As we reach the 11th installment in this series, we’ve finally landed upon the reason I did this research at all. Two of the most popular posts I’ve written at the HoME have been about Rick Reuschel, one arguing that he is among the most underrated players ever and the other putting him into the Hall of Fame replacing Waite Hoyt. Reuschel, as you know, isn’t in the Hall. There are a number of reasons for that, one of which is the greatness of his contemporaries, something I think will be evident if you read through this post and others in the series.
My less transparent reason for writing all of this was to produce another post that readers seem to like while forwarding my agenda of reminding you just how great Rick Reuschel was.
I explain my ranking methodology in the 1870s link below. But like I said, this was originally going to be just one post about the 1970s. I had 50 pitchers to rank in this post, and I was going to write about all of them. But then Jack Morris (absolutely not the best pitcher of the 1980s) was elected to the Hall of Fame, and the project expanded to that decade as well. And then to every other decade.
As you might expect, not all 50 of the pitchers from my original plan are worthy of discussion. Ranking those 50 by WAR, we see that there are a lot of clunkers, even if many of them have some interesting qualities. Jack Billingham is well thought of for his 0.36 ERA in 25.1 World Series innings. Randy Jones won the 1976 NL Cy Young Award. Dock Ellis may or may not have pitched a no-hitter in 1970 on LSD. And Jim Lonborg was the 1967 AL Cy Young winner and victor in two of his three World Series starts that year. Mike Torrez, the pitcher who surrendered Bucky Dent’s famous 1978 home run, appears here too. So does Bill the Spaceman Lee, a better pitcher than his wacky reputation might lead you to believe. Mike Cuellar joined Pat Dobson, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer as Oriole hurlers with 20+ wins in 1971. He’s on the list. Ken Holtzman has three World Series rings and two no-hitters. He is too. And Ron Reed is one of the top relievers ever. But let’s face it, none of these players are among the top dozen or so of the 1970s.
Unlike other lists, this one goes 20 deep, almost all relating to Reuschel. Remember, he is the original reason for this project.
The Best Pitchers of the 1970s
#20 Steve Rogers: Reuschel beats him by almost 25 WAR, over 50 wins, over 700 innings, and nearly 400 strikeouts. Rogers gave up a key home run to Rick Monday in 1981 even though he had an excellent October that year. It’s not close between these two.
#19 Catfish Hunter: Those who know me will understand I’d prefer if Hunter ranked even lower. Then again, I’m glad he’s on the list so I can mock him. He played in wonderful parks for pitchers and in front of excellent defenses. Reuschel played in very difficult parks in front of poor defenses. Reuschel beats Hunter by 10 points in ERA+, by over four-tenths of a run in FIP, and by over 28 WAR. They’re just about even in innings, wins, and strikeouts. How can someone pick Hunter over Reuschel? It’s either a terrible, terrible mistake, or it’s crediting Hunter beyond belief that his teams were good enough to get into the playoffs during his prime. Had the Cubs done that for Reuschel, the celebration of two years ago may have been their first title in about 40 years rather than 108.
#18 Jon Matlack: I’m okay with saying Matlack was an underrated pitcher. Perhaps that’s because the 1972 NL Rookie of the Year never became the pitcher some thought he might become. Really, it’s because his career record was 125-126. He actually had the same ERA+ as Reuschel, 114. However, he did so in nearly 1200 fewer innings. The difference of 30 WAR is nothing to sneeze at either.
#17 Andy Messersmith: He certainly has the narrative on his side, getting much credit for ending the reserve clause and bringing about free agency. But Reuschel beats him by nearly 30 WAR, by more than 80 wins, and by more than 1300 innings. Someone may try to make an ERA argument in Messersmith’s favor, but FIP goes to Reuschel, at least in part because he had little help from his defenses, while Messersmith had quite a bit.
#16 Mickey Lolich: Love me some Lolich, really I do. And Lolich had his best years in the 1970s, including two pretty great ones in 1971 and 1972. Ten seasons of 2.7+ pitching WAR is impressive as well. Of course, Reuschel had 13. Reuschel also pitched against better offenses, behind worse defenses, to an ERA+ ten points higher, and put up more than 20 additional WAR. In other words, if you take Lolich and add the best two seasons Sandy Koufax ever had, Reuschel was still a little better.
#15 Vida Blue: Excellent for a few years, but without real shoulder seasons, the 1971 AL MVP and Cy Young comes in next. He had huge home park advantages that Reuschel didn’t see. And there’s another interesting stat I’d like to bring in. BBREF charts cheap wins and tough losses, that is, wins in non-quality starts and losses in quality starts. Of the twenty pitchers on this list, none had a less pronounced separation than Blue. Rogers, for example, had 53 more tough losses than cheap wins. Reuschel had 52, and Blue had only 16. In other words, there were a lot of cheap wins among his 209. Their innings and wins are about the same, but Reuschel beats him by about 25 WAR. It’s not really close.
#14 Wilbur Wood: Wood may have been the game’s pitcher from 1971-1974. But there are only two good seasons beyond those four. Reuschel wins by about 20 WAR, 50 wins, and 800 innings. Though Wood had it just about as hard as Reuschel, he wasn’t as great, not at all. Think of a 19th century pitcher’s arc for comparison, maybe Ted Breitenstein.
#13 Tommy John: Few people would rank Reuschel ahead of John. They should. Why do they get it wrong? Well, John won 74 more games, has more postseason work, and is chock full of narrative. WAR is close; Reuschel wins by less than ten. But it’s the shape of their careers that give it all to Reuschel. Check out my adjusted WAR by season.
Reuschel: 9.6, 6.4, 5.9, 5.5, 5.5, 5.5, 5.4, 4.3, 3.9, 3.6, 3.4, 3.1, 3.1, 2.8, 1.2 John: 5.9, 5.7, 5.5, 4.8, 4.7, 4.4, 4.2, 3.2, 2.9, 2.4, 2.4, 2.4, 2.2, 1.9, 1.9
Look at John catch him by season 15! And to be fair, John soldiered on for another 8.7 WAR, while Reuschel could manage only 1.1 more, but c’mon. Would you rather have a guy who spent 15 years moving you closer toward a pennant than the other, or would you prefer someone who could give you another half-dozen years of pitching between 1.3 and 1.7 WAR? Yeah, I suspect we’re on the same page now.
#12 Jerry Koosman: Like Matlack, Koosman is another Met lefty who was so great early that we think of him as a disappointment. Koosman wasn’t. He was actually quite a star. Koosman and Reuschel look a lot alike on a career basis. Koosman has eight more wins and about 300 more innings. Reuschel beats him by 4 points in ERA+ and a smidge in FIP. They had the same number of cheap wins minus tough losses too. Koosman faced better offenses, while Reuschel did his work in front of worse defenses. We see the difference in WAR though. Reuschel wins by about 16 for their careers. If we dig a little deeper, perhaps we can see why. Yes, Koosman faced better offenses, scoring an average of 4.20 runs per nine innings versus just 4.14 for those offenses Reuschel faced. However, because of defense and park factors, BBREF estimates that an average pitcher would have given up 4.31 runs against Koosman’s offenses, while an average pitcher would have allowed 4.66 against Reuschel’s. We had to do some digging on this one, but in the end, WAR wins out. Reuschel was clearly the better pitcher.
#11 Don Sutton: Don Sutton is in the Hall of Fame. As far as I’m concerned, even though I lean a lot toward peak, he should be. I’ll take the seventeen seasons of 2+ pitching WAR any day. Sure, he had only three such seasons with 5+, but the depth to his career is pretty spectacular – clearly better than John’s, for example. Reuschel beats him by just 2.7 career WAR, but I have the two pitchers a little farther apart than that. Okay, a lot. Reuschel’s peak and prime both beat Sutton by quite a bit. So why did Sutton win 110 more games? He had better offenses, better defenses, and played in some incredible pitchers’ parks. In other words, he had all of the advantages. If you’re not paying attention, Sutton over Reuschel is an easy call. If you are, I’ll admit the call takes some thinking, but it’s easy enough. If I could sign on for the career of just one of these two pitchers, it would be Rick Reuschel, no doubt about it.
#10 Nolan Ryan: Let the controversy begin! Continue? Yes, I am saying that Rick Reuschel was a better pitcher of the 1970s than Nolan Ryan was. It’s really, really close though. Reuschel is at 55.5% of the decade leader by my formula; Ryan is at 54.3%. By the way, Sutton is at 54.2%. Let me be clear in saying that if I could take one career, it would be Ryan’s, and not just because of the no-hitters and strikeouts. Ryan was better. But let’s get some perspective here. During a decade when Ryan led the league in strikeouts seven times and Rick Reuschel missed the first two years, Reuschel still beats him by over three WAR. And remember a premise from early in this post. One reason Reuschel isn’t in the Hall is because of the greatness of his contemporaries.
#9 Rick Reuschel: Seriously, if he were ranked much higher, you would have to doubt the merit of this work.
#8 Luis Tiant: On one hand, I wouldn’t have expected someone outside the Hall to top Reuschel on this list. On the other, Tiant belongs in the Hall. And if we just counted 1970-1979, Reuschel has a more adjusted WAR. Tiant pulls ahead on the basis of the partial credit given to his 1967-1969 seasons. Overall, I rank Reuschel 49th in history and Tiant 51st. They’re pretty much the same pitcher. Tiant was worth 59% of our decade leader.
#7 Bert Blyleven: From this point on, every pitcher on the list had a better decade and a better career than Reuschel. So what! Scottie Pippen was clearly inferior to Michael Jordan, but nobody is questioning whether or not he belongs in the basketball Hall. Ruth was better than Gehrig, Aaron better than Mathews, and Maddux better than Glavine, but all six belong in the Hall. Blyleven’s decade was 71% as valuable as our leader.
#6 Jim Palmer: Kind of famously, Palmer never allowed a grand slam during his career. Far less famously, he surrendered only 27 three-run shots. Man, BBREF is awesome! Oh, and Palmer was worth 73% of our leader.
#5 Fergie Jenkins: Pretend we’re playing the game “two truths and a lie”. If I told you a guy won 20 games in a season seven times and I also tell you it took him three tries to get into the Hall of Fame, you know the third thing is true because one of those first two must be a lie. Starting pitchers are held to ridiculous standards by the BBWAA. (Note Bert Blyleven and, ahem, Rick Reuschel). In their entire existence, the BBWAA has elected only 42 pitchers, only 36 of whom were starters (I count Dennis Eckersley as a starter, but there’s no way in hell he was considered as such by those who voted for him). More on those 36 pitchers as we continue with this post. Jenkins was worth 79% of our decade leader.
#4 Gaylord Perry: Perry was worth 82%. Now back to those 36. Fourteen of them had some part of their career overlap with Reuschel’s. And ten of them – TEN – are on this list. What that means is that 28% of all starters ever elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA were pitchers of the 1970s.
#3 Steve Carlton: And like Steve Carlton, who was worth 83% of the 1970s leader, seven pitchers who the BBWAA elected were pitchers of the 1980s. Reuschel was too. The competition was fierce, perhaps the best of any time in the game’s history.
#2 Phil Niekro: Throw the knuckleball, and you’re thought of a gimmick guy. Lead the league in losses for four straight years, no matter how many times you take the ball or how bad your team is, and you’re underrated. Such is the lot of Phil Niekro. In those four seasons, he played in front of atrocious defenses (-0.40 RA9def) and in extreme hitters parks (108.7 park factor). Niekro’s WAR total? It was 29.7, the best in baseball over those four years in which he led the NL in losses every year. For what it’s worth, Reuschel was baseball’s second most valuable pitcher over that stretch. And by the way, I would be guilty of underrating the guy with 90% of our leader’s total as well. I would certainly have ranked him behind Carlton.
#1 Tom Seaver: The trade of Nolan Ryan to the Angels meant five strikeout titles during this decade for Tom Terrific. He’s an easy call for best pitcher of the 1970s. I call him the eighth best pitcher ever.
So what have we learned today, boys and girls? You can be among the best fifty pitchers ever and still be criminally underrated, especially if you pitch at the same time, just about, as nine guys who were legitimately better.
Rick Reuschel, the ninth best pitcher of the 1970s, belongs in the Hall of Fame. In a week we’ll see how he fared in the 1980s, a decade where he totaled 14 fewer WAR.