He’s probably the greatest pitcher in Tigers history. He’s also a controversial selection for Cooperstown.
Relax. I’m not talking about Jack Morris. (But the bad news is, you’re in for a month of other people writing columns about Morris. You’ve been warned.) No, I’m talking about an actual Hall of Famer. The greatest pitcher in Tigers history was another big winner, but one who did so while posting great ERAs. It was Michigan native Hal Newhouser.
On the face of it, saying Newhouser’s Cooperstown case was controversial might seem odd. Four times in five years he led the league in wins. Twice he led the league in ERA. In his best season, he even claimed the pitcher Triple Crown, leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. It was a brief stretch of glory, but in that period Newhouser dominated in a way that would make Sandy Koufax blush.
In his peak five-year run, Newhouser fanned 993 batters. Only one other pitcher topped 600. He won 118 games in that span, over 30 more than anyone else. (Meanwhile, nine pitchers lost more games than Newhouser.) With 1,475 innings pitched, Newhouser logged over 200 more frames than anyone else.
Oh, and despite his enormous workload, Newhouser’s ERA of 2.35 was the best by any pitcher with over 300 innings pitched in that five-year period. Joe Berry (whoever the hell he was), with 292 innings, narrowly edge Newhouser with a 2.34 ERA. In terms of quantity and quality, Newhouser reigned supreme over all.
Yet it would take nearly 40 years after his retirement for Hal Newhouser to enter Cooperstown. Despite his dominance, no one ever thinks of him alongside Sandy Koufax. What gives? Odds are, you already know the answer to this one. There is an obvious lurking variable here: World War II.
That five-year prime of Newhouser’s overlapped with the most talent-depleted years in professional baseball history, the war years. Newhouser dominated from 1944 to 1948, and in the first two of those years, Newhouser faced clearly inferior competition. Though he had a few impressive years after the war, his career soon fell off, making him look like a wartime wonder.
But Newhouser was far more than a wartime wonder. He was a legitimate star. Looking at his career makes it clear just how great his talent level really was.
The first remarkable feature of Newhouser’s career was how very young he was when he began. He debuted for the Tigers at age 18 in 1939. The next year, he started 20 games for Detroit. He was just the second pitcher in the live-ball era to start 20 games as a teenager. (The other was Bob Feller, of course).
On the face of it, Newhouser’s numbers weren’t very impressive in 1940: a 9-9 record with a 4.86 ERA. But dig deeper. Newhouser’s 4.86 ERA came despite pitching in a great hitters’ park while having a below-average defense behind him. Adjust for that, and he was essentially an average pitcher.
By definition, average isn’t very impressive, but the kid was still just 19 years old. Most great pitchers aren’t even good enough to be in the major leagues at that age, yet Newhouser was already a league-average pitcher. As a general rule of thumb, the players that develop earliest have the most talent.
Newhouser made his first leap forward in 1942. That’s bad timing, as it was the first baseball season with America at war. However, the draft hadn’t yet made a big impact on major leagues. A few AL stars had been claimed by the army—Feller and Hank Greenberg among them—but almost all the others were still there.
Joe DiMaggio played 154 games for the Yankees, Ted Williams won the Triple Crown for Boston, and many of the other stars remained. Even the absent stars didn’t affect Newhouser’s pitching numbers. Greenberg was Newhouser’s teammate, and Feller—a fellow pitcher—wasn’t in the majors for his hitting ability.
And, at age 21, Newhouser was one of the best pitchers in baseball. In swingman duties (23 starts, 15 relief appearances), he posted a 2.45 ERA, one of the best marks in either league despite still pitching in a great stadium for batters. His 162 ERA+ was the third-best in all of baseball. His 5.05 strikeouts per nine innings was the best by any AL pitcher who qualified for the ERA title. Not bad for a kid barely old enough to vote.
Yet to many at the time, Newhouser’s numbers would’ve been under the radar. Despite his talent, his win-loss record was an uninspiring 8-14. The Tigers sure missed Greenberg, and they especially missed him when Newhouser took the mound. In his 23 starts, Detroit scored three runs or fewer 16 times. Four times they were shut out, and four times they scored just one run. That’s eight times they gave Newhouser no margin for error, and he was 0-8 in those starts.
In his 23 starts, Newhouser’s run support was just 64 percent of league average when adjusted for park. That’s almost impossibly horrible. For perspective, in 1987, when Nolan Ryan went 8-16 with the best ERA in the NL, his park-adjusted run support was 77 percent of league average.
1943 was a worse year all around for Newhouser. He was still a good pitcher. His 3.04 ERA was a fine mark, though not as superlative as the season before. His strikeout rate climbed upward to 6.62 per nine innings, second-best in the AL. But his record was even worse at 8-17. Only one pitcher in the AL had more losses.
By this time, the draft was beginning to take a real toll on the league’s talent level, so he was one of the losingest pitchers in an era of low talent. That’s an ugly combination.
Again, the culprit was run support. While Detroit failed to score in just one of Newhouser’s 25 starts, they scored just once five times, only two runs another five games, and exactly three times in yet another five starts. They gave him just 83 runs in those 25 starts, just 81 percent of the park-adjusted league average.
So far, young Newhouser had proven to be a very talented pitcher, and he still was extremely young, but he had just a 34-52 record to show for it. The next few years would demonstrate just how little that record told us of his ability.
Wartime glory: 1944-45
Newhouser’s numbers in 1944 and ’45 are among the best two-year stretches any pitcher has ever had. It also came during the time of the weakest competition any pitcher has ever faced. By these years, the World War II draft had greatly depleted the available talent. Okay, so Newhouser dominated, but how much did it really mean?
Well, first let’s note just how incredibly he dominated. It’s nearly impossible to find a category Newhouser didn’t dominate in 1944-45. Let’s start with the big ones: wins were the main stat of the day for pitchers. Newhouser won 54 games in 1944-45. Only one other pitcher in either league topped 38. (That was Newhouser’s teammate, Dizzy Trout, with 45)
How about strikeouts? That’s always a glamour stat. Newhouser fanned 399 batters. Second place was Bill Voiselle, well behind with 276. Only nine pitchers had half of Newhouser’s total. What about innings? Newhouser threw 625.1. Only one man stood within 70 innings of that (Trout again, at 598.2 frames).
It’s the same thing down the line, with Newhouser leading in shutouts (14), complete games (54), and so on. He had the best ERA of anyone with 125 innings pitched (2.01). That makes sense; his 1945 ERA of 1.81 was the second-best by an AL starter in the previous quarter-century. It was an astonishing pair of seasons, capped off by back-to-back MVP awards.
Oh, and he did it all at ages 23-24, an age at which many great pitchers are still trying to find themselves. You’re not supposed to hit your stride until your late 20s.
But again, Newhouser’s big years were against terrible competition. Was he really that good? He’d have to prove that the next season, 1946, when all the real ballplayers returned.
Proving it: Newhouser in 1946
Newhouser was a man on a mission in 1946, the mission of showing that he really was that good. He pitched a complete-game victory for a 2-1 win on Opening Day and followed that up with a shutout in his second start. In May, he allowed one earned run or fewer in four of his five starts.
On June 2, Newhouser fanned 13 Senators in a 9-1 beating of the Washington. The season was just 43 games old, but Newhouser already was sporting a record of nine wins versus one loss, with a sparkling 1.86 ERA. Just two years after his 29-win season, he was on pace for a 30-win season.
Well, it was early still, and the batters were still shaking off the rust. Many pitchers can post a 30-win pace for a third of the season. And sure enough, Newhouser got bombed in his next start, allowing five runs and lasting just one inning.
But that start was just a brief bump in the road. Over the next seven weeks, Newhouser was as good as any pitcher ever has been. From June 11 through July 27, he started 11 games and posted 11 wins. He completed all those starts, allowing zero or one earned runs in seven of them.
His only downturn was a relief appearance during which he gave up three runs in two innings for his only other loss. Overall, he threw 102 innings with a 1.50 ERA. In a league that averaged barely over four whiffs per nine innings, Newhouser managed nearly one per frame, with 92 strikeouts.
On July 27, he defeated the A’s 4-2 to post his 20th win of the year. Two years earlier, when he won 29 games, it had taken until mid-August to win his 20th. Dizzy Dean had been the last man to win 30 games back in 1934. He didn’t get to 20 until his team’s 103rd game of the year, on Aug. 7. For Newhouser’s Tigers, July 27 was just their 92nd game of the year. He was on pace for 33 wins.
Gunning for history, Newhouser sputtered in early August. He didn’t pick up win No. 21 until Aug. 15. He didn’t necessarily pitch poorly. He gave up five unearned runs (seven runs overall) on Aug. 4, and his team was shut out in his next start, but he wasn’t as sharp as normal. Okay, so many of those run were unearned on Aug. 4, but he still let most of the runners on base. In the shutout, he allowed 16 base runners in seven innings. He was lucky to surrender only three runs.
Still, Newhouser got back on track with a complete-game shutout on Aug. 15, and he followed that up with three straight quality starts with double-digit strikeout totals in each game. Still, his 23-6 record at August’s end meant he was unlikely to win 30, but he still headed towards a great season.
September would be rewarding and frustrating for Newhouser. He went 3-3 to end his season at 26-9. In his three wins, he was unstoppable, allowing one earned run in 28 innings while fanning 29. In his other starts, he could be all too human. He gave up five runs to the Yankees on Sept. 13 and ended the year with the Indians smacking him around in a 4-2 loss.
Newhouser was still great, but he was running down as the season wore on. Still the best pitcher in baseball, he narrowly missed his third straight MVP, finishing as the runner-up to Williams. Unfortunately for Newhouser, that worn-down feeling late in the year would typify how he’d do the next few years.
Great, but not inhumanly great: 1947-49
Newhouser should’ve been entering his prime at this point. He would be 26 in 1947, right when a player’s talent should be fully gelling. He still would be a high-quality pitcher, but not nearly as high-quality as in years past. Like his performance in September of 1946, Newhouser could be great, but he wasn’t the superhuman performer of the first two-thirds of 1946.
He remained the game’s biggest workhorse, throwing more innings in these years than anyone else (his 849.1 innings just edged Warren Spahn’s 849 in 1947-49). Only Feller fanned more batters than Newhouser did, and only by a hair (468 for Feller, 463 for Newhouser). Newhouser’s ERA of 3.08 was the fifth-best of anyone with 400 innings pitched in those years. His 133 ERA+ was third-best.
Only Spahn won more games than Newhouser, 57 to 56. Had Newhouser received good run support, he would’ve topped Spahn. In 1947, Newhouser had a disappointing 17-17 record (leading the league in losses!) thanks to Detroit scoring between zero and two runs in 17 of his 36 starts.
Newhouser was great, but instead of launching himself further from the field, he had fallen back to the pack. Admittedly, it still was the front pack of pitchers, but he was just amongst them instead of standing above them.
But things were about to get worse instead of better.
Fall off: 1950-55
1950 would be the year Newhouser ceased to be a front-tier pitcher. And after that season, he would never be nearly as good as he was in that year.
In 1950, he was decidedly middling, going 15-13. This time you couldn’t blame his record on poor run support, as his ERA jumped nearly a full point, from 3.36 in 1949 to 4.34. The former strikeout king fanned just 87 batters in 213.2 innings.
The next year, he pitched just 96 innings. After that, he barely qualified for the ERA title in 1952, going 9-9 in 154 innings, but that was effectively it. He pitched fewer than 100 innings from 1953 to 1955, winning just seven games. Newhouser was through.
Obviously, his great performances in 1944 and ’45 were aided by the weakened playing field of the era, but his pitching since then showed that he would’ve been fantastic in those years, even if all the real stars had been there. But Newhouser waned so soon after the war ended that it was easy to overlook just how good he was in his prime. Thus he looked like a wartime wonder, 1946 notwithstanding.
What went wrong
This is a very simple one to diagnose. Newhouser blew his arm out thanks to overuse. Below is a list of all live-ball era pitchers to win 150 games prior to their 30th birthday. Please note the name atop the list:
Name W Hal Newhouser 188 Catfish Hunter 184 Robin Roberts 179 Bob Feller 177 Wes Ferrell 175 Don Drysdale 170 Waite Hoyt 161 Mel Harder 159 Dwight Gooden 157 Bert Blyleven 156 Lefty Gomez 153 Milt Pappas 152 Jim Palmer 152 Ken Holtzman 151 Greg Maddux 151 Vida Blue 150
On his 31st birthday on May 20, 1951, Newhouser posted his 189th career win. He notched just 17 more victories after that, as he blew his arm out. The falloff from 1944-45 to 1947-49 shows not only the increased level of talent Newhouser faced, but also the early stages in his arm fraying.
Look again at that list, the 16 winningest live-ball pitchers prior to turning 30. Only one of them made it to 300 wins. Half of them got nowhere near 300. Only two of them even won 20 games in a season after turning 30, Feller and Jim Palmer. None did it after his age-32 season. Even the guys that held on for a while were often just shells of their former selves, like Robin Roberts and Waite Hoyt.
Newhouser was a great pitcher. Sure, the depleted talent of 1944-45 exaggerated how good he was in those years, but because Newhouser peaked during the war and melted down shortly afterwards, it’s easy to overlook just how good he was. But Newhouser wasn’t some wartime fluke. He was a legitimately great talent, and he earned his place in Cooperstown.
References & Resources
Info comes from Baseball-Reference.com, aside from the list at the end. I’ve looked that up a few times. (In fact, I posted it at Newhouser’s bullpen page at B-ref, but apparently someone replaced it with an inferior list, lamely noting how many wins pitchers had at the end of their age-30 season, instead of the more precise “prior to the 30th birthday” list.)