Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All-Star Al: A Statistical Anomaly

Al Lopez with the South Siders
Before this year's baseball all-star game, a friend of mine emailed me and several other baseball friends of his a link to a good article about the 1964 all-star game, which was also played in a new stadium in Flushing. He closed with a trivia question he made up: “Why did Al Lopez manage the American League team in the '64 game?”

This assumed that the reader knew who Al Lopez managed in 1963, and knew that Lopez did not earn the initial right to manage the AL 1964 All-Stars by winning the '63 AL pennant. This I knew, but I made the answer too complex- I actually skipped ahead a year, the reason of which is actually fascinating, and we'll get to that in a bit.

First, about Al Lopez. Al Lopez could have gone down in history as one of the most successful managers of all-time, but he happened to manage in the American League in the 1950's and 1960's, when that team from the Bronx had a historical run that will never be duplicated again: The New York Yankees won 14 American League pennants in 16 years. They didn't just repeat; they five-peated, then they four-peated, and then they five-peated again. Only two teams prevented the Yankees from 16-peating (think about that for a second- 16-peating): the 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won a then-AL record 111 games, and the 1959 “Go-Go” Chicago White Sox. Both of those teams were managed by... and you may have figured this out already... Al Lopez.

That much I knew before I went to the interwebs to get the correct answer to the trivia question. There I discovered several statistical anomalies about Al Lopez as a manager. (I would have written “interesting statistical anomalies,” but in the minds of baseball statheads, all statistical anomalies are automatically interesting.) Also, I then realized that every baseball player and manager has a statistical anomaly that stands out. Obviously the big ones are career numbers for your Hall of Famers, but the reason SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research) exists and that Bill James has a career and that Moneyball is now a front office strategy is because of statistical anomalies. Even if a baseball players' statistics are perfectly average, he becomes a statistical anomaly because no baseball player is perfectly average. Mind. Blown.

Anyway, Lopez has several statistical anomalies as a manager. First, that he finished second seven times in his first nine years as a Major League manager, all to the same team, those Yankees. From 1951 to 1959, with the Indians and Sox, Lopez finished second except in those years he won the pennant, in '54 and '59. That means he also four-peated... he just did it in second place, and with two different teams, as he left Cleveland for the South Side of Chicago after the '56 season.

But, more important to this particular trivia question is that he is (as far as I can tell) the only man to twice be chosen as a “replacement” All-Star game manager- and it happened in consecutive years. You see, the rule for the All-Star game is that the manager who won the pennant the previous year gets to coach the game for his league. Lopez had already taken the helm twice the normal way, in 1955 and 1960. However, the Sox finished third in that 1960 season, meaning that Baltimore's Paul Richards became the first American League “replacement manager” when Casey Stengel retired/got fired after the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series in dramatic fashion to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 7 games.

The Yankees replaced Stengel with Ralph Houk, who won the next three AL pennants. However, he was already scheduled to move to be Yankees GM after the '63 season ended so Yogi Berra could become manager in 1964. And that happened, allowing Lopez- whose South Siders came back to finish second in '63- to manage the AL All-Stars in 1964. Thusly, the correct answer to the initial trivia question.

However, the biggest All-Star game managerial statistical anomaly (see? I told you everybody in baseball is part of one) happened in 1965. It started when Yogi and the Yankees won the AL pennant in '64, and played the St. Louis Cardinals, managed by Johnny Keane, in the World Series.

Well, the Yankees lost in 7 games. And even though this was pre-Steinbrenner, the Yankees still knee-jerked their way to a decision, firing Yogi (even though these Yankees were aging rapidly- most of them were at least ten-year veterans, Mantle's weakening knees and boozing and pill-popping were increasing rapidly in opposite directions- and the Cardinals were the up-and-comers, with Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, who would help the Cards make back to back series appearances a few years later).

And, in a bizarre twist, to replace Yogi, the Yankees hired Johnny Keane, who had just beaten them in the series. So both the managers of the pennant winning teams were gone. As a result, for the first and only time (again, so far as I can tell) both All-Star game league managers were replacements. Lopez, who of course finished second to the Yankees again in '64, got the gig again for the American League, the becoming the only man to twice be a replacement manager and do it in consecutive years.

However, in the National League, a much darker turn. In 1964, the Philadelphia Phillies collapsed in historic proportions late in the season, allowing the Cardinals and Keane to overtake them for the pennant. The Phils actually tied for second with Cincinnati, however the Reds manager, Fred Hutchinson, died days after the season from lung cancer at just 45 years old, meaning that the NL spot went to the third tie-breaker, as it were. So Phillies manager Gene Mauch became the National League's manager in 1965 after all, although you know it's not the way he wanted it to happen.

As for that 1965 regular season, his final full year as a big league manager, Al Lopez and the Chicago White Sox finished.... second. Of course. Lopez managed 15 full years in the bigs, and never won fewer than 82 games (which in a 154-game season was ten games over .500). (He's also fourth in all-time winning percentage for managers who got to at least 2,000 games.) In 12 of those 15 seasons he won at least 88 games, in ten of them hit at least 90... and only has two pennants to show for it, that '54 season (111 W's) and '59 (94). He finished second ten times, which has to be a record (even the great Connie Mack, who managed 50 years, only finished second eight times). His final three years, he won 94, 98, and 95 games, and finished second all three times. (And yes, he's in the Hall of Fame.) So he started with three consecutive second place finishes, and finished with three consecutive second place finishes. A three-peat, a four-peat, and a three-peat. Now that's a statistical anomaly.

Al Lopez Field in Tampa, demolished for Raymond James Stadium

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