Book excerpt: “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers” - Charles Comiskeyby Chris Jaffe
November 30, 2009
THT is publishing excerpts from Evaluating Baseball's Managers, 1876-2008, which should be released in December, but can be ordered now. (I should note I make considerably more money if you order directly from the publisher, but if you want to get it from Amazon or another source that's your call.)
(The following excerpt comes from Evaluating Baseball's Managers, Chapter 4: Primordial Managers, 1876-1892. Comiskey is one of six managers profiled in this chapter).
W/L Record: 840-541 (.608)
Full Seasons: St. Louis (AA) 1885-89, 1891; Chicago (PL) 1890; Cincinnati 1892-94.
Majority in: (none)
Minority of: St Louis (AA) 1883-84.
Team Characteristics: Comiskey's teams featured terrific fielding. The offenses consisted of good contact hitters who stole plenty of bases. He oversaw nineteen different occasions when one of his players stole at least 50 bases in a season, more than any other manager in baseball history. Comiskey helped break in four pitchers who won 200 games in their careers: Bob Caruthers, Silver King, Jack Stivetts, and Clark Griffith.
Here are all managers who won four consecutive pennants in any major league:
Manager Leg Years Harry Wright NA 1872-75 C. Comiskey AA 1885-88 John McGraw NL 1921-24 Joe McCarthy AL 1936-39 Casey Stengel AL 1949-53, 1955-58 Joe Torre AL 1998-2001
Not a bad club to be a member of.
While people best remember Comiskey as an owner, he was also a well-known player in his day, and probably the greatest manager of his generation. As a skipper, he created a baseball philosophy that not only brought his teams success, but was later adopted by many other clubs in the ensuing decades.
Comiskey's four-peat with the American Association's St. Louis Browns (who later changed leagues and team colors to become the modern-day Cardinals) came about from the strategy he employed. It was a very simple design that rested on two pillars: pitchers who could keep the ball in the strike zone and defenders who could field their positions. By combining these two features, Comiskey ensured his team's strengths complemented each other, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Prior to his becoming St. Louis' full-time manager, the franchise's pitchers had mediocre control. In terms of walks allowed per inning, the Browns finished third out of six teams in its inaugural campaign in 1882. Next year, they were fourth out of eight squads in this stat, and in 1884 they finished sixth among thirteen teams. In 1885, with Comiskey firmly entrenched as field general (he ran the team for a mere few weeks in each of the two previous seasons), St. Louis walked the fewest batters in the league despite a staff entirely consisting of men who pitched there in 1884. In the five consecutive years Comiskey ran the squad, the Browns never finished worse than second best in this statistic. St. Louis's staff maintained this consistency with their control despite the fact that all its pitchers on the 1885 club had departed by 1889. Among the six franchises that played in the AA from 1885-89, Comiskey's squads overwhelmingly dominated the league in this facet of the game:
Team Walks STL 1,458 LOU 1,762 BRK 1,814 PHI 1,866 BAL 1,886 CIN 1,912
Second place was closer to last than to Comiskey's bunch.
St. Louis typically was not particularly good at striking out opponents or avoiding gopher balls, but that was fine by Comiskey. It was the deadball era - batters rarely belted home runs anyway. His pitchers just needed to avoid making mistakes, and rely on their defenders to make the outs.
Comiskey made sure they could rely on the defenders by fielding a tremendous defensive unit. According to both Defensive Efficiency Ratio and Bill James' Fielding Win Shares, Comiskey possessed the league's best bunch of gloves. St. Louis twice paced the circuit in DER and routinely came near the top in Comiskey's other seasons there. The Browns preformed even better at Win Shares, leading the league four times in Comiskey's five consecutive seasons with the franchise, tying for second best in the remaining campaign. As was the case in walks allowed, Comiskey's squad dominated the league in Fielding Win Shares and DER from 1885-89, as the lists below reveal:
Team FWS Team DER STL 216.0 STL 0.673 CIN 197.6 BRK 0.655 BRK 180.5 CIN 0.652 PHI 161.8 BAL 0.636 LOU 147.6 PHI 0.634 BAL 140.5 LOU 0.626
Note: cumulative DER is figured by averaging team Baseball Reference's annual DER for the teams in this period.
One of the main reasons for St. Louis' tremendous defensive performance was centerfielder Curt Welch. Though he struggled through a rookie season with the AA's Toledo franchise in 1884, Comiskey recognized Welch's prowess in the field. According to Jon David Cash's book on the nineteenth-century Browns, Before They Were Cardinals, Comiskey insisted that St. Louis owner Chris von der Ahe acquire him. After von der Ahe acquiesced, Welch quickly gained a reputation as one of the greatest fielders of his generation. Bill James' Win Shares agrees with that perception, listing Welch as an A+ glove.
In fact, in Comiskey's ten complete seasons as manager, his teams constantly fielded first-rate defenses. His teams had the most Fielding Win Shares seven times, finished second another time, and tied for second a ninth time. Bill James capped the amount of Fielding Win Shares a team could attain at 0.32375 per game played, and Comiskey's teams reached that level in all but one of his ten seasons as a squad's primary manager. No other prominent manager in baseball history can make that claim.
By possessing fielders and pitchers whose strengths meshed together so well, Comiskey's teams expertly prevented opponents from scoring runs, a fact to which the Tendencies Database can attest. The chart below, which looks at how teams did at park-adjusted runs allowed per game, demonstrates the effectiveness of Comiskey's teams over his entire managerial career:
Fewest Runs Allowed, Park-Adjusted Frank Selee 0.408 C. Comiskey 0.415 Al Lopez 0.513 Bobby Cox 0.527 Cito Gaston 0.560
St. Louis played in one of the game's best hitters' parks, partially hiding the effectiveness of Comiskey's approach. Yet, even with their bandbox the Browns kept teams from scoring. When they won four consecutive pennants from 1885-88, they held opponents to 4.40 runs per game even though the AA as a whole averaged 5.75 runs in that span. Control pitching plus great defense equaled a dynasty for St. Louis in the 1880s.
The question arises how much credit Comiskey should be given for devising this strategy. Looking at the historical record, this philosophy originated in St. Louis in the 1880s. There were virtually no deep strategic concerns for the game prior to this period. As late as the 1890s, elemental bits of baseball fundamentals such as the cutoff play had not been worked out. Bill James, in his book on managers, noted that people paid little attention to managerial strategy until the turn-of-the-century, because strategic thinking had not yet become central to the game. Instead, teams put their best players on the field, and may the most talented bunch win. That was one reason why franchises frequently hired individuals such as O. P. Caylor as managers. Other teams may have contained control pitchers and good fielders before, but none intentionally built their game around these twin pillars of run prevention until St. Louis.
If the notion of complementary fielders and pitchers developed in St. Louis, and it apparently did, then Comiskey deserves credit for it. Unlike modern managers, Comiskey only reported to one person - team owner Chris von der Ahe. Though one of the most colorful owners of his day, von der Ahe was not a brilliant baseball thinker, to put it mildly. According to one anecdote, von der Ahe once told reporters that his field possessed the game's biggest diamond. After Comiskey took the owner aside and explained all fields had the same-sized diamonds, von der Ahe returned to the reporters to clarify: He meant he had the biggest infield of them all. Clearly, von der Ahe was not a baseball savant.
Conversely, Comiskey, in his half-century in baseball, earned a reputation as one of the sport's smartest men. In his playing days as a first baseman, Comiskey was often given credit for being one of the first to play off the bag, giving the position greater defensive range. He was one of the great success stories, rising up from humble player to owner of the White Sox from their inception until his death in October 1931.
In fact, Comiskey's White Sox consistently practiced the same baseball philosophy that made his St. Louis squads so successful. They lacked power and impressive batting averages, but they made up for it with control pitching and superlative defense. In the 31 years Comiskey ran the franchise, they had the most overall Fielding Win Shares, best Defensive Efficiency Ratio, and fewest walks allowed in the American League, as the charts below reveal:
Team Walks Team FWS Team DER CWS 12,551 CWS 1,288.0 CWS 0.694 BOS 12,996 BOS 1,229.8 BOS 0.692 NYY 13,398 CLE 1,226.2 NYY 0.689 CLE 13,830 PHI 1,207.4 PHI 0.688 WAS 13,918 NYY 1,177.8 WAS 0.687 STB 14,358 WAS 1,163.8 STB 0.686 DET 14,775 STB 1,121.2 DET 0.685 PHI 14,950 DET 1,116.9 CLE 0.684
While one rarely thinks of the White Sox as one of the game's great franchises, prior to 1930 they had won more regular season games than any other franchise in American League history.
The White Sox were rarely the best defensive unit in the league, but they were typically among the best, finishing in the top half of the league in Fielding Win Shares 24 times in their first 28 seasons. Chicago's pitchers were more impressive, as their staffs allowed the fewest walks per inning ten times under Comiskey's reign, and were runner-up four other times. This approach created wins. Most famously, the 1906 "Hitless Wonders" managed by Fielder Jones won a world title with pitchers who threw strikes performing before terrific defenders. The White Sox appropriated the old 1880s St. Louis Browns strategy.
Furthermore, while many teams in the early twentieth century delegated considerable authority to their managers, Comiskey appears to have been the mastermind behind the White Sox. In contrast to powerful skippers like John McGraw with the Giants or Connie Mack with the A's, Comiskey's managers tended to be faceless cogs in his machines.
He hired thirteen different managers, ten of whom had never managed previously, and only three of whom ever managed after leaving Chicago. Pants Rowland won a world title with the White Sox in 1917 and compiled a .578 career winning percentage with the club, but after Comiskey fired him no other major league team ever hired him as manager. Rowland's successor, Kid Gleason, also failed to get another team to hire him despite claiming a pennant in Chicago (though his pennant winner tarnished his reputation, as it was the World Series-throwing 1919 Black Sox). Aside from Clark Griffith and Fielder Jones, two of the team's first three managers, Chicago won with forgettable field generals
The similarities between Comiskey's Browns and White Sox do not end with control pitching and superlative fielding. As St. Louis' manager, Comiskey's run prevention program contained another key trait: leaning heavily on his most important pitchers. All nineteenth century innings pitched totals look incomprehensible by modern standards, but even compared to his peers Comiskey worked his starters like dogs. As usual, the 1885-89 St. Louis squad illuminates Comiskey's interest in working his main pitchers hard. The following chart lists innings garnered by the top three pitchers for the clubs that existed in the AA throughout the 1885-89 period [this previous excerpt explained why the top three pitchers' IP matters]:
Team IP STL 5,296 BAL 5,096 CIN 4,910 BRK 4,792 LOU 4,765 PHI 4,659
In 1885, Comiskey's squad became the last team in baseball history to use only three pitchers all season long. Two of them threw almost 90 percent of those innings that year, with ace Bob Caruthers starting almost half of their games. After the team sold Caruthers to the Brooklyn franchise, Silver King became St. Louis' ace, throwing 585.2 innings in 1888; no other hurler was within 50 innings of King's mark that year and only two were within 100 innings. The next year Comiskey reduced King's workload, but St. Louis still had two of the league's top six in innings thrown, one of whom was King.
When Comiskey went to the Players League's Chicago franchise, King came with him, throwing 460 innings. That was the second most in the league, behind only his teammate, Mark Baldwin, who tossed more than 500 innings. No one else in the league had more than 400. After 1890, Comiskey never ran his starters nearly as hard, but then again in the rest of his managerial career he no longer had a starter he trusted as much as Caruthers or King.
White Sox hurlers never threw King-ian levels of innings under Comiskey, but they resembled his old St. Louis team because their main arms were pushed harder than the aces on rival clubs. The chart below, which lists the total innings thrown by the top three arms for each AL squad every year from 1901-31, demonstrates the similarity in the deployment pattern of White Sox hurlers with the 1880s Browns:
Team IP CWS 25,133 WAS 23,922 BOS 23,631 PHI 23,622 DET 23,522 CLE 23,222 STB 23,160 NYY 23,021
The difference between Chicago and Washington is greater than the difference between Washington and New York.
In 1908, White Sox ace Ed Walsh became the last man to throw 400 innings in a season. He led the league in innings pitched four times in six years. When he missed part of the 1909 season with an injury, teammate Frank Smith topped the league in innings. When they departed, Eddie Cicotte twice led the league in innings. After Major League Baseball banned Cicotte from the game for his role in the Black Sox scandal, Red Faber led the league in innings, throwing 352 innings in 1921. Only one other pitcher topped 300 in the AL that year. When he declined, teammate Ted Lyons once led the league outright in innings pitched and tied with fellow White Sox pitcher Tommy Thomas another time. As long as Comiskey lived, Chicago centered on defense, control and rubber-armed pitchers.
A common theme existed in Comiskey's teams: Fielders meant more than pitchers. Both were important, but pitchers were more replaceable. Comiskey needed a hurler with control who could constantly take the mound, but if he wore out that was fine. Comiskey could always replace him with another hurler, so there was no point in being gentle.
This approach was especially well suited to the period Comiskey managed. Think about it: How was it possible that pitchers could throw 400-500 innings or more year after year without destroying themselves? Simple - they were not expected to put too much "oomph" on each pitch. Thus the fielders were more important in stopping the opponents. With the big change in 1893, this relationship between fielders and pitchers began to shift. (It shifted further in the 1920s with the liveball, but that is getting ahead of the story.) Comiskey intelligently adapted to the conditions.
However, the above paragraph does not give full credit to Comiskey's strategy because it was much more than an approach that worked in 1880s baseball. Though one could not ask a pitcher to throw the gargantuan inning totals achieved by Silver King, the basic approach still worked, as evidenced by Comiskey's White Sox. Pitchers and fielders who complemented each other was an effective way to stop opponents from scoring, and it allowed teams to push their starters harder.
Most important of all, Comiskey's formula was not merely something he personally utilized; it may be the most commonly replicated route to success in baseball history. In particular, the effort to place control pitchers before terrific fielders was adopted by numerous managers in the years since Comiskey left the dugout. This style of baseball became the style of play from 1893 to 1920, as skippers such as Fred Clarke, John McGraw, Pat Moran, Buck Ewing, Frank Selee, and Frank Chance owed varying degrees of debt to Comiskey's system.
It remained a vital template for lively ball era managers, including Bill McKechnie, Joe McCarthy, Billy Southworth, Paul Richards, Al Lopez, Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Tom Kelly, Bobby Cox, and Ron Gardenhire, who all used variations on this approach. Some focus on pitchers more, or do not lean on their starters as much, or put more emphasis on the offense. All, however, fostered a symbiotic relationship between their pitchers and fielders. The former would not put men on and the latter would take care of the rest. Moran, McKechnie, Lopez, and Weaver most closely followed Comiskey's theory of run prevention. They all prioritized superb gloves playing behind control pitchers who ate up tremendous numbers of innings.
Charles Comiskey created one of the greatest approaches to winning in baseball history.
References and Resources
This excerpt was also the focus of my SABR presentation, which you can view here.
Please note that this, like all my excerpts, comes from the manuscript. McFarland edited the entire thing, obviously. One or two very minor changes have been made (in the charts in the book, I actually spell out "Charles Comiskey" but when I did it here, it pushed the info back too far, and it was easier to edit him down than to push the other rows back appropriately).
Also, a few paragraphs from the book have been broken up. One general style guideline for the internet is that bigger paragraphs are more forbidding when viewed across a 12-inch (or larger) monitor than they would be on a page. Frankly, some of these paragraphs are still bigger than I'd normally like an internet paragraph to be, but I don't want to go nutty. The important part is that the words are the same as the ones I sent to McFarland in my manuscript.
LPA+ is essentially the same thing called Peer Number in this column. I figured as long as I called the base stat LPA, I may as well keep a similar stat for the era-adjusted one. I should note one key difference: the column linked to two sentences ago was based on looking at around 70% of all starts from 1876-1969. Now, I've looked at 91% of those starts.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.