LETTERS FROM QUEBEC: The Kirk Rueter Revelation
The most shocking and compelling conclusion â€¦ is that Kirk Rueter was the Mozart of fielding pitchers
- John A. Knox.
Baseball is a complex game. Unlike those other activities which dominate the Sunday sports pages, baseballâ€™s very essence engenders a measureless range of options and possibilities. Rife with ageless imperatives and difficult choices, baseballâ€™s demands on its supplicants are so diverse as to be virtually impossible to meet. To philosopher David B. Hart, baseball is â€˜the perfect gameâ€™. Comparing it to other games, like football, hockey, soccer, he contends â€œis like comparing chess to tiddly winks.â€[i]
Therein lies our fascination. For because it is so complex, baseball retains an infinite capacity to surprise us. Take the case of Kirk Rueter, a less-than-colourful but effective pitcher with the Expos and Giants, from 1993-2005, Who could have predicted that of the almost 300 first-line major league pitchers evaluated in a recent study of pitchersâ€™ fielding by SABR-member John A. Knox, the hurler to emerge at the head of the class, and by a wide margin, the one Knox calls â€œthe Mozart of fielding pitchers,â€ would be Kirk Rueter.
Rueter began professional life as a baby Expo. Drafted by Montreal in 1991, he was well-liked, and so unassuming that his teammates called him â€˜Woody,â€™ after the Toy Story movie character. Rueter made his debut with the big club in 1993, going 8-0 in his first season. He was headed to the World Series in 1994 until the grand poobahs of Major League Baseball slammed shut the door, cancelling the season and stranding the Expos. That year Nos Amours possessed the best record in baseball, never mind in the National League. Now here they were, all dressed up with no place to go. Abandoned.
In 1996, Rueter went to the Giants in a trade for Mark Leiter. There his post-season fortunes improved. He made it beyond September on four different occasions, including a trip to the 2002 World Series. That year San Francisco was a fistful of outs away from winning it all when Dusty Bakerâ€™s wee lad got tangled up in the legs of a couple of Giants base-runners at home plate, and bad karma set in. The Angels came back to win the game, and a day later, the Series.
When Rueter retired in 2005 and stamped finis on a record of 130-82; 4.27, his departure was noted – he was, after all, the San Francisco Giants winningest lefty ever and fifth highest among southpaws in franchise history, behind only Carl Hubble, Johnny Antonelli, Mike McCormick, and Art Nehf. Nevertheless, as the next generation of phenoms began to emerge, he slipped off the radar.
But this year, what with Ken Burns and others having reminded us of the rotten deal handed to the Expos in 1994, and as San Franciscoâ€™s World Series triumph brings focus to the Giants near misses of the past, it seems fitting to take another look at the man who had twice climbed so close to baseballâ€™s zenith, only to come up short.
This is especially appropriate, given researcher John A. Knoxâ€™s recent revelation that Rueter, our Woody, is unquestionably the best fielding pitcher in the history of the major leagues, at least in the modern era. Despite never having been awarded a Gold Glove, Rueterâ€™s fielding acumen was so dramatically superior to that of any other pitcher as to boggle the mind.
The Mozart of Fielding Pitchers
John Knox first reported on his in-depth study of fielding by pitchers in the Summer 2009 edition of the SABR Baseball Research Journal. He followed that up with an oral presentation at the SABR annual convention held last summer in Atlanta.
Knoxâ€™s interest in the subject was piqued during the 2006 Cardinals-Tigers World Series (won by St. Louis in five games) when five Detroit pitcher-errors led to seven St. Louis unearned runs. Concluding thatâ€ any facet of the game crucial enough to lose the World Series is worth closer scrutiny,â€ he set out to identify the best-fielding pitchers of all time.
Calling his research â€œmore of a pilot study that a definitive work on the subject,â€ and limiting it to 287 pitchers, all with â€œsome claim to good fielding and 1500 innings pitched,â€ Knox used available statistics â€œto devise ranked lists of the top 100 best fielders on the mound since 1900.â€ The factors he considered were: career fielding percentage, range, ratio of errors to double plays, and number of double plays turned. (Please see the article, The 100 Top-Fielding MLB Pitchers, circa 1900-2008; for more on Knoxâ€™s methodology)
The results were surprising. For example, by reputation, two of the best fielding pitchers in baseball have always been Jim Kaat (16 Gold Gloves) and Bob Gibson (9 Gold Gloves). However, Knox’s ranking placed Kaat far down the list, at number 272, and Gibson even lower, at number 277. Rather than confirm their lofty status as fielders, Knoxâ€™s statistical analysis in fact â€œmakes a strong case against Jim Kaat and Bob Gibson.â€ Jim Abbott â€“ who laboured with only one hand – shows at number 73; Tom Glavine comes in at number 30; Roy Halliday up there at number 17.
For those among us who will never forget the Expos, it warms the heart to note that in addition to Rueter, several other of our lads also made the top-100: Livan Hernandez (18); Woodie Fryman (21); Carl Morton (24); Ken Hill (32); Javier Vasquez (64) and Zane Smith (99). And even Cal McLish, the Expos original pitching coach, appears, at number 53.
According to Knox, the top three best-fielding pitchers of all-time were little Bobby Shantz (8 Gold Gloves), third; Greg Maddux, second â€“ a surprise, given that Maddux is the pitcher most often cited as having been the greatest in the field (18 Gold Gloves) â€“ and Rueter (0 Gold Gloves)
As overwhelmingly unexpected as this first-place finding was, so was it inevitable. â€œKirk Rueter excelled at every phase of fielding,â€ writes Knox. In fact, â€œhis numerical lead over second-ranked Greg Maddox is as large as the gap between numbers 2 and 9.â€ When it comes to a â€œwide range of reasonable interpretations of all-around fielding prowess,â€ maintains Knox, â€œKirk Rueter is king.â€
So, if the evidence is that unequivocal, how come Rueter’s fielding superiority has been so completely overlooked? After all he enjoyed a 14-year MLB career – four with the Expos and ten with the Giants. Knox suggests that perhaps Rueterâ€™s â€˜business as usualâ€™ approach on the mound worked against him. In an era when Greg Maddox was the established and dominant presence, and given Rueterâ€™s modest demeanour, there was little to separate him from the herd, little to highlight the fact that he was, again in Knoxâ€™s words, one of â€œthe very best fielders in the history of major league baseball.â€
But the case has now been made; the data are out there for all to see. Now what? One hopes that John Knoxâ€™s findings will both reawaken interest in Kirk Rueterâ€™s achievements as baseballâ€™s best fielding pitcher, and that his work will draw greater attention to the importance of pitcher-fielding generally
And who knows, perhaps some day, what Knox calls the â€œestablishment of Rueterâ€™s claim to the throneâ€ will come to pass, to be greeted with warm acknowledgment and praise.
That would be nice. Very, very nice.
For more, see: John A. Knox, The 100 Top-Fielding MLB Pitchers, circa 1900-2008; SABR Baseball Research Journal, Summer 2009 Volume 38, No.1)
[i] David B. Hart – philosopher, writer, cultural commentator and, most recently, a visiting professor at Providence College, R.I. is a passionate Orioles fan. He is related to Jack Bentley, a former major league pitcher whose career was interrupted by WWI. You will find Hartâ€™s essay on the metaphysics of baseball, entitled A Perfect Game, in the August/September 2010 edition of FIRST THINGS, published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life