Virgil Trucks, who won 177 games from 1941-58, mainly for Detroit, died last Saturday at the age of 95. (Click for obituaries from the Detroit Free Press, Washington Post, New York Times; read his SABR Bio.)
Trucks might be known best for a trio of quirky feats:
— In 1952, age 35, Trucks threw 2 no-hitters, against the Senators and then the Yankees. In between, he tossed a 10-K one-hitter, with the hit by the game’s first batter, Eddie Yost. But Trucks won just 2 other games all year, finishing at 5-19, 3.97 (while Detroit went 50-104, their worst record to date). It’s the only live-ball season with 25+ starts, 3+ shutouts and no more than 5 wins. All three gems were 1-0 wins, with only 13 hits by the Tigers. Vic Wertz ended the first no-no with a 2-out walk-off HR in the 9th. The other was scoreless into the 7th, the run driven in by Bud Souchock, and ended on a groundout by Hank Bauer, snapping his 13-game hit streak.
After Trucks turned the trick in 1952, there wasn’t another no-hitter in Tiger Stadium until 1973 (then there were two), nor in Yankee Stadium until 1983. His 1-hitter in Fenway ’54 might have been the first no-hitter there since 1926. (Mel Parnell finally snapped that streak in 1956.)
— In 1945, after missing almost 2 full years in the service, he was discharged just in time to pitch the last game of the regular season, a 5-inning no-decision. Four days later, after Detroit was shellacked in the World Series opener, Trucks went the distance in game 2, won by Hank Greenberg’s 3-run HR off Hank Wyse. I can’t tell how many pitchers won a WS start without winning any in the regular season, but it can’t be many.
Much the same thing happened at the start of his pro career, according to Bill James in the Historical Baseball Abstract. He signed too late to appear in the regular season, but tossed two 3-hit shutouts in the playoffs.
— After Trucks went 5-19 in ’52, Detroit dealt him to the Browns, who sent him along to the White Sox at the June deadline. He went 15-5 with Chicago, becoming one of the few in modern times to win 20 while changing teams during the year.
He nearly won 20 again in ’54, starting at a 17-5 clip, with two 1-hitters — in Fenway Park and Tiger Stadium, hits by batting champs Billy Goodman and Harvey Kuenn — but he faded to 19-12. He’d never bag another 20-win year.
Where have you gone, Joltin’ Joe’s foes?
On noticing that Trucks began his 17-year career in 1941 with Detroit, I briefly wondered if he had pitched to Joe DiMaggio during the streak. But no; Virgil pitched just once that year, against the White Sox.
In fact, there seems to be no one living who faced Joe D. in ’41, according to the Baseball-Reference database. Fred Caligiuri, now 94, is the last surviving AL pitcher from that season, and he didn’t face the Yankees.
This got me thinking, naturally …
There’s no one left who pitched in the majors to Babe Ruth (final year, 1935; last living pitcher, Rollie Stiles, died 2007); or Lou Gehrig (1939; Bob Feller, died 2010); or Rogers Hornsby (1937; also Feller).
Caligiuri faced Jimmie Foxx in early ’42, and Carl Miles did the same in ’41. Miles, who pitched 2 games in the majors, turned 95 last week. There’s no one left from Foxx’s last 2 years, 1944-45. Ralph Branca, 19 at the time, just missed The Beast by pitching the wrong end of a September twin-bill.
Among the all-time great hitters whose careers ended by 1945, is there another for whom a pitcher who faced him survives?
How far can we project his strikeouts?
In 1949, Trucks led the majors in strikeouts — with just 153 Ks. He also ranked among the AL’s top 6 in five other years. For 1941-60 combined, he ranked 7th in total Ks, and 7th in SO/9 out of 57 pitchers with at least 1,500 IP.
- The 1949 AL average was just 3.59 SO/9. No ALer whiffed more than 91 times. Just 9.6% of PAs ended in strikeout.
- The 2012 AL K rate was more than twice as high — 7.41 SO/9, 19.4% of all PAs.
Does that mean Trucks could have fanned 300 in today’s game?
Such snap projections are usually misguided. Sam Crawford’s 16 HRs in 1901 does not mean he’d have hit 70 in 2001. But in this case, it’s not pure speculation. When conditions were favorable, Trucks did rack up the whiffs. He had 418 strikeouts in 275 innings in his first pro season (again citing the BJHBA), going 25-6 with a 1.25 ERA. We don’t have his Ks for the next 2 years, but in 1941, the year of his call-up, Trucks fanned 204 in 204 IP in the International League, by far the best total and rate. His SO/9 was 40% above the next qualifier.
In 1949, Virgil’s K rate was 40% above the AL average, and he was 4th with 275 innings. Give him 250 IP at 40% above last year’s K rate, that’s 287 strikeouts.
It just wasn’t possible to get big strikeout numbers in the major leagues from 1947-54. No one had 200 Ks in a season in those 8 years, not even Bob Feller. But under different circumstances, Virgil Trucks proved that he could pile up the Ks. I think that, under today’s conditions, Trucks would have fanned 250-300 in his best seasons.
Out of the Motor City, a brand new engine
At 32, Trucks had a superb season — 2nd in MLB in pitcher WAR, 3rd in ERA and ERA+, 4th in innings. But the next year he managed just 7 games before injury ended his season. The 2 years after that, he went 18-27 with a 4.13 ERA. The Tigers dumped him.
And then at 36-37, Trucks bounced back with almost identical good years:
- 1953 — 20-10, 2.93 ERA, 139 ERA+, 264.1 IP, 40 games, 33 starts, 17 CG, 5 SHO, 3 saves
- 1954 — 19-11, 2.79 ERA, 135 ERA+, 264.2 IP, 40 games, 33 starts, 16 CG, 5 SHO, 3 saves
Among all modern pitchers age 36-37, Trucks ranks 9th in wins, 10th in WAR, 11th in IP, 3rd in shutouts.
How unlikely was that comeback?
Out of 28 modern pitchers with 30+ wins age 36-37:
- All but Trucks (399 IP) had over 500 IP for age 33-35 combined.
- All but Trucks (21) and Orel Hershiser (28) had over 30 wins for age 33-35 combined.
- All but Trucks (3.8 WAR) and Jack Morris (1.9 WAR) had over 6.0 WAR for age 33-35.
The moral: Never count on a comeback from a pitcher past age 35.
And yet … There were positive signs at age 35, despite a 5-19 record and 3.97 ERA. Besides the no-hitters, Trucks had the 2nd-best K rate of his career, and his HR and walk rates were better than league. He started slowly (8.47 ERA after 4 starts) and faded late (last 3 games added 0.57 to his ERA), but in between he had a 2.89 ERA in 168 IP. Fangraphs pegs his FIP at 3.23, 9th among AL qualifiers.
The trade that sent Trucks and two others to the Browns was a total bust for Detroit. LF Bob Nieman gave them one solid year with the stick, gave it all back on defense, and then got hurt. The other guys never got off the bench. And in 1953, while Trucks was winning 20 in 264 IP, Detroit’s top hurler had 11 wins and 198 IP, and all 18 pitchers with 10+ IP had an ERA+ under 100.
Winners & losers, and splitting the difference
Virgil Trucks had an outstanding career, obviously:
- 177-135 record, .567 winning percentage, just 2 losing seasons
- 2,682 innings with a 117 ERA+, tied for #70 among moderns with 2,000+ IP
- 42.2 WAR, #126 among moderns
So the size of this split surprised me:
- Against teams with losing records — 101-40 (.716), 2.76 ERA
- Against teams at .500 or better — 76-95 (.444), 3.97 ERA
He really cleaned up on the A’s and Senators, both hapless most of his career, posting a combined 64-27 mark. He also fared very well against the Browns/Orioles (24-18, 2.78) and White Sox (20-11, 2.77). But he struggled with the Yankees and Red Sox — 37-52 combined, ERA over 4.
In his best seasons, 1949 and ’53, Trucks went 39-21 combined, with this breakdown: 22-1 against the have-nots, but 17-20 against the better teams.
So I went to the Split Finder. There are 175 pitchers with at least 150 wins since 1916 (the extent of searchable data). Of that group, Trucks had the 10th-worst deficit between his W% against winning teams and his overall mark.
I suspect that’s partly from the stratification of the American League during his career, and the fact that he pitched just a few innings for the Yanks, right at the end. On the other hand … Nos. 1-2 on that list are CC Sabathia and Roy Oswalt. No knock on them, but it’s interesting. Herb Pennock, who pitched 62% of his career innings for Ruth’s Yankees, had a poor mark against winning teams. So did Jack Morris, whose career .577 W% contrasts with his .444 mark against winning teams.
Using ERA instead of winning percentage, Trucks had the 6th-worst gap between winning teams and overall ERA. Several of the “top” 10 repeat from the W% list, but Randy Johnson shows up at #4 — a 2.82 ERA against losing teams, 3.89 against winners.
I’m not sure what to make of these “quality of opponent” splits. What are your thoughts?