The Grooviest Lefty of All Time
"I'll tell you about fastball pitchers. One day we were playing the Athletics in Yankee Stadium. We were behind by one run in the last of the ninth. We loaded the bases with nobody out. Connie Mack signaled his pitcher off the mound and we all looked toward the bullpen to see who was coming in. But nobody was coming in from the bullpen. Grove walked out of the dugout, threw five warmup pitches, then proceeded to fan the side on ten pitches. The last three he threw to me. I haven't seen any of them yet. Don't ever ask me about fastball pitchers again."
--Bill Dickey, New York Yankees Hall of Fame Catcher
Rob Neyer wrote two columns earlier this month regarding "quality of competition." In the first article, Rob mentioned that Lefty Grove was rarely allowed to pitch against the Yankees for a stretch in the early 1930s. In the next paragraph, Rob proceeded to write the following:
As a practical matter, it doesn't really matter if maybe Lefty Grove was slightly less brilliant than we think he was.
Based on my research, Grove may have started two or three fewer times against the Yankees than would be expected in 1930 and perhaps another time in 1931 and 1935. All told, the number of games that Grove may have been held back during that period is not statistically significant. If anything, it is important to note that Grove started a disproportionate number of games against the Yankees over the course of his career. As such, I don't think Grove deserves to be thought of any less brilliantly now than ever before.
Thanks to Retrosheet, I checked the game logs for each of Grove's 17 seasons in the major leagues and found that Lefty faced the Yankees 69 times out of a total of 457 games started. In other words, Grove went head-to-head vs. the Yankees in 15.1% of his outings. Given that there were eight teams in the league throughout Grove's career, it would be expected that he would start one-seventh or 14.2% of his games against each of the opponents. As it turned out, Grove actually drew the Yankees four more times than projected.
Year GS vs. NYY % GS % vs. NYY 1925 18 4 22.2 18.2 1926 33 7 21.2 31.8 1927 28 5 17.9 22.7 1928 31 7 22.6 31.8 1929 37 5 13.5 22.7 1930 32 2 6.3 9.1 1931 30 3 10.0 13.6 1932 30 4 13.3 18.2 1933 28 4 14.3 18.2 1934 12 1 8.3 4.5 1935 30 3 10.0 13.6 1936 30 7 23.3 31.8 1937 32 5 15.6 22.7 1938 21 4 19.0 18.2 1939 23 4 17.4 18.2 1940 21 2 9.5 9.1 1941 21 2 9.5 9.1 Total 457 69 15.1 18.4
A cynic might point to the fact that Grove only started 18.4% of his team's games vs. the Yankees when, in fact, he should have been expected to start 20%-25% given the four and five-man rotations of the day. Such reasoning would be faulty due to the reality that Grove only started 17.5% of his team's games during his career. As a result, no matter which way one looks at it, Grove actually started more than his fair share of games vs. the Bronx Bombers.
There was one particular game in which Grove started against the Yankees that is worth delving into in more detail.
In the first game of a doubleheader between the visiting New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Athletics on May 24, 1928, a record 13 future Hall of Famers took the field. An additional six HOFers either didn't play or were managers or umpires.
Miller Huggins of the Yankees featured a lineup of Earle Combs, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Leo Durocher, and Waite Hoyt. Connie Mack countered with Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, and Grove. In addition, Herb Pennock and Stan Coveleski of the Yankees were in uniform but didn't play. Tom Connolly and Bill McGowan umpired the game and later were enshrined in Cooperstown.
Cobb, Speaker, and Collins were all over 40 years old, and they were only remnants of their old selves. In fact, 1928 turned out to be Cobb's and Speaker's final year. Cobb and Speaker were part-time players, and Collins was nothing more than a pinch hitter.
Cobb played in 95 games and had an adjusted on-base plus slugging average (OPS+) of 112, the lowest since his rookie season in 1905. Speaker played in 64 games and had an OPS+ of 95, his third consecutive yearly decline and the lowest since 1908 when he had only 125 plate appearances in his second big league season. Collins played in 36 games and had 33 at bats that year.
Foxx, on the other hand, was 20 years old. He wasn't even old enough to vote, yet was in the midst of his fourth season in the big leagues (albeit the first with over 100 games). Foxx played 60 games at third base, 30 at first, and 19 as Cochrane's backup at catcher.
Cochrane won the first of his two Most Valuable Player Awards in 1928 despite not finishing in the top ten in batting average, on base percentage, or slugging average. He ended the season eighth in base on balls and tenth in runs scored and triples. Cochrane was an odd choice for MVP, but previous winners Ruth (1923) and Gehrig (1927) were ineligible under the rules of the day (later changed allowing Cochrane to win a second MVP as a Detroit Tiger in 1934).
By comparison, Ruth and Gehrig were one-two in runs, home runs, extra base hits, times on base, on base percentage, slugging average, and OPS, and they tied for the league lead in RBI. The Bambino also led in walks and total bases, while the Iron Horse tied for the lead in doubles.
The Yankees (26-6) and A's (21-8) were in first and second place when the teams squared off at Shibe Park. The Yankees were coming off a 110-44 record and a sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series in 1927.
There was a lot of excitement in the air. The home team Athletics were on a five-game winning streak and Grove, the starting pitcher, had won six straight. Fans flocked to the stadium from far and wide with 500 "motor cars" bearing identification from such places as New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington D.C. according to Joseph J. Dittmar of the Baseball Records Registry. The reported paid attendance was nearly 42,000, the largest crowd to date in Philadelphia baseball history.
Lazzeri spoiled the afternoon for the home faithful with three hits and six RBI, leading the Bronx Bombers to a 9-7 win over the A's. Grove, who led the A.L. with 24 wins and 183 strikeouts, was tagged with one of his only eight losses for the year.
The A's won the nightcap of this landmark doubleheader, 5-2. However, the Yankees went on to win the American League pennant and sweep the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Gehrig led the way, going 6-for-11 with four home runs, nine RBI, and six BB in four games. Ruth went 10-for-16 with three homers and nine runs scored.
Grove definitely did not duck out against the Yankees that season. He started seven times or in nearly one-third of the match-ups between the rivals, including opening day and the first game of the series three other times. Although Grove didn't fare particularly well (winning only once), he definitely took the ball every time it was his turn to pitch.
According to Don Malcolm of the Big Bad Baseball fame in a post on Baseball Primer, Grove was 30-25 with an ERA of 3.82 as a starting pitcher vs. the Yankees, including 18-16, 4.34 with the A's and 12-9, 3.11 with the Red Sox. Those numbers are well below Grove's record vs. the rest of the league but that is not surprising given the fact that the Yankees were the best team in baseball for much of his career.
Grove had an overall won-loss total of 300-141 with an ERA of 3.06. Lefty was named the Most Valuable Player in 1931 and captured the so-called Triple Crown of pitching in 1930 and 1931. From July 25, 1930 through September 24, 1931, he went 46-4. Grove led the league in ERA a record nine times, including four straight from 1929-1932. Grove also topped the circuit in strikeouts in each of his first seven seasons.
Based on the way staff aces are handled now, it might surprise some to learn that Lefty was one of the best relief pitchers of his day as well. Of Grove's 616 appearances, 159 were as a reliever. He saved a total of 55 games and finished in the top seven every year from 1926-1933, including a league-leading nine in 1930.
Grove became just the fifth pitcher to win 300 games in the modern era even though he didn't make it to the majors until he was 25 years old. Prior to that, he accumulated a record of 109-36 for the independently owned Baltimore Orioles of the International League. The O's won the pennant all five years Grove played for them with Lefty posting records of 12-2, 25-10, 18-8, 27-10, and 27-6 while leading the league in strikeouts in each of the final four campaigns. After the 1924 season, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A's agreed to pay $100,000 for Grove's contract plus an extra $600 to make the purchase higher than the amount the Yankees paid the Red Sox for Babe Ruth.
An article featuring Robert Moses "Lefty" Grove would not be complete without the following lists:
RUNS SAVED ABOVE AVERAGE
1 Lefty Grove 668 2 Walter Johnson 643 3 Roger Clemens 613 4 Greg Maddux 540 5 Grover C Alexander 524 6 Randy Johnson 461 7 Pedro Martinez 453 8 Christy Mathewson 405 9 Tom Seaver 404 10 Carl Hubbell 355
ADJUSTED EARNED RUN AVERAGE (ERA+)
1 Pedro Martinez 174 2 Lefty Grove 148 3 Walter Johnson 146 4 Hoyt Wilhelm 146 5 Ed Walsh 145 6 Randy Johnson 143 Greg Maddux 143 8 Addie Joss 142 9 Roger Clemens 140 10 Mordecai Brown 138
EARNED RUN AVERAGE MINUS THE LEAGUE AVERAGE
DIFF PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Pedro Martinez 1.87 2.58 4.46 2 Lefty Grove 1.36 3.06 4.42 3 Randy Johnson 1.25 3.10 4.35 4 Hoyt Wilhelm 1.24 2.52 3.76 5 Roger Clemens 1.20 3.19 4.39 6 Lefty Gomez 1.16 3.34 4.50 7 Greg Maddux 1.16 2.89 4.05 8 Kevin Brown 1.12 3.16 4.29 9 Whitey Ford 1.10 2.74 3.84 10 Walter Johnson 1.07 2.17 3.24
EARNED RUN AVERAGE AS RATIO OF THE LEAGUE AVERAGE
RATE PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Pedro Martinez 173 2.58 4.46 2 Ed Walsh 152 1.82 2.76 3 Walter Johnson 149 2.17 3.24 4 Hoyt Wilhelm 149 2.52 3.76 5 Lefty Grove 144 3.06 4.42 6 Addie Joss 144 1.89 2.72 7 Mordecai Brown 140 2.06 2.89 8 Randy Johnson 140 3.10 4.35 9 Greg Maddux 140 2.89 4.05 10 Whitey Ford 140 2.74 3.84
Based on these various ways of measuring runs saved versus the league average, Grove ranks anywhere from first to fifth all time. Of note, Pedro Martinez is the only pitcher who places higher than Grove more than once, sitting atop three of the four leader boards. Furthermore, Grove, Martinez, Walter Johnson, and Hoyt Wilhelm are the only pitchers listed in the top five at least three times. Finally, Grove, Martinez, W. Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson are the only pitchers who rank in the top ten in all four methods. Roger Clemens deserves special mention, placing in the top five twice and top ten three times. Wilhelm's top ten ratings are based solely on rate stats and are not validated by the RSAA counting stat. As a result, I would tend to discount his standing relative to the other six.
Photo Credit: Baseball-Library.com/Matt Fulling.