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Best Pitcher of the Decade

Red Faber, Eddie Rommel, and the Best Pitchers of the 1920s

Eddie Rommel, 1923Red Faber is in the Hall of Fame basically because of a 18-month run of greatness that lasted from April of 1921 through September of 1922. Yeah, I guess you can add in an All-Star caliber 1920, but Faber is a strange combination of absolute peak to go along with long and low (11 seasons of 2.0-3.7 pitching WAR). On the other hand, Eddie Rommel, a contemporary in the AL, is largely forgotten despite what BBREF shows as a level of excellence infrequently attained by Faber on the mound.

Let’s look at the two without those 18 months for Faber.

Faber     Rommel
5.8       7.4
4.1       6.0
3.7       5.5
3.6       5.4
3.4       5.2
3.3       5.0
3.3       4.7
3.3       3.6
3.2       2.6
2.8       2.1
2.7       1.7
2.3       1.3
2.0       0.1
1.8
1.3
1.2
0.8
-1.0

I know what you’re thinking. Or at least what you should be thinking. You can’t just lop off the two best years of a guy’s career and then compare him to another guy who’s much less well known. After all, Rommel probably should be less well known since he didn’t average 10 WAR over two seasons. Sure, sure.

The interesting thing about Rommel, at least to me, is that so much of his pitching “value” came out of the bullpen. He only made 30 starts in a season four times ever, and he never topped 34. Interestingly, at least to me, is that he’s one of only a dozen hurlers from 1901-1950 to post both 150 games started and 150 games finished. Only Charlie Root and Jack Quinn beat him in both categories. It’s interesting because it’s hard to know exactly how valuable Rommel’s relief innings are since we’re missing a ton of data from his career. BBREF puts him at 50 WAR, Fangraphs at just over half that. I don’t know what to believe, but I would like to see Rommel’s relief data so we could better assess his contributions.

The Series

Explanation and 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s

The Best Pitchers of the 1920s

#10 Herb Pennock: In relation to our decade leader, his 64% barely edges out Dolf Luque and Eppa Rixey. Putting him on the list is easy enough though, particularly when we consider his 5-0 record with a save in three World Series in the 1920s. The Red Sox should be ashamed of the trade that sent him to the Yankees for Norm McMillan, George Murray, Camp Skinner, and 50K. Pennock posted over 33 WAR for the Yankees while the trio in return was below replacement in Boston. Must have been the money.

#9 Eddie Rommel: I love that Rommel led the AL in wins twice while pitching a total of 42 games in relief. There have been 25 pitchers in history with 15 wins, 15 games finished, and 5 WAR in a season. Ed Walsh, Lefty Grove, and Eddie Rommel are the only three such players who managed to do so three times. Somewhat ignominiously, the guy with 70% of the value of the decade leader is the only one of the 25 to lead the league in losses.

Burleigh Grimes, 1933#8 Burleigh Grimes: Remembered for being the last guy in big league history to throw a legal spitter, Grimes had an interesting career and just shy of a great one. He’s in the Hall of Fame, though he’s on the borderline at best. Eric and I haven’t seen fit to elect him, nor do I imagine we ever well. As I look at Grimes’ BBREF page, I’m struck by the back-to-back high placing in the MVP vote in 1928 and 1929. He was a very good pitcher in both years, so his high placing shouldn’t shock anyone. However, some other guys on the lists are shocking. Three people receiving support in 1929 put up less than 1 WAR in total. And the year before, six of the 23 total guys receiving votes were below 2 WAR. Anyway, Grimes was about 74% as valuable as the decade’s leader.

#7 Red Faber: Faber and Grimes had similar decades, though they got to where they are somewhat differently. And Faber was the last legal spitballer in the AL. Do you know when Faber started smoking? It was when he was eight years old. Faber’s value is about 75% of our leader.

#6 George Uhle: We hear so much about pitcher usage today. And we hear old timers wax poetic about days gone by when men were men and Nolan Ryan threw 400 pitches every three days, or something like that. There’s a reason we remember the guys who have thrown huge innings. It’s because they’re the best pitchers ever! Of course we’re going to remember them. Uhle was a very good pitcher, worth about 77% of our decade leader, but he wasn’t an all-time great. So we forget him. Here’s something we should remember. Twice in his career he threw 300+ innings, both times leading the league. And only twice from 1921-1930 did he throw fewer than 200 innings. Want to guess when those seasons happened? You got it – both times were right after he threw 300+. Sure, he’s just one example. But there are hundreds. Thousands. Pitching isn’t natural. Arms break down.

#5 Stan Coveleski: He jumps a couple of spots because of a great 1920 World Series despite having just 75% of the value of our decade leader. In that year’s Fall Classic, Coveleski’s Indians took on the Brooklyn Robbins. Covey pitched the opener, leading the Tribe to a 3-1 win. In Game 4, now behind a game in the Series, Cleveland tied it with Coveleski getting the 5-1 victory. With the Indians up 4-2 after six games, they closed things out with a 3-0 shutout behind Coveleski, baseball’s best pitcher from 1917-1925.

#4 Urban Shocker: For some reason I’m a bit perturbed about the suggested weakness of the modern pitcher today. I can’t tell you precisely what’s gotten this bee into my bonnet as I write this decade’s profiles, but it’s certainly there. Shocker was a member of the 1927 Yankees, so were some other excellent pitchers. Only one of them topped 213 innings. That’s Waite Hoyt at 256.1. Only one of them topped 27 starts. That’s Hoyt at 36. Five guys started at least 20 games. Wilcy Moore, he of only a dozen starts, was second on the team in innings. Today’s pitchers aren’t weak. Yes, they pitch fewer innings and throw fewer complete games than ever in the game’s history, but there are plenty of examples throughout baseball history just like the 1927 Yankees. Oh, and Shocker is worth 79% of the decade leader.

#3 Dazzy Vance: Vance is about the 40th best pitcher ever, give or take, and he pitched only 33 innings in the majors before his age-31 season. While he did win 133 games in the minors, it’s not like he was ready so long before he got the call for good in 1922. Once the Dodgers promoted him, he rewarded them with seven consecutive strikeout titles, a 1924 pitching triple crown, and a 1924 MVP that he almost deserved despite 12.1 WAR from Rogers Hornsby that year. His K rate was remarkable. Of the top-47 pitchers of the decade in innings, Vance had a K-rate of 17.2%. Only Walter Johnson at 11.7% and Bob Shawkey at 11.6% topped even 9%. As great as he was, he only put up 81% of the value of our decade leader.

#2 Walter Johnson: By 1920, the Big Train wasn’t the best pitcher ever any longer. Sure, he had another three strikeout titles, two FIP crowns, and a pitching triple crown in 1926 left in him. But he had only 32.6 pitching WAR from 1920 on. Still, his formula actually puts him as the top guy in the decade, just ahead of Grover Cleveland Alexander. However, for reasons you can read below, I drop him to #2.

#1 Pete Alexander: The 1920s weren’t a great decade for pitchers. Alexander and Johnson were better a decade earlier. And we have a lot of guys lower on this list who were great but not elite, and good but not great. For the second consecutive decade, Pete Alexander comes up a bit short of first place on our list, this time with 98% of our leader’s value. However, were we not to include career value in the formula, Alexander would come out ahead. I really like the idea of career value having some impact. It helps to keep the riff raff out. But ‘ol Pete is no riff raff. So even though his total is only 98% of Johnson’s, I’m going to name him the pitcher of the 1920s.

In a week, we’ll tackle the 1930s where, unfortunately, I won’t have much opportunity to talk about Van Lingle Mungo, one of the best names in the game’s history.

Miller

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Red Faber, Eddie Rommel, and the Best Pitchers of the 1920s

  1. I’ll bet you’re going to put that Grove guy ahead of Mungo, aren’t you? Shame, Shame. 🙂
    As usual, a very interesting list and glad to see some appreciation for both Shocker and Rommel.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | April 20, 2018, 8:55 am
  2. A great read, how do you guys feel about uhle and grimes candidacies? I could see supporting both, one, or none?? Can u guys share a quick recap if possible, would help in my assessment of them…thanks and have a terrific weekend!

    Posted by Ryan | April 20, 2018, 10:02 am
    • I agree that supporting Uhle could make a lot of sense. I have him ahead of seven HoME starters, with 99% of value needed. Grimes isn’t ahead of any, but I think his case is a strong one at 95% of value. To me, they both struggle in their era just a smidge.

      Uhle’s career numbers lag behind where I’d like, and his peak doesn’t contain great pitching. He’s helped a lot by his bat though. When encountered with two very similar pitchers, one who did it all with his arm and one whose case is supported by his bat, I’ll take the arm guy. Kevin Appier is one such example. Maybe Pud Galvin is another. Bucky Walters has a very, very similar case to me. His bat was a bit lesser, and the years he played featured fewer greater arms.

      Grimes is below the desired level in each of peak, prime, and career, at least for me. But he’s really close. One thing I might ding him for that others wouldn’t is the spitter. I think MLB allowed pitchers an unfair advantage by grandfathering the pitch. Grimes and Red Faber kept throwing it for more than a decade. Urban Shocker and Stan Coveleski were close. The last two are far enough over the line that I don’t care. As for Faber, there are lots of reasons not to vote for him, though I respect the career numbers and the absolute peak quite a bit. Grimes misses on all counts, PLUS he had an unnatural advantage of sorts.

      With all of that said, you have to twist my system ever so slightly to put Uhle in. And the Grimes twist isn’t a whole lot greater. I don’t mean to be wishy-washy, but I wouldn’t specifically object to either their inclusion or their omission.

      Posted by Miller | April 20, 2018, 12:00 pm
      • Uhle was amazing as a hitter and treating that WAR like pitching, it’s tough to keep him out, but I agree that an emphasis on pitching places him on the bubble.

        Grimes was also a positive in the hitting department to complicate matters, his .391 cWPA in 1931 was clutch in helping the Cardinals to the title that year, career .329 cWPA.

        Thank you for sharing your background on these guys, lots of 1920s gray area guys whenever I examine the era: Buzz Arlett, Dave Bancroft, Wilbur Cooper, Kiki Cuyler, Red Faber, Burleigh Grimes, Sam Rice, Joe Sewell, Jack Quinn, George Uhle, Ken Williams (maybe after MLE help), and I’m sure some others…not to mention trying to sort out the Negro League guys:

        In: John Beckwith, Oscar Charleston, Willie Foster, Dick Lundy, Biz Mackey, Alejandro Oms, Bullet Joe Rogan, Turkey Stearnes, and Jud Wilson.
        MLEs promising with Dobie Moore, Dick Redding, and Ben Taylor (although Dick and Ben are more 1910s).

        Posted by Ryan | April 20, 2018, 3:30 pm
        • I agree with all you’re saying. Am I just soft? If you put Lou Brock in, you’re making a mistake. If you leave Bobby Grich out, you’re making a mistake. My parameters are closer to the in/out line than those two are, for sure. My point is that lots of guys are close enough to the line. Prefer Lombardi to Simmons, Williamson to Bando, or Medwick to Cruz, and I’m accepting.

          I can live with Johan getting 5%ed, really I can. He’s close to the line. But guys like Ken Boyer, Lou Whitaker, and Rick Reuschel really need more consideration. Those are the guys I’d have to change if I were in charge of the world.

          Posted by Miller | April 20, 2018, 3:43 pm

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