Friday, February 24, 2012

How the Indians Lost the 1959 Pennant

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.


Hank Gillette said...

Paul Richards also designed the over-sized catcher's mitt for catching the knuckleball, didn't he?

I grew up in the period where Wilhelm's success led to other knuckleball pitchers being used as relievers. Back then, relievers were not used nearly as much and it seemed much more exciting when there was a pitching change, especially with a knuckball throwing reliever.

"The manager is calling in the knuckleballer! And they're bringing out the big glove for the catcher!"

That's the way I remember it, anyway.

Brandon said...

Mr. Lane also attempted to trade Stan Musial in his previous gig in St. Louis. If any act could ever get a guy permanently burned in effigy, that would've done it. Stan actually had to go personally to Gussie Busch's house to get that undone.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that Lane was a pretty good GM in his early years and made some good trades. But the publicity went to his head and he developed a large ego.
While trading away Stan Musial certainly seems like a stupid idea, keep in mind back in 1926 the Cardinals traded away Rogers Hornsby despite massive fan outrage and ended up getting the better of it getting Frankie Frisch back. I don't know whom Lane would have gotten in return for Musial, I have heard it was an aging Robin Roberts, going downhill after years of heavy workloads. But the Cardinals didn't win any pennants in the remainder of Musial's career although fan loyalty may be more important in that case.

Brandon said...

I have also heard Roberts would have been the guy there. The real problem for Lane was that the attempted deal of Musial eroded whatever credibility he had left with STL ownership and his departure came soon after. Even if it would have been the right baseball move (and, arguably, it might have been, given that Roberts was better in WAR after the proposed deal than Musial), Lane clearly had no idea what ownership was willing to do or accept, and dealing The Man was not an option for them.

I look at Brian Cashman as a pretty good example of a GM working within significant ownership constraints and still making the best of it. Of course, the money helps, and so does a king sized market, but an essential element of being a good manager is knowing what your superiors will accept, and Lane seems to have worn out his welcome more than once in that way.