The Top 10 Pitchers from the Live Ball Era: 1923-1945

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The Top 10 Pitchers from the Live Ball Era: 1923-1945

As a youth, I read biographies about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mel Ott. I knew many of our great position players made their careers during this era: Rogers Hornsby, Jimmy Foxx, Charlie Gehringer.  I'd heard of some of the pitchers they faced: Dizzy Dean, Waite Hoyt, Red Ruffing, Dazzy Vance, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Bucky Walters and more, but I didn't know how their careers stacked up individually, or in comparison to each other.

So I have endeavored to make sense of the stats, pull out who I feel are the top ten pitchers from the era, and introduce them to the casual baseball historian such as myself.

This era witnessed a great hitting explosion. Consequently the pitching stats reflect the offensive emergence induced by the "live ball". ERAs skyrocketed. It was common for pitchers to give up more hits than innings pitched. Flame throwers burned out their arms after meteoric careers (Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez).  Careers were shortened by the war. Others were shortened by how quickly the offensive era caught up to their skills. 

This era did not produce any prolific careers of epic proportion—nobody reached 4500 innings. Anybody who pitched that long in this era had to be successful, and they were—Eppa Rixey ranks 29th all-time in IP (4494.2), and leads the era as well.  Many of these innings came before 1923.  So the pitcher who actually leads IP within the era is Red Ruffing (4344). 

One could say many pitchers "survived" the era, rather than maintaining any true excellence or mastery throughout their careers.

So right up front I want to give honorable mention to the pitchers right outside my list who pitched many outstanding and significant seasons; many of whom are in the Hall of Fame, but who all gave up more hits than innings pitched for their careers—Larry French, Herb Pennock, Paul Derringer, Bobo Newsom, Waite Hoyt, Charlie Root, Freddie Fitzsimmons, Burleigh Grimes, Ted Lyons, Red Faber, Dutch Leonard, and Mel Harder (In no particular order).

Obviously some careers overlapped eras.  I tried to look at when they did their most significant work, and when the impact of their careers took place.

For example, Red Faber, Burleigh Grimes and Eppa Rixey all overlapped with the preceding era, but did much of their significant work in the '20s (Red Faber less so) so as to be included here.  On the other end one significant case needs to be mentioned. Cleveland's Bob Feller hit the majors with a jolt before WWII. But I felt the impact of his career came mostly after the war, when he pitched more years and had an effect on the rising success of his team.

Because of the nature of the era, I dug past win totals and looked at shutouts, ERA & ERA+, IP/H (+/-), and K/BB ratio.  In general, I acknowledged awards, peaks, and streaks of dominance, but took the career as a whole in making my rankings.

There are two pitchers who stand out as the best of the era. Their dominance, excellence throughout their careers, and accomplishments put them on a higher level than the rest. 

 1) Lefty Grove - (300 - 141; 3.06 ERA; ERA+ 148; 35 SHO; IP/H +91; K/BB - 2266/1187) pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox of the American League during his career, which began in 1925.  He had already established a remarkable career in the minor leagues.His contract was sold to Connie Mack for over $100,000, the largest such transaction for a player to that date. 

In 1928 he began one of the most remarkable peaks any career has ever seen. For five years, his W-L total came to 128-33! Not once did his ERA exceed 3.00, and his ERA of 2.06 in 1931 not only led the league, but was less than half the league average ERA!  For his career he led the league in ERA and ERA+ 9 times. He also led his era in strikeouts with 2266.

Grove was serious about his pitching, becoming known for his temper in the dugout.  Grove finished the second part of his career with Boston in 1941, reaching 300 wins exactly.  He was the only pitcher of this era to reach 300 wins, and rightfully places as the best of his era.

 

2) Carl Hubbell - (253 - 154; 2.98 ERA; ERA+ 130; 36 SHO; IP/H +129; K/BB - 1677/725) pitched for the NY Giants and was the most dominant pitcher in the NL during this time.  He is best known for striking out the first five batters he faced in the 1934 All-Star game and for his screwball. Carl had tremendous control and his K/BB ratio is second only to the ratio posted by the shortened career of Dizzy Dean.  He was awarded the NL MVP both in 1933 and 1936.

 

The next two pitchers I placed here on the list in honor of their two most prolific careers. They are similar in the length of their careers and that they were inducted into the HOF via the veteran's committee. 

 3) Red Ruffing - (273 - 225; 3.80 ERA; 109 ERA+; 45 SHO; IP/H +60; K/BB - 1987/1541) pitched for the mighty Yankees beginning in 1930, and won the second most games of any pitcher of this generation.  He remained consistently good, winning 20 games four straight years from 1936 - 39. His 1987 Ks rank 4th in the era. He helped the Yankees to several world series titles.  His 4344 IP are the most pitched within the era.

 4)  Eppa Rixey - (266 - 251; 3.15 ERA; ERA+ 115; 37 SHO; IP/H -139; K/BB - 1350/1082) a good-natured "gentleman" of the game was a 6'5" finesse pitcher who relied on keeping his fastball down and out-thinking batters. He endured most of his career on second division teams, but seemed to take it all in stride, really coming into his own in Cincinnati in the '20s.

His 266 wins are the most for a left-hander in the National League until surpassed by Warren Spahn in 1960.  His 4494 IP are the most on this list. He was elected to the HOF in 1963, but died before being inducted. 

 

The next group on my list of top ten pitchers from this era rate very closely.  They all pitched less than 3500 innings, posted win totals just under 200, but maintained excellence and mastery during their careers.  It would be easy to interchange the rankings 5 - 9, but here's how I broke it down:

 5) Dazzy Vance - (197 - 140; 3.24 ERA; ERA+ 125; 29 SHO; IP/H +157; K/BB - 2045/840) broke in with the Dodgers in 1922 at the age of 31!  Vance had pitched 10 years in the minor leagues, often burning out his arm during seasons.  Finally, with the solution of an extra day's rest between starts, he established success and became the dominant strikeout pitcher of the 1920s, leading the National League 7 years in a row, 1922 - 1928. 

Vance used a high leg kick, unusual delivery and a blazing fastball to intimidate hitters.  He was league MVP in 1924 with 28 wins, 262 Ks, an ERA of 2.16, and 30 complete games. He compiled 2045 Ks against only 840 BB, a tremendous ratio for his time. He was elected to the HOF in 1955.

 

6) Tommy Bridges - (194 - 138; 3.57 ERA; ERA+ 126; 33 SHO; IP/H +151; K/BB - 1674/1192) pitched for the Detroit Tigers from 1930 - 1946.  He helped them to 4 pennants during his career, winning 20 games 3 straight years, 1934-36.  Of slight build, Bridges possessed great stuff, with a blazing fastball.  But it was his "drop off the table" curveball that  devastated American League hitters for over a decade.  His +151 IP/H allowed is one of the best marks in the era.


7) Bucky Walters - (198 - 160; 3.30 ERA; ERA+ 115; 42 SHO; IP/H +114; K/BB 1107/1121) Actually broke into the majors as an infielder in 1933.  He switched to pitching in 1934 with the Phillies. He had a side-arm delivery and relied on a sinking fastball. 

After a trade to Cincinnati in 1938, he helped his team to two straight pennants in 1939 - 40, going 27 - 11 and 22 - 10.  His 42 shutouts are second only to Red Ruffing in this era.


8) Lefty Gomez - (189 - 102; 3.34 ERA; ERA+ 125; 28 SHO; IP/H +213; K/BB - 1468/1095) Was known for his colorful personality and his exceptional fastball.  He teamed up with Red Ruffing to form the Yankees R/L pitching force of the 1930s. He has a 6-0 record in world series appearances. 

He won the triple crown of W, ERA, and Ks in 1934 and 1937.  He lost his velocity on his  fastball after developing arm problems, engendering his comment, "I'm throwing as hard as I ever did, the ball's just not getting there as fast."

He retired at age 33, and was inducted into the HOF in 1972.


9) Lon Warneke - (192 - 121; 3.18 ERA; ERA+ 119; 30 SHO; IP/H +56; K/BB - 1140/739) the "Arkansas Hummingbird", pitched for the Cubs and Cardinals from 1930 - 1943, then join the military. He won 20 games three times and helped the Cubs to the world series twice.

He was second in MVP voting in 1932 when he led the league in wins (22) and ERA (2.37).  He was selected to the first All-Star team and was a 5X all-star. He was also an outstanding fielder, going 163 straight games without an error.  He was an effective pitcher right up until his enlistment.

He served as a NL umpire after the war, and worked world series and all-star games.   He makes this list because of his all-around excellence.

 

10) Dizzy Dean - (150 - 83;  3.02 ERA; ERA+ 130; 26 SHO; IP/H +48; K/BB - 1163/453) Was the face of the St. Louis Gas House Gang. His animated personality, and boasting of exploits yet to be achieved, were endless fodder for sportswriters and fans.  His career travelled like a meteor through the 1930s, and was over after essentially only six full seasons.

His 1934-35 seasons mark one of the truly great peaks in baseball history: 58 wins, 627 innings, and an ERA+ of 159 and 135.  His career mark of 1163K against only 453 BB  tops the era in ratio.  He retired at age 30 to become a broadcaster for the St. Louis Browns.  He was inducted into the HOF in 1953.

 

Notes

Many pitchers left the game between 1941-'45 to serve our country.  Most were unable to continue with the success they had before the war. Tommy Bridges, overlooked after the war by his team, the Tigers, who were focusing on a youth movement, went on to win an ERA title, albeit in the Pacific Coast league - oops.  the war shortened many careers. 

It was common for pitchers to allow more hits than innings pitched.  Even successful HOF pitchers like Herb Pennock (-329) and Waite Hoyt (-275) were not close to breaking even.

The era's strikeout artists were Lefty Grove (2266), Bobo Newsom (2086), and Dazzy Vance (2045).

The K/BB leaders were Dizzy Dean (1163/453), Dazzy Vance (2045/840), Carl Hubbell (1677/725), and Paul Derringer (1507/761).

It was exciting to learn about the pitching stars and characters of this era. I had not been aware of Tommy Bridges and Lon Warneke in particular.  I believe they were somewhat overlooked in their time. 

Sportwriters voted for the dominance of Grove and Hubbell and the character and peak of Dean, and Herb Pennock ('48), while the Veteran's  committe has focused on win totals, inducting Eppa Rixey (1963), Ted Lyons ('64), Red Faber, Red Ruffing ('67), Burleigh Grimes ('64), Waite Hoyt ('69), and Lefty Grove '72). 

Meanwhile, pitchers like Bucky Walters, Tommy Bridges and Lon Warneke have fallen through the cracks. 

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