Monday, January 4, 2010

Comiskey The Manager

I was cleaning out my bookmarks the other day and found a link to The Hardball Times. It's an excerpt from Chris Jaffe's book Evaluating Baseball's Managers about Charles Comiskey. There's some interesting stuff about how Comiskey used his pitchers and the importance he placed on defense. However, I would disagree that the pitching/defense strategy of run prevention developed in St. Louis in the 1880s. As we've seen, the Brown Stockings were using the strategy in 1876 and the idea probably goes back to Jim Creighton. Although the role of the pitcher was still developing in the 1880s, I don't see Comiskey's use of a pitching/defense strategy as anything new but Jaffe does provide a unique perspective that's worth reading.

Jaffe also did a presentation on Comiskey the manager and I'm passing along the audio. It's good stuff. And while I'm passing along links, Ed Achorn has a new website. Lots of stuff about Hoss Radbourn and Ed's new book, Fifty-nine in '84.


David Ball said...

Well, I guess the point is not just pitching-and-defense, but that Comiskey allegedly was the guy who put pitchers who were not overwhelming but threw strikes and let the batters put the ball in play together with fielders who could make the plays when the batters hit it.

This certainly was not an innovation. In fact, no pitcher in the 19th century struck out a lot of hitters by modern standards. Amos Rusie was as dominating a power pitcher as there was, and he only once, barely, topped 6.0 K/9 for a season. No pitcher dominated so much he didn't need good fielding support, and everybody was very conscious of fielding as an important part of any player's game. So what Jaffe describes as an innovative strategy of Comiskey's was really a fact of life everybody dealt with. When Comiskey was still in school, Harry Wright and Al Spalding won four pennants in a row at Boston by putting good defenders in the field and letting the batters hit the ball to them.

Not to take anything away from Comiskey, but he was simply more fortunate than most in that he worked for an owner with the money and the will to get the players other teams wanted.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I think I see Comiskey more as an evolutionary figure who took a lot of thinks that had floated around for awhile and used them successfully. He didn't invent anything but, by his teams success, popularized them. You win four pennants in a row and people are going to pay attention to what you're doing and how you're doing it. And I'm sure that Comiskey had paid attention to how Wright and Spalding had gone about winning.

One of the things I liked about Jaffe's presentation was that it gives an interesting look at the Browns. It's a serious attempt to describe how they won and what made them successful beyond just saying that they had great players. It went beyond a superficial look at the club and beyond the usual stories. I don't agree with all of his conclusions but I respect the fact that he took the subject seriously.

But it was a rather large error on his part to claim that the Browns' style of defense was an innovation on Comiskey's part. It doesn't take long, while looking at the 19th century game, to reach the conclusion that pitching to contact and playing good defense was a huge part of the game and that you couldn't succeed without good defensive players.

Richard Hershberger said...

I'm not familiar with Jaffe's work, but I suspect it is light on 19th century material. As David points out, a lot of what Jaffe seems to be presenting as innovative simply was not. I also suspect he doesn't understand the distinction between the club manager and the captain and what their jobs were. And citing Bill James on anything to do with 19th century baseball is a dubious choice.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

One thing I will give Jaffe credit for is his use of advanced metrics in his analysis. You don't see much metrical analysis of the 19th century game (for a few obvious reasons). Other than Walk Like A Sabermetrician and some of James' stuff, who else is doing this kind of work?

Richard Hershberger said...

I have mixed feelings about the use of sabermetrics in analyzing the 19th century game. In the interest of full disclosure, I find some of the results of sabermetrics interesting, but the process very dull. I accept the basic conclusions that any attempt at being an informed fan requires better stats than batting average and win-loss, but one need not go too far beyond that and my eyes glaze over.

I get nervous when I see sabermetrics types talking about the early game. This goes beyond the obvious problems of interpretation under different rules. Consider the drearily inevitable discussion of whether the UA or the NA were "major leagues". This is about the least interesting discussion one can have about these organizations. When the sabermetrics types join in, I get the strong feeling that their real concern is the purity of their data set, which might be sullied by letting bad clubs into the mix. This comes through strongly in Bill James's discussion of the UA. This is about the least interesting way to approach the question. I am very interesting in understanding the evolution of organization baseball and how the NA and UA fit in and contributed to this. I really don't care whether or not sabermetrics types include them in their analysis. But to the extent that they get classified as "not major league" this is an instruction to everyone to ignore them.

Bill James is quite frankly out of his league in discussing the history of the early game. I was struck by his assertion in this Historical Abstract that the Union Grounds and the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn were actually the same facility. This betrays a lack of any serious immersion in the period, as well as an unbecoming overconfidence. It is like claiming that Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium are one and the same. (The Yankees played at Shea one year, after all...) He is hardly the worst writer on early baseball, but his name carries much prestige. Frankly, the field would be better served without it.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I understand where you're coming from but I just have a different opinion about applying modern metrics to 19th century baseball. I think that it's important to take the data that we have and analysis it. We're obviously not the people to be doing that but there are some smart boys out there and they're starting to do the work.

Of course, you have to understand and accept the things that you don't know. The 19th century data set is incomplete and that limits the kind of analysis that can be done. There are questions about the accuracy of some of the data. There are league quality issues (which is seperate from the silly major league/not major league debate). And, always, the data has to be interpreted in the proper context.

That's were many analysts fail. They don't have a good handle on the history of 19th century baseball and don't know what it is that they're looking at. Jaffe fell into that trap, as more often than not James does. I've been looking at all of this for several years now and I don't feel that I have a good handle on things. But I admire their effort.

I honestly believe that modern statistical analysis, properly applied to the 19th century game, will further our knowledge and understanding of the game. The work that P did over at Walk Like A Sabermetrician I thought was outstanding and helps me in looking at the early NL. I go back and look at his analysis all the time. It was good work and we need more stuff like that. We need to encourage more work like that.

In the end, this kind of statistical analysis is just one more tool in the toolbox and I don't think it's a tool that should be neglected. When people err in using the tool, we can point out where they erred while at the same time encouraging them to correct and continue their work.

I really see this as nothing but positive regardless of the errors of James and others.

Richard Hershberger said...

Credit where credit is due, Walk Like a Sabermetrician does take the subject seriously.

As to the damage that can be done, suppose that James were able to successfully lobby for getting the UA declassified as a major league. What attention the UA receives is in large part due to its official status as a major league. Compare this with the various minor leagues of the 1880s, which are almost entirely ignored by everyone. From my perspective of being interested in the organizational history of baseball, the UA clearly was something different from just another minor league. If you want to understand what was going on, you have to give the UA special attention. I don't consider the major/minor question particularly interesting or useful, but forcing the UA to our attention is. So from my perspective, what James is trying to do would be actively harmful to understanding baseball history. But I suppose the statistical database would be more tidy...

Jeffrey Kittel said...

It's an interesting point and I agree that it would be damaging if the UA was stripped of its major league status. But it would still be part of the record that it was considered a major league for a hundred odd years. And it's too good of a story to neglect completely.

But what about if in the process of stripping the UA, the NA was given official major league status. Wouldn't you be willing to make that trade? Wouldn't that have a positive impact on the way people looked at the development of league baseball? I can honestly see something like that happening if we had a big conference and brought the historians and the stat boys and the MLB people all together. It's a Grand Bargin that I'd be willing to accept.

Because in the end, the history is going to get written and the truth will out. The major league label doesn't mean that much when it stands in contradiction to the historical record.

Richard Hershberger said...

I don't think I would take that trade. The problem with "not major" status is that this means, for most purposes, "ignore me". There is a huge bias in baseball writing to equate "baseball" with major league professional baseball. Harold Seymour, to his great credit, recognized the flaw here and devoted his third book to correcting it. It's a pity the book is such a mess.

Demote the UA and it will drop into the mass of minor leagues of the period. Even 19th century specialists largely ignore them. Did you know that there was a minor league in 1890 with two all black clubs? Given the interest in black baseball, I would expect that to get tremendous attention. But the "ignore minor leagues" imperative is so strong that this is relegated to the status of obscure trivia.

The NA, however, has an ace in the hole. It's status as "first professional league" guarantees that it won't be ignored. It will be misunderstood, but being misunderstood is a step in the direction of being understood. Being ignored is a much higher hurdle.

So the tradeoff of having the NA be misunderstood someless less badly in return for having the UA fall off the radar seems to me a poor one.