Scientific Baseball   (06/06/01)

The Inventors

The Baltimore Orioles from 1894-1898 were probably baseball's first true dynasty.  They were a team of small speedsters and slaphitters in an era when big sluggers dominated the game.  They played what they called "scientific ball": bunts, sacrifices, hit and runs, steals and slap hits.  The name 'scientific ball' came from the fact that they carefully timed and measured every event - the time it takes to run from home to first, how far a bunt had to go so that the hitter could beat it out for a hit, etc - and practiced it enough so that it would work almost every time.  It's what we call "small ball" these days.  But combined with great defense, they made it work well enough to win nearly 68% of their games (452-214) over 5 years and 3 consecutive pennants.  Led by a slick fielding shortstop (Hughie Jennings), a hard-nosed third baseman (John McGraw) and two outfielders who hit everything (Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley), the O's got on base and did everything possible to get their runners home, including occasionally cheating*.  Whether it was with bat control, speed or invention - the O's are credited with perfecting both the suicide squeeze and the Baltimore chop - they proved more than a handful for their opposition

Whitey Herzog led the St. Louis Cardinals to 3 World Series appearances and a championship in 6 years playing a similar style of baseball in the 1980s.  Like the O's, the Cards were among the league leaders in getting on base.  But rather than using a lot of plays to get guys home, they used pure speed.  From 1982-1987, the Cards averaged 242 steals a year.  During that period, only one other team (the Oakland A's in 1982 and 1983) stole as many as 200 in a season.  Led by a slick fielding shortstop (Ozzie Smith), a hard-nosed third baseman (Terry Pendleton) and an outfielder who hit everything (Willie McGee), as well as significant contributions from speedster Vince Coleman and first base slugger Jack Clark, the Cards proved to be more than a handful for their opposition as well.

The Latest

This year, the Minnesota Twins are playing that same kind of ball, and like their predecessors in style, they are proving to be more than a handful.  While they are not led by a slick fielding shortstop or a hard-nosed third baseman, they do play very good defense.  And despite the fact that they don't have an outfielder who hits everything - first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz comes the closest to that description at .337/.412/.558 - they do have a number of quality hitters who do the little things to move runners along and have enough speed to beat out infield hits.  Small ball has worked before.  Can the Twins continue to their current success - winning percentage of .661 - to a championship as their predecessors did?

The Payoff?

Probably not and for 2 very good reasons.

The first is that both the Orioles and the Cardinals played in a time when the sluggers weren't as productive as the guys mashing the balls around today.  From 1894-1898, there were only 6 players who topped .600 slugging percentage in a season, two of them (Ed Delahanty and Sam Thompson) turning the trick twice.  During the 80's, only 5 players topped .600.  In 1999 alone, there were 10 players who topped .600.  Last year, that number rose to 16.  This season, there are nearly 19 with 2 more players - Troy Glaus and Phil Nevin - within 2 points of .600.  The environment is such that a team without sluggers simply can not sustain a substantial enough offensive attack to keep winning.

The second thing working against the Twins is their own ballpark.  Both the O's and the Cards played in parks that favored pitchers and gap hitters.  The Twins play one of the most favorable parks for hitters, especially left handed sluggers.  Without some pop in the line-up, eventually the Twins will simply get outslugged and overpowered.  Considering the number of homers that the Twins pitchers give up, that time is coming soon.

So while their story is a great one - going from last to first by playing a rarely used style of baseball - the Minnesota Twins run at the top will be coming to an end.  It's also unlikely that they can take it to the playoffs as they have very little in the way of reinforcements on the farm to either help them down the stretch or trade for some help.  But it certainly is fun to watch while it lasts.

* For many games there would only be one umpire.  John McGraw became famous for taking advantage of this fact on outfield hits by simply cutting across the diamond from first to third, completely bypassing second base.  He was also known to hold on to runner's belts at third base when they tried to tag up and go home on a sac fly.

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