Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Curious Case for Lead Off

TRIVIA QUESTION:  Who was the manager Bill Virdon replaced when he took over the reigns of the Pittsburgh Pirates the first time?  

ANSWER TO TRIVIA QUESTION IN THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: While we don't see MLB double headers anymore, it's been a long times since we saw a Triple Header. The first one was played in 1890 between the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Brooklyn won all three, 10-9, 3-2 and 8-4.  

If ever there was a more curious case for a lead off man in the big leagues there were few more curious than the 1960's lead off hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill Virdon came to Pittsburgh after being Rookie of the Year in St. Louis and in 1956 had his best season, batting .334. However, what happened when the 1960's rolled around remains a big question mark.

Virdon was a key player in the Pirates World Series victory in 1960. He was an outstanding center fielder on a team where he was flanked by the even more outstanding Roberto Clemente on one side, and the average Bob Skinner on the other. His defense kept him in the line up because as a hitter, and certainly as a lead off hitter, he was sub par.
 (Pirates announcer Bob Prince interviews Pirate players including Virdon)
In the Series he made a game saving catch in Game 4 and other outstanding plays during the series on defense. On offense it was his sharp ground ball which hit Tony Kubek in the throat and opened a big inning for the Bucs.
Until 1965 he never hit over .269 and never had an On-Base Percentage higher than .313. He didn't hit for extra bases, averaging 20 doubles, five triples and six homers from 1961-1965. As a lead off  hitter he was 16-30 in base stealing, actually leading the league with 13 caught steals in 1962.

He eclipsed 80 Runs Scored only twice and was under 60 Runs the other three years. His best hitting year as far as average (a key benchmark in the 1960s) since his breakout 1956, was his last year 1965 (it took him 10 years to achieve achieve better than .269 to finish at .279).

At 34 he came to the end of the road in 1965. It's when the Pirates made perhaps the biggest trade in franchise history sending lefty reliever Joe Gibbon to the Giants for outfield Matty Alou. Alou assumed Virdon's lead off position and his position as the new center fielder.  He quickly established himself as the key to solving the Bucs inconsistent hitting.
Alou led the league in 1966 (his first year with Pittsburgh) with a .342 average, and a .373 OBP. In his first four years in Pittsburgh he would hit .342, .338, .332, and .331 getting edged out by Pete Rose for a second batting title by .003 points. In 1969 he led the NL with 231 hits. 

Virdon came back in 1968 to play in six games going 1-for-3 at the plate, but he did excel as a manager with both Pittsburgh and New York, with stops in Houston and Montreal along the way.  He twice won more than 90 games on his way to 995 wins and .519 winning percentage. Twice he led his teams to first place in their divisions.

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