Bye Bye to a Bygone Era
The days of watching Ted Williams in left are over. And the wondrous Willie Mays no longer wears his uniform. Time marches on. Transition is inevitable. With each passing day, the game of our youth moves further into history. But those vivid images that are so much a part of our life will always remain.
--"When It Was a Game"
Warren Edward Spahn passed away last week at the age of 82. Spahn was best known for winning 363 games, tied for the sixth most in the history of baseball and tops among southpaws.
In addition to being one of the top pitchers of all time, Spahn was a military hero who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for being hit with shrapnel. Warren made his major league debut in 1942, then missed the following three years when he was drafted into the Army and assigned to the 176th Combat Engineers Battalion. Spahn participated in the taking of the key Rhine crossing bridge at Remagen, Germany. Several in his company lost their lives when the bridge finally collapsed. Spahn's bravery also won him a battlefield commission, extending his military service another six months and delaying his baseball career an additional three months until July 1946.
From Spahn's first full season in 1947 through his last great season in 1963, he finished in the top nine in wins in the National League every year and was in the top three 17 times. Spahn led the league in victories eight times, including five seasons in a row from 1957-1961.
Spahn also finished in the top eight in ERA in all but three of those years, having led the league three times in three different decades. Although Spahn never struck out 200 batters in a season, he led the league four years in a row from 1949-1952 (with a career high of 191 in 1950).
Although Spahn won just one Cy Young Award (in 1957), he arguably should be credited with five. Remember, the award itself wasn't even established until 1956, and it was only given to one pitcher in the entire major leagues until 1967. As such, one could easily make the case that Spahn deserved the Cy Young (had it been given out) in 1949 and 1953 when he finished seventh and fifth in the N.L. MVP voting, higher than any other pitcher. Spahn could also lay claim to the Cy Young in 1958 and 1961 when he came in second in the voting behind two A.L. pitchers (Bob Turley and Whitey Ford, respectively).
IP H R ER BB SO W L PCT ERA
Spahn 5246 4830 2016 1798 1434 2583 363 245 .597 3.08
Lg Avg 5246 5190 2575 2269 1951 2725 292 292 .500 3.89
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
As shown, Spahn was better than the league average in every category except strikeouts. He had superior control, allowing substantially fewer walks, hit by pitches (42 vs. 108), and wild pitches (81 vs. 126) than the league average. Spahn also allowed fewer hits and home runs (434 vs. 499). Not surprisingly, the combination of fewer walks, hits, and home runs resulted in fewer runs and a vastly better ERA than the league average as well.
As great as Spahn's totals were, he "only" ranks 27th from 1900-on in career ERA as a percentage of the league ERA and 29th in terms of the absolute difference (among pitchers with at least 1500 innings pitched). Similarly, he ranks 38th and 41st, respectively, in baserunners per nine innings. By comparison, Pedro Martinez ranks first in all four measures. Spahn and Martinez are an interesting contrast. Spahn had good rate stats and great counting stats. Martinez has had good counting stats and great rate stats.
What really sets Spahn apart from Martinez and other more modern-day pitchers was his in-season and career durability. From 1947-1963, Spahn finished no worse than fourth in the N.L. in complete games every year. In fact, he led the league in CG for seven straight years from 1957-1963. Spahn's stamina and longevity is the primary reason why he ranks in the top ten in career totals from 1900-on in virtually every counting pitching statistic, including GS (9th), CG (5th), IP (6th), SHO (5th), and W (4th) as well as some of those one wouldn't put on a resume like H (5th), ER (8th), HR (6th), BB (10th), and L (T8th).
The Braves all-time great won 177 games after his 35th birthday, more than the career totals of Martinez and Curt Schilling and all but seven pitchers likely to be on an opening day roster in 2004. He also threw both of his no-hitters after the age of 39. Spahn pitched in the majors until 1965 when he was 44 years old, and he didn't leave gracefully, grumbling, "I didn't quit; baseball retired me." Spahn even pitched briefly in Mexico and in the minors for two years before finally giving it up for good.
Spahn holds the record for the most consecutive seasons facing 1,000 or more batters with 17--three more than his closest challenger (Christy Mathewson) and five more than third place (Walter Johnson).
MODERN BASEBALL HISTORY (1900-)
CONSECUTIVE SEASONS WITH BATTERS FACED >= 1000
1 Warren Spahn 1947-63 17
2 Christy Mathewson 1901-14 14
3 Walter Johnson 1908-19 12
T4 Gaylord Perry 1966-76 11
T4 Steve Carlton 1970-80 11
T6 Cy Young 1900-09 10
T6 Robin Roberts 1950-59 10
T6 Phil Niekro 1971-80 10
T9 Vic Willis 1901-09 9
T9 Carl Hubbell 1929-37 9
T9 Bobo Newsom 1934-42 9
T9 Bucky Walters 1936-44 9
T9 Bob Friend 1956-64 9
T9 Don Drysdale 1959-67 9
T9 Jim Bunning 1959-67 9
T9 Claude Osteen 1964-72 9
T9 Mel Stottlemyre 1965-73 9
T9 Ferguson Jenkins 1967-75 9
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
Incidentally, Roy Halladay was the only pitcher in the majors who faced 1,000 batters last year. Halladay faced 993 batters in 2002 so the longest active streak of 1,000 BFP is one.
Based on the changed landscape of the game (i.e., five-man rotations and pitch counts limiting starters to 100-120 per game), we are unlikely to witness a pitcher of Spahn's magnitude in terms of raw stats again. If Spahn wasn't one of a kind, he most certainly was the last of his kind.
Warren Spahn. Hall of Famer. Decorated World War II veteran. A hero between the lines. A hero outside the lines. America salutes you. You will be missed by us all.
Check back next weekend for an interview with Mike Carminati of Mike's Baseball Rants, who also has an in-depth review of Spahn's statistical achievements and rankings.