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November 27, 2012

Western Front

Jeff Francis' Historic Season

by Geoff Young

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Among the many fascinating things that happened to the Rockies in 2012 is the fact that Jeff Francis led the pitching staff in innings pitched. Francis didn't sign with Colorado until June 8, a few days after the Reds released him from their Triple-A club. He made his first start for the Rockies on June 9 and surrendered eight runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Francis pitched better after that, although his performance was hardly cause for excitement. He made his starts and logged as many innings as the Rockies’ strict pitch count would allow. He ended up with 113 innings, becoming the only man on the staff to break triple digits. Does that seem unusual? Well, it is.

Francis' total was the lowest for a team leader since 1891, when George Davies paced the Milwaukee Brewers with 102 innings. I know; the Milwaukee Brewers didn't join the American League until 1970. This is the version that lasted exactly one season in the old American Association. Actually, those Brewers didn't last an entire season. They played 36 games before disbanding. Five pitchers worked for them, with Davies notching about a third of the innings.

The list of pitchers who led their team in innings pitched with a total equal to or lower than Francis' last year is a curious one:

Player

Year

Team

League

Team G

IP

Ed Stratton

1873

Baltimore Marylands

NA

6

27

Jim Brown

1884

St. Paul White Caps

UA

9

36

John Murphy

1884

Wilmington Quicksteps

UA

18

48

Henry Porter

1884

Milwaukee Brewers

UA

12

51

Asa Brainard

1872

Washington Olympics

NA

9

79

Phonney Martin

1872

Brooklyn Eckfords

NA

29

85

Bill Stearns

1872

Washington Nationals

NA

11

99

George Davies

1891

Milwaukee Brewers

AA

36

102

Al Pratt

1872

Cleveland Forest Citys

NA

22

105.2

John Murphy

1884

Altoona Mountain City

UA

25

111.2

Mike Golden

1875

Keokuk Westerns

NA

13

113

Jeff Francis

2012

Colorado Rockies

NL

162

113

Key: NA, National Association (1871-1875); UA, Union Association (1884); AA, American Association (1882-1891); NL, National League (1876-2012).

Of the teams on this list, only the Rockies completed their season. The pitchers are all guys who have been dead at least 75 years (I can't find a date for Stratton, but Pratt died in 1937; except for him, Martin, and Golden, everyone else died between 1888 and 1908, so I'm guessing Stratton probably died in that range as well) and Francis. What Francis did last season just isn't done.

You may note also that, with the exception of the National League, none of these leagues exists today. In fact, they all have been defunct for at least 120 years. Worse, not all of them are universally recognized as major leagues. MLB does not recognize the NA, considered the predecessor to the NL, a major league. The UA had issues of its own, the primary one being that of the 12 teams that appeared in its lone season, very few played a full schedule, and one of those clubs won 83 percent of its games. Many smart people do not consider it a major league. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract spends several pages explaining why this stance should be adopted.

That leaves the AA, which served as a legitimate rival to the NL for a while. Among the innovations introduced by the AA were the right to sell alcohol at games and the hiring of paid umpires, a sometimes regrettable combination.

For the purposes of this article (i.e., having a list that contains more than Davies and Francis), we will consider the NA and the UA major leagues. With that caveat in mind, in honor of those that came before Francis and to remember teams that might otherwise be forgotten, here is a closer look at our low-inning-leader heroes.

Ed Stratton
Records from 1873 are hard to find. We know that Stratton made three starts, completing and losing them all. He allowed 75 hits in 27 innings and his ERA was 8.33, although it could have been much higher if not for the 50 unearned runs (!) he allowed in those three games.

The game was different then.

The Marylands went 0-6 on the season and were outscored 152-26. It's hard to believe that a team that lost by an average of 21 runs per game couldn't keep going. Or that its opponents couldn't find a way to make that happen.

The Boston Red Stockings led the National Association with a 43-16 record. They featured Hall of Famers Jim O'Rourke, George and Harry Wright, and Al Spalding. Those guys were a little better than Stratton, who never again appeared in the big leagues, although he did get into 59 games at Richmond and Norfolk of the Eastern League in 1884 and 1885. He played right field and second base, hitting .205 in 215 at-bats.

That's a low batting average by any standards. Then again, he never got to face himself.

Jim Brown
Born a month after Abraham Lincoln beat Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckenridge, and John Bell to become 16th president of the United States, Brown started the season pitching for Altoona. After that team's demise, he made a start for the National League's New York Giants and lost. He then returned to the Union Association's St. Paul White Caps and started six of their nine games. He went 1-4 and worked just over half of his team's innings. Brown also played some first base and outfield, leading the St. Paul offense with four doubles. The White Caps went 2-6 (also playing the Kansas City Cowboys to a 4-4 tie on October 12) in their lone season.

Brown made another start for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1886, losing that contest. He also made 11 starts in the Pennsylvania State Association and Southern Association that year, and 14 more in the Western League in 1887. I said the game was different then. Brown's minor-league numbers are presented as evidence of this:

Year

G

IP

H

R

ER

1886

11

94.0

95

58

12

1887

16

129.1

274

184

98

He died at age 47, in April 1908, the day after Bette Davis was born.

John Murphy
Born in 1858, Murphy makes the list twice in his only major-league season. He accounted for just over half of Altoona's innings total in 1884. He went 5-6 for a team that went 6-19 before folding at the end of May.

Murphy then joined the Eastern League's Wilmington Quicksteps, going 7-2 for them before the Quicksteps became part of the Union Association in August. Murphy went 0-6 for this version of the Quicksteps, which finished the season 2-16.

The guy who finished second on the UA Quicksteps in innings pitched was Edward Sylvester Nolan, who is listed at Baseball-Reference as The Only Nolan. He sounds like a fascinating fellow.

Murphy is perhaps less fascinating, but there you go. Like Brown, he died at age 47.

Henry Porter
Porter (SABR bio) went 3-3 for a Brewers team that went 8-4 in 1884 (they joined the UA on September 27). He also went 29-12 in the Northwest League that year, finishing second in wins and strikeouts to Hall of Famer John Clarkson.

Porter won 33 games for the AA's Brooklyn Grays in 1885 and 27 more the next season. His winning percentage slipped each year, from .611 to .587 to .385 to .327 (and a league-leading 37 losses for the Kansas City Cowboys in 1888, although he did no-hit the Baltimore Orioles on June 6 of that year). After making four poor starts for the Cowboys in 1889, he pitched a handful of games in the minors and then retired. He died in 1906, at age 48.

Asa Brainard
Brainard (SABR bio) is the reason we call a team's best pitcher its “ace” today. Although the term's etymology was questioned at one point, it has been established that Asa was referred to as “Acey” and “Ace” as early as 1864.

He went 2-7 for the 1872 Washington Olympics (they could use that nickname because the modern Olympic Games wouldn't come into existence for another 24 years). He pitched all of his team's innings before it folded on May 24 following an 11-7 victory over Bill Stearns and the hapless Washington Nationals.

Although Brainard's 24-53 record in four NA seasons is underwhelming, he played a significant role in baseball history. The former cricket player starred for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first professional team that famously went 57-0, with Brainard winning the vast majority of its contests.

Brainard was known for being fond of drink and ladies. He also reportedly did some strange things on the field, such as the time “Brainard threw the ball at a rabbit that crossed the field. This allowed two men to score as the ball and rabbit both scampered away.”

Wild pitch?

Brainard died in 1888, at age 48 or thereabouts. His birthdate is unknown but is believed to be between 1839 and 1841.

Phonney Martin
Martin went 2-7 for an Eckfords team that went 3-26, so in context, he pitched pretty well. Speaking of context, he notched three strikeouts in 85 innings. Have I mentioned that the game was different then?

The 26-year-old Martin (born five months into the James K. Polk administration) was a busy guy. When not on the mound, he patrolled the outfield.

If records from that era are to be trusted, Martin's best start in 1872 came at the long-forgotten Capitoline Grounds (later the launch point of a disastrous attempt to cross the Atlantic by hot air balloon) on August 19. He beat Jim Britt and the Brooklyn Atlantics, 4-3, in 10 innings that Monday afternoon. The Atlantics finished the season 9-28, so it was an epic struggle between bad and worse.

Martin retired after the following season and died in 1933, at age 87.

Bill Stearns
Stearns worked all 99 innings the Washington Nationals played in 1872. He lost all 11 games. The closest he came to winning was a May 17 contest against Brainard, whose Olympians won, 15-13.

Stearns allowed 20 or more runs in five of his starts, and 10 or more runs in all but one. He saved his best for last, allowing only nine runs against the Baltimore Canaries on June 26, working on three weeks of rest. He was 19 years old. Had Mike Rizzo been in charge back then, maybe Stearns would have been shut down sooner. It's not like they were going to catch the 39-8 Boston Red Stockings.

Stearns spent three more seasons in the NA, retiring in 1875 with a 13-64 career record. He has the fewest wins of anyone ever to lose 64 games or more, which is arbitrary but impressive:

Player

Years

W

L

WPct

Bill Stearns

1871-1875

13

64

.169

John Coleman

1883-1890

23

72

.242

Jim Britt

1872-1873

26

64

.289

Tricky Nichols

1875-1882

28

73

.277

Jim Hughey

1891-1900

29

80

.266

Bill Greif

1971-1976

31

67

.316

Steve Arlin

1969-1974

34

67

.337

Happy Townsend

1901-1906

34

82

.293

Gus Dorner

1902-1909

35

69

.337

Mal Eason

1900-1906

36

73

.330

Bill Hill

1896-1899

36

69

.343

That's nine guys from the late 19th/early 20th century and two Padres, if you're scoring at home.

Stearns died in 1898, at age 45.

George Davies
Finally we get to the guy who pitched in a league that everyone recognizes as a major league. Davies (SABR bio) attended the University of Wisconsin, which later produced Hall of Famer Addie Joss, Harvey Kuenn, and current Mariners minor-league pitching coach Lance Painter, among others.

Davies went 7-5 for a Brewers team that joined the league in mid-August and finished 21-15. He pitched for a very good Cleveland Spiders team (the rotation was headed by a fellow named Cy Young) the next year, then got into a handful of games for the Spiders and New York Giants in 1893 before retiring at age 25.

Davies, who studied law in college, later became a physician. He died in 1906, at age 38, via suicide.

Al Pratt
In 1872, Pratt (bio) went 2-9 for a Cleveland Forest Citys team that went 6-16 while playing games sporadically between May and August. His catcher was Deacon White, who accumulated more than 2,000 hits between 1871 and 1890 before retiring at age 42.

Pratt's two victories were back-to-back. He beat Bobby Mathews and the Canaries, 7-4, on Saturday, June 1. Two weeks later—in the Forest Citys' next game–he beat Hall of Famer Candy Cummings and the New York Mutuals, 11-4. Then Pratt lost his final five starts, including his team's only shutout of the season. Spalding and the Red Stockings beat him, 17-0, on July 1.

Pratt's career consisted of two seasons. In the first, he led the NA in losses (17), home runs allowed (9), strikeouts (34), wild pitches (48), and K/9 (1.4). He also started (and lost to Mathews, 2-0) in the NA's first-ever contest, at what might be called the birth of major-league baseball.

He later helped form the AA, managing the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1882 and 1883. A native of Pittsburgh, Pratt died there as well, in 1937 at age 90.

Mike Golden
The Keokuk Westerns went 1-12 in 1875. So did Golden, who started and finished all 13 games. His lone victory came on May 6, a 15-2 shellacking of the St. Louis Red Stockings. How the Westerns scored 15 runs in a game is anyone's guess, as this represented a third of their season total.

The team played its final game on June 14, a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to the Mutuals. Golden moved on to the Chicago White Stockings and fared better for them, going 6-7 in 14 starts. He also played the outfield when he wasn't pitching. Golden ranked seventh in the NA with a 1.86 ERA that doesn't account for the 135 unearned runs scored against him.

Golden seems to have disappeared in 1876 but played for the League Alliance's Indianapolis Blues in 1877. His teammates there included The Only Nolan and a fellow named Silver Flint. So the Blues had Silver and Golden.

In 1878, Golden resurfaced with the NL's Milwaukee Grays, going 3-13 (and still allowing a boatload of unearned runs) as that team's second pitcher behind Sam Weaver. Beyond this, very little information is available about Golden, who died in 1929 at age 77.

* * *

As for Francis and the Rockies, don't expect that feat to be matched soon, if ever. Nobody else on our list pitched for a team that played more than 36 games in a season. The recent willful self-destruction of a certain art dealer's team in Miami notwithstanding, I don't see any MLB franchises folding after a month and a half.

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