Virgil “Fire” Trucks, 1917-2013

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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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RJ
RJ
8 years ago

Jack Morris was just pitching to the opponent.

RJ
RJ
8 years ago

Great stuff as always JA. I can’t imagine too many pitchers with long careers have only had two losing seasons with one of them being as lopsided as 5-19.

Hartvig
Hartvig
8 years ago

My guess would be that if you narrowed the search to American League, non-Yankee pitchers during the years when Trucks was a starter that old Virgil’s record vs. winning teams wouldn’t look so bad. In those seasons (42,43,46-57) and by my quick calculations the Bombers won over 63% of their games and won an average of 97 games a year (in a 154 game season). I don’t know how or even if there’s a way to do that on the B-R PI finder but just comparing Trucks career 18-23 .439 record vs. the Yankees to Billy Pierce (25-37 .403), Early… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  Hartvig

From 1946 to 1952 there were only 13 pitchers with more than 5 decisions against the Yankees with a winning record against them. Tops was Denny Galehouse with a n 8-2 record and 1.99 ERA.

Ed
Ed
8 years ago

I had noticed Jack Morris’ large difference in winning percentage vs. winning and losing teams a few months ago. But at the time, the split finder didn’t exist so I had nothing to compare it to. I wonder though if its really about Morris. Or if it’s about the Tigers/Blue Jays. For example, Morris ERA difference against teams with winning and losing record is .74. Comparing his to a few other pitchers…Blyleven’s is .70, Maddux’s is .64. Both are similar to Morris in that regard but don’t show the extreme winning percentage split. (btw, it’s not about unearned runs…each pitcher… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago

In 1945 Dave Ferriss, now 91, faced Harlond Clift and Tony Cuccinello.

deal
8 years ago

Not a lot to add here, but did want to note Virgil Trucks signficance to the card collecting hobbyists and show-off a rather off condition example of his 1953 Topps card representing those long lost St Louis Browns:

http://phungo.blogspot.com/2013/03/virgil-trucks-1917-2013.html

e pluribus munu
e pluribus munu
8 years ago
Reply to  deal

My clearest memory of Trucks is card-related, recalling how I would think, during the innumerable times I arranged and rearranged my 1959 Topps set, that although he was always there – among the Yankees, or the T’s, or the pitchers, or the old players, or the cards with red borders – that he actually was not a player anymore, something that I found very intriguing at a time when I believed that the Topps Company was the definitive authority on baseball. I’ve always been fond of Trucks as a historical player. I hadn’t realized he was still alive and I’m… Read more »

e pluribus munu
e pluribus munu
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Thanks, John. Good of you track him down there. That Marlin pitching staff has several refugees from my (and everyone else’s) ’59 Topps set, including Ted Abernathy, who also didn’t play in the majors that year (although, unlike Trucks, his salad days were ahead of him). I see their manager was Pepper Martin – I had never realized Martin had gone on to manage; turns out he had a good career in the Minors. I would not have supposed.

Luis Gomez
Luis Gomez
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

I actually think that baseball nicknames are a lost art. The days of the Babe, the Bird or the Goose are long gone, in my opinion.

Josh
Josh
8 years ago

David Price had his first career win and save in the 2008 playoffs, didn’t do either in regular season. It’s amazing that the feat of 0 regular season wins and winning in the playoffs has only been accomplished by some of the greatest in the game.

RJ
RJ
8 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Same with K-Rod in 2002. 0 wins in the regular season, 5 in the postseason! Both K-Rod and Price’s wins were as relievers.

Fireworks
Fireworks
8 years ago

For Sabathia, he spent the first half his career so far being a 4th or 5th starter and then the next half an innings-eating ace. Pure speculation, but it seems like Sabathia doesn’t have his ace stuff as often as pitchers of his value/renown. I wouldn’t go the Morris route and say he goes out there and pitches to the score or on grit as much as I’d say he just goes out there and doesn’t get blown up as often as he might. He just he’s it done even when he doesn’t look sharp. I think the fact that… Read more »

Voomo Zanzibar
Voomo Zanzibar
8 years ago

Is Trucks the only pitcher to complete a (winning) no-hitter while standing in the dugout?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

On 9-9-45 Dick Fowler of the A’s no-hit the Browns 1-0 as the A’s scored in the bottom of the 9th.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Here’s what I did.
Play Index
Game Finders, Player Pitching
Find all matching games…
Team W
Home
Pitcher’s Role, CG
Sort by IP (you can sort by anything)
H = 0

Then I checked the box score for every 1-0 game, there were only 16. You also have to check the 2-0, 3-0 and 4-0 games but I did not bother, there were too many games.

Luis Gomez
Luis Gomez
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Hey john, as soon as I read Voomo´s question, I thought of that game. The only all-Mexican combined no-no.

Luis Gomez
Luis Gomez
8 years ago
Reply to  Luis Gomez

I meant John, not john, John. 🙂

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

As John mentioned, Trucks’ first no-hitter was won on a two-out 9th inning HR, 1-0. That was just the second time in the game-searchable era that a two-out 9th inning solo HR broke up a 0-0 tie. Overall it has occurred 12 times.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago

Correction: It has happened overall 11 times.

Vinnie
8 years ago

My 1958 Sporting News Baseball Register lists his minor league strikeout totals as: 1938-418, 1939-129 with Alexandria and 38 with Beaumont and in 1940, again with Beaumont-142, 1940-204 with Buffalo.

Luis Gomez
Luis Gomez
8 years ago

That´s right, John. But let me answer those questions over here. On the subject of why are less hitters than pitchers in the majors (or in the minors for that matter) the answer is quite simple: it´s the Mexican League´s fault. Mexican players are signed from sandlot and beer leagues into development academies. If a mexican player is developed by a Mexican League team and MLB wants him, then the club expects a big pay in return for the player. Players like Alfredo Amezaga, Yovani Gallardo, Benji Gil and Erubiel Durazo they all studied in the USA, so they were… Read more »

Luis Gomez
Luis Gomez
8 years ago

@ 34. John, you are right. That is the only Mexican no-no. By the way, some familiar names are on those near no-no´s. I had the opportunity to play against Vicente Palacios in a local baseball league on october on that same year (I was 19 at the time). There were no MLB games since august, and many latin players returned to their hometowns to play ball. Palacios and former Reds prospect Rosario Rodriguez played here. The other known name is Jorge Rubio, who was the first Major Leaguer born in Mexicali. Legend says that he hurt his throwing arm… Read more »