Earl Weaver (1930-2013)

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Glenn Gulliver exemplifies what it was that made Earl Weaver different as a manager from his contemporaries. It wasn’t Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr.—all Hall of Famers. Nor was it Ken Singleton, Boog Powell, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar—consistently top performers. It wasn’t Steve Stone or Wayne Garland—pitchers who had their best seasons under Weaver; it wasn’t Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein (an MVP-quality platoon) or role players Benny Ayala and Terry Crowley; it wasn’t even the one year Weaver had Reggie Jackson on his team and punctuated Jackson’s arrival by screaming in his face because Reggie wasn’t wearing a tie on the team plane. (Brooks Robinson found him one and explained how things worked in Baltimore—Earl’s way or…well, it was just Earl’s way. Reggie behaved that year.) It wasn’t the frequent ejections, the foul mouth, the chain-smoking, the public ripping of players, his longevity and consistency.

It was none of that.

It was a nondescript third baseman whom the Orioles purchased from the Indians prior to the 1982 season and who played in 73 big league games, 50 under Weaver. Gulliver, more than any other player, shows why Weaver was ahead of his time. If he were playing today, the two things Gulliver did well would’ve gotten him a multi-year contract as an in demand asset because he: A) walked a lot; and B) could catch the ball at third base.

Gulliver batted .200 in his 50 games under Weaver and walked so much that he had a .363 on base percentage. Weaver saw this, knew this, and could only wonder about the stupidity of those who questioned why Gulliver was playing at all with his low batting average.

Twenty years before Moneyball and everyone thinking they were a genius because they watched baseball for five minutes and knew how to read a stat sheet, Weaver was an actual genius and innovator by using a discarded player who other clubs had no clue was so valuable.

For all the talk of Weaver’s use of statistics, riding his starting pitchers, putting a premium on defense and battles with Palmer and Davey Johnson, the concept that Weaver was a dictator who didn’t know how to be flexible is only half-true. He was a ruthless dictator off the field, but on the field, he was willing to go to whatever lengths he needed in order to win.

Weaver’s teams were always near the top of the league in certain categories. They weren’t always the same. Many times, at the plate, it was on base percentage. On the mound, it was complete games and shutouts. Weaver was known not to be a fan of the riskiness of the stolen base, but as he looked at his transitioning club from 1973-1975 and realized he wouldn’t have the power to win, he let his players loose on the basepaths because he had no other alternative and during those years they were at or near the top of the American League in stolen bases.

If Weaver were managing today, that would be seen as “evolution,” or “adapting.” It wasn’t any of that. Often, the question has been asked how Weaver would function today if he were managing; if the old-school techniques of, “I’m the boss, shut up,” would fly with the multi-millionaire players who can get the manager fired if they choose to do so.

Like wondering why he was using Gulliver, it’s a stupid question. Because Weaver was so ahead of his time as a manager using statistics and that he adjusted and won regardless of his personnel, he would have won whenever he managed.

If a player had any talent to do anything at all, Weaver found it and exploited it for as long as he could, then he discarded them. He did so without apology.

Old-school managers who tear into the absence of the human element, increase of instant replay, and use of numbers are doing so because these techniques are marginalizing them and potentially taking their jobs away. Do you really believe that Weaver wouldn’t have wanted expanded instant replay? To have a better method to find tiny advantages over his opponents through numbers? The older managers who’ve subtly changed have hung around. The ones who couldn’t, haven’t.

On the other hand, Weaver wouldn’t have responded well to agents calling him and complaining over a pitcher’s workload; or to have a kid out of Harvard walking up to him and telling him he should bat X player in Y spot because of a reason that Weaver was probably already aware of and dismissed; or bloggers and the media constantly haranguing, second-guessing and criticizing managers and GMs endure today. But he always altered his strategy to the circumstances and he would’ve continued to do so if he managed in any era.

Interestingly, Weaver retired very young at age 52, then came back to manage a terrible team for a couple of more years before finally retiring for good at 56. In a day when Charlie Manuel, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre managed in their late-60s and early 70s, and Jack McKeon won a World Series at 74 and came back to manage again at 81, could Weaver had continued on? Could he have taken a couple of years off in his 50s and returned? Absolutely. He would’ve been well-compensated and just as successful as he was when he was in his 30s and 40s for one simple reason: he knew what he was doing. And that’s about as great a compliment that a manager can get.

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A.J. Burnett’s Yankees Epitaph

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There are some pitchers who need to be left alone.

Because pitching coaches are pitching coaches, they feel the need to jump in whenever they see something amiss or the results are lacking and adhere to mandate of “do something” even if there’s really nothing to be done other than letting the pitcher try to straighten himself out or wait for him to come and ask for help.

Upon his arrival at Pirates’ camp, A.J. Burnett made a few comments about his time with the Yankees that have been taken as criticisms of the Yankee organization.

Here’s Burnett’s quote from this piece in the Washington Post:

“I let a few too many people tinker with me, maybe,” Burnett said. “When you let that happen, you start doubting yourself sometimes. You wonder, ‘Am I doing it right? Is this how it’s supposed to feel?’ and things like that. In ‘09, nobody messed with me. I was able to do what I wanted to do on the mound, whether it was turn around, close my eyes and pitch upside down. Then you have a few bad games and you start changing and listening.”

There are absolutely pitchers who have to be hounded; some have to be cajoled; others need to be left alone. It’s up to the individual pitching coach to gauge and determine how best to unlock the potential and get the pitcher to be the best he can be or to find a way for him to get hitters out regardless of stuff.

Earl Weaver and his pitching coaches George Bamberger and Ray Miller were great at that. Weaver would spot a flaw in a pitcher, whether it was a pitch he shouldn’t be throwing or a pitch he should throw and didn’t have in his repertoire, and he’d have his pitching coach instruct him on how to throw it; if the pitcher resisted, Weaver would ask him if he wanted to be a loser all his life—but he only intervened as the enforcer and left the tactical and mechanical work to the pitching coaches.

It worked with Mike Torrez, Steve Stone and Ross Grimsley among others.

Greg Maddux openly says that Dick Pole was the pitching coach who influenced him most on his way up to the big leagues, but Pole has bounced from team to team because he insinuates himself on the manager. Some managers don’t like that.

So there’s a limit to what the pitching coach can do and much of it is contingent on the manager and the pitchers.

I’m not blaming Joe Girardi, Dave Eiland, Larry Rothschild, Mike Harkey or any of the other Yankees’ staff members for Burnett’s complaints, but because Burnett struggled with inconsistency for much of his time as a Yankee and again proved why he’s basically a .500 pitcher in spite of having all-world stuff, there could be something to Burnett’s statements. It could be that the Yankees should’ve just tossed their hands in the air and let him be rather than immediately fiddle with him. They tried everything else.

As for Burnett, if this was a problem, he should’ve expressed it earlier rather than be polite and incorporate every little suggestion he received. Tom Seaver pushed back if his pitching coaches and catchers tried to interfere with him when he felt strongly about something. Perhaps Burnett’s lack of focus and lapses in competitiveness stem from his laid back personality. If he were a little more feisty, he and the Yankees might’ve been a lot better off.

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