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Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Lefty Grove”

The Greatness of Clayton Kershaw

Is it possible that a 25-year old starting pitcher, with barely a half-dozen seasons under his belt, is already one of the most taken-for-granted veterans in the Majors?

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m writing, of course, of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

As a Mets fan, I’ve been in awe of our own great pitcher, Matt Harvey (The Dark Knight of Gotham.)  Every pitching performance of his is an event to be savored.  I can think of perhaps only two or three other pitchers in Mets history who’ve generated this kind of buzz and displayed such overwhelming dominance at this point in their careers.

Then I recall that Clayton Kershaw is just a year older than Matt Harvey, and has already been just as dominant, perhaps more so, for about six years now.

Kershaw made his MLB debut at age 20 on May 25, 2008 against the St. Louis Cardinals.  In six strong innings, he struck out seven, walked just one, and surrendered five hits and two earned runs.  Of his 102 pitches, 69 were strikes.  His ERA after that first start was 3.00.  He has not posted an ERA that high in any of his past five seasons (including this one.)  His lone mistake that day was a double to some guy named Pujols.

Through 1,142 career innings (a fair sample size), Kershaw’s career ERA+ of 146 ranks 5th best all-time among starting pitchers since 1900, behind only Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood.  Including this season, he is enjoying his 3rd straight year with an ERA+ of at least 150.  By way of comparison, Sandy Koufax reached that level of dominance in each of his final four seasons.

Speaking of Sandy Koufax, until this year, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax ranked #1 and #2 in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings in their careers (6.555 and 6.791, respectively.)  This year, Kershaw has squeezed in between Ryan and Koufax, now claiming second place all-time at 6.767 per nine innings.  Granted, Koufax tossed about twice as many innings in his career as Kershaw has to date, but, then again, Kershaw has been a much more dominant pitcher in his first half-dozen seasons than Koufax was.  In fact, Koufax was about Kershaw’s current age before he finally began to turn the corner in what had been to that point a very mediocre career.

Kershaw, with a career record of 74-44, has already won one Cy Young award, was the runner-up last year, and has an excellent chance to win another this season.  He is on his way to winning his third consecutive ERA crown, and will probably lead the league in WHIP this year for a third straight season as well.  He has also given up an average of just 5.8 hits per 9 innings this year, one hit per nine below his already fantastic career average.

Astonishingly, in his 1,142 career innings pitched, Kershaw has surrendered just 859 hits.  Another way of looking at this is that Kershaw has tossed 283 hitless innings in his career, the equivalent of pitching an entire season, and then some, without giving up a hit.

And lest you think that perhaps Kershaw has a walk rate that might not be quite as impressive as his hit rate, Kershaw’s career mark of 3.0 walks per nine compares favorably (though very similarly) to Koufax’s career rate of 3.2 walks per nine (not to mention Nolan Ryan’s much higher rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings.)

Since his rookie year of 2008, Kershaw’s WAR has gone up virtually every season as well:  1.4, 4.7, 5.5, 6.5, 6.2, 7.1 (thus far in 2013.)  His 31.4 career WAR (generally a cumulative stat), works out to an average of around 5.5 per season.  I’ll leave it to you to estimate where he might finish among the all-time WAR leaders if he enjoys perhaps another decade of good health.

There’s a real chance that before he’s done, Clayton Kershaw will rate among the top five left-handed pitchers in baseball history.  It would be unfortunate if, outside of L.A.,  baseball fans failed to notice Kershaw’s greatness due to our sports media’s current obsession with scandal, blame and shame.

Addendum:  I just learned a couple of hours ago of the elbow injury that Matt Harvey has suffered.  The brittleness of pitchers is something that we are constantly reminded of and, despite our hopes going forward, obviously no pitcher is guaranteed a long and healthy career.  Not Matt Harvey, not Clayton Kershaw, not any of them.  All we can do is enjoy their talent while we have them.  

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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Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Pedro Martinez

This is Part 7 of the series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”  If you’ve missed any or all of the first six,  you’ll find them under “Recent Posts” over to the right.

Recently, I read that Pedro Martinez lost only 100 games in his entire career in over 400 starts.

English: Pedro Martínez

English: Pedro Martínez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Losing just 100 games out of 409 career starts (against 219 wins) is a pretty remarkable statistic.

It led me to ask the following question:  What was the greatest number of games Pedro lost in any one season?

Indirectly, this also led me to wonder, if wins are an overrated statistic that don’t often reveal the true value of a pitcher, then how about losses?

In other words, are the number of losses a pitcher suffers in a particular season fairly representative of his overall performance?

Lists are often my favorite visual aid, so of course you know what’s coming.  Here’s a list of 26 pitchers, (do we always have to work with multiples of five?) and the highest number of losses they suffered in a season, from fewest to most.

Every pitcher on this list made at least 300 career starts, the vast majority making over 400. The number in parentheses indicates the number of seasons the pitcher lost that many games.  A number in bold print indicates they led the league in losses that season.

1)  Pedro Martinez – 10  (2)

2)   Ron Guidry – 12 (and it wasn’t until he turned 35 that he lost that many.)

3)  Lefty Grove – 13  (2)

4)  Sandy Koufax – 13  (2)

5)  John Smoltz – 13

6)  Roger Clemens – 14

7)  David Cone – 14  (2)

8)  Randy Johnson – 14  (2)

9)  Curt Schilling – 14

10) Tom Seaver – 14  (2)

11) Bob Feller – 15  (2)

12) Dwight Gooden – 15

13) Greg Maddux – 15

14) Mike Mussina – 15

15) “Pete” Alexander – 17

16) Bert Blyleven – 17  (4)  (Led league in losses in one of those four 17-loss seasons.)

17) Tom Glavine – 17

18) Catfish Hunter – 17

19) Christy Mathewson – 17

20) Ferguson Jenkins – 18

21) Jack Morris – 18

22) Nolan Ryan – 18

23) Don Sutton – 18

24) Steve Carlton – 20

25) Luis Tiant – 20

26) Walter Johnson – 25

Boy, that Walter Johnson was a lousy pitcher, wasn’t he?

Actually, the year Johnson lost 25 games he was just a 21-year old kid still learning his craft.  Although his ERA that year was a sparkling 2.22, his ERA+ was just a mediocre 111, meaning that lots of pitchers had very low ERA’s that year.  Easy to see why this was the Dead Ball era, right?

So, do the number of losses a pitcher suffers in their “worst” season tell us much in the way of useful information?  Is it possible for a pitcher to have an excellent year (as measured by other reliable stats) yet come away with a relatively high number of losses?

Well, we just saw that Walter Johnson was not yet a great pitcher when he lost those 25 games.  Similarly, Tom Glavine was just a 22-year old with an ERA+ of just 80 when he lost his career high 17 games.  In other words, it would not be inaccurate to say that he truly did “earn” those losses.

Although Nolan Ryan was already 29-years old when he lost 18 games in 1976, his ERA+ that year was only 99, and he was still walking far too many batters.  In other words, those 18 losses can’t simply be written off as a lack of run support, or an unlucky “good” pitcher on a bad team.  Ryan pretty much deserved to lose 18 of his 39 starts that year.

Don Sutton, like Bert Blyleven, is in the Hall of Fame due to a long career of notable, yet unspectacular, consistency.  They are baseball’s equivalent of the 35-year career insurance salesmen who never miss a day of work, but of whom the best that can be said is that they never knowingly, intentionally, sold a questionable policy.  They each stuck around long enough to earn their gold watch, enjoy their retirement party, and retire to Miami Beach to play golf, bare white legs set against the over-manicured greens draining into dying swampland.

So what of their 17 and 18 loss seasons?  In 23 seasons, Don Sutton never led his league in ERA+, and in ERA just once.  In 1969, his fourth season in the Majors, he posted an ERA+ of 96 in 296 innings.  Durable?  Sure.  But it is clear that those 18 losses were generally representative of his pitching performance that particular year.

Bert Blyleven’s four 17-loss seasons, three of which occurred consecutively from 1972-74, were more of a mixed bag.  In two of those seasons, (1973-74) Blyleven posted ERA+’s of 156 (which led the league) and 142, respectively.  In 1972, his ERA+ was a decent 119, and in his final 17-loss campaign, 1988, his 17 losses led the league in a year in which his ERA+ was only 75.

When Luis Tiant and Steve Carlton each led their respective leagues with 20 losses (Tiant in ’69; Carlton in ’73), neither pitcher was better than league-average that year.  Tiant’s ERA+ was just 101, and Carlton’s was only 97.

Long-time Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martíne...

Long-time Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martínez returns to Fenway Park in 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Generally speaking then, what is clear from this admittedly abbreviated list of pitchers is that great pitchers don’t tend to lose very many games, unless they are having an off-year, or unless they are still refining their craft.

Now, that may sound like the least surprising bit of information you’ve ever received.  But what it means is that, although a pitcher can have a great year and not win very many games (see the list of recent Cy Young winners), it is not at all common for a pitcher to have a great year and still end up with a lot of losses.  

Notice that only four of the 26 pitchers on this list ever led their league in losses, despite the large number of combined seasons represented here.

Therefore, although it is true that you should generally ignore a pitcher’s win totals when evaluating his actual value in any one season, the converse is not so true.

A pitcher’s loss totals are generally representative of what you would expect, given other statistical measures of performance.

By that measure, then, one can argue that Pedro Martinez was one of the top ten, if not among the top five, starting pitchers of all-time.

Phil Humber’s Perfect Game: How Perfectly Rare

Phil Humber of the Chicago White Sox has just tossed the 21st perfect game in Major League history, defeating the Seattle Mariners this afternoon, 4-0.

Philip Humber

Philip Humber (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

To put this extremely rare event into perspective, more people have orbited the moon than have thrown a complete perfect game, and no pitcher has ever thrown two of them.

Among the pitchers who never threw a perfect game are Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Carl Hubbell, Bob Feller, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez.

Twenty perfect games have been pitched during the regular season.  Two perfect games were pitched in the 19th century, 14 were tossed in the entire 20th century, and now five have already been hurled in the 21st century.

Six pitchers who pitched a perfect game are currently in the Hall of Fame:  Montgomery Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter.  At least two more pitchers — Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay — will eventually be enshrined as well.

Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perf...

Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perfect game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eight of the 21 perfect pitchers were left-handed:  Lee Richmond, Tom Browning, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Dallas Braden, David Wells, Mark Buehrle, and Kenny Rogers.

The most common score of a perfect game has been 1-0.  This has happened six times.  The greatest amount of run support pitchers have received while tossing perfect games has been six runs.  David Cone won 6-0 in 1999 while pitching for the Yankees, and Jim Bunning received six runs of support in 1964 while pitching against the Mets.

May has been the most common month for perfect games (7), while none have ever been pitched in the month of August.

Thirteen perfect games have been thrown by A.L. pitchers, while only eight N.L. pitchers have ever pitched one.

Here is a complete list of pitchers who have tossed a perfect game prior to Humber’s masterpiece today, as well as the date on which it was thrown, and the score of the game:

Roy Halladay
Philadelphia Phillies at Florida Marlins, 1-0
May 29, 2010

Dallas Braden
Oakland A’s vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 4-0
May 9, 2010

Mark Buehrle
Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 5-0
July 23, 2009

Randy Johnson
Arizona Diamondbacks at Atlanta Braves, 2-0
May 18, 2004

David Cone
New York Yankees vs. Montreal Expos, 6-0
July 18, 1999

David Wells
New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins, 4-0
May 17, 1998

Kenny Rogers
Texas Rangers vs. California Angels, 4-0
July 28, 1994

Dennis Martinez
Montreal Expos at Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-0
July 28, 1991

Tom Browning
Cincinnati Reds vs. Los Angeles Dodgers, 1-0
Sept. 16, 1988

Mike Witt
California Angels at Texas Rangers, 1-0
Sept. 30, 1984

Len Barker
Cleveland Indians vs. Toronto Blue Jays, 3-0
May 15, 1981

Catfish Hunter
Oakland A’s vs. Minnesota Twins, 4-0
May 8, 1968

Sandy Koufax
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Chicago Cubs, 1-0
Sept. 9, 1965

Jim Bunning
Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets, 6-0
June 21, 1964

Don Larsen
New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn Dodgers, 2-0
Oct. 8, 1956
(World Series)

Charles Robertson
Chicago at Detroit (AL), 2-0
April 30, 1922

Addie Joss
Cleveland vs. Chicago (AL), 1-0
Oct. 2, 1908

Cy Young
Boston vs. Philadelphia (AL), 3-0
May 5, 1904

Prior to Modern Era

John Montgomery Ward
Providence vs. Buffalo (NL), 5-0
June 17, 1880

Lee Richmond
Worcester vs. Cleveland (NL), 1-0
June 12, 1880

They say nobody’s perfect, but 21 pitchers can say they have been perfect for a day.  And that’s something no one can ever take away from them.

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...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

Underrated / Overrated: Baseball and Other Stuff – Part IV

The Blues Brothers (film)

Image via Wikipedia

This is the fourth installment of an ad-hoc series called “Baseball, and Other Stuff.”  If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you know how this works.  If you are just joining us,  settle in.  You’ll get the idea.

Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army
Part of the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839–1842
Last-stand.jpg
The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty’s 44th Foot at Gandamak

 

Overrated:  Ryan Howard – Sure, his home run and RBI totals over the past five years have been remarkable.  But, consider, his walk totals have declined steadily over the past five years (108, 107, 81, 75, 59.)  In only two of his seasons has his WAR exceeded 4.0.  By contrast, Albert Pujols‘ LOWEST single season WAR was 5.8.  And Howard has struck out in 27% of his plate appearances, a staggering total.  Finally, only once in the past three years has his on-base percentage touched .360.  At age 30, he has probably seen his best days.

Underrated:  Miguel Cabrera – Has been playing in the shadow of Albert Pujols his whole career.  Otherwise, Cabrera might be considered the greatest player in the game today.  Still only 27-years old, he has already produced seven excellent seasons.  He has driven in over a hundred runs in all but his first half-season, and has only once failed to score over a hundred runs in a year.  His career line is:  .313, .388, .552 with an OPS of .939.  His career OPS+ is 145, good for 45th place all-time, higher than Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews.

Overrated:  Custer’s Last Stand – June, 1876.  Lt. Col. Custer’s entire command was wiped out (268 killed) at the Little Bighorn River, by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.  Within a year, most of the Indians had been forced back onto reservations, were killed, or had fled with Sitting Bull to Canada.

Underrated:  Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army – January, 1842.  Afghanistan (road from Kabul to Jalalabad.)  After an uprising in the city of Kabul, fomented by Akbar Khan, forced the British / Indian troops and camp followers (16,500 strong) out of Kabul, they attempted to reach safety 90 miles away at the British garrison at Jalalabad.  But soon after they set out, the slaughter began.  Near the end, fewer than 40 British regulars of the 44th regiment of foot were all that was left.  Surrounded by Pashtun tribesmen, their surrender was requested, to which a British sergeant reportedly declared, “Not bloody likely.”

Of the original 16,500 men, women and children that evacuated Kabul, only one British medical officer and a few Indian sepoys survived to tell the tale.

Overrated:  Jim “Catfish” Hunter – A colorful character and a tough competitor, but does he really belong in the Hall of Fame?  He did win 20 games or more for five straight seasons, but, excepting win totals, he had just three truly outstanding seasons in his entire career:  1972, ’74, ’75.  He never struck out 200 batters in a season.  He was extremely durable (200+ innings pitched) ten seasons in a row, and he kept his walks to a minimum.  But his career ERA+ was just 105, meaning that taking his career as a whole, he was just 5% better than your average replacement level pitcher.

Underrated:  Pedro Martinez – Will eventually make the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible, but some writers, perhaps most, will not view Pedro as a first round HOF candidate (as if that matters) because he won just 219 games in his career.  I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that most baseball fans / writers, bloggers, etc., view Pedro as a top 25 all-time pitcher who, unfortunately, didn’t last long enough to make an even greater impression on the minds of the baseball masses.

But let’s take another look at Pedro Martinez’ career.  He was an eight time all-star who won five ERA titles, six WHIP titles, three Cy Young awards (while finishing 2nd twice and third once), whose career WAR of 75.9 is 23rd all-time.

Pedro also posted nine 200 strikeout seasons, including two 300-hundred K seasons.

But those are his LEAST impressive statistics.  Pedro also posted a career WHIP of 1.054 (fifth best ever) and struck out 10.04 batters per nine innings (3rd best ever.)  His strikeouts per walks ratio was 4.15 (3rd best ever.)

Pedro Martinez made 409 career starts, and was defeated just 100 times.  He never lost more than ten games in a season, and he was defeated 1o times in a season just twice in 18 years.  His .687 career win-loss percentage is 6th best all-time.  Pedro struck out 3,154 batters in just 2,827 innings pitched.

Most impressively, however, Pedro Martinez enjoyed his success  in a hitter’s era in mostly friendly hitter’s parks (especially Fenway Park.)  Very few pitchers in baseball history have managed to top an ERA+ (which takes into consideration a pitchers era and home ballpark) of 200.  For the sake of context, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson and Pete Alexander each reached that plateau just once in their respective careers.  Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Tom Seaver never posted an ERA+ of 200 in any single season.

Christy Mathewson reached that lofty number twice.  Roger Clemens touched that number three times, but two of those years are tainted by alleged PED usage.  Walter Johnson, widely regarded as the best pitcher who ever lived, topped an ERA+ of 200 an astonishing four times.

Pedro Martinez reached that pinnacle five times.

Pedro’s career ERA+ of 154 is pretty damn good.  How good?  Well, since you ask, it’s THE BEST EVER for a starting pitcher.

In other words, folks, from 1997-2003, not only wasn’t there a better pitcher in baseball, but there may never have been a better pitcher in the history of baseball.

Overrated:  The Everley Brothers – Here are some lyrics to their hit single “Cathy’s Clown“, released in 1962:

“When you see me shed a tear, and you know that it’s sincere, Doncha think its kinda sad, that you’re treatin’ me so bad?  Or don’t you care…?

Egad man, grow a spine!

Underrated:  The Blues Brothers:

Overrated:  Dave Winfield – Nice overall life-time numbers, 3,000+ hits, 1,800+ RBI’s, 465 home runs… no one’s saying that he sucked.  And he gets extra points for being tailed by a private investigator at the behest of Herr Steinbrenner in the ’80’s. But his career line of .283, .353, .475 is not spectacular.  Nor is his .827 career OPS, or his OPS+ of 130.  Each of these numbers are rather on the low side for a HOF outfielder.

Underrated:  Jimmy Wynn – Jimmy (Toy Cannon) Wynn broke into the big leagues in 1963 at the age of 21, and retired fifteen-years later at the age of 35.  For most of his career, he played in pitchers’ parks in a heavily dominant pitcher’s era.  Despite these handicaps, Wynn was an offensive force in the N.L.  In 1965, at age 23, Wynn stole 43 bases while being caught just four times.  He also drew 84 walks, scored 90 runs, hit 30 doubles and 22 homers, and logged an OPS+ of 144.

In 1967, despite leading the league in strikeouts, Wynn clubbed 37 homers, drove in 107, scored 102 and stole 16 bases.  In ’68, he led the league in offensive WAR at 7.7.

In 1969, Wynn led the league with a huge total of 148 walks, resulting in a .436 on-base percentage.  He also slammed 33 homers and scored 113 runs.  His .943 OPS was good for sixth in the league.  His OPS+ of 166 was a career high, and was fourth best in the senior circuit.

In 1974, Wynn was traded to the Dodgers, made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the N.L. MVP voting at age 32.  He drew 108 walks, drove in 108 runs, and scored 104 runs.  He slugged 32 homers, and finished with an OPS+ of 151.

In his career, Wynn drew over a hundred walks six times, scored 90 or more runs six times, hit at least 25 homers five times, and posted a career OPS+ of 128, the same as Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Goose Goslin…and Jim Rice.

And, perhaps most ironically, considering Jimmy Wynn is not in the HOF, and Dave Winfield is…

Jimmy Wynn’s career WAR: 59.8.

Dave Winfield’s career WAR: 59.7.

That’s all for today, boys and girls.  As for me, I’m done here until after Christmas, so check back in sometime between Christmas and (overrated) New Year’s. Until then, enjoy the holidays.

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