Culprit 1 (1901-45)by Brandon Isleib
April 16, 2009
If you wait too long
To get deadweight off team
Your pennant dreams die.
The senryu above (yeah, I'm busting out Japanese poetic form all up in this piece) illustrates a common roster management problem: if you expect a guy to turn around, he might not, leaving the playoffs to others. Sometimes, these albatrosses are more obvious than others. The task of this series is to ferret out said albatrosses, particularly if they're just sheep in albatross's clothing.
Laying the musteline/avine/ovine allusions to the side, we'll be looking at pitchers whose won-loss records were at least five games under .500 and, when you subtract their won-loss records out of the team's overall record, give their team a better record than the pennant winner. Example: If a team finished five games back and had a pitcher who was six games under .500, then the team theoretically would have finished one game up without him. Obviously, they'd still have played the games without that pitcher, so the compiled list doesn't say what would have happened for certain. But with a different pitcher, odds would have been better for winning, and it's those that we're trying to find.
On the other hand, won-loss records aren't entirely indicative of pitcher contribution, so if their peripherals don't match the easy blame placed on them, I'll note it. Otherwise, these are the guys that caused winters of discontent. (Seriously, I don't know what it is with the allusions today. I should just move on to the lists and commentary and cut this introduction short.)
Moving on to the lists and commentary...From 1901-45, there were 25 pitchers who fit the criteria above. Of those, eight were on the teams that won the pennant, with their performances ranging from Marius Russo's 5-10 for the 1943 Yankees, who won by 13.5 games (they started him in the World Series, and he shut out the Cardinals) to Larry French's 10-19 for the 1938 Cubs, who won by only two games. In French's case, he pitched almost exactly the same as he did the previous year, when he went 16-10; Russo was just plain bad in his year of futility.
In this table, "Team GB" is the actual games back for the major league club, and "New GB" is how many games ahead they'd be without the won-loss record of the pitcher in question. I know that might make it "New GA," but there wasn't an old GA to make new ... you understand.
Name Year Team W-L Team GB New GB Weldon Henley 1905 PHA 4-11 Won Nick Altrock 1907 CHW 7-13 -5.5 +0.5 Tom Hughes 1913 WSH 4-12 -6.5 +1.5 Boardwalk Brown 1914 PHA 1- 6 Won Kaiser Wilhelm 1914 BAL 12-17 -4.5 +0.5 Ad Brennan 1915 CHF 3- 9 Won Bunny Hearn 1915 PBS 6-11 -0.5 +4.5 Pete Henning 1915 KCP 9-15 -5.5 +0.5 Jim Scott 1916 CHW 7-14 -2 +5 Jesse Barnes 1916 BSN 6-15 -4 +5 George McQuillan 1916 PHI 1- 7 -2.5 +3.5 Rube Benton 1920 NYG 9-16 -7 +0 Dolf Luque 1922 CIN 13-23 -7 +3 Johnny Couch 1923 CIN 2- 7 -4.5 +0.5 Bert Cole 1924 DET 3- 9 -6 +0 Wayland Dean 1924 NYG 6-12 Won Dutch Ruether 1924 BRO 8-13 -1.5 +3.5 Johnny Morrison 1924 PIT 11-16 -3 +2 Bill Clarkson 1927 NYG 3- 9 -2 +4 Burleigh Grimes 1932 CHC 6-11 Won Larry French 1938 CHC 10-19 Won Johnny Murphy 1942 NYY 4-10 Won Marius Russo 1943 NYY 5-10 Won Johnny Gorsica 1944 DET 6-14 -1 +7 Johnny Niggeling 1945 WSH 7-12 -1 +4There are some of the all time closest races on here: the 1915 Federal League with three teams finishing within a half-game; the 1916 National League that involved the Robins, Braves, and Phillies; the 1924 tussle with the Robins surprising again; and the late wartime American League races where everyone was scrambling for quality pitching. Maybe it's a function of being in the race almost all the time, but John McGraw teams show up three times in the '20s, even winning once despite Wayland Dean dragging the record down. (McGraw also came close with the 1914 Giants; remove Rube Marquard's 12-22 record and they finish a half-game back. How do you let Marquard start that many games with an 87 ERA+? Well, when he's been 73-28 over the previous three seasons, you might give a bit more leeway, I guess. You can't replace him, so you might as well keep sinking.) Of the cases above, here's some analysis of the most egregious offenders and whether or not the manager screwed up to make their record so decrepit.
Bunny Hearn, 1915 Pittsburgh RebelsThe owner of a career 13-24 record in the bigs, southpaw Hearn's biggest chance was in this year, and it wasn't good: 89 ERA+ from the Soft-Tosser Deluxe line of 2.5 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9. The Rebels had finished seventh the previous year, so their pennant hopes weren't the biggest in the world. Starting Hearn doesn't seem as egregious in those circumstances. The team was clearly improved most of the year, but Hearn's performance got him evicted from the rotation in mid-August, replaced with a similar pitcher in Ralph Comstock. The team was built on a deep rotation (Frank Allen, Elmer Knetzer, and rookie Clint Rogge were three iterations of the same stat line), and the hole in the fourth slot cost them. Comstock wound up being a little bit better than Hearn as a starter, but not enough to say that it was a move that just had to be done. Far more important would have been starting Cy Barger more often after an early-season stint in the bullpen, but Barger himself had lost his rotation job after an execrable 1914, and nothing in his past indicated he would have a good year in 1915.
Fault: A surprise team that doesn't quite make it is no big news, and teams like that often have this kind of problem. I'll call the fault neutral here. Sure, manager Rebel Oakes could have experimented a little bit more, but with who? Oakes at least didn't stick with Hearn all year, so he wasn't completely stubborn or anything. Had it been not a surprise team, I would fault Oakes here. Hearn certainly deserves his record for his weak performance, but he wasn't completely awful, and it made some sense to see if he could make it work. He was a fifth-starter type in a fourth-starter role, and it wasn't enough.
Jim Scott, 1916 White SoxAmong all sub-.500 pitchers with at least 100 decisions, Jim Scott's 121 ERA+ is the third-best of all-time. (In front of him: Ned Garvin and Johnny Rigney. Behind him: Thornton Lee, Nap Rucker, and Toad Ramsey.) Death Valley Jim, as usual, was a decent pitcher this year, though not his usual self: 102 ERA+ isn't great, but it's not 7-14 bad either. It's not entirely to blame on the offense, either, as they scored the third-most runs in the league. Teammate Lefty Williams had a very similar season (same peripherals except more strikeouts and a slightly worse ERA) and went 13-7. As you'd expect for such a discrepancy, Scott's offense gave him no runs or one run in six of 21 starts; for Williams, it was four of 26 starts where this happened. They were both .500 pitchers in 1916 and they combined to go 20-21. I will chalk this one up to dumb luck.
Jesse Barnes, 1916 BravesVery soon, Jesse Barnes was going to go 83-41 for the Giants. Obviously, this was not the Jesse Barnes that manager George Stallings let rack up a 6-15 record for a team that was right in the thick of things. The Braves were a pitching-and-defense team with some okay hitting, and 23-year-old Barnes was above-average overall, particularly for a player with 45 innings in the majors coming into '16. So why the 6-15, and why let the youngster go out there and get busted up in the heat of battle? Part of the story is relief losses. The Braves went 7-11 in Barnes's 18 starts, which isn't great, but it would be a lot more understandable. While I don't know off that what games tagged him with wins and losses (no box scores), it's obvious that in his 15 relief appearances, he must have lost at least four times.
I suspect that these days Barnes wouldn't be used this way; guys like Ed Reulbach were on the team in similar roles, and most usage patterns today put the young starter in front with the wizened aging veteran to back him up. Was it just lack of experience that caused Barnes to get so many relief losses? I have no idea, of course, but it wouldn't have hurt to try. Dick Rudolph and Lefty Tyler were the anchors of the rotation, just as they were in 1914, but the rest of the depth was somewhat untested: Pat Ragan, who had never really been that good; Art Nehf, with a similar career to Barnes before and after 1916; and Frank Allen, who had just come out of the Federal League with his only positive mark on the resume (see Bunny Hearn above). Like Scott, the offense bailed out on him six times in his starts, so that didn't help either, but if there's any blame to throw around here, I'll put it on the manager for usage patterns. There probably wasn't anything Stallings could do about it, but he was known for going against the grain, and I doubt he felt beholden to common young pitcher usage patterns. At the very least, it doesn't appear to have been Barnes's fault.
Bill Clarkson, 1927 GiantsThankfully, we have box scores for the 1927 NL, and they reveal a rather startling split that I'm going to place entirely at the feet of John McGraw's usage pattern. Clarkson, a 28-year-old rookie, was primarily a reliever; in those 19 relief appearances, he was 3-2 with a 3.63 ERA (though a ridiculous amount of walks). In his seven starts, however? 0-7 with a 5.14 ERA. He walked about half as many in his starts as he did when relieving (in similar amounts of innings), but he gave up one and a half times more hits. My guess is that he reared back more as a reliever, and his conservation as a starter consisted of throwing lots of hittable pitches in the strike zone. As much as John McGraw wasn't the type to put untested guys into the fire, I assume that some of this was a function of injuries; Clarkson made his starts in three different clumps May through July in a way that confirms this. Still, to be useful in one role and useless in another is very rare, and as many resources as McGraw normally had, I can't blame Clarkson for giving it his all and it not being enough. Not everybody can be Aaron Small 2005, and the old rookie Clarkson certainly wasn't up to it.
Johnny Gorsica, 1944 TigersThe Tigers played the Browns down to the wire and were a solid pitching-first team...except for Johnny Gorsica. Actually, Gorsica was solid for a portion of the season. In the rotation from the get-go, the Tigers were 5-2 in his starts through June 2. Without boxscores, I don't know what happened, but Gorsica fell apart, winning only one game (in relief) for the rest of the season and picking up 13 losses in there too. 12 more starts (none of those 12 games ended with fewer than four runs for the opponent) and several more relief appearances later, the Tigers were one game out with a pretty awful record for Mr. Gorsica.
I know it was wartime and so players with good track records prior to wartime might be considered the best candidates to turn things around, but: there were four months to remove Gorsica from the rotation and it never quite happened, as Gorsica was seen starting as late as September 22; and nobody they could have called up would have been quite so bad. The scrap heap is better than 1-13, especially when Gorsica was bad every single game. This one's entirely the manager's fault. Steve O'Neill was a nice guy and all, but this is the easiest case in the book as to what to do.
Johnny Niggeling, 1945 SenatorsThe 40-year-old Niggeling was one of the best pitchers in the AL in 1944. The 41-year-old version was league-average. In this case, though, he pulled a reverse Gorsica (which sounds like a chess opening). Through June 22, the Senators were 1-8 in Niggeling's starts and 25-27; had it not been wartime, I suspect the team would have cut him. After that, both he and the team picked up; 64-40 for the team (though still only 6-9 in his starts, but it's better than 1-8). The Senators were right at .500 when Niggeling improved and rushed to a finish that wasn't quite enough to beat out the Tigers (who did not have Johnny Gorsica that year... coincidence?). Had the record been in reverse, I would blame the manager, but they had a bad team the previous year and weren't doing that well for awhile, so I kinda credit the team for sticking with the old guy and getting what they could out of him down the stretch. I'll call this one neutral.
Temporary conclusionNot every manager is to blame here, but several are, and while I haven't followed these races very much in my previous readings (particularly the 1915 Federal League one), I've never heard the manager blamed for starting these guys May-July, but there's a good shot we'll see some of that this year with a chance for fans to nab the manager-culprits red-handed.
Next timeMore years, more pitchers. What years I'm covering depends on how many of these guys show up postwar.
References and Resources
Neft/Neft/Cohen's Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, 23rd Ed., B-ref, Retrosheet for their game logs and old splits (seriously, the game logs for old seasons without box scores are still pretty handy for pitcher analysis), this site with adjectival forms of animals, and Culprit 1, one of the many fine artists signed to the Exceptional record label (though Blu Mar Ten's my favorite out of the group).
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.