The Tale of Earl Weaver and his Shortstops

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From Jay Jaffe's take on the legacy of Earl Weaver:

He eschewed small ball strategies such as the bunt, the stolen base, and the hit-and-run in favor of a managerial philosophy whose foundation was simple: "pitching, defense, and the three-run homer," as he liked to say. He literally wrote the book on the art of managing a ballclub: Weaver on Strategy is one of the indispensable tomes of genre, influential nearly 30 years after it was published because it was so far ahead of its time.

Here's something that surprised me a few years ago, when I discovered it: Weaver did not eschew the small-ball strategies, at least not all of them, early in his managerial career. Weaver took over as Orioles manager in the middle of the '68 season, and was immediately successful. The O's went 48-34 under Weaver in '68, then won three straight American League championships beginning the next year.

And from 1969 through '71, Earl Weaver was one of the buntingest managers in the whole American League. The Orioles were credited with 223 sacrifice hits in those seasons. That was good for fourth in the league, and just four bunts behind the Angels and the A's in second place.

But Weaver changed in the 1970s. His other best three seasons were 1978 through '80, in which the O's recorded only 125 sacrifice hits, easily the fewest in the league.

Weaver's gotten a great deal of credit for a couple of shortstops who couldn't have been more different: Mark Belanger and Cal Ripken. I think he deserves a bit more credit for the latter than the former. The following is from the "Hey Bill" section of Bill James Online:

Reader: In honor of Earl Weaver, here are his thoughts on teaching fundamentals (from Weaver on Strategy): "People always say the Orioles had great "fundamentals" teams. That's true, but a lot of what they consider fundamentals is really just players having great talents .... [lengthy description of a great cutoff/throw-to-home Mark Belanger made against the White Sox] ... On the radio Chicago announcer Harry Caray was raving about the way Weaver's teams execute fundamentals. Actually fundamentals didn't have much to do with it, because Belanger was the only guy who could make that type of play. I could teach fundamentals all my life and never show anyone how to make a play like that. A manager can get players in the right place and teach them where they are supposed to throw the ball, but they are the people who catch the ball, get rid of it in a split second, and throw it right on the money. That is talent, not managing."

James: That's true, and so is this. Mark Belanger hit .208 in 1968 -- and Weaver made him his regular shortstop in 1969. Belanger hit .218 in 1970, .186 in 1972, and .226, .225 and .226 from 1973 to 1975 -- and Weaver just left him in the lineup and let him play. That's managing.

That's true, and of course we can't know what another manager would have done with Belanger. But I will point out that a) Belanger was the everyday shortstop before Weaver took over, and b) there were a fair number of shortstops like Belanger in that era. From 1968 through '72 -- Belanger's first five seasons as a regular -- there were 17 shortstops who played in at least 500 games. Belanger played in 700, with a 74 OPS+. Among the other 16 were Bud Harrelson (74 OPS+), Gene Michael and Roberto Peña (73), Sonny Jackson (72), Ed Brinkman (70), Dal Maxvill (58) and Hal Lanier (46!). Weaver certainly deserves credit for sticking with Belanger, but playing a glove man who couldn't hit at all was not, in the 1970s, at all unorthodox. It also helped that Belanger did occasionally do some hitting, posting OPS+'s of 95 in 1969, 97 in '71, and 100 in '76. He was a poor hitter, no question. But I think that most managers would have stuck with him, as Weaver did until the late '70s, when his hitting cratered.

A few years later, Cal Ripken was in the middle of a Rookie of the Year season when Weaver made a big move that would change history. Ripken had been playing third base, in place of the departed Doug DeCinces. Lenn Sakata and Bobby Bonner had been playing shortstop, but Weaver didn't care much for either of them. So on the 1st of July, he simply wrote a 6 instead of a 5 next to Ripken's name on the lineup card. From Ripken's memoir:

Earl's thinking regarding me and shortstop was straightforward. He didn't care whether I looked the part of the prototype. He didn't care whether other great shortstops were nicknamed "Scooter" and "Pee Wee," and he didn't care that I was "Rip" instead of "Runt." Apparently I reminded him of Marty Marion, one of his favorite players in St. Louis. Marion was tall, at six-two, but skinny, like I was when I was a kid in Bluefield. They called Marion "Slats" or "The Octopus." By 1982, I was pushing six-foot-four, 210 pounds. Earl didn't care whether I was acrobatic like Ozzie Smith, who was setting a new standard for the position while playing in the National League.

Funny thing was that while Weaver obviously strengthened his shortstop position, he also weakened his third-base position, with Glenn Gulliver and Rich Dauer taking over at the corner and not doing much. And the next season, with Weaver gone, the Orioles' third basemen fared even worse.

Which didn't keep the O's from winning the World Series.

I'm not sure how influential Weaver was. He did care a great deal about on-base percentage, but I wonder how many managers followed his lead. He did have a knack for putting the right players in the right places, but that's not the sort of thing that anyone's likely to have learned from him. Weaver benefitted from an organization that churned out excellent players for a number of years, but it wasn't just the players that made the Orioles -- as Jaffe points out -- the biggest-winning team in the majors from 1969 through '82. By a lot.

No manager is perfect, but Weaver was closer than almost all the rest of them.

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