October 22, 2014

Counterintuitively Successful: Boston’s ‘Teen Years–The 1912-18 Red Sox

November 5, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Tris Speaker spent nine years in Boston and was named AL MVP in 1912.

Tris Speaker spent nine years in Boston and was named AL MVP in 1912.

Our 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox have been described as a team that came out the best in the major leagues with more a workman-like, rather than a star-studded, line-up (notwithstanding Big Papi and Dustin Pedroia), almost as though they overachieved for the talent they had–especially after having lost 93 games last year.  The same might be said of the Red Sox’ first sustained stretch of excellence, beginning 101 years ago in 1912 and extending through 1918, when they won four pennants and four World Series in seven years.  

With only two exceptional players as bookends–Tris Speaker, who patrolled center field and was an imposing offensive force, on the championship teams of 1912 and 1915, and Babe Ruth, an outstanding southpaw who pitched for Boston’s winning teams in 1915 (although not in the World Series), 1916, and 1918–the Red Sox’ success was certainly earned, including through the crucible of two tight pennant races, but they won against established patterns at the time for teams that dominated the league over successive years.

The World War I-era Boston Red Sox were a worthy successor to the Philadelphia Athletics, who won four pennants and three World Series between 1910 and 1914, but hardly as imposing in either their dominance of the baseball world or the overall talent level of their team.  Connie Mack’s Athletics had the characteristic pedigree of a baseball dynasty, including continuity of core players during their championship seasons and many of the game’s best at their positions in both contemporary and historical context.  The Red Sox’ mastery of the American League, by contrast, could be described as counterintuitive to the model of baseball’s great teams to that point in time–the Boston Beaneaters and Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s; the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, New York Giants, and Mack’s Athletics since 1900.  For example:

  • Unusual for the time, the Red Sox won their four championships under three different managers, none of whom managed the team for more than three complete seasons.  In the 25 previous years (1890-1914), every team that won multiple pennants over any five-year stretch did so under only one manager.
  • Unusual for the time, the Red Sox maintained their standing as the best team in baseball despite, after two championships, trading away the centerpiece of their offense and their far-and-away best player–one of the very best in the game’s history, in fact–and nonetheless winning two more.  In the 25 previous years (1890-1914), every team that won multiple pennants over any five-year stretch had continuity in their starting line-up, and none traded away their best offensive player as Boston did with Tris Speaker.
  • And, unusual for the time, the Red Sox were at the forefront of strategic innovations involving platooning and in-game position player substitutions when they won their two middle pennants. At the time, teams that were generally favored by the baseball gods with good health and few injuries relied on no more than ten or eleven position players who would receive nearly all of the playing time and rarely be taken out of a game, with those on the bench asked to fill in only when necessary.
Jake Stahl led the 1912 team to a franchise record 105 wins in 1912.

Jake Stahl led the 1912 team to a franchise record 105 wins in 1912 before he was dismissed in 1913.

Managerial Musical Chairs in Boston:  The Red Sox’ first of four ‘teens championships came in 1912–with a franchise-record 105 victories interrupting the Athletics’ string of four pennants in five years–in their first season under player (first baseman)-manager Jake Stahl.  Stahl had to be coaxed out of a one-year retirement, trying his hand at banking after leading the league with 10 home runs in 1910.  Despite his World Series triumph in 1912 that contributed to the Giants’ string of three straight Fall Classic defeats, by mid-season of the next year Stahl was back in the banking business, undermined by front office politics and a dismal start to the season.

Stahl’s replacement was Bill Carrigan, the team’s veteran catcher, who was highly regarded as a leader and for his knowledge of the game.  The Red Sox came back strong in 1914, finishing second to set the stage for picking up where Philadelphia left off when Connie Mack began breaking up his great team following the Athletics’ debacle in the 1914 Fall Classic (although his team’s tenuous financial position was Mack’s real impetus).

After leading Boston to back-to-back Series championships in 1915 and 1916–taking out both the Phillies and Dodgers in five games–it was Carrigan’s turn to decide that retirement looked good, especially going out on top. Second baseman Jack Barry took over as player-manager in 1917, brought the Red Sox home second, then joined the reserves as the US fought in World War I.  Ed Barrow, in a precarious position as President of the International League at the time, took little persuading to become Boston manager in 1918, leading the Red Sox to their sixth pennant since the birth of the American League in 1901.  That tied Boston with Philadelphia for the most pennants won by an American League team.  (For any who are wondering: the AL team in New York, at this point in history, had precisely zero pennants–which, of course, would soon change with what would become an 86-year-long Curse of the Bambino.)

Offensive Impact of the Speaker Trade:  The 1912-18 Red Sox can almost be considered two different teams–before and after Tris Speaker.  The best offensive player in baseball at the time besides Ty Cobb, and arguably a better all-around player because of his defensive brilliance in center field, Speaker was the only position player on the Red Sox who could be considered, even at the time, to be an elite player.  Speaker was flanked in the outfield by Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper, making up one of the most famous outfields in history.  Even though Lewis, Hooper, shortstop Everett Scott and third baseman Larry Gardner remained from the 1915 pennant-winning Sox, Boston lost a significant bit of its offensive edge after Speaker was sent packing to Cleveland just before the start of the 1916 season–with cash the primary consideration–in part because he was a leader of one of two rival factions in the clubhouse, but mostly because the Sox weren’t willing to meet his salary demands. Lewis and Gardner would both be gone by 1918, and it wasn’t until 1918 that either player the Red Sox got for Speaker (pitcher Sad Sam Jones and infielder Fred Thomas) made any appreciable contribution to Boston’s cause.

With Speaker one of the AL’s three best position players from 1912 to 1915, based on wins above replacement (WAR), the Red Sox, according to the WAR metric for player value, had the third-best offensive team in the league the first three years, and were second in 1915.  They led the league in scoring in 1912 and were third each of the next three years.  Without Speaker in 1916, Boston won the pennant despite being sixth in scoring and next-to-last in the AL as a team in offensive wins above replacement and having only one position player among the top 10 in player value–Gardner, who ranked seventh (while Speaker was best in the league with his new team in Cleveland). The Red Sox were only fourth in the league in runs scored and fourth in offensive WAR when they next won in 1918, in no small measure due to Babe Ruth starting nearly half of his team’s games in the outfield, in addition to his starting pitching responsibilities.  Ruth and Hooper were the only two Red Sox (at fifth and sixth) whose player value was among the top 10 AL position players. (Gardner had the eighth highest WAR among AL position players in 1918, but was now playing in Philadelphia.)

Playing the Percentages.  Once Speaker was gone, the foundation for Boston’s success rested on strong pitching–a staff that included three of the league’s best pitchers in Ruth, Dutch Leonard, and Carl Mays–and exceptional defense.  With a much less proficient offense, particularly among infielders, the Red Sox benefited from Bill Carrigan, along with visionary NL managers George Stallings (who managed the other team in Boston) and John McGraw, being at the leading edge of an evolution towards in-game position player substitutions and platooning to gain match-up advantages against opposing pitchers.  McGraw had been out front since late in the previous decade in using his bench strategically during a game, and Stallings popularized platooning with his outfield rotation when the Boston Braves had their “miracle” come-from-way-behind season in 1914.

From left: Babe Ruth, Carl Mays and Dutch Leonard.

From left: Babe Ruth, Carl Mays and Dutch Leonard.

Carrigan was one of the first managers in the game’s history, and the first American League manager, to systematically embrace both concepts.  In 1915 and 1916 he platooned at first base with lefty-swinging Dick Hoblitzel against right-handed starters and righty Del Gainer against southpaws, and in the final month of the 1916 season he platooned the left-handed batting Chick Shorten and right-handed Tilly Walker in center field, which he continued into the World Series.

And Carrigan was far more aggressive than the typical manager in making in-game position substitutions for tactical advantage.  In three full seasons under Carrigan from 1914 to 1916, the Red Sox averaged 152 defensive substitutions–including a record-shattering 193 in 1916–substantially more than double the average of 63 by the seven other American League teams over those three years, which was consistent with the league average since 1908.

Carrigan often used his managerial discretion to pinch hit for a weak-hitting starting position player at a crucial point in the game to gain a favorable match-up against the opposing pitcher.  In 1916, for example, the light-hitting (.232/.283/.295) Everett Scott completed only 77 percent of the games he started at shortstop, and both Hoblitzel and Gainer were often replaced when the starting pitcher was relieved by a twirler throwing from the same side they batted.  Carrigan’s line-up manipulations in 1915 and 1916 might well have been the difference in the Red Sox winning back-to-back pennant races decided by less than three games.

Bryan Soderholm-Difatte is a frequent contributor to the Society for American Baseball Research’s flagship publication, The Baseball Research Journal; has presented at each of SABR’s last four annual conventions; and is author of the online manuscript http://www.thebestbaseballteams.com/.  His work can also be found at Baseball Historical Insight.

Comments

2 Responses to “Counterintuitively Successful: Boston’s ‘Teen Years–The 1912-18 Red Sox”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    Interesting. What about on the defensive side? Did they use more relief pitchers than normal? They had a lot of good pitchers, although most were not successful for long, and of course they had unusually good hitting pitchers.

  2. Bryan Soderholm-Difatte says:

    The Red Sox were an excellent defensive team, leading the AL in defensive efficiency in each of their pennant-winning seasons, and doing so substantially above the league average. This was important because Boston’s pitching staff–good as it was–did not once lead the league in strikeouts during these years, putting a premium on getting outs on balls put into play. The Red Sox led the league in complete games in 1912 and 1918, but were below the league average in 1915 and 1916–which says something about Bill Carrigan’s willingness to be slightly less conventional than his fellow AL managers. Carl Mays broke in as primarily a reliever in 1915, leading the league with 7 saves in 32 relief appearances. In 1916 he started 24 games but also relieved in 20.—Bryan Soderholm-Difatte@Cliff Blau -

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