Judging 19thcentury players has always been its own separate sport. It quite literally is a separate sport. The rules changed so often and so drastically in the early going that you really couldn’t compare players from that era even with the Dead Ball Era. In the beginning, hitters could call for their pitch. Then, they played around with the number of pitches required for a walk and strikeout. It really isn’t until we get into the 1890s before the rules of the game are those that we would recognize today.
In 1901, the American League joined the National League as one of the two major leagues. With the exception of the Federal League in 1914 and 1915, this has been the structure since that time. In the 1800s we had the American Association for a time. We had the Player’s League for a time. We had the National Association at the beginning. All of these leagues competed with the National League.
That creates all kinds of issues for us as we move through the index. How do we take index scores from a period where the level of play may not have been uniform? How do we evaluate postseason records for players when there was no established World Series? How do we compare players from the 1870s with players from the 1890s when the rules were not the same? All we can really say is that someone dominated the era in which they were in. We cannot really compare players from the 19thcentury with the 20thor 21stcentury.
|Old Hoss Radbourn||75.4||51.1||78.2||204.7|
Griffith is a testament to how much the game has changed in the 150 or so years it has officially been played. Griffith is largely in the Hall of Fame as a pioneer. He ended up founding the Washington franchise in the American League. So, he would be similar to Charlie Comiskey and other former players that became owners. So, we will continue to include him here, but he is in the Hall of Fame for different reasons.
Beyond that, the way these guys were used was completely different. Most of these pitchers barely made it ten seasons. That’s because the teams in those days didn’t even employ four-man rotations. Radbourn is the most stark example of that. In 1884, he went 60-12 with a 1.38 ERA and 678 innings. He started 73 games that season and appeared in 75 of the team’s games. The Providence Grays played in only 112 games that season. So, according to the math, he started all but 39 of the team’s games that season.
Looking at some of the individual seasons is fascinating. The Grays went 84-28 that season. That would be close to 120 wins in a season today. That’s one of the downsides to evaluating players from the period. When the competitive balance of the league is that drastically disperse, it is impossible to know whether players were really as good as they were because of their own talent or because every other team sucked.
|Old Hoss Radbourn||74.6||49.9||76.4||200.9||405.6|
Let’s consider Kid Nichols. Nichols’ peak occurred between 1890 and 1899. He spent all of the time in the National League and the rules of the game were virtually the same as they are now. The Player’s League played in only 1890. The American Association played through 1891. So, the 1890s were a fairly stable period in the game’s history, The 1870s and 1880s not only saw the American Association, but also the National Association and the Union Association.
They also saw all kinds of changes in rules and teams were not as uniform as they are now. The most famous of these examples was the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. They won only 20 games that season and finished a remarkable 34 games behind the next worst team. That is because they allowed people to own multiple teams. Could you imagine the Streinbrenner’s also owning the Marlins? Suddenly, anyone that showed any promise in Miami would be shipped to New York in exchange for a half-eaten box of vegetable fried rice.
So, the rules weren’t uniform. The leagues weren’t uniform. Competitive balance was virtually non-existent. In this environment it is impossible to compare players to players from even the beginning of the 20thcentury much less after World War II. Heck, it’s difficult to compare a Nichols with a Radbourn. We can only compare them with their absolute contemporaries and that is one of the things the index makes possible.
|Old Hoss Radbourn||310||.615||119||3.6||1.7||0.2|
Modern pitchers don’t need people like me to stick up for them, but I do it anyway. Old-timers love to talk about how today’s pitchers just can’t hold a candle to the pitchers of the past. In addition to the whole pitch count problem, you have the innings themselves. The aforementioned Radbourn managed to pitch more than 4500 innings. That’s an awesome sum, but not unprecedented.
He did It over the course of ten seasons. That’s remarkable, but a pitcher could average 250 innings a season for 15 years and come relatively close to the same output. Modern pitchers could throw 180 to 200 innings for nearly 20 years and get there. It’s all about how you would like to parcel out your innings. The truth of the matter is that the early game saw very disparate ability levels. The pay was also inconsistent at best. If I pay someone season to season then I could throw his arm out without any real financial consequence.
Compare that with today and you can see the relative difference between a first and fourth starter is considerably less. Considering the financial ramifications of arbitration and free agency, one could certainly defend going back to four-man rotations and just burning out arms after five or six seasons. However, that has to be balanced with the fact that relievers have become much more effective then we could surmise that the ship has sailed on that whole idea.
The difference between the Hall of Famers and non-Hall of Famers is largely the presence of 300 or more victories. We will see that when we look at those on the outside looking in. Considering all of the problems with competitive balance, it would appear that basing anything on wins and losses would be problematic. We haven’t even discussed postseason performance.
|Old Hoss Radbourn||3-0||22.0||0.00||7.0||0.0||0.0|
How much stock do we put into these numbers? The National League was certainly a major league as it has always been. All of the other ones mentioned were sometimes strong and sometimes not. When it was only the National League there wasn’t any kind of World Series of sort. Nichols and Radbourn are clearly the class of the bunch in this table, but it’s hard to really criticize anyone outside of Welch. Keep in mind we would be criticizing Welch on the balance of 22 innings. Still, his strikeout to walk numbers indicate why he struggled.
More importantly, how does one grade out someone that didn’t ever get an opportunity to perform in the postseason? In most times, one pitcher or one position player couldn’t possibly overcome a bad roster of players. However, when you are starting either a third or half of your team’s games you should have more of a say in how good your team is. Griffith is obviously in as a pioneer, but he sported a winning percentage better than 60 percent.
BWAR Cy Young Points
|Top 10||Top 5||Cy||Points|
|Old Hoss Radbourn||2||4||1||36|
Keep in mind that most of these guys pitched for about ten seasons. Nichols pitched for about fifteen seasons, so he came out ahead. When you pitch in a third of your team’s games then it is pretty easy to finish in the top ten in the league in value. So, top five finishes and Cy Young Awards are more telling here. So, Clarkson and Nichols come out ahead in that outlook as well.
If there is any surprise it is that Radbourn won only one award according to bWAR. He had two outrageously good seasons in a row, but someone won only one award. Still, having 19.1 bWAR in one season is just stupid. He had 47.1 bWAR over a four-year period. That’s just the way these guys were used in those days.
At any rate, all of these guys deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, but there might be some additional guys that deserve the honor as well. Especially when looking at the 19thcentury arms, you have to look beyond the won-loss records to determine whether someone deserves the honor.