After Gaylord Perry finally retired — he pitched in the Majors until he was 44 — he became the first baseball coach at Limestone College in South Carolina. There was some unexpected stress involved. Many of this players were still learning the basic rules. He said that he once had a hitter who drew a three-ball count and then watched as the runner on first was thrown out trying to steal second, ending the inning.
The next inning, this batter led off. The first pitch was a ball and he ran to first base. He thought the count carried over.
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Consider this: What if there was a new drug that allowed a pitcher to throw a fastball that dropped unnaturally at the very last second? Then, let’s say that pitcher who openly took the drug year after year won two Cy Young Awards, struck out more than 3,500 batters and won 300 games. Would you elect that pitcher to the Hall of Fame?
Somehow, throwing a spitball doesn’t seem as unprincipled as taking PEDs. There’s something roguish about spitballers, in the textbook sense of the word. A rogue is a “person whose behavior one disapproves of but who is nonetheless likable or attractive (often used as a playful term of reproof).” Players who throw spitballs or cork their bats or using surveillance equipment to illegally steal signs or trick the umpire by some sleight of hand or even those who use greenies are mostly viewed as rogues. People who take the hard PEDs like steroids are mostly viewed as terrible people. It’s an interesting moral line we draw in the sand.
Gaylord Perry was one of the baseball’s most lovable rogues. There was an odd sort of honesty in his con. He called his autobiography “Me and the Spitter” and his perpetual denials that he ever spit on, grease or cut a baseball were always given with a little wink. One of my favorite stories about Perry is when his daughter Allison was five years old, she was asked by someone if her Daddy really threw a spitball. She did not hesitate. ‘It’s a hard slider,” she said.
Perry would do anything at all to distract a batter. The spitball was one distraction. But he would also pretend to use the spitball. He would touch at his hat, his shoulder, back to his hat, his chest, as if he was definitely doing something … and they would throw a dry pitch but the hitter was already so spooked he was all but useless. One of my favorite pitches Perry threw — one that shows how far he was willing to go in his art of sleight-of-hand — was something called the Puff Ball. He would load up on the resin bag and so when he threw the pitch, this big puff of resin smoke would form and the hitter would have a hard time even finding the ball, much less hitting it. The puff ball was outlawed in 1981 strictly because of Perry.*
*One more interesting note about the Puff Ball: Brilliant reader Kenneth writes in that he once asked Perry about it, and Perry said that he actually used FLOUR to create the puff. He would put the flour in the resin back. He says that because of this, umpires started handling resin bag duties instead of home teams.
Perry and Nolan Ryan were not exactly contemporaries — Perry was 8 1/2 years older than Ryan — but they were fairly close. Perry’s first full season was 1964 and his last was 1983. Ryan’s first full season was 1972. and his last was 1991 or 1992. There’s more than a decade of overlap.
They pitched almost exactly the same number of innings — Ryan pitched 5,386, Perry 5,350. If you asked most mild baseball fans who was the better pitcher, they would certainly say Ryan. I don’t think so and I don’t think it’s even that close.
Ryan, as discussed in his Top 100 article, was both the most unhittable and self-defeating pitcher in baseball history. He struck out more hitters and gave up fewer hits than anyone ever. He also walked more hitters, gave up more stolen bases, threw more wild pitches and made more errors than anyone. This made him a whirlwind of a player, one-of-a-kind. But Gaylord Perry, with much less natural talent but much more resourcefulness, was a more effective pitcher.
First, you look at their career numbers: We’ll round out the numbers to keep it simple. Ryan struck out 2,000 more batters than Perry, gave up 1,000 fewer hits and allowed 25% fewer home runs. It does not seem like a pitcher should be able to overcome such disadvantages.
But then you look at those others things i mentioned. Perry walked 1,400 or so fewer batters — so his WHIP is actually lower than Ryan’s. He threw 100 fewer wild pitches. Perry was a genius at keeping runners on — almost half the runners who tried to steal against him were thrown out. Batters stole 500 more bases against Ryan. Perry also made fewer than half the errors that Ryan did.
When you total it all up, Perry gave up 300 fewer runs. He completed 80 more games than Ryan even though Ryan started more games. His ERA is lower, his ERA+ is higher, and if you care about such things he won more games with a higher winning percentage.
How about individual seasons? Peak performance?
Ryan’s best year was probably 1977. He went 19-16 with a 2.77 ERA, 22 complete games, 341 Ks in 299 innings.
Perry’s best year was probably 1972. He went 24-16 with a 1.92 ERA, 29 complete games, 234 Ks in 342 innings.
What year was better? Perry’s. Ryan walked 204 batters in his best year. He threw 21 wild pitches. He committed six errors and started two double plays. he gave up 18 unearned runs. His WHIP was a not-so-good 1.344. He allowed 43 stolen bases. It was a marvelous season, but marred by those things his ERA was higher than Perry’s.
Perry meanwhile walked just 82 batters, threw 11 wild pitches (he too, because of the greaseball, was susceptible to wild pitches, though not like Ryan), committed two errors and started seven doubles plays. He gave up six unearned runs — one-third of Ryan’s total. His WHIP was an incredible 0.978 — Perry is one of only 10 pitchers since Deadball to throw 300 innings in a season and have a WHIP less than 1.* Five people stole a base against him that year. Five. Eight were caught trying.
*Eight of these 10 pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. The only two who are not are Vida Blue in 1971 and Denny McLain when he won 30 games in 1968. Both of them won MVP awards.
Ryan and Perry’s second-best, third best, fourth-best, fifth-best seasons all line up more or less like that, with Ryan’s having more impressive power numbers, and Perry having better overall seasons. If you look at Wins Above Average — a little bit of a different statistic than Wins Above Replacement because the baseline is an average player — you see that Ryan was two wins better than an average pitcher eight times in his career, a nice number. Perry did it 12 times.
Here’s the thing: If the devil came up to you and said, “Pick one pitcher and he must throw a no-hitter or you lose your soul,” you would first of all freak out, but secondly you would pick Nolan Ryan over anybody ever. When he had his best stuff, he was better than Gaylord Perry or, really, anybody else.
But the devil scenario isn’t a real test of greatness. The real test, I think, comes not only from being great on your best day but from being good on your worst. Put another way: A high school football coach once told me that he would always prefer a team that never beat itself over a team that could beat anybody. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time, but I think I know what he meant. Gaylord Perry would throw greaseballs and puffballs and doctored balls or he would pretend to throw them. He would cheat (daring people to catch him) or pretend to cheat (daring people to catch him). He punctuated his pitching with all sorts of gesticulations to confound everyone, he altered his delivery to keep everyone off-balance, he kept runners on base with the eye of a hawk, he got the sure outs and he was never afraid to retreat if he felt at a disadvantage. Nolan Ryan would beat you. Gaylord Perry would not beat himself. And I think Gaylord Perry was the better pitcher.