19th Century Pitchers and wWARNov 9, 2012 by Adam Darowski
Note: I have made an adjustment to account for this.
Every version of the Hall of wWAR had too many 19th century pitchers. This “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) still exists with the Hall of Stats. Seventeen (predominantly) 19th century pitchers are in the Hall of Stats—and just nine of them are Hall of Famers. That means eight are not in the Hall of Fame (as players), or nearly 12% of the 69 non-Hall of Famers in the Hall of Stats.
That’s a lot, so what gives? With the Hall of Stats, I made far fewer arbitrary adjustments to the formula, so I kind of expected the number of 19th century pitchers to go up. In other words, I wasn’t actively trying to keep them out, as I was (unsuccessfully) with the Hall of wWAR.
Let’s take a look at the 19th century pitchers in the Hall of Stats and see why they seem to have an easier time getting in.
Kid Nichols (239 Hall Rating)
There’s no question that Kid Nichols belongs. He’s among the best pitchers ever and is the most valuable 19th century pitcher by Hall Rating. He’s just as valuable through the traditional lens, with seven 30-win seasons (and four more with 20).
Tim Keefe (173)
Tim Keefe’s Hall of Fame induction is also very much deserved. He won 342 games (with a winning percentage over .600), had an ERA+ of 126 in over 5000 innings, and was worth 87.0 WAR and 48.8 WAA. All are dazzling numbers.
John Clarkson (162)
In many ways, John Clarkson and Tim Keefe were very similar. Clarkson won 328 games (with a .648 percentage), posted an ERA+ of 133 in over 4500 innings, and was worth 83.2 WAR and 45.3 WAA. Incredibly deserving.
Old Hoss Radbourn (139)
Old Hoss Radbourn is best known for two things—his 59-win 1884 season and his amazing Twitter account. He’s more well-known than Keefe and Clarkson, but wasn’t as valuable. Still, there’s no question that Radbourn belongs.
Pud Galvin (137)
Pud Galvin’s 365 wins look great, but he seemed to be pretty lucky in that respect. He also lost 310 games (a .541 percentage), had an ERA+ of 107, and was a terrible hitter (-215.7 Batting Runs). Still, his longevity (6000+ innings) and solid performance warrant induction.
Amos Rusie (132)
Amos Rusie was inducted into the Hall of Fame 76 years after he died. He’s the first player on this list who isn’t a completely obvious Hall of Famer. Because he only managed to pitch ten seasons (and only 22 innings in one of those), he only accumulated 246 victories. Rusie had legendary speed and led his league in strikeouts five times. He also had a winning percentage of .586 and an ERA+ of 129. His dominance is not a question—it’s just a matter of whether or not he lasted long enough.
Because of the nature of WAR, Rusie’s wWAR (and therefore Hall Rating) have him well over the borderline. But because of the usage patterns of 19th century pitchers, they had unusual opportunities to compile a ton of WAR. Rusie threw 500 innings three times, for example. Only one pitcher (we’ll get to him) did it more.
Tommy Bond (131)
While Rusie is the first player on the list who is not a slam dunk, Tommy Bond is the first who is not in the Hall of Fame. Bond won 234 games with a .589 percentage. In fact, he is one of only two pitchers with three consecutive 40-win seasons (Al Spalding had four). Bond is also one of only two pitchers with five 10-WAR seasons (Walter Johnson had six).
So, what’s wrong with Bond? He was worth 61.0 WAR as a pitcher, but he was essentially through by age 23. After the mound was moved back to 50 feet (from 45) in 1881, Bond pitched in only 33 games, winning 13 with an ERA+ of 84. He was gone long before the mound would move back to 60 feet, 6 inches.
Bond had five amazing seasons when baseball was in its infancy. Are five incredible seasons—and nothing else—enough to get you in?
Jim McCormick (130)
Jim McCormick is the only pitcher with more than three seasons of 500+ innings—and he did it five times. Among eligible non-Hall of Famers, only Jeff Bagwell has more career WAR than McCormick’s 76.3. It’s not hard to see why McCormick has not been inducted—his 118 ERA+ and 265 wins (.553 percentage) are underwhelming. While he consistently produced high WAR totals, he did it with consistently high innings totals. It’s tough to decide which figure led to the other. He also only pitched ten seasons, which can either help his case (76.3 in just ten seasons!) or hurt his case (he may not have dominated long enough), depending how you look at it.
Charlie Buffinton (126)
Charlie Buffinton and Jim McCormick have similar Hall Ratings and traditional career totals (Buffinton had 233 wins, a .605 percentage, and a 115 ERA+ in 11 seasons), but went about it a bit differently. Buffinton threw fewer innings (587 once, 400 once, never again above 400) but had some better single season WAR totals (14.4, 11.6, and 10.9 were his best seasons). I find it hard to pick which one has the better Hall of Fame case.
Tony Mullane (124)
The ambidextrous Tony Mullane is third in victories among eligible non-Hall of Famers (behind Bobby Mathews and Tommy John). He would have likely won over 300 games had he not been suspended for the 1885 season. He won 36 in 1884 and 33 upon his return in 1886. His .563 winning percentage and 117 ERA+ are not as impressive as his win total or Hall Rating.
Al Spalding (121)
Al Spalding is one of the most important figures in early baseball. His career pre-dates the National Association and he helped start the National League. He is probably most well-known for his sporting goods company and early baseball publications. His short pitching career, however, was very much Hall-worthy. He only played seven seasons, but he went 252–65 with a 2.13 ERA (131 ERA+). His winning percentage of .795 is the best of all time. He also hit .313 with an OPS+ of 116. He is in the Hall of Fame as a pioneer, but his playing career absolutely deserves to be remembered.
Bob Caruthers (118)
Bob Caruthers was the top pitcher in the short history of the American Association. Like Spalding, he wasn’t just an elite pitcher. In fact, in 1885 Caruthers led the league in wins, winning percentage, ERA, and ERA+. The very next season, he led the league in OBP, OPS, and OPS+. It’s not that he stopped pitching—he still won 30 games with a 147 ERA+ in 1886.
Caruthers win 218 and lost only 99 for a .688 winning percentage (2nd all time). He also had an ERA of 2.83 and ERA+ of 122. At the plate, he batted .282 but had an impressive .391 OBP. His OPS+ was 134. He was worth 44.7 on the mound and 14.8 at the plate—the only player other than Babe Ruth worth 18+ at each.
Bobby Mathews (115)
In the very first professional game (1871 in the National Association), Bobby Mathews threw a shutout. He won 296 more games in a 15-season career. Mathews had two strong third in his career, but in the middle was a five-year stretch in which he won just 20 games and was below replacement level. Those happened to be his years in the National League. He excelled in the National Association and American Association, both considered lesser leagues.
Clark Griffith (113)
Clark Griffith is a member of the Hall of Fame for his time spent running the Washington Senators. Before that, he was one of the players who helped start the American League. Griffith’s 237 wins are low, but his .619 winning percentage is high. He posted a 121 ERA+. Griffith is the only player on the list so far to spend a considerable amount of time pitching in the 20th century.
Mickey Welch (112)
Mickey Welch was inducted to the Hall of Fame 81 years after pitching his final game. That’s a long time for a 300-game winner to wait. Welch is probably the least impressive 300-game winner, too. His .594 winning percentage is excellent, but he had a 113 ERA+ and the only thing he consistently led the league in was walks.
Silver King (103)
Over a three year stretch, Silver King was worth 34.9 WAR on the hill. He did not do much more in his career, but these three seasons (two in particular) were so good that his wWAR climbs over the induction line. His top two seasons came in the American Association and the Players League, so he is mostly disregarded by historians.
Monte Ward (103)
John Ward is the only player in history with 2000 hits and 100 wins. He started his career as a pitcher, but nagging arm injuries caused him to move to shortstop (where he exhibited an exceptional glove). As an 18-year old rookie in 1878, he led the league in ERA (1.51). The next year, he led the league in wins (47). Eight seasons later, he led the league in stolen bases and at bats while hitting .338.
Ward, a Hall of Famer as a player, also started the first player’s union and also founded the Players League. He was not successful in destroying the reserve clause, but nobody tried harder than he did.
Who Should Be Inducted?
To determine who deserves induction, I think we need to first break these pitchers into tiers.
No Doubt About It
These pitchers simply belong no matter how you dice it.
- Kid Nichols
- Tim Keefe
- John Clarkson
- Old Hoss Radbourn
- Pud Galvin
No Sense Debating It
These players may not have had playing careers that warranted induction on their own. But their Hall of Fame cases consist of so much more that there’s not much use to debating them. If they’re not in one way, the’d be in another way.
- Al Spalding
- Clark Griffith
- Monte Ward
Probably Don’t Deserve It
These guys were great pitchers. But there are way too many other good candidates ahead of them.
- Bobby Mathews
- Mickey Welch
- Silver King
Let the Debates Begin
These pitchers are the ones worth debating.
- Amos Rusie
- Tommy Bond
- Jim McCormick
- Charlie Buffinton
- Tony Mullane
- Bob Caruthers
Bond seems the easiest for me to disregard. He didn’t survive the move of the pitcher’s mound back to 50 feet, never mind 60. Rusie was unaffected by the movement of the mound. McCormick was unaffected by the change to 50 and had retired before the mound was moved again. Buffinton and Caruthers pitched his entire careers from 50 feet. Mullane was ineffective after the mound moved back to 60 feet, but he was also 34 years old and in decline. Hardly any pitchers on this list pitched that long to begin with. That said, Mullane does seem to be a product of longevity rather than dominance.
I still haven’t formulated my opinion on all of them yet. Today, my favorites are Rusie and Caruthers. Tomorrow… who knows?
Who do you like?
Note: The Hall Rating formula has changed slightly since this article was published. The Hall Rating figures used are from the time of publication.