The Virtual 1954 Cleveland Indians:  Part Two

Last time we introduced the question of whether the amazingly successful 111-43 1954 Cleveland Indians might realistically have done even better. Executing trades in prior seasons that sent catcher Sherm Lollar, first baseman Mickey Vernon, outfielder Minnie Miñoso, and shortstop Ray Boone packing, and receiving little in the way of long-term talent in return, the ’54 Indians won all those games despite getting modest production from their first basemen, and downright weak hitting from their regulars at catcher, right field, and shortstop.

What Might Have Been: Raw Version

So for the first pass, let’s swap out first baseman Vic Wertz, shortstop George Strickland, right fielder Dave Philley, and catcher Jim Hegan from the 1954 Cleveland lineup, and replace them with Vernon, Boone, Miñoso, and Lollar. For now, we’ll leave the aggregate production from the bench alone, and there’s no reason to mess with the pitchers’ hitting line. Here’s what this yields:

Pos  Player            AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
1B   Vernon           597   90  173   33   14   20   97   61   61 .290 .356 .492 .848  137
2B   Avila            555  112  189   27    2   15   67   59   31 .341 .404 .477 .881  139
SS   Boone            543   76  160   19    7   20   85   71   53 .295 .376 .466 .842  132
3B   Rosen            466   76  140   20    2   24  102   85   43 .300 .408 .506 .915  147
RF   Miñoso           568  119  182   29   18   19  116   77   46 .320 .402 .535 .937  155
CF   Doby             577   94  157   18    4   32  126   85   94 .272 .366 .484 .849  129
LF   Smith            481  101  135   29    6   11   50   88   65 .281 .392 .435 .826  127
C    Lollar           316   31   77   13    0    7   34   37   28 .244 .323 .351 .674   86
     REGULARS        4103  699 1213  188   53  148  677  563  421 .296 .381 .476 .856  132

     BENCH           1163  142  306   33    9   28  154  108  131 .263 .329 .379 .708   93
     PITCHERS         449   42   82   10    1    3   30   32  106 .183 .239 .229 .468   28

     TOTAL           5715  883 1601  231   63  179  861  703  658 .280 .360 .437 .797  123

Suddenly the patchwork quilt of strengths and weaknesses becomes something resembling an All-Star Team.

One interesting thing to note, however, is that replacing Hegan with Lollar at catcher doesn’t yield a whole lot of improvement. That’s because Lollar in 1954 had his worst hitting year between 1949 and 1962; in any other season, Lollar’s offense would dwarf Hegan’s. But since our focus here is 1954, we’re forced to accept that our exchange of catchers is pretty much a wash.

But everywhere else, the improvement is dramatic: the good-hitting ’54 Indians would have been a great-hitting team. The strengths of the actual Cleveland lineup remain in place:

- Bobby Avila was a very good second baseman having a career year at age 30. Avila was one of the few Mexicans in the major leagues at the time, and was a well-educated and charismatic fellow who in later years would serve as president of the Mexican League, as well as mayor of his native Veracruz.

- The muscular Al “Flip” Rosen in 1954 had begun to be bothered by the back trouble that would soon prematurely end his playing career. Excellent as his 1954 performance was, it was a big step down from his stunningly brilliant 1953 MVP performance, one of the few greatest seasons ever presented by a third baseman. After his forced athletic retirement at age 32, Rosen became a successful stock and bond trader, then returned to baseball in an executive capacity in the 1970s, and had a terrific run as GM of the San Francisco Giants in the mid-to-late 1980s.

- Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, had his typical outstanding year in 1954. A batting-average-inhibiting proclivity to strike out was the only weakness in Doby’s game, offensively or defensively. Ever the pioneer, after his major league playing career Doby would become one of the first Americans to play professionally in Japan, and following that he would be among the first African-Americans to coach and manage in the majors.

- Al “Fuzzy” Smith was another former Negro Leaguer who had an excellent year in his first full major league season at age 26 in 1954. He would be hampered off and on in later years by nagging injuries, but when at his best, as he was here, Smith combined outstanding on-base ability with good power.

And to them we have added:

- Mickey Vernon, whose long and excellent career took a rather odd shape, with down years at ages 29, 30, and 32, bracketed by peak performances at ages 28 and 35-37 (smoothing out that oddity and others like it is the subject of an article in the works, coming soon!). When at the top of his game, as he was in ’54, Vernon was one of the best all-around first basemen in baseball.

- Ray Boone, whom as we discussed last time hit far better beginning at age 29 than he had as a younger player, belatedly fulfilling his promise. When his name comes up today, it’s almost always limited to the context of his being Bob’s dad and Bret and Aaron’s grandpa, but Boone The Elder was among the best run producers in the mid-1950s American League.

- Minnie Miñoso, whose career in baseball has been so long and includes so many interesting elements—his belated entry into the majors, his pioneering status as the player who integrated the Chicago White Sox roster and as the first black Latin major league star, the enduring mystery of his true age, his Bill Veeck-driven reactivation stunts in 1976 and 1980, and his jovial, ever-popular personality—that all too often overlooked is just what a terrific ballplayer Miñoso was. His was the complete package: speed, power, defense, and tremendous on-base skill, and he was extraordinarily consistent and durable to boot.

- Sherm Lollar, whom as we noted above wouldn’t have added much to the 1954 Indians—but that’s another way of saying that a severe off-year from Lollar was about equal to a good year from Jim Hegan. Entirely overshadowed by the tremendous feats of Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, Lollar was largely ignored by New York-centric sportswriters (it didn’t help that Lollar had his best years in his 30s, after the image of him as just-pretty-good was ingrained), and is largely forgotten today, but this guy could play.

So how might such a lineup have actually performed for Cleveland in 1954?

What Might Have Been: Refined Version

Doing our best to factor everything in: park effects, opposing pitching staffs, playing time, and so on, we see below my best guess. I’ve assumed that the most frequent batting order manager Al Lopez would employ would be as follows:

1. Miñoso, lf
2. Avila, 2b
3. Vernon, 1b
4. Rosen, 3b
5. Doby, cf
6. Boone, ss
7. Smith, rf
8. Lollar, c
9. pitcher

Pos  Player            AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
1B   Vernon           583  101  167   35    9   28  100   64   56 .286 .357 .521 .878  137
2B   Avila            571  116  195   28    2   15   71   61   32 .342 .405 .476 .881  140
SS   Boone            465   61  129   17    6   19   74   61   47 .277 .361 .462 .824  123
3B   Rosen            478   90  144   20    2   25  106   87   44 .301 .409 .508 .917  149
RF   Smith            409   68  114   25    5    9   54   74   55 .279 .389 .430 .820  123
CF   Doby             583   95  158   18    4   32  129   85   95 .271 .364 .480 .844  129
LF   Miñoso           597  122  188   30   13   25   81   83   48 .315 .399 .534 .933  153
C    Lollar           316   37   78   13    0    8   44   38   29 .247 .328 .364 .692   88
     REGULARS        4002  690 1173  186   41  161  659  553  406 .293 .379 .481 .860  133

OF   Westlake         192   27   48    7    2    9   31   20   31 .250 .321 .448 .769  108
23   Majeski          121   10   34    4    0    3   19    7   14 .281 .320 .388 .709   92
SS   Strickland       120   14   23    3    1    2   10   16   22 .192 .287 .283 .570   56
OF   Pope             102   21   30    2    1    4   14   10   22 .294 .357 .451 .808  119
C    Grasso           102    9   24    2    0    1    9    9   12 .235 .297 .284 .582   59
C    Naragon          101   10   24    2    2    0   13    9   12 .238 .300 .297 .597   63
32   Regalado          63    7   14    2    0    1    6    5    6 .222 .279 .302 .581   58
PH   Mitchell          60    6   17    1    0    1    7    9    1 .283 .377 .350 .727   99
     others            13    0    3    0    1    0    2    1    3 .231 .286 .385 .670   81
     BENCH            874  104  217   23    7   21  111   86  123 .248 .316 .363 .678   85

     PITCHERS         458   44   83   10    1    3   32   33  108 .181 .236 .227 .463   27

     TOTAL           5334  838 1473  219   49  185  802  672  637 .276 .357 .440 .797  123

I’m guessing that the sophomore Smith would gradually have won the first-string right field job from the veteran Wally Westlake. I’m also guessing that Boone would have seen a fair amount of action at third base when Rosen was out with his injuries; as you can see I’ve cast Boone as not quite the star hitter he actually was while playing third base full time in Detroit.

Vernon’s great first base glove would render the defensive specialist first baseman Bill Glynn as unnecessary, so Glynn’s roster spot has been given to a second backup catcher, Mickey Grasso, who would be needed because Lollar was less durable than Hegan in 1954, and the Indians would likely carry three catchers instead of two.

It adds up to a tremendous offense: these Indians would lead the league in runs, hits, homers (the total of 185 would set an American League record), walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average, OPS, and OPS+. Their OPS+ of 123 would be the highest in the A.L. since 1936, and a figure not exceed in the American League since (it was surpassed in the N.L. by the Boys of Summer 1953 Dodgers, at 125, and the Big Red Machine 1976 Reds, at 129).

The Bottom Line

What kind of a won-lost record would such a team have forged? If we assume the same runs allowed total as achieved by the actual 1954 Indians (504), the Pythagorean Formula yields a record of 113-41 (.734). And if these ’54 Indians were able to outperform Pythagoras to the same extent the actual ’54 Indians did – by a factor of seven wins – we’re talking about a record of 120-34 (.779), shattering every mark in modern baseball history.

Such a runs-allowed assumption might not be justified, as the defensive hit our virtual Indians would take by primarily playing Boone at shortstop ahead of Strickland was significant. Moreover, Hegan’s defense was very likely superior to that of Lollar/Grasso, although probably not hugely so. These effects would be balanced to whatever degree by the defensive improvement created by Vernon’s presence at first base in place of Wertz, who was likely rather poor with the glove, being introduced to the position in mid-season. In the outfield, the 28(?)-year-old Miñoso was probably at least as good as Philley, who was a highly regarded defender (and had played mostly center field in his prior career) but was 34 years old in 1954 and clearly beginning to decline.

As for the pitchers, we can assume the staff would remain intact with the exception of right-hander Art Houtteman, who’d been acquired from Detroit in the 1953 Ray Boone trade. But a right-handed pitcher who went from Cleveland to the Tigers in that trade, Steve Gromek, had a better year than Houtteman in 1954 (the best year of Gromek’s fine career, in fact), so it’s reasonable to assume that with Gromek instead of Houtteman the Indians’ pitching wouldn’t have suffered any detriment.

All in all it isn’t clear that the virtual ’54 Indians would be substantially easier to score upon that the actual team. Based on just their own personnel they probably would have allowed a few more runs, but not a lot more. And, significantly, their pitchers wouldn’t have to face Miñoso, Vernon, or Boone in 22 games each; that’s at least several runs saved right there.

At the very least our version of the Indians would have taken the 1954 American League pennant in an even easier cakewalk than did the real Indians. And with this lineup in place, Cleveland might well have also surpassed the Yankees in one or more of the surrounding seasons in which they actually finished a strong second: 1951, ’52, ’53, and ’55. And in their peak performance of 1954, maybe the Indians wouldn’t have won 120 games, but that staggering achievement isn’t beyond the realm of reasonable possibility.

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