Table of Contents

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

A Winning Tradition: The 1919 Cincinnati Reds - Introduction

Today is the start of a series I've been planning for a few years now: a profile on winning Reds teams throughout history.  We start with the first winning Reds team of the 1900's, the 1919 Cincinnati Reds!  This is exciting for me; the way I have it set up, almost everything is automated with R, save for making a few of the pretty tables in Excel.  This will hopefully allow me to put these posts together much quicker as I work through later teams.  I'm looking forward to this tremendously.

1919 Cincinnati Reds - Table of Contents
The 1919 Reds played in Redland Park, which opened in 1912.
Photo source, c.1920: Wikipedia
The 1919 Reds were the first Cincinnati squad to win their division since the franchise's inaugural team won the debut season of the American Association in 1882.  This team's championship came at a really interesting time.  World War I had just ended, and players were returning from service in the military.  It was the end of the dead ball era.  The next year, in 1920, with the exception of a handful of pitchers, spitballs, scuffballs, and shine balls were outlawed.  With the death of Ray Chapman in 1920, baseballs were replaced whenever they became dirty or damaged to enhance their visibility (this also maintained their performance throughout the game, favoring hitters).  In 1919, Babe Ruth broke the home run record with 29 home runs, topping Ned Williamson's mark of 27 from 1884.  Ruth would crush that record the next year, slugging 54 home runs in 1920 to usher in the Live Ball Era.  And, of course, the 1919 World Series will be forever infamous because of the Black Sox scandal, when White Sox players took money from gamblers to throw the series.

Lost in all of that excitement was an excellent Cincinnati Reds team that featured an MLB Hall of Fame Center Fielder, 6 Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame players, a roster full of brilliant first names, and, most of all, a legitimate claim to being the best overall team in baseball that season.

The Regular Season

Graph courtesy of the fantastic Baseball Gauge
The Reds entered the season having finished above .500 in two consecutive seasons, but with more than three decades having passed since they topped their league, be it the American Association or the National League.  After a middling start, they finally started to turn it on in June, and climbed their way into a dogfight with the New York Giants that would last until August.  Once August hit, however, the Reds finally gained some separation, and finished with an outstanding 96-44 (.686) record in the 140 game season.  That's 52 games over .500!  To maintain that winning percentage over a 162-game schedule in modern baseball, a team would need to go 111-49.

The Playoffs

Chart courtesy of The Baseball Gauge

While it's impossible to know how much the series was negatively tainted by the gambling operation that would be exposed a year later, the Reds were in control pretty much from the start.  After slugging their away ahead mid-way through the first game, they would win four of the first five contests.  While the White Sox came back to win the next two, the Reds would power their way to a 10-5 victory in game eight behind Hod Eller and lock in their first World Series championship.

Redland Field

Redland Field opened in 1912 in the same location of the Palace of Fans.  It was a deep park, with approximately symmetrical dimensions: 360 feet to left and right field, and 420 feet to center field.  This was reflected in its 96 Park Factor, which put it in a tie for the best pitchers' parks in baseball that year along with Boston and Milwaukee.  It had some interesting quirks, including a 15-degree sloping terrace in left field that angled up to York Street, which is visible in the photograph to the right just beyond the left field wall.

The Reds played at Redland Field until Riverfront Stadium opened in 1970, though the park would undergo massive changes: additional seating, movement of home plate toward the outfield, the installation of the first lights in a major league park, and, of course, a change of name in 1934 to Crosley Field.

Team Statistics

The 1919 Reds were not the best-hitting team in baseball.  That honor went to the White Sox, which likely resulted in their reputation as the superior team.  But the Reds were still a solid-hitting team.   After park adjustments, they were the fifth-best offense in baseball, and by wRC+ they were basically tied with the White Sox.  Where they really excelled, however, was in run prevention, posting the second-lowest park-adjusted runs allowed total in baseball.  This combination made them the best-performing team in baseball, with the highest run differential of any team in baseball.  It really wasn't even close:

Runs Scored*
Runs Allowed*
Run Differential
White Sox
Red Sox

Team Statistics: Preventing Runs
How they achieved that outstanding Run Allowed total is interesting.  As will become clear in the pitcher profiles, this Reds team featured a lot of pitch-to-contact guys.  As a group, they didn't strike out a lot of players (even by the standards of the day), though they did avoid walks pretty well.  What this team did do, however, is convert balls in play into outs at a league-leading rate:
There are two major explanations for this.  First, the 1919 Reds were a superb defensive team.  In fact, we can plot xFIP- against Total Zone (it's actually JAARF), which has some corrections for park factors and such and more player-by-player nuance, and we see the Reds still rated as one of the best-fielding teams in baseball that year:
1919 Reds were unquestionably an elite-fielding team.  I also think, however, that when we're looking at Dead Ball Era teams, we need to be far more cautious about assuming how well fielding-independent stats tell the story.  It's very reasonable to suspect that the DER numbers were aided by the ability of some Reds pitchers to induce weak contact, thereby increasing the Reds' ability to convert those balls into outs.

Team Statistics: Producing Runs
Finally, a look at the Reds' offense compared to other teams:
The 1919 Reds were not an elite offense.  They played in Redland Field (later renamed Crosley Field), a pitcher's park (park factor of 96), and so their league-average OBP probably rates out as a tick above-average.  They didn't have a ton of power, although this was still the Dead-Ball era; even the Red Sox, with home run champion Babe Ruth, had an isolated power below .100.  The spread in ISO was about half then what it is now, and even now a point of OBP is worth about 1.7 times as much as a point of ISO.  Power just wasn't that important in terms of how teams varied in the Dead Ball Era.

Next up: 1919 Reds Pitchers!

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

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