The Tom Seaver Era

February 26, 2019
 

The Tom Seaver Era

            In the 1970s, in what I am going to refer to as the Tom Seaver era, there were a large number of obvious Hall of Fame pitchers all in their prime at about the same time.    Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Ferguson Jenkins were part of the group, but Don Sutton, born in the same year as Seaver and Carlton, got 300 wins as well.   Catfish Hunter was regarded at the time as an obvious Hall of Fame pitcher, although we don’t think of him that way now, but we did then.   Tiant was as good as Catfish, or as great as Catfish, depending on how you would phrase that.   Denny McLain, born in the same year as Carlton and Seaver and Sutton, I think, was perhaps the greatest of them all for the first half of his career, although he self-destructed at about the 40% mark.   Phil Niekro and Gay Lord Perry were older than Seaver and company, but had their best seasons in the same era.   Bert Blyleven was younger, but his greatest seasons were also in that era. Vida Blue didn’t quite make the Hall of Fame, but was equally great.   Did I mention Jim Palmer?   Should have been mentioned before now; it’s hard to remember them all.   I guess I forgot Nolan Ryan.

            It wasn’t like the 1960s, when Gibson and Koufax and Marichal and others would strike out 325 batters with 1.80 ERAs.  That was a pitching-dominated era.   The pitching dominated era kind of ended in 1968, didn’t fully end until 1972, but while the number of runs scored was up, it seemed like every team had a Hall of Fame pitcher anchoring their rotation.  Even the number two pitchers were pretty awesome.  The #2 behind Seaver was Jerry Koosman; #2 behind Blyleven was Jim Kaat, although Kaat was traded too early.   #2 behind Palmer was Dave McNally, who won 20 games every year.  #2 behind Catfish was Vida Blue.  Sometime in 1976 I sent an article to The Baseball Digest entitled 300 Game Winners:  there’s going to be a flood.   They wouldn’t publish the article because the editor didn’t believe it would really happen.   But it did. 

 

 

1968 NL—Bob Gibson (both systems and Cy Young Award)

1969 AL—Mike Cuellar (D-WAR) vs. Denny McLain (R-WAR)

Cy Young Award—Vote Tie, Cuellar and McLain

I have Cuellar ahead of McLain 10.2 to 9.3, with Sam McDowell third at 9.2   I have Cuellar as deserving of a 21-10 won-lost record, McLain 20-11. 

Baseball Reference lists McLain first (8.1), Sam McDowell second (6.7) and, rather incredibly, does not include Cuellar among the top ten, with WAR of 4.5.   I would accept either McLain or Cuellar as the best pitcher in the league, but not including Cuellar in the top 10 seems odd. 

 

 

1969 NL—Bob Gibson (both)

Cy Young Award—Tom Seaver

            I’ve written about this several times, but from 1969-1971 there is this odd thing where Gibson, Seaver and Fergie Jenkins are each deserving of one Cy Young Award and each won one Cy Young Award, but all won them in the wrong seasons.   Not in this analysis, though; in this analysis Seaver nips Jenkins by 1/40th of a win in 1970 (10.359 WAR to 10.335), so that would put Seaver as deserving of two Cy Young Awards in the three-year period, albeit not the one that he actually won. 

 

            1970 AL—Sam McDowell (both systems)

            Cy Young Award—Jim Perry

            Sudden Sam McDowell, supported by 4.10 runs per start, went 20-12 with a 2.92 ERA, 304 strikeouts in 305 innings.   Jim Perry, supported by 4.43 runs per start, went 24-12 with a 3.04 ERA in 279 innings. 

            Perry thus appears to be close to McDowell; behind him by 9% in innings pitched, 4% in ERA, but comparable.  The twist that enlivens the debate in this case is that the parks for both pitchers had atypical seasons.  Sam McDowell pitched for Cleveland.  Cleveland, which reads as a pitcher’s park prior to 1970, had a Park Factor in 1970 of 133, the highest in the American League, and their Park Factor remained high after 1970, suggesting that there was an actual modification to the park at that time, and that a high Park Factor is appropriate.   Perry pitched for Minnesota, which normally reads as a hitter’s park, both before and after 1970, but which had a Park Factor in 1970 of 93.   Where Perry stands in relation to McDowell depends to an extent on how you evaluate the parks. 

            Still, both analytical approaches show McDowell as BY FAR the best pitcher in the American League in 1970, with Perry either on the list or not on the list, depending on how you interpret the data.   I always liked Jim Perry, always had a feeling for him, because after leading the American League in Wins in 1960 (18) he had a tough season and got stuck as a swing pitcher, moving between bullpen and the starting rotation, and pitched in that role for years before Billy Martin finally moved him back into the rotation in 1969.  He lost probably 40-50 wins that he should have had from 1963 to 1968.  

            But it is clear that his selection as the Cy Young winner in 1970 was driven by his win total, 24, and is not justifiable in the light of modern analysis. 

           

 

            1970 NL—Tom Seaver (D-WAR) Vs. Bob Gibson (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Bob Gibson

            My evaluation has it Seaver (10.4), Ferguson Jenkins (10.3), Bob Gibson (9.8).

            Baseball Reference has it Gibson (8.9), Gaylord Perry (7.6), Ferguson Jenkins (7.3) and has Tom Seaver in fifth place at 5.9.  

            Any of the three—Gibson, Seaver, or Ferguson Jenkins—is deserving of a Cy Young Award in my opinion, and I wouldn’t argue it one way or the other.  I do think that the low evaluation for Seaver by Baseball Reference is difficult to sustain logically.  Seaver led the league in ERA (2.82), strikeouts (283) and ERA+ (143). 

            As an aside, when pitchers pitched 300 innings in a season Baseball Reference generally sees a pitcher as being the most valuable player in the league, better than any position player.  Baseball Reference sees Gibson as being the MVP in 1968, 1969 and 1970.   It sees Koufax, Marichal and Bunning as the three most valuable players in the NL in 1966, Ron Santo in 1967 (a position player), but Gibson in 1968, 1969, and 1970, Ferguson Jenkins in 1971, Steve Carlton in 1972, and Seaver in 1973. 

           

 

            1971 AL—Vida Blue (D-WAR) Vs. Wilbur Wood (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award (and MVP)—Vida Blue

            There was a Cy Young controversy in both leagues in 1971.   In the American League Vida Blue started the season at an incredible pace.  Through July 25 he had made 25 starts and was 19-3 with a 1.37 ERA.     Every start was stunning.  On July 9 he pitched 11 shutout innings, striking out 17.  In his next start he pitched a 1-hit shutout; in his next, 11 innings again, and in his next, 6 innings of 1-hit ball.   That was when he 19-3 with a 1.37 ERA.

            Perhaps worked too hard, he faded after that, going just 5-5 over the last two months with a 2.74 ERA.    Mickey Lolich, meanwhile, threw 376 innings, struck out 308 batters, won 25 games and made 8 starts in September with a 2.05 ERA.   2.05 ERA in September; his ERA for the season was 2.92.  Many people felt that Lolich should have been the Cy Young Award winner.

            Wilbur Wood arrived late, as an interloper to the debate; he also pitched 334 innings with a 1.91 ERA, but, in that he was a fat fellow who did this with a knuckleball and the name of a talking horse, no one advocated for him to be the Cy Young Award winner until several years after the voting had ended. 

            All three pitchers had remarkable seasons.   My system sees the MVP, Vida Blue, as being easily the best of the three, with 13.3 WAR to 11.0 (Wood) and 10.9 (Lolich).    Baseball Reference makes it Wood, 11.8; Blue, 9.0, and Lolich, 8.5.

            Let’s see. . .the Park Factor for Chicago (94) is lower than that for Oakland (98).  Wood’s ERA is higher, 1.91 to 1.82, and Wood allowed 24 un-earned runs, whereas Blue allowed 10.   So how does Wood pull 28 runs ahead of Blue?

1)     They evaluate the park differently than the Park Factors I gave you, which, I don’t know; I guess they could be right about that,

2)     They evaluate Blue’s defensive support at +0.24 runs per nine innings, Wood’s defensive support at negative 0.29 runs per nine innings.   That gives Wood an advantage of about 19 runs in the comparison.

            Wood had a good year.   I’d stick with Vida Blue, but, you know. . . it’s not a crazy selection.

 

            1971 NL—Tom Seaver (both systems)

            Cy Young Award—Ferguson Jenkins

            Baseball Reference sees Tom Seaver as being the best pitcher in the National League, but Ferguson Jenkins as being the best player in the National League.   Jenkins hit .240 with 7 doubles, a triple and 6 homers, driving in 20 runs.  The batting record moves him from 10.1 WAR, which is less than Seaver, to 11.8, which is more than anyone in the league.

 

            1972 AL—Gaylord Perry (both systems and Cy Young Award)

            1972 NL—Steve Carlton (both systems and Cy Young Award)

            1973 AL—Nolan Ryan (D-WAR) Vs. Bert Blyleven (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Jim Palmer

            Nolan Ryan was 21-16, pitched 326 innings with a 2.86 ERA, and struck out 383 batters.

            Blyleven was 20-17, pitched 325 innings with a 2.52 ERA. 

            Palmer was 22-9, pitched 296 innings with a 2.40 ERA. 

            So we have a 3-way split here, with D-WAR going one way, R-WAR a different way, and the Cy Young Voters a third way.   Let’s see. . .let’s check Fangraphs.

            Fangraphs agrees with Baseball Reference, choosing Blyleven as the best pitcher in the league, 10.8 WAR, but has Nolan Ryan second at 8.7, whereas it doesn’t believe that Jim Palmer belongs in the conversation at all, at 4.5 WAR. 

First

Last

D-WAR

R-WAR

F-WAR

Total

Bert

Blyleven

10.9

9.8

10.8

31.5

Nolan

Ryan

12.5

7.8

8.7

29.0

Jim

Palmer

10.2

6.3

4.6

21.1

 

              D-WAR and Fangraphs both see Blyleven and Ryan as the two best pitchers not only in the American League but in the major leagues, and Baseball Reference sees Blyleven not only as the best pitcher in the American League, but as the MVP.   Baseball Reference, however, sees Tom Seaver (NL) as the best pitcher in the majors.  I accept that Ryan may have been overrated by my system due to the record number of strikeouts, and that Blyleven may in fact have been the best pitcher in the league. 

 

            1973 NL—Tom Seaver (both systems and Cy Young Award)

            1974 AL—Gaylord Perry (both systems)

            Cy Young Award—Catfish Hunter

            Catfish is shown as 4th by my system, 6th by Baseball Reference.   Baseball Reference again ranks Gaylord as not only the best pitcher in the league, but as the Most Valuable Player.

 

 

            1974 NL—Phil Niekro (D-WAR) Vs. Jon Matlack (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Mike Marshall

            Matlack ranks third in my system, behind Niekro and Andy Messersmith.  Niekro ranks second according to Baseball Reference, behind Matlack.  I can’t comment on the relative value of Mike Marshall because, of course, he was a reliever, and relievers are outside the purview of my method.

 

            1975 AL—Jim Palmer (both systems and Cy Young Award)

            1975 NL—Andy Messersmith (D-WAR) Vs. Tom Seaver (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Tom Seaver

            Messersmith pitched 322 innings with a 2.29 ERA in Dodger Stadium, Park Factor of 84.  Seaver pitched 280 innings with a 2.38 ERA in Shea Stadium, Park Factor of 88. 

            My system has Messersmith as just six runs better than Seaver (0.6 WAR), whereas Baseball Reference has Seaver 14 runs (1.4 WAR) ahead of Messersmith, and Messersmith in 5th place.   I’m not sure I am following the logic of that, but you can never argue with Tom Seaver.  

 

 

            1976 AL—Frank Tanana (D-WAR) Vs. Mark Fidrych (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Jim Palmer

            As happened in 1973, Palmer steals the Cy Young Award from under the nose of pitchers regarded by analytical systems as having more value.   Palmer was 22-13, 2.51 ERA and led the league in innings pitched, 315. 

            Palmer’s strikeout/walk data in many seasons is markedly less impressive than other pitchers with comparable results.  He won the Cy Young Award in 1973 when he had 158 strikeouts, 113 walks, and he won in 1976, when he was 159-84.  The interpretation of his records by modern analysis is that he benefited tremendously from his defense (although not as much in 1976 as in other seasons), but anyway, my point was that it is difficult to argue with this conclusion.  His defensive support was visibly outstanding, with Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Bobby Grich and Paul Blair behind him. 

            Tanana vs. Fidrych. . ..my system may be unfair to Fidrych, in that this pits an extreme power pitcher (Tanana in ’76) vs. an extreme ground ball pitcher.   Tanana was 19-10, 2.43 ERA; Fidrych was almost the same (19-9, 2.34), but Tanana had 261 strikeouts, Fidrych had only 97.   While I don’t think it is problematic to give value to strikeouts, it does cause some concern when the difference in strikeouts is that large.   Fidrych in 1976 faced 173 potential double play situations, and got 25 double plays.  Tanana faced 174 potential double play situations, and got 11 double plays.

            I have Tanana as deserving of a 21-7 won-lost record; Fidrych, 16-7, and I have Palmer as the #2 pitcher in the league, at 21-11. 

 

 

            1976 NL—Tom Seaver (D-WAR) Vs. John Montefusco (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Randy Jones

            So we have three candidates here again; I’ll throw in Jerry Koosman as well and chart their info.  Seaver and Koosman were pitching for the Mets, Randy Jones for San Diego and John Montefusco for San Francisco.

Pitcher

W

L

IP

ERA

SO

BB

PF

ERA+

D-Wins

D-Losses

D-WAR

R-WAR

F-WAR

Total WAR

Seaver

14

11

271

2.59

235

77

78

126

18

8

9.1

5.4

6.8

21.3

Montefusco

16

14

253

2.84

172

74

106

127

17

11

7.4

6.9

5.2

19.5

Koosman

21

10

247

2.69

200

66

78

121

17

9

7.8

4.7

4.9

17.4

Jones

22

14

315

2.74

93

50

76

119

18

12

7.7

4.8

4.6

17.1

 

              Jones, a ground ball pitcher, got 34 double plays in 205 double play situations.  Jones was 18-4 with a 2.54 ERA at the end of July, then faded and was running on fumes by the end of the year.   The park factors are about the same except for Montefusco.  I understand why Baseball Reference WAR would prefer Montefusco, based on the park, but my system and Fangraphs both prefer Seaver, and I’d think. . .you know, Tom Seaver or John Montefusco, I’ve got to go with Seaver most of the time. 

 

 

            1977 AL—Nolan Ryan (D-WAR) Vs. Frank Tanana (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Sparky Lyle

            Ryan and Tanana were teammates in Anaheim.  Ryan was 19-16, struck out 341 batters but walked 204, probably threw a couple of no-hitters; I don’t know, I didn’t check, I’m just assuming.  He had a 2.77 ERA in 299 innings.  Frank, losing his fastball a little in 1977, was 15-9 with a league-leading 2.54 ERA, struck out 205 but walked only 61.  Ryan made 37 starts to Tanana’s 31.

            My system (D-WAR) sees Ryan as being not only better than Tanana but much better, 12.1 WAR to 9.4, so I suppose I should look into that more carefully. 

            Let’s see. . .Tanana gave up only 4 un-earned runs, whereas Ryan gave up 18, so that’s a plus for Tanana.   Ryan did not throw a no-hitter in 1977, now that I check; he threw a 1-hitter, and he had a game in which he pitched 10 shutout innings and struck out 19, but no no-hitter. 

            On careful examination, I would have to say that my system has the less-preferable answer, and that Baseball Reference has it more right (choosing Tanana) than my system has (choosing Ryan).   Nolan Ryan is such an odd pitcher, SO much an outlier from the norms, that it is always difficult to evaluate him accurately, but. . .

            Nolan Ryan had 32 starts in which he met his target score, and only five in which he failed to meet his target score.  My system believes that he has a deserved won-lost record of 22-4 in the 32 "good" starts, 0-3 in the 5 "bad" starts.  But is this true?

            Not entirely.  We can break the 32 good starts down into 22 games in which he exceeded his target score by 14 points or more, and 10 games in which he exceeded his target score but by a narrow margin.   When he exceeded his target score by 14 or more, Ryan had an expected won-lost record of 17-2, and an actual won-lost record of 17-3.   In those games he pitched 195 innings with a 1.65 ERA, striking out 219 batters and walking 112. 

            But in the 10 games in which he exceeded his target score by a narrow margin, he had an expected won-lost record of 5-2, but an actual won-lost record of 1-9.  In those games—5 at home, and 5 on the road—his offensive support was poor, but not horrific.  He had 27 runs to work with in those 10 games, 6 runs twice, 3 runs once, 2 runs five times, 1 run twice, no shutouts. 

            But in those games Ryan walked 57 men in 80 innings, also gave up 63 hits, 3.71 ERA and also 5 un-earned runs.  It is difficult to say that a pitcher deserved to win those close games when he was walking six and a half batters per 9 innings in low-scoring games.   That would fall under the heading of "asking for trouble." 

            His close games don’t survive a close examination.  So I would have to say, despite the conclusion of my method, that Tanana was more deserving of recognition as the league’s best starting pitcher than was Ryan.   The Cy Young Award went to a reliever, Sparky Lyle; no comment on that. 

 

            1977 NL—Tom Seaver (D-WAR) Vs. Rick Reuschel (R-WAR)

            Cy Young Award—Steve Carlton

            Another three-way split; the two analytical systems like different pitchers and the Cy Young voters a third.  Seaver started the season with the Mets, was traded to the Reds in mid-season.  Reuschel was with the Cubs, Carlton with the Phillies. 

Pitcher

W

L

IP

ERA

SO

BB

PF

ERA+

D-Wins

D-Losses

D-WAR

R-WAR

F-WAR

Total WAR

Seaver

21

6

261

2.58

196

66

94

149

19

7

10.1

7.9

6.2

24.2

Reuschel

20

10

252

2.79

166

74

124

158

18

10

8.2

9.4

6.5

24.1

Carlton

23

10

283

2.64

198

89

112

121

20

8

10.0

5.9

5.1

21.0

 

Baseball Reference, as it almost always does in this era, sees Reuschel as being not only the best starting pitcher in the league, but as the most valuable player in the league, 0.7 Wins ahead of Mike Schmidt and 1.2 ahead of the actual MVP, George Foster. 

            Rick Reuschel.  . .this is for the benefit of anyone not old enough to remember seeing him.  . .Reuschel was a big man, big shoulders and big legs, and he looked fat but was actually a tremendous athlete, a good fielder, good hitter and a good runner when he was young.  He pitched mostly for bad teams, which ruined his won-lost records, and he pitched mostly in hitter’s parks, which did not help his ERA, and he was a ground ball pitcher, so he didn’t have big strikeout totals.   His true ability is pretty well hidden from the records, unusually well hidden.  1977 was his only 20-win season, although he was 18-12 in 1979 and 19-11 years later, in 1988, pitching for the Giants.   

            In 1977 base stealers against Reuschel were 15-for-34, so they were hurting themselves by trying, but they tried a lot because of the fear of double plays.  Base stealers were 29-for-45 against Steve Carlton and 26/36 against Tom Seaver; Carlton had a great pickoff move but at that time was using Tim McCarver as his personal catcher, and McCarver couldn’t throw.   In 1977 Reuschel actually didn’t have tremendous double play support; he got 21 DPs in 169 opportunities, about the same ratio as Carlton (19/148), but higher than Seaver (12/125). 

            In the end, I couldn’t choose between Seaver and Reuschel in 1977, and actually, Carlton is not a terrible choice for Cy Young, either.  It’s too close to call. 

 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

chuck
brewer09, you'll have to go back and read the articles starting around Valentine's Day. The 2nd article has a paragraph on Deserved Won-Lost Records:
https://www.billjamesonline.com/the_target_score/?AuthorId=3&Year=2019

The D-WAR translates how the pitcher performed relative to his target scores (for each game) into a different version of wins above replacement.
12:40 AM Feb 27th
 
brewer09
What is D-WAR?
11:24 PM Feb 26th
 
chuck
I think the Fangraphs WAR sells Palmer a little short in 1976. Look at the batting average on balls in play for him and his teammates...

The team’s batting average allowed on balls in play was .275, and the AL average was .280. Palmer’s own average allowed on balls in play was a lowly .241. Take out Palmer’s balls in play and hits in play, and the team’s average rises somewhat- to .284, worse than the AL average. So, one might say that the Orioles’ defense helped Palmer (and, essentially, Doyle Alexander, Dyar Miller, and Fred Holdsworth, who were all well below .280) but DIDn’t help the other 11 pitchers. Or, one could instead say that Palmer himself had a lot to do with that low average on balls in play. For one thing, he had the lowest Ground out-to-Air out ratio on the staff. (Miller and Holdsworth were also low.)

Take Palmer’s 975 balls in play that season and multiply it by the .284 the rest of the staff allowed, and you get 277 (276.6) expected hits in play. Palmer allowed 42 hits less than that, in play. I don’t know what 42 hits is worth, but it tallies up to some runs.

Another thing I remember about Palmer from a study I did some years ago is that he was the top pitcher I found (among a group of long-career starters) in terms of raising his strikeout rate with runners in scoring position. Here are his career numbers with no men on, 1 runner on, 2 runners, and bases loaded. Intentional walks have been removed, and the HR rate is per (AB+SF).

SO% ... UBB% .. HR% ... situation
12.8% . 8.2% . 2.16% . no men on
14.8% . 7.9% . 2.01% . 1 man on
16.2% . 6.8% . 1.96% . 2 men on
18.3% . 6.1% . 0.00% . 3 men on

With runners in scoring position, his strikeout rate was 16.8%, well over his rate with no men on (12.8%) or a man on 1st (13.4%).
6:18 PM Feb 26th
 
bhalbleib
Well, then maybe it would have been just as funny (and more accurate) to say he had the name of the world's most famous fictional pig.
2:48 PM Feb 26th
 
DavidTodd
Right, Kitty, it would be just as funny as saying he had the same name as a talking airplane.
12:00 PM Feb 26th
 
hotstatrat
Adding to the comments by joedimino and evanecurb i.e. defense making pitchers look good which rWAR tries to undo in regards to the 1969 AL best pitcher: Cuellar had Belanger at short, Blair in center, etc. 1969 was the year McLain had Mickey Stanley playing regularly at short until he hurt his arm mid-season doing so and was replaced by another OF-SS Tom Tresh. That left CF, if not to sore armed Stanley but corner outfielder Jim Northrup and right-field to 34 year old Al Kaline. Slow man Willie Horton was the left-fielder.
11:46 AM Feb 26th
 
evanecurb
With respect to Palmer and the Orioles and their defense in the 1970s: You are, of course, correct that those mid 70s O's defenders were very good. In some years (Palmer's 1973 Cy Young season being one of those), they won four gold gloves.

There's also the Earl Weaver factor. The O's won six Cy Young Awards in Weaver's 14 full seasons, including 3 by Palmer. Since moving to Baltimore in 1954, Orioles' pitchers have had 24 20 win seasons (including 8 by Palmer and 4 each by McNally and Cuellar). Only two of those - Barber in '63 and Boddicker in '84 - occurred when Weaver was not the manager. Mike Torrez, Steve Stone, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Pat Dobson, and Wayne Garland each won 20 games under Weaver.
11:00 AM Feb 26th
 
benhurwitz
"... and the name of a talking horse", that's hilarious. Unfortunately, the horse's name was Mr. Ed and it was his owner/friend who was named Wilbur.
9:40 AM Feb 26th
 
 
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