Thanks to the fantastic latest updates from Retrosheet and Baseball Reference, I am able to find out something I’ve wondered about a long time: Did Jim Konstanty lead the National League in Win Probability Added in 1950?
Jim Konstanty represents an important milestone in the history of relief pitching. A journeyman pitcher for many years, Konstanty developed a wicked palmball in the late 1940’s that resulted in a career year in 1950. Philadelphia manager Eddie Sawyer took advantage of Konstanty’s new-found talent by deploying him in a radical way: as a bullpen specialist. Konstanty didn’t start a single game in 1950. He did, however, appear in 74 games for the Phillies, finishing an astounding 62 of them.
His record was 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA and 22 saves (according to the old way of counting saves). The Whiz Kids, as that Philly team was called, clinched the pennant on the last day of the season and met the mighty Yankees in the World Series. They were swept by the Yankees, but three of the four games were one-run affairs.
All of which presented a conundrum for BBWAA writers. You see, the Phillies had won the pennant, but no hitter on the Phillies had a standout year. Stan Musial had a typically superb year, but the Cardinals had finished fifth. Konstanty had done something so remarkable and unprecedented that the writers themselves did something unprecedented: they voted Konstanty the Most Valuable Player in the league, the first reliever to ever win an MVP.
So when I learned about Win Probability Added several years ago, one of the first things I wondered was how Konstanty ranked in 1950 WPA. WPA is an ideal stat for judging relievers. It takes into account both the pitcher’s performance and the importance of the situation. Pitchers who rack up meaningless saves get little credit; pitchers who maintain a team’s lead in high-leverage situations get a lot of credit. If Konstanty led the league in WPA, maybe the writers were onto something. Did he?
According to Baseball Reference, the answer is almost. Konstanty had a WPA of 5.0 in 1950, the second-highest figure in the majors. The highest figure, however, was held by his teammate Robin Roberts (20-11, 3.02 ERA, 5.8 WPA). Roberts’ and Konstanty’s WPA’s were far above any other player’s or pitcher’s, and the MVP ballot should have come down to the two of them. However, Roberts finished seventh in the voting
I’m guessing that the writers were exhibiting their usual bias against starting pitchers, but they evidently felt that an ace reliever used appropriately was a different sort of animal (a feeling they would renew in future years with Willie Hernandez and Rollie Fingers). They may have also intuitively understood that Konstanty’s season represented something radically new and memorable.
Unfortunately, major league baseball didn’t immediately latch onto this new strategy. Konstanty’s 1950 WPA tally remained the best for a pure reliever for thirteen years, until Dick Radatz posted a 6.2 WPA in 1963. There were only incremental changes to bullpen strategy in the 1950’s and it wasn’t until the 1960’s and ’70’s that bullpen strategies changed radically across the major league landscape. Konstanty’s season was a singular event in time, foreshadowing what was to come but not leading directly to it.
But let’s give a little credit to the BBWAA. They should have given Roberts much more consideration, but they did recognize what Konstanty had achieved, and we can now verify that it was indeed worth rewarding.