The Rule of Three

The number 3 and its multiples are prevalent throughout baseball:  3 strikes and you’re out; 3 up and 3 down; 3 bases and home.  Nine innings in a game, 9 players per side, 90 feet between the bases.  Each base forms 90 degrees.  Each team gets 27 outs.  But enough already, I want to get to an altogether different set of 3s.

A consistently competitive team needs a trio of good-to-excellent players within three areas—pitching, defense, and offense.  I’m not saying the team will be a champion every year, but it will rarely be one without that combination.  With it, it will win a lot of games.  To illustrate the point and give it some flesh and blood, I will use my favorite team when I was growing up in the wonderful little town of Marion in the great state of Iowa in the 1950s—the Milwaukee Braves.

PITCHING:  A winning team needs an ace followed by two really good hurlers in its rotation.  The final two in a five-man rotation have to be good enough to eat innings—average and durable.  (Not all teams can have aces all over the place, like the Mets.)  The Braves of the ‘50s boasted one of the greatest of all time as its ace—Warren Spahn, who won 20 or more games 13 times.  Following Spahn was Lew Burdette, who compiled a 179-120 record in 13 years with Milwaukee, a winning percentage of .599.  His ERA was 3.53.  Bob Buhl manned the 3 slot with a 109-72 record over 10 years (.602 winning percentage) and an ERA of 3.27.

DEFENSE:  To augment the pitching staff, three defenders behind the pitcher must be good or above average—the shortstop, the second baseman, and the center fielder.  Most balls are hit up the middle.  Johnny Logan held down the shortstop position for the Braves.  He was an above average shortstop (.965 fielding pct.) with great range and was a five-time All Star.  Second base was a problem for the Braves.  For several years in the mid ‘50s, mediocre players filled that position. The Braves still won some games, but in 1957 they acquired Red Schoendienst and won the World Series, which emphasizes the point being made here. 
Schoendienst made 10 All Star teams and fielded brilliantly (.983 career percentage).  The center fielder was one of my favorite players.  Bill Bruton had tremendous speed, a must for that position.  He was consistently among the top five in putouts and assists among center fielders.  These three defenders do not necessarily have to be great hitters, but the Braves trio hit well enough (Logan .270, Schoendienst .289, Bruton .276).  The next trio, however, absolutely must pound the baseball.

OFFENSE:  These three make up what’s called the meat of the order—the 3-4-5 spots in the batting order.  The Braves of the ‘50s had one of the greatest in horsehide history—Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Adcock.  I will use 162-game career averages for each of them.  Aaron hit third in the batting order, a position traditionally calling for a high average hitter with power.  Aaron batted .305 with 37 homers and 113 RBI.  Mathews hit cleanup, batting .271 with 35 homers and 98 RBI.  In the fifth position—important because it protects the cleanup hitter—Adcock, one of the all-time great number five hitters, batted .277 with 28 homers and 93 RBI.  Again, these are career stats averaged over a 162-game season.

The Milwaukee Braves were very good from 1953 to the early ‘60s. Bill James, the father of Sabremetrics, thought they should have more World Series than the one in 1957, but were mismanaged by Fred Haney.  In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, and I disowned them.

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