The Century Mark: 1912 Red Sox

Second in a series looking at previous 100-game winners in Red Sox history and what lessons they hold for the would-be contenders of 2011.

The 1912 Red Sox were a powerhouse ballclub, blowing the league out of the water by winning 105 games in a 152-game season, the equivalent of 112 wins today. Their .691 winning percentage remains the 15th-best all-time. At the time, it was the best season any American League ballclub had ever had, and it remains in the league's top 10.

What made the campaign all the more remarkable was how mediocre the 1911 Red Sox had been. At 78-75, they finished fourth in the league. The biggest problem was their offense: They finished near the bottom of the league in runs — ahead only of the terrible 90-loss Washington Senators and the execrable 107-loss St. Louis Browns.

There was promise, however. The 1911 pitching staff, led by 21-year-old standout Joe Wood, topped the league in ERA, finally recovering from owner John Taylor's horrific blunder of trading Cy Young in 1909.

Wood went a middling 23-17, but his 2.02 ERA in 275 innings was fantastic, even by dead-ball standards, good for a 162 ERA+ and third in the league. His supporting cast was impressive, as well. Southpaw Ray Collins wasn't quite as good as his breakout 1910 season but posted a 136 ERA+ in 194 innings. Larry Pape was excellent, posting a 134 ERA+ in 176 innings, and Eddie Cicotte had a decent 116 ERA+ in 220 innings. A handful of pitchers filled out the staff with roughly league-average results, but 29-year-old rookie Buck O'Brien turned heads, allowing just two earned runs in nearly 48 innings of work.

So the Sox had some promising pitchers, particularly in Wood and Collins, but their offense was a mess. Clyde Engel posted an 86 OPS+ from first base, barely replacement level. Heinie Wagner and Bill Carrigan had provided league-average bats at second and catcher, respectively, but injuries torpedoed their seasons, and they were replaced by replacement-level (or worse) scrubs. The seventh-best hitter on the team was Wood, who added 1.1 WAR on offense to go with his 4.7 on the mound.

Far and away, the most promising part of the offense was the outfield, where 23-year-old Tris Speaker, in his third season, had his best campaign yet, a .920 OPS (157 OPS+) and 5.5 WAR. On either side of him, a pair of 23-year-olds: left fielder Duffy Lewis and right fielder Harry Hooper. They each posted solid numbers in different ways. Both hit over .300 and posted an OPS one point on either side of .793 (122 OPS+), but Hooper did it with a .399 on-base percentage and a team-leading 73 walks; Lewis had a .437 slugging percentage and finished just behind Speaker for the team lead in doubles and home runs. 

The Red Sox opened 1912 in a state of flux. Taylor had sold half the team the previous fall so he could build and lease the club's new ballpark, and the new owners appointed Jake Stahl as manager. But the roster remained largely the same, which didn't bode well for the team's success, given their lackluster performance the previous year.

But then no one accounted for the dual breakout seasons of the two Hall of Fame talents and housemates, Wood and Speaker.

Wood won an incredible 34 games, completing 35 of his 38 starts and throwing 10 shutouts. His 1.91 ERA was second to Walter Johnson. His quest to match Johnson's AL-record-setting consecutive-victories streak captivated Boston and led to standing-room-only on-field crowds for his September matchup with the Big Train for what would become Wood's 14th straight win. (Read more about the game and Wood's season.)

Speaker, meanwhile, won the MVP for his stellar, breakout 1912 season. He posted an OPS over 1.000, which had only happened four times in the history of the American League before then (though he, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb all crossed that mark in '12), and his .464 on-base percentage was the third-highest in baseball history. It would only be exceeded through the end of the dead-ball era by Cobb and himself. His 11.0 WAR for 1912 remains the seventh-best ever posted by a center fielder, tied with Willie Mays' best season and trailing only performances by Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb, and tied for 20th all-time by any outfielder. (I've written more about Speaker's season, as well.)

But the 1912 team was much more than just the two superstars. Collins and O'Brien joined Wood to finish in the top 10 in ERA and WHIP. Rookie Hugh Bedient joined Wood and Collins in the top 10 in wins and strikeouts. All four starters finished among the top 10 in WAR, which has happened just five times in the game's history.

Bedient, the rookie, replaced Cicotte, who was sold to Chicago, where he found more success and eventual infamy, while Charley Hall, who had spent most of 1911 doing a poor job in relief, swapped places with Pape and turned in a respectable 113 ERA+ in 191 innings (fewest among the starters) with 2.6 WAR. 

On offense, catcher and second base were still problematic, but player-manager Stah's production at first base was a huge improvement, and third baseman Larry Gardner had a career year, his 133 OPS+ and solid defense worth nearly 6 WAR. Those improvements, along with Speaker's monster campaign more than offset Hooper's catastrophic, replacement-level season, the worst of his career — one he wouldn't come close to repeating until his final season, 13 years later.

The offensive improvements, led by Speaker but also including those big upgrades at first and third base, pushed the Sox to the top of the league in runs scored and OPS. They finished second in ERA, however, because the Senators were led by Johnson, who pitched more than 25 percent of their innings at a 1.39 clip.

On defense, the Sox led the league in defensive efficiency (the rate at which batted balls are turned into outs, the reverse of BABIP) and were second in fielding percentage, though the TotalZone backfill portion of WAR saw that version of the Sox as more of an average team on defense. How reliable is this? Hard to say. Speaker led the league in outfield assists that year and was notorious for his super-shallow positioning. His reputation ever since, largely borne out by TotalZone in subsequent years, is as an elite, all-time great defensive center fielder. The reputations for Lewis and Hooper are similarly sterling. I'm willing to say that group is among the best defensive outfields the game has seen.

Of course, 1912 was just the beginning for these Red Sox. They went on to win the World Series in dramatic, probably to some extent predetermined, fashion, then stumbled thanks to regression and injuries in 1913 (though Speaker, Lewis and Hooper combined to tally 84 outfield assists that year, a record I doubt we'll ever see broken). The team rebuilt in 1914, acquiring a young left-handed pitcher from Baltimore that summer of whom you might have heard before gearing up for where we will take our next stop in this series: 1915.

2 replies on “The Century Mark: 1912 Red Sox”

That photo of Johnson and Wood warming up always comes back to me when I get to go to Fenway (4-5 times a year).
Always makes me feel I’m watching History in the making, even when I then see Daisuke throw 11 straight pitches that are either balls or are hits……………

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