Managing pitching staffs in the 1920s and 1930sby Chris Jaffe
February 15, 2010
I've had a fun stretch of light but meaningless columns around here, but it's time to get back to the more important stuff.
Don't run away yet - this column isn't guaranteed to be boring. (I'm not guaranteeing it won't be, but that's a whole other issue.) Anyhow, one of my main baseball research obsessions revolves around managers. It's my biggest one, given how I wrote a book on the subject and all.
In the process of writing my book, I realized that it was guaranteed to be incomplete. I'd have to turn it in for publication, obviously, but as long as I kept thinking about the subject matter, new ideas could come to me, that could no longer go in the book. What's more, new data would come to light that I didn't have when writing it.
This column looks at one data dump that I didn't use in my book that I recently looked into. When I collected info for my book, Retrosheet hadn't yet begun putting up team splits info for very many seasons before the mid-1950s. (I think they had one or two seasons up, but not enough to draw any meaningful conclusions from.)
That wonderful site has recently finished giving us all the info on the 1920s and 1930s. This allows me to dive in and have some idea how managers ran their staffs way back when. For me, this is loads of fun.
There's a lot of stuff here, so I'll just go scavenging for whatever random impressions I come across.
So you know, I'm looking at splits for starters and relievers in regard to quantity and quality. For both bullpen and starters, I use park-adjusted ERA for quality. I use a barely modified form of IP for quantity for both. (It's IP/GS for starters, and percentage of a team's innings gobbled up by the bullpen for relievers.)
Obviously, the above areas tell us quite a bit about the talent on hand, but over a period of time, they also tell us about what managers like to do and what sort of teams they prefer to handle. Managers had significantly more control over the rosters in those years than now. GMs normally took care of the farm system and managers figured out which veterans the team should have.
Anyhow, based on all that, here are some of the more interesting things I came across about the game's more significant managers and how they ran their pitching staffs in these years:
Connie Mack and the bullpen
Connie Mack apparently really put a great deal of emphasis on his bullpen. He relied on it perhaps more than any other prominent manager of this period. His bullpens topped the league in innings pitched four times, were runner-up seven more times, and came in third place another a half-dozen times in his 20 years managing during that period.
Sure, there were years the A's had some terrible starting rotations that necessitated Mack go to his bullpen early and often, but the A's actually had a winning record in nine of these 20 years. Mack just liked using his bullpen.
For example, when the A's won their first world title in 15 years in 1929, their bullpen threw the second most innings of any team in the league, despite the fact that the starting rotation possessed the best park-adjusted ERA of any team in the league.
The next year, when Philly repeated as AL champs, the A's relievers threw about 50 innings more than the other AL teams averaged, despite their starters having the second best ERA+ in the AL.
This actually fits in with something I noted in my book: Connie Mack was the king of swingmen. He often had a pitcher appear in at least 40 games per year with more than 15 starts and relief appearances each. What's more, he frequently used his best pitchers as swingmen, as Lefty Grove, Eddie Rommel, and Rube Walberg most frequently filled this role for him. Whereas most managers would want their pitchers to complete what they started, Mack would rather take them out of one game early so they could help out in another game later.
It worked fairly well for him, as he had some terrific bullpens. He also had some pretty bad bullpens (especially in the later 1930s), but a quality bullpen was the hallmark of a quality Connie Mack team. From 1925-31 (when this edition of the Mack A's peaked), his bullpen had the best or second-best park-adjusted ERA every year except 1927, when they were merely third best.
Altogether, on five separate occasions Mack's bullpens were first or second in both innings and ERA+. His 1926 squad may be the best bullpen of the era. Despite performing in one of the league's best hitters' parks, they posted an ERA of 2.70 in a league with an overall ERA over 4.00. It was only slightly over four, but still - it was. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, the 1926 A's had a bullpen ERA+ of 155. Not too shabby.
I have something called the Tendencies Database that I use for my book to really get a good feel for how managers rate in certain ways. (I'm trying to not use it too much here because it takes too long to explain, but you can read about it here if you're curious.) When the Retrosheet results for bullpen quantity and quality for 1920-39 are put through it, Mack depended on his relievers more than any other prominent manager of his day.
So that's how he did it: Charlie Grimm and starting pitchers
Charlie Grimm is something of an enigma as a manager. In his book on managers, Bill James notes that Grimm's teams were very successful throughout his entire time even though Grimm himself was never considered to be a genius. That said, he consistently did as well as one could hope, which is the highest compliment you can pay a manager. In my book, I was very happy with the section I wrote on him (some of my proofreaders told me it was one of their favorite parts), but I still had no really clear idea how he did it.
The new Retrosheet data helps. Grimm built his teams around superior starting pitching. In the six campaigns he ran the Cubs for the full season in this period, their starters had the best ERA+ three times, and were always in the top half of the league. What's more, they also threw their share of innings as well. Twice they topped the Senior Circuit in most IP per start and did well in that category in other years as well.
In 1933, his first full season as skipper, his Cubs were first in starter innings and second in ERA+. Two years later, when they won the pennant under him, the results were reversed with the best ERA+ and second-highest innings total. In 1936, they led the league in both categories.
According to the Tendencies Database, Grimm got about as much out of his starting pitchers as any manager in baseball history, including Bobby Cox. That isn't entirely a fair statement, as Cox has almost 30 years managing while Grimm only has 10 years with this info (including four years with the Braves in the 1950s), but there is an overall theme: His teams consistently won with starting pitchers.
I found the above Grimm info so stunning I decided to do some more digging on his pitchers and found out something interesting. Here's one interesting list I have laying around. Among all managers who lasted at least 10 seasons as their team's primary skipper, the following had the highest percentage of ERA-qualifying starters equal or better the league strikeout rate. In other words, it lists the managers who most relied on fireballers. (Listed are the managers, the number of pitchers who qualified for the ERA title under them, the strikeout better-ers, and percentage):
Manager Qual Better % Charlie Grimm 60 44 73.3% Wilbert Robinson 80 58 72.5% Davey Johnson 48 34 70.8% Walter Alston 81 57 70.4% Joe McCarthy 91 63 69.2%
No one tops Grimm. Not in all baseball history. That's rather impressive. And it fits in perfectly with the Retrosheet info. The man won with dominating starting pitchers.
Billy Martin in historical perspective
The new info can help present information about one of the most well known examples of how a manager used his pitching staff: Billy Martin and the 1980 Oakland A's. Martin rather infamously pushed the entire staff harder than made sense and all the young hurlers broke down shortly afterward.
When I wrote my book I had team splits info for every year from 1956-2008. Not only did the 1980 Oakland starters have the most IP by any team in that period, but the gap between first and second was equal to the gap between 75th place. It isn't as bad when you look at IP/GS, because Martin's 1981 A's came in second place.
Well, how do the 1980 A's fair when compared to the teams from long ago? Well, incredibly, Oakland's 1,261.1 innings logged by their starters stills tops the field. Ye, gods.
That isn't really fair because the season is longer now. Besides, I already noted IP/GS is a better way than raw IP. When you look at innings per start, a handful of teams do nose out Martin's bunch, as the chart below reveals:
Year Team IP/GS 1923 NYY 8.03 1922 NYY 7.99 1920 CWS 7.96 1920 BRVS 7.90 1920 PIT 7.81 1932 NYY 7.81 1920 CIN 7.81 1920 BRK 7.81 1980 OAK 7.78
Notice something there? They are almost entirely made up of teams from the early 1920s. That's interesting. There have been three periods in baseball history when workloads for starting pitchers declined noticeably: 1) In the 1890s when the pitchers were pushed back to 60 feet, 6 inches; 2) In the early 1920s when the lively ball came out; and 3) In the 1990s when pitch counts became all the rage. In each instance, the game changed in a few years, causing managers to adapt to how they used pitchers.
So how did Martin run the 1980 A's? Like someone who hadn't fully realized the deadball era had ended.
Joe McCarthy's hard-pressed starting pitchers
The above list brings up one other point I think is worth making: how Joe McCarthy handled his starting pitchers. After all, the only non-Martin team in the above list was McCarthy's 1932 Yanks.
While that season was extreme for him, he did push his starters as hard as he could on a regular basis. In fact, every year that he ran the Yankees that I have information for, the team's starters were first or second in the league in innings per start. That's impressive.
Sure, they had good arms that made it likely that anyone would get a lot of innings out of them, but it's a bit more than that. The best year exemplifying McCarthy's willingness to push his starters hard actually came in 1933, the year after he pushed them so incredibly hard.
In 1933, when the rest of the league averaged about 6.9 innings per start, the Yankees starters topped 7.3. This was especially noteworthy because they were actually pretty bad that year. You'd never expect that from a Yankees staff, but it's true: Despite pitching in the best pitchers' park in baseball, the Yankees starters had an ERA barely better than league average (4.18 to 4.28). In fact, when their ERA is adjusted for park, they featured the worst staff in the league. Yet they still led the league in innings pitched.
That's the only time from 1920-39 the team whose starting pitchers had the worst overall ERA+ led the league in innings. Heck, in the more than 150 leagues I have splits for, there are only two other times that's happened (the 1952 Phillies and 2000 Orioles). Suffice it to say, I think this tells us something about how McCarthy liked to use his starting pitchers.
Now riddle me this: In 1932 McCarthy pushed his staff as hard as any manager in the last 85 years. The next year, they flopped on the whole. Coincidence? Could be, but I dunno. I think McCarthy is the greatest manager of all-time, but everyone makes mistakes, and this might've cost the Yanks their shot at the 1933 pennant.
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.
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