Thursday, October 23, 2008

Weaver on Strategy

It's been about a year since I first read Earl Weaver's book on managerial strategy (written with Terry Pluto). I kept meaning to blog about it, because it was so very interesting and pertinent. But I kept forgetting about it. I didn't include it with my general blog on baseball books, and so it just got buried on my desk. But it's worth going back and taking a look at this book, because there's so much in there that's fascinating about baseball, analysis, and Weaver himself.

I made a series of notes, underlined a series of passages, and even made a few big stars next to some parts of the book. So let's go back and see what I thought the big deal was.

  • If a lot of what's in this book sounds familiar, say from modern baseball writers such as Bill James or Michael Lewis, it's because Earl Weaver's management strategies are the most consistent with the school of new baseball knowledge. This reminds us that Rob Neyer and Billy Beane weren't the first to discover a newer, better way to win baseball games. Weaver was challenging traditional wisdom back before anybody realized he was really doing it.

  • "So much of baseball is plain old common sense ... I will never understand why some people don't want players to hit home runs. And I don't understand why some people don't want to use their best pitchers as much as possible." The book was written in 1984, but the likes of Bill James and the Baseball Prospectus writers are still making these arguments today. Why do we disdain the home run? Why don't we go back to a four-man rotation? Why are relievers used the way they are? If more people had listened to Earl Weaver, we wouldn't need to be making these arguments nearly 25 years later.
  • In the introduction, Terry Pluto writes that after the 1968 All-Star Game, Weaver posted a sign in the locker room: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." Says Pluto:
    As much as anything else, that sums up Weaver's outlook. He believes he knows a lot about baseball, but he also knows there is always more to learn: you can never have enough information [my boldface]."
    If there's anything that a manager should be taught his first day on the job, that one sentence is it.
Chapter One: Spring Training
  • "A lot of people say the Orioles had great "fundamentals" teams. That's true, but a lot of what they consider fundamentals is really just players having great talent."
    Every manager (especially those on poor teams) talk about working on "fundamentals." My sarcastic response is, "Shouldn't we take that for granted?" My normal response is just to say that it's usually teams who have very little talent that have to talk about "working" on fundamentals.
  • Weaver's entire passage on "The Cliches of Spring" should be required reading, but I'll just point out #6: Lee May Syndrome. May was a good hitter but always had a terrible spring training. Unlike the writers and fans, Weaver didn't worry: "Guys who hit in the past and haven't gotten injured or too old are a great bet to hit again, regardless of their batting averages in Florida." You'd think after nearly 100 years of Spring Training that writers and fans would have learned this. They haven't.
  • Weaver: "By matching your bench-players' strengths to your starters' weaknesses, you can create a "player" of All-Star caliber from spare parts." Weaver was famous for his platoons, but they weren't all traditional platoons, like lefty-righty or offense-defense. He would use some unusual platoons to cover for his starters' particular problems. And he's not exaggerating about All-Star caliber, either; guys like Gary Roenicke, John Loewenstein, and Merv Rettenmund were fantastic as one-half of a productive platoon and they made relatively little money. It seems today that generic benches are created for all teams with a select few required role players. Very few managers (and executives) have the courage to build a bench that matches their particular needs, rather than just getting the same guys as everybody else.
Chapter 2: The Offense
  • "Some people ask me why I was so reluctant to use the bunt. I guess they don't think there's anything more to managing than filling out a lineup card and deciding when to bunt.
    Well, I've got nothing against the bunt -- in its place. But most of the time that place is at the bottom of a long-forgotten closet."
  • "Ted Williams would walk 130 times a year and drive in 130 runs. He got criticized for not swinging at pitches close to the plate, but Williams never would have been such a good hitter if he felt he had to swing at the pitcher's pitch."
    The same criticism was more recently levelled at Barry Bonds. Yeah, Bonds (and Williams) would have hit more homers if they had swung at more pitcher's pitches, but if would have made them poorer hitters. I think a lot of this also has to do with the popular perception of Bonds and Williams when they played; both were largely disliked and seen as selfish players, so this perception of the walk played right into that. Nobody called Mickey Mantle selfish for drawing 1,733 walks (7th all-time), because everybody loved Mickey.
    Weaver's teams regularly led the league in walks, which is one reason his teams and players tended to be underrated. The other factor I have to mention is that Weaver came up as a manager in a very smart, well-run Baltimore system. And he stayed for so long that he was able to further implement his ideas as part of what became the Orioles system, which worked astonishingly well for over 25 years.
Chapter 3: The Lineup

  • "I have nothing against being called a push-button manager ... What else does a manager do but push buttons? ... The key to managing in player evaluation, which is another way of saying that you must know which buttons to push and when to push them."
    The same criticism was levelled against Joe McCarthy, Hall of Fame manager of the Yankees, Cubs, and Red Sox. While part of it is a reflection of a manager's style (Casey Stengel was, famously, much more "involved"), it's also often a reflection of what someone thinks a manager should be doing, rather than what the circumstances of a particular team dictate.
  • Weaver on replacing or pinch-hitting for everyday players: "If a manager doesn't make the move because he doesn't want to hurt the feelings of one player, he loses the respect of the other twenty-four."
    It's amazing to me how often in baseball the announcers talk about "sticking with what got you there," or something like that. They mean that you should leave your key players alone, even if replacing them would help you in the short run. This form of skewed logic is most often employed with pitchers, especially when it comes to leaving in versus taking out starters and using your closer. It's horrible that announcers (usually ex-players) will argue in favor or protecting one particular player ahead of doing what's right for the team. But that's what you'll so often find.
Chapter 4: Pitching
  • Weaver's Seventh Law: "It's easier to find four good starters than five."
    There's been discussion among sabermetric circles for some time that it's time to go back to the four-man rotation. There's no question that it would improve the quality of your staff (as Weaver points out). The only issue is one of health and conditioning, but the studies that I've seen (particularly one by Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus) doesn't support the idea that one day of shorter rest would be a much bigger injury risk. But it will take a brave organization to implement it and stay with it. The only teams who've done it in recent years have been really bad teams that only had four good pitchers, and that's never a good advertisement for an idea.
  • Weaver's Eighth Law: "The best place for a rookie pitcher is long relief." This is becoming more of an accepted norm nowadays, with teams working in rookie starting pitchers in the bullpen. It's not only a safe and effective way of debuting in the majors, but it's also a sure-fire way to improve your bullpen. Just ask the Rays about David Price.
  • "Ten pitchers are too many." This is unintentionally funny, as ten pitchers was a lot back in 1984. Nowadays, everyone carries at least eleven, with more and more teams carrying twelve or thirteen. This is another trend that's gotten out of hand because, and to paraphrase Weaver, it's easier to find eight or nine good pitchers than thirteen. And when the 13th-best pitcher on your staff ends up in a game, it's never a good thing.
Chapter 5: Fielding
  • "... the greatest arm in the world won't help a catcher when the runner is halfway to second base before the ball gets to home plate."
    For a long time, stolen bases were recorded as being against a catcher, purely and simply. But just recently, the argument that pitchers have a great deal of control over stealing was finally heard. So now in many box scores you'll see the pitcher/catcher combo listed instead of just the catcher's name. And to be fair, in the big picture it's several infield defenders that are involved in the steal, including the player holding the runner and the one making the catch and tag.
Chapter 6: Players
  • "Sportswriters and announcers spend too much time talking about "clutch" players, "winning" players and "losing " players ... a winning player is nothing more than a player on a winning team. A losing player is a guy who played on a losing team that year."
    Usually when people make this argument, they're dismissed as not knowing baseball, or in the belief that only those "inside" the game really understand it. Well, was Earl Weaver "inside" the game? Because someone should start listening to him.
Weaver also has a great chapter on umpires, discussing his years of interaction with them. He even gives his suggestions on arguing with umpires, culled from years and years of firsthand experience. His chapter on scouting is invaluable, because he reproduces the different charts and notes that he uses to track player performance. He also takes a key game from the 1979 season and walks you through it from his point of view as manager.
Overall, I heartily recommend reading the book, if you get a chance. It was recently reprinted with a new epilogue by Weaver, but it's hard to find. Not all books are worth tracking down, but if you're a big fan of inside baseball, this one is worth it.

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