Earl Weaver's strategy: New tips from an old skipper

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Earl Weaver and Billy Beane have more in common than you may realize.

Earl Weaver was a winner.

In 17 years as a major league manager, he posted a career win percentage of .583, collecting four American League championship titles and one World Series title along the way. In six of those 17 years, his Orioles finished in first place. In seven of the remaining 11 years that his team didn't finish first, they finished in second place. It may not sound like much, but think about the fact that he managed at a time when the Central Division didn't exist, and the American League East Division included up to seven teams.

Someone with a track record like that is probably worth listening to when he shares his managerial strategy, and Weaver did exactly that in a 1984 book called Weaver on Strategy. Keep in mind that 1984 was Billy Beane's rookie year in the majors, because, as a quick summary of Weaver's strategy shows, he was advocating certain "unorthodox" strategies decades before Beane brought his brand of "Moneyball" to Oakland.

(Note: Strictly speaking, "Moneyball" is about finding hidden value and paying less money for more production, but the term has become somewhat synonymous with things like "on-base percentage," and the use of sabermetrics to inform and shape strategy.)

Creating an "aggregate player"

Beane was quoted in Moneyball as saying, "The important thing is not to recreate the individual. The important thing is to recreate the aggregate." Earl Weaver agreed: "[Ayala, Lowenstein, and Roenicke] combined to hit 37 homers, which is the same as having a Reggie Jackson in the batting order. Individually, Roenicke, Lowenstein, or Ayala could never compare to Jackson, but when used against the pitchers they could hit, they collectively performed like a star."

In other words? You don't need to pay top dollar for an all-star right fielder if you can assemble a platoon that is just as dangerous in composite form. Something to keep in mind as the trade deadline approaches.

Bunting, stealing, and your 27 outs

Michael Lewis summed up Beane's position on bunting and stealing by way of relating what former A's infielder Randy Velarde said to the press: "[Velarde] complained often to reporters that the team was run from the front office and that the front office wouldn't let anyone bunt or steal." The underlying axiom supporting this strategy (or anti-strategy, perhaps) was so important to Weaver that he enshrined it as one of his "Ten Laws of Baseball":

"Weaver's Fourth Law: Your most precious possession on offense are your twenty-seven outs."

Weaver understood that he only got three outs per inning, and laying down a sacrifice bunt meant giving away an out, which meant "you're making everything harder for yourself." Not that Weaver was always against the sacrifice bunt in every instance, but rather, "You have to know that the one or two runs you're bunting for will win the game." That would mainly apply to late-and-close games, or when your team's pitcher is good enough that he'll only give up one or two runs all game. "Bunting in the second or third inning is beyond me," wrote Weaver, "it isn't bright to bunt for a run or two in the game with the 5.50-ERA pitcher on the mound for you. Use the bunt when it will win the game. It's an out you're giving the opposition."

Likewise with the stolen base. While conventional baseball wisdom might say you want guys with speed at the top of the lineup so they can steal a base and get into scoring position, Weaver went the opposite direction: "For the steal to be worthwhile, the runner should be safe around 75 percent of the time. the failed stolen base can be destructive, particularly at the top of the order, because it takes a runner off the basepaths ahead of your home-run hitters." In Weaver's world, if a runner on first is fast enough to steal, he's fast enough to score from first when the power-hitters in the lineup can come through with a double.

On-base percentage

For Beane and Weaver, scoring runs begins with guys who can get on base. Beane's right-hand man at the time Moneyball was being written believed that "a player's ability to get on base — especially when he got on base in unspectacular ways — tended to be dramatically underpriced in relation to other abilities. The ability to get on base — to avoid making outs — was underpriced compared to the ability to hit with power." This is why "Moneyball" has become synonymous with the on-base percentage statistic. For the A's, "a player's ability to get on base became ... an obsession."

Weaver wrote in a similar vein, "I like the three-run homer best, and that means there have to be two guys on base when the homer comes. And how did those two guys get on base? Odds are that one of them walked." Already in the 1970s and early '80s, Weaver was placing a major emphasis on the importance of walks and the on-base percentage, over and above batting average: "For a long time [Glenn Gulliver] had a batting average in the low .200s, but his on-base percentage was .430 ... I was looking for someone who could get on base in front of Eddie Murray ... I batted [Gulliver] second, and he knew his job — draw walks and score runs."

(This logic will undoubtedly resonate with Tigers fans who would prefer to see Alex Avila batting second in the lineup, who at the time of this writing has an on-base percentage of .350, despite a .233 batting average.)

Closing games doesn't require a "closer"

Beane's approach to the issue of having a ninth-inning closer was to exploit the badly flawed "save" statistic and use it to make money: "[Beane's insight] was that it was more efficient to create a closer than to buy one. Established closers were systematically overpriced, in large part because of the statistic by which closers were judged in the marketplace: 'saves.' You could take a slightly above average pitcher and drop him into the closer's role, let him accumulate some gaudy number of saves, and then sell him off."

Weaver — being a manager and not a GM — was obviously less concerned with the monetary value of a closer, but his strategy on closing out games was the same as Beane's: "Put in the best guy you have to save the game. I see it as a day-to-day situation." Instead of choosing a pre-anointed "proven closer" and using that pitcher in every ninth-inning situation, Weaver allowed that role to become a revolving door: "The pitcher most likely to save the game for me that day is who I use. What he did last year or a month ago is beside the point. Often I'll start the year off with one pitcher as my main reliever and then switch to another."

This "ride the hot hand" mentality also governed Weaver's thoughts concerning match-ups: "Why bring in a lefty to pitch to a left-handed hitter if that lefty pitcher can't do the job? Just because he's left-handed doesn't mean he automatically gets out left-handed hitters ... I stick with the hot hand, because usually he is getting out all the hitters — right-handers, left-handers, and switch-hitters."

Food for thought

Weaver's baseball strategy raises many questions as it pertains to the Tigers. How might the 2014 Tigers team benefit from, for example, re-ordering the regular lineup to put the players with the highest on-base percentage in the first two spots (currently Eugenio Suarez and Alex Avila, assuming Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez retain their "power hitter" spots)? Is the aggressive base-running/base-stealing this year helping or hurting the team? What would it look like if Joe Nathan was treated as just another member of the bullpen, and used in situations where the statistics gave him the edge, instead of being used according to a pre-defined role?

One thing is clear: These strategies are hardly novel ideas generated from new-fangled ways of thinking by geeks with spreadsheets. It doesn't get much more "old school" than a spit-fire manager who won almost 1,500 games in the 1970s and 1980s.

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