The holy grail of baseball is the answer to just one question: What predictable combination of moves can turn an also-ran into a pennant winner?
The results of countless studies have been inconclusive, providing only homilies of the most dispensable kind, such as “If I knew that, do you think I’d be sitting here now?” or “Moneyball can’t buy you happiness.” More than 100 years into the game’s modern era, we’re still hung up on the same point that stalemated Huck and Jim’s understanding of cosmology in Huckleberry Finn: “We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened.” Are winning teams made, or do they just happen?
This question is particularly relevant to super-teams, those historically dominant outfits that win roughly two-thirds or more of their games in a single season. How a very good team, even an excellent team, becomes a bully on the order of this year’s Cardinals, whose .662 winning percentage places them in the 50 most victorious teams of all time, is not well understood; certainly every team–every serious team–makes its plans with this goal in mind, but when it actually happens it’s always a surprise. It would seem reasonable to suggest that there is an element of luck involved, luck in this case being defined as a positive development that would have been impossible to predict, that does not appear to be a logical progression based on past performances. That would include an established .260 hitter hitting .360 or a pitcher with a career ERA of 5.00 cutting two runs per game off his record.
The problem in choosing between “luck” and “planning” much like “made” and “happen” is that it’s often a thin distinction. This season’s Cardinals provide a perplexing example. In 2003, the Cardinals finished 85-77, good for a close third in the National League Central. While the supporting cast around the Fab Four of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Edgar Renteria has been far more productive than last season, it is the pitching staff that can be thanked for the Cardinals’ leap into dominance.
Cardinals pitching has improved in ways too unlikely to have been predictable. In 2003, Matt Morris and Woody Williams provided solid if unremarkable seasons. With anyone else on the mound, women were advised to avert their eyes and young children were barred from the ballpark. Far too many starts were butchered by Brett Tomko, Jason Simontacchi, Garrett Stephenson, and Dan Haren. The Cardinals have made significant improvements by replacing or marginalizing these plumbers with excellent work from Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis, all three of whom were less than steady in the past. For three pitchers to take a giant step forward at once is unusual, so that places the Cardinals in the “happened” department–unless one wants to credit pitching coach Dave Duncan with the changes, in which case you’re back in the land of “planned.”
Examining historical super-teams reveals equal amounts of luck and planning. Consider the 1927 Yankees, for decades the sine qua non of super-teams:
1926 1st 91 63 .591 +3 AL CHAMPIONS 1927 1st 110 44 .714 +19 WORLD CHAMPIONS 1928 1st 101 53 .656 +2.5 WORLD CHAMPIONS
The biggest surprise of the 1927 season was an unknown pitcher from Hollis, Oklahoma, a 30-year-old rookie who claimed to be 28. Right-hander Wilcy Moore was dominating the Sally League when Yankees GM Ed Barrow noticed his stats in The Sporting News. Although his own scouts said that Moore couldn’t pitch, Barrow purchased him for $3,500. Used as a swingman by manager Miller Huggins, Moore appeared in 50 games (including 12 starts), won 19 games, saved a league-leading 13 more, and posted the best ERA in the league, 2.28. Had there been a Cy Young award or a Rookie of the Year award offered in 1927, Moore would likely have won both of them. He was the biggest factor in pushing the Yankees from the merely great team of 1926 to the sublime team of 1927 (Yes, the Murderer’s Row Yankees could hit, but then, they always could).
In signing Moore, Barrow showed a Beane-like appreciation of statistics in the face of a negative endorsement from his baseball men. Yet, the scouts were essentially correct; Moore was a rag-arm who had sub-par stuff, and though he pitched in the big leagues through 1933, he was essentially a one-year wonder. Signing Moore was an affirmative decision, so it was something more than luck. Still, Moore was more of a successful gamble rather than the result of a carefully developed plan; not even Barrow thought that Moore would turn out to be a crucial part of a great team.
The 1954 Cleveland Indians, for years the American League record-holder for victories in a season, also benefited from equal amounts of luck and planning.
1953 2nd 92 62 .597 8.5 1954 1st 111 43 .721 +8 AL CHAMPIONS 1955 2nd 93 61 .604 3
In 1954, 30-year-old second baseman Bobby Avila jumped from a .262 EqA to a .301 EqA, (batting .341/.402/.477), his only season with an EqA over .287. This gave the Indians a strong MVP candidate in the middle infield, which is (he said without checking, but feeling very confident) a hallmark of the super-team.
That was luck, now here’s the planning. On June 1, the Indians had a .690 winning percentage (already super-team territory) but only a two-game lead on the second-place White Sox and a four-game lead on the third-place Yankees, who everyone assumed was going to reel off a killer hot streak. They were, after all, defending five consecutive championships. Taking nothing for granted, the Indians looked at their lineup and saw a massive hole at first base in Bill Glynn, who was sort of a Doug Mientkiewicz type, but with a weaker bat and less of a glove.
That day the Tribe acquired first baseman Vic Wertz from the Orioles in exchange for righty Bob Chakales. The trade was a classic rip-off: Chakales was a bust with Baltimore, while Cleveland got 473 games of .270/.358/.490 from Wertz. But more importantly, the Indians were able to displace the spectacularly pointless Bill Glynn. With an offense now capable of keeping up with one of the better pitching staffs of all eternity, the Indians actually improved their winning percentage and ran off with the league, even surviving a Yankees hot streak that pushed them into the super-team bracket as well.
Consider the Yankees of 1953-1954. While New York’s pennant winners of 1949-1952 were great teams, all but none had super-team dominance. In 1953 the Yankees jumped into that territory, then improved themselves the next season, a rare two-year stay at this rarified level:
1952 1st 95 59 .617 +2 WORLD CHAMPIONS 1953 1st 99 52 .656 +8.5 WORLD CHAMPIONS 1954 2nd 103 51 .669 8
The biggest improvement in 1953 was to the Yankees’ pitching staff. From 1949 to 1952, the Bombers’ rotation had consisted of the big three of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Ed Lopat, plus a rotating cast of other guys who were pretty good but not quite of that level. In 1953, Whitey Ford got out of the army, adding a true ace to the staff. In 1954, Billy Martin went into the military, causing Casey Stengel to shift Gil McDougald from third base to second base, and slotting rookie Andy Carey in at third.
These moves improved both the offense and the defense (again, if you want a super-team, improve your second-base situation). Changes on the pitching side were beneficial as well, with 24-year-old rookie Bob Grim giving the Yankees another strong starter (at least for that season) just as the big three were broken up (Raschi had been dealt to the Cardinals), while Johnny Sain ceased being a swingman and became a full-time closer. This is all planning, rather than luck. And yet the Indians were still better.
The genesis of the rest of the 50-odd super-teams reveal similarly mixed results. Huck and Jim still have no answer. Perhaps it is the question that’s wrong: It’s not whether these teams just happened, or if they were made. The truth is, they were made, and they happened.