Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Two Saves the Day

TRIVIA QUESTION:  Based on this particular column, who was the third baseman who led his position in turning double plays for the 1966 Pirates?  

In 1978 at the age of 39 Gaylord Perry won 20 games in a season for the fifth and final time in his career. Playing for the San Diego Padres, Perry went 21-6 on his way to 314 wins. He did lose 265 games in his career but 22 years in the big leagues is a rare feat and his accomplishments put him in the Hall of Fame. He also won 19 games in two different seasons. 

Probably the most important defensive play in baseball is the "double play." The "Twin Killing," the "Pitcher's best friend," and there was never a better duo to perform this action than Bill Mazeroski and Gene Alley of the mid-1960's Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1966 the Bucs pulled off what seemed impossible; 215 double plays in 162 games. 

Mazeroski was in the middle of most of them at second base. The defensive whiz ripped off 161 twin killings (an all-time record), Alley was part of 128 and the man at the end of the play at first base, Donn Clendenon took part in 182. So fluent was the Pirate infield at turning ground balls into a pair of outs the Buc's pitching staff came to rely on them in a big way.

Pittsburgh was in the race until the final weekend battling it out with the Dodgers and Giants for the NL Pennant.  The Bucs pitching was awful and if it wasn't for the hitting of MVP Roberto Clemente, Clendenon, Willie Stargell and the center field duo of batting champion Matty Alou and Manny Mota along with the improved Alley, the pitching would have put them in the middle of the pack. Except, the pitching was aided tremendously by all those double plays. 

The team ERA was 3.52 and no starting pitcher had an ERA under 3.02 which is where ace Bob Veale led them. The other starters at 3.8 were Woody Fryman and Steve Blass while the aging Vernon Law was at 4.14. He'd had a 17 win comeback season in 1965 but was now at the end of the run. Tommie Sisk was at 4.14. 

The bullpen ERA's weren't bad but the hits per innings were. The team was near the bottom of the league in giving up both walks and hits. Overall the team saw 1463 innings with 1445 hits and another 463 walks. Pirate pitchers basically had men on base every inning of every game with a WHiP of 1.3. But they did induce ground balls and ranked second in the league in giving up the least home runs.  

He may not have seemed like much of an acquisition but the man who became the all important closer for Pittsburgh in 1966 was Pete Mikkelsen. He basically shared time with Roy Face who had a decent season but was giving up the long ball. Mikkelsen, picked up from the Yankees, not only gave up eight homers in 126 innings but he induced 22 double plays trailing only starter Veale who had 28.

With the Bucs taking every game down to the wire it seemed the ace in the pen became the key to their pennant hopes in the closing months. While he did blow eight saves, getting 14 of 22 compared to Face who had 18 of 21, Mikkelsen turned out to be an important cog in the team's run for the pennant.

When the dust settled Pittsburgh would spend another winter at home. The following season Mikkelsen was released and picked up by the Cubs, known as the Deacon - Law (1960 Cy Young Award winner) retired after a short run, Face (18-1 in 1959) pitched for Pittsburgh until 1968 when he was sold to Detroit. 

In the 1967 season the infield duo of Alley and Mazeroski helped in the teams 186 double plays as the team trailed off and started to decline for a couple of seasons before bouncing back. Maz loved playing with Alley who early scouting reports said "he scoops up ground balls like a vacuum cleaner." While he played alongside Dick Groat, Dick Schofield and Freddie Patek, it was Alley who was really the master.

Most people believe Mazeroski made it to the Hall of Fame because of his historic homer in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, but baseball historians realize it was his fielding which landed him in the Hall. Bill James once called him the best second baseman of all-time due to the number of runs he actually saved over his career. Eleven times he participated in 100 or more DP's and once he was involved in 96. In all he was part of 1706 twin killings. Of the top seven players with the most seasons in leading the league in double plays, Maz is the leader in three of them including nos. 1 & 3.

During his career he consistently ranked No. 1 in every defensive category at second base, won 8 Gold Gloves and played in 10 All-Star Games.  In addition, as a hitter he drove in 853 runs and scored 769 more which is pretty remarkable when you consider he only hit 138 homers in 17 seasons; all with Pittsburgh.
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