Friday, July 22, 2016

Pete Alexander Loses His Fastball Baseball Hall of Fame)

Others have noted that Grover Cleveland ("Pete") Alexander (1887-1950) is the only ballplayer named after an American President, and to be portrayed in a movie by a future American President; Ronald Reagan who played Pete in the 1952 film "The Winning Team" (a terrible film, co-starring Doris Day; you can watch the trailer at the end of this post).

Considered one of the game's best pitchers, Pete won 373 games between 1911 and 1930, including a three year stretch (1915-17), when he won at least 30 games each season and tossed 36 shutouts.  The 24-year old Alexander reached the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he pitched through 1917, compiling a 190-88 record.

In December 1917, the Phillies traded Alexander to the Chicago Cubs.  Pete won two of three decisions early in the 1918 season, before being drafted into the army and eventually serving as an artilleryman in France.  Some sources report that it was while he was in the army that Pete became a heavy drinker and eventually an alcoholic, which would plague him for the rest of his career and lead to a troubled and impoverished retirement, all of which was compounded by his epilepsy. baseball fever)

Rejoining the Cubs for the 1919 season, Alexander started slowly, going 0-4 with an ERA of 4.24 by the end of May, and showing uncharacteristic control problems, walking 15 in 34 innings while striking out 20 batsmen.  Regaining his form in June, Pete went 16-7 the rest of the season, walking only 23 in 201 innings, striking out 101 with an ERA of only 1.30, bringing his overall ERA down to 1.72, his fifth consecutive season below 2.00.

In 1920, Pete was the best pitcher in the league, winning 27 against 14 losses and leading the league in ERA (1.91), wins, games started (40) and completed (33), innings (363) and strikeouts (173).  It was to be his last dominant year, though he was to have some good seasons thereafter, including winning 20 games in 1923 and 1927.  In looking at his record, what is noticeable is the drop in strikeouts after the 1920 season.

While Alexander was not noted for having a blazing fastball of the Walter Johnson-type, he topped the strikeout totals in six seasons and twice had the highest K to innings ratio in the league.  From 1911 through 1920, he averaged between 4.3 and 5.8 K's per nine innings, except for 1916 when his ratio dropped to 3.9.

However, from 1921 through 1928, he averaged only 1.6 to 2.8 K's per nine.  Looking more closely at his game logs on reveals the change came quickly.  On September 9, 1920, after a complete game win against the New York Giants, Alexander had fanned 160 in 321 innings, or 4.5 per nine innings, directly within his historical range. Then, in his next five appearances (three starts and two in relief), he struck out only 5 in 25 innings.

He recovered in his last start of the season on October 1, whiffing eight.  The only problem was it was in the course of a 17-inning complete game win against the St Louis Cardinals.  It was a meaningless game at the end of the season, with the Cubs 16 games behind the pennant winning Dodgers, but Pete was left in to pitch the entire game.  And, it wasn't just the innings.  He gave up 16 hits and three walks, facing 69 batters.  Baseball-reference has game logs back through 1913 and, over that period, Pete faced more than 50 batters in a game on only four occasions, topping out at 57 in games during the 1913 and 1917 seasons.  His highest total in any game in 1920 had been 49.  Using batters faced as a rough proxy for pitches thrown, Pete threw about 40% more pitches on October 1 than in any previous appearance in 1920, and possibly 20% more than at any time in his career up till that point.

Whether he was starting to feel the accumulated strain on his 33-year old arm late in the season and then completely overdid it with the 17 innings marathon can't be known for certain, but the 1921 season begins with an interesting pattern.

On April 13, Alexander started the Cubs season opener against the Cardinals.  Entering the seventh, Pete had a 5-0 lead and was pitching a one-hitter.  With two outs in the seventh, he gave up three quick hits; a single to Rogers Hornsby, double by Jack Fournier and a single by Doc Lavan, plating both runners.  Alexander got the third out but did not return to the mound for the eighth.  In fact, Pete didn't make another appearance until May 10, tossing six effective innings and then sat until making his next start on May 27, the Cubs thirtieth game.  He then made two starts on a week's rest and followed that with two starts on four days rest, including a 13 innings complete game victory on June 16.  After a start on June 21, Pete had 30 strikeouts in 57 innings, or 4.7 per nine, consistent with his 1911-20 performance.

On June 26, Alexander pitched a bizarre complete game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Holding a 3-2 lead going into the seventh, he yielded five runs in that inning and four more in the ninth to lose 11-3, pitching the entire game despite giving up 19 hits and having zero strikeouts.  That started a new phase of the season, in which over his next 100 innings, Pete had only 2.7 K's per nine.  The third, and final, phase of decline began with a start on August 7 and lasted until the end of the season, during which he struck out only 17 batters over 95 innings, or a rate of 1.6 per nine innings.  He never recovered his old form as his strikeout rates for the next three seasons were 1.8, 2.1 and 1.8.

Alexander compensated for the lack of strikeouts by improving his already impressive control.  In the five seasons ending in 1920, he typically walked a batter every six to seven innings.  Over the five seasons beginning in 1921 he walked a batter every eight innings, hitting a peak of pinpoint control during a 79 inning span at the end of the '22 season and beginning of the '23 campaign in which he did not walk a batter.  For the entire 1923 season, Pete walked only 30 in 305 innings.  Apart from an 11 inning spurt over three appearances in September when he gave out eight passes, he issued only 22 bases on balls during the other 294 innings, or one walk every 13 innings.

There was one potential confounding factor that we checked, since there were two major changes in the game affecting pitchers between the 1920 and 1921 seasons.  The first, prompted by the death of Ray Chapman late in the 1920 season, was the decision to immediately replace any dirty, marked or scuffed baseballs and the second, the banning of spitballs and other "trick" pitches involving altering the surface of the ball.  These changes accelerated baseball's offensive explosion that was already underway.  We looked to see if the changes had affected league strikeout rates in order to understand the context in which Alexander was pitching in 1920 and 1921.  While there was a decrease in strikeouts between the two years of 6.5%, this was substantially less than the more than 50% decline in Pete's strikeout rate between late 1920 and late 1921.  Looking further out to 1922 and 1923, strikeout rates remain stable with 1921 so the changes were a very minor factor in what happened with Alexander.

Overall, what the data seems to show is a workhorse pitcher, suffering a sudden decline in strikeouts near the end of the 1920 season, capped by a 17 inning performance in which he faces a dozen more batters than in any game of his career, followed by infrequent usage in the early part of the next season and a steady decline in strikeouts per nine throughout the years, despite pitching on longer rest than usual, capped by remaining at the lower strikeout level for the rest of his career.

Declines in strikeout ratios happen to almost every pitcher as they get older, but it is rare to be able to pinpoint such a dramatic falloff.

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