Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Remembering a Great Team: The 1963-67 White Sox

I wrote this a few years ago for the Chicago Sports Review. I thought I would post it again since Rob Neyer just had a blog entry titled White Sox by 'eras,' 1901-2010. Here is my original article. It corresponds to what Neyer calles the "The Joe Horlen Era."

The 1963-67 White Sox were an outstanding team that deserves to be remembered. Although they did not win any pennants in this time, these Sox were the first team in the twentieth century to have the best winning percentage over a five year period without finishing first in their league in even one season. Of course, this was back when there were no divisions and the first place team automatically made it to the World Series. Here are the top 10 teams over this period:

The Sox did not just have a good record, they also had a very good run differential. The Sox outscored their opponents by 469 runs, second only to the Twins’ 561. But if we use what Bill James calls the “Pythagorean winning percentage,” the Sox almost pull even with the Twins. You square runs scored then divide that by runs scored squared plus runs allowed squared. The Twins come out at .584 while the Sox come out at .582 (meaning the Sox may have been a bit unlucky).

The Sox were only serious contenders in two of these five seasons. Although they finished in second in 1963 with 94 wins, they finished 10.5 games behind the Yankees. Their last day in first was June 14th and by Sept. 1, they were 12 games out. In 1965, the Sox finished 7 games behind the Twins, but their last day in first was June 28th and by Sept. 1 they were 7.5 games out. Then on the 15th they were 10 games out. In 1966, the Sox finished 4th, 15 games out.

The two close calls were the disappointing, if not heart breaking, 1964 and 1967 seasons. In 1964, the Sox finished only 1 game behind the Yankees with 98 wins, a total which would have been enough to win the pennant in both 1966 and 1967. At the end of the day on August 20th, the Sox were in first place, a half a game ahead of the Orioles and 4.5 ahead of the Yankees after sweeping them four straight in Chicago. But the Sox played no more games against New York that year. So they could not stop the Yankee juggernaut which went 30-13 from then on. The Sox, although they won their last nine games of the season, only went 23-17 after this point Their last day in sole possession of first was Sept. 9th and they were eliminated on the next to last day of the season.

1967 might be even more disappointing. At the close of play on Sept. 26, the Sox were 89-68, one game behind the Twins who were 91-69. The Sox unfortunately went on to lose a double header to last place Kansas City by scores of 5-2 and 4-0. Then they got swept by 6th place Washington by scores of 1-0, 4-0, and 4-3. They were actually eliminated on Sept. 29th in that first loss to the Senators.

The hallmark of the Sox during these years was the pitching staff. The two big starters, who were there for the whole period, were Gary Peters and Joe Horlen. Peters went 77-49 with a 2.49 ERA. Horlen was 66-49 with a 2.42 ERA. Peters was the 1963 Rookie of the Year and led the AL in ERA twice. Horlen led once. Those ERAs were certainly helped by pitching in Comiskey Park, which allowed about 14% fewer runs than average. But even a more sophisticated stat called RSAA or runs saved above average, which takes park factors into account, shows that Sox pitchers were outstanding in this period. Here are the leaders for both leagues:

Sandy Koufax 173
Juan Marichal 168
Jim Bunning 131
Jim Maloney 118
Bob Gibson 102
Gary Peters 96
Joe Horlen 86
Hoyt Wilhelm 85

Horlen and Peters are joined by ace reliever and knuckleball artist, Hall-of-Famer Hoyt Wilhelm. He saved 86 games while compiling a 1.95 ERA. Other standout pitchers include Juan Pizarro who went 16-8 in 1963 with a 2.39 ERA and 19-8 in 1964 with a 2.56 ERA. Tommy John won 38 games from 1965-67 with an ERA of 2.72. Reliever Eddie Fisher was 15-7 in 1965 with 24 saves and a 2.40 ERA, good enough for second in the league. In four of the five years, the Sox led the AL in ERA adjusted for park differences, twice being 27% better than average. No other team reached 27% in the whole decade of the 1960s, not even the Koufax led Dodgers, who only topped 20% once (it was 26% better than average).

Despite the great staff, no Sox pitcher won the Cy Young award. One reason is that only one award was given for both leagues up through 1966. With the great Koufax winning three of the four awards from 1963-66, it was tough for anyone else. The 1967 AL award probably should have gone to Horlen, who was 19-7 with a 2.08 ERA in 258 innings. But it went instead to Jim Lonborg of the pennant winning Red Sox who went 22-9 with a 3.16 ERA in 273 innings. Although Horlen pitched in a more favorable park, he still beat Lonborg in RSAA, 25-18. Bill James gives Horlen 23 Win Shares to Lonborg’s 19. Even with the stats in Horlen’s favor, in the mind of the voters, Lonborg’s being the one who made 20 wins, and for a pennant winner, must have been decisive. Horlen got two votes, Lonborg 18.

The Sox had good fielders helped the pitching staff prevent runs. Center fielder Jim Landis, one of the few veterans left from the pennant winning team in 1959, won Gold Gloves in both 1963 and 1964 (second baseman Nellie Fox was there for just 1963 and Luis Aparicio had been traded after the 1962 season). Rookie of the Year Tommie Agee took one in 1966. Ken Berry, who played all the OF positions full-time from 1965-67, got one, but not until 1970. But there were other fine fielders. Shortstop Ron Hansen was the best fielder in both 1963 and 64, according the stat guru Bill James’ “Win Shares” method. Tommie Agee was the best twice, Ken Berry was second once and another outfielder, Mike Hershberger, was third once.

The weak spot for the Sox was their hitting. Over this period, their team OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) was about 3% below average, after taking park effects into account. There were not too many good hitting seasons, but the best Sox hitters during this time were probably third baseman Pete Ward and outfielder Floyd Robinson. Ward hit .295 with 22 HRs in 1963 and hit .282 with 23 HRs in 1964. His career was hurt by injuries after that. He did finish 9th in “offensive winning percentage” or OWP in 1964 with .666 (its another stat from Bill James). He just missed the top 10 in 1963. Robinson was the only Sox .300 hitter with .301 in 1964, when he was 8th in the AL with a .667 OWP. Don Buford was 10th in OWP in 1965 at .640 while batting .283 (actually very good for the 60s in Comiskey Park).

Other notable hitting performances include Bill “Moose” Skowron who hit 18 HRs and batted .274 in 1965. Hansen’s 20 HRs and .261 AVG in 1964 were pretty good for a SS. Agee batted .273 in 1966 with 22 HRs and 44 SBs. Catcher John Romano had fine seasons in 1965 and 1966, hitting 18 and 15 HRs. Although he only batted .242 and .231, his good on-base percentages of .355 and .344 pushed his OWP above .600 both years, which is great for a catcher. The Sox were third in SBs in MLB this period with 466. But they were thrown out 260 times, for 63% success rate, just barely above the average rate of 61.8%. So they were not exactly the “go-go” Sox.Buford stole 51 bases in 1966 for the best Sox total of the period. Agee’s 44 was second.

It could be tempting to look at the weak offense as the reason for missing out on pennants in both 1964 and 1967, especially considering that the Sox once had good hitters like Norm Cash, Johnny Callison, Don Mincher and Earl Battey but traded them away. Cash had over a .600 OWP in both those years while hitting over 20 HRs. McCraw was .505 and .474. Callison went over .600 in 1964 with 30 HRs and 100 RBIs. After Robinson, that was much better than any other Sox outfielder. The Sox could be blamed for trading those young prospects for quality, but aging veterans after 1959 in hopes of getting back to back pennants. This may not be fair. Let’s see why.

Cash was traded to the Indians and this brought Minnie Minoso back to the south side. None of the other players the Sox got in that one amounted to much or were traded for anyone who played key roles from 1963-67. But losing Cash hurt in the long run and there was no short term gain, as the Sox, of course, did not repeat in 1960.

Callison was traded for Gene Freese, who had a solid year for the Sox in 1960. That was all he did. But he was later traded for Pizarro, who turned in some good years (Pizarro was later traded for Wilbur Wood, who turned in a solid year in 1967). Battey was traded for slugger Roy Sievers, who hit over 20 HRs and had over 90 RBIs for two seasons. He was later traded for Buzhardt, who pitched alot for the Sox but was just a journeyman.

Mincher would have been a big help. A first baseman, his OWP in 1967 went over .700 playing almost full-time for the Angels. He hit 200 career HRs with a very solid .348 on-base percentage. On balance, these trades hurt. But one of the bad trades did lead to Pizarro and the Sox turned some good trades, too. The Sox got Agee, Romano, and Tommy John before the 1965 season for Landis and Hershberger, players who did not do much after that. Another big trade was when the Sox got Hansen, Wilhelm, Dave Nicholson and Ward from Baltimore for Aparicio and Al Smith in January, 1963. So we can’t blame trades since there some good ones and some bad ones.

The following players received votes for the AL MVP award: 1963-Peters finished 8th in the voting and Ward 9th. 1964-Ward 6th, Peters 7th, Robinson 15th and Hansen 16th. 1965-Fisher, 4th. 1966-Agee, 8th. 1967-Horlen, 4th (ahead of Lonborg, who was 6th!!), Peters, 8th, Hansen, 14th (who was also 17th another year). Sure looks like Hansen should be remembered as one of the top AL players of the mid-60s.

To round things out, here are the players and pitchers who were on the Sox for all five years: Peters, Horlen, utility infielder Al Weis, Hansen, Ward, part-time catcher J.C. Martin, first baseman Tommy McCraw, infielder Don Buford, and pitcher John Buzhardt. Hansen was the starting SS for all but 1966 when he was hurt. Ward was the regular 3B man except for 1966 when he only played half the season. The following pitchers and players were there for four seasons: Robinson, pitchers Fisher and Buzhardt. Plus who could forget pinch hitting specialist Smoky Burgess, who did have 5ABs in 1964. These players were the core of a great team.

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