May 27, 2017

Chasing History

September 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Not long ago I was preparing for some podcasts and projected the stats of a handful of players to see what their final numbers might look like and how they would look stacked up against each other as well as others throughout baseball history.  Three of those players—Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander—are definite MVP candidates and I was pleased to see that they’re all embarking on historic or, at the very least, unique campaigns.  But the fourth player is heading in the wrong direction and should be doing everything he can not to be included with those who faltered before him.

Before I get to the list and statistics, I know that a lot of baseball people aren’t keen on this type of analysis whereby the writer chooses seemingly arbitrary categories, assigns an arbitrary ceiling and then uses that to defend his argument.  My intent here is not to “prove” a player’s dominance or failure—you can decide that for yourself—it’s just to show how unique some of these seasons have been and how said players’ numbers compare to those who’ve come before him.  The lists are meant to be fun and perhaps eye-opening, considering we’re witnessing things we’ve never seen before (assuming these players reach their projected totals).

Jacoby Ellsbury
R H 2B HR RBI SB
 Actual 98 173 36 24 85 36
 Projected* 114 202 42 28 99 42
* Based on stats through 9/4/2011; pace for entire season; adjusted for % of team games played

If I stay with Ellsbury’s projected numbers, we get a truly unique season since no one has ever reached or surpassed those totals in those six categories in the same season.  On the other hand, some have come close and had more impressive slugging percentages than Ellsbury currently has.  Here are the three players who have amassed at least 100 runs, 200 hits, 35 doubles, 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 40 steals in the same season:

Player Team YR R H 2B HR RBI SB SLG WAR*
Alex Rodriguez SEA 1998 123 213 35 42 124 46 .560 6.4
Vlad Guerrero
MON 2002 106 206 37 39 111 40 .593 5.8
Alfonso Soriano
NYA 2002 128 209 51 39 102 41 .547 5.5
Jacoby Ellsbury
BOS 2011 115 202 41 28 99 43 .523 6.1
* From The Baseball Gauge @ Seamheads.com

There you have it.  If Ellsbury is able to maintain his pace and reach 30 homers and 100 RBIs, neither of which he’s projected to do, he’ll join a pretty select group.  Bump the doubles to 40 and he’ll be one of only two to reach all of the above levels.  So what does that mean for his MVP chances?  Not much.  Believe it or not, none of the three players above won an MVP Award—A-Rod finished ninth, five slots behind teammate Ken Griffey Jr.; Guerrero finished fourth behind Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman; Soriano finished third behind Miguel Tejada and A-Rod.

Of course, some of that had to do with their respective teams’ records—Rodriguez’s Mariners finished in third place with a 76-85 record and Guerrero’s Expos (remember them?) finished in second place at 83-79—but Soriano’s Yankees had the best record in baseball in 2002 at 103-58 and he still lost the award in a landslide.  Based on Wins Above Replacement (WAR), he didn’t deserve the award anyway and neither does Ellsbury, whose Red Sox currently boast the second best winning percentage in the American League.  But as we’ve seen from past votes, the BBWAA doesn’t rely on WAR and anything can happen.

Oh by the way, Ellsbury hasn’t committed an error since July 28, 2009, so whether he wins the MVP Award or not, if he reaches the levels previously mentioned I can guarantee he’ll be the only one on the list without an error, and that’s pretty damn impressive.

Curtis Granderson
R 2B 3B HR RBI SB
Actual 125 20 10 38 107 24
Projected* 147 23 12 45 126 28
* Based on stats through 9/4/2011; pace for entire season; adjusted for % of team games played

Just like Ellsbury, Granderson will be in a class by himself if he achieves his projections, but only because of his stolen bases.  Take those away and there have been four seasons in which a batter scored at least 145 runs, belted out 25 doubles, 10 triples and 45 homers, and drove in 125 runs.  Interestingly, and not surprisingly, all four were Yankees—Babe Ruth in 1921, Lou Gehrig in 1927 and 1931, and Joe DiMaggio in 1937.  Jack the runs up to 150 and that leaves only Ruth, Gehrig in ’31 and DiMaggio.  Others who came close include Rogers Hornsby in 1922, Gehrig in 1930 and Hank Greenberg in 1937.

But none stole more than 17 bases and that’s where Granderson separates himself from the rest.  In fact, his season has been so impressive to this point, if it ended today he’d be one of only two players to accomplish what he’s already done—the other being underrated Browns outfielder Ken Williams, who manufactured a fantastic all-around season in 1922.

Player Team YR R 2B 3B HR RBI SB SLG WAR*
Babe Ruth
NYA 1921 177 44 16 59 171 17 .846 12.1
Lou Gehrig
NYA 1927 149 52 18 47 175 10 .765 10.3
Lou Gehrig
NYA 1931 163 31 15 46 184 17 .662 8.5
Joe DiMaggio
NYA 1937 151 35 15 46 167 3 .673 8.4
Curtis Granderson
NYA 2011 148 24 12 45 127 29 .580 5.7
* From The Baseball Gauge @ Seamheads.com

In terms of sheer offensive dominance, Granderson can’t touch the Big Three and 11 more steals won’t tip the scales in his favor, but mad props to him if he reaches the levels in the above categories and becomes the only player in big league history to do so.

Hub Collins

Hub Collins

Oh by the way, Granderson is on pace to rap out “only” 161 hits and in case you’re wondering if anyone has ever scored 147 runs in a season in which they had 161 hits or less, the answer is yes, but it hasn’t happened for a loooong time.  Despite having only 135 hits,  George “Piano Legs” Gore scored 150 times for the 1886 Chicago White Stockings, mainly because he led the league in walks with 102.  I’m guessing he must have hit in front of Cap Anson, who led the league in RBIs with 147.  Mike Griffin scored 152 times for the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles on only 148 hits (and 91 walks) in 1889; Hub Collins scored 148 runs on 142 hits ( and 85 walks) for the 1890 Brooklyn Bridegrooms; and Herman Long scored 149 runs on 159 hits (and 73 walks) for the 1893 Boston Beaneaters.  Granderson is on pace to draw a career-high 92 walks, so he fits right in with this bunch.

Justin Verlander
GS W L W-L% ERA K
Actual 30 21 5 .808 2.34 224
Projected* 35 25 6 .806 2.34 261
* Based on stats through 9/4/2011; pace for entire season

Barring a complete meltdown, Tigers ace Justin Verlander is already in rare company—were his season to end today, he’d be one of only six pitchers with a minimum of 30 starts to have 21 wins, five or fewer losses, a winning percentage of .800, an ERA of 2.34 or better and at least 200 strikeouts.

Joe Wood

"Smoky Joe" Wood

The other five are “Smoky Joe” Wood (1912), Sandy Koufax (1963), Ron Guidry (1978), Dwight Gooden (1985) and Randy Johnson (2002).  Lower the bar a tad to include pitchers with “only” 20 wins and Pedro Martinez (2002) joins the club.  But he fell short of the required 21 and failed to reach 200 innings (not a prerequisite but a deal-breaker, nonetheless).

Remove the loss parameter and the list more than doubles to 13 and features five Deadball Era hurlers, two of whom pitched in the 19th century.  Since Verlander’s projected to lose six, I’ll bump it to that in a minute and see where he stands, although I can tell you the strikeouts will eliminate a few of the pitchers on the short list and make for some rarefied air.  Hurlers with a minimum 30 starts who won at least 25, lost six or fewer, had a winning % of at least .800, an ERA of 2.34 or less and at least 250 strikeouts include the following:

Player Team YR GS W L W-L% ERA K WHIP WAR*
Joe Wood
BOS 1912 38 34 5 .872 1.91 258 1.015 10.6
Dazzy Vance
BRK 1924 34 28 6 .824 2.16 262 1.022 10.3
Sandy Koufax
LAN 1963 40 25 5 .833 1.88 306 .875 10.1
Denny McLain
DET 1968 41 31 6 .838 1.96 280 .905 8.3
Justin Verlander
DET 2011 35 25 6 .808 2.34 261 .910 7.0
* From The Baseball Gauge @ Seamheads.com; only pitching WAR included

Like I said, rarefied air.  Bump the K’s up to 260 and Wood falls off the list, leaving only Vance, Koufax and McLain, with Verlander hot on their heels.  Whether or not he reaches those levels depends on how the Tigers finish down the stretch.  As of this writing, Detroit has a 6 1/2-game lead over Cleveland with 23 to play and it would take a Mets-like faceplant for them to blow their cushion, which means Verlander might not make five more starts as projected since he’d be resting up for the playoffs.  If he’s able to win 25, lose only five and fan 250, he’ll stand with Wood and Koufax as the only three ever to have done it.

John Lackey
W L ERA IP H ER
Actual 12 11 6.11 141.1 175 96
Projected* 14 13 6.12 164.2 204 112
* Based on stats through 9/4/2011; pace for entire season

Unlike the others, Lackey needed only two categories to find himself in select company, but I listed six categories just to show how terrible he’s been this year and how he fits in with the rest of the members of this not-so-elite group.  After getting pounded by the Texas Rangers on Sunday, Lackey’s ERA climbed back over 6.00 for the first time since…well…August 17.  In 24 starts this season, his ERA has been below 6.00 only three times—on April 30, August 23 and August 30—although, to his credit, he had lowered it from a ridiculous 7.47 on July 4 to a less unsightly 5.94 on August 30 before it ballooned again yesterday.

If Terry Francona and Theo Epstein decided to shut him down for the rest of the season (and Jesus I wish they would), he’d already be a chartered member of the 12-win, 6.00-ERA club, along with 10 other poor bastards.  But to be fair, why should the guys who posted ERA’s under 6.11 be penalized and suffer the ignominy of being associated with John Lackey circa 2011?  By setting the bar at 6.11, we get a list of seven, saving the likes of Ad Gumbert, Bill Hutchison (or Hutchinson), Jason Marquis and Livan Hernandez from further embarrassment.

But if Tito continues running Lackey out to the mound (and not long after, coming back out to get him), the Red Sox’s overpaid righty has a chance to win two of his last four starts, giving him 14 wins and a prominent place in a club of only three.  Here are the pitchers who’ve won at least 14 games while posting an ERA of 6.11 or higher in the same campaign:

Player Team YR GS W L W-L% ERA IP ER WAR*
Guy Bush
CHN 1930 25 15 10 .600 6.20 225.0 155 1.6
Wes Ferrell
WAS/NYA 1938 26 15 10 .600 6.28 179.0 125 -0.7
John Lackey
BOS 2011 28 14 13 .519 6.11 164.2 112 -0.6
* From The Baseball Gauge @ Seamheads.com; only pitching WAR included

There are a couple things that stand out here—not only did Bush and Ferrell finish with winning records but they won 60% of their decisions, and Lackey has a chance to win 52% of his; and all three are or were good pitchers.  Bush may be known as the man who served up the last of Babe Ruth’s homers, but he averaged 16 wins a year from 1926 to 1935, went 155-94 over that span and finished his career with a mark of 176-136.  His ERA of 3.86 is nothing to write home about, but it was better than league average.

Wes Ferrell

Wes Ferrell in better days

Ferrell was even better, going 161-94 from 1929-1936 and finishing his career at 193-128 with a 4.04 ERA that was half a run better than league average.  He won 20 games six times and paced the American League in wins with 25 in 1935, and also led his league in a handful of other categories, including innings pitched, throwing over 900 from 1935-1937.  And that may very well explain 1938 and the rest of his career.  In fact, according to Mark Smith’s biography of Ferrell, the hurler began experiencing arm pain as early as 1931 and eventually had bone chips removed from his right elbow after the 1938 season, so I’m guessing averaging 301 innings a year for three years didn’t help.  In 1938, Ferrell was only 30 and was coming off a year in which he posted a 3.94 ERA in 24 starts for the Senators after being traded by the Red Sox, so it’s no wonder the Senators and Yankees kept running him out to the mound in 1938. On the other hand, it’s because of that that he’s on this list.

But what about Bush?  What’s his story?  The 28-year-old went into the 1930 season having gone 56-32 with a 3.40 ERA (121 ERA+) over his previous four seasons and finished 10th in MVP voting after winning a then career-high 18 games in 1929 while also leading the N.L. in games and saves.  But in 1930 he started the season with a 19.29 ERA after allowing five runs in his first 2 1/3 innings and it was an uphill climb from there, especially after he allowed 15 more earned runs over his next 14 innings.  According to Irving Vaughan of the Chicago Tribune, Bush was suffering from boils on his arm and “couldn’t break a pane of glass” with his fastball.

It also didn’t help that runs per game were more plentiful than they’d ever been in the 20th century, but his three staff mates were all better than league average and Bush had done just fine in 1929, the second highest offensive output of the 20th century.  He had another off year in 1931—he went 16-8 but with a 4.49 ERA (86 ERA+)—but rebounded in 1932 and averaged 19 wins and a 3.22 ERA from 1932-1934.  Bush recovered from his “epic” 1930 season and pitched another nine years, although his last five were sub-par.  Ferrell, on the other hand, was effectively toast after 1938 and threw only 37 1/3 innings in his last three seasons before retiring at the age of 33.

So whither Lackey?  I guess that remains to be seen.

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