For those following our elections so far, we arrive at the fifth of the five men whom we couldn’t logically disentangle from one another. As more information flows into the Negro Leagues Database, more daylight may appear between these fellows. Or maybe another one or two players may join the melee. Right now however, the fifth man isn’t shrouded in the fog of mystery but rather in smoke. Congratulations to Smokey Joe Williams!
We’ve written before that Dick Redding is to Pete Alexander as Williams is to Walter Johnson. We’ve also written that Williams is to Alexander as Johnson is to Paige. Yet another analogy could be Williams:Cy Young::Paige:Johnson. Why does this analogy work well?
Like Young viz Johnson Williams came before Paige by about 20 years
Like Young viz Johnson, Williams was more of an iron man than even the redoubtable Paige
Like Young viz Johnson, the argument for which was the superior pitcher hinges on the latter-day pitcher’s per-game performance versus the earlier-day pitcher’s sheer number of innings.
The differences between Williams’ bulk and Paige’s don’t rise to the nearly absurd level of Young’s 7356 innings versus Johnson’s 5914, but it’s the same argument writ smaller. And like the MLB version of the argument, much depends upon how you treat the usage patterns of the day. In both cases, there’s good reason to choose Young or Williams and, in our opinion, better reason to choose Johnson or Paige.
But let’s not play the comparison game because we’re talking today about Williams, not about Paige. At 6’3″ Williams stood very tall for his day. Remember this is before the government started subsidizing the meat industry. The big, lanky righty (190 pounds) threw a full repertoire but his bread-and-butter pitch was, of course, his heater. Thus Smokey. Thus his other nickname Cyclone. Oh hey, that’s Denton True Young’s nickname too!
Williams pitched at the highest levels from 1907 to 1932. So far in the evolution of the Negro Leagues database, he’s chalked up more wins (138) and punch outs (1,342) than any other Negro Leagues pitcher. He’s third in innings and and starts and complete games, plus fifth in shutouts and ERA+. None of the other pitchers above him in ERA+ (including Satchel) come within 500 innings of Williams. Just as important to note, we don’t have full detail on all of Williams’ seasons, especially in the 1920s, so there’s more to learn about him.
In other words, he earned his nicknames and then some on the mound. Don’t forget also that he had a very potent bat and pulled down a lot of value with the stick. So much so that he often played the outfield. All of this adds up to why he’s part of this gang of five that we couldn’t unknot.
Next week, we’ll start electing from the next group of greats so stay tuned!
Today, we share what I thought would be the last post in this series (more on that at the bottom), the men on the mound. I’m perfectly aware that critics might say that Eric and I participate in a certain level of groupthink (if two can be a group). I’m aware of this because we talked about it a few years ago, not because an accusation was made, but because we don’t want to fall into a problematic pattern. Anyway, we thought it was possible. We also thought that correct people agree all the time, and that we just might be correct about a lot of our positions.
We addressed the narrow areas where we disagree, and we’re satisfied with where we stand, at least satisfied enough. To be honest, there are almost no real differences when it comes to position players. Our lists are, essentially, the same. On the mound, things are a little different though. Eric favors recent pitchers more than I do, adjusting their innings up to make them look more like pitchers from around 2000. Further, he is tough on 19th century pitchers. Or maybe I’m easy on them. Once he adjusts pitchers for innings, he reduces the value between replacement and average. He explains that if, say, Jim McCormick has 12 WAR and 7 WAA in 450 innings, he would reduce the five wins below average (those that move him from 7 WAA to 12 WAR) by about half. That would make McCormick’s season worth 9.5 WAR rather than 12. He wants to avoid penalizing performance that’s above average and instead reduce the value of the bulk innings.
While I don’t support the inning adjustment, reducing the value of bulk innings when those innings make up a huge percentage of a team’s innings seems to make sense. With that in mind, and acknowledging that these ratings for me are always a work in progress, I have begun to incorporate a WAA factor into my pitcher numbers. I’ll spare you the details for now, both because I lack faith in the soundness of my decision, and because I think it’s an intermediate step toward a system that a bit more closely resembles Eric’s. I’ll have more on that in an updated MAPES+ post when things become more permanent.
In any case, the thing that matters to you is that the difference in our systems will cause some large differences in the rankings. Today’s pitchers look a bit better for Eric, while those of over a century ago look better, and in some cases waaaaay better, for me. I think I have some adjustments to make. We’ll see.
One other small difference. At almost all positions, Eric and I have charted exactly the same players. For whatever reason though, I’ve charted about 100 more pitchers. Some of those guys he hasn’t charted make it into my 300.
If you want to know more about our systems or about our rankings of position players, check out these links. Otherwise, just take a look at our top-300 lists on the mound.
When I started this project, I was pretty confident that this would be the last post in the series. Then something happened with a certain Era Committee election, and it turns out I have to rank the best designated hitters ever too. They’ll be up a week from today.
Man, it feels good to be kinda, sorta back doing this, at least for a little while. On Wednesday we updated the Mount Rushmores in the National League. Today we’ll do the same in the Junior Circuit.
That’s it for your 2018 Rushmore update. In the next few weeks we’re going to update you on the progress (or lack thereof) of active players on their journeys to the HoME.
Not even Yadier Molina takes as many trips to the mound as we are in this long series of articles on Negro Leaguers. Today we’ll get our signs straight with Eustaquio Pedroso, Cannonball Dick Redding, and Carlos Royer (we promised you Wee Willie Powell, but actually, we’d rather wait until more data for him becomes available). If you want to take a trip to the boring zone, we beckon you to read all about our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues pitchers.
Either he was a great hitting pitcher or a poor hitting corner man. Somehow that feels like a Groucho one liner when I hear it in my head. Pedroso veered back and forth between the mound and the corners being great at neither, but at least average as a pitcher and a batter, iffy in the field, and overall a below-average position player. So let’s focus today on his pitching.
We’re seeing Pedroso as a pretty durable righty (5’11”, 200 pounds) with a few very good years, some averageish years, and some horrid years. Ultimately he’s not a great candidate, but as a two-way guy, he’s interesting.
Eustaquio Pedroso Negro Leagues Stats | Bio Career: 1907–1926 Destination: NL 1907–1922 PITCHING | BATTING | TOTAL YEAR AGE IP RAA WAA WAR | PA WAR | WAR ======================================================== 1907 20 100 0 0.0 1.0 | 33 0.2 | 1.1 1908 21 200 - 5 -0.6 1.3 | 67 0.4 | 1.7 1909 22 260 10 1.3 3.8 | 87 0.5 | 4.3 1910 23 250 24 2.9 5.3 | 83 0.4 | 5.7 1911 24 310 -24 -2.4 0.9 | 103 0.6 | 1.5 1912 25 300 14 1.5 4.6 | 100 0.5 | 5.1 1913 26 300 12 1.4 4.4 | 100 0.6 | 5.0 1914 27 310 15 1.8 4.8 | 103 0.7 | 5.5 1915 28 300 13 1.6 4.5 | 100 0.6 | 5.1 1916 29 250 1 0.1 2.5 | 83 0.5 | 3.0 1917 30 200 4 0.5 2.4 | 67 0.4 | 2.8 1918 31 180 - 1 -0.1 1.7 | 60 0.3 | 2.0 1919 32 200 - 7 -0.8 1.1 | 67 0.4 | 1.5 1920 33 100 -11 -1.2 -0.1 | 33 0.2 | 0.0 1921 34 20 - 8 -0.7 -0.5 | 7 0.0 | -0.5 1922 35 10 - 4 -0.3 -0.2 | 3 0.0 | -0.2 ------------------------------------------------------- TOTAL 3290 35 4.9 37.4 | 1096 6.4 | 43.8 Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960) Innings pitched: 51st Pitching Wins Above Average: 283rd Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 105th Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 79th
Worth noting before we move on: Pedroso didn’t pitch from 1918 to 1920, or at least not in the data on the Negro Leagues Database. If he hurt his arm or what have you, we may want to consider ending his career before or during his stretch. He did actually pitch from 1921 to 1926, but he stank it up.
I’ve probably only mentioned 154 times now that I am a participant in the Hall of Merit project over at Baseball Think Factory. Dick Redding has been eligible for election over there for roughly 80 years. In that time, many voters have check his box, but not me. For years, he looked to me like a low WAA, high-innings pitcher, and that’s not a pitcher that excites me. Early Wynn and Red Ruffing required great bats to get my vote.
I think I’m going to change my mind about Dick Redding.
After doing all the stuff I do to adjust this that and the other, Redding comes out looking like a heavy favorite to get a vote. To be fully transparent, he’s not a competitor for the best Negro Leagues pitcher ever. He’s got Satch, Smokey Joe, and Bullet Rogan clearly in front of him. Only Martén Dihgio is close behind. That’s true also when we remove batting and look only at pitching WAA and WAR. This list is ranked by Wins Above Average:
Redding wasn’t a pathetic hitter at all, in fact he translates to a bit above average for a pitcher. He simply doesn’t derive enough value from it to catch up to Rogan.
So what I’m saying is that I’ve been missing the boat for 80 electoral “years” at the Hall of Miller and Eric, but, for me anyway, Dick Redding’s ship has come in.
Dick Redding Negro Leagues Stats | Bio Career: 1911–1931 Destination: NL 1911–1931 Missing Data: 1927, 1929 PITCHING | BATTING | TOTAL YEAR AGE IP RAA WAA WAR | PA WAR | WAR ======================================================== 1911 21 250 29 3.2 5.7 | 83 0.2 | 5.8 1912 22 260 45 4.9 7.5 | 87 0.1 | 7.6 1913 23 250 - 3 -0.3 2.2 | 83 0.2 | 2.4 1914 24 270 -12 -1.4 1.3 | 90 0.2 | 1.5 1915 25 300 12 1.5 4.4 | 100 0.1 | 4.5 1916 26 310 18 2.4 5.3 | 103 0.2 | 5.5 1917 27 300 19 2.4 5.3 | 100 0.1 | 5.3 1918 28 270 34 4.5 7.0 | 90 0.1 | 7.0 1919 29 280 42 5.5 8.1 | 93 0.1 | 8.2 1920 30 300 6 0.7 3.7 | 100 0.2 | 3.8 1921 31 300 35 3.8 6.9 | 100 0.2 | 7.1 1922 32 250 41 4.2 6.7 | 83 0.3 | 7.0 1923 33 210 20 2.0 4.1 | 70 0.2 | 4.3 1924 34 200 5 0.6 2.6 | 67 0.1 | 2.8 1925 35 210 3 0.3 2.5 | 70 0.2 | 2.7 1926 36 200 0 0.0 2.1 | 67 0.2 | 2.3 1927 37 210 22 2.3 4.4 | 70 0.2 | 4.6 1928 38 210 43 4.6 6.7 | 70 0.2 | 6.9 1929 39 180 16 1.5 3.4 | 60 0.2 | 3.6 1930 40 170 1 0.1 1.9 | 57 0.2 | 2.1 1931 41 10 - 5 -0.4 -0.3 | 3 0.0 | -0.3 ------------------------------------------------------- TOTAL 4940 371 42.1 91.3 | 1586 3.3 | 93.0 Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960) Innings pitched: 8th Pitching Wins Above Average: 11th Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 7th Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): 7th
Yeah, those hypothetical career rankings indicate a pretty good pitcher….
Redding is to Smokey Joe Williams almost exactly as Pete Alexander was to Walter Johnson. Williams, as you saw a couple paragraphs ago was a cut above everyone but Paige, but specifically, above his near contemporary Redding, just as Alexander was close but clearly behind the Big Train. Williams began his career the same year as Walter Johnson (1907), and Redding began his the same year as Alex (1911). Johnson was a strong hitter for a pitcher, and so was Williams who often took turns in the outfield. Alexander, like Redding, was a decent hitting pitcher, but not nearly as good as Johnson.
That last paragraph is a fun analogy, but it’s an important reminder of how strong Redding appears to be in his MLE.
This 5’9″ righty was one of the great players of the early Cuban leagues. Which also means that our stats on him aren’t nearly as complete as we’d like. Right about half his likely MLE-length career resides in the Negro Leagues Database. So the MLE below must be considered provisional.
Royer debuted at age 16 in 1890, making him a near contemporary of a lot of famous pitchers. He was three years younger than Amos Rusie and four years younger than Kid Nichols. The NLDB picks him up at age 28 when he threw 291 innings with a 21-12 record between the Cuban Winter League and its playoffs. He started all but one of Havana team’s games. The next winter he fashioned a 13-3 ledger in 142 innings, making all but four of the team’s starts. Whether his arm gave out or age simply caught up with him, Royer took fewer starts as the nineteen aughts wore on, yielding to younger talents such as José Mendéz, and eventually hung it up at age 36.
Carlos Royer Negro Leagues Stats | Bio Career: 1890–1910 Destination: NL 1894–1910 Missing data: 1890–1901 Honors: Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame PITCHING | BATTING | TOTAL YEAR AGE IP RAA WAA WAR | PA WAR | WAR ======================================================== 1894 20 80 0 0.0 0.9 | 27 0.0 | 1.0 1895 21 160 3 0.3 2.1 | 53 0.0 | 2.1 1896 22 200 6 0.5 2.8 | 67 0.0 | 2.8 1897 23 290 8 0.7 3.9 | 97 0.1 | 4.0 1898 24 310 10 1.0 4.3 | 103 -0.1 | 4.2 1899 25 310 5 0.4 3.8 | 103 0.1 | 3.9 1900 26 290 11 1.0 4.2 | 97 0.1 | 4.2 1900 27 290 16 1.6 4.7 | 97 0.0 | 4.7 1902 28 280 17 2.0 4.8 | 93 0.0 | 4.8 1903 29 270 36 3.8 6.6 | 90 0.1 | 6.7 1904 30 260 20 2.4 4.9 | 87 0.0 | 4.9 1905 31 250 5 0.5 3.0 | 83 0.1 | 3.1 1906 32 180 -22 -2.5 -0.7 | 60 0.0 | -0.7 1907 33 180 1 0.1 1.8 | 60 0.0 | 1.8 1908 34 160 11 1.4 2.9 | 53 0.0 | 2.9 1909 35 120 23 3.1 4.2 | 40 0.0 | 4.2 1910 36 80 12 1.5 2.2 | 27 0.0 | 2.2 ------------------------------------------------------- TOTAL 3710 159 17.7 56.5 | 1237 0.3 | 56.8 Hypothetical MLB career rankings (1871–1960) Innings pitched: 32nd Pitching Wins Above Average: 81st Pitching Wins Above Replacement: 37th Total Wins Above Replacement (pitchers only): t-40th
Royer was a star in the 1890s, so we treated him like a top-of-the-rotation pitcher from 1897-1901, which is where all the innings are coming from. This is a very good but not great pitcher as we now estimate him. Perhaps if additional data arrives that fills in some of the front-half of his career, we’ll get a better idea of his performance. As it stands now, we have two big years plus the backside of his body of work.
* * *
Next time, we dust off our rhythmic hand clapping for centerfield. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and we’ll start with Bernardo Baro, Jerry Benjamin, Gene Benson, and Irvin Brooks.
Relief pitching is valuable. Relief pitchers, no so much.
Strange way to begin a post about the best pitchers of all-time since clearly none of the top-20 are relievers. But I’m reminding you of this maxim both to preview our six pitching posts (we’ll get through the top-120) and to make a point.
Eric and I have some fundamental differences on how we rank pitchers. Eric applies a correction, essentially, for what he calls the Schoenfield Paradox. Named for ESPN writer David Schoenfield, the Schoenfield Paradox is the idea that it’s easier to stand out from your peers when there are fewer great players in the league. By reading Schoenfield’s post and then Eric’s, you’ll understand my point much more clearly. I’ll wait.
Okay then. Let me generalize a bit. Eric and I look at the old timey pitchers differently. He sees guys who didn’t outperform their peers by an incredible amount. And he’s right. What I see is hurlers who pitched a larger percentage of their team’s innings than at any other time in history. Those innings have value – in the same way that the lack of innings for closers mean they don’t have much value.
I might run into trouble in ten or twenty years when we go to elect pitchers of today’s era. Will they have enough innings to accumulate the value needed to get into the HoME? I fear they won’t. Luckily, there’s a lot of time to debate and learn until then.
Enjoy the six pitcher posts in the series! And check out all of our rankings below.
[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]
There are two reasons. First, given that there are so many more pitchers than players at any other position on the diamond, it’s harder to reach the top-20. Second, Clayton Kershaw just turned 30 (and is injured frequently enough that he may never make it).—Miller
Kershaw is in the low thirties in my rankings. He’s the highest active or recently retired pitcher on this list. Pitchers just don’t throw many innings, something like ten to thirty percent fewer than the generation that included Clemens, Maddux, and Glavine. That’s it in a nutshell. But let’s poke at this a sec.
This year, Kevin Cash made the theoretical leap. He started Sergio Romo to get through the first inning or two and then turned it over to…a starting pitcher who would go twice through the lineup and would, in turn, hand it over to the late-inning relievers. This is an utterly brilliant tactic. The first inning is the highest scoring, the only inning where the offense gets to determine its sequence of hitters and stack their best bats at the top of the lineup. Combine that with the fact that most pitchers get creamed their third time through the batting order, and it’s a readymade bullpen situation. That is, if a team is willing to see the tactical opportunity and think outside the traditional starter/reliever box. My golly who would get the win???
But in terms of the question at hand, that theoretical leap may be the beginning of the end of the normative model of starting pitching. We have arrived at a point where there are three kinds of pitchers: Excellent starters who can get through a lineup three times; pitchers who can get through it twice most days; and relievers. Well, the second group is why relief pitching in the first inning is a great idea. Depending on a team’s depth, anyone from your number two starter through your number five will fall into that second group. Most relievers are fungible. So that just leaves our excellent starters. Maybe they number thirty or forty? Then again, with injuries and attrition how can you know? But they are fast becoming the focus guys on a pitching staff. Not just the best pitchers on the staff, but ones who need to go seven innings to keep the bullpen from getting too worn out. With thirteen-man staffs, this model may work with lots of roster manipulation to get fresh arms into the backend of the bullpen. But it will place an awful lot of pressure on the top-end starter, and, I suspect lead to much higher season-to-season variance in team performance.
Or I could be completely wrong about this….—Eric
Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. More on them later.—Eric
I’ve talked about Rick Reuschel possibly being the most underrated player in baseball history. What about Phil Niekro? It’s hard to think of someone in the Hall of Fame as underrated, but Niekro is for a ton of reasons. He threw a gimmick pitch. He played for terrible teams. He wasn’t good as a young player. He led the league in losses four years in a row when people really cared about losses. And he pitched during the glory days of National League pitching. But do you know who had the most pitching war in all of baseball for the 69 years from 1929-1997? Well, that, my friends, was Tom Seaver. Yeah, Seaver was better than Niekro. But nobody else was. Yes, my start and end points are artificial. Add 1928, and Lefty Grove was better too. Add 1998, and you have Roger Clemens ahead of Niekro. Still, think about this for a second, Phil Niekro had the second most pitching WAR in the game for 69 years. It doesn’t matter that I’m manipulating the start and end dates. That stat is amazing.—Miller
Not in the top-20 since we have the exact same 20 guys, but the disagreements are coming.—Miller
As noted by Miller above, the biggest disagreement we have lies in our disposition toward older pitchers. I have never felt comfortable comparing contemporary pitchers to those from times when 300 innings were either a partial season, the norm, the norm for a quality pitcher, or a total achieved by the very best pitchers. The last time someone threw 300 innings in MLB, Barry Bonds was in high school, Anwar Sadat was alive, the White House still had solar panels, and the most a wristwatch could do was multiply and divide. No pitcher since the 1980s has thrown 280 innings. The last time someone rung up even 250 innings was in 2011 (Justin Verlander, 251). Nary a pitcher has reached 240 since 2014 when David Price and Johnny Cueto turned the trick.
On the other side of the coin, in 1884, Pud Galvin established the never-to-be-broken record of 20.5 WAR in a single season. Tossing 636 innings helps. 20.5 pitching WAR is about three times what our best pitchers this year will earn. Pitchers across history have racked up “just” ten WAR 118 times. Only 51 of those season came after 1901. Only twenty of them came after integration. Only nine since the adoption of the DH. Only four since 2000. Just one since 2002. In my mind, comparing Zack Grienke’s 10.4 WAR in 2009 to the 10.5 that Jim McCormick picked up in 1880 does not compute. A supermajorty of Grienke’s value in 2009 was marginal: 8.3 WAA and 10.4 WAR. Less than 50% of McCormick’s value lay above average.
My solution is to retain pitchers’ value above average and debit their value between replacement and average to resemble contemporary pitchers. It is not, shall we say, theoretically sound, but it produces reasonable results that I can comprehend. And, as we’ll see soon, it pushes Miller and I apart on several important candidates.—Eric
Just to be clear here, in my opinion, there’s nothing at all wrong with Eric’s direction (nor mine, I hope).—Miller
Having just explained a bit about how I look at pitchers, yes, my method may insert some instability into the system. Especially because I use a rate-based component to dole out bonuses. This probably puts two groups to the advantage. Modern starters whose value is more concentrated into fewer innings may benefit a bit. So too might the olde tyme guys. Even though I adjust their innings, I keep so much of their WAA that they get a little boost by the change in the resultant change in denominator.—Eric
Bias is a funny thing. I really want to find an angle to show that Phil Niekro isn’t one of the 13-14 best pitchers ever. Maybe he isn’t. I think, for example, if we needed just one start from a pitcher of the era, most would take Steve Carlton over Niekro. Also, Knucksie’s lack of October experience could drop him behind a guy or three. But man, it’s a sad commentary when I want to trust my gut more than my system. It’s also possible we overrate Gaylord Perry some. As just the fifth best pitcher of his era, perhaps he’s not the 18th or 19th best ever. Is Pedro Martinez, the fourth best pitcher of his era, the 9th or 12th best ever? And where would Clemens have been if his game weren’t chemically enhanced for its last 43% (just my entirely unsubstantiated opinion and that of a hater)?
Stop by a week from today for pitchers 21-40.
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.
There are only three pitchers who have any legitimate claim as the best in baseball history, at least for my money. One is Roger Clemens. In order for you to call him the best ever, you have to adjust quite a bit for era, which is something a reasonable person may choose to do. Clemens pitched at a time of diminishing innings, five-man rotations, and changing expectations. Of course, you may also have to ignore PED allegations to say he’s the best. As someone who hardly adjusts for era, I couldn’t call Roger the best ever. Nor could I give that title to Satchel Paige. Oh, he may have been. But even with the incredible work Eric is doing to help us better understand Negro League statistics, there is too much left to legend and guesswork to anoint Satch the best ever.
That leaves one guy.
Oh, wait, I’m not an ex-player voting for the Hall of Fame using only selected memories.
That leaves one guy.
Walter Johnson was the Babe Ruth of pitchers. He was the Willie Mays of pitchers. He was the Mike Trout of pitchers. Hell, he was the Cy Young of pitchers. Just in terms of straight pitching WAR, he was over 10 on six occasions. Since 1910, he’s had the best season on the mound. And the second best. And five of the best 16. So since 1910, there have been 16 seasons of at least 11.2 on the mound. The Big Train had five of them. All other pitchers in the last 118 years had the other 11.
Yeah, Walter Johnson is the best pitcher in baseball history.
#10 Wilbur Cooper: To me, Cooper is a borderline HoMEr, though just on the wrong side of the borderline. And he’s my favorite pitcher ever named “Wilbur”, which is saying something in a battle with Wilbur Wood. Cooper was more very solid than great, eight times in the period we’re covering reaching 3.8 WAR on the mound but never topping 7.0. Still, Cooper is an all-time great Pirate, first in wins, second in pitching WAR, and third in strikeouts in the team’s history. Alas, the Pirates never made it to the World Series during Cooper’s time there, instead waiting until the first season he was gone to get there. A fine pitcher, Cooper is worth just 29% of that of our decade leader.
#9 Nap Rucker: It’s a little surprising to see Rucker on this list since his last full season was 1913, though at only 32% of our leader, I guess nothing is too surprising. The lefty’s 134-134 career mark somewhat obscures his talent since his team played at a frighteningly bad .430 rate when he wasn’t on the mound. I think it’s so interesting how team names change. The team for whom Clayton Kershaw has played his whole career was the Brooklyn Dodgers for 47 years. We all know that. But they were the Brooklyn Robins for 18 years before that. And they were the Brooklyn Superbas for 15 years before that, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for the eleven before that, the Brooklyn Grooms for the previous five, the Brooklyn Gray for the three prior, and the Brooklyn Atlantics in their inaugural campaign of 1884. Ask a Dodger fan what names his/her team has gone by. I’d bet not more than 2% can name them all.
#8 Eddie Plank: We’re taking a guy with 35% of our decade leader a little out of order here. Plank was more of a pitcher of the previous decade, and a great one at that, charting #3 on our list. We drop him one spot here since a little more of his “decade” total than I want is based on his work outside the decade. On the other hand, he did pitch further into the decade than Rucker. At 326 wins without a victory title, I soooo wanted to say that Plank had the most in his career without such a title. But I can’t. Pud Galvin won 46 games in both 1883 and 1884. But Old Hoss Radbourn beat him both years. And Charlie Buffinton beat him in 1884 too. For trivia, we can call him the all-time lefty victory leader until he was passed by Warren Spahn and later Steve Carlton.
#7 Hippo Vaughn: Yes, he was given his nickname for reasons you can imagine. Known most today for a 1917 game in which he and Fred Toney each threw no-hitters, Vaughn was indeed a star, particularly from 1916-1919 when his pitching WAR never fell below 6.5. At just 34% of our decade leader, he was still a great pitcher. The end came quickly for Vaughn though. A 1921 season that saw him post a 6.01 ERA through 17 games ended on July 9 outing. After that, he never again showed up to the team. Read about this story. Fascinating. Odd.
#6 Babe Adams: Were it not for the four innings tossed for the 1906 Cardinals, Adams would be a member of the HoME’s Pirate Rushmore. As it is, he’s a borderline HoMEr with over 50 career WAR and 36% of our decade’s leader in what I’m calling value. Adams had an interesting career, not really getting going until he was 27, basically getting released because of a bum shoulder, pitching in the minors for two years, and returning to star or quasi-star status from age 37-40. No blurb about Adams is complete without mention of his three complete game victories against the Tigers in the 1909 World Series.
#5 Ed Walsh: At fifth best, he still clocks in at only 39% of our decade leader. Walsh is in the Hall, he was 7th on last decade’s list, and he has the best ERA ever. I should make a resolution for 2019 where I read one SABR Bio Project profile every day. Walsh’s suggests he was somewhat of the pitching equivalent to Keith Hernandez, attacking bunts like a hungry animal might attack a fresh kill.
#4 Eddie Cicotte: You may know Cicotte as the pitcher whose plunking of Morrie Rath to open the 1919 World Series let the conspirators know that the fix was in. He was also one of the greatest pitchers ever. Since the start of the American League, there have been only five better pitchers from age 33-36 in either league. And despite his removal from the game when he was still near his peak, he’s 73rd in career WAR on the mound. At 41% of our decade leader, he’s the only one of our top four who isn’t among the ten best ever to play the game.
#3 Christy Mathewson: Perhaps you could say that Mathewson is to Walter Johnson as Greg Maddux is to Roger Clemens – one of the absolute greatest ever but pretty clearly a shade behind. In this decade he went 2-4 in the World Series with a 1.33 ERA in eight starts. In the previous decade, 1905 specifically, he made three starts, threw three shutouts, and won games 1, 3, and 5 as his Giants beat the A’s in five games. The second best pitcher of the previous decade, Big Six boasts 42% of the value of our decade leader.
#2 Pete Alexander: I love fun trivia! ‘Ol Pete was named for President Grover Cleveland and portrayed by President Ronald Reagan in The Winning Team. Since 1915, Alexander had three seasons of 30 or more wins. All other pitchers in the game did so on only four occasions. He shares the record for most pitching triple crowns (3) with Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax. And in what was one of the greatest decades by a pitcher ever (one of seven pitchers ever with 100 points by my formula), he’s not quite worth 2/3 of our leader.
#1 Walter Johnson: With apologies to Cy Young’s shortened decade of the 1890s, I have absolutely no trouble saying that Walter Johnson’s 1910s represent the best decade by any pitcher ever. For this decade, I count 100% of WAR from 1910-1919, 90% from 1909 and 1921, 80% from 1908 and 1922, 70% from 1907 and 1923, and 10% of his career mark for reasons I sort of explain here. There are the best seven scores I referred to above:
Player Decade Score Walter Johnson 1910s 151.34 Cy Young 1900s 115.06 Cy Young 1890s 112.48 Roger Clemens 1990s 103.75 Lefty Grove 1930s 102.21 Tom Seaver 1970s 101.50 Pete Alexander 1910s 100.02
Can the Big Train produce another championship in the 1920s? Find out in a week.
Not too long ago I read a tweet calling Jim Palmer an inner circle Hall of Famer. I immediately recoiled. Then I did what any stats guy or gal would do. I got out my spreadsheet.
What I found is Palmer’s name next to the number 31 among hurlers. When I last checked with Eric, he had Palmer 35th. And by JAWS, he’s 37th. I was satisfied; I felt my initial reaction was pretty much justified. But then I thought some more and realized that if I’m going to take pride in what I thought was a correct reaction, I’d better have an answer to who belongs in the inner circle.
So let’s think about the HoME. As of today, we’ve inducted 220 players. How many of those players do we think should be in the inner circle? Through the magic of BBREF, I know that there have been approximately 19,100 players in major league history. That means one out of 86 or 87 players ever is in the HoME. If we took the same percentage as the inner circle, we’d be looking at three guys, maybe Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Walter Johnson. Maybe. But three guys don’t form a good circle.
Let’s reconsider. If, for example, we consider only hitters who had extensive careers, perhaps we put the mark at 5,000 plate appearances. Then we may have something. There are just shy of 1,000 hitters at that level, and there are about 160 hitters in the HoME. So about 16% of all players with what I’m calling extensive careers are in the HoME. And if we take 16% of the players in the HoME, we have 35 players in the HoME’s inner circle. That would be 9-10 pitchers and 25-26 hitters. And that seems reasonable enough.
So by my fictional and unofficial standard, here’s the inner circle of the Hall of Miller and Eric, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.
C: Johnny Bench
1B: Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Cap Anson, Jimmie Foxx, Roger Connor
2B: Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Joe Morgan
3B: Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews
SS: Honus Wagner
LF: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson
CF: Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle
RF: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente
P: Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Roger Clemens, Pete Alexander, Kid Nichols, Tom Seaver, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson
Do you think my inner circle is too large? Too small? Missing someone? Please let me know in the comments.
The Twins have had a storied, though not necessarily all that impressive, history. Among those who have been around since 1901 or earlier, only the Orioles have a worse record as a franchise than the Senators/Twins. From 1901-1960, they were the “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League” Washington Senators who won only the 1924 World Series. Since 1961, they’ve been the Twins, and have had a somewhat more successful run, winning in 1987 and 1991.
Rod Carew, the team’s second best player left for the riches of California when he became a free agent. Harmon Killebrew played 106 games in Kansas City. And Sam Rice played 97 in Cleveland. Overall, this has been a remarkably stable franchise for one that hasn’t been too good.
In the top-24 in Twin/Senator history area a pretty incredible six guys who don’t make the list. Ossie Bluege, a third baseman from the 1920s and 1930s, is 23rd on their list. Though he played 13 seasons in which he topped 300 trips to the plate, only twice did he top 3 WAR. Shortstop and third baseman Cecil Travis played in the 1930s and 1940s and is 21st in franchise history in WAR, and he was particularly good from 1937-1941, 13th best among position players over those years. Kent Hrbek is 14th all-time in the team’s history. Ten times he hit 20 homers. Seven times he reached 3 WAR. And twice he won a World Series. Clyde Milan, a center fielder from 1907-1922, is 13th all-time in MIN/WAS WAR. I rank him right with Dom DiMaggio among center fielders, eleven times reaching 2+ WAR. And finally, Tony Oliva ranks 11th in franchise WAR. He led the AL in hits five times, doubles four times, and batting average three times. During his 1964-1971 prime, he was the ninth best position player in the game. Each of the best eight are in the HoME.
Walter Johnson: He’s the best player in baseball history who only played for one team. His career WAR having nothing to do with pitching is the same as Cesar Geronimo, better than Lyman Bostock or Wally Backman.
Kirby Puckett: Smiling is powerful, really it is. Same with batting average and World Series moments. During his career, he was a good player, not a great one. Only twice did he reach 5 WAR. Post-career, Puckett had a number of struggles, but we don’t seem to remember those. Of course, we remember the home run in the 1991 World Series. We love the .318 batting average too. As many chances as I can, I like to remind folks that I rank Puckett behind Chet Lemon, Willie Wilson, Brett Butler, and Johnny Damon in center field. You may not, which is fine. They’re close. But I have no doubt they’re close. And that means Puckett is no Hall of Famer, no matter how much he smiled.
Joe Mauer: Catchers break. Mauer is another in a long line of examples. The good news for Mauer is that when he was at his best, he was truly great, posting five seasons of at least 5 WAR. His 2009 MVP season was absolutely the best of his career. It was one that produced a triple slash triple crown, a pretty amazing achievement for a guy with only one season over 13 homers in his career. What happens after next year when Mauer becomes a free agent is anyone’s guess. I don’t think he’ll be valuable enough to give full-time at-bats. But I expect someone will start him if he wants. We’ll see.
Brad Radke: An underrated pitcher at a time when a lot of pitchers were underrated. He only topped a dozen wins three times. He had a career record of 148-139, and he has a 4.22 career ERA. Of course his record wasn’t great; the Twins weren’t always great when he pitched, and he got a little unlucky. And if you like a shiny ERA, Radke pitched at exactly the worst time in history. Neutralized stats at BBREF give him a 3.39 career mark, one that feels much more in line with his talent. In a world where Herb Pennock is in the Hall of Fame, it wouldn’t be disgusting to induct Radke too. Of course, that says more about the mistake that was Pennock than about Radke.
Rod Carew: Each of his seven batting titles and his MVP were in Minnesota. From 1973-1977 he hit .358, which I suppose is a modern equivalent to Rogers Hornsby hitting .402 from 1921-1925. He’s also on one of my all-time favorite baseball cards.
Harmon Killebrew: All Killer did was hit homers. While that’s not precisely true, of course, the statement does have merit for the six-time home run king, 1969 MVP, and guy on the outside of the HoME looking in. Yes, his bat was worth 487 runs, which is good for 43rd ever. Of course, he gave back 78 because of defense, 77 more because of his position, 27 because he grounded into a lot of double plays, and another 24 because he was super slow on the bases. He’s still good, but 115th in WAR is no 43rd with just the bat. He so clearly belongs on this list though.
Joe Mauer: It’s him or Puckett since I’ll go with a modern guy over Sam Rice. Mauer is still sort of producing, and by the time you read this, he’s likely to be ahead of Puckett in career WAR.
Check out the New York Met Mount Rushmore next.
The story of Bert Blyleven’s fourteen year odyssey to the Hall of Fame has been told plenty of times by writers much more talented than I am. The story of his greatness doesn’t need to be retold – except that it does. My rankings say Blyleven is the 14th best pitcher ever, better than Pedro Martinez, Steve Carlton, Carl Hubbell, and Bob Feller. Those are my rankings, and even I forget how great he was.
Eric and I are in the process of filling the Pioneer/Executive wing of the HoME. As part of that journey, we’re doing some pretty extensive research into the careers of coaches. One of my charges is Dave Duncan, so I’m applying Eric’s methodology and looking at comparable players by IP and ERA+ to those Duncan coached. Bert Blyleven and Duncan met up in Cleveland in 1981, so I searched for similar players to Bert Blyleven through age 29, which is how old he was the year before he got to Cleveland. Normally the window we use is 20 years before the pitcher’s rookie season to 20 years after it. That was we’re looking at players of a comparable era. And we want 20 comparable pitchers.
That’s where the problem begins. The only pitcher in that time frame within 5 ER+ points and 400 innings of Blyleven is Don Drysdale. If we open things up another 10 years, another 5 ERA+ points, and another 400 innings on both sides, we add only seven more pitchers. In other words, through age 29, Blyleven was a very uncommon pitcher. Generally speaking, the more uncommon a player, the greater.
How uncommon was Blyleven? I’d say 25 is pretty young for a pitcher, and I’d say 35 is getting old. What I did was to look for players better than Blyleven through age 25 and those better than him from age 35 on, using pitching WAR and ERA+ as measures of “better”. And I limited things to post-WWII so we’re comparing apples to things generally resembling apples.
Through age 25, Blyleven had 44 WAR and an ERA+ of 132. Since WWII, there’s not one single pitcher who can match those numbers. If we drop WAR to 34 and ERA+ to 122, only Don Drysdale makes the list. If we drop WAR to 29 and ERA+ to 117, we add only Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley, Dwight Gooden, Clayton Kershaw, Robin Roberts, Bret Saberhagen, and Frank Tanana. In all of history, only Kid Nichols, Walter Johnson, Al Spalding, and Noodles Hahn were better than Blyleven in both categories. Blyleven was indeed a great young player.
From age 35 until he retired, Blyleven had 14.1 WAR and an ERA+ of 98. Those aren’t amazing numbers, right? And still, only 39 retired pitchers join him on that list. And if we limit it to guys who pitched as few innings as Blyleven did, it’s only 13 pitchers. All but three of those eligible and on that list are in the HoME. So Blyleven was a pretty great old player too.
Oh, and not a single pitcher joins Blyleven on both lists. Yet I think we still underrate Bert Blyleven. Since WWII, do you know who tops him in WAR and ERA+ for his career? It’s Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. That’s it. If we take all of baseball history, only Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Kid Nichols, and Lefty Grove join the list. That’s right. In all of history there are only ten pitchers who beat Blyleven in WAR and ERA+.
Maybe you don’t like WAR and ERA+ as stats. Maybe you wouldn’t use 25 and 35 as cut offs for young and old. Maybe you’re troubled by other methodology. Okay, I could see a reasonable person being troubled by any one piece. But not all of it, right?
I think the inability of the BBWAA to get it right thirteen consecutive years has tarnished Blyleven’s reputation for a couple of generations of fans. He wasn’t just great. He’s not just deserving of a plaque in Cooperstown. He’s an inner-circle Hall of Famer. He is absolutely one of the best players ever to throw a pitch.