As we move to the second half of the pitching list we need to remember the general rules we learned in the first half. The more bats a pitcher can miss the more successful he will ultimately be. Limiting free baserunners is also a huge deal. The final component we saw was keeping the ball in the ballpark. This seems easy enough and yet we still have people preaching about pitching to contact.
Now, of course, contact is unavoidable. 20 strikeouts is still the record in a big league game and while it has been done a few times, it is a very rare occurrence. Heck, 15 strikeouts in one game (for one pitcher) is rare. So, if you can find a way to induce weak contact and on the ground you are on your way to success. Granted, we can’t know all the ins and outs of contact in the Live Ball Era, but we can decipher between groundballs, flyouts, and line drives based on play by play data.
We start with the top six Hall of Famers from the period. There were twice that many, but as you will see, the data splits itself into halves pretty well. Since we are always looking for gaps in data we will always exploit them when we find them. As usual, we will add conventional numbers, playoff numbers, and the BWAR Cy Young points for good measure.
I recall the Twitter conversation I had with my friend. He talked about how different things were expected of pitchers back in the Live Ball Era, so comparing them to modern pitchers was foolish. He didn’t use those exact words, but in this case we completely agree. All players must be compared by looking at how they performed in their own generation. How much did they dominate? Grove won nine ERA titles, eight ERA+ titles, and led the league in strikeouts every year for the first seven seasons of his career. No pitcher can match any of those feats individually.
This is where we start splitting hairs. There is a difference between calling someone the greatest and calling them the most dominant. Greatness can’t be measured. Was Roger Clemens greater than Grove? Well, he lasted longer, but even if we ignore the PED issue we have to look at modern medicine, modern physical training, and more advanced coaching techniques. Grove survived largely on a fastball while Clemens was able to mix in an assortment of off-speed offerings as his career progressed.
Add in the specter of expansion to 30 teams, the color barrier, and influx of players from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America (not to mention Southeast Asia) and who know who had it tougher. Debates about the greatest player of all time always come down to issues like that. What would Grove have accomplished if he had pitched in a modern minor league system with access to modern medicine, training, and nutritional information? The world will never know. What we do know is that he dominated his era nearly as much as Clemens dominated his. That’s what we can go on.
The St. Louis Cardinals were the first team to really utilize organized affiliates. Most of the players in those days played for independent leagues that would rival AAA if not more. Grove spent most of his time in the minors with the dominate Baltimore Orioles of the American Association. They made the Yankees look like also-rans in terms of team success. Grove was 111-39 in five minor league seasons. He did not make his debut until his age 25 season. That would be unthinkable today.
I say all that to point out that the index is merely a guide. If he comes up two years sooner than his peak value would be radically different. Similarly, Hubbell did not debut until 25 as well. He didn’t play in affiliate ball until he was 24. Obviously, that would have turned out differently today as well. However, most players back then also pitched (or played) under those conditions. So, if we compare players from the same generation then we end getting a much clearer picture of how well that player performed.
Rixey and Lyons are probably not household names in spite of being in the Hall of Fame. People have undoubtedly heard of Red Ruffing. Was Ruffing a superior pitcher? Well, that’s hard to say, but he certainly won more and more consistently than those other two. That being said, allow me to introduce you to two pitchers.
Meet Red Ruffing…and meet Red Ruffing. That’s right, both of these are Ruffing. The first represents his Yankees tenure and the second his tenure with the Red Sox. Was he a better pitcher in New York? There really can be no doubt about that. His ERA+ is vastly superior and he has better DIPS numbers as well. However, the question remains whether he was THAT much better in New York. There is certainly something to be said for a change of scenery and sometimes certain pitching coaches unlock certain things in a player’s performance. All of that is true. What is also true is that the Yankees went to the World Series nearly every season while the Red Sox did not.
Data is a fascinating thing. I am not a mathematician and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express in the past year, but there are universal truths in baseball. When you strikeout more hitters on a regular basis you experience more success. Data disperses differently across time. Grove and Vance would be mediocre with those numbers today. They were dominant in the Live Ball Era. Study the game long enough and you learn a few things. The first is that there are players in every era that seem to innately understand what they need to do strategically to dominate. They may not have stated it in the terms we recognize today, but their games were just patterned to take advantage of inefficiency.
The second thing we learn is that the interaction between pitching and hitting changes over time. Did these pitchers strike out fewer hitters because they didn’t try to strike out hitters or, did they strike out fewer hitters because those hitters were better at making contact? It’s likely a little of both. Over time, hitters have been trained to swing for the fences because they get more bang for their buck. It’s similar to the three-point shot in basketball. As that has happened, contact rates have dropped.
Certainly, all six have the index scores necessary to justify their enshrinement. However, there are always mitigating factors that can swing some borderline guys (like Rixey and Lyons) one way or another. One of those is charting their performance in playoff competition.
There are a number of debates that go on with these numbers. The first is between what I like to call “results data” and “process data.” Over a long period of time the two usually meet. In short bursts like above it is anyone’s guess. Grove and Hubbell pitched a similar number of innings, had the same record, and gave up the same number of runs. That’s results data. The fact that Grove struck out more hitters, walked fewer hitters, and gave up fewer home runs is process data. In other words, he should have been considerably better than Hubbell. So, the first debate is whether we even pay attention to process data when looking at playoff performance.
The second question comes in when we start looking at historically great teams. This includes the Yankees of the 1930s and 1940s (not to mention 1950s and early 1960s), the Athletics of the late 1920s and 1930s. So, were Grove and Ruffing great because they were great or did they look great because their team was great? Obviously, Grove was a huge reason for the Athletics success where Ruffing probably benefitted from great hitters and great fielders.
You can take playoff performance at face value or you can look at the factors that surround it. Either way, all of these pitchers (except Lyons) saw at least a slight bump in their reputations due to their playoff performance. Naturally, Vance and Rixey didn’t get much, but they didn’t hurt themselves either.
BWAR Cy Young Points
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Eight Cy Young awards would be insane. For the record, that was more than Roger Clemens or any other pitcher we have profiled so far. It remains to be seen where guys like Walter Johnson will wind up, but so far it looks like Grove dominated his era more than any other pitcher dominated his. We could get cute and ask questions like, “if you had Game 7 of the World Series coming up, who would you go with?” Those are always fascinating questions, but the answer is usually dependent on the time you are talking about.
For my money, Grove was the most dominant pitcher of all-time. No one else won nine ERA titles or combined power pitching with impeccable control. Clemens technically had more BWAR Cy Young points, but he also allegedly got a little help. It’s impossible to parse that out effectively, so we leave it where it is.
Vance’s place is a bit of a surprise, but when you look at the sea of black ink on his baseball-reference page it makes perfect sense. His peak value also helps illustrate the point as well. Usually, things like BWAR Cy points don’t reveal anything new, but simply express it in a different way. All of these guys probably still belong in the Hall of Fame and every test we’ve evaluated shows that.