August 22, 2013

Why Walter Johnson is greater than Cy Young — or other oldsters

Some fan votes on the ELO player ratings Baseball-Reference are stupid. How is Dennis Eckersley the 11th-best pitcher ever? (Answer: He's not.)

The big debate about pitchers, though, has always been, though, where Cy Young should stand, despite those 511 wins.

And, at least second to the Big Train, Walter Johnson, is right. (If even that high.)

Why? It's all about the rules, and the relevant ages and eras of the two greats.

First, the "dead ball" era of 1900-1920 wasn't totally that way.

The modern, or modern-like, cork-center ball was introduced in 1910. But, let's start from the beginning, noting that Young started pitching in 1890 and Johnson in 1907.

Let's look at pitching-related rules changes in general, by year.

*** 1890: Young starts career ***

1893: Mound is moved back to 60-6", its current distance. Pitching rubber is introduced. So, Young's first three seasons weren't under modern rules, dead or live ball.

1897: Pitchers (and other players) are barred from deliberately discoloring or injuring the ball. Yes, after the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman by Carl Mays, rotating out balls more regularly became part of the solution. But, this change, even, helped a bit. Young had pitched seven seasons while being allowed to be "Black and Decker," whether he did it that much or not. (See 1908, too.)

1904: Mound height set at 15 inches. Not sure how much some teams before that tried to make it higher.

*** 1907: Johnson starts career ***

1908: Pitchers are specifically forbidden from scuffing or discoloring a ball.

1910: The cork-center ball is adopted. (Arguably, we should talk about "semi-dead ball era after this. Note that home run totals picked up to a decent degree from here on out, even before the "live-ball era." (1918 is an outlier due to the enforced shortening of the season for WWI and I therefore don't count it.)

*** 1911: Young retires at end of season ***

1920: The "lively ball" is introduced.

1925: The rosin bag is introduced.

*** 1927: Johnson retires after season ***

So, Young basically played in a totally different era than Johnson. Hall of Famer? Sure. But, maybe he shouldn't even be in the top five in pitchers. Who knows?

Add in the anecdotal tales that Johnson (after hitting a few people early in his career) was afraid to throw too far inside, lest he possibly kill somebody himself, and some batters knowing this about him, and I think we could well call him the best of all time.

How would he have done today?

Well, his sidearm-type motion would have kept low stress on his arm today, just like then. And, while not conducive to a good curve, I have no doubt he could have thrown devastating versions of a slider and a cutter out of that same arm slot.

And, before Don Drysdale broke it in the pitching-heavy 1968, Johnson had the record for a scoreless-innings streak at 55 2/3.

My thoughts on other pitchers who were at least in part in the dead-ball era, or the true 1910-1909 dead ball era and the 1910-1919 semi-dead era?

Pete Alexander I think was third-best. Christy Mathewson had a slightly lower ERA+ and benefited from being on better teams. And, he retired at a relatively young 35 and his arm was gone before that.

 The one I have trouble with is a totally live-ball era pitcher. Yeah, Lefty Grove won 300, with a fantastic winning percentage, and a great ERA+, but retiring somewhat younger colors things a bit. Even allowing for him being in the liveliest of live-ball eras (at least before steroids), his WHIP being above 1.25 also is a bit of a ding.

Also, and sorry Dodgers and 1960s fans, Sandy Koufax shouldn't be No. 8. Even at his peak, he never had an ERA+ of above 200, among other things. (His best was a 190; Bob Gibson had a 258 in his incredible 1968, and Johnson, even with the low scoring of his era, broke 200 four times.) Also, arguably, besides finding his control in LA, he found Dodger Stadium, after it was built. Yes, I know B-R's ERA+ ratings are park-adjusted as default, but still, keep that in mind. Even more with Don Drysdale, who probably should not be a HOFer, and who definitely shouldn't be ranked No. 16 among pitchers, just one step behind Gibby. Doubly even more with Don Sutton, who shouldn't be ranked a spot ahead of Gibby at No. 14. Makes me wonder if this is younger, less nuanced fans, or its just Dodger fans crashing the boards.

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