“There is actually a good argument that Tom Seaver should be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time.” – Bill James
Later, I’ll get to the look on the face of the player pictured here, but first I want to talk about the notion—or is it an unassailable fact?—that we are coming to an end of just about the greatest era for elite pitchers that baseball has ever seen.
Degrees of greatness are difficult to define, but baseball analysts have approached these kinds of definitions by devising ways to adjust raw data for different conditions in different eras. The most effective single statistic of this kind, for pitchers, is ERA+. While ERA+ cannot tell the whole story of a pitcher, it seems to do a better job of it than any other single statistic.
Four of the top ten seasons in ERA+ were recorded between the years of 1994 and 2000. Fourteen of the top 52 seasons in ERA+ were recorded between the years 1990 and 2005. By comparison, only three top-52 seasons occurred during a similar span of years directly preceding this recent era, only three in the fifteen years before that, and just two in the fifteen years before that. You have to go all the way back to the deadball era, an era so slanted toward the pitcher that even ERA+ seems unable to adequately adjust for it, to find a similar explosion of otherworldy pitching seasons, as defined by ERA+. Discounting the deadball era, you are left to conclude that, in terms of elite pitching performances, the era we all had the pleasure of recently witnessing was about three times as magnificent as any era preceding it. Three times as magnificent?
Something seems fishy here.
I’m not the person to be making this inquiry into the numbers.
First of all, I don’t know how to make a graph. A graph showing the recent stark jump in the number of astounding single seasons in ERA+ would do a nice job of illustrating the idea that something went wacky in the machine, that some element of ERA+ may not have been able to adjust to all the conditions and factors producing the raw data of the recent era.
Second of all, and more importantly, I’m not so good with numbers.
If you had told me when I was a kid that I’d grow up to make such an admission, I’d have been surprised. Throughout my baseball-card loving childhood, I loved numbers. This is what the backs of baseball cards were all about, after all: numbers. Stacks of numbers, numbers that swelled and waned like the tide, numbers that gleamed, numbers that wheezed, clownish laughable numbers, awe-inspiring numbers, numbers that seemed to tell stories clearer than anything else in the world I was just beginning to wake up to, ambiguous, slippery, forever uncertain.
The 1978 card shown at the top of this page brought to a close what was perhaps the most magnetic running saga-told-in-numbers of my childhood, for the year before this card came out, while being traded from the Mets to the Reds, Tom Seaver fell four strikeouts shy of 200, the first time in a decade he had failed to surpass that plateau. On first glance at the back of the card, it seems he has fallen well short of 200 not once but twice, since there are two lines of statistics for the 1977 season, one for the Mets and one for the Reds. Once that initial disappointment passes, there is the secondary disappointment of adding his strikeout totals for the two teams together, putting those fourth-grade math skills to use, almost but not quite getting to 200. All things must come to an end. Yet still, above those two sums that don’t quite add up to a hundred, there is that pillar of 200s, nothing quite like it in all the world of the Cardboard Gods. Nobody hit over 40 home runs every year, or even over 30, not even Hank Aaron. Nobody drove in over 100 runs every year. But Tom Seaver struck out over 200 every year, again and again and again. But words don’t do the feat justice. You have to have been a kid, holding one of his baseball cards in your hands, looking at that invincible ladder that stretched all the way back to the beginning of time, i.e., to the year you were born.
As I grew up, numbers began to overpower me. Coincidentally or not, at the same time I started reaching for inebriating substances of one sort or another, as if my inability to any longer make sense of the world by using numbers produced a need in me to become as senseless as possible.
I still remember my trigonometry final exam my junior year at boarding school. It was part of a giant testing period for many classes in the gym. After looking over the test, which repelled me like a force field, I spent most of the time until the bell writing an apology to my teacher in one of those blue examination booklets. It may as well have been my suicide note to the world of numbers. Right around that time, a senior drove up over the border, to Vermont (my school was in western Massachusetts), where the drinking age was still 18, and bought so many bottles of booze that when he got back we spread them out on a kid’s bed and took a picture of them. So many bottles you couldn’t even count them all. The giddiness was palpable. We were about to blast all the numbers clean out of our heads.
So was there some weird warp in history that spit out over three times the amount of great pitchers in one era than in the eras preceding it for the previous seventy years? Over three times the amount?
Or is there some flaw in the ERA+ statistic, some nuance that hasn’t yet been accounted for?
I don’t know, man. Let’s face it, I’m way over my head. In fact, this post is more than anything an invitation to one and all to throw a math-dufus a lifeline.
My one thought, and probably it’s elsewhere either been better expressed or eloquently discounted, or both, is that maybe the staggering ERA+ numbers of Pedro and Maddux and Randy Johnson and Clemens and even Kevin Brown (numbers that seem to argue for the superiority of all these pitchers save the last one over such standouts from previous eras as Tom Seaver) have something to do with the expansion of the league during that time.
This explanation has often been used to hypothesize about the reasons for the ballooning numbers of hitters. Talent is thinned out, allowing star hitters to shine all the brighter by all the fat, inexpertly thrown pitches and by comparison to all the lesser batters allowed by expansion to enter into the league. But for some reason this very same line of thinking has not been used, at least not commonly, to try to explain the outrageously good numbers of some pitchers during the 1990s and early 2000s. I don’t see why not. If the town you grew up in suddenly added several more little league teams, wouldn’t the burly early-puberty kids with armpit hair not only hit more home runs but, when on the mound, garner more strikeouts and scoreless innings? And wouldn’t those pitching numbers look even more breathtakingly dominant when compared to the pitching numbers of a skinny bespectacled feeb forced, because of the thinning of the league’s talent, to leave the safety of deep right field to take repeated tear-laced beatings on the mound?
Some support for this line of thinking is that Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez all had higher career ERAs in the playoffs, where there are fewer skinny bespectacled feebs filling out rosters. (By way of comparison, and this probably means nothing, but Tom Seaver’s career playoff ERA was actually lower than his career regular season ERA.)
But I don’t know. How can anyone ever be certain of anything?
After all, Tom Seaver was known as the Franchise when he was on the Mets, a nickname that of course ties him to the identity of the team, a nickname that says that if anything in this world is certain, it is that Tom Seaver is the Mets.
And yet, here he is, in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. And not only that, but on the back of the card, his string of 200-strikeout seasons, that towering pillar of numerical certainty, has finally reached its end.
When I got this card I probably gazed for a while at the odd spectacle of the Reds jersey on Tom Seaver, and then I probably gazed for a while at the back of his card, adding two sums to make a number less than 200. Then I probably looked back at the front of the card and stared into Tom Seaver’s eyes.
It doesn’t matter, he is saying. The numbers, the uniform. None of it. What matters, what is certain, is this: Give me the fucking ball and I’ll get you a win.
(Love versus Hate update: Tom Seaver’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)