Don’t let the 80-82 record fool you, the 1962 Indians were a not a good team. Seriously, how does a team that finishes with a bottom 3 offense, a bottom 3 pitching staff, and had the third most errors finish a game below .500? Better yet, how did they somehow find themselves tied for first place at the All Star break? The answer is a 5 letter acronym that can account for nearly every hot stretch in baseball history.
BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play).
Once again the Indians’ pitching staff found themselves to be the beneficiaries of some pretty crazy BABIP luck as they finished the first half with a BABIP against of .257, 24 points better than the league average BABIP of .281
It wasn’t just that as a team they were all 24 points better than the average BABIP, they had some guys dramatically overperform their abilities at the individual level.
Take a look at the first half stats of some of the Indians’ top starters in 1962
Dick Donovan: 18 GS, 12-3, 2.77 ERA, 46/28 K/BB, 136 IP (.240 BABIP)
Jim Perry: 15 GS, 7-6, 3.27 ERA, 48/25 K/BB, 107 IP (.252 BABIP)
Mudcat Grant: 11 GS, 4-3, 3.69 ERA, 43/38 K/BB, 78 IP (.228 BABIP) (Note: Grant’s career avg BABIP was only .258)
That’s 3 guys, especially Donovan, pitching to contact and getting incredibly lucky. Let’s compare that to their second half numbers:
Dick Donovan: 16 GS, 8-7, 4.58 ERA, 48/19 K/BB, 114 IP (.307 BABIP)
Jim Perry: 12 GS, 5-6, 5.21 ERA, 26/34 K/BB, 86 IP (.335 BABIP)
Mudcat Grant: 12 GS, 3-7, 4.90 ERA, 47/43 K/BB, 71 IP (.249 BABIP)
As you can see, the team’s regression in the second half makes a lot more sense when you take a deeper look into the pitching staff. The staff got incredibly lucky in the first half, and then incredibly unlucky in the second. For an offense that was bottom 3 in baseball the margin for error was slim, so when the pitching staff fell back to earth, so did the Indians.
Interestingly enough, though the offense didn’t go through a major regression in BABIP or luck related factors, they did have an absolutely abysmal second half.
Whereas in the first half they solid posting a .732 OPS, hitting 101 homers in 83 games (including 50 homers in the month of May), they fell apart completely as their OPS dropped by nearly 70 points to .665.
No player epitomized the drastic difference in the two halves of the season more than outfielder Chuck Essegian. Now to be clear, I only knew to go look this up because when I was telling my grandfather about this series he told me “go look up Chuck Essegian and how hot of a start he got off to.”
Remember the 2014 season where all of a sudden it was June 14th and Lonnie Chisenhall was hitting .393? Then he slowly but surely fell apart hitting only .218 in the second half? That’s pretty much what Chuck Essegian’s 1962 season was. Essegian was a journeyman who had never appeared in more than 52 games when Cleveland acquired him in 1961. He was coming off a season in which he hit .215 in 88 ABs with the Dodgers in 1960, his age 28 season. He opened the ‘61 season with Baltimore where he played only one game before being traded to Kansas City. He played 4 games with the A’s before the Indians purchased him outright (from Frank Lane). He caught fire with the Indians in 1961. Posting a .289/.328/.560 slash line with 12 home runs in only 60 games. Who needs Rocky Colavito right? In 1962 Essegian picked up right where he left off and looked like Cleveland had found a late bloomer ready to burst into stardom. By May 21st Essgian was hitting .402/.490/.793 with 10 home runs in only 24 games played. While you certainly don’t make these kinds of statements by May 21st, he was playing at a pace that would put him at 67 home runs over 162 games, only a year after Roger Maris had broken the record. He’d finish the month of May with a .353 average.
Of course, as it’s Cleveland we’re talking about here, all good things must come to an abrupt end. A quick glance at his baseball reference page will leave you asking “hey Matt! How was Essegian having such a crazy hot start with only a .308 BABIP?”
That’s actually a result of a weird quirk in the BABIP stat itself. You see, BABIP only counts “balls in play.” While many people would logically assume that the stat is essentially asking what your batting average would be if all of your strikeouts didn’t count, home runs technically don’t count as “balls in play.” It’s a weird quirk but in the same way at bats that ended in a strikeout wouldn’t factor into the calculation, neither would hits that were home runs. So while his BABIP was only .308, a number that is high but not outlandish, he actually had a .413 BAOABTDEIASOAADEIAFO, or “Batting average on at bats that didn’t end in a strikeout and also didn’t end in a foul out” (it’s a new stat, I think it’s gonna catch on, still workshopping the name. So the simple answer to your question is that he hit so many home runs in such a short span that he broke BABIP.
Unlike Chisenhall, Essegian was actually solid the rest of the season outside of a putrid month of June where he hit only .152 with only 2 XBH. He hit .263/.348/.468 in the second half, good for an OPS of .816. A far cry from his borderline MVP level production in April and May, but certainly very good.
So what was the problem with the ‘62 Indians exactly? Much like the ‘61 season they were unable to build off of their scorching hot start and fell to a sub .500 record by season’s end. Whether it was sheer bad luck or players regressing from hot streaks to more closely resemble who they actually were, the ‘62 team stunk in the second half, scuffling ton a 33-46 record after the break. While the ‘62 team finished with a better record than the ‘61 team, Pythagoras seems to think they should’ve actually finished with a record of 74-88, worse than the ‘61 team. They allowed 745 runs on the year and only scored 682. Most times when you hear about a team that dramatically overperforms their run differential it’s because they won a lot of close games and then got blown out a bunch, that wasn’t quite the case in 1962.
The Indians were slightly above average in one run games, posting a record of 24-21, the actual cause of the disparity in run differential was just how bad they were in the second half. They had 5 double digit losses in the last two months of the season and 12 such losses by 5 runs or more. They were a solid to above average team in the first half, and just flat out awful in the second half.
Manager Mel McGaha would be fired with two games remaining in the season, marking the third straight year a manager would be fired during the season. Managerial turnover and drama would be emblematic of the team over the next decade, whether it was constant firings, the back and forth flip flopping between Birdie Tebbets and George STrickland from ‘63-’66, Joe Adcock’s feud with Sam McDowell, or Gabe Paul’s paranoia (justified) that Alvin Dark was gunning for his job, the Indians managerial position was beginning to look more like the Defense Against the Dark Arts job at Hogwarts or “Browns Quarterback” in terms of turnover.
Join us tomorrow as we kick off the Birdie Tebbets era in Cleveland!