You’ll have to forgive me today. I know this website covers Washington, D.C. sports, but when a legend such as Earl Weaver passes away, I’m compelled to memorialize him. I was a Baltimore Orioles fan during my formative years, and Earl Weaver has as much to do with how I think of baseball — good baseball — than anything or anyone else. In essence, I learned all I needed to know about baseball by how Earl Weaver managed his teams.
The axiom that casual baseball analysts use to describe Weaver’s “strategy” is “pitching, defense and the three-run homer.” While that’s not far off, it’s how you get there that you find Weaver’s real genius.
Weaver boiled the game down to its most basic elements: get on base and limit the other team from doing so, put your players in the best position to maximize their particular talents, and trust your players to do their job over the course of the season.
Weaver was a master at getting the most out of his roster. One of the first managers to use a platoon system, he knew the benefits of utilizing players when they were at their best, and finding a complementing player for when the matchup presented an advantage for his team. He had an elaborate index card system that he kept in the dugout with him with the splits for every player on his team and the opposition. He revolutionized how teams scouted other Major League teams.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson, a mathematics major in college, loves to tell the story of how he would run computer simulations of different lineups and present them to Weaver — remember, this was in the late 60s and early 70s — to maximize the batting order. Johnson recalls how Weaver would toss them in the trash can in front of the young second baseman, but would later fish them out of the trash after Johnson left the room. But those simulations only reinforced what Weaver knew to be true anyway.
Johnson issues this statement through the Nationals upon learning of Weaver’s passing Saturday. “I grew up in the minor leagues with Earl Weaver and we proceeded to spend a significant portion of our lives together. He was as intense a competitor as I have ever met. No one managed a ballclub or a pitching staff better than Earl. He was decades ahead of his time. Not a game goes by that I don’t draw on something Earl did or said. I will miss him every day.”
Weaver also trusted his players, which he saw as an extension of his own thought process. He knew that over the course of a season a player’s true ability would play out — if he had that player pegged correctly. He allowed players to play through “slumps” because you just didn’t know when they would break out and normalize. In correlation, players knew that Weaver was going to stick with them in their roles, and Weaver would earn their trust.
No greater example of this was the way Weaver stuck with Cal Ripken, Jr. when the now Hall of Famer first came up to the big leagues. Many saw the 6’4″ Ripken and figured he was too big to play shortstop in the big leagues. But Weaver figured that Ripken’s great baseball instincts more than made up for any lack of mobility from the big man, and he knew that having offensive production from the shortstop position would automatically give his team an advantage over the rest of the league in an age where most shortstops were slap hitters often asked to do little more that move runners over.
Weaver also knew that the best way to score runs was to get more runners on base. It’s a statistical fact, over the 120 years or so they’ve been keeping baseball records, that most teams fall into a very narrow range of percentage of base runners driven home over the course of a season. The numbers are there — you can look them up. The teams that are good offensive teams aren’t the ones that drive a higher percentage of their runners in because those percentages — again, over the course of a full season — are mathematically insignificant.
No, it’s the sheer number of total baserunners that separate good offensive teams from poor. And Earl knew this. He showed an utter disdain for bunting, especially the sacrifice. He knew that stealing bases wasn’t worth the effort or risk. He knew that the hit-and-run worked less often than not, and it usually wasted an out regardless.
He figured out early that you only get 27 outs in a game and it’s counter-productive to waste or give away any of them. He knew the numbers. He knew that he had a better chance of scoring a runner from first with no outs than a runner from second with two outs. It’s not a theory. It’s math.
When Weaver said, “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get,” he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Earl Weaver might have appeared to be the oldest of old school, with his cantankerous personality, chain-smoking down the tunnel of the dugout and his pugnacious appearance. His hair was gray long before he got old. But the tenets he preached on the field, and in his book “Weaver on Strategy”, were moneyball before “Moneyball.”
Earl Weaver was 82 years old when he passed away Friday night on the Orioles annual baseball cruise, his wife Marianne by his side. Coincidentally, legions of Orioles gathered in the Inner Harbor Saturday for the O’s off-season fanfest. Many of those in attendance wouldn’t find out about Weaver’s passing until reaching the festivities. A large part of the Orioles legacy they gathered to celebrate can be directly attributed to man who, while small in stature, towers over that organization and its rich history.
The Earl of Baltimore, indeed.