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Warren Spahn and the Brooklyn Dodgers

Brilliant Reader Wendell has wandered through some baseball numbers and comes up with what seems a fascinating question, at least if you’re kind of a crazy baseball history buff.

From 1954-1957, Warren Spahn started 136 games — fourth-most in baseball. He pitched 1,081 innings — second only to Robin Roberts. He won 79 games, more than any pitcher over that time. Well, that was Warren Spahn, right? Hall of Famer. A workhorse. A constant force. He was a guy you could count on to take the ball and give you nine … Spahn led the league in complete games nine times in his career. I mean we’re talking about the guy at the heart of the Spahn and Sain and pray for rain poem.

OK, so, are you ready for the shocker?

Here is how Spahn’s starts break down by opponent from 1954-57:

Pirates: 28

Cardinals: 25

Redlegs: 25

Giants: 23

Phillies: 21

Cubs: 13

Dodgers: 2

Yeah. That’s right. Two. He made two starts against the Brooklyn Dodgers in four years. It’s even more striking when you break it down by inning:

Pirates: 215 2/3

Cardinals: 215 2/3

Redlegs: 198 1/3

Giants: 189 1/3

Phillies: 163

Cubs: 95 2/3

Dodgers: 3 2/3

Um … Spahn pitched just 3 2/3 innings against the Dodgers? Over four years? We’re talking Warren Spahn here? One of the most durable and workmanlike pitchers in baseball history?

As Wendell asks: What gives?

So, I did what I always do when a historical question like this comes up: I went to Bill James for an explanation. Not surprisingly, he had one — it is something he has written about before. He says it’s fairly common knowledge for people over 60. I’m not there quite yet.

The Dodgers in the mid-1950s were heavily, heavily right-handed. Take the 1955 team that won the World Series and led the National League in runs scored. Duke Snider was the best hitter on that team, and he was left-handed (more on him in a second) but after Snider, based on runs created, you had:

Gil Hodges (105 runs created), right-handed.

Roy Campanella (101 RC), right-handed.

Carl Furillo (97 RC), right-handed.

Pee Wee Reese, (82 RC), right-handed.

Jim Gilliam (67 RC), switch-hitter.

Sandy Amoros (57 RC), LEFT-HANDED

Jackie Robinson (49 RC), right-handed

Don Hoak (36 RC), right-handed

Don Zimmer (34 RC), right-handed

Heck, after that is pitcher Don Newcombe … who was actually the third best left-handed hitter on the team. You can also look at the 1955 team in batting numbers:

1955 Dodgers vs. righties: .269/.354/.440

1955 Dodgers vs. lefties: .293/.374/.536

Whew. The Dodgers threw righty after righty after right against teams. And, because of that, teams simply refused to throw left-handed starters against them. Take a look:

Dodgers games against lefty starters:

1954: 18 (Giants had 51)

1955: 11 (Giants had 56)

1956: 14 (Giants had 44)

1957: 6 (Giants had 38)

There are many interesting parts of this, but as Bill points out the most interesting might be that teams had much more maneuverability with starting pitchers in those days. Part of this was the abundance of double headers, part of it was the four-man rotation, part of it was that managers simply had no problem holding a starter back or pushing them forward on short rest depending on the match-up. For instance, in the early 1920s, the St. Louis Browns would ALWAYS have Urban Shocker pitch against the Yankees, no matter what kind of crazy contortions were necessary. Shocker had been traded from the Yankees, he developed a bit of a reputation as a Yankee killer, he was their guy against New York.

And, so, in 1922, for example, Shocker made 10 starts against the Yankees and only three against the Senators. He started against the Yankees on May 20 and then came back on May 23. He started against the Yankees on June 10, got cuffed around pretty good and lasted just three innings, so he came back and started against the Yankees the NEXT DAY (lasting seven innings this time). He pitched against the Yankees on July 11 and came back on the 14th. He threw a shutout against the Yankees on July 25, pitched relief against them on the 26. Started the first game of a doubleheader on August 25, came back on two-days rest to pitch 10 2/3 innings. Started against them on Sept. 16, pitched in relief against them on Sept. 18.

Managers and pitchers worried a lot more about team match-ups then and a lot less about individual match ups. Bill says the Braves were actually kind of stubborn in the early 1950s about pitching Spahn against the Dodgers — he said most teams had already decided it was pointless and self-defeating to start lefties against that lineup. The Braves finally gave up in 1954 and they saved Spahn for every other team.

There’s quite a bit more worth discussing on this — and whether or not managers should be more flexible in how they use their rosters — but let’s close this out with a thought about Duke Snider. His prime was 1953 to 1957. He was a good player other years, but those five years he hit .311/.407/.618 with more than 200 homers and 585 RBIs. He hit 40-plus homers each of the five seasons, led the league in runs three times, RBIs once, walks once, slugging twice and so on.

OK. So we’re talking 1953 to 1957. During that time, in the National League, left-handed pitchers accounted for about 26% of the innings. OK. Snider was a much, much, much less effective hitter against lefties …

Snider against right-handed pitching (career): .302/.389/.560

Snider against left-handed pitching (career): .257/.322/.421

… so you would expect him to face more than his share of left-handed pitchers. You would expect that.

But, well, he didn’t because of the lineup surrounding him. In his dominant five-year span — because the Dodgers were so scary against lefties — Snider faced left-handed pitchers only about 10.5% of the time. And that percentage actually went DOWN as he became more and more established as a dominant force.

The Duke’s percentage of plate appearances against lefties:

1953: 15%

1954: 11%

1955: 10%

1956: 11%

1957: 5.5%

Bill says that people did actually talk about this when Snider was a Hall of Fame candidate and it may have been one of the reasons that it took 11 years for the Baseball Writers to vote Snider in. This all might be common knowledge among baseball fans of a certain age, but I have to admit I knew none of it. It took a quick look at the numbers. I do understand why many people have an aversion to statistics or have a serious mistrust of the numbers. I really do. Some of that skepticism is healthy. But, as I’ve written before, there are some pretty amazing stories and pretty cool bits of history coded in those numbers.

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21 Responses to Warren Spahn and the Brooklyn Dodgers

  1. Roberto Baly says:

    This is cool stuff.

  2. Josh says:

    I approve of any post that mentions Urban Shocker. When I got my first apartment in DC (after a lifetime in the suburbs), I named my fantasy baseball team the Urban Shockers.

  3. Wilbur says:

    One correction: Jim Gilliam was a switch hitter, not solely right handed.
    Also, didn’t Shocker pitch for the Yankees after the Browns, not before?

    You would think that Spahn, with his screwball and great command of all pitches would have been effective against Brooklyn, too.

    The point about the piching rotations is interesting, too. As you mentioned in an earlier column some team, someday, is going to realize that a five-man rotation with seven relievers is not necessarily the best setup for THEIR team, and will have the courage to try something completely different.

    In the 20’s and 30’s it was not unusual for an aging, yet still effective pitcher (like Ted Lyons) to exclusively start every Sunday. He knew it and would adjust his routine accordingly.

    • Good catch on Gilliam. And, yes, Shocker went BACK to the Yankees after the Browns, but he was first traded to the Brown by the Yankees.

    • Shocker (who had one of the greatest names in baseball history) was a major contributor to the storied 1927 Yankees, but had a coronary condition he had attempted to conceal. The Yanks released him in ’28, and he died in September of that year

    • Rob Smith says:

      When you have a HOF pitcher, you put him out there every four days no matter who they’re facing. I think there must be something deeper…. did Spahn get personally knocked around by the Dodgers before that stretch? That’s the only thing that makes sense to me. You don’t hold back a HOF starter because the Dodgers hit lefthanders well. That’s just stupid. But if Spahn had some big struggles against the Dodgers, pre 1954, then that makes all the sense in the world.

  4. Mark says:

    Roger Kahn wrote that when the Braves came to Ebbets Field, it would be announced that Mr. Spahn had a sore back. It would heal on the plane back to Milwaukee.

  5. Wilbur says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. kyle. says:

    i just read “mudville wins” which is about the braves’ move to milwaukee and their 1957 world series victory. there’s a good bit about spahn not facing the dodgers as well as mentions of starters getting bullpen work instead of workouts on their off days. a whole different world.

    the best anecdote about spahn though was his turning down an offer of $0.10 per fan for his 1953 contract and agreeing to take a pay cut. the braves weren’t drawing well in boston so he figured he’d make more with the straight salary. of course, the team moved to milwaukee quite suddenly and he lost out on a fortune.

  7. Isaac Lin says:

    In spite of being much younger than 60, I knew about Duke Snider being able to profit from the Dodgers’ heavily right-handed lineup, through various biographies I read of him. However, my interest in Duke comes from his time as colour commentator for the Expos; I’ll wager many baseball fans my age would be unaware of this.

  8. Cliff Blau says:

    The wild thing is that Spahn was equally effective against right-handed and left-handed hitters. OPS against by RHB: .652, by LHB: .657. I guess the Dodgers didn’t know that. Funny also, career-wise, he was 24-37, 3.28 ERA vs. the Dodgers, and 49-34, 3.33 ERA against the Pirates.

  9. Scott says:

    I wonder how many borderline HoF candidates have been helped or hurt by managers who were more or less willing to work them into better matchups.

  10. I am pretty sure you will discover a similar story about Whitey Ford. Casey generally kept him out of games in Fenway Park. Of his 498 games pitched, he only appeared in 19 games there. In every other AL stadium, even those that only existed for part of his career, he appeared between 21 (Washington) and 43 (Chicago) times. In the Detroit and Cleveland ball parks, the only two besides Chicago that existed for his entire career, he appeared 31 and 32 times.

    Although his record in Fenway was 7-6, his ERA there was 6.16, dramatically higher than anywhere else. This for a pitcher who has the lowest career ERA of any HOFer whose entire career came after 1920.

  11. Wendell says:

    Here are several other tibits about Spahn and those four years (54,55,56,57}. The Braves finished, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, and 1st while the Dodgers finished, 2rd, 1st, 1st and 3rd, so they were going head-to-head against each other for the pennant. He did not pitch ANY against them in 1955. We remember his 16 inning game with Juan Marichal (that one game in 1963 was over four times as many innings as he threw in those four years vs the Dodgers). He almost threw as many innings in the 54 and 56 All Star game as he did against the Bums in four years (2.2 to 3.2). I wonder what Mr. Spahn felt about “Dodging the Dodgers?”

    • NMark W says:

      Spahnie must have felt fine about it otherwise, given his stature on the Braves roster, it would not have continued for as long as it did. As an almost 61 yr old Pirate fan, I was not aware that Spahn was used so seldom against Brooklyn. Obviously, he made up for it by beating Pittsburgh continuously like a drum – or at least it felt like that as a kid growing up wearing a Pirate hat all my waking hours during baseball season.

      The main reason I respected Spahn so much when I was a kid was because, as it turned out, he was a good friend and sometimes drinking buddy with Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince. So Prince would always sing the praises of Spahnie every chance he got. I can’t recall Prince doing that as much with any other competing ballplayer. He certainly spoke well of and praised Mays, Aaron, Banks, Musial etc for their greatness but nothing like his comments about Spahn. I only recently read about the Spahn/Prince friendship and then it all started to make more sense to me. I wasn’t imagining it when I was a stupid dumb kid listening to practically every Pirate inning on KDKA out of the ‘burgh.

  12. As a boy growing up in the 50s in Brooklyn, I was very aware that Spahn never pitched against the Dodgers. In fact many years later I read in one of my books on the Brooklyn Dodgers which stated that after 1951, Spahn never faced the Dodgers again while they were in Brooklyn. Because of these facts, it would seem that Spahn’s records as a pitcher should be downgraded when it comes time to rate him against the pitchers of his generation, like Robin Roberts, for instance, who always opposed the Dodger aces, either Newcombe or Erskine, and who gave as good as he got.

  13. […] Posnanski was also amazed when he came across this phenomenon a couple of years ago. His first port of call for an answer was Bill James, who suggested that this was pretty much par […]

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