Bucky Harris led the Washington Nationals to a World Series in his very first season as manager. In 1923, the same team went 75-78. The rosters were essentially the same, so what changed?
1. Starting Pitching
Pitcher: 1923 ERA+; 1924 ERA+
Walter Johnson 109; 148
George Mogridge 121; 107
Tom Zachary 84; 146
Zahniser (23)/Ogden (24) 98; 146
While Johnson had a somewhat unexpected return to form at the age of 36, there were several other reasons for the improvement of the team. While Mogridge fell off a bit, he still pitched over 200 innings. Tom Zachary and Curly Ogden each had career seasons, making the 1924 staff the deepest in the league. Bucky Harris could throw four starters who had ERA+ of 100 or more; three of them were near 150 (if he started Marberry with his 130 ERA+, which he did 15 times, that makes five). Zachary would show flashes of the same brilliance in 1929, but neither he nor Ogden would ever have a season as fine as 1924.
2. Firpo Marberry
By 1924, Washington had a long history of innovative bullpen use. Clark Griffith was the godfather, and his influence seemed to rub off on the men that succeeded him as manager. This is certainly true of Bucky Harris.
To start with, Marberry was one of the few “bullpen aces” of the time. Most managers had a tendency to throw their best starters out in relief situations in close games. It was common for a player to have 30+ starts at 10-12 relief appearances in a season (notably, 1924 is the first year in Walter Johnson’s career that he did not make any relief appearances – in the regular season- a possible factor in his success).
While Marberry filled in as a spot-starter at times, his primary role was in relief. He appeared in 50 games, 15 of which were starts. Of his 35 relief appearances, Marberry finished 24 games (30 GF minus 6 CG).
It appears, based on a small sample, that Marberry was used whenever Harris needed him. In some cases it was to finish games, in others it was to eat innings. Though his record was 11-12, the fact that he was involved in 23 decisions in 50 games indicates that he was often pitched in high-leverage situations.
Marberry’s value could probably have been maximized more, but, as it was, he provided Bucky Harris a nice safety net in case a starter struggled, and a closer to finish games out (he had 15 saves to lead the league).
3. Improved Defense
Player 1923 FRAR, 1924 FRAR
C Muddy Ruel 43, 50
1B Joe Judge 2, 27
2B Bucky Harris 24, 22
SS Roger Peckinpaugh 51, 63
3B Ossie Bleuge 15, 11
LF Goose Goslin 5, 17
CF Nemo Leibold 4, 10
RF Sam Rice 18, 18
Almost every regular improved defensively in 1924. As a team, the Nats had DER of .674 and a fielding percentage of .967 in 1923; a year later they had improved to .710 and .972.
4. Enough Offense
The 1924 Washington lineup was certainly not one that struck fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers. I mentioned in the Franchise 1923 post that Griffith’s team didn’t seem to know that it wasn’t the dead ball era anymore. Washington actually had fewer home runs (22) in 1924 than they did in 1923 (26). Griffith Stadium played as a pitcher’s park, so that was part of the reason; but Griffith simply didn’t load up on sluggers.
Still, there was some slugging improvement between 1923 and 1924:
Team AVG/OBP/SLG (AL AVG)
1923 .274/.341/.367 (.283/.351/.388)
1924 .294/.356/.387 (.290/.358/.397)
Make no mistake about it, the star of this team was pitching and defense; but the offense improved enough to help make the team competitive.