Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 15, 2013
The 350-399 Win Club
Let's move a little more quickly through the rest of the list, stopping to highlight a few things along the way.
In the 350-399 win range, we encounter the question of "cheating," as the 350-win club includes two known steroid users and three known spitballers. Besides Roger Clemens, the other "steroid" user is Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, who experimented briefly with a testosterone elixir (probably an ineffectual patent medicine), drinking it openly on the field as it was not illegal at the time. Galvin was just a slightly above-average pitcher but a ridiculous workhorse even for his day, averaging 495 innings a year for a decade from age 22-31; he died at 45 from stomach inflammation. The spitball story is a similar one: Burleigh Grimes was one of the men "grandfathered" and thus allowed to throw a legal spitball in the 1920s, whereas Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton were both famous and illegal defacers of the ball. I mentioned the study of High Quality Starts: the only two pitchers to make 300 of them since 1920 are Sutton (310) and Clemens (308).
Sutton was sort of the poor man's Spahn: his season ERAs and other stats were rarely eye-popping, but he started 27 games and pitcher 207 innings in 1968, 23 games in the strike-shortened 1981, but otherwise started at least 31 games in each of the other 20 seasons between 1966 and 1987. His second season, 1967, was his only really poor year, although a number of others were more modestly subpar. His only real injury was while bunting in September 1980. Ask any manager how valuable it is to have a guy you can just pencil in the rotation and leave him there for 22 years.
Perry was 32 years old when the Giants traded him for Sam McDowell, who was four years younger, in December 1971. Perry won 180 more games, McDowell won 19. It's hard today to believe the workloads that Perry carried within living memory: he averaged 321 innings, 39 starts and 25 complete games a year from age 30-36, 1969-75, the last three of those against lineups that used the DH. Yet he stayed healthy enough to win the Cy Young at 39 and pitch until he was 44.
I had always just assumed that Phil Niekro's late start in the majors was wholly due to learning the knuckleball, but he missed his age-24 season in the military in 1963. In 1982, at age 43, Niekro threw a 2-hit shutout against the Giants (with whom the Braves entered the game tied for second place) on September 27, then came back and threw a 3-hit, no-walk shutout on 3 days' rest against the Padres; they were his only two shutouts of the year, and gave Joe Torre's Braves the division by one game over the Dodgers.
Christy Mathewson, who shares the NL career win record with Alexander, also shares having his life ruined by World War I; Mathewson inhaled poison gas during a training exercise, wrecking his lungs. He was already at the end of his playing career (he had hit the wall after age 33), but the illness ended his managing career and he would be dead of tuberculosis by age 45. Mathewson, who threw straight overhand with tremendous control and the very occasional deployment of his devastating "fadeaway" (a precursor to the screwball) was a preposterous 303-120 with a 1.91 ERA from 1903-1913, age 22-32, and at the peak of the Giants-Cubs rivalry in 1908-09, he went 62-17 with a 1.31 ERA while Three Finger Brown, the Cubs' ace, went 56-18 with a 1.39 ERA. In the 1905 World Series, Matty would throw three shutouts in six days; in the 1919 World Series, recuperating in the press box, he was one of the few men willing to question whether the Series was on the level.
Tom Glavine should skate into the Hall on the strength of 305 wins, five 20-win seasons and leading the National League in starts six times. As a Mets fan I don't recall him as fondly as many Braves fans do, especially given his role in the 2007 season-ending collapse (he gave up seven runs and retired just one batter in the first inning of Game 162; the Mets had entered the final day tied for first), but Glavine in his one postseason trip for the Mets in 2006 was 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA.
I'm listing separately the pitchers who won less than half their games in the majors. Thomas, the winningest minor league pitcher ever, was a wandering control pitcher in the low minors in a hitters' era; he was 244-258 with a career ERA around 3.53 through age 38 before he started rolling up good won-loss records against war-depleted Southern Association competition, so there's no real reason to think he would have been a top major league pitcher. Freitas, by contrast, had some modest if fleeting success in the majors and rolled up most of his wins in the Pacific Coast League.
The 325-349 Win Club
Dazzy Vance was, as measured relative to the league, the highest-strikeout pitcher of all time, despite not winning a major league game until he was 31. Vance's rate of strikeouts per batter faced was 222% of the league average, 228% in his power-pitching prime from age 31-42. Nobody else is over 200% career, although Bob Feller, Grove and Rube Waddell are all over 200% if you focus on their prime years. Vance may have had some unique help from Ebbetts Field (it was said that he bleached his pitching sleeve and often threw against the backdrop of white laundry hung by Brooklyn housewives from clotheslines behind the park); the numbers show that from 1922-32, the years he was with the Dodgers, he had a 2.67 ERA and averaged 7.3 K per 9 innings at home, a 3.67 ERA and 5.1 K/9 on the road. Grimes, his teammate, had a 2.70 ERA at Ebbets from 1918-26, 3.38 on the road, but wasn't a big strikeout pitcher (1.7 K/9 at home, 1.4 on the road).
Mordecai Peter Centennial "Three Finger" Brown, one of baseball's unique stories due to the boyhood farm accident that left him with a mangled pitching hand that naturally threw curveballs, didn't even play in the minors until he was 24. Brown's teams had among the best team defenses in baseball history, a great edge for a guy who, from 1906-09, walked just 1.6 batters per 9 innings and allowed 5 home runs in 1165.1 innings. Yet, by 1911, Brown was making nearly half his appearances in relief (between 1906-11, he is credited with 38 shutouts and 38 saves).
Stan Coveleski is one of those Hall of Famers whose resume of a high-quality but relatively short career (his ERA+ from age 27-35 is a sterling 136) looks more impressive when you throw in 127 minor league wins between age 19-25.
Eddie Plank is the first pitcher we encounter here who never pitched in the minors; lefthanded pitching was sufficiently rare in baseball's early days that when Plank retired, he had won 129 more games than any other lefty.
Ted Breitenstein holds some quasi-legitimate records for most hits and runs allowed in a season, their legitimacy based on drawing the recordbooks' line across 1893, the year the mound was moved back to 60 feet six inches. Relocating to the more lenient Southern Association after the turn of the century, he posted a 2.02 ERA from age 32-42, including ERAs of 1.05, 1.33, 1.48, and 1.53.
Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract, picked longtime Pacific Coast League hurler Frank Shellenback as the best minor league pitcher of all time; he was a spitballer cut by the White Sox in mid-1919 who had the misfortune of being in the minors and not "grandfathered" when the pitch was outlawed the following year.
The 300-324 Win Club
Tony Mullane is best known for being Irish-born and ambidextrous, occasionally toying with throwing with each hand; he won 284 big-league games despite missing the 1885 season, at the age of 26, after being suspended for jumping a contract. Mullane averaged 34 wins a year the prior three seasons and 30 a year the next three, so he would have easily had 300. But perhaps it's just as well, given how he treated his catcher, African-American pioneer Fleet Walker, in 1884:
“Moses Fleetwood Walker was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him, I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking for the signals,” wrote Mullane of Walker, his former teammate with the Toledo Blue Stockings. “One day he signaled me for a curve ball and I shot a fast ball at him. He caught it and walked down to me. He said: ‘I’ll catch you without signals but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you signals.’ And all the rest of the season he caught me and caught anything I threw. I pitched without him knowing what was coming.”
Mullane threw 63 wild pitches in 64 starts that year; Walker was charged with 72 passed balls in 41 games, albeit not that many more than teammate Deacon McGuire (66 in 41 games).
Andy Pettitte finishes up as a 275 game winner in the majors if you include the postseason.
Babe Adams, a control specialist, had a really remarkable baseball odyssey, going back to the minors four times over his career yet pitching all but one of his big-league games between ages 25 and 44 for the Pirates, for whom he was the hero of the 1909 World Series and would make his last World Series appearance as a 43 year old in 1925. From 1919-22, Adams walked 74 batters in 857.2 innings.
Bert Blyleven, the best pitcher born in Holland, had 167 wins and a career ERA+ of 127 in 3000.2 innings from age 19-30; Sandy Koufax had 165 wins and a career ERA+ of 131 in 2324.1 innings from age 19-30. Blyleven would win 131 more games, including three seasons when he was in the top 4 of the Cy Young balloting after age 30; Koufax was retired at 30. Oddly, Blyleven, the last man to throw 20 complete games, holds the single season record for no-decisions, with 20.
Chief Bender and Jesse Haines are both marginal Hall of Famers (in Haines' case, far below marginal) who pitched multiple big World Series games and had long minor league records. Bender won 212 games between age 19-33, left baseball to spend a year working in the shipyards to support the war effort in 1918 (I don't credit him for missed time because he wasn't actually in the military, but that may be a quibble), then had a second act in the minors starting with a season of 29-2 with a 1.06 ERA in the lowly Virginia League in 1919. He made one more brief cameo in the majors at 41, and had a 1.33 ERA in the Middle Atlantic League in his professional coda at 43.
There are four great pitchers who really stand out from their own contemporaries for their workloads at their peak, relative to the years they pitched in: Robin Roberts in the early 50s, Bob Feller in the late 30s to the season of his return from the war, Phil Niekro in the late 70s, and John Clarkson in the mid-late 1880s. But Niekro was a knuckleballer, and Clarkson was just doing what everybody else had been doing 5 years earlier; only 12 pitchers between 1924 and 1962 threw 320 innings in a season, and three of those were Roberts in consecutive seasons (in that 3-year stretch he averaged 338 innings and 31 complete games), and three others were Feller, albeit separated by four years in which Feller didn't pitch due to the war. Roberts tossed 300 innings six years in a row and less than 3 innings short of a seventh, at a time when the #2 workhorse in the game (Warren Spahn) was miles behind. Like Mariano Rivera, Roberts in his prime threw basically one pitch, a fastball with great movement and pinpoint control, and that put little strain on his arm.
Harry Krause led the AL in ERA at age 20 with a 1.39 mark in 1909, albeit on a team where Plank, Bender and Cy Morgan were all below 1.80. But he flamed out of the majors by age 23 and missed most of the A's dynasty that would follow.
The 275-299 Win Club
Whitey Ford started 156 career games in which the Yankees scored 6 runs or more, and never lost one of them. And he did that despite facing unusually stiff competition. In his rookie season, Ford made just 2 of his 12 starts against .500 or better teams - but from his return from the Army in 1953 until Casey Stengel's last season in 1960, Ford made more than half his starts against .500 or better teams. Partly that's because more than half the rest of the league was over .500 in those years, but in 1954, 1959 and 1960 there were only two other winning teams in the AL. One of the great what-ifs is what the early 50s World Serieses look like if Ford is on the 1951 and 1952 Yankees and Don Newcombe is on the 1952 and 1953 Dodgers instead of in the military (the 1952 and 1953 Serieses went to the Yankees in 7 and 6 games, respectively). From Ford's arrival in July 1950 through the end of the 1954 season, counting the postseason, the Yankees went 267-134 (a .666 winning percentage).
The best defensive support of any pitcher - most sophisticated fielding metrics place Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger among the four or five most valuable defensive players of all time, and that's before we get to Paul Blair - helped Jim Palmer throw a High Quality Start in 47.6% of his career starts, the best of any post-1920 pitcher.
We don't really have a full record of what Luis Tiant did before coming to the U.S., as he had been pitching since "age 16."
As I've noted before, Jack Morris actually had two great "years" that just weren't within a single season: from June 1, 1983 to May 31, 1984, Morris was 27-9 with a 2.36 ERA, with 24 complete games and 248 strikeouts in 317 innings; from July 5, 1986 through July 4, 1987, he went 26-5 with a 2.98 ERA. Had he done those in two single seasons, he might be in the Hall of Fame now even with the same relatively unimpressive career resume.
Jim Bagby, like Krause, tasted big-league greatness for a short time, winning 31 games in 1920 as the ace of the Indians' first World Championship team.
Satchel Paige started pitching in 1927 and was, in his last publicity-stunt start in the minors in 1966, a teammate of Johnny Bench. He went 21-12 with a 2.15 ERA at age 49-50 pitching for Miami in the International League in 1956-57. He threw shutouts in his second and third major league starts, at what was probably the age of 41. As uneven as the statistical record of his career is, every piece of it points to a tremendous pitcher, one who racked up 1990s-style strikeout rates against all types of competition between the 1920s and early 1940s and who was still far above the league strikeout average in the majors in his mid-40s.
The 250-274 Win Club
Two more notes on World War II here. One is Bob Feller, who missed more time to the war at his very peak than anybody and saw combat in the Navy aboard the USS Alabama, who went from a star at 17 to throwing out the first pitch in Cleveland at 90. As you can see from the chart of the great strikeout pitchers, Feller was a revolutionary strikeout pitcher. At age 17, he struck out 76 batters in 62 innings in the American League, over 11 men per 9 innings. While allowing just one home run. His ERA was 3.34, although he walked 6.8 men per 9. His numbers after joining the rotation August 23 were even more staggering: 8 starts, a 2.67 ERA, 41 hits allowed, 70 K (11.67 per 9). This, in a league where the average pitcher struck out 3.3 men per 9, walked 4, had a 5.04 ERA and the average hitter batted .289/.363/.421. Feller made the cover of Time Magazine in April of the next year, before an Opening Day start in which he fanned 11 men in 6 innings (Feller made just two more appearances, in relief, before joining the rotation on July 4; he had to finish high school first). In his second season, in 148.2 IP, Feller struck out 150 men at age 18, becoming as a teen the only man after 1889 outside the Federal League to clear a strikeout per inning for more than 100 innings. In those first two seasons, he was a strikeout-inducing force such as the game had not seen. And when he came home from the war, he joined Paige in a 1946 barnstorming tour that drew a quarter of a million fans and helped lay the groundwork for breaking the color line the following year - that in a year when Feller pitched 371.1 major league innings.
Then there's Hoyt Wilhelm, the last World War II vet to play in the majors - in the 1970s. In addition to 1,070 major league appearances, most of them as a reliever, after his rookie season at age 28 (he saved 227 games in the majors), Wilhelm also won 10 games in the minors in 1942 and won 20 games twice after returning from the war.
Rube Waddell's major league records tend to obscure the fact that his mound appearances came at highly irregular intervals, given his alcoholism and general child-like unreliability and frequent suspensions; when he was available, Connie Mack (really a pioneer of lefthanded pitching between Waddell, Plank and later Grove) would work him like a dray horse. In 1900, Waddell threw 208.2 innings for the Pirates and led the league in ERA, but actually was in the minors pitching for Mack for almost two months at the end of the year, going 10-3. In 1902, Waddell went 24-7 in 276.1 innings and led the AL in strikeouts, but what the final totals don't reveal is that he won his first game of the season in July; he had already gone 11-8 and thrown 167.2 innings on the West Coast.