Paine: Why baseball revived a 60-year-old strategy designed to stop Ted Williams

From Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight on October 13, 2016, with mention of SABR member Russ Schneider:

Around the middle of the 20th century, there was no more fearsome hitter in baseball than Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. Williams could do it all at the plate: hitting for contact — his .406 average in 1941 was the last time anybody hit .400 in season; smashing extra-base hits — he’s second only to Babe Ruth in career slugging percentage; and relentlessly working the count — his .482 lifetime on-base percentage still ranks No. 1 all time. Throughout his career, Williams was obsessed with being known as the “greatest hitter who ever lived.” And he may well have been just that.

Countless pitchers, fielders and managers tried to stop Williams; few ever succeeded. But one adversary did employ an effective strategy to rob Williams of his hits, a tactic that’s still influencing the game today — in fact, more so now than ever.

The opponent in question was Lou Boudreau, starting shortstop and manager — back when player-managers were a thing — of the Cleveland Indians. Boudreau was a brilliant player in his own right, and to a certain degree, his biographer says, he resented the fame and attention that constantly came Williams’s way. More importantly, as Cleveland’s manager he also had to find a way to keep Williams from beating his Indians. So in between games of a doubleheader on July 14, 1946, Boudreau gave his fielders a quick crash course in the strange defensive configuration they’d be using later that day, one only sparingly used seldom seen before in baseball history.

“[Boudreau] said, this is what I want you to do: See the the stuff I put on the blackboard? When I yell ‘Yo!’, that’s when everybody takes the position that I put on the blackboard,” Russ Schneider, Boudreau’s biographer, told me. “And the players said, ‘What’re you, crazy?’ Even his coaches said the same thing. ‘You can’t do that! How can you do that?’ He said, ‘We’re gonna do it.’”

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Originally published: October 14, 2016. Last Updated: October 14, 2016.