Ted Williams and the 1969 Senators — a closer look

My post about Ted Williams’ stint as manager of the Washington Senators (plus a year in Texas) has been well-received. However, last night on the train home from New York I realized to my chagrin that I overlooked a very important (and fairly obvious) point.

In my post, I attributed the Senators’ success in 1969 (21 more wins than the previous year) almost entirely to improved hitting. On a superficial level, the numbers support that view — the pitching statistics didn’t improve much in 1968 and the batting statistics improved dramatically. But 1968 was the year of the pitcher, so much so that the pitching mound was lowered after the season. In 1969, hitting made a comeback throughout the major leagues.

In this context, Washington’s pitiching were much better in 1969 than they were the year before. In 1968, the team ERA was 3.67 compared to a league average of 2.98. In 1969, the Senators’ staff pitched to an ERA of 3.49, compared to a league average of 3.63. To be sure, 1969 was an expansion year, and one of the expansion teams (the Seattle Pilots of “Ball Four” fame) had very bad pitching. Even so, it’s clear that Washington’s pitching improved quite significantly in Williams’ first year as manager.

Can this be attributed at all to Williams? Certainly, his approach to helping pitchers was far less sophisticated than for hitters. With hitters it was about mechanics and selectivity of pitches to hit. With pitchers, according to the accounts of the day, his advice consisted mostly of telling his charges to throw more sliders, because that was the only pitch that occasionally gave him trouble.

But the same accounts indicated that Williams did take a strong interest in his pitchers and, at a minimum, probably inspired them. He took particular interest, as I recall in young Joe Coleman, of whom big things were expected. And Coleman managed to pitch to the same ERA in 1969 as he had in 1968, despite the swelling of ERAs league-wide. Coleman would go on to be a 20 game winner twice, both times for Detroit, unfortunately.

But the most improved pitcher by far was Dick Bosman. In his first year as a regular starting pitcher, Bosman posted a 2.19 ERA, the best in the league. Whether or to what extent he worked with WIlliams, I do not know. Another significant factor was the greater availability of relief ace Darold Knowles. Knowles had military commitments both years, but in 1969 was able to give us basically a full season, instead of half a season as in 1968. In both years, his ERA was around 2.20.

Finally, it may be worth noting that in 1967, the Senators’ pitching had been decent (though undermined by an obscene number of errors). The hitting, on the other hand, had been poor. So one can argue that the 1969 pitching staff to some extent was regaining its form, whereas the hitters were breaking through. But of course, there had also been some significant personnel changes between 1967 and 1969.

In sum, under Williams both the hitting and the pitching of the Senators improved dramatically from the previous year. Williams can reasonably be given a huge amount of credit in the hitting department. As for the pitching, Williams very likely deserves some credit, but not nearly as much.

UPDATE: I should have added that the Senators did not change pitching coaches in 1969. Sid Hudson was the pitching coach, as he had been under manager Jim Lemon in 1968.

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