The baseball season offers so many wonderful distractions from a war-torn world and lives of quiet desperation. For the last week, whenever depression claws at the mind, when personal relationships with friends or colleagues seem to have taken a step back, when sleep seems impossible, it is spectacularly soothing to think of the triumphant whoops, high-fives, and fist bumps in the Rockies front office when they learned that their waiver claim on Livan Hernandez had gone through.
Hernandez was an interesting choice for the Rockies. A team already allowing three-quarters of a run more than the league average in both home and road games, and well out of both the division and wild-card races, would seem to have little need for the services of a historically-hittable pitcher. When Hernandez left the Twins, he took with him 199 hits allowed in 139
# Pitcher Year H/9 IP ERA W L 1 Leo Sweetland 1930 14.60 167 7.71 7 15 2 Claude Willoughby 1930 14.18 153 7.59 4 17 3 Pete Donohue 1930 13.98 121 6.17 8 9 4 Hap Collard 1930 13.32 127 6.80 6 12 5 Jim Walkup 1937 13.08 150 7.38 9 12 * Livan Hernandez 2008 13.03 142.1 5.94 10 9 6 Flint Rhem 1933 13.00 126 6.57 5 14 7 Jack Knight 1926 12.97 143 6.61 3 12 8 Ray Benge 1936 12.91 161 5.48 8 13 9 Dick Coffman 1935 12.88 144 6.13 5 11 10 Sloppy Thurston 1925 12.86 175 6.17 10 14
Note the won-lost column. With the exception of Hernandez, every pitcher in the single-season top ten-and continuing downward for nearly another 20 places-predictably failed to win. This suggests, at least to the tortured mind striving to find a silver lining in this hopeless world, that in rare cases, fortune smiles on the incompetent. That is if the guy in the cubicle next to yours isn’t proof enough. Yet, is the guy in the next cubicle the most incompetent guy ever to be promoted over you and steal your girlfriend, ever? We don’t have the appropriate metrics to answer that, but we can speculate a bit about whether Hernandez is the worst pitcher to have (at least for now) a winning record.
Recent seasons offer a few candidates who had negative SNLVARs but still had winning records, including notables like Colby Lewis, who went 10-9 for the 2003 Rangers despite a 7.30 ERA, 1999-model Mike Morgan, also with the Rangers, who was 13-10 with a 6.24 ERA, and Bill Swift of the 1998 Mariners, 11-9 with a 5.85 ERA. What’s notable here is that Morgan and Swift were very good pitchers at times; Swift had won an NL ERA title back in 1992. It just happened that in the years in question they were at or near the end of the useful phases of their careers. Swift packed it in after the 1998 season, while Morgan spent the rest of his career in the bullpen.
That’s why it’s no slight against a pitcher who many consider to be a borderline Hall of Fame candidate in nominating Wes Ferrell as the luckiest pitcher ever for his 15-10 record in 1938, the last full season of a career which began in 1927. (His brother, catcher Rick Ferrell, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in one of the Veterans Committee’s more whimsical moments.) A North Carolina native, Ferrell had a one-inning cameo with the Cleveland Indians as a 19-year-old in September of 1927. The next spring he went north with the team, but did nothing but pitch batting practice. After a couple of weeks, he refused his assigned task, pointedly staying in the outfield and not coming in to throw. Asked by coaches to take his usual spot, he told them, in his own words, to go to hell. Suddenly he was the property of Terre Haute in the Three-I League.
Ferrell made it back at the end of the season, then finally stuck with the team in 1929. He won 21 games that year, and crossed the 20-win mark in each of his first four seasons. At age 24, he was 91-50 (.645) with a 3.57 ERA and a 1931 no-hitter for a mediocre Cleveland team with a weak defense in a league in which the average ERA was close to a run higher. He also quickly established two parallel reputations. The first was as the Micah Owings of his day as a great hitter for a pitcher, including a .319/.373/.621 season in ’31 with nine home runs in 116 at-bats that was not solely the product of the rabbit-ball era. The second, less savory rep was as a hothead’s hothead, a remarkable accomplishment given that he shared the league with classically-temperamental types like Lefty Grove and Johnny Allen.
By 1933, Ferrell was on his way out of Cleveland. He was getting expensive, and thanks to the Great Depression, Cleveland ownership was strapped. He had clashed with manager Roger Peckinpaugh, refusing to leave the mound after being relieved in the first inning of a game against the Red Sox. He had also thrown a great many innings for a young pitcher-1,104-and he was sidelined by a “sore arm” that year. The injury could have been anything, but the statistical record shows its effect: Ferrell’s K/9 dropped from an average of 3.8 in 1929-1932 (the league average was 3.2) to a minuscule 1.8. To continue, Ferrell would have to reinvent himself as a junkball pitcher.
He would do so as a member of the Red Sox. Ferrell held out in 1934, having been cut from an $18,000 salary to $12,000 in 1933, this after winning 23 games in ’32, but the Indians only offered him a $5,000 contract for 1934, prompting him to say he would “loaf for the next 30 years rather than sign.” With no progress through late May, the Indians finally dealt Ferrell and outfielder Dick Porter to the Red Sox (one of the few teams handing out cash) for pitcher Lefty Weiland, outfielder “Suitcase” Bob Seeds, and $25,000. Throwing to his brother Rick, who had become Sox property the year before, Ferrell bounced back quickly, going 14-5 in 26 games with a 3.63 ERA, more than run below league average, then reeled off his fifth and sixth 20-win seasons in 1935 and ’36.
At the conclusion of the latter season, Ferrell was 28 years old and about to run out of gas for good. When he opened the ’37 season with a 7.61 ERA in 73
As for Wes Ferrell, he lasted a year and a half in Washington. Perhaps buoyed by the pitcher-friendly vastness of Griffith Stadium’s pasturage, he delivered an above-average 3.94 ERA over the rest of the 1937 season, and his strikeout rate, which had rebounded in his first years with the Red Sox, was his best in years. He also completed 21 of 24 starts, and it’s tempting to conclude that at that point his arm had given its last, as 1938 was an ongoing nightmare. Ferrell pitched 149 innings, allowed 193 hits, walked 68, and struck out 36, or 2.2 K/9. Despite Griffith’s big pastures, his ERA was a cool 5.92 (the league ERA that year was 4.50).
Despite being battered, Ferrell’s record was 13-8 in 23 games. The Senators averaged about 5.5 runs per game in his 22 starts, including three starts of 12 runs each, allowing him to win some high-scoring affairs. What’s most interesting here is that in the days before pitching was better understood, the won-lost record was everything, and Ferrell’s release on August 12 seemed inexplicable to many observers, including Ferrell; if you had a winning record you were doing your job. “I was getting a big salary,” Ferrell said, “and I guess [Senators owner Clark Griffith] figured he’d save some money.” In his 1954 history of the Senators, Shirley Povich suggested that it was a mistimed crack that did Ferrell in. On a trip to Boston, Ferrell was supposed to have been overheard saying, “This cheap Washington club won’t even pay our taxi fares,” causing Griffith to cut him loose.
Ferrell’s 1938 story had a better ending than Livan Hernandez’s is likely to. Two days after he was cut by the Senators, Ferrell was invited to sign with the Yankees, who then had a seven-game lead in the race for their third straight pennant. Why Joe McCarthy, who had a stacked rotation and a special prejudice against hot-headed southerners, wanted Ferrell will remain a mystery. Ferrell was even worse as a Yankee than he was as a Senator, putting up an 8.10 ERA in 30 innings. However, the first game he won in pinstripes came at Washington, where he beat the Senators 6-5 in 11 innings; Griffith was still paying him his ten days’ severance. Ferrell then got to celebrate with the Yankees when they won the World Series against the Cubs, though he did not play. He finished the year 15-10 with a 6.28 ERA. There have been worse seasons by pitchers, but none of those hurlers managed to be credited with 15 wins in the process of being ravaged.
Ferrell tried to come back over the next few years, but rapidly earned his release from the Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves. His time as an effective pitcher had ended at 29, and he was out of the majors at 33. His finishing line had been crossed in ’38, but those three clubs had to find out for themselves, much as the Rockies apparently had to find out for themselves with Livan Hernandez, also 33. Like Ferrell, his last year of protracted good pitching was at age 29, and the next year he put up a 15-10 record, primarily through good run support (though he wasn’t hit nearly as hard as was Ferrell). He’s had more chances than Ferrell did after his flameout, but perhaps that’s a tribute to pitcher scarcity in post-expansion baseball, or a sign that nothing ever changes and no one ever learns anything.
That’s a bleak thought. When you have bleak thoughts, there’s nothing to make one feel better like thinking about the triumphant whoops, high-fives, and fist bumps in the Rockies front office when they learned that their waiver claim on Livan Hernandez had gone through-but this is where we came in.
Suggestions for Further Reading
The Washington Senators, by Shirley Povich (1954).
Baseball When the Grass was Real, by Donald Honig (interview with Wes Ferrell).