TBT Baseball: A Call To Arms

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    Updated: June 6, 2014
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    Recently I joined a Stratomatic baseball league where the only available players are Hall of Famers. The funny thing about this is that everyone involved is a well-adjusted grown man in a stable relationship (I know, I’m as shocked as you are). Because we’re selecting from the best of the best of the best (sir), I’ve been picking up gems about baseball’s greats that are just too good to keep to myself. Throwback Thursdays is here to educate you on the history of the game.

     

    A few weeks ago I set out on two fool’s errands. One was to write enough articles for the two weeks I was away in roughly twelve hours (and clearly, that didn’t happen). The other was trying to determine the best pitcher in baseball history.

    The problem with this undertaking are legion. First and foremost, I’m principally writing this column about Hall of Famers, and it’s entirely possible that the greatest pitcher in history was Roger Clemens, or maybe even Randy Johnson.

    However, those names are excluded from this argument due to drugs and eligibility respectively. Even within the limited set of Hall of Fame pitchers the argument isn’t that simple, mostly due to the different eras in which people pitched.

    Pitching metrics tend to vary drastically over baseball’s timeline. While the homerun wasn’t prominent during the dead-ball era, neither was the strikeout. Pitchers from that era have extremely low HRs/9 IP, but they also tend to have low K/BB ratios. Similarly, because most hitters weren’t in the business of taking walks prior to the 1920s, pitchers from the dead-ball era and early 20th century have exceptionally low WHIPs.

    Stats from the late ‘20s to the early ‘70s tend to follow similar patterns, but the increased power production of the last 40 years due to the advent of the DH, better training regiments, and pharmaceuticals blow the whole thing. The last guy elected to the Hall with a sub-3 ERA was Tom Seaver, and he began his career in 1967.

    (Side note: Pedro will wreck that trend when he comes up for election. He has a mind-boggling lifetime 2.93 ERA while pitching mainly in the AL East during the height of the Steroid Era. However, the Yankees were his daddy, so that also leaves him out of the greatest of all time debate.)

    Given the offensive explosion, I was hoping that players from recent decades represented a more elite group. I looked into Hall of Fame election trends for pitchers and found that roughly 80% of pitchers elected to the Hall pitched from 1871 to 1973.

    That might sound like a lot, but when you consider it represents 70% of the available timeframe from which pitchers could be elected, it’s not so drastic. Even stats outside the actual game were throwing me curves (of course I’m going to start using pitching puns – do you see how much I’m struggling here?).

    In a desperation move, I started looking at the greatest single season by a pitcher, but again the era issue comes into play. Bob Gibson’s 1968 season is widely regarded as the greatest single season by a pitcher, but it always has the asterisk of being the year they raised the mound.

    Not only that, I think Walter Johnson’s 1913 season was even better (check it out here), especially given the fact that team runs, batting average, and OPS numbers were higher that year than in 1968. Then again, power numbers were also drastically lower that year, meaning that I’m still comparing apples to clearly different apples.

    Eventually I caved and went running for the shelter of JAWS (which I covered in the original TBT article). Considering the fact that most pitchers tend to have a couple rocky seasons when they first hit the show (after the dead-ball era) and completely flame out at the tail-end of their careers, I figured this would represent a more level playing field. Surely combining the best seven seasons for each of the greatest pitchers and generating a single-season stat line for them could help me out, right?

    Considering the way this article’s going, I’ll let you answer that one.

    Once again, dead-ball pitchers reign supreme, with Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Ed Walsh, and Pete Alexander leading the pack in that order. Of live-ball era pitchers, Greg Maddux stands out head and shoulders above the rest, followed by Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. The names aren’t surprising, but the disparity between the stats is: the dead-ball pitchers listed all have sub-2 ERAs (by a lot), while the live-ball pitchers all have ERAs at least half a run higher.

    The dead-ball pitchers have astoundingly low WHIPs and HR/9 IP, but they sacrifice a few strikeouts over nine innings – but that doesn’t really matter when they aren’t putting guys on base. And it really doesn’t matter when you consider that, on the grander scheme of things, I’m talking about trying to find the best pitcher in an already elite group by splitting hairs over half-runs and a couple extra strikeouts per nine innings.

    Which means I’m calling it – the whole process was a swing and a miss (strike two…). You could talk me into any of the Hall of Famers listed in this article as being the greatest, and that includes Tom Seaver (seriously, check out his stats – in both JAWS and WAR he ranks 6th all-time). You could also talk me into any of the others, especially considering how few of them I actually saw pitch. Which is why, based solely on opinion and impression, I’ll take Maddux.

    I got to watch him pitch a lot on TV, but I was lucky enough to see him in person once during an interleague game at Yankee Stadium in 1997. It was, hands down, the most incredible pitching performance I’ve ever witnessed start to finish. He threw a three-hit shutout and, over the course of those nine innings, faced only 28 batters and threw 84 pitchers – 61 of them for strikes – striking out 8 and walking none. He averaged three pitchers per batter. I think maybe one guy ran a count up to three balls. The game took two hours and nine minutes. He sent us packing early – right down Broadway.

    And that’s strike three. I’m out.

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    One Comment

    1. eungsoo an

      June 12, 2014 at 12:33 PM

      great read. but I’m gonna say koufax and gibson were better than maddux. despite him being a pitchers pitcher. my case for koufax is simple look what he did in the WS despite not playing game 1. he won 3 games for them still. although maddux owned us game 1 in ws. we beat him in game 6. his postseason record is not all that impressive compared to other greats such as gibson and koufax. but you can’t really go wrong with any of these 3 as all-time best. but I’m gonna go w koufax.

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