We hope this series is fun for you, and by the looks of it, a great many of you are enjoying it. The best thing, I think, is to look at our rankings versus yours. See where you think we’re missing something, or perhaps learn from something we bring up.
If we’re doing the right thing, this is the type of thing that’s going on. I know it’s going on internally. This week’s lists won’t look too different from each other, but the lists next week were going to be a mess. When our rankings differ by a lot, I try to look for the reasoning. Years ago, it was sometimes something as simple as a data entry error. Today, it’s more a difference of opinion on how to rank players, which is totally fine by me. What’s less fine is when one of us is making a smart decision that the other isn’t making. That had been the case on the mound. Simply, Eric was offering leverage credit to relief pitchers in a reasonable way. I was ignoring such leverage. And as a result, my numbers for some pitchers prior to 1946 were deflated. Since, I’ve adapted by systems to be more in line with Eric’s – really, to be more in line with what I think makes sense. So before we get to today’s rankings, I want to share with you our top-40 with my adjustments. Nothing big, but we always sweat the small stuff at the HoME.
Moving on. All posts in this series are here for your convenience. Enjoy our next 20 pitchers.
[MAPES+], [CHEWS+], [1B, 1-20], [1B, 21-40], [2B, 1-20], [2B, 21-40], [3B, 1-20], [3B, 21-40], [SS, 1-20], [SS, 21-40], [C, 1-20], [C, 21-40], [LF, 1-20], [LF, 21-40], [CF, 1-20], [CF, 21-40], [RF, 1-20], [RF, 21-40], [P, 1-20], [P, 21-40]
Greinke is a fascinating pitcher, and historically unusual. A large portion of his pitching value is tied up in his 2009 and 2015 seasons. Also, he’s a pretty nice hitter for a pitcher. What I’m saying is that I don’t love the idea of using comparable pitchers to project him moving forward because there just aren’t many truly comparable careers. So I’ll do what any good prognosticator does, I’ll guess. Greinke is 34 this year, and he’s off to a good enough start on the mound and a very good one at the plate. Yeah, there I go again, thinking rationally about a pitcher about whom I can only guess. Giving him seasons of 5, 3, 2, and 1 WAR seems reasonable enough. And if he were to do that, he’d jump up to #30 in my rankings, between Hal Newhouser and Bob Feller. To me, he’s a Hall of Famer already. With those seasons, he’d be in the upper half of HoME pitchers. But is he seen that way? I don’t think voters are going to love him. [Looks at BBREF]. Yeah, he’s south of 180 wins as I type this. He’s going to have trouble.—Miller
I love that Verlander went from amazing to fork-tender to amazing. Miller and I came close to writing him off, wondering between ourselves whether he would wind down and never quite get back to average, let alone excellent. Well, he did. It’s not as though he’s stopped either. He’s already this year pushed past fellows on my list such as Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale. He could even bust into the top-40 this year if he continues to pitch insanely well. Now, Verlander is 35 this year, and we thought at this age Roy Halladay would be great forever. He wasn’t, and Verlander’s career could go at any moment. It takes just a tweak of some muscle or a small drop in velocity for a career to go south in a hurry. If Verlander declines gracefully, he could make the top 30ish.—Eric
With the caveat that he’s already begun to regress some, the 2018 version of Justin Verlander may be the best one we’ve seen. This from the 2011 AL MVP and a guy who already has two 8 WAR seasons. This is amazing, not just because he’s 35 now, but because he looked like he was kind of washed up in 2014 and 2015. Like with Greinke, I don’t know quite what to do with him. Let’s give him 8 WAR this year, then a pretty steep decline to 5, 3, and 1.5. That feels reasonable enough to me. And if it happens, he shoots up to #25 all-time, right between Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. Unlike Greinke, I think the voters will love him. Of course, I’m not sure why.—Miller
Carsten Charles has walked the tightrope for two-and-a-half seasons. His ERA has beaten his FIP by 35 points, 80 points, and 99 points from 2016 through June 19th of 2018. There’s a little smoke and mirrors here. On the one hand, his home parks have played at about a 103 park factor in those seasons. But as a lefty, Sabathia doesn’t face the same problem that a righty would in New Yankee Stadium with its short porch in right field. CC has also benefited from average to excellent defense behind him. Overall, while his ERA this year is 3.30 at this writing, he’s only managed a single RAA above average. Also playing against the big lefty? His own durability. Injuries have cut down his ability to go deep into games. From age 20 to 32, Sabathia appeared 415 times, all starts, pitched 2775.33 innings, an average of 6.69 per start. Since then, he’s averaging about an inning less a game (5.73). Unsurprisingly, CC is striking out about one fewer batters per game than in his prime. He’s issuing about one-half a walked more per game. He’s giving up a half a homer per game more than during his peak. That’s aging for you, especially when you’re a big-bodied guy throwing all that weight around with max effort. On the other hand, he remains at least an average pitcher and sometimes a very good one. I don’t know how much further he can climb in his decline years. Probably not much. I’d be surprised if he made the top 50, especially since reports have filtered out suggesting he may retire at the expiration of his current contract.—Eric
I think they diverge in a lot of places. Mariano is my top ranked reliever by far, yet he’s only 42. I suspect that most of the closer-loving world would place him in the top-20, if not the top-10. Then there’s David Cone. Just try convincing someone he was as good as John Smoltz. If he was so good, how come he didn’t win 200 games? If he was so good, why wasn’t he an elite closer for three years? Blah, blah, blah. And of course, there are those 70s pitchers, Rick Reuschel and Luis Tiant, both clearly Hall-worthy, yet one completely and the other largely ignored. Even I’ve kind of ignored Looie, and that’s a shame. At least it’s in favor of Reuschel. Tiant was the classic underrated player in my mind. Stop me if you heard these things before. He wan’t seen as great when he was young, never winning more than a dozen games until he was 27. Then he had his breakout season obscured of 1968 by Denny McLain and Bob Gibson. Subsequently, it’s been obscured by history. It’s as if 1968 is the Coors Field of seasons. Anything that happened that year can be diminished with the mere mention of some outlying numbers. He also had a mid-career dip when he went 17-30 over three years. He jumped from team to team, playing for six in his career. And he hung on too long, posting an ERA+ of just 82 over his final three campaigns. Oh, and he played at the same time as Seaver, Carlton, et al. The guy seemingly had everything going against him. On a positive note, he’s beloved in Boston and I suspect throughout the baseball world, at least among those with good memories. With the right composition, I could see an Era Committee voting him in one of these days.—Miller
Thirty years ago, when I was learning the history of our game, Bob Feller was a living legend. Only the war had stopped him from reach 300 wins and breaking Walter Johnson’s strikeout record. There was that famous old film of a motorcycle speeding by at 90 MPH while Feller threw a baseball that hit its target as the bike crossed the same plane. Appreciation of Feller had probably reached its apogee about a decade before that, but as a pup I had a clear impression of his greatness. Today I report ranking him a mere 42nd in my rankings. Hey, it’s just my opinion, but I think the war didn’t prevent him from winning 300. Instead it allowed him to win 266. Feller shouldered an incredible workload. Since the introduction of the lively ball in 1920, Bob Feller leads all pitchers during their age-seventeen season with 62 innings. He leads all eighteen-year-olds (148.67), all nineteen year-olds (277.67), all twenty-year-olds (296.67), all twenty-one- year-olds (320.33), and all twenty-tow-year-olds (343). The only reason he doesn’t lead 23 year-olds is because he was off fighting the Axis powers for most of the next four years. He returned to finish out the 1945 season then pitched a full year in 1946. That year, you guessed it, he led all twenty-seven-year-olds since 1920 in innings pitched with 371.33. In 1947, he did not lead all twenty-eight-year-olds since 1920 in innings, but he did lead all of MLB that year with 299. The next year he threw 280.33, and his ERA+ dropped from 130 to 114. He was never a great pitcher again. Overall, he went 108-79 in 266 post-age-28 starts with an ERA+ of just 106 and a strikeout rate about half of what it was through age 28. He was not a Pat Rapp innings eater, but he probably wasn’t a number two starter either, certainly not for a good team. My hypothesis: Feller’s pitching musculature was probably saved from the specific kind of wear and tear that grinds down a career. It might have had a chance to even heal just a little since he wasn’t throwing top-level, pressure-packed innings every three or four days (he threw very little in the service). But once he returned, the clock started ticking again, and all that early work caught up to him. How could it not? He had back, shoulder, and arm problems in the late 1940s and was reduced to a Sunday starter by the early 1950s. It’s pretty easy to imagine that had Feller continued throwing all those pitches at ages twenty-three, twenty-four, and twenty-five, he might have never made it to age twenty-nine. But we didn’t understand all of this thirty years ago. We could know that he had some injuries but not how badly they may have hurt his career. We could know he threw an impressive number of innings but not that they probably had residual, cumulative effects. Now we know a lot more, and the shape of his career makes a lot of sense, even if it loses a tiny bit of its sparkle.—Eric
Speaking of Feller, we have a pretty good gap there with Miller being the bigger fan than I. But a bigger gap exists with John Smoltz. I’ve got him at #31, Miller at #50. I suspect that the difference has to do with my compadre having a strong peak orientation to his sifting system than I do. Smoltz is many things, but a high-peak pitcher is not one of them. While he does have five seasons above 5 WAR when I make all my little adjustments, he has but one above 6 WAR (7.5). So, I’m looking at a really solid prime and Miller’s looking at a low peak. That’s a sensible difference of opinion. That doesn’t explain why we see Red Ruffing differently. Miller’s got him ten or so slots above my ranking. But it might well explain why Miller has Charlie Buffinton 20 spots higher than I do. Well, that and I take a lot of the stuffing out of the 18th Century pitchers.—Eric
I think it’s Clark Griffith. I rank him #43, and Eric doesn’t even put him on this week’s list. Or next week’s. My ranking suggests I should have pushed hard for his HoME candidacy, while Eric’s says he should have pushed back. The truth of it is, I didn’t push for Griffith, the player, because I thought his era was already well enough represented on the mound with hurlers I preferred. Happily for me, the pitcher/manager/owner, Clark Griffith found his HoME as a combination candidate.—Miller
Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
I always worry about how my system treats relievers, so maybe Mariano should rank higher. And maybe my older dudes like Griffith, should be lower. But I don’t think there are any shockers on this list. They all seem reasonable enough to me.—Miller
Actually, there is a shocker on this list: Urban Shocker. (Oh, that was amazing.)
I concur that relievers are problematic. It’s a theoretical worry, in particular. It’s amazing to me that Mariano Rivera threw 60 or 70 innings a year for twenty years and ends up among my top forty pitchers. It’s not that leverage or chaining are the issue. Instead it’s more about what we might call “degree of difficulty.” Recently Kevin Cash started Sergio Romo because the first inning is when the offense is guaranteed to have its offense set up the way it wants. Then Romo is removed after three or six outs because, wait for it, he doesn’t have a deep enough repertoire to go through a lineup twice without getting crushed the second time through. This is a fundamental concern I have with relievers from the last thirty years: We multiply run prevention due to its in-game importance, but we do not ding it for the fact a half-decent relief pitcher enters with everything in his favor. Consider:
Mariano Rivera had a devastating cutter. Would it have been so devastating if a batter saw it twice or thrice a game? I doubt it. Especially since Rivera basically chucked his other pitches and relied almost exclusively on the cutter. If he’d been forced to mix in other pitches, could he have been effective?
The question is whether we should adjust for degree of difficulty. I suspect that the analytical community has consensus around the idea that we should not. I’m not entirely sure they are wrong, but I am also not sure that they are right. Context is everything, and the only context we are looking at currently are very specific in-game situations whose context runs far deeper for relievers than for any other player on the field. If we use a Win Probably Added approach, then relievers seem hugely productive, but we completely ignore that they are used more electively than any other kind of baseball player, and that seems like a big chunk of context that should be accounted for.—Eric
Next week, it’s pitchers 61-80.
I don’t know what an ace is. Everyone has their own definition, most of which are just made up. However, I do know that any reasonable definition of “ace” must include the top percentage of starters, not the top number of starters, in the game. I don’t know if it’s 5%, 10%, 20%, or whatever. What I do know is that the percentage across time should remain relatively stable.
The point I’m making isn’t that every “ace” should be in the Hall or that a non-ace shouldn’t be. I’m merely making an argument that the voters once thought there were many more pitchers deserving than they do today. Check this out.
Year Teams SP ERA HoF % in Quals Hall =================================== 1935 16 64 67 7 10.9% 1947 16 64 58 5 7.8% 1959 16 64 58 7 10.9% 1971 24 96 83 11 11.5% 1983 26 104 88 9 8.7% 1995 28 140 75 5 3.6%
All I did was grab a year, basically at random, and run the numbers of ERA title qualifiers and then isolate Hall of Fame pitchers (with the help of the great Baseball Reference Play Index). You can see a good deal of consistency in 1935, 1959, and 1971 in terms of Hall of Famers. Maybe I should have done something differently because the late-1940s are strange years due to WWII. You can see a dip in 1983, which I don’t think is horrible since players from that era are still receiving some consideration. But look at 1995! The Hall has basically ignored recent pitchers unless they’re in/near the inner circle or they won 300 games. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez are among the best 15 pitchers ever. Tom Glavine won 300. And voters really seemed to love that John Smoltz was a great closer for about 230 innings. Others from that year who fall somewhere between no-brainer and deserving of major consideration are Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, David Cone, Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Orel Hershiser, and Bret Saberhagen. I would have liked more discussion about David Wells, Dennis Martinez, Kenny Rogers and Mark Langston too.
This week, we see the first of those forgotten 1990s pitchers. There will be plenty more to come.
[MAPES+], [CHEWS+], [1B, 1-20], [1B, 21-40], [2B, 1-20], [2B, 21-40], [3B, 1-20], [3B, 21-40], [SS, 1-20], [SS, 21-40], [C, 1-20], [C, 21-40], [LF, 1-20], [LF, 21-40], [CF, 1-20], [CF, 21-40], [RF, 1-20], [RF, 21-40], [P, 1-20]
A couple of things as we get started. First, he’s the best pitcher of this era. Second, he’s already in the HoME. As for where he projects, that’s a much more difficult question. While’s he remains great when he’s healthy, he’s only topped 27 starts once since 2013. He’s just not healthy enough to project that he moves too far up the list. I think a run-out of 7, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1 WAR it believable. If that’s the case, he finished 18th all-time, between Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry. Let’s say he goes 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1. That gets him past Blyleven, John Clarkson, and Steve Carlton into 15th place. Yeah, he could go further than that, but I don’t expect it. In fact, I think 18th is more likely than 15th. It’s even possible he doesn’t get past this list, finishing at 21st, between Eddie Plank and Ed Walsh. Injuries, man.—Miller
I tend to be pessimistic about pitchers. I’d reckon there’s a better chance that Kershaw never moves another notch up the list than any other scenario. Every single time someone takes the mound, they risk blowing out their UCL, tearing their labrum, finally ripping apart their rotator cuff. Check in at 1:20 on this video. Or check out a few minutes of pitchers’ arms falling off…watch for the carbuncle suddenly appearing on one guy’s elbow. Also this could happen. Even I don’t have the appalling lack of taste required to link to a Dave Dravecky story. All of which is to say that with Kershaw’s spate of recent injuries, I wouldn’t put much money on his making any big gains until he can pitch another full season, fully healthy, and in command of his arsenal.—Eric
I root for Zack Grienke. His battles with depression and anxiety cost him the better part of a couple seasons. The fact that he could come back from these life-crippling diseases to pitch like a Hall of Famer impresses me to no end. If you’ve never had a depressive bout or anxiety, consider yourself fortunate. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him given the tremendous pressure big league players, and pitchers especially, endure. But he did come back, and since those troubles, he’s earned nine or more WAR in two different seasons. As recently as last year, he earned more than six. He’s also had some real clinker seasons where he’s barely been average, but not everyone can be Walter Johnson. Grienke also swings a good bat, enhancing his overall value. While there’s some up and down, he might well be the quietest Hall of Fame candidate in recent history. As far as I’m concerned, he’s there, but he’s joined only one major-media-market team (the Dodgers for 2.5 seasons) where he played second fiddle to Kershaw anyway.—Eric
It has to be Kevin Brown, who I touched on a few years ago, a no-brainer Hall of Famer who received support from only a dozen writers the one year he was on the ballot. As I recently wrote in my post on the best pitchers of the 1990s, I think three things worked against Brown, each one ridiculous in its own way. First, through his age-30 season, he seemed like he wasn’t a “winner”. With a 67-62 record outside of his win-rific 1992 campaign, he didn’t look to most like he was a big deal. Further, he’s a bit like Curt Schilling and a lot of others in that he wasn’t great from the get-go. Too many fans decided who he was and didn’t change their minds when he got better. Second, people hated the contract he signed with the Dodgers – tons of money and those private jet rides. I’ll never understand why fans hate when players are well-compensated, but it’s been the case as long as I can remember. Third, he was still very good in his final season in LA, but he appeared to fans to stink up the joint when he got to NY. In truth, his age-38 season was nice enough. And pitchers at that age aren’t supposed to be good anyway. It’s only the absolute greats and a few outliers who are.
Yeah, so it’s absolutely Kevin Brown, unless it’s Jim Palmer, a guy who might not be as good as he looked. The Oriole pitched in front of absolutely insane defenses. I’m not sure, but it’s possible that defense made him look better than he was. Let’s look at BBREF’s RA9def number for each of our fifteen shared 21-40 pitchers. RA9def is the number above or below average a pitcher’s defense is.
Jim Palmer 0.33 Carl Hubbell 0.23 Ed Walsh 0.21 Tom Glavine 0.12 Roy Halladay 0.10 Amos Rusie 0.07 Clayton Kershaw 0.03 Curt Schilling 0.00 Hal Newhouser -0.02 Stan Coveleski -0.03 Kevin Brown -0.05 Wes Ferrell -0.06 Nolan Ryan -0.06 Fergie Jenkins -0.06 Mike Mussina -0.08
I’m totally with Miller on the matters of Brown and Palmer, and I’ll give you two more: Nolan Ryan and Wes Ferrell. You remember the 1990s, right? I’m going to feel so old if you don’t. There was that All-Century Team business in 1999, probably presented by MasterCharge or Viagra. I think souvenir glasses might have been issued. Nolan Ryan won the vote among pitchers by 22,000 votes. If you’ve just swallowed your tongue, you’re thinking right along with me. Nolan Ryan: 7 NO-HITTERS!; 5,000 PUNCHOUTS!!!!!!; OLD GUY PITCHER!!!!!!! Yes, and will my theoretical straw man please stop yelling in all caps! Lots of good stuff, a deserving member of the Hall of Miller and Eric. But no one with much under the hood should vote for him over the likes of Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, or Christy Mathewson who were all on this ballot. Right-time, right-place for the Express. Lefty Grove finished with the lowest vote total among pitchers. Does not compute! For those born too soon, Nolan Ryan was a sensation. During his last years as a Ranger, his starts were events. You never knew when he might pop out a no-no or give Robin Ventura a noogie (you’ll have to look that one up). Listening half a continent away in the northeast, radio announcers were sure to mention when he started and how he did. The guy was so famous that Advil signed him up to lure the middle-aged, achy-back guys in the TV audience. If you were in America then, you’ll remember: “I could go another niiiiiine innings.” Ryan had earned all of this in his amazing career, but he had claim at all to any kind of “All-Century Team” or whathaveyou. But it’s pretty interesting to see how many people will ignore facts in deference to media coverage. Never mind that Ryan’s winning percentage was a mere .526, that he was also the all-time leader in walks, nor that his ERA+ of 112 (yes, we had ERA+ back then, pull out your old copy of Total Baseball) was not impressive. So I think in the sense that conventional wisdom arises from the groundlings, we’re pretty far away from the CW.
Then there’s Wes Ferrell. A decent peak/prime pitcher with a bat added to his resume that did beat all. The best hitting full-time pitcher ever. We both think the total package is top-40 material (someone better let Rick Dees know). The Hall of Merit and the Hall of Stats both agree that he’s a worthy Hall member. The Coop took his weak-hitting brother the catcher instead. (Which was kind of like how my crush took her cousin to the senior prom instead of going with me. I’m not bitter.) And basically he has no recognition in the world outside baseball’s analytics chattering classes. In fact, he’s probably more well known as a great hitting pitcher than as a great pitcher.—Eric
There’s quite a large difference in how we see Old Hoss Radbourne. I list the righty from before the mound moved as the 40th best ever. You won’t see him on Eric’s list even next week. And he barely makes it two weeks from today. Looked at another way, he’s an easy HoMEr for me and on Eric’s borderline. As we discussed last week, this is basically a WAR thing. I give more credit to pitchers of Radbourne’s era than Eric because they pitched so many more innings. Eric gives less, chopping down their runs above replacement. Again, as I mentioned last week, I think both directions are reasonable.—Miller
Same goes for Amos Rusie it looks like. We’re nearly twenty ranks apart. Oddly enough, however, we have the opposite situation for Tim Keefe. I’ve ranked him a dozen or more spots higher. Charlie Radbourn didn’t have as long of a career, nor did he enjoy the same degree of value above average. Clarkson and Keefe were the elite of the 1880s. Radbourn headed up the rest. Or so spake ZEricthustra.
We have a much larger difference yet over Joe McGinnity, 26 ranks of difference. I suspect that Miller’s slightly more peak-centric ratings push Iron Joe upward for him. We also have major differences over John Smoltz and the aforementioned Mr. Grienke. So while we’ve been on the same page with hitters and even with the top 20 pitchers, there’s a lot of differentiation between us here. I suspect you should trust Miller. I always did have trouble with pitchers in fantasy baseball, and he rarely seemed to.—Eric
We may be off on Hal Newhouser. His best years were 1944-1946, times when the level of play in the majors was somewhat lower than at other times in its history because of WWII. The War was over in ’46, of course, and almost everyone was back in ’45. But I still question Prince Hal’s numbers a little.—Miller
I buy what Miller’s selling here as well. But let’s flip back a moment to Jim Palmer. It is possible that Palmer’s defensive support might not have been as good as BBREF suggests. Its calculations are not based on game-by-game assessments of the defense behind him but rather as a function of the team defense allocated to his balls in play. Is it possible that Palmer benefitted more or less than other pitchers on his team from the specific defensive players on the field behind him? Could his style of pitching have played into the strengths of parts of his defense and away from its weaknesses? Or vice versa? Or is it possible that the defense played better or worse behind him than behind other pitchers? Obviously, BBREF answers these questions by deciding not to answer them. I would do the same thing were I them. But it’s possible that the extreme defensive support could be in some way misleading. I don’t know what direction the arrow would point. Sadly we don’t have specific ground ball/flyball/line drive info for Palmer. We have some indirect evidence of his tendencies, however. His groundout/flyout ratio was 0.80, which is 27% below MLB during his time. This despite a homerun rate that’s right around the league average. His defenses turned 10% fewer deuces behind him than the league. Sure looks to me like Palmer’s gig was to induce weak flyball contact. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see that he frequently led the league in infield flies or pop-ups allowed, for example, nor that if we could somehow know it retroactively, that he suppressed line-drives in some manner. Palmer was smart, he knew how to exploit hitters’ weakness, and he always had a game plan and probably knew how to pitch to his defense’s strengths. Something tells me that a hyperclose reading of his defensive support might someday show the granules of that, but then again, it might not be possible to disentangle cause and effect in a case such as this.—Eric
Of course, Eric could be right here. Palmer, kind of famously, never allowed a grand slam. He certainly knew what he was doing on the mound.—Miller
Join us in seven days when we look at pitchers 41-60.
Red 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.
#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.
#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.
Bud Selig used to talk about “crown jewel” franchises. The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cardinals, probably the Cubs and the Giants, maybe even the Braves. And, of course, the Dodgers. Teams with long histories, lots of championships, or at least lots of World Series appearances, and generally a lot of great teams. A dynasty or three probably. Oh, and very large franchise valuations. Can’t forget that.
As the Dodgers close in on yet another NL West crown and make a run at the Cubs and Mariners here in 2018, it’s an interesting moment to reflect. Under the names Atlantics, Grays, Grooms, Bridegrooms, Superbas, Robins, and Dodgers, and in Brookly and Los Angeles, the club has won 6 World Series, captured 22 NL flags, and appeared in the post-season 30 times. They’ve won 10,758 games and lost 9,667 (through Friday, August 19th, 2018) for a .527 winning percentage. They could go oh-for-the-season for six years and still not drop below .500. The Dodgers broke the color line. They made the move that opened the west coast up to MLB and sparked expansion. That’s a lot of stuff. And in a way, if we had to pick four Dodgers to represent the history of the organization, we might choose Jackie Robinson and three non-players: Branch Rickey, Walter Alston, and Walter O’Malley.
We would certainly not choose Frank McCourt or Fox, ownership types who played fast and loose with the Dodger brand, and in the latter case sullied it with the kind of rich, entitled, and amoral behavior we’ve come to know all too well in recent times.
But the franchise is once again built the Dodger Way by using outstanding scouting and development to assemble a core of homegrown talent (Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, and Kenley Jansen) second to none in the game. But while today’s Dodgers do defy the O’Mally regimes distaste for free agents, they are making good use of their money by picking up another Dodger tradition. Like Branch Rickey toolkit they’ve dived into analytics to find edges beyond scouting. Despite losing out in the October scrum umpteen years running, they may be the best run franchise in baseball at this moment. It’s a good time to be a Dodgers fan.
I find it difficult to imagine Dodger faces stuck up on a mountain in the Black Hills. Whether in Brooklyn or LA, this has always felt like a team of urbanites to me, whether of the working class type back east or the dazzling type in Cali. So let’s imagine instead that their faces appear on the hills behind the stage of the Hollywood Bowl or perhaps etched into the Echo Cliffs of Santa Monica. Or at least someplace fans could see them while stuck in traffic on the 5 or the 101.
Or maybe suspended from the Brooklyn Bridge because three of these guys spent most of their career winning pennants with Dem Bums.
Don Drysdale nearly all his work in LA. He was a durable horse while he lasted, but was done at 32. Nonetheless, he left behind 61 WAR as a pitcher plus another 6 as a hitter. His 1965 season is kinda famous among pitcher-hitting lovers for a .300/.331/.508 triple slash and a 140 OPS+. But the guy hit 29 homers in his career, so at least the 200 ISO in 1965 wasn’t exactly a stone-cold fluke. Combined, his 67.2 WAR just edge out this short-time teammate…
Pee Wee Reese didn’t get a great shake from the BBWAA. But then, they didn’t know much back in the 1960s and 1970s about the relative value of all the little things that Reese did well. Yeah, he only hit .269 (99 OPS+), but because that batting average was accompanied by 1210 walks and a .366 OBP, he ended his career 31 runs above the average NL batter. Reese then chipped in +43 runs of good baserunning and +117 defensively. A 99 OPS+ hitting shortstop with a gold glove? Heck if Ozzie Smith hit as well as Reese, he’d have been worth roughly another 15 wins and would have accumulated 90 WAR, about as much as Al Kaline or Wade Boggs. In the event, however, Reese had a brilliant career with three years in the middle stolen by Hitler that probably cost him 15 to 20 WAR. He ended up with 66.4 anyway.
P.W. Reese barely edges out Duke Snider, but alas, the Flatbush’s nobleman spent a couple seasons with the Giants and Mets. So our third face on the monument to Dodgerdom is Jackie Robinson, himself. I think it was Bill James who pointed out just what an interesting player Jackie was. Looking only from the baseball side, Robinson could do damn near anything on the diamond. He excelled at every position he played, especially second base, but also first base, third base, and left field. At the plate he racked up 261 runs above average in just ten seasons through a combination of a .300+ average, a .400+ OBP, and an isolated slugging percentage 13% above the league average. Robinson also ran the bases as well as anyone from his time (+30 runs in just ten years), and even had positive value for staying out of twinkillings as a batter. He was absolutely lethal in innings 7–9, hitting .344/.439/.523, all well above his career averages. Late and close: .341/.446/.545. For good measure, he even led the league in sacrifice hits twice. Robinson did not play catcher or centerfield, and he did not pitch in the big leagues. And he was a crummy pinch hitter in a mere 55 PA (.156/.264/.222). But he did everything else superbly despite having relatively little high-level baseball experience for a 26-year-old prior to breaking the color line. He played in 1945 with the famed Kansas City Monarchs, spent a year in the Dodger’s minor league chain, then debuted in 1947. That’s it. Remember, he was a football, track, and swimming star at UCLA. In fact, baseball was his fourth sport. So the next time someone talks about how amazing an athlete Bo Jackson was (and, yes, he certainly was), drop Jackie’s name into the discussion. Because it’s entirely possible that Jackie was a better athlete than Bo, who never had nearly the success on a baseball diamond that Jackie did.
Number four and climbing (just two WAR behind Jackie’s 60) is the best active pitcher on the planet, Clayton Kershaw. In fact, on April 3rd of this year, Kershaw became a Hall of Famer. You might not have realized it at the time. Very little was said. When he threw his first pitch that day in Chavez Ravine against San Diego, Kershaw became active in his tenth MLB season. That qualifies him for the Hall of Fame, and, barring a gambling or steroids scandal, there is no way that Clayton Kershaw will fail to get his plaque. Sure, his record as of today is just 141–62, a very low total of wins for a Hall starter. Sure he’s only tossed 1901 innings so far. Sure his post-season resume isn’t amazing. But the same folks who vote for the Hall have voted him the Cy Young Award winner three times, its runner up once, its third place finisher another time. They voted him the MVP as well. Kershaw has led the league in wins twice, in ERA a startling four times consecutively, shutouts twice, and strikeouts thrice. He struck out 301 batters in a mere 232.67 innings in 2105 at age 27. He’s led in ERA+ three times, WHIP four times, and his career K/BB rate is an amazing 4.16. He’s racked up 57.3 WAR, which turns out to be about 6.8 per the 227 innings he’ so far averaging per season so far in his career. A mortal lock for immortality. Everything else no is gravy.
Kershaw is the best pitcher in Los Angeles Dodgers’ history, which will go down with Koufax fans about as well as a handful of gravel, but take an actual objective look. Koufax’s legacy rests on six seasons, for only four of which he pitched a full workload. Kershaw has six seasons at a full, modern baseball workload. But he’s also got another four seasons of outstanding pitching (plus one average one at age 20). Koufax had no other outstanding seasons. Look at the leaderboards and awards. Kershaw already matches Sandy’s three Cy Youngs and MVP, and actually has more Cy Young support than Koufax (who matches up with more MVP support). Koufax led in strikeouts four times, Kershaw so far “only” three, while finishing second by one in a fourth year. Koufax led in complete games twice and shutouts three times. Kershaw has matched both of those. Kershaw has led his league twice in games started, Koufax did just once. While Koufax led his league five straight times in ERA, he finished first only twice in ERA+. Kershaw, as mentioned, led in ERA four times, and is currently leading the NL while on the DL. He’s also won out in ERA+ three times and is currently leading the NL there as well. (As of this writing, he’s about 20 innings short of qualifying for the league lead and is expected back to the rotation shortly.) To put this comparison in perspective, Clayton Kershaw’s career ERA is 2.34 and his career ERA+ is 162 in 1901 innings. Koufax’s were 2.76 and 131. Yes, it’s true that Kershaw benefits from modern shutdown bullpens. And the Dodgers’ relief corps in Kofuax’s salad years weren’t exactly bums. During his six-year stretch of dominance, his bullpen blew only 9 potential wins, but the team saved him from 21 losses (per BBREF’s Wlst and Lsv stats on Koufax’s Advanced Pitching Stats page for Sandy). Compare over the same period to teammate Don Drysdale. Then pen blew 14 of his games, and he was spared a loss in 25 contests. Johnny Podres was with the club from 1961–1965, and the team blew 11 wins and picked him up 22 times. By the way, Kershaw in his career has had 27 wins blown by his pen and 26 times been saved by his team from a loss.
So basically, looked at with some distance, Clayton Kershaw owns the best pitching record the Los Angeles version of the Dodgers have ever had. You can quibble around the edges if you want to, but his main competitors are Sandy Koufax, whose case we’ve discussed at great length and Don Drysdale whose case against Kershaw would rest on simply having more seasons in the uniform, but whose performance record simply can’t stand up against the Claw’s. But there’s also Dazzy Vance to consider from the Brooklyn iteration. Vance racked up a few more WAR in his 11 years at Ebbets Field. He dominated leaderboards like few others. Seven straight strikeout titles. Four times leading in pitching WAR. Three ERA titles, twice leading the league in victories for iffy teams. Four shutout titles. Three ERA plus titles. Plus an MVP award. Kershaw may well have already bested Vance, but it’s a lot closer than the other two, and I’ll wait until the chickens have fully hatched to make this call definitely for Kershaw.
If I were making my own little monument to the Dodgers, I’d have Kershaw up there for sure. And I’d have Jackie too. Dazzy Vance, totally. Then I’m caught between Jim Gilliam, the Tony Phillips of his day; Davey Lopes with his crazy-good baserunning; and Babe Herman who just had a lot of crazy about him. I guess I’ll take Lopes since he was the baserunning coach for my Phils during their run as the most amazing running team around in the late 2000s.
Congratulations to the newest members of the Hall of Miller and Eric: Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Dazzy Vance, Jimmy Collins, and Stan Coveleski. With their 1941 induction, our HoME is now populated with 44 of the greatest players in the game’s history.
Per our rules, players have to be named on both ballots for induction. Here’s how we voted.
Miller Eric 1 Babe Ruth Babe Ruth 2 Rogers Hornsby Rogers Hornsby 3 Dazzy Vance Dazzy Vance 4 Pud Galvin Charlie Bennett 5 Jimmy Collins Elmer Flick 6 Red Faber Jimmy Collins 7 Stan Coveleski George Sisler 8 Mordecai Brown Vic Willis 9 Monte Ward Stan Coveleski 10 Jim McCormick
Babe Ruth: You know how announcers will sometimes, with the knowledge that they have nothing to add to the viewer’s experience, remain silent after a team has won the World Series to let the moment speak for itself?
Rogers Hornsby: Rajah’s list of accomplishments is as long as almost anybody’s. He won a pair of triple crowns, a pair of MVP Awards, nine OBP and SLG titles, seven batting crowns, and on and on. He’s second to Ty Cobb in career batting average, and he’s 12th on the all-time WAR list. He was decidedly disappointing in the World Series, but he did tag out fellow HoMEr, Babe Ruth, as the Bambino was attempting to steal to bring the 1926 Fall Classic to a close. Primarily a Cardinal, Hornsby was traded three times in his career and wound up having two of his best seasons outside of St. Louis, 1927 for the Giants, and 1929 for the Cubs.
Dazzy Vance: It’s quite possible that awkwardly raking in a pot during a poker game led Vance to a doctor, which led the doctor to clean out his elbow, which led the 31-year-old Vance to the big leagues, which led to Vance being inducted into the HoME. In a conflicting story, it’s told that Brooklyn, in need of a catcher, tried to get Hank DeBerry from the New Orleans Pelicans. DeBerry was available, but he wouldn’t go to Brooklyn without Vance. No matter which story is true, not really reaching the majors until age 31 didn’t hold back the righty from Iowa. He won a strikeout title in his rookie season and proceeded to win six more in a row after that. Vance was great, totaling 197 wins, adding a 1925 no-hitter, and striking out more NL batters in 1924 than the second and third best NL strikeout pitchers combined.
Jimmy Collins: There’s no doubt the Jimmy Collins was a fine hitter. He grabbed a home run title in 1898. He had a pair of 100-RBI seasons, and he scored 100 on four occasions. But it’s his defense that has him in the HoME. During an age when bunting was far more common, Collins would cheat in, and he’s be able to use his agility and baseball instinct to quell his opponents’ bunting game. A member of Boston franchises in first the National League and then the American, Collins was the first manager when in 1903, as player/manager, his Boston Americans defeated the National League’s Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three.
Stan Coveleski: There were no better pitchers in baseball from 1917-1926. Coveleski, a righty who spent most of his career with the Indians, owns a strikeout title, a pair of ERA titles, and five 20 win seasons. He became famous for his use of the spitball, and was one of seventeen pitchers whose use of the pitch was grandfathered in following its ban after the 1920 season. In the World Series that year, Covey dominated. He pitched three complete game victories, besting Rube Marquard in the first game, Leon Cadore in the fourth, and shutting out Burleigh Gromes and his Brooklyn mates in the seventh. Coveleski opposed Carl Mays on the day Mays struck and killed Ben Chapman with a pitch. And somewhat strangely, he married the sister of his dead wife only a couple of years after his wife passed away.
Each season, some guys are elected, while others receive votes from only one of us. Below we’ll explain our reasons for such votes
Pud Galvin: 365. That’s it, and that’s all.
Red Faber: Faber had a very big peak from 1921-1922. Throw in 1920, and he was the best pitcher in baseball over three years, not by a small margin. While that was it for his peak, he just kept producing solid seasons. His 12.3 WAR after age 40 is pretty impressive – it’s the kind of thing the career guy in me likes.
Mordecai Brown: From 1905-1911, he was more valuable than any pitcher in the game but Christy Mathewson and Ed Walsh. And he’s seventh in history in ERA+ among starting pitchers with at least ten full seasons in the majors.
Monte Ward: As a pitcher, he’s pretty much Johnny Podres or Eddie Lopat. As a hitter, we’re talking Cecil Cooper or Tommy Henrich. With the glove, think Ryne Sandberg or Jackie Robinson at second base, and think Alan Trammell or Pee Wee Reese at shortstop. We may well be looking at one of the 50 most valuable defenders as any position.
Charlie Bennett: The sound bite: He played more and played better at the game’s most grinding position in by far its most grueling era. The longer form: He had a good bat, outstanding defense, and more durability than any catcher in his era, and the shame of it is that because of the conditions he played in and perhaps his untimely demise, he’s a forgotten man in baseball history.
Elmer Flick: If you like sustained excellence, here’s a man to like. 10 years of excellence is a long time.
George Sisler: Sisler is a great what-if. Except that we actually know how great he was. His career is what a some really silly HOF voters think Mattingly’s was. Sisler blows Mattingly away. In reality, he’s a guy with an amazing peak and so much talent that after a beaning left him with double vision, he could still be an average player.
Vic Willis: In a tight-knit group that consists of Waddell, McGinnity, Coveleski, and Willis (and probably McCormick), Willis is the easy-to-overlook guy. No sexy strikeouts. No jillion-inning seasons. No spitball. His peak was a little longer but a little lower, and he spread a little more value into his less peaky seasons. He’s just another flavor of a type of pitcher we’ve already inducted twice.
Jim McCormick: McCormick : Coveleski :: Keefe/Radbourn : Vance
Please visit our Honorees page to see their plaques and to see more information about the HoME and those who have been elected.
Congratulations to our third class of inductees: Kid Nichols, Ed Delahanty, Billy Hamilton, King Kelly, and Tim Keefe for gaining entrance to the Hall of Miller and Eric with our 1911 election. The HoME is now populated with eleven of the greatest players in the game’s history.
Per our rules, all five had to be named on both ballots for induction. Let’s look to see how we voted.
|Kid Nichols||Kid Nichols|
|Ed Delahanty||Ed Delahanty|
|Billy Hamilton||Billy Hamilton|
|King Kelly||Buck Ewing|
|Tim Keefe||King Kelly|
|Old Hoss Radbourn|
Here’s a brief rationale from each voter for each player.
Kid Nichols: He and Christy Mathewson vie as the best pitchers the game has seen prior to the existence of the American League who don’t have an award named after them.
Ed Delahanty: Died going over Niagara Falls but lived as, arguably, the best left fielder in the game’s first half century.
Billy Hamilton: The all-time stolen base leader until Lou Brock, Sliding Billy didn’t have to steal his way into the HoME. He’s in on his merits.
King Kelly: A versatile and talented player, Kelly was the best right fielder in the game’s first quarter century.
Tim Keefe: Tenth all time, his 342 wins were too much to deny this time.
Kid Nichols: Best pitcher we’ve seen so far.
Ed Delahanty: Best LF of 19th C. and probably best before Ted Williams—probably among top half-dozen LFs all-time
Billy Hamilton: Best CF of 19th C. and best before Cobb/Speaker; probably top-10 or better all-time
Buck Ewing: Best C of 19th C. and best before ~1930 (Hartnett)
King Kelly: Best RF of 19th C. and best before Sam Crawford
George Wright: Best player of early game from ~1865 through 1880.
Tim Keefe: There’s no shame in being the 2nd best pitcher of 1880s after John Clarkson
Amos Rusie: Dominant strikeout artist of 1890s, feels to me like the Dazzy Vance or Hal Newhouser of his time
Old Hoss Radbourn: Just a sliver beneath Rusie in terms of value, and conditions for pitching were tougher in 1890s, so Radbourn goes here.
Jesse Burkett: Probably among top dozen or baker’s dozen LFs in history. The Billy Williams of his time.
Paul Hines: Best CF before Hamilton, long career with decent peak
Charlie Bennett: Iron-man catcher of 19th century with top-quality defense, long career (for catcher) and a bat that would have played anywhere. 2nd best catcher before Hartnett.
Ross Barnes: Huge peak, great glove, just enough doubt about quality of play and of opposition (didn’t have to face his own teammates), and fair-foul to push him down a bit this time around.
Please visit our Honorees page to see their plaques and to see more information about the HoME and those who have been elected.