In this edition, I discover my new favorite pitcher of all time.
Roger Connor — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1976)
Before Babe Ruth was the all-time leader in home runs, it was Roger Connor. Connor was, along with Cap Anson and Dan Brouthers, one of the star first basemen of the 1880s, primarily playing for the New York Giants. Now, I am not too familiar with 19th century baseball, but overall, Connor appears to have been a fantastic player. His power was pretty spectacular for the era and his defense was highly regarded. I do know that defense at first base was considered more important than today. Connor was also quite fast, able to steal bases and leg out triples with the best of them. It seems that Connor was good at pretty much everything.
I’ll admit to not feeling too comfortable evaluating players from the 19th century. The structure of the major leagues was often in flux, meaning that the strength of the various leagues varied year to year. That being said, Connor looks like he was one of the best players from this era. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I get to less obvious guys, but I feel comfortable in selecting Connor.
Bill Dickey — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected by BBWAA in 1954)
Bill Dickey has a claim to being the greatest Catcher of the first half of the 20th century. Playing his entire career for the Yankees, Dickey was an integral part of their dynasties of the thirties. Batting from the left side, Dickey combined solid power with excellent contact skills. For his career, Dickey was eleven times an All-Star and finished in the top five in MVP voting three consecutive years, 1936-38. Until the emergence of Mike Piazza, Dickey was probably the best hitter ever from the catcher position.
Compared to the four catchers I’ve already inducted, Dickey looks extraordinary. In fact, Dickey’s career triple slash line is better than Johnny Bench’s or Gary Carter’s. Now, of course this is in part due to the era in which he played, but his career wRC+ of 126 is virtually identical to Bench’s 125. While Dickey’s 7060 career plate appearances may seem rather low, even for a catcher, when he retired only Gabby Hartnett and Rick Ferrell had more among catchers. Dickey isn’t a super spectacular Hall of Famer, but he clearly belongs.
Heinie Groh — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Peaked at 2% of the vote in 1955)
Heinie Groh was the National League counterpart to Frank ‘Home Run’ Baker, holding the title of best third baseman in the Senior Circuit for much of the deadball era. Groh split his time between the Reds and the Giants, winning a World Series with the former in 1918 and one with the latter in 1922. Groh was fairly short at around 5’7”, but he used it to advantage by shrinking his strike zone, allowing him to post very high walk rates. Groh also used a rather peculiar bat that had a very thin handle but very thick barrel. This bat helped Groh become a good contact hitter as well. In both 1917 and 1918 Groh led the National League in doubles and on base percent, also leading the league in hits in 1917. He was probably the best position player in the NL that season. Groh was also a superb defender at what was at the time one of the most important positions on the field.
So far, I have inducted to pre-WWII third basemen, Frank Baker and Stan Hack. I have also noted before that I think that third basemen from this era are undervalued, as the position was much more difficult back then than it is today. Groh has been even more underrated than his peers at third base due to much of his value coming from his walks and defense. That said, Groh doesn’t pop out at me. His career length at 7035 plate appearances is really short. While that is more than Baker, Groh was not the player that Baker was, and pretty much needs all the help he can get. Groh as an offensive player looks a lot like Hack, although I don’t think he was quite as good and Hack had 1500 more PAs. While Groh was a better defender than Hack, it’s not enough to surpass him. This leaves Groh on the bubble of my Hall. I think his case has merit, but I want to get a better look at the other pre-war third basemen first, primarily Tommy Leach, Jimmy Collins, and Pie Traynor. I do think that third base was a rather weak position during this time frame, even if its importance is undervalued, and I can’t really see there being a whole lot of third basemen from it in my Hall of Fame, at least at this point. For now, Groh can wait.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Juan Marichal — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1983 on the third ballot)
Juan Marichal was the workhorse ace righty for the Giants in the sixties. Throughout his peak, Marichal was always among the league leaders for innings pitched and complete games, leading the league in both categories twice. Marichal is famous for his extremely high leg kick in his delivery, which allowed him to conceal his pitch for as long as possible. Combined with a large arsenal of about five pitches, each useable from one of three arm slots, Marichal was tough to hit. He also had great control, rarely walking batters.
Marichal was among the first players from the Dominican Republic to come to the majors. Most people remember Marichal for one of two events. One is his famous 16 inning duel with an aging Warren Spahn, often called the greatest game ever pitched. Marichal would be victorious due to a timely home run from Willie Mays. The less positive anecdote from Marichal’s career was his infamous altercation with Dodgers’ catcher Johnny Roseboro, in which he clubbed Roseboro over the head multiple times with his bat. The two would later become friends, but it’s certainly a nasty mark on his record.
Back to his accomplishments, Marichal had about seven seasons, 1963-69, where he was a top flight pitcher. Although he never won a Cy Young due to the presence of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, Marichal thrice finished in the top ten in MVP voting. He somehow managed to lead the NL in wins in 1968, the year of the pitcher. His ERA and FIP for that stretch were 2.34 and 2.58 respectively, marks only matched by Sandy Koufax. That leads us into the primary issue with Marichal—he fails to standout compared to his contemporaries Koufax and Gibson. Marichal was clearly third to them. However, Marichal is still a pretty good candidate. He has seven really great years and another seven average to above average ones. When I look at other pitchers I have inducted, I see him as similar to Curt Schilling and Stan Coveleski in that they were great pitchers who were overshadowed by even greater ones that their career overlapped with. I think Marichal is probably better than either of them, which makes him a pretty clear choice.
Dale Murphy — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Spent 15 years on the ballot, peaking at 23.2% in 2000)
Dale Murphy was known as the clean-cut centerfielder for the Braves of the eighties. He won back-to-back MVP awards in ’82 and ’83, and had a stretch of about eight years where he was regarded as one of the best players in baseball. He was a strong power hitter, leading the National League twice, and playing runner up three more times. He was also a decent base stealer, allowing him to go 30-30 in 1983. Murphy was at least solid at everything on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, he was awarded multiple Gold Gloves in center, but most statistical measures rank him as mediocre at best. He was forced to move to right eventually, which leads me to believe his defense was nothing special.
Murphy’s biggest problem is that he fell into a black hole at age 32. Aside from that eight-year peak, Murphy basically did nothing noteworthy. So was his peak period good enough to make him a Hall of Famer? I’m not feeling it too much. I see him a bit like Earl Averill a half-century later. Both were center fielders with short but sweet careers. But Averill lasted a couple years longer, was probably a better fielder, and arguably a better, or at least, more consistent hitter. Furthermore, while Murphy was certainly a star level player in his day, he was never really a top five player in the league. Now, he did win two MVPs, although his 1982 award probably should be Gary Carter’s. But Murphy was always behind Mike Schmidt and Wade Boggs and Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken. And those guys all had much longer careers as well. Good prime, but not good enough.
Travis Jackson — In the Hall of Fame: YES (By Veteran’s Committee in 1982)
Travis Jackson is another Frank Frisch special, selected by the Veteran’s Committee because he was a teammate of Frisch and Bill Terry, who basically ran the VC. That said, his career is worth a look. Jackson was a pretty good shortstop for the New York Giants in the twenties. For a period of six years, 1926-31, he was the best shortstop in baseball, combining a decent bat with a great glove. His batting average and power numbers look pretty good for a glove firs player, but this was the twenties, when .300 batting averages were the norm. While Jackson was in the majors at 18, he retired at only 32, so his career is rather short. He was basically a league average hitter, so in order to be a viable candidate, his defense would have to be absolutely ridiculous. By all accounts he did have a fantastic glove, but pound for pound, it seems Joe Tinker blows him out of the water. Joe Tinker is a borderline candidate for me, so needless to say, Jackson is not. He was better than George Kelly though.
Billy Pierce — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received little support from BBWAA, was on the Golden Era Committee Ballot in 2015)
Billy Pierce is a mostly forgotten lefty starter who did his best work with the White Sox in the fifties. Pierce made six All-Star teams and received MVP votes in five different seasons. Pierce’s strongest season was 1955, when he led the league in both ERA and FIP, coming in at 1.97 and 2.83 respectively. He only pitched 200 innings compared to his normal mark around 250, but had the Cy Young award been around back then, he likely would have won it. Aside from that year, Pierce was mostly a good top of the rotation pitcher for about twelve years. He generally hung around with the league leaders in pretty much everything, but he never was dominant at one particular aspect of pitching. He’s perhaps most remembered from not being used as a starter in the 1959 World Series, despite having long been the ace of the White Sox staff. Manager Al Lopez reportedly did not want the lefty Pierce starting against the righty-heavy Dodgers, but Pierce did throw four scoreless innings in relief.
Pierce does have a reasonable Hall of Fame case. He was probably the third best pitcher of the fifties after Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts. That said, there’s nothing that really sets him apart from other candidates. Compared to Jim Kaat, who is sort of my go to as a borderline guy, Pierce had the best season overall, but Kaat outpaces him for his career. Pierce would look a lot better to me if he had two or three more average seasons tacked on the end of his career, because he prime was a little too weak for my standards. I’m somewhat undecided whether to send him to the Holding Tank or just reject him outright. I think I’ll hold onto him for now. I did like Hal Newhouser, and Pierce is pretty close to Newhouser in terms of career stats. I doubt he will make it in, but maybe I’ll like him more on the second look.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Dazzy Vance — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected by BBWAA in 1955)
Dazzy Vance was the greatest strikeout pitcher ever. This might not reflect in terms of raw stats, but it is absolutely true. In 1924, while pitching for the Brooklyn Robins, Vance struck out 262 batters, which was 21.5% of the batters that he faced. Neither of those numbers looks super impressive by modern standards, although both are quite good. But the league strikeout rate was 6.9% that year. Only four other pitchers even broke 10%, with the runner-up, Walter Johnson, reaching13.8%.
This is a complete aside, but when I’m bored, sometimes I go and stare at Barry Bonds’ stat pages at Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference, specifically that 2001-2004 stretch where he stopped playing the same game as his victims. Bonds is the most fun because I actually saw him player, but this activity can be fun with others too. Ty Cobb is pretty good, as is Babe Ruth. Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Ted Williams. 19th Century pitchers are fun in a silly way because modern stats don’t really work on them. Why am I going into this now? Because Dazzy Vance is the first time since I started this project that I feel like I’m reading one of these guy’s pages, except it’s for the first time. Dazzy Vance might be my new favorite pitcher.
So back to Vance’s merits. Vance twiddled around in the minors for about a decade, getting two brief shots at the majors in 1915 and 1918. Then, while playing cards in New Orleans (he was on the minor league team there), Vance hit his pitching elbow, causing immense pain. He went to a doctor to get it fixed, and suddenly, he had one of the greatest pitching arms the world had ever seen. The Robins (predecessors to today’s Dodgers) signed Vance at the age of 31. He led the league in strikeouts his first two seasons, but he wasn’t much better than above average. Then, in 1924, Vance became the best pitcher in baseball. He won the pitching triple crown and the MVP. The next year, although his ERA went up by more than a run, was mostly more of the same. Vance would lead the league in strikeouts in each of his first seven seasons, winning two ERA crowns along the way, as well as a third in 1930. By that point, Vance was pushing forty. He would finish his career out with a few part time seasons.
Like I said above, I have fallen in love with Vance. I love that the guy became a pitching god at the age of 33. I love reading all the stories of the stuff he pulled while on the road (he was quite the character). But even without the great narrative, Vance is worth of induction. He was the best pitcher in baseball for half a decade at least, and a top of the line starter for a decade.