More Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics—The Pitchers

As promised, or threatened (depending on your point of view—some people enjoy pain and read this column for that very reason), this week we’ll focus on “average” pitchers.

This is where it gets fun. A player can be an average hitter but still a superb ballplayer. A couple of names that didn’t make the list last week—one due to a career that’s ongoing, the other because of a career that lasted fewer than 6,000 AB—are good examples of this. Both Johnny Damon’s and Lloyd Moseby’s overall hitting is/was close to league average (Damon: OPS+ 104; Moseby 102). Other similarities: above average defensively at a demanding position (center field); decent power (for their position), speed with double digits in triples, a lot of stolen bases at a high success rate.

These are examples of average offensive threats whose other baseball skills turned them into very valuable ballplayers.

Pitchers, on the other hand, basically have to throw a baseball and try to get hitters out. A good hitting and fielding pitcher who cannot get guys out will not have a major league career of note. So an average pitcher tends to be just that—an average pitcher. We have nine candidates; they logged an average of 3,503.2 IP, had a group raw ERA of 3.64 and averaged more than 212 career wins.

The highest among the group won 229 games, the lowest 188. The most innings pitched by our candidates was 3,883. The fewest threw 3,127. Their adjusted ERA+ ranges from 97-104.

Legend:

  • RSAA: Runs Saved Above Average
  • ASG: All-Star Games
  • GG: Cy Young Awards
  • PSA: Postseason Appearances

Sam Jones: 229-217, 3.84 ERA 3,883 IP 1.41 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
104   61   NA  NA  4

What he did best:

Take the ball. Sad Sam gave up more hits than innings pitched and walked more than he struck out. However, in the period from 1910-40 he was sixth in innings pitched, 10th in complete games (he finished more than half his major league starts) and seventh in shutouts. He was a top-notch postseason performer, too, posting a 2.05 ERA in 22 IP despite an 0-2 record. He won rings with the 1918 Red Sox and the 1923 New York Yankees.

What he did worst:

Give up base runners. Jones allowed 5,480 hits and walks. He didn’t strike out many, either, averaging a measly 2.83 K/9 IP. Jones is third worst in major league history in that category among pitchers with at least 3,500 IP.

Jerry Reuss: 220-191, 3.64 ERA 3,669.2 IP 1.325 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
100   -7   2   0   5

What he did best:

Keep the ball in the park. Among the top 30 in innings pitched since the lively ball era began in 1920, Reuss is tied for seventh with Bob Gibson in HR/9. Of course pitching a ton of games at Chavez Ravine, Three Rivers Stadium and the Astrodome didn’t hurt him in this department.

Although he sometimes gave Tommy Lasorda headaches, Reuss kept the clubhouse loose. I remember an anecdote from Lasorda’s autobiography. As a representative from the commissioner’s office was finishing a stern lecture on the evils of recreational drug use (especially cocaine), Reuss sneezed into a handful of talcum powder, sending a huge cloud of white powder into the air. Of interest, thanks to the genius of Sean Forman and the (insert whatever superlative you wish and it still wouldn’t be an exaggeration) Baseball Reference, Reuss won more games than he should have. BB-Ref has his neutral won-loss at 205-195 while Lee Sinin’s equally valuable Sabermetric Encyclopedia has it pegged at 210-201.

What he did worst:

Reuss really didn’t have a major hole in his game. He gave up a smidge over a hit per inning pitched (9.16) and he had fine control (2.76 BB/9). His 4.68 K/9 is a little light. One has to wonder what Reuss’s career would’ve looked like with better raw stuff.

Mickey Lolich: 217-191, 3.44 ERA 3,638.1 IP 1.23 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
104   62   3   0   2

What he did best:

Lolich had five postseason starts, three in the 1968 World Series and two in the 1972 ALCS. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves:

IP  H ER BB  K
 9  6  1  2  9
 9  9  3  1  8
 9  5  1  3  4
10 10  2  3  3
 9  5  1  2  6

He was also a major workhorse. From 1971-74 only knuckleballer Wilbur Wood (1,389) logged more innings than Lolich (1,320). Lolich made 169 starts over that span, completing 96. He also gave up fewer hits than innings pitched; walked 2.71/9, whiffed seven per game and led the league with 308 in 1971. It’s easy to wonder whether, had he been handled better (and stayed in better condition), Lolich might have enjoyed a Hall of Fame career. The talent and makeup were certainly there.

What he did worst:

Stay in shape. Lolich also coughed up .86 HR/9 IP—not surprising considering he pitched 48% of his innings at The Corner, giving up 56% of his big flies there.

Joe Niekro: 221-204, 3.59 ERA 3,584 IP 1.32 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA  PSA
97   -42   1   0    3

What he did best:

Throw the knuckleball. Yes, I’m being serious. He was not a pure (read: one pitch) knuckleballer, but how many who depended on the pitch threw it for more than 3,000 IP? Off the top of my head: Brother Phil, Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough and Ed Cicotte. That’s an impressive group. Also of note, in 20 innings over three postseasons, Niekro posted an ERA of 0.00.

What he did worst:

I had to look hard for this one. With men on second and third, opponents had an OBP of .410 (his highest situational OBP) against Niekro; with the bases loaded, he allowed his highest situational slugging (.435). So with men on second and third it appears he’d walk the bases full before giving up an extra base hit.* My God! Joe Niekro is really Tony Castillo!

*Yeah, that’s a major oversimplification.

Earl Whitehill: 218-185, 4.36 ERA 3,564.2 IP 1.50 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
100    6   NA  NA  1

What he did best:

Take the ball. From 1920-1940, Whitehill was first in MLB in starts, fifth in innings pitched, and sixth in complete games. Probably his best season was 1933, when he posted a 22-8, 3.33 ERA (126 ERA+) in 270 IP. I guess you can say he was a big game pitcher since the biggest game of his life was Game Three of the 1933 World Series. He pitched a complete game shutout for the Washington Senators.

What he did worst:

Give up base runners. Whitehill had the worst WHIP among our candidates (1.50) and gave up almost 10 hits (9.9) per nine IP and close to four walks (3.61 BB) per nine-inning game. When you consider he was fourth in HR surrendered from 1920-40 (192), one can only imagine the damage they did.

Hooks Dauss: 222-182, 3.30 ERA 3,390.2 IP 1.32 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
102   34   NA  NA  0

What he did best:

Take the ball when needed. From 1910-30 Dauss was ninth in games started and eighth in complete games. He also appeared in 150 games in relief, finishing 121. He also notched three 20-win seasons, going 24-13 in 1915, 21-9 in 1919 and 21-13 in 1923. Dauss also did a pretty good job of keeping the ball in the park. Among pitchers from 1910-30 with at least 3,000 IP, he’s tied for 29th in most long balls surrendered.

What he did worst:

Hit batters. He’s 30th on the all-time list with 121.

Doyle Alexander: 194-174, 3.76 ERA 3,367.2 IP, 1.29 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
103   34   1   0   4

What he did best:

Be interesting. Don’t believe me? Let’s review:

  • In 1971, he was involved in a trade for Frank Robinson.
  • On June 15, 1976, the Orioles traded him, along with Jimmy Freeman, Ellie Hendricks, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson, to the Yankees for Rudy May, Tippy Martinez, Dave Pagan, Scott McGregor and Rick Dempsey.
  • In 1986, the Blue Jays traded him to the Braves for Duane Ward. Ward would log 280.1 relief innings for the Jays from 1991-93, going 16-13 with a 2.31 ERA and 80 saves, striking out 332. Toronto won three straight AL East titles and back-to-back World Series championships (in which he went 3-0, with a save, a 1.12 ERA and 13 K in eight IP).
  • In 1987, the Braves traded him to the Tigers for prospect John Smoltz. With the Tigers that year he went 9-0, with a 1.73 ERA in 11 starts over 88.1 IP. In his second-to-last start of ’87, he pitched 10.2 innings of a 3-2 win over the Jays in Toronto. In his last start he pitched seven innings, getting the win against the Jays in Detroit. The Tigers overtook Toronto in the final week for the AL East title. Alexander had pitched for the Jays from 1983-86, going 57-36, 3.21 ERA. Alexander giveth and Alexander taketh away.

He also had very good control (2.61 BB/9 IP).

What he did worst:

Give me peace of mind. After all, in 29 postseason innings Alexander posted an 8.38 ERA (0-5), giving up five earned runs in each of his starts of the 1985 ALCS (Games Three and Six), which the Jays lost 4-3 to Kansas City. Of course, there’s that little matter of 1987.

Yes, I have issues.

Rick Wise: 188-181, 3.69 ERA 3,127 IP 1.29 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
101   12   2   0   1

What he did best:

Not beat himself. Wise had a career 2.31 BB/9. Among pitchers since 1900 with at least 3,000 IP, Wise is 30th (tied with Ed Cicotte) and eighth best of the expansion era. In the top 20 in games started among pitchers from 1965-85, Wise finishes behind only two non-Hall of Famers in GS/CG ratio (Bert Blyleven and Luis Tiant). According to OPS and RCAP (while there are some flaws in the stat, it works OK for pitchers), Wise was one of the 10 best hitting pitchers of the expansion era, batting .195/.228/.308 with 15 career home runs. He hit six homers in 1971 and batted .232/.267/.384 from 1967-71.

What he did worst:

Pitch during daylight. In day games Wise was 63-64, 4.28 ERA in 1,034.1 IP. Under the lights he was 125-117, 3.39 ERA in 2,093 IP.

Rube Marquard: 201-177, 3.08 ERA 3,306.2 IP 1.24 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
103   46   NA  NA  5 

What he did best:

From 1911-13 Rube Marquard was probably the third best hurler in the NL. No shame in that when you consider that the guys above him were named Christy Mathewson and Grover Alexander. In those three seasons Marquard was second in wins (73) and strikeouts (563); third in complete games (64) and RSAA (79); fourth in shutouts (10), fifth in IP (860.3), and sixth in ERA (2.52). The New York Giants won the NL pennant in each of those seasons. Those three seasons are what put him in the Hall of Fame.

His other 15 seasons saw Marquard go 128-149, 3.27 ERA. He was also very stingy with walks, several times finishing with fewer than two BB/9 and concluding his career with a 2.34 BB/9 (35th best among 20th-21st century pitchers).

What he did worst:

Finish what he started. Among his closest comps (pitchers with at least 3,300 IP who pitched between 1901-30), Marquard is 47th in complete games. He was also 2-5, 3.07 ERA in five World Series. The aggregate ERA for both clubs in those five Fall Classics is 2.22.

Bert Blyleven: 287-250, 3.31 ERA, 4,970 IP 1.20 WHIP

ERA+ RSAA ASG CYA PSA
118   344  2   0   3 

What he did best:

(Just kiddin’ Rich)

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