MLB: Is Justin Verlander Greater Than Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson?

There is absolutely no way to validly compare players who played in baseball’s early days with today’s players.

In 1910, the Philadelphia Athletics beat the Chicago Cubs in a five game World Series. The Athletics’ top pitcher, Jack Coombs, started, completed and won three games. Chief Bender, the Athletics’ second best pitcher, started and completed two games, winning one and losing one.

Bender started games on October 17 and October 22, which gave him four days of rest between starts.

Coombs started Game 2 on October 18. There was no game on Oct. 19. Coombs started Game 3 on October 20 on one days’ rest. He started two consecutive World Series games.

Then he started Game on October 23 on two days rest — three complete games in the World Series in six days.

In the 2011 World Series, the big question was how effective Chris Carpenter would be on three days’ rest.

In 1910, the baseball, the rules governing legal pitches, the ballparks, the bats, the managers’ approach, the strike zone, the height of the pitching mound, the size of the players and the races of the players allowed to participate were different from today.

Let sabermetricians create all the statistics they want. There are too many variables that can never be controlled for us to ever know if Jack Coombs, who was one of the top two or three pitchers in 1910, would be one of the top two or three pitchers if he were to be transported to 2011..

In 1910, Coombs started 38 games and completed 35 . In 2011, James Shields led the majors with 11 complete games.

Coombs pitched 353 innings, won 31 games while losing only 9 and had a 1.30 ERA with a 182 ERA+. The American League ERA was 2.37.

The top pitchers in the game today could not come close to matching those statistics because the conditions are radically different.

Justin Verlander had one of the great seasons ever. He was 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and a 170 ERA+ in a league where the pitcher doesn’t bat. Verlander led the league in wins, winning percentage, games started, ERA, ERA+, innings pitched, WHIP, strikeouts and fewest hits allowed per nine innings.

Does that mean he was better than Walter Johnson, for even one season? Who knows?

Walter Johnson (1907-1927) and Christy Mathewson (1900-1916) are considered the best pitchers of all time by many. Johnson was a fire-baller while Mathewson had his “fadeway,” which is a screwball thrown by a right hander.

The six-foot one-inch, 200 pound Johnson averaged 19 wins, 273 and two-thirds innings, and 24 complete games over a 162-game season.

Mathewson, who was six feet two inches tall and weighed 195 pounds averaged 20 wins, 274 innings and 24 complete games over a 162-game season.

Fans, the media and sabermetricians can speculate all they want. Would Justin Verlander Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, a healthy Johan Santana,, a young Pedro, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, or Tim Lincecum be able to match those numbers if they played during the dead ball era? How would Johnson and Mathewson fare today?

When Bob Brenley decided to start Curt Schilling with “only” three days rest in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and Jack McKeon started Josh Beckett with three days rest in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, the “experts” concluded that it was a risky move.

But when Philadelphia Athletics’ manager Connie Mack started Jack Coombs three times in six days, the decision was not questioned. The newspaper accounts of the game merely stated that Philadelphia’s victory

“…was a personal victory for Jack Coombs, Connie Mack’s man of iron. It was his third performance in six days and what makes it more remarkable is that it was his best game of the three that he worked.”

While it is impossible to validly compare players who played more than 100 years apart, the game has changed enough since the 1994 strike that even comparing players from the 1960s with today’s players is an exercise in futility.

Modern medical advances, physical conditioning, better diets, pitch counts and the use of bullpen are simply too many variables for statistical treatments to control. All that fans can do is argue and not unquestioningly accept “expert” opinions.

References:

“Athletics Win World Series; Jack Coombs Again Pitches Connie Mack’s Team to Victory.” New York Times. 24 October 1910, p. 6.


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