By The Common Man
Some of you may have heard that The Common Man is going to be controlling the Cleveland Indians in friend of the blog Jeff Polman’s Strat-o-Matic replay of the 1958 season, in conjunction with his online mystery novel. It should be a lot of fun.
To get ready, The Common Man combed through as much info on the ’58 Tribe as he could and came to the realization that General Manager Frank Lane was an absolute idiot.
You remember Frank Lane, undoubtedly, as “Trader” Lane or “Frantic” Frank. He was an executive who simply couldn’t leave his roster alone, constantly tinkering with it, making huge trades, and generally getting in his own way. In 1958, as usual, he was active. He deal Chico Carrasquel to the A’s for light-hitting shortstop Billy Hunter. He also pulled off a five player deal, sending Roger Maris and some change to the A’s for Vic Power and Woodie Held. It was all largely window dressing, as the Indians were 7.5 games out on June 1 and never got much closer. But late in August, Lane made another change that, honestly, made no sense.
Hoyt Wilhelm was the first truly great relief pitcher, but catchers famously had trouble with his knuckleball. It was so bad that he had been waived by the Cardinals (by Frank Lane) the year before and picked up by outgoing Indians GM Hank Greenberg. Wilhelm thrived in Cleveland, even though his catchers continued to have trouble blocking the ball. He posted a 2.19 ERA in 62 innings through July 10. Opponents hit .196/.283/.248 off of him and had a .231 BABIP.
But oh, how those passed balls vexed the Indians catchers! So the Indians tried to move Wilhelm to the rotation, where he presumably wouldn’t have to deal with runners on base as often. He lost three of his first four starts, and his catchers allowed 9 passed balls in 28 innings, but Wilhelm allowed just 10 runs. Not bad, considering that those were the first four starts Wilhelm had made since he was with the Minneapolis Millers in 1951.
But it wasn’t good enough, apparently. With Herb Score coming off the disabled list, Frank Lane decided for the second time in less than a calendar year that he had seen enough of Hoyt Wilhelm. He placed the future Hall of Famer on waivers, where he was promptly claimed by the Baltimore Orioles. Under the direction of Paul Richards, Wilhelm spent most of the rest of the season in the rotation. He started four times, pitching three complete games with a 1.85 ERA in 34 innings, including a no hitter in his second to last start of the season against the New York Yankees.
According to Wilhelm's SABR biography, Richards “always wondered why he’d been used in relief, coming in with men on base where one passed ball could hurt him. I thought that perhaps, if Hoyt started, the runners wouldn’t get on base to begin with.” The next year, Wilhelm started 27 games, winning 15 times and leading the American League with a 2.19 ERA and was worth somewhere between 7-8 wins above replacement.
The Indians, meanwhile, started Score 25 times in 1959. He finished with a 4.71 ERA and cost his team somewhere between 1-2 wins below replacement. And the Indians lost the AL pennant by 5 games.