By In Baseball

No 48: Bob Feller

Sometimes, it seems like people confuse the “what if” story of someone like Bob Feller with the “what if” story of, say, a brilliant young pitcher like Herb Score. Feller and Score were both extraordinary young pitchers who, at an early point in their lives, had their careers derailed.

Feller was 23 and the best young pitcher in baseball when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He enlisted in the Navy the next day and did not play in the big leagues for the better part of four years.

Score was 23 and the best young pitcher in baseball when he was hit in the face by a Gil McDougald line drive, causing him to miss the rest of the season — for various reasons he was never quite the same pitcher after that.

Now, in both cases, it is fascinating to consider what might have happened had history been different.

I have estimated that Feller, had World War II not interrupted him, might have won 360 games with 70-some shutouts and more than 3600 strikeouts.

Most people suspect that Score, had he not been hit by the line drive, might have had a Sandy Koufax like career — the similarities between the young Score and Koufax are striking. Score was more advanced. Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig actually included Score in their book “The 100 Greatest Baseball Player of All Time” simply because of what might have been.

But there’s a huge difference between these stories — just as their is a huge difference between Ted Williams and Pete Reiser, between Joe DiMaggio and Bo Jackson, between Oscar Charleston and Tony Coniigliaro, between Hilton Smith and Dwight Gooden or Mark Prior or Mark Fidrych or any other brilliant young pitcher who, for some reason or another, had great potential snuffed out.

The huge difference I’m referring to here has nothing to do with fairness or the significance of the event that prevented them from achieving their potential in the big leagues. Obviously Hilton Smith, a great Negro Leagues pitcher, was barred from playing in the big leagues because of the color of his skin while Mark Prior blew out his arm — one is a significantly bigger outrage. But that’s not the issue here, no more than World War II being an obviously bigger worldwide event than McDougald’s line drive.

No, the point here is this: In Feller’s case, basic reality was not altered. Feller did not pitch in the big leagues but he still WAS the world’s greatest pitcher during the war.

And in Score’s What If case, he was not great after McDougald’s liner.

You see the difference there? It can seem subtle, but it really isn’t. Feller was unquestionably a brilliant pitcher in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. He had been brilliant before, he would be brilliant afterward, there simply can be no question of his brilliance in the time between. We are not saying “If this had not happened happened he would be great.” When you lose your keys, they don’t just drop of out existence — they are very real, and still work exactly the same.

But the line drive that hit Herb Score — and the subsequent arm problems he had while recovering — altered him. He was no longer a brilliant pitcher. These what-if questions are fascinating. What if Sandy Koufax had not wrecked his arm? What if Bo Jackson had not played football? What if Darryl Strawberry had stayed healthy and focused his gifts. But these things did not happen. And Koufax retired at 30, Bo blew out his hip, Strawberry not a great player after age 28.

Feller, meanwhile, WAS great in the war years — he just couldn’t pitch in the big leagues because he was serving his country. That’s quantifiably different.

* * *

I suspect no player ever understood his legendary place in baseball history better than Robert William Andrew Feller, often called “Rapid Robert” and “Bullet Bob” and sometimes called the “Heater from Van Meter.” He is the archetype, the folk story and the place where baseball’s mythological heart beats. If I ever wrote a book about Bob Feller — and I have thought often of trying it — I would write it as a baseball fairy tale, not because his life really was a fairy tale (nobody’s life is, Feller’s in particular) but because that’s how he saw it, and that’s how he promoted it, and I suspect that’s the deepest truth Bob Feller chose to believe about himself.

He grew up in a tiny town in Iowa — Van Meter had fewer than 500 people, and the Fellers lived a little bit outside the town center. Bob was the son of a farmer named William who, like a few million other fathers, wanted his son to play in the Major Leagues. Bob would often say that his father stopped planting corn and other labor-intensive crops and moved to wheat in order to free up some time for baseball. They played catch every day — when it was raining, they played inside the barn.

“If you lose your healthy and your money, you can regain those,” William Feller told his son. “But if you lose your integrity, it is gone forever.

“You’ve got a gift, Roy,” Roy Hobbs father told his son in The Natural. “But it’s not enough. You gotta develop yourself. Rely too much on your own gift, and you’ll fail.”

When Feller was 12, he and his father cut down a bunch of trees on their land — William cut down the first dozen by hand — and built a baseball stadium complete with seating, a concession stand and two outhouses. People would come from all over the area to see the kid Bobby Feller and his team play baseball against other kids.

“We had everything under the sun,” Feller would say.

“Is this heaven?” the father asks the son in Field of Dreams. “No,” the son replies, “it’s Iowa.”

When Feller was around that same age, he went out and trapped 50 gophers — brought them in for 10 cents each. He went to a ballgame with his father in Des Moines and spent that $5.00 on a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth. That baseball is on display at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter.

Some 20 years later, Babe Ruth made what would be his second-last public appearance — Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium, June 13, 1948. Nat Fein took one of the most famous sports photographs ever of a frail but still proud Babe Ruth leaning on a baseball bat. It was Bob Feller’s bat.


That bat too is on display at the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter.

He was signed at 16 by famed scout Cy Slapnicka and the Cleveland Indians for $1.00 and a baseball autographed by the team. For a short while, he was given a job selling peanuts at League Park so he could be around the team. The contract was eventually voided because there was a rule at the time that Major League teams were not allowed to sign amateur baseball players. This was to protect the minor leagues, who would bird-dog and sign the best young players, develop them and then make their business viable by selling them to the big leagues. The Indians were eventually slapped with a somewhat meaningless fine by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis but were allowed to keep Feller — this was a key moment in baseball history. The minor leagues were never really independent once major league teams started to sign their own amateur players.

Feller was just 17 and still in high school when he showed up to pitch an exhibition against the St. Louis Cardinals. That was July 6, 1936. He struck out eight in three innings and, two years before Superman made his debut in the comic books, he was hailed as a superhero. This was the game that sparked countless legends.* Supposedly, the first batter to face Feller was a backup catcher named Bruce Ogrodowski, and after seeing — or hearing — the first pitch, he turned toward Indians manager Steve O’Neill and said: “Just get me out of here in one piece.” He bunted to avoid the strikeout embarrassment.

Brash Leo Durocher barked at Feller before striking out swinging. Art Garibaldi followed with a strikeout of his own.

*One interesting side note, unrelated to Feller specifically: Feller’s relieved a pitcher named George Uhle, who many say invented the slider (even if he did not invent the pitch — there are several possibilities there — he probably did invent the name).

The next inning, Feller got rattled — a single, a walk, a double steal, a wild pitch — but then he struck out Pepper Martin and Ripper Collins to get out of it. The following inning he struck out the side, starting with Durocher again.

The review were overwhelming.

“Best prospect since Dizzy Dean,” Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch said.

“He can’t miss,” Dean added.

“One of the fastest balls I have ever looked at,” Joe Medwick gushed.

“He’s fast all right … and let me tell you something: He knows how to pitch,” Pepper Martin said.

And perhaps the most effusive praise was from umpire Red Ormsby, who had been umping games since 1923 and was behind the plate in the decisive Game 4 of the 1927 World Series. “I don’t care if he’s only 17,” Ormsby said. “He showed me more speed than I have ever seen uncorked by an American league slabster. And I don’t except Walter Johnson either.”


He made his Major League debut two weeks later by pitching one shaky inning against Washington. He made his first big league start about month later, August 23, against the St. Louis Browns. He struck out 15. That’s when the papers really went crazy. To sum up the coverage in one sentence: This lad, who learned to throw by pegging at a makeshift backstop in his father’s cow pasture, this boy wonder not long out of short pants, this high school boy has a future brighter than the sun.

Less than a month after that, Feller had his most remarkable day of that remarkable year. With his father in the stands, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics — an American League record. The United Press account probably described it best: “A fastball, a mystifying curve and a flare of wildness that made the Philadelphia athletics step back from the plate made 17-year-old Bob Feller today the amazed possessor of a New American League record of 17 strikeouts.”

Feller is one of only two players, by the way, to strike out his age. He struck out 17 at 17. Chicago’s Kerry Wood, more than 60 years later, struck out 20 at 20.

“It feels out there,” Ebby Calvin Laloosh said after winning his first professional game in “Bull Durham.” “A major rush. I mean it doesn’t feel ‘out there’ but it feels out there.’”

“What are you going to do,” Bob Feller asked after he struck out 17, “if you pitch the ball and they can’t hit it?”

In a way, that ended the first book of the Bob Feller odyssey — Feller as prodigy. In the second book, he’s a 20-year-old, more mature, a regular starter and probably the best pitcher in the Major Leagues. He won 24, 27 and 25 games from 1939-1941 and based on MVP voting would have won the Cy Young ever year. He threw the fastest pitches of the time, maybe of all time. Nobody worked harder to find out just how fast he pitched a baseball. He raced his fastball against a motorcycle. He threw a baseball through an odd contraption that supposedly measured speed. Feller would say for the rest of his life that his fastball was measured separately at 104 and 107.9 mph.* Obviously both of these numbers would trump even Aroldis Chapman’s fastball.

*Feller, in his book “Bob Feller’s Little Blue Book of Baseball Wisdom” even includes the formula of the 104 mph fastball. He was racing a motorcycle going 86 mph. His fastball gained 13 feet on the motorcycle in the 60 feet, 6 inches between the mound and home plate.

86 (speed of motorcycle) / 60.5 (feet from from mound to plate) = 1.42.
13 (feet gained by fastball) + 60.5 (mound to plate) = 73.5.

73.5 X 1.42 = 104 mph.

I have no idea if this formula has any mathematical validity, but I was impressed Feller included it. Feller was actually more of a numbers guy than he got credit for; he was interested in new statistics even if he didn’t always buy into them.

Then Feller went to war, returned, and in 1946 as a 27-year-old had his season for the ages. He pitched 371 innings, most in a season for any right-handed pitcher after Deadball. He struck out 348 batters, most in a season for almost 20 years until Sandy Koufax broke it in 1964. He completed 36 games, won 26, and finished with a 2.18 ERA.

Feller led the league in strikeouts each of the next two seasons, and he won 20-plus games twice more, but he wasn’t really ever the same after 1946. He pitched in the 1948 World Series and got hit pretty hard, drawing the loss in both starts, a baseball regret. But by 1948, he just wasn’t the same Bob Feller. He was a on the staff of the 1954 Indians team that famously won 111 games, and he was somewhat effective, but he only made 19 starts and did not appear in that World Series. he tried to give it a go in 1955 and 1956 but it was really over by then.

Feller was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 — he got 93.8% of the vote. It has been pointed out that one irony is that he was elected in the same class as Jackie Robinson, a man Feller had numerous spats with through the years, a man Feller said was too musclebound to play Major League Baseball, a man pointedly left out of his “Little Blue Book” — this wouldn’t have been so obvious except that at one point Feller talked about the importance of equality and referred to Roy Campanella breaking the color barrier for catchers, skipping right over Robinson.

There was irony here — Feller, by barnstorming with Satchel Paige and his team of Negro League stars before the 1947 season did more than most to integrate the game. “Bob’s an interesting guy,” said Buck O’Neil, who was on the Satchel Paige team in 1947. “In the end, I think his heart is in the right place.”

Book three of the Feller Odyssey involved the way his life intertwined with the game for 50-plus years. As Feller would be the first to say, nobody signed more autographs, made more appearances, traveled to more minor league parks, spoke at more banquets or was interviewed more about the state of baseball.

Feller was ubiquitous. He lived on the road. He would bring to card shows a piece of paper that showed what his career statistics might have looked like without World War II. He would pitch to people to give them the thrill of facing what as left of the Heater from Van Meter. He often came across as a man stuck in time; he grumped endlessly about the lousy ways the game and the world had changed and the fading character of young athletes, I would see men in the game roll their eyes when they saw him coming. There was much kindness in his him too. He would frequently pitch the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter (just 17 miles from Des Moines!) and when someone kidded him about it he would get serious and say, “If you don’t promote yourself, who will?”

I will never forget the way our first interview ended. I was 24 or 25, working as a columnist at the Augusta Chronicle, and he was coming to town for ‘Bob Feller Day” — Augusta, like every other minor league city at some point, had a Bob Feller Day where the man would come, sign some autographs, pitch to some lucky fans and tell a few stories. There had been several Bob Feller Days in Augusta through the years.

Feller had long before perfected the art of the interview, and when I talked to him he got the message across. After I thanked him for his time, Feller this: “So, are you set to pick me up at the airport?”

I was confused by this. I said something like, “Did you want me to pick you up at the airport? I mean, I can …”

He grumbled, “No, fine, I’ll find my own way.” And he hung up. It was strange. I decided he had me confused with someone else, maybe someone who worked for the Augusta team. But I interviewed Feller many times after that, and I’ve since come to the conclusion that he really might have just wanted me to pick him up from the airport. The ride to the hotel, 10 or 15 minutes or whatever it was, would have been for Feller another chance to talk baseball and and relive some moments and, one more time, tell the story of an Iowa farm boy who became a legend.

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72 Responses to No 48: Bob Feller

  1. BobDD says:

    ah, the one that the most listers will have left off the top 50
    he and Ted Williams certainly get the most war credit of those that were in MLB, but I am one of many that believe the war rested an arm that was already overused and those years would not have yielded 100 wins or added even half that to his career total – all speculation of course – anyway, I had him at #74

    • buddaley says:

      We are in the same camp on the question of speculating about Feller’s stats. I have no problem with ranking him this high, but the notion that he would have won another 100 games or blasted through all sorts of strikeout records is far-fetched in my mind. More likely he would have flamed out by 1945 or even earlier had he continued to throw 200-250 innings every year.

      In fact, his K rate went down every year of his career until the war, then bounced back for a year+ after he returned only to dip dramatically and steadily thereafter. His BB rate did stabilize between 3.4-3.9 for most of the rest of his career but was never better than 1/2 his K rate after his 1946 and was often near 1-1 or so.

      It was a different time, and K rates and BB rates were often quite unimpressive by 21st century standards, but it does indicate he had ceased to be the pitcher he had been before the war, likely due to an overworked arm.

    • John Gale says:

      See, I think it cuts both ways. Your narrative seems plausible to me. But Feller was already throwing quite a few innings in the years leading up to the war. If there was no war, I wonder if his arm would have been fine because it was used to the heavy workload. While you are correct that the war rested his arm in the short term, I wonder if that ultimately did more harm than good in the long run. Going from not pitching at a professional level at all for almost four years to suddenly throwing 371 innings had to have been a shock to his arm.

      And are we going to pretend that his decline had nothing to do with the fact that he was aging (and related to my above point, his 23-year-old-arm may have been able to handle the innings load better than his 27-year-old arm that hadn’t been tested at a high level for four years)? I think that’s a bit disingenuous. The problem with trying to wave away what he likely would have done during the war years is that those were his age 23-26 seasons, which are prime years for any baseball player. This isn’t like trying to give him credit for age 32-35 seasons.

      At any rate, I find Joe’s argument that Feller was the best pitcher on the planet during World War II, whether he was pitching in the Majors or not, to be extraordinarily persuasive, and I find the arguments of his detractors to be unpersuasive. I’m comfortable giving Feller full credit for the years that he lost because he was serving the country in the military.

      As for whether that would have caused his career to end earlier, the answer is maybe or even probably. But it’s not like he was incredibly effective in his mid-30s or pitching well into his 40s anyway (he was done at 37). I think he lost *a lot* more during the war years than whatever he may have gained on the back end when he was already aging the way most players do.

      Just for the sake of argument, I’ll play along for a minute. I will go ahead and give Feller the credit during the war years that Joe gave him in his previous column. In exchange, I will end his career early at age 33 instead of age 37. Let’s see what we end up with in that scenario compared to reality (I triple-checked the math, so I hope I didn’t make any errors on the calculations).

      Joe’s stats for 1942-1945 (I made some tiny adjustments because his ERA numbers were all .01 off of where they could be–I figured this out using an ERA calculator to figure out how many earned runs he would have given up each season to match Joe’s innings and ERA–so I added .01 to his ERA for two seasons and deducted .01 for the other two seasons):

      1942: 26-13 345.0 IP 2.66 ERA 290 K 155 BB 102 ER
      1943: 24-13 327.0 IP 2.67 ERA 273 K 143 BB 97 ER
      1944: 28-11 335.0 IP 2.53 ERA 277 K 145 BB 94 ER
      1945: 24-13 333.0 IP 2.51 ERA 310 K 161 BB 93 ER

      Total: 102-50 1340.0 IP 2.59 ERA 1150 K 604 BB 386 ER

      That’s what we’ll add to his career totals when we’re done. And here are the stats from his age 34-37 seasons that we’ll wipe off the books, in addition to the stats from his brief 1945 season (which we’ll be replacing with the estimated 1945):

      1945: 5-3 72.0 IP 2.50 ERA 59 K 35 BB 20 ER
      1953: 10-7 175.2 IP 3.59 ERA 60 K 60 BB 70 ER
      1954: 13-3 140.0 IP 3.09 ERA 59 K 39 BB 48 ER
      1955: 4-4 83.0 IP 3.47 ERA 25 K 31 BB 32 ER
      1956: 0-4 58.0 IP 4.97 ERA 18 K 23 BB 32 ER

      Total: 32-21 528.2 IP 3.13 ERA 221 K 188 BB 202 ER

      Ok, here are Feller’s official stats before the adjustments:

      266-162 3827.0 IP 3.25 ERA 2581 K 1764 BB 1384 ER

      Here is what Joe estimated without deducting any stats from the end of Feller’s career (Joe did wipe out the existing 1945):

      363-209 5095.0 IP 3.09 ERA* 3672 K 2333 BB 1750 ER

      *He actually estimated 3.10, but the numbers say 3.09

      And here is what I came up with after adding Joe’s stats in and deducting the stats from the last four years of Feller’s career.

      336-191 4638.1 IP 3.04 ERA 3510 K 2180 BB 1568 ER

      Ok, Feller is currently ranked 37th in wins, 49th in innings pitched, 26th in strikeouts and fifth in walks. Joe’s estimated totals would rank him in a tie for sixth in wins, 11th in innings, sixth in strikeouts and second in walks.

      My estimates would rank him 11th in wins, 22nd in innings (it’s a lot, but it’s not an impossibly high total), second in walks and ninth in strikeouts…with exactly one more strikeout than Walter Johnson. So yeah, I think he retires as the all-time strikeout leader if there was no war.

      Joe didn’t try to calculate Feller’s WAR from those years, so I’ll do that right now. Feller accumulated 9.3, 9.9 and 8.1 WAR in the three seasons before the WAR and put up 9.9 WAR in his first full season back. Given that, I think 8-10 WAR per season is what we can project, so that’s 32-40 more for his career.

      I’ll go ahead and deduct the 2.0 WAR from 1945 and the 3.1 WAR from his final four seasons. The net result is that I’m adding 27-35 more WAR to his total. He currently ranks 143rd with 63.6 WAR, but that would get him somewhere above 90 WAR, which would rank him in the top 45.

      Obviously, I’m speculating too, but I’m trying to be as objective about it as possible, and the final numbers look about right. So no, while we probably can’t add 100 wins to his career total, your assertion that we can’t add even 50 strikes me as ridiculous. We can, and I just did. Certainly, it’s possible that he would have been done at age 30*, but that doesn’t strike me as likely.

      *Another scenario that seems plausible to me is that Feller doesn’t pitch quite as many innings as Joe projected from 1942-1945 or as many as he really pitched in 1946 because he decides that his arm does, indeed, need a bit of resting. But then he remains effective longer than he actually did.

      That’s the problem with speculation. There’s a lot of variables. But as Joe points out, there’s something fundamentally different about projecting Feller’s stats during the war when we already know how great he was before it started and after it ended as opposed to trying to figure out what would have happened if a player hadn’t (or in this case, *had*) gotten hurt. That’s why I’m willing to give Feller the benefit of the doubt.

      On one final, somewhat unrelated note, I’ll point out that Joe’s assertion that Feller got hit hard in the 1948 World Series is misleading because it’s only true of one game. He did get hit hard in Game 5 (seven earned runs in 6.1 innings), but he was not the reason they lost Game 1. He gave up just one run and four hits in a complete game. Unfortunately, he got zero run support, and ended up losing the game 1-0.

      • BobDD says:

        Well, you’ve moved my opinion (van) meter a few clicks – I find your argument persuasive.

      • buddaley says:

        Where I disagree is your assertion that ages 23-26 are a pitcher’s peak. Most pitchers have just begun their major league career at 23 and start peaking around 26. The problem in speculating about Feller is that he is so unique. He started at 17 and through age 22 increased his inning total every year. I don’t have the figures, but I think it probable he threw a lot of pitches given his innings, K totals and BB totals.

        As his innings total increased, his K rates declined-every year. And in that last pre-war season, his BB rate jumped. In fact, he also gave up more hits than usual that year suggesting he was becoming more hittable.

        Your arguments certainly make sense, but in the end I think the effort to credit Feller with war year production via speculation is not just futile but meaningless. I think the chances that he would have been finished at age 26 or 27 is just as likely as that he would be done at 33.

        In fact, many analysts consider the years before age 24 as the most dangerous period in any pitcher’s development, the time when his arm is most prone to injury. We may have been seeing that already in 1941 when he was 22, and far from pitching less each year, an idea that was not common at the time anyway, he was working harder.

        Actually, if we are going to play that game with Feller, I think we should speculate about Spahn’s career numbers, probably with more assurance that his win total would have exceeded 400 and even passing Walter Johnson.

        • John Gale says:

          Ok, three responses. In order:

          1. Thanks, BobDD. I appreciate it.

          2. I appreciate your rebuttal, buddaley, but I think the chance of Feller being done at 26 or 27 are unrealistic. Possible, sure. Likely? I don’t think so. As I said, I don’t even think the idea that he’d be done at 30 is a likely projection, so you can multiply my dubiousness about 26-27 by a factor of 10.

          I didn’t exactly say that ages 23-26 were a typical pitcher’s peak. I said they were prime years (I know the words are synonyms, but I think of a peak as being a shorter period of top performance within a longer period known as a player’s prime). I stand by that, especially in the case of Feller, who had been great for years. Some players peak early, and some peak late. It’s not uniform.

          As for his declining strikeout rate, that is true, though what you didn’t mention is that he still led the league in strikeouts per nine innings every year, and it wasn’t declining by leaps and bounds after he became a regular starter. To wit:

          1936 (age 17): 62.0 IP 76 K 47 BB 11.0 K/9
          1937 (age 18): 148.2 IP 150 K 106 BB 9.1 K/9
          1938 (age 19): 277.2 IP 240 K 208 BB 7.8 K/9
          1939 (age 20): 296.2 IP 246 K 142 BB 7.5 K/9
          1940 (age 21): 320.0 IP 261 K 118 BB 7.3 K/9
          1941 (age 22): 343.0 IP 260 K 194 BB 6.8 K/9

          Ok, you are right that he was a bit less effective in 1941 than he was in 1939 and 1940, as he was walking more and giving up more hits (about .5 more hits per nine innings, which was still second-best in the AL). The question is why? It’s possible that his arm was showing signs of fatigue. It’s also possible that he was just having a slightly less effective year, as pitchers are wont to do. It would be easier if we had his 1942 season to look at. Obviously, we don’t.

          At any rate, once he became a regular starter (1938), his K/9 rate was between 6.8 and 7.8 every season. So it was declining, but relatively slowly. Would it have continued to decline in 1942 and beyond? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

          If you want to speculate about Spahn, feel free. I have not looked closely at him.

          3. To clarify, the projections from 1941-1945 are not mine. They are Joe’s, from the column speculating on Feller, Williams and DiMaggio and what they would have done during the war. I did not take an ultra-close look at them, as I trusted that Joe had done his homework when making the projections. You may have a point that his projections were too optimistic. I don’t know.

          I really don’t feel like trying to account for all the variables that you bring up (particularly how the team’s overall performance would have impacted him). I’m not saying they aren’t valid. They are. But the more variables we introduce, the harder it becomes to make a precise estimate. I think that even if they are too optimistic, he still lost a lot more from the war than he gained.

          At any rate, I think it’s a bit difficult to try to superimpose what happened after 1946 onto what he would have done during the war because A) he was five years older and B) he hadn’t pitched at a high level for four years, which I’ve already suggested may have done more long-term harm than good. I’m not saying it definitely did, but I think it’s at least a possibility.

          I think the war created an alternate reality from 1942 on between what would have happened if he and everyone else continued playing and what actually happened. There’s just no way to know for sure what would have happened. I’ve done the best I could with the information available.

          I gather that you disagree with my conclusions, and that’s fine. But I think the argument that Feller would have flamed out in his mid-20s has some significant problems and is even more speculative than the alternative. Being about as conservative as I possibly can, I think he gets a minimum of 300 wins, 3000 strikeouts and 80 WAR if the US never gets involved with World War II.

          • John Gale says:

            For some reason, that comment appeared under buddaley’s first comment instead of his second. It’s a reply to both.

          • buddaley says:

            I hope I have been clear that in no way do I wish to demean or underestimate the greatness of Feller. And I think it is fun to speculate on how history might be different had circumstances been different.

            But I do object to using such speculations to re-evaluate a player’s career. I understand and appreciate the distinction Joe draws, but having pointed out the distinction, that should be as far as it goes. To then estimate victories, WAR, ERA, Ks and the like and suggest that Feller is therefore more than he was is, in my view, illegitimate.

            For a short period, Feller was the best pitcher in the game. He was still a good pitcher in later years, and he ended up with outstanding stats and a deserved reputation as an inner circle Hall of Famer. That is enough. If people want to have fun with alternative histories, that’s fine, but to then add those numbers up as if they truly represent the pitcher he was is misleading.

            In fact, I have less trouble with doing something like that for Ted Williams, because I don’t think the same caveats apply to an outfielder that apply to pitchers and catchers. Even so, I would not evaluate Williams based on the probability that he would have hit more than 600 home runs, perhaps even challenged Ruth. Neither he nor Feller need such speculation to burnish their records.

            Given that Joe has Feller at #48, he probably has not ranked based on the speculation (as a 300 win, 80 WAR player might be ranked higher), but even including it as he does with such precise stats, I think it skews the discussion.

      • buddaley says:

        I also wonder at your projections for strikeouts. Already in 1941 his K rate was at 6.8/9 innings. Using your innings pitched, and even assuming the decline stabilized, he would have had 137 fewer strikeouts than you project, and that is assuming the decline stops.

        In fact, in his first season plus after the war, his K rate increased greatly, suggesting the war rested his arm, but after that the decline was precipitous and again steady. Perhaps as you suggest the workload in 1947 after the layoff was the problem, but it is just as likely that such a cratering would have happened in 1942 or 43 had his young arm continued to be subjected to such strain.

        And his last pre-war ERA was 3.15. So why the assumption it would improve? I suppose you are allowing for the poorer competition during the war years, so perhaps he would have improved both his K rates and ERA against weaker hitters, but that doubles the speculation in his favor-he stays but the good hitters go.

        You will note that 3 years after returning-still a young pitcher at ages 26-28-his ERA jumped into the mid 3s and remained there pretty much every season thereafter.

        Another factor to consider is the strength of his team. Of course, he was part of that equation, and on a poor team in 1941 he still had a terrific season. But in 3 of the 4 war years, Cleveland was a sub .500 team. Would he have continued to rack up 20 win seasons on teams that won just 72-75 games? Would his ERA have been good if (and this I don’t know) his teams were weak defensively? We can’t know. But it is silly to assume he would.

      • Basically Feller would have added a lot more wins and strikeouts during his time missed during the war, which was during his prime. But that also likely would have negatively effected his performance upon returning from the war. Joe’s argument pretends that nothing would have changed if he had pitched instead of going to the war, but that’s demonstrably false. Obviously things would have changed, he would have had another 1000 innings under his belt.

    • Pat says:

      “ah, the one that the most listers will have left off the top 50”

      NO ONE will have left Feller off the top 50. Remember that #51-101 already were public when the contest started; leaving someone out of the top 50 implicitly means you’re leaving him out of the top 100. Feller is #12 on B-Ref’s EloRater (ahead of Pedro Martinez… anyone leave him out of the top 50?) and has 10 more career WAR than Sandy Koufax (anyone leave him off?), and he’s the best pitcher who ever played for Joe Posnanski’s favorite team.

      Not that Joe’s such a homer (I mean, Duane Kuiper will be #8, but otherwise he’s fair), but think of it this way: If you cross off all the guys who pitched in the steroid era and also suspect that the old-timey greats probably couldn’t really cut it if they got in a time machine to the modern era, your all-time list of pitchers probably looks like this: Seaver, Spahn, Feller. Maybe Tiant, and maybe Grove or Maddux get enough partial credit. Those are artificial constraints, but they’re understandable (c’mon, does anyone really believe a shortstop and pitcher in the first decade of the 1900s were really better than all those who played the next hundred? before diet and conditioning and the splitter and the baseball camps for talented 11-year-olds and everything the teams now know about how to develop players? or did they maybe just face some shoddy competition back then before the Wilson administration? and as for the steroids, you already know where you stand on that, and I’ve nothing new to add), and even without them you still get the same list just by measuring from 1920 to 1990. One of the best three (or four, or five) for a seventy-year stretch? that spells a guy who’s really, really hard to leave out of the top 100.

      The only guys leaving him off their list are the guys who put someone crazy in, like Whitey Ford.

  2. sansho1 says:

    It’s hard for me to think of Feller without thinking of Musial — the longest surviving players who were already superstars when their careers were interrupted by WWII. Their respective roles in integration mirror what’s been said about their personalities — Feller showing his support via overt action tinged with assholery; Musial being for it mostly by quietly not being against it.

    • I pair them together as well, but not because of WWII (Feller was the first player to sign up at the beginning of the war, saw actual combat and missed 3 years, while Musial signed up at the end of the war, saw no combat and only missed one year). It’s just that Feller had the idyllic childhood on the farm, with a Dad who made him a ballfield and played catch with him every day, while Stan grew up among the mills and the mines, with a Dad who never had time to play catch and was frequently drunk. Yet it was Stan who went through life with a sunny personality, while Feller became thin-skinned and grumpy.

      Your comment on their contributions to integration are well taken. Feller had no problem barnstorming with black players, but could be surly with them, while Musial’s contributions took the form of treating them with kindness and respect.

  3. Richard says:

    Growing up in Cleveland long after Feller’s career was over the thing I remember most about Bob Feller was when he was charged with “alienation of affection” for stealing some guy’s wife. My father did his level best to try to try and explain what that meant.

  4. Feller’s formula makes sense if “gained 13 feet” means that his fastball had traveled 60.5 + 13 = 73.5 feel at the moment that the motorcycle reached 60.5 feet. A simple way to see this is that

    ball distance / ball speed = bike distance / bike speed

    since both equal elapsed time. So

    73.5 / X = 60.5 / 86, or X = 104.5 MPH

    and the elapsed time was

    60.5 ft / 86 MPH * 1 mile / 5280 ft. * 3600 seconds / 1 hour

    or .48 seconds. Of course, the time the ball would have taken to travel only 60.5 feet was less than that, just .39 seconds. Good luck hitting that!

  5. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Another amazing piece. At No. 48, I have George Brett.

  6. Guest says:

    There’s something about the “That’s quantifiably different.” line that sticks out to me. It seems off. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around quantifying what happens in an alternate universe. I get the idea of, e.g., Monte Carlo simulations. I understand that we can speculate as to what might have happened in the absence of war. But It doesn’t seem like we can quantify what happened in an alternate universe. Scores numbers were what they were. Feller didn’t have any numbers because he wasn’t playing. Those data sets are what we can quantify. I’m not sure why those are “quantifiably” different.

  7. DFleitz says:

    In 2008, Bob Feller was at a card show in Michigan, sitting all by himself with 10 minutes to go in his session. I figured that I would regret it if I missed what might be my last chance to meet him (he was 89 years old), so I bought a photo for $10 and had him sign it. Because there was no one else waiting, we had a great conversation, one I’ll always remember. He was as gracious as could be, and I’ll always remember him well.

    • NevadaMark says:

      I had the same pleasure in 1986 in Virginia. Mr. Feller was quite gracious and I remember him going out of his way in making sure the younger fans got an autograph.

  8. gosport474 says:

    Antique tractors and farm machinery are also something I am interested in as well as baseball. A few years ago I was watching a show about about tractors when a segment about Bob Feller from Van Meter, Iowa and his antique Caterpillar crawler came on. Mr. Feller told about growing up on the farm and using the crawler. Then a couple of years ago my son and I went to Mobile to tour the USS Alabama, the ship that Mr. Feller served on during the war. He definitely lived a unique American life. Unfortunately I did not have him in my top 50.

  9. luckyute says:

    Was in Cleveland for a game back in 1996 and I was hanging out by his statue when Feller walks up with a small TV crew to film a short promo. After it was done, I got his autograph on the ticket stub. I was pretty happy, and he was very nice.

  10. largebill says:

    The problem with speculating how many games he’d have won if WWII had not interrupted his career is we don’t know how the strain of the inning pitched would have affected his later career. He pitched a lot of innings at a young age before the war. The war years when he only pitched a few innings here and there in exhibitions may have saved his arm. So we can’t just add another 100 wins to his career totals.

    I have a couple stories about him throwing as an old man. One was an old timers game I attended in Cleveland and he was in his mid to late 70’s and he still got a couple pitches up to 80+ MPH and old timers in their 40’s or 50’s weren’t touching it. Other pitchers were soft tossing BP while it seemed he was still competing. The other story comes from my cousin who attended an Indians fantasy camp and Feller close to 90 years threw an inning of scoreless ball and refused to use the protective screen that was available. My cousin, who had played college baseball for TCU (20+ years earlier), admitted with no shame that Feller struck him out.

    • NevadaMark says:

      What you say makes sense but after all, we’re just speculating. What if Feller had an arm like Seaver or Gibson or Jenkins? In that case a 100 extra wins looks quite reasonable.

      • dshorwich says:

        We are all just speculating, but Feller had done more than pitch “a lot of innings at a young age” – he pitched far more innings than any young pitcher in the live ball era, and given his walk and strikeout totals he was probably throwing a relatively high number of pitches per innings. I’ve posted this before elsewhere, but here it is again:

        Most innings pitched through age 22 season, 1920-present:

        Feller 1448.1
        Blyleven 1054.2
        McCormick 988.1
        Dierker 980.2
        Gooden 924.1
        Tanana 840.2
        Hunter 803.1
        Drysdale 802.1
        Houtteman 786.2
        Valenzuela 752.0

        Blyleven is the only one of these who lasted a long time as an effective pitcher; most of these guys had their last good season in their late 20s and were done by their mid-30s. If Feller had put another 1000+ IP on his arm during the war years, I think he would’ve been done by the late ’40s. Still an easy Hall of Famer, of course.

        • NevadaMark says:

          Thanks for the info. That is a LOT of innings.

        • DM says:

          Hi dshorwich,

          That’s an interesting list, and Feller sure does dominate it. Thanks for putting that out there.

          I’d have to say Tanana certainly was able to turn in a pretty lengthy career, ending up pitching to age 39 and finishing well up the list of all-time innings pitched. Of course, he famously had to transform himself from a hard-throwing, big strikeout pitcher early in his career into more of a soft-tosser for the balance of his career, so I don’t think he does much to contradict anything you’ve observed. It’s a tough transition to make successfully.

          I do think it’s reasonable, though, to assume that Feller was very likely to at least get to 300 wins if he didn’t have to serve in the war, even given his high number of early innings. I wouldn’t personally predict much more than that, but 300 should have been achievable. That, and maybe 3,200 K’s or so, and maybe he even would have made a run at Walter Johnson’s record (at the time). I would be reluctant to predict too much beyond that.

          • dshorwich says:

            I agree, I think he probably would’ve made it to 300 wins if he hadn’t gone to war – facing thinned-out wartime talent, he’d have put up some crazy numbers – but I don’t think he would have made it to 350-400 wins, as is sometimes speculated.

  11. murr2825 says:

    “The Heater from Van Meter”…..boy, that makes me nostalgic for the golden age of nicknames. Now Feller would probably be called “B-Fell”

  12. Herb Smith says:

    I bet Poz would like to have that phone conversation back; personally, I’d love to have a 15 minute car ride with a HOFer, just talking ’40’s baseball.

    Btw, Geoff warned me not to drop Feller off of my Top-50 list. I kinda knew he was right, (I originally had him at # 51), but what’s done is done. And Feller certainly deserves to be on the list.

    • Patrick Hogue says:

      For me it came down to Feller, Koufax and Pop Lloyd; 2 spots for 3 guys. I went with Feller and Pop Lloyd so I’m half way there. As a Dodger fan it pained me to leave off Koufax but Joe seems to be focused on Career WAR which is why I left Sandy off. My other “not so sure” pick was Berra but I would think he has to be there.

      In terms of projecting Feller’s career totals without WWII, I would put him somewhere between his 266 and 360 wins, maybe 320-330 if he remained healthy but with a lower ERA and ERA+ and perhaps another ERA title or 2 to his credit.

  13. Steve says:

    I deeply regret leaving Feller off my list. Not sure what I was thinking. I will have to live with this decision for the rest of my days.

    • wordyduke says:

      Well, at least you won’t have Bob Feller shoving the card with his statistics on it and grumbling about how the younger generation doesn’t know its baseball history.

  14. AaronB says:

    In terms of playing the “what if” game, since he was mentioned, what if Earl Averill’s line drive missed Dizzy Dean’s big toe?

    There’s a good book, , which takes a look at the old barnstorming days of those three. Pretty nice read.

    Nothing but respect for Rapid Robert, which I could have seen him pitch!

  15. I would be shocked if Koufax is not on the list.

    I expect the final positional breakdown to be roughly 32 pitchers, roughly eight of each of the other positions, and the other four going to Duane Kuiper*. I think there will be some players with a higher peak and others with a longer career. I cannot imagine Koufax not being among the 32 best pitchers on this list.

    *I am surprised we have not yet seen at least on the Duane Kuiper slots awarded.

    Koufax retired at age 30, not because he could not pitch any more, but because it was not worth the pain. I love many of the pitchers we’ve already seen on this list, such as Bert Blyleven, but I doubt anybody knowledgeable about baseball would ever believe that Blyleven is one of the top 100 and Koufax is not.

    I also doubt that any one of the three time MVP winners is not on this list. Who are better catchers than Yogi? Bench, and, uh, at this point we’re arguing. Yes, his MVPs were because he was catching for the Yankees during their most dynastic, but he had seven straight years with a top four finish for MVP. He ranks very high both offensively and defensively.

    I imagine that when all is said and done, Joe will have to admit that when he was announcing the 100 best of all time, he meant base 11, so there will be 121 decimal names on the list. That will free up at least one more slot for Duane Kuiper.

    • Which hunt? says:

      Finally, my first hit! I had him at 44, but I’ll take it! Any way I have buyer’s remorse on my catchers I listed Bench and Fisk, but I should have included Yogi. Oh, well.

    • BobDD says:

      re Koufax: Koufax has often been considered one of the top five pitchers for peak if you count a four-year peak, not quite that high if you choose a five-year peak. That is what was so great about him and also the problem for ranking him in a top 100 list.

      1961 was the first year he topped 200 innings or started over 30 games. And his WHIP until then was 1.428 and his ERA+ was 100 – so a servicable average pitcher overall who had not been given a full-time starter job yet. That leaves six seaons yet to make his case. His starts for those years were 35, 26, 40, 28, 41, and 41. Problem #1: two of those years were not what would’ve been called full-time.

      His WHIP was 1.205, 1.036, 0.875, 0.928, 0.855, and 0.985. Now we’re getting somewhere; his last four years were truly dominating greats – three of them full-time seasons (though only two consecutive full-time years).. Frankly I am only seeing three of his last four seasons as a full-time brilliant starter.

      Those six years for ERA+: 122, 143, 159, 186, 160, and 190. That’s a 170 for those three of last four years. Using other pitchers that I expect to be on this list, or already are, plus a few varied others, and taking their three best seasons of at least 30 starts (not consecutive since that was what I had to do for Koufax), I find three-year averages of ERA+ to be: (don’t have the math skills here for more, so just added the three years and divided by 3, so these numbers will be less exact than desired)

      230 Walter Johnson
      221 Pedro Martinez
      220 Roger Clemens
      207 Christy Mathewson
      202 Three Finger Brown
      197 Lefty Grove
      192 Randy Johnson
      ? Satchel Paige
      192 Cy Young (used modern era years only)
      191 Bob Gibson
      188 Pete Alexander
      184 Dazzy Vance
      184 Kevin Brown
      182 Greg Maddux
      181 Hal Newhouser
      181 Robin Roberts
      179 Eddie Cicotte
      178 Tom Seaver
      177 Carl Hubbell
      170 Johan Santana
      ***** 169.7 Sandy Koufax
      169 Steve Carlton
      168 Clayton Kershaw
      168 Lefty Gomez
      168 Juan Marichal
      167 Ed Walsh
      164 Doc Gooden
      163 Warren Spahn
      160 Kevin Appier
      157 Whitey Ford
      156 Felix Hernandez
      156 Bob Feller
      151 Gaylord Perry
      150 Bert Blyleven
      149 Curt Schilling
      148 Zach Greinke
      148 Phil Niekro
      137 Nolan Ryan
      133 Ferguson Jenkins

      So if Koufax can only be 20th on this list of pitchers with more career, then I believe him to not be in the top 100. I believe that many do not realize how very short his dominance was – hope this helps.

      • Patrick Bohn says:

        I hope Koufax is on this list, only because I think that carving out some sort of special “what if” exception to Feller’s career makes little sense, especially the way Joe’s doing it. And by putting Feller ahead of Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina—who almost certainly isn’t on this list (but should be, IMO)—then he’s making enormous allowances for “What if” scenarios.

        Mussina: 3,562 IP, 82.5 fWAR, 82.7 rWAR (24th for pitchers)
        Schilling: 3,261 IP, 83.2 fWAR, 80.7 rWAR (26th for pitchers)
        Feller: 3,827 IP, 69.3 fWAR, 65.2 rWAR (T-42nd for pitchers)

        I mean, these numbers aren’t even close. Feller ranks anywhere from 13-17 WAR behind both Schilling and Mussina, so he has to be giving Feller credit for *something* that he didn’t actually do to vault him so far ahead of those guys. So why not do the same for Koufax? Or, frankly, Mussina, who willingly retired following a season in which he posted a WAR of 5?

        • BobDD says:

          Traditionally credit is only given for time missed for reasons beyond the player’s control, and so far this has meant war and segregation; not strike-shortened seasons. Missing for segregation we try to give full credit. For war, most discount 10-20% supposedly for injury, but I suspect it’s really to maintain modesty. Players like Feller and TWilliams often are assigned at least partial credit for those years. It used to not be controversial as far as I’ve ever been aware.

          • Patrick Bohn says:

            But Joe’s not assigning “partial” credit. He’s basically saying Feller would have continued dominating, totally unimpeded by anything, with no long-term detrimental effects.

            I mean, this was a guy who went from dominating to merely good at 29, and who probably had his last “good” season at 32. I think it’s naive to say “Were it not for WWII, he might have won 100 more games and racked up 1,000 more strikeouts” and assume everything would have played out the same.

          • John Gale says:

            He said *at least* partial credit. And of course “partial credit” can mean anything from 1 to 99 percent. I agree that Joe is awarding pretty close to full credit to Feller, though I agree with Joe’s assessment. To be honest, I think speculating that a player would have gotten hurt if he *hadn’t* gone to war is pretty reckless and irresponsible.

            Also, I’ve done some reading on this, and I found another reason to push back on the “1946 ruined his arm” talking point. According to Rob Neyer, Feller hurt his knee in June 1947, and *that* is why he became less effective. I think Neyer has a point.

            He didn’t say exactly which game Feller hurt his knee in (I’ve seen conflicting reports that say it was actually a back or shoulder injury or some combination of the three, as a result of slipping on the mound*, and it may have been June 13), but there’s a big difference between what Feller did through June 17, 1947 and what he did afterward.

            1947 up to June 17 (16 games, 14 starts):
            9-5 118.1 IP 2.81 ERA 96 K 56 BB 7.32 K/9 .192 avg .570 OPS

            1947 after June 17 (26 games, 23 starts):
            11-6 180.2 IP 2.59 ERA 100 SO 75 BB 4.98 K/9 .229 avg .637 OPS

            Ok, we’re obviously dealing with some smaller sample sizes, but I did think this was interesting. Feller’s ERA was actually better later in the year, but I think the other numbers are more instructive. He went from striking out over seven batters per nine innings to fewer than five. He was also giving up more hits and a significantly higher OPS.

            The first set of numbers looks a lot more like the guy from 1939 (the year he got his walks under control to some degree) through 1946. The second set of numbers looks a lot more like the guy from 1948 on. Obviously, there are other factors in play like age. But it does appear that this may have been the tipping point for his career, especially when it comes to what happened to his strikeouts.

            Feller had three double digit strikeouts in three games up to June 17. He had 10 double digit strikeout games in 1946, and five (when his arm was allegedly “tired”) in his final season before the war in 1941. He had just *one* double digit strikeout game the rest of his career. Obviously, age had something to do with it too, but I think there’s something there.

            *If it’s true that the injury occurred as a result of slipping on the mound, that sounds like the kind of freak occurrence that could happen to any player at any point of his career. That strikes me as fundamentally different from an injury caused by overuse that would be more or less inevitable at some point. I still award Feller full credit for 1942-1945.

          • John Gale says:

            Sorry, that should read three double digit strikeout games in *the* games (not three games–he didn’t do it three games in a row). I really wish the commenting system allowed us to edit out our typos.

      • RPMcSweeney says:

        Just curious about your selection method. As I understand your criteria, Pedro’s 3-year average should be 195 because in 99, 00, and 03 he only reached 29 GS. (Of course, if you expand your criteria to 29+ GS, his average is 251…

        • BobDD says:

          yeah, messed that one up – I left out 2000 because of only 29 starts but then mistakenly put in 1999 with 31 games and only 29 starts again. I brought up those pitchers BR page and eyeballed the numbers (don’t know how to program it) and manually input. I bet I made at least a couple of other typo’s too. Pedro’s rate peak is the best ever, but his caveat will always be the shorter seasons and less innings than Johnson, Grove and Gibson. Leaves plenty of room for good-natured argument though, and that has to be a good thing, right?

          I did that project after looking at Koufax’s BR page and wondered how to make him as great as possible and then compare him to others. I was amazed at him being only 20th. I really expected him to be 4 or 5. Maybe ERA+ isn’t good for him, but Koufax was the “iconic” pitcher of my teen years and I bet that most of those who also hold him in such high regard are also older guys that remember fondly his seemingly other-worldly dominance. Like I said, if he cannot rate any higher historically than 20th in a short cherry-picked 3-year peak, then he just doesn’t belong on career type of lists at all.

          • Steve Cole says:

            Sigh…I’m utterly convinced by the arguments of people who’ve done the work of looking closely at the numbers that Koufax probably shouldn’t be on the list here. But I also remember watching Game 1 of the 1963 World Series (I was 12) and just knowing that even though the Dodgers got only two hits off Whitey Ford, they’d win because Koufax was pitching.

            I think it’s great that both sentimentality and the “eye test” have been destroyed by objective evidence as a basis for serious arguments about how players should be ranked. But I hope it’s not just nostalgia and incipient senility that leaves me wishing that there were some way of incorporating within our rankings of the greatest players of all time those players who (like Koufax in 1963 or Doc Gooden in 1986), regardless of the overall achievements of their careers, allowed us to be witnesses to the kind of transcendence that we can find in sports, and nowhere else.

      • buddaley says:

        I think your point is excellent, but it raises the question of why Koufax has such a reputation. Part of it may be that factors other than ERA+ are considered.

        For example, compare Koufax to all the pitchers from the 1990s and after. In his 3 best years, Koufax threw 311, 335.2 and 323 innings and had 306, 382 and 317 Ks. None of the later pitchers-Pedro, Clemens, Johnson, Brown, Maddux, Santana come close to any of those numbers.

        Nor can they compare to his 25, 26 and 27 win seasons.

        This is not to say that Koufax does belong in the top echelon for his peak. But it might be a part of the reason he is perceived as worthy.

        • BobDD says:

          ERA+ is park adjusted; I just hadn’t realized his park helped him so much. For those of us who lived through that time, his WS dominance was a huge exclamation point. I’m pretty sure that just about everybody then judged him the best and 2nd best was between Marichal and Gibson. One of the shocks for me was how much better Gibson fared on this list. Of course he did have that 258 ERA+ in ’68, and that’s a pretty heavy thumb on the ol’ scale.

          I look forward to getting much more on this subject on Pedro’s and Gibby’s upcoming posts.

        • Pat says:

          “… it raises the question of why Koufax has such a reputation.”

          Koufax has three World Series rings, three Cy Youngs, and an MVP. Add to that, he’s got the famous narrative—he pitched like nobody ever did until his arm fell off mid-pitch when he was but a wee lad of seventeen. Or however it gets told. SABR-minded fans don’t put any stock in these things, but SABR-minded fans have only been taken seriously for about ten years now.

          “In his 3 best years, Koufax threw 311, 335.2 and 323 innings and had 306, 382 and 317 Ks…. Nor can they compare to his 25, 26 and 27 win seasons.”

          Each time he got 40+ starts as a member of a four-man rotation. You can’t make that comparison unless you let me do the same for Hoss Radbourn. And you can’t let me do the same for Hoss Radbourn.

          But look, there’s no mystery why Koufax has the reputation he has. His career and its tragically early end is a magnificent story to tell, and add to that he’s a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who got to play for the Dodgers right when that team started getting competitive and was about to move to Hollywood…. Then give him a talent for having his best seasons in the years his team won it all, and now he’s a proven winner (paging Dr. Jeter…). These are the stories old-timey fans love to tell; Koufax is probably Joe Morgan’s favorite pitcher.

          If you look at his numbers like modern fans do, those twelve years are still pretty remarkable: 166-108, 139 ERA+… no, wait—that’s twelve years of Kevin Brown (’90-’01). Here we are: 158-95, 135 ERA+, 8.8 K/9… no, wait again, that’s Curt Schilling (’96-’07). Anyway, Koufax’s 165-87, 144 ERA+, 9.3 K/9 are very good, and yes, of course he will be in the top 47.
          Okay, confession: I don’t know how to calculate ERA+ using data from B-Ref, so I just averaged the reported ERA+ scores for each pitcher, weighted by innings pitched per season. This gives answers that are clearly erroneous—Koufax’s real ERA+ is 131—but hopefully they’re all erroneous in the wrong direction.

  16. David Cohen says:

    I had left Feller off by mistake when I first did the list, then bumped him into the 30s when I realized my omission. Overcompensated I guess.

    • Pat says:

      I’m… not so sure you did. Anyone else surprised the Cleveland players on the list are so low? Nap and Feller this far out seems odd to me. (Maybe I’m missing someone, but I don’t think we’ll see any more other than Tris and Cy, and they were half-Bostoners each.) I think it might be Joe Posnanksi who’s overcompensated.

  17. DM says:

    Geoff….Hope I don’t steal your thunder here regarding the contest, but I just happened to be looking at it…..

    Looks like another decent result for the Wisdom of Crowds (WOC) selections. So far, the WOC has had the following:
    #50 Kaline – it had exactly right
    #49 Lajoie – it was off by 10 (predicted at 39)
    #48 Feller – it was off by 1 (predicted at 49)

    The WOC, if it were an official entry, would currently be in 6th place. Here are the early leaders:

    4-Patrick Hogue-992
    5-Keith Reise-991

    Congratulations on your good start, guys.

    In fact, I think AndyL is the only one to nail 2 picks so far (Kaline @ 50 and Feller @ 48), and was only off 5 places on Lajoie.

    Special mention to Invitro for not being off by more than 3 places on any pick so far.

    Nice going!

    • Geoff says:

      Haha…when I saw the fist few words of your post, I was thinking you had finally come around on Koufax and were going to recap our discussion of why Koufax is the most overrated pitcher in baseball history. 🙂

      Thanks for keeping everyone posted on the contest results…I’ll send out the current spreadsheet this weekend, hopefully after we’ve had another pick or two.

      Btw, are the wisdom of crowds results and different if you just took everyone’s average ranking and put them in ascending order? It’s not immediately obvious to me, but I’m curious.

      • DM says:

        Hi Geoff,

        To answer your question on the Wisdom of Crowds…..I think that would depend on how you defined “average rank”. For example, Duane Kuiper was ranked on 3 ballots (a 10th, an 11th, and a 50th), so his average rank is 23.67, which puts him in the top 25 by average rank. Another quirky choice (“The Mighty Casey”) got a first place vote and a 42nd place vote, so his average rank is 21.5, which puts him top 20.

        So, unless you make an adjustment for when a player is left off someone’s ballot, average rank yields a different list than awarding points based on rank. That’s why I prefer the points system, because it starts everyone off at zero and you accumulate points based on each time (and how far up) you make someone’s list.

        One observation in doing a quick tally on average rank vs. the points system on the original WOC list (I didn’t go back and re-analyze based on the updates) is that the Negro League stars like Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige tended to do a little better by average rank, because not everyone included them on their lists, but when someone did, they ranked them relatively high.

        Regarding Koufax….I’ll have more to say when (if?) his post comes. All in good time 🙂

        In the meantime, as far as most overrated pitcher of all time? I’ll say this much now. As much as I “supported” him in some of the posts several players ago, I wouldn’t argue too much if someone wants to make a case for Koufax as overrated. You can be overrated and still be great. I don’t consider those two things as mutually exclusive. The dictionary definition is that overrated means “to rate or appraise too highly; overestimate”. The shortness of his career, the adjustments you have to make to his raw accomplishments to account for time and place….those all play into his potentially being overrated. As you mentioned once, his “raw” numbers are “pretty”….but you have to take a lot of the air out of them to put them in perspective.

        As I recall, both you and I felt that he belonged somewhere in the top 100…..I think your point of view was that he “might not” make yours, but that if he did he might be in the 80-100 range, and that I felt that somewhere 60-80 might have been appropriate. So bottom line, we might actually agree that Koufax ends up being “overrated”, perhaps by a fair amount. I would still argue that he was great….overrated, but great.

        Oh, and as far as “most” overrated in history….sign me up for Jack Morris 🙂


  18. Bob Feller was 2 1/2 years older than Warren Spahn. They each lost three years plus to World War II. Yet Spahn won nearly a hundred more games than Feller. Like Feller, he started out as a power pitcher who threw hard—he led the league in strikeouts four years in a row—and he threw a lot of innings, leading the league in innings pitched several times, The difference was, as Spahn’s fastball faded in his thirties, he relied on changing speeds to remain effective. Spahn said that if the art of hitting is timing, then the art of pitching is to throw off that timing.

    Feller was a power pitcher from start to finish—fastballs and hard curves, daring you to hit them. He was never much of a control artist, leading the league in walks a number of times, and he never bothered expanding his repertoire as his stuff faded, developing off-speed pitches as Warren Spahn did (even Nolan Ryan added a good change-up that helped him stay effective in his later years). This, more than overwork, caused Feller to be less effective in the second half of his career. He was an ornery cuss who didn’t make the necessary adjustments. So for Feller, losing three years from his career when he had his peak stuff made more of a difference than a similar loss made to Warren Spahn.

  19. Alf V. TerZane says:

    Is it fair to suggest that Bob Feller – for good and ill – embodied a certain kind of “rugged” American of the 20th century? Significant talent, patriotic, reliable, yet, self-inflating, narrow-minded, and over-sure.

  20. Daniel says:

    I can’t believe I left Bob Feller off my list. On the same weekend I saw my NCAA brackets go to hell, my Poz picks get the same treatment.

    But good work as always, Joe!

  21. Richard says:

    With regards to Bob’s WWII service, he had a 3-C draft exemption as the sole financial support of his family. But he put that aside, becoming the first Major Leaguer to enlist after Pearl Harbor. CPO Robert Feller served on the USS Alabama (the “Lucky A”, since no one ever died in combat while serving on her), earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

    He never regretted his decision.

  22. MCD says:

    I apologize for not remembering all the details (it is chronicled in the book “Bullet Bob Comes to Louisville”), but there is a legendary story of how seriously Feller took his reputation as a great pitcher.

    There was some sort of promotion (as I said, I don’t remember the details) at the minor league club in Louisville where fans could try to hit off of Feller. This would have probably been the early 80’s, so Feller would have been in his early 60’s. Nonetheless, he was not going to cut these guys a break and gave them every bit of what he still had on his fastball.

    Taking umbrage at how much Feller was relishing his performance against these schmoes off the street, major leaguer Steve Braun put on street clothes, stepped up to the plate, and proceeded to put on a hitting clinic against the unwitting Feller. You could almost see the steam coming out the pitcher’s ears as Braun laced one line drive after another.

  23. denopac says:

    If the motorcycle methodology holds any water Feller was throwing harder than even he gave himself credit for. The most eye-popping radar gun numbers are recorded as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand; by the time it’s traveled sixty feet it’s lost about eight mph. Feller’s ball averaged 104 mph over 73 1/2 feet. When it left his hand it was probably moving at over 108 mph.

    • Geoff says:

      This is a great point, but the truth is that Feller’s max velocity was probably closer to 94 (or less) than it was to 104. Here’s a video of Feller pitching through that Army contraption:

      I know what 94 looks like, and frankly, that ‘aint it. Here’s a video of Aroldis Chapman throwing a FB clocked clocked at 103-105.

      The difference between that and what Feller was dealing is night and day. Based on experience, I’d say that FB was somewhere in the 90-92 range, which would be considered an average ML FB today.

      At his peak, Feller was striking out fewer than a batter per inning, against competition that was vastly inferior to what pitchers today face. The notion that he’s even in the discussion for fastest pitch is pretty laughable.

      • Geoff says:

        Since Feller was supposedly clocked at “only” 98.6 mph that day, here’s a clip that provides a more fair comparison:

        Here we see Strasburg blow away Giancarlo Stanton with a 99 mph FB up in the zone, from a similar angle to what we see in the Feller clip above. The difference is more subtle, but I think there’s a noticeable difference in the arc of the ball.

        As an aside, does anyone know how to create a slow-motion GIF that matches up the releases for both pitchers? It’d be awesome to see that…

        • John Gale says:

          I don’t know. I agree with you that the first pitch Feller threw (with a couple of swings of the arm beforehand) looks slower to me. But the second pitch (you can tell it’s different because he doesn’t do the double arm swing)? That doesn’t look much slower than Strasburg’s pitch. I think it’s at least 95.

          Speaking of which, in today’s day and age, is there no way to accurately calculate pitch speed on a video like that (i.e. not “I know what 94 looks like”–all due respect to your eyes, but I’d prefer something a bit more scientific)?

          Also, your point about Feller’s “low” strikeout rates is a bit misleading, since as many have pointed out (including Joe in his article about Frank Deford’s asinine suggestion to shrink the plate), strikeouts are way up for a number of reasons. Faster-throwing pitchers are one reason. But so is the fact that hitters have more incentive to hit for power instead of average. Back when Feller pitched, that was not the case, so his rates may be even more impressive.

          In that column, Joe listed the strikeout rates for games (both teams) for various years. The first one was 1946, when Feller famously struck out 348. His strikeout rate that year was 8.4345 K/9. The average in baseball (again, for *both* teams) was 7. So Feller’s strikeout rate was well above the average for games. I don’t think anyone since has exceeded the average for entire games by more than a strikeout per game the way Feller and Hal Newhouser did in 1946.

          There are only three seasons prior to 1947 in which *anyone* struck out at least eight batters per nine innings in a full season (Feller and Newhouser–actually 8.4567 K/9, though I’ll note that Feller threw about 80 more innings than Newhouser did–in 1946 and Johnny Vander Meer in 1941). That’s it.

          There were just four more prior to 1959 (Herb Score in 1955 and 1956 and Sam Jones in 1956 and 1958). There were more than 40 such seasons in the 1960s alone, and the numbers have obviously risen in the ensuing decades. By 1959, strikeouts were up to 10 per game, and by 2010 they had more than doubled to a whopping 15 per game. That means that the league average for all pitchers (I think–I got a degree in journalism, not math) was 7.5 K/9.

          Do we *really* think Feller would be average or slightly better today? I’m not talking about building a time machine and pulling him out of 1946 and dropping him in against Miguel Cabrera. I’m saying he’s born in 1989 and is 24 years old right now, having had all the tools and training that modern players have. I’m pretty confident that he’d be blowing guys away at a high rate.

          So while you’re right that he probably didn’t have the fastest fastball of all time in a vacuum, I think he’s still in the running relative to a player’s peers.

  24. Yablo says:

    When my grandfather wrote his memoirs following his retirement, he included a story about facing Bob Feller DURING WWII. I’ll paste it here…

    Near the end of our training, it was announced that Cleveland Indians star pitcher, Bob Feller, had joined the Navy and was being sent to the Newport Training Station to organize a baseball team to represent the training station. Players selected for the team would be assigned permanently to Newport and would participate in games against teams from other U.S. Navy bases throughout the United States. After Bob Feller arrived, an announcement was made that tryouts for the team would be held next Monday. On the day of the tryouts there were hundreds of recruits who had played high school, college and, in a few cases, minor league baseball. Feller, who had been appointed a chief recreation specialist in the navy, greeted all of the prospects by announcing that players would be graded by positions.

    He then said that he would do the pitching and began to throw 10 balls to each batter who promptly missed each of his fastballs. No player had hit the ball when it was finally my turn to bat. He would up and threw a high fastball about chest high on the outside of the plate, which I hit and drove over the fence in right field. It caught the attention of Feller, who proceeded to throw me nine curves, three of which I fouled off and six of which I missed. Following the tryouts, the roster of the Newport team was posted and did not include any of the two hundred or so recruits who tried out for the team. Instead, it listed well-known minor and major league players who had been recruited by the navy to play baseball.

  25. KB says:

    Just to throw one more variable out there for thought. Yes, Feller threw more innings by the age of 22 after 1920 than anyone else, a lot more than anyone else. That doesn’t even include all the barnstorming innings. Joe mentioned the 1947 barnstorming, but Feller barnstormed in the offseason pretty much from the day he signed a pro contract. I’d say conservatively you could add another 50-100 innings each offseason. Read Tim Gay’s “Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert” to get a better idea of how Feller supplemented his income every year. It’s pretty much a wonder Feller lasted as long as he did given the incredible workload he put on his arm.

  26. Chris H says:

    Unlike a few others here, I met the grumpy Bob Feller at spring training in 2006. When you meet a hall of famer you want to have something to talk about, of course, so as he signed the photograph and I handed over my money, I said “I coach little league – what advice can I give them from a hall of famer?” I don’t know what I expected in response, really, but what I got was a growled “Tell them to learn their fundamentals. And tell your pitchers to throw strikes!” (“Buy low and sell high!” he did not add.)

    And for that, it was a Bob Feller I am happy enough to have met, in a way. I met one version of the real thing. Although I’m glad for those of you who had more rewarding conversations.


  27. rucksack says:

    I would interpret the speed calculation differently (and in Feller’s favor). It’s not established as set up in the article what is crossing the plate at the moment of measurement: the ball or the motorcycle? The assumption in the calculation is that it is the motorcycle, but I would think the experiment would be set up so that the moment of measurement was when the ball crossed the plate. That means it was not that the ball was 13 feet past home plate when the motorcycle got there, it was that the bike was 13 feet away when the ball got there. I mean, was he throwing to the backstop or a catcher? (For that matter, was there a backstop and how fast do motorcycles decelerate? Who is crazy enough to drive a motorcycle at a backstop at 86MPH?)

    Anyway, if you interpret that the ball was what crossed home plate at the moment of measurement, it did so in the time it took the motorcycle to travel 47.5 feet:

    60.5/47.5 = x/86

    x = (60.5/47.5) * 86 = 109.5

    Feller may have known his measurement moment was correct, of course, and motorcycle speedometers tend to overrepresent speed, and there are lots of areas of imprecision in this experiment, but it’s more fun to ignore all that and say Feller threw it 109+.

  28. I was about to make the same breakdown rucksack. Feller got the math wrong.

    My guess is the only way this could have been reasonably done is if both were separately photographed with the same camera on the same day in the same location and then the films were superimposed. That’s the only way you could realistically hope to sync the release of the ball with the motorcycle.

    Trying to eyeball a windup and pitch release to exactly match a moving motorcycle isn’t really doable.

    However, the faulty math make me wonder about the methodology.

  29. David Berg says:

    Not sure where I heard this — I think it was a Bob Costas interview with Feller for MLB Network, but I’m not positive — but I heard Feller say that he hurt his arm before 1938 and never threw as hard after that. You can see that his K rate backs this up, dropping from over 9 in 1937 to under 8 in 1938. The “possible hardest thrower ever” version of Feller only existed for 200 innings across 2 years in his teens.

    After turning 19, he was merely the possible hardest thrower of his day, and one who relied more on his curve than he had previously.

    My guess for hardest thrower is Steve Dalkowski — Feller seems like a big, strong kid, much like other big, strong kids, but there was something freaky and unique about Dalkowski.

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