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The Backlog, What They’re Missing, Pitchers

Cat Stuck

On some of these pitchers, we’re just stuck.

As we continue another trek through our backlog, today we tackle the pitchers who have been giving us trouble. We’ve already done the same for infielders on Friday and outfielders on Monday. And as we’ve previously noted, we’re going to do it a little differently this time. In addition to the simple biographical stuff and whether or not they’re in the Halls of Fame, Merit, and Stats, we’re going to discuss three things about each player. First, we’ll offer a simple explanation as to why the player lives on. Second, we’ll examine a potential fatal flaw in his candidacy. And finally, we’ll look to the seasons that are the reasons players haven’t been elected yet. Today we look at pitchers.

Since we last checked in on the mound, there have been a number of changes. Some have been elected, while others written off.

  • New pitching backlog: nobody
  • Old backlog now in the HoME: Early Wynn
  • Old backlog receiving obituaries: Babe Adams, Bob Caruthers

There are twelve pitchers who we’ve discussed along the way who have neither been elected nor been given obituaries. Those players will receive more attention today. Some, of course, are sure to get elected to the HoME, and it’s probable others will receive obituaries. We hope you enjoy.

Hoyt Wilhelm, P, 1952-1972, (F, M, S)

Why He Lives On: He’s the greatest eligible reliever in our data set aside from Goose Gossage. If we take more than just Goose, he’ll get in.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: He wasn’t a starter. Seriously. Starters pitch more innings and thus accumulate more value than relievers. Wilhelm’s one-time manager, Leo Durocher, didn’t think Hoyt had the stuff to go the distance on the mound. But in 1959, the Orioles found out that he did. In his only full season as a starter, he won 15 games and the AL ERA title. It was easily Hoyt’s best year. By 1960, he was back in the pen.

Seasonal Struggle: For Wilhelm, it’s not about seasons. If we take another reliever, it’ll be him. But if we don’t, it’ll be because he didn’t accumulate enough value. Just for fun, let’s look at his 1966 season. Between years he posted 3.5 and 2.9 WAR, he managed just 0.8 that year. The main culprit is an obvious one. Despite a 1.66 ERA, he pitched 60+ fewer innings than in the previous season. And therein lies the issue with relief pitcher value – they don’t accumulate enough innings.

Whitey FordWhitey Ford, SP, 1950, 1953–1967, (F, M, S)

Why He Lives On: He was a good pitcher and occasionally a very good one for fourteen straight seasons. And there’s that undeniable post-season record.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Eric has written quite extensively on Ford and his shortcomings. But we can see what he lacked without analysis as impressive as that. Ford didn’t have a single season in his career worth seven wins based on our current adjustments. Don Sutton, Tommy John, Jack Powell, and David Wells are those closest in value about whom we can say the same. And he had only a single season worth as many as six wins. Others about whom we can say that are Sutton, John, and Wells again. Also, Pud Galvin.

Seasonal Struggle: Ford put up 5.9 WAR in 1956 and 5.1 in 1958 (including relatively small bonuses given to him for playoff performance), but in between he was worth just 2.0 WAR. What happened? Ford was hurting. He pitched only 7.2 innings in May and June of 1957 combined. And when he was “healthy”, he wasn’t really. For a guy who completed over 50% of his starts in surrounding seasons, he completed fewer than 30% in 1957. Maybe another All-Star type of season and 4 more WAR get Ford to a place where he’s HoME-worthy.

Billy Pierce, SP, 1945, 1948-1964, (-, M, S)

Why He Lives On: Four seasons at an All-Star level and a couple more that were close. He was baseball’s third best pitcher of the 1950s.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Pierce had control problems, particularly in the early part of his career. From his cup of coffee in 1945 until 1954 he walked 4.1 per nine. During no year did the AL walk as many as what he averaged. To be fair though, the free passes were only really a problem when they got over 4.0 per nine in individual seasons, 1949, 1950, and 1954. Better control in those seasons might have led to more success and an easier vote.

Seasonal Struggle: From 1951-1958, Pierce averaged 5.3 WAR per season. That’s if we eliminate the 0.7 disaster that was 1954. Pierce struggled with injuries that year, pitching only 10.1 innings in June, for example. Whether it was a problem with his teeth, his arm, or both is unclear. What is clear is that another 5-WAR campaign in 1954 would have been a huge boost to Pierce’s candidacy.

Dizzy Dean, SP, 1930, 1932-1941, 1947, (F, -, -)

Why He Lives On: When he was great, from 1932-1937, he was the third best pitcher in baseball, behind only Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: A comebacker in baseball has potential to be literally fatal. In Dean’s case, the comebacker from Earl Averill in the 1937 All-Star Game that broke his toe merely ended his effectiveness as a pitcher. He struggled for the rest of that season and went on to put up only 4.3 more WAR the rest of his career. Sandy Koufax is the only pitcher with only seven 2-WAR seasons who’s in the HoME. And as great as Dean was, at their respective bests, Koufax was a clearly better.

Seasonal Struggle: Quite simply, Dean didn’t have one of these. He got great in 1932 and remained great until the 1937 All-Star Game. Should Dean fail to make it into the HoME, that failure will be more associated with a particular injury than a similar failure of any other player.

Bucky WaltersBucky Walters, SP, 1931-1948, 1950, (-, -, -)

Why He Lives On: He had one dominant season, a few other excellent ones, and three more shoulder seasons before a decline that included some passable work. He was baseball’s most valuable pitcher from 1933-1947. 15 seasons!

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Walters wasn’t called to military service during WWII. We say this not as a political statement, but as a concern about his career. From 1941-1945, he had two of his All-Star seasons and two of his shoulder seasons. Had he been called to serve, he would have been short some value. To be fair though, his two best seasons were in 1939 and 1940, both before the War.

Seasonal Struggle: Walters averaged 5.5 WAR in 1941-1942 and 5.3 in 1944-1945, but he only put up 2.0 in between. The reasons seem fairly clear. He hurt his leg in spring training that year and struggled quite a bit early on, posting a 5.52 ERA through mid-July due both to his leg issues and a problem with his appendix. His ERA the rest of the way was a far better, 2.02, but it wasn’t until an appendectomy that he felt like himself again. If 1943 were a 5-win season, Walters may well have his HoME membership card punched.

Eddie Rommel, SP, 1920-1932, (-, -, -)

Why He Lives On: An MVP-type season, five other All-Star type seasons, and a near-All-Star season. And as a sometime knuckleballer, he managed to beat his FIP (the expectation of his record given those inputs not impacted by defense) pretty often.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Rommel didn’t strike anyone out, but his walk rate was lower than his leagues. He pitched exactly like how someone thrust into the Ruth-and-Gehrig AL should have, avoiding hard contact and big innings. That’s a great approach for a starter trying to get through the lineup three or four times. But entering in relief with men aboard, his 1+ hits per inning led to a lot of inherited runners scoring. We don’t yet have the kind of extensive WPA or leverage-based information we need to fully evaluate Rommel’s relief work. That will come when we have event-based information for the 1920s. But our own back of the envelop guesstimates show that in his last several years, Rommel pitched in lower leverage situations and often coughed up inherited runs. We haven’t examined his earlier years yet, but this was enough to make us wonder why Connie Mack used him in relief at all and didn’t start him. Especially since Rommel was better overall as a starter. And, as we pointed out for Wilhelm above, relievers just can’t rack up much value unless they are as good as Gossage or Rivera. Rommel likely wasn’t, sot the last third of his career lacks a lot of punch.

Seasonal Struggle: Rommel didn’t have a bad season until the bitter denouement, but his 1927 (age 29) signaled the early beginning of the long end. After six straight years with 200+ innings, he slumped to 146 and would never top 200 again. His ERA jumped more than a run, and for the first time since his rookie year, he started in fewer than half his appearances. Although his rate stats would settle down again, as Mack worked George Earnshaw into a more prominent role and accumulated a gaggle of useful old pitchers, Rommel was relegated to swingman and part-time closer for the rest of his career.

George Uhle, SP, 1919-1934, 1936, (-, -, -)

Why He Lives On: Uhle was a phenomenal hitting pitcher. If we put all pitchers since 1893 on a list of pitching WAR and all on another list of hitting WAR, the only ones who top him on both are HoMErs Red Ruffing, Walter Johnson, and Wes Ferrell.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: When we strip out the hitting, Uhle has only five seasons of over 3.5 WAR. And he has only nine above 1.8. We know that stripping out the hitting isn’t the right thing to do. Value is value, no matter how it’s accumulated. However, we’re nearing a point when we’re going to have to compare individual pitchers for the last few spots in the HoME. When we get there, it’s possible we opt for the pitcher rather than the two-way player.

Seasonal Struggle: In 1922-1923, Uhle averaged 6.5 WAR. In 1925-1926, it was 6.2. But in 1924, Uhle put up only 1.0 WAR. That year he was 9-15 with a 4.77 ERA, a 90 ERA+, and fewer than 200 innings. He was having arm troubles that year, possibly ligament damage. Luckily for him he hit .407 with a .484 OBP in pinch hitting duty. Maybe the 5 WAR he lost that season would be enough to get him into the HoME. I guess we’ll never know.

Red FaberRed Faber, SP, 1914–1933, (F, M, S)

Why He Lives On: Faber was a monster in 1921-1922, totaling over 20 WAR those years. He was the fourth most valuable pitcher of the 1920s, and he was behind only Urban Shocker from 1920-1925.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Faber might have had two great seasons and two others that were excellent, but that’s it. If we remove those four seasons and his one partial year, we have a guy who averaged just 2.2 WAR over the other 15 seasons of his career. Nolan Ryan had such a streak of mediocrity, but he had a better basis on which he could add. Red Ruffing wasn’t quite as bad for that period, but he was also better than Faber during his good period. Faber’s record of value isn’t unlike that of Dennis Eckersely, though he’s without the seasons closing games at an elite level.

Seasonal Struggle: Faber’s 1918 wasn’t outstanding, but that’s because he spent a portion of it in the military. It was his 1919 when he accumulated -1.1 WAR that really hurts him. He had problems with his arm, with his ankle, and with influenza. He didn’t throw a single pitch for the disgraced Black Sox in the World Series, and one has to wonder if conspirators would have had enough pitching on their side to get the Series to be thrown had Faber been healthy.

Wilbur Cooper, SP, 1912-1926, (-, -, -)

Why He Lives On: He’s the fourth best pitcher in the game from 1914-1925. A dozen years at such a height is a long time. He has four seasons worth 6+ WAR and four more worth at least 4.2.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: For a HoMEr, Cooper had a pretty short career, only a dozen seasons with at least 180 IP. After struggling with the Cubs in 1926, he was picked by the Tigers. He was awful enough to be released after just eight games in the AL. Maybe he could have caught on somewhere; he did have some passable pitching in the minors thereafter. But he was done in the bigs at age 34.

Seasonal Struggle: If any season sticks out like a sore thumb for Cooper, it’s 1915. He put up 3.0 WAR before and 6.0 WAR after, but in that season, it was -0.9. While injuries usually explain problems for pitchers, it’s quite possible Cooper just had a down year in 1915. He was able to strand fewer runners that year than any in his career – meaning if they got on, they were more likely than ever to score. This struggle led to a 5-16 record and an 82 ERA+. A season midway between 1914 and 1916, rather than what he put up, might be enough that we’d flip Cooper’s HoME switch.

Clark Griffith, SP, 1891, 1893-1907, 1909, 1912-1914, (-, M, S)

Why He Lives On: Like many on the bubble, a long career with a few All-Star appearances and one monster season plus a lot of above average/good type years. He could hit a little too.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Durability, sort of. During the meat of his career, Griffith ranked third behind Cy Young and Kid Nichols in innings pitched. In his peak years, he ranked fourth behind them and Pink Hawley. Those are to the good, of course. But his highest finishes in innings in a single season were third and sixth. He never otherwise finished among the top ten. His career total of 3386.2 innings ranks just 83rd, in the neighborhood of Mel Harder or Vida Blue. The problem here is that Griffith rarely maximized his run prevention skills in a given season across a lot of innings. The one time he aligned them, he had his monster year in 1898. However, his 372 starts rank only 163rd all time—Burt Hooton, Brad Radke, and Tim Belcher made more starts. So his peak is good, not great, and he couldn’t accumulate the innings to give him an especially bulky career. To put it differently, Griffith is stuck in durability purgatory. He pitched 100 more innings than Curt Schilling who doubles him up in Wins Above Average (WAA) thanks to outstanding run prevention. On the other hand, Griffith and Ted Lyons had nearly the same WAA, but thanks to his extra 800 innings and 100 extra starts Lyons adds an additional 10 wins of bulk that Griffith didn’t. Bulk isn’t everything, and just showing up isn’t determinative, but even so, Griffith has an issue.

Seasonal Struggle: 1902 is a real problem for Griffith. He was basically a replacement-level pitcher after years of good and sometimes great pitching. At age 32, his innings dropped to a then career low (for a full season), and he was simply awful at preventing runs. Even his hitting suffered. There’s no good explanation in the usual haunts on the nets, so either he simply sucked for a single year, or he was injured in some way. I’d go for the latter since he never recovered his previous levels of durability. Naturally, on the bubble, he could really have used a non-crappy season here.

Pud GalvinPud Galvin, SP, 1875, 1879–1892, (F, M, S)

Why He Lives On: Miller has already mentioned on about a dozen occasions that he’s fifth in history in wins and second in innings. From 1879-1884, he’s #2 among pitchers, and for the decade from 1879-1888, he’s #1 if we eliminate the bat.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Aside from one incredible season, he only has six others that are worth much of a damn. Only Sandy Koufax among HoMErs and likely future HoMErs has a worse eighth best season. And Pud Galvin was no Sandy Koufax. In terms of one great season that’s an absolute outlier, Galvin is a lot like Doc Gooden. Except Gooden could hit.

Seasonal Struggle: In 1884 Galvin posted 15.4 adjusted WAR. What did he do for an encore? It was just 0.4. Perhaps two seasons with nearly 1300 innings took their toll on Gentle Jeems, as he was “only” able to toss 372.1 in his attempt to follow-up on greatness. Maybe it was that when a runner got on base that year, he was more than 50% likely to score. Or perhaps it was an unusually poor defense playing behind him. Whatever the case, you can bet that if he performed in 1885 as he did the previous season, he’d already be in the HoME.

Jim McCormick, SP, 1878-1887, (-, -, S)

Why He Lives On: Might be the Koufax, Waddell, or McGinnity of the 1880s.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Only the fourth or fifth best pitcher of the 1880s, and do we really need more than Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, and Charley Radbourn?

Seasonal Struggle: With 14.5 BBREF WAR and 40 victories in 569 innings, 1884 is McCormick’s greatest season. Or is it? A full 7.8 of his wins came in the Union Association, which was nearly as major a league as today’s Sally League. He went 21-3 with a loop-leading 1.54 ERA (213 ERA+) and seven league-leading shutouts. He also tossed 359 frames in the NL that year, going 19-22 with a more pedestrian 2.86 ERA (110 ERA+). The UA was bad baseball. It lured a few big leaguers, mostly to the Saint Louis team, most teams didn’t finish their schedule, and the whole thing folded up after one year. So the struggle here is ours. How much should we dock McCormick? He’s already docked by BBREF itself, but if you put 2002 Barry Bonds on the Beloit Brewers, wouldn’t he break the machine? Part of what makes WAA and WAR work is the simple fact that the talent gap between great, average, and bad is comparable in each level of pro ball. Beloit Bonds would be so far off the scale that he’d be outside the usual number of standard deviations of performance and would actually begin warping the league’s averages toward him. This is the kind of thing we’re talking about with the UA. We can’t be sure exactly what McCormick’s performance looked like in 1884 because he was playing against the modern equivalent of A ballers (OK, maybe Hi-A).

If you’ve missed it, take a look at our backlog in infield and the outfield, and get set for our 1991 results coming on Friday.

Miller and Eric



3 thoughts on “The Backlog, What They’re Missing, Pitchers

  1. About Griffith. Don’t forget that beginning in 1901 he also serves as a manager for his team (mostly Chicago and New York) and after 1904 seems to do most of his pitching as a reliever (whose problems for your purposes you point out well in the commentary on Wilhelm). As a manager, he’s the one making the decision to move himself to the bullpen (at least I presume he, rather than the owner, is making that decision). Maybe he knows he’s through, but maybe it gives him more time to concentrate on his managing. I don’t know enough about him to have any idea which is true, if either.

    One thing further about him (and not something you probably don’t want to consider about Griffith the player). As a manager and later as Senators owner, Griffith was generally ahead of the curve in the finding of and use of relievers (Firpo Marberry being the most famous example). I wonder how much of that was due to his own use while managing.

    Posted by verdun2 | August 27, 2014, 11:55 am
    • Smart stuff. Thanks! As far as the managing stuff, perhaps that’ll be the next part of our project.

      The thing that hurts Griffith most, it would seem to me, is his relatively low yearly IP totals. On a pretty regular basis he was starting fewer games and totaling far fewer innings than the league leaders. Thus, less chance to accumulate value. You’re right, of course, that he sent himself to the pen in 1905-1906, but that doesn’t explain much of the rest of his career. He finished in the top-10 in IP just twice.

      Posted by Miller | August 27, 2014, 12:06 pm
      • I just read my own comment above. “and not something you probably don’t want to consider” should read “and something you probably don’t want to consider.” Make more sense like that (I think).
        Always enjoy your articles and the way you explain your methodology. Good job.

        Posted by verdun2 | August 27, 2014, 1:02 pm

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