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Negro Leagues

Evaluating More Negro Leagues Pitchers, Part 2

[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]

After looking at second-tier catchers last week, and before we move to first base next week, we’ve slotted in our second more-pitchers post. Today we will profile and provide MLEs for five more guys, a couple of which you might have heard of, though for very different reasons. Chuck out our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues pitchers for a very lengthy reminder of what’s under the hood of how we do this.

Dave Brown

If anything, you might know Brown’s name due to his notorious knife work. According to James Riley’s research, Brown had a felonious streak to him. Rube Foster bailed the lefty out of a robbery charge in the late teens, then Brown’s 1925 barroom encounter with Benjamin Adair turned murderous. When the FBI came to the park the next day to bring in Brown and two teammates (the latter for questioning), the chicken had flown the coup. He spent the next 13 years on the run and was finally apprehended in Greensboro, North Carolina, for another crime in 1938. His prints went to the FBI who patched the matter through to the New York City police. The Big Applians declined to extradite the lefty to face charges, whereupon the trail goes dead. The place and date of his death remains an unsolved mystery to this day. Since he was born 120-some years ago, however, we can probably assume that he has, in fact, found his mortal coil duly shuffled off.

Brown had a good fastball and tough complementary pitches, and his 150 ERA+ ranks seventh all-time on the Negro Leagues database. In his seven documented seasons he threw 1008 innings in 154 games.

Dave Brown
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1919–1925
Destination: NL 1919–1925
               PITCHING          |  BATTING   |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE   IP  RAA   WAA   WAR  |  PA   WAR  |   WAR
========================================================
1919   24     10  - 2  -0.3  -0.2  |    3   0.0  |  -0.2
1920   25    270    9   1.0   3.7  |   90  -0.5  |   3.2
1921   26    300   16   1.7   4.8  |  100  -0.3  |   4.5
1922   27    250   41   4.2   6.7  |   83  -0.1  |   6.6
1923   28    300   59   6.3   9.3  |  100  -0.3  |   9.0
1924   29    270   57   6.4   9.0  |   90  -0.4  |   8.7
1925   30      9    1   0.1   0.2  |    3   0.0  |   0.2
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL       1409  181  19.4  33.6  |  469  -1.6  |  32.0

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 388th 
Pitching Wins Above Average: 72nd
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: t-120th
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 138th

As you can see, Brown exited the game (and normal civilian life) on top of his game. It may also be the case that we owe him a season or two at the start of his career. It’s a little unclear yet. If Brown could hit, he’d be about two good seasons away from a Dizzy Dean-like career.

Bill Byrd

One wonders if this 6’1″, 210 pounder would have been called “Big Byrd” just a couple generations later. Regardless, Bill Byrd pitched 19 years in the Negro Leagues (1932 to 1950), proving durable both within seasons and across them. The Negro Leagues Database includes 1105 innings.  He played in six East-West All-Star Games and was a fixture on the Baltimore Elite Giants for 14 seasons.

Byrd might have had a Gaylord Perry like presence, though with less theatre. He learned the spitter in 1933, but also threw just about every legal pitch ever invented. With control. Riley writes that Byrd “would often fake throwing the [spitball] for psychological reasons.” Like so many Negro Leagues pitchers, Byrd hit well for his position and played in the field somewhat often.

The careers of major leaguers Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Joe Black might have been quite different (or never been) without Byrd’s tutelage. Campy and others credited the pitcher with teaching him how to carry himself like a professional.

Bill Byrd
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1932–1950
Destination: NL 1932–1949
Missing data: 1932, 1940, 1948–1950
                PITCHING         |   BATTING   |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE   IP  RAA   WAA   WAR  |   PA   WAR  |   WAR
=======================================================
1932   24  170    5   0.5   2.3  |   57   0.2  |   2.5
1933   25  160  - 6  -0.7   0.9  |   53   0.2  |   1.1
1934   26  170  -20  -1.9  -0.1  |   57   0.3  |   0.2
1935   27  170  -24  -2.4  -0.5  |   57   0.2  |  -0.3
1936   28  200   15   1.5   3.6  |   67   0.3  |   3.9
1937   29  220    0   0.0   2.2  |   73   0.3  |   2.6
1938   30  220    4   0.4   2.7  |   73   0.4  |   3.0
1939   31  260   29   3.2   5.8  |   87   0.4  |   6.2
1940   32  270   27   2.9   5.7  |   90   0.4  |   6.1
1941   33  250   39   4.5   6.9  |   83   0.4  |   7.3
1942   34  250   30   3.7   6.1  |   83   0.4  |   6.4
1943   35  260   31   3.7   6.2  |   87   0.3  |   6.5
1944   36  260   11   1.2   3.8  |   87   0.3  |   4.1
1945   37  250   31   3.4   5.9  |   83   0.3  |   6.2
1946   38  180  - 6  -0.7   1.1  |   60   0.3  |   1.4
1947   39  180    0   0.0   1.9  |   60   0.3  |   2.2
1948   40  160    6   0.6   2.2  |   53   0.2  |   2.4
1949   41  140    9   0.9   2.3  |   47   0.2  |   2.5
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     3770  178  20.9  58.9  | 1257   5.3  |  64.2

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 30th
Pitching Wins Above Average: 60th
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 32nd
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 22nd

There’s a certain similarity here to  Bob Feller. No really, here me out. It’s not style so much as career arc. Byrd probably never dominated to the degree that Feller did at his peak. But Rapid Robert had only six All-Star level seasons and then twelve years of years of positive but not outstanding work, and clinker or two. Byrd’s career is kinda like that. Six strong seasons, about the same number of career innings, and stuff surrounding those strong seasons. Our MLE protocol smooths things out a lot, so that some of Byrd’s worse seasons don’t look as bad as Feller’s worst. But it’s the shape I’m interested in here. Feller racked up 34.1 WAA, and Byrd’s not that kind of dominator. Luis Tiant’s career is somewhat reminiscent of that same path.

I’d say that Bill Byrd is a stealth candidate for the Hall of Miller and Eric. His batting certainly props him up a little, but a concentrated peak of All-Star pitching and decent shoulder seasons is a career we’ve rewarded in the past.

Reuben Curry

The Kansas City Monarchs of the 1920s won a lot of games, in part because of their seemingly endless parade of high-quality pitchers. In addition to staff stalwart Bullet Rogan, they got good production from Clifford Bell,  William Bell, Chet Brewer, Andy Cooper, Army Cooper, Sam Crawford, Nelson Dean, John Donaldson, Bill Drake, Willie Gisentaner, Jose Mendez, and this guy, Reuben Curry. He didn’t pitch exclusively with KC, but came up with them in 1920 as a 21 year old, stayed through 1923 and returned later in his career. There’s no mention anywhere of his pitching in 1931, nor why he stopped playing after 1932 at age 33. In our MLE, we don’t provide an estimate for 1931, and due to this oddity and his pitching well in 1932, it appears as though Curry went out on a high note. Not sure that’s fully accurate, and we won’t know unless more data gaps are filled in.

Reuben “Rube” Curry/Currie is maybe best known for pitching in all four of the Negro World Series of the 1920s contested by the respective champions of the Negro National League and Eastern Colored League.

Reuben Curry
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1923–1937
Destination: NL 1923–1937
Missing Data: 1926, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1932
               PITCHING          |  BATTING    |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE   IP  RAA   WAA   WAR  |   PA   WAR  |   WAR
=======================================================
1920   21  250   15   1.8   4.2  |   83  -0.2  |   4.1
1921   22  250    7   0.7   3.3  |   83   0.0  |   3.3
1922   23  280   37   3.7   6.6  |   93   0.1  |   6.7
1923   24  240   16   1.6   4.1  |   80   0.0  |   4.1
1924   25  170  - 1  -0.1   1.7  |   57   0.0  |   1.7
1925   26  240    8   0.8   3.4  |   80   0.1  |   3.4
1926   27  230   14   1.5   3.8  |   77   0.0  |   3.9
1927   28  210   13   1.3   3.5  |   70   0.0  |   3.5
1928   29  210    8   0.8   3.0  |   70   0.1  |   3.1
1929   30  200   27   2.5   4.6  |   67   0.1  |   4.7
1930   31  200   44   4.0   6.1  |   67   0.1  |   6.2
1931   32   
1932   33  150   20   2.2   3.7  |   50   0.1  |   3.7
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     2630  207  20.8  47.9  |  877   0.8  |  48.3

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 120th
Pitching Wins Above Average: 59th
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 51st
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 64th

Let’s reserve judgement until more of the 1920s data comes through. Curry looks great now in part because the data we do have is excellent, but we’re missing enough that a meh year or two would cut down the production rates we’re using for gap seasons.

John Donaldson

This lean, six foot lefty blew threw the midwest in the early 1910s like a tornado, leaving strikeout records in the dust. Sort of. Donaldson has been credited with a 35-strikeout 18-inning game in 1915. He supposedly threw three straight no-hitters in 1913, along with a 12-inning one-hitter that included 27 whiffs. Thing is that a lot of those games came during barnstorming tours against local semipro teams who had never seen someone like Donaldson, his fastball, his control, and a tough curveball. What we do know about Donaldson is that he struck out 251 batters in 440 documented innings in the Negro Leagues Database. He walked 129 and yielded 403 hits. Let’s throw these rates into a chart because, you know I dig charts.

DONALDSON V. MLB
       JOHN  MLB   RATIO
========================
K/9    5.1   3.4    1.5 
BB/9   2.6   2.6    0.0
K/BB   2.0   1.2    1.7
H/9    8.2   8.7    0.9

I’m not saying that Donaldson was actually that much better than big league pitchers. These lines don’t take into account the relative difficulty of his leagues to MLB. But at least they appear to give some credibility to the idea that he had good power stuff. During the seasons that he pitched in the Negro Leagues, his K% was ninth best in the Negro Leagues. His BB% ranked 16th. His K/BB was seventh. Clearly, the guy could pitch, but maybe not quite like the lore suggests. Most telling: his ERA+ of 116 ranks merely 15th. However, our MLE looks very positive for him. Donaldson’s health, however, holds him back as a candidate. He lasted until age 30 before his arm gave out.

Donaldson had some athleticism could hit a little and ran very well. He frequently played centerfield when he didn’t pitch, and he often led off due to his speed.

John Donaldson
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio and another
Career: 1913–1924
Destination: NL 1913–1921
Missing data: 1913–1915
               PITCHING          |   BATTING   |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE   IP  RAA   WAA   WAR  |   PA   WAR  |   WAR
========================================================
1913   22  220   19   2.2   4.3  |   73   0.3  |   4.6
1914   23  270   20   2.4   5.0  |   90   0.4  |   5.3
1915   24  300    6   0.7   3.6  |  100   0.3  |   4.0
1916   25  310   18   2.4   5.3  |  103   0.4  |   5.7
1917   26  300   38   5.0   7.8  |  100   0.3  |   8.1
1918   27  220   26   3.4   5.4  |   73   0.2  |   5.6
1919   28  240   40   5.2   7.4  |   80   0.3  |   7.7
1920   29  200   12   1.5   3.4  |   67   0.2  |   3.6
1921   30   40  - 1  -0.1   0.3  |   13   0.1  |   0.4
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     2100  179  22.7  42.6  |  699   2.4  |  45.0

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 197th
Pitching Wins Above Average: 56th
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 75th
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): t-74th

Very similar in some respects to Dizzy Dean. About the same number of innings pitched and same pWAR. Donaldson might be a little better hitter. Overall, however, they bring really similar profiles to the table. Dean earned about four more WAA, which Donaldson compensates for with about 105 more innings.

Jonas Gaines

A lean scroogie-throwing southpaw, Gaines didn’t leave a long paper trail, though he pitched in three East-West All-Star Games. Predictably known as “Lefty,” Gaines’ 122 ERA+ currently ranks tied for 42nd among pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched. He was among the first Americans to join a Japanese League team.

Jonas Gaines
Negro Leagues Stats | Minor League Stats | Bio
Career: 1937–1957 
Destination: NL 1937–1953 
Missing data: 1941, 1948–1953

               PITCHING        |  BATTING   |  TOTAL
YEAR  AGE  IP  RAA  WAA   WAR  |  PA   WAR  |   WAR
===================================================
1937   22  150  -12  -1.2   0.4  |   50  -0.4  |   0.0 
1938   23  190  - 5  -0.5   1.5  |   63  -0.4  |   1.1
1939   24  180   27   3.0   4.7  |   60  -0.4  |   4.3
1940   25  190   13   1.5   3.4  |   63  -0.4  |   2.9
1941   26  190   26   2.9   4.7  |   63  -0.5  |   4.3
1942   27  220   23   2.7   4.9  |   73  -0.7  |   4.1
1943   28        MILITARY SERVICE
1944   29  230  - 3  -0.4   2.0  |   77  -0.8  |   1.2
1945   30        MILITARY SERVICE
1946   31  260    0   0.0   2.6  |   87  -0.8  |   1.7
1947   32  180  -13  -1.3   0.5  |   60  -0.4  |   0.1
1948   33  180    1   0.1   1.9  |   60  -0.5  |   1.4
1949   34  200    4   0.5   2.5  |   67  -0.5  |   2.0
1950   35  200    6   0.6   2.7  |   67  -0.4  |   3.3
1951   36  150    5   0.5   2.0  |   50  -0.4  |   1.6
1952   37  140    5   0.5   1.9  |   47  -0.3  |   1.5
1953   38  140    4   0.4   1.8  |   47  -0.3  |   1.5
-------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     2800   80   9.2  37.4  |  934  -7.4  |  30.0

Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960)
Innings pitched: 99th
Pitching Wins Above Average: 181st
Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 105th
Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): t-152nd

There’s one very weird thing about Gaines’ career. He’s commonly said to have been in the service from 1943 through 1945. But Gaines has statistics in the 1944 season on the Negro Leagues Database. In fact, he ranked third on his team in games started. As they say here in Maine, hahd tellin’ not knowin’.

Gaines comes out looking like a high #3, low #2 starter most years. His innings and WAA comp out a lot like Bob Lemon’s do, though the two separate after that because Lemon could hit, and Gaines couldn’t.

* * *

Next time around, we reach first base and visit with a fivesome that includes two men who made it to the majors and, perhaps, the Cuban Winter League’s greatest hitter.

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