Wednesday, October 9, 2013


While we wait for the first playoff round to conclude (so long, "Southern men"--Braves and Rays...), let's keep you hog-tied in matrix charts...

So...why 1916? It's the first year where sufficiently detailed stat breakouts exist (thanks as always to Retrosheet and Forman et fil...) so that we can create a master data set for Ye Olde Quality Matrix (or QMAX, for short).

Why the American League? Why not??

It's an interesting year, a kind of premonition of things to come, if you will, replete with some colorful names--including a couple who are extremely well-known, even now, nearly a hundred years later.

Who could that possibly be, you ask?? Well, how about:

Walter Johnson.

Babe Ruth.

Yes, this is 1916. There's a World War going on, though the USA isn't in it yet. (Woodrow Wilson kept us out of war until the 1916 election was over, much like LBJ in 1964--only to go for the gusto the following year. War is always hell, but the strategy worked better for least for a while.) Babe Ruth was not yet dropping bombs in every ball park in which he came to the plate; he was toeing the rubber and blowing away opposing hitters.

As QMAX has it (range data above), he was almost as good as Johnson.

What makes QMAX so good is that it adds dimensionality in ways that are specific. You can see the distribution in the matrix charts (below) and you can see the patterns that differentiate the nine top pitchers in the 1916 AL. Power guys (Johnson, Ruth, Bob Shawkey, Bullet Joe Bush and Harry Harper) reside at the top of the rankings alongside finesse guys Carl Mays, Harry Coveleski, and Reb Russell. Somewhere in between: future Hall of Famer Urban "Red" Faber.

The overall QMAX data shows that there are a lot more "finesse" pitchers plying their trade. It's still the  Deadball Era, but there's a slow leak in the pitching dominance that prevailed in the previous decade. Note that a number of these starters have fewer than 30 GS (only Ruth, overworked at age 21 with 40, Coveleski with 39, and Johnson with 38 are getting the type of workloads that were once commonplace). A number of these guys (Russell, Faber, Shawkey, and Bush) are making a lot of relief appearances--necessary in an age where teams are carrying only eight or nine pitchers at any given time. (The White Sox used only nine pitchers all year--one of 'em 35-year old Ed Walsh, who threw a total of 3 1/3 innings.)

Ruth was not the only player here to eventually switch positions, though his transition was undeniably more spectacular. But little Reb Russell, whose arm would give way in 1919, would return in 1922 as an outfielder and have a sweet 60-game stretch in which he drove in 75 runs.

Funny, we make the same gesture
when we're forced to think of you, Ted...
(Screams of "meaningless!!!" are being transmitted as fast as the Tea Party can scoff about the impact of ignoring the debt ceiling...but we're impressed with the little lefty's legerdemain nonetheless...there just aren't that many pitchers who've reinvented themselves as hitters over the long history of the game. What we wish Ted Cruz would reinvent himself as is not something we can share with you--not even here, at the site of "the lost art of the diatribe.")

Russell and fellow lefty Harry Harper demonstrate how difficult it is for pitchers who excel at only one dimension of the job to sustain their success over a season. By June of '16, it was clear as the fact that Archduke Ferdinand was still dead (now, where have you heard that one before??) that Ruth and Johnson were likely to go down to the wire for top pitching honors in the AL, but Russell and Harper made runs at that duo during the summer. Each had a flurry of "1S" games that put them in the race--at least for a little while. Harper was even ahead of Johnson in "1S" games in late July...but his arm tired and was was hit hard down the stretch.

("Hackensack" Harry Harper may have been a southpaw, but he was no lefty off the field, running unsuccessfully for office in New Jersey some 25-30 years after his short run as one of baseball's most exciting young pitchers in 1916-17. Even then--especially then--young guys were brought up, slobbered over, worked hard, and only a few of them managed to have long careers. These "good old days" were rather calamitous, when you take a closer look.)

Interesting stories...Red Faber picked a poor time to get injured--in 1919, when White Sox manager Kid Gleason could have used him to replace Eddie Cicotte (.587 QWP in '16) and Lefty Williams (.559  QWP), who were creating a great deal of consternation in the World Series that year.

Shawkey and Mays would soon be teammates with Ruth on the Yankees, at least for a little while. Mays remains one of the few pitchers with 200+ wins and a WPCT of .600+ who's not in the Hall of Fame...a little matter of having killed Ray Chapman with a pitch seems to have done the trick.

But that Ruth...power hitter, but power pitcher? Who knew? 28 starts (70%) in the top hit prevention categories--even more than the Big Train. But the Bambino was worked so hard in 1916-17 that it was clear that his pitching days were numbered.

The "spread" of games in 1916 as shown in QMAX is wider than is the case now...possibly because pitchers went deeper into games--and (oddly enough...) got pulled more quickly from games as well. More than 16% of starts in the the 1916 AL were in the "Tommy John" region (the box at lower left in the matrix chart, TJ" in the range chart at the top), about 60% higher than today. Those games overall were just over .500 for teams, as opposed to ~.560 today. "Power precipice" games (box at upper right in matrix chart, "PP" in the range chart at top" were 9% of the total, only about 10% higher than today. Those games had a .620+WPCT for teams, as opposed to ~.580 today.

More on this later...stay tuned.