We are reaching the end of the post-World War II pitching list. Something to keep in mind is that there were only 15 seasons in this particular era (1946-1960). So, the list of Hall of Famers will be smaller and it should be. We are eliminating a couple of Hall of Fame pitchers that had a cup of coffee in 1946 and 1947 but did the rest of their work before that. Before we move on to the four Hall of Famers, let me take a look at the data we were looking at and offer some interpretation. This time, we are using seasonal data by decade.
We’ve discussed this before, but I think this bears repeating. This data has two major impacts on the game in general and on pitching specifically. Primarily, this helps account for how modern pitchers can be as valuable as their predecessors despite hurling fewer innings. Just in the last twn years, the strikeout rate has skyrocketed. Moreover, it helps explain one of the reasons why pitchers throw fewer innings.
Often, the talk of traditionalists infuriates me. On the one hand, they talk about how “we didn’t count no pitches” back in the good ol’ days, but then they also turn around and prattle on about Nolan Ryan or Bob Gibson and some 200-pitch game. Sure. How does one get there without counting pitches? So, we harken back to a time when the men were men and the livestock was nervous. The proliferation of the bullpens could be attributed to lack of durability, but I have a better solution. Let’s check out two randomly selected years (2018 and 1970) and see what you notice.
What we discover is that teams are using their bullpens more, but the interesting discovery isn’t that obvious fact, but the fact of why. Relievers outperformed starting pitchers in 1970 and today. Teams that can exploit that gap (in other words, make it bigger) win more games. Teams now are not afraid to try new things when the data shows they should. Most teams in 1970 were doing things the way they always did them because that was the way they were always done.
The point is that pitchers are throwing fewer innings for a multitude of reasons. First, it is taking them more pitches per inning (maybe on the order of five per inning) than it did back in 1950. So, if It takes a typical modern starter 15 pitches an inning then he reaches 100 in the sixth or seventh inning. A starter from the past could go a whole game and get to 100 pitches.
Secondly, teams are wiser about using their bullpens to their advantage. Teams that can stack two or three dominant relievers in the bullpen can effectively shorten the game to six innings. That becomes particularly huge when it comes to the playoffs. Of course, they play matchups as well and that slows the game down. It’s one thing to oppose this strategic change. I get that, but you can’t deny its effectiveness.
Finally, take a gander at many of the pitchers we have profiled. You’ll notice that a lot of them were virtually or completely done by their early thirties. Sure, you get the occasional Nolan Ryan that can pitch forever, but the modern era has those guys too. Every era does. The vast majority get to 3000 innings and peter out. That could come 200 per season for 15 years or it can come 250 a year for 12 seasons. I could go on about which method is better, but we need to move on to the post-war Hall of Famers.
We call this the post-war era, but two of these pitchers were dramatically impacted by World War II and the Korean War. Feller lost three prime seasons and a large portion of 1945 serving his country. Lemon lost three prime years as well. If you ask Feller he would tell you that he was one of the greatest pitchers that ever lived. Yes, he was cocky, but he averaged 17 wins in the three seasons after the war and 25 wins in the three seasons before the war. Even splitting the difference gives him an additional 60 wins. That throws him over 300 for a career.
Put it another way, he averaged over seven wins a season (in terms of WAR) in those same six seasons. If we give him those 8 wins a season you add roughly 70 wins to his career value. Also, since it came during his prime you would also be adding to his peak value. The upshot is that he would have been amongst those all-time greats we saw earlier.
Lemon is less dramatic as he averaged two and a half wins in the three seasons. If we conservatively give him an additional nine wins then he would have added 27 to his career value and a little more to his peak value. Maybe he adds 40 to 45 real wins in that time. That would put him close to or better than 250 wins for his career. So, there is more to these guys than the index.
The index is designed to deal with exceptions. So, the cases for Feller and Lemon exist largely beyond the index (although Feller certainly qualifies with it). No one would ever claim seriously that Newhouser was better than Feller. The notion seems absurd and when you include the lost seasons you begin to see why. The same is true for Lemon to a lesser extent. If I were to haphazardly guess, I would guess his final index score would fall between 290 and 300 with those additional three seasons. However, it is impossible to know how the rest of their career would be impacted if they had not missed those seasons.
Newhouser and Wynn seem like comfortable choices. Ironically, three of the four pitched for the Indians at the same time. Those teams won only won World Series and advanced to only two. Had there been a league championship series or divisional round then who knows. That’s part of the fun of baseball back in those days.
If we have learned anything we have learned about the folly of following wins and winning percentage. Let’s assume everything else were equal. Newhouser has a 130 ERA+ and won only 58 percent of his games. Newhouser had 337 decisions. If we apply his ERA+ then he should have won 236 games instead. Now, spread these out over a career and you are really talking. That would be a 236-91 record. That’s not half bad.
The others are less dramatic, but the point still comes through. ERA+ is probably the best single statistic when evaluating pitcher performance. Certainly, some things like longevity come into play, but you can tell a whole lot by looking at certain numbers. So, some of these conventional numbers are distractors from the truth. That’s why we look at as many numbers as we can.
These numbers illustrate the dangers of focusing on small sample sizes. Newhouser somehow struck out more hitters, walked fewer hitters, and surrendered zero home runs and saw his numbers skyrocket. That makes no sense. Except, anything can happen in 20 innings. Meanwhile, a team with three Hall of Fame pitchers can only manage one World Series title. That makes Lemon, Wynn, and Feller the 1940s and 1950s version of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. Are we really going to label them as chokers based on these numbers?
There are so many layers to performance and that is particularly true with less data. Somehow, bad BABIP luck can turn into a rap as a choke artist. Thank God these guys weren’t active now. The talking heads on ESPN and the MLB Network would be analyzing how they “always” seem to come up short. Of course, give them a divisional series and league championship series and the numbers would be far different.
Suffice it to say that none of them really help their cause with their playoff numbers, but beyond that there really is no reason to look too far into those bad performances. A bloop hit here and there suddenly makes you look horrible. That can happen over isolated starts. When you have more than 300 of them then these things tend to even themselves out.
BWAR Cy Young Points
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Of course, there is no telling where Feller or Lemon would have been with those three seasons. In essence, the Cy Young points measure the fame level of the pitcher. Some pitchers are really good for a long time and others have spots of dominance that may not make them better over the long haul but certainly burn their memories into our mind. Essentially, we are looking for gaps and we see a significant gap after Newhouser and another after Wynn.
This doesn’t mean Feller was better. I think most observers would agree, but these numbers aren’t proof of that. What they do is give us a clearer picture of their respective careers when we consider all of the facts. We know Feller was occasionally brilliant while Wynn was more often just very good. Occasional brilliance is better for some than simple consistent production, but others prefer consistency. To each their own.