Filling the Saberhagen Gaps:  Volume I

Last time, we introduced an approach to fill in the depressions in the careers of several very fine hitters who displayed an extraordinary inability to sustain peak performance. Now we’ll perform the same exercise for pitchers; actual seasons are displayed in black font, adjusted seasons in blue. (For an explanation of our methodology, please see the References and Resources section below.)

Pitchers are, of course, inherently more inconsistent than batters under any circumstances, as the rigors of their task expose them to both acute and chronic injury to a far greater extent than position players. So finding pitchers with significant dips, dives, and holes in between their best seasons is hardly a difficult thing to do; the greater challenge is to find pitching careers without them. But not all pitchers are the same in this regard, by any means; some pitchers have choppy careers even by the high-choppiness standards of pitchers. We’ll focus on those with some of the most tantalizingly what-might-have-been patterns.

Sabes Himself

Bret Saberhagen

A two-time Cy Young Award winner, a .588 career winning percentage, 46th all-time best WHIP, 35th all-time best walks-per-inning, 7th all-time best walks-to-strikeouts—yet Saberhagen has very little chance of making the Hall of Fame. The problem wasn’t his peak, because as a peak performer Saberhagen was brilliant; the problem was very simply that he couldn’t stay healthy, to a degree that was extraordinary even among the fragile fraternity of pitchers.

Our version of Saberhagen is hardly an iron man; he still has his final 200-inning season at age 25, and obviously becomes acquainted with the missed start and the DL stint. But he’s able to hold it together most of the time, and the resulting career winning percentage of .645 (better than Dizzy Dean’s) and ERA+ of 133 (better than Sandy Koufax’s) would likely send him to Cooperstown with votes to spare.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
 1984   20   10   11   38   18    2  158  138   13   36   73 3.48  116
 1985   21   20    6   32   32   10  235  211   19   38  158 2.87  145
 1986   22   15    9   32   30   10  216  207   20   40  144 3.37  127
 1987   23   18   10   33   33   15  257  246   27   53  163 3.36  136
 1988   24   18   11   35   34   12  260  242   19   52  176 3.10  130
 1989   25   23    6   36   35   12  262  209   13   43  193 2.16  178
 1990   26   14    8   28   28    8  198  173   11   39  139 2.71  141
 1991   27   13    8   28   28    7  196  165   12   45  136 3.07  135
 1992   28   10    6   23   22    4  157  139   10   28  120 3.04  114
 1993   29   11    6   24   24    5  171  155   12   25  124 3.02  130
 1994   30   14    4   24   24    4  177  169   13   13  143 2.74  152
 1995   31    7    6   25   25    3  153  165   21   33  100 4.18  108
 1996   32    4    4   16   16    2   90   98   13   22   57 4.53  120
 1997   33    8    5   19   19    0  101  106   14   20   57 4.30  108
 1998   34   15    8   31   31    0  175  181   22   29  100 3.96  116
 1999   35   10    6   22   22    0  119  122   11   11   81 2.95  172
 2000   36    6    4   13   13    0   67   71    7    6   46 3.29  151
 2001   37    1    2    3    3    0   15   19    3    0   10 6.00   75
 Total      216  119  460  436   93 3007 2816  261  531 2019 3.21  133

Another Virtual Vernon

Virgil Trucks

Perhaps even more than Saberhagen, the pitcher’s mound version of Mickey V. A burly guy with an excellent fastball (and late in his career, a famous slider as well, taught to him by Paul Richards), Trucks lost a couple of seasons to World War II, then had an off-year in 1947, a 1950 arm injury, and a lingering dip in performance in ’51 and ’52. But when at his best, while not an elite talent, “Fire” was very, very good.

This heavy-duty vehicle rolls in at 228-156 instead of 177-135, and while probably not Cooperstown-bound, would deserve to be routed into a neighboring locale.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
 1941   24    0    0    1    0    0    2    4    0    0    3 9.00   51
 1942   25   14    8   28   20    8  168  147    3   74   91 2.74  144
 1943   26   16   10   33   25   10  203  170   11   52  118 2.84  124
 1944   27   15    9   31   25   11  202  178   12   67  123 2.96  120
 1945   28   13   10   34   27   11  208  192   16   69  130 3.47  102
 1946   29   14    9   32   29   15  237  217   23   75  161 3.23  113
 1947   30   13   11   37   27   10  210  198   17   80  131 3.79  100
 1948   31   14   13   43   26    7  212  190   14   85  123 3.78  115
 1949   32   19   11   41   32   17  275  209   16  124  153 2.81  148
 1950   33   11    6   24   20   10  162  127   11   73   89 2.92  160
 1951   34   17   10   39   28   13  231  199   14   99  130 3.19  130
 1952   35   13   15   38   31   13  231  212   15   91  139 3.38  113
 1953   36   20   10   40   33   17  264  234   18   99  149 2.93  140
 1954   37   19   12   40   33   16  265  224   13   95  152 2.79  134
 1955   38   13    8   32   26    7  175  176   19   61   91 3.96  100
 1956   39    6    5   22   16    3  120  104   15   63   43 3.82  108
 1957   40    9    7   48    7    0  116  106   12   62   55 3.03  130
 1958   41    2    2   41    0    0   62   58    3   39   41 3.65  101
 Total      228  156  604  404  167 3341 2944  233 1307 1922 3.21  123

A Pair of Latin Aces

Luis Tiant

Well before he arrived in the major leagues at the age of (well, perhaps as young as) 23, Tiant had spent five and a half seasons in the minors (and who knows how much time in Cuban and winter ball). In the Mexican League from 1959-61, Tiant went from 5-19 with a 5.92 ERA to 17-7, 4.65, to 12-9, 3.78. Purchased by the Indians and climbing throught their system, he went from 7-8 with a 3.63 ERA to 14-9, 2.56, to 15-1, 2.04. His strikeout-per-walk ratios went from 0.92 to 0.86 to 1.33 in the Mexican League, and then from 1.38 to 2.56 to 3.85 in the US minors.

In the American League, Tiant displayed the same knack for continuous improvement, until by 1968 he was simply spectacular: a very hard thrower with excellent command, not only of the fastball but of a variety of wicked breaking pitches, delivered from a kaleidoscopic variety of looks and arm angles. Even within the context of “The Year of the Pitcher” this guy was a startling talent.

It quickly unraveled over the next three years, as Tiant was bedeviled by arm trouble. But just when it appeared that the end was near, in 1972 Tiant suddenly regained his health. While he would never again enjoy his old upper-end velocity, he could still crank up a pretty good heater when he needed it, and mixing that in with his endless repertoire of junk, guile, and wit, El Tiante was once again one of baseball’s better aces (and certainly among its most entertaining) through the mid-1970s.

What if that mid-career sore arm hadn’t been so severe? 247 career wins among modern pitchers is right around the Hall of Fame boundary line.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
 1964   23   10    4   19   16    9  127   94   13   47  105 2.83  127
 1965   24   11   11   41   30   10  196  166   20   66  152 3.53   99
 1966   25   12   11   46   16    7  155  121   16   50  145 2.79  123
 1967   26   12    9   33   29    9  214  177   24   67  219 2.74  119
 1968   27   21    9   34   32   19  258  152   16   73  264 1.60  184
 1969   28   15   15   36   35   14  254  191   27  101  210 2.64  143
 1970   29   16    8   29   28   15  208  151   20   64  173 2.63  141
 1971   30    4    5   20   14    2   83   79   10   37   55 4.04   92
 1972   31   15    6   43   19   12  179  128    7   65  123 1.91  169
 1973   32   20   13   35   35   23  272  217   32   78  206 3.34  120
 1974   33   22   13   38   38   25  311  281   21   82  176 2.92  132
 1975   34   18   14   35   35   18  260  262   25   72  142 4.02  102
 1976   35   21   12   38   38   19  279  274   25   64  131 3.06  128
 1977   36   12    8   32   32    3  189  210   26   51  124 4.53  100
 1978   37   13    8   32   31   12  212  185   26   57  114 3.31  125
 1979   38   13    8   30   30    5  196  190   22   53  104 3.91  105
 1980   39    8    9   25   25    3  136  139   10   50   84 4.89   80
 1981   40    2    5    9    9    1   57   54    3   19   32 3.92   92
 1982   41    2    2    6    5    0   30   39    3    8   30 5.76   71
 Total      247  170  581  496  205 3616 3109  346 1104 2589 3.17  118

Dennis Martinez

The mid-career train wreck survived by Martinez wasn’t caused by a sorm arm, but instead by a bent elbow: rampant alcoholism destroyed his effectiveness for a few years, and very nearly ruined Martinez’s career (if not his life). The performance that ensued from the newly sober El Presidente was truly remarkable, not to say inspiring. He was never a particularly hard thrower, so his extremely long and ultimately quite successful career is testament to Martinez’s signature curveball (thrown, like Tiant, from a variety of arm angles), changing speeds, pinpoint control, nerve, smarts, and great conditioning, as well as of course clean living.

Only three retired modern-era pitchers with more than 261 wins are not in the Hall of Fame: Tommy John, Bert Blyleven, and Jim Kaat.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
 1976   21    1    2    4    2    1   28   23    1    8   18 2.60  126
 1977   22   14    7   42   13    5  167  157   10   64  107 4.10   92
 1978   23   16   11   40   38   15  276  257   20   93  142 3.52  100
 1979   24   15   16   40   39   18  292  279   28   78  132 3.66  110
 1980   25    6    4   25   12    2  100  103   12   44   42 3.97  100
 1981   26   14    5   25   24    9  179  173   10   62   88 3.32  109
 1982   27   16   12   40   39   10  252  262   30   87  111 4.21   96
 1983   28   11   15   33   30    7  194  212   21   50   96 3.82  103
 1984   29   11    8   34   27    4  187  186   24   43  110 3.88  100
 1985   30   12   11   33   32    5  203  197   23   56  112 3.94  102
 1986   31    9    9   27   23    5  163  151   10   46   94 3.14  118
 1987   32   14    6   28   28    4  188  180   15   45  113 3.23  131
 1988   33   15   13   34   34    9  235  215   21   55  120 2.72  132
 1989   34   16    7   34   33    5  232  227   21   49  142 3.18  111
 1990   35   10   11   32   32    7  226  191   16   49  156 2.95  124
 1991   36   14   11   31   31    9  222  187    9   62  123 2.39  151
 1992   37   16   11   32   32    6  226  172   12   60  147 2.47  141
 1993   38   15    9   35   34    2  225  211   27   64  138 3.85  108
 1994   39   11    6   24   24    7  177  166   14   44   92 3.52  134
 1995   40   12    5   28   28    3  187  174   17   46   99 3.08  150
 1996   41    9    6   20   20    1  112  122   12   37   48 4.50  109
 1997   42    1    5    9    9    0   49   65    8   29   17 7.71   59
 1998   43    4    6   53    5    1   91  109    8   19   62 4.45   95
 Total      261  195  703  587  134 4211 4019  368 1190 2308 3.49  112

Speaking of Mid-Career Alcoholism-Related Train Wrecks Survived by Pitchers Named Dennis

Dennis Eckersley

I’m not sold at all on the wisdom of Eckersley’s Hall of Fame selection. He made it, let’s not kid ourselves, almost entirely on the basis of that five-season stretch as the Oakland closer from 1988 through 1992. While Eck was about as brilliant over that five-season stretch as a closer can be, it was, after all, just a five-season stretch, and a five-season stretch in which he worked a grand total of 359 and two-thirds innings, or just over 70 innings pitched a year. No matter how effective a pitcher is, and no matter how highly-leveraged his appeareances, when limited to 70-and-change innings a year out of a team’s 1,450 or so, it’s simply impossible to have a huge impact on team success. The role is roughly equivalent to a place-kicker in football: it’s marvelous to have a great one to bring in with the game on the line in the closing seconds, but his contribution to creating that game-on-the-line circumstance is pretty close to nil.

That five-season stretch stands against 19 other seasons in Eckersley’s amazingly long career. That’s a point in his favor. In those 19 seasons, Eck worked 2,926 other innings and went 173-162, with a 3.70 ERA, or an ERA+ of 111. Those figures are not points in his favor; longevity itself is a positive, no doubt, but a very long career of net-pretty-good pitching doesn’t whisper “Cooperstown” in my ear, and so it’s not at clear that taking that and strapping five years of lights-out closing on top does the trick, either.

Here we’ve taken the worst of the mid-career sorriness and cleaned it up, resulting in an Eck with a better Hall of Fame case, but I’m still not sure it would be a compelling Hall of Fame case.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
 1975   20   13    7   34   24    6  187  147   16   90  152 2.60  146
 1976   21   13   12   36   30    9  199  155   13   78  200 3.43  102
 1977   22   14   13   33   33   12  247  214   31   54  191 3.53  112
 1978   23   20    8   35   35   16  268  258   30   71  162 2.99  138
 1979   24   17   10   33   33   17  247  234   29   59  150 2.99  148
 1980   25   13   14   32   32   10  223  201   28   49  156 3.86  110
 1981   26   12    6   23   23   10  169  167   16   42   96 3.45  112
 1982   27   15   12   33   33   14  236  231   30   51  139 3.34  129
 1983   28   13   12   31   31   10  212  229   28   49  114 4.09  107
 1984   29   14   12   33   33    4  225  223   21   49  114 3.60  111
 1985   30   11    7   25   25    6  169  145   15   19  117 3.08  129
 1986   31    6   10   44   17    1  158  163   16   30  125 4.01  101
 1987   32    6    8   54    2    0  116   99   11   17  113 3.03  137
 1988   33    4    2   60    0    0   73   52    5   11   70 2.35  160
 1989   34    4    0   51    0    0   58   32    5    3   55 1.56  237
 1990   35    4    2   63    0    0   73   41    2    4   73 0.61  606
 1991   36    5    4   67    0    0   76   60   11    9   87 2.96  130
 1992   37    7    1   69    0    0   80   62    5   11   93 1.91  196
 1993   38    2    4   64    0    0   67   67    7   13   80 4.16  100
 1994   39    5    4   45    0    0   44   49    5   13   47 4.26  104
 1995   40    4    6   52    0    0   50   53    5   11   40 4.83   90
 1996   41    0    6   63    0    0   60   65    8    6   49 3.30  129
 1997   42    1    5   57    0    0   53   49    9    8   45 3.91  107
 1998   43    4    1   50    0    0   40   46    6    8   22 4.76   97
 Total      207  164 1086  350  114 3329 3041  352  755 2489 3.30  123

A Couple of Control-Artist Southpaws

Dick Ellsworth

Ellsworth’s was a truly weird career. That season he put together in 1963 would look right at home tucked alongside the very best of a Warren Spahn or a Jim Palmer, yet Ellsworth never had another that even began to approach it.

Obviously there was some just plain flukiness at work there; a lot of his pitches were hit right at his fielders that year, or something. But it was more than that: Ellsworth clearly pitched beautifully in 1963, too. He always had excellent control, and that season he had a decent strikeout rate, and perhaps most significantly, avoided the long ball extremely well. (A product of Fresno High School in central California, Ellsworth won his 20th game in 1963 on the same day that Jim Maloney, a Fresno High teammate from the very same class, won his 20th for the first time, giving coach Ollie Bidwell ample reason to be proud. A few years later, that school’s team would feature a right-hander named Seaver.)

Ellsworth was a big guy (6’4″, 195), but still appears that the heavy workload he sustained, not just in 1963 but over the entire 1962-66 period, pretty much wore him out at an early age. He enjoyed a mini-revival at the age of 28, but the bitter end came rather soon after that. In our version we have him developing some of the 1963 magic before the fact, and keeping some of it around for a few years after as well, thus putting together a nice run as a front-line starter. Ellsworth’s actual 115-137 career record is almost perfectly reversed here.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO   ERA ERA+
 1958   18    0    1    1    1    0    2    4    0    3    0 15.43   25
 1960   20    7   13   31   27    6  177  170   12   72   94  3.72  101
 1961   21   10   11   37   31    7  187  213   23   48   91  3.86  109
 1962   22   16   15   37   35   13  250  232   19   76  149  3.35  124
 1963   23   22   10   37   37   19  291  223   14   75  185  2.11  167
 1964   24   18   14   37   37   18  274  245   24   73  167  2.88  129
 1965   25   18   13   37   36   14  257  225   18   66  158  2.84  129
 1966   26   12   15   35   33   10  233  259   22   44  125  3.58  103
 1967   27   11    7   32   25    7  161  174   11   37   76  3.56   96
 1968   28   16    7   31   28   10  196  196   16   37  106  3.03  104
 1969   29    6    9   36   24    3  147  178   11   44   52  4.10   92
 1970   30    3    3   43    1    0   59   60    4   17   22  3.79  104
 1971   31    0    1   11    0    0   15   22    1    7   10  4.91   71
 Total      139  118  404  313  105 2247 2201  175  599 1234  3.30  112

Bobby Shantz

Shantz was extremely small (5’6″, 140) while Ellsworth was tall, but aside from that they share some similarities: both were crafty, control-oriented young lefties who came out of nowhere to forge a stupendous season that was followed by frustration. But where Ellsworth kind of gradually wore down, Shantz’s arm trouble after his great MVP year of 1952 was immediate and severe, and quite obviously career-threatening.

Unlike Ellsworth, Shantz was able to work through it, no doubt greatly helped in 1957-60 by being adroitly spotted by manager Casey Stengel amid a deep and flexible pitching staff, and working his home games in the ideal-for-southpaws environment of Yankee Stadium. And also unlike Ellsworth, Shantz was able to remain a very effective major leaguer through the age of 38. I don’t know why Shantz’s career ended when it did; it sure looked as though he had quite a bit left in the tank. (Two other differences between them: hitting and fielding. Shantz wasn’t a bad-hitting pitcher, with a lifetime batting average of .195, but Ellsworth was horrific, hitting .088 lifetime (OPS+ of -30) with 322 strikeouts in 673 at-bats. And Ellsworth wasn’t anything special as a fielder, while Shantz was universally regarded as spectacular with the glove, an Ozzie Smith on the mound, winning the Gold Glove every year it was awarded during his career, from 1957 through 1964.)

Our Shantz has a far less worrisome mid-career crisis, and winds up with some glittering career totals: 152-98 (.608) with a 131 ERA+. That isn’t sufficient volume for a Hall of Fame case, but what’s there is all good: pound-for-pound, one might say, extremely tough to beat.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
 1949   23    6    8   33    7    4  127  100    9   74   58 3.40  121
 1950   24    8   14   36   23    6  215  251   18   85   93 4.61   98
 1951   25   18   10   32   25   13  205  213   15   70   77 3.94  109
 1952   26   24    7   33   33   27  280  230   21   63  152 2.48  160
 1953   27   15    8   25   25   17  193  169   16   45  105 2.92  147
 1954   28   12    4   22   18   12  154  133   13   35   76 2.56  153
 1955   29   13    7   29   24   13  193  170   15   56   94 2.91  143
 1956   30    7    6   38   12    5  137  126   14   39   70 3.15  137
 1957   31   11    5   30   21    9  173  157   15   40   72 2.45  147
 1958   32    7    6   33   13    3  126  127    8   35   80 3.36  106
 1959   33    7    3   33    4    2   95   64    4   33   66 2.38  153
 1960   34    5    4   42    0    0   68   57    5   24   54 2.79  129
 1961   35    6    3   43    6    2   89   91    5   26   61 3.32  120
 1962   36    6    4   31    3    1   78   60    8   25   61 1.95  211
 1963   37    6    4   55    0    0   79   55    6   17   70 2.61  136
 1964   38    2    5   50    0    0   61   52    5   19   42 3.12  116
 Total      152   98  563  213  114 2272 2055  175  686 1230 3.07  131

Big Daddy

Rick Reuschel

A very big fellow (6-foot-3 and, um, politely listed at 235), Reuschel was nonetheless a sinker-slider control artist who didn’t throw hard at all, and he was remarkably quick and agile as a fielder, winning two Gold Gloves.

His career breaks into two neat hunks: from 1972 through 1981, Big Daddy was a consistently effective workhorse, and from 1985 through 1989, he was extremely durable and effective again. But the gap in between was something of an abyss: felled by a torn rotator cuff, Reuschel missed the entire 1982 season, worked in just four games in 1983, and was able to pitch in just 19, highly ineffectively, in 1984.

Our Big Daddy avoids that crisis, encountering only a slight bit of difficulty, and emerges as a 245-game winner.

 Year  Age    W    L    G   GS   CG   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
 1972   23   10    8   21   18    5  129  127    3   29   87 2.93  130
 1973   24   14   15   36   36    7  237  244   15   62  168 3.00  132
 1974   25   13   12   41   38    8  241  262   18   83  160 4.30   89
 1975   26   11   17   38   37    6  234  244   17   67  155 3.73  103
 1976   27   14   12   38   37    9  260  260   17   64  146 3.46  111
 1977   28   20   10   39   37    8  252  233   13   74  166 2.79  157
 1978   29   14   15   35   35    9  243  235   16   54  115 3.41  119
 1979   30   18   12   36   36    5  239  251   16   75  125 3.62  114
 1980   31   11   13   38   38    6  257  281   13   76  140 3.40  116
 1981   32    8   11   25   24    4  156  162    8   33   75 3.11  117
 1982   33   16   10   34   31    7  217  202   12   64  132 3.01  133
 1983   34    9   13   33   33    4  215  231   15   62  119 3.67  104
 1984   35    9    7   27   24    7  160  165   10   33   75 4.13   95
 1985   36   14    8   31   26    9  194  153    7   52  138 2.27  158
 1986   37   12   11   33   31    8  212  197   13   50  123 3.45  111
 1987   38   13    9   34   33   12  227  207   13   42  107 3.09  131
 1988   39   19   11   36   36    7  245  242   11   42   92 3.12  105
 1989   40   17    8   32   32    2  208  195   18   54  111 2.94  116
 1990   41    3    6   15   13    0   87  102    8   31   49 3.93   93
 1991   42    0    2    4    1    0   11   17    0    7    4 4.22   85
 Total      245  210  626  596  123 4023 4010  243 1054 2287 3.29  117

References & Resources

Methodology

On my first pass at this, I employed a rather strict, formal structure for adjusting players’ stats, very similar to the one I developed here to fill in the missing seasons for players who served in the military during World War II. While I found that this methodology produced very satisfactory total results, the specific year-by-year stat lines it yielded were too perfect for this exercise: too smooth, too predictable. We went from a frustratingly inconsistent actual career to an implausibly consistent virtual career.

Everyone’s actual career (especially pitchers) includes a certain degree of year-to-year variation, and I wanted even these smoothed-out versions to reflect some of that. So instead of the strict formality, I allowed myself to be a little looser, and apply a bit of artistic license. However, I did require myself to stick to some basic rules:

- I couldn’t just make stuff up; all adjusted stats have to start with the particular pitcher’s actual stat lines.
- In most cases, the stats from the season being adjusted were included (even if in a minor weighting) in the adjusted line, to give the adjusted line some of the flavor of that actual season’s performance.
- No pitcher’s career can start earlier than it did, or end later than it did.
- No adjusted season can surpass the pitcher’s actual peak season(s); the adjusted seasons act as a bridge to and from peaks, not a new peak.

I’ve endeavored to create a new version of each pitcher’s career that is idealized, but in a plausible manner. The intended effect is to enhance the actual career while not overwhelming it, to create an easily recognizable version of the actual career that is, to a reasonable degree, the best it might have been.

Feel free to email me with any questions about the precise formulae used for any particular pitcher.

The tidbit about Ellsworth, Maloney, and Fresno High coach Bidwell comes from the 1964 Official Baseball Almanac, compiled and edited by Bill Wise (Fawcett: 1964), page 13.

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: How the Cardinals Shocked the World* and Won the World Series
Next: Putting a Price on Matsuzaka »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current ye@r *