Walter Johnson’s 1924 Innings Limit
The 2012 Washington Nationals have moved beyond any centennial comparisons to Clark Griffith’s inaugural year at the helm in DC. Yes, having Davey Johnson come aboard in Washington is a nice parallel, but that 1912 Nationals team trailed the Boston Red Sox–led by Smoky Joe Wood and Tris Speaker–the entire season. They remained in second place–in the old eight-team format of the original American League—for most of the season and never led.
No, these are not your grandpappy’s Washington Nationals; well not unless you are talking up on a whole different level. As in 1924, when the Nationals climbed out of the second division of the American League near the end of June to overtake Babe Ruth’s Yankees and sit atop the AL at the end of the season. This year’s Washington Nationals have more in common with that historic team.
Which is not to say that the 2012 Nationals are headed to the World Series. There are many rivers to cross still before we can take the full measure of this team. But there are interesting points of convergence between the most famous of all Washington baseball teams and this current one as we near the 100-game mark in the season.
The 1924 Nationals were built around pitching, or better still, “a” pitcher: Walter Johnson. The ‘Big Train’ was 36 years old that year. Owner Griffith and manager Bucky Harris only let him throw 277 innings. They had him on an “innings limit,” and allowed him only 38 starts. Walter had thrown 340-370 inning most years earlier in his career and led the league in that category as well as appearances—usually 45-50 games a season counting those he closed for others on the staff as well.
In 1924 Walter had a supporting cast that allowed GM Griffith to tout how he was “saving” Johnson.. Tom Zachary had a career year, and Curley Ogden and Firpo Marberry were good enough that the Nationals led the AL in team ERA with a mark of 3.34. The second place Yankees trailed at 3.86. They were the only other team with an ERA under “4.”
The ’24 Nationals had a solid offense, scoring 4.8 runs per game, but that was just a hair under league average. They had only one star with the bat, Goose Goslin, who hit .344/.421/.516, but as good as those numbers were, they did not put him near the top of any leader boards. No, the Nationals that year were just a very solid club. Any player in the lineup was capable of carrying the day for a given game, or delivering the clutch hit. The more you examine the numbers and players, the more you find the similarities.
The one glaring weakness in the team was in center field and when Clark Griffith brought in Earl McNeely early in August to play center, it proved the spark that re-ignited the Nationals’ offense. McNeely was no Bryce Harper, but the Nationals regained first place on the heels of his efforts and it was his grounder that leapt Freedy Lindstrom in the seventh game of the World Series.
The ’24 team had one of the finest up-the-middle combinations in the game at the time in Bucky Harris and Roger Peckinpaugh. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa are both emerging stars who excel with both the glove and bat.
Yet all similarities end at the mention of Stephen Strasburg and the projected end to his season in September as envisioned by GM Mike Rizzo. It is as if the 1924 Nationals decided they would shut Walter Johnson down in September of 1924 because he was getting old. Actually Griffith did try to save the Big Train during the ’24 season, but it was a strategy that started early in the season. Manager Harris used Firpo Marberry and Curly Ogden frequently in relief of Johnson and did restrict his use during the course of the season.
Comparing one of the greatest work horses the game ever saw to one of today’s best young pitchers is meant only to illustrate the vast differences between today’s game and that of 1924. Understanding the relative fragility of today’s pitchers is one of the most enigmatic analytic questions in today’s game. The idea that any modern pitcher could stand up to a work load of over 370 innings in a year is laughable, and so the modern Washington pitching ace will throw no more than 180 and when the post-season begins will sit and watch.
The Nationals rotation without Stephen Strasburg is far more formidable than the ’24 team without Johnson, however. Assuming the Nationals make their first post season appearance in 79 years, they will likely feature a four-man rotation of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. Although there are no Cy Young Award-winners among them, their combined ERA of 3.02 is a mark as good as any other four-man rotation in the majors. And that is without Strasburg.
The largest difference between the 2012 and 1924 Nationals is the overall quality of the pitching and its lack of dependence on one player. When the final line is written on Washington’s season, innings limits will be a footnote. The pitching is going to be there one way or another. If the rest of the team plays like Strasburg and company, they will go far indeed, far enough to justify comparisons to the best this town has ever seen.