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Wilbur Cooper Goes Saberhagen

What's Wilbur so happy about. He's not in the HoME. Yet.

What’s Wilbur so happy about. He’s not in the HoME. Yet.

Filling the HoME in some ways is becoming easier and easier. When players who we’ve all seen play reach the ballot, and when the statistical record matches our recollection of greatness, a vote in that direction is simple. At the same time, it’s becoming more difficult because while we can see all of the sure things coming up, at this stage we can also get a pretty good count of those spots we’ll have to fill without sure things. And there are 20-30 of those spots that are going to be really tricky. In short, the challenges continue.

Last election Eric threw his support in the direction of Wilbur Cooper, a lefty for the Pirates, Cubs, and Tigers who won 216 in a career that stretched from 1912-1926. Though a new way of viewing pitching has my partner wavering in terms of Cooper, I thought it wise to run him through our Saberhagen List just the same. The hope, as it always is when we run our version of Bill James’ Keltner List, is for clarity. We hope to see the player in a way that makes a decision about his candidacy easier.

Will I join Eric in voting for Cooper, or might Eric retract his vote? Let’s ask Saberhagen.


  1. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?

An All-Star type of season is one where the player puts up about 5 WAR. For pitchers of Cooper’s era, I don’t make too many WAR adjustments. I use 75% of bWAR (Baseball Reference), 5% of fWAR (Fangraphs), and 20% of fWAR adding credit for stranding runners. By this measure, Cooper has five seasons at All-Star level and two others within a quarter of a run of that point. That’s the same number of All-Star seasons as easy votes such as Carl Hubbell and Joe McGinnity. However, it’s also the same number as guys like Bob Friend and Bob Lemon, hurlers who don’t belong in the Hall.

Pitchers with eight All-Star seasons are going in, and with seven, they’re extremely likely. If they don’t have at least three, they have almost no shot, and lacking four makes for a pretty hairy case too. Cooper has five such seasons, which isn’t telling in isolation.

  1. How many MVP-type seasons did he have?

With only five All-Star seasons, it would make sense for at least a couple of those to be at MVP-level, which is basically 8 WAR. However, that’s not the case with Cooper, he of zero 8-WAR seasons, a fact that might be problematic.

What I’ve done is isolated all of the pitchers with exactly five seasons of 5+ WAR, all 30 of them. As of today, seven are in the HoME, seven others are part of the backlog, nine more have been given obituaries, and the final seven have not yet been considered.

We’re going to eliminate those who have been killed because it does more to illuminate Cooper’s case to compare him to those who are or may be of HoME quality than those who aren’t. We have 21 players remaining, with only Ted Lyons among them in the HoME without a single season of MVP quality. Lyons is a pretty decent comp for Cooper through their ten best seasons, but then Cooper fades while Lyons runs off four more seasons totaling 11+ WAR. In other words, there’s a meaningful difference between the two.

For those keeping score, other HoMErs on the list include Mordecai Brown with one MVP-level season, Rube Waddell with four, and Joe McGinnity, Dazzy Vance, Carl Hubbell, and Vic Willis with two each.

So is it unprecedented that a pitcher reaches the HoME with only five All-Star seasons and none at MVP level? No. It’s just quite uncommon at this point.

  1. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

A simple way to look at this might be to consider the difference between the pitcher’s last 3-win season and his next best campaign. If that’s the measure, only Jim McCormick, Dizzy Dean, and David Cone on our list drop more than Cooper’s 1.4 wins from their last 3-win campaign to their next highest.

Another way to look at this, and perhaps one that’s more accurate, is by examining Cooper’s career trajectory. His last 20-win season came at age 32 in 1924. However, those wins masked a decline that started two years earlier. He dropped from 7.6 WAR in 1922 to 4.8 and then to 4.3 by 1924. And then he was done, totaling just 1.6 WAR in his final two seasons.

So no, he wasn’t really good enough that he could continue to play regularly past his prime.

  1. Are his most comparable players in the HoME?

To determine the list of comparable pitchers, I considered only those who are within 12% of his WAR for his best five years, eight years, ten years, twelve years, fifteen years, and for the entire career. I further limited it by eliminating those not within 12% of his career IP total.

Of these comparable pitchers, one of them is, Mordecai Brown, is in the HoME. Mickey Lolich, Billy Pierce, George Uhle, and Bucky Walters are part of the backlog who we’re still considering. And the final two, Orel Hershiser and Chuck Finley, aren’t yet eligible. Cooper’s comps suggest that he’s not a slam dunk but someone who’s certainly worthy of consideration.

By this measure, Cooper is neither a sure thing nor a goner.

  1. Was he ever the best player in baseball at his position? Or in his league?

Cooper never was the best pitcher in the game (as the chart below will show), but he did lead all NL pitchers in bWAR in 1922. Further, he was second in 1917, third in 1920, and fourth in both 1916 and 1918.

Seen in his most favorable light, he may have been baseball’s fourth best pitcher from 1916-1924, behind only Walter Johnson, Stan Coveleski, and Pete Alexander, which means he was the second best in the NL over that period. On one hand, we’re looking at some pretty impressive company. On the other, we’re using Cooper’s peak and a random period of time in the career of all others. Our first chart compares Cooper to all pitchers in baseball.

One Year      Three Years        Five Years
1912   60     1912-1914   70     1912-1916   56
1913  156     1913-1915  113     1913-1917   21
1914   39     1914-1916   34     1914-1918    9
1915  220     1915-1917   11     1915-1919    9
1916    7     1916-1918    7     1916-1920    7
1917    7     1917-1919    8     1917-1921    6
1918    6     1918-1920    7     1918-1922    5
1919   12     1919-1921    7     1919-1923    6
1920    8     1920-1922    5     1920-1924    5
1921   13     1921-1923    5     1921-1925   12
1922    3     1922-1924   10     1922-1926   18
1923   17     1923-1925   21
1924   20     1924-1926   54
1925   53 
1926  149

Of course, when James was discussing whether or not a player was the best in the game or in his league, he didn’t mean whether or not a player had the best numbers in a given year. Rather, he was referring to what a player’s skills were over a period of time. I inserted the one-year measures above just because they’re interesting, not because they’re necessarily telling of “best”.

Let’s see how Cooper stacks up against National Leaguers only. Yes, he fares much better. But was he ever best in the NL? I’m not sure. Even so, the run from 1916-1924 looks impressive.

One Year      Three Years        Five Years
1912   29     1912-1914   31     1912-1916   23
1913   77     1913-1915   46     1913-1917    7
1914   14     1914-1916   12     1914-1918    4
1915   68     1915-1917    5     1915-1919    4
1916    3     1916-1918    3     1916-1920    3
1917    2     1917-1919    3     1917-1921    2
1918    3     1918-1920    3     1918-1922    2
1919    6     1919-1921    3     1919-1923    2
1920    3     1920-1922    2     1920-1924    2
1921    3     1921-1923    2     1921-1925    4
1922    1     1922-1924    3     1922-1926    5
1923    5     1923-1925    9
1924    6     1924-1926   18
1925   23
1926   52
  1. Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?

Not really.

  1. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

I don’t think so. His ERA is stronger than his FIP. And his defenses were actually quite good. I guess you could argue that he was decent enough for the 1927 Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League that he could have had a few more innings in the bigs. Maybe not though.

  1. Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series?

The Pirates never won a pennant during Cooper’s time there, though they bested the Senators in the 1925 World Series the first year he was gone. In fact, only twice in Cooper’s career did his teams finish inside of eight games behind the pennant winner, 1921 and 1924.

In 1921, the Pirates got off to a good start and led the National League for most of the season. Their lead peaked at 7.5 games on August 23, and then they crumbled, finishing 14-23 and losing to the New York Giants by 4 games.

Cooper had a fine year in 1921, posting 5.4 WAR. But the Cooper who was 20-8 on August 23 finished the season 22-14, including getting hammered by the Giants in his only appearance against them. His ERA down the stretch was 2.92, but his RA was 4.31. Prior to the disaster, his ERA had been 3.34, and his RA was 3.90. It seems Cooper played in front of some poor defense in those final 1921 starts, and he handled their miscues poorly.

Cooper was still a high-quality pitcher in 1924, posting an impressive 4.3 WAR. When he took the mound on September 7, the Pirates were just one game behind New York. And Cooper imploded. A 19-11 record turned to 20-14. It would have been worse but his teammates bailed him out once when he was lifted early. Never in his last five starts did he go even five innings while allowing three runs or fewer. An ERA that was 3.16 entering September 7 was 4.11 the rest of the way. The Pirates lost to the Giants once again, this time by 4.5 games. Cooper lost to them only once, on September 24, after the season was all but over.

In short, Wilbur Cooper wasn’t a very good player down the stretch and won’t receive any bonus points beyond his WAR for pushing his teams toward titles.

  1. Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME?

If you’ve been following my voting patterns even a little, you’d know my answer to this question. I’ve been voting for the trio of Red Faber, Pud Galvin, and Whitey Ford for some time. In addition, my system prefers Clark Griffith, Early Wynn, and George Uhle. But there’s really negligible space between Cooper and Uhle, it’s not like Wynn sparkles on a peak basis, and Griffith has issues of era that make us question his candidacy. Still, at this point I’m ranking Cooper behind Faber, Galvin, and Ford.

10. Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?

As of right now, he’s not close. To me, that means no vote for Cooper this election. Still, I think he’s easily within the group of players who will cause us duress toward the end. I look forward to that duress.




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