That’s the Chicago Way

Welcome back to THT’s series of articles on starting pitching leveraging. This piece concludes the first wave of articles on the topic, where I’ve asked the Big Questions about leveraging.

The last Big Question up my sleeve is: which franchises did the most/least leveraging? Since leveraging is a strategy, there should be some differences between franchises. No doubt most differences can be ascribed to managers, but not all of it. Some organizations, like the O’Malley Dodgers, have philosophies that pervade the entire organization. Some teams may have had a penchant for hiring skippers who leveraged more/less than normal.

If nothing else, it’s a question that interests me. And of course, that’s a key bit in determining what I write.

The setup

Figuring this one out is pretty simple. In the last two articles, I already figured out a way to determine leveraging’s frequency—Leverage Points Average (LPA). Scroll to the bottom to see find the exact math. Simply put: the higher the LPA, the more pronounced leveraging was.

I look at all pitchers with 20 GS or more in a season for a franchise, and figure out the club’s from that. Of course, there’s always a pesky snag or two. I exclude players who played for more than one team in a year. They just screw up the data. There’s also a time frame concern. I’m using 1886 and 1965 as my starting and end points because, as the previous article showed, that’s when leveraging was an important pitching strategy.

The Franchises

For teams that switched cities, I’ll identify them by where they were from 1903-52. Here’s the LPA for the pastime’s 16 eldest clubs, including how many starting pitchers I AOWPd for each franchise from 1886-1965:

    Team      #SP    LPA
1.  CHC       227    4.67
2.  DET       206    4.30
3.  CWS       209    4.04
4.  STC       220    3.93
5.  NYY       188    3.793
6.  STB       177    3.785
7.  PIT       218    3.72
8.  NYG       236    3.62
9.  WAS       176    3.61
10. BRK       232    3.51
11. CLE       193    3.45
12. CIN       222    3.36
13. PHI       199    3.29
14. BOB       198    3.26
15. BOX       170    3.25
16. PHA       141    3.16

Since the 12-team 1890s was a fallow period for leveraging, I’d checked how they all rank if you look at only 1901-65. Ten teams, including the entire top nine, end up in the same slot, and four teams move by one place. The Red Sox move up to 12th and the Phillies fall into last. Big deal.

Few fun factoids to note in the above chart. Leveraging was primarily a western phenomenon. Only one of the top six leveragers were on the Atlantic coast, while all of the bottom four were seaside cities. I suppose there could be some travel-related reason for it, but I doubt it. Eastern teams had to make western swings, and western teams went on east-bound junkets. If centrally located teams like Detroit and Cincinnati dominated one end of the list while clubs at opposite ends of baseball’s map lay at the list’s other point, there might be some travel hoodoo going on. But that ain’t the case.

In particular, Chicago dominates the top of the list as the first and third biggest leveragers. Given what I’ve seen so far in the series, this isn’t too surprising. On the North Side, Frank Chance was the master of leveraging. Lew Richie had the best leveraged single season of all-time, and Mordecai Brown had one of the best career marks. A half-century later Paul Minner became the worst leveraged pitcher of the twentieth century. The Sox had two of the best leveraged pitchers ever in deadballer Reb Russell, and 1950s ace Billy Pierce. The club used Reb’s teammate Joe Benz almost exclusively against the dogs.

One significant trend involves team quality. The game’s suckiest franchises are those near the bottom. I know that sounds strange with the Cubs up at the top, but they were helluva franchise up through Gabby Hartnett’s Homer in the Gloamin’. The club’s all-time record is still comfortably over .500.

You want to talk terrible teams? Talk about the City of Brotherly Love. The A’s and Phillies were generally the worst teams in the league from 1900 to 1965. The Phillies once had 30 losing campaigns in 31 years (going a mighty 78-76 the other year). The A’s had their moment in the sun, but were utterly abysmal outside of those fleeting moments. In nine separate seasons Philly hosted the worst teams in both leagues. Heard of the Subway Series? Call this the Sewer Series. Please note both teams are near the bottom of the list.

Really, why should Franchises of the Damned leverage? Say you’re the 1930s Phillies. (Oh, quit shuddering in horror). How are you going to leverage your starters? Normally teams do it by reserving their ace against the best available teams. Why the heck would you do that? You ain’t nabbing pennant from them. And they are so much better, you’ll probably lose anyway. That would just put you in that much worse a situation against the other dogs.

You could leverage your aces against the other dogs, in order to best your chances for seventh or even—dare we dream—sixth place in an eight-team league. To do that, however, would mean you essentially concede your 22 games against the best teams, by throwing out the rotation’s dregs against them. Most people have too much pride for that. It sends the wrong message to the opposition, to the fans, and to your own team about how good you aren’t.

You know what would be really smart if your team was a turkey and you had one or two pitchers clearly better than the rest on your squad? Screw this cutesy leveraging stuff. Instead of rejiggering the rotation your best bet is to treat your aces like pack animals. Have them start as often as possible, opponent be damned. The more they start, the less often the dog vomit at the back of your staff starts. And there’s no kind of back end dog vomit, like the kind you find on a last place squad.

Sure, last place clubs did some leveraging. Everyone did. But bad teams had the least incentive to do it. Put a leverage happy manager on a bad team, and he might leverage more than that club otherwise would, but still not a huge amount. After a decade of fearsome leveraging with the Yankees, Casey Stengel did very little with the Mets.

This is also likely a reason why, as previous articles showed, platoon leveraging was such a key component of overall leveraging. It may not have made much sense for all teams to leverage their starters against the best available clubs, but everyone can notice and try to take advantage of a platoon edge.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.
Who was what when?

The next fun bit is to divide this up a little further. OK, fine, so the Cubs were the best leveraging team of all-time. How ‘bout I take this nearly century-long period and cut it up into chunks, and see which teams did the most/least leveraging in each period. I’ll give a good sense how it played out over time.

This time, I’m even willing to go a little further back than 1886 because now I’m comparing teams to their peers at that moment in time. I’ll go all the way to 1969 for the same reason. (I didn’t look at enough pitchers beyond ’69 to justify figuring out LPAs since then). On the chart below are the high and low teams from each league. Because of a few odd cases, I’m instituting a 1.5 pitchers per season minimum cutoff rule from the 1890s onward. (There are so few pitchers in the first decade that this rule doesn’t make sense for them).

For the most part it’s by decade, though I’ll cut it up different at the beginning to account for the AA collapsing and the aborted attempt to make the NL a 12-team circuit. Also, there’s no lows early on for the NL and AA, because few teams lasted more than a few years. Finally, I divided the 1960s in half to get a better idea of how leveraging ended. Here are the results, with AA & AL sharing a column together:

Time     AA/AL Highs  AA/AL Lows  NL HigLPA    NL LowLPA
1876-85  STL   6.71               CHC   4.67 
1886-91  STL   6.83   PIT  3.86   DET   4.83   PHI   3.19
1892-99                           CHC   4.85   NYG   2.47
1900-9   CWS   4.85   BOX  2.89   CHC   7.58   BRK   2.52
1910-9   PHA   5.54   WAS  2.73   CHC   5.96   BOB   2.00
1920-9   DET   4.04   NYY  2.45   BRK   3.30   PIT   1.87
1930-9   BOX   6.25   DET  3.33   PIT   5.77   PHI   1.64
1940-9   DET   4.26   NYY  2.17   PIT   7.42   BOB   2.90
1950-9   NYY   5.79   BOX  3.17   CHC   5.27   PIT   2.24
1960-5   DET   5.33   WAS  2.09   STC   4.09   CHC   1.56
1966-9   OAK   2.62   NYY  0.90   CIN   3.09   LAD   1.00

That’s the Detroit Wolverines, one of the franchises that didn’t make it, in the 1880s.

Some of this list confirms contradicts what I just said. The Yanks were hardly a doormat in the 1920s and 1960s, but they were the least likely to leverage then. The A’s may have had the lowest score ever, but were never on bottom for any specific decade. That’s partially a Connie Mack affect. He never was a huge leverager, and he lasted a half-century giving them consistently underwhelming marks, but never extraordinarily so.

Meanwhile, NL doormats were generally the teams least likely to leverage, with the Billy Southworth Braves serving as the main exception. Southworth had been a leveraging in St. Louis, but in Boston he rather famously treated Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain as workhorses. From 1924-47, only one NL team – the 1941 Dodgers – had its two top hurlers combine for 74 starts. Then Spahn and Sain did it in 1948. And again in 1949. In 1950 Spahn, Sain, and Vern Bickford all had at least 37 starts. Mighty tough to leverage when you’re throwing out your pitchers that often.

Well, that’s all for the main thrust of this series of articles at THT. I’m going to take a step away from leveraging for a bit, but in a few weeks I intend to come back with a more in-depth look at the history of leveraging. Not just an overview of it across the eras, but a more detailed examination of how it played out over time, starting with its origins in the 1870s & 1880s.

References & Resources
What the heck is LPA? Leverage Points Added tells you how common leveraging was in a given subset. For example, when looking at how common leveraging was in a given year, you figure award a certain number of points to every AOWP+ (see below for an explanation of AOWP+). An AOWP+ of 100 is worth zero points. 99 & 101 are worth 1 point each. Then 102 & 98 are worth three. Each successive integer AOWP+ moves away from 100 is worth an additional two points. So an AOWP+ of 110 or 90 is worth 19. LPA can show how common leveraging was for a year, for a manager, for a franchise, and various other subsets.
What the heck is AOWP+?: The stat I invented to judge pitcher leveraging. It’s AOWP/TOWP*100. AOWP is Average Opponent Winning Percentage. TOWP is Team’s (Average) Opponent Winning Percentage. To figure AOWP for a single season, you take the number of starts a given pitcher had against each opposing team, and multiply that by the team’s winning percentage. After doing this for all rival squads, add up the products and divide by the pitcher’s total GS. The result is his AOWP. The same logic applies to TOWP, only here you look at how many games the team played against all rivals. If a pitcher’s used evenly, his AOWP will be the same as the TOWP, and he’ll have an AOWP+ of 100. If he’s used more against better teams, he’ll have a higher AOWP+. I calculated AOWP+ for 659 pitchers who started 182,000 games, including over two-thirds of all games from 1876-1969.

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