Thursday, February 18, 2010

Random Thursday: 1964 Chicago White Sox

Thanks to Brew Crew Ball, The Common Man desperately wanted to fill out Mad Libs for the first time in a long time this morning. However, it has been far too long since we let random chance dictate our content, so he fired up the random function at and it spat out the Defensive Lineup for the 1964 Chicago White Sox. Frankly, aside from their big pennant run in 1959, when Nellie Fox won the AL MVP, The Common Man knew almost nothing about the ChiSox from this era, and was surprised by how competitive they were. The Sox of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were led by Al Lopez, a Hall of Fame manager who never finished below .500 in any full season he managed (from 1951-1965) and an excellent tactician. The Sox of ’64 were also blessed with a talented pitching staff that had a team ERA of 2.72. The Sox allowed just 501 runs over the course of the season, fifty fewer than its closest competitor. Alas, the offense was nowhere near as successful. In a 10 team league, the Sox finished 7th in runs scored. On the strength of its pitching, however, the Sox won 98 games and finished just one game shy of the Yankees for the AL crown.

It’s not hard to see where the Sox went wrong in ’64. The pitching obviously wasn’t the problem. Gary Peters went 20-8 with a 2.50 ERA in 273 innings to lead the staff. But Juan Pizarro also contributed 19 wins and a 2.56 ERA in 239 innings (in his last big year). Joe Horlen threw 210 innings with a 1.88 ERA. And relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm, then 41 years old, threw 131 innings in relief, garnered 12 wins, 27 saves, and posted a 1.99 ERA. (Fun fact, TCM favorite Don Mossi also pitched 40 innings with a 2.92.) And the offense was actually above average at a number of positions. In particular, RF Floyd Robinson (.301/.388/.408, 125 OPS+), 3B Pete Ward (.282/.348/.473, 129 OPS+), and SS Ron Hansen (.261/.347/.419, 115 OPS+) led the offense, and each played more than 140 games. Utility players Don Buford (.262/.337/.348) also put up decent numbers in more than 500 PAs.

Unfortunately, the Sox were hamstrung by historically poor performances at a number of other spots. The Catcher position never worked itself out for the Sox, as JC Martin (.197/.241/.279, 47 OPS+ in 318 PAs) and Jerry McNertney (.215/.290/.290, 65 OPS+ in 217 PAs) made for a horribly unproductive platoon behind the plate. 2B also proved a difficult problematic. Opening day 2B Buford was shifted to 3B two games in when Pete Ward seems to have suffered a back injury, and was limited to pinch hitting for the next 15 games (Ward had had back problems in ’63 and sat out the last week of the season, and was sidelined during Spring Training in ‘64 with an unspecified back injury that was deemed “not serious” but resulted in Ward being “placed in traction in order to stretch the affected muscle”). While Ward sat out and Buford shifted over, Al Weis (of ‘69 Mets fame) took over at the keystone and managed to get almost half of the starting assignments despite hitting just .247/.299/.302 (70 OPS+). Finally, CF Jim Landis, who was still considered one of the great defensive outfielders in baseball, suffered through his worst season. Through 1963, Landis was an above average hitter, especially for a CF, but in ’64 the bottom dropped out, and he hit just .208/.305/.272 for a 65 OPS+. Landis was actually benched for a good part of 1964. In an interview, he claims that GM Ed Short ordered him benched after an argument related to Landis’ activities as the players’ temporary union representative. While that’s possible, it’s also very possible that Landis was sat down because of his struggles at the plate. Unfortunately, his replacement was no better. Mike Hershberger, normally a good 4th OFer, would get more than 500 PAs subbing for Landis in CF and Dave Nicholson in LF, and hit just .230/.308/.290, an OPS+ of 70. Essentailly, because of a lack of depth, the Sox punted three lineup spots in ’64, trusting them to players who performed at or below replacement level. It was too big an obstacle for the Sox to overcome, and is the central reason why the Yankees were able to clinch on the second to last day of the season. If even one of these positions had been stabilized by a 2 win player, the Sox would have won the AL pennant.

Frankly, the legacy of the 1960s White Sox should not be as also-rans to the New York Yankee juggernaut. Rather, the tragedy here is that general manager Ed Short was unable to address any of these needs and upgrade his team midseason, and give them a better chance to win in a tight pennant race. That Short did not leverage his pitching strength into some additional support for his offense is inexcusable. The best he could come up with that summer was an exchange of 1B, where Joe Cunningham was sent to the Senators for Moose Skowron, who managed just a 107 OPS+ in 73 games. If Short had done his job, rather than feud with his centerfielder, perhaps the Sox fans wouldn’t have had to wait until 2005 to know what a World Series win feels like.

Photo of Al Lopez used from here.

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