Let’s Talk About Urban Shocker

Urban Shocker (image via Wikipedia)

So far, I’ve asked you to talk about Thurman Munson and David Cone. Today, I want to chat about a player who I see as something of a combination between the two—Urban Shocker.

Like Cone, Shocker was an elite starting pitcher who failed to win 200 games. Like Cone, this probably cost Shocker induction to the Hall of Fame. But like Cone, Shocker was so good during his peak that he just might deserve induction anyway.

Like Munson, Shocker died prematurely while still an active player. Like Munson, Shocker was still producing at a high level. While he had already turned 37, Shocker clearly had something left (in his final season, he went 18–6 with a 2.84 ERA, 137 ERA+, and 2.4 WAR). Shocker died in 1928 (less than a year after his 1927 Yankees won the World Series) of a weakened heart caused by pneumonia. He had suffered from a congenital heart problem for a while and reportedly hadn’t slept lying down in two years.

Shocker’s first season as a pitcher was also his first professional season (he was a catcher before then). Shocker pitched four minor league seasons north of the border in Ontario before being drafted by the Yankees in September of 1915. He was already about to turn 25 years old. His late start and his early death did not give him much time to leave his mark on the game.

But he certainly left a his mark.

  • Shocker won twenty games four consecutive years with the St. Louis Browns. In those four seasons, the Browns went .529 while Shocker had a .641 winning percentage. He combined to go 91–51 with a 132 ERA+ and 25.7 WAR.
  • Overall, he made 30 appearances just nine (consecutive) times, from 1919 to 1927. In those nine seasons, he was worth 45.8 WAR (5.1 WAR per season), while going 169–104 (.619) with a 125 ERA+.
  • Shocker could hit… and by “hit”, I mean “stand there and take a pitch”. He hit .209, but his OBP was .334. He was worth 4.0 WAR at the plate, enhancing his value. In 1924 and 1925, he walked 42 times in 193 plate appearances, posting an OBP of .402.
  • He led the league in victories once, strikeouts once, and BB/9 and SO/BB twice apiece. He finished in the Top 10 in ERA in eight of his nine full seasons. He finished in the top 10 in wins seven times. He had seven Top 7 finishes in pitching WAR, leading the league once.

By wWAR, Shocker rates ahead of the Hall of Fame borderline, but not overwhelmingly over it. He is surrounded by Hall of Famers Three Finger Brown, Joe McGinnity, Don Sutton, and Whitey Ford as well as non-Hall of Famers like Dave Stieb, Wes Ferrell, Eddie Cicotte, and Jack Quinn. Just a reminder: wWAR gives no credit for what might have been, given Shocker’s early death.

While he was not finished with his career, it’s probably a safe bet that Shocker had a good 2–5 WAR left in him. Of course, that would have been enough to get him to 55 WAR and 200 victories.

Shocker’s teammates Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock were inducted to the Hall of Fame, though wWAR sees them a vastly inferior. Hoyt isn’t that far off, but Pennock is way behind. What did these two pitchers have that Shocker didn’t? Well, full careers. And 200 wins (specifically, 236 for Hoyt and 241 for Pennock).

Compared to other players oft-debated for the Hall of Fame, there’s not a ton out there about about Shocker. If you’re looking for some research to do, I’d recommend taking a stab at a SABR Bio Project bio for him. In the meantime, I one of the better links I found about Shocker was from our very own Dan. Alex Reisner also put together this handy PDF about Shocker.

What are your thoughts on Shocker?


Comments

Let’s Talk About Urban Shocker — 38 Comments

  1. Great post. Shocker maintained his excellence even though baseball changed drastically from the start of his career to the end of it. You make a great case that he is at least worthy of HOF consideration.

  2. That “handy PDF” you referenced mentions that Shocker pitched for 13 seasons and never had a losing record in any one season. As far as I know, through 2011, only Andy Pettitte has pitched more seasons (16) without a losing season.

  3. Most Wins for an AL Pitcher, Ages 29-36:
    1. Lefty Grove 173
    2. Eddie Plank 165
    3. Urban Shocker 156
    T4. Bob Lemon and Stan Coveleski 150

    Most Pitching WAR (b-ref version) for an AL Pitcher, Age 29-36:
    1. Lefty Grove 60.3
    2. Walter Johnson 48.5
    3. Roger Clemens 47.6
    4. Eddie Cicotte 44.7
    5. Stan Coveleski 42.0
    6. Urban Shocker 41.4
    7. Eddie Plank 39.8
    8. David Cone 39.5

  4. Adam: I’m a bit unclear on this statement:

    “While he was not finished with his career, it’s probably a safe bet that Shocker had a good 2–5 WAR left in him. Of course, that would have been enough to get him to 55 WAR and 200 victories.”

    The little bit of information I can find indicates that Shocker chose to retire after the 1927 season. He did come back to pitch one game in 1928 (on May 30th) and then chose to retire again. So it seems he was finished with his career.

    BTW, seems like what hurt him the most is that he didn’t become a pitcher till his early 20s. Until then he was a catcher.

    • Ed, he died in September of 1928, so the assumption is it was because of his deteriorating health that he chose to retire after a very good 1927 season. It was also mentioned that he was unable to sleep lying down for two years prior, so the feeling among those who’ve written bios of Shocker is he would have played at least a little longer if not for the heart condition.

      • I agree Dan. But the phrase “while he was not finished with his career” implies that Shocker planned to continue pitching. Which doesn’t seem to be the case.

        • Perhaps I wasn’t clear. When I said he wasn’t finished with his career, what I meant was when he was forced to retire because of health issues. They had been going on for quite some time.

    • A couple of months late on this.

      Shocker “retired” at the start of the 1928 season after a fine season with the vaunted 1927 Yankees, although I suspect his retirement was either driven by the severity of his health, or perhaps driven by an attempt to gain a better contract from the Yankees. I suspect it is the former, but can’t rule out the latter as he decided to end his retirement in May, but reports indicate he just didn’t seem to have anything left in the tank. Perhaps it was driven by his health issues, which were becoming quite extreme. He was now just months from his death. His last years in MLB in ’26 and ’27 were about as physically challenging as just about any pitcher faced, as his health continued to decline driven by heart valve issues that prevented him from sleeping lying down at night. He was losing weight and strength, and one can assume velocity. What he was losing physically he seemed to counter mentally, as he was regarded by many as the smartest pitcher in the game with an encyclopedic knowledge of hitters.

      The Yankees quickly released him after his short retirement, although I’m not quite sure how they made the determination after he tossed only two innings of scoreless ball. That alone might indicate his physical situation had crossed a point of no return. Yet he clearly had no intention of retiring, as he then went off to pitch in an exhibition in Denver. He pitched poorly in his only game against what should have been quite inferior talent, which is probably yet another indicator that he was in a rapid physical decline. He contracted pneumonia after that one start and died shortly thereafter. Pneumonia is not a surprising illness as his heart situation had no doubt reached a critical stage.

      I think Adam’s assessment is correct. Shocker would have been able to pitch effectively for a few more years if not for his failing heart. Amazing he was able to accomplish what he did those final few years.

      • @33/Urban,

        Wow, what what a sad ending. There was an A’s pitcher, post WWII, who had a similar story; health issues (I think it was heart trouble), could only pitch an inning or two at a time.

        Connie Mack handled him very carefully and got a couple years out of him. Unfortunately he died shortly afterwards. Does this sound familiar?

        • Lawrence @34, it does sound vaguely familiar, but nothing specific comes to mind. A quick Google search didn’t yield any results either, although perhaps one of the other posters here might know.

        • I did some PI searching and it looks the pitcher you are talking about is Russ Christopher. He had rheumatic fever as a child and his heart was damaged. He pitched for the A’s and Indians from 1942-1948. For the first 5 years of his career he was a starter but for the final 2 years he was strictly a reliever due to declining health. Almost all of appearances were of 2 innings or less. His final year was with the World Champion Cleveland Indians. His 17 saves led the AL, one of a few players to lead a league in his last season. He under went heart surgery in 1950 and made an unsuccessful comeback attempt. He died in 1954.

  5. From a good article about the history of the Rule V Draft:

    September 1915: Drafted by the New York Yankees from the Guelph Maple Leafs of the Canadian League (Class B).

    At the time he played, Shocker claimed to have been born on Nov. 22, 1892, in Detroit. But subsequent research has revealed that he was actually born on Sept. 22, 1890 (or perhaps Aug. 22; sources conflict on this detail), in Cleveland. Born Urbain Jacques Shockcor, he Americanized his name to Urban James Shocker.

    In any case, he began his professional baseball career in Canada in 1913, pitching for Windsor, Ont., in the Class D Border League. Shocker then spent two seasons in the Canadian League, in which he was terrific, leading the league in wins both years at 20-8 and 19-10, and in the latter season also leading in innings pitched (303) and strikeouts (186).

    The Yankees shrewdly picked him up, but would fail to exercise the patience to keep Shocker, trading him to the Browns in early 1918.
    His signature pitch was the spitball, so much so that Shocker was among the 17 major league pitchers allowed to continue using the pitch in the grandfather clause included in the spitball’s prohibition. But some sources suggest that Shocker actually rarely threw the spitball, relying on the value of its threat more than its reality.

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-ten-most-interesting-rule-5-draft-picks-1903-1940/

  6. Other pitchers since 1920 to win 90+ in a 4-year span.

    Dizzy Dean
    Lefty Grove
    Wes Ferrell
    Carl Hubbell
    Bob Feller
    Hal Newhouser
    Robin Roberts
    Juan Marichal
    Denny McLain
    Sandy Koufax
    Wilbur Wood
    Catfish Hunter

  7. Shocker’s career BABIP was .277. Does anyone know how that compares with the overall league average during his career? He was definately a pitch-to-contact pitcher. In 1927 he went 18-6 with a 2.84 ERA, posting a 137 OPS+, but he only had 35 Ks for the entire season. 35! He gave up more hits than innings, but rarely struck out batters, rarely walked batters, rarely gave up HRs (even as a RH’d pitcher at Yankee Stadium), so I’m pretty darn sure he must have been an extreme ground-ball pitcher, although that data doesn’t exist.

    So I’m wondering if that spitball basically had some Mariano Rivera magic at the end, consistently producing weaker contact. I know the game has changed over time when it comes to strikeouts, but 35!

      • Thanks, Dan.

        To be clear (or attempting to be clearer, which I’m going to fail at!), I’m not questioning Shocker’s ability or how lucky he was. He pitched for parts of thirteen seasons (granted, the last one was an appearance) and was quite successful throughout his career.

        During his career, he produced a FIP that was higher than his ERA in 11 of those 13 seasons. So then I started wondering about his BABIP compared to the league figuring he had a skill (not luck) that allowed him to consistently produce weaker contact. I also made a statement above that’s probably correct. I noted he rarely gave up HRs because I did a quick look at his career HR%, which by today’s standards is fine, but back then perhaps wasn’t so much. He actually led the league in HRs surrendered three times, although he never led in HR% and one of the years he led the league in HRs he pitched 350 innings. His highest K% interestingly was when he first arrived in the majors, but it was during the deadball era. Then in the 1920s when offense was on the rise, his K% decreased just about every year, yet he remained a very effective pitcher.

        I’m not drawing conclusions. His career is very interesting looking at the numbers.

        • To be clear myself, Mike, I wasn’t accusing you of dragging down Shocker’s career. I was just making an observation that, in comparison to the rest of his career, it’s quite possible Shocker’s resurgent 1927 may have been a result of being a little luckier than usual.

    • The most extreme non-strikeout HOF pitcher was probably Ted Lyons. He had a lifetime rate of 2.1 K/9 IP; Urban Shocker’s career K/9 IP was 3.3.

      Strangely, Lyon’s career-high rates came at ages 40 and 39, with 3.5 and 3.4 K/9 IP. Even in those years, he was still below league-average in K/9 IP.

  8. Looks like Pennock got in ahead of Shocker based almost entirely on wins. I’d be interested to see what the Hall of Fame would look like if pitcher wins and batting average had never been invented. Ideally, it would look a lot like Adam’s Hall of wWAR, but realistically, would some other stats have driven the polling? ERA and OBP? Strikeouts and home runs?

    • What’s interesting is that Shocker hasn’t made the Hall of wWAR up to this point. I’m still working on the new version, but as it is more interested in peak, Shocker gets in.

      Honestly, his longevity and peak are really similar to a pitcher I’m somewhat obsessed with—Wes Ferrell. Shocker wasn’t a bad hitter, either. No masher like Ferrell, but he could take a walk.

    • Pennock also pitched in more World Series than Shocker and was much more successful. Pennock was 5-0 with a 1.95 ERA. Shocker only pitched in the ’26 WS and complied a 5.87 ERA. I’m sure that factored in as well.

  9. “What did these two pitchers have that Shocker didn’t? Well, full careers. And 200 wins (specifically, 236 for Hoyt and 241 for Pennock).”

    Adam, I think the 200-win threshold was certainly very important – although Vance’s example shows that a late arrival in the Big Leagues could be taken into account – but I don’t think that was the critical thing with Pennock and Hoyt. I think what the key thing both had that Shocker lacked was a robust career in baseball after retirement.

    Pennock was GM and then, I think, President of the Phillies, and his sudden death while a high executive led to an almost as sudden HoF induction.

    Hoyt became a colorful radio announcer for the Reds when player/announcers were a novelty – he did that for many years and I assume he went to TV when that came in – and staying around as a visible part of the game certainly helped him. When I was a kid in the ’50s, I knew all about him, as well as Pennock, but Shocker was rarely mentioned, and his early death was always the headline. Of course, both Hoyt and Pennock also had the major advantage of more years with the Yankees, whereas Shocker’s great years were with the historically somewhat less HoF-redolent Browns.

  10. Certainly an underrated player, plus he is my favourite baseball name of all time; so much so that I will be naming my next album after him. No, seriously…it’s a great double meaning for the songs’ themes, etc.

    • Urban Shocker is a man whose name is made for today. He’d get media love and attention before he threw a pitch. Is it a name, or is it the opening line to the evening newscast?

      Good luck with the album. It’s a name that has been used music related already. There is a band that goes by the name.

  11. One final thought on Shocker before I head back into the night myself.

    He really is a man of contradictions. He has a kick-ass name, probably the best ever for a MLB player of note. That alone should guarantee him sustained fame, and I guess it has to some degree. Add in he pitched for the NY Yankees and was a member of what is regarded as perhaps the greatest team ever, the 1927 squad. He was the last of the legal spit ballers, and was an athlete who died young, a tragic end. By many accounts he was viewed at points as one of the top few pitchers in the first part of the 1920s. He should have sustained fame for all these reasons. Yet he really doesn’t. He lives in the shadows of history, with not as much known about him as there should be, and perhaps the only fame is driven by his name.

    One other item. As I believe Adam mentioned, he started his career as a catcher. Early on while in semi-pro ball, he broke the third finger on his right hand, which when healed had a permanent hook that he insisted helped him as a pitcher, giving his pitches a slightly different spin and extra movement to his curveball. Interesting in that one of his borderline HOF compares is Three Finger Brown.

    So, yes, for one so good and with such a great name, he does sort of live more in the shadows than I’d expect, which is why I said he is a bit of a contradiction. Perhaps that’s why I selected his name for my Twitter handle as I like to live in the shadows of Twitter, using the account to follow baseball writers and sites, including HighHeatStats!

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