posted on Nov, 18 2005 @ 11:14 PM
How, exactly, does this encyclopedia let you "compare" stats of Dead Ball Era players to post-1919 players? Particularly, how does it let you compare
stats of Dead Ball pitchers to post-1919 pitchers?
It is my opinion pre-1920 pitching stats are enormously overrated. Exhibit A in support of that proposition is Walter Johnson, who was only 32 at
the end of the 1920 season, but whose stats took a colossal nosedive that year. Grover Cleveland Alexander, born the same year as Johnson, had
another great year in 1920 (park-adjusted ERA of 168, 3rd best of his career), but in the ten years remaining in his career after that, he was
only over 130 once.
In writing his 2000-2001 magnum opus, rating the top 100 of all time at each position, and the top 100 of all time overall, Bill James admitted
there's a huge problem with Dead Ball Era pitchers, but said he didn't know what to do about it. He also admitted Clemens or Seaver might be the
greatest pitcher ever, but he sure didn't rate them that way. Seaver was #6; Clemens was #11, but had "only" 260 wins then and obviously would be
far higher now.
I'm not a sabermetrician, but it's obvious to me that, largely for reasons set forth in James' 1988 treatise, Dead Ball Era pitchers' feats need to be
enormously discounted. Their precipitous declines in post-1919 baseball show they weren't all that great at REAL baseball--i.e., baseball where, as
James put it in 1988, the ball could be hit out of the park on any pitch, and thus they couldn't get away with lobbing all those pitches in, batter
after batter, inning after inning, until they got in trouble and finally had to bear down.
To my way thinking, the first great REAL pitchers were Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell (who started in 1925 and 1928), followed by the two jewels who
started in the 1930's, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller. The fact Johnson and Alexander are no better than Feller, and are not within a mile of Grove, is
proven by their park-adjusted ERA's in the 1920's. The unworthiness of Young, Nicholls and Mathewson to stand with Grove, Clemens and the other very
best of the post-1919 pitchers is established by the fact Johnson was their superior, as, probably, was Alexander.
I realize the can of worms I'm opening with this. If the Dead Ball pitchers can't be taken that seriously, then how seriously should Cobb, Speaker,
Wagner, Lajoie, Collins and Baker be taken? Most of those guys were phenomenal fielders and/or basestealers and/or baserunners, which is unaffected
by the discounting of their era's pitching. But the thing I think saves them from the same sort of hatchet job their era's "great" pitchers must face
Guys like Cobb, Speaker and Wagner often outhit everyone, or almost everyone, else on their teams by almost the same margins by which Ruth outhomered,
outslugged and out-runproduced his team. No, they weren't nearly as off-the-charts as Ruth. They didn't do anything akin to outhomering every other
TEAM in the league in 1919, 1920 and 1927. But they towered over their peers.
As I've said before, part of that's the fact many good athletes were dissuaded from baseball careers, which were considered unseemly in the 1900's and
1910's. But the fact is guys like Cobb, Speaker and Wagner towered over their peers. No, they didn't get more doubles or triples than any other ML
team, like Ruth did with HR's, but they were still very dominant.
I'm open to suggestions that I'm somewhat in denial, and that the great Dead Ball Era hitters must be discounted more heavily, in light of the major
discounting of their pitchers. Certainly such a position has an initial aura of undeniable logic to it.
But as to the fact those "immortal great pitchers" from the Dead Ball Era are enormously overrated, I'm absolutely sure I'm right.
James talked extensively about it in his (circa) 1988 book, in explaining why Lefty Grove was the greatest pitcher ever, and in explaining why
pitching before 1920 was so radically different. He gave detailed accounts of how pitchers would "pace" themselves through games by lobbing pitches
in until they got in trouble two or three times a game, and then would finally bear down.
Then, in James' huge book of 2000 or 2001, he inexplicably went and rated Johnson (#1), Grover Cleveland Alexander (#3) and Cy Young (#4) as three of
the four greatest pitchers ever--i.e., the three greatest not named Grove, whom many if not most experts agree on as the greatest pitcher ever, or at
least the greateest until Clemens had his last few years.
I think James was right before and is way off the mark now. By his own admission, he's unable to come up with an adequate way of discounting Dead
Ball pitching properly. So he's saying "screw it" and rating those guys sky high. I think he's way wrong time and was right the first time, all of
which surprises me from an iconoclast who's famous for not being afraid to take on the notoriously overrated (e.g., Clemente and his "halo
I think Dead Ball Era "pitching" was not, in the post-1919 sense of the word--let alone the 2005 sense of the word--any real sort of pitching.
And sabermetricians need to accept that fact and do something radical about it in their calculations.
I get irritated when I hear P.C. battallions say that true "baseball" began in 1947, and that the feats of Ruth, Gehrig, Grove, Cobb, Speaker,
Feller, Joe D.--as well as the feats of Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson and the incomparable Oscar Charleston--are meaningless because of segregation.
Ruth and Charleston, who are quite likely the two greatest players ever, were playing baseball as we know it... and at a level with which nobody else
was familiar, in 1920 and long thereafter. (For those who don't know of him, Charleston was basically an early Willie Mays... EXCEPT, he was also a
natural left-handed hitter with the tremendous bat speed and strength of at least Mantle, if not Ruth. Those who saw him compared his hitting to
Ruth's, his play in CF to Speaker's, and his running to Cobb's.)
I am certain pitching in the Dead Ball Era was wholly unlike what Ruth and Charelston saw with a live ball in the 1920's, and what we and our dads and
granddads have seen since. In light of how rapidly and severely Dead Ball's greatest pitching stars declined after the live ball came in, I refuse to
regard Dead Ball Era pitching stars in the same breath with the great pitchers of 1920 and thereafter. I think everyone who's into baseball history
should take the same point of view.
So, Toejam, I can tell you that my view of this "compare-players-from-any-two-eras" book will depend on its approach to Dead Ball Era pitchers.
But I'd be interested to hear your thoughts--or Hootie's--about what I've said. If at all possible, please get James' 1988 or 1989 (don't remember
exact year) book first, and read the extended comment about Dead Ball "pitching." It's either under the #1 pitcher, Lefty Grove, or the next pitcher
after that, whoever he was.
Baseball History Nut