January 12, 2010
Guest Blogger: Chris Jaffe on Tom Kelly
W/L Record: 1,140-1,244 (.478)
Full Seasons: Minnesota 1987-2001
Majority in: (none)
Minority of: Minnesota 1986
Birnbaum Database: +75 runs
Individual Hitters: -107 runs
Individual Pitchers: -249 runs
Pythagenpat Difference: +96 runs
Team Offense: +80 runs
Team Defense: +255 runs
Team Characteristics: By most metrics, his teams had outstanding defenses. (Defensive Efficiency Ratio finds them average, but that could be a park effect). His offenses centered on contact hitters who slapped out singles. He had little use for power hitters, and even less for bunts or the hit and run. His pitching staffs based their game on control.
Several years ago, ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer invented the Beane Count in honor of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane’s teams, which excelled at walks and home runs on both sides of the game. Tom Kelly’s Twins took a different approach to baseball, eschewing the things that brought success to Oakland’s early twenty-first century clubs. When the Tendencies Database gets a hold of the Beane Count’s four categories (all adjusted per plate appearances or innings pitched), these are baseball’s most anti-Beane Count managers:
Least Interest in Beane Count
Tom Kelly 4.907
Burt Shotton 4.533
Jimmy Dykes 4.529
Fred Hutchinson 4.516
Jimmy McAleer 4.505
Kelly wins in a rout. Actually, that understates his tendencies because Kelly’s pitching staffs were terrific at avoiding walks. With the remaining three components, Kelly scores nearly well enough (4.320) to crack the above list.
He was content to punt homers with Minnesota. After 1987, no Twin ever hit 30 homers in a season for Kelly, while baseball’s other teams had 342 different 30-home run performances from 1988-2001. In only two of his fifteen seasons in Minnesota did the Twins hit more home runs than they allowed, both times by the narrowest of margins (151 to 146 in 1988, and 140 to 139 in 1991). From 1987-2001, Tom Kelly’s Twins allowed 2,612 homers while blasting 1,902, which amounts to a home run differential of nearly -47 per season.
For context, fewer than 130 teams (out of 2,500+) in baseball history have been -47 or worse in a season. Kelly’s -710 homer differential is the worst in baseball history. Only one other manager (Jimmy Dykes) is below -400. Here are the worst single season homer differentials in baseball history:
Year Team HR Dif. Manager
1996 MIN -115 HR Tom Kelly
1999 MIN -103 HR Tom Kelly
2000 MIN -96 HR Tom Kelly
1995 MIN -90 HR Tom Kelly
2006 KCR -89 HR Buddy Bell
2000 KCR -89 HR Tony Muser
A clear pattern exists. Please note 1995 was not a full season due to a labor stoppage.
Those homer differentials reflect not only the available talent, but also Kelly’s coaching tendencies. Former Twins’ prospect David Ortiz once gave an interview explaining why his power erupted when he came to the Red Sox. He noted that in the minors his plate approach focused on hitting for power but when he came to Minnesota, they wanted him to shorten up his swing and approach the game the way everyone else on the team did. Thus a man with a pair of 30 home run seasons in the minors hit only one every nine games with the Twins. Upon arrival in Boston they let him go back to his old ways, and his homers, walks, and strikeouts all rose.
That story reveals the downside to Tom Kelly’s managing, as he could be too inflexible for his (or the team’s) own good. While Kelly was the worst manager for the David Ortizes of the world, he was not a net negative on the job. Kelly had a losing record in his career, but that was due to Minnesota’s rosters. In the Birnbaum Database his score of +78 runs seems merely decent, but when circumstances are accounted for, he rises up.
To compare: Kelly had +78 runs in 2,384 games with a .478 winning percentage while John McNamara scored at –174 runs in 2,415 games and a .484 winning percentage. The cigar-smoking Kelly had won four minor league manager of the year titles before getting his shot at the big league level.
Kelly punted Beane Count stats because his frame of reference centered on balls in play. The Twins were a difficult team to fan under Kelly. For example, from 1990-93 the squad struck out 795 times per year. Other AL teams averaged over 900 whiffs per season during this span. Several players had their strikeout rates drop under Kelly. These improvements were consistent, though rarely dramatic. Gary Gaetti, Greg Gagne, and Corey Koskie were free swingers in their careers, yet none fanned quite as regularly under Kelly as they did away from him. The tendency was especially noteworthy with Kent Hrbek. The burly first baseman routinely had 80-90 whiffs a year, but once Kelly arrived he never had more than 60.
A man who fanned more than once every seven at bats spent the rest of his career going down that way only one in nine times. Even Paul Molitor, who ended his 21-year career under Kelly, had his best single season strikeout rate under Kelly. From 1987-2001, no Twin struck out more than 130 times for him. The other AL teams had it happen to them on 112 occasions. Kelly’s Twins made contact and legged out hits. In the Tendencies Database, Kelly had a higher score with batting average than Joe McCarthy (0.730 to 0.737).
With his kind of player, Kelly could be quite effective. Brian Harper was Kelly’s kind of player. A back up journeyman catcher, Harper underwhelmed baseball by combining substandard defense with an inability to slug or work the count. Kelly focused on what Harper could do – put the ball in play – and made him Minnesota’s starting catcher. From 1988-93, in what should have been Harper’s declining years, he developed into one of the game’s best-hitting catchers, posting a .306 batting average while fanning once every twenty at bats.
However, it would be wrong to consider Tom Kelly a smallball manager. He had no interest in the hit and run, for example. While a manager like Casey Stengel instinctively monitored the game to avoid possible double play situations, Kelly stoically resigned himself to double plays as a cost of doing business. In the 1990s, only thirteen teams hit into 150 double plays. Kelly managed five of them, and his 1999 Twins had 149. In 1996, the Twins grounded into 172, the second highest total in baseball history. As a result, double plays hurt Kelly more than any other manager in history. If you take team DP and GIDP, and give them the Mauch adjustments, here are the worst career double play differentials:
Worst Double Play Differentials
Tom Kelly -278 double plays
Mayo Smith -222 double plays
Joe Torre -210 double plays
Mel Ott -189 double plays
Bruce Bochy -184 double plays
Kelly possesses a sizable lead.
When it came to run prevention, Kelly was a practitioner of the classic Comiskey philosophy of throwing strikes and playing sound defense. At the end of his career, he had one of the greatest defensive outfields of all-time with the “Soul Patrol” of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, and Matt Lawton. The same squad had Gold Glover Doug Mientkiewicz at first. Ten of Kelly’s teams were in the top four in fielding percentage. Twice they led the league in Fielding Win Shares, and were runner up two other times.
A manager can get away with minimizing the Beane Count approach by maximizing his team’s quality on balls in play. Even more than defense, though, control pitching typified Kelly’s squads. Ten times they were in the top four in the AL in fewest walks per nine innings. The league averaged 3.5BB/9IP, but Kelly’s Twins stayed under that every year except 1995. In the two dozen times someone threw at least 200 innings for him, nine times the hurler allowed less than two walks every nine innings.
This combination of solid defense with splendid control pitching allowed Kelly to minimize the importance of hurlers who blew opponents away. None of Kelly’s starting pitchers ever struck out 200 batters in a season; rather unusual for a late twentieth-century manager. Only one-third of the pitchers who qualified for an ERA title under his watch struck out batters at a superior rate to the league as a whole. This fits into the philosophy pioneered by Comiskey and perfected by McKechnie: defense plus control equals less need for power pitching. Brad Radke was the ultimate Tom Kelly pitcher. He never struck fear in anyone’s heart but he was durable and had great control. In 2001 he walked 1.04BB/9IP, the second lowest total by an American League pitcher since Walter Johnson.
With his lack of interest in the long ball and offensive walks, Kelly appeared to be a man from another era as the game’s power numbers surged in the 1990s. Apparently Kelly thought so, because he voluntarily retired after 2001, despite only being 51 years old. In all baseball history, only one other person with at least 2,000 games managed who never served as a player-manager left at such a young age – Frank Selee, a century earlier. And that was not voluntary, Selee was dying.