Thursday, March 9, 2017

A journey back to the deadball era in high-resolution photos

A century ago, before the construction of Fenway Park, there were two major league ballparks side-by-side in the south of Boston. And I mean truly side-by-side. Of course, it is not that rare in baseball history to have had National and American League parks in close proximity. Over the years there have been many major league neighbors.

The Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium were separated by little more than a river.



Shibe Park and the rickety old Baker Bowl were on the same Philadelphia street, separated by only a few city blocks.



But the distances between those parks seem like light years compared to the space between South End Grounds, home of the National League team we now know as the Braves, and Huntington Avenue Grounds, the pre-Fenway home of the Red Sox, who were known earlier as the Pilgrims. Operating together from 1901 to 1911, the two parks were separated only by some railroad tracks.



The two parks were so close together that the best wide-angle or panoramic views of the Huntington Avenue Grounds would clearly show the grandstands, bleachers and outfield billboards of the South End park. The picture below was taken of the Huntington Avenue Grounds during the first World Series, which took place in 1903. (You can click on the image below to download a 4364x3336 version which is a must for your collection if you are into old-time baseball). If you move your eyes directly up from the pitcher's mound, you will see the grandstand of the other park, which looks like this:



As your eyes continue leftward, you will see the outfield fence and a portion of the bleachers. In the full-sized version you can clearly read the outfield billboards in both parks.



You will note in the picture that the fans are forming a ring in the outfield. This was the standard procedure at Huntington for overflow crowds, which happened frequently, because the seating capacity in the park was capable of handling only about a third of the people who showed up on the busiest days! That disparity is the main reason why Fenway Park was built in the first place. Cutting off the outfield area didn't really present much of a problem for game play, since balls rarely flew into even the shallowest reaches of the stands in the deadball era, so they would certainly not reach the center field fence, which in that park was 635 feet away at its most distant configuration. Most deadball players couldn't reach that with their two longest hits added together! The image below, again available in ultra-high resolution with a click of the mouse (it's so large you'll have a delay in the download, but it's another must-have for collectors), pictures a game between Boston and New York in 1904 and shows just how roomy the stadium was. The crowd forming the ring is more than 100 feet behind the center fielder, yet there is still a vast distance between those fans and the others back by the fence.



You can't get an idea from the thumbnail of just how much detail is available in the full image. The quality of the image is so spectacular that the individual fans closest to the camera on the far left could be clearly and easily identified. I don't know anything about the history of photography, so I had no clue that the photographers of 1904 possessed the technology to produce such an image.

And that image, impressive as it may be, is not my favorite of the group. The picture that inspired me to research and present this article was taken on Saturday, August 5, 1911. It was the last year that the Red Sox would play on Huntington Avenue, and the great Ty Cobb was in town with the visiting Detroit Tigers. Cobb was on his way to a spectacular season, and was the league's ultimate drawing card. The game set an all-time attendance record, not just for this park, but for any park in baseball history to that date, as reported in this article in the next day's Washington Post.

The attendance of 33,904 may not seem impressive in 2016, but it placed a significant strain on a park with an official seating capacity of 11,000! As seen in the image below, the fans were jammed in everywhere, many of them balanced precariously on the fences.



Once more the full-sized version is available with a mouse click on the image above, and is required viewing for anyone curious about baseball in America a century ago.

As identified on the scoreboard, the game action is taking place in the bottom of the second, with the Red Sox at bat. A complete account of the game, including a box score, is available from the next day's edition of the Detroit Free Press. The visiting Tigers, who were chasing the powerful A's for the league leadership, took the game 7 to 4, despite four hits from Boston's star, Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, who was generally considered the best defensive center fielder in history until Willie Mays came along.

The opposing center fielder, pictured playing his position in the photograph, is the legendary Ty Cobb, who had two hits that day while hitting in the third spot in the line-up. One of his hits knocked in the game's first run, which put the Tigers ahead for good. Cobb was on his way to the best season of perhaps the greatest career in the history of the game. In a unanimous vote, he would win the Chalmers Award as the league's best player. He batted .420 and led the league in doubles, triples, runs scored, runs batted in, stolen bases, and just about anything else you can think of except home runs, where he had to settle for second place behind Home Run Baker.




The Tigers' right fielder and clean-up hitter was Wahoo Sam Crawford (right), another great Hall of Famer, who once led the league in homers, but specialized in triples, a category he led six times despite competing directly against Cobb. Crawford still holds the all-time record for the most triples in a career, and probably always will, with 309. (Cobb is second.) Crawford, headed to a season mark of .378 with 115 RBI, also had two hits that day.


Playing first base and batting fifth for the Tigers was Jim Delahanty, brother of another great Hall of Famer and a solid star in his own right. Delahanty batted .339 that year and knocked in 94 runs. It was the best of his 13 major league seasons.

Despite all that talent, the visiting Tigers were to finish a dozen games behind the Philadelphia A's that year. While the Tigers were about equal to the A's in offensive firepower, they could not match the great pitching of Connie Mack's Philadelphia team, which featured two Hall of Famers in the rotation and a third pitcher who won 28 games! The A's allowed fewer runs than any other team, while the Tigers finished second-last in that category. In fact, the Tigers were actually on the way downward in 1911 after trips to the World Series in 1907-1909. Despite their great hitting, they would not win another American League pennant until 1934. The hometown Red Sox, although mediocre in 1911 at 78-75, were headed in the other direction, building a powerhouse that would win the World Series the following year on the strength of an epic season from their pitching ace Smoky Joe Wood, who would compile an astounding 34-5 record in 1912. When Wood developed arm troubles, the mighty A's would bounce back to win the pennant in the following two years, but when financial pressures forced Mack to sell off his best players from the A's after the 1914 season, the Red Sox became indisputably the best team in baseball in the late teens. Unfortunately for the Boston partisans, the Sox fell deep into the doldrums after they would sell a certain young pitcher-outfielder named George Herman Ruth to the New York Yankees, thus bringing the so-called "curse of the Bambino" down upon their heads. Whether they were "cursed" or not, the fact remains that, after winning the World Series three times in four years (1915, 1916, 1918), the Bosox would not win another in the next 85 Octobers.

The Huntington Avenue Grounds had a relatively short lifespan. The land, trapped between two different rail lines, was available at a low price, and the entire stadium was built in 1901 for a mere $35,000, according to this plan, with the left field line running approximately south to north:



Without sufficient seating to accommodate the burgeoning crowds of the increasingly popular national pastime, and heading into the age of the automobile without a parking lot, Huntington Grounds was obviously not going to be anything more than a temporary home for the Red Sox. When Fenway Park was ready, the Huntington Avenue ballpark was soon demolished, and the land eventually became the site of Northeastern University. The 2016 image below is positioned at approximately the same orientation as the picture above from the 1911 game, showing the same part of Huntington Avenue and the parallel railroad tracks.



You may notice that the center of the university contains a label that says "Cy Young." This refers to a statue of the famous hurler which has been placed on the exact location where he stood to pitch in the old ballpark.



Cy, the winningest pitcher in history, was an important cog in the Boston team which won the very first World Series in that very location. The 1903 Boston "Pilgrims," champions of the upstart American League, which was then only three years old, were able to defeat the favored Pittsburgh Pirates of the long-established National League in a "best of nine" series. Despite falling behind three games to one, it took the American Leaguers only eight games to defeat the Pirates, with their fifth and final win coming at home. Cy Young won 28 games in the regular season that summer and added two more victories in the World Series. He was also one of the team's best hitters, posting a sparkling .321 batting average during the season.

His totem is not isolated in that college courtyard. The exact location of home plate is also marked, and Cy still faces it appropriately today, and perhaps will until the very end of days.



Meanwhile, baseball in Boston continues not so far away from that spot. Fenway Park replaced the Huntington Grounds less than a year after the 1911 game pictured above, and it is still in use today, a welcome reminder of America's and baseball's gentler past. The satellite image below shows Northeastern University, where Huntington once stood, on the bottom right. Fenway Park is seen on the top left, only about a half mile away.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Who are the great clutch hitters of modern times?

Many of the finest baseball minds believe that clutch hitting doesn't really exist; that it is an illusion created by a confluence of chance and small sample sizes. Before I started to research the subject, I was completely in that camp, and was willing to go even a step further. I theorized that if clutch hitting did exist, I would be suspicious of it. If a player is capable of hitting better in clutch situations than he does at other times, why doesn't he just perform like that at those other times? Is he too lazy? Unmotivated? I was, however, willing to concede that clutch hitting might have an opposite - choking. If some ballplayers choke under pressure then, by definition, those who do not choke are better clutch hitters, in which case clutch hitting does exist, albeit as the absence of a negative, rather than the presence of a positive.

In order to evaluate all those hypotheses, it is necessary to have facts and a definition of clutch hitting. Perhaps someday a sabermetrician will dig into each player's career at-bat by at-bat, identifying every moment that represented a clutch situation, and assigning a weight to each of those moments by the degree of pressure, finally determining who the greatest clutch hitters are. For now, we have something tangible, simple and transparent that can stand as a surrogate for that missing information: performance in the late innings of close games. Not only are these moments reasonably identified as clutch situations, but all the data are readily available at baseball-reference.com, so any of you can easily verify any claims I make here.

The statistic does have some weaknesses:

1. Clutch data is not directly comparable to non-clutch data, because pitchers behave differently in the late innings of close games. Moreover, pitchers alter their behavior even more for great hitters like the ones studied here. If a pitcher is ahead or behind by ten runs, there is no special reason to pitch around the great Joe DiMaggio, but if the moundsman is protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning, it's a whole 'nother kettle of crawdads. The most obvious result of this disparity is that great hitters draw a lot more semi-intentional walks in the late innings of close games. No professional hurler is going to allow DiMaggio to see one he can drive, if that can be avoided.

2. Adjustments are necessary in order to compare players from different eras. In the era before pitch counts, when starters were expected to finish the game, hitters in general performed better in the late innings than they did early in the game, probably because they were often facing a tiring starter. That has gradually but inexorably changed in the past fifty years, so that hitters in general now perform much worse in late/close situations than they do overall. Instead of facing a worn-down starter, they are usually facing a fresh, strong arm, occasionally one chosen specifically to face them because of the match-up history. While Ted Williams might have been facing a tired Bob Lemon, throwing his 150th pitch in the 9th inning and struggling to reach 85 MPH, Joey Votto in the same situation might be staring down the barrel of a fresh Aroldis Chapman bringing his first pitch of the day at 104, and typically striking out fifteen batters per nine innings.

Baseball is a tradition-bound game. Quite astoundingly, it took baseball's managers nearly a century before they even started to realize that it was not wise to let starting pitchers finish so many games. Even the very best and very toughest pitchers in history tended to flag as the game wore on. Let's take a couple of dramatic examples: no modern pitcher was better at completing a game than Warren Spahn (382 CG, tops by a mile among post-WW2 pitchers), and nobody was tougher than Bob Gibson (in his best years he completed 80% of his starts). Yet they both flagged in the late innings. Their strikeouts declined by about ten percent. Batters' OPS production increased by about five percent overall, slightly more in close games.

Opp. OPS
Innings
1-6
Innings
7-end
Innings
7-end (close)
Decline
in 7-end
Decline
in 7-end (close)
Bob Gibson
.613
.642
.654
4.7%
6.7%
Warren Spahn
.643
.676
.678
5.1%
5.4%






K/9
Innings
1-6
Innings
7-end

Decline
in 7-end

Bob Gibson
7.4
6.7

-9.4%

Warren Spahn
4.6
4.0

-15.0%



Pitchers work harder than batters, and thus tire sooner, but in the past they would often remain in the game, thus giving hitters an advantage as the game progressed. But those were the old days. Batters can no longer count on improving their performance in the late innings. As the game has evolved, starters get pulled earlier, and relievers become more specialized. Perhaps the only thing that pushes a starter to the end of the fifth inning today is the old-time tradition that the starter needs five innings of work to get the win, but even that could be challenged some day. As the analytical management style continues to dominate the game, baseball is loosening its grip on the traditions which are unsupported by empirical evidence. Sometime in the future, perhaps sooner than we expect, baseball franchises with nothing to lose will experiment with three-inning starters, or even with having nine men pitch an inning apiece. The first time such an experiment produces a dramatic improvement in the win column, old-time baseball's floodgates will open, and the modern world will come pouring through. For now, however, let's consider what has happened so far.

The drop-off in late inning performance has been quite dramatic over the years, and has not yet bottomed out, as shown in the following table. The table uses American League data only, and only since the inception of the DH, in order to remove pitchers from the equation. (They bat less frequently in the later innings, and thus pollute the data).

American League OPS, all players

Late and Close
Overall
Difference
1973-1978
.701
.706
-0.8%
1979-1987
.718
.731
-1.8%
1988-1997
.714
.743
-3.9%
1998-2014
.718
.755
-4.8%
2015-2016
.691
.737
-6.3%


The good news is that we know all of this, and can therefore establish a reasonable expectation of how any given hitter should perform in late/close situations, given his overall level of performance. The OPS of Ted Williams, for example, is expected to be about 1% better in late/close situations than his overall number, while Mike Trout's late/close OPS is expected to be about 6% worse than his overall career norm. These estimates vary based upon the actual years in which the player appeared, and while they are estimates, work very well in general. Making the appropriate adjustments, I estimated that my selected group of players would have a cumulative OPS of .901 in late/close situations, and they actually produced .899.

Why did I use OPS? It is the most easily and readily available surrogate for run production. As the pioneer sabermetrician Bill James has pointed out, OxS (on base times slugging) actually correlates more closely to runs than OPS, but OPS is available and transparent, so it's the best user-friendly metric. It's also much easier for all of us to use and manipulate. Most people who are at all interested in numbers can calculate that a .350 OBP plus a .550 SLG equals a .900 OPS, but not many people can multiply two three-digit numbers in their heads.

There is one remaining question, and it's an important one. Is clutch hitting properly defined by actual performance in late/close situations, or by the improvement (or lack of decline) in performance? That is more a matter of opinion than analysis, so I'm going to place both into a sortable table. You can decide which assumption suits you.

I think that's probably enough disclaimers and caveats. We should probably postpone any additional verbiage until you've had a first look at the results and a chance to tinker with them.



Here are a few notes necessary to read and interpret the data:

  1. The OPS+ in clutch situations is a crude estimate based on the OPS ratio. That is to say that if a player's OPS was 6% better than expected in clutch situations, I estimated that his clutch OPS+ was also 6% better than his overall OPS+. Why bother with this? It's necessary to convert OPS to OPS+ to make the data more meaningful, otherwise you would have no way of knowing that Dick Allen's clutch .925 is actually quite a bit better than Stan Musial's clutch .990!


  2. The far right column is the ratio of actual clutch performance to expected clutch performance, multiplied times 100. In other words, a score of 111 means the clutch performance is 11% better than expected.


  3. You will note that some of the items in the far right column are in red bold type. These are the only ones in which the difference between the distribution of hits in non-clutch and clutch situations is statistically significant at a 95% confidence level. In other words, if Mickey Mantle's non-clutch plate appearances were divided into random samples the size of his clutch appearances, his actual clutch performance would be above the 97.5th percentile of those samples, or would have less than a 5% chance of occurring in that population. Similarly, Ernie Banks' actual clutch performance would be below the 2.5th percentile. In other words, except for those six players with red ratios, you're just studying the table out of curiosity. It's nice to know that the player you love performed 4% better than expected, and the guy you hate fell 6% below, but none of those facts are statistically significant. That's like comparing a .305 hitter during a single season to a .295 hitter: one number is better cosmetically, but does not represent significant evidence of better hitting.


So what have we learned?



Well, first and most obviously, we have learned that it doesn't matter how you sort the data when it comes to the number one spot. It's Mickey Mantle. The Oklahoma Kid was the best hitter in clutch situations, and he was also the guy who improved the most from his normal performance. Here's how it breaks down:

Mickey Mantle per 550 at-bats

singles
2b+3b
HR
walks
avg
in clutch situations
98
33
46
140
.321
in non-clutch situations 99
28
35
114
.294


As you can see from the data, Mickey profited greatly from pitchers' fear. In non-clutch situations, the Commerce Comet walked a lot - 114 times for every 550 at-bats, but with the game on the line in the late innings, that number rose to a superhuman 140 because no pitcher in his right mind would intentionally give Mickey a pitch to hit. He also had the advantage of being a switch hitter, so opposing managers did not have many options when it came to relief pitchers. When he made contact, Mantle did not hit significantly more singles, doubles and triples, but his homer production increased more than 30%. Basically, he sat and waited, willing to take a walk if there was nothing in the zone, but swinging with all his considerable might if the pitcher released one he could take downtown. In those late inning pressure situations, The Mick transformed from a .294 hitter with a seasonal average of 35 homers and 114 walks into a .321 hitter with 46 homers and 140 walks!



The other three players who had significant increases in their performances with the game on the line are a more interesting group, in a way, because they may not be the players you expected. When I began this study I thought the great clutch hitters would be players like Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, and especially David Ortiz, who always seems to deliver in the big moments. It turns out that none of those players were especially good at stepping it up in the clutch. The other three great clutch hitters are Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and the Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn. Jackie Robinson was especially productive, actually tying Mantle for the highest percentage increase in critical situations. Two other players almost made the list: Tony Perez and Yogi Berra.

Note that these three men stand out based on their ability to improve in clutch situations, not their actual OPS+ in those instances. Ted Williams performed substantially worse with the game on the line than he did in other situations (it was almost a statistically significant difference, but not quite), while Jimmy Wynn performed substantially better, but a manager would still prefer to have Williams in the batters' box, because 94% of Ted Williams is still a lot better than 108% of Jimmy Wynn. In fact, 94% of Ted Williams is still better than anyone else in the clutch, except Mickey Mantle.

Clemente basically improved with singles. His power and walks improved a tiny bit, albeit on a small base, but his batting average improved from .313 in non-clutch situations to .341 in the clutch.

Jim Wynn, surprisingly, also improved with singles. His sum total of EBH plus walks actually declined a bit, but his batting average jumped from .244 in non-clutch situations to .279 in late/clutch appearances.

I am assuming that Clemente and Wynn were just smart, unflappable hitters who bore down and concentrated on meeting the ball in those late situations. Jackie Robinson, on the other hand, just plain got fierce:

Jackie Robinson per 550 at-bats

singles
2b+3b
HR
walks
avg
in clutch situations
128
36
24
97
.341
in non-clutch situations 117
37
14
81
.306


Like Mantle, his homers and walks improved in clutch appearances. Unlike Mantle, his singles production also increased. When the chips were down he turned from a .306 hitter with 14 homers and 81 walks into a .341 hitter with 24 homers and 97 walks. With the game on the line, he played like a man with something to prove.

Which he was.

I really don't want to dwell on the players at the bottom of the list, because I prefer to celebrate greatness, but I would be remiss in failing to see that Ernie Banks, whom I greatly admired as a player and a man, really fell apart in the clutch. On the surface, the smiling, affable, easy-going Banks seemed like the kind of man who would maintain his composure at all times and be unlikely to fold under pressure. Obviously, he had a more complicated psyche than fans realized, because he regressed into a very ordinary player in the late innings of close games. In the chart below you can see that he was roughly equivalent to Mickey Mantle in non-pressure situations (except for Mickey's walks, of course) but that there was a massive gulf between them with the game on the line in the late innings. Ernie's power production evaporated, while Mickey's exploded.

Per 550 non-clutch at-bats

1b
2b
3b
HR
BB
avg
Ernie Banks
92
25
6
31
42
.279
Mickey Mantle
99
23
5
35
114
.294







Per 550 clutch at-bats

1b
2b
3b
HR
BB
avg
Ernie Banks 93
20
2
22
60
.250
Mickey Mantle 98
26
7
46
140
.321


One more thing:

Amazingly enough, as I was studying this subject, I found that the greatest clutch hitter of modern times, at least in terms of improvement from non-clutch to clutch at bats, is somebody you may not remember at all. The reason he does not appear in the main table is that he had only about a thousand at-bats in his major league career, but he had an absolutely astounding improvement in late/close situations. The batter is Joe Lefebvre, who played for the Yankees, Padres and Phillies in the early 80s.



The table below says it all:

Joe Lefebvre per 550 at bats

1b
2b
3b
HR
BB
avg
in non-clutch situations
87
24
6
14
69
.238
in clutch situations 119
36
8
23
74
.338


Lefebvre once won a triple crown in the minors (Eastern League, 1979), and a lot of people must realize that he knows a thing or two about hitting, despite his mediocre major league stats, because he is still in the game to this day, at age 60, currently working on the staff of the major league Giants (image left), having spent some thirty years as a hitting instructor at various minor league levels, first with the Phillies' organization in the late 80s, then with the Yankees from 1990 to 1996. The years in those organizations are encapsulated in the images below. He finally landed in the Giants' camp in 1997, eventually becoming an assistant hitting coach for the big league club in 2013. As of 2016, he has left that position to perform various scouting duties for the Giants.



If Lefebvre had appeared in the main table, his ratio of actual clutch OPS to expected clutch OPS would have been 129 - although nobody actually on the table had a ratio higher than 111! That ratio was so high that the results were statistically significant despite a relatively small sample size. So hats off to Joe Lefebvre, the .238 hitter with moderate power who underwent a metamorphosis into a slugger with a .338 batting average and a .970 OPS when the game was on the line, making him arguably the greatest clutch hitter in modern baseball history.

Who knew?


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Who is the real strikeout king?


Yes, it is true that Randy Johnson once struck out 13.41 batters per nine innings during a single season, and 10.61 per nine innings over the course of his career. Both represent the all-time records.

Yes, it is true that Nolan Ryan struck out even more batters than Johnson, 5714 to 4875, and led his league more times, 11 versus 9.

Yet I am going to propose to you that neither of those great modern pitchers was the most dominant strikeout pitcher in baseball history. In order to find the identity of that underrated fireballer, we'll have to look farther back in the baseball archives.

Why search through the past?

It's necessary because raw strikeout numbers are entirely dependent on and reflective of the era in which the pitcher's career took place. The frequency of strikeouts has varied greatly over the years, and has accelerated dramatically in the past 35 years, making it almost impossible to compare eras. According to Baseball-Reference.com's Major League Baseball Batting Encyclopedia, the number of strikeouts per nine innings has gone from 4.75 to 8.01 in just the period from 1981 until now (I'm writing this after the 2016 season), and has now increased for eleven consecutive years. In the 20th century, the number had dropped as low as 2.70. When the National League played its very first season in 1876, the number was a meager 1.13.

When I followed baseball most avidly, from the late 50s until the early 80s, a pitcher who struck out eight batters per nine innings was a real flame thrower. Tom Seaver led the NL in that category (K/9) several times with averages below eight; Jim Bunning led the AL one year with 7.1; Len Barker led the AL one year by striking out only 6.8 batters per nine innings. If a pitcher could average eight strikeouts per game in 1980, it was a truly remarkable achievement. In 2016, however, eight strikeouts per game would be below the major league average!

How, then, do we measure strikeouts in such a way that we can compare different pitchers from different eras?

I propose two measures of true dominance:
  1. By how much did the MLB leader beat the MLB average?
  2. By how much did the MLB leader beat the second-highest pitcher?
The chart below summarizes the seventeen seasons in the history of major league baseball in which the strikeout champion doubled the major league average and struck out batters at least 20% more frequently than his nearest competitor.



That chart is sortable, but if you're looking for the very best season, it doesn't really matter which of the two criteria you choose, because both sorting methods produce the same result: the best season of all time was Dazzy Vance's 1924, when he came close to tripling the major league average and beat the nearest competitor by an incredible 49%. Moreover, Vance's 1925 season was nearly identical - just a hair lower in each metric. Making those accomplishments even more impressive is the fact that the man who finished a distant second in 1924 was a legendary hard-throwing ace, Walter Johnson, the only man to win at least 400 games in the 20th century. That's how good the right-handed Vance was at striking batters out: more than 40% better than The Big Train.

A third Vance season (1923) is on the list as well. While Vance's 1926 and 1927 seasons are not shown in the table because he failed to beat the nearest competitor by 20% (that darned Lefty Grove), he doubled the MLB average in each of those seasons as well.



Although he is a Hall of Famer, Vance won fewer than 200 games in his career, and had no big moments to speak of. He never pitched in the post-season until he was a 43-year-old codger in his only season in St Louis, making a single unimportant middle-relief appearance for the Gas House Gang in a 10-4 loss to the Tigers in the 1934 World Series. (The 1934 Cardinals could claim the presence of a Dizzy, a Dazzy, and a Daffy in the dugout!) The Dazzler did win the National League MVP award in 1924, despite the fact that Rogers Hornsby batted a gaudy .424 that year, so you know that Vance's contemporaries realized how good he was, but his name means nothing to most modern fans and probably creates only a blurry image even to serious students of the game's history. While most of you reading this article can immediately identify photographs of Vance's mound contemporaries Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson, only those who are truly immersed in the game can pick Vance out of a line-up. I confess that I am not among that elite group, although I spend a helluva lot of time reading and writing about baseball's past.

Perhaps the second most impressive appearance on the list is made by a storied eccentric lefty named Rube Waddell, a guy who occasionally made his way to the ballpark when he wasn't drinking, or chasing skirts, or leading a parade, or wrestling an alligator, or endorsing products, or acting in vaudeville, or playing with stray dogs, or chasing fire trucks. Of the seventeen seasons in baseball history which met my defined criteria, Waddell had five, yet he, like Vance, failed to reach the 200-victory level in his career. The Rube was dead at the tender age of 38, but "the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long." In his time he had more fun than most who live a century, and he also accomplished more than most ballplayers, if perhaps not as much as warranted by his immense talent.


Besides Vance and Waddell, only one other pitcher made the list at least three times, the great Bob Feller. I don't think I need to tell you who he was, since he led the AL in wins six times, strikeouts seven times. The right-hander finished with 266 wins, although WW2 cost him 150 starts, which would have added 80-100 wins to his total.



Nolan Ryan made only two appearances on the list, but what's astounding about his performances is that they occurred 13 years apart, yet appear almost identical by the ratios represented in the table. Over the course of a lengthy career, Ryan's appearance seemed to age normally, but his pitching remained remarkably consistent.



The Big Unit's 2001 season, when he set the record for the most strikeouts per nine innings, did appear in the table. The gigantic lefty is the most recent pitcher to make the list, and will probably be the last ever, assuming baseball's management group takes no action to curb the general rise of strikeouts, because the MLB average is now too high to double. In order to strike out twice the 2016 MLB average, a pitcher would have to amass more than sixteen Ks per nine innings.

Is sixteen possible? It does not seem so. Only one pitcher after Randy Johnson has even reached twelve in the k/9 charts, and that young man passed away less than a month ago at age 24, the victim of a tragic boating accident.

The other three men on the list, each making a single appearance, are a bit more obscure.

The memory of the Indians' Herb Score, the man picked by Ted Williams as the fastest lefty he ever faced, is bittersweet for most of us old-timers. He started his career very much like Dwight Gooden: already superlative in his rookie year (1955), absolutely dominant in year two. In Score's case there was no year three. On May 7, 1957, Score was hit in the eye by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald, and he never came back to glory. Surprisingly, it was not the line drive that ultimately ended his career, but elbow troubles. He started the 1958 season pitching as effectively as ever and the eye seemed to be fine, but he developed elbow problems that April and he never recovered. He struggled though a few more seasons, first with the Indians, then the White Sox, but his post-injury record in the majors was 17-26 with a 4.43 ERA. The saddest chapter of the story came in the minors. He spent his last season in pro ball with Indianapolis in AAA, where he was 0-6 with a 7.66 ERA, breaking the hearts of everyone who dreamt he would one day be the young Herb Score again.

Johnny Vander Meer finished his career with a losing record, and he made this list only because he met the criteria in a player-poor war year, but he is duly famous for another very impressive feat: in 1938, as a very young man (23), the lefty pitched two consecutive no-hitters, making him the first and still the only man in baseball history to do so. And he did that in his first full season in the bigs! Making the second game even more historic, it came in the first night game ever played in New York City. Many baseball savants thought back then that Vander Meer's potential was enormous but, like Herb Score, The Dutch Master peaked at 23 and fought his way through injuries in his remaining years. When I lived on the west coast of Florida back in the 70s and 80s, a good friend of mine was close to Vander Meer. Each of them, through independent concatenations of circumstances, had moved from Cincinnati and had eventually landed in Tampa. I never met Vander Meer, but my friend told me that the pitcher felt unjustly ignored by the Hall of Fame. If a man with a lifetime record of 119-121 felt slighted by the Hall, you can imagine how a great player like Edgar Martinez must feel.

Left-handed Cy Seymour is the last name on the list and in some ways the most interesting. Seymour was the strikeout king in 1897-1899, but went on to a great major league career as an outfielder!

In order to tell his story, I'm just going to quote from his SABR bio: "If a young, successful major league pitcher had decided to become an outfielder in 2001, it would have been news. And if he had hit above .300 for the next five straight years, culminating in 2005 by winning the league's batting crown with a .377 average, he would have graced magazine covers. Finally, if upon his retirement in 2010, he had accumulated 1700 hits and generated a lifetime batting average of .303 to go along with his sixty-plus pitching victories, writers would be salivating at the opportunity to elect him to the Hall of Fame. A century ago there was just a player who collected 1723 hits and became a lifetime .303 hitter after winning 61 games as a major league pitcher. His name was James Bentley 'Cy' Seymour, perhaps the greatest forgotten name of baseball."