Braves By Decade: 1890s Boston Beaneaters

Beaneaters

In the 1890s, there was a period of rapid growth for baseball, followed by a fast descent. With the advent of a salary cap and a reserve clause, an organization called The Brotherhood formed a new major league. They referred to it as The Players League, and it ended almost as quickly as it began. It was a giant unionization, and players flocked to it from both the National League and the American Association. Ironically, this reflected the discontent among the people of the nation regarding trusts in corporations. Thus, the government enacted the Sherman Antitrust Law. Unfortunately for the Players League, the law outlasted it by a considerable margin. The league folded after just one year.

For the Boston franchise, the decade introduced two Hall of Famers. Frank Selee began his tenure in 1890 and managed the club for 11 seasons. Meanwhile, sharp young hurler Kid Nichols anchored the rotation for much of the decade. This, combined with the efforts of men like King Kelly and Hugh Duffy, led the Beaneaters back to the top.

A New Manager

However, it got off to a rocky start. Selee was the first non-player manager in franchise history, and his first season yielded a 76-57 record with a fifth-place finish. The offense finished sixth in batting average (.258) and slugging percentage (.341). They placed fourth or fifth in nearly every other category except one, leading the league in walks (530). The pitching, however, was spectacular. They led the league in complete games (132) and shutouts (13). They also allowed the fewest runs (593) and walks (354).

This success on the mound was driven by Nichols. The right-hander would go 27-19 with a 2.23 ERA, a 1.146 WHIP, and a 170 ERA+. He led the league in FIP (2.98) and tossed seven shutouts. Fellow starters John Clarkson and Pretzels Getzien also won 26 and 23 games respectively. The Beaneaters had one of the best rotations in the National League.

In 1891, the team finished atop the league for the first time since 1883. Once again, the story lay in the pitching. Clarkson and Nichols combined to win 63 games, with Nichols hurling five more shutouts. The team finished first in ERA (2.76), complete games (126), and saves (6). For the second consecutive season, they walked the fewest batters (364) and allowed the least number of runs (658). The offense played its part as well, finishing first in walks (533), OBP (.337), OPS (.694), and runs scored (847). Patience at the plate and dominance on the mound led to the pennant.

1892: The Club’s Best Year

Boston repeated the feat in both 1892 and ’93. In the former season, they won 102 games, along with a pre-Modern World Series, defeating the Cleveland Spiders 5-0 with one tie. The offense was anchored by Hall of Famer Hugh Duffy. He led the team in average (.301), triples (12), and hits (184). Despite Duffy’s efforts, the Beaneaters finished sixth in average (.250), sixth in hits (1,325), twelfth in triples (51), and seventh in homers (34). Their combined OPS+ was a rather dismal 89. They did run substantially, placing second in steals (338).

But, the pitching staff held the spotlight. Nichols was superb, winning 35 games and striking out 192 in 453 innings of work. He was backed up by fellow 35-game winner Jack Stivetts, who struck out 180 in 415.2 innings. The two posted respective ERA’s+ of 124 and 116, and WHIP’s of 1.159 and 1.244. Factor in the good work from Clarkson and newcomer Harry Staley and dominance followed. In fact, the Beaneaters posted a 1.29 ERA in that year’s “World Series,” along with a 1.071 WHIP.

Mid-Decade Depression

After their back to back successes, 1894 started a period of misery. Though they finished third, the pitching staff fell significantly. While Nichols still won over 30 games, his ERA of 4.75 was the worst in his career to that point. With their ace on the rocks, the rest of the staff managed an abysmal 5.41 ERA, a FIP of 5.52, and a WHIP of 1.664. They ended up near the bottom of the league in most pitching categories.

Ironically, the offense flourished. They led the league in homers (103), slugging (.484), doubles (272), and runs scored (1,220). Duffy carried a .440 average, 18 homers, 145 RBI, 51 doubles, 16 triples, a 1.196 OPS, and a 173 OPS+. Five other players racked up batting averages over .300 and double-digit home run totals. The team hit .331 as a unit, but their pitching could not keep up.

1895 and ’96 saw more of the same. The offense carried the team, while the pitching corps attempted to rebound. They managed to lower their ERA to 4.25 in ’95, and then to 3.78 in ’96. Nichols returned to form, posting a 30-14 record with a 2.83 ERA and 37 complete games. With the offense flourishing, things began to look up.

Return To Form

This combination finally found itself with back to back league championships. 1897 saw the offense put up a .319 average. The Beaneaters led the league in home runs (45), runs scored (1,025), and slugging (.426). Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins paced the team with a .346 average. He was backed by Duffy, who hit .340 with 11 homers, 129 RBI, and 41 stolen bases. The pitching was carried by Nichols and his 31 wins. He posted a 2.64 ERA, a 1.168 WHIP, and a 168 ERA+.

In 1898, the team would post its second 102-win season. The offense continued its good work, leading the league in homers (53) and slugging (.377). They hit .290 as a team, hit safely 1,531 times, and scored 872 runs. All of this backed up Nichols and the rest of the pitching staff, who posted a 2.98 ERA. Nichols himself would post 31 more wins, a 2.13 ERA, a 1.034 WHIP, and a 174 ERA+. He was joined by 20-game winners Ted Lewis and Hall of Famer Vic Willis. The corps was very good in the clutch, posting a league-best eight saves.

In 1899, the Beaneaters slipped to second. The offense and pitching both dipped. The team posted a .287 average and finished between third and sixth in most offensive categories. Duffy and Collins both lagged, though the former still managed to compile over 100 RBI. Outfielder Chick Stahl led the team with a .351 average, seven homers, 33 stolen bases, and 19 triples. On the mound, Nichols fell to 21 wins, though his ERA was still a respectable 2.99. The team ERA rose to 3.26, which was still good for second in the league. But it wasn’t enough, as they finished eight games back of the pennant-winning Brooklyn Superbas.

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