Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Earl of Baltimore

Earl Weaver  and umpire Steve Palermo give each other
a piece of their minds in 1979.
Earl Weaver was one of the great managers ever. But you probably already knew that.

I was intrigued during the past weekend by the reaction to the news Saturday of his death. Weaver was eulogized not only by old-school writers such as Pat Reusse but by a generation of bloggers who hadn't picked up on baseball (or perhaps even been born) when Weaver left the Orioles dugout for the last time in 1986.

(For me, Weaver was always there; I started paying attention to baseball in 1969, which was Weaver's first season as Baltimore manager.)

The belligerent bantam's philosophies on how to run a game were expounded in the book "Weaver on Strategy," co-written by Terry Pluto. They were given mathematical support by Bill James in his seminal series of "Baseball Abstracts" in the 1980s.

And thus Weaver is viewed, with some justification, as a precursor to the sabermetrically-oriented skippers of today.

Many of Weaver's ideas about offense have indeed taken root as conventional wisdom. No manager today employs the stolen base, the hit-and-run or the sacrifice bunt to the degree that some of Weaver's contemporaries did in the 1970s. His precept -- If you play for one run, that's all you'll get -- is pretty much universally accepted. His appreciation for the walk as an offensive weapon is no longer unique.

On the other hand, baseball has rejected the Weaver approach to handling a pitching staff. Weaver was an outspoken advocate of the four-man rotation (It's easier to find four starters than five; the starts you give your fifth-best pitcher come from the four who are better than him). Nobody uses the four-man rotation now; most managers won't even use their off days to maximize their ace's starts.

Weaver's side appears to have lost that argument. And it also appears to have lost the platooning argument as well. Today's 12- and 13-men pitching staffs have pushed platoons to the endangered list; not only is it difficult for a manager to fit a platoon on a roster when more than half the roster is pitchers, but the ability of opposing managers to attack platoons with waves of relief pitchers tends to remove the advantage.

Weaver at least once said something along of the lines of "Seven pitchers are too many, and 11 are not enough." What he meant was: If his staff was doing well, all he needed were four starters and a pair of relievers, but if the rotation provides a string of short starts, the bullpen is bound to be overworked.

Today's managers lean to the "11 aren't enough" side of the equation. Weaver never went with just seven pitchers, but he sure wasn't carrying 11 pitchers, much less 12 or 13.

There's another aspect to Weaver's managerial approach that deserves comment, but I'll tackle that in a future post.

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