Wilbur, Mickey, and True Blue

April 25, 2018
My deepest, humblest apologies in advance to Terry Cashman…..
 
"Talkin’ Baseball" – 1971 Version
 
The Pirates had won it,
The Orioles had done it,
Four 20-game winners sure was a lot of fun.
Torre hit .363,
He took home the MVP,
While the Senators wrapped up their gig in Washington.
Talkin’ baseball,
Murtaugh and Earl Weaver.
Talkin’ baseball,
Fergie and Tom Seaver
Stargell, Aaron, Murcer, and Carew,
Starting pitcher values through the roof,
Including Wilbur, Mickey, and True Blue
(say hey, say hey, say hey, say hey)
Including Wilbur……Mickey……and True Blue.
 
"Wilbur, Mickey, and True Blue" is my homage to "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke", and refers to Wilbur Wood, Mickey Lolich, Vida Blue and the amazing seasons they posted in 1971. They were the inspiration for this article, as well as a bit of statistical trivia that they contributed to in that season (along with others), some of which is hinted at in the lyrics above. 
 
More on that trio and the trivia later…….but, I should also take a moment to mention that "True Blue" isn’t really a very fair reference to Vida Blue. After all, that wasn’t his nickname. The A’s owner, Charles O. Finley, offered Blue $2,000 to legally change his middle name to "True", and went so far as to have the announcers refer to him as "True Blue" and to have "True Blue" appear on the scoreboard when he pitched.   But, ultimately, Blue objected, as he liked his name just fine as it was.   All of which prompted Blue to wonder, "If he thinks it's such a great name, why doesn't he call himself True O. Finley?".
 
In any case….I used it because the one-syllable "True" lyrically fit in with the beat of the song better than the two-syllable "Vida" did. I hope Vida isn’t too offended.
 
1971
 
I’ve been on a bit of a ‘70’s kick lately. Time to break out the bell bottoms and the Three Dog Night albums……
 
In my recent Billy Grabarkewitz article, I reflected back on how 1970 was the first season I recall following closely. So, of course, by deductive reasoning, 1971 would have been my second one (brilliant!). 
 
As a Reds fan, 1971 wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as my inaugural 1970 season was. In fact, it downright stunk. The Reds plummeted from a 102-60 record (and reaching the World Series) in 1970 to a 79-83 mark in 1971, although, interestingly enough, they actually gave up 100 fewer runs in 1971 than they did in 1970. Unfortunately, they scored almost 200 fewer than the year before. Bobby Tolan got hurt playing basketball in the offseason and missed the entire 1971 season. Johnny Bench was the MVP in 1970 and 1972, but in 1971 he had one of the worst hitting seasons in his career. Jim Merritt went from a 20-12 record to a 1-11 record. Tony Perez and Bernie Carbo both had big declines from the prior year. From 1967 through 1981, 1971 was the only season in which the Reds had a losing record. It was a harsh lesson in reality to a young fan like me.
 
On the bright side, though, 1971 is also the season in which I got hooked on playing baseball simulations. In my case, the first game I got hooked on was a chart & dice game by Sports Illustrated, which as somewhat similar in nature to Strat-O-Matic (technically, my introduction to baseball simulation games was Cadaco’s "All-Star Baseball", which had a spinner and hitter "discs" with wedges that displayed different potential results, but that game lost its appeal for me when our spinner started rusting and would always end up stopping in the same spot, so all you had to do was position the hitter discs accordingly and you’d never make an out. So much for randomness….)
 
In any case, I had a friend that owned the 1971 version of the Sports Illustrated game, and I really got into it, as well as becoming very familiar with the statistics that the players generated that season. As I’ve aged, even though I stay in touch with what’s going on, I find that I no longer remember many specific player stats from a specific season, at least not like I used to in my formative years.   They just don’t stick with me as well as they used to. But, for the rest of my life, the following tidbits about 1971 will permanently occupy space in my brain cells:
 
  • I will always remember that Joe Torre, who was a good player anyway, had a flukey season where he went nuts and hit .363 with 137 RBI, winning the NL MVP.
 
  • I will always remember that Glenn Beckert hit .342 after 10 consecutive seasons of hitting exactly .288 each year (OK…that’s not literally true….but it sure seemed like it). 
 
  • I will always remember that Ralph Garr, my generation’s "fastest player alive", came seemingly out of nowhere to swing at everything and Baltimore Chop his way to a .343 average.
 
  • I will always remember Willie Stargell, who was already a good player, had a breakout season where he smashed 48 HR’s.
 
  • I will always remember Earl Williams and Willie Montanez, each of whom hit over 30 home runs that season, duking it out to see who would take home Rookie of the Year.
 
But, mostly I will remember the pitchers from that season. 
 
  • I will always remember that the Orioles produced a quartet of 20-game winners (Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson), equaling the achievement of the 1920 White Sox (Red Faber, Dickey Kerr, Eddie Cicotte, and Lefty Williams, the latter 2 of whom were playing their final season before being banned from baseball for good).
 
  • I will always remember that Rick Wise of the Phillies had a season to remember, including the following games of note:
 
A.      Pitching a no-hitter and hitting two home runs in the same game.

B.      Having another game in which he hit two more home runs (including a grand slam), and

C.      Having yet another game where, after falling behind 3-1 to the Cubs with no outs in the second inning, proceeded to retire the Cubs in order in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th innings. Then, as the game continued into extra innings, he retired the Cubs in order in the 10th. And the 11th. And the first 2 batters in the 12th, before Ron Santo singled to break the streak. In all, Wise retired 32 straight batters during the game, which I believe still stands as the 2nd most consecutive hitters retired in a single game (behind the 36 by Harvey Haddix). Oh, and by the way, for good measure, Wise drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th.
 
Rick Wise……"One Man Wrecking Crew".
 
But, mostly, I will remember Wilbur, Mickey, and True Blue.
 
1971 AL "Pitching Leaders"
 
I think this is an interesting nugget about the way that terminology and language develops over time…..
 
The 1972 Topps baseball card set (for the 1971 season) has a card labeled "1971 Pitching Leaders". On the front it shows pictures of our friendly trio: 1-Mickey Lolich, 2-Vida Blue, 3-Wilbur Wood. 
 
On the back it lists the following information:
 
 
 
 
1. Mickey Lolich
Detroit Tigers
25
2. Vida Blue
Oakland A’s
24
3. Wilbur Wood
Chicago White Sox
22
4. Jim Hunter
Oakland A’s
21
4. Dave McNally
Baltimore Orioles
21
6. Joe Coleman
Detroit Tigers
20
6. Mike Cuellar
Baltimore Orioles
20
6. Pat Dobson
Baltimore Orioles
20
6. Andy Messersmith
California Angels
20
6. Jim Palmer
Baltimore Orioles
20
 
Anything seem odd about that? Well, the card is labeled "Pitching Leaders". Not "Wins".   Not "Victories". Just "Pitching Leaders". "Wins" and "Victories" are mentioned nowhere on the card. Not on the front, and not on the back.
 
The card from that year for ERA leaders is labeled "ERA leaders", and the card for strikeout leaders is labeled "strikeout leaders". But the card for pitching wins leaders is entitled "Pitching Leaders". I think that’s very telling in many ways about what was considered at the time to be the most effective way to measure pitching success. You were expected to get the "win". 
 
It also appears that the 1972 set (for the 1971 season) may have been the final season they labeled that card that way, as the card in the 1973 set (for the 1972 season) is labeled "victory leaders". The times, they are (and have been) a-changin’……
 
A Certain Fascination
 
I remember years ago, in one of the annual Baseball Abstracts, Bill James made a comment (and I’m going from memory here, so I don’t remember the exact quote) that he often reflected back on the outstanding 1964 rookie crop, that it was hard to get it out of his mind, and was especially drawn to it. I feel the same way about the 1971 AL Cy Young race.  I’m not sure why it intrigues me so much, but it still does, after all these years.
 
The 1971 AL Cy Young race basically came down to the trio of Wood, Lolich and Blue. Before we review any further, here is some basic data on the pitchers who got at least some Cy Young support that year (split into 2 tables to be able to see all of it), and I’ll use blue/bold type to indicate AL league leadership in a category):
 
Finish
Name
Tm
Vote Pts
1st Place
Share
Pitching rWAR
W
L
W-L%
ERA
GS
CG
SHO
1
Vida Blue
OAK
98
14
82%
9.0
24
8
.750
1.82
39
24
8
2
Mickey Lolich
DET
85
9
71%
8.5
25
14
.641
2.92
45
29
4
3
Wilbur Wood
CHW
23
1
19%
11.8
22
13
.629
1.91
42
22
7
4
Dave McNally
BAL
8
0
7%
3.1
21
5
.808
2.89
30
11
1
5
Dick Drago
KCR
1
0
1%
4.1
17
11
.607
2.98
34
15
4
5
Andy Messersmith
CAL
1
0
1%
2.7
20
13
.606
2.99
38
14
4
 
RFinish
Name
Tm
IP
H
ER
HR
BB
SO
WHIP
ERA+
1
Vida Blue
OAK
312.0
209
63
19
88
301
0.952
183
2
Mickey Lolich
DET
376.0
336
122
36
92
308
1.138
124
3
Wilbur Wood
CHW
334.0
272
71
21
62
210
1.000
189
4
Dave McNally
BAL
224.1
188
72
24
58
91
1.097
117
5
Dick Drago
KCR
241.1
251
80
14
46
109
1.231
114
5
Andy Messersmith
CAL
276.2
224
92
16
121
179
1.247
108
 
So, Blue won the Cy Young (he also took home the MVP), but Lolich gave him a good run for the Cy Young, with Wood a distant third, but still a fair amount ahead of the rest of the field. I wonder how this vote would play out if being voted on today? Lolich led in wins, innings, and K’s, but had an ERA roughly a run higher than Blue and Wood. Blue led in ERA, complete games, and WHIP, but pitched fewer innings than the other 2. Wood led in 2 of the key categories that have emerged as important among "analytic-type" voters in pitching rWAR and ERA+, but his W-L record was the worst of the 3. 
 
I think Wood would probably make a stronger showing, as his rWAR is so much higher than the other 2, but who knows? I suspect Blue might have still won. I think that, today, it would probably go 1-Blue, 2-Wood, 3-Lolich…..but I think it would be a real interesting vote.
 
More on the Trio
 
I think part of the reason why this trio is so compelling to me is that all 3 of them were very good pitchers, really nice careers, but none of them is in the Hall of Fame, and really, none of them ever got a whole lot of support for the Hall of Fame:
  • Lolich stayed on for 15 ballots, peaking at 25.5%, which ain’t bad, but still quite a bit short.
  • Blue was on 4 ballots, peaking at 8.7%
  • Wood was on 6 ballots, never gaining higher than 7%.
 
Don’t get me wrong….I’m not lobbying them for the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame has lots of their contemporaries already in the Hall. Of those that could reasonably be called "contemporaries" of the trio (although it’s a little tricky because Blue’s career starts and ends later than the other 2), 12 are already in the Hall: Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, and Catfish Hunter. I think those pitchers were generally better Hall of Fame candidates with the possible exception of Hunter, whose selection has tended to be criticized in more recent years.
 
Beyond those 12, I’d say that there are at least 3 more contemporaries that have decent Hall of Fame cases: Luis Tiant, Tommy John, and Jim Kaat. I think we may eventually see all 3 elected.
 
I think Lolich, Blue and Wood are in the same general class as many other pitchers from that era, just a notch or two below a Hall of Fame standard. I would consider them in a group with others from that general era such as Jerry Koosman, Jim Perry, Milt Pappas, Rick Reuschel, among others. Mel Stottlemyre, Sam McDowell, and Andy Messersmith are other pitchers who had pretty good starts to their careers and certainly could have become Hall of Famers, but they all had to hang it up in their early 30’s.
 
But, Lolich, Blue, and Wood all have at least decent cases, and it’s easy to see how any of the 3 could have gotten there with just a little extra. A quick review:
 
  • Blue has a pretty solid Hall of Fame Monitor score of 114, attributable to his role on 3 World Series champions, three 20-win seasons, of course, the stellar 1971 season in which he was both the Cy Young and MVP award winner.

  • Lolich has a decent Hall of Fame Monitor score of 98 himself, which is kind of in the gray area. He didn’t take home a Cy Young award, but he did finish 2nd and 3rd in consecutive years, and he did win a very famous World Series MVP award by going 3-0 (and 3 complete games), with a 1.67 ERA when the Tigers took the 1968 title.

  • Wood’s case is probably the weakest of the 3 by normal Hall of fame criteria, as he suffered in part by being half-reliever/half starter, which probably didn’t help his place in history.  

    However, he was terrific in both roles, but he basically had one foot in each world, and that can be tough to overcome in defining one’s career. Dennis Eckersley was able to overcome that kind of career because he was so outstanding in the closer role (and he ended up with about two-thirds of his games coming in relief), and John Smoltz (sort of) had to overcome that, although he ended up with about two-thirds of his appearances being as a starter.  Despite living in both worlds, they were able to define themselves primarily as one or the other.

    Wood was pretty close to 50/50 in terms of his appearances, making it difficult to emerge as a great candidate as either type. But, he was definitely very effective in both roles. In addition, Wood pitched his final season at age 36, which is extremely early for a top notch knuckleballer to hang it up, as most of the really good ones (Joe & Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Hoyt Wilhelm, Tom Candiotti, Tim Wakefield, etc.) tend to pitch well into their 40’s. What might his record look like if he had managed to pitch to an age that we often see in knuckleballers?

    Still, Wood had several significant markers. For example, he set the American League record (since broken) for games pitched inn 1968 with 88, which is still tied for the third highest mark in AL history. 

    In addition, he was a bit of a "games started" freak. There have been 24 times that an AL pitcher has started 42 or more games in a season. Wilbur Wood has 5 (!) of those (Lolich has 2 of them as well), including an amazing 49 in 1972, second only to Jack Chesbro’s 51 in 1904 (among seasons since 1901).  

    Wood also has the highest single-season inning total (376 2/3 in 1972) since the 1910’s, when high innings totals were more common (Lolich’s 376 in 1971 were #2 in that span). That was certainly one of Wood’s primary claims to fame….he seemed to be oblivious to the concept of being overused. 

    I know I’ve included this before somewhere in the past, but it’s another fun fact. In part due to the impressive inning figures, Wood is part of a select club. In the post-integration era (1947-present), there have only been 22 seasons where a pitcher has generated a pitching rWAR of 10.0 or higher, and only 7 pitchers have done it twice:
 
Player
Pitching rWAR Only
Year
Bob Gibson
11.2
1968
Bob Gibson
10.4
1969
 
 
 
Randy Johnson
10.7
2002
Randy Johnson
10.1
2001
 
 
 
Roger Clemens
11.9
1997
Roger Clemens
10.5
1990
 
 
 
Sandy Koufax
10.7
1963
Sandy Koufax
10.3
1966
 
 
 
Steve Carlton
12.1
1972
Steve Carlton
10.2
1980
 
 
 
Tom Seaver
10.6
1973
Tom Seaver
10.2
1971
 
 
 
Wilbur Wood
11.8
1971
Wilbur Wood
10.7
1972


One other historical note….how many other left-handed knuckleballers come to mind? Gene Bearden? Danny Boone? Mickey Haefner? That’s about it, isn’t it? Wood certainly would have to be considered the top left handed knuckleballer of all time, for what that’s worth.
 
Other similarities among the trio:
  • All are left-handed (and how often are the top 3 pitchers in a league all left-handed?)

  • Their career pitching rWARs (as opposed to total rWARs) are very similar (Wood 52.4., Lolich 48.2, Blue 45.2)

  • If you rank all left handed pitchers by career pitching rWAR, Wood would be #23, Lolich #33, and Blue #39.

  • A weird "batting" fact….two of the three (Lolich and Blue) are listed as switch-hitters, and Wood batted right-handed even though he threw left. The combination of a righty bat / lefty thrower, as you probably know, is a rare in baseball among position players, although it’s more prevalent among pitchers. Only one Hall of Fame position player had that combination (Rickey Henderson), although there are 5 Hall of Fame pitchers that did (Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Rube Waddell, Carl Hubbell, and Eppa Rixey. The second best position player to bat righty and throw lefty is probably Jimmy Ryan. By the way, there are 3 Hall of Fame players to switch-hit and throw lefty – Roger Connor, and 2 pitchers – Herb Pennock, and Rube Marquard.

    Apparently, none of the above helped Lolich, Blue, or Wood. All 3 were pretty dreadful hitters even for pitchers (Lolich had a career .110 average, Blue .104, Wood .084)

  • They all had at least one season where they led the league in losses (Lolich had 2 such seasons). As someone once observed, it takes a pretty decent pitcher to lead the league in losses.
 
Here are the three pitchers displayed with some basic career stats for comparison
Player
Pitching rWAR
G
GS
W
L
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
ERA
K%
BB%
ERA+
Wilbur Wood
52.4
651
297
164
156
57
2,684
2,582
965
724
1,411
3.24
12.7%
6.5%
114
Mickey Lolich
48.2
586
496
217
191
10
3,638
3,366
1,390
1,099
2,832
3.44
18.7%
7.3%
104
Vida Blue
45.2
502
473
209
161
2
3,343
2,939
1,213
1,185
2,175
3.27
15.7%
8.6%
108
 
Blue and Lolich were a lot more similar to each other than either was to Wood, both in style and usage. Blue is #9 on Lolich’s Similarity Score list. Blue and Lolich were starters throughout most of their careers, and, as mentioned before, Wood was basically half starter/half reliever, which shows up in both the innings pitched and in the victory totals.   I do find it interesting that Wood, despite a lot fewer innings pitched than Blue or Lolich, does have the highest pitching rWAR of the three. 
 
Blue and Lolich were both pretty decent strikeout pitchers (each one struck out over 300 batters in 1971), where as Wood, as a knuckleballer, tended to strike out a lot fewer batters.   Wood had the best control of the three, which is interesting since control isn’t normally the first characteristic you think of when you think of a knuckleballer.
 
One other observation…..baseball-reference.com lists their weights as the following:
  • Blue: 189 lbs.
  • Wood: 180 lbs.
  • Lolich: 170 lbs.
 
Ummm, how do I say this? They must have weighed Lolich and Wood in the 1960’s before Dunkin’ Donuts went nation-wide (actually, there is a Lolich-donut connection…..Lolich owned his own donut and pastry shop, and, judging by his figure, was apparently one of its more loyal customers). Now, I will say that on some of their earlier vintage baseball cards, Wood and Lolich do look relatively trim. But, later in their careers, Wood and Lolich started getting a little, shall we say, chunky (and it’s pretty easy to document that), and there is absolutely no way that Blue was the heaviest of the 3.
 
A Trivial Matter
 
Oh, by the way….the trivia I alluded to in the opening? The hint at the beginning in the song parody lyrics was that, in addition to our trio, Jenkins, Seaver, and starting pitcher value were all mentioned. 
 
As it turns out, 1971 is the only season since 1904 where each of the top 5 rWAR figures were compiled by players who were primarily starting pitchers in that season.  
 
Including both NL and AL, here is the top 10 for 1971:
 
Rank
Player
Total rWAR
1
Fergie Jenkins
11.8
2
Wilbur Wood
11.0
3
Tom Seaver
10.9
4
Mickey Lolich
8.6
5
Vida Blue
8.5
6
Willie Stargell
7.9
7
Dave Roberts
7.7
8
Graig Nettles
7.5
9
Roberto Clemente
7.3
10
Hank Aaron
7.2
 
In addition, unless I missed a season, it was the first season since 1908 in which 5 pitchers each had an rWAR of 8.5 or higher. (In 1908, Christy Mathewson, Ed Walsh, Cy Young, George McQuillan, Mordecai Brown, and Addie Joss all had at least 8.5. 1908 was also the season with the lowest runs/game/team mark in history, with 3.38)
 
I’m not implying that anything special was in the water in 1971. The following year, 1972, the top 3 marks were by pitchers (Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, and Wood again), and in 1975, 4 of the top 5 were by pitchers (Joe Morgan had the highest, followed by Jim Palmer, Seaver, Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter).   So, there were other seasons that could have duplicated that same result, but 1971 was the only one I saw that actually met that specific criterion. (Technically, 1918 could qualify too, as the #5 man behind Walter Johnson, Stan Covelesi, Hippo Vauhn, and Scott Perry was Babe Ruth, who had most of his value as a hitter that year, but only finished 5th in rWAR due to the combination of his hitting (4.7 rWAR) and pitching (2.3). Another pitcher, Lefty Tyler, was 6th that year, so I suppose you can count 1918 if you’d like).
 
Anyway, thinking about the performance of those ’71 starters got me curious, and I started digging in a little. Once upon a time, of course, starting pitchers dominated the top of the rWAR lists (retroactively speaking, of course). Starting with the NL in 1876 and for several years after, who do you see at the top of the lists? Names like Jim Devlin, Tommy Bond, Jim McCormick, Will White, Tim Keefe, Old Hoss Radbourn, John Clarkson, Cy Young, Kid Nichols, Amos Rusie…..pitchers who accumulated a staggering number of games and innings.   That was the nature of the sport in those days.
 
Even in the early 1900’s, you see Vic Willis, Rube Waddell, and Jack Chesbro atop that leader board. Sure, you would see position players like Cap Anson or Deacon White or Ed Delahanty or George Davis or Dan Brouthers or Roger Connor or Hughie Jennings or Billy Hamilton appear among the top 10 in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, but it wasn’t until 1905 that Honus Wagner emerged as the first position player to generate the highest rWAR in a season. After that, even though pitchers like Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and Pete Alexander would have seasons at the top, it started to become a little more common for position players to top the Major League leader board. Lajoie did so in 1906, Wagner (again) in 1907, Ty Cobb in 1911.
 
Once we hit the 1920’s, the hitters tended to dominate the top spot: Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby each had 4 seasons in the 20’s leading the Majors in rWAR. The early 30’s were led by Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Lou Gehrig, with the late 30’s seeing pitchers taking back the top spot (Lefty Grove twice, Wes Ferrell and Bucky Walters once each).
 
Pitchers haven’t completely disappeared from the leader boards, of course, but they are becoming less frequent. In 2017, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer were the only pitchers among the top 10. In 2016, only Justin Verlander. The last time 5 pitchers were among the top 10 was 2003.
 
So, they haven’t disappeared, but I do think they are starting to show a few signs of a vanishing breed. I think one big factor is the diminishing # of innings that you see the leading starting pitchers generating. Last year, the Major League leader in innings pitched was Chris Sale with 214 1/3, which is I believe the lowest Major League-leading figure in history (for a full, non-strike season). Even a few short seasons ago, the league-leading figure was typically 230 to 260 innings. Are we on the verge of not having any starting pitchers who can even pitch 200 innings in a season?
 
And, without a substantial number of innings, I believe it’s difficult to generate large rWAR figures unless you pitch exceptionally well in those innings. At least that’s my understanding of rWAR. That is, that it kind of operates a bit like a vector would in physics and mathematics, as it quantifies both direction and magnitude. You can generate positive rWAR by both playing well and by playing a lot. If you do just one or the other, you likely won’t appear atop any leader boards. At least, that’s how I interpret it. You generally need both.
 
So, again, I’m not announcing the death of starting pitching as we know it. Not all that long ago (2011), the top 3 rWAR spots were held by pitchers (Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander). I just think with the shrinking number of innings that starting pitchers are posting these days, I think it’s going to become increasingly rare for them to put up truly impressive annual rWAR figures relative to hitters. 
 
I’ll leave you with one last table. I went through each season from 1890 through 2017 and counted the number of pitchers that were listed in the top 10 of that season’s rWAR leaders. Below is that result, summarized by decade:
 
 
 
 
 
Decade
Average # of Pitchers in Annual Top 10 of Total rWAR during that Decade
2010's
2.5
2000's
3.1
1990's
3.9
1980's
3.3
1970's
5.1
1960's
3.6
1950's
2.6
1940's
3.5
1930's
4.1
1920's
4.1
1910's
5.4
1900's
1890’s
6.2
7.5
Overall
4.2
 
So, the historical annual average is about 4 pitchers in the top 10, but it started off very high in the 1890’s, then slowly moved down over time and reached a valley in the 1950’s. It did an about face after that, peaking in the ‘70’s, and has more or less been coming down ever since (although the ‘90’s saw a bump up with the presence of Maddux, Clemens, Big Unit, and Pedro), and we’re now looking at another valley, one where starting pitchers’ workloads are being handled much more carefully.
 
Regarding the previous valley in the ‘50’s, that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? When you think of the truly great players of the 1950’s, you probably think of Mays, Mantle, Musial, Mathews, Berra, Banks, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Aaron, and Snider, players like that. How many pitchers do you think of when you think of that era that were on par with the position players listed above? Chances are you probably only think of Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts. Maybe Whitey Ford (maybe). It was a decade that was pretty slim on outstanding pitchers.
 
After the ‘50’s, it started to creep back up, peaking again in the ‘70’s with that generation of Hall of Fame workhorses like Seaver, Carlton, Perry, Palmer, Niekro, Jenkins, Ryan, Blyleven, Hunter, and Sutton. 
 
OK…I lied. One more table.  
 
I wanted to take a look at "big seasons" (as measured by rWAR) over time to see if there’s been a shift in the balance of hitters vs. pitchers achieving that status.
 
This table displays the total # of hitters and the # of pitchers in each decade (and the corresponding %’s of each type of the total) that had a season rWAR of 9.0 or higher. Why did I pick 9.0? Well, 10 seemed too limiting, 8 seemed a little too commonplace. So, I picked 9. Incidentally, 9 is a helluva season. Clayton Kershaw, for all of his greatness, has never achieved a season of 9.0 rWAR.
 
Decade
Total Players with a season of 9.0 rWAR or Higher
# of Hitters with a season of 9.0 rWAR or Higher
% Hitters of Total Players with a season of 9.0 rWAR or Higher
# of Pitchers with a season of 9.0 rWAR or Higher
% Pitchers of Total Players with a season of 9.0 rWAR or Higher
2010's
7
6
86%
1
14%
2000's
19
15
79%
4
21%
1990's
20
11
55%
9
45%
1980's
10
5
50%
5
50%
1970's
21
8
38%
13
62%
1960's
22
14
64%
8
36%
1950's
15
13
87%
2
13%
1940's
18
11
61%
7
39%
1930's
18
8
44%
10
56%
1920's
25
19
76%
6
24%
1910's
37
16
43%
21
57%
1900's
29
8
28%
21
72%
1890's
30
0
0%
30
100%
1880's
36
0
0%
36
100%
1870's
16
0
0%
16
100%
Total
323
134
41%
189
59%
Total since 1900's
241
134
56%
107
44%
 
What the above table reflects is pretty much what the other table suggested as well, just from a little different perspective. Early in the history of the game, the "big" seasons were dominated by pitchers, for reasons stated earlier. Over time, that balance of "big seasons" shifted to hitters, but typically with a fairly reasonable balance. The big seasons in the 1920’s mostly belonged to the hitters. Ditto in the 1950’s. In the ‘70’s, it tended to shift back to the pitchers, briefly, as we saw a lot of impressive workloads. 
 
In the past couple of decades, the big seasons have been more or less hitter-driven, although in the current decade we’re struggling with only around 1 "big season" per year regardless of whether it’s a pitcher or a hitter, which would be an all-time low (although the 1980’s was pretty low in that regard as well). 

And, in particular, "big seasons" by pitchers, at least as defined by this approach, are becoming increasingly rare. The only 9.0 season in this decade was by Zack Greinke in 2015 (9.1). Before that, it was Greinke in 2009 (10.4). Before that, you have to go back to 2002 and Randy Johnson. Granted, the 2010’s aren’t done yet, but it sure seems like we just aren’t seeing the truly big seasons by pitchers anymore, and I suspect the relatively low # of innings generated by the top starters is a big reason why.
 
So, I think back to that year of 1971, when the top pitchers were generating a large number of starts and innings.   Wilbur, Mickey, and Blue didn’t turn out to be quite on the level as the all-time greats, but, along with Fergie Jenkins and Tom Seaver, they sure did put on a show in that memorable season of ’71.
 
Thanks for reading.
 
Dan
 
 

COMMENTS (24 Comments, most recent shown first)

klamb819
Wood started 21 games in 10 years before 1971. New manager Chuck Tanner thought a knuckleballer was wasted in the bullpen, so Wood became a starter. Soon, Wood became a starter who could pitch on two days' rest. Stan Bahnsen joined the team in 1972 wanted some of that two-days business, too, even though he wasn't a knuckleballer. That was also Dick Allen's first season with the White Sox, his MVP year. They went 87-67 in the strike-delayed season, two years after going 56-106.

But the workload caught up with Wood and Bahnsen in '73. They each lost 20 games, although it should be noted that they did combine for 42-41. Wood made 48 starts and pitched 359.1 innings.

Wood might well have pitched into his 40s, but in his seventh start of 1976, he took a line drive off his kneecap. He came back the next season bit was never again the same. His ERA+ was 121 for 1971-76, then 77 in 1978-78, his last two seasons.
2:55 AM May 1st
 
thedanholmes
It was John Kruk many years later who said "Lady, I'm not an athlete, I'm a ballplayer."

But it sounds like something Mickey would have said.

According to Lolich, he never had a sore arm during his career. After a game he would stand in the shower and place his left arm under the water and turn the water as hot as he could stand it. He said he could throw again two days later.

Another Lolich story: in 1980 after hie friend and teammate Al Kaline was elected to the HOF, Mickey and his wife Joyce drove their camper to upstate New York for the ceremony. He did not tell Al, he didn't tell anyone. They camped, went to the ceremony, Mickey shook Al's hand after, and then drove home. Lolich said he had to be there to honor the best player he ever played with.

Ok, one last Lolich story. In Game Seven of the '68 Series, Mickey was pitching on two days rest. The the plan was for Lolich to hard for as long as he could, to give the team a few innings and keep it close. It was scoreless after 5, and manager Mayo Smith asked Lolich how he felt. Lolich said he had "one more inning." Scoreless after six, and again, Mick said "I have one more inning." The Tigers scored three in the seventh, and Lolich walked over to Smith and said "Now, I'll finish it." The only run he allowed was a harmless solo homer in the ninth. It was his third complete game in eight days.
1:30 AM Apr 28th
 
MarisFan61
Enjoyed the article too, although for me it's all kind of theoretical because '71 was a time when I was paying almost no attention to baseball. I was an absentee. :-)

I want to say to Mrbryan that he doesn't have to worry that nobody got the "giants" thing. In my 11th grade class we had to read the Rolvaag novel ("Giants In The Earth"). BTW I totally didn't get it -- had a lot of trouble getting through it. All I remember is that I found it a laborious slog, and that there's sort of a preface page with the "giants in the earth" quote from the Bible. I didn't get that either but nevertheless somehow it had an awesome feel. I always imagined it being intoned in a solemn and dramatic voice.

Anyone else here besides me never had or even played Strat-O-Matic or anything like it at all? The only baseball "game" I ever had or played was Electric Baseball, which was the least good of all those electric games.
11:31 PM Apr 27th
 
Mjh821
Just a reminder - Lolich is not left handed -
https://www.si.com/vault/1971/09/13/612772/a-fat-record-made-to-thin-applause
2:35 AM Apr 27th
 
sayhey
I've harbored a lifelong fascination that lives next door: 1970. My first year as a fan, my first Zander Hollander annual, huge hitter's year, greatest year ever for individual fluke seasons.
6:56 PM Apr 26th
 
danjeffers
During the sixth inning of Game 7 of the '68 Series, Tigers catcher Bill Freehan asked if he was all right and Lolich replied, “Can you get me a couple hamburgers between innings?”
3:22 PM Apr 26th
 
Gfletch
Lolich said:" The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass everyday"

I've seen the same quote attributed to Catfish Hunter. I imagine it was probably a countryism that was in common use and infiltrated the language of ballplayers for a period of time.
10:51 AM Apr 26th
 
SteveN
Another thing. I remember a book by a former umpire, Ron Luciano maybe. He told a story of a game he umped and Wood was pitching. Wilbur shook off the signal from the catcher and the catcher started laughing. He said, "We only have one sign."
7:09 AM Apr 26th
 
SteveN
A couple things. First I remember the Sports Illustrated baseball game. I rapidly lost interest when I realized that in a hitters set that included Ted Williams only Pee Wee Reese had walks on his card. Ludicrous.

Second, I consider Rick Wise's no hitter with 2 homers the greatest game that a player ever had. I remember watching it on TV.


7:07 AM Apr 26th
 
DMBBHF
Thanks for all the comments, guys.

Tom and Chuck mentioned the '71 All Star Game. I can't believe I forgot to include that in my memories of that year. I had intended to, but then forgot to include it. Must be getting old....

1) I remember the 6 home runs by future Hall of Famers (Bench, Aaron, Clemente, Frank Robinson, Killebrew, and Jackson)

2) I remember that that was the only game in a 20 year span that the AL won....the NL won the 8 games before, and the next 11 after.

It's always amazed me that this contest has been prone to such streakiness, with the NL dominating for that period, but with the AL so dominant over the last 30 years.

Thanks,
Dan
6:05 AM Apr 26th
 
chuck
Another fine article, Dan. And I share your timeline almost to the year in when following baseball became kind of an obsession. Like you, I started on the All-star baseball spinner game.
That was a cool new fact, to me, about Rick Wise throwing so many perfect innings- I'd never heard of that one.

By the way, Blue started the 1971 All-star game and got the win, and Lolich finished it, getting the save in front of his home fans. Ironically, they were the only AL pitchers that allowed runs in the game; Palmer and Cuellar handled the middle innings without a run scoring.

BB-Reference says that Wood's team defense in '71 was well below average, and that Blue's team defense was above average by around the same degree.

Blue did not start against Wood or Lolich in 1971, but the latter two did hook up in two games. Wood won the first, on June 4th, a complete game 3-2 win. Lolich came within a batter of a complete game also.
The second was in late August (8/29), and Lolich didn’t have it that day, allowing 6 runs in 5 innings. Wood again went the distance, allowing just 2 runs. So Wood handed Lolich two of his 14 losses that season, and two of Wood’s 22 wins came against Mickey.



1:23 AM Apr 26th
 
trn6229
Nice article. 1971 is the first baseball season I remember. I remember the All Star game in Detroit and Reggie's pinch homer blast to the roof and Roberto Clemente and the Pirates beating the Orioles in seven. Clemente played baseball wonderfully in that series. I received the Strat-O-Matic Baseball game for Christmas in 1972 with the 1971 season cards inside. The National League was much stronger that year. My favorite player Tom Seaver was terrific that year, 20-10, 1.76 ERA and 289 strikeouts in 286 innings.

If you want to talk some baseball, my email is tnahigian29@gmail.com

Take Care,
Tom Nahigian​
12:17 AM Apr 26th
 
mrbryan
There were giants on the mound in those days. I feel like Gaylord Perry has somehow dropped out of the public consciousness as a great pitcher, remembered more for his spitball than for his incredible feats on the mound. During those early 70s years, he was remarkable both for his durability and the quality of his work. From 1969 through 1975, he averaged 39 starts a year and 321 innings pitched - 25 complete games a year!
10:57 PM Apr 25th
 
evanecurb
My numbers on Perry were a little off, but not by much. His average innings pitched per season from 1967-1976 were 308, not 315. Average starts 38, not 39. Average complete games 23. ERA 2.77, ERA+ 124. Interesting fact: only led the league in innings pitched twice, complete games twice, number of starts once.

And the game he pitched in Texas was June 27, 1980. Game time temperature was 109, not 114. He pitched a complete game, four hit shutout against the Twins. He was 41 years old, not 40.

Phil Niekro, 1971-1980 averaged 38 stats, 293 innings, 16 complete games, 3.22 ERA, 122 ERA+.

It was, indeed, a different time.
7:56 PM Apr 25th
 
ajmilner
Great article.

I suspect Vida's poor HOF vote totals are due to his late-career imprisonment for cocaine; the BBWAA has always been wary about drugs. That, and the fact that his monster year came at 21 and the remainder of his career might have been seen as anti-climactic. Rearrange his seasonal totals, and Vida's a stronger candidate than he's often given credit for.
5:56 PM Apr 25th
 
evanecurb
Thanks Dan. I love stuff like this.

I wrote a post a few years ago on this site where I looked at some of Gaylord Perry’s stats. If memory serves, there was a ten year period (1967-1976) where he averaged 315 innings per year, 39 starts, 20 complete games, and 34 decisions. Over ten seasons. And his best months were August and September. I have no idea how he did that. Niekro’s stats are similar to Perry’s, in terms of durability.

One final Perry stat: In the warmest major league game ever recorded (game time temp of 114 in Texas), Perry pitched a complete game five hitter and won 5-1. He was 40 years old at the time.
3:28 PM Apr 25th
 
FrankD
Thanks for the interesting article. Here are two quotes attributable to Lolich (I think). One time, after being introduced to a woman as a pro, the woman commented to Lolich: "You don't look like an athlete" and Lolich replied:"I'm not, I'm a baseball player". And after discussion of his 3-0 in '68 Series and McClain going 1-2, Lolich said:" The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass everyday"
3:12 PM Apr 25th
 
rwarn17588
I'm fascinated Wilbur Wood walked relatively few batters. Unfortunately, I never got to see him pitch because I grew up in a National League territory in rural Illinois, and local TV didn't broadcast White Sox games. Did Wood's knuckleball dive into the strike zone and induce a lot of grounders? Based on his stats, he seemed to have remarkable control of the thing.

Thinking aloud, you'd think another Wilbur Wood might emerge, eat up a lot of innings and become a big force in the MVP and pennant race. Sabermeticians talk a lot about unexploited openings; there's one right there if a knuckleballer ever pops up. Yes, I know why knuckleballers are a rare breed -- namely because they're hell on catchers. But having a few more in MLB sure would be entertaining.
1:49 PM Apr 25th
 
pgaskill
Wilbur, Vida, and The Mick? ;-)
1:21 PM Apr 25th
 
hotstatrat
Thanks, Daniel, for again sharing your fanatical love and research.

Let's put up hands. I bet a high percentage of us thought that regarding "Wins" as the primary measure of a pitcher's excellence was silly. Having Bill James come along and so marvelously articulate how silly that was - is one of the reasons we are such fans - notwithstanding Bill has largely softened his stance against Wins in recent years. For a measure of one year's excellence, I think he still thinks it is bunk. (That's not to take away from Mickey Lolich whose value during his career and after I have always felt was a bit underappreciated - and hung it up too soon because of a low win total in his last full season.)

. . .

It is probablly not just a coincidence that the number of 9.0 brWAR players corresponds to the quality of the leagues - given expansion and rival leagues, etc.


1:17 PM Apr 25th
 
Marc Schneider
I remember Lolich that year and the incredible number of innings he pitched (as did Wood). I realize this was probably overdoing it and hurting their arms, but I sure preferred to today where guys get through 6 and consider it a triumph. While I understand the philosophy behind limiting pitches and so on, I really hate seeing teams use 4/5/6 pitchers a game.

This is why I believe that, in many cases, sabermetrics leads to better outcomes but to a less entertaining sport.
12:35 PM Apr 25th
 
bearbyz
The funniest thing so far this week is reading Vida Blue weighed more than Mickey Lolich and Wilber Wood.
10:20 AM Apr 25th
 
Manushfan
Its fun to see Wilbur Wood get some notice--he had some great years then, was it 73 he had won 18 games by July or whatever and wound up with 24? He was a really good one that I seem to have missed. I do remember Gibson pitching which is weird, it being his final year etc.
9:38 AM Apr 25th
 
DaveFleming
Great article, Dan! I really enjoyed the journey through 1971. It's a pity we can't add soundtracks to these articles...
8:35 AM Apr 25th
 
 
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