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Negro Leagues

Evaluating Negro Leagues Pitcher, Part III: Rogan, Smith, and Williams

[All MLEs updated 7/4/18 to include (a) new 1938 and 1947 data (b) new baserunning-runs estimates(c) new, more objective playing-time estimates]

[Note: All MLEs here updated 1/1/18 due to changes in approach to pitcher batting.]

[Note: Updated 1/20/18 to include adjustment that accounts for general differences in pitcher-batting ability between MLB and Negro Leagues.]

We introduced you in our last two posts to eight of the eleven Negro Leagues honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit. This time we’ll close the loop with Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, and Smokey Joe Williams.

[In case you want a reminder of the method we’ve outline, it’s here.]

Bullet Rogan

[Note: Updated 1/14/18. Presence of highly skewed league data caused z-score translations to be appear artificially low. Fixed.]

[Note: Updated 1/23/18 to fix a tiny calculation error that amounts to a change of -0.2 RAA/WAA/WAR.]

Wilbur “Bullet” Rogan is perhaps most famous for, like Martín Dihigo being a double-threat: A great pitcher and a great hitter. While Rogan lacked the versatility of Dihigo, he was probably a better pitcher. Rogan started his career in the US Army, not with a Negro Leagues team. In 1915, he was promoted to the 25th Infantry Wreckers so that he could join their ballclub, which featured future Negro Leagues stars Dobie Moore and Heavy Johnson among others. The Wreckers, stationed in the Pacific, took on all comers, and they beat a lot of PCL teams and pretty much everyone else.

From our perspective in the 21st Century, we might ask why a ballplayer wouldn’t hook on instead with a Negro Leagues team. Part of the answer is that there were no official Negro Leagues at that moment. Instead, blackball was a group of loosely confederated indy teams some of which might travel the country as a pair barnstorming their way to a paycheck or go it alone and take on the local yokels. This probably sounds to you like an unstable business model. Yup. With no central authority, there were no guarantees of payment, or at least prompt payment. That combined with playing multiple games a day in dusty towns you never heard of made Army baseball an attractive option. If you could hack basic training and could stand the hierarchy, you played ball; got paid in full, on time; got room and board; and led a predictable life. In the Wreckers’ case, a predictably sunshine filled life on an island.

As soon as the Negro National League formed in 1920, members of the Wreckers bought their way out of their service commitments and signed on with league teams. In fact, all three of Rogan, Moore, and Johnson were scooped up by J.L.Wilkinson and his Kansas City Monarchs. Actually, Rogan had played briefly with one of Wilkinson’s touring teams in 1917 but had returned to the army shortly after. Anyway, so at age 26, Rogan entered the Negro Leagues, and within two seasons, he was a star. He led the Monarch’s pitching staff as the team rumbled along to several pennants and Negro World Series appearances. In the mid-1930s, just as Satchel Paige joined the team and Hilton Smith emerged as a star, Rogan wound down his career, as did his long-time teammate Andy Cooper. He left behind a stellar 145 ERA+ (1303 innings) and a super 160 OPS+ (1721 PA).

Bullet Rogan
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1915–1937
Destination: NL 1915–1936
Missing data: 1915–1919, 1926–1927, 1929–1932
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit
               PITCHING          |   BATTING   |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE   IP  RAA   WAA   WAR  |   PA   WAR  |   WAR
=======================================================
1915   21  200   18   2.3   4.2  |   67   0.6  |   4.8
1916   22  210   20   2.6   4.6  |   70   0.7  |   5.2
1917   23  220   21   2.7   4.7  |   73   0.6  |   5.4
1918   24  220   21   2.7   4.7  |   73   0.6  |   5.3
1919   25  240   21   2.7   4.9  |   80   0.7  |   5.6
1920   26  270   22   2.6   5.2  |   90   0.8  |   6.0
1921   27  300   24   2.5   5.6  |  100   0.9  |   6.5
1922   28  280   46   4.7   7.6  |   93   0.8  |   8.4
1923   29  300   56   5.9   8.9  |  100   0.9  |   9.8
1924   30  270   41   4.5   7.2  |   90   0.8  |   8.0
1925   31  260   39   3.9   6.6  |   87   0.8  |   7.4
1926   32  260   34   3.6   6.2  |   87   0.8  |   7.0
1927   33  270   30   3.3   6.0  |   90   0.8  |   6.8
1928   34  210   17   1.8   3.9  |   70   0.7  |   4.6
1929   35  200   17   1.6   3.7  |   67   0.6  |   4.3
1930   36  200   17   1.5   3.6  |   67   0.6  |   4.2
1931   37  180    8   0.8   2.6  |   60   0.6  |   3.2
1932   38  150  - 6  -0.6   1.0  |   50   0.5  |   1.4
1933   39    1    0  -0.1   0.0  |    0   0.0  |   0.0
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     4241  445  49.0  91.3  | 1414  12.6  | 103.9

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 19th
Pitching Wins Above Average: 8th
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 7th
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 5th

Enough of Rogan’s record is missing from his Negro Leagues seasons, that we were a little concerned. For missing-data seasons, we use the pitcher’s career performance rate, but Rogan’s rate was very, very high and caused us to wonder if he was being inflated due to the lack of data. It was high enough that halving the career rate of run prevention still led to what you see above. As more data rolls in, we’ll update our MLE accordingly. In addition, Rogan’s 1922, 1925, and 1926 seasons required us to use the manual override to keep his performance in line with league norms.

There’s not a ton to add to the story. Rogan was an excellent pitcher and great hitter for any batter, not just for a pitcher. You have to guess, though, that all of these great hitting pitchers in the Negro Leagues would probably have been lesser hitters than we translate, simply because they’d get fewer reps, fewer chances to play in the field between starts. When teams barnstormed and operated on shoestring budgets, they had to economize. One way to do so was to bring as few players as possible on the road. That meant rosters of 13 or so for traveling. Which, in turn, meant that pitchers had to be two-way players in order to spell on another and spell injured or tired position players.

We’ll see as we delve deeper into the candidate pool in posts down the line detailing other pitching candidates that these guys couldn’t all hit. But many could, and in this way, the Negro Leagues were 20 to 30 years behind the majors which saw a sharp reduction in pitcher batting as rosters expanded to cover longer schedules and specialization began to increase.

We’ll be providing an MLE down the pike for Rogan as if he had never pitched but only been a position player.

Fixing the issue with the skewed league data bumped Rogan up considerably because some seasons that showed up near average became above average.

Hilton Smith

[Note: Updated 1/14/18. Presence of highly skewed league data caused z-score translations to be appear artificially low. Fixed.]

[Updated 4/3/18 with additional 1937 data.]

For many years, Hilton Smith was most famous for following Satchel Paige to the mound. The great Paige, having been advertised near and far as pitching on a given day would go three innings, and Smith would finish things off. At least, when the Kansas City Monarchs traveled. In league games, Smith was more likely to start and finish his own games.

Other circumstances conspired to reduce Smith’s visibility. Rather than rise up through main Negro Leagues, he got his start in the Negro Southern League, which was major only in 1932 as a haven for teams bailing on the failing major leagues. He was 25 and stuck with his Monroe teammates for a couple more years then was recruited to play for the semipro Bismarck super team that beat back all comers in the mid-1930s. When he joined the Monarchs for 1936, they were mostly a barnstorming team with relatively few documented games against top rivals, and he became Satch’s shadow. Paige left the Monarchs for the majors in 1948. Smith stayed behind and then retired after the season, leaving behind appearances in six East-West All-Star Games in his wake.

Hilton Smith
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1932–1948
Destination: NL 1932–1948
Missing data: 1933–1936, 1948
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame
               PITCHING          |   BATTING   |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE   IP  RAA   WAA   WAR  |   PA   WAR  |   WAR
========================================================
1932   25  180   12   1.3   3.1  |   60   0.3  |   3.4
1933   26  210   13   1.5   3.6  |   70   0.4  |   4.0
1934   27  200   12   1.2   3.3  |   67   0.4  |   3.7
1935   28  220   13   1.3   3.6  |   73   0.4  |   4.0
1936   29  270   15   1.5   4.3  |   90   0.5  |   4.8
1937   30  260    6   0.7   3.3  |   87   0.5  |   3.8
1938   31  260   16   1.7   4.4  |   87   0.5  |   4.9
1939   32  260   24   2.6   5.2  |   87   0.5  |   5.7
1940   33  270   34   3.8   6.4  |   90   0.5  |   7.0
1941   34  210   24   2.8   4.8  |   70   0.4  |   5.2
1942   35  180    3   0.3   2.1  |   60   0.3  |   2.4
1943   36  160   19   2.2   3.7  |   53   0.2  |   4.0
1944   37   20    2   0.2   0.4  |    7   0.0  |   0.5
1945   38  180   13   1.4   3.3  |   60   0.3  |   3.5
1946   39  180    8   0.9   2.7  |   60   0.3  |   3.0
1947   40  180  -13  -1.3   0.5  |   60   0.3  |   0.9
1948   41   20    0   0.0   0.2  |    7   0.0  |   0.2
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     3260  201  22.2  54.9  | 1088   6.1  |  61.0

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 51st
Pitching Wins Above Average: t-56th
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 40th
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 30th

We made the manual adjustment for Smith’s 1943 season run-prevention rates to keep him in line with league norms.

A word about 1932–1936. The Lester/Clark HOF study included his stats for Monroe in the 1932 Negro Southern League in Shades of Glory. That Monroe team took on the Crawfords for a Negro Championship. They report nothing else until 1937. Riley and other bio sources indicate that Smith went to Bismarck with Satch and others in 1934/1935 somewhere, then from there became a Monarch in 1936. Given that in 1937 and 1939, Smith appears to be a finished product at age 30, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that we include 1932–1936 in our MLE. So we did at his known career average.

Smith is another good-hitting Negro Leagues pitcher who adds a lot of value that way. I’m not sure what’s up with 1944. There’s some mention of an injury in 1943 in some sources, though I see no evidence of it in the stats. But in 1944, he does appear to have been unable to start as often as usual, so maybe he hurt himself in winter ball, affecting his summer performance. It seems to have affected his durability more than his effectiveness.

It is also possible that Smith spent part of 1945 in the war, though we can’t find corroboration. He is alleged to have tipped off J.L. Wilkinson, leading to Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Monarchs immediately after his discharge.

Smokey Joe Williams

[Note: Updated 1/1/18 to fix transcription errors in the mid-teens.]

[Note: Updated 1/6/18 to correct calculations for Joe’s first two and last years.]

[Note: Updated 1/14/18. Presence of highly skewed league data caused z-score translations to be appear artificially low. Fixed.]

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill ranks Joe Williams 52nd among the greatest players in baseball history. I can buy that, or even a better ranking. Williams was an early link in a long historical chain of Texas fireballers that includes “The Ryan Express” and the “The Rocket.” He must have been extremely intimidating back in the 1900s and 1910s. He stood 6’3” tall, with a chiseled face that bore the high cheek bones, angular nose, and strong chin gifted him from the Comanche heritage of one of his parents. That great fastball, likened by a promoter to a pebble blown by a storm, must have erupted from his hand a lot closer to home plate than most hitters were used to during a time when the average American male was an inch and a half shorter back then than today. Cyclone Joe, as he was called earlier in his career, gained fame for his prodigious strikeout totals. His career variously included no-hitters and a 27-strikeout performance (at night, in 12 innings) among other gems. He beat PCL teams by the bushel in a California swing, went 20-7 against white major league teams (8-3 documented), and had a 140 ERA+ in Cuba. His ERA+ of 149 trails only Dave Brown (150 ERA+) among hurlers with 1000 innings in the Negro Leagues Database, and only Brown and Satch (193 ERA+) among players anywhere near 1000 innings. His 1240 strikeouts rank first in the Database. His 1862 innings are third in the Database, his 132 victories are third, his 196 complete games are third, and his 20 shutouts rank fifth. He could bring it.

Smokey Joe Williams
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1907–1932
Destination: NL 1907-1930
Missing Data: 1907–1908, 1925–1927, 1929
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit
               PITCHING          |   BATTING   |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE   IP   RAA  WAA   WAR  |   PA   WAR  |   WAR
=======================================================
1907   21  100   12   1.6   2.5  |   33   0.1  |   2.7
1908   22  200   22   3.1   4.9  |   67   0.3  |   5.2
1909   23  250    8   1.0   3.4  |   83   0.4  |   3.8
1910   24  300   17   2.0   4.9  |  100   0.4  |   5.4
1911   25  310   32   3.6   6.7  |  103   0.5  |   7.2
1912   26  300   52   5.7   8.7  |  100   0.4  |   9.1
1913   27  300   25   2.9   5.9  |  100   0.5  |   6.4
1914   28  270   34   4.2   6.7  |   90   0.5  |   7.2
1915   29  250   18   2.3   4.7  |   83   0.4  |   5.1
1916   30  250   31   4.2   6.5  |   83   0.4  |   6.9
1917   31  300   39   5.2   7.9  |  100   0.4  |   8.3
1918   32  270   28   3.7   6.2  |   90   0.3  |   6.5
1919   33  280   20   2.5   5.1  |   93   0.4  |   5.5
1920   34  300   30   3.6   6.5  |  100   0.4  |   6.9
1921   35  300   35   3.8   6.9  |  100   0.5  |   7.3
1922   36  250   41   4.2   6.7  |   83   0.5  |   7.2
1923   37  240   10   1.0   3.5  |   80   0.4  |   3.9
1924   38  200   29   3.1   5.1  |   67   0.3  |   5.4
1925   39  180   19   1.8   3.7  |   60   0.3  |   4.0
1926   40  150   18   1.9   3.4  |   50   0.3  |   3.7
1927   41  130   16   1.7   3.0  |   25   0.2  |   3.2
1928   42   50    4   0.4   0.9  |   18   0.1  |   1.0
1929   43   20    3   0.3   0.5  |    7   0.0  |   0.5
1930   44   10    2   0.2   0.3  |   17   0.1  |   0.4
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     5210  545  63.7 114.6  | 1732   8.2  | 122.8

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 4th
Pitching Wins Above Average: 6th
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 3rd
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 3rd

We employed the manual override on 1912, 1914, 1921, and 1922 to keep Williams’ MLEs in line with league norms.

In terms of their relative standings, he is precisely to Paige as Pete Alexander is to Walter Johnson. The thing about Johnson and Paige is that everyone in the greatest-ever conversation gets compared to them. Roger Clemens? How does he stack up to the Big Train? Joe Williams? How does he compare with Satchel? That’s not a dis on anyone, either. It’s simply an acknowledgment of how great those guys were. Similarly, whoever is juxtaposed to them in any serious discussion of GOATedness (that is, Greatest of All Time) must be an awfully good pitcher to even merit the comparison. Williams was a really great pitcher. Yet, he needs a strong bat to get by Paige. In terms of measuring his pitching performance, Williams finishes behind Paige, but he needs 400 more innings to do it.

That said, if you were GM for a big league club, and someone said they could clone Smokey Joe Williams and have him ready to pitch for you starting next year, you’d do it quicker than you can say medical ethics. He was the towering figure among moundsmen in the early Negro Leagues era, and anyone would take the kind of peak we are estimating in his MLEs.

Note: When we adjusted our league stats to remove pitchers with very low innings and very high RA9, several of Williams’ seasons drastically improved, and his MLE value along with them. He now looks to be right on par with Satch.

And now, we’ve reached the end of our walk to the mound to meet with our Negro League Hall of Fame/Merit hurlers. We hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know them a little and learning about some of baseball’s best players who are virtually unknown historical figures. Often we talk about underrated players in MLB. Tony Gwynn and Tim Raines were the subject of such talk while I was growing up, and Miller and I write about underrated players like Dwight Evans or Bobby Grich all the time. But those guys are better known by many orders of magnitude compared to anyone in the Negro Leagues, with the possible exception of Satchel Paige. It’s more likely that the average fan on the street knows who Sean Casey is than Buck Leonard. Or Josh Collmenter than Josh Gibson (and certainly Kirk Gibson over Josh Gibson). Every Negro Leagues player is underrated, so we hope we’re able to give them a little spotlight time. If you’re interested to learn more, we recommend not only the amazing Negro Leagues Database and the equally amazing SABR Bioproject, but also books such as Shades of Glory and The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues.

Next time out, we’re going to document for you our MLE method for position players, then we’ll dive into the Hall of Fame/Merit players at each position en route to a first sweep through the Negro Leagues.

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Evaluating Negro Leagues Pitcher, Part III: Rogan, Smith, and Williams

  1. Excellent job, just excellent.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | October 18, 2017, 8:22 am

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  1. Pingback: Evaluating Negro Leagues Corner Outfielders | the Hall of Miller and Eric - December 20, 2017

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