More on 'the Waxahachie Swap'

July, 15, 2009
Inspired by your comments, I want to follow up on yesterday's post about Lou Piniella's unorthodox move Sunday night, where he shifted a relief pitcher to the outfield for one batter, then brought him back to pitch. As I noted, manager Paul Richards -- "the Wizard of Waxahachie" -- is usually credited with inventing the tactic in the early '50s. After writing, I realized that the move needs a name, and I was toying with "the Richards Switch" or "the Richards Gambit." Fortunately, someone in the comments came up with something far better: "the Waxahachie Swap."

Richards certainly did not invent the swap, though. As Peter Morris notes in "A Game of Inches: the Game on the Field," the practice goes back as far as 1880 -- yes, even then the platoon advantage was well-known -- and Morris documents another instance in 1909. Apparently the practice died after 1909, though, when the rule required a pitcher -- even one who was already in the game, playing the field -- to face at least one batter (at the time, the distinction between "pitchers" and "hitters" wasn't nearly as distinct as it is today, and managers were more comfortable with sending a pitcher into the field). This was the rule that Tony La Russa had to clarify with the umpires the other night, as he wanted to make sure that Sean Marshall, upon taking the mound for the second time, couldn't immediately be lifted if La Russa turned to a pinch-hitter (which he did).

Anyway, I haven't been able to document a single use of the Waxahachie Swap in the majors between 1909 and 1951, when Richards essentially reintroduced the tactic. From 1951 through last Sunday night -- and again, thanks largely to your help -- I've been able to document 21 employments of the Swap (which isn't to say I haven't missed a few). If you don't mind an off-day data dump ...

• Richards seems to have done it four times in the majors (there are reports of a fifth, but I've not been able to find it). The last was the oddest, as Richards shifted starter Bill Wight to first base for three batters in the fourth inning, after which Wight returned to the mound and finished the game (a loss). The number for Richards is significant (at least to me) because four Waxahachie Swaps would tie him for the all-time lead with two other managers ...

Whitey Herzog did it four times, too, and every time the first pitcher was Todd Worrell. Three times he swapped out Worrell for lefty Ken Dayley; the other time it was lefty Ricky Horton.

• Richards and Herzog did not surprise me. Alvin Dark did, because I don't particularly think of Dark as any sort of innovator (which probably speaks more to my ignorance than Dark's managerial style). In his memoirs, Dark tells a funny story about a Waxahachie Swap:

    Sam McDowell was one of the worst fielding pitchers in baseball, and one of the best pitchers. We (the 1971 Indians) were playing the Angels one night, leading by a run in their half of the eighth inning. Rick Reichardt was up with one man on. I couldn't afford to let Sam pitch to Reichardt because Reichardt's a good fastball hitter and he might just hit one out. So I brought in Dean Chance, just for the one batter, and moved McDowell to second base. I had to think the chances of Reichardt hitting the ball to McDowell, or of McDowell having to catch the ball at second base, were nil. Sure enough, Reichardt hit the ball to third -- but the third baseman threw to second. To McDowell. I about choked. It was not even a good throw. But somehow McDowell came up with it for the force-out. In the ninth he set down the Angels one-two-three.
Dark's book was published in 1980, so perhaps we can attribute all the errors in that account to the intervening years. This didn't happen in 1971; it happened in 1970. It wasn't the Angels; it was the Senators. Dean Chance actually faced two batters: he intentionally walked Frank Howard, then retired Reichardt on the scary grounder to third base. McDowell did record the putout at second base, and McDowell did set down the Senators one-two-three in the ninth. All on strikeouts.

• So Richards, Herzog, and Dark account for 12 of 21 Swaps, leaving only eight other managers: Bill Rigney (1957), Chuck Tanner (1979), Davey Johnson (1986), Tom Trebelhorn (1989), Don Zimmer (1990), Tommy Lasorda (1993), Bobby Cox (2008) and Lou Piniella twice (1993 and 2009).

I'm not sure if Davey Johnson should count. As I mentioned Monday (or meant to), Johnson swapped Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco back and forth between pitching and outfielding in a marathon game, but Johnson was essentially out of players and didn't have much choice. Chuck Tanner's case might be questioned, too, as the first pitcher in the swap -- righty Kent Tekulve -- didn't actually return to the mound. But that's almost certainly just because his replacement -- lefty Grant Jackson -- got the game's last out ... which was recorded by Tekulve in left field! If Jackson hadn't retired Darrell Evans, Tekulve would presumably have returned to the mound to face Mike Ivie, a right-handed hitter. So that one counts in my book.

Does the Waxahachie Swap make sense? In his book about managers, Bill James figures it's basically a wash, especially when you consider that when a manager makes the move, he loses a hitter at the same time. Even the managers who have used it more than once don't seem to have been particularly enamored. Richards did it four (or five) times in five seasons, but never again in his remaining seven seasons as a manager. Dark did it four times in four seasons, but never again in his remaining four seasons. Piniella has done it twice ... 16 years apart.

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find my copy of "The Book," but a commenter writes that the authors "bring up (and actually endorse) the two-pitchers-in-the-game-at-once strategy."

My guess? The Waxahachie Swap doesn't often make sense ... but makes sense a lot more often than it's actually employed.

So why do we see it so rarely? Because most of the time, a manager's fear of doing something unorthodox and looking foolish overpowers momentary tactical considerations.



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