable to take the field regularly in early 1933, he ended up getting the bulk of the playing time at shortstop.
The changes to the roster created by Terry caused the defense to sparkle. The Giants' defensive efficiency rose from .687 to a league-leading .719. The outfield, which had to patrol the vast Polo Grounds outfield (roughly 430 feet to center field at that time, and 450 to each of the alleys), was terrific: Jo-Jo Moore was +20 FRAA in left field. Davis was +5 for 120 games in center, and Ott was +12 in right field. Terry wasn't a great glove man at first base, but he was adequate. Second baseman Hughie Critz wasn't much of a hitter; as pitcher Red Lucas once said, "There's no harm in Hughie." That was true insofar as batting went, but he was deadly to the opposition in the field at +35 FRAA. Third baseman Johnny Vergez had a tough year at -11, but incited no complaints. Finally, Ryan was +15 FRAA at short.
Terry later remembered, "For that one year, Ryan played the greatest shortstop I ever saw. He made impossible stops. Never better than a .240 hitter, if we needed a run he'd knock it in … You could play tight ball with those men because they knew what to do and you could depend on them. They were the right types. They had baseball brains. When we got a couple of runs, they knew it was our quota and held onto 'em."
As the quote from Terry suggests, the new lineup didn't hit much: as a club, the Giants batted but .263/.312/.361 in a league that hit .266/.317/.362, and their 4.1 runs scored per game ranked only fourth in the league. However, the superior defense more than evened things up on the pitching side. Today we take it for granted that Hubbell was a Hall of Famer, but through 1932, his age-29 season, he hadn't quite ascended to that level. To be sure, he had been very good, with a career record of 77-52 and an ERA of 3.13, more than a run below the NL average during that period. However, he had yet to win 20 games or lead the league in any major category. That changed in 1933. Between 1932 and 1933, the NL offensive environment dropped by about half a run, but Hubbell was riding the express elevator: his ERA dropped from 2.50 to a league-leading 1.66. He pitched 10 shutouts and led the league in wins with 23.
Fitzsimmons had been a career 109-61 (.641) pitcher through 1931, with a solid 3.56 ERA. The next season had been an off year, as a career high in hit and walk rates had increased his ERA to 4.43. In '33, he dropped back to 2.90. Further, the new defense allowed Terry to establish two young pitchers that McGraw hadn't quite had time to figure out before his departure, Hal Schumacher and Roy Parmelee. McGraw had kept the future "Prince Hal," 22, hopping between the bullpen and starting assignments as part of his major-league apprenticeship. Not even a two-hitter in April of '32 earned him a permanent spot. Terry put him in the rotation and got 19 wins and a 2.16 ERA. The Giants had been trying to get "Tarzan" Parmelee established in the majors for years but, as his nickname suggests, he was too wild for Gotham. In 1933, he led the league in hit batsmen and wild pitches, but with his walk rate at a livable 3.2 per nine (league average was 2.4), he was able to muster a 1.7 strikeout-walk ratio (sixth-best in the league) and a 3.17 ERA.
With the new alignment, the Giants got off to a solid start; on June 1, approximately a quarter of the way through the schedule, they were in third place with a 22-16 (.579) record, but only two games behind the front-running Cardinals. The team would catch fire that month, going 19-9 overall. As the calendar turned to July, they stood in first place with a 57-37 record, 3.5 games ahead of the second-place Pirates and 6.5 games ahead of the third-place Cardinals.
During this phase, one of the stories of the season was the way that Ryan had been key to the team's resurgence. He was a cocky, likable player, one of those scrappy types the press and public always fall for. Later, Hubbell would tell of a close game he pitched in which Ryan's ninth-inning error had put the team in a difficult spot. He ran out to the mound, patted the veteran Hubbell on the back, and said, "Don't worry, old man, we'll get out of this. Remember, I'm behind you." Said the Sporting News: "Ryan of the Giants, while a weak batter, is credited with having 'made' Bill Terry's infield after Jackson's knees buckled in the spring."
Both Terry's new approach and Ryan's key role came together in a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds against the Cardinals on July 2. In what was undoubtedly one of the great regular-season pitching performances in history, Hubbell threw an 18-inning shutout, allowing six hits, no walks, and striking out 12. In the nightcap, Parmelee outdueled Dizzy Dean 1-0, allowing four hits, no walks, and striking out 13. Early in that game, there was a close play at second and Cardinals left fielder Joe Medwick spiked Ryan, opening a severe gash on his leg that required 10 or 13 stitches (depending on your source) to close. He would be out for an indeterminate time while some healing took place and he awaited the manufacture of a shin-guard. Meanwhile, the Giants headed out on an epochal, 21-game road trip.
Terry had no choice but to put Jackson back at shortstop. Physically, "Stonewall" just wasn't up to the job, and after beating the Braves on the first game of the trip, they dropped seven straight, getting swept out of Chicago. What had been a six-game lead shrunk to 2.5. It was at this moment that Ryan, finally ready, sent a telegram to his manager. There are many variations of its wording, but all sources agree it went something like this: "THEY CAN'T BEAT US. AM ON MY WAY. J.C. RYAN."
The note amused the heck out of Terry. Ryan surely hadn't meant to imply a cause and effect relationship, "They can't beat us [because] I am on my way," but it read that way to Terry. He made a point of showing it to his players, who all saw it the same way. "They can't beat us!" became the club's rallying cry, the "You gotta believe!" of 1933. The day Ryan arrived, the Giants broke their losing streak. They won three straight, then seven out of 10, then 13 out of 17. John Kieran of the New York Times proposed a new rule: "Any time that Blondy Ryan is not in uniform, it shall be illegal to hit a ground ball in the direction of shortstop when the New York Giants are in the field."
Although the club wavered again as July turned to August and the Pirates challenged, they never relinquished their lead, pulling away in August and finishing the year 91-61 (.599), five games ahead of Pittsburgh. They played a more offensively talented Washington Senators club in the World Series and licked them easily, winning the championship four games to one. "Didn't I tell you it would be just a breeze?" Ryan said after Schumacher won Game Two. He also singled in the winning run of Game Four. Despite hitting that was so weak (.238/.259/.293, worthy of a.199 EqA) that he was worth only 0.6 WARP, Ryan finished ninth in the NL MVP voting. Hubbell won the award, with Terry finishing fourth and Mancuso sixth. Arky Vaughan, who had hit .314/.388/.478 while playing shortstop for the second-place Pirates, finished 23rd.
Ryan was now a star, credited with being a key to the championship, the team's first since 1922. His celebrity was based partly on glove work, but mostly on attitude and comportment, the intangibles that the statistical approach to baseball supposedly denies. Yet, he was also a replacement-level player, and while Terry was not thinking in those terms as the winter of 1933 turned into the spring of 1934, he understood the concept perfectly. In the spring of 1934, Jackson, now a year and a half removed from his knee surgery, was given back his old job. No competition with Ryan was held. Ryan worked off the bench, though he still got in a fair amount of playing time at third base as Vergez's career fell apart. The Giants were famously edged out for the pennant on the last day of the season, and giving 416 plate appearances to Ryan was one of the reasons why they lost. He and Vergez combined to hit .214/.271/.320 at the hot corner.
The Giants still had a problem at shortstop, however, because although Jackson played fairly well in 1934, if not up to his old standards, another leg injury meant that his days as a shortstop were over. He'd be a third baseman for the remainder of his career. Sparky, motivational Ryan was still on the roster, but Terry didn't look to him for a pick-me-up; he got rid of him in order to get someone better. In November, 1934, Ryan, Vergez, and two other bits of roster flotsam were dealt to the Phillies in return for All-Star shortstop Dick Bartell. Bartell fit the Jackson mold: He was an excellent fielder who was, for the most part, a poor hitter by the standards of the day, but as a .300/.360/.397 hitter (through '34), he was far more potent than most shortstops. The Giants would win two more pennants during the Terry years, and Bartell would be the shortstop for both of them.
Meanwhile, even the perennial dead-end Phillies realized that Ryan wasn't quite a major-league ballplayer. Partway through the 1935 season, he was replaced by rookie Mickey Haslin and optioned to Baltimore-if the Phillies were ever going to get out of the hole, they needed ballplayers, not characters. Ryan refused to report, saying he would quit baseball and study law. The Yankees bailed the Phillies out; their starting shortstop was injured and they needed a body to play the infield, so they sent the Phillies a few dollars for his services. He failed to convince Joe McCarthy that his .238/.259/.305 performance in 30 games was outweighed by his great clubhouse skills, and he was sold on to the Indians.
Ryan spent the entire 1936 season in the minors, and most of the 1937 and 1938 seasons as well. Terry briefly brought him back to the Giants in each of the latter two seasons, perhaps for old-time's sake, perhaps to see if some of his rah-rah-ism would rub off on his club in small dosages, but mostly he was content to let Ryan remain in places like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Baltimore. You see, in baseball, character suffices when you don't have players, as Terry did not in 1933 ("Everybody played every day," Terry said years later. "We had to. We had no reserves."), but both then and now it is much more likely your team will win if it plays fully-rounded talents. Terry clearly realized this after 1933 and again after 1934.
No one who watches baseball for any length of time with any real understanding of what it is they are seeing can come away with the perception that those who play it are in any way less than human in their reactions to happiness, to sadness, to fear, to stress. The goal of the statistical study of baseball is not to equate the players to automatons, but to get an objective record of what happens on the field. That's all. It is not to dismiss the intangibles, but to place them in proper perspective to the tangibles. That's all. If Bill Terry and the New York Giants were capable of seeing that distinction over 75 years ago, surely we are allowed to observe it in today's players without the more insecure among the audience feeling threatened by it.