The Pitching Problem

Tim Keefe

Tim Keefe, the proud owner of the greatest season ever

In a comment on my 1905 Hall of Fame class post, Kortas commented on how difficult it is to determine the quality of pitching in 19th Century baseball. You’ll note I didn’t contradict him. The reason for that is simple. I agree with him.

Pitching in the 19th Century can be quickly divided into three periods: the opening period when the pitcher stood 45 feet away and had to throw underhand, the 1884 period when the pitching box moved back to 50 feet and the pitcher could do a short run, and the modern period where a mound exists. I have never been able to determine how you compare pitchers over those eras. The rules are different, the pitching motions are different, the distances are different. How do you compare Al Spaulding whose career is entirely within the 45 feet era with Charles Radbourne who pitches at 50 feet but never on a mound or with Walter Johnson who never pitches anywhere except from a mound? They say there are stats that level the field, but do you level a field when there’s a mound for one player and no mound for another?

I looked at Baseball Reference.com and combed through a lot of stats over the last couple of days. I’ve been critical of WAR as a definitive stat because it exists in several different versions, but for this purpose I’m going to use Baseball Reference.com’s version to make a point. If you go to the list of leaders and look at the stat for most WAR in a given season, pitchers hold the top 15 slots (Ruth’s 1923 is the first hitting season). Amos Rusie has one and Walter Johnson two of the 15. All 12 of the others are from prior to the invention of the mound.

Now ask yourself a simple question, do you really think that 12 of the 15 greatest seasons ever were by pre-1890 pitchers? Well, of course in many ways your answer has to be “yes,” because of the way pitching was used. But those can never be replicated because pitching is totally different today and that means that we will always know that no matter how good a player is he can never best Tim Keefe in 1883 (20.0 WAR).

So it means that even the most sophisticated stats have trouble differentiating the changes made in pitching. Forget the lousy fields and the jokes they had for gloves, just know that the use of one pitcher in 80% of the games (and I don’t mean a reliever who pitches to one batter in 100 games) simply isn’t comparable to a modern hurler who gets 33 or 34 games tops. Tommy Bond, who started this conversation, won 40 games twice, Greg Maddux never pitched more than 37 in a season.

I hope that when we try to compare pitchers over eras we keep this in mind.

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8 Responses to “The Pitching Problem”

  1. Precious Sanders Says:

    This is exactly why I hesitate to make comparisons between players from different eras, and not just pitchers. The way the game was set up and played in 1900 differs drastically from the game in 2000. The comparisons aren’t fair.

  2. steve Says:

    I guess it’s like comparing a model t-ford with a oldsmobile cutlass supreme or something. I’ll take the horse drawn chariot any day. Seems way more durable.

  3. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    They should only be compared to their contemplates. Comparing Tony Mullane to Bob Gibson just doesn’t’ work.

    These guys pitched in the 19th century, not the 21st.

  4. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    contempararies

  5. eric Says:

    Agree, it’s not easy. My method ain’t great, but it’s better than nothin’. I try to put every pitcher into a contemporary context by creating a usage adjustment for bulk innings that compares the third-highest IP total in a season to 230 IP. Then, using WAR, I decrease the value between replacement and average by that adjustment ratio. The upshot is that the pitcher retains his value above average but all that extra bulk from 600 IP seasons gets sliced down to a more normal-looking value. It’s a compromise between the shortness of olde tyme careers the lower innings totals today. I still think it’s not quite there. The value above average is still dependent on all those huge IP totals, but when I applied that adjustment to value above average, too, the 1880s guys dropped off the face of the earth.

    The hardest question to get my head around is this: When teams used so many fewer pitchers and the best pitchers threw such a higher percentage of the league’s innings, don’t I want fewer pitchers from the era?

    It’s mind-boggling.

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