September 21, 2014

Charlie Dressen’s Worst Day at the Office (Part I): Explaining Why Branca and Not Erskine

August 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Managers are relentlessly criticized by us passionate fans for decisions made and not made in heartrending losses, but as knowledgeable as we fans like to believe we are, we do not know all the considered factors that go into those decisions. At this year’s annual SABR conference in Houston from July 30 to August 2, I presented on Charlie Dressen’s worst inning in baseball, identifying some possibilities of what Brooklyn’s manager might have been thinking–emphasis on “might”–in the decisions he made in that fateful ninth that led to Bobby Thomson’s home run and “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” This first of two Insights assumes Dressen knew exactly what he was doing when he chose Ralph Branca to pitch to Thomson instead of Carl Erskine and offers a possible explanation of why Erskine’s inopportune bounced pitch while warming up was so troubling to his manager.

Ralph Branca

Ralph Branca reflects on Bobby Thomson’s home run

A double by Whitey Lockman had narrowed the Dodgers’ lead to 4-2 over the Giants in the last of the ninth at the Polo Grounds in the third and final playoff game that would decide the 1951 National League pennant after New York’s 37-7 record to finish the schedule had entirely erased Brooklyn’s 13-1/2 game lead on August 11 to force a playoff. With the tying runs in scoring position, one out and Giants’ slugger Bobby Thomson coming to bat, it was obvious Brooklyn starter Don Newcombe could go no further.

Including his 8.1 innings in this game, Newcombe had now faced 91 batters in 23 innings pitched in 3 games over five days–which included a season-saving shutout of the Phillies on the next-to-last day of the season (on only two days of rest after a complete game victory against the Braves) and 5.2 innings of shutout relief from the 8th to the 13th inning the very next day against the Phillies in a game the Dodgers absolutely had to win (and did, in the 14th) to force the playoff. But who was Dressen gonna call to relieve Newk?

A good question, because … the underlying reality was that Brooklyn no longer had a bullpen worthy of the name. For most of the season the Dodgers did have a decent bullpen–Brooklyn relievers were 27-16 with 15 saves and a 3.79 ERA through the end of August.  But in September, the Dodger bullpen was a shambles. With a collective ERA of nearly 5.00, the Dodgers’ relievers were sufficiently ineffective that every Dodger victory down the September stretch except for the 14-inning win on the final day of the scheduled season required a complete game effort from Dressen’s starting pitcher. What happened to the bullpen?

Well, Dressen using Clyde King, his best reliever, for 23.2 innings in 11 games over 26 days between July 24 and August 22 is what happened. Clyde King is best remembered as one in a long line of Steinbrenner managers, both after and before Billy Martin, but in 1951 he was the Dodgers’ relief ace. As of August 22, King had a 14-5 record with 5 saves and a 3.36 ERA in 38 appearances. On that day, however, King pitched a total of four innings to win both games in a doubleheader. He was never the same thereafter, and I do mean never, and certainly not in 1951. He appeared in only 10 more games with a 10.67 ERA, including 12 earned runs in only 9 September innings.

With King unavailable, Dressen had few options. Bud Podbielan, who was the winner of that 14-inning schedule finale that (temporarily) saved the Dodgers’ season, and Johnny Schmitz pitched the most innings in relief for the Brooklyn in September, but the southpaw Schmitz wouldn’t do because Thomson was a right-handed slugger and despite Podbielan having pitched well in seven relief appearances down the stretch, his limited major league experience (only 54 games in parts of three seasons, all of which included time in the minors) made it unlikely that Dressen would have trusted him in such a critical situation–two outs away from a pennant. Another right-hander, Phil Haugstad, was similarly inexperienced and had given up 25 runs in 30.2 innings.

Then there were the starting pitchers. Preacher Roe was a superb 22-3 on the season and had limited Thomson to a .250 batting average and only one home run in eight at bats, but he had been ineffective his last two starts and was probably suffering from the arm trouble that would plague him the entirety of next year. There is no indication Dressen ever considered Roe. So warming up for the Dodgers were Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine. Bobby Thomson was batting .333 against both Brooklyn pitchers in 1951 with 9 at bats against Erskine and 12 against Branca (not including his epic at bat still to come). And Thomson had hit two home runs off both pitchers, his pair off Erskine coming in May and and his pair off Branca since the beginning of September, including a two-run blast that beat Branca in the first game of this playoff for the pennant.

Branca had pitched poorly down the stretch, although his start in the first playoff game was not bad–3 runs (2 thanks to Thomson’s home run) in 8 innings. But before then, Branca had lost five of his six September starts, including his last four, and in four of those decisions failed to last six innings and had an ugly ERA of 11.35. Branca had started three games against the Giants since the beginning of September and lost them all, by 8-1 (September 1), 2-1 (September 9) and 3-2 just two days before. In those three games, Bobby Thomson had tagged Branca for 3 hits in 6 at bats, including the two home runs, plus he had walked twice.

Erskine, for his part, in four starts and three relief appearances had his best ERA month of the season in September, although that ERA was a shade under 4.00 at 3.99. But he lost both of his last two starts, giving up 11 runs (8 of them earned) in 10.1 innings. Erskine had not faced the Giants since August 8, when he got the win by allowing only one run in 7 innings of relief. Thomson faced off against him three times that afternoon, and Erskine got him out each time.

The standard narrative of why Branca and not Erskine mentions that Dressen’s decision was made after Oisk bounced a pitch while warming up to come (maybe) into the game. The subtext of how this decision was made is usually portrayed along the lines of Dressen losing his grip, that he was not thinking clearly in the heat of the moment. What was he thinking, letting Branca pitch to Bobby Thomson, who had gone deep against him just the other day to win game one?

What was he thinking? We of course can only speculate, but what he certainly must have known was that Erskine was having difficulty of late with his control and location. In his last three appearances of the season (two starts and one in relief), Erskine had given up 8 walks–only one intentional–in 12.1 innings. And he had averaged 4 walks per 9 innings in 38.1 September innings, compared to 3.6 per 9 in 151.1 innings through August. Hearing of Erskine’s bounced pitch while warming up to enter the game may have caused Dressen major heart palpitations and convinced him that Oisk was not the pitcher for this moment in time–even though Thomson had been treating Ralph Branca like a batting practice pitcher in the last three games they faced each other, including the game-winning shot two days before. (It’s not as though Branca had been a control artisan recently, by the way, as he had walked five Giants batters in eight innings in his playoff start … but, at least he didn’t bounce any pitches in the bullpen … presumably.)

While the decision to bring in Branca seems reasonable given the alternatives–especially if Dressen was indeed concerned about Erskine’s recent inability to pitch consistently within the strike zone, Charlie Dressen still had one immediate decision to make: whether to pitch to Bobby Thomson with the tying runs in scoring position, one out, first base open and the pennant on the line … or pitch to the rookie waiting on deck, one Willie Mays.

That will be the subject of my next post.

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