The Dead Ball Era was the era of the pitcher. Offense was never as depressed as it was back then. It’s kind of funny to think about the different proposals that people make to increase offense now. There is talk of moving the mound back and outlawing extreme shifting. What these folks ignore is history. The history of the game is chalk full of periods of great offense and great pitching. Just six years before the Dead Ball Era began, the sport had its greatest offensive season ever (1894).
There are really two points here. First, the game changes on its own and really doesn’t need our help. Scouts naturally scout players to address the current trends. If extreme shifts are the thing now then scouts will scout players that can hit to all fields. That’s the way these things work. Secondly, evaluating pitchers in that environment is tricky business. When all numbers look good it is more difficult to stand out.
Some of the names on the outside looking in will not be familiar to the casual fan. It’s funny how these things work out. Time and place have a great impact on the level of fame these pitchers had. Put them on a different team or in a slightly different time and something else may happen. This is where we get in the “if…then” argument.
There is one name here that everyone has heard of. Cicotte was one of the eight men banned from the game after they threw the 1919 World Series. If you’ve only seen the movie there are a couple of salient facts you may not know. For one, they didn’t get banned until after 1920 and that season may have been one of the reasons why. The White Sox mysteriously faded down the stretch and lost the pennant by two games.
At 36 years old, Cicotte went 21-10 with a 3.26 ERA. It was the first year of the Live Ball Era and that season earned him a 115 ERA+. It is highly likely that he would have at least thrown two or three more decent seasons before retiring. If you toggle those results in WAR terms down then you could conservatively estimate that he would have gotten at least seven to ten WAR in those additional two to three years. That would be between 20 to 30 wins in index terms.
Obviously, there is way more going on here than simple index wins, but we can start there. Give him those wins and he finishes well above the 300 threshold. So, Cicotte was a Hall of Fame level pitcher whose career was derailed due to scandal. We can (and will) get into that scandal some, but it should be pointed out that Cicotte would have likely been well above the threshold had he been allowed to finish his career naturally.
Cicotte is one of the few players in history to finish his career during his ten-year peak. This means that he could have conceivably lifted his peak value as well. He was similar to knuckleball pitchers in this generation. He threw what was called a “shine ball”. He was a legal spitball pitcher like Burleigh Grimes. Like the modern knuckleball pitcher, he got better with age. When velocity is not the issue, experience usually wins out.
When you look at all of the index scores you’ll notice that these guys are more qualified than pitchers like Jack Chesbro, Chief Bender, and Rube Marquard. The difference are the teams that these guys pitched for worse teams. That’s not their fault. In the days before the Reserve Clause was outlawed they had absolutely zero control of who they pitched for.
Keep in mind that the index is just one part of the conversation. We want to look at the pitching numbers, playoff performance, and Cy Young points to see if we have missed anything about these guys. We definitely won’t abandon the Cicotte discussion quite yet, but the relevance will come up shortly.
It was more difficult for pitchers in the Dead Ball Era to dominate because they didn’t give up home runs as a group. When looking at the DIP statistics we see that home runs surrendered is one of the major categories. Remove that effectively and you make it more difficult to distinguish yourself. Still, Cicotte distinguishes himself in this group. Unfortunately, we can’t go very far beyond the DIPS from this period, but we can guess that he was better at inducing weak contact. We can also guess that he probably had better fielding support behind him and that could be backed up with the FIP data.
If you go according to FIP then most of these pitchers would see their ERA+ go down. That includes Cicotte. Maybe we should look at Orth in a different lense. His FIP+ would be 108 and that obviously makes him look different. Still, we are looking at an above average pitcher and above average pitchers don’t get into the Hall of Fame. With the exception of Cicotte, all of them were above average.
Fielding was a lot more important back then. Teams were committing more than an error per game back in those days, so the difference between good teams and bad teams was even more than it is now. In that environment, who you pitched for was more important than it ever was. You can add that to the pile of factors that affect pitchers’ won-loss records.
I hate to focus completely on Cicotte, but he is the point of interest. The facts clearly indicate that he took money to throw games. That was all part of the public record in the grand jury and he admitted to it. What isn’t clear is what he did to actually throw the series. Yes, he lost during the series, but he also won. His overall performance was not that much worse than his regular season performance.
I guess the point is that in a sport where you are combatting someone else one on one it is difficult to imagine someone being good enough to shave a little off of their performance and lose. Anyone can tank and lose big, but it takes real skill to lose and look good doing it. I’m not sure anyone is truly capable of doing that. So, I question whether any of those guys really did throw it in the end. The Reds won more games in the regular season that year, so is it so outrageous that they should win the World Series that year?
Of course, he and the others took the money. There is no getting around that and we cannot have anyone in the game that does that. I suppose the concept of forgiveness is a difficult one. In the religious realm it is absolute, but in the sports world it’s often conditional. He is no position to show contrition. He’s been dead for more than 50 years. It’s also a little much to think that any new evidence will come to light. Did he throw any games the next season to help his team come up short? Would things have changed if they had won the pennant a second time and then won the World Series? These are impossible questions to answer, but they should be asked.
BWAR Cy Young Points
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One of the signs of maturity is admitting our own limitations. The index can do a number of things, but it can’t completely capture and define greatness. Sure, breaking things down to peak value helps and certainly a score can describe greatness, but it can never define it. We are mesmerized by greatness. Consistent goodness is admirable and probably more admirable than occasional brilliance, but the brilliance captures our attention.
We remember Denny McLain’s 30-win season. We remember Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA that same season. We remember Roger Maris hitting 61 home runs in 1961 and we remember Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. We don’t remember the good performances. We don’t remember sustained good performance. It’s just not the way we were built. Cy Young points (and MVP points) allow for this fact. Most of the time they reveal the same thing as the index, but occasionally they don’t.
Cicotte had six seasons in the top ten in bWAR. Those included four seasons in a row to finish his career. That more than anything probably spells the difference between greatness and being largely forgotten. Maybe he falls off a cliff in 1921, but most of us tend to doubt it. It is more likely that he produces another top ten season or two. At least he will always have 1917.