As we share results with our faithful (we hope) readers, Eric and I are furiously at work behind the scenes narrowing and figuring and thinking and trying to get things right. As you saw last week, players in our backlog are relatively few in number. But their cases are so similar, so complicated, so impressive, and so full of warts that the sorting process isn’t so simple.
Today we’re going to review the case of Billy Pierce, a lefty who got a cup of coffee in 1945 and then pitched for 17 more seasons, from 1948-1964. All told, he threw over 3300 innings, won 212 games, was an All-Star seven times, and won one each ERA, K, and W title. Right now, we see Pierce as relatively close, though Eric likes him a tad more than I do. When we have a backlog disagreement, even a small one, it’s a good idea for us to run a player through our Saberhagen List. By running our version of Bill James’ Keltner List, we hope to see the player in a way that makes a decision about his candidacy easier. Hopefully that’ll happen for Pierce.
- How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?
Since we ran last ran Wilbur Cooper through Saberhagen in June, I’ve changed the way I view pitchers. Losing confidence in Fangraphs WAR numbers, I’ve ditched those and have begun using only those WAR numbers at Baseball Reference. The other thing I’ve begun to do is credit pitchers for their playoff innings at the same rate they accumulated WAR during the regular seasons. I know my playoff adjustment is far less than ideal, but I prefer it to ignoring playoff innings or just using them as some sort of tie-breaker.
Given my new thought processes, Pierce has four seasons at the All-Star level. As a point of reference, that’s the same number as HoMErs Early Wynn and Mordecai Brown. But it’s also the same number of guys who have been long since dead, guys like Lon Warneke, Sam McDowell, and Carl Mays. There are nine pitchers in the HoME with four or five seasons at the All-Star level, but only three of those nine have four like Pierce. The good news for Pierce is that he’s one of eight pitchers in our current backlog at this level. In other words, it’s a level that’s quite often on the borderline.
As we’ve discussed before, 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. Since Pierce has four such seasons, nothing about this answer is particularly telling.
- How many MVP-type seasons did he have?
Pierce didn’t have any. Of the 72 pitchers in my data set with either four or five All-Star seasons, there were only 30 without an MVP-level season. And of those, not one is in the HoME yet. As we continue to narrow, there are only 22 pitchers on the list who posted only four All-Star seasons. Pierce, of course, is one of them. And of those 22, there are 16 who posted as few as Pierce’s six 4-win seasons.
So let’s do something different. I’ve isolated all of the pitchers with exactly four seasons of 5+ WAR, all 41 of them. As of today, four are in the HoME, three others are part of the backlog, twenty-six more have been given obituaries, and the final eight have not yet been considered.
These numbers aren’t damning in isolation, but let’s not mince words either – none of this bodes well for Pierce.
- Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Pierce’s prime lasted roughly from 1951-1958, save a down year in 1954. That’s a period during which it could have been said he was the AL’s most valuable pitcher, trailing only Robin Roberts and Warren Spahn in all of baseball. After that 1958 season, Pierce produced another 10ish WAR. He was a better than average pitcher from 1959-1962, before struggling in 1963, and then pitching well out of the Giant pen in 1964. That’s not so bad. Pierce did a pretty good job of contributing something after his prime.
- 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, not one of them is in the HoME. Ten of the twelve have already received obituaries. And the other two are Kenny Rogers and Chuck Finley. Pierce’s dead comps, for those who are wondering, are George Mullin, Mickey Lolich, Al Orth, Larry Jackson, Dolf Luque, Doc White, Carl Mays, Chief Bender, Babe Adams, and Bob Shawkey.
Pierce’s comps suggest that he would be a sketchy HoMEr at best.
Pierce had the best WAR among pitchers in 1955. But if we take any two or three-year span around that, he’s not the game’s best. And with Mickey Mantle gumming up the works, he wasn’t ever the best player in the American League.
On the other hand, he did have the aforementioned run as the best pitcher in the American League from 1951-1958. And for the two decades from 1944-1963, it could be said that his value on the mound in the AL was eclipsed by only Hal Newhouser.
Those last two facts are feathers in Pierce’s cap. The answer to this question positions Pierce more favorably than many of the other questions.
- Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?
Lots of roadblocks here. Guys like Musial, Spahn, Berra, and Wynn.
- Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
To answer this question, I called on Eric. Here’s what he had to say.
A couple things we can say quickly are that his gmLI is outstanding, 2.0 for his career (gmLI is a leverage index for relievers when entering a game; 1.0 is average pressure, so Pierce’s number incredibly high). To get a sense of what 2.0 means, Mariano Rivera’s was 1.8. Same with Goose. Fingers was 1.8, and Wilhelm was 1.5. What this means is that Pierce was used in a lot peak-pressure situations. In fact, BBREF says that for his career, he was used in 77 LevHI situations, 24 LevMd, and 37 LevLo. More than half of those low leverage appearances, 19, came in 1948 and 1964, the very start and the very end of his career. Pierce never, ever pitched in anything but LevHi situations in his 10 relief appearances between 1956 and 1960. In fact, from 1951 through 1960, his totals are 35 LevHi, 2 LevMd, and 7 LevLo. He was truly being used in the pinchiest pinches.
During that same span, Pierce pitched 44 total games in relief, finished 30, went 6-5 with 6 holds, 15 saves, and only 3 blown saves. Perhaps most impressively, he inherited 46 runners and only allowed 9 (20%) to score. In 28 of those 44 games, he entered with runners on board, and 21 of those games were multi-inning appearances (he averaged 4.8 outs per relief appearance). He entered ahead 27 times, tied 10 times, and behind 7. Pierce was 65th in saves during this same period despite being 149th in games finished and 178th in games in relief. Among pitchers who started 75% of the time from 1951 to 1960, Pierce ranked 9th in games in relief, 4th in games finished, and 4th in saves.
In other words, it’s likely there is something to suggest that Pierce was at least a little better than is suggested by simple observation of his stats. How much of a boost his 228 career relief innings should give him remains up for discussion.
- Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series?
On August 7 of 1955, the White Sox were tied for first place in the American League. They finished in third, five games back of the champion Yankees despite going 28-20 in their final 48. The Yankees went 31-13 from then on and won going away. Pierce was great. In a season during which he won only 15 games, he went 8-2 with a save after August 7.
The White Sox finished second, again to the Yankees, in 1956. But they lost by ten games. There was never really a pennant race. All of the same can be said about 1957, except Chicago finished eight games out.
The Yankees struggled in 1959, so the White Sox had a shot. They were up just one game heading into August. Though his record didn’t show it, Pierce pitched quite well in the last two months, including a 16-inning masterpiece against the Orioles on August 16. His ERA in the last two months was 3.15, compared to 3.79 before that.
In the World Series against the Dodgers, manager Al Lopez relied on Early Wynn, Bob Shaw, and Dick Donovan to start. Pierce pitched four innings in relief without allowing a run, including three excellent innings to give the Sox a chance to come back from an early deficit in Game 4. They made it back, but Gerry Staley gave up a run to take the loss. The Dodgers won the World Series in six games.
In 1962, Pierce’s Giants had no right to win the pennant. They stood four games out on September 22, but they went 5-2 in their final seven, while the Dodgers went 1-6. In the three-game playoff, the Giants won it 2-1 to reach the World Series against the Yankees. In the last two months, Pierce did it all. He went 8-3 with a save, a hold, and a 3.06 ERA. That’s after struggling with his health, never pitching more than four games in a month, and posting a 3.97 ERA before that. Pierce was outstanding in the playoff series against the Dodgers. In the first game, Sandy Koufax was bounced early, and Pierce dominated with a three-hit shutout. Then in the deciding game, the Giants put up four in the ninth to take a 6-4 lead. Pierce came on with a perfect ninth to save it.
In the World Series loss to the Yankees, Pierce had what essentially was his last hurrah. He started Game 3, but after six shutout innings during which he allowed only two hits, he gave up consecutive singles to Tom Tresh, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris to open the seventh. All three scored, and Pierce got the loss.
Facing elimination in Game Six, Pierce took on Whitey Ford. He gave up only three hits, including a homer to Roger Maris. The Giants never trailed, and Pierce recorded the complete game victory. Of course, Ralph Terry out-pitched San Fran’s Jack Sanford on Game 7, and Willie McCovey lined out to Bobby Richardson to end it.
Overall, Pierce was between good and very good when his team was in a pennant race. If bonus points are to be given for such a thing, Pierce earns some here.
- Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME?
I prefer Red Faber, Whitey Ford, and a number of others. Plus, Phil Niekro is up this year.
10. Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?
He’s not. Right now that’s Niekro.
In conclusion, Billy Pierce has a lot of things going for him aside from straight WAR. He had a long period when he was the second best pitcher in the AL with his arm, he had a nice clutch run in pennant races and the playoffs, and he adds some value with his relief work.
Will all of that be enough to earn Pierce a vote in future elections? Stay tuned.