The anomalous Jay Powellby Frank Jackson
September 18, 2012
One of the more entertaining baseball reference books out there is The SABR Baseball List & Record Book. You can always find reference works with lists of most home runs, highest batting average, most strikeouts, etc., but this volume answers questions you never thought to ask.
For example, where else can you obtain such essential information as:
- “Most Career Home Runs as a Teenager”
- “Most Consecutive Wins in a Season for a Team That Finished Last”
- “Most Grounded Into Double Plays in a Season by a Rookie”
- “Pitchers Who Stole Home Twice in One Game”
- “Umpires Who Have Ejected the Most Players”
And many other esoteric categories far too numerous to list.
One such category that attracted my attention was “Pitchers Whose Careers Lasted 10 or More Seasons and Never Had a Losing Record.” When I came across this list, I thought for sure it would contain only accomplished pitchers, the usual suspects who turn up on all the high achievement lists for hurlers.
Wrong! There were a few surprises. See for yourself. (NOTE: I have updated the stats on Andy Pettitte, the only active pitcher on the list.)
17 Andy Pettitte 1995-2010, 2012 13 Deacon Phillippe 1899-1911 13 Urban Shocker 1916-1928 12 Dizzy Dean 1930, 1932-41, 1947 11 Dave Foutz 1884-94 11 Spud Chandler 1937-47 11 Jay Powell 1995-2005 10 Joe McGinnity 1899-1908 10 Babe Ruth 1914-21, 1930, 1933
Turns out that Deacon Phllippe was quite a pitcher. Renowned for his control, his lifetime record was 189-109, including six 20-win seasons. In 1903 he started the first-ever World Series game for the Pirates and bested Cy Young of the Red Sox. By age 38, he was primarily a reliever, and had a 14-2 record for the Pirates, for whom he toiled his entire career save for his rookie year (1899) with Louisville.
I can’t account for my total lack of awareness of Deacon Phillipe, especially considering how distinctive his name is, but at least now I am in the know. As an added tidbit of trivia—and I do mean trivia—actor Ryan Phillipe is a descendant, and he named his first-born son Deacon in 2003.
Dave Foutz was also an unknown to me. My only excuse is I’m not an expert on 19th century baseball. As it turns out, Foutz was no slouch. He had a 147-66 record, including 41 victories for the Browns in 1886. A .690 career winning percentage will likely net you a slew of winning seasons.
Sad to note that Foutz died of asthma at age 40, less than a year after his last appearance on the mound (for Brooklyn). One wonders how much the affliction affected his efforts, given his workhorse status with the Browns and his dwindling number of innings pitched in subsequent seasons with Brooklyn.
But the one pitcher on the list who confused me was one I had heard of—indeed one I had seen pitch in person! I refer to Jay Powell.
Now if you were going to put a picture in a baseball dictionary next to “journeyman,” Powell would be your man. I think an 11-year career with a record of 36-23 and a 4.17 ERA fills the bill.
Yet Powell is tied for fifth on the list with Foutz and Spud Chandler. If Andy Pettitte finally has a losing season in 2012 (a possibility if he returns, as his record is 3-3 as of this writing), Powell will move up to a three-way tie for fourth! What gives?
Time to take a closer look at Powell’s career to see how this happened.
A product of Mississippi State, Powell was a first-round pick by the Orioles in 1993. As a starter, he got mediocre results in his first two seasons in the minors. When he was traded to the Marlins after the 1994 season, they turned him into a reliever at Double-A Portland, and the results were 24 saves and a 1.87 ERA. Powell made his debut with the Marlins when they called him up in September, 1995.
In 11 major league seasons—all as a reliever—he also played for the Astros (1998-2001), the Rockies (2001), the Rangers (2002-2004), and the Braves (2005), before an arm injury forced him to retire at the relatively young age of 33. For the most part, he was a holder more than a closer, as he was credited with 71 holds and only 22 saves.
His best year was 1997 when he was 7-2 with a 3.28 ERA in 79.2 innings for the Marlins. He also had the distinction of being the winning pitcher in the seventh game of the World Series.
All in all, certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but what is a journeyman reliever doing on such a distinguished list of pitchers? Well, it’s just one of those things, a statistical anomaly.
Remember, the list is composed of pitchers who never suffered a losing season, with a minimum of 10 seasons. At first blush, it sounds like only the elite need apply, but theoretically, a player could be a .500 pitcher for each of 10 seasons and make the list. For that matter, a hurler could go 0-0 for 10 years in a row and make the list. Granted, that is highly unlikely, but it would fulfill the criteria.
Ten seasons without a losing record is not the same as 10 winning seasons. Powell, for example, had three seasons of .500 ball and two seasons with no record. In 1995, his rookie year, he had no record in nine September appearances with the Marlins; in 2005, his farewell season, he had no record with the Braves in five games. He was 7-7 with the Marlins and Astros in 1998, 1-1 with the Astros in 2000, and 1-1 with the Rangers in 2004.
So in 11 seasons, Powell had just six winning records. Of those six seasons, most were nothing to write home about. In 2003, for example, he had a 3-0 record with the Rangers but an ERA of 7.82. The fact that he could pitch 58.2 innings with that ERA and remain undefeated is an achievement in itself.
As noted, his most “winning” season was 1997, when he was a member of the World Champion Marlins. His other winning seasons were just barely, as he was 4-3 in 1996 with the Marlins, 5-4 in 1999 with the Astros, 5-3 in 2001 with the Astros and Rockies, and 3-2 in 2002 with the Rangers.
So Powell is qualified to be on the list... but he’s not really qualified to be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Dizzy Dean, Iron Man McGinnity or Andy Pettitte. It’s like the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.
So what’s the lesson to be learned from this? Well, the first thing that springs to mind is the old Mark Twain saying about, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And there are players like Jay Powell who slip through the cracks in the statistics.
Perhaps another lesson to be learned from Powell’s appearance on the list is that you can’t rely on statistics alone. Sometimes you’ve got to take a closer look at them and interpret them.
Still, if Powell hadn’t suffered that career-ending injury, you can just imagine his agent using his appearance on such a list as leverage to get a better contract!
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.