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Sabermetrics: Earl Weaver and the modern manager

Talking Sabermetrics: Earl Weaver set the template for saber managers...what does it mean for the Astros?

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With the death of Earl Weaver, we have seen numerous articles discussing his legacy as a manager. Weaver had an intuitive feel for what we now call "sabermetrics;" he was the sabermetrics manager before there was sabermetrics. So it's appropriate to examine Weaver's managerial influence in the "talking sabermetrics" series here at TCB. To a great extent, I will rely on Chris Jaffe's great piece, "11 things I didn't know about Earl Weaver," at the Hardball Times. Jaffe is the most well known saber expert on evaluating managers---he knows much more than I about managers and their effect on baseball games.

As the Astros begin a new season with a new manager, we can squint and see an interesting connection to Weaver. Jaffe points out Weaver's imprint on Nationals' manager Davey Johnson. Johnson was a savvy second baseman for Weaver, and Jaffe sees him as the modern descendent of Weaver's managerial philosophy. Well, guess what? Bo Porter coached under Johnson with the Nationals. Maybe the Weaver lineage is spreading to Houston.

It's not just sabermetricians who have pointed to Weaver as the "moneyball" manager. Writers as diverse as George Will and Tom Verducci made the same observation. Verducci quotes Billy Beane:

"I made no bones about it when I first got the job: I always wanted the next Earl Weaver as manager. Earl was ahead of his time. He understood offensive baseball, pitching rotations, the efficiency of three-run homers versus a single and a sac bunt...if you get to the core of what he accomplished, he was the template of the way I'd like to run a team. Consciously or not, he understood mathematics and probability."

Weaver wrote a book on managerial strategy which stated the principle, "your most precious possession on offense is 27 outs." That was almost 30 years ago. Verducci quotes Theo Epstein as saying he was 'blown away" when he read Weaver's managerial strategy book a few years ago.

Bases on Balls and OBP

Rightfully, Weaver is famous for his love of 3 run Home Runs. He realized that the power game was much more important to winning than small ball tactics. At the time, managers like Gene Mauch were sometimes referred to as the "scientific" managers because of their devotion to bunting, moving runners over, etc. But Weaver was disdainful of their tactics.

However, the overlooked part of Weaver's philosophy was the recognition of walks and OBP as offensive keys. For the period 1969 - 1981, Weaver's Orioles had such a massive lead over the rest of the league in drawing walks that it is clear that he was constructing and managing a team by a different book than everybody else. Jaffe says: "Weaver’s Birds are so far ahead [in walks] that the second-place Red Sox are nearly as close to last as they are to Baltimore."

Verducci talked to an elderly Weaver in recent years about "moneyball." He hadn't heard of moneyball, but Weaver became excited when Verducci mentioned Beane's OBP philosophy: "That was my favorite right there, on-base percentage!" As an example, Weaver explained that the previous Orioles manager had played outfielder Don Buford sparingly. Weaver told Buford he would play regularly if he could get his OBP up to .400 and walk 100 times per year. Verducci points out that Buford's career OBP was .335 before Weaver took over the team, and increased to .388 by the end of his career under Weaver.

Pitching and Defense

People focus so much on the Orioles' offense that they overlook the value that Weaver placed on team defense. Weaver was willing to give regular playing time to a few weak offensive players like Paul Blair and Mark Belanger in order to reap the benefits of plus-defense. He figured that exceptional power hitting at low value defensive positions like first base (Boog Powell) would offset the weak offense by the key defensive players. According to the advanced defensive metric, Total Zone, Weaver managed the best defensive team of all time; and according to Jaffe, Weaver's teams are the only teams in baseball history to exceed 11 dWAR in a season.

Most people realized that Weaver's teams had extremely productive pitching rotations, with multiple 20 game winners in many seasons. However, it is the interplay of defense and pitching which made the Orioles' rotations special. Weaver demanded two things from his pitchers: great control; and induce the batter to put the ball in play in the direction of the Oriole's superior defense. Jaffe points out:

Baltimore pitchers never were much for striking batters out. Only the Royals and Brewers fanned fewer from 1969 to 82. Weaver didn’t need flamethrowers as long as his fielders caught the ball. What Weaver needed from his pitchers was control. Only the Yankees walked fewer batters than Weaver’s squad did from 1969 to 82. Weaver thus had complementing defensive strengths; his pitchers wouldn’t short-circuit the defenders by issuing any free passes, and in turn, the defenders would bail out the hurlers when need be. This made the sum more than the whole of its parts.

In some ways, this reminds me of the way that the saber oriented Rays have constructed and managed their teams. The Rays are well known for using their defensive strength and shift tactics to develop DIPS-busting pitching rotations. Out of curiosity, I compared the relative pitching BABIP performance of Weaver's Orioles and Maddon's Rays:

(Team BABIP/ League BABIP/ Difference)

Orioles (1969 - 1973) .254 / .273 / .188

Rays (2008 - 2012) .277 / .294 / .177

We have seen the Astros draft starting pitchers with advanced control this year. If the Astros can develop position players with advanced defensive ability (Carlos Correa anyone?) to go with those pitchers, maybe the Astros can construct a Weaver-esque pitching rotation.

No Pressure, Bo

We could discuss other Weaver strategies--strong bench depth, giving each player a role and playing everybody, match ups and platooning--but you can read Jaffe's article for a more thorough exposition.

I've mentioned that we can see a potential lineage between Weaver and Bo Porter. Grasping at straws? Sure, that's what fans of bad teams must do. But we also know that Weaver was an "unknown" when he took over as the Orioles' manager. Weaver was a minor league manager who had never advanced above AAA as a player. (Weaver credited his own playing talent deficiencies with making him a good manager.) Porter has a similarly unimpressive playing career (like a career OPS+ of 59), and he doesn't have a "name" which is recognized by the casual fan. Maybe Porter can become the Astros' Earl Weaver of the future. Sure, we could say that about every relative unknown who was named a manager. But sometimes it turns out to be true.