Oldies But Goodies
In order to qualify for today's column, the featured players had to be alive during Lyndon Johnson's term in the Oval Office. From oldest to youngest, we'll start with an active player whose birth pre-dates LBJ's presidency.
Question: If the Houston Astrodome was considered as the Eighth Wonder of the World, then isn't Roger Clemens the Ninth? The seven-time Cy Young Award winner is pitching as well as ever at the age of 42. According to Lee Sinins' Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA), ol' Roger has already saved more runs this year (34) in just 15 games than all of last year (32). Since 1900, only five pitchers--Pedro Martinez (1997, 1999-2000), Lefty Grove (1936 and 1939), Greg Maddux (1994-1995), Lefty Gomez (1937), and Clemens (1997)--have ever saved at least two runs per game in a full season.
Moreover, there have been just four pitchers--Martinez (1.23), Grove (1.08), Clemens (1.04), and Randy Johnson (1.02)--in the 20th and 21st centuries who have averaged at least one RSAA per game over the course of their careers. The University of Texas alum, undoubtedly rooting for his Longhorns in this weekend's College World Series, passed Grove earlier this year for first place among modern-day pitchers in RSAA. He currently stands at 676 vs. 668 for Grove and 643 for Walter Johnson.
Question: Are you aware that the 1996 Cy Young Award is now within 30 victories of becoming the first pitcher to ever win 200 games and save 100? To fully appreciate the merits of achieving both benchmarks, it is worth noting that only 82 pitchers have ever won 200 and just 105 relievers have ever saved 100.
While on the subject of starting and relieving, Smoltz is a great example to show how much easier it is to put up great rate stats as a one-inning closer than as a six- or seven-inning starter. To wit, the Atlanta veteran struck out more than one batter per inning as a reliever but is only averaging 6.75 SO/9 this year. He is also allowing nearly two more baserunners per 9 IP (11.20) than he did from 2001-2004 (9.21).
Despite inferior rate stats, Smoltz illustrates how much more value a starter is worth to a ballclub in terms of saving runs. He already has 18 RSAA this year, topping three of his four seasons in relief--and is within four of exceeding the 22 runs he saved in 2003 when he put up a Bob Gibson-like 1.12 ERA. Same pitcher but vastly different results.
Question: Has there been a more productive hitter in the American League the past 15 years than Thomas? The two-time MVP is the only player in the history of baseball to hit .300 or better with 20 or more home runs and 100+ walks, runs, and RBI for more than four consecutive seasons (and the Big Hurt put up these magical numbers for SEVEN straight years).
While accomplishing this streak in his first seven full seasons (1991-1997), Thomas averaged .321/.443/.587 with 35 HR, 118 BB, 107 R, and 117 RBI. For the record, Thomas had a similarly fantastic campaign in 2000 when he hit .328/.436/.625, 43 HR, 112 BB, 115 R, and 143 RBI.
To show just how great Thomas has been, realize that Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski, and Rickey Henderson were the best offensive players in the AL for 15-year stretches since the league was founded in 1901. The Hall of Fame should hold an investigation if the White Sox slugger doesn't make it into Cooperstown on the first ballot.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]