Historic Comparables (Volume 2)

You may recall that last June we introduced our technique of comparing players from distant eras and finding matched pairs. That time, we focused on position players, and now we’ve decided to do the same for pitchers.

For the methodological details, please see the References and Resources section below. In brief, we looked at nine quantifiable factors:

{exp:list_maker}Handedness
Wins
Losses
Innings
ERA+
Win Shares
Win Shares Above Average
Strikeout Rate versus League Average (K+)
Walk Rate versus League Average (BB+) {/exp:list_maker}Two identical pitchers would yield a Similarity Score of 1,000, so the closer to 1,000, the more similar the pair.

As was the case with hitters, we chose to present pitchers that the system considered reasonably comparable, but not necessarily the highest Sim Scores the system produced. More than just statistics, we’ve considered things like career patterns, physical similarities, personality traits, and other factors. The goal is to find not merely the most statistically similar player, but the most similar player, period.

So, since this concept originated with Matthew, how about we let him make the first pitch.

Namee:

Herb Pennock and Andy Pettitte

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Herb Pennock        1912-1934      240     162    3,572     106     240      30      98     146
Andy Pettitte       1995-2009      229     135    2,926     116     196      33     103     120

Sim Score:  823

If you were just watching these two at a ballgame, they wouldn’t look similar. Pennock was a skinny six-footer with a weak fastball but dazzling curves. Pettitte, on the other hand, stands 6-foot-2 and around 230 pounds, and while he’s no fireballer, the fastball is definitely his No. 1 pitch.

But, beyond that, Pennock and Pettitte are peas in a pod. Both were lefty starters on Yankees dynasties. Neither piled up many strikeouts, but both had above-average control. In 11 years with the Yankees, Pennock had a .643 winning percentage and a 113 ERA+. Pettitte is still pitching, but so far, he’s got a .638 winning percentage and an identical 113 ERA+ in a dozen Yankee seasons.

Pennock is one of the Hall of Fame’s weaker members, and he surely wouldn’t be in if he hadn’t pitched for Babe Ruth’s Yankees. Pettitte, too, has generally been a good-but-not-great pitcher, with a few big years surrounded by a bunch of 200-inning, 110 ERA+ seasons. If he makes it to Cooperstown, he, like Pennock, can thank his Yankees teammates for putting him there.

Treder:

Freddie Fitzsimmons and Rick Reuschel

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Freddie Fitzsimmons 1925-1943      217     146    3,224     111     222      32      79     121
Rick Reuschel       1972-1991      214     191    3,548     114     240      33      94     140

Sim Score:  880

At its best, baseball isn’t just a sport, or a business: It’s fun. It’s a game, after all. And one of the particular things about baseball that can make it fun is the manner in which, well, a baseball player can possess something quite apart from chiseled-jock physique and still perform as a big league star.

Observing either “Fat Freddie” or “Big Daddy” languidly ambling about the pre-game sidelines, one might be tempted to wonder who let that portly clubhouse attendant put on a uniform. But once each took the mound, he displayed not only a serious competitive intensity, but an easy grace despite his rotundity. And the similarities didn’t stop there: Neither Fitzsimmons nor Reuschel threw hard, but instead relied upon outstanding control and a groundball-inducing sinker to frustrate hitters. (Fitzsimmons’ signature pitch was a knuckleball, but he gripped it tighter and threw it harder than most, and it had a sharp downward break rather than the typical knuckler’s “float.” Today we would probably classify this pitch as a “knuckle curve” á la Burt Hooton.)

Both right-handers arrived in the majors at age 23. Both were stars in their 20s, then both endured career-threatening bouts of arm trouble in their early-to-mid 30s before rebounding, with a new team, for a last flourish of stardom in their late 30s. Both were in their 40s before finally hanging up the spikes.

At which point one trembles at the thought that both, now, could finally relax and abandon that, you know, strict diet/conditioning regimen thing.

Namee:

Jesse Haines and Orel Hershiser

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Jesse Haines        1918-1937      210     158    3,209     108     207      18      93     115
Orel Hershiser      1983-2000      204     150    3,130     112     210      26      95     116

Sim Score:  957

I’m a born-and-bred Dodgers fan, and for a long time, Orel Hershiser was my favorite player. Having said that, there is no way Hershiser is a Hall of Famer—which just goes to show how poor a Hall of Fame choice Jesse “Pop” Haines was.

Haines was born in Ohio, which is where Hershiser went to college. They have virtually interchangeable career numbers, except Hershiser’s are actually a touch better, with a 112 ERA+ to Haines’ 108. Both established themselves as starters in their mid-20s, and both were still pitching effectively at age 40. Their best seasons were very similar—24-10, 145 ERA+ in 300 innings for Haines; 23-8, 148, 267 for Hershiser—but Hershiser had more great years and a stronger prime. Each enjoyed an amazing World Series—Haines in 1926, Hershiser in 1988—with 2-0 records and ERAs around 1.00. (And each helped himself at the plate in those Series, with three hits apiece.) Both were well-respected, becoming coaches after their active careers were over.

All things considered, both men had distinguished careers, but Hershiser was the better pitcher.

Treder:

Eppa Rixey and Tom Glavine

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Eppa Rixey          1912-1933      266     251    4,495     115     315      50      86     127
Tom Glavine         1987-2008      305     203    4,413     118     315      58      84     110

Sim Score:  885

At first glance, one might not see much in common between these two. Rixey is in the Hall of Fame, but he’s deeply among the most obscure members, elected by the Veterans’ Committee decades after his career. Even during his playing days, Rixey was never particularly famous, and if he’s known by many fans today it’s likely as the answer to a trivia question: Rixey’s modest career winning percentage of .515 (on a record of 266-251) is, in fact, the lowest of any starting pitcher enshrined in Cooperstown.

Glavine, on the other hand, has been among the more prominent stars of the modern era, and no one has the slightest doubt that he’ll sail into the Hall on his first ballot, mostly on the strength of a glittering 305-203 (.600) won-lost record—that .600 percentage, by the way, is better than Walter Johnson’s or Warren Spahn’s, and just shy of Tom Seaver’s.

But there’s a story behind the big W-L difference. Rixey spent his long National League career with the Phillies (1912-20) and Reds (1921-33), and while those franchises fielded some strong ball clubs in those years (including the pennant-winning Phils of 1915), over Rixey’s 21-season tenure he played for just 10 .500-or-better teams. Moreover, of the 11 losing outfits, six stumbled in with 90 or more defeats.

Contrast this with Glavine’s good fortune: In his 22 years in the NL, he was on a winning team 15 times, and no fewer than five of those 15 winners racked up more than 100 regular-season victories. Thus it’s clear that team-support circumstances largely drove the difference between .515 and .600, as the quite-similar career ERA+ marks of 115 (Rixey) and 118 (Glavine) attest.

Both southpaws were supreme junkball artists, nibbling at corners and coaxing grounders, consistently successful despite a well-below-average strikeout rate. Glavine is of unremarkable size and build (6-foot-1, 190), while Rixey was a long tall drink of water (6-foot-5, 210), but beyond that distinction, when imagining what sort of a pitcher the vaguely known Rixey might have been, we need think no further than the familiar iconic model of the soft-tossing lefty: Mr. Glavine.

Namee:

Eddie Cicotte/Stan Coveleski and Kevin Brown

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Eddie Cicotte       1905-1920      208     149    3,223     123     247      59     106     128
Stan Coveleski      1912-1928      215     142    3,082     127     245      66      94     138
Kevin Brown         1986-2005      211     144    3,256     127     241      48     108     138

Sim Scores:  Cicotte-Brown 942, Coveleski-Brown 934

Our system scores Brown as extremely comparable to both Cicotte and Coveleski. And in terms of numbers, he is. All three men were right-handed. All three pitched a little more than 3,000 innings with impressive ERAs and essentially identical W-L records. None of the trio was a strikeout pitcher, but all had excellent control. All three were stingy with the longball.

They all had cups of coffee in their early 20s, but they all drifted back to the minor leagues. They all became regular starters in their mid-20s. All three also might be called late bloomers: Coveleski emerged as a star at age 27, Cicotte’s first great year was at 29, and Brown led the league in wins at 27, but didn’t emerge as a superstar until his early 30s. Once established, all three were workhorses who led their leagues in ERA (Brown and Coveleski twice, Cicotte once). All three were top starters for two pennant winners and one World Champion, and all three were brilliant in their teams’ pennant-winning seasons.

Cicotte, of course, was accused of throwing the 1919 World Series, and he was banned from baseball after 1920. Coveleski’s career ended in 1928, after a poor performance with the Yankees. Put the two together, and you sort of get Kevin Brown – Brown’s career ended after a disappointing stint with the Yankees, and he was later accused in the Mitchell Report of taking PEDs.

Treder:

Dolf Luque and Luis Tiant

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Dolf Luque          1914-1935      194     179    3220     117     241      51     110     107
Luis Tiant          1964-1982      229     172    3486     114     256      51     118     114

Sim Score:  903

Both were Cuban. Both were right-handers. Both were under 6 feet tall.

Both debuted in the major leagues at the age of 23. Playing for Ohio teams, both put together a spectacular peak season, when both led the league in ERA, ERA+, shutouts, and H/9. Both then slumped the next year to a distinctly losing record despite a not-bad ERA. Both subsequently rebounded to enjoy one more season of leading the league simultaneously in ERA and ERA+. Both had the odd juxtaposition of a 20-game-winning year and a 20-game-losing year back-to-back.

Both achieved stardom despite displaying less-than-superb control, as each finished in his league’s Top 10 just once in BB/9. Both were good-but-not-great strikeout pitchers, as neither ever led his league in strikeouts, but each finished in his league’s Top 10 in strikeouts five times. Both were particularly stingy pitchers with regard to surrendering base hits, as each led his league in H/9 six times.

Both remained in the major leagues past the age of 40.

Other than that, these two have very little in common.

Namee:

Jack Quinn and Jamie Moyer

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Jack Quinn          1909-1933      247     218    3,920     114     287      56      90     160
Jamie Moyer         1986-2009      258     195    3,909     105     221       1      89     133

Sim Score:  714

Jack Quinn has a unique place in baseball history. If he’s remembered today, it’s usually as the answer to a trivia question about the oldest something: oldest man to pitch in a World Series game, or to hit an AL home run, etc.

The man hung around until he was past 50, outlasting all of his contemporaries. When Quinn debuted in 1909, Babe Ruth was a 14-year-old kid. By the time Ruth got started in 1914, Quinn was a 30-year-old veteran. Quinn finally retired in 1933; Babe Ruth, who was more than 11 years younger and had a 22-year career, outlasted him by only two years.

Quinn and Moyer aren’t a perfect match: Quinn was a spitballing righty, Moyer a soft-tossing southpaw. And Quinn, at his very best, was decidedly better than Moyer. But they struck out batters at the same low rate, relative to their leagues, and both relied on outstanding control. Jamie Moyer is certainly the closest thing we’ve seen to Jack Quinn in a long, long time.

Quinn and Moyer both grew up in Pennsylvania. Both had nice seasons in their mid-20s, but then fell apart and drifted out of the league. Quinn seemed to re-establish himself in the Federal League at 30, but then he fell apart again, and didn’t make it back to the majors until he was 34. For his part, Moyer was exiled to the minors at 28, and spent the whole season there at 29. For both men, in their early 30s, they looked like washouts.

But both men clawed their way back. Moyer finally established himself as a quality starter when he was 33; Quinn did the same thing at 35. The pair rank 4-5 in career wins after age 35: Moyer won 169 games as an old pitcher, Quinn 163. Both of them were still regular starters when they were 45. At 45 and 46, both men pitched for pennant-winning Philadelphia teams. Neither is a Hall of Famer, but both hung around long enough to pick up about 250 wins, a feat that seemed nearly impossible when they were in their 30s.

Treder:

Bobo Newsom and Mickey Lolich

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Bobo Newsom         1929-1953      211     222    3,759     107     237      14     136      91
Mickey Lolich       1963-1979      217     191    3,638     105     224      12     126     122

Sim Score:  840

Granted, there are some clear differences between these two: Newsom was a righty and Lolich a southpaw, for one, and Newsom was famously traded more frequently than any other ballplayer in history, while Lolich spent the great majority of his career with just one team.

But the similarities are remarkable, particularly when considering that each, when he was active, was considered unique. Both were hard throwers, though neither’s fastball matched those of his era’s elite flamethrowers. Both were good strikeout pitchers. As for control, Newsom continually had an issue with the base on balls, while, to be fair, Lolich mostly didn’t.

Both displayed astonishing resilience, piling up pitch counts and innings loads that would crush most pitchers, while these guys just kept taking the ball. Both displayed a physique that was anything but slender, although I must say that as a kid I found the fuss made over Lolich’s weight to be overdone—as the Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, & Bubble Gum Book put it, Lolich was “baseball fat” but not “fat fat.”

Both pitched brilliantly for the Tigers in a World Series: Newsom threw three complete games in 1940, allowing just four runs on 18 hits (and striking out 17 against just four walks), losing a heartbreaking 2-1 decision to the Reds’ Paul Derringer in Game Seven, and Lolich tossed three complete games of his own in 1968, allowing just five runs on 20 hits (and striking out 21 against just six walks), and outdueling the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson 4-1 in a classic Game Seven.

At their best, both Newsom and Lolich were extremely good, but neither was able to sustain that peak form for more than a couple of years. Instead, both were usually solid performers whose primary attribute was the amazing durability, and thus both piled up lots of losses alongside their wins, vividly animating the old saying that “it takes a good pitcher to lose 20 games.”

Namee:

Jesse Barnes and Brad Radke

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Jesse Barnes        1915-1927      152     150    2,570     105     156       5      75     145
Brad Radke          1995-2006      148     139    2,451     112     159      13      89     204

Sim Score:  843

Barnes and Radke were about the same size: 6-foot, 170 for Barnes, 6-foot-2, 180 for Radke. Both were right-handed pitchers who debuted at age 22. Barnes pitched until he was 34, Radke until he was 33.

Most years, neither man could buy a strikeout to save his life. The both depended on outstanding control—both were among the best control artists of their generations. They were both durable, pitching 200 innings like clockwork: Barnes threw 200 eight times in nine years; Radke did the same in nine out of 10 seasons. They were hard-luck pitchers, both leading their leagues in losses (Barnes twice, Radke once) in otherwise-decent seasons. Barnes’ best record was 25-9; Radke’s was 20-10. But in both cases, they were no better in their big seasons than in any other year.

Most fans today have never heard of Jesse Barnes; in 50 years, most fans will have no idea who Brad Radke was. Neither was ever a great pitcher, but they were both solid, durable guys who had fine careers. What Jesse Barnes was to his generation, Brad Radke was to his.

Treder:

Murry Dickson and Danny Darwin

Pitcher               Years          W       L      IP    ERA+      WS    WSAA      K+     BB+
Murry Dickson       1939-1959      172     181    3,052     110     204      25      92     112
Danny Darwin        1978-1998      171     182    3,017     106     182       1     102     129

Sim Score:  888

They didn’t much resemble one another physically—Dickson was a slight 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, while Darwin was a long-and-lanky 6-foot-3, 190—but otherwise these two right-handers were doggone similar. Neither threw particularly hard, relying instead upon outstanding control of a variety of junk. Both were equally at home in starting or relieving roles (indeed both were Superduperswingmen). Both were good, solid pitchers for a very long time, but performing at a level just below stardom: Darwin never made an All-Star team, and the only one Dickson made was purely a function of the every-team-has-to-have-one rule.

Darwin’s repertoire included the fastball, slider, curve, change, and splitter. Dickson’s was even more extensive: the fastball, curve, sinker, slider, knuckleball, screwball, and forkball—in other words, pretty much every pitch any pitcher has ever thrown, except, I guess, the eephus. Dickson’s nearly limitless array of deliveries, in fact, drove his Pittsburgh GM Branch Rickey to distraction: “Dickson is a scatterbrain, which may explain a scatter-arm…. He has an assortment of a great number of pitches—adjustments of rotation to velocity—varying both the rotation and rapidity of rotation to velocity—so much so that he is continually flabbergasted in making a decision of what pitch to make.”

References & Resources
The information on pitchers’ repertoires, as well as the cranky Branch Rickey quote, come from the marvelous Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches, by Bill James and Rob Neyer (New York: Fireside, 2004).

The similarity scores used above are calculated as follows:

Factor 1: 50 points if one pitchers is a lefty and the other a righty.

Factor 2: 1.00 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s career wins.

Factor 3: 0.50 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s career losses.

Factor 4: 0.05 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s career innings pitched.

Factor 5: 2.50 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s career ERA+.

Factor 6: 1.00 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s career Win Shares.

Factor 7: 1.50 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s career Win Shares Above Average (WSAA).

Factor 8: 1.50 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s K+.

Factor 9: 1.50 times the absolute value of the difference between each pitcher’s BB+.

Next, we simply add together all six factors and subtract from 1000. The higher the score, the higher the similarity.

K+ and BB+ are measures of the pitcher’s strikeout and walk rates, adjusted for league and park effects. As with ERA+, a pitcher with a K+ or BB+ of 100 is league-average. We only had access to K+ and BB+ data through the 2004 season, so the data for current and recently-retired pitchers is not precisely accurate. However, this should have little effect on our study. Most of the recent pitchers in the study completed most of their careers by 2004, so the changes in their K+ and BB+ numbers would be minimal. Furthermore, we only use similarity scores as a guide to narrow the field of comparables, and not as the sole determinant of comparability.

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