Whitey Ball

“The only way to make money as a manager is to win in one place, get fired and hired somewhere else.” – Whitey Herzog

On July 25, 1975 Whitey Herzog replaced manager Jack McKeon who had been fired by the Royals after a 50-46 start.

Thus ushered in the era of “Whitey Ball.”

That era would see the Royals finish 41-25 in 1975, good for second place followed by stellar 90-72, 102-60, and 92-70 records and division titles each of the next three seasons.

Whitey was rather unceremoniously let go after the 1979 season and a second place finish, but he quickly moved his style of play down I-70. He won three NL pennants (1982, 1985, and 1987) as both the manager and general manager in St. Louis, where he stayed until midway through the 1990 season. Whitey went on to write a book titled

In this post-Moneyball age where on-base percentage is king and Earl Weaver, with his veneration of the long ball, is more a folk hero than Herzog, it’s probably appropriate to get in the way back machine and take another look at just what it was about “Whitey Ball” that gave it such cache.

What is Whitey Ball?

For those readers not old enough to remember, “Whitey Ball” is often described as consisting of five philosophies: stealing bases, bunting, hitting the ball the opposite way, utilizing the hit-and-run, and relying on fleet-footed defenders. In other words, Whitey Ball of the 1980s was essentially small ball writ large. The Cardinals teams of the 1980s were packed with position players who would ostensibly fit this style of play, including Willie McGee, Tom Herr, Ozzie Smith, David Green, Lonnie Smith, and later Andy Van Slyke, Vince Coleman and Terry Pendleton.

So let’s take a look at those three pennant-winning teams of the 1980s. First, the raw numbers and how these three teams ranked in the National League:

            W   L  RS Rank SB Rank E  Rank  DER Rank SH Rank HR Rank
1982       92  70 685   5 200   1 124   3 0.710   2  87   4  67  12
1985      101  60 747   1 314   1 108   1 0.718   1  70   7  87  11
1987       95  67 798   2 248   1 116   2 0.696   7  84   2  94  12

All three teams led the league in stolen bases and were near or at the top in fewest errors committed and ranked at least respectably in Defensive Eficiency Ratio (DER). Two out of the three seasons they were dead last in home runs, yet they were near the top in runs scored. From these very basic categories it appears that stolen bases and good defense, in other words team speed, were indeed keys to their attack, while bunting (at least for sacrifices) may not have played as big a role as some remembered. Of course, although not shown in the table all three teams also featured good pitching and ranked third, second, and fifth in ERA respectively. The 1985 team was especially effective on the mound led by the trio of Joaquin Andujar (21-12/3.40), John Tudor (21-8/1.93), and Danny Cox (18-9/2.88),

Overall, the 1985 edition, also the best team of the group and the one I’ll be concentrating on, seems to have epitomized the Whitey Ball approach by stealing a ridiculous 314 bases led by Vince Coleman’s 110, committing just 108 errors, and recording a .718 DER, all of which led the league. All the while the 1985 Redbirds eschewed the home run, hitting just 87 with only Jack Clark (22) reaching 20 and Van Slyke, McGee, and Darrell Porter in double figures, with Porter topping out at 13.

Interestingly, the 1985 team was also the youngest in terms of position players in the NL averaging just 27.6 years.

However, that’s not the end of the story.

Long Live the King?

What is often left out of the equation is that all three of these teams, including the 1985 club that led the league in scoring, also led their league in on-base percentage, a point brought to my attention by Dayn Perry’s new book Jack Clark, who walked 83 times and recorded a .393 OBP while getting help from regulars Willie McGee (.384), Tom Herr (.379), Ozzie Smith (.355) and better-than-league-average contributions from bench players Tito Landrum (.356 in 181 PA), Mike Jorgensen (.375 in 146 PA), Lonnie Smith (.377 in 115 PA), and of course Cesar Cedeno, who hit .434 in 84 PA after being acquired from the Reds on August 29 for minor leaguer Mark Jackson.

So did the Cardinals of the mid-1980s, and particularly 1985, score all those runs because of their speed and small ball approach, or simply because they got more runners on than other teams, or a combination of both?

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What About Speed?

To look at this question I ran my base running framework for 1985 in order to quantify the contribution of the speed of McGee, Coleman, and company. After all, you’d think that a team that steals 314 bases would also take great advantage of their speed to procure extra bases, thereby scoring runs where their opponents couldn’t.

As a quick reminder, the base running framework takes into consideration plays where there is a runner on first with second base empty and the batter singles, a runner on first with second empty and the batter doubles, and a runner on second with third empty and the batter singles. In each scenario the runner has the opportunity to take one or more extra bases and therefore increase his team’s chances of scoring.

For each scenario I then total the number of opportunities for each player and team, calculate how many bases are expected to be gained by the runner given the context of each situation and taking into account the number of outs and which fielder fielded the ball, and then finally convert each opportunity to a number of runs gained or lost based on a Run Expectancy (RE) table that contains the 24 possible base/out situations. For this analysis I used the RE table provided by Pete Palmer and John Thorn in The Hidden Game of Baseball covering the 1961-1977 period.

Unlike the analysis provided for Van Slyke, and Coleman as a group contributed an additional 8.3 runs over what would have been expected. Unfortunately, that gain was almost wiped out by Clark, Darrell Porter, Tom Nieto, and Tito Landrum, who combined to “contribute” -7.5 runs.

As a team the Cardinals ranked third in the National League but were a tenth of a run under what would have been expected given their opportunities as shown in the following table.

             Opp   Bases      OA     ExR     BRR      IR
HOU          446     706      11    70.6    73.9     3.3
LAN          476     709      14    66.7    69.3     2.5
SLN          439     671       9    65.0    65.0    -0.1
NYN          469     702      21    75.1    72.5    -2.6
MON          383     568       9    54.6    52.0    -2.6
CIN          409     614      11    63.9    60.8    -3.1
PHI          400     574       8    62.6    59.1    -3.5
SDN          468     695      12    72.5    68.8    -3.7
CHN          369     536       7    57.4    51.7    -5.7
ATL          410     604       9    62.1    56.0    -6.1
PIT          403     586      15    66.4    53.3   -13.1

Although surprising, from this analysis it appears that the 1985 Cardinals didn’t take advantage of their great speed to advance on the bases more than your average team. From my previous analysis I found that the spread from the best to worst teams in terms of IR is around 30 runs (-15 to+15) or roughly three wins in a single season.

Looking at their stolen bases, however, sheds a different light on the picture.

Following the same type of procedure I calculated the net expected runs from the Cardinals stolen base attempts for each base/out situation using the 1961-1977 RE matrix. For example, a steal of second with nobody out yields on average .285 runs, while getting caught costs the team -0.534 runs. The same steal of second with two outs only increases run scoring by .139 runs while costing the team -.209 runs since the incremental value of moving to third is lessened as is the impact of the third out. The totals for the 1985 Cardinals are found in the following table.

                  SB Att Run Value
Vince Coleman        135      14.4
Willie McGee          72       7.3
Tom Herr              34       5.5
Andy Van Slyke        40       5.1
Ozzie Smith           39       3.7
Lonnie Smith          18       0.9
Cesar Cedeno           6       0.5
Darrell Porter         7       0.3
Joaquin Andujar        4       0.3
Curt Ford              1       0.2
Tom Lawless            3       0.1
Danny Cox              0       0.0
Kurt Kepshire          0       0.0
Mike LaValliere        0       0.0
Steve Braun            0       0.0
Brian Harper           0       0.0
John Tudor             1      -0.2
Bill Campbell          1      -0.2
Ivan DeJesus           4      -0.3
Mike Jorgensen         3      -0.3
Randy Hunt             1      -0.4
Terry Pendleton       29      -1.3
Tom Nieto              2      -1.4
Tito Landrum           5      -1.5
Jack Clark             5      -1.7

Total                410      31.1

Overall, the Cardinals stolen bases contributed an additional 31.1 runs or around three wins.

As it turns out, this accords nicely with the weights Palmer and Thorn assigned to the stolen base and caught stealing when developing their Batting Runs formula. There a stolen base was credited at +.20 and a caught stealing at -.35. Therefore when you apply these weights to the Cardinals’ total of 314 stolen bases and 96 caught stealing, you come up with 29.2 runs. One factor that plays into the slight difference is that Coleman attempted stealing third base 34 times on the season and was caught only four times, which yielded an additional 4.3 runs since steals of third with nobody out increase run scoring more than steals of second.

The breakdown of his 14.4 stolen base runs went as follows:

Base          SB  Run Value   CS  Run Value
Second        78       18.5   20       -8.3
Third         30        6.6    4       -2.3
Home           2        0.5    1       -0.5

And of course, now that we have both the number of runs the Cardinals players contributed with advancing on hits and the amount contributed through stolen bases, we can total the two to come up with a true “speed score” for each player.

                       IR   value   Total
Vince Coleman         0.6    14.4    15.0
Willie McGee          1.3     7.3     8.6
Tom Herr              1.2     5.5     6.7
Andy Van Slyke        1.0     5.1     6.1
Ozzie Smith           0.1     3.7     3.8
Terry Pendleton       4.2    -1.3     2.9
Lonnie Smith          0.3     0.9     1.2
Cesar Cedeno          0.1     0.5     0.6
Tom Lawless           0.5     0.1     0.6
Danny Cox             0.3     0.0     0.3
Joaquin Andujar      -0.1     0.3     0.2
Kurt Kepshire        -0.1     0.0    -0.1
Mike LaValliere      -0.1     0.0    -0.1
Randy Hunt            0.2    -0.4    -0.2
John Tudor            0.0    -0.2    -0.2
Steve Braun          -0.3     0.0    -0.3
Brian Harper         -0.3     0.0    -0.3
Curt Ford            -0.7     0.2    -0.4
Bill Campbell        -0.4    -0.2    -0.6
Ivan DeJesus         -0.3    -0.3    -0.6
Mike Jorgensen       -0.3    -0.3    -0.6
Darrell Porter       -2.3     0.3    -2.0
Tito Landrum         -1.4    -1.5    -2.9
Tom Nieto            -1.6    -1.4    -2.9
Jack Clark           -2.2    -1.7    -3.9

The total is 31 runs, 31.1 from the stolen bases and -.1 from their base running.

As might be expected Coleman contributed almost twice as many runs with his speed and Pendleton, because his poor stolen base percentage (17 stolen bases in 29 attempts) nets only 2.9 runs. Meanwhile Landrum, Nieto, and Clark all sink a little lower because of their combination of poor base running and poor base stealing.

A second issue that one might associate with team speed is the ablity to bunt for hits. Perhaps the Cardinals regularly got runners on via bunt hits before stealing bases to move themselves into scoring position. I took a look at this for the 1985 club and produced the following table showing the number of bunt hits and bunt hit attempts during the season.

           BH Att
Smith, L    3   9
Smith, O    3   4
Coleman     2   3
Herr        3   3
Nieto       2   3
Van Slyke   2   2
McGee       1   1
Clark       0   1
Andujar     0   1

While the bunts were highly successful (16 of 27), they were hardly a general purpose strategy.

One other consequence of team speed that might come to mind is that having such a collection of speedsters on base would serve to distract pitchers and defenders and thereby afford Cardinals hitters a better chance to drive them in. Studies by our own John Walsh and in the newly published

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Would your analysis on the taking of extra bases be lower from what i understand due to the turf factor. Ie fielders getting the ball quicker and true hops etc. thus it was easier to steal the next base. Sorry if its a strange q. Its 12:40 in morning.

Great article though