So you’ve probably heard by now that Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer. That’s right, the guy who’s 139th in career pitching WAR is among about 70 pitchers in the Hall. The reason? Aside from maybe one single game where he was simply awesome, he’s a Hall of Famer because, to many, he’s considered the pitcher of the 1980s.
For some time many of us have argued that Morris isn’t the pitcher of the 1980s, though he did win the most games in that decade. What I’d like to do in this series of posts is to try to systematically (kind of) determine who the pitcher of each decade is.
I’m trying to identify the best pitcher of a decade rather than just the best in the decade. That’s a small but significant difference. The best pitcher in a decade would only focus on those years; for Jack Morris we’re talking about 1980-1989. But when we look at something in such a manner, we’re using sort of strange start and end points. There’s just no reason 1980-1989 is any more significant a decade than 1977-1986, for example.
With that conundrum in mind, I reviewed Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein’s book, Baseball Dynasties, where they tried to determine the best team of all time. They didn’t just look at a given year. They also considered surrounding years. I realized I should do the same, though at somewhat reduced strength. That adjustment should cover for the fact that there’s nothing special about start and end points of xxx0 and xxx9.
Also, given that we’re looking at the best pitcher of a particular decade rather than just the best pitcher for those ten particular seasons, I’m including a small career measure as well. So here’s my process.
Step 1: Do a BBREF search for the most innings pitched in a given decade. Get 40-60 pitchers or so for each decade. I want to err on the side of reviewing too many guys. After all, if I look at the top-40+ in innings for a decade, I can be pretty confident I’m discovering the best five or ten.
Step 2: Since I’m a bWAR-based thinker, I use my adjusted WAR for each of the pitchers in Step 1 for each year in the decade. Then, sort of based on the theories from Neyer and Epstein, I add the year before and after the decade (say 1979 and 1991) at 90%. Then I add then next year in both directions (1978 and 1992) at 70%. And finally, I add the next year in both directions (1977 and 1993) at 50%.
Step 3: If we were looking only for the best pitcher in a particular decade, we could be done now. However, I want to determine the best pitcher of a decade. Thus, there has to be a career factor that helps to articulate “best”. The whole story isn’t told by the false-construct start and end points of a decade. So careers will be added to the calculation at 10% of value. If 10% proves to be too high, I’ll adjust.
Step 4: I will rethink things, subjectively, based on post-season performance and, perhaps, other things that seem out of place.
The Best Pitcher of the 1870s
The National Association, which many consider the first “major” league, got started in 1871. Thus, I couldn’t count 1870 or a percentage of the three years before. This decade saw a lot of uncertainty, so while I like my WAR adjustments, I admit that the error bar for the 1870s is wider than for that of any time in our game’s history. Further, though six pitchers reached 2000 innings in the decade, there were only six others who reached even 700. Perhaps for this decade the 10% career adjustment overestimates where players should rank. Without an adjustment, Pud Galvin ranked ninth on my list. He drops off since he really only played one year in the decade. And Jim McCormick finished fifth by the numbers. He’ll drop a few slots as well.
With no further ado, let’s look at the ten best pitchers of the 1870s.
#10 George Bradley: Aside from an insane 1876 season when he won 45 games while leading the NL in ERA and ERA+, Bradley was a below average pitcher in the decade. If you’re looking for a bit of trivia, on July 15, 1876, it was Bradley who threw the NL’s first ever no-hitter against the Hartford Dark Blues. Bradley isn’t even in my database. I’m just guesstimating his value, which clocks in at about 27% of our decade’s leader.
#9 George Zettlein: Charmer, as he was known, is in my database of adjusted seasonal and career WAR, as is everyone else on this list. Zettlein’s career lasted for the 1871-1875 span of the National Association and then a year in the National League. In six years, he switched teams six times, and he may have been the best pitcher in the first year of the NA, leading the circuit in ERA, ERA+, and pitching WAR. That’s a nice distinction, though his value for the decade is only about 40% of our 1870s leader.
#8 Dick McBride: McBride’s career mirrored Zettlein’s – all five seasons in the NA, the first season in the NL, and that’s it. He was a shade better though – 48% of our leader. Unlike Zettlein, his NA career was quite stable, playing for nobody other than the Philadelphia Athletics.
#7 Jim McCormick: The righty from Glasgow was truly an excellent player, twice leading his league in ERA+ and three times winning his circuit’s pitching WAR title. McCormick drops from where the formula puts him since his only work in the 1870s was a partial season in 1878 and a 40 loss campaign for the Cleveland Blues in 1879.
#6 Monte Ward: Strictly by my formula, our only HoMEr on the list finished third in the decade. However, much of the value of this “pitcher” came at the plate. In fact, pitcher was only his third most common position during his impressive career. As far as his mound work, we’re looking at just two seasons in the decade with the Providence Grays. Granted, he did win 47 games in 1879, but there were clearly more important 1870s pitchers.
#5 Candy Cummings: Did Cummings invent the curveball? I don’t know. The truth, perhaps, is lost to history. What’s not lost is that Cummings is almost certainly in the Hall because it is believed he invented the pitch. His Hall plaque says as much. He was the most prolific hurler in the 1872 NA, though not really the most effective, and he clocks in at 55% of our winner’s total “value”. One thing I’m pretty certain of is that he either invented the curve, or he has absolutely no business in the Hall.
#4 Jim Devlin: To get him to this level, which is a shade better than Cummings at 57%, we’re looking at just three seasons. He was particularly good in the first two of the NL’s existence, leading the league in games, innings, and losses both years. He was also the most valuable by WAR in both. His career ended abruptly after the 1877 season when he and three other players were among the first group banned from the sport for throwing games. Of course, even if he weren’t banned, he’d have been done soon. He died six years later. A combination of consumption and alcoholism will do that to a guy.
#3 Bobby Mathews: A winner of 297 games and not in the Hall of Fame. Even as I write that, I’m surprised he’s not in the Hall. Of course, he shouldn’t be. His wins are a product of his time, as is his ability to reach such a height on this list while clocking in at just 69% of our leader’s total. While he won 29+ six times, only once did he top 30 wins, posting 42 for the New York Mutuals of the 1874 NA. Mathews was possibly the most durable pitcher of his era. Of those who appeared in the NA in 1871, only Mathews, Cherokee Fisher, and Al Spalding lasted until 1878. Kind of amazingly, Mathews made it nine years after that. Whenever I read posts from the SABR Bio Project, which I highly recommend, I’m reminded of what difficult lives these men led, and how different times are now. It seems that Mathews’ syphilis led to mental decline during and after his playing days.
#2 Tommy Bond: Continuing with detail from the SABR Bio Project, Bonds’ entry reminds us that our decade was a time when batters could request high or low pitches from a hurler throwing underhand. At that time, pitchers essentially just initiated play rather than attempting to control it. Bond, I suspect, helped to advance the game by throwing sidearm, probably in an effort to deceive hitters. For his efforts, he led the NL in strikeouts the first two years of their existence and finished at 97.3% of our decade leader. Also, he posted at least 10 unadjusted pitching WAR every season from 1875-1879. Unlike most players of his era, and most people of his era, Bond lived until the age of 84. In and of itself, that’s an impressive statistic.
#1 Al Spalding: Better known for his sporting goods company than his pitching, I’m dubbing Albert Goodwill Spalding the best pitcher of the first decade of organized baseball. Though he only pitched six full seasons, we’re talking full seasons here, five times topping 400 innings. He also led the league in wins in each of those years, and he was in the top-4 in pitcher WAR all six years he pitched over 11 innings. It’s very close between Spalding and Bond, but I feel comfortable giving the Hall of Fame righty the edge.
One week from today, we’ll take a look at the marginally more stable 1880s.