Posts Tagged ‘Bill Bruton’

A Remembrance of Richie Ashburn

June 13, 2019

Richie Ashburn

When I was a kid the baseball world was full of terrific center fielders. New York had Mays and Mantle and Snider. As a Dodgers fan I loved Snider but it was tough to give either Mays or Mantle their due. After all the Giants and Yankees were the great rivals of my team. But Richie Ashburn was different. His Phillies weren’t a direct threat to the Dodgers and he was a great outfielder.

The Phillies weren’t on television all that often and were on the radio only when they played the Cardinals (who were the closest team to us and all their games were on the radio). So I didn’t get to watch Ashburn all that often. When I did I was in awe. He was a terrific outfielder. I’d never heard of most fielding stats but I could tell he was good. He made it look easy in center. Willie Mays always had that element that made it look harder than it was, but Ashburn just went out and made the play. I discovered Ashburn is second among centerfielders in range factor per game, 10th in career assists, and third in putouts while playing center. None of those I knew in the 1950s (and probably had never heard of either). All of that confirms that I was right in believing he was a great outfielder.

He was different from the other big centerfielders of the day. Snider, Mays, Mantle all hit for power; Richie Ashburn was more like Bill Bruton of the Braves. Both led off and both could steal a base. Bruton won two stolen base titles in the National League to Ashburn’s one, but Ashburn stole 30 or more twice to Bruton’s once. It was an era without a lot of stolen bases as each team featured a big slugger who could clear the bases and no one wanted to run into an out trying to steal second. For the Phillies that was Del Ennis. He benefitted from Ashburn being on base a lot. Richie Ashburn led the NL in hits three times, walks four times, and triples twice. He won a batting title and led in OBP on four occasions (one of the OBP titles and one of the walks titles came with the Cubs late in his career). That gave Ennis, and other batters, a lot of chances to drive in runs.

In 1960 Philadelphia sent him to Chicago. He played two years with the Cubs having a good season in 1960 and a much weaker one in 1961. He ended up in New York in 1962 with the Mets. They were awful but his 2.1 WAR was second on the team (to outfielder Frank Thomas–not the Hall of Fame White Sox first baseman). He’s part of a great trivia question, “The 1962 Mets had two Hall of Famers in their dugout. Who were they?” The answer is of course Ashburn, and also manager Casey Stengel.

For his career Richie Ashburn’s triple slash line reads 308/396/382/778 with 1322 runs scored, 317 doubles, 109 triples, an OPS+ of 111 and 63.9 WAR. In 1995 he made the Hall of Fame. It’s always gratifying when one of your heroes makes the Hall. It kind of vindicates your view.

Hammerin’ Hank vs. The MIck: Milwaukee

July 14, 2016

The 1957 season marked ten years since the Braves won a pennant. In 1948 they lost to Cleveland and were still in Boston. They moved in the early 1950s to Milwaukee and built a powerhouse. In 1957 they finally reached first place in the National League. It was their third championship of the century (1914 and 1948).

Fred Haney

Fred Haney

The Braves were led by Fred Haney who had a short playing career in the 1920s, then went into coaching. He’d been a not particularly successful manager never finishing higher than sixth when, in 1956, he took over the Milwaukee team. He led them to second place and broke through the next year  with 95 wins. The Braves led the NL in runs, triples, home runs, total bases, and slugging. They were second in hits, average, and OPS; third in OBP. In an eight team league they were next to last in stolen bases. The staff gave up the least home runs in the league while finishing second in hits and ERA. They were second in run scarcity, but they were next to last in walks.

The Braves infield changed during the season. The most important change was the addition of second base Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst from the Giants. He solidified the middle of the infield, added veteran leadership to the team, and gave Milwaukee a top part of the order hitter (he did a lot of leading off). He hit .310 with an OBP of .348, tops behind the big power hitters. His 3.9 WAR was fourth among everyday players. Johnny Logan was his middle infield mate. Logan hit .273 with 10 home runs and 135 hits. He was a competent shortstop whose 4.1 WAR was third among the hitters. Second among the hitters at 7.4 WAR was Hall of Fame third sacker Eddie Mathews. He hit .292, had 94 RBIs, 32 home runs, 167 hits, and scored 109 runs. First base was supposed to be a platoon position with Joe Adcock being the big slugger and hitting right-handed while Frank Torre (Joe’s brother) hit lefty and was a much better fielder. The problem was that Adcock broke his leg and was reduced to playing in only 65 games. He hit .287 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs. Torre, forced to do most of the work at first hit .272, but with only five home runs and 40 RBIs in almost exactly twice as many games. The bench wasn’t particularly strong. Danny O’Connell (who Schoendienst replaced as the starter) and Felix Mantilla both hit in the .230s and had five home runs between them. At first, the Braves had Nippy Jones to replace Adcock he hit .266 and, much to the Yankees regret, had a penchant for shining his shoes.

When the season started, the outfield was supposed to be set. It turned out it wasn’t. Right field was secure in Henry Aaron. The Hall of Famer hit .322, had 44 home runs, 132 RBIs, a .600 slugging percentage, and led the team in WAR at 8.0. That earned him the National League MVP Award for 1957. The problem was the other two spots. Billy Bruton was supposed to be the regular center fielder and the leadoff man, but he banged up his knee and only got into 79 games. He still managed to lead the team with 11 stolen bases. Needing a new outfielder, the Braves shifted Aaron to center and brought up a career minor leaguer named Bob “Hurricane” Hazle. He became one of the greatest (and most famous) “90 day wonders” ever. In 41 games he hit .403 with seven home runs, 27 RBIs, 26 runs scored, 87 total bases, an OPS of 1.129, an OPS+ of 209, and 1.9 WAR (which is pretty good over only 41 games). The other problem was left field. Bobby Thomson of “The Giants Win the Pennant” fame and Andy Pafko of “The Boys of Summer” fame were sharing time. Together they had 12 home runs, 50 RBIs, and hit around .250. Haney decided to go with second year man Wes Covington to solve his left field problem. Covington responded with a .284 average, 21 home runs, 65 RBIs, and 2.6 WAR. In addition to these six, the Braves got 28 games and six RBIs out of 28-year-old Chuck Tanner. He went on to lead the “We Are Family” Pirates to the 1979 World Series as manager.

Three men did most of the catching. The regular was Del Crandall. He hit only .253, but had 15 home runs, 46 RBIs, a .718 OPS, and 1.6 WAR. The backups were Carl Sawatski and Del Rice (making the Braves probably the only team ever to have two catchers named Del–I didn’t check). Between them they equaled Crandall’s 15 home runs (with Rice having nine of the 15), but only 37 RBIs.

They caught a staff that used five men to make a four man rotation. The star and ace was all-time winningest left-hander and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. He pitched 39 games (35 starts), went 21-11, had an ERA of 2.69, had a 1.177 WHIP, an ERA+ of 130, and 4.6 WAR. Sort of your standard every season Spahn year. Lew Burdette was the second pitcher amassing a 17-9 record with a 3.72 ERA with only 78 strikeouts. Bob Buhl was the third starter. His record was 18-7 with an ERA of 2.74 and 2.9 WAR. To cover the fourth hole the Braves used Gene Conley and Bob Trowbridge. They pitched a total of 67 games, starting 34 (about half). Conley was, at the time, about equally famous as one of the last two sport stars because he played for the Boston Celtics basketball team when not on the mound. He was 9-9 while Trowbridge was 7-5 (a combined 16-14, not an untypical record for a fourth pitcher). The Closer was Don McMahon. He was, with 47 innings over 32 games, something like a modern Closer (which wasn’t that typical in the era). His ERA was 1.54, he had 46 strikeouts in the 47 innings, and produced 1.7 WAR. Later Reds stalwart Joey Jay, at age 21, got into one game for Milwaukee. He got a save.

The Yankees may have been favored, but the Braves were a formidable team. Aaron was a rising star, Mathews already a star, and Spahn an icon. As an aside, I considered, when I was much younger, the Braves the best team up and down the roster that I ever saw (I go back to the early 1950s). Not sure that’s true any longer, but they were one of the teams that had both hitting and pitching to go along with good fielding and a bench.

 

The Outsiders of 1957

March 15, 2012

1957 Milwaukee Braves

In baseball, the 1950s is primarily famous for the dominance of the city of New York. In that decade teams from New York won every World Series championship except two: 1957 and 1959. And to be fair about it, the 1959 winner was only two years transplanted from New York (actually Brooklyn), so only one team without New York connections won a World Series in the decade. That team played in Milwaukee. 

The 1957 Milwaukee Braves are one of a handful of teams that are in the running for best team of the 1950s. They could hit, the were good in the field, their pitching was excellent, and they even had a decent bench. Most teams in the 1950s didn’t have all four of those things, certainly not in the same season. So, in the words of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” movie “Who are those guys?”

The catcher was Del Crandall. He’d been around since 1949, lost two years to Korea, then become the primary backstop in 1953. He was a good catcher, leading the league year after year in caught stealings. It was an era of few steals, but Crandall was the best at stopping the running game. He wasn’t a great hitter, but by 1957 his numbers were trending up (although ’57 was a down year for him) in most categories (his home runs and RBIs were dropping).

The left side of the infield was solid. Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews held down the hot corner. He hit .292, had 32 home runs, 94 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .540. Johnny Logan was at short. He made a lot of errors, but was always near the top in range factor, assists, and put outs. He tended to hit around .270 with 10-15 home runs.

The right side of the infield is a good place to look at both the bench and the importance of a trade. The trade was at second. The Braves were struggling at second base early in the season Danny O’Connell wasn’t doing much, so Milwaukee turned a three-for-one trade (later World Series winning manager Chuck Tanner was one of the others). They got Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst in the deal. Schoendienst solidified the infield, gave the team a good hitter. He hit .310, had an OPS+ of 116, and was a good, if not spectacular infielder. He was third in putouts; second in assists, range, and fielding percentage. He and Logan weren’t Fox and Aparicio turning a double play, but they were more than serviceable. First base saw the bench come to the fore. Joe Adcock was the main first baseman. He was a pretty standard 1950s first baseman. He was a slugger who could put up 30 home runs, hit about .270, and get a lot of RBIs. He also was only a mediocre first baseman. Enter Frank Torre (Joe’s older brother). Torre was a good first baseman, had little power, hit in the .270s, and in 1957 had an OPS+ of 103. He also carried an enormous glove. The gag was that Schoendienst had to cover a third of the distance from second to first and Torre’s glove would cover the rest of the area. Adcock went down early (he only played 65 games) and Torre was a more than adequate replacement.

The arrangements in the outfield are fascinating. In left the Braves went through a ton of trouble to find their man. Bobby Thomson (six years removed from “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) started out there. He was pretty much through. They tried Chuck Tanner, but if you’re relying on Chuck Tanner (other than as a manager), you’re in trouble. They finally decided on Wes Covington, who had a  breakout year. His triple slash numbers were .284/.339/.547. His OPS was .876 (OPS+ of 138).

The bench also came into play in center field. The starter and lead off man was Bill Bruton. He stole a team high 11 bases, hit .278, and got hurt. He played in only 79 games. In came a totally obscure minor leaguer and bench player named Bob Hazle. “Hurricane” Hazle proceeded to hit .403, slug .649, have an OPS of 1.126 and an OPS+ of 209. He was, in other words, one of the great “ninety day wonders” ever. His career floundered after 1957, but he was exactly what Milwaukee needed in 1957. And here’s a good enough place to mention Andy Pafko who, in his last good year, was the fourth outfielder.

Right field was solid. Henry Aaron was out there and he had an MVP year (his only MVP). He hit .322, slugged .600, had an OPS of .978, and an OPS+ of 166 (OK, it wasn’t Hurricane Hazle, but it was close). He hit 44 home runs, 22 doubles, had 198 hits, 132 RBIs, and 369 total bases. He also played right superbly (especially for a converted second baseman).

The starting pitching was above average for the era. Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl were the primary starters. Spahn won his usual 21 games (and the Cy Young Award), Buhl had 18, and Burdette 17. both Spahn and Buhl had ERA’s under three and only Burdette had an ERA+ under 100 (94). The fourth pitcher (four starters in that era) rotated between Gene Conley (who had a solid NBA career), Juan Pizarro, and Bob Trowbridge. Put their numbers together and you got a 21-20 record with more innings pitched than hits and more strikeouts than walks.

The bullpen in the 1950s wasn’t the same as today. There was no “closer” who pitched only the ninth while waiting for a series of set-up men to get the team to the ninth. But Don McMahon was pretty close. He pitched in 32 games going 46.2 innings (about 1.3 innings per appearance). He had nine saves in a time when no one knew what a save was or how it was figured (it hadn’t been invented yet). He had an ERA of 1.54 and an ERA+ of 228. The rest of the bullpen produced 10 saves and was fairly typical for the age in that it was basically older guys who weren’t true starter material. And having more saves than the “closer”, McMahon, shows how little the closer role was a part of the game in 1957.

The Braves won the World Series in 1957 (becoming the last National League team to play New York in a Series), lost to the Yankees in the 1958 World Series (allowing the Yanks to beat every National League team then in existence), then lost a two (of three) game playoff to the Dodgers in 1959. That was it. The team faded fast, finishing fourth in 1960, then fifth or sixth in 1961 through 1965. In 1966 they moved to Atlanta. The run was short, but the team was good. Obviously the team of the 1950s was the Yankees, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t pick the 1957 Braves as the best one year team of the decade.