The Old Baltimore Orioles and the Transformation to Modern Baseball

It is my pleasure to introduce a series of posts by e pluribus munu, a regular contributor to the HHS community. Just a reminder that if you’ve written something that you might like to have posted, drop me a line; my e-mail address is on the About page.

The subject of epm’s posts is the old Baltimore Orioles, as in 19th century old. If you’re not familiar with them, they were one of four American Association (AA) franchises (the others were in Louisville, St. Louis and Washington) that were absorbed by the NL in 1892 following the AA’s demise. The Orioles finished dead last in a 12-team NL in that 1892 season, but turned that around to become league champions just two years later, the first of three straight championship seasons. How did they do it? epm will answer that question and many others as he takes it from here.  

Before the 2018 season started, Doug posted two research pieces focused on 19th century baseball (or base-ball). I want to carry on some of Doug’s work with the idea that perhaps at some future point, there will be enough interest and knowledge in pre-1900 baseball that we might consider adding a 19th century wing to the Circle of Greats: birtlecom’s project has become the primary spark for HHS community energy, and adding a new avenue for CoG discussions could be extend that engagement. Of course, a major problem with voting on 19th century players is that not many of us—perhaps none of us—know all that much about the period. But Doug’s posts started us off in a good direction, and so I want to build on his themes.

Doug focused on the years 1893-95, the initial seasons of the modern diamond configuration, with the pitching rubber at 60’6”. Some people (including me) have argued that “modern” baseball should be dated to the year of that change. Resonating with that argument, Doug’s pieces showed ways in which the movement of the pitcher’s mound gave birth to the enhanced roles of key features of modern baseball: relief pitching and slugging. Having spent some time learning more about those years, I now see the impact of the 1893 pitching change as not particularly transformative. Instead another major transformation in baseball began over those seasons, the main driver of which was the emergence of the unusual Baltimore Oriole teams that won NL pennants in 1894, ’95 and ’96,

In this post, I’m going to lay out the basic framework for this claim, after explaining why I think the 1893 pitching change was not, so to speak, a game-changer in itself. I envision a second post going into much more detail about the Oriole team in the context of the 12-team NL of 1893-98 (excluding 1892, the year before the pitching change, and 1899, because of the confusion that year’s syndicate baseball brought to analysis of trends). Finally, depending on what others have to say in the course of those initial posts, I have in mind a third post on the later impact of the Oriole legacy.

The Fast-Fading Impact of Sixty Feet Six Inches

In the course of Doug’s two posts on the 1893 pitching change, he noted at several points a fact that is well worth pondering. Although the statistical impact of the added pitching distance is obvious in 1893, enormous in 1894, and still clear in 1895, it thereafter fades so quickly that before the decade is over the impact is no longer visible on the level of league statistics. For example, in terms of offensive measures, here are the curves for OPS and Isolated Power over the period from 1892, the year prior to the change, to 1898:

Extending the pitching distance was meant to be a permanent corrective to what had been perceived as pitcher domination of major league ball. Yet by 1898, OPS had nearly returned to its pre-change level, and ISO had dropped below its 1892 figure. This is profoundly counter-intuitive.

When we look at the flip side of defensive measures, we see the same pattern. For fielding, B-R’s Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER), which measures the percent of balls-in-play (BIP) that become outs, initially falls dramatically, but quickly recovers, as does ERA for pitching.

if we are to use 1893 as the critical division between “Early” and “Modern” baseball because of the physical change in the diamond, we may be defining baseball history based on a change which appears to have had surprisingly transient impact.

The Old Orioles

But, something else very dramatic happened during the same period of time: the rise of the Baltimore Orioles. I think anyone who knows even a little about pre-1900 baseball knows that the Orioles were an exceptionally “colorful” team, famous for distasteful rowdiness and brazen cheating. That fame, or infamy, appears to be well deserved, but the Orioles represented, in addition, a crystallizing of many modernizing trends in baseball, resulting in the team’s sudden rise to success that captured the attention of players, managers, and owners, as well as fans, and which, I believe, led to the game being reconceived not only as a match between competing athletic talents, but also a match between team strategies on a number of levels.

My plan is to go into detail about what the Oriole accomplishment involved in my next post, but I want to close this one with a birdseye picture of why the Orioles’ rise might have had the impact I think it did. The Orioles were an original American Association team. From their formation in 1882 through the death of the AA, Baltimore was at best a mediocre team, and more often dismal. In 1890, the team left the American Association to play in the minor league Atlantic Association, where their chances seemed better, but when the AA’s Brooklyn Gladiators folded mid-season, the Orioles returned to the fold for the final thirty-eight games of the season as the Gladiators’ replacement.

When the American Association folded in disarray after the 1891 season, the Orioles were one of four teams that the NL agreed to absorb in order to help their rival league disappear. Coming out of the weakened AA, all four teams were terrible, and quickly sank to the bottom of the new 12-team league, none sinking so quickly or so low as the Orioles. These are the 1892 NL standings, along with key team offensive and defensive stats:

Most of the stats should be clear (recall that DER is B-R’s Defensive Efficiency Ratio: percent of BIP that become outs), but one is homemade: ~BBIP (“no base-hit ball in play”) denotes plays where a base is earned but there is either no ball in play or only a BIP that is not offered as a base-hit attempt (i.e. an SH). This includes walks, stolen bases, hit-by-pitch, and sac bunts. The formula for ~BBIP is: (BB+SB+HBP+SH)/PA. Note that in this chart and all similar charts prepared for the next post, figures are expressed as percent above/below league average each year, which minimizes two problems with ~BBIP: SH are not tabulated until 1894, and the definition of a Stolen Base is altered by an 1898 rule change. Because league averages for OPS+ and ERA+ are meaningless, I use OPS and ERA on that line (moreover, OPS+ is not available for 1898-1900). Boldface indicates league leaders.

In looking at Baltimore’s place in the 1892 standings, there are a few things that are particularly relevant to the surprise and consequent impact of Baltimore’s subsequent profile. Despite the club’s awful record, it was second in the league in ISO, which would seem a promising place to be on the eve of a major rule change favorable to power hitters (as Doug has illustrated). But the Oriole defense was execrable. During the period of the 12-team league, only the Cleveland Outcasts of 1899 had a worse DER, compared to league average (-7.2%). ERA+ is a relatively inelastic stat; several teams in the period were further below league norm ERA+ than Baltimore’s -19% in ’92, but that figure also stands out as a weakness of this team. And finally, the Orioles were clearly not masters of “small ball,” judging by their low ~BBIP figure.

Baltimore entered the NL with an owner who was a local beer magnate with a limited budget and a need for profits. Harry Von der Horst dismissed Billy Barnie, the Orioles’ manager since their inception ten years before and a friendly non-player who mostly handled business matters. Instead, to save a salary, Von der Horst appointed George Van Haltren as player-manager. After a 1-10 start, Von der Horst turned to his chief beer salesman to guide the ship, and when that somehow did not solve the problem, the owner next appointed a man named Ned Hanlon, who had a couple of years managing experience in Pittsburg before being dismissed midway through the prior season (the Pirates continued on to an eventual last-place finish). Quiz: which teammate of Van Haltren’s was the Giants’ career leader in Hits (ranking just ahead of Van Haltren) for 35 years after his retirement?

A desperate Von der Horst gave Hanlon an unusual amount of control over team decisions, including personnel decisions. By April 1894, all but three of the players Hanlon inherited in May 1892 were gone and the Orioles were poised to dominate the league. Here are the cumulative NL standings for the period 1893-98, the six full seasons Hanlon led the Orioles:
The profile of this team is nearly the opposite of the team Hanlon inherited. Basically, Hanlon sold and traded away one type of team and designed an entirely new type of team, one that excelled in fielding, was highly competitive in pitching (though, as we’ll see, this was probably largely a function of fielding excellence), and, above all, was exceptional in small ball during an era that would seem most inviting for power hitting.

Not only was this transformation unprecedented, both in terms of team personnel and in the new style of team play, its unlikeliness can be best appreciated by observing the position in this table of the other three 1892 “expansion” teams, all firmly anchored at the bottom of the standings. The collective .348 W-L percentage of these three bottom dwellers is about what the normal fan and competitor would have expected of all of the AA stepchildren, but is almost the exact inverse of the Orioles’ .643 winning clip. And since this table includes 1893, Hanlon’s transition year, when his team was only half baked and its W-L% still a mediocre .462, the dramatic nature of the Orioles’ 1894-96 dominance is further emphasized.

In the next post on the Orioles, the topic will be just what Hanlon did, how the Orioles won, and how they were different from the other strong teams, particularly Frank Selee’s Boston Beaneaters and Patsy Tebeau’s Cleveland Spiders. There was a lot more going on than just rowdiness and cheating.

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17 Comments on "The Old Baltimore Orioles and the Transformation to Modern Baseball"

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John
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From what I’ve read about the 1890’s Baltimore Orioles, Ned Hanlon was one of the best baseball minds to ever don cleats. A good, not great, player (he batted .300 only once – .302 in 1885, his lifetime BA was a pedestrian .259), he came into his own as manager. After a couple mediocre years in Pittsburgh, he was the right man at the right time in Baltimore. After moving to Brooklyn in 1899, he shine the first couple years before the Dodgers seemed to decide to find out how many wins a team can have without any hitting. He… Read more »
e pluribus munu
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Well stated, John. Bill James, however, has expressed a less positive view of Hanlon, whom he compares unfavorably to the contemporary Beaneater manager, Frank Selee. Writing in 1997, James deplored the fact that Hanlon had been voted into the Hall while Selee never would be. (James was either a bad prophet or brilliantly nudging the Veteran’s Committee: Selee was elected in 1999.) Selee, said James, was a gentleman; Hanlon was a ruffian. I think Selee deserves admiration (he built the great Cubs teams of the 1900s), but James’s caricature of Hanlon seems wrong to me. Hanlon was no ruffian: he… Read more »
John
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Thank you for the kind words. I am fond of early baseball, if only there was time to delve further into it. And I think it is underrepresented in the HOF. I think if we made even a cursory study of the era from 1871 (the start of the National Association) until 1900, we could come up with several deserving players. The stats pale in comparison to those of today, but the rarely played more than 120 games, if that many. It was a different era with different rules and different expectations. Ol Hoss Radbourne won 60 games in 1884.… Read more »
Paul E
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Maybe Mike Tiernan for the NY hits total;, hard to believe George Van Haltren didn’t make Cooperstown

e pluribus munu
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Doug’s the quizmaster, Paul, but your answer looks right to me. Between Van Haltren and Tiernan, it’s hard to figure who should be ahead in line for the Hall. Van Haltren had a long career with a minimally respectable pitching component added to his offense, but Tiernan had more power and produced as much offense in his shorter career. Van Haltren figured in Ned Hanlon’s first major trade success with the Orioles. Having been displaced as manager, Van Haltren was somewhat resistant to Hanlon’s authority, so in September, Hanlon convinced Harry Von der Horst to sell Van Haltren to Pittsburg… Read more »
Doug
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It is Tiernan, who was the Giants’ franchise Hits leader until passed by Bill Terry in 1934. Part of the problem with evaluating 19th century players is the low DER, attributable to subpar field conditions, equipment and skills training compared to the modern day. With so many more BIP resulting in baserunners, offensive totals are understandably inflated. Yet, when these are normalized, career totals suffer because, as Paul has noted, seasons and careers (nobody was getting rich playing ball) were considerably shorter. As an example, Van Haltren is one of 16 retired players with 1000 game careers averaging 1.25 H/G… Read more »
e pluribus munu
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As I understand it, Joe Start was a major force in moving towards modern fielding, but his contributions antedated the founding of the National Association (as you note, he was already 28 when that league was formed). Start was a first baseman, and when he began to play in semipro and professional clubs, the first baseman stayed planted on the base in order to receive throws; he did not generally field balls in play, leaving the second baseman to cover a lot of ground. Start moved off the bag and became a fielder, coordinating with his second baseman that in… Read more »
John
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Joe Start is one of the 19th century players I was alluding to. The 1st player to still be a regular past the age of 40, his lifetime BA of .299 is good regardless of the era. Fifteen home runs by a 1st basemen today would be considered an acceptable season. He hit 15 for his career. It was a different era with different expectations. Home runs were not the glorified stat they are today. His 67 triples and his .921 FA as a 1st basemen were the stats that impressed 19th century kranks (as fans were then called.) Davy… Read more »
Paul E
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Currently, three NL 2B (Albies, Scooter G, and Baez) lead their league in total bases. I imagine, perhaps, Foxx, Gehrig, and Greenberg may have pulled off this feat for an entire season, but have three players at the same position ever led their league in total bases?

Paul E
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1 Lou Gehrig* NYY 409
2 Hal Trosky* CLE 374
3 Hank Greenberg DET 356
4 Jimmie Foxx PHA 352

sorry, that was easy enough….on first check, 1934 – throw in Hal Trosky, he of the migraine headaches.

Doug
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That was a really good guess, as it’s the only year it’s happened in the AL.

In the NL since 1901, it’s happened twice, in 2009 (1B, Pujols/Fielder/Howard) and in 1901 (LF, Burkett/Sheckard/Delahanty).

Paul E
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Doug,
Thanks!
I wouldn’t know how to figure it out with the B-R PI – or if it’s even possible with that tool. Kind of odd that the current troika are all 2B….. It certainly would be quite a stretch to think that would last

Paul E
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Another oddity: Bryce Harper is on pace for ~ 130 runs created while batting .238
The lowest BA ever recorded in any season of >129 RC is Jose Bautista at .260 (per B-R PI)

Doug
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Harper is also leading his league (leads the majors, actually) in intentional BB. His .238 BA would be the lowest by such a player, eclipsing Harper’s own record of .243 in 2016.

Doug
Guest

Another oddity this season is Scooter Gennett, who hit the 6th grand slam of his career last week. He’s the 37th known player with 6 grannies in his first 6 seasons. Of that group, he ranks in the bottom 5 in SLG, OPS and OPS+ over that part of a career and is only middle of the pack (18th) in % of PA with bases loaded. But, his % of HR for grannies is 3rd best in the group, and his HR per bases loaded PA is 11th best.

Mike L
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Just returning to HHS after a blizzard of graduation-related things and was greeted by this really well-written and well-researched piece. Nice job, EPM. And smart move, Doug, going to the bullpen.

e pluribus munu
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Doug’s always the ace, Mike, but thanks for the kind words!

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