Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Whole Old Ballgame

On his excellent site, Way Back and Gone, tHeMARksMiTh wrote earlier today about Terry Larkin, an early hurler in the National League who was forced out of the game by an arm injury after tossing more than 1500 innings in three seasons. Larkin descended into alcoholism, violence, and depression very quickly as his career ended, shooting his wife and attempting suicide three times (finally succeeding in 1894). Larkin’s post-baseball life is a tragedy, and he seems to have been a decent player. Mark writes,
“Debuting for the New York Mutuals in 1876, Terry Larkin threw a complete game in his only appearance of the season. Over the course of the next three seasons, Larkin would be one of the best pitchers in the National League and extremely consistent. He notched seasons of 29, 29, and 31 wins. His ERA's over that time were 2.14, 2.24, and 2.44. All of those seem very impressive, but his ERA+'s in those years were 114, 108, and 106 (a little above average). As for the type of pitcher that he was, he didn't strike out a lot of guys, not topping 2.9 K/9 (not all that uncommon), but he was very accurate with BB/9's below 1 and as low as 0.4.”

This is not meant as a criticism of Mark, but more of a commentary of how we (as baseball historians) look at the first years of our professional game. The Common Man has spent a lot of time in the last couple months within that world, looking at early American Association teams, the 1878 Louisville Grays scandal, and finishing Bryan Di Salvatore’s excellent biography of John Montgomery Ward (review still forthcoming, dammit). And the more he looks at it, the more he thinks we need to not be talking about the traditional statistics we use to evaluate 19th century baseball. For as much noise as nostalgists make about being able to plop old Alex Cartwright down in 2009 and he’d recognize his game, baseball in the 1870s and 1880s was very different from the game today. Pitchers originally threw underhand, and were required to throw the ball where the batter requested it. Balls caught on a single bounce were considered an out. Indeed, until 1878, foul balls caught on a bounce were outs. Walks were awarded after nine balls, then eight, seven, six, five, and finally four in 1889. Amazingly, Salvatore writes, "From 1876 through 1890...if a batter had two strikes on him, and didn't swing at the next 'fair' pitch, the umpire did not call him out. Instead, he gave him a 'freebie,' merely calling out a warning: 'good ball.'" In 1887, four strikes were required to strike a batter out. The pitching mound was far closer, and were required to throw from a box. According to Salvetore, "During Ward's pitching career, he and other hurlers had great leeway--twenty-four to thirty-six square feet of leeway--to accommodate whatever preliminaries to throwing the ball they felt most effective. Pitchers spun and threw, ran toward the plate like a cricket bowler, or pitched while moving sideways [think of a running Mitch Williams, I guess].” Runners could be soaked (or hit) with the ball to record an out. And with no gloves to speak of, the high error totals (and low strikeout totals), batters who were fast (thus putting additional pressure on the fielders) and who made solid regular contact would be significantly undervalued (since a baserunner’s a baserunner, whether he gets on via a single or an E-6) by traditional analysis. Likewise, concepts like “earned” run average have less meaning when about half of the runs scored are “unearned.”

So Mark’s insinuation that Larkin was a little above average, and a control freak who struck out few doesn’t really hold water when we compare him to his peers. For instance, in 1877, there were five pitchers (in a six team league) who threw more than 300 innings (Larkin, Tommy Bond, Jim Devlin, Tricky Nichols, and George Bradley). Looking at R/9, BB/9, and K/9, Larkin finishes fourth across the board in all categories. In '78, there were six pitchers who fit the same criteria (again, in a six team league): Larkin, Bond, John Montgomery Ward, The Only Nolan, Sam Weaver, and Will White. Larkin finished fifth, second, and fifth, respectively. And in '79, when the National League expanded to eight teams, there were eight pitchers with more than 300 IP. Larkin, White, Ward, Bond, Bradley, Pud Galvin, Jim McCormick, and Harry McCormick. Larkin finished fourth, third, and fifth.

Above all, The Common Man would argue we should look at R/9 to determine the quality of a starter from this period. Again, walks are few and far between, to the point where 10 walks (spread across 500 innings) represents a massive difference in ranking. Likewise, with such low K rates, only the outliers like Ward or Tommy Bond really have any significance. Regardless, Larkin finishes in the middle of the pack pretty consistently. He’s clearly better than each team’s second pitchers, but nowhere near one of the top hurlers of his day. Decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Ward, meanwhile, after finishing his pitching career in 1883, became one of the National League’s preeminent shortstops until 1891 (when he moved to 2B for three seasons). Despite a lifetime 92 OPS+, and a career batting mark of .275, Ward was universally hailed as one of baseball’s great superstars. Ward wasn’t terrible with the bat, necessarily, but lacked power (he only topped twenty doubles once in his 17 year career, once topped 10 triples, and never hit more than 7 homers). Instead, Ward beat out a ton of infield hits, and presumably forced a good number of errors. His stolen base totals are very high, leading the league twice (with 111 in 1887 and 88 in 1892). In his final season, despite an OPS+ of just 49, Ward scores 100 runs in 136 games, 143 hits, and just 34 walks. That high run total was presumably inflated significantly by the number of extra times Ward found himself on first. Likewise, his value on defense, where he was above average throughout his career, and excellent at his peak, significantly influences how he should be perceived.

The Common Man finds this frustrating about the early game, how it is constantly described in batting average, ERA, strikeouts, and stolen bases. And maybe that’s because it’s not as sexy to study the era that has little relevance to how many homers Joe Mauer is projected to hit this year or what Phil Hughes’ performance would look like if he shifted to the bullpen. Or maybe that’s because, even with evocative books like Salvatore’s painting a remarkable picture of the age, we still have a lot of holes in the data. But The Common Man would really like more ways to look at the 19th century, to truly appreciate those players whose careers have gone largely unnoticed or have been relatively maligned. The Common Man cares because, while it may not be the same exact game, it’s where our sport comes from.

If you have any useful 19th Century resources, shoot them this way.


Ron Rollins said...

I don't know if you saw my interview today with Kevin Graham from the 'DMB World Series Replay' or not.

We seem to have dueling opinions of 19th century baseball today.

I would tend to disagree with your opinon, but not strongly. You make excellent points.

I think the main issue behind is the quote about Alexander Cartwright is right, however.

Fundamentally it is the same game, with some natural evolution added in. But today, our society and technology allow us to look at the game differntly, which is the key. I think.

I sure there were some form of statheads back then, and people complaining about the changes in the game and wanting it to be more traditional.

I think the game stays the same, but our perception of it changes.

On a side note, more posts.

The Common Man said...

"On a side note, more posts."

Workin' on it, dude. The Common Man is very tired of only writing two a week. It makes it hard to stay in a rhythm. It's been a long month or so (in a good way).

The Common Man appreciates 19th century ball, but doesn't think he would want to watch it. It seems awfully brutal and, frankly, primitive. I don't think I would have the stomach for all the miscues. The Common Man played the first three years of the National Association on DMB a year or so back, and barely made it through the requisite 30 games on the schedule. It was just so frustrating to see error after error.

The Common Man is a fervent admirer, and is grateful for what came before, but probably not a crank, to use the appropriate terminology.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

I really hadn't thought about that. In a lot of ways, I'm still learning about baseball history, especially things that are that far back. I should probably do some posts on how the game has changed in the past few years. I have some stuff on the strike zone and umpires lined up for the next few days.

But it's good that you pointed that out.