By Louis Addeo-Weiss
Mid-October has seen a Nationals team, maybe the team of destiny this October, dethrone a 106-win Dodger team whom many felt were the consensus favorite to win their first World Series since 1988, sweep an offensively feeble St. Louis Cardinals in dominating fashion, thus giving Washington D.C. a team in the Fall Classic for the first time since the days of manager Bucky Harris and the 1933 Washington Senators.
We saw a Tampa Bay Rays team challenge the Houston Astros — forcing the series to a Game 5 won on the strength of arguably the most coveted right arm on the planet in Gerrit Cole.
But beyond the postseason, that’s not the subject matter today’s story will encompass.
No, this piece continues the thread we’ve established going back the previous two weeks — comparing the pitching of the 2010s to previous eras, and today, our focus is on the 1950s and ‘60s, the days when the likes of Spahn, Koufax, Drysdale, and Gibson were titans on the mound.
As we know, baseball in the 1950s was dominated by the state of New York. From 1950-59, a New York team was in the World Series 13 times, with the Yankees and the Dodgers meeting 4 times alone, with the Bronx Bombers winning three of those matchups, losing in 1955.
The Yankees would stake the claim for the title of best team of the decade, winning 6 titles in the decade.
But back to the subject at hand here, the pitching.
Unlike other decades where we’ve seen pitchers take on a more specialized role, where starting pitchers did just that, the 1950s saw starters taking on multiple roles, including that of finishing games in relief.
Though the latter-half of the decade can be seen as instrumental in the advent of what we now know today as relief pitching, with the likes of Elroy Face taking on roles evident of long-relievers, the ‘50s also saw starters work in relief.
Of the top 10 starters of the decade in question, each of these pitchers finished at least 16 games, with Mike Garcia, the number 9 pitcher on this list, finishing 55 games, saving 20 of them.
Robin Roberts, the Clayton Kershaw, Tom Seaver, and Roger Clemens, for his respective decade, pitched in relief 35 times over the course of the 1950s – saving 19 games in the process.
Combined, those other three names pitched a total of 4 times, a true reflection of the trajectory of pitching at the major league level.
For Roberts, whose 60.5 WAR is far-and-away the best of any pitcher during the ‘50s, he went about putting together his decade of dominance by being a workhorse, averaging 301.1 innings a season.
In comparison, Kershaw, who nearly matched Roberts in WAR 59.3 to 60.5, the left-hander did so throwing just 1996 innings, just under 200 innings, a further reflection of the way in which the game has evolved – or devolved depending on who you talk to.
As much as we can use numbers such as innings pitch to assert the notion this, the 1950s represents a dichotomy in comparison to our modern hurlers, as can be seen with a deeper look inside baseball-reference’s play index.
Pitching Leaders (1950-59) Per Baseball Reference Play Index
*Maglie retired after the 1958 season
+Missed 1951-52 seasons to Military Service
() signify innings pitched over the course of the decade
While, yes, pitchers today, in the age of large contracts, pitch counts, and reliever specialization, aren’t groomed to work as deep into games as they were in the days of yore, the 2010s actually saw something done with a greater propensity than in pitchers of the time period in question.
From 2010-2019, 89 pitchers threw 1000 or more innings, with three others, Travis Wood (994), Mike Pelfrey (997.1), and Colby Lewis (997.2), all falling just short of making it a robust 92 names to cross the 1000 inning threshold.
Why is this so impressive?
Well, when we look at the 1950s, we only find 63 pitchers – yes, 63 pitchers who managed throw 1000 or more innings.
Now, one major factor at play here is the Korean War, which took many players out of service between 1950 and ‘53, with one name of note, Johnny Antonelli, who is the 7th most valuable pitcher by WAR of the decade, missed 1951-52 serving in the military.
Despite this, Antonelli still managed to muster 31.1 WAR over 1721.1 innings pitched. For some context on this, Jon Lester was nearly neck-and-neck with Antonelli, amassing 31.2 WAR from 2010-19, but, despite this, Lester threw 1979.2 innings, 258.1 more than Antonelli.
The production of Roberts and Warren Spahn during the Eisenhower-years can best be compared to what Kershaw, Verlander, and Scherzer did in the 2010s. Where the latter were separated by merely 3.1 and 3.2 WAR respectively, the difference between Spahn, who finished two on the list with 57.1 WAR, and Roberts, was that of 3.4 WAR.
However, the degree of separation between Roberts and the number three holder on this list, the Chicago White Sox’s Billy Pierce, the degree of separation balloons to 16.6 WAR. That mark is nearly all of what Patrick Corbin put together when he posted 16.8 WAR from 2012-19.
The difference between Roberts and Whitey Ford, who, again, missed two seasons to military service, was 34.1 WAR, or the nearly equivalent to what Corey Kluber did from 2014-2019, which saw him accumulate 33.2 WAR.
Kluber’s aforementioned 33.2 WAR was good enough for 8th during the 2010s, which further reflects just how much more balanced the 2010s were for elite level starting pitching. It doesn’t hurt either that Kluber did so while not becoming a full-time starter until 2013, and missed most of 2019 with a broken wrist. Bob Rush, who finished 5th in WAR during the ‘50s, did so with nearly identical value amassed, 33.5 WAR respectively. Unlike Kluber after him, Rush had the benefit of the full decade to do so.
As for the 1960s, the level of talent here features some of the most beloved and heralded aces in baseball history.
A look at the list of the decade’s top 10 reaffirms this.
Pitching Leaders (1960-69) Per Baseball Reference Play Index
|1||Juan Marichal (2549.2)||55.3||2.57||136||2.85|
*Debuted in 1961
Unlike any other decade we’ve discussed thus far, the 1960s may be the one shrouded in the most mystique. The quandary commonly pondered by many a baseball fan is the notion of “what could’ve been?”
This refers primarily to one name on this list – Sanford Braun Koufax, or, as he’s more commonly known, Sandy.
Koufax’s career can best be surmised as one of disjunctions. What can’t be said about any other player is the perfect summary of Koufax’s career.
For the first six seasons, 1955-60, Koufax was the epitome of an average pitcher, or “not-so-good”, as many have referred to it. During this, the yang phase of his career, Koufax was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA, and a perfect 100 ERA+.
The only reason perfect is the appropriate adjective to describe what many a sabermetric mind may deem merely as satisfactory, is because a league average ERA+ is 100. Simply put, Koufax was an average pitcher for the first half of his career.
As for the yin, he was arguably the greatest pitcher the game has ever seen – a 2.19 ERA, a 156 ERA+, a 0.97 WHIP, 3 Cy Young’s, an MVP, the greatest abbreviated run of pitching in baseball history, and the gold standard that many starters have wished to emulate, but only so few have come close to attaining. And yet, after arguably the best season of his career, 1966, when he won 27 games, posted a career low 1.73 ERA, 190 ERA+, en route to another Cy Young Award, he walked away from it all, citing frequent arm problems as the impetus for this.
Koufax’s WAR, according to baseball-reference, from 1961-66, was 46.4. Had he only pitched those six years, he’d still hold the number three spot on this list, briefly edging out Jim Bunning, whose 46.3 WAR came across the totality of the decade.
Had Koufax pitched the remainder of the decade, who knows what his career numbers would’ve read like, but alas, we can only speculate. What Koufax could’ve done tells us that the decade could’ve been more imbalanced than the numbers say, and for that reason, I’d make the claim for him as the best of the decade.
While Bob Gibson, and Juan Marichal produced the most value during the 1960s, it is Koufax’s abbreviated run that still reigns supreme, despite pitching more than 600-less innings than each of the two.
As for the rest of the name’s here, Marichal, the decade’s leader in WAR, may be among the best hurlers to never win a Cy Young Award, as pitching in the shadow of Koufax, Gibson, and Drysdale will do that to you.
Marichal and Gibson’s miniscule 1.1 difference in WAR is the slightest of any one and two on these lists thus far, but again, despite their respective places on this list, none of this matters in the context of what we just discussed.
While Gibson’s 1968 season, where he posted an atomesque 1.12 ERA, can lay claim to one of the greatest seasons ever for a pitcher, further supported by a 1.77 FIP and 11.2 WAR (6th in the modern ERA), the conversation of pitching during the ‘60s starts and ends with Koufax.
And to quote Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”