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Archive for the tag “Don Drysdale”

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Walter Johnson

Many people regard Walter Johnson as the greatest pitcher of all time.

But who was the greatest hitting pitcher?  (To address the obvious, I disqualified Babe Ruth immediately because he was strictly a pitcher for just four seasons, accumulating 5.6 oWAR.)

Originally, this post was going to examine Walter Johnson’s career strikeout numbers, and go from there.

But as I examined his record, I happened to stumble upon his career hitting stats.  To say that I was amazed at what I found would be a tremendous understatement.

Walter Perry Johnson (1887 – 1946), American b...

Walter Perry Johnson (1887 – 1946), American baseball player (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping in mind that the arrival of the Designated Hitter rule was still several decades away when Johnson retired after the 1927 baseball season, he certainly made the most of his plate appearance.

Typically, if a pitcher hits anywhere near .200, he’s considered dangerous with the bat.  If he’s capable of poking a homer or two out of the park every few years, so much the better.

Walter Johnson did much better than that.  Over the course of his 21-year career, he amassed an astonishingly high (for a pitcher) 2,324 at bats during which he produced 547 safe hits.

But the Big Train was not just a singles hitter.  He also slammed 94 doubles, an astonishing 41 triples, and an impressive 24 career home runs.  He even drove in 255 runs in his career.  His 795 total bases are, by far, the greatest number of total bases I found for any pitcher.

Oh, and his batting average?  A not-too-shabby (for his time / place / position) .235.  In fact, aside from his pitching WAR, Johnson accumulated 13.1 WAR with his bat.  Only one other pitcher that I looked at reached 10.0 WAR as a hitter.

But here’s my favorite surprising stat about Walter Johnson:  In four seasons (1910, 1915, 1916 and 1919) he actually hit more home runs than he allowed.

In four other seasons, (1908, 1909, 1912, and 1914), he hit exactly the same number of home runs himself as he allowed other batters to hit off of him.

Walter Johnson on a 1909-1911 American Tobacco...

Walter Johnson on a 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company baseball card (White Borders (T206)) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for Johnson’ 159 career extra base hits, I could find no other pitcher who reached as many as 110.

As an aside, in the four years Babe Ruth was used strictly as a pitcher (1914-17, inclusive), he hit nine home runs, while surrendering just six.

All of this raises the question, “Was Walter Johnson the Greatest Hitting Pitcher Who Ever Lived?

Strictly from a cumulative standpoint, the answer has to be yes.  As far as I can tell, he is the all-time leader in more than a couple of hitting stats for pitchers.

The 24 career home runs intrigued me.  I was well aware that there have been other slugging pitchers in baseball history, but I wasn’t sure if any of them had hit more homers than Johnson.  As it turns out, two other pitchers — Bob Gibson and Carlos Zambrano — have also each hit 24 home runs.

The still active 31-year old Zambrano, who hit a home run this year, certainly has a chance to pull ahead of Johnson and Gibson.  Zambrano’s career batting average of .238 is about the same as Johnson’s was, also.

I didn’t think any other pitcher could have hit more, but then I came upon Don Drysdale.  Although he hit just .186 for his career, Drysdale slammed 29 home runs in his 14 seasons.  In fact in two seasons, 1958 and 1965, he hit seven home runs in each year!

Yet, as you’ll see below, even Drysdale doesn’t hold the record for most career homers by a pitcher.

English: US President Calvin Coolidge and Wash...

English: US President Calvin Coolidge and Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson shake hands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, the career non-pitching WAR for Drysdale, Gibson and Zambrano (5.7, 7.8, 6.3, respectively), each fall short of Johnson’s 13.1.

Among other pitchers I looked at: (and please keep in mind, this list is not meant to be comprehensive.  It serves only to provide context for Johnson’s own hitting numbers.)

Tom Seaver slugged 12 homers, but only 45 extra base hits overall, and finished with a .154 batting average and a 4.2 WAR.

Phil Niekro had 260 career base hits, but a -1.0 WAR.

Greg Maddux batted .171, hit five homers among his 42 extra base hits, and a 2.2 WAR.

Dwight Gooden batted a respectable .196, slammed eight homers and had a 5.0 WAR.

Lefty Grove slammed 15 home runs, had 47 extra base hits, but hit just .148.

Sandy Koufax was a terrible hitter:  .097, 2 homers, -4.1 WAR.

Bill Lee enjoyed his final American League at bat in 1972, though he had a few opportunities later on with the Expos.  Lee had just three hits for the ’72 Red Sox, a single, a triple and a homer.  He batted .208 in his career with one additional homer.

For the humorous story of Bill Lee’s final A.L. at bat, go to 3:32 of the clip below.  I’ll wait for ya.

Robin Roberts hit an impressive 55 doubles among his 255 career hits.  His career WAR (non-pitching, remember) was 2.8.  Batting average: .167.

Dizzy Dean had a pretty decent .225 batting average, eight home runs, and a 2.1 WAR.

Don Sutton as a hitter was, as my nine-year old son would say, extremely lame.  In 1,559 plate appearances, Sutton hit 0 home runs.  C’mon, Don, really?  Not one homer?  In fact, in his entire career, he had just 16 extra base hits.  Basically, he was the poster boy for the D.H.

Christy Mathewson held his own in the batter’s box:  .215 batting average, 69 extra base hits, 7 homers, 457 total bases, 6.3 WAR.

Fergie Jenkins hit 13 homers, including 6 in one year as a Cub, but hit just .165 in his career.

Mike Hampton posted a solid .246 batting average and hit 16 career homers to go with his 8.2 WAR, but a closer look reveals that he hit ten of those homers while pitching in Colorado where he also batted over .300.  Therefore, we have to take his final hitting stats with a grain of salt.

Wes Ferrell:  Was he a pitcher who got to hit, or a hitter who got to pitch?  Ferrell holds the record for most career home runs by a pitcher (38), and most in a season (9).  His overall batting average was .280.  Ferrell produced a career oWAR of 12.1, though it’s not clear how much of that came as a pinch-hitter vs. as a pitcher receiving his regular at bats during a game.  Still, if he could hit well enough to regularly be used as a pinch-hitter, he has to be considered one of the best hitting pitchers  of all time.

Ken Brett.  Ken Brett didn’t receive a lot of plate appearances during the course of his career, but George Brett’s big brother knew how to wield the lumber.  Ken Brett posted an extremely impressive .262 batting average in his career, including ten home runs.  His career slugging percentage of .406 was also significantly higher than Johnson’s .342.  Though Ken Brett’s offensive WAR was just 4.1, he was a very solid slugger.

Don Newcombe.  The former Dodger ace was also an excellent hitter.  Though Newcombe had a relatively short career, as a hitter this pitcher could just about have batted in the top half  of the Dodger’s lineup.  Newcombe’s .271 career batting average, his .705 OPS and his 85 OPS+ are among the best numbers I could find among pitchers.  He also hit 15 home runs in his career, accumulated 322 total bases, and produced an 8.8 WAR as a hitter.

Therefore, though we are comparing pitchers across eras, the best hitting pitchers that we have seen here today (and I fully expect you’ll add more yourself), I would rate in the following order: Wes Ferrell, Ken Brett, Don Newcombe, Carlos Zambrano and Walter Johnson.

So Walter Johnson was not only the greatest pitcher who ever lived, he was also among the greatest hitting pitchers who ever lived as well.

All in all, the boy from Humboldt, Kansas did pretty well for himself, don’t you think?

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Best Forgotten Seasons: Part 11 – The Cleveland Indians

Several professional pundits, as well a few proletarian bloggers,  have designated 2010 as The Year of the Pitcher.

After the homer-happy ’90’s, and even well into this decade, it is as if we have just emerged from a steroid-induced mass hallucination, where real-life Paul Bunyons swung bats the size of small trees, and pitchers, raised from birth in the shadow of aluminum bats and small ballparks, cowered in fear.

But, as the saying goes, everything is relative.  Certainly, pitching has reemerged as a significant force in Major League Baseball.  The depth and breadth of the current crop of young hurlers is stunning.  But obviously, this is not the first time pitching has dominated and defined our National Pastime.

The Gold Standard by which any subsequent Year of the Pitcher is measured is, of course, the 1968 season.

In 1968, the pitcher’s mound was as high as a small mountain, hitters were, on average, smaller than they are today, and pitchers could throw inside with impunity.

In 1968, the combined ERA of the entirety of Major League Baseball was 2.98.  Seven pitchers recorded ERA’s under 2.00.  Five of these pitchers were in the American League.

Over in the N.L., Bob Gibson of the Cardinals set a record for the lowest ERA in a season at 1.12.

Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, who did not have an ERA below 2.00 for the season, broke Walter Johnson’s 55-year old record for consecutive shut-out innings pitched with 58 (later eclipsed by another Dodger, Orel Hershiser.)

Of the five A.L. pitchers who recorded ERA’s below 2.00 in 1968, two pitched for one team, the Cleveland Indians.

Sam McDowell, a fearsome strikeout pitcher who at one point struck out 40 batters over a three game stretch, posted the second best ERA in the A.L., and the second best ERA on his staff, at 1.81.

So who recorded the lowest ERA in the A.L. in 1968?

A 27-year old, cigar smoking Cuban, whose father had pitched against barn-storming Major League and Negro League players in pre-Castro Cuba, Luis Tiant.

In 1959, when Luis Tiant was just nineteen-years old, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba.  In 1961, Tiant came to America to become a Major League pitcher.  He planned on returning to Cuba the following year to see his family.  But the political situation in Cuba had worsened, and his father warned him not to come home, at least for a while.

Tiant’s exile lasted 46 years.

In 1964, Tiant made his Major League debut.  A decade later, his parents were finally allowed to come to America to see their son pitch.

1968 was Cleveland Indians’ pitcher Luis Tiant’s Best Forgotten Season.

The 1968 season was El Tiante’s fifth in the Major Leagues.  Previously, he had never won more than 12 games in a season.  But in ’68, Tiant’s talent and experience came together to produce a record of 21-9, a league-leading 1.60 ERA, 19 complete games, and a league-leading nine shutouts.

Tiant also surrendered an amazingly low 152 hits in 258 innings pitched.  His 5.3 hits per nine innings not only led the league, it is the second lowest mark ever recorded in Major League history.

Tiant also struck out 264 batters (third most in the league), against just 73 walks.  His ERA+ was a league best 186, and his WHIP was an astoundingly low 0.871.

So how does a pitcher with numbers like these not win the Cy Young Award?

Because he just happens to be pitching in the same league as Denny McLain.  McLain won 31 games against just six losses, posted an ERA of 1.96, and led the A.L. in starts (41), complete games (28!), and innings pitched (336.)

McLain not only won the Cy Young award, he was named A.L. MVP as well.

In other words, Tiant’s season, as great as it was, was just one of several outstanding pitching performances that season.

Later, of course, Tiant would enjoy great success pitching for the Boston Red Sox in the 1970’s, (1971-78.)  In fact, he would post yet another sub-2.00 ERA for the Sox in 1972, (1.91.)

El Tiante tallied three 20-win seasons for the Red Sox, and compiled a record of 122-81 while pitching for them.  In the 1975 World Series, he beat the Big Red Machine twice, his herky-jerky delivery, never quite facing home-plate, instantly making him a hero to a young generation of new baseball fans.

Most baseball fans remember Tiant’s Boston years.  But Tiant probably enjoyed his Best Forgotten Season in 1968 while pitching for the Cleveland Indians.

Should Luis Tiant be in the Hall of Fame?

His career win-loss record is 229-172 with a career ERA of  3.30.  According to, three of the six pitchers whose careers most resembled Tiant’s are in the Hall, including Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale.

If Tiant ever does get elected to the Hall of Fame, however, a case can certainly be made that his plaque should prominently display him wearing a cap with the Cleveland Indians logo prominently displayed on his head.

Meanwhile, Luis Tiant was finally allowed to return to Cuba in 2007 after an exile that lasted nearly half a century.  Now almost 70 years old, Tiant has come full circle.

The personal sacrifices he made to pursue his dream are beyond the comprehension of most Americans.  But his accomplishments while pitching in America demonstrate the tenacity of his spirit, and the triumph of his soul.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 7 – The Los Angeles Dodgers

Sandy Koufax is the greatest pitcher in the history of the L.A. Dodgers.  I’m not even going to pretend that there is a reasonable argument here to the contrary.

But who is the second greatest pitcher in L.A. Dodgers history?

There are, of course, a number of ways to define “greatest” in this context.  Do we mean which  pitcher won the greatest number of games in his career with the Dodgers?  Are we going to use Cy Young awards, and / or the traditional annual leaders categories (wins / strikeouts / ERA titles) as our basis for comparison?

How utilizing using a more modern sabermetric approach such as WAR or Win Shares?  Also, do we emphasize long-term reliability over relatively short-term  greatness?

In part, these are some of the same criteria that are argued over when the decision regarding a certain retired player’s Hall of Fame worthiness comes to the fore.

In general, I’ve always believed that emphasizing  a player’s greatest years of accomplishment should weigh more heavily than long-term statistics that reward reliability.  Sometimes, long-term reliability is confused with greatness.  And greatness, I submit, is what we are after when sorting through our  Hall of Fame candidates.

Which brings me back to the original question.  Who is the second greatest L.A. Dodger pitcher of all time?

I’ve decided to analyze the three best  seasons of five different pitchers to attempt to answer this question.

The criteria I have settled upon are a mix of the traditional counting stats and some of the newer formulas:  wins-losses, ERA+, and WHIP.  The latter two categories will be averaged for the best three seasons. (Note: wins-losses will NOT necessarily be a particular pitcher’s best single season totals, but will be from that pitcher’s best ERA+ seasons.)

Now, let’s take a look at the pitchers.

Pitcher A:  53-30,  ERA+  137, WHIP – 1.082

Pitcher B:  47-42, ERA+  139, WHIP – 1.034

Pitcher C:  57-26, ERA+  156, WHIP – 1.088

Pitcher D:  49-30, ERA+  133, WHIP – 1.116

Pitcher E:  50-24, ERA+  157, WHIP – 0.961

It appears that the best pitcher on this list is Pitcher E who has by far the best WHIP, and just barely, the best ERA+.  His win-loss record is also impressive.  Pitcher E is, in fact, Hall of Famer Don Sutton who won 233 games as a Dodger, and 324 overall in his career.

Sutton, then, is one of those infrequent players who is  one of the best players on his team measured in Both career reliability AND peak-years greatness.

Pitcher C might be the second best pitcher on this list because, although he has only the fourth best WHIP, he has the most overall wins and  the second best ERA+.  Pitcher C is Orel Hershiser, who won the 1988 Cy Young Award.

Pitchers A and B are pretty comparable, and Pitcher D isn’t light-years behind the others.  In reverse order, Pitcher D is Fernando Valenzuela, the N.L. Rookie of the Year in 1981 (remember Fernando Mania?!)  Pitcher B is Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, N.L. Cy Young recipient in 1962.

Pitcher A is, by far, the most likely to have been forgotten player on this list, despite three-year numbers comparable to two Hall of Famers and another pitcher who won a Cy Young award.

Pitcher A is Andy Messersmith.

Andy Messersmith’s Best Forgotten Season is 1975.

Andy Messersmith, from Toms River, N.J., was the first round pick of the California Angels in 1966.

Messersmith actually only pitched for the Dodgers for just three seasons (1973-75.)  Previous to his Dodgers years, he pitched for the Angels for five years beginning in 1968. Upon leaving the Dodgers after the ’75 season as one of baseball’s first free agents, he pitched for the Braves and, briefly, for the Yankees before returning to L.A. to finish his career in 1979 at the age of 33.

Although Messersmith had a good year for the Dodgers in 1973, his two-year stretch from ’74-’75 was truly remarkable.  His record was 39-20, averaging an amazing 307 innings per season.  His ERA’s for 1974 and 1975 were 2.59 and 2.29, respectively.  He started 79 games, completed 32 of them, and tossed 10 shutouts in that time frame. He also struck out over 200 batters in each of the two seasons.

In 1975, he led the National League in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings:  6.82.  Even more impressively, his career rate of 6.93 hits per nine innings is 5th best among all starting pitchers in the history of Major League baseball.

In ’74, he finished second in the Cy Young voting.  In ’75, he finished 5th.  Messersmith made the All-Star team in both seasons, and, for good measure, he also won the Gold Glove at his position in each year as well.

Messersmith’s 40 starts, 321 innings, 19 complete games and seven shutouts all dominated the Senior Circuit in 1975.  He also faced an N.L. high 1276 batters that season.

It’s no wonder, then, that although he hurled over 200 innings for the Braves in 1976 with an ERA of 3.04 and a WHIP of 1.158, he was considered one of baseball’s first free agent busts.  He won just eleven games for Atlanta despite his respectable peripheral numbers.  By 1977, the huge number of innings pitched in a few short years having taken their toll, Messersmith’s career was essentially over at the age of 31.

Andy Messersmith reunited with the Dodgers for just eleven more starts, finally retiring in 1979 with a career won-loss record of 130-99.  He finished with nearly as many complete games in his career (98) as losses (99.)

One of the half-dozen best pitchers in the history of the L.A. Dodgers, Andy Messersmith’s Best Forgotten Season in 1975 is one of the most impressive seasons any pitcher has produced in the last thirty-five years.

The question is, will we ever see another pitcher for the Dodgers, or anyone else for that matter, who will be such a work-horse for their team?

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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