The magic of Walter Johnson

The season is about to start, but it’s never too late to look back on baseball’s awesome history.

At left, Johnson and Ty Cobb (on right).  At right, Johnson pitching 1912-1915 (Photos courtesy of baseball-fever.com)

I cannot imagine being a major league player just before Walter Johnson’s time.  You’re doing just fine, hitting for a high average and punishing baseballs–in fact, destroying them.  You are racking up triples and doubles. The league is very healthy and even though runs scored per game has gone down in recent years, you and your team, the Detroit Tigers, are killing it. (You’re also very racist, but we’ll talk about that another time).

Then, in 1907, during a game against the worst team in the league, this lanky 6 foot 1 19-year-old takes the mound.

What’s he doing?  Why’s he throwing like that?  He’s just so fresh-faced.  He can’t know what he’s doing.  This?  This is what they put up against the best team in the majors? I knew the Senators were pathetic, but this?? Some of your teammates even “moo” at him and taunt the opposing manager.

And then he mows everyone down.

Ty Cobb, who was only 20 himself at the time, later described that moment in his biography:

On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was a rookie, and we licked our lips as we warmed up for the first game of a doubleheader in Washington. Evidently, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon of the Nats had picked a rube out of the cornfields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us… He was a tall, shambling galoot of about twenty, with arms so long they hung far out of his sleeves, and with a sidearm delivery that looked unimpressive at first glance… One of the Tigers imitated a cow mooing, and we hollered at Cantillon: ‘Get the pitchfork ready, Joe– your hayseed’s on his way back to the barn.’

…The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him… every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.

He pitched half a season and, despite what this article says, was an immediate success. Walter Johnson went on to have maybe the greatest career a pitcher ever had.

Up to that point, the average K/9 was ~3.8, the average BB/9 was ~2.6.  In Johnson’s first full year in the majors, he throws 256 innings. He gets 160 strike outs (5.6 K/9) to 56 walks (1.9 BB/9) and a 0.964 WHIP. He gives up ZERO home runs. Even adjusting for era and park, this was one of the best seasons of 1907.

And the crazy thing is, when he enters the league, pitching is way up.  By 1910, hitting becomes the emphasis and yet, he dominated.

In 1910, he throws 313 strikeouts. At the age of 22.

In 1912, he has the greatest pitching season in history.  And in 1913 he repeats that for the two greatest combined years in history, only paralleled by Pedro Martinez’s 1999-2000 seasons, though Pedro does it in basically half the innings.

In those two years, Johnson’s stats look like this:

1912: 6.3 hits/9, 1.9 BB/9, 7.4 K/9, 1.39 ERA, 243 ERA+
1913: 6.0 hits/9, 1.0 BB/9, 6.3 K/9, 1.14 ERA, 259 ERA+

Look at those ERA+’s. He is 24 and 25 in those years.  In 1913, he wins the MVP.

Some people would be satisfied with two seasons of ERA+ over 200, but Walter Johnson wasn’t.

In 1918, he posts a 214 ERA+ in 326 innings.  In 1919, he posts a 215 ERA+ in 290 innings.

And that’s not all, it’s not like he was sacrificing innings for quality pitching.  He leads the league in innings pitched in 1910 (370), 1913 (346), 1914 (371), 1915 (336) and 1916 (369).  Between 1910 and 1918, he throws no fewer than 322 innings.

Only 40 times in history has a pitcher had a sub-7 hits/9 and a sub-2 BB/9 in 260+ innings pitched.  Walter Johnson has seven of them.

His post age-31 years, which coincide with the end of the deadball era, aren’t quite as sharp, but he’s still well above-average in that time.

Now a lot of things are unknown about Johnson’s career–how much defense helped him and how he would’ve faired in the post-deadball era in his prime are two things I’m most interested in. Fangraphs has his FIP below 2 every year between 1907 and 1917–except, 1909, which was a perfect 2.00, and 1912, which was skewed because of a few home runs he gave up.  So defense may have helped a little bit, but only marginally.

The sad thing is that the Washington Senators are a TURD of a team throughout his career. They finish first zero times and second twice in the first 17 years of Johnson’s career.

But in 1924, he puts together one final amazing season and posts a 148 ERA+ in 270 innings.  That year, the Senators get to the World Series and Johnson pitches the final out of game 7 for the title.

Though he doesn’t quite deserve it, he receives the MVP for the second time in his career.

When his career is over, he has the record for most strike outs–not broken until Nolan Ryan in 1983.  Despite the growth of strikeout pitchers since the expansion era, he’s still ninth on the list.  He has allowed only 87 home runs, only giving up two in one game 11 times. In 666 games started (hail satan) and 802 games pitched. He has 110 shut outs and 203 hit-by-pitches, both of which he still holds records for.

He has the record for most innings pitched since the AL-NL merger in 1901.  It’s 600 more than anyone who would pitch after him. Phil Neikro and Nolan Ryan included. He holds the highest career ERA+ of his generation by a freaking mile and does it in more innings than are conceivable by today’s standards.

Only two people surpass his career ERA+ mark of 147 in 2,000 innings or more.  One is Pedro Martinez (154), who has only pitched about 3,000 innings.  The other is Lefty Grove (148), who retires after 4,000 innings.

Yes, Walter Johnson pitched an entire career more than Pedro Martinez and Lefty Grove and still had an ERA+ for his career at their level. If he had retired after 1924, he would have had both of them beat, but c’est la vie.

There had been pitchers before him that posted similar BB/9s, similar K/9s and similar hits/9.  But no one had them all together like Johnson did.  Walter Johnson was magic.

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1 Comment

Filed under MLB, MLB history, Uncategorized

One response to “The magic of Walter Johnson

  1. Pingback: Update: Walter Johnson’s Magic Continues « Dinger's

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