Left-Wing Leadership

For the 2012 season, Baseball-reference.com’s formula for pitching Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) makes Tampa’s David Price the pitcher with the most bWAR among all left-handed pitchers in the majors, by a small margin over Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Matt Harrison of the Rangers (Harrison’s 6.2 pitching bWAR was the highest season total ever for a lefty pitching for the Rangers franchise, breaking Jon Matlack’s record from 1978).  Over the past five seasons, the bWAR formula has produced six different major league season leaders in the category of most pitching bWAR among lefty pitchers:

2012 David Price
2011 Cliff Lee
2010 Clayton Kershaw
2009 tie, C.C. Sabathia and John Lester
2008 Johan Santana

Over major league history, there have been several eras of this kind of extended multi-year diversity when looking at the top bWAR lefty in the majors each season, but there have also been periods of dominance by a single pitcher.  A full table of each season’s top lefty by pitching bWAR, going back to 1901, is after the jump, along with some notes on the list.  

You can play around with the table below, but first I’ll offer a few highlights and comments:

The following guys led the  majors in pitching bWAR among lefties in at least three different seasons, from and including 1901:

Lefty Grove, 10 seasons
Steve Carlton, 6 seasons
Randy Johnson, 6 seasons
Rube Waddell, 4 seasons
Warren Spahn, 4 seasons
Johan Santana, 3 seasons
Frank Viola, 3 seasons
Sandy Koufax, 3 seasons
Hal Newhouser, 3 seasons
Nap Rucker, 3 seasons
Wilbur Cooper, 3 seasons

The Athletics franchise has had the major league leader in pitching bWAR among lefties in 14 different seasons. The Red Sox are the only other franchise in double-figures in this category over the period 1901-2012, having had 10 major league leaders in bWAR by a lefty since 1901. Each of these two franchises, the A’s and Red Sox, had the benefit of Lefty Grove on their roster for a significant number of years. All 16 “original” franchises, the ones that date back to the early 20th century or before, have had a pitcher lead the combined AL and NL in lefty pitching bWAR in at least one season since 1901. The Orioles/Browns franchise trail the 16 original franchises, with just one, single pitcher appearance on this list, Carl Weilman all the way back in 1915,and even that appearance has an ambiguous status. For 1915 the baseball-reference Play Index lists Eddie Plank, not Weilman, as the lefty with the most pitching bWAR in the majors. But Plank played the 1915 season, during which he turned 40 years old, in the Federal League, not the AL or NL. Was the Federal League really the equivalent of a major league that season? I’m not convinced the Feds had the depth of talent to be truly considered a major league in 1915, but it’s an open question, so I’ve listed both Plank and Weilman in the table below. Including Weilman allows the Orioles/Browns franchise to avoid being completely shut out of the list. Of the fourteen franchises that began play in or after 1961, five (Toronto, Texas, Nats/Expos, Colorado and Houston) have no pitchers appearing in the table below, having never had a pitcher top the majors in season pitching bWAR among lefties.

The youngest player to win the lefty pitching bWAR major league race was Babe Ruth in 1916, a few months younger at that point than Mike McCormick was for the Giants in 1960.  The oldest player listed in the table below is Eddie Plank in his 1915 season. If you prefer not to count that Federal League season, the oldest player-season leading the majors in lefty pitcher bWAR since 1901 would be Lefty Grove’s 1939 season — Grove was born in March of 1900, making it easy to remember his age in any particular season (easy for us, that is; I assume it would have been easy for him regardless).

The highest season pitching bWAR of all by a lefty since 1901 came in Steve Carlton’s 1972 season, 11.7 bWAR. Wilbur Wood had a 10.3 pitching bWAR that same season, tied with Koufax’s 1963 for the sixth highest bWAR season by a lefty since 1901, but Wood’s season doesn’t make the table of champions below because it came in the same year as Carlton’s performance.   Wood does make the table for the preceding year, 1971, when Wilbur had a pitching bWAR almost as high as Carlton’s much more famous 1972.   Wood perhaps could have used a better first name for marketing purposes than that of the pig in Charlotte’s Web and the Alan Young character in Mr. Ed.

The lowest season pitching bWAR that was enough to lead the majors among lefties has been 4.5 bWAR, which was sufficient for Billy Pierce to lead all lefties in 1958 and for Johnny Vander Meer to lead all lefties in 1942. As with any list of tops-in-the-league by year, whether a player makes the list can depend on the luck of having a pretty good season in a year in which no one else happens to do any better. That 4.5 bWAR that got Vander Meer on the list below as the top lefty of 1942 would only have been good for the ninth-best bWAR by a lefty in 1988 or 1949. In 57 seasons since 1901, a 4.5 bWAR would have been no better than fifth-best in the majors by a lefty.

One further observation on the table below: in the few years where there was a tie for the most lefty pitcher bWAR, I’ve included both guys in the table (as I also did for 1915).  That’s why there are a few more rows in the table than there are years since 1901.  And one question for readers to consider:  What would an award for most lefty pitching bWAR for the season best be called?

Lastly, note that this post is a revised version of one I initially posted here briefly but withdrew when several commenters quickly caught the fact that that it included results of a flawed Play Index search that led to the inclusion of a number of righty pitchers from the mid-20th century era. Thank you to kds and nsb for quickly catching my mistake, allowing me to quickly pull the post and re-do the table.  The table  should be correctly limited to just lefties now.

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5 Comments on "Left-Wing Leadership"

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Voomo Zanzibar

Nap Rucker accomplished that without an overall winning record.



Rucker was an excellent pitcher, stuck on some really terrible Brooklyn teams.


Bob Feller and Robin Roberts were both Northsiders. i haven’t checked all the others.

Running 5 year totals, (or 3 year), might be a better way to show dominance, rather than each year, which is subject to the issues mentioned with Wilbur Wood.

no statistician but

Hold on, birtelcom.

I haven’t checked the whole list, but besides Feller and Roberts, Dizzy Dean, Bill Lee, Mort Cooper, Spud Chandler, Early Wynn, the Franks Lary and Sullivan were all righties.

Hope you can make some edits.