The virtual 1951-58 Pittsburgh Pirates (Part 2: 1953-54)

Last time, we began a scenario of taking on the challenge actually undertaken by Branch Rickey in the autumn of 1950, rebuilding the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Here’s how we performed in our first two seasons, compared to the performance of Rickey’s actual Pirates:

   Actual Pirates  Virtual Pirates

    W    L Pos  Year    W    L Pos
   64   90  7   1951   66   88  7
   42  112  8   1952   65   89  7

So far, we’re a heck of a long way from a good team, but we distinctly avoided falling down a manhole like the actual 1952 Pirates. Now we’re ready to see how we’ll fare in seasons three and four.

1952-53 offseason: Actual Pirates deals we will make

Dec. 1, 1952: Drafted pitcher Elroy Face from the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1952 Rule 5 draft.

Here’s what we had to say about the Pirates’ drafting of this young right-hander in our The 10 most interesting Rule 5 draft picks series:

In four minor league seasons through 1952, Face had been thoroughly excellent, compiling a 69-27 record with a 2.83 ERA in 841 innings. But he hadn’t risen as high as Triple-A, and his being exposed to two drafts by two organizations in four years is likely a function of the fact that, then as now, scouts are highly reluctant to project major league success for pitchers of very small stature. And at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, Face was very small indeed.

Rickey made the right move in looking past Face’s size and comprehending his demonstrated talent.

Dec. 1, 1952: Drafted pitcher Johnny Hetki from the St. Louis Browns in the 1952 Rule 5 draft.

This 30-year-old wasn’t a prospect such as Face, but the right-hander seemed worthy of a bullpen opportunity. Hetki had performed solidly in triple-A in 1950-51, following a few seasons of major league experience as a long reliever with the Reds.

Dec. 1, 1952: Drafted pitcher Bob Hall from the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League in the 1952 Rule 5 draft.

Comparable to Hetki, this journeyman was nothing special, but competent enough to merit an opportunity.

Dec. 1, 1952: Infielder Jack Merson drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 1952 Rule 5 draft.

Merson was a minor league veteran who’d been called up and done a decent job on our roster in ’52, but it was reasonable to leave him unprotected in the draft.

Dec. 3, 1952: Traded catcher Clyde McCullough to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Dick Manville and $25,000 cash.

At the age of 35, McCullough had encountered a poor year with the bat in 1952, so it was wise to cash him in at this point.

Dec. 15, 1952: Signed catcher-third baseman Vic Janowicz as an amateur free agent (Bonus Baby).

Mar. 19, 1953: Signed shortstop Eddie O’Brien as an amateur free agent (Bonus Baby).

Mar. 19, 1953: Signed second baseman Johnny O’Brien as an amateur free agent (Bonus Baby).

With the 1953 season, a new wrinkle in the rules arrived. Henceforth, all amateur players granted a signing bonus greater than $4,000 would be required to spend their first two years from the date of signing on the active major league roster. Thus these three brand-new signees, all three plucked off college campuses (and all three stars in sports other than baseball, as Janowicz had been the Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State, and the O’Brien twins had been basketball stars at Seattle University, Johnny being voted All-American), would have to bypass the minors for at least two complete years.

Our rule for this exercise is that we have to make all of the amateur signings, Bonus Baby and otherwise, that were actually made by the Pirates. The Bonus Baby rule was part of the landscape in this period, and no major league team chose to avoid signing such players, on the reasoning that it was a long-term competitive necessity to put up with the short-term complications imposed by the rule. So, we’ll have to find a way to squeeze Janowicz and the O’Briens onto our roster for 1953.

1952-53 offseason: Pirates deals we will invoke

Oct. 2, 1952: Pitcher Bill Werle selected by the Boston Red Sox off waivers.

It was actually the Cardinals giving up Werle to the Red Sox at this point, but we’ll also judge he’s no longer worth protecting with a roster spot.

April, 1953: Sold first baseman Rocky Nelson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The colorful Nelson had been a serviceable backup for us in 1951-52, but we’ll be running out of roster room for him here.

1952-53 offseason: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

Oct. 14, 1952: Traded outfielder Gus Bell to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielders Cal Abrams and Gail Henley and catcher Joe Rossi.

In our earlier Pirates series, here’s how we assessed this deal:

[Field manager Billy] Meyer and Rickey had never seemed to get a proper reading on Gus Bell, missing the obvious opportunity to shift him to center field, and then jerking him around with the option to the minors in 1952. In October of ’52 Rickey made the mishandling of Bell complete, by trading him to Cincinnati for a laughably meager package of 29-year-old utility outfielder Cal Abrams and two useless marginalities.

Obviously there was something about Bell that Rickey’s Pirates didn’t like, but whatever that might be is a mystery to us. What we see is a fine defensive center fielder whose bat is already good, and given that he’s not yet 24 years old, could still easily develop into a star hitter as well. We’ll compliment the Reds on their sense of humor, but say no, thanks, on this offer.

1953 season: Actual Pirates deals we will make

May 12, 1953: Selected pitcher Roger Bowman off waivers from the New York Giants.

This southpaw had never managed to stick with the Giants, but his minor league numbers had been consistently impressive, particularly his walk-to-strikeout rates. At just 25 years old, he was definitely worth a shot.

June 14, 1953: Traded third baseman Pete Castiglione to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Hal Rice and cash.

For the actual Pirates as well as for us, Castiglione had been a versatile, useful role player, but he was now 32 and scuffling at the plate. Rice would provide a helpful left-handed bat in the corner outfield.

July 9, 1953: Signed catcher Nick Koback as an amateur free agent (Bonus Baby).

Yikes, another one of these rugrats. Somebody will have to be cut from the roster …

1953 season: Actual Pirates deals we will modify

The Pirates did this:

June 4, 1953: Traded outfielders Ralph Kiner and George Metkovich, catcher Joe Garagiola, and pitcher Howie Pollet to the Chicago Cubs for first baseman-outfielder Preston Ward, catcher Toby Atwell, outfielders Gene Hermanski and Bob Addis, pitcher Bob Schultz, third baseman George Freese, and $150,000 cash.

In our Mid-season blockbusters series, our comment was:

The high volume of packing popcorn on both sides of this deal made it appear far weightier than it was; truly it was just a sale of Kiner with a whole bunch of fluff wrapped around it.

Moreover, it was a whole bunch of fluff that addressed the Pirates’ competitive issues in no particular way. Pittsburgh fans had no illusion that this was anything but a fire sale. “Now we’ve got nobody!” was their cry of protest.*

Given that our Pirates haven’t been anywhere near as bad as the actual Pirates, it’s reasonable to assume that our attendance wouldn’t have been plummeting like theirs, and thus it’s reasonable to assume that we won’t be as desperate for cash as they were. Thus it’s reasonable to assume we won’t have to make this desperate transaction.

Instead, we’ll just do this, a month later:

July 9, 1953: Sold outfielder George Metkovich to the Chicago Cubs.

Because somebody had to be cut from the roster to make room for the latest rugrat.

1953 season: Pirates deals we will invoke

May 13, 1953: Sold shortstop George Strickland to the Cleveland Indians.

We held off on selling Strickland to Cleveland the previous August. But now, with roster cut-down day looming in early 1953,** the presence of Bonus Baby Eddie O’Brien on the roster forces us to let this slick fielder go.

July 10, 1953: Selected pitcher Ralph Branca off waivers from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

July 10, 1953: Sold pitcher Bob Hall to the Detroit Tigers.

On this day the Dodgers actually sold Branca to the Tigers. The hard-throwing right-hander had been plagued with arm trouble over the past couple of seasons (pretty much ever since his fateful face-off against Bobby Thomson, in fact), but he was still just 27, and had once been a bright young star. Our Pirates won’t let him pass through National League waivers.

We’ll make room for Branca by putting the expendable Hall on waivers, and presumably the pitching-starved Tigers (last in the majors in ERA+ in 1953) would take him in place of Branca.

1953 season: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

April 17, 1953: Selected infielder Eddie Pellagrini off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds.

A modestly useful veteran spare part, but with the O’Briens around we don’t have the luxury of grabbing Pellagrini.

May 13, 1953: Sold catcher Ed Fitz Gerald to the Washington Senators.

As we said above, it was sensible for the Pirates to sell off Clyde McCullough. That left Fitz Gerald as the heir-apparent to McCullough’s role as the right-handed-batting platoon partner with lefty-hitting first stringer Joe Garagiola. Selling off the 29-year-old Fitz Gerald at this point would leave our Pirates without a non-Bonus-Baby catcher to back up Garagiola, and that isn’t something we’re inclined to do.

Aug. 31, 1953: Sold pitcher Johnny Lindell to the Philadelphia Phillies.

His pitching wouldn’t be as sharp in 1953 as it had been in ’52, but Lindell was still doing okay. Besides, he adds a serious pinch-hitting bat to the bench.

1953 season results

Our roster is bolstered this year by several promising new arrivals. Infielder Danny O’Connell had been a splendid rookie in 1950, but was then gone for two seasons in military service. He’s back now, and we’ll put him at second base, moving incumbent second baseman Dick Cole over to shortstop to replace the departing Strickland.

Our outfield is joined by two rookies with highly impressive minor league stats: power-hitting Frank Thomas and speedster Carlos Bernier. (Moreover, Bernier will be, as he actually was, the player to racially integrate the Pittsburgh franchise.) And a fine-looking rookie starting pitcher is on hand in the person of 22-year-old right-hander Bob Friend, whom the actual Pirates had rushed to the majors two years earlier with scant minor league experience. We’ll be bringing him up now with those two seasons having been invested in minor league development.

Along with the Bonus Babies, these newcomers herald the transformation of the 1953 Pirates into a distinctly younger ball club than those of the previous couple of years. Our rebuilding project is entering a new phase, in which we’ll be actively weaving the organization’s annual farm system harvest into the mix, and becoming less reliant on “make-do” journeymen.

  Pos   Player        Age    G  AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
   1B   R. Kiner       30  154 562 105 154  19   3  36 106  99  89 .274 .385 .511 .896  132
 2B-3B  D. O'Connell   26  149 588  95 173  26   8   7  52  57  42 .294 .358 .401 .759   98
   SS   D. Cole        27  142 498  51 131  25   3   1  42  70  53 .263 .346 .331 .677   78
   3B   T. Glaviano    29  123 338  49  79  13   2   9  27  67  70 .234 .369 .364 .733   93
 RF-LF  F. Thomas      24  128 455  68 116  22   1  30  92  50  93 .255 .329 .505 .835  114
   CF   G. Bell*       24  151 610  97 188  39   9  23  95  46  69 .308 .357 .515 .872  125
 LF-RF  B. Howerton*   31  107 266  27  58   7   1  13  32  25  47 .218 .287 .398 .685   77
   C    J. Garagiola*  27  101 301  28  79  14   4   3  33  30  34 .262 .333 .365 .699   83

   OF   C. Bernier     26   84 207  31  44   5   6   2  17  34  35 .213 .331 .324 .654   72
 LF-RF  H. Rice*       29   69 229  28  71  13   1   3  32  14  17 .310 .347 .415 .762   98
   C    E. Fitz Gerald 29   65 209  16  51  10   0   4  23  12  26 .244 .286 .349 .635   65
  P-PH  J. Lindell     36   69 109  14  33   7   1   4  17  22  17 .303 .429 .495 .924  141
  C-3B  V. Janowicz    23   42 123  10  31   3   1   2   8   5  31 .252 .282 .341 .624   62
   2B   J. O'Brien     22   59  93   9  21   3   1   1   7   6  13 .226 .272 .312 .584   52
   SS   E. O'Brien     22   59  87   7  19   1   1   0   5   5  11 .218 .266 .253 .519   37
 LF-1B  G. Metkovich*  32   48  80  11  16   2   1   2  11  10   7 .200 .286 .325 .611   59
 3B-SS  P. Castiglione 32   35  80   7  16   1   1   2   9   2   8 .200 .209 .313 .522   34
   C    N. Koback      17    7  16   1   2   0   1   0   0   1   4 .125 .167 .250 .417    7

        Others                 142  15  29   3   2   0   9  12  19 .204 .269 .254 .523   38

        Pitchers               300  19  40   4   3   0  15  11  74 .133 .154 .167 .321  -16

        Total                 5293 688 1351 217 50 142 632 578 759 .255 .328 .396 .724   88

        * Bats left

        Pitcher       Age    G  GS  CG   W   L  SV  IP   H   R  ER   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
        M. Dickson     36   45  26  10  12  17   4 201 240 119 101   27   58   88 4.52  100
        J. Lindell     36   32  26  15   8  15   0 199 195 121 103   17  139  118 4.66   97
        P. LaPalme*    29   35  22   5   9  12   2 158 171  93  80   17   58   78 4.56   99
        B. Friend      22   32  21   6   7   8   0 137 153  80  72   13   46   55 4.73   95
        H. Pollet*     32   30  18   2   7   6   1 124 147  77  67   10   50   54 4.86   93
        R. Branca      27   17  14   7   5   6   1 102 103  58  51   10   29   52 4.50  100
        M. Queen       35   29  11   2   4   6   0  96 102  52  49    9   66   49 4.59   98

        J. Hetki       31   54   2   0   4   6   5 106 107  52  46    8   30   34 3.91  115
        E. Face        25   41   4   0   4   4   1  79  97  58  57   13   20   37 6.49   69
        R. Bowman*     25   30   2   0   1   4   1  65  65  41  35    9   29   36 4.85   93
        B. Hall        29   18   3   0   1   2   0  41  48  25  25    5   21   21 5.49   82
        W. Main        31    7   0   0   1   0   0  14  18  10  10    3    8    7 6.43   70

        Others                   5   2   1   4   0  41  49  35  33    6   34   19 7.24   62

        Total                  154  49  64  90 15 1363 1495 821 729 147  588  648 4.81   93

        * Throws left

Several positive developments emerge this year. O’Connell is very good. Center fielder Gus Bell breaks through as an all-around star. Thomas puts together an outstanding rookie year, and Bell and Thomas combine with Kiner to provide the Pirates with robust back-to-back-to-back middle-of-the-order production we haven’t enjoyed before.

Yet Kiner, excellent though he remains, is for the second straight year something less than the devastating force he’d once been. Bernier is a disappointment. Neither Bill Howerton nor Joe Garagiola are as productive as in previous years. All in all, while the offense is improved from its struggling 1952 form, it remains below average.

And the pitching declines a bit from its 1952 form. The veteran starters Murry Dickson, Johnny Lindell, Howie Pollet, and Mel Queen are all okay, but none is as sharp as in ’52. Rule 5 draftee Johnny Hetki steps forward with a fine year in the bullpen, but his Rule 5 counterpart Elroy Face absorbs a rookie-year pounding.

The ups are balanced out by the downs, and our Pirates, while still a whole lot better than the still-terrible actual Pirates, remain in one-step-forward, one-step-back mode. For the third year in a row, we’ll finish in seventh place.

Clearly we’re succeeding at our primary objective, which was to avoid the dreadful face-plant executed by Rickey’s Pirates. But improving the club beyond not-very-good status remains a stubborn challenge as we move into our fourth season.

1953-54 offseason: Actual Pirates deals we will make

Oct. 15, 1953: Obtained first baseman Dale Long from the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League as part of a minor league working agreement.

After being let go by us (as he had been by the actual Pirates) back in early 1951, Long had found himself back in the minor leagues, and rapidly developed. His terrific 1953 performance, leading the PCL in home runs and RBIs, convinced both the actual Pirates and us to re-acquire him.

Nov. 30, 1953: Drafted outfielder Jerry Lynch from the New York Yankees in the 1953 Rule 5 draft.

As we said about this guy in The 10 most interesting Rule 5 draft picks:

It was only the sheer bulging overabundance of the Yankees’ farm system that allowed Lynch to be unprotected in the 1953 Rule 5 draft, because everybody knew this guy could flat-out hit.

He’d played in the Piedmont League in 1953, and while it was only Class B, and while Lynch had spent the previous couple of years in the Army and was thus probably a little bit old for this level of competition, still: In an exceptionally low-scoring environment, Lynch had hit .333 with 33 doubles, 22 triples (!) and 21 homers, leading the league by a mile in nearly every important category. Apply every caveat in the book, and it remained obvious what a bat this guy wielded.

As it did for the actual Pirates, it makes sense for us to be giving this sweet-swinging 23-year-old a major league chance.

1953-54 offseason: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

Dec. 26, 1953: Traded infielder Danny O’Connell to the Milwaukee Braves for outfielders Sid Gordon and Sam Jethroe, pitchers Max Surkont, Fred Waters, Curt Raydon, and Larry Lassalle, and $100,000 cash.

Jan. 13, 1954: Traded pitcher Murry Dickson to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Andy Hansen, infielder Jack Lohrke, and $70,000 cash.

Occurring within a three-week span, these two deals were peas in a pod. The Pirates’ financial distress (brought on by the rapid evaporation of their attendance, which was brought on by the team’s horrid 1952-53 performance) led Rickey to unload his best infielder and his best pitcher in exchange for one aging former star (Gordon), one journeyman (Surkont), and a whole bunch of minor leaguers. Oh, and, yes, $170,000 to keep the lights on.

The deals had nothing to do with improving the Pirates’ on-field competitiveness. Indeed they actively worked in precisely the opposite direction. Happy New Year, Pirates’ fans!

We may be frustrated with our just-in-seventh-place performance in our first three years. But it’s so vastly superior to that of the actual Pirates, that we must remain confident that we’d have sustained some manner of reasonable attendance, and thus not be forced to commit these sorts of misery-perpetuating deals. We’ll hang on to O’Connell and Dickson, and feature them (along with Kiner!) in our 1954 season-ticket sales brochure.

Feb. 9, 1954: Signed catcher Walker Cooper as a free agent.

We’ve always loved us some Walker Cooper and all, but the fact is that he was 39 years old at this point and had hit .235 and .219 the past two seasons. We’ll pass.

1954 season: Actual Pirates deals we will make

June 14, 1954: Signed pitcher Laurin Pepper as an amateur free agent (Bonus Baby).

Oh, goody.

1954 season: Pirates deals we will invoke

April 18, 1954: Traded infielder Jack Phillips and cash to the Cincinnati Redlegs for infielder Grady Hatton.

Actually on this date the Redlegs (they’d started calling themselves that in ’54, because in that McCarthyite period, “Reds” had something of a negative connotation) traded Hatton to the Chicago White Sox for rapidly-declining infielder Johnny Lipon, whom they would deploy in just one game before sending him to the minors. But in order to make that deal, the Reds (I’ll go ahead and continue to call them that, because basically that’s what all the fans did) had to have Hatton clear National League waivers, and we’ll claim him.

Definitely, Hatton’s career hadn’t played out as expected: he’d appeared to be a major star in the making, and then just sort of gradually petered out. In 1953, at the age of 30, he’d been reduced to a utility role with the Reds, and here they were essentially dumping him.

But it’s important to assess a player not in terms of what he might have been, but strictly in terms of what he is. And though Hatton was no star, at this point he was a left-handed-batter who could handle third base or second, draw walks well, and hit with a little bit of pop. That’s a useful asset for many ball clubs, including our Pirates. Hatton will fit right in for us as a platoon third baseman.

If Cincinnati was willing to accept Lipon in exchange for Hatton, it’s quite plausible they’d have accepted Phillips and cash instead, as in 1954 the versatile, line drive-hitting Phillips was at least as good a triple-A commodity as Lipon.

April 26, 1954: Purchased pitcher George Zuverink from the Cincinnati Redlegs.

Another guy who cleared NL waivers, being sold by the Reds to the Detroit Tigers on this date. Zuverink was surely nothing special, a 29-year-old right-hander who’d achieved just 19 games of major league experience. But he’d had several solid seasons in triple-A. Why shouldn’t we give him a chance?

May 10, 1954: Released pitcher Johnny Lindell.

The veteran was actually released by the Phillies on this date, and his long and eventful career came to an end. Presumably he wasn’t throwing well that spring, as Philadelphia hadn’t even used him in a game as a pitcher, just as a pinch-hitter. Lindell had done a good job for us, but all things must pass.

June 14, 1954: Released pitcher Ralph Branca.

This scrap-heap pickup had done all right in 1953, but was getting pummelled this year. He’ll have to go to make room for the Bonus Baby Laurin Pepper.

1954 season: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

May 19, 1954: Catcher Walker Cooper selected by the Chicago Cubs off waivers.

We’d declined to sign him in the first place. With the Cubs over the balance of the season, the ageless Cooper would hit a thundering .310/.398/.532. Goes to show you what we know.

May 25, 1954: Traded outfielder Cal Abrams to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Dick Littlefield.

Littlefield wasn’t a bad pitcher, but I don’t think I’d have traded Abrams for him. Anyway it’s a moot point, as we can’t trade Abrams for him, because we never acquired Abrams, choosing instead to hold on to Gus Bell.

June 14, 1954: Traded outfielder Hal Rice to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Luis Marquez.

Rice wasn’t hitting well so far in 1954, and Marquez was a talented ballplayer. But Marquez pretty much duplicates the skillset of Carlos Bernier, who’s already on our roster, so we’ll stick with Rice’s left-handed bat and hope that he breaks out of his slump.

1954 season results

The actual Pirates acquired Dale Long from Hollywood for 1954, and then kept him farmed out all season long. We won’t do that.

The other major lineup change for this year is the addition of Hatton, competing with Tommy Glaviano for the third base job. The O’Brien twins are away in military service for this year.

Returning from the military is pitcher Vern Law. He joins several rookie pitchers competing for spots on the staff, as we continue to become a younger ball club.

  Pos   Player        Age    G  AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
   1B   D. Long*       28  103 328  45  78  15   4  14  49  46  69 .238 .332 .436 .768  101
   2B   D. O'Connell   27  146 541  65 154  29   6   2  40  38  48 .285 .321 .372 .693   82
   SS   D. Cole        28  138 486  49 131  22   5   1  48  41  48 .270 .318 .342 .659   74
   3B   G. Hatton*     31  112 332  44  90  13   3   6  46  60  28 .271 .381 .383 .763  102
   RF   F. Thomas      25  153 577  92 172  32   7  23 109  51  74 .298 .357 .497 .854  122
   CF   G. Bell*       25  153 619 101 185  38   9  13  86  48  58 .299 .346 .452 .799  109
 LF-1B  R. Kiner       31  147 557  84 159  36   6  18  77  78  93 .285 .371 .469 .839  120
   C    E. Fitz Gerald 30  103 288  33  86  15   4   5  40  25  19 .299 .354 .431 .785  106

   IF   D. Smith       26  103 290  34  67  13   3   0  19  33  38 .231 .304 .297 .600   59
   C    J. Garagiola*  28   84 209  24  57   9   0   6  29  36  19 .273 .385 .402 .787  108
   LF   H. Rice*       30   54 117  14  20   4   1   1  13  19  33 .171 .283 .248 .530   41
   LF   J. Lynch*      23   59  95  10  21   1   2   3  14   6  15 .221 .265 .368 .633   65
   OF   C. Bernier     27   48  86  13  21   3   1   1   7   8  15 .244 .305 .337 .642   69
   3B   V. Janowicz    24   41  73  10  11   3   0   0   3   7  23 .151 .226 .192 .418   12
   3B   T. Glaviano    30   14  33   4   6   1   0   0   3   5   8 .182 .300 .212 .512   38
   OF   L. Walls       21   16  30   3   7   1   0   1   3   2   5 .233 .273 .367 .639   67
   C    J. Mangan      24   14  26   2   5   0   0   0   3   4   9 .192 .300 .192 .492   33
   C    N. Koback      18   12  27   1   2   0   1   0   0   1  15 .074 .103 .148 .252  -35

        Others                  96   9  22   2   0   0   8  11  11 .229 .306 .250 .556   49

        Pitchers               388  32  71  12   2   3  35  22  80 .183 .217 .247 .465   22

        Total                 5198 669 1365 249 54  97 632 541 708 .263 .328 .387 .716   88

        * Bats left

        Pitcher       Age    G  GS  CG   W   L  SV  IP   H   R  ER   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
        M. Dickson     37   40  31  12  10  19   3 226 259 112  98   29   75   62 3.90  107
        B. Friend      23   35  20   4   8  11   2 170 204 106  96   16   58   73 5.08   82
        G. Zuverink    29   35  18   6   7   8   4 135 137  67  57   17   38   49 3.80  110
        H. Pollet*     33   20  20   4   7  11   0 128 131  60  50    4   52   58 3.52  119
        P. LaPalme*    30   33  15   2   5   9   0 121 147  80  74   15   54   57 5.50   76
        V. Law         24   20   9   3   4   5   0  81 101  55  50   10   28   29 5.56   75
        J. Thies       28   17   9   1   3   4   0  65  60  35  28    7   25   29 3.88  108

        J. Hetki       32   58   1   0   5   3   9  83 102  53  46   11   30   27 4.99   84
        R. Bowman*     26   46  12   3   8   7   3 129 121  59  47    9   62   77 3.28  128
        B. Purkey      24   18   5   0   2   3   0  66  73  40  37    2   31   19 5.05   83
        L. Pepper      23   14   2   0   1   2   0  26  32  27  23    2   22    9 7.96   53
        R. Branca      28   12   5   0   3   1   0  39  54  29  24   11   20   12 5.54   76
        G. O'Donnell   25   11   5   1   3   4   0  44  53  25  22    2   11    4 4.50   93

        Others                   2   0   0   1   0  33  41  25  21    2   23   17 5.73   73

        Total                  154  36  66  88 21 1346 1515 773 673 137  529  524 4.50   93

        * Throws left

Hatton does well, and a slumping Glaviano is sent to the minors at mid-May cut-down time, leaving slick-fielding, light-hitting Dick Smith as the primary backup infielder. Long not only makes the team, his power production forces him into the regular lineup, shifting Kiner back to left field over the course of the season. But Kiner’s gradual decline in production continues, and his dropping home run rate is exacerbated by the removal of the short “Kiner Korner” left field fence at Forbes Field in 1954.

With the home park no longer favorable to right-handed power hitting, the profile of this offense looks different. But overall its effectiveness is precisely equal to the previous season, with a team OPS+ of 88: not terrible, but certainly not good either. That mark would battle with the Reds and the Cubs for lowest in the league.

The purpose of reconfiguring the ballpark’s dimensions was to provide a more accomodating venue for the young pitchers to develop. However, our staff still struggles with the long ball, as we allow 40 more home runs than we hit. Bob Friend has a very disappointing sophomore year, and most of the other young pitchers take their lumps as well.

The brightest spot on the pitching side is the fine year delivered by young lefty Roger Bowman, working mostly out of the bullpen (in actuality, Bowman, pointlessly farmed out by Rickey, would spend the best season of his career in the minors, going 22-13 with a 2.51 ERA and 165 strikeouts for Hollywood).

Just like the hitting, the bottom line result for the pitching staff is dead-even with that of 1953: a team ERA+ of 93, not the worst in the league, but well below average. The team, therefore, turns in a record only incrementally better than that of the previous season. At 66-88, our finish would be, you guessed it, seventh place for the fourth straight time.

Still, it might be unfair to characterize this lack of win-column movement as a lack of progress. It’s one thing to finish in seventh place with a largely veteran team, as we had in 1951-52, and another to do so with young talent occupying an increasing proportion of the roster. It might be valid to perceive this dead-calm glass as half-full.

Next time

We’ll see if there’s any merit to this optimistic prattle.

References & Resources
* The “now we’ve got nobody!” cry from the 1953 Pirates’ fans is taken from the wonderful book, The Roar of the Crowd: Conversations with an Ex-Big-Leaguer, by W. R. Burnett, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1964, p. 117. It’s amid a terrific chapter entitled “On Rebuilding a Ball Club,” in which the author (or perhaps the author’s interviewee; that disctinction is pointedly and brilliantly opaque) takes Rickey to task for foolishly attempting to “suddenly” rebuild his Pittsburgh team, and the argument is presented in favor of a more cautious, “gradual” approach to rebuilding.

Yours truly first read this chapter as a very young boy, and it has stuck with him ever since, and may in fact be considered the genesis of this particular series.

** Unlike current-day rules, which require each team to cut down to a 25-man active major league roster as of Opening Day, in this period the rules allowed teams to carry up to 28 players for the first 31 days following their first game. Thus the final “cut-down day” took place in mid-May, and is the explanation for countless releases, waiver claims, and other transactions that occurred in the early weeks of May in the 1940s/50s.

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Comments

  1. Steve Treder said...

    Yeah, now that you mention it, I do recall hearing that story.  It would be a classic example of turning a minor policy kerfuffle into a major management blunder.  That was, shall we say, not the sort of thing that Rickey did when building his great teams in St. Louis and Brooklyn.

  2. raparee13 said...

    Bill James’ 2000 version of the Abstract says Bell went to Rickey after his first good season and asked to bring his family on road trips. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well, and Rickey began looking for ways to make Bell an ex-Pirate.

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