Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Boston Braves Are In Last Place

A century ago tomorrow, the Boston Braves lost a doubleheader in their home park, the South End Grounds, to the lowly Brooklyn Robins (later to become known as the Dodgers) ending July 4 with a record of 26 wins and 40 losses and firmly embedded in eighth (and last) place in the National League, 15 games behind the first place New York Giants.  And that dismal record was actually an improvement from earlier in the season when on May 20 their record stood at 4-18.
(South End Grounds from

Losing wasn't new to the Braves and expectations were not high for the rest of the season.  While the Boston team (then known as the Beaneaters, they only became the Braves in 1912) were renowned in the 1890s when they won five National League titles, the new century had not been kind to them.  Their last season above .500 had been 1902 and for the next ten years they'd never finished higher than sixth or won more than 63 games (losing at least 100 on seven occasions) though by Braves standards the 1913 team had shown some promise winning 69 games and capturing fifth under their new, and hot-tempered, manager George Stallings

On July 5, the Braves traveled to Buffalo to play a minor league team and were routed 10-2.  Returning to Boston the next day they beat the Robins in a doubleheader going on to win fourteen of their next nineteen games raising their record to 40-45 by July 25 but still leaving them eleven games behind the Giants.  Then they got really hot, winning 20 of their next 24, finally tying the New York club for first on August 25.  They continued winning through September and until the season ended on October 6 winning the pennant by 10.5 games, a 25.5 game turnaround after July 4.  Altogether the Braves won 68 of 87 games after Independence Day and gained the moniker they carry to this day - the Miracle Braves.

The Braves entered the World Series as heavy underdogs against the Philadelphia Athletics.  The A's recent history was the opposite of the Braves.  Since their first season in the American League in 1901, they'd won six pennants and finished second three times under the guidance of their owner and manager Connie Mack.  They were the defending World Champions having easily won the World Series in 1913 as well as in 1910 and 1911.  It didn't matter to the Braves as they easily swept Mack's team in four games making it 72 wins in their final 91 contests. 
With their sudden success and fame too big for their small, decrepit ballpark, the Braves were allowed to move their home games late in the year to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. This panorama was taken during Game Three of the World Series, won in thrilling fashion by the Braves in 12 innings, 5-4.
What led to the turnaround?  The Braves scored about 1 run a game more after July 4 and gave up about 1.2 runs less after that time which in baseball terms is significant, particularly in a low-scoring league.  Oddly, though the end result (runs) improved there were only very slight improvements in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage so it may be attributable to more efficient use of the opportunities the team had or just luck.

There was one significant personnel change between 1913 and 1914 regarding the starting players.  In the off season the Braves acquired second baseman Johnny Evers from the Chicago Cubs.  Evers was the heart of the great Cubs teams of 1906-10 which compiled the best five year won-loss record of any team in the 20th century.  Evers, weighing 125 pounds and known as The Crab because of his intensity, prompting sportswriter Hugh Fullerton to write in 1910 (quoted by the other Bill James in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract):

"All there is to Evers is a bundle of nerves, a lot of woven wire muscles, and the quickest brain in baseball". 
File:Johnny Evers 1910 FINAL2sh.jpg(Evers as a Cub in 1910)
The Braves also had a 22 year old Rabbit Maranville in his second year playing shortstop.  Eccentric but with blazing speed and wide range, Rabbit was a valuable defensive player.
 (Rabbit Maranville)
Offensively Evers hit higher than the league average, was fourth in walks and led the team in runs scored while Maranville was at best an average hitter.  But it was on defense they excelled.  The combo turned 143 double plays, 24 more than any other team and more than anyone had done so far in the century.  Evers led the league in fielding percentage and Maranville's defensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was 60% higher than the player who finished second and double that of the third place player.  Overall, Baseball rates them as the third and fourth best players in the league that year and Johnny Evers was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League at the end of the season (Maranville finished second).

The Braves also made a couple of mid-season deals that helped trading for Possum Whitted and Ted Cather on June 28 and purchasing Red Smith on August 7, all of whom contributed to their memorable pennant run.

The other notable aspect was that manager Stallings platooned players at a number of positions much more than was considered normal in those times.  In fact, Bill James after researching the history of platooning concluded "It seems . . . to have been Stallings, who first formulated idea of platooning as a weapon, rather than as a possible response to a player's weakness".

With the pitchers it is easier to pinpoint the turnaround.  After the July 4 doubleheader, the Braves leading starters, Dick Rudolph and Bill James, had a combined record of 13-14.  For the rest of the season they went 39-3 (43-3 if you include the World Series) - yes, you are reading that correctly.  Here are their pre and post-July 4 splits:

W   L   IP     H     BB    K     ERA    WHIP
Dick Rudolph
6-8     134   132    39    49    3.22      1.28
20-2   201   156    22    89    1.79      0.89

Bill James
7-6     118    99     49    49    2.50      1.25
19-1   215   162    69   107   1.55      1.07

Including the World Series, after July 4, Rudolph went 22-2 with an ERA of 1.68 while James was 21-1 with an ERA of 1.47.
 (Rudolph, left, James, right)
In both cases they gave up fewer hits per inning and their control became better (much better in Rudolph's case).  What the underlying reasons for this THC has not discovered.

Their styles were quite different.  James had a crackling fastball which he supplemented with a change and spitball.  As to Rudolph, in the words of Fred Mitchell, the Braves third base coach:

"He wasn't fast but had a good curveball which he mixed with a spitball, and he could almost read the batter's mind." (from SABR bioproject)
The combination of the post July 4 pitching surge and the outstanding defense can be easily seen.  Through July 4, the Braves held opponents to either 0 or 1 run in 7 of 66 (11%) contests (1 shutout and one run on six occasions).  After July 4 the Braves gave up 0 or 1 run in 30 of 87 (35%) games (18 shutouts and one run on twelve occasions).   And, after the 4th, they won 18 of 23 games decided by scores of 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 and only gave up more than 3 runs 24 times.

In researching this post (thank you!), THC also came across a curious multi-year phenomenon.  In 1914, the Braves had a winning percentage of .394 in the first half and .782 in the second half.  It turns out that for each of the next three seasons the team followed the same pattern.  Though none of the years were as extreme as 1914 in each season the team's late season winning percentage was at least .128 higher than earlier in the season, an extremely unusual pattern.

On July 13, 1915 the Braves were 32-43 (.426) and again in last place.  They went 51-26 (.662) over the remainder of the season and ended up in second.

On June 23, 1916 the Braves were 25-25 (.500) and in fourth place.  This time they went 64-38 (.628) and were even briefly tied for first on September 8 before winding up third.  The next time the Braves would finish as high as third would be 1947.

On July 13, 1917 the Braves were 28-43 (.394) and in seventh place.  This time they were 44-38 (.537) in the second half and still only ended up in sixth.

The Braves were not to win another pennant until 1948 but by then they had already lost the popularity race to their local rivals the Boston Red Sox.  After the 1952 season they moved to Milwaukee which they fled in 1966 to find refuge in Atlanta where they still reside.

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