For all of you who have read one or more parts of this series, thank you for taking the journey with me back to 1969. There isn’t a lot of point to just going back and reliving 2016 over and over again. So when we do these, we are necessarily going to reach a pain point somewhere along the way. If I pick 1969 or one of the playoff years, there is always a point where things go bad. If I pick some random year, there is less connection to the memories for the average fan. For better or for worse, these landmark years resonate.
1969 resonates so strongly that fans like me who weren’t even born yet still have awareness of it. Still, I learned much along this journey. I knew the names, but I know more of them now. Along side the big names from a team that produced a series of Hall of Fame players, I’ve learned that Joe Niekro and Oscar Gamble started their careers as Cubs. Might things have been a little different for the for the franchise if one or both were retained?
I also was amused following the season-long standings for Heroes and Goats. Fergie Jenkins at the top? Not surprising, especially with starting pitchers logging so many more innings back then. They tended to accumulate Superhero and Billy Goat placings much more frequently. Billy Williams as one of the top contenders? Not a shock either. Bill Hands? I’d heard of him, sure. But I’d have never expected his mad dash to the finish. But for two bad starts in mid-September, he’d have been the WPA Hero of the Year.
In this finale for the series, I’m going to look at the final standings for 1969 Heroes and Goats. I’m also going to list the top and bottom WPA game scores. The WPA charts in Baseball Reference are different than the ones we ordinarily use for H&G as Fangraphs doesn’t go back that far. The effect of that is that I won’t be looking at individual play WPA’s. I’ll finish off with some thoughts about what went wrong down the stretch for a team that appeared to be in such good shape for much of the season.
1969 Heroes and Goats: Final Standings
- Ferguson Jenkins 26
- Bill Hands 23
- Billy Williams 20
- Glenn Beckert 15
- Phil Regan 12
- Hank Aguirre 7
- Al Spangler 6
- Paul Popovich 6
- Joe Decker 4.5
- Jim Hickman 4
- Jimmie Hall 4
- Ken Rudolph 4
- John Hairston 3
- Dave Lemonds 3
- Gary Ross 3
- Jim Qualls 2
- Ron Santo 0.5
- Jim Colborn .5
- Ken Holtzman 0
- Archie Reynolds 0
- Ken Johnson -1
- Don Nottebart -1
- Willie Smith -1.5
- Charley Smith -2
- Alec Distaso -2
- Rick Bladt -3
- Joe Niekro -3
- Bill Heath -4.5
- Manny Jimenez -5
- Dick Selma -5
- Oscar Gamble -6.5
- Rich Nye -7
- Gene Oliver -8
- Adolfo Phillips -8.5
- Ted Abernathy -10
- Ernie Banks -10.5
- Nate Oliver -12.5
- Randy Hundley -15.5
- Don Kessinger -18.5
- Don Young -18.5
You can see here with a pitching-first team in an era where the starters were regularly pitching into the seventh, eighth and ninth innings that the hitters really got slaughtered in H&G. Williams and Beckert were really the only two hitters that were able to sustain any upward progress.
The interesting thing about those two being at the top is that they most typically batted second and third in the lineup. Typically, H&G rewards those who drive in the runs. The largest WPA boosts are those that score runs. Beckert only drove in 37 runs in 582 plate appearances. But here is Beckert and his .666 OPS landing in the top five. Meanwhile, Ron Santo drove in 123 runs and Ernie Banks 106. That landed one just about at break even and another very near the bottom.
WPA Bottom 10 Game Scores:
- 10. Phil Regan (-.414) June 13
- 9. Fergie Jenkins (-.422) September 6
- 8. Fergie Jenkins (-.422) June 13
- 7. Dick Selma (-.435) April 27
- 6. Ken Holtzman (-.440) April 19
- 5. Bill Hands (-.467) June 15
- 4. Bill Hands (-.520) July 19
- 3. Rich Nye (-.551) July 30
- 2. Fergie Jenkins (-.559) July 8
- 1. Ted Abernathy (-.722) July 11
It is pretty normal that these numbers all belong to pitchers. Barring an extreme walk-off type of moment like a homer that takes a team from losing to winning in the bottom of the ninth, these are usually all pitchers. The big difference is that the huge majority of these were starting pitchers. These are relatively split proportionally to the amount of innings the starters through. Jenkins threw the most innings and Hands was second after that.
WPA Top 10 Game Scores:
- 10. Fergie Jenkins (.594) July 4
- 9. Billy Williams (.595) August 3
- 8. Ken Holtzman (.598). September 19
- 7. Bill Hands (.599). May 30
- 6. Bill Hands (.662). July 14
- 5. Joe Niekro (.695). April 12
- 4. Fergie Jenkins (.786). July 20
- 3. Willie Smith (.788). April 8
- 2. Fergie Jenkins (.794). April 16
- 1. Jim Hickman (.804). June 22
Once again, the list is dominated by starting pitchers. That was probably a little more likely in those days. The starting pitcher was going to stay in a tight game if he was pitching reasonably well and that would allow accumulation of a lot of WPA. The two games near the top from hitters were each walk-off homers. Smith is there for his memorable walk-off on opening day. Hickman’s places a little higher because his came with a man on and turned a 6-5 deficit into a 7-6 win.
Post Mortem: So what happened? This team led the N.L. East by nine games a number of times and that wasn’t all early in the season either. The team led by nine games as late as August 16 (a little fuzzy math as that includes a game that was suspended in June and not concluded until early September). The team reached 32 games over .500 and did that as late as September 2 — the Cubs franchise would not be 32 games over again until 1984 and not more than that until 2008. Somehow, a team that was nine ahead on August 16 was nine behind on October 1. That’s about as stunning a collapse as you’ll ever see.
I refuse to write this story without making this point again. A HUGE part of that should be a hat tip to the Mets. It’s fair to look at where the Cubs derailed along the way. A Mets team that was somehow 18-23 on May 27 went on to win 100 games. The Mets pitching staff was nothing short of spectacular. They had 28 shutouts. They were 47-5 if they held a team to one run or less, 65-8 if they held them to two or less, and 82-20 if they held them to three or less. Almost 63 percent of the time they held the opposition to three or fewer runs and when they did, they won over 80 percent of the time. They were a historically good team and it would have been criminal for that team not to be a playoff team.
Enough about the Mets, though. The reality is that a team that is nine up through 123 games should also make the playoffs. The playoffs weren’t big enough for the both of ‘em in those days so someone had to lose. How is it possible that it wasn’t the Mets that lost out? Well, the Cubs had an eight-game losing streak in September. Ouch. Pair that with those stinkin’ Mets having winning streaks of 10 and nine games in September. Holy cow indeed.
Okay, but how did this happen? The first factor? The offense faded. They posted a .739 OPS in 99 games before the All-Star break. They posted a .656 after the break. Randy Hundley and Glenn Beckert each missed time in the second half and the center field position became increasingly unsettled.
Next we look at a little bit of what appears to be sequencing. Ken Holtzman was 11-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 24 starts before the break. He was 6-8 with a 3.74 ERA in 15 starts after. He went from a 1.349 WHIP in the pre-break games to a 1.246 after. The one significant thing I notice with him after the break is that his SO/W ratio really dropped after the break (2.27 to 1.41). All of those extra balls in play appear to have haunted him a bit. Particularly absent were his dominant games. He had five shutouts before the break and just one after.
Much is said about Leo Durocher and the way he ran the same position players out day after day after day. Surely, one can look at the rise and fall of Randy Hundley and see how that could be particularly taxing to a catcher. But it isn’t talked as much about how he used his bullpen. The bullpen averaged 2.33 innings per game before the break and just 2.05 after. After the break, the bullpen logged a total of 131⅓ innings and Phil Regan threw 39⅓ of those himself.
In reading some of the bios and stories about that team, Rich Nye talked about the fact that he was young and healthy — just 24 in 1969. He was the swingman on that team, starting five games and throwing 29 in relief. Nye said he felt like he could have given the Cubs 200 innings that year. Of course, in the days of four-man rotations they didn’t need him that way. Still, Nye noted that at times he went so long without being used that he would get up in the pen just to give the impression that he might be used.
It’s interesting that with Nye being young and healthy he wasn’t looked to for more starts. The Cubs got 16 starts from pitchers outside of their main four. Those starts were spread out among eight different pitchers. Should Nye have gotten more of a look for those starts? It’s easy to lament the trade of Joe Niekro, but that trade brought back Dick Selma who was by and large pretty good. At least for 1969, that wasn’t a bad trade.
Among the hitters, Hundley had a .789 OPS pre-break and .605 (.214/.298/.308) after. Banks .757 pre- and .672 (.233/.281/.391) after. Beckert was consistent (.688/.641). Kessinger was .766 pre- and .584[?!?] (.232/.284/.300) after. Santo was at .920 pre- and .787 after. Williams .863 before and .774 after. Ironically, Don Young was .698 before and .758 after. But he was used very sparingly in July and September. When he played regularly in August, he had just a .638. Jim Hickman was the one outlier. He had a .676 before the break and an .877 after. Basically, the whole offense collapsed after the break.
Looking at just September? It’s even worse. The pitching staff allowed an opposing .670 OPS for the season, but that jumped to .738 in September (and October). That resulted in a 4.01 team ERA in the last month for a team that had a 3.34 season ERA. The story was much the same for the hitters. They had a season long .707 OPS, but just .605 in September. Full stop, let’s look at that again. The team had a line of .218/.283/.322 in September.
So what is my final conclusion as someone who didn’t live through this, didn’t live and die with it and is fully in back-seat driver mode? Certainly Durocher appeared to be the kind of manager that a player could get into the dog house with and when that happened, they’d just disappear. No doubt, some players could have flourished with a different approach. As Al has told us often in his discussions of the Cubs of the late 1960’s, Adolfo Phillips appears to be one such case. Given that center field slowly devolved into an abyss, hard to argue that he almost had to at least be marginally better than the rotating cast of characters after he left.
Perhaps unsurprisingly though, I’m going to pull the lens back further. The Cubs lost because they had no depth. Certainly, that last point ties into this one. No doubt Durocher added to that by burying guys at the end of the bench or bullpen. But, the Cubs basically rolled out their best players in all of the key situations. Willie Smith and Paul Popovich were the only two players that provided anything off of the bench. Popovich came across in the trade that sent out Phillips. Things got so bad that the Cubs rushed a 19-year-old Oscar Gamble to the majors for 81 plate appearances of .631 OPS in September.
The bullpen had basically no one after closer Phil Regan. Of course, it was 1969. Things were different. You basically rolled with five or six pitchers and the rest of the guys were usually either youngsters in development or older guys hanging on to their career. The Cubs were certainly no exception to that. But the Cubs were much more heavily in on the youngsters, using 10 pitchers (out of 17) who were 25 or younger. But, their two main relievers after Regan (Ted Abernathy and Hank Aguirre) were 36 and 38 years old. Both of them pitched quite well for the team, but combined for a total of just 130⅓ innings of work (compare that to 112 for Regan alone).
One way or another, the net result was that the Cubs just didn’t have quite as many weapons as the Mets. Still, they almost pulled off what would have been a pretty good sized upset, something that’s not easy to do over a 162-game season. With a few bounces and some stronger play against the Pirates and Expos, the Cubs could have won the NL East in its first year of existence. Alas, that didn’t happen. It would be another 15 years before the team would finally do that. And it wouldn’t be until 47 years later that it would finally win a World Series. None of that takes away from what was a great group of guys, several of whom have been immortalized in Cooperstown.
The biggest shames will always be that Mr. Cub Ernie Banks never saw the post season and this was perhaps his best chance and that Ron Santo might have reached the Hall of Fame during his lifetime had he been part of a World Series winner.
You can read much more about the 1969 Cubs in this StoryStream which contains all the stories Al wrote about that star-crossed team on the 50th anniversary of notable happenings and games.
That’s all I have for you. I’ll next be back with a prologue to the 2020 season. We’ll be waiting to see if this group of players can quiet the critics and get back to the postseason after a stunning absence in 2019.
If any of you have any comments or suggestions as to what could make this series better in the future, please feel free to leave them below or reach out to me separately via email to offer them. The odds are good that I’ll be back again next offseason with a new look at Cubs history. Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting.