Being beautiful is quite an advantage in society. Baseball is no different. There are tremendous biases, for example, against shorter pitchers, even when there’s evidence that there shouldn’t be. Perhaps one of baseball’s greatest biases is, or at least has been, “He looks like a ballplayer!” And you know who really doesn’t look like a ballbalyer? It’s someone who’s fat. Erik Peterson from Bleed Cubbie Blue admitted his childhood bias earlier this year when he wrote, “…I feel I owe something of a confession: I remember thinking Rick Reuschel sucked. Why? Because I was a kid looking at a pitcher with a less than optimal body who wasn’t a flame thrower.”
Rick Reuschel’s nickname was “Big Daddy”. And I’ll wager he wasn’t given that nickname in anticipation of the Adam Sandler film. But “Big Daddy” might be an affectionate nickname. You know what’s not? Whale. Yes, Reuschel was called that too. If there was anyone who didn’t look like a ballplayer, it was him.
And it’s possible, possible, that he’s the most underrated player in baseball history. Because you know what? In spite of the way he looked, Rick Reuschel was a great pitcher.
Since there’s no way, of course, to really establish who’s baseball’s most underrated player, in this post all we’re going to do is discuss the myriad of reasons Rick Reuschel is underrated.
Brief Bio of Botches
From 1972 through 1991, Reuschel pitched for the Cubs, Yankees, Cubs again, Pirates, and Giants. He was so well thought of that in 1981 the Cubs traded him for Doug Bird and Mike Griffin, guys with fewer combined career WAR than Reuschel had in just the two years before he was traded away. He was so well thought of that the Yankees released him a couple of years later. He was so well thought of that the Pirates started him in the minors in 1985, a season in which he was still able to total 6+ WAR. He was so well thought of that in his one shot on the Hall of Fame ballot he received just two votes. There’s probably no truth to the rumor I’m starting that one of those votes was a joke and the other occurred mistakenly when a writer meant to vote for Terry Puhl, who was next to Reuschel alphabetically. Probably.
He wasn’t very well thought of when he played. He wasn’t well thought of after he retired. He’s not well thought of today.
Weak Winged Whale
Strikeouts are sexy. Grounders to short aren’t so much. While strikeouts are more valuable in theory, once we have an entire career in the books, we can differently appreciate how players recorded outs. Or maybe we can’t. Below is a chart listing Reuschel’s rank in strikeouts among contemporary and more highly regarded pitchers, all of whom, aside from our hero Big Daddy, are in the Hall.
Nolan Ryan 5714 Steve Carlton 4136 Bert Blyleven 3701 Tom Seaver 3640 Don Sutton 3574 Gaylord Perry 3534 Phil Niekro 3342 Fergie Jenkins 3192 Jim Palmer 2212 Rick Reuschel 2015
In 1996, the top eight pitchers on our list ranked first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, and ninth in whiffs in history. Rick Reuschel was #42. And Jim Palmer had three Cy Young Awards.
Dreadful, Disgusting Defense
That’s right, Palmer had three Cy Young Awards. He was miles better than Reuschel, right?
No, not right. I’m not going to argue here that Reuschel was superior, just that they’re in the same class, a class that very few casual fans would put them in together. The biggest difference between the two, other than the fact that Palmer was an underwear model, was defense. Palmer pitched in front of, perhaps, both the greatest third baseman ever and the greatest shortstop ever in Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger. Reuschel, well, didn’t.
BBREF has a great stat that describes a pitcher’s runs per nine innings of support from defense (RA9def). Basically, 0.00 is average. Any positive number means you’re getting support from your fielders. Any negative number means your defense is hurting you.
Let me next offer the list of all non-knuckleball starters on our HoME consideration list who pitched their entire careers after the mound was moved to its current 60’6″ and who pitched in front defenses worse than Rick Reuschel’s.
That’s it. Only one. Reuschel played in front of some seriously bad defenses.
As for Palmer, the list is of the same pitchers who had better defenses is shorter. There’s nobody on it. Not one guy. Let’s take a look at the top-ten to see just how great Palmer’s advantage is.
RA9def Jim Palmer 0.33 Spud Chandler 0.27 Carl Mays 0.26 Catfish Hunter 0.25 Whitey Ford 0.24 Don Newcombe 0.24 Carl Hubbell 0.23 Ed Reulbach 0.22 Sal Maglie 0.22 Mike Cuellar 0.22
There’s some serious space between Palmer and others on the list.
Once again, I’m not arguing that Reuschel was better than Palmer, just that it’s close and that the biggest thing that separates them is defense.
Wild and Wacky World of Wins
Let me take that same group of pitchers I listed previously in the section on strikeouts. This time, I’m going to compare them in terms of wins.
Steve Carlton 329 Nolan Ryan 324 Don Sutton 324 Phil Niekro 318 Gaylord Perry 314 Tom Seaver 311 Bert Blyleven 287 Fergie Jenkins 284 Jim Palmer 268 Rick Reuschel 214
So we have a half-dozen 300-game winners, the one-time painfully underrated Bert Blyleven, a guy who took three years to get into the Hall because of his low win total in Fergie Jenkins, and that three-time Cy Young Award winner. Oh, and Rick Reuschel, a guy with exactly 100 fewer wins than Gaylord Perry.
Bert Blyleven’s Bad-Luck Brother
Rick Reuschel may be a more extreme example of being overlooked than Blyleven, and he’s without the backing of Rich Lederer. At least Blyleven didn’t fall off the Hall of Fame ballot on his first try.
Let’s look at another chart. This one examines waaWL%, a stat at BBREF that describes the winning percentage of an otherwise average team when a particular guy is pitching. First the chart; then an explanation.
W/L% waaWL% Difference Bert Blyleven .534 .576 .042 Rick Reuschel .528 .568 .040 Phil Niekro .537 .559 .022 Nolan Ryan .526 .544 .018 Gaylord Perry .542 .559 .017 Fergie Jenkins .557 .564 .007 Tom Seaver .603 .600 -.003 Steve Carlton .574 .554 -.020 Don Sutton .559 .530 -.029 Jim Palmer .638 .559 -.079
Basically what we see here is an ordered list of how unlucky or lucky a pitcher was to have the teammates he had. Aside from Ryan, Reuschel had the worst winning percentage of the bunch. However, if we paired every pitcher on our list with a .500 team, Reuschel would vault in front of everyone but Seaver and Blyleven. The key to this chart is the final column. Interpreted basically, the average fan probably doesn’t think highly enough of Blyleven or Reuschel, while such a fan thinks too highly of Sutton and Palmer.
And those incorrect ratings as suggested by the final column ring true to me.
I chose the pitchers I chose above because they were contemporaries of Reuschel, and I think they really help to point out the reasons he’s underrated. Being compared to that group is incredibly tough. And to be honest, I don’t think Reuschel is better than any of them except Don Sutton. I think it’s very clear he’s better than Sutton. Better peak, better prime, slightly better career. Much worse counting stats.
Discussing Different Dudes
This comparison is going to be different. I’m going to use my converted WAR numbers, which for pitchers are close to straight out of BBREF. And I’m going to put Reuschel up against some all-time greats so you can get a look at how he stacks up.
Top 5 Top 7 Top 10 Top 15 Career Rick Reuschel 33.0 43.8 55.6 69.4 70.6 Carl Hubbell 39.4 48.6 58.4 68.8 68.8 Don Drysdale 33.8 45.1 59.1 67.8 67.8 Bob Feller 42.7 51.8 59.8 66.6 63.4 Juan Marichal 42.1 52.0 59.0 63.8 63.2 Early Wynn 30.1 38.8 49.9 59.5 61.6 Whitey Ford 27.8 36.4 48.0 59.9 59.9 Jim Bunning 38.8 48.9 58.9 63.2 59.4 Sandy Koufax 41.7 47.6 50.2 50.5 50.5
Reuschel had less of a peak than most of these guys, topping only Wynn and Ford in each pitcher’s best five years. In his best seven, he bests the same two guys. But when we get to ten seasons, he also beats Koufax. Taken out to fifteen seasons or for their entire careers, he’s the best of the bunch. At least that’s how WAR sees it.
I’m not going to argue that Rick Reuschel is the best pitcher of this group. That’s not the point of this post. I’m merely going to argue that he belongs in the conversation with this group, guys who most fans consider no-doubt-about-it Hall of Fame hurlers.
If that’s not underrated, I don’t know what is.