It’s been some time since I wrote a “Let’s Talk About” piece. This time I bring you a pitcher who WAR would have you believe is perhaps the most underrated player in Major League history.
Let’s talk about Rick Reuschel.
Now, first let’s acknowledge the sniff test. When Rally first made his WAR spreadsheets available (it later became Baseball-Reference WAR), Reuschel ranked surprisingly high. I had never once considered Reuschel for the Hall. Even after some major revisions to Rally’s original WAR formula, Reuschel still ranks 32nd all time in pitching WAR and 97th overall. The Hall of Stats adjusts WAR with more emphasis on peak value. Reuschel rankings:
- 99th among all players in history
- 85th among players eligible for the Hall of Fame (84th if you remove Pete Rose)
- 30th among all pitchers in history
- 23rd among all pitchers eligible for the Hall of Fame
- 13th among eligible players not in the Hall of Fame
- 6th among eligible players not in the Hall of Fame who are not currently on the ballot, behind Pete Rose, Lou Whitaker, Bill Dahlen, Bobby Grich, and Kevin Brown (again, fifth if you don’t count Rose)
According to WAR and the Hall of Stats, Rick Reuschel was a top 100 player. That was—and still is—a revelation. When I create lists of the best players outside of the Hall, I still hesitate a bit before listing Reuschel’s name. So, what gives?
Traditionally Similar Players
Seven pitchers in the post-integration era (1947–present) threw between 3248 and 3848 innings (within 300 of Reuschel) with an ERA+ between 110 and 118. Sorted by WAR, Reuschel leads the list, followed by Luis Tiant (who is in the Hall of Stats). The next two—Jim Bunning an Dennis Eckersley—are Hall of Famers (and not particularly borderline ones). Jerry Koosman (who sits on the Hall of Fame borderline) ranks fifth, followed by Larry Jackson (who isn’t as close as Koosman to the Hall of Stats, but ranks near pitchers like Jim Kaat and Dennis Martinez). The list finishes with Curt Simmons, who is way off in terms of WAR and Hall Rating.
At the very least, this table tells me that pitchers like Reuschel should at least be considered for the Hall of Fame. After all, the list of seven does include two already in and one who is often considered on the borderline (Tiant). For whatever reason, Reuschel was never thought of that way, receiving a total of two Hall of Fame votes.
Why is Reuschel at the top of this list? What isn’t ERA capturing? Why the huge discrepancy between Reuschel and Simmons?
The Raw Numbers
Reuschel: 214–191 (.528), 3.37 ERA, 114 ERA+, 3548 IP
Simmons: 193–183 (.513), 3.54 ERA, 111 ERA+, 3348 IP
Do these look like pitchers who would have a 26.4 WAR discrepancy? Not on the surface.
In the table above, I added a couple columns for my own numbers that I pulled from the Baseball-Reference Play Index and their historical WAR downloads. Let’s talk about unearned runs.
11.0% of the runs Reuschel allowed were unearned. This seems pretty insignificant because the league average was 11.2%—incredibly close. Meanwhile, Simmons’ unearned run percentage is 15.0%. The league average was 11.9%. This is a rather significant difference.
This would lead me to believe that Reuschel played for average defenses while Simmons played for weak ones. But to assume that would be to acknowledge that the only way to measure defense is by number of errors. Unearned runs only occur as the result of an error. We know that there is a lot more to defense than errors. There’s range, arm strength, double plays, and more.
Total Zone, the defensive component of Baseball-Reference’s WAR, captures all of these and they are factored into WAR. So, what were the defenses behind these pitchers really like? That’s the other column I added to the table above.
It turns out the Simmons actually played in front of good defenses (33 runs above average) while Reuschel played in front of historically bad defenses (70 runs below average). Only 11 pitchers in history played in front of worse defenses than Reuschel—and several of those pitchers were active 100 or more years ago. What does this do to Reuschel and Simmons’ WAR? Ten runs roughly equate to a win. Their defenses have a 103 run difference. So, just based on the defenses they pitched in front of, these pitchers are separated by ten WAR.
Who were the culprits? I used the Play Index to find the fielders for every team that Reuschel pitched 100 innings for in a season. Here are the ten best and ten worst.
|The Worst||The Best|
|Rick Monday||-77||Barry Bonds||32|
|Jerry Morales||-52||Tony Pena||20|
|Jose Cardenal||-43||Sid Bream||17|
|Bill Madlock||-34||Mike LaValliere||15|
|Dave Rosello||-34||Matt Williams||13|
|Jerry Martin||-30||Robby Thompson||13|
|Bobby Murcer||-29||Jose Lind||12|
|Billy Williams||-25||Ernie Riles||10|
|Vic Harris||-18||Sam Khalifa||10|
|Don Kessinger||-17||3 tied with||9|
I wanted to make sure that the Total Zone numbers didn’t look out of whack. The ten players on the “Worst” list combined for three Gold Gloves. One was by Bobby Murcer back when he was with the Yankees. The other two were by Don Kessinger back when he was much younger. The numbers show that he was actually very good in one of those seasons (1969), but dropped off after that. He was no help to Reuschel by the time they played together. The first two players on the “Best” list combined for twelve Gold Gloves. Honestly, I think Total Zone does a pretty good job.
So, here are some reasons why Rick Reuschel is better than we seem to think…
- Part of it is unexplainable. Reuschel’s raw numbers are actually nearly Hall-worthy. He had a .528 winning percentage and 114 ERA+. Nolan Ryan had a .526 winning percentage and an ERA+ of 112 (I understand Ryan pitched longer, but still… this is a little surprising).
- He played for some pretty terrible teams. His teams combined for a winning percentage of .463. This doesn’t lead to a lot of wins, awards, or publicity.
- He didn’t give up a lot of unearned runs. He was right at the league average. Considering the defense he played in front of, you’d think he would have given up more. If looking at things in terms of runs allowed rather than earned runs allowed, Reuschel would look much better.
- He played in front of some horrendous defenses. Phil Niekro must sympathize with him. If you think about how bad his defenses were and how many unearned runs they must have led to, you realize that the actual number of unearned runs Reuschel allowed was probably unbelievably low. He helped this by not walking many players and not allowing many home runs. Those are easy ways to be beaten and Reuschel didn’t let his opponents do it.
I don’t think I’ve ever publicly said “Rick Reuschel should be in the Hall of Fame.” I was still uncomfortable with why his WAR-based numbers looked so good. But now I know. And I think I’m ready to say it.
Rick Reuschel should be in the Hall of Fame. He wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t famous. But he provided more value than the average Hall of Famer. That, to me, makes him worthy of the Hall of Fame.