— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Casey’s Yankees Revisited: Pitching, Defense, And Balls in Play
The Baseball Crank takes a look at the team defense of one of baseball’s greatest dynasties.
How did they do it?
To statistical analysts of the game, the New York Yankees of the late 1940s to early 1960s have long been something of a mystery. Sure, the team had three unquestioned Hall of Famers in their primes (Mickey, Yogi and Whitey), two of whom are at least arguably the best ever at their positions. And sure, they were a deep, talented team, with many second-tier stars and a talent pipeline replenished by unmatched financial resources (i.e., signing bonuses, in that pre-draft era), sweetheart deals with major league "farm teams" like the Kansas City A?s, and good old-fashioned good management and good judgment of talent. But plenty of teams have had great talent cores, good supporting players and good management, teams like the Ruth/Gehrig Yankees, the Cochrane/Grove/Foxx/Simmons A?s, the Morgan/Bench/Rose/Perez Reds, and others. Why were these Yankees so uniquely successful? Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, in Baseball Dynasties, and Bill James, in his book on managers, both specifically ask how these teams were often able to produce great pitching staffs out of Whitey plus a bunch of guys who rarely or never pitched well anywhere else. What was their secret?
Well, I had a hunch based on an idea that?s gained some currency in recent years, and it may give the beginnings of an answer to the question.
As most readers of this site are no doubt aware, the world of statistical analysis of baseball was turned on its ear a few years back by Voros McCracken?s novel restatement of Bill James? longstanding dictum that "much of what appears to be pitching is in fact defense." McCracken?s conclusion, put simply, was that pitchers control how many balls are put in play against them ? since the pitcher greatly influences the number of batters who walk, strike out or homer against them ? but that there is little difference in individual pitchers? ability, from one pitcher to the next, to cause balls in play to become hits or outs. In other words, all else being equal, all pitchers will have similar rates of Balls in Play Average (BIP%), the percentage of balls in play against them that become hits. Thus, differences in BIP% are usually the result of differences in defense or luck rather than pitching ability.
Subsequent research has modified McCracken?s theorem a bit ? knuckleballers, for example, tend to have lower BIP% as a group. But the governing assumption holds up to substantial scrutiny.
What does this have to do with Casey?s Yankees? Well, maybe quite a lot. Because it turns out that the Yankees had a BIP% lower than the league average ? often a lot lower than the league average ? every year in the 1949-64 era. In other words, this team was as much a dominant defensive team, relative to the competition, as it was a great hitting or pitching team. And given the extreme dominance of this team overall, that fact may justify reevaluating how much defense can really mean to a winning baseball team.
Let?s run the numbers. I used two different sources here (baseball-reference.com and the STATS All-Time Baseball Sourcebook), only one of which (the latter) used thirds of an inning, and I computed the BIP% in each case from simple division of the following formula:
BIP% = (H - HR) / (((IP) * 3) + H ? HR ? K)
Here are the Yankees? numbers from 1946 to 1967 ? from 3 years before Casey?s arrival to 3 years after the dynasty?s end ? compared to the BIP% for the other 7 (or, after 1961, the other 9) teams in the AL:
You will notice that the Yankees were already a good defensive team in 1946-47 but had an off-year in 1948; the team showed immediate and lasting improvement under Casey, becoming a truly dominating defensive team from 1955 through 1961; the team remained well above average defensively under Ralph Houk and Yogi from 1961-64, and when the defense slipped back to the pack in 1965, the dynasty evaporated.
Now, a few notes on the numbers. (Apologies where I?ve left some loose ends uncalculated; I do all my calculations by hand. Someone with a good database should feel free to check my calculations and double check some of the loose ends here).
First, attentive readers will notice that the formula above is really hits on balls in play compared to outs on balls in play ? I?ve counted a double play as two balls in play rather than one. This is a significant part of the Yankees? advantage, though not enough by itself to make up the difference. As Bill James observed in his book on managers, these Yankees completely dominated their opponents on the double play, leading the league six times in Stengel?s twelve years at the helm and averaging about 40 more DPs than their opponents (owing as well to the team?s knack for avoiding double plays on offense). I haven?t run the cumulative numbers, but the Yankees BIP% advantage comes to anywhere from 70-130 hits a year in this period; the double play advantage accounts for around 20-25 of those, at most.
Second, you may wonder if there is a park effect at work here. Yankee Stadium in the 1950s was an extreme pitcher?s park; less clear is why it was a pitcher?s park (i.e., what elements of offense it hurt the most). There are a few ways to check, and I did a little checking here. For example, I checked the Yankee offense?s BIP% against the rest of the league from 1949-54; they came out at +.003, even, even, +.014, +.011, and +.009. (Note that the offensive BIP% figures do not double count DPs). A good offense should be above the league average in this, and the Yankees had very good offenses, so these results could still be consistent with a pitcher?s park effect. But they certainly don?t prove one.
What about other years further in time? I checked a few ? the Yanks came in at -.025 in 1942, and -.026, -.026, -.023, and -.052 from 1936-39. Maybe that means that Yankee Stadium is an easy place to have great defenses, or maybe that means that those were also great defensive teams. As with many other aspects of the game, I suspect that if you go further back in time, you will see greater variation among teams in general in BIP%.
The other item worth reviewing was individual pitchers, and here again I didn?t get to everyone, but sampled a few of the more prominent guys who moved around to other teams. The results, while not uniform, strongly support the idea that something ? the team, the park, or both ? gave pitchers a huge advantage when they arrived in the Bronx:
1946-48 Yankees: 285/1129, .252
1943-48 Yankees: 109/524, .208
1955 Yankees: 89/325, .274
1955-59 Yankees: 608/2378, .256
1953-54 Browns/Orioles: 385/1392, .277
1954-56 A?s: 427/1615, .264
1951-54 Browns/Orioles: 217/911, .238
1955-59 Yankees: 404/1644, .246
1955-56 A?s: 199/753, .264
Turley, a successful pitcher despite deplorable control, seems to have had a genuine ability to turn BIP into outs, peaking with BIP% figures of .215 in 1957 and .213 in his Cy Young season of 1958. Most of the others, though, show a strong effect, most notably Don Larsen.
I wanted to check the numbers against Bill James? Win Shares system, but Win Shares places some artificial upper limits on the credit it gives for team defense. I believe that the evidence set forth above strongly suggests that the Yankees of 1949-64 were an outstanding defensive team, and that this constituted a substantial factor in their consistent dominance.
But there is much more to learn. Were these Yankee teams truly historic in their defensive accomplishments, or have other successful teams had long runs of defensive dominance? What, really, is the impact of park effects on BIP%? Do teams with exceptional defenses do better in the postseason? Further study in these areas is a promising field for understanding facets of the game?s history that were always there on the field and in the numbers but never properly accounted for. You could look it up.