Friday, March 9, 2018

Finishing Even Stronger: The 1908 Pennant Races

In 2016 THC featured a piece on the 1908 National League pennant race (Finishing The Season Strong), as well as the equally astonishing American League race which is less well known.  At the time, Retrosheet had not yet reached the 1908 season in its day by day reconstruction of box scores.  Now that information is available and we used it to look at the season ending performance of the key players on the three NL contenders; Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Mordecai Peter Centennial "Three Finger" Brown.

To recap the earlier piece, over the last seven weeks of the season the Pirates, Giants, and Cubs collectively won 110 games while losing only 39.  Since they went 19-19 in the games between them it means they won 91 of the 111 games they played against the other five teams.  I was also able to find some of information regarding the workload of Mathewson and Brown in those weeks.

Honus Wagner

On July 17, Honus Wagner was hitting .315 with substantial power for the deadball era having twenty doubles, eleven triples and seven home runs.  Because we don't have RBI and walk data for each individual game there are some limits to my analysis since we cannot calculate on-base percentage but what we now know is that after that date Wagner hit .396.  During the final 12 games with the  teams changing positions in the standings almost daily Honus hit .479 with 22 hits in 46 at-bats.

The big shortstop led the league in hits, doubles, triples, RBI, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and total bases.  And finished second in home runs.

Pittsburgh won 34 of its last 50 games and finished third.

Christy Mathewson

For both Big Six and Three Finger we are using July 27 as the date to bifurcate their seasons.  One limit to our data is we only have total runs given up by appearance and not earned runs which is significant since there were so many more errors in baseball games a century ago.  Since however we have total earned runs for the season I am going to use the season ratio of runs/earned runs to calculate a imputed ERA for parts of the season.

The Giants ace carried the heaviest workload of his career in 1908, appearing in 56 games, starting 44, and tossing 391 innings.   In 86 games as of July 27, Mathewson had already pitched 211 innings, winning 18 and losing 7.  He'd given up 157 hits (6.7/9 innings), walked 30 (1.3/9 innings), accumulated 148 strikeouts and had a ERA of 1.75.

Over the next 64 games, Matty picked up the pace, posting astonishing numbers, making 24 appearances of which 17 were starts, winning 19 and losing only 2.  In 166 innings he gave up 109 hits (5.9/9 innings), walked eleven (0.6/9 innings), and struck out 103 with a ERA of 0.87.  An extraordinary performance even for the deadball era.

Unfortunately for Matty, the season was not yet over.  The exhausted pitcher had to make two more starts, losing both, including the playoff game against the Chicago Cubs.  Even with those final starts, his record from July 27 to the end of season was 19-4 with a ERA of 1.05.  His hits per 9 innings  rose to 6.2 and walks remained the same at 0.6.

The Giants won 36 of their final 50 and finished second.

Three Finger Brown

In contrast to Mathewson, Brown had a consistent usage rate throughout the season and his performance was also consistent.  On July 27, Mordecai's record was 15 wins and 3 losses, with a ERA of 1.43.  More importantly he'd thrown only 144.2 innings, 32% fewer than Matty.   In those innings he gave up 94 hits (5.9/9 innings) and 20 walks (1.3/9 innings), striking out 57.

Over the remainder of the season Brown threw almost as many innings as Matty, 167.2, winning 14 and losing 6, with a ERA of 1.48.  He yielded 121 hits (6.5/9 innings), 29 walks (1.5/9 innings), while striking out 66.

The Cubs only lost 9 of their last 49 games, winning the pennant, and going on to beat the Tigers to win the World Series, their last until 2016.

It looks like Frank Chance had more confidence in his pitching staff than did John McGraw, the Giants manager.  Brown started only 31 games, pitching 312 innings.  Ed Ruelbach started 35, tossing 297 innings and winning 24 games, while Jack Pfiester started 29 with 242 innings and Orval Overall winning 15 while starting 27 and throwing 225 innings.

Matty started 44 games, laboring for 391 innings, while #2 starter Hooks Wiltse began 38 games, going 330 innings and winning 23.  After that it was up for grabs with Doc Crandall starting 24 and going 12-12, Joe McGinnity posting a 11-7 record in 20 starts over 186 innings, and Dummy Taylor and Red Ames each starting 15 games and completing less than 40%, at a time when 60% was league average.

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