At some point we have to admit this is all an academic exercise. Some people have a tremendous amount of influence. Millions read “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame” by Bill James and that book may have influenced some in the Veterans Committee to finally admit George Davis into the Hall of Fame. Millions of people are not reading this blog. We can safely those numbers aren’t even in the thousands.
Even if an influential person read it, it is highly unlikely that anyone that played in the 19thcentury would be added. Some of these names might be familiar to you because others have championed them before. The problem is a marketing one. They are all dead. Their children are likely dead. Their grandchildren may still be with us, but no one knows who they are. Who is going to travel across the country to watch Tony Mullane’s grandson or great grandson make a speech?
That sounds disrespectful and it is, but it is also the truth. The most respectful thing we can do is look at their careers in the same prism we looked at the Hall of Famers from the period. Maybe they are where they should be, but it is just as likely they were wrongfully overlooked. We can’t do much about that either way, but let’s take a fresh look.
In a perfect world, everyone that clears a certain threshold would get into the Hall of Fame. We don’t live in a perfect world. There are all kinds of considerations in play. How many 19thcentury pitchers have we already put in? How many really deserve the honor? Usually, these things work themselves out, but the 19thcentury wasn’t a normal time for baseball. If a player goes out and throws 500 innings in a season, he is going to be valuable in the way we define it. He will have had an impact on his team’s wins. He also would have had an impact on their losses. An average pitcher will look good in that kind of environment.
So, while we love the index here, we might have to look at the conventional numbers a little harder before deciding. Certainly, Mullane and Caruthers look strong going in. What we know is that many of these pitchers only lasted about a decade because of the heavy workloads. It might be a rare instance where the index doesn’t really tell us what we need to know.
This is where we lean on the index as a comparative tool and not an absolute. Most of these guys will wind up with more than 300 index wins. Normally, that would be enough, but we need to compare them with the rest of the pitchers from the 19thcentury. Maybe the 300 win plateau is not the line of demarcation. Of the seven pitchers we profiled last time, five had index scores north of 400 wins. Mickey Welch came in just shy of 350 and Clark Griffith can be seen as a pioneer, so we could ignore his score. So, maybe 350 is the new benchmark.
When we think of the index in terms of looking for gaps we are always going to be better off. If Welch is the minimum standard then we are looking at two additional Hall of Famers and not four. That is certainly more palatable and makes the cases for Mullane and Caruthers that much stronger. Of course, it wasn’t meant to say that Caruthers is definitely in or that Whitney is definitely out.
The index sets the stage for debate. It can provide a basis for the debate, but it was never designed to end it. For instance, it will not be the final word on any of these players, but it does tell us that Stivetts and King have a huge uphill climb. Whitney and Buffinton have better cases, but they still have something to prove. On the flip side, Mullane is pretty much in unless something really drastic happens to change our minds.
This is where the traditional numbers come in. They help explain why a player was overlooked, but they also provide additional evidence one way or another on a pitcher’s candidacy. None of these pitchers won 300 games. That’s a tremendous amount of evidence by itself. Modern sports writers know that there is much more to pitching than won-loss records. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the benefit of modern sports writers.
Two things immediately stick out here. First, Caruthers pitching numbers are absolutely brilliant. If we counted him with the 20thand 21stcenturies we would see that he stands second to Whitey Ford in career winning percentage. He also had the best ERA+ of the bunch. So, we can safely say his case just got a whole lot stronger. Whitney would appear to be the opposite at first blush, but this is where the defensive independent pitching statistics (DIPS) come in. He had the lowest walk rate and tied for the lowest home run rate. So, why was his ERA+ so much worse?
Well, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) came in nearly a quarter of a run lower (2.75) than his actual ERA (2.97). He led the league in FIP on two occasions, but never led the league in ERA. In many of his big loss seasons, the distance between the two was even greater. This is where the quality of team comes into play. Yes, we know pitchers can control the type of contact a hitter makes to a certain extent, but they can’t control whether the fielders behind him are butchers or not.
Caruthers career ERA was considerably lower (2.83 vs. 3.27) than his FIP. So, we can ask questions based on this fact. Was that because he was adept at getting hitters to hit to the strong part of the defense? Maybe. Was it more of a factor of luck that he played on better teams? Maybe. As is usually the case, it is probably a combination of these. Still, having a pitcher with a strikeout to walk ratio better than three to one when his contemporaries couldn’t muster a two to one ratio is eye-catching and worth exploring.
These numbers are rarely ever cut and dried. This is the main reason why we look at multiple numbers. On the one hand, Caruthers did pitch better in playoff conditions than in the regular season. His walk rate dropped slightly, and his strikeout rate increased slightly. Those are all good things. However, his won-loss record looks rather pedestrian. The same is true for Silver King despite some good pitching numbers.
How does this happen and why does it matter? Well, on the first count it happens because the competitive balance in the game at the time was out of whack. So, Caruthers and King likely beat up on weak competition during the season, but could not do that during the playoffs. It doesn’t matter in any real sense because of the sample sizes involved, but it does serve to illustrate the problems with looking at won-loss records in general. There is so much that is out of the pitcher’s control.
The three pitchers that didn’t pitch in the postseason illustrate the point in a different way. Their teams were not good enough to get there. Yet, two of them were good enough to win a majority of their games anyway. As we know, Whitney was not, but that probably had more to do with his team than him.
BWAR Cy Young Points
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Keep in mind that leagues vacillated between eight and twelve teams during those days. Most teams had one or maybe two primary pitchers. So, finishing in the top ten was not as impressive as it would be today. So, we could look at top five finishes and Cy Youngs and come out more impressed with King than we were before. Just eyeballing the numbers above, the results would be slightly different, but still pretty close.
It seems pretty clear that Mullane belongs in the Hall of Fame. I’m not sure that will ever be rectified, but we can at least give him his due. Caruthers is an interesting case. He doesn’t fare quite as well here which indicates his won-loss record was greatly inflated. That’s always true. Ford was not the best pitcher in the game at the time in spite of his awesome won-loss record. He was one of the best though and the same is true of Caruthers. That should have been enough to get him in as well.