Evaluating Comiskey's legacy

Before Charles Comiskey was the owner of the White Sox through their first three decades of existence, he was a hellluva manager for the St. Louis Browns.
However, even though he “only” owned the team, he may have been one of the White Sox’s best managers, too.  He may have chosen an executive’s chair for the dugout bench, but the traits of the early Chicago clubs match those of his St. Louis squads — even though he went through a great number of managers.

The cover of "Evaluating Baseball's Managers"
The cover of "Evaluating Baseball's Managers"
So says Chris Jaffe, who provided me with a sample of his upcoming book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers: A History and Analysis of Performance in the Major Leagues, 1876–2008.” The excerpt covered nine of the men who manned the helm of the Sox over their 109 years of existence, but the write-up on the guy who never managed the Sox looms the largest.
Jaffe divides the 2,700+ words almost equally between Comiskey’s lives as manager and owner, and he does a fine job diagramming how his time in the former role influenced decisions made in the latter.
Did you know that Comiskey is only one of six managers in history to win four consecutive pennants?  Comiskey’s Browns were American Association champs from 1885 to 1888, and he accomplished it through pitching and defense. The formula sounds simple now, but Jaffe’s research indicates that Comiskey was probably the first to match his position players’ defensive skills to his pitchers’ tendencies. St. Louis’ pitchers weren’t big strikeout guys, so Comiskey focused on minimizing the controllable mistakes — walks for the pitchers, errors for the fielders — to massive success.
Probably not by coincidence, the early White Sox teams shared the same characteristics.  Over the first 31 years of the franchise’s history, the Sox walked the fewest batters, and ranked atop both lists of Fielding Win Shares and Defensive Efficiency Ratio.
Tied to Comiskey’s prioritization of run prevention was his starting pitcher usage.  The Old Roman didn’t count on his pitchers to strike out hitters as much as direct batted balls to the seven guys behind him.  Therefore, he needed only a couple of good control guys to exert a moderate amount of effort, and he’d ride the hell out of them.  With the St. Louis Browns, he used Silver King (tremendous baseball name) to eat up 585 2/3 innings in a single season, a total surpassed by only two players after him.
Nobody on Comiskey’s White Sox came within mortar distance of that number, but the game had changed.  Still, within the context, the good starters still did heavy lifting.  Over Comiskey’s 31 years, the White Sox’s top three starters worked 1,211 innings more than the top three of the Washington Senators, the next-closest team.  In this list, the difference between the first- and second-place teams is greater than the second- and last-place teams (901 innings).
And when Comiskey had a terrific starter on his hands, he (or in this case, manager Fielder Jones, who is also profiled) would throw an enormous workload on his back. In the early days, Ed Walsh was the man, as evidenced by working 886 innings over 1907 and 1908 (with a 1.50 ERA).
Comiskey’s approach served the Sox enormously well through the team’s first score.  The Sox may have needed decades to figure out how to replicate the success, but it wasn’t the model’s fault.  Jaffe writes:

Most important of all, Comiskey’s formula was not merely something he personally utilized; it may be the most commonly replicated route to success in baseball history.  In particular, the effort to place control pitchers before terrific fielders was adopted by numerous managers in the years since Comiskey left the dugout.  This style of baseball became the style of play from 1893 to 1920, as skippers such as Fred Clarke, John McGraw, Pat Moran, Buck Ewing, Frank Selee, and Frank Chance owed varying degrees of debt to Comiskey’s system.  It remained a vital template for lively ball era managers, including Bill McKechnie, Joe McCarthy, Billy Southworth, Paul Richards, Al Lopez, Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Tom Kelly, Bobby Cox, and Ron Gardenhire, who all used variations on this approach.  Some focus on pitchers more, or do not lean on their starters as much, or put more emphasis on the offense.  All, however, fostered a symbiotic relationship between their pitchers and fielders.  The former would not put men on and the latter would take care of the rest.  Moran, McKechnie, Lopez, and Weaver most closely followed Comiskey’s theory of run prevention.  They all prioritized superb gloves playing behind control pitchers who ate up tremendous numbers of innings.
Charles Comiskey created one of the greatest approaches to winning in baseball history.

No, the problem stemmed from shoddy talent evaluation over the course of decades.  The Black Sox Scandal blew the team’s core to bits, rendering the franchise ill-prepared for the Ruthian revolution.  The Sox couldn’t find bats, couldn’t develop their own, and after Comiskey died in 1931, they lacked the front office smarts and stability to engender any sort of renaissance.
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Reading the few dozen pages Jaffe provided to me, it reminded me of the awkwardness surrounding U.S. Cellular Field’s name.
There’s nothing graceful about U.S. Cellular Field, or its shorthand moniker, “The Cell.”  Yet Comiskey Park — or New Comiskey, or Comiskey Park II — didn’t quite fit, either.  The stadium was too modern, the seats too blue, the fences too close, to merely slap the old name on the new one and pretend it fit.  I call it by both names, and neither feels natural.
From Comiskey to Jimmie Dykes to Al Lopez to Tony La Russa, the one thread linking them is a lack of power from their lineups.  That’s not to say they didn’t have good offenses from time to time, but if they did, their strength resided in an ability to hit for average, draw walks and/or run the bases.  You only need to look at the franchise’s list of home run leaders, where Bill Melton (eighth with 142) is the only player whose South Side career began before 1980.
Six of them made their mark either at the new park at 35th and Shields. For the last two decades (scary that U.S. Cellular Field is almost 20 years old, isn’t it?), White Sox teams largely have comprised mashers without laudable defensive skills, which clashes with Comiskey’s managerial legacy. Really, it’s hard to find any ties between the Comiskey name and the Sox’s game, aside from the fact that the Sox exist.
More recently, Ozzie Guillen’s pitching staffs have clashed with his team’s defensive arrangement.  Outside of the recently traded Javier Vazquez, Guillen’s rotations haven’t been heavy on strikeout pitchers.  Including Vazquez, they haven’t been particularly heavy on groundball  pitchers, either.  Vazquez and Gavin Floyd are flyballers, and while guys like Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, John Danks and Jon Garland can get a double play, they weren’t sinkerballers by any stretch of the imagination.
And yet, behind them, they’ve had some pretty atrocious defensive outfields since 2005.  The instability in center — leading to non-centerfielders like Rob Mackowiak, Nick Swisher and Scott Podsednik to get too-large chunks of playing time — gets most of the attention, but the corners deteriorated in quality, too.  A good Podsednik is now a gimpy Carlos Quentin; a relatively spry Jermaine Dye lost all acceleration.
Guillen may be Comiskeyish in how his starters work harder than just about every other staff in baseball (he’s also Al Lopezish in how he occasionally rearranges the rotation for matchups, but I’m not going to give that away), but there isn’t much connecting the team’s origins and the team’s present.
The recent history makes Kenny Williams’ 2009 offseason a little more interesting, because whether or not Williams moves on a true DH will make an impact on what could finally be a complementary outfield.
For all his faults at the plate, Alex Rios upgrades the outfield dramatically no matter where he plays, and it’s looking like he’ll be in center.  Juan Pierre is more reliable than Scott Podsednik in left.  That just leaves right field, where Carlos Quentin could continue to disappoint if he’s hampered by remnants of his plantar fasciitis.
Quentin could make a better DH in 2010, which would leave Andruw Jones and Mark Kotsay fighting for the final corner spot. Like Rios, it fails to spark the imagination in terms of runs produced, yet it would be a dramatic improvement in runs prevented.  Both are past their primes, but in terms of defense, Dye waved goodbye to his long, long before.
A Pierre-Rios-HalfJones outfield could very well be an offensive trainwreck.  Yet it’s worth mentioning that the Sox will be leaning heavily on the services of yet another flyballer in Jake Peavy.  If you’re looking for some definite silver lining entering the new year, having an outfield that doesn’t turn outs into doubles and singles into triples is one vision to cling to.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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ceverettsdinosaurs

Very interesting piece, Jim. The HR leaderboard really surprised me and I didn’t realize how little I knew about the White Sox history until I read this. The book sounds like an interesting read.

knoxfire30

Peavy is a flyballer compared to being a groundballer, but overall I consider him a strikeout pitcher so the defense behind him isnt a top priority, especially not when this team is going to struggle to score runs as presently constructed

phastphil

Tear down the fences – move em back!
I really don’t believe they though this through when they built the Cell.

phastphil

History is important. I believe this the same reason the Bears suck – the scheme must reflect the history, fans and the City.

cushinglee

One of your best posts ever. I’m going to have to check out this book. It’s time that Charles Comiskey got his due. The man could have got into the Hall of Fame three different ways (as a player, owner, or manager). Unfortunately, Comiskey is the one now blamed for the Black Sox scandal, and the Black Sox are now considered sainted heroes. I’m not saying Comiskey was perfect, but the Black Sox scandal is a lot more complex than just “rich, evil owner” and “noble, working class country ballplayers”.

bigfun

Good stuff on Comiskey – Jaffe’s excerpts and notes on managers on Hardball Times have been well worth reading.
Unrelated, but I didn’t think much of it when Brian Anderson signed with the Royals. I figured he’d be patrolling the outfield in Omaha, or if he was lucky, serving as a fourth outfielder.
Then I read that he’s getting $700,000 and may be the starting CF. O__o
This pretty much nails it: http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2009/12/23/depressing-royals-story-of-the-day/

ricksch

Interesting bits and pieces on the early days. 886 innings in two years and at 1.5! Jack McDowell would love it.
Still think the Sox need and will get a bat. Lots of guys still out there. Another lefty in the pen makes sense too, but seems like KW thinks his bullpen is set. Sadly, if Putz doesn’t pitch well (doesn’t have to be the lights out closer he was but needs to perform far better than Linestink) the pen will be a punching bag.
Anderson will bust in KC too. Guy has defensive skills, but I’ve rarely seem someone so clueless at the plate. Anderson never made the mental leap it takes to go from a gifted college athlete to a professional. At 27, that time has likely passed, but maybe he found a scoop of brains on his pillow.

knoxfire30

JIM, idea for tomorrows blog or your next posting. EVERYONE HAMMER ON PHIL ROGERS DAY!!!! He just ranked the sox as the 12th best starting rotation in baseball, that list is an absolute joke!

stopdrop8

Haha yeah it’s ridiculous. The Cubs are 8th and the tigers are 7th, even though the only caption for them is ” Max Scherzer replaces Edwin Jackson and the bottom of the rotation is a question mark.”

stopdrop8

Later in the same article he also suggests that the cubs could pull off a three team deal in which the red sox trade jacoby ellsbury for adrian gonzalez, and then the cubs trade ” one or two of the top prospects,” for ellsbury

knoxfire30

newspapers were gonna die anyways, but horseshit articles like this make me want to burry them forever