Spahn, Sain, and the Other Guys

Part of baseball is that received wisdom is built up from decades of experience and observation. Often this wisdom is transferred by sayings and aphorisms. This feature contributes to baseball's art and lore, but frequently the reasons for the sayings are lost. "No pepper," it will say behind home plate, yet the reference is lost on most.

Perhaps my favorite example of this wisdom-by-metaphor (not quite language-by-metaphor) describes a top-heavy pitching rotation:

Spahn and Sain and pray for rain!

It's clear, to the point, and best of all, it rhymes. What's not to like?

Well, to do a little second-guessing more than 60 years later, it isn't at all clear that Gerald Hern, who penned the poem from which the saying is borrowed, got the valuations right!

The Poem

As I said, the saying comes from a Gerald Hern poem, which was printed in in the September 14, 1948 edition of the Boston Post (the broadsheet was, at the time, the most popular Boston daily paper). Here's the full poem

First we'll use Spahn
then we'll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
And followed
we hope
by two days of rain 

Warren Spahn was, until the 1990s, probably the greatest pitcher in the history of the Braves franchise. He won a Cy Young award (in 1957), was a 14-time All Star, and finished in the top five of MVP voting four separate times. He is also a Hall of Famer.

Johnny Sain was himself no slouch. He was a three-time All Star, and finished in the top five of MVP voting twice.

The 1948 Boston Braves

The poem was written about the 1948 Boston Braves (they didn't move to Milwaukee until before the 1953 season). The '48 Braves were a good team. They went 91-62 (note the 153 game schedule; prorating to 162 gives them just over 96 wins) and won the National League pennant, finishing 6.5 games ahead of the Cardinals. 

The Braves did rely heavily on their pitching staff. Of their position players, only the newly-acquired (from the Browns) right fielder Jeff Heath was a true offensive threat: he hit .319/.404/.582 that year, good for 165 OPS+. Second baseman Eddie Stanky notched an eye-popping .320/.455/.417 line (good for a 138 OPS+), and Bob Elliott hit .283/.423/.474 (143 OPS+) while manning the hot corner. Other than those three, however, the rest of the lineup was around league-average. It survived more by its top-to-bottom consistency than by the exploits of any individual stars. 

The pitching staff--particularly the starters--was a different story. Here's the tale of the tape:

Age W L W-L% ERA G CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
Johnny Sain 30 24 15 0.615 2.60 42 28 4 314.2 297 105 91 19 83 137 147 1.208 8.5 0.5 2.4 3.9 1.65
Warren Spahn* 27 15 12 0.556 3.71 36 16 3 257 237 115 106 19 77 114 103 1.222 8.3 0.7 2.7 4 1.48
Bill Voiselle 29 13 13 0.500 3.63 37 9 2 215.2 226 93 87 18 90 89 106 1.465 9.4 0.8 3.8 3.7 0.99
Vern Bickford 27 11 5 0.688 3.27 33 10 1 146 125 59 53 9 63 60 117 1.288 7.7 0.6 3.9 3.7 0.95

Does that look like a top-heavy pitching staff to you?

Now, in fairness to Spahn, he was a young pitcher who had electrified the league the year before in his first full season (168 ERA+ in 289.2 IP). And, of course, he would go on to even greater heights. But in 1948, he was a league average pitcher who hardly struck out anybody and who allowed too many hits and home runs to be dominant.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Bill Voiselle was surviving by the skin of his teeth, as his career would end partway through the season just two years later. But in 1948, his numbers weren't materially worse than Spahn's. He pitched two shutouts and was about league average.

Vern Bickford was a rookie in 1948. He went on to have successful years again in 1950 and 1951, and in 1949 he was named to the All Star team (though perhaps more for what he did the year before). In 1950, he led the league in innings pitched and tossed 27 (!) complete games. 

The World Series

Now, in fairness to Hern, after the poem was penned, it started to look more true than it perhaps had during the season.

After the Braves won the pennant, they faced the Indians in the World Series. Game 1 was one of the all-time great World Series pitchers' duels, as Sain felled Bob Feller 1-0. Sain's line ought to be annotated with an exclamation mark (9 4 0 0 6).

In Game 2, however, Spahn sputtered and the Braves lost 4-1 at the hands of a masterful Bob Lemon. Spahn lasted just 4.1 innings and gave up three runs.

In Game 3, Bickford and Voiselle combined to throw seven innings, giving up just five hits and one run between the two of them. The Braves, however, fell behind after the Braves lineup failed to score any runs off Indians phenom Gene Bearden.

Sain came back with a nice start in Game 4 (8 5 2 0 3), but again the offense proved ineffectual against Cleveland's pitching.

Spahn pitched masterfully in relief in Game 5 (5.2 1 0 1 7), and came back again in relief in Game 6, but it wasn't enough to overcome the Indians, who won the World Series 4-2. 

Back to 2009

We've heard a lot in this World Series about how both teams have top-heavy pitching rotations. For the Phillies, the presumptive 1-2 were Lee and Hamels, but the latter appears to have been replaced by Pedro Martinez in the pecking order. For the Yankees, Joe Girardi has tried his best to emulate the three-man staff, relying especially heavily on Sabathia and Burnett.

It remains to be seen how the Series will turn out, but we can be certain that, at least some days, the '48 Braves didn't need rain to get a good start on the third day.

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