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Monday, October 16, 2006

The Wiz Kids, Part III: Focus on Jim Konstanty 

On a team nick-named the Wiz Kids for their youth, Konstanty was ripe old 33 years of age that season and an unlikely hero.

Jim Konstanty originally came from upstate New York, where he had played a little baseball in college as an infielder. While working as a phys-ed teacher for a high school, Konstanty also played some minor league baseball as a pitcher. His talent got him some tryouts for teams. He briefly pitched in the minor leagues going 4-19, before the Cincinnati Reds bought his contract and gave him a shot in 1944 due to the absence of quality pitchers thanks to World War II. Konstanty briefly pitched for the Reds, going 6-4, but was dealt to the Braves and spent a year in the military. His major league career seemed to be going nowhere at all, but Konstanty stuck with it with dogged perserverence.

The year 1947 found Konstanty contemplating retirement while pitching in Toronto for the Maple Leafs, an affiliate of the Philadelphia A’s. In 1948, that crucial year for the Wiz Kids, the Maple Leafs shifted their affiliation to the Phillies and their manager, Eddie Sawyer, took the reins of the Phillies as manager. In addition to players like Richie Ashburn, Sawyer brought Konstanty with him, much to the surprise of nearly every other observer in baseball. Coming into the 1950 season Konstanty had thrown just 234 & 2/3 innings in his short career in the majors. He was a pitcher who relied on a dazzling array of off-speed pitches to fool batters instead of blazing heat. Going into 1950 there was nothing to indicate how tremendous Konstanty was going to be for the Phillies.

In 1949 Sawyer made Konstanty the Phillies bullpen ace and used him to save twelve games and win another nine. The next year Konstanty became probably the most unlikely MVP award winner in history. Konstanty led the NL in appearances with 74, 23 more than the runner-up, the Pirates Murry Dickson. Konstanty also led the NL in saves with 22, nearly three times more than the Pirates Bill Werle, who had at eight. The most striking aspect of Konstanty’s season was how many games he finished for the Phillies: 62. The Pirates Vic Lombardi was a very distant second in games finished with 23.

A brief look at Konstanty’s stats shows how his use of off-speed pitches kept batters off-balance:

Konstanty / Phillies / League
ERA: 2.66 / 3.50 / 4.14
FIP: 3.70 / 3.89 / 4.14
WHIP: 1.04 / 1.32 / 1.42
HR/9: 0.65 / 0.78 / 0.90
BB/9: 2.96 / 3.39 / 3.71
K/9: 3.32 / 3.97 / 4.09

Konstanty wasn’t a strikeout artist and heavily relied on the Phillies tremendous fielding prowess to deliver outs. Konstanty allowed the ball to be put into play and relied on the defense to make the outs. Konstanty tried to keep the ball down and keep cheap base-runners off the base-paths. Konstanty was fortunate he had such a terrific defense backing him up: he faced 593 batters in 1950 and 476 managed to put the ball into play (i.e., they didn’t strikeout, walk, be hit by a pitch or hit a home run). Of those 476, just 97 got hits, meaning the Phillies fielders converted .796 of the balls put into play into outs. Simply put, Konstanty wouldn’t have won the MVP award had the Phillies not been behind him with one of the best – if not the best – defenses in baseball. To a certain extent, Konstanty was very fortunate in 1950.

And the Phils were lucky to have him. Whenever there was a lead or if the Phillies were locked in a close game that they needed to win, Sawyer would call on Konstanty, who would come trotting out of the clubhouse and take to the mound. On August 25, for example, Konstanty entered the game against the Pirates with the score tied 6-6 in the seventh inning. Konstanty hurled nine innings, surrendering a home run to Ralph Kiner, but he kept the Phillies in the game and enabled them to pull out a 9-7 victory in the fifteenth inning.

Konstanty’s MVP award was clearly for being the most important player for his team, not for necessarily being the best player in the National League that year, an honor that should have gone to the Cardinals Stan Musial, in my opinion. (Before anyone protests, scope out Part VIII of this series, where I’ll discuss Musial.) But is that necessarily true? As I noted above, Konstanty relied on the Phillies fielders to get outs. Yes, he was the pitcher the Phillies called on to get the tough outs in the close games, and Konstanty probably is the major reason why the Phillies went 30-16 in one-run games in 1950, best in the NL, however I think there is an argument to be made that Konstanty was the fourth-most important Phillie:

-Robin Roberts pitched over three hundred innings for the Phillies and pitched in the climatic game against the Dodgers on October 1, 1950, that decided the pennant.

-Del Ennis was the Phillies major offensive threat, batting runners home. Ennis led the Phillies with 114 Runs Created in 1950, twenty more than Third baseman Willie 'Puddinhead' Jones. Without Ennis the Phillies sixth-ranked offense would probably have been too weak to deliver enough runs.

-Richie Ashburn had a dynamite season as the Phillies centerfielder, leading the league in putouts. On a team that relied on defense, Ashburn was probably the best defensive player. Arguably, Ashburn was the Phillies best player in 1950.

-On a humorous note, Konstanty's pitching guru was an undertaker in upstate New York named Andy Skinner who knew next to nothing about baseball but advised Konstanty whenever he needed help.

The next year, 1951, Konstanty’s luck ran out. He faced 427 batters who put the ball into play and surrendered 118 hits, a .724 Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER). Konstanty’s FIP ERA didn’t really rise much – 3.79 – but he had been hit hard. Konstanty finished 4-11 with just nine saves. Konstanty had gone from getting credit for thirty-eight of the Phillies wins in ‘50 to thirteen in ‘51.

The wheels came off after that. In 1952 Konstanty went 5-3 with six saves. He finished just twenty-five games and was clearly on his way out of Philly. His FIP ERA had spiked to 4.33, well above the league average of 3.73. Opposing teams batted .294 against Konstanty. Without the Phillies defense leading the way, Konstanty was a paper tiger. The next year the Phillies improved defensively, but Konstanty struggled. His ERA was 4.43, just over his FIP ERA of 4.27 … Konstanty had largely moved into the rotation, starting 19 of his 48 games and finishing the season 14-10.

The next season was Konstanty’s final as a Phillie. He played in 33 games before being waived by the Phillies and claimed by the Yankees. Konstanty pitched in nine games for the Yankees, finishing six and saving two. The ’54 Yankees, alas, finished behind the Cleveland Indians for the AL pennant, the first time the Yankees failed to win the World Series since 1948. Konstanty pitched another season for the Yanks before he was released in the spring of 1956. Briefly he pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1956 but was released at the end of the season. It would be Konstanty’s last. He was out of baseball.

Konstanty passed away June 11, 1976, in Oneonta, New York.

It all came together in '50. RIP Jim.
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