June 14, 2004
Sometimes, you have a great idea for a column, and the facts just don't lend themselves to the story.
So you write about the process.
See, in Houston tonight, we're going to be treated to a terrific intergenerational pitching matchup, as Mark Prior and Roger Clemens meet for the Cubs and Astros. And I was thinking that you might be able to trace the history of great pitching through maybe a half-dozen games in baseball history. Prior is facing Clemens, and Clemens must have had to face a similarly great pitcher in the early years of his career, and so on.
As it turns out, you really can't do it. It seems that pitchers of this caliber don't take each other on as often as you would hope, and once you miss a link, you get off track pretty quickly.
Clemens, for example, faced a whole collection of bums in his first three seasons. I had hoped that there was a Clemens/Tom Seaver duel in 1984 or 1985, but the two never matched up, missing each other by a day on one occasion. The best pitcher, based on career value, that Clemens faced in his first few seasons was Bert Blyleven. The two matched up on May 17, 1985 in Cleveland, with Clemens firing a five-hit shutout at Blyleven's Indians.
When you dig into Blyleven's career, you get nothing. The American League in the early 1970s didn't have much in the way of historically great pitchers near the ends of their careers. In the second game of his career, on June 10, 1970, Blyleven faced the Yankees and Mel Stottlemyre, losing a 2-1 game despite seven good innings of work. Stottlemyre was pretty much the best veteran pitcher Blyleven faced in his first few seasons.
Bringing Palmer into the mix enables us to cheat a little bit. See, he was the opposing pitcher for the last start of Sandy Koufax's pain-shortened career, the second game of the 1966 World Series. As all the Orioles did in that series, Palmer pitched beautifully, spinning a four-hit shutout to help beat the Dodgers 6-0.
Before he was a power left-hander in the greatest environment ever for a power left-hander, Koufax was a hard-throwing kid with very little idea of where the ball was going. Back in 1958, in the Dodgers' first season in Los Angeles, his fourth in the majors, Koufax went up against Warren Spahn in Milwaukee. The veteran picked up the win, 4-3.
Spahn's career extended back to the end of World War II. (Spahnie actually made four appearances in '42 before going off to war, but did nothing of note.) Now, I would have thought this to be a positive, but in looking at his career, Spahn doesn't seem to have a connection to a great pre-WWII pitcher. This is in part because not many great pitchers had substantial careers on both sides of the war.
The best pitcher to connect Spahn to is Dutch Leonard, who managed to eke out a 191-181 career record while pitching for bad baseball teams, often in good hitters' environments. His career adjusted ERA is 119, indicating that he was 20% better than the average pitcher over his 3,200 innings. Spahn beat Leonard, pitching for the Phillies at the time, 2-1, on September 5, 1947.
Leonard's first career start came on September 12, 1933, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt was just nearing the end of his career then, but he had some good outings left in him. One of them came on this day, as he shut out Leonard's Dodgers 2-0.
Hoyt was best known as the ace of the Murderers' Row Yankees of the mid-1920s, and made the Hall of Fame based largely on those seasons. He came up with the Red Sox, however, and he faced a whole bunch of interesting pitchers for them in 1919 and 1920. In a stretch covering the end of '19 through the middle of '20, Hoyt faced Eddie Cicotte just before Cicotte sold out his career in the '19 World Series, Carl Mays a few months before Mays' pitch killed Ray Chapman, Jack Quinn, who had one of the longest careers in MLB history, and Howard Ehmke, who became one of the most random World Series heroes ever in 1929 for the A's.
Hoyt, however, really didn't match up with any historically great pitchers until he was traded to New York after the '20 season. On June 28, 1922, he faced off with Walter Johnson in Griffith Stadium, losing a 1-0 decision.
Johnson faced up with any number of Hall of Famers in his career, but the matchup that gets us into the 19th century came against Rube Waddell near the end of the 1908 season. While not at his mid-20s peak, Waddell was still a formidable opponent, posting an ERA of 1.89 and striking out 232 batters in '08. He had enough for Johnson on September 20, 1908, too, beating the Senators 2-1.
Waddell didn't have a long career, but it did pre-date the American League that he dominated throughout the '00s. He made his debut with the Louisville Colonels in 1897, a team that effectively merged with the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1899 season. On September 24, 1900, Waddell faced Cy Young in one of Young's last starts in the National League. Once again, the veteran pitcher won a deadball-era special, as the Cardinals eked out a 1-0 victory.
Nine games. Nine games, over nearly 100 years, connect Cy Young to Roger Clemens. Tonight that chain may be extended, as Prior seems set to go on to the kind of career that will make him the natural extension of this line of great pitchers.
When the future meets the past, it's those of us in the present who win.
(Thanks to Retrosheet, without which I couldn't have done this piece.)