Tuesday, December 8, 2015

1951. "The Giants win the pennant!" How?

What few people realize is that manager Chuck Dressen was the one who blew that pennant for the Dodgers. In the three-game playoff against the Giants, Dressen did not give a single start to his 22-3 pitcher, Preacher Rowe, who also had the club's best ERA and had thrown 19 complete games, including four complete game victories in September. Instead he gave a start and a key relief appearance to Ralph Branca, who lost both of the team's playoff defeats! During the season, Branca had been a mediocre 13-12 for a team that won 97 games, and had completely fallen apart in the last month of the season. Presumably Dressen did not want to start the left-handed, soft-tossing Rowe against the Giants, whose best hitters (Thomson, Mays, Irvin, Dark and Stanky) were all right-handed. But that logic tends to fall to pieces in light of the fact that Rowe had pitched in four games against the Giants that year, and the Dodgers had won three of the four, losing only in a game in which they were shut out by Sal Maglie, which was hardly Rowe's fault.

Another 1951 mystery was Dressen's decision not to warm up Preacher Rowe in that key situation in game three.

  • Thomson had been the hottest hitter in the NL in the second half of the year. From July 22nd on, he batted .356 with an OPS of 1.104. (During the same period, the great Stan Musial had batted .336 with an OPS of 1.048.) And Thomson saved his best days for the Dodgers. He had hit eight homers against the Dodgers that year in 89 at-bats. Moreover, Thomson was still getting hotter by the week. He had been totally "in the zone" from August 22nd on, having batted .427 with power and walks in that stretch. In the final 15 games, Thompson had at least one hit in every one and batted .449 with a .542 OBP and a .980 slugging average. In Thomson's previous plate appearances in that very game, he had two hits and a long run-scoring flyball. (That was 2-for-2 modern style, but 2-for-3 at the time. From 1940 to 1953, as well as in other periods, a sacrifice fly was counted as a time at bat.)

  • Meanwhile Branca was 1-7 in September-October, with an ERA of 5.71, including a loss in game one of the same playoffs, when he gave up a homer to ... (wait for it) ... Bobby Thomson. In his last five appearances before the playoff, his ERA was 9.69. That's not a misprint. He was knocked out of the box in all of his starts. In his final start before the playoff, he never retired a single batter!

Statistician Allan Roth knew that Roe was a better bet than Branca, but "Dressen didn't want to see it," Roth told author Lee Heiman. "He made little or no use of the information I provided. The man didn't want help from anybody. He thought he could do it all by himself. It's always been that way with the big ego managers. They couldn't believe a statistician sitting in the stands could give them information they didn't know themselves. So Charlie ignored me."

Even after deciding on Branca, Dressen missed one more strategic move. With first base open and one out, he should have walked red-hot Thomson to pitch to callow 20-year-old Willie Mays, who had struggled against Branca that year (.105 with no RBI), and was cold in October (one for ten). This also would have kept the possible double play intact and set up a force at any base. But Dressen was not exactly Tony LaRussa in the analysis department, and made every possible miscalculation.

If not for Dressen's bungling, Bobby Thomson, although a solid player, would be remembered only by baseball geeks. As it stands, his name will be known to every serious fan for as long as men remember baseball itself, for the moment on October 3, 1951 which is enshrined in the video below.



Preacher Roe's 22-3 record in 1951 wasn't really some kind of fluke. He pitched seven years for the Dodgers and finished with a record of 93-37, for an incredible winning percentage of .715. In the five consecutive seasons when he started at least 24 games, his WORST season was 19-11.

And he basically did that with no fastball. As he himself said, "I got three pitches: my change, my change off my change, and my change off my change off my change." He is dimly remembered today, but that lanky fella from Ash Flat, Arkansas could pitch.

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