Friday, April 4, 2014
The year Rabbit Maranville hit cleanup
By David Schoenfield
Houston Astros manager Bo Porter hit Jose Altuve cleanup the past two games, which certainly makes him one of the more unique cleanup hitters in history. Altuve is listed at 5-foot-6, which may be generous an inch or two, and has just 14 career home runs in over 1,500 plate appearances.
Porter explained his thinking to MLB.com reporter Brian McTaggart on Wednesday: "Obviously, Altuve and [Jason] Castro are arguably our two best hitters, and having (Dexter) Fowler and (Robbie) Grossman at the top, those two guys are switch-hitters who can get on base. When you hit Castro third and a right-hander is pitching, you're basically making sure the left-hander gets the extra at-bat given the matchup scenario."
I like that Porter at least had a sound reason for his thinking, unlike the explanation Nationals manager Matt Williams gave for hitting Bryce Harper sixth the other day: Williams said he wanted to take some pressure off the 21-year-old left fielder. Castro is a better hitter than Altuve, so Porter wanted to give him an extra at-bat, if it came to that. Reasonable enough. Most managers would then hit Chris Carter in the cleanup spot, and while Carter did hit 29 home runs last year, it also came at the expense of a .223 average and 212 strikeouts, hardly what you'd prefer from a cleanup hitter.
Anyway, I asked on Twitter if Altuve was the shortest cleanup hitter ever. Several readers immediately responded with Hack Wilson, who hit 56 home runs and drove in a record 191 runs for the Cubs in 1930. Wilson was also listed at 5-foot-6, a short but obviously immensely powerful man. Here's a photo of him when he played for Brooklyn and here's one with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Another reader pointed out Rabbit Maranville, like Wilson a Hall of Famer. But Maranville got there because of his glove at shortstop, not his bat. Listed at 5-foot-5, Maranville played in the majors from 1912 to 1935 and hit .258 with 28 career home runs. His OPS+ was above the league average in just two full seasons, in 1917 and 1919.
Yet he regularly hit cleanup for one of the more famous teams of the first half of the 20th century, the 1914 Boston Braves.
A little history: In the 1890s, the Boston franchise in the National League -- then called the Beaneaters -- was a powerhouse, winning five pennants between 1891 and 1898. But from 1903 through 1913 the team finished under .500 every season, usually in last place, and had four straight seasons of 100-plus losses from 1909 to 1912. Under new manager George Stallings, they were a little better in 1913, going 69-82, but there certainly weren't high expectations for 1914.
The Braves had made one big offseason acquisition, acquiring second baseman Johnny Evers from the Cubs. Maranville was entering his second full season, as were pitchers Bill James and Dick Rudolph, so there was some youth to build upon.
Maranville started the season hitting first with Evers second, but Stallings soon reversed them in the order and they hit 1-2 through May and into June. On June 9, however, Stallings put Evers back in the second spot, moved cleanup hitter Larry Gilbert to leadoff and Maranville to the cleanup spot. The Braves were 13-28, in last place and already 12.5 games out of first place. The Braves were still in last place on July 18, still 11 games out with a 35-43 record.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came one of the great stretch drives in major league history. The Braves went 59-16 the rest of the way. From July 7, on, James went 15-1 and Rudolph 13-1. Lefty Tyler threw five shutouts. The team also acquired three outfielders, Possum Whitted (yes, the Braves had a Rabbit and a Possum), Josh Devore and, in late August, Herbie Moran from the Reds. Stallings began platooning at all three outfield spots. While a little platooning had been done before this, it had never been done before on that scale. It worked; the Braves averaged 3.8 runs per game in the first half and 4.8 in the second. They won the pennant by 10.5 games, finished second in the league in runs scored and became known as the Miracle Braves.
Maranville would remain the team's cleanup hitter through late August. When Moran came over, he usually hit leadoff, moving Gilbert or Whitted to the cleanup spot. Maranville was moved down to seventh. Still, he would start 73 games in the cleanup spot (he hit there only three other times in his career) and led the team with 78 RBIs, even though he batted just .246. The Braves swept the Philadelphia A's in the World Series, leading to Connie Mack ripping apart his team and sending the A's into a decade of futility. (Some have suggested Mack believed his team had thrown the World Series.)
It was short-lived success for the Braves. The following season, Evers got hurt and James, who had gone 26-7, hurt his shoulder (he was never again effective). They were back under .500 by 1917 -- where they would spend 14 of the next 15 seasons. They wouldn't win another pennant until 1948.