Evaluating Pre-World War I Pitchers
by Keith Glab, Baseball Evolution
1/28/06



Asher likes to play a little game where he compares a prospective Hall of Fame candidate to a guy who definitely shouldn't be in the Hall to illustrate the candidate's unworthiness. I'd like to try my hand at that exercise with SmoJo Wood. However, rather than just compare him to one pitcher, I'm going to compare him to nine.

SmoJo has a career 2.03 ERA, which is fantastic in any era. In fact, only his contemporaries Ed Walsh and Addie Joss have better ERAs among pitchers with over 1000 innings pitched. Unfortunately, SmoJo didn't pitch many innings more than 1000 (1434), topping the 200 IP mark in only two seasons. After throwing 344 innings in an historic 1912, Wood broke his thumb and quickly faded into an outfielder.

Essentially done pitching at age 26, one might wonder whether he was on pace to have a better career than Sandy Koufax. However, there were gobs of briefly dominant pitchers from that era of baseball whose careers nevertheless petered out to the point where you've never even heard of them.

But let's begin with those you do know:

1. Joe McGinnity

"Iron Man" pitched over 300 innings eight times and won more than 25 games on six separate occasions, feats that SmoJo matched only once a piece. Between 1903 and 1907, McGinnity pitched more innings than Wood did his entire career, and won just 3 fewer games during that span. His famous 1904 season is on par with Smokey's stellar 1912 season. But Asher and Scott each gave Smokey two votes for the Baseball Evolution Hall of Fame, and only Asher bothered to give McGinnity one vote. What gives? They both had fun nicknames...

2. Jack Chesbro

It's easy to look at Chesbro's career 111 ERA+ and scoff at his prescence in Cooperstown (he received 0 total votes in the BE Hall). But Chesbro did manage a five-year stretch with ERA+'s of 137,126,113,149, and 134. I'm certainly not going to argue that Chesbro's prime was more dominant than the strt of SmoJo's career, but they are comparable enough to question whether Wood would continue his success after logging a bunch of innings.

And now for some guys you may not have heard of:

3. Dutch (Hubert) Leonard

This guy was actually a teammate of SmoJo's, yet not so widely known. Strangely, what also isn't that widely known is that Dutch has the best single-season ERA of the 20th century with his 0.96 ERA in 1914.

Why isn't more made of this? Ruth's 60 homers stood for 34 years, big deal. Hitting .400? Please! It's been done a dozen times in the 20th century alone. But to allow under a run per game, something only one other player has EVER done (Tim Keefe), and to have that post-1900 record stand for over 90 years and not likely to be challenged for another 90? Why don't people ever talk about this???!!!

The only thing that might prevent Dutch's 1914 season from being in the top 5 all-time is the fact that it happened during the Federal League-thinned year of 1914. But, you know what? Smojo's third-best year (third of only three real good years I might add) came under the same circumstances.

4. Ed Reulbach

Ed Reulbach's numbers through age 26, which if you'll recall, is the same age that SmoJo essentially stopped pitching:

97-39 .713% 1263 IP 1.72 ERA

Who thinks that Reulbach should be in the Hall of Fame? Nobody. His descendants couldn't even spare $10 to sponsor his Baseball-Reference.com page. We here at Baseball Evolution didn't even bother to put him on our Hall of Fame ballot. In retrospect, we probably should have, since we for some reason thought it necessary to include the likes of Dave Stewart. But ultimately, Reulbach's terrible 1137/892 K/BB ratio confirms that Big Ed's early suuccesses were mostly due to playing with the best defense of all time behind him. And if he couldn't even be a serious Hall candidate after that killer start, we certainly shouldn't be throwing dueces at Smokey.

5. Jack Pfiester and 6. Orval Overall

Not quite in the same league as SmoJo, but in the same rotation as Big Ed. These guys didn't even bother to taste what life without the Cubs defense behind them would be like, and consequently have real good winning percentages and relative ERAs but very few innings pitched. The more I look at this rotation, the more I think that Tinker and Evers ought to be in the Hall.

7. Deacon Phillippe

"Pea" began his career with five straight 20-win seasons, and ranks as one of the best Pirates pitchers of all-time. But while you can lament the fact that nobody who currently resides in Pittsburgh has ever heard of the guy, you can't really fault voters for leaving him out of the Hall. It's funny, though. SmoJo stopped pitching at 26 and Pea didn't start until he was 27. If you combine them, you have one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Maybe we can combine the two and put them into the Hall, eh Asher? Smokey Deacon Philwoodde?

8. Sam Leever

A teammate of Phillippe and also called "Deacon" by some, just to be confusing, no doubt. This "Goshen Schoolmaster" actually had a slightly better career than Phillippe, and was actualy consistently good for a reasonably long period of time. HIs ERA was at least 10% better than the league average for ten straight years. Because of that, he doesn't exactly belong on this list, but his similarities to D-Pea and the fact that he's about as Hallworthy as SmoJo in my estimation led me to include him.

9. Dave Foutz

Foutz isn't a perfect match for this list either, as he's a 19th century player. But I felt that his best-of-all-time win percentage (Pedro nonwithstanding) was analagous to Smokey's third-all-time ERA. Plus, both of them were two-way players. Foutz, however, pitched and played the field in the same seasons whereas Wood was a pitcher first and outfielder second.

You know, Foutz wasn't that great of a hitter, and neither was Wood, who got converted by the Red Sox. Kudos to Boston for having the guts to convert Babe Ruth to a full-time batter despite what history showed.


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Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith Glab resides in Chicago, Illinois, and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.



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