The 1880s were a time of tremendous rule change that would make the game on the field look quite different than the one that preceded it. Eight balls became a walk, then six, five, and by the end of the decade four. In 1883, pitchers were allowed to deliver the ball from above their waist, and four years later requests were no longer granted for high or low pitches. That same year, the hit by pitch became a rule. Sure, we were still a bit away from mitts being used by catchers or the mound being moved to 60’6”, but we’re getting there.
This was also the decade of Pud Galvin. Back in the early days of the HoME, we wrote a decent amount about Gentle Jeems, as he was sometimes called. That’s because I supported his inclusion in the HoME, while Eric wasn’t quite there yet. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012, Galvin’s 52nd time on the HoME ballot, that we saw fit to elect him. He’s a borderliner for sure, but he may not have been if we only considered his pitching and ignored his hitting. You see, Galvin was a disgustingly bad hitter. In all of the game’s history, there have been only 40 players to total -5 WAR or worse for a career. Galvin is the second worst all-time at -9.9 WAR, less awful than only Bill Bergen.
In this series, we’re looking at the best pitcher of the decade. Given that there were no real hitting outliers in the 1870s aside from the special case of Monte Ward, we didn’t really need to define our terms so much. Now we do.
For entrance into the HoME, it was clear that we needed to consider only value, in whatever form it took. For this list, however, if it’s close, we’re going to take the better pitcher. Pud Galvin’s pitching value is quite a bit greater than his overall value in the decade.
The Best Pitchers of the 1880s
#10 Jim Whitney: Man, nicknames were better 150 years ago. Grasshopper Jim is one of eight pitchers ever to win and lose 30 games in the same season. And in his rookie campaign of 1881, he became the only one of those guys to lead his league in both categories. At just 68% of our decade leader’s number, Whitney is no threat for the top spot.
#9 Bob Caruthers: Parisian Bob was from, you guessed it, Memphis. An American Association pitcher every bit as much as our next guy, Caruthers won 40 games in both his first and last year over there. He’s out of order here at 76% of the top guy’s value because a ton of his value was at the plate, 16.8 career batting WAR with two seasons of 4+. He even led the AA in OPB, OPS, and OPS+ in 1886.
#8 Tony Mullane: The Appolo of the Box was a righty pitching switch-hitter from Cork, Ireland who actually threw lefty on occasion. His BBREF page looks a little extra-impressive because of his six-year stint in the relatively weak American Association, all of which gets him to within 72% of our decade leader. Of note, perhaps, is that he holds the all-time wild pitch record at 343. In fact only Nolan Ryan (277), Mickey Welch (274), and Bobby Mathews (253) are within even 100 of the top spot.
#7 Charlie Buffinton: It’s pretty odd for a star pitcher of this era to have only one 30-win season on his ledger. Of course, the one he has is the 48-win campaign in 1884, which helps get him to 77% of the 1880s leader. Only Cy Young and Walter Johnson top his three seasons of 11.2+ pitching WAR. Buffinton is actually the highest rated pitcher on my list who isn’t in the HoME. However, I don’t think he’s so close to getting in because his era is a little clogged. Only time will tell.
#6 Jim McCormick: One of the main reasons McCormick clocks in at #6 is his excellent 1884. See, that was the only year of the Union Association, which wasn’t really a major league. More than half of its players either never or hardly ever played in another major league. And in my adjustments, I treat the UA less well than any season in any major league. McCormick, a guy at almost 78% of our decade’s leader, put up 7.8 pitching WAR in the UA and another 6.7 in the NL that year.
#5 Mickey Welch: Welch is an interesting guy in that he won 307 games and isn’t in the HoME. In fact, we never had real discussions about inducting him. Perhaps that’s because he’s only the fifth best pitcher over the exact years of his career. Four of his five Black Ink titles are in earned runs and walks, so he never really seemed like a star when he played. For his career, he’s tied for 150th all-time in WAR with Juan Marichal. The all-time placing says something about Marichal. It’s a decent ranking. About Welch, it indicates that WAR accumulation was easier when talent distribution was wider. And it explains why we don’t want to over-induct in any era. His 79% of the decade leader is a better reflection of his value than his 95% of HoME-worthiness as noted by my MAPES+ number.
#4 Pud Galvin: Galvin actually ranks #6 in the decade at 78% of our leader, but he’s brought down by his awful hitting. He was a much better pitcher than he was a player overall, buoyed by his outstanding defense and possibly best-in-the-century pickoff move. As a bit of evidence of his move’s greatness, in one inning of an 1886 game, he walked the bases loaded and then picked the guys off first, third, and then second. Back in 1875, Galvin led the NA in ERA. Then he spent three years, by choice I would imagine, in the minors or with unaffiliated teams. Give him those four seasons in the majors, and 400 wins shouldn’t have been a problem.
#3 Old Hoss Radbourn: Nicknames were such a big deal at this time that James Galvin and Charles Radbourn weren’t even known by their given names. Old Hoss used one of the best seasons in baseball history, his 1884 campaign with the Providence Grays, to help him get to within 90% of the 1880s leader. That year, he won the pitching triple crown with a record of 59-12, a 1.38 ERA, 441 strikeouts, and also a 205 ERA+. In all of history, his 19.3 WAR that year were topped only by Tim Keefe’s 20.1 the previous season.
#2 Tim Keefe: And speaking of Smiling Tim, his value for the decade is about 93.5% of the #1 guy. Like many (most?) pitchers of this time, he was a product of his era. Once the mound moved from 55’ to 60’6”, he was pretty much done. Of course, with Keefe, it would seem that his arm died. He pitched through his age-36 season, after all. Even today lots of pitchers don’t do that.
#1 John Clarkson: Is he the greatest player in history who is relatively unknown today? I don’t know. Eddie Collins, Kid Nichols, Roger Connor, and Smokey Joe Williams come quickly to mind too. In fact, Clarkson is the only player in history with three seasons of 13+ WAR. In fact, there are only 20 other such seasons ever.
Many years ago I knew a guy who was writing a book about grave stones of Hall of Famers. Hint, they have about as much to do with baseball as yours will have to do with your job. Anyway, we visited Clarkson’s grave at the Cambridge City Cemetery. And on the same trip, we saw Tim Keefe’s in the same cemetery, not too far away.
A week from now, we’ll get to the 1890s.