September 21, 2023

Strictly the Facts: 1965 Minnesota Twins

January 6, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

While writing last week about Zoilo Versalles, I discussed the accepted wisdom that the 1965 Twins won the pennant because they had adopted a ‘small ball’ approach. This prominently featured aggressive baserunning and improved fundamental defense, and was in opposition to their previous slugging teams, especially in 1964. After a brief look at the numbers, though, I am not completely convinced by that assumption. 

For instance, the team was only fourth in stolen bases in the ten-team American League. Versalles, the player most often named as the trendbearer, was probably not the best player on the team. This article is the closer look which the question deserves.

Assumption: The 1965 Minnesota Twins won the pennant because they concentrated on aspects such as sacrifice hitting, aggressive baserunning and fundamental defense (in particular, defending against baserunning).

That’s actually two assumptions. The first one is that they actually did concentrate on those aspects of the game. The second one is that, if they did, it’s the reason they won the pennant. There is definitely evidence that they concentrated on them—manager Sam Mele talked about it incessently—but the more important question is whether it actually paid off. Were the Twins a distinctly better ‘small ball’ team in 1965 than in 1964?

To the numbers we go…

2B 3B HR XBH SAC SB/CS K/BB OBP %
1964 227 46 221 494 111 46/22 (68%) 1.84 .319
1965 257 42 150 449 136 92/33 (74%) 1.75 .323

There are plenty of indications that the 1965 team had a different game plan than the 1964 one. The steal attempts are way up, as are the sacrifices. The K/BB ratio is slightly improved, which may indicate that hitters weren’t focusing so much on the long ball—indeed, they hit 71 fewer home runs.

What seems most interesting, though, are the doubles and triples. Triples are usually taken as a classic indicator of speed, since they’re often basically just an aggressive double. In 1965, though, the Twins had fewer triples than the year before. The difference is just about entirely attributable to third baseman Rich Rollins, who had 10 doubles in 1964 but just one in 1965, despite playing just eight fewer games. I don’t know why that is. Their big improvement came in doubles, where they picked up an extra 50. Doubles are usually less a product of speed than of hitting line drives into the gaps.

For the Twins, the change was driven by Versalles (+12 from 1964 to 1965), Earl Battey and Jimmie Hall (each +5), as well as some rearranging on the right side of the infield and in left. The conclusion seems to be that Minnesota utilized its speed in stealing bases, but not necessarily in stretching hits into extra bases.Two more interesting statistics to consider: In 1964, the Twins scored one run for every 2.82 runners on base ((H+BB+HBP+ROE)/R). The A.L. average that year was a run per 3.03 runners, putting them 7.4% above the league average. In 1965, they scored one run per 2.68 baserunners, while the league average sunk to one per 3.07, raising their percent differential to 14.7%. That is a marked increase, and it clearly shows that they were getting runs in much better, but it doesn’t necessarily say how they were doing it.  Incidentally, it also offers evidence that, at least in 1965, the Twins were ahead of the curve rather than a part of it. It has often been said that the 1964 Cardinals were an inspiration for many teams, but at least in the American League, only Minnesota seems to have emulated them.

Lastly, in 1964 the Twins had 579 plate appearances with a man on third base; in 1965, that number rose to 667, a difference of 88. An offense predicated on speed is much more likely to get runners to third than a power-hitting team, because they will capitalize on more ways to advance. This also partly explains why the 1965 team was so much better at turning runners into runs—they were closer to home to begin with.On offense, the Twins seem to have put some more emphasis on ‘small ball,’ as substantiated by the sacrifices, K/BB ratio, decrease in home runs, and extra men on third base. It’s curious that they had fewer triples, but when it falls as heavily on one player as it does here on Rollins, it’s not really fair to chalk it up to organizational philosophy.

I’d also like to take a quick look at the defense, and see if the team did in fact do a better job of preventing other teams from taking extra bases. Sam Mele spoke to that point in a May 1965 interview with Sports Illustrated: “I would stand in the dugout [in 1964] and see the walk, and I would say to myself, ‘No, it can’t happen again. Yes, it can. I can see it coming. There’s the bunt. Watch it get thrown away. Watch it go. There it goes. Ball game.’ ”

In 1964, they made 145 errors, second most in the American League. In 1965, that number skyrocketed to 172, the worst in baseball. What defensive improvement could Mele have been referring to?

Again, a look at the statistics in certain baserunner situations, but this time defensively. With men on base, the 1965 Twins had marginally better defense than in 1964—eight more double plays, six fewer sacrifice bunts—but allowed 70 fewer runs. The effect is not proportional, especially when one considers the extra 15 runners who reached on errors. The situational defensive improvements seem to be a mirage, and are more likely thanks to the pitching staff. On the other hand, the 1965 squad had improved Range Factor numbers everywhere but in center field. My conclusion about the defense is that the improvement was a result of getting to more balls, but there wasn’t necessarily any improvement in what they did with the ball once they got it.

Now, we’ve seen that the 1965 group did focus more on manufacturing runs than they did the year before, although some of the indicators are contradictory to one another. That leads to the second question—is that why they won the pennant? Or, at a more basic level, was that the single most important improvement for the team in 1965?

As pointed out above, while the offense was certainly much improved in 1965, it’s not completely evident that small ball was the main cause. For one thing, four different Twins hit 20 or more home runs, and Versalles had 19. There were a lot of contributors offensively in 1965, and not all of them were burners on the bases. Don Mincher was a major contributor when Harmon Killebrew got injured in August, and actually led the team in slugging for the season.

Perhaps even more important, though, was the starting pitching. The 1964 rotation had been led by Jim Kaat and Camilio Pascual, but there was little depth after those two. That changed in the middle of that year, when Minnesota traded fourth starter Lee Stange to Cleveland for Mudcat Grant. Both pitchers had thrown well in 1963 but were struggling at the time. In the long run, however, Grant turned out to be a major pick-up for the Twins. In 1965, he posted a 21-7 record and led the team with 270 innings pitched. His emergence allowed manager Mele to move the ineffectual Dick Stigman to the bullpen. The triumvirate of Kaat, Pascual and Hunter was a formidable one in 1965. As a unit, the starters, also including Jim Perry, were 3rd in the A.L. in ERA and walked the fewest batters. Much credit is due to pitching coach Johnny Sain, whom the Twins lured out of retirement with a princely $25,000 salary, making him the highest-paid coach in baseball.

There is one telling statistic that really demonstrates the improved starting pitching (and defense) in 1965. That year, Twins starters gave up 4+ runs on 33 occasions; the previous year, it had happened 51 times. For a team wishing to manufacture runs, it’s imperative to keep games close and low-scoring, and that is exactly what the Minnesota starters did in 1965.So, was it the starting pitching or the baserunning and sacrifice bunting that did it? Perhaps the clearest evidence comes in the run differential. The 1965 Twins scored 774 runs, 37 more than they had the year before. Defensively, however, they allowed just 600, an improvement of 78 runs. That makes it difficult to argue that the offensive strategy was the most important source of improvement. More likely, the solid starting pitching and the increased defensive speed were the key sources of Minnesota’s success.

Thanks as always to baseball-reference.com; also the online Sports Illustrated archives.

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