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Saberhagen, Sidebars

Clark Griffith Goes Saberhagen

Clark GriffithWe’re getting right down to it at the Hall of Miller and Eric. With the results posted last Friday, we have only 35 more players to elect to the HoME before we complete our project. And operationally, we’re down to a far smaller number. Folks like Rickey Henderson, Mike Piazza, and Greg Maddux, to name just three, won’t have any debate at all surrounding their candidacies.

Today we discuss a player who we haven’t been able to elect or kill the first 42 times we’ve reviewed his case, the Old Fox, Clark Griffith.

Griffith had a career in the game unlike any other. Nobody else in the baseball’s storied history put in as many as 20 years as a player, a manager, and an owner. But at the HoME, we care only about the first of those roles, Griffith the player. The one-time college boy’s playing days began in Illinois when he was just 17. By the time he was 21, he attracted the attention of Charlie Comiskey and was offered a contract to pitch for the American Association’s St. Louis Browns. As pitchers are wont to do, Griffith developed a sore arm and was released. Though he was picked up by the Boston Reds later in the year, he was pretty awful for them and was out of work with the disbanding of the American Association at the end of that season.

Griffith joined Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts in the National League toward the end of the 1893 campaign and then began a run of seven 20-win seasons in the next eight years. Of course, we know that wins are an incredibly flawed measure of pitcher quality. On the other hand, he put up at least 4.4 pitching WAR in each of those years. And on still the other (How many hands do we have?), straight WAR isn’t the best measure for some of those early pitchers. And ignoring hitting ignores an important part of what composes value.

It’s time to make a decision one way or another on Griffith, I think. When we get stuck, I like to run a player through our Saberhagen List, which is our version of Bill James’ Keltner List.

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

It all depends on how one defines “All-Star-type.” Typically, we’re thinking about 5 WAR. But it’s not that simple. Luckily for our Griffith adjustments, almost every bit of his career took place during the time with the mound at 60’6”, so there is no crazy alteration that I make to his career. According to my numbers, Griffith only reached 5 WAR five times, which isn’t so impressive. Jon Matlack and George Mullin can say the same. However, he reached at least 4.96 WAR three more times. I think we can say he had eight seasons of 5 WAR play, which is impressive territory, similar to Fergie Jenkins or Wes Ferrell.

However, we need to examine those seasons to see if 5 WAR really means what we think of as 5 WAR.

Season  pWAR Rank   ERA Qualifiers
 1894       9             40
 1895       6             42
 1896       9             41
 1897       8             40
 1898       2             45
 1899      13             47
 1900       8             32
 1901       4             33
 1902      30             30
 1903      17             33
 1904      32             35
 1905      17             34

Griffith ranked as one of the ten best pitchers in the game seven times, which sounds quite good. Then again, he ranked in the top half of pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title just nine times. That’s less impressive. And he ranked among the league’s top 20% of pitchers just four times. Not so good.

So he didn’t have eight All-Star-type seasons. Or even five. I’d count 1895, 1898, and 1901. In four other seasons, he was a very, very nice player.

How many MVP-type seasons did he have?

If we go just by seasons in which he put up 8+ WAR, he had two. However, in one of those seasons, 1895, he ranked behind Cy Young, Pink Hawley, and Kid Nichols in WAR. His 1898 season was more impressive. He was baseball’s second best player, losing a close battle with Kid Nichols.

In some ways I feel hypocritical to tout WAR throughout this entire process and then to diminish its importance here, but the historical standard of 8 WAR being an MVP level season is only true-ish. A quick BBREF search tells us that there have been 514 seasons of 8.3+ WAR. So starting in 1876, there have been about 3.7 such seasons per year. In the light of 139 years of baseball, Griffith does indeed have two MVP-level seasons. However, in the 24 seasons from 1876-1899, there were 111 seasons of 8.3+. That means there were 4.6 per year, while there have been only 3.5 per year since the start of the American League. Basically, in Griffith’s time, it was easier to post what today looks to be an MVP-level season. I think he really had just one MVP-level season.

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

His last very good season was in 1901 when he moved to the brand spankin’ new AL as the manager of and best player on the White Sox. After that he posted a couple of useful seasons while managing and pitching for the Highlanders in 1903 and 1905. So yes, he still had some value after passing his prime – the 17th best pitcher in the AL both of those seasons.

Are his most comparable players in the HoME?

Well that depends. And this is the tricky part for me. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I see him as similar to Vic Willis, Rube Waddell, and Joe McGinnity. Eric sees him more with Bucky Walters, Bob Caruthers, and Charlie Buffinton. My three comps are all in the HoME. As for Eric’s comps, Walters is in, and the other two have received their obituaries.

What if we just use the standard of the top 20% of a player’s league?

Vic Willis 5
Joe McGinnity 5
Rube Waddell 5
Bucky Walters 4
Charlie Buffinton 4
Bob Caruthers 4
Clark Griffith 3

Hmm, maybe this isn’t the best question to ask. It certainly isn’t if I want to be right.

Let’s look at the number of times the guy was one of the three best players in his league.

Vic Willis 4
Rube Waddell 4
Charlie Buffinton 4
Bob Caruthers 4
Joe McGinnity 3
Bucky Walters 3
Clark Griffith 2

It seems Griffith is comparatively lacking greatness.

  • From 1939-1941 Bucky Walters was baseball’s best pitcher behind Bob Feller. The only other two players he trailed in value were Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
  • Vic Willis had his best seasons very much spread out. From 1898-1906, he trailed only Cy Young and Joe McGinnity among pitchers. Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie also posted greater WAR totals.
  • Speaking of “Iron Man” Joe, he was the best player in baseball other than Cy Young from 1899-1904.
  • Rube Waddell inches out Honus Wagner as baseball’s very best player from 1902-1906. If we just look at 1902-1905, he’s more clearly on top.
  • Like Willis, Charlie Buffinton’s best seasons were spread out some. He was the game’s third most valuable player from 1884-1889.
  • From 1885-1889, Bob Caruthers’ peak, he second only to John Clarkson in value.
  • At Griffith’s 1895-1898 peak, he trails just Kid Nichols and Cy Young.

If you’re following along, you’re also failing to see the group into which Griffith better fits.

So to answer whether or not Griffith’s most similar pitchers are in the HoME, I must admit that I don’t know who his most similar pitchers really are.

Was he ever the best pitcher in baseball? Or in his league?

He came close in 1898, though Kid Nichols beat him out. If we’re looking at a run of seasons, Griffith’s best was 1894-1901, and during that time he was miles behind both Nichols and Cy Young. If we take just his five-year peak, from 1894-1898, he’s still clearly behind those two.

Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?

Even in the AL’s inaugural year, Nap Lajoie was better, and Cy Young was miles better.

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

Checking out Mike Grahel’s work at the SABR Bio Project, perhaps he was somewhat better. After getting started in 1891 and then developing a sore arm, he didn’t pitch again in the majors until the end of 1893. However, “He toiled successfully the next two years in places like Tacoma, Washington; Missoula, Montana; and Oakland, but the leagues, like many in that era, were unstable, and the paychecks uncertain. With Oakland in 1893, Clark won 30 games, while also performing in Wild West skits on stage in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood after the league disbanded in August.”

Of course, we won’t give credit for those seasons at the HoME. And there’s a real way to think of Griffith as less great than his WAR, as we discussed above.

So no, there’s no pertinent evidence that suggests he was better than his statistics say. And there’s some to suggest he was worse.

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

His 1891 Boston Reds were baseball’s best team. But he was terrible, and they were far ahead of the rest of the league. There was no post-season exhibition series against the American Association that year, and never again did he pitch for a competitive NL team.

When he moved to the AL in 1901, his White Sox won the pennant. They were up by as little as half a game as late as August 27, but the Boston Americans faded badly, going 14-15 the rest of the way, and the White Sox won the pennant by five games. Of course, there was no World Series until 1903.

Griffith’s 1904 New York Highlanders were in one of baseball’s great pennant races. While I won’t detail the race here, I don’t find information that Griffith, the player, had much to do with the season’s final tense games.

In 1906, the Highlanders were again competitive, but Griffith wasn’t so much a player as a manager at that time, throwing just 59.2 innings on the season.

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

If I only look at my ranking, he is. But there’s more to Griffith’s ranking than meets the eye. That’s why I put him through this process.

Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?

By my numbers, again, yes he is. Yet I’m still not sure

Conclusions

In conclusion, I have no conclusion. Eric has often pointed out Griffith’s lack of IP compared to his contemporaries. And he’s right. Griffith was among his league’s top-15 pitchers in IP seven times. However, he was in the top-10 just twice. No, he didn’t maximize his run prevention skills, but he still prevented runs.

Overall, I just don’t know yet. Stay tuned.

Miller

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Clark Griffith Goes Saberhagen

  1. Griffith is one of those players I think you miss the boat with if you fail to take into consideration (can I cliché it or what?) the totality of his baseball career. Remember he does a lot of relieving late in his career and later as owner of the Senators he does pioneer work in the use of relievers (Firpo Marberry being the best example). He’s also a pretty good manager. I don’t know if that gets him into your Hall of not, but I think that if you dismiss them you dismiss a significant set of contributions to the game. Remember that Branch Rickey was a light hitting catcher with little to distinguish his career, but if anyone ever deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, it’s Rickey.
    Like you, I’m not sure Griffith should be elected, but I do think you ought to look at all aspects of his career, especially those nights on stage in the Barbary Coast neighborhood. How many combinations of Walter Johnson and John Barrymore are there? 🙂
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | April 3, 2015, 8:11 am
  2. You’re so clearly not wrong, v. Griffith is more of a candidate than his playing career reveals. But at the HoME, we don’t look at such things. Branch Rickey and John McGraw and Marvin Miller are all on the outside looking in because it’s just about accomplishment as a player. It’s just a different approach, I suppose.

    But who knows, when we catch up regarding players, we may well explore other types of candidates.

    Posted by Miller | April 3, 2015, 9:58 am
    • Fine by me. Love what you do and the above comment is not meant as a shot.
      BTW found out that Griffith was only one of several players and managers who ended up on the stage at some point. I did a post on Turkey Mike Donlan years ago. He was probably the most well known for his acting, but I just did a short look at the IMDB and was surprised how many there were. And Broadway (there’s a broadway and vaudeville version of IMDB) had its share (including John McGraw). So I suppose Griffith’s foray into the theater wasn’t that unusual. FYI
      v

      Posted by verdun2 | April 3, 2015, 11:04 am

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