Posts Tagged ‘Hal Newhouser’

WAR, One Pitcher, and Winning it All

September 24, 2015
Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson

They tell me that the guys with the best WAR are the best players. They also tell me that a great pitcher will win for you. OK, I’ll give them both of those (sorta). But one thing I’ve noticed is that they’re certainly no predictor of a championship. It’s the nature of the game that this would be true. You simply can’t let your ace pitcher (the one with the best WAR) pitch every inning and you can’t let your best hitter (again the one with the best WAR) come up for every at bat. It’s particularly true that you can’t take the guys with the best ever pitching WAR and find a lot of World Series championships.

I’ve been particularly critical of pitching WAR (but not as much critical of offensive WAR) ever since I saw the numbers and read the ever-changing formulae. But let’s accept that it’s a good measure of pitching excellence. It still isn’t much of a predictor of how a team will do. I Went down the BBREF list of yearly WAR (which uses BBREF’s version of WAR) looking only for pitchers. I excluded all pitchers who showed up before the advent of the 20th Century. In other words I ignored the pre-American League championship games  (1884-1891). I did this because there is great disagreement about how seriously they were taken by the teams and players and how much they were treated as mere exhibitions. I also ignored the Temple Cup Series. Then I looked to find the top 10 WAR seasons for a pitcher in the American League era (1901-present). Of course I ran into Walter Johnson who had three of the top five and four of the top 12. So I changed the way I went at it. I began looking for a new name until I found 10 different pitchers. That took me all the way to 52nd on the list. Of course many of the 52 (and ties) were pre-1901 pitchers (including the first seven) and some were hitters (Ruth four times, Barry Bonds twice, and Gehrig, Yastrzemski and Hornsby once each). Here’s the list I ended up with: Walter Johnson in 1913 (16.0 WAR), Johnson in 1912 (14.6), Dwight Gooden in 1985 (13.2), Johnson in 1914 (13.0), Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920 (12.8), Cy Young in 1901 (12.6), Steve Carlton in 1972 (12.5), Roger Clemens in 1997 (12.2), Johnson in 1915 (12.1), Fergie Jenkins in 1971 (12.0), Hal Newhouser in 1945 (12.0), Bob Gibson in 1968 (11.9), Alexander in 1916, Pedro Martinez in 2000, and Smokey Joe Wood in 1912 (all at 11.7). So the individual pitchers are Johnson, Gooden, Alexander, Young, Carlton, Clemens, Jenkins, Newhouser, Gibson, Martinez, and Wood (a total of 11).

Let’s notice a couple of things about this list. First, Walter Johnson’s 1912-1915 is, by WAR, the greatest pitching performance by a single pitcher over a  period of years in the last 115 years (and people still debate how good he was). Second, there are a couple of one shot wonders in the list, specifically Gooden and Wood. The remainder are quality pitchers having their peak year.

But for my purpose, the most interesting thing is that only two of the pitchers were with teams that won the World Series: Newhouser and Wood. Gibson got to the Series but the Cardinals lost in seven games (Gibson himself taking the loss in game seven). In 1901 there was no Series, but Young’s Boston team finished second.

This isn’t a knock on pitching WAR, but merely an acknowledgement that it can’t predict pennants. And one great pitcher isn’t a predictor either. It does help if the number two pitcher on your team has a pretty good year also.

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Trying for Two: the Second Round in Cincinnati

January 29, 2015

After five games of the 1940 World Series, the Detroit Tigers were ahead three games to two. With only two games left, they needed one victory to clinch their first championship since 1935. Unfortunately, the two games were in Cincinnati and the Reds two best pitchers were set up to throw the remaining games. There were no days off during the Series (it was, unlike the current format, played on consecutive days). That created something of a problem for Detroit. If there was a game seven, their ace, Bobo Newsom, would pitch it on very short rest.

Game 6

Bucky Walters

Bucky Walters

Game 6 was 7 October and featured game two winner Bucky Walters pitching for the Reds matching up against game two loser Schoolboy Rowe. Cincinnati needed the same result as game two; the Tigers looked for Rowe to rebound. They didn’t get it. Bill Werber led off Cincinnati’s half of the first with a double, then went to third on a sacrifice bunt. An Ival Goodman single brought Werber home with the first run. Another single by NL MVP Frank McCormick sent Goodman to second, and a Jimmy Ripple single sent Goodman home and Rowe to the showers. Johnny Gorsica took over for Detroit and got out of the inning with a strikeout and a ground out. The score remained 2-0 until the bottom of the sixth when consecutive singles and a walk loaded the bases. A force out at home kept them loaded for a Walters bleeder to third. The throw home was late and the score went 3-0, Walters getting the RBI. A double play then ended the inning. With Fred Hutchinson now pitching for the Tigers, Walters connected on a solo home run in the eighth to complete the scoring for the Reds. Detroit managed to get two runners on in the ninth, but a double play and a fly to center completed the shutout. The Reds had won 4-0. The big hero was Walters. He’d pitched nine shutout innings, given up only five hits and two walks, while striking out two. He’d contributed to the scoring with a home run and two RBIs. Rowe failed to get out of the first inning. So there would be a game seven.

Game 7

Frank McCormick

Frank McCormick

Game seven was 8 October and featured Cincy ace Paul Derringer against Detroit ace Bobo Newsom. Tigers manager Del Baker was taking a chance with Newsom who was pitching on a single day’s rest (they don’t do that much anymore). The game turned out to be a classic.

For two innings no one got beyond second base as each team managed one single. In the top of the third Billy Sullivan led off with a single, then went to second on a Newsom sacrifice bunt. A pop fly retired Dick Bartell, then Barney McCosky walked. The next batter, Charlie Gehringer, hit one to third. Werber threw it away letting Sullivan score an unearned run. Hank Greenberg struck out to end the inning. The game stayed 1-0 through the fifth. Both pitchers did well. In the top of the sixth, Greenberg singled and, after an out, went to second on a walk. A ground out sent him to third, then another ground out ended the inning. Greenberg was the only Detroit player to reach third after the Tigers scored their run. In the bottom of the seventh, failing to score Greenberg came back to haunt Detroit. Frank McCormick led off with a double and Ripple followed with another double to tie the game at 1-1. A bunt sent Ripple to third. The Reds sent up injured catcher Ernie Lombardi to hit. Newsom intentionally walked him to set up a double play. Billy Myers batted next and slammed a long fly to center that scored Ripple. A grounder ended the inning, but Cincinnati took the lead 2-1. Derringer needed six outs to end the Series. Gehringer led off the eighth with a single, but a liner to short and consecutive flies to the outfield ended the inning without a run. The Reds managed a single in the bottom of the eighth, but failed to score, leaving it 2-1 going to the top of the ninth. Consecutive ground outs brought up Hall of Famer Earl Averill to pinch hit for Newsom. He rolled one to second and the Series ended on the flip to first baseman McCormick. Cincinnati had won its second World Series. Derringer gave up one unearned run, seven hits, and three walks. He stuck out one. Newsom was great in defeat. He gave up only seven hits, one walk, and struck out six, but the two runs in the seventh doomed him.

It had been a very good Series. Detroit actually outscored Cincinnati with 28 runs to the Reds’ 22 (all that coming in the 8-0 fifth game blowout). For the Series Cincy hit .250, Detroit .246.  The Reds had 58 hits, the Tigers 56. Both teams had 30 strikeouts. Detroit had four home runs, Cincinnati two. The pitching numbers were just as close. The Reds pitchers had a 3.69 ERA, the Tigers pitchers came in at 3.00. The only significant difference saw the Tigers take 30 walks to Cincy’s 15. Stats-wise it was a great Series.

Individually, the Reds twin aces, Walters and Derringer did well, together going 4-1 with ERAs well under 3.00. Reliever Whitey Moore had an ERA of 3.24, but the rest of the bullpen, minus Elmer Riddle who only pitched one inning, didn’t do as well. For the Tigers Newsom was superb, finally losing in the seventh inning of the seventh game on one day’s rest. His 17 strikeouts led all pitchers on either team and his 1.38 ERA was first among both team’s starters. Schoolboy Rowe, however, was clobbered. Gorsica did well in relief, and Tommy Bridges won the Tigers other victory.

Among hitters Jimmy Ripple, a midseason pickup, led Cincinnati with six RBIs while Goodman had five. Goodman and Werber led the team with five runs scored while Ripple scored three times. Five hitters who played six or more games hit over .300 while Goodman clocked in with a .276. Even pitcher Walters chipped in a .286 average and a homer. For Detroit Greenberg had a great Series hitting .357 with a home run, a triple, two doubles, 10 hits (the most by any player on either team), six RBIs and five runs scored. Pinky Higgins had eight hits, including three doubles, a triple, and a home run, while driving in six. McCosky scored five runs and Bruce Campbell also had four hits and five RBIs. Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer had a miserable Series hitting .214 with one RBI, three runs scored, and no extra base hits.

For Cincinnati the death of Willard Hershberger hung over the Series. But having dedicated the Series to him, they’d won. The lingering questions about 1919 could be put to rest for a while. There was nothing tainted about the 1940 win. It was, for them, the end of the line. Their next pennant would come in 1961, their next championship would have to wait all the way to 1975.

For Detroit it was a bitter loss. They were now 1-5 in World Series play (a win in 1935, losses in 1907, ’08, ’09, 1934, and 1940). They would not, however, have to wait as long as Cincinnati to claim their next, and second, championship. They would get back to the World Series in 1945 on the arm of Hal Newhouser (who did not pitch in the 1940 Series) and the bat of Greenberg. It would take seven games but they would defeat the Cubs to finally win their second World Series.

 

 

Trying for Two: The Tigers

January 16, 2015
Charlie Gehringer

Charlie Gehringer

The 1940 World Series was sort of the odd man out Series of the era. Between 1936 and 1943 it was the only one in which the Yankees didn’t represent the American League. The Detroit Tigers won 90 games and made a temporary dent in the New York run. The Tigers weren’t new to World Series play, they’d been in five previously, but had won only once, in 1935 (Detroit had a championship from the 1880s, but that was a different team). So for Detroit, it was a chance to win a second title.

Manager Del Baker was a former catcher, who’d had a number of stints as a fill-in manager for the Tigers. He’d finally gotten the job fulltime with about 60 games left in 1938 and by 1940 had formed a team that hit well, fielded well, and pitched well enough to cop a pennant.

His infield consisted of one Hall of Famer and three very good players. The Hall of Famer was Charlie Gehringer. He was the resident gray-beard at 37. He was on the downside of a stellar career that included the 1937 AL MVP award. He hit .313 (OPS+ of 119) with 10 home runs and played a fine second base. At first, the Tigers had Rudy York. York was in his mid 20’s, and was noted for his inability to play in the field. Baker decided York would do less damage at first that anywhere else, so a Hall of Fame first baseman was sent to the outfield. York responded with a .316 average (OPS+ of 145) and 33 home runs. Pinky Higgins held down third. Higgins was one of the handful of third basemen who could honestly be considered the best AL third sacker of the era (along with Harold Clift, Ken Keltner, Red Rolfe). He was a capable enough fielder but his hitting made him something of a  star. In 1940 he managed .271 (a 92 OPS+), and 13 home runs. “Rowdy” Dick Bartell was the new guy at short. He’d come over from the National League and had World Series experience with the Giants. He was considered one of the finer shortstops of his day, but his hitting wasn’t much (As a testament to his fielding, he finished 12th in the MVP voting with a .233 average and seven home runs.)

The outfield consisted of a transplanted first baseman, a new guy, and one old hand. The transplant was Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. With York unable to play the outfield, Greenberg agreed to make the move to left field in ’40. He wasn’t great (his dWAR for 1940 is -0.8 in Baseball Reference.com’s version) but his hitting was still superb. He hit .340, led the AL in doubles, home runs, RBIs, total bases, and slugging and copped the MVP award (his second). The new guy was second year player Barney McCosky, age 23. He, like Greenberg, hit .340 (OPS+124) but with only four home runs. He did lead the AL in hits and triples and played an acceptable center field (he was fifth in the league in assists). The old hand was right fielder Pete Fox. He’d been around long enough to have played in both the 1934 and 1935 World Series (Detroit winning the latter and losing the former). He hit .289 with little power.

The Tigers bench wasn’t overly strong. Backup outfielder Bruce Campbell had eight home runs. For the Series he would get the bulk of the play in right field. Hall of Famer Earl Averill hit .280 while playing out the string in Detroit.  Backup catcher Billy Sullivan hit .309 with 41 RBIs. Come Series time he would replace the regular catcher for most of the games.

Primary catcher Birdy Tebbetts hit just under .300 with no power and handled a staff with four starters pitching at least 20 games. All but one were right-handed. Lefty Hal Newhouser was only 19 and still four years from the numbers that would put him in the Hall of Fame. The righty starters were 21 game winner and ace Louis “Bobo” Newsom, 1934-5 stalwart Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe, Tommy Bridges, Johnny Gorsica, and later managing legend Fred Hutchinson who got into less than 20 games. Only Newsom had an ERA under 3.00, although all but Hutchinson and Newhouser had ERA+ numbers over 100 (Newsom’s was 168). But only Newsom and Bridges had given up fewer hits than they had innings pitched. Al Benton did most of the relief work, but had an ERA of almost four and a half.

It was a very different team from the 1934-35 versions who’d won a World Series. The pitching was about the same, but most people agreed it had somewhat better hitting and the defense, particularly up the middle was better. Detroit was a slight favorite to defeat the National League’s Cincinnati Reds.

 

 

“The Biggest Upset Since Harry Truman”

November 24, 2014
Dusty Rhodes

Dusty Rhodes

The death of Alvin Dark got me looking at the 1950s Giants. So I was reading an article on Willie Mays the other day. That article got me thinking about the 1954 World Series, so I started doing some research on it. In doing so, I ran across another article that made the claim that makes the title of this article (see how A leads to B leads to C, etc.). In 1948 Truman was supposed to lose to Thomas Dewey and didn’t. In 1954 the New York Giants were supposed to lose to the American League record-breaking Cleveland Indians.

The Indians won 111 games in 1954, a record since surpassed. They did it primarily by beating up on the AL also-rans, but it was still a formidable team. Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn were the mainstays of the mound. Fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller was in the twilight of his career, but still put up 13 wins, while Mike Garcia had 19. In the bullpen Don Mossi, Ray Narleski, and Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser provided relief work. Second baseman Bobby Avila won a batting title, Larry Doby led the AL in home runs and RBIs, and Al Rosen was fourth in the league in slugging and OPS, fifth in OBP and home runs. For manager Al Lopez it was a formidable team.

Their opponent was the New York Giants, led my Leo Durocher. Although not as seeming invincible as the Indians, the Giants were also good. They won 97 games with Johnny Antonelli, Ruben Gomez, and Sal Maglie on the mound. Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm provided much of the relief work as the premier right hander out of the bullpen. Marv Grissom complimented him from the left side. Outfielder and Hall of Famer Willie Mays led the National League in batting, slugging, triples, OPS, and OPS+ (just your typical Mays year). Don Mueller hit over .300, while Monte Irvin coming off a down year completed the outfield. Hank Thompson and Al Dark both had 20 home runs, and pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes had 15.

Game one is primarily famous for Willie Mays making the great catch in center field to keep the game tied. Rhodes later won it with a home run in the tenth inning. Game two was also close with the Giants winning 3-1 and Rhodes again contributing a home run. Moving to Cleveland for game three, the Giants took control and won game three 6-2. They were already ahead by six runs when Cleveland finally scored their first run. Game four was something of a foregone conclusion. The Giants put up seven runs before Cleveland scored and coasted to a 7-4 victory to close out the Series.

This brings up two obvious questions: “What went wrong for the Indians?” and “What did the Giants do right?” They are, of course, two parts of a single question, “what the heck happened to cause the Indians to lose and the Giants to win?”

The Cleveland pitching staff had a terrible World Series. They had a 4.84 ERA, gave up 33 hits and 21 runs (19 earned) in 35.1 innings. Garcia started one game and ended up with an ERA of 5.40. He gave up three earned runs and four walks in five innings (he did manage to strike out four). Lemon was worse. In two games he gave up 16 hits, 10 earned runs, and eight walks in 13.1 innings (with 11 strikeouts). The bullpen (and Early Wynn) did much better, although Newhouser gave up a run, a hit, and a walk without getting anybody out.

The hitting wasn’t much better. Of the starters, only Vic Wertz (who hit the famous ball that Mays caught) hit above .250 (Rosen hit right on .250). He and Hank Majeski tied for the team lead with three RBIs, while Wertz and Al Smith were the only players with more than one run scored (each had two). Larry Doby struck out four times

The Giants pitching did better. It’s ERA was 1.46, giving up six total earned runs (and three unearned–the Giants had seven errors) and 26 hits in 37 innings. Maglie’s 2.57 ERA was the team high. Neither Grissom nor Wilhelm gave up a run out of the bullpen.

New York hitting beat Cleveland to death. Dark, Mueller, Rhodes, and Thompson all hit over .350 while both Mays and catcher Wes Westrum both topped .250. Rhodes had seven RBIs, Thompson scored six runs, and both Mays and Mueller scored four runs. Irvin (who had a bad Series) and Westrum led the team with three strikeouts, while Mays walked four times. Rhodes OPS was 2.381 (Wertz at 1.493 topped the Indians starters).

There was no Series MVP in 1954 (it began the next year), but most people presume Rhodes would have won it. Maybe, but the entire Giants team did well (except Irvin and Whitey Lockman).

It was, besides being a huge upset, a fluke World Series. Cleveland had not finished first since 1948 and wouldn’t do so again until 1995. For the Giants, it was their first since 1950 and they wouldn’t be back until 1962 when they were no longer the New York Giants, but had become the San Francisco Giants. The next year it would be back to the normal Yankees-Dodgers World Series.

Top of the World

October 18, 2012

Triple Crown winner Chuck Klein with a bunch of bats

So far I’ve said little about Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown. I tend to worry more about old-time baseball than about the current season, but congratulations are certainly in order. With Detroit still alive in the playoffs he has a chance to do something that’s only been done twice.

Over the years a hitting Triple Crown has been accomplished 16 times. Only twice has the Triple Crown winners team also won the World Series. Here’s a quick review of each Triple Crown winner and where his team finished.

1878–Paul Hines won the Triple Crown for Providence. They finished third in the National League.

1887–Tip O’Neill won the Triple Crown for St. Louis of the American Association (a major league at the time). The team finished first and played a 15 game postseason series against Detroit of the National League (sort of a  primitive World Series). They lost 10 games to 5.

1901–Napoleon LaJoie won the Triple Crown for the Philadelphia Athletics. They finished fourth in the fledgling American League.

1909–Ty Cobb won the Triple Crown at Detroit. The Tigers dropped the World Series to Pittsburgh in seven games.

1922 and 1925–Rogers Hornsby won the Triple Crown while with St. Louis. The Cardinals finished third in 1922 and fourth in 1925. Hornsby became the only player to win a Triple Crown and hit .400 in the same season. He did it both times.

1933–both leagues had a Triple Crown winner (only time that’s happened). Chuck Klein won the NL Triple Crown for the seventh place Phillies, while Jimmie Foxx won the AL Triple Crown for the third place Athletics. As a bit of trivia, both Triple Crown winners played in Philadelphia.

1934–Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown in one of the few years the Yankees didn’t finish first. They finished second.

1937–Joe Medwick won the last NL Triple Crown for the Cardinals. They rewarded him with a fourth place finish.

1942 and 1947–Ted Williams won the Triple Crown in both seasons. His Boston team finished second in ’42 and third in ’47.

1956–Mickey Mantle became the second Yankee Triple Crown winner and first Triple Crown winner to have his team (the Yankees) win the World Series.

1966–Frank Robinson became the second (with Baltimore). Robinson also became the first (and so far only) black player to win a Triple Crown. 

1967 –Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown with Boston, but the Red Sox lost the World Series in seven games to the Cardinals.

Pitching Triple Crown winners are both more common and have won more frequently. Here’s a list of the pitchers who won both the pitching Triple Crown and the World Series (1800s version or modern version): Tommy Bond in 1877 (there was no postseason play that season but Bond’s Boston team took first place in the regular season), Charles Radbourne in 1884, Tim Keefe in 1888, Christy Mathewson in 1905, Walter Johnson in 1924, Lefty Grove in 1930, Lefty Gomez in 1937, Hal Newhouser in 1945, Sandy Koufax in both 1963 and 1965.

All that indicates that winning a Triple Crown (either variety) is no predictor of success in the postseason. Still, I think I’d rather win one than not.

The Hoosier Thunderbolt

June 8, 2012

Amos Rusie

There’s an old baseball tale that goes like this. The pitcher winds up, blazes a fastball toward home, the batter, absolutely unable to see the ball stands still, the ball hits the catcher’s mitt with a resounding “whack”, then the umpire calls it a ball. The catcher turns around and says, “It was a strike, ump. Didn’t you see it?” The ump replies, “Nope, but it sounded high.” Great story. I’ve found versions of it about a half-dozen or so pitchers. The earliest version I can find goes all the way back into the 1890s and Amos Rusie.

Rusie was born in Indiana in 1871. The family moved to Indianapolis where Rusie dropped out of school to work in a factory. The factory had a team, Rusie could pitc,h and the team played against barnstorming big league teams. Rusie successfully shut down both the Washington and Boston National League teams in 1888 and was picked up by the Indianapolis Hoosiers. He was 18, went 12-10, walked more men than he struck out, and the team finished 7th. Indianapolis folded after the season leaving Rusie without a team. The NL decided to send most of the good players, including Rusie, to the New York team. Rusie was upset at not being able to negotiate a contract with any team willing to pay him and it led to problems for his entire career. He became a star, liked New York, found a wife, and was the toast of the town, but never quite got over being sent to New York against his will.

Rusie as a rookie

He was brilliant as a pitcher. He was also wild. In his first three years he was 114-85 with 982 strike outs and (read this number carefully) 821 walks. He led the NL in strikeouts twice and in walks all three years. In 1893 they moved the pitching distance back to the current 60′ 6″ and a number of sources credit Rusie with the change. Batters feared both his speed and his wildness.

OK, maybe, but what is certain is that Rusie flourished at the new distance. He had 33 wins in 1893, 36 in 1894. His strikeout totals went down, but he still led the NL. His walks also went down, but he continued to lead the league in bases on balls. To be blunt, Rusie never really overcame his wildness.

His Triple Crown year was 1894. He won 36 games (losing 13) with a 2.78 ERA (ERA+ 188) and stuck out 195 men, his lowest total of strikeouts since his rookie year. He also led the league with three shutouts and (you knew this was coming) 200 walks. That makes him the only Triple Crown winner to lead his league in both strikeouts and walks. I’m not a big fan of pitching WAR (hitting WAR is OK), but his WAR for 1894 is 13.8. For the season, his team finished second, but qualified for the newly contested Temple Cup. The Giants won the Cup in four straight games.

In 1895, Rusie dropped back to 23-23 for a record but still led the NL in strikeouts. For the first time since his rookie campaign, he didn’t lead in walks. But he was also involved in one of his perennial contract disputes with the Giants. Unwilling to accept the club offer, he sat out all of 1896. The Giants, who had finished ninth in 1895, moved up to seventh in 1896. That didn’t help Rusie so he reluctantly resigned for the 1897 season.

He was good again in 1897, winning 28 games and his second ERA title. For the first time since 1892 he failed to lead the NL in strikeouts (the 1896 hold out year excepted). He had 20 wins in 1898 before hurting his shoulder attempting a pick-off. No one knew it at the time, but his career was over. He sat out 1899 and 1900 before attempting a comeback in 1901. He was traded to Cincinnati (more on that later), went 0-1 in three games striking out six final batters (and walking three). He was done.

He worked at a paper mill in Indiana after retirement, then moved to Seattle where he worked as a steamfitter. In 1921 he became superintendent at the Polo Grounds, a job he held through 1929. John McGraw did that kind of thing for old ballplayers. He went back to Seattle where the Great Depression hurt his financial interests badly. He was injured in a car accident in 1934 and retired. He lingered into 1942 when he died in Seattle, where he is buried. In 1977 the Veteran’s Committee chose him for the Hall of Fame.

Over his 10 year career Rusie won 246 games and lost 174 (.586 winning percentage). He walked 1707 men and struck out 1950. His ERA was 3.07 (ERA+129). He gave up 3389 hits and 1288 earned runs in 3779 innings. He led the NL in wins and losses once each, in shutouts and strikeouts four times each, in ERA twice, and in walks five times.

Rusie reminds me a lot of guys like Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, and Hal Newhouser. All three were great fastball pitchers who lacked control, although all, especially Ryan, managed to gain at least some control as their career progressed. Rusie was also like that, only a half century earlier. His feats were legendary. One story has it that in one game the catcher didn’t throw the ball back to Rusie. Rusie then simply wound up, faked a throw, the batter swung, and the umpire called a strike. You don’t get many stories like that.

Oh, and that trade to Cincy? Well, it seems the Reds were giving up on a young right-hander and decided to take a flier on Rusie. So for a washed up Amos Rusie, the Giants got a new pitcher named Christy Mathewson. Worked out well for New York, not so well for the Reds.

A Bad Century: Crossing into Sinai

May 14, 2012

Phil Cavarretta

The Cubs failure in the 1929 World Series was repeated at three-year intervals through the 1930s. The lost championships in 1932, 1935, and 1938. With the dawn of the 1940s, the team failed to maintain their pattern and slid back into the National League pack. That all changed in 1945, when the roared to a pennant and took on old rival Detroit. The Cubs and Tigers had a history going back to 1907. Chicago won the World Series twice, both times against Detroit (1907 and 1908). In fact, Chicago has never won a World Series against any other team. In 1935 they met again, this time with Detroit prevailing. The 1945 Series would give them a chance to even their record against the Cubs.

The 1945 Cubs were a fine team. Former first baseman from the 1929 pennant winner, Charlie Grimm was the manager. He got an MVP performance from first baseman Phil Cavarretta and good work from the rest of the infield: 2nd baseman Don Johnson, shortstop Roy Hughes, and third baseman Stan Hack. Both Hack and Johnson managed .300 plus batting averages. The outfield consisted of left fielder Peanuts Lowery, 100 RBI man Andy Pafko in center, and Bill “Swish” Nicholson in right. Mickey Livingston backstopped a staff that included Hank Borowy, Claude Passeau, lefty Ray Prim, former Reds ace Paul Derringer, and current ace Hank Wyse. The “ace” is a little misleading. Borowy came over from the Yankees earlier in the season, put up an 11-2 record and by the Series was the main pitcher. None of them were great power pitchers, Passeau leading the team with 98 strikeouts, but most (all except Derringer) had more innings pitched than hits given up.

The first three games were in Detroit. Chicago jumped all over Tigers ace, Hall of Famer, and reigning MVP, Hal Newhouser, getting four runs in the first and three more in the third. They cruised to a 9-0 win with Borowy pitching a six hit shutout. It was to be the first of three Newhouser-Borowy confrontations. In game two Wyse had one bad inning, the fifth. With two outs, two on, and a run in, Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg lifted a three run shot that put Detroit ahead 4-1, the final score. Game three was a Claude Passeau masterpiece. He walked one, catcher Bob Swift in the sixth. Swift was out on a double play. Passeau  gave up one hit (a second inning single to Rudy York) and the Cubs won 3-0 to head to Chicago up two games to one.

The remaining games were all in Wrigley Field (wartime travel restrictions were just ending). Throughout their history, the Cubs had done well in postseason play on the road, but terribly in Wrigley (1906, 07, 08, and 10 were not in Wrigley). That was to hold true for games four and five. In game four Detroit bunched together two walks, (one intentional), a double, and three singles to plate four runs. Tigers pitcher Dizzy Trout gave up one unearned run, a walk, and five hits to even the Series at two games each. Game five saw the Newhouser-Borowy rematch. Newhouser gave up four runs, two walks, and seven hits, but struck out nine Cubs. Borowy gave up five runs in five innings, then the bullpen let Detroit tack on three more. Now the Tigers led the Series three games to two.

Game six turned out to be a classic. Having to win the game or lose the Series, Chicago dropped behind on a bases loaded walk, but answered with four in the fifth and a single run in the sixth. Detroit got a run back in the top of the seventh, but the Cubs got two more in the bottom of the inning to stay ahead. But 1945 was a World Series full of big innings and the Tigers had another in them, putting up four in the top of the eighth to tie up the game. It stayed there into the twelfth. Desperate to win, manager Grimm sent Borowy back to the mound with no days off. He was masterful, pitching four full innings and giving up neither a run nor a walk. In the bottom of the twelfth, Stan Hack doubled to bring home the Series tying run.

The next day there was no game, so Grimm decided to send Borowy back to the mound to face Newhouser one final time. He needed 27 outs to bring Chicago its first World Series triumph since 1908. He got none. The Tigers teed off on him scoring three earned runs and when the dust settled had scored five total runs in the first. The Cubs got one back in the bottom of the first, but Detroit responded with one of their own in the second, then kept piling on runs. The Cubs’ Roy Hughes singled to lead off the ninth, then with two outs, Stan Hack drove a grounder to short. A flip to second for the force and the Series was over. The final score was Detroit 9, Chicago 3 and Detroit was champion. They’d played Chicago four times in the World Series and each team had won twice.

It’s tough not to feel a little sorry for the Cubs. They hit .263 for the Series (Detroit managed only .223) and had more hits. But Detroit had scored in bunches and that made all the difference. Cavarretta hit .423 with the team’s only home run. Borowy was good in defeat. He ended up 2-2 with an ERA of 4.00, but he’d done well (especially in game six) until the final game when he was called on one time too many.

For the Cubs it was like crossing into Sinai. For the next 40 (actually 39) years they would wander in the wilderness. They fell back into the pack in 1946 and began their long sojourn as the “loveable losers”.  The 1945 World Series was their last, so let’s take a moment to commemorate Roy Hughes who got the last ever Cubs hit in a World Series (and made the last ever out), Stan Hack who was the last ever Cubs batter in a World Series, and Hank Wyse who threw the last ever pitch by a Cub in the Series (it resulted in a third to first ground out).

A lot of good players came through Chicago in the last half of the 1940s and in the 1950s. The same is true of the 1960s and 1970s, but the Cubs failed to make even a single postseason game for almost four decades. Finally, in 1984, they made it back to the playoffs.

Strictly a Wartime Pitcher

December 28, 2011

Hal Newhouser

I began this somewhat long look at left-handed pitchers because I wanted to study the players who made an impact during World War II. That led, not unreasonably, to Hal Newhouser. He’s one of those players who had a lot of his best years during the Second World War and thus became known as “strictly a wartime pitcher”. The wartime pitcher idea goes something like this. A player is either new or has  been up a few years and never done a thing. Then the war comes along and the guy becomes a star. The war ends, the real players come back, and the guy goes back to being a  bum. OK, that’s fine, I guess. The problem is that it’s wrong about Newhouser.

Newhouser arrives in Detroit in 1939. He was 18, a year older than Bob Feller and a year younger than Sandy Koufax (two pitchers he’s very much like) when they first pitched in the Majors. He wasn’t all that good, struggling through 1943 with a record of 34-52 with a high ERA, a lot of strikeouts, and a ton of walks (leading the league in walks in 1943). Then in 1944 he goes 29-9 with a 2.22 ERA,  a strikeout title, and the American League MVP award. In 1945 he’s 25-9, leads the AL in ERA, strikeouts, shutouts (and wild pitches), and picks up his second consecutive MVP Award (the only pitcher to win two in a row). Detroit goes to the World Series and wins in seven games (by this point the Series is most famous as the last Series the Cubs played). Newhouser went 2-1, winning game seven.

And then the war was over and “strictly a wartime pitcher” is supposed to have gone back into obscurity. The problem is that Newhouser had four or five (depending how you look at 1950) more good years. He wins 20 or more games twice,  wins another ERA title, and as late as 1949 has 18 wins. He also leads in hits once and wild pitches twice (Like Feller, he never did get the wildness totally under control). In 1946 he came in second in the MVP vote (to Ted Williams), missing winning three MVPs in a row by 27 points). He hurt his shoulder in 1949, pitched through the pain in 1950, then the wheels came off as the shoulder just didn’t improve. He hung on into 1955, getting into the 1954 World Series as a Cleveland reliever (he was 7-2 with 7 saves, but awful in the Series), then retired. He made the Hall of Fame in 1992.

What people tend to concentrate on his 1944-45 years, the “war pitcher years”. The argument goes that the real players left and Newhouser feasted on fake hitting. And I suppose it’s fair to say that the number of true Major League quality players in 1944 was down considerably from a normal season. But take a look at 1945. By the end of ’45, many of the “real” players were back. Hank Greenberg, a teammate, was back in time to hit the home run that sent Detroit to the World Series and Feller pitched nine games. Newhouser didn’t lose all nine games late nor did he win all 25 early. But the real problem with evaluating Newhouser as a “wartime pitcher” is 1946 through 1949. In 1946 he won 26 games, had his ERA go up all the way to 1.94 from 1.81 and his ERA+ drop from 195 to 190, and for the only time in his career led the AL in WHIP. Not a bad year for a “wartime pitcher”, right? It was his peak and 47-49 were not as good, although not bad either. He’s 55-40 over the three years (at 17-17, 1947 is the worst year record-wise) and his ERA starts sliding back up, but it’s not like he’s awful.

So why the jump in stats in 1944? Well, a couple of reasons. First, there’s no denying the quality of play is down in 1944. But Newhouser is also now aged 23 with five years experience in the Majors. It’s time for him to begin reaching a something of a peak. And that peak lasts until he is 28 or 29 (depending on your view of 1950). Then the sore shoulder hits. He’s not much from 30 on (remember Koufax was 30 when he retired). Actually, it’s a fairly normal career progression tempered by both the war and the shoulder.

I’m not advocating Newhouser as one of the greatest of the great, I’m simply saying that in evaluating him, the war is important, but it can’t be looked at as the only factor in his becoming an ace. My son will tell you that for a long time I thought Newhouser was the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame and eligible. I was glad to see him elected because I understood he wasn’t “strictly a wartime pitcher.”

The Last Lefty

December 24, 2011

Yeah, I know, the title’s a little dramatic, but what the heck. If you’ve been following closely (and you should) you’ll note I’ve gotten through nine on my way to the 10 top left-handers in the Major Leagues. I began this by complaining that depth among left-handed starters is almost nonexistent. Trying to find 10 who were really top of the line is difficult and the search for the 10th is the hardest.

I went at this the way I normally do, I put down a preliminary list, looked it over, decided it was wrong, then began to research. That’s where I found an interesting problem developing among southpaws. There really is not true consensus about the top 10. I looked at traditional stats, I looked at the new SABR-type stats and realized you can pick your guy based on which stat you like. Pick a stat and when you run through the nine I’ve already looked over, you get all sorts of different picks. I looked at a bunch of SABR-style stats, but will only bore you to tears with three of them for this post. First, I’ll give the stat, then the top five left-handers on that stat’s list that aren’t the nine guys I’ve already done. Notice the differences (all active players in parens).

1. WAR: Tommy John, Jerry Koosman, Hal Newhouser, Frank Tanana, Billy Pierce

2. ERA+: (Johan Santana), John Franco, Rube Waddell, Harry Brecheen, John Hiller. And if you leave out the relievers Franco and Hiller the next two are Noodles Hahn and Newhouser

3. WHIP: Reb Russell, Jack Pfiester, Waddell, Ed Morris, (Santana). Morris pitched his entire career prior to the mound. Leave him out and you add Doc White

Notice something interesting? The only names that repeat are Waddell, Newhouser, and Santana, with Santana still being active and liable to rise or fall depending on what happens with the rest of his career. Not much consensus is there? A couple of these guys (Russell and Morris) I’d never heard of, so I looked them up and that led to the disqualification of Morris. It’s also interesting to note who isn’t there. Hall of  Fame pitchers like Lefty Gomez, Rube Marquard, Eppa Rixey, and Herb Pennock are missing.

Other stats do the same kinds of things. There seems to be something of a belief, at least statistically, that Waddell and Newhouser are the best of the old timers (Old timers? Newhouser pitched his last few years in my lifetime. Yikes.) and that Santana is the best of the current lot. OK, I guess. But how impressed are you really at that list? Nice group of pitchers, but are there really only nine guys better in 150 years of the Major Leagues? If so, then the crop of southpaw hurlers is as weak as I thought.

OK, to wrap it up, which one do I add to my list? Tentatively I pick Newhouser and reserve the right to drop him depending on the rest of Santana’s career.

The Fortunes of War

August 16, 2010

The other day I was talking with my son the genius (everyone agrees he gets it from his mother). He suggested looking at the guys World War II made into stars. We talked for a while ironing out exactly what he meant and this is the result (so if you think this is a bust, blame him). 

There were three categories of people involved in our discussion (Pete Gray is in a category by himself). First is those who were rising stars when the war broke out, continued to play well, and had at least a few good years after the war. People like Bill Nicholson, Spud Chandler, and especially Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser fit into this category. Second, those people who were retired or failed players who got back to the Major Leagues and had one last fling. These include guys like Tony Cuccinello who retired in 1941, then came back and almost won a batting title in 1945 and Johnny Dickshot who had played four undistinguished years in the National League (the last being in 1939), then came back to the Majors with the White Sox and had a great 1945. Finally, there were those guys who were either new or almost new,  had been nothing special, became stars during the war years, then disappeared as impact players almost immediately afterward. It’s that last group that we decided were worth a look. I picked two Yankees players as good examples of this type player. 

Nick Etten

NIck Etten got to the Major Leagues in late 1938 as a 27-year-old first baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics. He stayed on as a marginal player into June 1939, then was sent to Baltimore where he stayed until 1941. The Philadelphia Phillies picked him up and he stayed there through 1942. He hit .300 in 1941 and managed a total of 22 home runs and 120 RBIs in his stint with the Phils. So far not much of a career. 

Then in 1943 he made it to the New York Yankees. With the war in full swing and many of the better players gone Etten blossomed. He hit .271, had 14 home runs (tied for his career best), and 107 RBIs. His OPS was 775 and he had 245 total bases. The Yanks got to the World Series, winning it in five games. In 19 at bats, he got two hits (both singles), but did drive in two runs. 

He flourished in 1944 and 1945. In ’44 he won the AL home run title with 22 and also led the league in walks with 97 while putting up a 865 OPS.. The next year he hit only 18 homers but had a league leading 111 RBIs. with 90 walks, an OPS of 824, and made the All-Star Game. By 1946 the war was over and the pre-war regulars were back. Etten hit .232 with only nine home runs and 79 RBIs in 108 games. By 1947 he was back with the Phillies where he got into 14 games, hit .232 and had one home run. In May the Phils sent him back to New York and the Yanks failed to activate him. His career was over. He hit .277 (.283 during the war), with 89 home runs (54 during the war), and 526 RBIs (309 during the war). He died in 1990. 

Snuffy Stirnweiss

 Snuffy Stirnweiss is, to me, the quintessential World War II era player. He was born in 1918 and got to the big leagues in 1943 as a second baseman, replacing Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. He had a rough time in 1943, hitting .219 with no power and 11 stolen bases. He got into one game in the ’43 World Series and scored a run. He was a star for the next two years leading the AL in runs, hits, triples, and stolen bases both years and winning the batting title in 1945. He also led the league in OPS and slugging in 1945. 

With the return of the regulars, he became a run of the mill role player never hitting above .256. His postwar highest hit total was 146, he managed a high of 18 stolen bases, and his slugging percentage dropped (although he still had a decent OBP). He remained the Yankees primary second baseman through 1948 (remaining with the team into 1950), making the World Series in both 1947 and 1949. He hit .259 with a triple and three RBIs in the 1947 series and appeared in one game of the 1949 series without batting. 

The Yanks sent him to the St. Louis Browns in June 1950. He’d played all of seven games for New York. He had 50 games for Cleveland in 1951 and appeared in a single game for the Indians the next season. He was killed in a train wreck in 1958. 

For his career he hit .268 (.301 for the war) with 604 runs (266 for the war), and 989 hits (460 during the war). His longer career gives him a smaller ratio of hits and runs during the war than Etten, but his war years are huge compared to his postwar career. And before anyone asks, I have no idea where “Snuffy” comes from. 

There were a number of guys like this, but these two strike me as the best of the lot. They remind me of the NFL “replacement” players of  several years back, but they are significant in the history of the game. At least both Etten and Stirnweiss played for winners.