The one and only Bob Fellerby Chris Jaffe
December 17, 2010
It wasn't surprising, but it was still sad: Bob Feller died. He was many things: the greatest phenom of the 20th century, an ace pitcher, a dominating mound presence, a man who barnstormed with Satchel Paige, a decorated World War II veteran, a Hall of Famer, and an all-time great autograph signer.
Bob Feller: the image
The oddity is that many out there in THT's reader-land have a different main impression or memory of Feller. In his sunset years he reinvented himself again. In the internet age, Feller became the go-to-guy for any reporter seeking cranky old man quotes. It became one of the annual rites of spring. The snow melts, birds fly north, and Feller sounds off.
It became oddly endearing. Not because everything he said was so wise or that his quotes agreeable. The fun of Feller sounding off was that he was openly contentious. I know one person whose grandfather liked to go off on whatever he felt like in his final years. His attitude was: Who would want to punch out an 83 year old man? Being ornery was a right you earned with the age. Feller exercised that right.
In fact, he may have half-wanted someone to throw a punch at him, just so he could take the punk out. He was a former athlete with an ego befitting the only person in U.S. history whose high school graduation was nationally broadcast live on radio. Feller, despite the fame and relative fortune that came with being a star pitcher in the 1940s, pushed it aside to volunteer for the armed forces on Dec. 8, 1941. Plenty of other stars served, but most were drafted.
He lived 92 years, which is damn impressive. It's not unprecedented: Among fellow Hall of Famers, Al Lopez lasted to age 97. Two still-living Hall of Famers are older than Feller: Lee MacPhail and Bobby Doerr.
Still, 92 is mighty long. Think about it for a second: If Ty Cobb had lasted to age 92, he would've seen Lou Brock break his long-lasting career stolen base record. Cobb even could've viewed a game featuring minor leaguer Rickey Henderson.
If Babe Ruth had lived to be 92, he would've not only been able to witness Hank Aaron's 715th homer, but could've seen Barry Bonds play for the Pirates. Ninety-two years after Lou Gehrig's birth, Cal Ripken played his 2,131st consecutive game, becoming the game's all-time iron man. Then again, if Gehrig werer still alive at age 92, Ripken's 2,131st game wouldn't have meant squat.
If Jackie Robinson had lived to be 92—well, actually he wasn't scheduled to turn 92 until next year. Though Robinson died 38 years ago, he was a little younger than Bob Feller.
If Old Hoss Radbourn had lived to be 92, he would've made it to 1946, which would've given him the chance to make cranky old man quotes about the young players of that day. Radbourn once completed all 73 starts he had in a season, winning 59 games along the way. Could any of the bright young arms of 1946 have done likewise?
That would've been fun, because the brightest young arm of 1946 was Bob Feller.
Bob Feller: the player
Ah yes, Feller the player. There has never been anything quite like him. Others have been better or lasted longer, but no one else did what he did. If you have a copy of the new Hardball Times 2011 Baseball Annual, there's a gem of an article but Craig Wright, in which he notes that it's very dangerous to a pitcher's long term health to work him too hard too young. The best medical evidence shows the joints don't fully mature until age 24, and any undue work before then can ruin an arm.
No one was ever worked harder younger than Feller. And while his early workload took a toll on him down the line, it wasn't nearly as serious a toll as it should have been.
Since 1920, only four pitchers have hurled 200 innings in their age-19 season. Two of them, Wally Bunker and Gary Nolan, soon developed arm problems and were done by age 30. Dwight Gooden lasted longer, but was a shell of himself by his late 20s.
Then there's Bob Feller. Two hundred innings at age 19? Feller threw 277.2—more than 50 more than Nolan, Bunker or Gooden. Then Feller led the league with 296.2 innings the next year. And led it again with 320.1 the season after that. And led it still again the following campaign with 343 innings—the most by any pitcher in almost 20 years. Yet he was still just 22 years old.
Those weren't easy innings, either. He led the league in strikeouts every year from age 19 to 22. In his first full season, he struck out more batters in one year than anyone in the AL since Walter Johnson. When he fanned 260 men in 1941, only one other pitcher had more than 130 Ks.
He also topped the league in walks-issued three times in those four years, with jaw-dropping figures. At age 19, he walked 208 batters—the most by anyone in a season since 1900. Three years later, he walked 194. All those deep counts in all those innings for four straight years—his arm never should've lasted as long as it did.
No one else has ever been worked as hard as Feller, but if you look at the pitchers whose workloads were closest to Feller in their young years (which still wasn't very close), they virtually faded badly before that fourth season. And those guys didn't win 200 games, while Feller won 266.
Feller did have one respite the others had: World War II. He missed almost four years after volunteering. During that time, he saw actual combat while pitching only sporadically for military teams. A very reasonable theory contends that the war saved Feller's arm. Without it, he crashes badly in 1942 or 1943 at the latest and never recovers.
A sensible theory, but I never fully bought it. If Pearl Harbor gets bombed in 1938, you could just as easily argue that saved Feller's arm from certain destruction in 1939. Or if he joins the Army in 1939, that saves him in 1940. And so on. Yeah, based on the numbers, Feller was just one more year away by 1942, but he'd already had several just-one-more-year seasons already.
In the lively ball era, 16 pitchers won 150 games before turning 30. Only one—Greg Maddux—won 300. The others fall into two categories: guys whose arms completely fell off at a certain point, bringing their careers to an abrupt halt—Wes Ferrell, Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, and guys who weren't nearly as effective, but soldiered on for many more years—Robin Roberts, Mel Harder and Bob Feller himself. My hunch: Without World War II, Feller uses up his arm a little earlier than he did, but soldiers on anyway, just as he did anyway. With three-plus years of soldiering arm, that 266 wins of his can easily become 300 wins.
That said, the most remarkable part of Feller's career was his return to full-time baseball in 1946. The numbers themselves are amazing: a 26-15 record with 36 complete games in 42 starts with 371.1 innings in which he fanned 348 of the 1,513 batters he faced and walked 153 more. But the more you look, the greater the season appears.
Nearly 350 Ks sounds good, right? Well, no non-Feller AL pitcher fanned more than 250 in a season in over 30 years. The 1945 AL leader had only 212 Ks. The next time a non-Feller pitcher led the AL in Ks, it was Virgil Trucks in 1949 with 153. Feller in 1946: 348.
Twenty-six wins? He won No. 20 before Cleveland played its 100th game. No one's done that since. Not Denny McLain, not Steve Carlton, not Bob Welch. No one. Feller did. (Though, to be fair, Hal Newhouser did it that same year).
And Feller went 26-15 the hard way—despite his teammates, not because of them. Feller's season is special to me because it relates to the first major project I ever undertook when I discovered Retrosheet. (It's also one of the projects that helped get me a gig here at THT). I spent a long time using the info to determine pitcher's run support. I added up runs for a pitcher in all his starts, divided by games started, adjusted for park, and came up with a pitcher metric I called RSI (Run Support Index) that determined a pitcher's run support. It's set up like ERA+ or OPS+, with an average score being 100. I eventually did this for around one-fourth of all starts in MLB history, including the full careers for all pitchers worth looking at. And Feller's 1946 season was one of the gems that justified all the research that I did.
Feller's 1946 RSI was 80. That's far worse than Steve Carlton's RSI in 1972, when he won 27 for a last-place team. (Those Phillies hit better than you might guess, posting an RSI of 93). Heck, Feller's run support was nearly as bad as Nolan Ryan's 1987, when he posted an 8-16 record despite leading the league in ERA? Ryan had a 77 RSI. Yet Feller went 26-15.
What could Feller have done with league average run support? I figured that out, too. If you want to adjust for run support, you can't simply say: Here's Feller's RA/9IP—take that and average offensive support and figure out a winning percentage. Baseball isn't that linear. There's runs allowed, there's runs scored, and there's that third factor—I don't care if you call it random variation or pitching to the score or sunspots or whatever—pitchers and teams don't always win and lose as many as the math dictates.
For example, Don Drysdale, went 18-16 in 1964 despite a stupendous runs-allowed per nine and park-adjusted run support that was actually 15 percent BETTER than league average. Should he really have won more games if his run support was worse?
Here's what you do. First figure out how many games Feller would be expected to win based on his real life RA/9 IP, and his actual run support. Then figure out how many he would be expected to win based on his real life RA/9 and league average run support. The difference between those two tells you how many wins Feller's run support cost him.
Turns out, the answer is four wins. His run support cost him four wins, which means that with normal run support, Feller would've gone 30-11 in 1946. Yup, a 30-win season. This is the one and only time in the live ball era that run support denied a pitcher a 30-win season. (To be fair, Pete Alexander lost a 30-win campaign due to his offense in the 1920 NL, the last of the deadball leagues).
That 1946 season is Feller's most impressive, but the most impressive factoid about his career is very different. It's a different sort of fact than one would expect about him, too:Iin the last eight years of his career, he NEVER fanned 10 or more batters in a single game.
This is a man who tied the major league record with 17 Ks in a game at age 17 and who fanned 15 in his first major league start (and despite skipping the minors altogether). He broke double digits in strikeouts 51 times in his first 297 starts, yet never did it in any of his remaining 187 ones. In fact, that last 10-strikeout game in September 1948 was an outlier; it came after 57 consecutive starts without a 10-K performance. All Feller's great strikeout games came in the first half of his career.
He couldn't blow guys away the way he once did. Yet he persevered. Remember how only 16 different live-ballers won 150 games before turning 30? Only two of them even had a 20-win season from age-30 onward: Jim Palmer (who had three), and Bob Feller, who went 22-8 in 1951. His K-rate was barely better than league average that year. As I said, half the big-win pitchers completely flopped, and the other half declined by soldiered on. Feller won 266 contests because he could adjust to losing his A-game. Yeah, he could've won 300 if not for WWII.
Bob Feller: the Hall of Famer
As it was, his career was still enough to earn an easy route into Cooperstown: He was inducted in his first year of eligibility in 1962. That was almost a half-century ago. Not so long ago, I wrote a column eulogizing Ron Santo, and how it was a shame he never got to spend a day as an acknowledged Hall of Famer. Bob Feller is at the other extreme: More than half of life came after his induction.
In fact, here is a list of the longest lives anyone's had after induction into Cooperstown. (For those still alive I'll include a plus-sign by their year totals:
Name Years Bob Feller 48 Joe DiMaggio 44 Charlie Gehringer 44 Stan Musial 41+ Carl Hubbell 41 Bill Dickey 39 Sandy Koufax 38+ Yogi Berra 38+ Monte Irvin 37+ Whitey Ford 36+ Ted Williams 36 Ralph Kiner 35+ Bill Terry 35 George Sisler 34 Robin Roberts 34
Feller got to spend more days as an elected Hall of Famer than anyone else in baseball history. That has to be a nice feeling. Now that he's gone, Stan Musial is the only man inducted in the 1960s left.
Sandy Koufax is the obvious favorite to last longer than Feller, but even that's no guarantee as Koufax turns 75 later this month.
Feller was one of the last links to that generation of ballplayers. At least one obituary called him the ace for the Greatest Generation, and that's fitting. Bobby Doerr and Monte Irvin established themselves before Pearl Harbor in major league baseball and the Negro Leagues respectively, and Musial became a star during the war, but there isn't much else left from baseball.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet came in handy.
A list of the 16 liveballers who won 150 games before turning 30 can be found here
The story up top about a friend's grandfather comes from something Dan Szymborski of Baseball Think Factory and ESPN once posted about his grandfather.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.