Starting Pitcher Leverage (Part 2)

Hi, and welcome back to The Hardball Times’ ongoing series of articles on starting pitcher leveraging throughout baseball history. In part one of this series I introduced the concept of starting pitcher leverage. If you remember it, skip the next paragraph, which briefly summarizes it.

From at least the 1880s until the mid-1960s teams routinely and intentionally used one or more of their starting pitchers against certain opposing teams as often as they could to get a little extra advantage. It could be using an ace pitcher against the best available competition, or it could entail starting a southpaw against a team with unusually strong left-handed hitters. In modern times, managers go with a rotation so rigid that the frequent leveraging of olden times no longer exists. This extinct approach toward using starting pitchers has never been the subject of any thorough statistical evaluation. Until now.

After looking at the best and worst leveraged careers in baseball history in part one, the natural follow up is the best leveraged seasons of all time. Again, AOWP+ is my statistic of choice. If you don’t remember what it is, you can either click back on the link to the first article, or scroll to the bottom and read the section at the end of the article explaining it. Short version: it’s modeled like ERA+ or OPS+, centered on 100, with a higher score indicating the pitcher faced the better clubs more often than one would expect.

One final reminder—though I haven’t figured the AOWP+ for every pitcher in baseball history I have looked at the overwhelming majority of starters from 1876-1969, determining the AOWP+ for over two-thirds of all starts in that season. While I’m sure there are some best/worst single seasons that fell through the cracks, as it’s almost impossible to get every single season without AOWPing every start in history, I have AOWPd over 75% of all seasons where a starter had at least 20 starts from 1876-1969. My best guess is that I have more than 75% of the best leveraged single seasons ever, because the guys pitching the better leveraged seasons should have superior careers, and those are the pitchers I checked on. Alternately, I ought to have less than three-quarters of the worst leveraged seasons.

Best Ever

With all that in mind, out of approximately 5,000 different seasons I AOWPed where a pitcher started at least 20 games, here are the 20 best leveraged single seasons:

Name                    GS	Year	AOWP+	R/L
1. Lew Richie           27	1912	117	R
2. Lefty Leifeld        30	1910	116	L
3. Reb Russell          25	1915	116	L
4. Max Lanier           20	1942	114	L
5. Whitey Ford          28	1954	112	L
6. Art Houtteman        25	1949	112	R
7. Thornton Lee         25	1937	112	L
8. Mordecai Brown       34	1909	111	R
9. Ken Heintzelman      24	1941	111	L
10. Mickey Haefner      20	1948	111	L
11. Pete Conway         31	1886	111	R
12. Carl Hubbell        20	1942	111	L
13. Ted Gray            21	1950	111	L
14. Lefty Gomez         31	1931	110	L
15. Bill Phillips       27	1899	110	R
16. Doc White           30	1904	110	L
17. Clarence Mitchell   22	1929	110	L
18. Adonis Terry        34	1886	109	R
19. Carl Hubbell        22	1941	109	L
20. George Mogridge     21	1916	109	L

Actually, the best AOWP+ every goes to Tommy Bond who recorded a 122 in 1875 with Hartford. That’s because there was no set schedule in the National Association, and half the teams (the lousier half) stopped playing midway through the year. Bond became the starting pitcher in the second half. That ain’t leveraging. That’s why in part one I disallowed the NA, UA, and the 1884 AA.

As was the case with the career leaders in part one, southpaws are significantly overrepresented. There are only six righties. Three of them pitched in the 19th century. Two of the remaining three pitched for the early 20th century Chicago Cubs. Art Houtteman is the only other righty.

If you’re wondering how come the six guys at 111 aren’t tied, there’s a reason. Though I present AOWP+ as an integer, the Excel database that calculates this slop gets into tons o’ decimals. There are actually 13 guys at 109, for instance. As for the actual seasons here, every decade from the 1880s to 1950s has at least one season listed. Hank Aguirre‘s 1964 just misses the cut as he’s one of those 109s who the excel decimals decimates. In the last 40 years I don’t think anyone makes the top 200 seasons.

Also, the pre-WWI era dominates the top. You could use your pitchers on short rest more with the deadball and the then-new 154 game schedule meant you faced opposing teams far more often than had been the case previously. Let’s have a big hand for Lew Richie. Here’s the best leveraged season ever:

Team	Pct	GS
NYG	682	10
Pit	616	6
Cin	490	3
Phi	480	2
StC	412	4
Brk	379	2
Bos	340	0

That’s so cartoonishly absurd you have to wonder if Tex Avery was the Cubs’ pitching coach. Mordecai Brown went down with an injury that year. If you check the 1912 Cubs, you can’t tell who the ace was. Folks, it was Lew Richie.

Even more impressively, he did it in 27 starts, when most guys on the list have 25 or less. The dominance of those barely qualifying makes sense. The more games you pitch, the more you have to start against everyone. Here’s the all-time Top 10 for those with 30 or more starts.

Name                    GS	Year	AOWP+	R/L
1. Lefty Leifeld        30	1910	116	L
2. Mordecai Brown       34	1909	111	R
3. Pete Conway          31	1886	111	R
4. Lefty Gomez          31	1931	110	L
5. Doc White            30	1904	110	L
6. Adonis Terry         34	1886	109	R
7. Murray Dickson       31	1954	109	R
8. Rube Walberg         30	1930	109	L
9. Early Wynn           36	1954	108	R
10. Hooks Wiltsie       38	1908	108	R

The best ever with 40-plus starts was Ed Seward, who posted a 108 AOWP+ in 1888 with 56 starts. That’s not a typo; 56 starts. It was a very different game back then.

Worst Ever

So much for the cream of the crop. Now for the crap of crop. Here’s the 20 worst leveraged single-seasons I know of:

Name                    GS	Year	AOWP+	R/L
1. Fred Goldsmith       24	1880	81	R
2. Joe McGinnity        20	1908	84	R
3. Phil Knell           31	1890	86	L
4. Jack Stivetts        20	1889	86	R
5. Bill Swift           22	1935	87	R
6. Kid McGill           20	1890	88	L
7. Frank Smith          23	1904	88	R
8. Harvey Haddix        22	1961	88	L
9. Paul Minner          22	1955	88	L
10. Dutch Leonard       28	1919	89	L
11. Jack Pfiester       25	1909	89	L
12. Chuck Stobbs        20	1953	90	L
13. Joe Bowman          24	1940	90	R
14. Dummy Taylor        27	1906	90	R
15. Ed Siever           33	1907	90	L
16. Eldon Auker         31	1936	90	R
17. Jack Powell         26	1905	91	R
18. Carl Lundgren       20	1903	91	R
19. Bobby Mathews       25	1879	91	R
20. George Hemming      21	1896	91	R

For me, the big shocks are Fred Goldsmith in the top slot and Bobby Mathews in 19th place. When I first looked at the data, I thought 1886 was the big breakthrough for pitcher leveraging. When both AA and NL expanded their schedules, AOWP+ scores skyrocketed while previously no one did better than 104 in a well-organized league.

I’ll discuss this in much greater detail in a later article, but it turns out that leveraging had always existed, but it began inverted. Leveraging initially meant who a pitcher was rested against, and in the mid-1880s flipped to who he was started against. It’s hard to have a really nice AOWP+ when you start over half your team’s games. Goldsmith and Mathews are rare examples of a team’s negative space pitcher getting 20-plus starts.

Another stunner is Hall of Famer Joe McGinnity coming in second place. On the surface it looks strange that the Giants got rid of him after 1908. He’d been terrible in ’07, but seemingly bounced back. Not quite. Only two of his 20 starts came against teams with winning records. Meanwhile, he faced last place St. Louis seven times. After accounting for quality of competition, it was his second straight lackluster season.

In general, these guys have even fewer starts than the best ever. Well, duh. If you don’t have enough faith to start a pitcher against the best teams, why would you give him many starts? Here’s the worst leveraged pitchers with at least 30 starts:

Name                    GS	Year	AOWP+	R/L
1. Phil Knell           31	1890	86	L
2. Ed Siever            33	1907	90	L
3. Eldon Auker          31	1936	90	R
4. Vinegar Bend Mizell  33	1953	92	L
5. Tommy Bond           64	1879	93	R
6. Joe Nuxhall          33	1955	93	L
7. Kaiser Wilhelm       36	1904	93	R
8. Bob Caruthers        33	1890	93	R
9. Bob Ewing            32	1906	94	R
10. Vinegar Bend Mizell 32	1960	94	L

And the award for biggest surprise of this article goes to… Tommy Bond! How in Hades do you get an AOWP+ of 93 when he start 64 games for a team that played 84 games? Forget why, let’s talk how. The logistics of the feat boggle the mind. First, as was often the case in the 19th century, it was a badly stratified league with the best team winning three times as many games as either of the two doormats. Bond started all two dozen games against the doormats. Stunningly, he only started four of his club’s twelve games against pennant winning Providence Grays.

Now, why would you treat your ace like that? My first hunch would be platoon leveraging. Bond was a righy and the team’s other pitcher, Curry Foley, was a lefty. Providence had two of the best hitting lefties in baseball in Tom York and Joe Start. Looks like platoon leveraging… maybe. There’s something else going on, though.

Bond pitched for Boston, who came in second place. They ended the year with a six game series against the Providence Grays, the game’s first ever winner-take-all series for a pennant. Boston needed some big pitching to succeed as they trailed Providence by three games in the standings. So what did they do? Well, they didn’t give the ball to Bond. Or Foley. Never mind that those two accounted for every start on the season.

Instead Boston’s manager, the great Harry Wright, found some guy named Jim Tyng, who had never played an inning of major league baseball in his life, and let him start the first three games of the series. Had it not been for a four inning relief appearance nearly a decade later, those three starts would’ve been his entire career. The Palmer/Gillette Encyclopedia doesn’t even know if he was a righty or lefty. Baffling. It’s like letting lucky ticket holder in Aisle 517, Row 4, Seat 101 get the nod.

Tyng actually won the first game, but lost the next two, ending their chances. Then Wright tabbed Lee Richmond for the next start. He was the game’s first quality southpaw, but this was his MLB debut. Finally, he let Foley and Bond take a start each to end it. Truly bizarre.

Looking at the full season, it makes a bit more sense. Harry Wright did engage in some platoon leveraging earlier in the year. In the previous six game series against the Greys he’d let Foley start half the games. Providence had two of the best left handed hitters in the game in Tom York and Joe Start. Foley lost all three games. So he didn’t trust Foley.

Bond had won two out of three against Providence in that earlier series, though. However, by the end of the year, I can only assume he’d broken down. In late July, Boston had been 21-19, in fourth place, closer to last than first. Wright decided to use Bond as an iron man pitcher at that point, having him start 35 consecutive games. He won 28 of them, putting them in the thick of the race. In a league averaging over five runs a game, he held teams to well under half of that.

Then his arm crapped out. He only pitched well in one of his last four starts. He only started one of the three games immediately prior to the big end series, and pitched poorly in it. Wright, desperate, scraped up some scrubs in a desperation ploy to save the season. Not surprisingly, it failed. Bond’s low AOWP+ was a fluke caused by a bit of platoon leveraging early in the year, an ill-timed injury late, the huge variations in won-loss percentages that gave one team unusual importance, and finally the nature of the 1879 schedule where Boston only faced their archrival in two separate extra-long series.

Yeah, like I said, it was a very different game. Aiding the theory that Bond injured his arm, he never was that good again after his fantastic run in 1879. Those 35 consecutive starts were too much strain for the 23-year-old’s arm. Sorry for going on for so long, but I found that really interesting.

Big Heaping Gobs of Data

One last thing I want to share—the best and worst known AOWP+s for each season from 1876-2005. (I did this study before 2006 ended and I see no point checking on it because pitchers ain’t leveraged anymore). Most of the numbers are self-explanatory, but please note the number on the far left indicates how many pitchers with at least 20 starts I AOWPed that year. Aside from 1884, the info relates to all MLB pitchers. (For 1884 it’s only the NL, and the number on the far right for 1884 also refers only to NL pitchers).

Later on in this series of articles (not right away), I’m going to trace the history of leveraging over the decades. Consider this an opening salvo of some what’s to come. It’s always based on GS, not IP, even when the latter’s available. Here’s the year-by-year extremes:

#   Leaders            AO+           Year Last          AO+
5   Cummings, Candy    101         1876 Spalding, Al     95
2   Bradley, George    103         1877 Bond, Tommy     102
3   White, Will        101         1878 Ward, John       95
7   Ward, John         103         1879 Mathews, Bobby   91
10  Richmond, Lee      104         1880 Goldsmith, Fred  81
10  Keefe, Tim         103         1881 Welch, Mickey    97
16  McGinnis, Jumbo    104         1882 Galvin, Pud      98
22  Mathews, Bobby     104         1883 Buffinton, Char  96
8   Buffinton, Charli  103         1884 Ferguson, Charl  96
26  Buffinton, Charli  103         1885 Conway, Pete     95
33  Conway, Pete       111         1886 Henderson, Hard  94
35  Smith, Elmer       105         1887 Cushman, Ed      94
35  Seward, Ed         108         1888 Staley, Harry    94
41  King, Silver       107         1889 Stivetts, Jack   86
47  Mullane, Tony      107         1890 Knell, Phil      86
40  Stivetts, Jack     107         1891 Ehret, Red       93
36  Keefe, Tim         104         1892 Breitenstein, T  94
33  Dwyer, Frank       104         1893 Keefe, Tim       92
29  Hutchinson, Bill   106         1894 Gleason, Kid     94
28  Stivetts, Jack     107         1895 Gumbert, Ad      96
26  Terry, Adonis      104         1896 Hemming, George  91
26  Orth, Al           105         1897 Cunningham, Ber  93
34  Griffith, Clark    104         1898 Weyhing, Gus     95
39  Phillips, Bill     110         1899 Donahue, Red     94
29  Fraser, Chick      104         1900 Donahue, Red     97
47  Callahan, Nixey    108         1901 Dugglesby, Bill  95
46  White, Doc         105         1902 Garvin, Ned      95
44  Taylor, Iron Jack  106         1903 Lundgren, Carl   91
50  White, Doc         110         1904 Smith, Frank     88
54  Reulbach, Ed       109         1905 Powell, Jack     91
56  Mathewson, Christ  107         1906 Taylor, Dummy    90
50  Flaherty, Patsy    108         1907 Siever, Ed       90
40  Wiltsie, Hooks     108         1908 McGinnity, Joe   84
40  Brown, Mordecai    111         1909 Pfiester, Jack   89
40  Leifeld, Lefty     116         1910 Willis, Vic      91
42  Brown, Mordecai    107         1911 Reulbach, Ed     95
42  Richie, Lew        117         1912 Brown, Buster    97
41  Camnitz, Howie     108         1913 Packard, Gene    92
64  Collins, Ray       103         1914 Bender, Chief    93
63  Russell, Reb       116         1915 Cicotte, Eddie   92
48  Mogridge, George   109         1916 Shawkey, Bob     95
51  Ehmke, Howard      105         1917 Hendrix, Claude  93
37  Coombs, Jack       105         1918 Gregg, Vean      96
43  Benton, Rube       108         1919 Leonard (I), Du  89
56  Marquard, Rube     105         1920 Ayers, Doc       95
45  Nehf, Art          104         1921 Myers, Elmer     92
48  Alexander, Pete    104         1922 Morton, Guy      95
46  Aldridge, Vic      103         1923 Ferguson, Alex   95
45  Nehf, Art          107         1924 Shawkey, Bob     97
53  Davis, Dixie       106         1925 Rommell, Eddie   94
50  Hoyt, Waite        106         1926 Thomas, Tommy    96
52  Shaute, Joe        106         1927 Blake, Sherriff  94
51  Uhle, George       105         1928 Haines, Jesse    94
53  Mitchell, Clarenc  110         1929 Haines, Jesse    95
53  Walberg, Rube      109         1930 Faber, Red       94
50  Jones, Sad Sam     108         1931 Hoyt, Waite      93
56  Gomez, Lefty       110         1932 Pipgras, George  91
48  Walker, Bill       107         1933 Swift, Bill      95
46  Stewart, Lefty     107         1934 Lucas, Red       91
46  Clanton, Cy        107         1935 Swift, Bill      87
42  Knott, Jack        109         1936 Auker, Eldon     90
50  Lee, Thornton      112         1937 Dietrich, Bill   91
46  Gomez, Lefty       106         1938 Whitehill, Earl  94
47  Smith, Eddie       109         1939 Allen, Johnny    92
45  Butcher, Max       105         1940 Bowman, Joe      90
44  Heintzelman, Ken   111         1941 Schumacher, Hal  94
41  Lanier, Hal        114         1942 Bridges, Tommy   92
41  Davis, Curt        103         1943 Newsom, Bobo     96
40  Roe, Preacher      105         1944 Bowman, Joe      97
35  Newhouser, Hal     105         1945 Wyse, Hank       95
42  Gromek, Steve      109         1946 Haefner, Mickey  94
46  Schmitz, Johnny    108         1947 Hearn, Jim       95
51  Haefner, Mickey    111         1948 Simmons, Curt    95
49  Houtteman, Art     112         1949 Meyer, Russ      92
48  Gray, Ted          111         1950 Stobbs, Chuck    92
42  Raschi, Vic        106         1951 Trout, Dizzy     93
45  Pierce, Billy      107         1952 Minner, Paul     94
43  Staley, Gerry      107         1953 Stobbs, Chuck    90
46  Ford, Whitey       112         1954 Byrd, Harry      92
49  Pierce, Billy      107         1955 Minner, Paul     88
45  Nixon, Willard     107         1956 Nuxhall, Joe     94
48  Hoeft, Billy       107         1957 Garver, Ned      92
47  Lary, Frank        103         1958 Wilson, Jim      95
49  Sanford, Jack      103         1959 Herbert, Ray     96
51  Ford, Whitey       106         1960 Pascual, Camili  93
53  Perry, Jim         105         1961 Haddix, Harvey   88
58  Simmons, Curt      108         1962 Washburn, Ray    94
63  Mahaffey, Art      105         1963 Williams, Stan   93
58  Aguirre, Hank      109         1964 Jay, Joey        94
65  Lemaster, Denny    104         1965 Bouton, Jim      93
64  Ellis, Sammy       103         1966 Giusti, Dave     95
61  Maloney, Jim       103         1967 Ellis, Sammy     95
64  Krausse, Lew       103         1968 Odom, Blue Moon  97
57  Hunter, Catfish    105         1969 McGlothlin, Jim  97
54  Bolin, Bobby       105         1970 Peters, Gary     96
48  Short, Chris       104         1971 Dobson, Chuck    95
41  Downing, Al        104         1972 Pappas, Milt     95
40  Wise, Rick         102         1973 Pappas, Milt     97
35  Wilson, Don        103         1974 Siebert, Sonny   97
32  Seaver, Tom        103         1975 Cuellar, Mark    96
31  Perry, Gaylord     104         1976 Torrez, Mike     97
27  Perry, Gaylord     105         1977 Jenkins, Fergie  97
30  Jenkins, Fergie    103         1978 Lonborg, Jim     98
29  Guidry, Ron        103         1979 Flanagan, Mike   97
30  Tiant, Luis        103         1980 Knepper, Bob     97
28  Reuss, Jerry       104         1981 Niekro, Phil     95
32  Blue, Vida         105         1982 Seaver, Tom      98
31  Flanagan, Mike     103         1983 Guidry, Ron      97
31  Gooden, Dwight     102         1984 Eckersley, Denn  96
29  Langston, Mark     105         1985 Sutcliffe, Rick  95
36  Ryan, Nolan        103         1986 Welch, Bob       98
37  Martinez, Dennis   104         1987 Hough, Charlie   98
32  Flanagan, Mike     102         1988 Knepper, Bob     96
33  Hershiser, Orel    102         1989 Flanagan, Mike   97
32  Appier, Kevin      102         1990 Brown, Kevin     97
30  Glavine, Tom       103         1991 Maddux, Greg     97
33  Witt, Bobby        104         1992 Welch, Bob       97
35  Schilling, Curt    103         1993 Gooden, Dwight   95
25  Smoltz, John       104         1994 Hershiser, Orel  95
25  Morgan, Mike       105         1995 Clemens, Rogers  95
25  Moyer, Jaime       103         1996 Key, Jimmy       97
23  Glavine, Tom       103         1997 Cone, David      98
23  Martinez, Pedro    103         1998 Gooden, Dwight   96
23  Clemens, Roger     104         1999 Erickson, Scott  96
16  Appier, Kevin      103         2000 Burkett, John    98
13  Maddux, Grege      102         2001 Burkett, John    97
15  Erickson, Scott    103         2002 Pettitte, Andy   94
13  Mussina, Mike      103         2003 Burkett, John    97
11  Brown, Kevin       103         2004 Glavine, Tom     98
11  Mussina, Mike      104         2005 Rogers, Kenny    97

References & Resources
What the heck is AOWP+?: The stat I invented to judge pitcher leveraging. It’s AOWP/TOWP*100. AOWP is Average Opponent Winning Percentage. TOWP is Team’s (Average) Opponent Winning Percentage. To figure AOWP for a single season, you take the number of starts a given pitcher had against each opposing team, and multiply that by the team’s winning percentage. After doing this for all rival squads, add up the products and divide by the pitcher’s total GS. The result is his AOWP. The same logic applies to TOWP, only here you look at how many games the team played against all rivals. If a pitcher’s used evenly, his AOWP will be the same as the TOWP, and he’ll have an AOWP+ of 100. If he’s used more against better teams, he’ll have a higher AOWP+. I calculated AOWP+ for 659 pitchers who started 182,000 games, including over two-thirds of all games from 1876-1969.

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