Minor League Workhorses:  1946-1950

OK, first off, let me explain what got me thinking about this. Give yourself a good long look at this list:

Pitcher         T  Age  Year  Club        League  Class  G   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA
Bill Kennedy    L   25  1946  Rock. Mt.   C.P.      D   41  280  28   3  149  101  456  1.03
Virgil Trucks   R   21  1938  Andalusia   A-F       D   38  273  25   6  143  125  418  1.25
Eddie Albrecht  R   20  1949  Pine Bluff  C.S.      C   58  332  29  12  260  150  389  2.60
Bob Schultz     L   22  1946  Fulton      Kitty     D   34  221  19  10  148  148  361  3.62
Larry Jackson   R   21  1952  Fresno      Cal       C   43  300  28   4  250  144  351  2.85
Bob Upton       R    ?  1950  Jcksnvl.    G.C.      C   44  326  25  16  258  173  346  2.68
Mike Conovan    L    ?  1952  Jackson     Kitty     D   47  281  20  12  212  224  345  3.46

What is that, you ask? Well, that’s the list of the top seven single-season strikeout performances in modern minor league history (since 1920). It’s a very interesting little list, don’t you think?

I compiled it a few weeks ago, as the first step in putting together what I had imagined to be an article focusing on the greatest statistical achievements by minor league players. But as soon as I had put this list together, I took a look at it and said to myself, woah, wait a minute—what’s up with this?

Two things struck me:

1) Of the top seven strikeout seasons by pitchers in minor league history, six occurred between the years of 1946 and 1952, and the other one was just a few years earlier.

2) And check out the workloads of these very young pitchers! These are innings pitched and pitch count totals that are beyond inconceivable today, for any pitcher, major league or minor league, at any age.

It suggested that while the article on the most extreme minor league statistical achievements remains a fun idea—and one I hope to pursue at some point—a more interesting exploration would be a combination of two things: first, just what the norm was of top workhorse minor league pitchers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and second, how that norm has been modified in the years since.

So what’s presented here is the first in what will be a long (slow!) series of articles, recurring periodically, exploring the top-end usage patterns of pitchers in the minor leagues. Over time, we’ll see how it changed and discuss why, as well as the wisdom,—or lack of it—of those changes.

So this is the first chapter of what will be an extensive series. This time, it’s the five-year period of 1946 through 1950.

The Top 10 Innings Leaders

I recorded the top 10 pitchers in innings pitched in each minor league classification each season. Averaging the stat lines of each of those top 10 innings-workload achievers, this is what we get:

(EP = Estimated number of pitches)

Class AAA:
Year   G  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
1946  39  24  280  18  15  262   78  157  2.69  4303
1947  39  21  277  17  15  286   77  117  3.39  4290
1948  38  18  251  16  13  268   93  122  3.93  4062
1949  41  23  282  21  13  271   98  147  3.35  4448
1950  41  21  283  19  14  270  102  133  3.46  4447
Avg.  40  21  275  18  14  271   90  135  3.35  4310

Class AA:
Year   G  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
1946  38   ?  252  19   9  227   80  132  2.42  3874
1947  36  20  253  18  11  238   77  132  2.83  3909
1948  40  17  244  16  14  239  102  115  3.53  3938
1949  38  17  239  16  11  242   85   99  3.57  3785
1950  40  18  244  19  11  220   98  148  3.15  3908
Avg.  38  18  246  18  11  233   88  125  3.09  3883

Class A:
Year   G  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO  ERA    EP
1946  33  19  235  17   9  213   93  177  2.76  3805
1947  37  18  245  17  11  230   89  133  3.05  3872
1948  38  19  245  17  13  235  106  152  3.48  4013
1949  36  18  245  16  13  223  100  140  3.11  3916
1950  34  21  250  16  13  236  105  132  3.34  4025
Avg.  36  19  244  17  12  227   99  147  3.15  3926

Class B:
Year   G  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
1946  34  23  243  16  12  225  106  161  3.44  3972
1947  39  22  263  17  12  268  117  165  4.06  4381
1948  44  22  276  19  14  276  102  146  3.69  4417
1949  43  24  284  20  12  268  101  143  2.90  4471
1950  40  23  281  17  16  266  105  107  3.35  4399
Avg.  40  23  269  18  13  261  106  144  3.48  4328

Class C:
Year   G  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
1946  39  26  277  21  11  264   80  199  2.71  4348
1947  42  25  288  21  12  265  104  193  3.03  4582
1948  45  25  297  21  15  299  117  166  3.45  4817
1949  42  25  283  21  12  274  111  193  3.23  4603
1950  43  28  300  23  13  294  125  223  3.81  4963
Avg.  42  26  289  21  12  279  107  195  3.26  4662

Class D:  
Year   G  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
1946  41  27  292  21  14  254  106  230  2.93  4656
1947  44  25  295  23  12  255   96  203  2.91  4593
1948  44  26  291  23  11  266  108  186  3.04  4635
1949  41  28  295  21  13  263  114  187  2.85  4700
1950  41  23  281  21  12  270  116  196  3.32  4606
Avg.  42  26  291  22  13  262  108  200  3.01  4638

The far right column applies Tangotiger’s Basic Pitch Count Estimator (3.3*PA + 1.5*SO + 2.2*BB), where (PA = 3*IP + H + BB) to each stat line. To put this into perspective (as we examined here), since about 1990 the very top end of workloads for major league ace pitchers has been in the 4,000 to 4,200 pitch range. And in the modern era, it is completely unheard of for a minor league pitcher at any level to come close to such a workload.

But in the 1946-50 period, it was obviously routine for pitchers to reach and far exceed it. Bear in mind that these figures represent the averages of the top 10 pitchers at each level; the highest individual workloads (which we’ll see below) were significantly greater than that.

One of the things we’ll examine as we move forward in history (in the installments to come) is precisely when the change toward the modern workload pattern began, and how smoothly (or not) it progressed. Interestingly, the 1946-50 period doesn’t even indicate the beginning of a downward shift; at every level, the workloads of top pitchers were very stable, and if anything, inching upward.

The Minor League Reality of 1946-1950

It’s extremely important to understand just what the minor leagues were, and were not, in this era. Certainly, one of the essential purposes of the minor leagues was to develop talented young prospects for major league teams. Every major league team had at least some form of a minor league “system” in place by 1946, and a few teams—the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Cardinals in particular—had vast minor league organizations, far more extensive than those operated by any team today.

But even in those farm systems, developing young talent was not the only purpose, and not necessarily the primary purpose, of a minor league team. Making money was at least as important as developing talent, and the best way to go about making money was by winning games. Minor league baseball was a fiercely competitive enterprise on the field, because win-loss performance was a critical factor in the team’s bottom-line performance.

And, of course, in 1946-50, most minor league teams weren’t major league farm clubs. They were independent. Many employed some players contracted to major league organizations (on essentially a subcontracting basis), but many teams and entire leagues were completely unaffiliated with the majors. Virtually all minor league teams placed every bit the priority on winning games that major league teams do today.

Pitching to Win

Thus, while many players employed in the minor leagues were kids in their late teens or early 20s, “prospects” with the possibility of major league careers ahead of them, many more were not. Many more were career minor leaguers, or former major leaguers continuing to play, often for many, many years, at the minor league level. Minor leaguers in 1946-50 were likely younger than their major league counterparts, but the age difference is even greater today. A high proportion of minor league players in those days—indeed, typically the best players in any league, especially at the lowest classifications—were in their late 20s or early 30s and occasionally in their late 30s or early 40s.

The minor leagues in this period were a vast enterprise, the most extensive they would ever be. (They would soon shrink disastrously, as we’ll see in future installments.) In 1947, for example, there were two major leagues comprising 16 teams; meanwhile there were 52 minor leagues, comprising more teams than I care to count—somewhere between 300 and 400. The Sporting News Baseball Guide covering that year (Baseball Guides are my primary source for all of this data) handles the major leagues in pages 1 through 216, and then the stats for the minor leagues (stats which are, of course, not nearly as detailed and comprehensive as those of the majors) consume pages 217 through 564. (I don’t seek your sympathy here, as I assure you things like this are a labor of love, but it’s worth comprehending just what an ambitious task it has been to search and compile this data—there were a lot of minor leagues in those years!)

In such a minor league world, developing young talent was attended to, of course. Not only the fully affiliated or outright-owned major league farm clubs had such an interest; one of the major sources of ongoing revenue for independent minor league teams was the sale of home-grown stars to higher classifications. The San Francisco Seals’ sale of Joe DiMaggio to the New York Yankees in 1934 (for a mountain of cash, plus several players, plus the one-year-delayed delivery of DiMaggio) is a very prominent example of a standard business procedure of independent minor league teams until well into the 1950s. Thus “shredding the arm” of a young pitcher through overuse was in the interest of no one (though teams may well have had little reason to be concerned for a pitcher’s productivity several years down the road).

But minor league teams were primarily focused on winning games, and their use of pitchers reflected that. Young pitchers weren’t handled nearly as carefully as they would be in later years, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that the use of young pitchers in workloads such as these was anything but foolhardy in the context of preparing them for future major league careers.

The Very Top Workhorses: 1946-1950

All right, in closing for this time, let’s examine the heaviest workloads among minor league pitchers in this period. As suggested by the Pitch Count Estimator, here are all the minor leaguers from 1946 through 1950 who threw 4,900 or more pitches in a season:

Pitcher          T  Age  Year  Team        Class  G  CG   IP   W   L    H   BB   SO   ERA    EP
Eddie Albrecht   R   20  1949  Pine Bluff    C   58  30  332  29  12  260  150  389  2.60  5553
Bob Upton        R    ?  1950  Jcksnvl.      C   44  30  326  25  16  258  173  346  2.68  5549
Melvin Fisher    R    ?  1949  Florence      B   55  25  351  27  12  352   97  160  2.77  5410
Roy Parker       L   24  1950  Pampa         C   49  30  297  27  12  307  188  256  4.55  5371
William Stanton  R    ?  1948  Miami         C   54  22  339  20  12  326  117  158  3.40  5312
John Henry       R    ?  1949  Bis.-Dg.      C   43  22  286  15  18  375  163  169  5.88  5219
Merlin Williams  R    ?  1946  Lima          D   47  30  307  22  18  312  132  275  3.43  5207
Virigil Feeney   R    ?  1946  Lima          D   48  27  303  19  19  335  133  247  4.16  5207
Horace Benton    R    ?  1948  Rck. Mt.      D   41  32  339  28  10  340   88  160  3.66  5202
Harry Helmer     L    ?  1948  Rck. Mt.      D   46  28  292  26  10  250  196  268  3.54  5196
Noel Oquendo     ?    ?  1949  Fitzgerald    D   41  27  297  17  19  280  171  224  4.06  5141
Leo Golcoechea   L    ?  1948  St. Pete.     C   44  25  294  21  16  255  178  259  2.69  5120
M. Echevarria    R    ?  1950  Mexicali      C   49  28  328  28  12  288   73  333  2.74  5099
Chet Johnson     L   32  1950  S. Fran.    AAA   45  22  310  22  13  316  132  164  3.51  5084
Charley Schanz   R   30  1949  Seattle     AAA   43  26  321  22  17  324  106  158  3.25  5067
Alton Brown      R   25  1950  Roa. Rap.     D   45  29  317  28  11  269  133  204  2.38  5064
Guy Fletcher     R    ?  1949  Seattle     AAA   42  26  318  23  12  317  113  162  3.28  5059
M. O'Coine       R    ?  1950  Thib.         C   47  30  313  24  13  162  200  208  3.19  5045
Bobo Holloman    R   22  1947  Macon         A   45  20  294  18  17  298  160  171  3.49  5031
Fred Smith       R    ?  1947  Lufkin        C   46  23  308  20  12  300  144  131  3.18  5028
Bill Evans       R   31  1950  Sac.        AAA   41  24  317  15  22  293  131   95  3.44  4968
John Hofmann     R    ?  1947  Visalia       C   43  22  276  19  14  252  182  263  4.79  4960
George Fultz     R    ?  1950  Gns.-DeL.     D   47  26  318  18  19  305  110  121  2.77  4941
George Fultz     R    ?  1946  Gnsvl.        D   39  26  283  11  22  262  172  215  3.56  4935
Lewis Hester     L    ?  1948  Reidsville    C   44  27  301  25  13  298  124  185  3.11  4923
Pinky Woods      R   33  1948  Hllywd.     AAA   44  16  279  15  20  303  167  161  4.52  4922
G. T. Walters    R    ?  1950  Crowley       C   45  28  283  30   7  225  183  245  3.15  4918
Clarence Jaime   R    ?  1950  S. Bern.      C   40  26  289  20  13  320  123  215  4.24  4916
George Koval     R    ?  1946  DeLand        D   45  24  306  20  20  270  133  173  3.22  4911
Harold Jackson   R    ?  1950  McAllen       C   41  18  284  16  15  390  102  163  6.21  4904
R. Brockwell     R    ?  1948  St. Pete.     D   44  20  276  17  16  250  198  171  4.17  4903
John Marshall    R    ?  1949  Brem.         B   47  28  289  22  14  262  166  174  3.27  4900

By way of perspective, the Pitch Count Estimator indicates that no major league pitcher has come close to throwing 4,900 pitches in a season since Phil Niekro in 1979. The 5,500-pitch level of Albrecht and Upton has been reached in modern times only in the most heavily worked seasons of Niekro, Nolan Ryan, Wilbur Wood and Mickey Lolich.

The only major leaguer in 1946-50 who managed it was Bob Feller in 1946. No other major league pitcher in those years reached 5,000 pitches in a season.

I don’t know how old most of these pitchers were, because most never appeared in the majors, and so I have no resource at my disposal that includes their birth year. A few of those whose ages we do know were young, but not all. It is worth noting that none of these pitchers—the most heavily worked in the entire minor leagues over a five-year period—achieved significant success in the major leagues, if they made it to the majors at all.

In a few weeks, we’ll see how these performances compare with those of the minor league workhorses of 1951-1955.

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