Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Detroit Tigers' Burnt Weeny Sandwich:
In Which Necessity Was the Mother of Enervation  

Whatever doesn't make you stronger
kills you 

Sometimes even good management can ignore the elephant on the table. 

Sometimes it's understandable...foolish but not critical -- when those problematic pachyderms are not the difference between success and failure under about any circumstance. For example, I had a client about a decade ago in the Oakland, California area. They spent a noticeable, though not vast amount of money, renting parking spaces to give them to employees for free. The landlord raised the rates over 100%, well over the price of public transit (fairly convenient) alternatives. The firm had never subsidized transit or van pools, only parking, and I thought this was a great opportunity to both save money and redress a fairness issue (subsidizing employees who use a car to get to work; no subsidy for those who use other methods). I couldn't get them to change their view, as obvious as the stink on the Burnt Weeny Sandwich was, as much as I waved my arms, they could only see clear to debate two options -- absorb the increase or kill the benefit, vitiate a small piece of the bottom line or undercut morale. The client's management had, like we all do, an inability to see something they can't conceive of, even something drop-dead obvious.

Sometimes, though, it's dad-gummed suicidal -- and that's when you just have to scratch your head. Sometimes it costs you a pennant you could easily have won.

Case in point: the 1950 Detroit Tigers.

NOTE: This is very detailed...but it's a total Howler...such an egregious example of ignoring methods of self-preservation to keep a dysfunctional status quo that I want you to know most of the key self-imposed limits the Tigers bound themselves with. There were more I left out; these alone are an indictment of crappy front-office preference for comfort over the chance to win. But it's pretty long, even for my norm.

I've been reading this extremely engaging book, "The View From the Dugout -- The Journals of Red Rolfe" I got at the 2006 SABR National Convention, and that I recommend whole-heartedly. One of the small handful of "scientific" managers in the 1940s and 1950s, Red Rolfe was a Dartmouth College graduate (English major). According to editor William M. Anderson's intro:

Following a squandered victory at St. Louis on April 28, 1949, rookie Tiger manager Red Rolfe recorded: "Poor pitching cost us a game in which we were leading 5 to 1. Once again we failed to do things as they should be done in he big leagues". {SNIP}

A Dartmouth College graduate and a naturally studious person, Rolfe kept a private journal recording a description of nearly every inning of every game he managed, analyzing "our weaknesses and the opposition's strength." While his wife kept score at home, he typed summaries of games in his office and hauled a portable typewriter to games on the road. {SNIP}

Rolfe explained in detail his method of recording observations in his personal journal and how he used the information. "The homework on my book takes about two hours a morning," wrote Rolfe. "I purposely wait until the day after the game, so I can review it objectively, read the newspapers -- sportswriters often mention subtle points I've overlooked -- and have my wife's score card in front of me. When the team is away from home, Isabel air-mails me her score card or, after a night game, sends it special delivery to get it to me in time for my skull practice. {SNIP} I summarize every inning each side got men on the bases, and wind up with a series of general observations, or memos to myself. Then I digest the whole thing, with special attention to the memos to correct or confirm certain impressions. I've frequently gone through the entire book to check up on some obscure but important angle."

Jeez, you couldn't ask much more diligence from a manager. Rolfe is paying attention, recording, waiting to try to make sure emotions haven't colored his impressions, analysing every single day, even delegating scut work (the score cards, which requires craft skill but would spread him too thin if he was doing those, too). 

On the surface, you'd have to think Rolfe would have been an unrivalled analyst.

But Red Rolfe was able to overlook the elephant on the table throughout 1950, his second year as Tiger manager, and that elephant likely cost his team an underdog pennant that all his other management skills had put Detroit into a position to snare. It was his one and only managerial shot at a flag, ever, and he missed out on it because even though the problem was obvious to him, and solutions available, the team did nothing about it.

For his 1949 rookie campaign, Rolfe inherited a 78-76 team. He had learned from the managers he'd played for and as a Yankee player, he'd come to appreciate that franchise's great strengths that had lead to their success: Pitching & Power. The 1948 Bengals had had league average pitching and were out-homered in a homer-amping home park, 78-92. The team went 37-51 against teams with over .500 records and all three of them had significantly better home run capabilities than the roster he'd inherited. So this rigorous analyst knew where the team needed attention: the two attributes he was looking for, pitching and power, and his own passion, crisp fundamental execution -- the little things.

Ownership didn't provide him with a ton of new material to attack the obvious power ceiling imposed by zero offense out of the 1st base position (there was 23-year-old George Vico-- OPS+ of 88, and 30-year old Paul Campbell -- OPS+ of 60 to share the duties). In 1949, they decided to start the season with those two, not exactly attacking the limiting factor. That factor was exacerbated because the team's second-best slugger, outfielder Dick Wakefield, was fundamentally-weak and seen as a lazy dilettante, exactly the kind of player a manager like Rolfe disliked. So any attempt to see if benching would inspire Wakefield would further enervate already underwhelming team power.

Rolfe reports in his journals disappointment that ownership couldn't find anyone, but stoically accepted their explanation that there wasn't a lot of 1st base power available out there to acquire, and Rolfe knew from Spring Training there wasn't a ton in their minor league system, either. In 20-20 hindsight, by the way, one could have suggested that Vic Wertz, a 23 year old outfielder who would grow to have remarkable power and be moved at age 29 to first base, could have been shifted, but that would have been really prescient...Wertz' 1948 power numbers were more sluggish than slugging with a slugging percentage below the league average. One can forgive them the inability to see into the future and make that move.

But one can't overlook what would have been an easy, almost unavoidable experiment (not a guarantee, but a guarantee to be no worse than George Vico and Paul Campbell).

Grab a slugging first-baseman from the Negro Leagues or Cuba. There's not a hint of a mention of a thought in Rolfe's journals that such a move was considered...even with the clear and critical need.

The American League had been integrated for two seasons already when the Tigers faced the off-season preceding the 1949 season. The two most noteworthy slugging 1st basemen in the Negro Leagues were Luke Easter & Hall of Fame legend Buck Leonard. Easter might have been available, but the Cleveland Indians signed him over that off-season, so perhaps Easter's 1949 was already spoken for before the Tigers could have gotten into the mix.. While Easter was probably a slam-dunk choice (prime of his career and would go on to average 301 homers/154 games in the majors), Leonard, at 42 years old, was not remotely a slam dunk, though he would play two more seasons for the Homestead Grays, in Cuba and after that in Mexico; his skills were promising enough even three years later that Bill Veeck tried to enlist Leonard, known as the "Black Lou Gehrig", for the Indians' 1952 campaign.

So there are arguments to be made against both those candidates, though the mere presence of an argument-against in baseball shouldn't bring the thought to an end (and it shouldn't in non-baseball endeavors either -- you can't just reject every chance to improve that might not work out -- a classic management blunder in any field).

While either of those choices might have arguments against them, there were other first basement in the Negro Leagues who could hit. Bob "The Rope" Boyd was good enough to make that League's West all-star team, though while he hit up a storm, he wasn't a wallbanger. He was good enough though to go on to a major league career. The best fit for the Tigers was Lennie Pearson, the East's all-star first baseman, a heavy hitter, and at 31 years old, in the prime for power. Pearson wasn't a slam-dunk, either -- when he made to the minors two years later, her was good enough to play, but not exceptional, though that doesn't speak to his skills for '49. That year he led the Cuban league in doubles and slugged 11 homers in a little under half a season's worth of at bats (280), batted .332 for the Negro Leagues' champion Baltimore Elite Giants. That doesn't guarantee he'd have been a star for the Tigers, but it makes it inexcusable that they didn't give him a tryout -- by no measure  could anyone have considered they could get less production out of 1st base with Pearson than the Tigers ultimately got with Campbell, Vico and the utility infielder they acquired in May and used largely at first .

The reason the Tigers didn't give Easter an offer, or Leonard or Pearson a tryout was not about potential talent - it was a complete blindness to the possibility that these players could have have made a positive difference. And that regardless of how big that elephant on the table was. It didn't matter that the A.L. was already integrated -- the Tigers' front office couldn't even discuss the possibility of recruiting talent from the Negro Leagues or Cuba...and acquiring talent to become better is the core need and the core function of the front office. 

In baseball, whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you. The lack of power combined with a thinness in pitching after the starters "condemned" the 1949 Tigers to 4th place with a perfectly-fine 8 game improvement over the previous year's effort.

The good news, a little more so in baseball than beyond it, is that a lesson so clearly learned gets internalized. Weaknesses unaddressed that come back to haunt a team are just about never ignored the following year

Never ignored, that is, unless you're the 1950 Tigers.

You read Rolfe's journals, and his sharp observations, his passion for winning, his revulsion for limited talent all come through. He's honest in his words -- at the time, his journals were private, so he wasn't sanitizing his thoughts for the public. 

Rolfe fretted consistently about three things: the need to reinforce his pitching staff, lack of power and poor execution. He was close to desperate for a first baseman who could slug, and some pitcher who could close out games for the younger Tiger hurlers. The Tigers tried one long-shot experiment for improving 1st base production by sending their star batter Dick Wakefield to the Yankees for a second-tier Yankee 1st base prospect, Dick Kryhoski. Kryhoski had had a bit of a shot in 1949 for the Yanks, and was okay; while he hadn't been a success, it wasn't unreasonable for the Tigers to play Management By Wishful Thinking and it certainly beat the heck out of the previous off-season's stand-pat pose. Not a battle-tested vet like Pearson, but at least something new to try out. The sole off-season acquisition Rolfe mentions is the waiver acquisition of totally-proven dreadful Paul Leo Emile Calvert, who at age 32 had spent the previous year going 6-17 with an ERA of 5.43 for the Washington Senators (that is, he had been given up on by a team that finished next to last in the league in pitching...hardly a glimmer of hope there). Rolfe was realistic in his comments; he didn't expect jack cheese out of Calvert. So one of two problems sort-of addressed, neither given a kick-axe chance of successful remediation.

But here's the odd thing. Never, in Rolfe's journals, did he ever bring up the idea of recruiting a one of the many successful players who labored in all-back baseball or in Cuba. This relentlessly analytical individual who was striving for excellence and a pennant never once mentioned the possibility of reaching outside the standard channels to grab for the talent he believed he so desperately needed, even though others had already reached for and succeeded with the new pool. 

It doesn't get completely surreal until the Tigers break out of the gate fast, and stay in first through 19 games. At this point, they are a serious contender. Experimentation is easiest when you either are getting waxed and you have nothing to lose, or you are holding onto a surmountable lead and need a boost; it's hard when you're so far ahead you are afraid to tinker, but the Tigers, at least Rolfe, always knew that if they were going to hold on, it would be by the thinnest of margins, that they needed reinforcements. His journal is filled with disappointments it appears he knows are human limits of his existing roster, especially on the pitching side. Calvert stunk, and Rolfe wasn't getting a great deal of help from the non-starter arms on the roster -- no one was reasonably consistent in finishing off games. Here was that part of the team...an injured veteran starter who got a little 'pen work, four established mediocrities Rolfe squeezed some above-their-norm work out of, and three kids (one of whom went on to have a respectable career):

 Player          Ag  G    ERA   W   L  SV  GS  GF   IP     H    R   ER   HR  BB   SO   BFP B ERA+
 Virgil Trucks   33   7   3.54   3   1  0   7   0   48.3   45   20   19   6   21   25  209   132
 Hal White       31  42   4.54   9   6  1   8  18  111.0   96   59   56   7   65   53  482   103
 Paul Calvert    32  32   6.31   2   2  4   0  19   51.3   71   42   36   7   25   14  250    74
 Marlin Stuart   31  19   5.56   3   1  2   1   7   43.7   59   32   27   6   22   19  205    84
 Hank Borowy     34  13   3.31   1   1  0   2   3   32.7   23   15   12   3   16   12  134   141
 Saul Rogovin    26  11   4.50   2   1  0   5   4   40.0   39   21   20   5   26   11  182   104
 Ray Herbert     20   8   3.63   1   2  1   3   3   22.3   20   11    9   1   12    5   96   129

I asked editor William Anderson who had read all the materials if there'd been any discussion he'd omitted and he explained, no, there hadn't been a single mention. What does it mean when a driven manager doesn't even grasp at the chance to improve by adding a serious player?

The Detroit Tigers were the next to last team in all the majors to "integrate", ten seasons after Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers. Perhaps the institution's barrier was so strong, Rolfe knew it was unmentionable. Perhaps as a rookie (not already established) manager, he got lazy and didn't want to get into a fight with his employers. Perhaps he shared their views on race, though my instinct is Rolfe was more concerned about winning than holding on to any particular opinion, so it seems unlikely to me. 

Whatever the reason, the elephant on the table goes unmentioned.

After a July doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia A's, Detroit took a 4.5 game lead in the league, but a 2-6 run following left them a half game up.

AL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
DET    56  33     -     .629    505     437
NYY    56  34   0.5     .622    545     434
CLE    56  36   1.5     .609    514     406
BOS    53  39   4.5     .576    656     512
WSH    41  46  14.0     .471    398     451
CHW    37  55  20.5     .402    391     455
PHA    32  60  25.5     .348    421     555
SLB    31  59  25.5     .344    407     587

This is the critical management moment...when it's clear the team can win, the project can succeed, the product can be a viable contributor, and at the same time, there are three other serious contenders and the team has just gone 2-6 against two of them (New York & Boston). This is the moment to act.

Close to nothing.

On August 3rd, the team bought Hank Borowy from the Pirates, a fellow who'd been a successful starter during the War when talent was somewhat thinned out, but had had four years of mediocrity or less since. He ended up being almost adequate to the task, but it was clearly a shot in the dark; there was little solid reasoning to support the idea that he could be an answer or a significant part of one.

In the Negro Leagues, there were no can't miss choices -- no Satchel Paige in his prime or young Josh Beckett. But there were probably a dozen options for whom there would be solid reasoning to support the idea that he could be an answer.

Joe Black was one. Black, 26, was having a great season, started in the Leagues' annual all-star game (not his first appearance, either). The Dodgers signed him in late 1950 and eventually used him as a very successful reliever. 

Another, perhaps more logical choice would have been Pat Scantlebury, a 33 year old who'd also pitched in the all-star game, and had in previous years. He got to the majors at age 39 and at age 43, was good enough to be a league-killer at AAA. And there was 27-year old Connie Johnson, also having a great year, and other pitchers who would go on the have minor league careers.

The Tigers didn't try to grab any of them. On August 29th, they fell into a tie for first, still did nothing, had a half-game lead as late as game 141, but finished the season with a 7-9 run, four of those losses being blowouts the pitching couldn't hold on to, and lost the flag by 3 games with a beautiful 95-59 mark. Rolfe was named Manager of the Year, a bitter substitute for winning.

A Cinderella season euthanized by self-inflicted limitations. A tragedy of Sophoclean proportions, because it was completely avoidable if the front office behaves like a normal front office -- going the distance to acquire available talent to fill a glaring, obvious hole. A tragedy because Rolfe would never get a chance to show his stuff again, never get to manage a contender or for a different franchise that didn't have such brain-dead ownership.

Again, I'm not asserting any one of these pitchers would have made the difference. No one knows that. But several of these options were successful major league players for other franchises; several of them would have worked out, although the Tigers couldn't have known exactly which ones. But by not trying, they guaranteed a ceiling on their performance, a self-inflicted wound no competitive organization can afford.

Beyond Baseball, this happens way too often; organizations insist on sticking to tried-and-true mediocrity instead of taking a reasonable chance on improvement. Sometimes it doesn't make the difference, as it did for the 1950 Detroit Tigers, between eternal fame and 17 years of suffering until their next flag.

But it always makes some difference. In a competitive endeavor, whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you, and when the knowledge is right in front of your eyes, and the solution is readily available, not acting leads, too often, to tragedy.

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