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.