Do any of you guys know who Bill McKechnie was? He’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but I think he’s one of Cooperstown’s lesser-known honorees. Manager in the 20’s/30’s/40’s, very successful, but bounced around a lot and never stuck with any one team for all that long. Won pennants with the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds, also managed the Braves. Won World Championships with the Pirates and Reds.
It would be an understatement to say that Bill McKechnie was a “defense first” manager. He was more of a defense first, second, and third-through-ninth manager. His commitment to defense defined his career, much in the way platooning and three-run homers defined Earl Weaver, speed and switch-hitters defined Whitey Herzog, and repeatedly making asinine statements defined Ozzie Guillen.
When Bill McKechnie took over a team he would make whatever moves were necessary to ensure that he had the best possible defensive alignment available to him. His teams often didn’t score a lot of runs, but they usually gave up even fewer, so they won. McKechnie got great performances out of his pitchers, because all they needed to do was throw strikes; the other eight guys did the rest of the work. He amassed a .524 career winning percentage—with teams that usually weren’t very good before he took over—by building around players who could catch and throw.
So when I first heard about this guy, I was intrigued but maybe just a little skeptical… yeah, maybe that stuff worked in the 1930’s, but now? The more I thought about it, though, the more it struck me as a solid approach for any era. The game changes, but preventing runs is never any less important than scoring them.
I’ve asked myself “What Would McKechnie Do?” in every OOTP league I’ve been in. One of the advantages to focusing on defense is that many of your opponents won’t pay much attention to it, and this will cause them to overvalue players who you think aren’t as valuable as they do, and to undervalue players who you think are more valuable than they do. This can be very beneficial in a league with a draft or with free agency, or in any league where you are able to trade with people who don’t see value in areas where you can see it.
Good defensive players affect the game somewhat surreptitiously. OOTP gives us Range Factor, Zone Rating and Defensive Efficiency (which many GMs probably ignore) as well as the traditional fielding stats like fielding percentage (which I largely ignore); these stats do tell us something, but they don’t us the whole story. The rest of the story, perhaps most of the story, is hidden in what are commonly thought of as “pitching” statistics. Runs allowed, hits allowed: these aren’t pitching stats, they’re defensive stats. Defense is pitching plus fielding. Pitchers give up walks, and pitchers give up home runs, but pitchers and fielders give up hits. You can argue about the extent to which pitchers are responsible for the hits “they” give up, but to argue that they’re 100% responsible is ridiculous. Fielders are not all created equal, any more than pitchers are. Some fielders turn hits into outs, some turn outs into hits.
I don’t want mislead anybody; good baseball teams usually do a number of things well. Balance is preferable to overemphasizing any one area. The best defense in the world can’t help a pitcher who has a tendency to walk two batters and give up a three-run homer, and a team that can’t score is going to have trouble winning games.
But if you’ve put together a team that has a good offense and what you thought was a good pitching staff, and you’re not winning because your pitchers seem to give up a lot more runs than you think they should, maybe it’s not your pitchers’ fault. You might be trying to make them prevent runs all by themselves.