Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Want to See Great Pitching? Hop into Your Time Machine

Do you think you are seeing some of the greatest pitchers ever when you watch Justin Verlander, or Roy Halladay, or C.C. Sabathia, or Jared Weaver? I'm not saying that they are not truly talented hurlers, but to see the very best you had to live a long time ago. There is one exception, but he's not a starter. Can you guess who that might be? See below. This is another two-parter for me – on accounta it's too long for one article, so I split it in two. Here goes part one.

How do you pick the best pitchers of all time? Well, you certainly can't base excellence on wins. What if a great pitcher played for a lousy team? You can’t base it on strikeouts because players stopped choking up on their bats and started swinging for the fences when home runs became popular. Can you imagine how many more strikeouts Walter Johnson would have had if he pitched in the 1950s or 1990s!

I am going to start with the other most obvious indicator of greatest, namely lifetime ERA and I am going to limit the analysis to the modern era, since 1900. So John Montgomery Ward with a 2.10 ERA from 1878 to 1884, and Jim Devlin with a 1.90 ERA from 1875 to 1877, and Albert Spalding with a 2.13 ERA from 1871 to 1878, and Tommy Bond with a 2.14 ERA from 1874 to 1884 are out of contention for greatest all time.

Here are the all-time top ten then. Ed Walsh 1.82, Addie Joss 1.89, Jack Pfiester 2.02, Smoky Joe Wood 2.03, Mordecai Three-Finger Brown 2.06, Christy Mathewson 2.13, Rube Waddell 2.16, Walter Johnson 2.17, Mariano Rivera, and Jake Weimer 2.13. Hard to believe those are career, not single season ERAs.

Ed Walsh  pitched exclusively for the Chicago White Sox. Here are his best years.
   1905    8 -  3    2.17            1906   17 -13   1.88      
   1907   24 - 18   1.60           1908  40 - 15   1.42        
   1909   15 - 11  1.41            1910   18 - 20   1.27    
If you are wondering how a guy could have an ERA of 1.27 and go 18-20 consider that the White Sox had been nicknamed the Hitless Wonders. Their best hitter (and manager) was Fielder (not Hitter) Jones. Too bad Walsh fizzed out before Eddie Collins and Shoeless Joe arrived. Sam Crawford, a pretty fair hitter for the Tigers, said, “I think Ed Walsh’s ball disintegrated on the way to the plate and the catcher put it back together. I swear when it went past the plate it was just spit went by.”

Addie Joss (right) pitched for the Cleveland Indians.

       1904    14 - 10  1.59           1905    20 - 12  2.01      
       1906    21 -  9   1.72           1907    27 - 11  1.83        
       1908    24 - 11  1.16           1909    14 - 13  1.71

Joss, who used a corkscrew delivery in which he completely turned his back to the hitter, had just two good hitters to get him runs, Nap Lajoie and Elmer Flick.

Jack  the Giant Killer Pfiester pitched for the Cubs and had this five-year stretch. 
   1906  20 -  8   1.51          1907  14 -  9    1.15        1908   12 - 10  2.00
   1909  17 -  6   2.43          1910    6 -  3    1.79 

Smoky Joe Wood pitched exclusively for the Boston Red Sox and had the following stretch.

1910  12 - 13    1.69       1911  23 - 17    2.02    
1912  34 -  5     1.91       1913  11 -  5     2.29    
1914   10 -   3   2.62       1915  15 -  5     1.49

Though the Red Sox were a very good team, and got another great hurler by the name of Babe Ruth (career ERA 2.26, 17th best) in 1914, they didn't have a whole lot of hitting outside of their outfielders, Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper, and Duffy Lewis.     

Okay, I hear what you’re thinking. These guys all pitched around the same time. Wasn’t it harder to score runs in the “dead ball” era? Well, sure it was, and the fact that the home run really hadn't been invented yet, and the ball was dark and slimy from spit made it easier to limit runs against. And, without the threat of a home run, top-notch starters like these guys could take it easy against the bottom of the order and then get the outs when they needed them.

Okay, so Mariano Rivera is the only modern pitcher to be among the best in ERA. But just how far down the list are other great, more modern pitchers like Sandy Koufax, and Jim Palmer, and Tom Seaver and current stars? A long way. Here are the rankings of other great hurlers.

Cy Young                                   59
Whitey Ford                                87
Sandy Koufax                             94
Bruce Sutter                              110
Jim Palmer                                121
Andy Messersmith                    123
Tom Seaver                              124
Sparky Lyle                              131
Juan Marichal (right)                 132
Rollie Fingers                            140
Don Drysdale                            154
Mel Stottlemyre                        160
Carl Hubbell                              165
Dizzy Dean                               174
Warren Spahn                           192
Gaylord Perry                           200
Roger Clemens                         212
Adam Wainwright                   228   (Finally a current player, say, wasn’t he the guy who struck out Carlos Beltran in Game Seven of the NLCS in 2006?) His ERA, by the way is 3.15, we passed 3.00 at Dizzy Dean.
Greg Maddux                           230
Sam McDowell                        234
Nolan Ryan                              244
Johan Santana                        245
Steve Carlton                           252
Feliz Hernandez                      254
Jared Seaver                           270
Catfish Hunter                           275
Matt Cain                                 286
Ron Guidry                               290
Roy Halladay                           305
Tim Lincecum                         309  
Justin Verlander                     354
Tim Hudson                            364
Mickey Lolich                           376
Dave Stieb                               376
C.C. Sabathia                          425

So how does it break down? In the top 100 there is one current-day pitcher. From 101 to 200 there are none. From 201 to 300 there are 6.  From 301 to 400 there are 6. And from 401 to 500 there are two.  That’s just fifteen current pitchers out of the top 500 run preventers in history.

Is it fair to go completely by ERA? No, but can you say that all the hitters in the early 1900s sucked? Ty Cobb seemed to do all right. So did Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie. There are a disproportionate number of pitchers from that era, though. The spitball definitely contributed to pitchers’ success, which is why it was finally banned in 1920. But Walter Johnson didn’t need the spitball, nor did Rube Waddell and many others.

Next week we will see if we can get a few more recent, and current hurlers into any lists of the greatest pitchers of all time. For now, it ain't lookin’ too good.

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