November 24, 2014

LETTERS FROM QUEBEC: The Kirk Rueter Revelation

November 18, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

The most shocking and compelling conclusion … is that Kirk Rueter was the Mozart of fielding pitchers

- John A. Knox.

Kirk RueterA Few Words Up-Front

Baseball is a complex game. Unlike those other activities which dominate the Sunday sports pages, baseball’s very essence engenders a measureless range of options and possibilities. Rife with ageless imperatives and difficult choices, baseball’s demands on its supplicants are so diverse as to be virtually impossible to meet. To philosopher David B. Hart, baseball is ‘the perfect game’. Comparing it to other games, like football, hockey, soccer, he contends “is like comparing chess to tiddly winks.”[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 pitchers’ 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 “the Mozart of fielding pitchers,” 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 ‘Woody,’ 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 Baker’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 Francisco’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 baseball’s zenith, only to come up short.

This is especially appropriate, given researcher John A. Knox’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, Rueter’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.

Knox’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 that” any facet of the game crucial enough to lose the World Series is worth closer scrutiny,” he set out to identify the best-fielding pitchers of all time.

Calling his research “more of a pilot study that a definitive work on the subject,” and limiting it to 287 pitchers, all with “some claim to good fielding and 1500 innings pitched,” Knox used available statistics “to devise ranked lists of the top 100 best fielders on the mound since 1900.” 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 Knox’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, Knox’s statistical analysis in fact “makes a strong case against Jim Kaat and Bob Gibson.” Jim Abbott – 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 – a surprise, given that Maddux is the pitcher most often cited as having been the greatest in the field (18 Gold Gloves) – and Rueter (0 Gold Gloves)

As overwhelmingly unexpected as this first-place finding was, so was it inevitable. “Kirk Rueter excelled at every phase of fielding,” writes Knox. In fact, “his numerical lead over second-ranked Greg Maddox is as large as the gap between numbers 2 and 9.” When it comes to a “wide range of reasonable interpretations of all-around fielding prowess,” maintains Knox, “Kirk Rueter is king.”

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 Rueter’s ‘business as usual’ approach on the mound worked against him. In an era when Greg Maddox was the established and dominant presence, and given Rueter’s modest demeanour, there was little to separate him from the herd, little to highlight the fact that he was, again in Knox’s words, one of “the very best fielders in the history of major league baseball.”

But the case has now been made; the data are out there for all to see. Now what? One hopes that John Knox’s findings will both reawaken interest in Kirk Rueter’s achievements as baseball’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 “establishment of Rueter’s claim to the throne” 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 Hart’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

Comments

One Response to “LETTERS FROM QUEBEC: The Kirk Rueter Revelation”
  1. Ted Leavengood says:

    I will not argue about Kirk Rueter or Greg Maddux being among the best fielding pitchers. However, as an inveterate Bob Gibson fan, I must take issue with the findings.

    I have looked everywhere and cannot find the BbRJ in question, but wonder whether you can take into account one of the most important non-statistics for pitchers: reputation. One of the most consistent defensive plays required by a pitcher is to field a bunt cleanly and quickly and throw to first base. If opposing teams have found a pitcher capable of making the play, there will be fewer bunts. Conversely, pitchers who are less nimble are called upon to make the play more frequently and hence will have more assists.

    Livan Hernandez is a great example as to how subjective realities affect quantitative analysis. Livo’s girth invites many to test his agility. His bad knees amplified the problem late in recent years, but in truth he is a remarkable athlete and quite capable of fielding his position. He therefore racks up more assists because of his ability to field his position with surprising grace. But it is the invitation to the batter to test him that affects the outcome.

    It may not be a perfect example, but is nonetheless an application of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle whereby the nature of the observer–in this case the batter–affects the scientific proposition being tested. I am certain Mr. Knox has labored diligently to catalog performance and the fact that Maddux sits at the top of his analysis gives credence to the outcome.

    However, in this case I am skeptical of the specific finding concerning Gibson’s fielding ability. There have been fewer better all-around athletes on the mound than Bob Gibson. He was quick enough to play basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters and his reputation as a fielder was based on factual evaluation by those who saw him play the game 154 times a year. Testing his prowess was fool-hearty and fewer took the challenge as a result.

    In one statistical area where the issue is not open to dispute, Gibson excels. He is 20th in career putouts for pitchers. I would guess that this reflects his ability to react to line drives quickly and effectively. It likely is indicative of his ability to get off the mound quickly for bunts as well. However, I cannot imagine a statistic for a batter’s respect for the pitcher’s reputation. But career education is my goal, so if I am off on this one, let me know.

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