21 January 2013

Earl Weaver, a Book Club, and Spring Training

I was too young to remember Earl Weaver, but I am old enough to remember Earl Weaver.  I think he is someone who is everyone for he can be anyone to anybody.  He can be viewed as the old school, kick-dirt-on-the-ump manager who simply knew how to win as he never had a losing season during his initial 15 year run with the club.  To those who are traditional stat hounds, then he is the guy who said you win with pitching, fielding, and home runs.  To the more modern stat hounds, he is the guy who hated the bunt, hated the stolen base, loved base runners (and the walk!), great defense, and good pitching.  He is all of these things, which makes him a legend and well deserving of that statue in Camden Yards for what he gave to the Baltimore Orioles, their fans, and baseball, in general.  In one man, you have a throw back and you have the proto-sabremetrician.  Those two perspectives often war with each other in their relationship with baseball, but both have Weaver as their baseball god because he fits with their dogma.

The first thing that pops up in my head is not who he was, but a graph.  It is a simple graph and ten years after initially making it...I still am unsure what it means.  This is the graph:

The initial takeaway from this graph is that it appears that Weaver's teams underperformed during the first half of his run with the Orioles while overperforming during the second half of his tenure.  It may well be this is just coincidence.  I don't know.  However, it does fit into his phrase that was turned into a book:
It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.
That is something that I think we should all take to heart.  The basic point that it is likely impossible to know everything, so be sure to challenge yourself continually in order to become better.  It applies to all walks of life, but this is a baseball blog and I will focus on that.  You can see it in the sabremetric world where over the past ten years there is a stronger embracing of the qualitative data that scouting provides.  You can see it in the traditional world as the industry slowly sees how valuable new metrics are.  Simply, we all strive to be better and we can be better as we keep an open mind and honestly try to learn how to use new tools.  As soon as one become a fundamentalist to one school of baseball thought, so much gets lost and so many arguments become exercises in creating and obliterating straw men.

A while back, I decided that what Camden Depot needed was a book club and I selected a number of excellent books.  After several attempted tries to bring it up to life with a good following failed, it was left on the dust bin, but now it seems fitting that I will start it off with one of Weaver's books.  The format with simply be blog posts instead of the initial podcasts.  I will not be providing summaries of the chapters, but on specific things that pique my interest.

Weaver on Strategy

Chapter 1 - Spring Training
It may be boring, but it works.

Weaver focuses on one aspect on Spring Training that he thought was consequential: players learning his style.  Much is ballyhooed about the Oriole Way.  If you have been a long time reader of the site, I am a bit dismissive of the Oriole Way as many teams during that time and slightly before viewed their systems as harmonious from top to bottom.  This is not to say that the Oriole Way was not important, but that it likely was no better than the Dodger Way or the Reds Way.  I think what really comes forward is that integrating a team is so much simpler when the manager does not need to treat players in an incredibly unique fashion.  Drills in the big league camp would not be dissimilar to ones being carried out in rookie ball.  That level of familiarity reduces teaching time on this of minor consequence and increases time for evaluation of a player.  It also may improve evaluation of a player because a player is paying more attention to the play as opposed to a new way to perform that play.

He also makes a point using defensive wunderkind Mark Belanger as an example.  He mentions how sometimes people confuse the execution of fundamentals with talent.  Belanger was well endowed with both, but the point is made that if someone was perfect in their fundamentals at short they would still need the talent of Belanger to equal his ability.  That is, you cannot teach anyone into being Mark Belanger.  A player needs to have the ability to be made into Bellanger.  Without that ability, coaching and managing cannot make up the difference.  So, yes, continuity in instruction is important, but it means little without talent.  Both are essential in creating and maintaining a successful franchise.

Off Season Programs
He was apparently also big into off season programs.  It is actually quite interesting to read how advanced he was for his time.  He certainly has a habit of throwing in numbers and percentages that do not mean anything other than placeholder specifics to support his point of view, but he tends to generally get the overall message down.  A player who stays in shape will be better prepared to perform.  That way, a player can maximize his time in Spring Training to show off what he can do so that he makes the team or, if his place is secure, work on a pitch or two as Jim Palmer did.

Weaver also makes a point about how 35 years old is very old for an infielder and that as time moves on you begin to not be able to make up that lost athleticism.  This jumped out at me because it was a lucid acknowledgement of player aging, which would not be ground breaking in the early 80s.  However, teams would often (and still do) pick up broken players from free agency with great hope that they we rekindle the performances of many seasons past.  This too jumped out at me as our opening day second baseman is 35 year old Brian Roberts who has been greatly limited in workouts over the past several seasons.  The points working against Roberts likely are the reason why the team is hoarding marginal second basemen in the likes of Ryan Flaherty, Alexi Casilla, and Yamaico Navarro.

Pitcher Velocity
By this time, speed guns were common in many organizations and the Orioles used them.  They were actually one of the first clubs to use technology.  You could say they were a mix of the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees.  They had decent money behind the team (their bonus baby signings before the institution of Free Agency greatly sped up the team's ability to compete) and used emerging ideas and technology to give themselves extra chances for success (e.g., speed guns, psychological evaluations).  Anyway, my point being about pitcher velocity is that I assume that Weaver would be a great judge of pitcher velocity and makes this statement stand out:
With the kind of pitching we had in 1979, we didn't believe a young pitcher like Sammy Stewart would break in, but the man was throwing 92 miles per hour, and those guys are few and far between.
There is a post that appeared on Camden Depot in 2011, there were 73 relievers who threw on average 93 miles per hour and above that year.  There were 18 starters who averaged 93 and above.  In other words, 92 miles per hour is considered unimpressive these days while it stood out in the late 70s.  That should give you some pause when you think about making an argument about how talent is watered down these days and the game is not as competitive.  Go back in time and the play in the 1970s is probably more comparable to what AAA is these days.  Things have changed.

A major part of Spring Training for Weaver was that it was a time where he would try to envision the best way to construct his 25 man roster.  He would see how his players performed and determine how he could fit them all together.  Here is an excerpt:
You need someone for each job that needs to be done when the time arises.  In spring training, I'll look for a guy who can pinchhit, a guy who can pitch middle relief, maybe a player who can go out to the outfield for late-inning defense.  When I was looking at Gary Roenicke, a  right handed hitter, to play left field, I wanted someone else to be there in case Gary didn't hit.  In this instance, we had John Lowenstein, a left handed hitter.  Lowenstein is worth his weight in gold: he can play all three outfield positions and some third base, he hits for power, and he knows his job.  He's always ready when you need him, and he's a perfect player for anyone's bench.
Lowenstein is really the dream for many a writer who longs for the strategy and implementation of platoons.  He is what you wished Wilson Betemit to be.  Lowenstein was Betemit, but with a sufficient glove.  He was not a great fielder, but he was not as dreadful as Betemit is.  Perhaps the best comparison for Lowenstein these days would be Seth Smith.  Both can stand at all outfield positions and have heavy platoon splits that favor themselves against righties.

This brings up something else which is how difficult it is to actually employ platoons and to give too much consideration to having one tool bench players.  As batters got better, pitching became more specialized to handle the increase in offensive capability (you cannot sleep through the last third of a lineup any more as almost every guy on a team can launch a minorly misplaced ball into a courtyard).  Greater specialization meant an increase in bullpens, which swallowed up spots on the bench.  Now, with what freedom remains after guaranteed free agent contracts is applied primarily with middle relievers.  It used to be common that every team had a surprise rookie traveling north from Spring Training to play a position in the field.  That is a rarity these days and big news when it happens.  As such, only a few teams really excel with using splits and those teams are, surprise, sabremetrically influenced teams: Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.


Be sure to grab yourself a copy of the book.  I will be covering the rest of the chapters in the weeks to come.  There are some interesting tidbits beyond what I discussed.

Next Chapter: The Offense: Praise Be the Three Run Homer!


OTHOSOS said...

Great book. Great article.Your insight that Earl was different things to different people, and how he evolved over time was wonderful. Looking forward to further articles. Have read this book many times and always pick up something new.

Jon Shepherd said...


We will see how insightful I am in the future. I am really only discussing a small part of each chapter. It is so rich.

Anonymous said...

Regarding books, you should look up "Seasons in Hell" about the 72-74 Rangers.
Beyond a doubt the funniest non-fiction book you'll ever read,