First we’ll use Spahn
then we’ll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
by two days of rain.
— Gerald V. Hern poem on the 1948 Braves
* * *
Let’s start with a completely unrelated story involving the great hitter Billy Williams. When I was maybe 21 or 22 years old ,I was covering a Charlotte Knights Class AA baseball game, and by pure chance I found myself in the press box sitting next to Billy Williams. The Knights were a Cubs farm system then and I guess Williams was a roving hitting instructor.
To this day, I’m not sure how or why I did it: I probably should have been too embarrassed to ask that basic a question. I But I asked Williams if he could explain to me the difference between a slider and a curve. He happily did. He explained for the next hour or so. It was unbelievable, one of my favorite ever baseball experiences. He took a sheet of paper, showed me the different breaks, explained why he had some success against Gibson’s slider (he hit 10 home runs off Gibby) and why he couldn’t do a thing against Bert Blyleven’s curve (one hit in 15 at-bats). It was like getting physics lessons from Einstein.
I bring this up because there has been this simple baseball concept that I have simply not been able to wrap my head around: I did not understand the difference between Wins Above Replacement and Wins Above Average. I mean, OK, I understood the basics of it but I never quite got it … you know what I mean? I understand that Wins Above Replacement represents an attempt to determine how much more (or less) valuable a player is when compared with a replacement-level player. Wins Above Averages compares instead to an average player. I understand that part.
What I could not quite grasp is why the two statistics will vary so much when ranking players.
For instance, No. 44 on my list is Pedro Martinez. No. 43 on my list, you now know, is Warren Spahn.
By Wins Above Replacement, you can see Spahn’s advantage:
Spahn: 92.6 WAR
Martinez: 86.0 WAR
However, Wins Above Average tells a very, very different story.
Martinez: 61.4 WAA
Spahn: 41.1 WAA
Whoa. That’s a HUGE difference. By WAR, Spahn is the 37th most valuable player — pitcher or hitter — in baseball history. But by WAA he drops all the way down to 66. And with Pedro, it’s the reverse — he’s 43rd on the list by WAR, 29th on the list by WAA.
This concept might come very easily to you, but it just boggled my mind. And so, I asked Bill James and Tom Tango to help me understand, which is a lot like asking Billy Williams about the difference between a curve and a slider. They both gave this general answer.
Let’s say you have two players, one somewhat better than the others. Let’s say we are displaying their value by win percentage.
Player 1 is a .650 player and Player 2 is a .550 player.
If you compare them to a replacement level player — let’s say replacement level is .300 — then you can see the difference.
Player 1: 350 points above replacement
Player 2: 250 points above replacement
So Player 1 is more valuable … but it’s a relatively small gap. Player 1 is 40% more valuable than Player 2.
Now, let’s compare them both to an average player, which is obviously .500.
Player 1: 150 points above replacement
Player 2: 50 points above replacement
Well, you see how that changed everything. Even though the 100-point gap between the two players is the same, now Player 1 is THREE TIMES more valuable than Player 2. The starting point is the key here.
So what does this mean? Well, Wins Above Replacement tends to reward long, consistent productive careers like Spahn’s. He threw more than 5,000 innings — almost double the innings Pedro Martinez threw. He won 20 games 13 times, led the league in complete games nine times, led the league in shutouts and innings pitched four times.
The most innings Pedro Martinez ever threw in a season was 241.
Spahn — and this might the most amazing baseball statistic you hear today — threw more than 241 innings in SEVENTEEN seasons.
Spahnie was just relentlessly good, year after year after year, and if you compare that to replacement level he will simply compile more value than Martinez. He was always better than replacement. If you use Bill James’ Win Shares — which just figures a players value and doesn’t compare it to anything — you see a much wider gap. Spahn has 403 career win shares. Martinez has 224.
OK, but the higher the baseline you use to compare, the more it will favor players who had very, very high peaks (and, often, short careers). Martinez for seven years was very clearly better than Spahn at any point in his career (better, I think, than anyone ever). He was so much better than average those years he piled up huge value. And, when compared with average, that value overwhelms Spahn’s advantage in innings pitched.
Here was a great way for me to look at it: If you subtract Pedro’s career statistics from Spahn’s career, you still have a pitcher who went 144-145 with a 3.27 ERA and 2,416 innings pitched. That is basically the career of Jeff Suppan or Bob Knepper or Woodie Fryman. What is that worth?
Well, against replacement, that’s worth quite a lot. Fryman’s WAR, for instance, is 18.6 wins above replacement. A very nice career.
But compare Fryman to average … well, he wasn’t quite an average pitcher. His WAA is minus-2.6.
So WAR credits Spahn for all those average or near average innings he pitched. And WAA does not. That’s the difference. Among the 200 or so best players in baseball history, here are the biggest gaps between WAR and WAA. You can see exactly what I’m talking about:
Guys who are better against replacement:
— Don Sutton: Ranks 90th in WAR; Ranks 257th in WAA.
— Tommy John: Ranks 134th in WAR; Ranks 281st in WAA
— Dave Winfield: Ranks 123rd in WAR; Ranks 252nd in WAA
— Pete Rose: Ranks 56th in WAR; Ranks 175th in WAA
Guys who are better against average:
— Joe DiMaggio: Ranks 36th in WAA; Ranks 58th in WAR
— Larry Walker: Ranks 46th in WAA; Ranks 73rd in WAR
— Scott Rolen: Ranks 56th in WAA; Ranks 84th in WAR
— Lou Boudreau: Ranks 62nd in WAA; Ranks 127th in WAR
— Chase Utley: Ranks 63rd in WAA; Ranks 155th in WAR
And so on. Guys who put up long, consistent careers — like Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Billy Williams, Gary Sheffield and Nolan Ryan — do much better against replacement than against average.
And guys who have spectacular but relatively short careers — like Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Johan Santana, Hal Newhouser and Jackie Robinson — do much better against average than against replacement.
All of which is to say: There are many different ways to measure the same data. When I was putting together this list, I had Pedro Martinez and Warren Spahn coupled in my mind. One is the ultimate example of a brilliant shooting star career. One is the ultimate example of the sun rising every day. Which career would you rather have? I’m sure Pedro wishes it could have lasted longer. I’m sure Spahn would have loved to throw Martinez’s fastball and change-up. We play the cards we are dealt.
* * *
Warren Spahn, like so many of the players on this list, learned the game from his father. Warren Spahn Sr. named his son Warren but, he would say, not after himself. He named his son Warren after the president, Warren G. Harding. Warren Sr. sold wallpaper and, as the line goes, not that much of it. There was a Depression going on. The family lived in Buffalo and struggled. Warren Sr. wanted his namesake to become a ballplayer. The son was left-handed, so the father realized that there weren’t too many open positions. No shortstop. No third base. No catcher. Warren Jr. liked to hit and he liked first base, which was fine. But Warren Sr. was a practical man and he taught his son how to pitch just in case.*
*Spahn was a very good hitter for a pitcher. He hit .35 career home runs, tying him for fourth all time behind Wes Ferrell, Bob Lemon and Red Ruffing.
It was fun listening to Warren Spahn talk about how his father made him throw the ball right — easy motion and complete follow through — and how this was the defining lesson of his baseball life. That arm would become one of the Great Wonders of Baseball. Spahn was something of a phenom when he first started — he dominated the III League (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) as a 20-year-old. That was the year he was hit in the face with a bad throw by a teammate and got the famous bulbous nose that defined his face. Spahn dominated the Eastern League at 21 and got a call up to the big leagues that year. He started a coupe of games and got roughed up. And then he went to war.
Spahn’s war record is one of the most decorated in baseball history. He fought in the Battle of Bulge and was wounded in the fight over the Bridge at Remagen. He earned a promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He would talk about how the war changed him, how it made him more grateful for every minute he had on the field. “After what I went through overseas,” he would be quoted in “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched” “I never thought of anything I had to do in baseball as hard work.”
And this to USA Today in 1990: “I felt like, ‘Wow, what a great way to make a living. If I goof up, there’s going to be a relief pitcher come in there. Nobody’s going to shoot me.”
When Spahn returned in 1946, he was essentially the same pitcher he would be for the next 20 or so years. Well, that’s not exactly right — he would add the famous pitch everyone called a screwball about a decade later and that guided him through the second half of his career. But what I mean is that from a young age Spahn understood something about pitching that few have ever understood. “Hitting is timing,” he said. “Pitching is upsetting timing.” When he was young, he would upset timing with his high-rising fastball — people tend to think of Spahn as a crafty lefty but he led the league in strikeouts every year from 1949-1952.
He threw so many innings. In a time when everyone tries to figure out how to keep young pitchers from getting hurt, Spahn’s workload looks even more remarkable. He led the league innings pitched four times, was second six more times, was third four other times. It’s tempting to try and take lessons from his career. He was in the army from age 22 through 24 and did not pitch much during that time (he did pitch a little bit for army teams). Is that the secret? His father was relentless in making sure that Spahn threw the ball properly with a full follow through. Is that the secret? Spahn always said he was very careful to never strain his shoulder or elbow by trying to throw too hard. Is that the secret?
Or … is there no secret? Maybe Spahn — and Nolan Ryan and Bert Blyleven and Tom Seaver and others — was simply a freak of nature. Spahn threw 289 innings in 1947 to lead the league He threw 300 innings two years years. He threw 310 innings two years after that. He pitched and pitched and pitched and, when the fastball started to come up a little short, he developed a new pitch, the one everyone called a screwball. And then he led the league in complete games seven years in a row.
Did Spahn thrown a true screwball? That’s actually an interesting question. Spahn himself seemed conflicted about that. He did say he was influenced by Carl Hubbell’s famous screwball and tried to pattern a pitch after that. On the other hand, in later years he would say his pitch wasn’t exactly a screwball — which the violent twist to the left — it was really more like a Tom Glavine’s famous circle change.
Whatever you call it, the pitch broke away from right-handed hitters, and it was exactly the pitch he needed to keep winning 20 games year after year after year. He had an amazing assortment of pitches — a a curve, a slider, a fastball, the screwball, even a knuckleball for a while there. Few have ever mixed pitches better than Spahn did. His son, Greg, in “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched” would remember his father warming up by throwing five fastballs, then five screwballs, then five curves, then five change-ups, pausing in between each round to talk with somebody. He might have been talking to figure out which pitch was working best.
Then, he also might have been talking to talk — Spahnie was one of the wonderful characters in baseball history. Everybody loved him. There are a handful of quirky stories about him. He wore the No. 13 in the minors because, he told the clubhouse manager, that was his lucky number. Well, he did win 20 games thirteen times. He used to say a sore arm was like a toothache; it bugs you until you forget about it. And so on.
In all, Spahn was this modest guy who never missed a start, never trumpeted his accomplishments, never stopped loving the game. One of my favorite quotes about him comes from Stan Musial, who was sort of the hitting version of Spahn. “I don’t think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame,” Musial said. “He’ll never stop pitching.”
Spahn pitched until he was 44 in the big leagues then pitched just a little bit more in the minors. His 363 victories are the most in the live ball era — even Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens and Steve Carlton couldn’t quite catch him. But that poem at the top is probably his legacy. In 1948, the Boston Braves were going for the first pennant in 35 years. On September 6, they built a small lead.
Here’s are the pitchers for the rest of the way:
Spahn (14 innings); Sain (shutout); Sain (yeah, again), Spahn, somebody, somebody, Sain, Spahn, Sain, Spahn, somebody, Sain, somebody, Spahn, Sain, somebody, Spahn, Sain, somebody, Spahn, Sain, somebody.
Yeah, that year was a lot like the poem. Sain was actually the more dominant pitcher in 1948; he finished second in the MVP voting in Stan Musial’s epic season. But Sain would never have another year like it, while Spahn would be be great for the next 15 years. When asked why, Johnny Sain never hesitated. “Spahn,” he said, “was the smartest pitcher I ever saw.”