The virtual 1961 Cleveland Indians (Part 2)

Last time we identified a sequence of transactions executed by Cleveland GM Frank Lane between June 1958 and October 1960, and posed the question as to what sort of ball club the Indians might have had if they’d simply not made any of those deals. This time, we’ll find out the answer.

The developing ball club

The first trade we encountered was the lamentable dispatch of young Roger Maris in mid-1958. His subsequent development was swift and sure: Maris was very good in 1959 and terrific in 1960, winning a Gold Glove and the first of back-to-back MVP awards. In our scenario he’s doing that blossoming in an Indians uniform, while continuing to play center field, as he actually did in Cleveland in 1957-58. (Maris would spend significant time in center field through 1964).

Maris would be playing center instead of right because, of course, our Indians didn’t trade away their cannon-armed right fielder Rocky Colavito. In 1960 this pair would emerge as one of the most lethal back-to-back home run threats in the game.

But they weren’t the only two young power hitters Lane dealt away. Norm Cash and Gordy Coleman, both the same age as Maris, wielded potent left-handed bats. In our scenario they would compete for first base and left field playing time in 1960 with yet another strong lefty hitter who actually did blossom in Cleveland in this period: Tito Francona.

Our Indians exercise the patience to allow right-handed power producer Earl Averill to emerge and contribute. While best-suited for catching duty, in this scenario Averill would play mostly third base, because in 1960 an even better young right-handed power-hitting catcher, John Romano, arrived in Cleveland as part of the deal that delivered Cash.

Only in the middle infield did the actual Indians have better options than our version. Woodie Held was a first-rate offensive shortstop, but he’d been acquired in exchange for Maris, so we don’t have him. And at second base Cleveland had the veteran Johnny Temple, past his prime but still capable; but like Held, he was picked up in a deal we didn’t make. So our Indians have to settle for two farm system products at the keystone: young shortstop Mike de la Hoz, not much with the glove but swinging a better bat than many middle infielders, and smooth-fielding second baseman Billy Moran, who struggled at the plate until 1961.

On the mound, the Indians in this period featured quite a few impressive young arms. However, they lacked an ace at the top of the staff, and also could have used more depth at the bottom. In our scenario, veteran southpaw Don Mossi, though not quite a bellwether, remains in Cleveland to provide consistent effectiveness as the rotation anchor, while veteran knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm remains in Cleveland to serve as one of the premier relief aces in the game. Moreover, veteran right hander Cal McLish had been surrendered along with Gordy Coleman as part of the Johnny Temple deal, and since we didn’t make that trade McLish is on hand to further solidify the staff.

The 1961 season

The big story of that well-remembered year was of course Maris, who built upon his 1960 MVP performance with a sensational season-long home run spree. The media attention focused almost entirely upon Maris and his great Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle; that record-chasing drama crowded out of the spotlight an even more robust all-around hitting performance taking place in Detroit, where Norm Cash was suddenly channeling Ted Williams. The good news for us is that Maris and Cash are now both in Cleveland. Deal with that, media!

It gets better, as we also have Colavito as an Indian instead of a Tiger, and delivering a superb season. This phenomenal power trio would be abundantly supported by several additional solid hitters jostling for playing time.

Our Cleveland pitching isn’t nearly as spectacular as the hitting, but with Mossi topping a deep starting staff and Wilhelm brilliantly heading up the bullpen, it’s rock-solid.

The most common starting lineup would likely be:

1. de la Hoz, ss
2. Cash, lf
3. Colavito, rf
4. Maris, cf
5. Romano, c
6. Coleman, 1b
7. Averill, 3b
8. Moran, 2b
9. pitcher

The results

  Pos   Player         Age    G    AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS  OPS+
   1B   G. Coleman*     26   119  347   46   98   17    3   17   53   33   45 .282 .345 .496  .840  125
   2B   B. Moran        27   154  586   65  154   25    3    8   54   44   60 .263 .314 .357  .671   82
   SS   M. de la Hoz    22   139  522   81  134   27    2   13   44   25   51 .257 .291 .389  .680   83
  3B-C  E. Averill      29   144  509   67  124   19    0   22   78   85  109 .244 .352 .411  .762  106
   RF   R. Colavito     27   161  583  126  164   29    2   44  135  109   76 .281 .395 .564  .959  157
 CF-LF  R. Maris*       26   159  575  121  156   16    4   59  147  108   66 .271 .387 .621 1.007  169
 LF-1B  N. Cash*        26   154  535  134  188   21    7   40   97  109   86 .351 .461 .641 1.102  196
   C    J. Romano       26   142  509   79  152   29    1   21   86   61   60 .299 .374 .483  .857  131

 LF-1B  T. Francona*    27   103  296   44   87   14    4    8   34   27   27 .294 .353 .449  .802  116
   3B   B. Phillips     33    72  191   20   49    7    0    5   21    9   23 .257 .290 .372  .662   78
 CF-LF  J. Piersall     31    81  161   27   48    8    2    2   13   13   17 .298 .351 .410  .761  106
 SS-2B  R. Bridges      33    76  153   13   35    3    1    1   10   18   25 .229 .310 .281  .591   62
 SS-3B  J. Kubiszyn     24    38   72    6   14    1    0    1    1    5    9 .194 .247 .250  .497   35
   C    V. Thomas       32    18   43    4    9    2    0    1    3    3    4 .209 .261 .326  .586   58

        Others                     33    6    7    2    0    1    3    5    5 .212 .316 .364  .679   84

        Pitchers                  417   30   63    7    1    2   25   19  143 .151 .188 .187  .375    2

        Total                    5532  869 1482  227   30  245  804  673  806 .268 .347 .452  .800  115

        *  Bats left-handed

        Pitcher        Age     G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
        D. Mossi*       32    35   34   12  240   16    7    1  232   27   47  137 2.81  140
        G. Bell         24    36   25    8  183   12    8    0  168   24   77  134 3.80  104
        M. Grant        25    38   20    5  168   13    4    0  138   20   71  105 3.54  111
        J. Perry        25    32   27    4  163    9    9    0  169   19   58   68 4.36   90
        C. McLish       35    31   27    4  162   13    9    1  175   19   42   78 4.22   93
        B. Latman       25    37   19    3  150   11    3    3  135   17   42   94 3.85  102

        H. Wilhelm      38    51    1    0  110   11    4   21   88    5   43   89 2.30  171
        F. Funk         25    56    0    0   92   11    8   12   79    8   30   64 3.23  122
        D. Stigman*     25    24    5    0   64    3    3    0   65    8   24   48 4.50   88
        B. Locke        27    22    2    0   48    3    1    1   50    5   18   21 4.31   91
        B. Allen*       23    32    0    0   41    2    1    2   43    3   18   25 3.51  112

        Others                10    2    0   22    0    1    0   17    1   13   14 2.37  166

        Total                     162   36 1443  104   58   41 1359  156  483  877 3.58  110

        *  Throws left-handed

Now, de la Hoz and his .291 OBP would be a poor excuse for a leadoff hitter, but it’s hard to imagine in those days (or even these days) a manager just saying the hell with it, and going with Cash-Colavito-Maris at the top of the order. And at the end of the day it wouldn’t make that much difference: Those three back-to-back-to-back at any point in the game were going to be an unsolvable problem for opponents, especially when followed by the steady bats of Romano, Coleman and Averill, with Francona in reserve for good measure. This offense would lead the league in runs scored by a very wide margin, and it wouldn’t be the 1961 Yankees setting a new major league record for team home runs with 240, but instead the 1961 Indians, with 245.

This outfield is so talent-laden that 31-year-old Jimmy Piersall, a Gold Glove center fielder that season who batted .322, is here reduced to scrapping for playing time as a fill-in and defensive replacement.

A disappointing year from 25-year-old right hander Jim Perry, who’d appeared headed for stardom in 1959-60, would be the only dark cloud on the pitching horizon. Despite placing only one qualifier (Mossi) in the league’s top 10 in ERA, top-to-bottom this staff would place third-best in the league in that category. Only the Orioles (even without Wilhelm) and Yankees would allow fewer runs.

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Speaking of the Yankees: Would this Cleveland team have eclipsed them to capture the AL pennant? We have the Indians here achieving a record of 104-58, their Pythagorean performance (869 runs scored and 650 allowed).

Remember that those “M&M” 1961 Yankees went 109-53, leaving a terrific Detroit team (that prominently included Cash, Colavito and Mossi) in the dust down the stretch. Obviously in our scenario the Tigers would be decimated, but the Yankees would be just the “M” boys, as we have Maris in a Cleveland uniform.

In place of Maris, it’s logical to assume the Yankees would be deploying Norm Siebern, the key player whom they’d traded to Kansas City to acquire Maris in 1959. Siebern was no Maris, of course, but he was a very fine ballplayer. Win Shares estimates that Maris earned a little over four more wins for his team than Siebern in 1961; WARP has it as about a five-and-a-half-win advantage for Maris. Thus if we substitute Siebern’s performance for Maris’s, via Win Shares we can estimate a Yankee record of 105-57 (barely nosing out these Indians), while via WARP our estimate drops the Yankees to either 104-58 (a dead heat) or 103-59 (giving it to Cleveland in a photo finish). Any of these scenarios renders the race excruciatingly close.

But another point to consider is that the actual 1961 Yankees significantly outperformed their Pythagorean estimate, which has them at 103-59. If we allow our Indians to overperform Pythag to the degree the actual Yankees did, our Indians jump up to 110-52, and meanwhile the Pythag of these Maris-less Yankees has them falling short of 100 wins.

All in all, it’s fair to say that this hypothetical Cleveland ball club is better than the Siebern-in-place-of-Maris 1961 Yankees, so probably these Indians would have won the pennant. But it’s also realistic to say that the best team doesn’t always win a close race, and so the Mickey-and-Norm Yanks might have pulled this one out after all. In either case, one can easily imagine the 1961 American League race as an extravaganza: the Indians and Yanks battling it out for the flag, paced by the sensational offensive heroics of Maris and Cash in Cleveland and Mantle in New York, with the added attraction of Maris and Mantle competing to beat Babe Ruth’s beloved 60-home run mark.

On that final issue, with our Maris having to face the Yankees’ first-rate pitching 18 times, instead of the actual so-so Cleveland staff, my estimate has the young slugger falling just short of the record, with 59 taters. How might that bittersweet result have been perceived by the media and fans? Might Maris have been popularly embraced as a gallant competitor, instead of rejected as an unworthy usurper?

The legacy

Perhaps a Maris less bedeviled by New York media over those final pressure-packed weeks of the 1961 season, and not booed by his hometown fans beginning in 1962, would have held up more stoutly in the years to follow. But perhaps not; while the conventional wisdom invokes a cause-and-effect relationship between Maris’ stressful New York experience and his early breakdown and decline, the fact is that many outstanding young players blithely ignored by the New York media and fans have suffered early breakdown and decline. That might have been Maris’ fate even if he and the Yankees had never heard of one another.

And Maris wasn’t alone in peaking in 1961. The tremendous ’61 presented by Norm Cash would prove to be one of the most puzzling fluke seasons in history; while he remained an outstanding performer for a decade, Cash would never have another year remotely close to that one. Moreover, Rocky Colavito was just 27 in 1961, but he too would never produce another year as good, and like Maris he wouldn’t make it to the age of 35 as a major leaguer.

Indeed, few of the key players on this Cleveland ball club would have their careers play out as it seemed they would. John Romano and Gordy Coleman, both 26 in 1961, and Tito Francona, 27, were producing as stars (Romano and Francona were on the AL All-Star team), but just two years later, all three would see their batting averages plummet below .250, and their careers were at sudden difficult crossroads. Just one player on our hypothetical Indians roster would sustain consistent success through the entire 1960s, and he was the one for whom absolutely no one predicted it: 38-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm.

So this great 1961 performance would clearly be the high point for our Indians. Whether they won the ’61 pennant or not, they probably wouldn’t have followed up with championships. Still, the Tribe of ’61 would have been greatly celebrated at the time, and would be well-remembered today, as among the most robust ball clubs of that or any era, a powerhouse for the ages.

Oh, Frankie, Frankie, Frankie.

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David in Toledo
David in Toledo

A great, well-written, analusis of what might have been.

Maris, Colavito, Cash, and Romano could have been aligned.  And by win shares, I think their 1961 seasons might total higher than any four teammates except Combs, Lazzeri, Ruth, and Gehrig of the 1927 Murderers’ Row.

Steve Treder
Steve Treder

Trading surplus OF talent for infield/pitching help would have made perfect sense.  But remember what my self-imposed limitations are in this exercise:  I can’t invent any transaction that wasn’t actually made, I can only suppress transactions that were.

As for Herb Score:  yes, it would be marvelous for the Indians if he’d never been struck by the line drive and had played out his full career unhurt.  However, my gut tells me that he was probably going to encounter arm trouble at some point anyway, quite likely by 1961.

Yehoshua Friedman
Yehoshua Friedman

If you just allow the baseball gods to deflect slightly the fateful McDougald line drive, leaving and HOF Herb Score in the rotation with all that mix, WOW!

Yehoshua Friedman
Yehoshua Friedman
Indians’ manager Joe Gordon speaking to GM Steve Treder: Steve, as a former infielder myself, I would have to ask to do something the middle infield. And as for Piersall, if I can’t play him regularly, he will be an unstable force in the clubhouse. Fear may not have struck out yet, it may still be hitting foul balls. Now (off-season ‘60-‘61) might be the time to trade some of our outfield and pitching depth to improve the balance up the middle. Keep Maris and Colavito,  Cash is not a natural outfielder. I would play Piersall in CF. Cash and/or… Read more »
dave silverwood
dave silverwood

Frank Lane was at one time with the Chisox a great general manager then came St. Louis and big doubts when he got to Cleveland the magic was gone. all his world became making a deal, which were bad deals. Colavito for Kuenn,Kuenn for Kirkland—-need further proof.