June 25, 2019

The Favorite Toy and…Grover Cleveland Alexander

December 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Those of you who read my last Favorite Toy article about Babe Ruth probably noticed that the second installment was supposed to be about Ted Williams. Well, after giving it some thought I realized that I wanted to go deeper with Williams than most of the others I have in mind, mostly because of the time he missed while serving in the military. Not only am I going to look at multiple offensive categories, but I’m going to analyze his career under two different microscopes and that’s going to take some time.

So why Grover Cleveland Alexander? A) Because Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson already get too much love, while “Old Pete” too often gets shoved to the background. That’s not to say “The Big Train” and “Big Six” don’t deserve all the accolades they get, and they’ll certainly be featured in this series of articles eventually, but, though Alexander is ranked #3 by Bill James in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, he still doesn’t get as much attention as Johnson and Mathewson. B) Alexander won 28 games as a rookie in 1911, then had a four-year stretch from 1914-1917 in which he won at least 27 games, and topped 30 three straight times. Mathewson had a similar run from 1903-1905 and was younger, and Johnson had a similar stretch from 1912-1915 in which he averaged 31 wins a season, but please refer back to A).

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at Alexander’s odds of winning 300, 373 (his actual win total), 400, 500 and beyond.

Seasons (age)
3-YR AVG To Date Proj. Car. 300 373 400 500 512 MAX (1%)
1911-1913 (26) 24.0 69 261 33% 13% 8% 0% 0% 449
1912-1914 (27) 21.3 96 256 28% 8% 3% 0% 0% 412
1913-1915 (28) 25.2 127 303 52% 22% 15% 0% 0% 475
1914-1916 (29) 29.3 160 350 86% 40% 29% 6% 4% 538
1915-1917 (30) 31.5 190 379 97% 53% 40% 11% 9% 564
1916-1918 (31) 26.8 192 339 87% 32% 21% 0% 0% 484
1917-1919 (32) 22.5 208 320 72% 18% 9% 0% 0% 430
1918-1920 (33) 10.8 235 283 25% 0% 0% 0% 0% 331
1919-1921 (34) 19.5 250 328 97% 13% 2% 0% 0% 404
1920-1922 (35) 21.2 266 340 97% 19% 5% 0% 0% 412
1921-1923 (36) 16.5 288 337 97% 8% 0% 0% 0% 386
1922-1924 (37) 17.3 300 343 X 9% 0% 0% 0% 385
1923-1925 (38) 17.5 315 350 X 10% 0% 0% 0% 384
1924-1926 (39) 13.0 327 346 X 0% 0% 0% 0% 365
1925-1927 (40) 15.0 348 370 X 40% 0% 0% 0% 392
1926-1928 (41) 15.7 364 387 X 97% 15% 0% 0% 410
1927-1929 (42) 17.3 373 399 X X 46% 0% 0% 424
1928-1930 (43) 12.0 373 391 X X 17% 0% 0% 408

Not surprisingly, Alexander had greatness predicted for him right from the start. After winning an average of 23 games from 1911-1913, the 26-year-old had a 1-in-3 chance of winning 300 games and a one percent chance of winning 449, which would have put him firmly in second place behind Cy Young. And if you don’t think Young’s record of 511 wins is impressive, take a look at Alexander’s chances of winning 500 and 512; from 1914-1917, Alexander averaged 30 wins a season yet had only an 11% chance of winning 500 at the close of the 1917 campaign and a 9% chance of passing Young on the all-time wins list. Still at age 30 with 190 wins under his belt, The Favorite Toy has him as a sure bet to win 300. Unfortunately any chance Alexander had of winning 400, let alone 500, died when he was drafted into the army and missed almost all of the 1918 season. He won two of his three decisions, but the two victories in a “full” season (according to TFT) drove his average down, and by the end of 1920, The Favorite Toy gave him only a 1–in-4 chance to win 300 and no chance to reach any of the other major milestones. In fact, he was expected to win “only” 331 games.

Unlike players like Ted Williams, who missed valuable playing time serving in the military but came back from war unscathed, the Great War hurt Alexander’s career not just by taking him away from the game but by inflicting physical and psychological harm on him. “Many men survived the war, but they didn’t recover from it,” wrote Jan Finkel in his excellent biography of Alexander. “Alexander spent seven weeks at the front under relentless bombardment that left him deaf in his left ear. Pulling the lanyard to fire the howitzers caused muscle damage in his right arm. He caught some shrapnel in his outer right ear, an injury thought not serious at the time but which may have been the progenitor of cancer almost thirty years later. He was shell-shocked. Worst of all, the man who used to have a round or two with the guys and call it a day became alcoholic and epileptic, a condition possibly caused by the skulling he’d received in Galesburg. Alex tried to cover up his epilepsy, using alcohol in the mistaken belief that it would alleviate the condition. Living in a world that believed epileptics to be touched by the devil, he knew it was more socially acceptable to be a drunk.”

So how many wins might Alex have had in 1918 had he the benefit of a full season? Well, he started three of the Cubs’ first eight games, putting him on pace for 48 starts, but I assigned him 44 based on his average over the three previous years (43.6). He won two of three decisions (.667), and assuming he would have maintained that pace, and there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have, considering the Cubs won 65% of their games on their way to the World Series, Alexander would have won 29 games in 1918. That’s certainly not unreasonable, considering he was coming off three straight seasons in which he won 31, 33 and 30 from 1915-1917. Adding those wins and recalculating at the end of 1920 gives Alexander a projected total of 371, a 29% chance at 400, and a max of 478. Quite a difference, but we can’t just add wins that don’t exist, so we have to carry on with what we have.

Once he reached 250 wins in 1921, he became a lock to win 300 again and maintained a 97% chance until he reached that total in 1924. His chances of winning 373 began to decline at the age of 36 even though he’d just come off a 22-win season, but they picked up dramatically in 1927 when he reached 348 victories after going 21-10, and he became a lock to win 373 when he finished the 1928 campaign with 364 career wins. Sure enough he earned his 373rd win in 1929, and had almost a 50% chance to win 400 going into 1930 with an outside shot at 424, but he lost all three of his decisions before being released by the Phillies.

If you think Young’s 511 wins is an unbreakable record, imagine Alexander’s outside shot at 564 in 1917. Wow! Still, “Old Pete” had a great career and is clearly one of the greatest hurlers of all time.

Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ain’t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of Seamheads.com.

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