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Best Pitcher of the Decade

Whitey Ford and the Best Pitchers of the 1950s

Whitey Ford, 1956Back when we started this project, or maybe even before that, Eric and I decided that we weren’t going to give extra credit for postseason play since entry into the playoffs has more to do with someone’s teammates than with the player himself. I continue to support that decision, though it’s one with which I don’t think I’ll ever be 100% comfortable. Based on our systems and based on Ford’s usage, I’m no longer confident Ford belongs in the HoME. Ford has six rings with the Yankees. How many of those six titles would New York have won without him? Let’s take things one season at a time.

Ford was a rookie in 1950 when his Yankees beat the Tigers by only three games. Of course, he was worth only 2.5 WAR that season, so they’d still have played in October without him. Ford started Game 4, and he won. The Yankees swept. I’m pretty sure Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, or Eddie Lopat could have won one more game. I believe the Yankees would have won the 1950 World Series without Ford.

After two years in the military, Ford’s next ring came in his next campaign, 1953, when he was worth 3.3 WAR. Since the Bombers won the AL pennant by ten games, making it to the World Series wasn’t at issue.  Again, Ford started the fourth game, behind Johnny Sain, Eddie Lopat, and Vic Raschi. He got through only one inning of that game, helping the Dodgers tie the Series at two games each. The Yankees won two games later. Yeah, they could have won in ’53 without Ford.

In 1956, the Yankees won the pennant by 11 games. Again, they could have made it to the World Series without Ford. This time, however, the Dodgers took the Yankees the distance. Ford got the start in the opener. Again, he was hit hard. This time he allowed five runs in three innings to take the loss. He was back for Game 3, and he was very good, going all the way in a 5-3 win. But that was it for Ford. Tom Sturdivant started Game 4, which Ford couldn’t have been ready for. But he might have been ready the next day and certainly would have been ready in Game 6 or 7. However, his Yankees went with Don Larsen, Bob Turley, and Johnny Kucks. You might remember Larsen’s perfect game. Turley didn’t allow a run through his first nine innings, but he did in the 10th to take the loss. And then Kucks, the guy who relieved Whitey in the opener, pitched a shutout in Game 7. I believe they would have won without Ford in 1956 too.

Moving on to 1958, it was another double digit AL title for the Yankees. Ford wasn’t needed during the regular season. But this World Series again went seven games. Let’s see how our man did. He got the call in the opener against Warren Spahn, and he allowed three runs in seven innings. Spahn allowed the same number of runs, but he did so in ten innings. The Yanks were down one game to none. Down two games to one, Ford was up against Spahn again needing a win. Again, he gave up three runs in seven innings. Spahn threw a shutout. The Yankees had their backs up against the wall. On short rest, Ford again opposed Spahn in Game 6. While Spahn took the loss, Ford wasn’t the reason. He was lifted after recording only four outs, one on a sacrifice bunt, while facing ten batters and leaving the game with the bases loaded. The Yankees won the 1958 World Series in spite of Ford, certainly not because of him.

Ford was the MVP of the 1961 World Series. Surely we’re going to credit him on this one. The juggernaut Yankees won by a relatively narrow eight games. Of course, Ford was worth a tad over 4 wins that year, so they were going to the World Series without him. He was great in two starts, allowing no runs over 14 innings while giving up just six hits and one walk. To be fair though, New York won in five games, scoring 27 runs in those five contests. Ford gets a ton of credit for his shutout in the opener, but it was Jim Coates who pitched four shutout innings in relief of Ford in Game 4. They won that game 7-0, so I don’t think they really needed Ford that day. So here’s where we stand: The Yankees won four games to one. Let’s say Ford wasn’t on the team and they couldn’t win that first game without him. They’d be up 3-2. At that point, they’d need Ralph Terry or Bill Stafford to close things out in one of the last two games. On the season, Terry beat Ford in ERA+, and Stafford crushed him. Plus, they had the often used and excellent Luis Arroyo in the pen. Oh, and they were the 1961 Yankees with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, a great Elston Howard, and a very good Yogi Berra and Bill Skowron. They would have one one of those two games, I think. They would have won the 1961 World Series without Ford.

Ford’s final Series win came in 1962. The Yankees won the pennant by just five games, and Ford was worth 5.0 WAR. The way WAR works, it would seem we’re looking at a tie for the pennant with the Twins. It’s quite possible we’d have been looking at additional innings from Jim Bouton and Rollie Sheldon had Ford been out. Together, they were worth 1.0 WAR. Would they have made up all of the innings Ford pitched? Probably not, and it’s possible the other innings wouldn’t have gone to the right place. Still, I would predict another pennant for the Yankees had Ford not pitched an inning that year. In the World Series, the Yankees beat the Giants in a seven game classic. Ford pitched in games 1, 4, and 6, just as was the norm for aces at that time. He won Game 1, got a no-decision in a Game 4 Yankee win, and lost Game 6. There’s enough here for me to say it would have been really hard on the Yankees without Ford. I think they may very well have lost the 1962 World Series had Ford not been on the team.

So what does this tell me? Well, let me turn that question around. What does it tell you? Leave a note in the comments.

The Series

Explanation and 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s

The Best Pitchers of the 1950s

#10 Johnny Antonelli: In a virtual tie with Bob Rush for this position at 40% of our decade leader, I give the edge to Antonelli because of his performance in the 1954 World Series, winning Game 2 and saving Game 4 as the Giants swept and won their last title for more than half a century. With 126 wins and two seasons of 20+, he had a fine career. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, I rank him #209, right around John Lackey, Milt Pappas, and Johnny Sain.

#9 Murry Dickson: Worth approaching 44% of our decade leader, Dickson actually led the league in losses three years in a row during this decade, one of which he was an All-Star and one of which he finished 13th in the MVP voting. He was a nice pitcher overall, finishing with 2.8 to 5.0 pitching WAR ten times in his career. The most significant game he pitched had to be Game 7 of the 1946 World Series. He got the start for the Cardinals and threw seven strong innings, leading 3-1 heading into the 8th before it seemed like it was going to fall apart. The Sox led the inning with a single and a double before Dickson was replaced by Harry Brecheen. The Cat didn’t get out of the jam, and the Sox tied it before Pesky held the ball in the bottom of the inning (or he didn’t) to help the Cards to the title.

Don Newcombe, 1957#8 Don Newcombe: The fourth black player to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers was also the fourth in NL history and ninth ever. Newcombe was a nice pitcher who helped Brooklyn to three World Series, but he wasn’t very good once he got there. Overall, he started five games and posted an 0-4 record with an 8.59 ERA over 22 innings. He won the MVP and Cy in 1956 despite only 4.5 pitching WAR. An excellent hitter, he added 0.8 WAR at the plate that year, not a great showing for him. If you’re wondering why he won the awards, look no further than the 27-7 record. Early Wynn or Herb Score might have been a better choice for the Cy. I’d take Willie Mays, Duke Snider, or Hank Aaron for MVP.

#7 Ned Garver: Garver was a much better pitcher than his 129-157 career record would suggest. A couple of ways to look at this are the neutralized pitching numbers at BBREF and my career pitcher rankings. BBREF neutralizes stats to look at what might happen in a neutral environment, which they say is a 100 park factor, a 162-game season, 90% of runs earned, and 688 runs per team. Garver’s record would have been 152-135 in that neutralized world. My numbers rank him as the 158th best pitcher ever, two spots ahead of Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez. By the way, Gomez posted a record of 189-102. Neutralized it would have been 168-124, not a whole lot better than Garver’s. Overall, we have a pitcher with almost 48% of our leader’s value for the decade.

#6 Bob Lemon: Someone over at Baseball Prospectus used to call Gregg Zaun the practically perfect backup catcher. I think of Lemon as the practically perfect #2 starter. He averaged 4.0 pitching WAR per year from 1948-1956. Add some excellent hitting, and we’re looking at about 5.1 WAR per year for nine years. But for the rest of his career, I give him only 2.67 adjusted WAR. He’s Kenny Rogers, not a Hall of Famer. I find it interesting that Lemon managed three full seasons plus stints six other times. Anyway, at 52% of our decade leader, he’s fifth highest, but he falls to sixth because of our next guy.

#5 Whitey Ford: Should he be in the Hall of Fame? Well, given their standards, he should. Should he be in the HoME? I really don’t know given that we don’t really give extra credit for playoff performance. But I will give extra credit here. And Ford was excellent in Yankee losses in 1955, 1957, and 1960. As a result, Ford jumps over Garver and Lemon into the fifth slot despite just 47% of our leader’s total. In the period we’re considering, Ford started 19 games and posted a 10-5 record in 128.2 World Series innings.

#4 Early Wynn: Wynn, a knuckleballer with 57.8% of the value of our decade leader, is one of those four-decade pitchers who always intrigue me. In 1962, at age-42, had a 7-15 record, a 4.46 ERA, an ERA+ of 88, and just 0.3 pitching WAR. Not surprisingly, the White Sox released him, and the 299 game winner didn’t have a job to open the next season. David Fleitz writes in Wynn’s SABR Bio that the righty received several one-day contract offers. He held out for a one-year deal, which he got from the Indians. He won his fifth start for number 300 and was then relegated to the bullpen for the rest of the season, where he pitched quite well before retiring.

#3 Billy Pierce: Pierce doesn’t have a lot of Black Ink, but he does have a career pitching triple crown. The seven-time All-Star was worth 57.7% of the decade leader, just a shade behind Wynn, but I moved him up because a larger percentage of his value was between 1950 and 1959 and because his postseason work, limited as it was, was better. Pierce is a historically underrated pitcher, the best in the AL for the 20 seasons from 1945-1964 by WAR. Overall, I think of him a lot like Cliff Lee, Ron Guidry, or Bob Lemon with hitting included. Pierce is one of those guys about whom our perception might have been different had just one batter gone differently. With two outs in the ninth inning of a June 27, 1958 game, Senators pinch hitter Ed Fitz Gerald came to the plate against Pierce and the White Sox. He doubled, and Pierce lost his perfect game. The next batter, Albie Pearson, was Pierce’s ninth strikeout victim.

#2 Robin Roberts: For whatever reason, I’ve long confused Roberts with Jim Bunning. Bunning was excellent; Roberts one of the 20ish best pitchers ever. I shouldn’t confuse them. On the decade, we’re looking at 86% of the leader’s value. He saw his first Hall of Fame ballot at a time I would have ranked him as the ninth best pitcher ever. Warren Spahn was in his first season on the ballot and made it. Roberts didn’t, garnering fewer votes than Gil Hodges. The next year Mickey Mantle entered the fray, making it in along with Whitey Ford on his second try. Roberts moved from 56% to 61%. Ralph Kiner jumped over Roberts the next year to make it on his 13th try, but Roberts was set up for 1976 election with 72.7%. Yeah, he flew in with almost 87%. Remember, we’re talking about perhaps the ninth best pitcher ever at that time, and it took him four tries. The BBWAA struggles getting things right. That’s nothing new.

#1 Warren Spahn: Even though I think pitcher wins matter almost not at all today, they were once somewhat telling. And Spahn won 20+ a dozen times, once leading the league five straight years. He also had streaks of seven straight years leading in complete games and four straight leading in strikeouts. One of the coolest games he ever pitched – one of the coolest games anyone ever pitched – occurred on July 2, 1963 when Spahn was 42 years old. You’ve heard of the game, I suspect. Spahn matched up against Juan Marichal, the guy ready to take Spahn’s title as the best pitcher in the National League. They both got through three innings without allowing a run. Then six, and nine, and twelve, and fifteen. Marichal got through the 16th, but with one out in the bottom of the inning Willie Mays took Spahn deep to give the Giants a 1-0 victory. Based on my numbers, Spahn put up 63.02 adjusted WAR from 1940-1949 compared to 63.05 for Roberts. Spahn gets the nod because of surrounding seasons. I’m good with that.

In a week, we’ll get to Sandy Koufax and the 1960s. Ooh, there’s gonna be some disappointed Koufax fans.

Miller

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Whitey Ford and the Best Pitchers of the 1950s

  1. Antonelli-I think you mean Cleveland was swept and Antonelli pitched the Giants to their last win in New York.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | May 11, 2018, 7:55 am
  2. Wow, what a terrible error! I didn’t just get Antonelli’s team wrong. I gave the Indians a title they never won! Thanks for the reply; I’ve gotten it right now.

    Posted by Miller | May 11, 2018, 8:53 am

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