Superduperswingmen (Part 1:  1900-1930)

Recently we completed an examination of the most versatile position players—in the lineup on a regular basis, but handling multiple defensive roles. What’s the equivalent of these Superdupersubs among pitchers? Well, that would be the pitcher who both starts and relieves with a high level of frequency.

Baseball lore has long recognized the provider of this whatever-it-takes kind of service as the “Swingman,” pivoting from the starting rotation to the bullpen and back. The Swingman is a challenging role, by no means something that just any pitcher can handle effectively: He needs to be capable and durable enough to handle starting assignments, but also flexible and resilient enough to make the transition to shorter-stint as-needed bullpen work.

Like the Supersub, the Swingman is often an unsung hero, making a greater contribution to team success than his individual stats might suggest, due to his capacity to handle tasks that would otherwise require two or more pitchers to fulfill. The Swingman’s versatility provides his manager with a plug-and-play solution to the pitching emergencies that inevitably pile up over a grueling season.

Soopa … doopa!!

We can define a Superswingman as a pitcher who appears in 40 or more games in a season, of which at least 15 must be starts and at least 15 must be relief appearances. And a pitcher who presents multiple such seasons in his career earns the honor of being called a Superduperswingman.

This series will profile every such pitcher in major league history. In this first installment, covering the first few decades of the 20th century, the Swingman role was more frequently deployed than has since become the case, and so our standard for inclusion in this era will be higher than it subsequently will: To be a Superduperswingman in this era, a pitcher needs to have logged three or more Swingman seasons. In the later periods, the requirement will be two or more such seasons.

In the 19th century, the Swingman role hadn’t yet been devised, simply because with starters completing the vast majority of games, relief appearances were rare. But across the first decade of the 1900s, the rate of complete games steadily dropped, from more than 85 percent at the beginning to 65 percent in 1909. In this environment, with the ability to pitch in relief a newly demanded skill, the first Swingman performances appeared in 1908.

And one of those displaying this new mode of deployment was none other than one of the game’s elite stars …

Ed Walsh

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1908 CHW     27   66   49   42   11   17   15    6   40   15  464  343    2   56  269 1.42  163
1911 CHW     30   56   37   33    5   19   19    4   27   18  369  327    4   72  255 2.22  146
1912 CHW     31   62   41   32    6   21   18   10   27   17  393  332    6   94  254 2.15  150

Even by the standards of the day, Walsh was an astoundingly tireless workhorse. His 464 innings in 1908 were the most any pitcher had thrown since the mound was moved back to its 60-feet-6-inches distance in 1893; They were 74 more than the second-most in the majors in 1908, and 139 more than the second-most in the league. But he wasn’t just eating innings, he was savoring them with a gourmet’s flourish: In 1908 Walsh led his league in winning percentage and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and was third in ERA and ERA+.

And as we see, he was doing all this while not just starting nearly one game out of every three, but relieving his fellow starters in 17 more. In those relief appearances, the big spitballer worked 39 innings to the tune of a 0.93 ERA, picking up four of his 40 wins, and six saves as well.

As deployed by manager Fielder Jones, Walsh was demonstrating an innovative usage mode of ace starter/ace reliever combination. The sheer volume of Walsh’s work was quite exceptional, but as the need for relievers would continue to grow, this model of using a top starter in the bullpen between his starts, and putting him in high-leverage late-game situations, would quickly become the norm and would remain so for a long time.

Mordecai Brown

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1909 CHC     32   50   34   32    8   16   15    7   27    9  343  246    1   53  172 1.31  193
1910 CHC     33   46   31   27    6   15   14    7   25   14  295  256    3   64  143 1.86  155
1911 CHC     34   53   27   21    0   26   24   13   21   11  270  267    5   55  129 2.80  117

A fellow superstar, like Walsh a member of both the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit, “Three-Finger’s” manager Frank Chance rapidly adapted him to the new-fangled usage mode. In Brown’s first five years in the majors combined, he made bullpen appearances in just 20 games, but suddenly in 1908 he was used as a reliever 13 times. And as we see, over the ensuing seasons his rate of bullpen work increased, such that by 1911 he was virtually a 50/50 starter/reliever. Brown led the National League in saves in 1908, 1909, 1910 and 1911.

Doc Crandall

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1910 NYG     22   42   18   13    2   24   21    5   17    4  208  194   10   43   73 2.56  116
1911 NYG     23   41   15    9    2   26   26    5   15    5  199  199   10   51   94 2.63  128
1915 SLM     27   51   33   22    4   18   11    1   21   15  313  307    5   77  117 2.59  123

Crandall was different. Unlike Walsh or Brown, he wasn’t an ace starter; indeed, for the great majority of his career, Crandall wasn’t even primarily a starter. Instead, as deployed by the ever-innovative Giants manager John McGraw, Crandall emerged as the game’s first relief specialist. Bill James’ classic article “A History of Relief Pitching” in the original Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract discusses Crandall at length, recognizing him as one of the most pivotal players in the sport’s development.

But this was the 1910s, and the notion of a pitcher working exclusively in relief hadn’t yet taken hold. We see that in his best years with the Giants, Crandall (whose primary pitch was a sweeping curve, which he set up with his fastball) pitched mostly out of the bullpen, but he was given some starts as well. Though Crandall worked 86 relief innings in 1911 and 85 in 1912, his role on those first-rate Giants staffs was generally that of all-around support, backing up ace starters Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, and filling in as needed. Subsequently, in the far less talent-rich Federal League, Crandall stepped forward as a primary starter and one of the league’s better pitchers.

Slim Sallee

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1912 STL     27   48   32   20    3   16   13    6   16   17  294  289    6   72  108 2.60  132
1913 STL     28   50   31   18    3   19   15    5   19   15  276  257   11   60  106 2.71  119
1914 STL     29   46   30   18    3   16   16    6   18   17  282  252    5   72  105 2.10  132

This long, tall lefthander with a crossfire delivery (and one of the best names of all time) was also something of a new mode of pitcher. Sallee was working in a long reliever/spot starter pattern as a rookie with the Cardinals in 1908, and as he developed into one of their top pitchers, he was still getting a significant volume of bullpen work along with his starts. And those save totals indicate that they were predominantly high-leverage relief stints.

Hugh Bedient

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1913 BOS     23   43   28   15    1   15   10    5   15   14  259  255    0   67  122 2.78  105
1914 BOS     24   42   16    7    1   26   21    2    8   12  177  187    4   45   70 3.60   74
1915 BUF     25   53   30   16    2   23   19   10   16   18  269  284    5   69  106 3.17   98

Here we see the first Superduperswingman who was neither a major star nor even a minor one, but instead simply a journeyman. By the mid-1910s, the league-wide complete game rate had dropped to just over 50 percent, so there were ever-more relief innings to be soaked up.

Reb Russell

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1913 CHW     24   52   36   26    8   16   10    4   22   16  317  250    2   79  122 1.90  154
1915 CHW     26   41   25   10    3   16   14    2   11   10  229  215    0   47   90 2.59  115
1916 CHW     27   56   25   16    5   31   15    3   18   11  264  207    1   42  112 2.42  114

This hard-throwing lefthander burst onto the scene with a terrific rookie year in 1913, but he was never able to match that performance. Still he remained a highly useful performer for several seasons. His total of 31 relief appearances in 1916 was the second-most yet recorded (Doc Crandall had made 32 in 1913).

Red Faber

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1914 CHW     25   40   19   11    2   21   17    4   10    9  181  154    3   64   88 2.68  100
1915 CHW     26   50   32   21    2   18   14    2   24   14  300  264    3   99  182 2.55  117
1931 CHW     42   44   19    5    1   25   14    1   10   14  184  210   11   57   49 3.82  111

Russell’s White Sox teammate, Faber was six months older, but his major league career would last vastly longer. Faber’s career was remarkable not only in that he was one of the “grandfathered” spitballers, allowed to continue to throw the pitch for the remainder of his career after it was banned in 1920, but also in that he would rebound from apparent dead-arm oblivion not just once but twice, and the second time when he was nearly 40 years old. In between the early- and late-career Swingman phases we see here, Faber would have a period as a very nearly full-time starter in the early 1920s, when he was one of the best in baseball. Faber is included in both the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit.

Doc Ayers

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1914 WSH     23   49   32    8    3   17   10    3   12   15  265  221    5   54  148 2.54  111
1915 WSH     24   40   16    8    2   24   17    3   14    9  211  178    1   38   96 2.21  134
1916 WSH     25   43   17    7    0   26   15    2    5    9  157  173    4   52   69 3.78   74
1917 WSH     26   40   15   12    3   25   21    1   11   10  208  192    3   59   78 2.17  122
1918 WSH     27   40   24   11    4   16   14    3   10   12  220  215    2   63   67 2.83   96
1920 DET     29   46   23    8    3   23   16    1    7   14  209  217    6   62  103 3.88   96

A Superduperswingman among Superduperswingmen, Ayers’ total of six such seasons was unprecedented and remains the record to this day. He wasn’t quite a star, but Ayers was the next-best thing: flexible, durable, and dependable, all in all an extremely handy guy to have on the staff. Ayers was another among the grandfather-clause spitballers.

Jack Scott

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1921 BSN     29   47   29   16    2   18   11    3   15   13  234  258    9   57   83 3.70   99
1923 NYG     31   40   25    9    3   15   11    1   16    7  220  223   15   65   79 3.89   99
1926 NYG     34   50   22   13    0   28   24    5   13   15  226  242   13   53   82 4.34   86
1927 PHI     35   48   25   17    1   23   17    1    9   21  233  304   15   69   69 5.09   77

A knockabout journeyman who didn’t have his first full major league season until he was 28, Scott would see service with more than half of the National League, including two stints with the Giants.

In 1927 Scott was pulling workhorse duty for a beleaguered Phillies’ staff, and on June 19 of that year he became the last major leaguer to complete both games of a doubleheader: he beat the Reds 3-1 in the opener, but lost the nightcap 3-0 to Eppa Rixey.

Eddie Rommel

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1922 PHA     24   51   33   22    3   18   16    2   27   13  294  294   21   63   54 3.28  129
1923 PHA     25   56   31   19    3   25   20    5   18   19  298  306   14  108   76 3.27  126
1925 PHA     27   52   28   14    1   24   20    3   21   10  261  285   10   95   67 3.69  126

Rommel was a fine pitcher whose career arc was unusually smooth, almost “too perfect” to be plausible.

He spent his entire big league career with the A’s, and thus his only manager was Connie Mack. After a rookie season in which he was deployed as a spot starter and long reliever, Rommel was then immediately plunged for several years into the heavy-duty Superduperswingman mode we see above. Then Mack gradually phased him back into the spot starter pattern, and then just as gracefully eased him into a mode of nearly full-time reliever for the last several years of his career. In every assignment, Rommel pitched consistently well—never great, but always consistently well.

Rommel was primarily a fastball pitcher, but he frequently threw a knuckler as well (“perhaps once out of every three” pitches, as reported by Rommel himself). He enjoyed two 20-win seasons in his career (both of which we see above), and in both his relief pitching was critical to his success: In 1922 he went 19-12 in his 33 starts, and 8-1 with a 2.60 ERA in relief; in 1925 he was 14-8 as a starter, but 7-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 55 relief innings.

Slim Harriss

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1922 PHA     25   47   32   13    0   15   10    3    9   20  230  262   19   94  102 5.02   84
1923 PHA     26   46   28    9    0   18   14    6   10   16  209  221    9   95   89 4.00  103
1927 BOS     30   44   27   11    1   17   13    1   14   21  218  253    8   66   77 4.18  101

I’ll take a wild guess and say that this journeyman’s nickname derived from the fact that he was six-foot-six and 180 pounds.

He absorbed a lot of innings for bad teams, contributing to his lifetime won-lost record of 95-135 (.413), but the only time Harriss pitched a full season for a ball club with a winning record (the 1925 A’s), he went 19-12. He was a sidearmer whose tailing fastball was described as breaking “as wide as a lot of big leaguers’ curves.”

Elam Vangilder

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1924 SLB     28   43   18    5    0   25   12    1    5   10  145  183   10   55   49 5.64   80
1925 SLB     29   52   16    4    1   36   23    6   14    8  193  225   11   92   61 4.70   99
1926 SLB     30   42   19    8    1   23   16    1    9   11  181  196   12   98   40 5.17   83
1927 SLB     31   44   23   12    3   21   14    1   10   12  203  245   13  102   62 4.79   91

In 1922-23 Vangilder had put together back-to-back strong years as a nearly full-time starter for the Browns, but then pretty much fell apart in the 1924 season we see above, losing his place in the rotation. He then got it back together to some degree and delivered several so-so years, not pitching well but not pitching terribly either.

His usage pattern in these seasons was pure Swingman: He wasn’t primarily a starter doing bullpen work as a supplement, but was instead serving as a true “utility pitcher,” starting or relieving as needed.

Firpo Marberry

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1924 WSH     25   50   15    6    0   35   30   15   11   12  195  190    3   70   68 3.09  131
1929 WSH     30   49   26   16    0   23   21   11   19   12  250  233    6   69  121 3.06  139
1931 WSH     32   45   25   11    1   20   14    7   16    4  219  211   13   63   88 3.45  124
1932 WSH     33   54   15    8    1   39   26   13    8    4  198  202   13   72   66 4.01  107

And then there was Firpo, as fascinating a case as we’re ever going to see.

Marberry, whose easy fluid motion produced a crackling four-seam fastball, wasn’t quite a great pitcher, but he was doggone close to that: highly effective in any role they tossed his way, year in year out for a long time. And the “any role they tossed his way” part is the key here.

Marberry is famous as the first true relief star, a genuine relief specialist to a degree that a Doc Crandall only hinted at: In 1925 and 1926, Marberry shattered all previous records for games relieved, with 55 and 59 respectively. In 1926, Marberry supplemented his extraordinary bullpen workload with five starts, but in 1925 every single one of his 55 appearances was in relief. It was a usage pattern that wasn’t just unprecedented, it was decades ahead of its time: Marberry’s stat lines for those seasons wouldn’t have looked the least bit out of place coming from a top Fireman of the 1950s, ’60s, or even ’70s.

But at this point the story gets even more intriguing. Despite Marberry’s outstanding success in the newly minted ace reliever role in 1925-26, in subsequent seasons Senators manager Bucky Harris (the very guy who’d initiated the heavy-duty reliever role for Marberry) gradually backed off from it. In 1927 Harris deployed Marberry in relief 46 times while giving him 10 starts (and having his save total decline from 22 to nine), and in ’28 Harris had him relieve in 37 games alongside 11 starts (while his saves shrunk to a mere three).

Then, in 1929, new manager Walter Johnson (of all people) used Marberry mostly as a starter (26 starts against 23 relief appearances, as we see above). From then on, Marberry would have just one more full season (the 1932 line we see above) in which he was predominantly a reliever.

It was as though Harris stumbled across something with Marberry in 1925-26 that was so far out of anyone’s frame of reference that they didn’t know quite what to do with it. It wasn’t just that the usage pattern was perceived as something that Marberry shouldn’t be repeating over the course of his career—even though he’d been terrific in that mode, and the Senators had enjoyed great success (winning the pennant in ’25). It was that it was perceived as something that no one should be repeating. No other pitcher on any team in either league would be used in Marberry’s 1925-26 mode until Clint Brown in the late 1930s, and the pattern wouldn’t become even semi-typical until the mid-1940s, and not common until the ’50s.

Rather like a scientific discovery whose revolutionary applicability remains unrecognized for generations, the lessons of Firpo Marberry’s outstanding performance in the full-time ace reliever mode in the mid-1920s would fail to be comprehended for decades.

Rube Walberg

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1925 PHA     28   53   20    7    0   33   23    7    8   14  192  197   11   77   82 3.99  117
1926 PHA     29   40   19    5    2   21    8    2   12   10  151  168    4   60   72 2.80  149
1933 PHA     36   40   20   10    1   20   15    4    9   13  201  224   12   95   68 4.88   88

Walberg was one of those pitchers who just kept on getting better and better. (Why is it that so many of these types seem to be southpaws? Is there something to the “crafty left-hander” stereotype?)

Walberg knocked around the minors for a long time, and didn’t make the majors to stay until he was 28. In that season, Connie Mack used Walberg as an innings-eating Swingman, and did pretty well, as we see above. The following season, in the same usage mode, Walberg was even more effective, prompting Mack to start taking him more seriously. As the A’s improved year-by-year in the late 1920s, building to their triumphant 1929-30-31 run of championships, Walberg was assuming an ever-more prominent role as one of the team’s key starters. He would crown his career with a 291-inning, 20-victory season at the age of 34 in 1931.

Following that, he gradually came down the other side, receding back into the Swingman role as we see above.

Lefty Grove

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1925 PHA     25   45   18    5    0   27   12    1   10   12  197  207   11  131  116 4.75   98
1927 PHA     27   51   28   14    1   23   18    9   20   13  262  251    6   79  174 3.19  133
1930 PHA     30   50   32   22    2   18   17    9   28    5  291  273    8   60  209 2.54  185
1933 PHA     33   45   28   21    2   17   16    6   24    8  275  280   12   83  114 3.20  134

Don’t you get the feeling that if Grove were playing today, he’d be covered with lurid tattoos, and ride a Harley or something? He just seems like that sort of hard-ass personality.

Along with being one of the small handful of greatest pitchers in the history of the sport, Grove in his time with the Athletics was a vivid example of the way ace pitchers were deployed in that period. Mack used Grove as his ace starter and as an ace reliever between starts. In his scintillating run of seven consecutive 20-win seasons from 1927 through 1933, Grove made more than 32 starts only once, while relieving in an average of 14 games per year, and picking up an average of six saves. From 1930 through ’33, Grove worked in 60 games out of the bullpen, logging 146 relief innings, with a won-lost record of 18-7, 27 saves, and a 1.78 ERA.

In his later career with the Red Sox, manager Joe Cronin would use the 35-and-beyond Grove in far more of a starter-only mode.

Guy Bush

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1925 CHC     23   42   15    5    0   27   17    4    6   13  182  213   15   52   76 4.30  100
1928 CHC     26   42   24    9    2   18    7    2   15    6  204  229   10   86   61 3.83  101
1929 CHC     27   50   29   18    2   21   15    8   18    7  271  277   16  107   82 3.66  126
1930 CHC     28   46   25   11    0   21    7    3   15   10  225  291   22   86   75 6.20   79
1935 PIT     33   41   25    8    1   16    9    2   11   11  204  237   16   40   42 4.32   95

Bush, we’re told, was nicknamed “The Mississippi Mudcat,” but I’d bet anything that was one of those colorful handles the newspaper guys concocted, and no teammate or fan of Bush’s ever uttered it.

Bush enjoyed a series of good years with the Cubs, in increasingly prominent roles, until, as we see, he ran into a bad year in 1930 (15-10 with an ERA+ of 79 might be some kind of a record; those were the Hack Wilson Cubs, and they could hit a little). Bush struggled a bit more in 1931, but would work his way through it, sharpening his control and putting together several more fine seasons.

Jakie May

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1926 CIN     30   45   15    9    1   30   22    3   13    9  168  175    4   44  103 3.22  115
1927 CIN     31   44   28   17    2   16   10    1   15   12  236  242    4   70  121 3.51  108
1929 CIN     33   41   24   10    0   17   13    3   10   14  199  219    7   75   92 4.61   99

A five-foot-eight-inch left-hander who arrives in the majors young but struggles with his control, and appears to have washed out, only to re-emerge at about the age of 30 with the Reds, as a solid starter/reliever … this guy’s career is virtually identical to that of Freddie Norman, in the 1960s/’70s. If we put our minds to it, we probably can slap together some kind of a Twilight Zone teleplay in which it turns out that they’re the same guy. Ooooooh!!

Claude Willoughby

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1926 PHI     27   47   18    6    0   29   14    1    8   12  168  218    7   71   37 5.95   72
1929 PHI     30   49   34   14    1   15    7    4   15   14  243  288   15  108   50 4.99  104
1930 PHI     31   41   24    5    1   17    8    1    4   17  153  241   17   68   38 7.59   72

The Phillies in this period, and most especially in 1930, presented a perfect storm of conditions prone to produce ghastly pitching stat lines. You had a very high-scoring league by historical standards, and you had by far the best hitters’ park in that league, and you had an intrinsically weak and shallow Phillies staff, forcing its primary pitchers to work extra hard.

Throw all that together and you get the sort of line Willoughby put together in 1930. I mean, that’s just grotesque: He allowed 241 hits and 68 walks in 153 innings. Think he was working out of the stretch pretty often?

While it’s obvious Willoughby wasn’t a good major league pitcher, just how bad he might have been is hard to precisely determine, given his triple-whammy of adverse circumstances. At any rate, one of his nicknames was “Weeping Willie,” and given the ordeal of a season he endured in 1930, it isn’t difficult to imagine why. (His other nickname was “Flunky;” about that one your guess is as good as mine.)

Phil Collins

Year Team   Age    G   GS   CG  SHO   GR   GF   SV    W    L   IP    H   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
1930 PHI     28   47   25   17    1   22   16    3   16   11  239  287   22   86   87 4.78  114
1931 PHI     29   42   27   16    2   15   10    4   12   16  240  268   14   83   73 3.86  109
1932 PHI     30   43   21    6    0   22   20    3   14   12  184  231   21   65   66 5.27   83

So, long before he became the drummer for Genesis, and then a lite-rock crooner, Collins was another pitcher toiling for those Phillies. And unlike Willoughby, “Fidgety Phil” wasn’t too bad at all; one can imagine him under less arduous conditions putting up some quite nice numbers. (Maybe even better than “In the Air Tonight,” though probably not as good as “Squonk.”)

Next installment

We’ll get into the Superduperswingmen of the 1930s and 1940s.

References & Resources
The info on pitchers’ stuff repertoires comes from Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, New York: Fireside, 2004.

The stats on pitchers’ innings, won-lost, and ERA records while working in relief come from the one and only original MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, New York: MacMillan, 1969; still the only comprehensive source for such data for pre-Retrosheet seasons of which I’m aware.

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