The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Pitching WAR Analysis: The First Seven Years

Using my previous post about Roy Oswalt as a jumping off point, I decided to analyze forty semi-random pitchers’ cumulative WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for their first seven consecutive years in the Majors.  Working under the assumption that Roy Oswalt would rate higher than the average Dick Ruthven, Roger Pavlik or John Burkett, I didn’t hesitate to compare Oswalt’s WAR for Seasons 1-7 against many of the best pitchers in history.

In some cases, I decided to skip a particular season for a starting pitcher who made just a handful of starts in an injury abbreviated year, and move on to his next full season.  For a handful of these pitchers, seven consecutive full seasons of pitching was about all they could muster.

As with all lists, it begins with the caveat that we are looking at a snapshot of a player’s career, as measured by just one of many available statistics.  So don’t (and I don’t really think there was a chance that you might have) wave this around as either evidence of my ignorance (which it may very well be) or as proof that could win you a bet in a pub argument (and why wasn’t I invited?)

In order then, from highest WAR to lowest, first seven seasons as a starting pitcher, since 1900, (leaving out about a million relevant pitchers):

English: Portrait of baseball player Christy M...

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1)  Walter Johnson (you were expecting maybe Buzz Capra?) – 57.0

2)  Grover Cleveland Alexander – 54.2

3)  Tom Seaver – 52.0

4)  Lefty Grove – 51.2

5)  Bob Feller – 49.5

6)  Roger Clemens – 46.9

7)  Robin Roberts – 46.3

8)  Ferguson Jenkins – 45.8

9)  Warren Spahn – 44.2

10) Pedro Martinez – 43.4

10) Christy Mathewson – 43.4

12) Rube Waddell – 41.9

13)  Johan Santana – 39.8

14)  Don Drysdale – 38.2

15)  Roy Halladay – 38.1

16) Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown – 37.6

17) Dave Stieb – (Yes, he really was this good) – 36.3

18) Steve Carlton – 36.0

19) Brett Saberhagen – 35.9

20) Dizzy Dean – 35.7

21) Phil Niekro – 35.4

22) Bob Gibson – 35.3

23) Nolan Ryan – 34.7

24) Randy Johnson – 34.6

25) Dwight Gooden – 34.4

26) Ron Guidry – 34.0

26) Sandy Koufax – 34.0

28) Mike Mussina – 32.9

29) Roy Oswalt – 32.7

30) Greg Maddux – 31.6

31) Curt Schilling – 29.2

32) Cliff Lee – 28.7

33) Jim Bunning – 28.4

34) Whitey Ford – 26.6

35) Don Sutton – 25.2

36) Jack Morris – 22.7

37) John Smoltz – 21.0

38) Kevin Brown – 20.8

38) Tom Glavine – 20.8

40) Catfish Hunter – 15.2

Keeping in mind that these numbers do not represent the final WAR totals of each of these pitchers’ respective careers, what does this data tell us?

For one thing, Oswalt’s first seven years measure up pretty well with pitchers like Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina, and are close on the heals of power pitchers like Gooden, Guidry and Koufax.*

*Incidentally, I love the synchronicity of those particular three pitchers, each of whom had a few great years, then burned out rather quickly.

It is also clear that if a pitcher is able to accumulate 40 WAR or better in his first seven years, he is very likely on his way to a Hall of Fame career.  On the other hand, if a pitcher accumulates 30-40 WAR in his first seven years, it is nearly impossible to predict if the rest of his career will buttress, or undermine, his HOF chances.

This list, which, let me remind you, is not meant to be comprehensive, also reminds us that our perceptions of baseball players are largely formed early in their careers, and that’s how we tend to remember them regardless of what they do for the rest of their careers.

Thus, some players like Kevin Brown never seem to get their due as excellent pitchers because the initial years of their careers were not terribly impressive.  Meanwhile, many, perhaps most baseball fans, are aware of the early greatness of Gooden, Guidry, Dizzy Dean, and others who didn’t last terribly long.

Finally, let this list be a cautionary tale that it is awfully difficult to accurately and objectively evaluate a pitcher’s career while it is still in progress.  It is not until he has tossed his final pitch and walked off the mound for the last time that we can begin to appreciate his contribution to baseball, and his place among the immortals.

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13 thoughts on “Pitching WAR Analysis: The First Seven Years

  1. Oh, And BRET SABERHAGEN Is MY PITCHING IDOL! Just Sayin’… 😉
    -BRAD

    • The man had already won two Cy Young awards by the age of 25. In 1994 with the Mets, he was having an amazing year when the strike hit. He was 14-4 with a 2.74 ERA and, most amazing to me, he had walked just 13 freakin’ batters all season up to that point! If the strike hadn’t hit, he might have had a chance to win a third Cy Young, then maybe we’d be talking about a potential HOF’er.
      Thanks again, Bill

      • 1985 Was My 1ST Season As A True Baseball-Junkie, And I Live In The St. Louis Area. Talk About PERFECT TIMING, Eh!?! The Cards AND The Royals Have Been My Teams Since. Saberhagen Was A BEAST Between 85-89, And I Was ALWAYS Happy Happy To Watch The Man WORK! hehehe

        And Yes Sir, It’s Good Chit-Chattin’ With You, Also.
        You Take It Easy, Dude.
        -BRAD

  2. Grover Cleveland Alexander is Honestly My FAVE FAVE Pitcher To Study From The Early 20TH-Century. He’s Absolutely FASCINATING. Talk About Barn-Burner Of A Life-Story, Fo SHO, Sir!
    -BRAD

  3. Great analysis, Bill. Really enjoy the blog. Interesting to see some guys age gracefully while others really fall off after their 7th year (coincidentally for most elite pitchers that enter the big leagues early that is around age 30).

    • Thanks so much for the kind words. They are much appreciated. You are right that right around 30 tends to be a marker in a pitcher’s career. Either they tend to begin to fade, or, like W. Spahn, N. Ryan, and R. Johnson, they catch an amazing second win and go on to glory.
      Thanks again, Bill

      • TOB$ on said:

        It would be interesting to see the differences in innings pitched for these guys when they finally fade. So instead of age being the factor of when pitchers fade, maybe it has to do with total career innings pitched or over usage in certain years by pitching way too many innings and it catching up to them and their arms. Currently I am conducting a research project on the shelf life of a nfl running back to see if there is any generalized breaking point in max carries for a year or career.

      • You bring up a great point. Some guys are definitely overworked in their early to mid ’20’s, then tale off quickly as a result. Dizzy Dean is one obvious example, having pitched AT LEAST 286 innings per year in each of his first five full seasons, topping three hundred innings three of those years. He was basically all done by age 28. Randy Johnson, on the other hand, never topped 220 innings in a season until he was already 29 years old.
        I also think, but have no way to measure, body type / size, pitch selection (sliders are notoriously hard on the arm) and how hard a pitcher works at keeping his body healthy (Gooden threw his career away with drugs, while Schilling, and before him, Seaver, were notorious work-out freaks.)
        But I think your point is valid: early heavy work-loads are probably detrimental to pitchers careers. Worth examining more closely. Thanks for the comment,
        Bill

  4. Dave Stieb? Wow.

    Cool analysis.

  5. I’m actually surprised Koufax was that high based on his first 7 years. The first about 5 really weren’t very good. I’m also surprised that Whitey Ford was that low. Thanks for some interesting surprises.
    v

    • For Koufax, I threw out his first three years when he made 5, 10, and 13 starts in ’55-’57 while in Brooklyn. I “began” is career in 1958 when he was still just 22-years old and threw 158 innings in L.A. In his first four years that I used, ’58-’61, he was nothing special. But the last three, 1962-64, he was sensational, and those three years really pulled up his overall WAR. He only pitched two more years after that, ’65 and ’66, during which he accumulated 19.0 WAR in just those two years alone!
      The surprising thing about Ford is how few innings he pitched in the 1950’s, never topping 253, and usually much less than that. Those relatively low innings pitched totals kept his overall WAR down. It wasn’t until 1961 that the Yankees really started letting his pile up the innings, but he’d already been in the Majors for eight seasons by then.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

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