Posts Tagged ‘Bobby Murcer’

50 Years On: The Falling Team

August 11, 2015
Mel Stottlemyre

Mel Stottlemyre

It was simply assumed that the New York Yankees would win. After all, they always did. Between 1936, Joe DiMaggio’s rookie campaign, and 1964, Yogi Berra’s last year with the club, they’d won more than 20 pennants. So it came as something of a shock when the 1965 version of the Yanks fell into the second division of the American League by finishing sixth. Fifty years ago the Yankees began a tumble that lasted a decade.

The manager was Johnny Keane. He seemed a worthwhile choice. In 1964 he managed the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards defeated the Yanks in seven games to win the World Series. The result saw New York manager Yogi Berra fired and Keane move over from St. Louis to replace him. It didn’t work. Keane suffered through a terrible season, saw the Yankees start 4-16 in 1965 and was fired. He died the next year.

In a pitching rich environment, the Yankees staff was only acceptable. They finished in the middle of the pack in most categories. Although they were a league third best in strikeouts, they were sixth (of 10) in walks and seventh in hits. The aces were right hander Mel Stottlemyre and lefty Whitey Ford. Ford was 36 and not aging particularly well (although 1965 wasn’t a bad year for him). He was 16-13 with a3.24 ERA (ERA+ of 105 and a BBREF WAR of 3.8 that was second on the team–pitchers or hitters). He was still a good strikeout pitcher but his hits allowed were getting dangerously close to being worse than his innings pitched (244 to 241). Stottlemyre, on the other hand, was 23 and had a great year. He was 20-9, had an ERA of 2.63 with an ERA+ of 129 and a team high WAR of 6.8. Al Downing (who is most famous for giving up Hank Aaron’s 715th homer), Jim Bouton (of Ball Four fame), and Bill Stafford were the only other pitchers to start double figure games. You know you’re in trouble when two of your pitchers are more famous for doing something other than pitching for your team. They were a combined 19-37 with Downing’s 3.40 being the low ERA (he also had the highest ERA+ with 100). Bouton also gave up more hits than he had innings pitched. Pedro Ramos, a converted starter, with his 2.92 ERA had the closer role. He picked up 18 saves (the rest of the bullpen had 10 total), but his hits and innings pitched were a wash and he had only four more strikeouts than walks. Hal Reniff, Pete Mikkelsen, and Steve Hamilton were the only other men to pitch at least 20 games (although Jack Cullen got in 59 innings in nine starts). Hamilton’s 1.39 ERA led the team and his 2.5 WAR was third on the staff.

If the staff was mediocre, it was the hitting that really hurt New York. Although the team finished fifth in home runs and slugging, their ninth place finish in average, OBP, walks, and stolen bases was much more in line with their general run of statistics (in a 10 team league). It was an aging team with six of eight starters at 29 or older with three at 33 or older.

Catcher Elston Howard was the oldest man on the team (eight months older than Ford). A former MVP, he was aging terribly. He hit .233 with an OBP of .278 and an OPS+ of 77. There were nine home runs, 45 RBIs, and a terrible walk to strikeout ratio (24 to 65). Doc Edwards, Jake Gibbs, and holdover from 1961 Johnny Blanchard all backed him up. Howard’s .233 was easily the top average among the four, with neither Blanchard nor Edwards reaching the Mendoza Line. they combined for four home runs and 19 RBIs. Gibbs’ 0.3 WAR was the only WAR in positive numbers (Howard’s was 1.0).

The infield of Joe Pepitone, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, and Clete Boyer weren’t much better. Only Boyer, the third baseman, managed to hit over .250 (he had .251). He and first sacker Pepitone both had 18 home runs (tied for third on the team). Second baseman Richardson’s OBP was all of .287 while Kubek’s .258 was lowest of all the starters. Only Richardson had a decent walk to strikeout ratio. Partially in compensation, the infield was pretty good defensively, with Boyer being the standout. His 2.9 WAR led all hitters. Pepitone’s was 1.0 and the other two were in negative WAR.

It’s not like the bench was better. Horace Clark, Ray Barker, and Phil Linz were the main backups, but none hit above .254. Barker (who was already 29) did tag seven home runs, but he was the backup first baseman. There was a little hope deep down the roster. Bobby Murcer was 19 and listed as a shortstop. He’d later move to the outfield and become a Yankees stalwart.

Mickey Mantle, Tom Tresh, Hector Lopez, Roger Repoz, and Roger Maris did almost all the outfield work. It had been a formidable outfield a few years back, but had fallen on hard times by 1965. Mantle was 33 and ailing (he played in 122 games). He’d moved to left field and hit .255 with 19 home runs. The latter was good for second on the team. Tresh was the team leader with 26. He hit .279 and led the team with 74 RBIs. Maris was out much of the season and got into only 46 games. He hit .239 with eight home runs and his 126 OPS+ was third among people playing in more than 14 games. Lopez, his replacement, had seven home runs, hit .261 and ended up with a WAR of 0.5 (Mantle was at 1.8 and Maris at 0.7). Repoz hit .220 with a WAR of 0.2, but he did manage 12 home runs, fifth on the team. Again, there was hope deep down the roster. Twenty-one year old Roy White got into 14 games and hit .333. He would take over in the outfield later and help lead a resurgent team in the 1970s.

So what went wrong? Apparently a lot of things (some of which I’m sure I’m going to miss). First, Keane seems to have been a lousy fit for the Yanks. I found a couple of stories very critical of his managing skills. Now it may be that it’s simply a case of trying to find a scapegoat without blaming the players or it may be that he had the bad timing to replace New York legend Yogi Berra (who’d just won an American League pennant in his one year as manager) and simply couldn’t be forgiven for that sin, but it does seem that there’s too much criticism to not have some bit of truth in it. Secondly, the hitting got old, seemingly all at once. In 1963 Howard is MVP. In 1964 he’s still good. In 1965 he puts up the numbers quoted above. In 1964 Mantle hits .303 with 35 home runs and 111 RBIs. In 1965 he puts up the number listed above. Pepitone and Richardson also had numbers much below the previous season. Third, Maris was hurt and Hector Lopez wasn’t Roger Maris. As importantly as all that, the pitching wasn’t good enough to compensate for what happened to the offense. Stottlemyre had a good year. Ford’s year wasn’t Ford-like, but it wasn’t awful either. The rest of the staff was competent, but not spectacular (the spectacular pitchers  were in the National League). But competent simply wasn’t good enough to overcome the hitting woes. There also wasn’t much of a bench either. Go to Baseball Reference.com and look it over. Tell me who you like (other than the really new guys Murcer and White).

For the Yanks it began a long fall that bottomed out the next year when they finished last in a ten team league. It took until 1970 for them to show a spark of the old Yankees teams. From there it was a gradual rise until they made the 1976 World Series and then won the Series in both 1977 and 1978.

Game Six: The Manager Makes a Move

July 28, 2011

I don’t know anyone who claims game six of the 1981 World Series was a great game. Neither do I. It is, however, a good way to look at one of my obsessions, the effect a manager really has on a game.

Bob Lemon as Yankees manager

1981

Game six of the 1981 World Series occurred on 28 October in Yankee Stadium. The Los Angeles Dodgers had a 3 games to 2 lead on the Yanks and sent Burt Hooton to the mound. He was 0-1 for the Series. He faced former Dodgers ace Tommy John (of elbow fame).  John was 1-0. New York broke through in the bottom of the third when Willie Randolph homered off Hooton. The Dodgers responded by tying up the game in the top of the fourth.

The turning point of the game was the bottom of the fourth. With one out Graig Nettles doubled. The second out failed to advance him.  Eight hitter Larry Milbourne was walked intentionally, bringing up John. John was pitching reasonably well. He’d given up six hits, but only the one run and struck out two with no walks. Yankees manager Bob Lemon decided to pull him and send up a pinch hitter. Lemon decided that he wanted to get ahead in the fourth and let the bullpen take over. So he sent up Bobby Murcer to pinch hit. Murcer flied to right to end both the inning and Tommy John’s participation in the World Series. I remember being surprised at the time by Lemon’s decision. I also recall the announcers being stunned by the call. John was furious and you could see his frustration in the dugout. As an aside he was traded late the next season.

Lemon brought in reliever George Frazier to face the Dodgers. Frazier had been in two previous games, lost both, and given up four runs in just over three innings. In other words, the Dodgers could hit him. They did. They tallied three runs in the fifth to take a 4-1 lead and coasted from there. They added four more in he sixth and one in the eighth to win the game easily 9-2 (the Yanks got a late run in the sixth) and Frazier joined Lefty Williams of the 1919 Chicago White Sox as the only pitcher to lose three games in one World Series (and Williams, of course, was trying to lose).

I’ve spent a lot of time on this site trying to fathom the role of the manager. How really important is he? How much of a team’s success is talent? That sort of thing fascinates me. I still don’t know the exact answer to that, but this is one time when a managerial decision truly changed a game. John had done well in his other game, was doing well in this one, while Frazier had been awful. But Lemon made the change and things fell exactly as a Dodgers fan would want. Obviously down 3-2 Lemon wanted to take advantage of a situation and try to get a lead, a victory, and a chance at game seven. He can be faulted for taking out John, but the major mistake, it seems to me, was inserting Frazier. By the way, I don’t fault Lemon for using Murcer as the pinch hitter (although Murcer went 0-3 with a sacrifice in the Series).  Anyway, it came back to haunt Lemon in the game and later. He lasted fourteen games into the 1982 season before being fired. He never managed again.

Legacy

March 16, 2011

Yankee Stadium 1930s configuration

There are some positions that are just simply the glamour spots for a team. For the Giants, as evidenced by their latest championship and their long history of great pitchers, it’s the mound. For the Red Sox it’s left field.  Both teams have produced an inordinate number of high quality players at the position. For the Yankees, that position is, with apologies to catchers and second base, center field.

The Yankees were formed in Baltimore in 1901 and shifted to New York in 1903. The “Yankees” team moniker came during the teens. They were a team that was sporadically competitive prior to 1920 and the arrival of Babe Ruth. Afterwards they were the dominant franchise. Whether the team was winning or losing, they have usually had a fine center fielder since. the key word there is “usually.”

Way back in 1921 when it all began, the center fielder was the immortal Elmer Miller (that’s OK, I never heard of him either). Whitey Witt came in ’22. Not a bad player but certainly not the reason they were winning (That Ruth kid had something to do with it). He stayed through 1925, hit .287 with no power and not much speed. He gave way to Earle Combs, who was a revelation in center. Combs could hit (.325), had doubles power (309), and speed. He didn’t steal a lot of bases (with Ruth and Gehrig hitting behind you, would you?), but the papers of the time indicate he was adept at going from first to third on a good single and coming home from second on a clean base hit to the outfield. And of course he was on base quite a bit (OBP of .397, which ain’t bad, but not all that great either. He never finished higher than 5th in OBP.) for Ruth and Gehrig to drive home. He stayed through 1935 and eventually made the Hall of Fame. His successor was Joe DiMaggio who  stayed in center through 1951 and was replaced by Mickey Mantle in 1952. Mantle remained a fixture in New York through 1968.

Now I don’t mean to imply that Combs, DiMaggio, and Mantle played every game in center between 1925 and 1968. Obviously they missed games, and DiMaggio lost three years to World War II. Additionally, Mantle moved to first base in the last two years. But as a rule for the entire period a Hall of Famer stood in center field for New York. That’s not a unique event. Take a look at Boston left fielders from Ted Williams through Jim Rice, but the Yankees center fielders played on winners year after year.

Bobby Murcer replaced Mantle (after running Joe Pepitone and Bill Robinson out there for a couple of years). He’s generally overlooked as a Yankees center fielder, but he was pretty good. He wasn’t DiMaggio or Mantle, but he may have been Combs. There have been a lot of really terrific underrated players in baseball history. Murcer is in the list and, in my opinion, toward the top. He lasted through 1974 then came back in 1979 (although not as the regular center fielder). He was also the last of the power hitters who spent significant time out in center.

The rest of the 1970s and 1980s saw New York send a lot of men to center. They won two World Series titles with Mickey Rivers out there. But as a rule guys like Jerry Mumphrey and Ruppert Jones weren’t anything to write home about. They did try Rickey Henderson in center in the mid to late 1980s. As a center fielder Rickey Henderson made left fielder Rickey Henderson look like Roberto Clemente (Henderson led the league in errors in 1985.). But at least he could track down the ball. All the searching for a quality center fielder changed when Bernie Williams showed up. He gave New York a fine center fielder. He could hit, run, play the field. He won a  batting title and hit clean up on four World Series winners. Is he a Hall of Famer? We’ll find out in a couple of years.

I know that’s not a  comprehensive list of Yankees center fielders, not even since 1921, but what I wanted to show was a long and sustained period of quality play at one position. And the Yankees center fielders certainly, despite some hiccups, did that.