Diz or the Arkansas Hummingbird?by Matthew Namee
May 10, 2004
Everybody knows about Dizzy Dean. The Arkansas-born righty was the most celebrated pitcher in baseball for much of the 1930s, but due to injuries, his career flamed out before his 30th birthday. Diz stayed around the game as a broadcaster, though, and on the basis of six great seasons, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953.
Dean's stats are pretty underwhelming for a Hall of Famer: 150 wins, 1,967 innings, a 3.02 ERA. The other short-career Hall of Fame pitcher, of course, is Sandy Koufax.
W L Pct IP ERA ERA+ WS Dizzy 150 83 .644 1967 3.02 128 181 Sandy 165 87 .655 2325 2.76 134 194They're very similar, as you can see, though Koufax has a slight edge thanks to 358 more innings and a slightly-better ERA+. Maybe it's because I'm a Dodger fan, but I've never had a problem with Koufax's enshrinement. Dean's, however, has always puzzled me a bit, and he's been on my mind lately.
See, not too long ago (last summer, maybe?) I spent a good chunk of time researching a pitcher named Lon Warneke ("The Arkansas Hummingbird") for the about-to-be-released Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. Bill James wrote an article on Warneke for the book, and I was helping him with it. Here's a snippet, which should explain the Dean connection:
The two best pitchers ever born in the state of Arkansas, Lon Warneke and Dizzy Dean, were almost the same age, were both originally signed by the Cardinals, both made their major league debuts in 1930, and both emerged as stars in 1932. Both were hard-throwing right-handed hillbillies, and both pitched for the Cardinals and Cubs.
At the beginning, it was Warneke who was the bigger star. He went 22-6 with a 2.37 ERA in 1932, while Dean was 18-15, 3.30. Warneke was also better in '33, with an ERA over 100 points better than Diz. Dean exploded with 30 wins in 1934, which cemented his status as a megastar, but it was his flamboyant personality as much as his fastball that captured everyone's imagination. Warneke was just as much of a hillbilly, but he lacked the flash; while the gregarious Dean loved the spotlight, Warneke was laid-back and preferred the family farm.
From 1932-37, Dizzy Dean was one of the best pitchers alive. Thing is, his last full season was at the age of 27, and he was basically done before he was 30. Warneke, on the other hand, was consistently above-average though 1942, when he was 33, and never actually had a bad year -- when he quit in 1935, it was to pursue an umpiring career, but the man could still pitch.
At one point in researching Warneke, I realized that, overall, he might actually have been better than Dizzy Dean. Dean pitched 1,728 innings from 1932-37, and just 239 outside of those years. Here are the best pitchers in baseball in those years, rated by ERA+ (minimum 1,200 innings, or 200 per year):
ERA+ IP WS Carl Hubbell 154 1775 176 Lefty Grove 143 1464 143 Lefty Gomez 142 1495 120 Red Ruffing 131 1499 127 DIZZY DEAN 129 1728 162 Tommy Bridges 129 1523 122 LON WARNEKE 126 1596 137 Hal Schumacher 126 1352 104 Mel Harder 125 1509 127 Larry French 119 1535 110All things considered, Dean was pretty clearly the second-best pitcher in baseball from 1932-37, after King Carl Hubbell. He's certainly ahead of Warneke, but not that far ahead. Their ERA+ in that time are almost identical; basically, Dean just pitched more innings. So if Dizzy gets a 9 on a scale of 1-10 for his performance from '32-'37, Warneke is probably around 7.5. But that's all there is to Dean's career, really, and Warneke had five more good seasons left in the tank.
How about another list? Dean's peak was from ages 22 to 27. Here are the leaders in ERA+ in that age range, after 1920. Since we're working with a larger pool of players, let's increase the innings requirement to 1,400.
ERA+ IP WS Hal Newhouser 148 1671 167 Tom Seaver 144 1641 155 Lefty Gomez 138 1460 111 LON WARNEKE 137 1421 129 Robin Roberts 136 1860 168 Bert Blyleven 134 1657 130 Juan Marichal 132 1414 116 Dave Stieb 131 1524 129 DIZZY DEAN 129 1728 162 Don Drysdale 129 1734 137Wow ... Until I came up with that list, I actually had no idea that Warneke's ERA+ from 22-27 was better than Dean's. Granted, Warneke threw 307 fewer innings, but still. We're targeting Dizzy Dean's best seasons, weighting everything in his favor, and Warneke still is right there with him. I'm not suggesting that Warneke was as good as Dean at his best, but it's becoming clear that Warneke was almost that good, just a notch below, and he did last a lot longer.
How do the two Arkansas righties shape up altogether? Here are the career lines for both:
W L Pct IP ERA ERA+ WS Dean 150 83 .644 1967 3.02 128 181 Warneke 192 121 .613 2781 3.18 119 220Lee Sinins has a stat called Runs Saved Against Average (RSAA). In Lee's words, "It's the amount of runs that a pitcher saved vs. what an average pitcher would have allowed." By that measure, Dean "saved" 205 more runs than the average pitcher over the course of his career. Warneke saved 203.
What's the difference between Dean and Warneke? For Dizzy to match Lon's career line, he'd have to have added a 42-38 record and 39 Win Shares in 814 innings, with an ERA around the league average -- basically, four or five average seasons. Would a healthy Dean have done that? Of course... but he wasn't healthy, and he didn't do that. Average pitching has a lot of value, and Warneke's solid post-prime years even out Dean's edge in peak value.
If Lon Warneke is, on the whole, Dizzy Dean's equal, does that make Warneke a Hall of Famer? Not in my book, but it probably means Dizzy Dean isn't particularly Hall-worthy. People often make the argument, "Player X is as good as Player Y, and Player Y is in the Hall of Fame, so Player X should be in there too." I guess what I'm suggesting is the opposite -- Dizzy Dean is not really any better than Lon Warneke, and Warneke is not in the Hall of Fame (and shouldn't be, by my estimation), so maybe, possibly, Dizzy Dean shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame either.
One last thing, irrelevant to the Warneke-Dean "Who's the best Arkansas pitcher" discussion (but somewhat relevant to Dizzy Dean) -- Pedro Martinez. The third pitcher in the Dean/Koufax group is Pedro, who has pitched a similar number of innings. Here's how he stacks up against the two Hall of Famers:
W L Pct IP ERA ERA+ WS Pedro 170 69 .711 2123 2.61 173 208 Dizzy 150 83 .644 1967 3.02 128 181 Sandy 165 87 .655 2325 2.76 134 194Pedro has more wins and Win Shares than either pitcher, and he dwarfs them both in ERA+. He's already a Hall of Famer; the rest is just gravy. Pedro's brilliance never ceases to amaze me -- Dean and Koufax were remarkable pitchers, good enough to be elected to the Hall of Fame despite short careers, and Pedro is head and shoulders above them both.
Matthew Namee cofounded The Hardball Times in 2004, when he was working as the assistant to baseball author and Red Sox executive Bill James. Matthew still lives in Kansas, where he is currently pursuing a law degree. He can be reached at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.