As we move into the so-called Dead Ball Era, we move into the final period that could be called the modern era. The 19thcentury comes with a whole host of issues we will get into when we get to the 19thcentury. As we have done before, we will split the Hall of Fame Dead Ball Era pitchers into two groups. Dividing such a list is never easy. We could do it evenly, but it makes more sense to look for gaps in data. As you will see, the second list considerably falls below the first list.
Before we move into those guys we need to revisit an issue we have addressed a couple of times along the way. In the Dead Ball Era, relief pitchers were often were called rescue pitchers. They were only brought in when the starting pitcher was getting shelled. That didn’t happen often in an era that saw less scoring than any in history. Historians and pundits alike love to talk about how durable these guys were and how they could throw 150 to 200 pitches without breaking a sweat. Sure. However, all of that bluster ignores how the game has changed in terms of how pitchers and hitters interact. The American League came into being in 1901, so we will take the big leagues one decade at a time.
I’m not here to cast judgments as to which version of the game is better, but you can clearly see the game changing around the turn of the 21stcentury. Strikeouts and walks by sheer definition require a certain number of pitches. The more of them there are the more pitches there are. In 1901, a starting (and only pitcher) was likely going through 20 to 30 pitches fewer per game than teams were going through last season. So, if 15 pitches is the standard per inning then it would take a team 135 pitches to get through nine innings. Take away 30 pitches and you are talking a complete game.
The last time we looked at these numbers, we also looked at the difference between starting pitching and relief pitching. Granted, there are all kinds of issues (length of games, stoppage of play) that could be seen as negatives to the proliferation of bullpens, but make no mistake, relief pitchers generally outperform their starting pitcher counterparts. These two explanations have just as much if not more to do with reducing the starting pitching workload as the previous generations being tougher and more durable.
These five guys are way beyond anything else in the period. Remember, these are their career value scores and not their total index. Offense is included in the numbers and that is enough to throw Johnson up the charts a little. As we will see, it might be enough to throw him on top when we get to the total index. Does that make Johnson the greatest pitcher of all-time? Keep in mind that the index was never designed to make that kind of determination. However, we can have a lively discussion.
A part of that lively discussion will involve our other tests. We still have peak value, pitching statistics, playoff performance, and the bWAR Cy Young points to consider. For many fans, 511 victories and the fact that the game’s pitching award is named after Young is enough to give him the nod.
There could be a similar debate between Alexander and Mathewson. Both ended up with an identical 373 victories, so it is natural to pair them together. The index also puts them together in the history of the game. Alexander lasted longer, but Mathewson might have a point when we get to peak value.
One of the things we notice over time is that hitting has become less and less emphasized for pitchers. We know American League pitchers haven’t hit since 1973, but even for National League pitchers it has become an afterthought. Some of these guys were quite accomplished with the bat and that plays into their value. Still, these are the titans of the game. When people normally think of the best pitchers of all-time, these are the names (probably not Plank) that come up.
Still, the opening table demonstrates how much the game has changed. This is why we divided pitchers into two distinct groups. It’s just not feasible to compare Roger Clemens to Walter Johnson in any meaningful way. Even if we only consider how much they dominated their era, we are talking apples and carrots. Johnson was the all-time strikeout leader for over 50 years and then was passed by more than a few pitchers in the intervening 30.
All five were 300 game winners. This is probably the one statistic that will become antiquated as we move forward in the modern era. We could see them change the wins rule as bullpens become more and more prominent. Until that happens, 200 or 250 wins might become the new standard.
The calling card of success hasn’t changed in over 100 years. If you strikeout more hitters you are typically successful. If you walk fewer hitters and give up fewer home runs then you are also typically successful. All you need to do is reference the earlier table and look at the league averages for strikeouts and walks to see that.
The strikeout to walk ratios were added for effect. The league averages hovered just over one to one throughout the Dead Ball Era. It isn’t a perfect correlation since each player had careers of varying length. So, Johnson enjoyed a longer career than Mathewson, but you could argue that Mathewson was better at his best than Johnson was at his.
The obvious point is that success is predictable over time even if the keen minds of the day didn’t recognize it. Pitching coaches have preached pitching to contact for generations while pitching statistics clearly show that missing bats is the best way to guarantee success. We know that now, but that doesn’t make these pitchers any less successful. They were missing more bats than their contemporaries back then.
If you need any proof that won-loss records are a little less than meaningful then take a look at Mathewson’s playoff numbers. How does one lose five games when they have an 0.97 ERA? Alexander had an ERA considerably higher than his career mark and still won more games than he lost. It just doesn’t make sense. Heck, Plant went 2-5 with a 1.32 ERA. That seems impossible.
We include the rate statistics because we want to know if they pitched better, worse, or about the same as they did during the regular season. ERAs over 50 or 60 innings aren’t particularly helpful when trying to determine if they actually pitched well. If we see a higher rate of home runs or more walks, then we have an idea. Johnson and Alexander had their playoff performances during the Live Ball Era, so their home run rates look worse. The long and short of it is that a 1-0 game really doesn’t tell you anything but the fact that both pitchers were very good. To call one pitcher ineffective because he “lost” the game seems stupid.
Playoff performance usually ends up being a tiebreaker. If you consider Mathewson and Alexander as close, then Mathewson’s dominance in the postseason might throw him over the top. Johnson and Young likely stay tied. Plank certainly throws himself into the legendary conversation as well.
BWAR Cy Young Points
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It is impossible to use something like the Cy Young points to compare pitchers from different eras. During the Dead Ball Era, most teams employed a four-man rotation. So, you might have 30 to 35 qualified starters in each league. Finishing in the top ten out of 30 is not nearly as impressive as finishing in the top ten out 70 or 75 today. It’s somehow fitting that Young finishes on top since the award is named after him, but it is way too murky when you start comparing him to Clemens, Seaver, or even Grove.
Even when we compare these pitchers, we have to be careful about how much we read into it. Johnson won one more award than Young and Alexander, so you could claim he was the better pitcher. Both Young and Johnson finished in the top ten or better 17 times. Young was a remarkable top five or better 15 different times. That’s a staggering sum even in a league that had 30 starting pitchers to choose from.
As for Plank, this table probably illustrates why his reputation is not near the top four guys. He never was the best pitcher in the league while the others were the best pitcher a minimum of five times. He was fortunate to play for the Athletics when they were a dominant team or he might have toiled in complete obscurity.