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Friday, October 27, 2006

The Wiz Kids, Part VIII: Focus on the Opposition … the also-rans. 

I’ve complained often that the media is obsessed with the City of New York. How many TV shows are set in New York City? Everything that happens in New York is news because the national media is headquartered there and thinks that the world begins and ends at the edge of Manhattan Island. History’s obsession with New York baseball reached its nadir in the 1950s when the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees had their way with the rest of the major leagues and culminated with a dramatic series of events: Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951, the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series, Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, and the decision by the Giants and Dodgers to leave New York for California in 1957. So the obsession the media has with New York baseball in the 1950s is understandable, but very frustrating. Of the sixteen major league teams, thirteen played outside of the confines of New York City.

Well, the Dodgers and Giants weren’t the only teams competing with the Phillies for the National League pennant. To varying degrees the Boston Braves and St. Louis Cardinals were also in the thick of things in the NL pennant race, while fans in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Chicago dreamed of better days ahead. Let’s look at them, starting with the Braves.

The Boston Braves. I realized something about the 1950 Boston Braves as I examined their stats. This team had a very good pitching staff. Very good. Jim Konstanty may have won the 1950 MVP award, and Robin Roberts may generally be recognized for being the best pitcher in the NL in 1950, but there is an argument to be made that Warren Spahn was the best pitcher in the NL in 1950. Look at FIP ERAs*:

Jim Konstanty: 3.70
Robin Roberts: 3.55
Curt Simmons: 3.53
Warren Spahn: 3.32

* FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).

This was an extraordinarily talented team that boasted a tremendous threesome of Spahn, Johnny Sain and Vern Bickford. Spahn, Sain and Bickford threw 883 of the Braves 1,385 innings (64%) that season. Aside from Roberts 304 and a third innings, nobody threw more innings then Bickford (311 & 2/3), Spahn (293) and Sain (278 & 1/3) in the NL. They went 60-44 and threw 77 complete games. They were an extraordinary trio, but they were all the team had. Their collective ERA was 3.52. The rest of the team was 5.24 …

The Braves also had a good offense, finishing second in the NL in runs scored with 785, 63 more than the Phillies. The Braves were third in the NL in Isolated Power at .142, compared to the Phils .134, and second in Gross Productive Average (GPA) at .253, as compared to the Phillies .248 … The Braves had a very efficient offensive unit. Their 785 runs dramatically out-performs their Base Runs (734), their Batting Runs (746) and their Runs Created (761).

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
Gross Productive Average (GPA): (1.8 * .OBP + .SLG) / 4 = .GPA. Invented by The Hardball Times Aaron Gleeman, GPA measures a players production by weighing his ability to get on base and hit with power. This is my preferred all-around stat.
Isolated Power (ISO): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
On-Base Percentage (OBP): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)
Walks per plate appearance (BB/PA): BB / PA = .BB/PA Avg
Slugging Percentage (SLG): Total Bases / At-Bats = Slugging Percentage. Power at the plate.
Runs Created (RC): A stat originally created by Bill James to measure a player’s total contribution to his team’s lineup. The formula I use for this article is taken from Bill James Historical Abstract circa 1988, when he developed special formulas for Runs Created based on stats that the MLB kept (e.g., caught stealing wasn't a stat baseball kept track of until 1951). The formula is: [(H + BB + HBP - GIDP) times (Total Bases + .26 * (BB + HBP) + .52 * SH)] divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH).
RC/27: Runs Created per 27 outs, essentially what a team of 9 of this player would score in a hypothetical game.
Base Runs: Developed by Dave Smyth as an alternative to Runs Created. Here is the formula: (A: H + BB + HBP – HR ; B: (.8 * 1B) + (2.1 * 2B) + (3.4 * 3B) + (1.8 * HR) + (.1*(BB + HBP)); C: AB – H; D: HR) Then simply divide B into B + C, then multiply A to the result and add D.
Batting Runs: Another alternative to Runs Created, developed by Pete Palmer as part of his linear weights system. The formula: (.47 * H) + (.38 * D) + (.55 * T) + (.93 * HR) + (.33 * (BB + HBP)) + (.22 * SB) + (-.38 * CS) + (-.10 * (AB - H)).

The key to the Braves offense was balance. They had five players who hit fourteen or more home runs. The team did not merely rely on Earl Torgeson (123 Runs Created, 7.81 Runs Created per 27 Outs, 114 Base Runs), Sid Gordon (107 Runs Created, 8.27 Runs Created per 27 Outs, 103 Base Runs) and Bob Elliott (103 Runs Created, 7.19 Runs Created per 27 Outs, 99 Base Runs), they also had NL Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe, who led the NL in stolen bases with thirty-five (twice as many as the Dodgers Pee Wee Reese). The Braves were the second-best offensive team in the NL after the Dodgers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

On May 6 the Braves were in first place with a 10-7 record, and they would steadily hang in the playoff picture for another two months. At the All-Star break the Braves were 42-31, two games behind the Phillies. After defeating the Chicago Cubs 10-2 on August 4 behind Warrn Spahn, the Braves were three games out of first and very much in the thick of the playoff hunt. The Braves then lost ten of their next fourteen games and tumbled to eight games out. The Braves would battle back to try and keep pace with the Phillies, but it was too much. On September 17, 1950, they managed to jump into second place, a half game ahead of the Dodgers and seven and a half behind the Phillies, but the Braves would go 5-11 the rest of the way, while the Dodgers made a 13-5 dash to catch up to the Phillies. I suspect that if you go back and examine the Braves season, you’ll find that the strain of pitching every third day wore Spahn, Bickford and Sain down.

The Braves would leave the Boston area after the 1952 season and journey westward to Milwaukee, where they immediately became the prime challenger to the Dodgers – Giants duopoly, finishing second to the Dodgers in 1953, 1955 and 1956 before breaking through to win the 1957 World Series over the Yankees and grab the ’58 pennant as well. The Braves deserted Milwaukee in 1965 and journeyed to the South to Atlanta, where they became baseball’s sole team inside of the Old Confederacy (excluding Texas) until the Florida Marlins were created in 1993. Until the team’s modern era (since 1990), the Atlanta Braves were an also-ran for nearly three decades.

The St. Louis Cardinals. Back in the 1950s, the St. Louis Cardinals were the extreme western limit of major league baseball. It was simply too far for teams to travel in trains to go that much further west of the Mississippi River. Air travel, which became widely available during the ‘50s, enabled baseball to move west and embrace California and the Mountain West. However until the A’s abandoned Philadelphia for Kansas City in 1955, the Cardinals were baseball’s western team and the southern team as well.

The Cardinals had a lot of proud history going into the 1950 season. They had most recently won the World Series in 1946, defeating the Boston Red Sox in seven games. Prior to 1946, they had captured the NL pennant in 1942, 1943 and 1944, winning the series in ’42 over the Yankees and in ’44 over the cross-town Browns (who would later move to Baltimore and go on to become the Orioles). Even before that the Cardinals had the Gashouse Gang, a goofy collection of players who had captured the NL pennant five times in nine years between 1926 and 1934 and won three World Series.

The 1950 Cardinals would be less fortunate than their 1920s, 1930s and 1940s counterparts. The ‘50’s weren’t a good time for the Cards. 1946 would turn out to be Stan Musial’s last championship. The Cards wouldn’t capture the NL pennant again until 1964, when the Phillies aided their path to the World Series by collapsing at the end of the season.

Jim Konstanty won the 1950 MVP award and was unquestionably vital to the Phillies in their battle for the post-season, however, I think the best individual player in the league in 1950 was the Cardinals Musial. The twenty-time All-Star had won the MVP award in 1943, 1946 and 1948, and finished second to Konstanty in 1950. Musial would be the NL runner-up from 1949 to 1951.

Musial was a phenomenal player. He may not have had the most explosive bat in the league, but he was consistently the most dangerous hitter.

NL Runs Created (1950):
1. Musial (Cards): 149
2. Snider (Dodgers): 133
3. Kiner (Pirates): 130
4. Torgeson (Braves): 123
5. Stanky (Giants): 121
6. Pafko (Cubs): 121

Musial produced 10.75 runs created per 27 outs, tops in the league. That only gives you a brief glimpse at how tough an out Musial was.

Unfortunately for Musial, the Cardinals didn’t have a whole lot else going for them. The rest of the team had aged and atrophied over the three years since the Cards won the World Series. The Cardinals had a decent pitching staff, which finished second to the Phillies in the league in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), and home runs allowed (0.79 per nine innings, as well as third in league in walks allowed (3.55 per nine innings), and strikeouts (4.00 per nine innings). The Cards didn’t have a lot of pop at the plate after Musial and they didn’t play defense well. As late in the season as July 20, after sweeping both ends of a double-header with 18-4 and 10-3 victories, the Cardinals owned sole possession of first place in the NL. After that, the Cardinals would drop 41 of their remaining 71 games and struggle to remain at .500. The season would end with the Cardinals in fifth place.

The Cincinnati Reds. There wasn’t a whole lot positive for Reds fans in 1950. The team finished sixth, a position it would occupy for the next three seasons as well. The Phillies largely had their way with the Reds in 1950, winning eighteen of their twenty-two games against them, easily the Phillies best performance against any other team in the National League that season.

The Reds did little right in 1950. They finished dead-last in the NL in Isolated Power (ISO) at .116, well under the league average of .140 and the Phillies .131 … The Reds Gross Productive Average (GPA) was nearly the worst as well, at .240, as compared with the NL average of .250 and the Phillies .248. The Reds were last in the NL in BaseRuns with 631, last in the NL in Batting Runs with 638, and last in the NL in Runs Created with 652. They were the second-worst scoring offense in the NL.

Their pitching wasn’t much better, finishing seventh in the NL in ERA, fifth in FIP ERA, seventh in walks allowed (3.86 per nine innings) and sixth in home runs allowed (0.96 per nine innings). The only areas where the Reds excelled at were defense, where the Reds had the third-best DER in the NL – .708 – after the Phillies (.719) and Giants (.729), and strikeouts, where the Reds pitching staff K’d 4.55 batters per nine innings, a terrific number only exceeded by the Dodgers (5.00).

A disastrous May (6-19) saw the Reds occupy the cellar for most of the season. After losing to the Dodgers 8-2 on June 20, the Reds were in dead-last, 15-38 (.283), a whopping eighteen games behind the Dodgers and seventeen behind the Phillies and Cardinals just fifty-three games into the season. The Reds went on to win as many games as they lost the rest of the way (51-49), but the damage was done. A ten-game losing streak from August 18 to August 27 ended any chance the Reds had of a winning season. They limped to a sixth place finish. Their 28-49 record at home (.364, versus 38-38, .500 on the road) kept fans away in droves. The Reds drew 538,794 fans in 1950, nearly 405,597 fewer fans than the Braves, the next-worst team in terms of attendance. The Pirates and Cubs, despite finishing worse than the Reds, attracted well over twice as many fans to their ballparks.

The Pittsburgh Pirates. The 1950 Pirates were an interesting enigma, though they were the worst team in the NL, a distinction they would possess or share until 1958, when they finished in second place and get ready to play in the 1960 World Series. The Pirates would finish seventh or eighth every year from 1950 to 1957, despite having future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner in the lineup.

Kiner was a remarkable player: just 27 entering the 1950 season, he had hit 54 home runs in 1949 and entered the 1950 season having hit 168 home runs already in his brief career. He hit another 47 in 1950 and drove in 118 runs. Kiner may have been the best hitter in the NL in 1950 (though I think that distinction belongs to Stan Musial), and his presence in the lineup helped the Pirates finish second in Isolated Power and Slugging Percentage and third in Gross Productive Average in the NL. And yet the Pirates were sixth in runs scored. On paper they should have been a pretty decent team at the plate, but no team had a bigger variance between its Runs Created and Actual Runs:

Runs Created / Actual Runs
Reds: 652 / 681 (+29)
Braves: 761 / 785 (+24)
Cubs: 643 / 658 (+15)
Dodgers: 841 / 847 (+6)
Giants: 738 / 735 (-3)
Phillies: 725 / 722 (-3)
Cardinals: 701 / 693 (-8)
Pirates: 737 / 681 (-56)

The Pirates problem simply was that Kiner was their only real threat. Note that 40% of Kiner’s RBIs were of himself: home runs. Kiner drove in just 71 teammates. Compare that to Duke Snider, whose home runs amount to just 30% of his RBIs, or Del Ennis, whose homers were 25% of his RBIs. Kiner had 130 Runs Created in 1950, 18% of the team’s output. Bill James noted that the ’50 Pirates were the most inefficient team of the 1950s in his 2005 Handbook (Page 15), losing fourteen more games than they should have. It was an offensively inefficient team and you have to wonder how frustrated Kiner was playing on the Pirates.

Defensively the Pirates were pretty ordinary. In terms of pitching the Pirates were the worst in the NL: dead-last in terms of ERA (in fact over a half run worse than the next-worst team, the Cincinnati Reds) and dead-last in terms of FIP (a quarter of a run worse than the Cubs). No team got fewer strikeouts (3.66 per nine innings), surrendered more walks (4.05 per nine innings), and only the Dodgers gave up more home runs (1.00 per nine innings).

Interestingly, despite being the worst team in the National League and never really being a factor in the race for the pennant (even as early as June 1, 1950, the Pirates were eight games out of first), the Pirates were third in the NL in attendance, after the Phillies and Dodgers. In fact the Pirates drew just 19,629 fewer people than the Dodgers and 50,768 fewer than the Phillies. The Pirates drew more than twice as many fans as their rivals down the Ohio River, the Cincinnati Reds. Despite being a bad team, they were popular.

The Chicago Cubs. I’ve always thought that the Chicago Cubs are a very strange franchise. Whereas the suffering of the Boston Red Sox inspired Shakespearean pathos thanks to the multitudes of writers who live in or hail from New England, the Cubs have a sort of bland Midwestern happiness to their futility. The Red Sox may have been cursed to fail as spectacularly as they have, but the Cubs are the victims of simple incompetence.

The 1950 Cubs were nothing special, and have no indication to their fans that they had played in the 1945 World Series and nearly won. Their offense was almost entirely dependant on home runs to generate runs. The 1950 Cubs hit 161 home runs, second in the league to the Dodgers 194. The Cubs were also second in Isolated Power at .153, .013 better than the league average and .022 better than the Phillies. Despite this strength at the plate, the Cubs were a terrible offensive team. They were dead-last in the NL in runs scored at 643. They had, by far, the lowest On-Base Percentage in the NL (.311), drew the fewest walks, and the lowest Gross Productive Average (GPA) in the game: .240 … The Cubs 643 runs scored under-performs their Base Runs (650), Batting Runs (656) and Runs Created (658). After home runs the only stat they led the league in was strikeouts.

Andy Pafko had an exceptional season with 121 Runs Created (8.88 Runs Created per 27 Outs) for the Cubs, as did 1952 MVP Hank Sauer (96 Runs Created, 6.39 Runs Created per 27 Outs), but the Cubs were too inconsistent at the plate to be the equal of the Dodgers.

If the Cubs offense was forgettable, than their pitching and defense were more so. Led by Bob Rush, who lost twenty games in 1950, the Cubs finished seventh in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), seventh in strikeouts, sixth in walks allowed, and sixth in ERA. Their lousy pitching was further undermined by a terrible defense. Defensively, the Cubs were the worst team in the NL, with a .694 DER, .007 worse than the Braves and Pirates and .035 worse than the Giants. The Cubs led the NL in errors with 198, 47 more than the Phillies, 61 more than the Giants and 71 more than the Dodgers. This was not a good defensive team. In fact, they allowed a whopping 120 un-earned runs! (.78 UERA)

The Cubs were never really in the playoff picture. After starting the season 3-0, they steadily dropped back in the standings. At the All-Star break the Cubs were 33-38 and ten games behind the Phillies. Their record would just get worse. The Cubs posted the worst post-All Star game record in the NL, going 31-51. On July 21 the Cubs swept a two-game series with the Braves and improved to 39-41, just seven games out of first place. They would lose seventeen of their next twenty-one games. After losing to the Pirates 7-4 on August 10, the Cubs were nineteen and a half games out of first and their season was finished. The Cubs would go 10-19 in September, finishing in seventh place, seven games ahead of the Pirates. The Cubs record since hasn’t been the best.

This season the Cubs are fast-approaching their centennial since their last World Series victory in 1908. Since then, the Cubs lost seven World Series all between 1910 and 1945. After the Cubs lost Game Seven of the 1945 World Series to the Detroit Tigers on October 10, 1945, they wouldn’t make the playoffs for another thirty-nine years! When they finally did in 1984, the Cubs proceeded to lose the NLCS to the San Diego Padres 3-2 despite winning the first two games 13-0 and 4-2. The Cubs have made the playoffs just three times since, losing the 1989 NLCS to the San Francisco Giants 4-1, losing the NLDS to the Braves 3-0 in 1998, and then, humiliatingly, losing the 2003 NLCS to the Marlins after leading the series 3-1 and being just five outs away from victory in Game Six before surrendering eight runs to lose 8-3. The Red Sox were able to pull themselves together after their collapse against the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS and win the 2004 World Series, but the Cubs continue to be the loveable losers of Wrigley Field.

Those were the also-rans.

Next, I’ll talk about what happened to the Phillies after the All-Star Break on Tuesday after I get done giving some thoughts on the World Series on Monday.

Previous Installments of the Wiz Kids:
Part VII: The Giants & Dodgers.
Part VI: Curt Simmons.
Part V: Robin Roberts.
Part IV: The first half of the 1950 season.
Part III: Jim Konstanty.
Part II: Eddie Sawyer.
Part I: The Path to 1950.

In another one of my typical "completely random, but letting you know I'm enjoying the series" comments, today is Ralph Kiner's birthday, so I'd actually just been looking at his stats and stuff randomly earlier today. Yeah, I can't imagine what it must have been like for him being on the utterly historically abysmal 1952 Pirates, heh.
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