Earl Weaver died early this morning at the venerable age of 82. Casual fans know Weaver for his battles with umpires and overall colorfulness, as well as his successful run managing the Orioles (six division titles, four American League pennants and a World Championship). Hardcore fans know Weaver for his forward thinking, in particular, his use of statistics in strategy. Gallons of digital ink have been poured justly praising Weaver’s early adoption of what’s now known as sabermetrics. Very little new can be added to that subject.
But wisdom is worthless if it isn’t applied, and Weaver’s approach to the game would be invaluable to a new manager looking to energize a team desperate for success. I refer, naturally, to Walt Weiss.
Weiss has promised "to preach aggressiveness at Coors Field" in 2013. "If it’s available, we’re going to try and steal bases." Weiss’ view echoes the mantra of the front office, which next year seeks to use speed on the bases "to put as much pressure on the defense of our opposition as possible."
Weaver would urge Weiss to slow down. "On offense," Weaver is often quoted, "your most precious possessions are your 27 outs." Weaver took from this basic truth that steal attempts should be rare, hits-and-runs rarer still, and sacrifices bunts nearly non-existent. The basic strategy on offense should be to get men on base ahead of big hitters, and rely on the home run to generate offense. Small ball, Weaver believed, resulted in small production.
The Rockies have an offense built for Weaver’s style of baseball. Dexter Fowler’s .389 OBP was good for 10th in the league last year, ideal for setting the table for Carlos Gonzalez (career 121 OPS+), Troy Tulowitzki (117), Michael Cuddyer (110) and (barring regression) Tyler Colvin (112 OPS+ in 2012) and Wilin Rosario (107). They also have a park, needless to say, that generates runs at a world-historic rate. Add the patience of Todd Helton, and Weaver’s strategy of "waiting for the home run" would yield substantial returns at Coors Field. The Rockies hit an even 100 at home last year.
Weaver’s philosophy on offense is well known. Less known are his views on pitching. Now, Weaver inherited a staff in 1968 far better than the rotation Weiss will work with in 2013. But the philosophies should be the same.
Weaver was an ardent proponent of a four-man rotation, and never changed his view on this despite the growth of the five-man crew. His view was simple: "It’s easier to find four good starters than five." While the Rockies adopted a form of a four-man rotation last summer, they implemented a strict pitch count, which ignored Weaver’s corollary: "There are no hard-and-fast rules of when to take out a pitcher…." The decision of when to change pitchers isn’t rote; it requires judgment from the dugout. The Rockies seem to be moving this direction in 2013, indicating the length of starts will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Weaver would say that’s a positive development.
Less positive was the Rockies’ insistence in recent years on same-handed matchups for relievers. Despite the fact that, at times, Rockies relievers had better success getting outs against opposite-hand hitters, Jim Tracy insisted on same-handedness almost without exception. Weaver rejected this paint-by-number style. "I don’t worry about having right-handers or left-handers in the bullpen," he wrote, "Why bring in a lefty to pitch to a left-handed hitter if that lefty pitcher can’t do the job?" Weaver had a pragmatic, flexible approach to his bullpen, bringing in "the best guy you have to save the game." If the Rockies are prepared to innovate with their starting rotation, Weiss should consider innovating with his bullpen, bringing in his best (or hottest) reliever in the high leverage situations, regardless of inning. Weaver would approve.
Weaver also believed that pitchers have to command the entire strikezone, which includes attacking hitters high, particularly in pitcher-friendly parks. For Rockies pitchers, Dan O’Dowd has repeatedly said they need to stay low in the zone. As a general principle, that’s fair, but Weaver didn’t believe the key to pitching was staying in one place. Successful pitching requires out-thinking hitters. That means throwing breaking pitches when behind in counts, and throwing high fastballs as well as low heat. To Weaver, it also meant trusting the repertoire a pitcher has, without forcing the development of additional pitches that can’t be thrown for strikes. Weaver would counsel Weiss and the front office to let Juan Nicasio and Edwar Cabrera work with the pitches they have, and to let Drew Pomeranz pitch upstairs in the zone.
When it comes to defense, Weaver would likely find a kindred spirit in Walt Weiss. "Fielding," according to Weaver, "is the most overlooked and maybe the least understood talent in baseball." To Weaver, "the real key to fielding is anticipation and concentration." Weaver well understood that fielding is a talent, so not something that can simply be taught (a reality clearly evidenced by Brooks Robinson). But he still stressed the basic lesson that "the only way to learn how to handle balls… is to have someone hit you grounder after grounder, or field as many balls as possible during batting practice." Weiss might not endear himself to his new team this spring with hour after hour of fielding drills, but he can take comfort knowing that Weaver would do it. "[S]pring training is pretty boring," Weaver said, "[b]ut that doesn’t mean it’s not important."
Walt Weiss has a huge challenge ahead of him. He’ll be pulled in different directions by different people, each offering advice that likely conflicts with someone else’s pearls of wisdom. Before tackling that challenge, Weiss would do well to pause and consider what kind of manager he wants to be at the major league level. And he couldn’t do much better than following in the path of the late Earl Weaver