Posts Tagged ‘Lefty Grove’

Quick, We Need a Pitcher

July 26, 2017

Lefty Grove with the A’s

With the trading deadline approaching, I note that a number of teams are shopping decent pitchers. I guess if you figure you’re not going anywhere, that’s not a bad idea. It certainly isn’t new. Throughout baseball history good pitchers have been dealt while still quality hurlers, although not necessarily during the season (all these examples occurred between seasons).

Back in 1918 the Philadelphia Phillies let Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander go to the Cubs. I’d like to say it got the Cubs the pennant, but it didn’t exactly. Alexander pitched a handful of games (3) then went off to war. Chicago did win the pennant by 10.5 games, but Alexander’s impact was minimal. What did the Phils get in return? They got Pickles Dillhoefer (one of the all time great baseball names), Mike Pendergast, and cash ($55,000). The next time Philadelphia showed up in the World Series was 1950, Alexander threw what is arguably the most famous strikeout in baseball history in the 1926 World Series. He threw it for St. Louis (which should tell you there was another trade).

Between the 1933 and 1934 seasons the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox worked a trade. The BoSox got Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove (and Max Bishop and Rube Walberg) while the A’s got Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler, and $125,000. It’s hard not to believe the cash was a major factor in the trade. Neither team got anywhere near the World Series and Grove still had 44.7 WAR left.

A bit more recently, the Cardinals unloaded Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, who had just put up a 20-9 win-loss record, to the Philadelphia Phillies (do you notice that both Philly teams show up a lot in these trades?) for Rick Wise between the 1971 and 1972 seasons. Wise didn’t do much, but Carlton went 27-10, led the National League in ERA, strikeouts, ERA+, put up 12.1 WAR, and won the Cy Young Award. He later got a call to Cooperstown. Wise? He went 32-28 for the Cards in two seasons and put up 7.7 total WAR.

Maybe it’s not a bad idea to get rid of a pitcher, even a good one. But sometimes it’s a mistake. The Dodgers used to say they liked to get rid of a player a year early rather than a year late. They may be good philosophy, but sometimes the guy just has more than one year left in him.

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The Camera Eye

June 29, 2015
Max Bishop

Max Bishop

Back when I first became interested in studying baseball, rather than merely watching the game, I had (and still have to some extent) a love of the 1929-1931 Philadelphia Athletics. They were a great team that managed to sideline the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees for three seasons and were an interesting bunch in and of themselves. But I wondered about something. I couldn’t quite understand why, on a team full of excellent players, Max Bishop led off.

Bishop was born in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania in 1899. He was a good amateur player who moved to Baltimore at age 14 and caught the attention of the minor league Baltimore Orioles who signed him as a third baseman in 1918. While playing for the birds in the summer, he attended Baltimore City College in the fall and spring, playing second base for the college team. In 1919, the Orioles switched him to second also.

His play with Baltimore was good enough that both the A’s and the Boston Red Sox were interested in obtaining him. The Athletics landed him in late 1923 and he began the 1924 season as their primary second baseman. He developed rapidly a great batting eye (hence the nickname “Camera Eye”) and moved to lead off for Philadelphia, a position in the batting order he held for most of his career. He usually hit in the .270 to .250 range, once getting into the .300s and once dropping as low as .230. He had no power, little speed (his top stolen base total was 10 in 1928), but with the power hitters Connie Mack had behind him, he was never going to be asked to steal a lot of bases. He walked a lot, having more than 100 bases on balls in eight of 12 campaigns (and 80 or more two other times). He was a decent second baseman, never among the top fielding men in the American League, but a solid middle of the pack keystone player (although he did win three fielding percentage titles).

In the glory years of 1929-1931 he was a major contributor to the team, but hardly a star. He had 10 home runs in the inflated air of 1930, led the AL in walks in 1929, scored over 100 runs each year (and also in 1928), and had 150 or more total bases each year. In his three World Series appearances he hit only .182, but had 12 walks, and scored 11 runs. His World Series OBP was .316.

With the team floundering and cash running out, Mack sold Bishop to Boston (the Red Sox, not the Braves) in 1934 (along with Lefty Grove and Rube Walberg). He played two final years in Boston, never getting into 100 games, and in 1936 moved to Portland to become player-manager of the Pacific Coast League team. He got hurt, couldn’t play second, and was fired in May. He played a few games with Baltimore, then became a scout, managed a little, then took over the baseball team at the Naval Academy. He stayed there 24 years, putting up winning season after winning season. He retired after the 1961 season and died in February 1962. He is buried in Baltimore.

For his career Bishop has the following triple slash line: .271/.423/.366/.789 (OPS+ of 103. In 1338 games he had 1216 hits, 236 doubles, 35 triples, 41 home runs, for 1645 total bases. He had 379 RBIs, 40 stolen bases (and was caught stealing 51 times), 1156 walks (about .86 per game), and only 452 strikeouts. He’s never gotten much support for the Hall of Fame, peaking at 1.9% of the vote in 1960.

Bishop, to answer my childhood question, led off because he got on base a lot.  He had a very good On Base Percentage, a statistic I’d never heard of at the time. Hidden in his lack of power, speed, and high average was the ability to draw a walk and get on base in front of the big guns of Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx hitting behind him. It was a successful formula that helped Philadelphia to three pennants and two World Series championships.

Bishop's tombstone

Bishop’s tombstone

Old Guys; New Stats

December 21, 2012

The proliferation of new statistics in the last few years has been a mixed blessing. Some of them are pretty good, others not so much. In studying 19th Century baseball I’ve used both the traditional stats (ERA, BA, hits, runs, etc) and the newer stats (OPS+, ERA+, WAR, etc) to look at the players. The newer stats present something of a conundrum.

Below I’ve listed the OPS+ of two players. Their stat is for a five consecutive year period at the peak of each man’s career (all stats below from Baseball Reference.com):

player 1: 186/175/184/147/142

player 2: 211/207/143/176/235

Now the WAR for a five consecutive year period during the career peak for two players:

player 1: 7.9/6.8/8.6/5.7/4.8

player 2: 4.7/5.2/2.5/5.8/6.1

Next the ERA+ of two pitchers, again for a five consecutive year period during their peak years:

pitcher 1: 155/149/185/217/160

pitcher 2: 167/143/135/115/129

Finally the WAR for two pitchers over a five consecutive year period at their peak:

pitcher 1: 7.9/6.8/8.6/5.7/4.8

pitcher 2: 12.3/10.2/11.3/13.4/14.0

First, the obvious question, “who are these guys?” The first player in both OPS+ and WAR is Joe DiMaggio in the years 1939-42 and 1946 (Joltin’ Joe lost two years to World War II). The second player in both stats is Ross Barnes in the years 1872-76. And here a caveat. I realize that Barnes is in the National Association in 1872-75 and the National League only in 1876, but as his stats are available I’m going to use them. The first pitcher in both ERA+ and WAR is Lefty Grove in 1928-1932 and the second pitcher for both stats is Tommy Bond in 1875-1879 (and, again, Bond is in the NA in 1875).

Notice a few things? First, the two hitters are pretty comparable, aren’t they? According to OPS+ Barnes is better than DiMaggio three times, and in WAR is better twice. In fact, other than Barnes’ third number in both lists, they are pretty much a wash. And somehow we all know that’s just wrong. Does anyone seriously consider Ross Barnes as good as Joe DiMaggio, even if for only a five-year period? I doubt it. 

Now take a look at the pitchers. The two men are roughly comparable for the first two years of ERA+, then Grove really takes off. In WAR, Bond is consistently better. Really? Would you truly want Tommy Bond over Lefty Grove? Again, I doubt it.

So what’s going on here? Surely a number of things. First, the 19th Century players are involved in a lot fewer games played and anybody can get hot for a few games. Look up Bob Hazle in 1957 if you don’t believe me. Secondly, the nature of the way pitchers are used in the 19th Century, especially early, is so utterly different that it blows statistics completely out of kilter. Sticking with Grove and Bond, if you look at one single stat, batters faced, you see the problem immediately. In his career, the most batters Grove faced in any season was 1191 in 1930. Bond, on the other hand, faced 1408 as his low in 1875 (his high was 2189 in 1879). Think that fact alone doesn’t skew the stats? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “you betcha.” (My, God, I’m quoting Sarah Palin. Yutz.)

And these two things alone make it imperative that the newer stats be used carefully when looking at 19th Century players. I’m not suggesting they be ignored. What I am suggesting is that a slavish devotion to any of the stats is a mistake, particularly in the world of 19th Century baseball, where even the word, base ball, is different.

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.

Down the Stretch

May 21, 2012

Secretariat winning the Belmont in 1973

We’re currently two-thirds of the way through horse racing’s Triple Crown with I’ll Have Another having a shot at winning it. Secretariat’s run in the Belmont is still the single greatest thing I ever saw in sport (sorry 1980 hockey team). There’s been a lot of lamenting about it being more than 30 years since a horse came “down the stretch” to win the Belmont and seal a Triple Crown. It’s been even longer than that since baseball had a hitting Triple Crown winner (1967). There hasn’t been one in the National League since 1937. Two men (Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams) have won two. In total it’s been done 16 times. Pitchers have been a little more successful, the last pitching Triple Crown winner occurring in 2011 in both leagues. The idea of winning the baseball Triple Crown is even rarer. This means a player led both leagues, not just his own, in all three Triple Crown categories. It’s happened five times among hitters with no repeats. In pitching it has occurred 12 times with Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Sandy Koufax doing it twice (Koufax did it three times).

Winning a Triple Crown goes back a long way. As early as 1877 a pitcher wins one and in 1878 the first hitter follows suit. In the next few posts I want to look at a handful of the men who have won a Triple Crown. Specifically I want to look at the men who accomplished the feat first, the 19th Century players. There are three hitters (Paul Hines, Tip O’Neil, Hugh Duffy) and six pitchers (Tommy Bond, Guy Hecker, Charles Radbourn, Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, Amos Rusie). I don’t promise to do all nine, but merely provide a sampling in order to give readers a look at the types of men who strode out onto baseball diamonds a century and a half ago.

A Bad Century: The Nadir (“Friggin’ Sun”)

May 9, 2012

Woody English (from the Engish website)

Down one game in the 1929 World Series, the Chicago Cubs had game two at home. They managed to lose it 9-3 to go down 0-2, but a change of scenery to Philadelphia seemed to make a difference. They won game three 3-1 behind Guy Bush. So now down two games to one, Chicago was ready to tie up the World Series and make it at best of three championship. The next game was to become one of the most famous games in World Series history, primarily for one astonishing inning. It also represents, to me, the absolute nadir of the Cubs Bad Century.

Game four was scheduled for 12 October in Shibe Park Philadelphia. The Cubs jumped on A’s starter Jack Quinn. Getting six runs off Quinn in five innings and two more off a pair of relievers, the Cubs looked ready to tie up the Series when the Athletics came to bat in the bottom of the seventh down 8-0. Charlie Root (of Babe Ruth’s “called shot” infamy) needed nine outs to lock up the Series. He got one.

Al Simmons led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run (count ’em up with me, 8-1), then consecutive singles by Jimmie Foxx, Bing Miller, Jimmy Dykes, and Joe Boley brought in two more (8-3). Pinch hitting for the pitcher, George Burns (not the comedian) popped out for Root’s only out. Max Bishop singled to bring in another run (8-4). That sent Root to the showers and brought in lefty Art Nehf who sported an impressive ERA of 5.58. Mule Haas greeted him with a three run inside the park home run (8-7). Center Field Wilson managed to lose the ball in the sun, letting it get by him all the way to the fence, clearing the bases. That was bad enough but Wilson wasn’t through proving he was in the lineup for his bat not his glove. Mickey Cochrane then walked, bringing out the hook for Nehf and bringing in Sheriff Blake. Simmons and Foxx both singled bringing in Cochrane (8-8). Out went Blake, in came Malone, the ace, who managed to plunk Miller. That brought up Dykes who doubled over Wilson’s head (another ball that Wilson lost in the sun) to score both Simmons and Foxx (8-10). Then Boley and Burns, designated rally killers supreme, both struck out to end the inning. The A’s scored 10 runs on 10 hits, a walk, an error, and two misplayed balls. Burns managed to make two outs in a single inning. So far as I can determine, only Stan Musial in 1942 managed to equal that feat. When the inning was over, Wilson, back in the dugout, is supposed to have muttered, “friggin’ sun.” (OK, he didn’t say “friggin'”, but this is a family friendly site.)

Lefty Grove entered the game, no hit the Cubs for two innings and picked up the save. The Series now stood 3-1 in favor of Philadelphia. Teams had come back from that kind of deficit before (not often, it’s true, but it had been done), so Chicago still had a chance. There was no game on Sunday, so Monday 14 October, the subject of my next post, would see game five.

The 50 Greatest Red Sox

April 20, 2012

The Birthday Boy

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, ESPN Boston just released its list of the 50 Greatest Red Sox. It’s an interesting list and frankly not a bad one, although I would disagree with some of the selections. Here’s a list of their top 10 in order: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Tris Speaker, Pedro Martinez, Cy Young, Roger Clemens, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, and Bobby Doerr. Before you ask, Jim Rice is 11th.

Again, not a bad list but I wonder how much Clemens rancorous departure and the subsequent steroid controversy contributed to his rank below both Martinez and Young. I’m a little surprised Grove is a top 10 over Wade Boggs or Rice, but why not. You got to admit, that’s one heck of an outfield, isn’t it?

In case you’re interested it takes all the way to 30th to get a full team. According to this listing, the best Red Sox team is:

Infield: Foxx, Doerr, Joe Cronin (18th), and Wade Boggs (13th)

Outfield: Williams, Yastrzemski, Speaker

Catcher: Carlton Fisk (14th)

DH: Rice (11th and the first position player who would not have a regular spot in the field, hence he’s the DH)

Left Handed Starters: Ruth and Grove

Right Handed Starters: Martinez, Young, and Clemens

Closer: Dick Radatz (30th)

Agree? Disagree? Fine, but compliment or complain to ESPN: Boston, it’s their list.

300 Win Lefties

December 21, 2011

In a comment on my previous post, Bill asked for my list of the 10 best southpaws. I’m going to do something like that, but not actually list them 1 through 10. I want to use this post to make a couple of comments about the six left-handers who won 300 or more games. Later I’ll look at a few that didn’t.

Warren Spahn–maybe the most consistent pitcher ever, right or left. Between 1949 and 1963 he won less than 20 games three times (1952, ’55, and ’62). He’s 42 when he wins 23 in 1963. It tied his career high. Overall he won 363 games, never more than 23 in a season. If you’re a manager, don’t you love that number? For 15 years you can pencil in 21 wins from your ace without worrying about it. His highest ERA over the period was 3.26 ( in ’55, one of the years he doesn’t get to 20 wins), his lowest was 2.10 in 1953. the 3.26 is actually closer to his normal than the 2.10, but that’s still pretty good in the high scoring era that is the 1950s. Every year he had more innings pitched than hits, and led the National League in strikeouts four times. His ERA+ hovered around 120 for most of the period, peaking at 188 in 1953.

Steve Carlton–seems to have gotten lost over the years. For years he and Nolan Ryan were in a race to record more strikeouts than anyone else. Carlton got there first, but Ryan eventually blew by him (and everyone else). Carlton won 329 games, but unlike Spahn, won them in bunches then had periods where he didn’t do so well. His 1972 is one of those years that people still mention, and frequently is the only time he is mentioned. He won 27 games, his team won 59. He led the Nl in wins four times, in strikeouts five, and in ERA and shutouts both once. While still at St. Louis he set a record for most strikeouts in a game. Late in his career he becomes a nomad and isn’t very good.

Eddie Plank–easily the most obscure of the 300 win lefties. His career began in 1901 and ended in 1917. To give you some perspective, he was pitching 100 years ago. For years, until Spahn came along, Plank was the winningest left-hander ever. He spent time in the Federal League (1915) and that makes his win total in dispute. Some sites don’t recognize the Feds or Plank’s numbers, others do. He ended up with 326 wins (305 if you leave out the Feds), a .627 winning percentage, 69 shutouts (leading the American League twice), and played on three World Series winners. He never led the AL (or the Feds) in wins, ERA, or strikeouts. The knock on him seems to be that Connie Mack never considered Plank his ace. That appears to be true of the secondset of  World Series years (1911-14), but Plank’s best years are the period 1902-06. The A’s win a pennant in 1902 (no World Series) and lose the Series in 1905. Plank doesn’t get to play for the great A’s teams until he’s beyond his prime. He’s 2-5 in Series play and does not pitch at all in the 1910 World Series victory.

Tom Glavine–the two pitcher on the great Braves staffs of the 1990s (behind Maddux). I think that hurts him a lot in much the same way that Drysdale gets hurt by being in Koufax’s shadow (not trying to compare Glavine and Drysdale directly). Glavine has a Cy Young (actually two), Maddux four. Glavine does have a World Series MVP trophy and pitched a magnificent game six in the 1995 World Series. It seems to be forgotten that he’s the ace of that 1991 Braves team that goes from last place to the World Series (and a Jack Morris masterpiece short of the championship). Overall he’s 305-203 for a .600 winning percentage. He led the NL in wins five times and in shutouts once. He was a good pitcher, but I think gets lost in the shuffle behind Maddux, as stated above, and behind the guy listed just below him in the wins column.

Randy Johnson–it’s kind of tough to say who is really the greatest left-hander ever, but a pretty good case could be made for Johnson. His record is 303-166 for a winning percentage of .646. My guess is a lot of people don’t realize his winning percentage is that high. He’s second in strikeouts (behind Ryan), his strikeouts to innings pitched ratio is Koufaxian (is that a word?), he won the strikeout title nine times, four years in a row going over 300 k’s (with two more 300+ k seasons earlier). He has a World Series ring, winning three games in the process (but is only 7-9 overall in postseason play). He wins 20 games three times, leads in ERA in winning percentage four times each, in shutouts twice, and early on walked a ton of batters. He got that last under control early and his walk to strikeout ratio is great after the first few years. He also had that easy sidearm delivery that seems to have been relatively easy on the arm and scared left-handed hitters to death. There was another Johnson whose delivery reminds me much of Randy’s. His name was Walter and he was pretty good too.

Lefty Grove–there is a school of thought that Grove is the greatest pitcher ever. I’m not in that school, but he was really good. He played in the 1920s and 1930s, huge hitting eras, and was easily the best left-hander in the American League in perhaps in all baseball (Carl Hubbell being his only competition). For his career he ended up 300-141 for a winning percentage of  .680 which is darned close to the best ever by a left-hander (Whitey Ford’s is better) and is astonishing in the era he pitched. His ERA is 3.06, again a terrific number for the age and his 2.54 ERA in the inflated year of 1930 is one of the great feats ever by a pitcher (and almost totally overlooked today). He led the AL in ERA nine times, in strikeouts seven (all in a row), in shutouts three times, and his ERA+ in 1931 was 220. In ’31 he won 31 games (don’t you just love 31 in 31?) and lost four. He appeared in three straight World Series’ going 4-2 with his team winning the first two (1929 and 1930. The loss was 1931). He ended up at Boston where he hung on long enough for 300 wins and except for his last two years (1940-41) was pretty good even then.

So there are the left-handers who won 300 games. If I were doing a top 10, all would be on the list, although not in the order listed above.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Walter Johnson

July 21, 2011

The Big Train

Presuming that most fans know something about the true greats of the game, I like to do this simple numbered format to point up things about top rung players. It beats delving into long paragraphs about things you already know. So going from obscurity to the antithesis of same, here’s a list of things you ought to know about Walter Johnson:

1. He was born in Kansas in 1887, moved to California with his parents, and ended up in Idaho where he pitched Minor League ball.

2. The “Big Train” was signed in July 1907 at age nineteen by the Washington Senators.

3. He wasn’t an instant success. He went 32-48 in his first three seasons. He did, however, have 395 strikeouts in 663 innings.

4. He hit his stride in 1910, going 25-17 with an ERA of 1.26 and 313 strikeouts (almost doubling his “K” total in one season). His ERA+ for the season was 183, and it was to get even better.

5. In 1912 and 1913 he won over 30 games each season, leading the American League in the latter year. He was to lead the AL in wins five more seasons, the last time in 1924.

6. He won strikeout titles every year from 1912 through 1919, then again in 1921, 1923, and 1924. He won the pitching triple crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) in 1913, 1918, and 1924. The latter year he was 36 years old.

7. The Senators won two pennants while he pitched (1924 and 1925), winning one World Series (’24). Johnson went 3-3 with a 2.56 ERA and 35 strikeouts over 50 innings. He is one of only two Senators/Twins pitchers to win a road game in the World Series (George Mogridge is the other–see an earlier post).

8. When he retired he had 3509 strikeouts, 705 more than the second place pitcher (Cy Young). The record stood until 1983. He’s currently ninth. No hitter currently ranked in the top 96 in batter strikeouts faced Johnson. Babe Ruth, at 97th, has the highest strikeout total of any hitter who faced Johnson (Ruth’s highest single season total was 93 in 1923). Johnson compiled his strikeout total against players who didn’t regularly strikeout 150 times a season. Jimmie Foxx, whose rookie year was 1925, is next among hitters Johnson faced at 104th on the list (12 strikeouts ahead of David Ortiz).

9. Johnson retired after the 1927 season with 417 wins, 279 losses, an ERA of 2.17, a winning percentage of .599, the 3509 strikeouts mentioned above, 1363 walks, a record 110 shutouts, two MVP awards (1913 Chalmers Award and 1924 MVP), and an ERA+ of 147, fifth all-time, and third to Pedro Martinez and Lefty Grove among starters who pitched from 60’6″ (Reliever Mariano Rivera and 19th Century starter Jim Devlin are also both ahead of Johnson).

10. After his retirement he managed the Senators, didn’t do very well, managed the Indians (also without much success), did some announcing on the radio in 1939, and was in the initial class of the Hall of Fame.

11. He got into politics a little after his retirement (What? Playing for the Senators wasn’t punishment enough?). He was a county commissioner in Maryland and ran twice for Congress, losing both. He died in 1946 and is buried in Maryland.

12. In 1969’s Centennial of Professional Baseball voting, he was chosen both the greatest right handed pitcher ever and the greatest Senators player.

The Winningest Pitcher in the last 100 Years

June 9, 2011

Warren Spahn in wind up

On this date in 1911 Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 11th game for Philadelphia, 4-1 over Cincinnati. It made him 11-2 for the season. It also meant that at the end of the day he would go on to win 362 games for the rest of his career. That means as of today no pitcher has won more games in the last 100 years (9 June 1911 to right now) than Warren Spahn.

Somehow Spahn gets overlooked in the roll-call of great pitchers. Even if you restrict it to left-handers he tends to fall short of the top rung. I suppose there are a lot or reasons for that. He did pitch so long ago that only a few geezers like me even remember him and that enormous leg kick of his. He was never very flashy. He went out day after day season after season and won 20 games with regularity and nobody noticed. Milwaukee, and earlier Boston, were not hot spots for Major League baseball when he pitched. OK, Boston was a big deal but it was a big deal for the Red Sox, not for the Braves. He also tended to be overshadowed by his teammates. He had Johnny Sain in Boston, then came Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron. Even Lew Burdette overshadowed him for a while as a pitcher. But Spahn was always there and always winning.

Spahn had a cup of coffee with the Braves before World War II, went off to war, won a Purple Heart, then got back to the Majors in 1946. He won eight games. The next time he won less than 14 was 1964. In 1948 the Braves got to the World Series for the first time since the “Miracle Braves” of 1914. He teamed with Johnny Sain to form a formidable one-two pitching punch (“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” was the mantra), but Boston lost to Cleveland in six games. In 1957, ’58, and ’59 the Braves were again in contention, winning the Series in ’57, losing it in ’58, and losing a best of three playoff series to Los Angeles in 1959. In 1961 he won 21 games at age 40, including his second no-hitter, proving that some players do actually get better with age without the use of steroids.  Spahn had a miserable 1964. He was traded to the Mets and then to the Giants for his final year. After retirement he coached and managed in the minors, occasionally pitching a game for his team. That put off his Hall of fame induction to 1973. He died in Oklahoma in 2003.

What Spahn did was win and eat innings for his team. Between 1947 and 1963 inclusive he won 342 games (an average of 20 a season). He led the National League in wins eight times, in winning percentage once, innings pitched four times, in complete games nine times, in shutouts five, in strikeouts four, and picked up two ERA titles. In all of that his peak number of wins was 23. In other words Spahn was winning consistently every year, not just putting together a great year followed by a weaker season, then dropping in another great year a season or so later. Between 1957 and 1961 he never won more than 22 games nor less than 21. For his career he was 363-245 (.597 winning percentage) with 2583 strikeouts, 1434 walks, an ERA of 3.09 (ERA+ of 119) and a 1.195 WHIP. He even picked up 29 saves along the way. All while facing 21,547 batters. In the World Series he was 4-3 with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks, and ERA of 3.05 (almost dead-on his regular season average) and 1.071 WHIP.

He also had a decent sense of humor and was something of a philosopher. He gave up Willie Mays’ first home run. In later years Spahn said he took full responsibility for Mays’ career. If he’d gotten him out, maybe Mays would have ended up back in the Minors and National League pitchers would have been spared a lot of grief. He is also supposed to have come up with the comment to the effect that hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing (I’ve seen that quoted a couple of ways, so it isn’t in quotation marks.). Not a bad philosophy for a pitcher.

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about which left-hander was the greatest. Lefty Grove gets a lot of support. So do Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. Sandy Koufax enters some discussions, as does Carl Hubbell. But Spahn almost never does. The others were each, in their own way, more spectacular, but none was more consistent than Spahn.I know it’s fashionable to downplay the “win”statistic, but back in the 1950s (the bulk of Spahn’s career) it meant more. Pitchers completed more games, regularly pitched more innings, certainly started more games. Those make the win a more important stat in the era than it is today. And Warren Spahn has more of them than anyone else in the last 100 years.

Someone, at least, finally recognized Spahn’s greatness. In 1999 the Warren Spahn Award was initiated recognizing the best lefty in baseball. Randy Johnson won the first one (actually the first four) and Spahn was there to hand it to him. I always thought that was nice of them.

Warren Spahn Award trophy