(Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website)
I was going to write about Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and the greatest pitchers of all time, but I’ll get to that later. This week I wanted to write about Frank Sullivan, who pitched for the Red Sox in the late 1950s.
Sullivan isn’t well remembered today, particularly outside of Boston. He wasn’t on the Globe’s “Top 100 New England sports figures” list. I hadn’t even heard of him until I ran accross his stat line in my handy STATS All-Time Sourcebook, and I’ve heard of nearly everybody. His career record isn’t impressive: 97-100, with a 3.60 ERA. Numbers don’t lie, but they can certainly deceive, and this is such a case. Because, for a few years there, Frank Sullivan was a heck of a pitcher.
Sullivan pitched briefly for the Sox in 1953, and joined the rotation to stay at age 24 in 1954. Here are Sullivan’s numbers from 1954 to 1958:
Sullivan led the AL in wins and innings pitched in 1955, and was fifth in the league in ERA in 1955 and 1957. Pretty good, you say, but still not numbers that say “superstar.” What the numbers don’t show, however, is that Sullivan carried a heavy burden: Fenway.
Park effects change over time, with small shifts in the park and other parks, in weather and visibility. Fenway was never a more extreme hitters’ haven than it was in the mid-1950s, and as a result Sullivan’s numbers suffered, plus the Sox offense looked a lot better than it really was. In fact, until Pete Runnels arrived, Ted Williams and Jackie Jensen were the only consistent hitters on those teams, and Williams was in his late thirties and hurt about a third of the time. Compared to Red Sox road games, scoring at Fenway in those years was up 8%, 56%, 8%, 24%, and 12%, respectively.
What, I wondered, would Sullivan have done under friendlier conditions? So,
I took a look at some of the best times a pitcher ever had: Sandy Koufax, 1962-66. Not only was scoring much lower in the 1960s, but with walks way down (dropping by about a third from the mid-50s), pitchers in Koufax’s time were able to throw fewer pitches, and thus toss many more innings and get many more decisions. Add to that Dodger Stadium, which reduced scoring in those years by 18%, 16%, 22%, 24%, and 14%, respectively. And, the Dodgers of that era, while thought of today as a weak-hitting team, actually had a monster offense in 1962-63 and an above average one for the next two years.
Anyway, adjusting Sullivan’s ERA downward by 1/2 of each “park factor” (after
all, half his games were on the road), and adjusting his innings and decisions upward by an average of the league leaders, and adjusting his record for the differences in the offenses of his and Koufax’s teams, we get a profile of a completely different pitcher:
Wow. Was Frank Sullivan as good as Koufax? Of course not, and I won’t
embarrass him by putting Koufax’s numbers next to these. (I will wait until
a later column to embarrass Koufax by putting adjusted numbers for Pedro
next to Koufax). But, the Dodgers’ number two starter, Don Drysdale, is actually a very close comparison:
Sullivan’s adjusted ERA and won-loss record are significantly better, although Drysdale was still more of a workhorse. Remember, these are the seasons that put Drysdale in the Hall of Fame. Plus, we’re not even adjusting for the Dodgers’ superior defense compared to the plodding Sox of the 50s. Drysdale was six years younger than Sullivan; both were big (Sullivan, 6’6″, Drysdale, 6’5″), righthanded and from Southern California.
Now, we can’t know if Sullivan would actually have been as dominant as Drysdale if he’d had the same opportunities; but we also can’t know if Drysdale would have fared as well under adverse conditions as Sullivan did. But, I would submit that, for these five seasons, compared to the other pitchers of his era, Frank Sullivan was every bit as valuable to the Red Sox as Don Drysdale was to the Dodgers in his prime.
For this, Drysdale became a legend, going to Cooperstown and appearing on
“the Brady Bunch,” not in that order; Sullivan is largely forgotten. Of course, Drysdale did have other good years, while this was pretty much it for Sullivan. After carrying a heavy workload from age 25-27, Sullivan started to lose effectiveness, and was a disastrous 9-32 in 1960-61 for the Sox and Phillies; he was out of the league by age 33.
I’m not suggesting that we put Frank Sullivan in the Hall of Fame, and I’m not even 100% sure I would put him on the Globe’s list over Jim Lonborg or Rico Petrocelli. But he was quite a pitcher for five years, and that’s something worth remembering.
QUOTE: “Benito Santiago steps in . . . you know, Santiago is Spanish for San
Francisco.” — Ralph Kiner
TRIVIA QUIZ (answer to follow in the next column): In 1884, a National League team led by Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn defeated the Detroit Wolverines of the American Association in Major League Baseball’s first-ever postseason series. What city did the NL team hail from?