If you’re looking for a time that baseball basically became the game we know today, look to 1893. That’s when the mound moved to today’s distance, 60’6”. For that reason, we’re altering our system and ignoring years before 1893 as we search for the best pitcher of the 1890s. Depending on your historical perspective, the 1930s may have ended on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland or on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some might say the 1960s didn’t end until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Music fans might say that the 1990s started with Nirvana’s release of Nevermind in 1991. And perhaps historians will say the 2020s started with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I don’t know. But I think it’s very clear that the 1890s in baseball didn’t really begin until the mound moved in 1893.
One of the stars of that decade was Clark Griffith. While I’m no expert in math, it’s possible that if we take the harmonic mean of the greatness of everyone in baseball history who fit into three categories of player, manager, owner, pioneer, and umpire, Clark Griffith might top that list. He started his career with the St. Louis Browns and Boston Reds of the 1891 American Association. But he really got going in 1894 with a solid 114 ERA+ despite a 4.92 ERA for the Chicago Colts. He moved to the AL in their inaugural 1901 season as the player/manager of the Chicago White Sox. He later held the same role with the New York Yankees before essentially hanging ‘em up while infrequently playing as manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators. He managed the Senators through 1920, inventing the squeeze play and helping to increase relief pitcher usage. In 1919, he became part owner of the Senators, a role he held until his 1955 death. And he brought the nation’s capital their only World Series title ever in 1924. Today, the combination of his playing, managing, and ownership careers has him as member of the Hall of Miller and Eric.
The Best Pitchers of the 1890s
#10 Al Orth: An average pitcher, as his ERA+ of 100 signifies, Orth was at his best during a 27-win 1906 season with the New York Yankees. However, we won’t see him again next decade. Really, he makes the list because, well, because someone had to. The Curveless Wonder, he of a mere 31% of the value our decade’s leader, really didn’t throw the ball all too hard either. In fact, it’s said that the A’s Osee Schrecongost once caught one of his pitches while batting.
#9 Jesse Tannehill: Clearly a better pitcher than Orth, Tannehill only threw three full seasons in this decade, the last two of which were the best of his career. But at 32% of the decade leader, his placement on this list could be debated by anyone with even a little knowledge of the era.
#8 Brickyard Kennedy: ‘Ol Brickyard was a mediocre hurler, compiling just a 102 career ERA+. But when almost all of a player’s career innings are in the range we’re considering, even the mediocre can place. Today we think about a guy like Jon Lester, someone who can’t throw over to first base, and we marvel. How can a major league pitcher have trouble throwing? Well, Kennedy was special too, and not just because of his accumulation of about 33% of the value of our 1890s champ. He could throw to first base – he just couldn’t cover it. So imagine a grounder to first. If the batter could get to the bag before the first baseman, it was going to be a single. That’s a lot worse than anything Lester does. Or doesn’t do.
#7 Nig Cuppy: I’m not going out on much of a limb when I say that racists are idiots. As evidence that there’s tremendous overlap between “racist” and “idiot”, think about the number of natives of India who were harassed or assaulted after 9/11. Cuppy’s “nickname” is another example. He had dark skin, so there’s the name. He was also sometimes known as the “Cuban Warrior”. Dark skin. Of course, he was American, the child of Bavarian immigrants. So he was German. See, idiots. And he was about 34% as valuable as our decade leader.
#6 Pink Hawley: With 10.8 WAR, more than 25% of Hawley’s career value came in 1895, a year during which he made 56 starts, pitched 444.1 innings, and won 31 games. At the plate, he totaled 1.0 WAR that season, almost all of his career total of 1.1. And he drove in 42 runs in just 185 at-bats. I know you want to know why he was called “Pink”. It’s because he was a twin, and the nurse who helped with the birth put ribbons on the boys, one pink and one blue. That’s all it took. By the way, for Hawley and nearly every one of the players I review, I read their SABR Bio Project entry. You should check them out. Hawley had less than 39% of the value of our leader. This decade was truly dominated by two men.
#5 Amos Rusie: Finally we have an excellent pitcher, but one who provided only 45% of the value of our leader. That’s because nearly half of his career innings came prior to the period we’re considering. The best strikeout pitcher of his time, Rusie led the league in K/9 five times in his first seven years. He reached the majors at just age-17, and he only pitched 22 innings after his age-27 season. I rank Rusie as the 24th best pitcher ever, while Eric, who adjusts the early seasons with huge WAR downward more than I do, sees him as 37th. Either way, we approve of the Hoosier Thunderbolt’s induction into the Hall of Fame.
#4 Ted Breitenstein: The lefty from St. Louis is one of four pitchers on this list who registered over 10 WAR in the first season with the mound at 60’ 6”. Only 98 guys even threw a pitch in the NL that year, only 60 of whom didn’t compile negative WAR. Only 38 reached 1.0 WAR, and only 26 reached 2.0. Only five topped 5.8, and four of those were 11.3 or higher without adjustments. Yes, the best pitchers really stood out at that time, which is why Eric adjusts the way he does. Trivially, he pitched a no-hitter in his first major league start, just as Bumpus Jones and Bobo Holoman after him. Jones was the only one to do it in his first appearance. Breitenstein rates just 49% as good as our top guy in the 1890s.
#3 Clark Griffith: Griffith is a hard cat to figure in some ways. On one hand, he’s 66th on the career pitching WAR list. Sounds pretty impressive. On the other, his workload was lighter than that of his mound contemporaries, finishing in the top-10 in innings just twice. The relatively low IP totals might explain some of the difference between my ranking at #48 and Eric’s at #78. That and the quality of play adjustment. When you look at Griffith’s BBREF page, perhaps it’s no wonder that he expanded the role of relief pitchers – it’s how he kept his career going toward the end. At 55% of our decade leader, he’s the first guy on the list even halfway there.
#2 Kid Nichols: We’re talking about a near inner circle guy here with 116.5 career WAR and 83% of our leader’s value. We don’t talk a lot about Nichols today, which isn’t such a surprise given that he retired more than 110 years ago. But maybe we should. Unadjusted, he posted at least 10 WAR on the mound five times. Six more times it was 7+. And when considering the elite of the elite, even with olde tyme dudes, Eric and I see our rankings converge much more; Nichols is #5 for me, #7 for him. Yet, he still only produced 85% of the value of our decade’s leader.
#1 Cy Young: To me, Young trails only Walter Johnson in the conversation of best pitcher ever. I suppose there’s a way to put Roger Clemens or Satchel Paige ahead of him, but nobody else. His best season by straight WAR was right before we started counting in this decade, but he had six more of 10+ on the mound, unadjusted, that we count. Trivially, he threw the first World Series pitch ever, and he’s the only pitcher ever to appear in both the World Series and the Temple Cup, the Fall Classic’s predecessor.
A week from today, we enter the 20th century and the start of the American League