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.