By way of something of a sneak peek at my next My Little Hall of Fame class, here’s a line of stats on three different Deadball Era pitchers. The stats in order are Wins/Losses/ERA/Strikeouts/ERA+/WHIP/WAR (BBREF version)
Take a second and look over all three lines. Good pitchers all, right? All are in the Hall of Fame. All of them pitched at least part of their careers at the same time in the same league. One of them took a lot longer to get into the Hall than the other two.
The guy on top is Christy Mathewson. By anyone’s reckoning a Hall of Famer. In fact he got in on the very first election ever. The Third guy is Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, the ace of those Chicago Cubs teams that won a slew of games in the 1906-1910 era. His last game was 1916 and he made Cooperstown in 1949 (a year after he died). The middle guy is Vic Willis. His last game was 1910 and he finally made the Hall of Fame via the Veteran’s Committee in 1995.
You really don’t have to look too closely to see that Matty is better than the other two, although Brown won an inordinate number of their head-to-head confrontations including their most famous matchup, the replay of the “Merkle Boner.” But in ERA Brown is better, his WHIP is almost equal. Willis is the weakest of the three, especially if you use the newer SABR style statistics. But he’s not significantly weaker. Well, except for one big number, he’s the only one with 200 losses.
We’ve decided over the last couple of dozen years that wins and losses for pitchers aren’t really that important a statistic. And that’s probably true, especially in an era of five or six inning starters and lefty-specialist relievers and closers who can’t throw more than a dozen or so pitches without needing a week and a half off. But I think it’s less true of Deadball Era pitchers.
It’s an era when pitchers were expected to go nine innings (or more in case of ties) and bullpens were the place they put the washed up has-beens, or the new guys, or some guy just coming off an injury. So the starter in 1915 had a lot more influence on the entirety of the game than does the starter in 2015. So maybe a “win” or a “loss” isn’t the best way to measure a pitcher in any era, but in the Deadball Era it had a lot more resonance.
All of which brings me to Willis’ loss total. It’s bigger than the others by quite a lot. More significantly he leads the National League in losses twice: 1904 and 1905. His win-loss totals for those two seasons are 18-25 and 12-29. Just looking at those numbers tells us that Willis is a bum, right? But that’s the problem with looking at wins and losses. His ERA’s are 2.85 and 3.21 (in order). Those aren’t great ERA numbers for the Deadball Era, but they’re not terrible either (the 3.21 is the third worst of Willis’ career). His WHIP is 1.331 and then 1.307. Again, neither are the worst of his career. In both years his strikeouts are greater than his walks (you noticed the WHIP and figured that out, right?) and his innings pitched are more than his hits allowed (also reflected in the WHIP) in 1904, but that’s reversed in 1905. His BBREF WAR for the two years are 3.0 and 3.2 (again in order). Those are greatly inferior to the years around them (8.8, 8.4, 6.1 in the three years prior and 8.2 the year after–Willis’ last big year).
My point here is that Willis has a good career with two weak years, one with a bad Boston (Braves, not Red Sox) team and a rebuilding Pirates team, and those two years give him 54 losses (151 in all other years combined). I think those loss numbers made it much harder for Willis to get into the Hall of Fame than they should. Although I believe that win-loss records are more significant for Deadball Era pitchers than for modern pitchers, the overemphasis on them created a problem that hurt Willis is the long run. I guess all that means that in general I agree that too much time is spent looking at win-loss records and not enough time looking at other things when evaluating a pitcher.