Picture a team that suffered these losses:
- En route to a championship, two aces in their prime succumbed to arm woes, and wouldn’t pitch in the World Series, nor ever win again. The team’s top winners of the last three years, they ranked 4th and 6th over all in WAR/pitch.
- Before the next year, they dealt their superstar, age 28, for two guys who’d give almost nothing in the next 4 years.
- That next year brought the swift and mostly permanent decline of two more aces (tied for the team lead at 19-8 the year before), plus three star regulars, all still in their 20s.
Suppose those eight gave 60% of team WAR in the title year, plus World Series shares of 3 wins, 62% of team hits and 73% of the RBI — but that their value to the team’s next 3 years (including trade progeny) averaged less than 1 WAR apiece.
What if that ravaged team not only repeated, but took a third title in year four: Just how much talent was there at the start?
Welcome to part three of my series on teams that had six 40-WAR players, age 30 or younger, with at least 1.0 WAR that year. (Series recap at bottom.) In case you didn’t guess, the team described above is the 1915 Red Sox, one of the all-time greatest gatherings of baseball talent.
Among the 6-man focus groups on these 8 teams, they lap the field in both career and future WAR. The Ruth/Speaker duo alone would rate with some of these groups in career and future WAR; after all, they’re #1 and #9 in WAR among all players, including pitchers. But the ’15 BoSox had five others with 40+ career WAR, and 12 in all with 20+ WAR. Even if you swapped out Ruth for the next-highest man outside their focus group, it still would rate average among these groups in career, future, and next-5-years WAR.
The four aces noted up front were Smoky Joe Wood, Ray Collins, Rube Foster and Ernie Shore. Their combined records went 54-29 in 1914, 57-28 in the first title, 30-16 in the second, 21-18 in 1917, and 0-0 in the third title year. They’d won 324 and lost 195 by age 29, but didn’t win a game beyond that age.
The minor stars were Duffy Lewis, Jack Barry and Dick Hoblitzell. In 1915, they averaged about 3 WAR each for Boston, and roughly 20 career WAR, none older than 28. They averaged less than 1 WAR in 1916, and 3 career WAR from 1916 onward.
The superstar, of course, was Tris Speaker — dealt just before Boston opened their 1916 title defense, to break a stand-off over how much his pay would be cut after his latest great season. The Sox got rookie pitcher Sad Sam Jones and minor-league 3B Fred Thomas; their total output in the next 4 years was 1.5 WAR, while Speaker cranked out 27 WAR.
Most title teams losing such talent would be one-and-done, a historical footnote. Boston rose above that, winning again in ’16 and ’18 — which made their ultimate fall that much harder.
1915 Red Sox: 101-50 (MLB #1), beat Phillies 4-1 in World Series
Next 5 years: .546 W% (MLB #4), World Champs in ’16 and ’18
|BOS 1915: 1st, 101-50||Career WAR||Future WAR||HOF?||BOS WAR%||BOS:
|1915 Age||1915 WAR||WAR-
|Babe Ruth||183.6||179.4||BW||22%||6, 5||20||4.5||48.5||4|
|Tris Speaker||133.7||78.3||BW||41%||9, 7||27||7.1||35.5||—|
|Harry Hooper||53.1||35.2||VC||72%||12, 12||27||3.1||20.5||5|
|Carl Mays||50.1||48.9||—||39%||5, 5||23||1.2||26.9||4|
|Larry Gardner||48.0||26.4||—||64%||10, 8||29||2.3||20.1||2|
|Smoky Joe Wood||40.3||6.6||—||84%||8, 7||25||5.8||2.6||—|
|GROUP TOTALS||504.1||374.8||3||43%||50, 44||25.2||24.0||154.1||15|
|*Herb Pennock||45.0||46.2||BW||27%||8, 5||21||-0.8||6.9||4|
|Dutch H. Leonard||36.4||19.5||—||76%||6, 6||23||4.3||14.6||3|
|Jack Barry||25.9||1.1||—||12%||4, 3||28||2.0||1.1||3|
|*Vean Gregg||24.8||3.2||—||1%||3, 0||30||0.2||2.5||1|
|Ray Collins||23.8||—||—||100%||7, 6||28||-0.7||—||—|
|Duffy Lewis||21.2||4.1||—||106%||8, 8||27||3.2||5.0||2|
|Dick Hoblitzell||19.6||3.7||—||42%||5, 4||26||3.0||3.7||3|
|Everett Scott||16.1||13.6||—||93%||8, 8||22||0.1||11.0||5|
|Rube Foster||12.2||3.0||—||100%||5, 4||27||5.4||3.0||2|
|Ernie Shore||11.2||4.3||—||112%||4, 4||24||4.9||4.3||2|
This team is rife with storylines:
- A come-from-behind pennant win, closing at 44-17 to edge Ty Cobb’s Tigers in their only 100-win season …
- … starting a dynasty of 3 titles in 4 years, only to see it shattered soon after, its shards forming the core of the next dynasty.
- A rookie Babe Ruth showing his full talents.
- Tris Speaker in his prime, but also his last year with Boston.
- Harry Hooper longed to be a civil engineer, but wound up in the Hall of Fame instead.
- Carl Mays, a rookie with greatness and tragic infamy ahead.
- Larry Gardner, one of the best third basemen not in the Hall, struck the first walk-off blow in a sudden-death World Series game (one of two ever in a come-from-behind rally).
- Smoky Joe Wood, pitching through pain to win the ERA crown in his last year on the mound.
- Dutch Leonard, a great pitcher later suspended for contract-jumping, finally sealed his exile with a betting scandal.
- Ernie Shore, soon to make the most famous relief outing.
- Jack Barry, a big name from the freshly-fractured A’s dynasty.
- Ray Collins, 7th in WAR/pitch for 1910-14, then subject of major intrigue with the Feds and beyond.
- Dick Hoblitzell (aptly nicknamed “Hobby”), young 1B star whose WWI service ended his big-league career — but he played, managed and umpired in the minors for long afterward, then ran a farm, practiced unlicensed dentistry, had a sports column and radio show, and wound up in politics.
- Everett “Deacon” Scott, the Mark Belanger of his day, anchored the defense here and on the Yanks’ first title team.
- Duffy Lewis, namesake of Duffy’s Cliff, a Fenway feature famous long before the Monster went Green.
- Herb Pennock, a veteran at 21 but still years away from stardom. Broke in alongside the first 300-win lefty; bowed out 22 years later teamed with the second, while standing 3rd in southpaw wins himself. Appeared on 3 of these 8 teams.
- Rube Foster, star of the ’15 Series — with Boston’s first and last wins, while batting 4 for 8 with a game-winning RBI. When dealt away with a career mark of 58-33, 2.36, he refused to report, and left the majors forever. Best modern ERA with 100 starts but less than 1,000 IP.
- Vean Gregg, the only modern pitcher to break in with three straight 20-win campaigns (1911-13), was dealt to Boston mid-’14, but got hurt and was never the same.
- Catcher/manager Bill Carrigan … How many skippers quit the game altogether after two straight titles? “I was in my thirties, was married and had an infant daughter. I wanted to spend more time with my family than baseball would allow.” (And that’s the man they nicknamed “Rough”?)
How were they formed? In 1906, two years past two straight pennants, Boston crashed to 49-105, triggering a total rebuild. They did a fair job of it. By 1909, they’d debuted four star collegians who helped lift them over .500: Tris Speaker from Texas Wesleyan, Larry Gardner from Vermont, Joe Wood of Kansas, and Harry Hooper from the baseball hotbed(?) of St. Mary’s College, CA. In 1912, with career years by three of them, Boston exploded from a 5th-place finish to 105 wins and the championship. Two years later, Jack Dunn sold from Baltimore his “baby” 22-game winner, along with Ernie Shore, more casualties of Federal League competition. Carl Mays had two 20-win notches on his bush-league belt, but no Show time as 1915 opened.
Most other 1915 notables also broke in with Boston: Ray Collins in 1909 (Gardner’s Vermont teammate), Duffy Lewis in 1910 (Hooper’s St. Mary’s classmate), Rube Foster and Dutch Leonard in ’13 (Dutch also from St. Mary’s), Ernie Shore in ’14 (except one ugly game with the Giants). Everett Scott had stepped right into the SS job in 1914. Skipper and third catcher Bill Carrigan, a Holy Cross man who played against Gardner in college and the minors, began with Boston in ’06, and took the reins during 1913.
The acquisitions: Big hopes rode on a stretch-run trade for Vean Gregg in 1914, with a career mark of 72-36 and a 2.31 ERA, but he was ineffective in the rest of his MLB career. First basemen Dick Hoblitzell and Del Gainer came on waivers during ’14, from the clueless Reds and overstocked Tigers, forming a potent platoon for the ’15 champs (130 OPS+). Jack Barry and Herb Pennock came from Connie Mack’s 1915 cash-and-carry sale, but Barry’s famous glove was fading, and Pennock’s glory was far in the future.
How long did they last? The six had just one year together. Speaker and Wood were done with Boston after 1915. Gardner was dealt in a post-1917 rejuvenation movement. Mays was moved during 1919, after a personality clash, and Ruth was cashed out that winter, as Boston hung a white flag over the red pennants. Hooper was traded after 1920 to the ChiSox, filling one of the outfield spots of banned stars Joe Jackson and Happy Felsch.
1918 military service marked the end in Boston for Lewis, Leonard, Shore and Hoblitzell. “Hobby” never came back to the majors, and the others were dealt that fall. Also serving were Pennock, Barry, Gainer, and several reserves; the named three all were back in 1919, but only Pennock was productive, becoming a staff anchor for 4 years before joining the exodus to New York.
How did they win? The 1915 theme was contributions up and down the roster, and a 14-8 edge head-to-head against Detroit. Even with all their talent, these Sox were the rare 100-win club that didn’t lead the league in runs scored or allowed (just third in run differential), nor in OPS+ or ERA+, nor any basic count or rate of batting or pitching. They were 2nd or 3rd in most positive measures, but last in stolen bases.
They did lead the AL in defensive efficiency and dWAR, which was the hallmark of their 1915-18 dynasty. (Their pitching in that span was average in strikeout and walk rates, but their .260 BAbip was the best by far, and not just because Fenway was a pitcher’s park then.) The outfield defense of Speaker, Hooper and Lewis has been mythologized a bit, but Tris and Harry top the OF Rfield rankings for 1915. The Barry purchase in July was driven by the failed return of Heinie Wagner, a good two-way shortstop who’d been sidelined by arm woes for all of 1914, then tried at second base without success. Barry had better luck with the same switch, but he still didn’t shine as when he teamed with Eddie Collins in the “$100,000 Infield.”
Twelve Red Sox supplied 2+ WAR/pos or WAR/pitch, two more such men than any other team that year. Twelve played 75 games or more, a pennant-winner record before the schedule expanded, matched mostly by Casey Stengel’s Yankees. They also were the only team before 1927 with seven guys playing 50+ games at the four infield spots. Catcher platoons were already common, as few backstops played full-time in that era. But Carrigan also platooned at first base, and used Hal Janvrin as an infield regular with no fixed place (as Casey would do with Gil McDougald). Bill James wrote that platooning exploded in response to the 1914 Miracle Braves, who had just three every-day players. But the talent drained off by the Federal League was another factor, as skippers tried to squeeze the most from who was left.
Slightly behind after the first half, BoSox pitching then went nuts, with a 1.87 ERA and .209 BA in the second half — the best second-half marks in 101 years of searchable data. All six starters were under 2.10 ERA for the half. Shore led the way at 13-3, 1.19, with a 12-inning shutout in a crucial late series with Detroit among his 10 straight starts with one earned run or less — a searchable record until Bob Gibson went 11 in 1968.
How did they repeat without Speaker? The 1916 Red Sox tumbled to 6th in scoring and OPS+, and won 10 fewer games. But the pitchers stepped up, led by Ruth’s AL-best 1.75 ERA in 324 IP, and 9 shutouts (unmatched by subsequent BoSox). Both his 8.7 pitching WAR and 10.4 total were second to Walter Johnson that year. Mays slid into the rotation for the injured Gregg, and he and Leonard were top-10 in WAR/pitch. Foster turned his year around with a June no-hitter, putting the club over .500 for good, and he went 11-2, 2.25 from there.
The defense was excellent, as usual: 1st in efficiency and fielding percentage, 2nd in dWAR. With MLB teams averaging 131 unearned runs, the Sox allowed just 92, easily the best raw total and percentage. All eight regulars scored positive Rfield, the only such team that year, with Hooper and Lewis 1st and 4th of AL outfielders.
Once again, Boston was just third-best in run differential, but owned their rivals head-to-head. They went 14-8 against Chicago and Detroit, edging them by 2 and 4 games in the race. (For 1915-16 combined, Boston had a .614 percentage versus these teams that played .634 ball otherwise.) They were 33-18 in one-run games, 6-0 against the ChiSox.
The race turned in July on 6-game series with each rival, both ending with four straight Boston wins after dropping the first two. Leonard’s no-no built up a 4-game lead, but with two weeks left, just one-half game separated the three teams. Boston pulled away by sweeping five in ChiTown and Detroit. Ruth won six straight September decisions.
Boston took both World Series by 4-1, but neither was a cakewalk. In 1915, four winning runs came in the team’s last at-bats. After falling to Pete Alexander in the opener (his 32nd win that year), they beat him in a Game-3 walk-off, 2-1, one of three straight wins by that score. Harry Hooper’s 9th-inning homer won the finale, 5-4, as he notched the first 2-HR game since the inaugural Series (and last by a leadoff man until Davey Lopes).
After a near-collapse in the ’16 opener, Game 2 was Ruth’s World Series mound debut. An early scratch for each side gave way to 10 straight scoreless innings, as fellow southpaw Sherry Smith matched Ruth frame for frame. With a man on second in the Boston 14th, Carrigan sent up the platoon specialist Del Gainer to hit for Gardner, team RBI leader and 4th in the AL batting race, but a lefty who’d gone 0-for-5 already. Gainer singled home the winning run — the only pinch-hit game-ending RBI in the first 40 World Series, and Gainer’s lone appearance in that Series. (Shades of Kirk Gibson!) Carrigan took platooning seriously: Both times that Boston faced a righty, his number-three hitter was rookie OF reserve Chick Shorten, with 11 career RBI; he went 4 for 7, with a ribby in each game.
What stopped them in ’17? Chicago rode Eddie Cicotte’s monster year to pull away down the stretch. Boston repeated their 1916 record, but they were a paper tiger. They crushed the dreadful A’s and Browns by 35-8, but fell to .446 against winning teams, after a .600 mark in 1915-16. Ruth and Mays combined for 46-22 with a 1.89 ERA in 615 IP. (In 1916-17 combined, Ruth hit 4 HRs in 250 PAs as a pitcher, while yielding just 2 HRs in 10 times as many batters faced.)
And the 1918 title? With a hot start, Boston led almost wire-to-wire. The season was cut short a month by the “work or fight” order issued in June; Speaker’s Indians made a late charge, but ran out of time. Thanks to trades, injuries and wartime service, just four men left from 1915 made real contributions — Ruth, Hooper, Mays and Scott. Missing the whole year in the service were Lewis, Shore, Barry, Gainer, Pennock, and some reserves. Hoblitzell left in June (after losing his job), and Dutch Leonard signed up halfway through, ending on a 7-start string with a 1.38 ERA and his second no-hitter.
Ruth finally joined the regular lineup in May, initially replacing 1B Hoblitzell’s .102 average. He’d bat almost as often as his past 3 years combined, and his first slugging and OPS crowns kept Boston scoring above average despite a poor team BA. But pitching and (especially) defense were still their trademark — 1st in dWAR, efficiency, fielding percentage and fewest errors. Scott tied his future swap-mate Roger Peckinpaugh as junior circuit Rfield leader.
When Ruth donned a fielder’s glove, Sad Sam Jones moved into the rotation, his chance finally coming more than 2 years since the Speaker trade. When Leonard enlisted, Ruth balked at returning to the mound, the first of many showdowns he would lose with new manager Ed Barrow. Relenting, Ruth went 9-2, 1.76 thereafter, plus two wins in the 4-2 Series triumph. But he only batted as a pitcher in the Series: With southpaws starting all six games for the Cubs, Boston’s left field and cleanup spot were manned by minor-league veteran George Whiteman, who led them with 5 Series hits. In the last of his mere 92 MLB contests, the 35-year-old Whiteman plated both Boston runs in the 2-1 finale. (There is a brief but moving passage about Whiteman in the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract; you might see it here, if you still have free peeks left with Google.)
What brought them down? Curses notwithstanding, the sale of Ruth was just the last straw. The seeds of destruction were sown by the penny-wise trade of Tris Speaker, and fed by other deals before the Sox threw in the towel.
Trying to slash Speaker’s pay after the ’15 title blew up on the field and at the gate. In one sense, it was just “tit for tat” — leveraging the Federal League’s collapse, just as Speaker had secured a raise by playing off the Feds’ 1914 offer of $100,000 over 3 years to play and manage. But the hugely popular Speaker had kept faith with the fans by staying for a 2-year deal at barely half that salary. Now, Boston wanted him back at his 1913 rate of $9,000, far less than top stars earned in 1916, citing his 3-year drop in batting average. (A little context, please? AL averages had dropped 25 points since 1911, with greats like Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins, Sam Crawford and Nap Lajoie all hitting far below their recent norms in 1915. Tris was 3rd in that year’s batting race, and his modest-sounding .322 with no homers still rates 4th in MLB offensive WAR, 3rd in WAR/pos.) With no deal reached by April 9, they shipped him out to Cleveland for two prospects and cash.
The fans took Spoke’s side by voting with their feet: Despite a title repeat, and a 56% surge at the gate for other AL teams, Boston’s turnstiles slowed by 10%, dropping from 1st to 3rd. The hit to new owner Harry Frazee’s pocketbook was permanent: Though all teams suffered through the Great War, by 1919 the rest of the league was 21% above their 1916 average, yet the defending champs were the only team still below their ’16 level. Not until 1934 would BoSox attendance reach the level of Speaker’s last year. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s attendance tripled in Speaker’s first year. Boston had out-drawn them by 55% from 1901-15, but after the trade, Cleveland held an 18% edge through Ruth’s last year in Boston.
Tris lasted 11 great years in Cleveland, 3rd in that span with a .354 BA and almost 7 WAR per year, dwarfing the output of the acquired players. And even with Ruth’s emergence, and despite two titles in the next three years, the Red Sox were diminished without Spoke, falling from .620 in his last 4 years to .593 in the next three. (Their .591 in ’16 and .595 in ’18 were the worst and third-worst of the first 39 AL champs.) And they never really found his CF replacement: From 1916-19, the spot averaged .255 BA, .668 OPS, 79 runs and 53 RBI per 650 PAs.
After fading to second in ’17, Boston replaced one-year skipper Jack Barry with Ed Barrow, who engineered two big deals with Connie Mack. Taken together, they look good on paper. The Sox gave up:
- 3B Larry Gardner, age 32 — avg. 4.5 WAR last 2 years … career 115 OPS+, 4.9 WAR per 650 PA
- CF Tillie Walker, 30 — avg. 1.7 WAR last 2 years … career 110 OPS+, 3.3 WAR per 650 PA
- SP Vean Gregg, 33 — avg. 0.4 WAR last 2 years in majors … coming back after a big year in the minors
- Fading platoon catchers Pinch Thomas (30) and Hick Cady (32)
- A non-prospect
They got back:
- CF Amos Strunk, 28 — avg. 4.5 WAR last 2 years … career 127 OPS+, 4.8 WAR per 650 PA
- C Wally Schang, 28 — avg. 3.1 WAR last 2 years … career 135 OPS+, 5.8 WAR per 650 PA
- 1B Stuffy McInnis, 27 — avg. 3.0 WAR last 2 years … career 122 OPS+, 4.5 WAR per 650 PA
- SP Bullet Joe Bush, 25 — avg. 4.0 WAR last 2 years … career 89 ERA+, 1.9 WAR per 250 IP
Who wouldn’t take four good players in their prime, for a handful of guys 30 and up, just one of them productive recently? But it didn’t work as hoped. Bush did all right, although a sore arm laid him out for 1919. Others defied age expectations. McInnis continued his premature decline, averaging 89 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR for age 27-30. Strunk slumped right away and was dealt back to the A’s not 2 years later; his total WAR in 4 years post-trade was about his average for the prior four. Schang was hurt in 1918 and had his worst year with the bat (Boston catchers hit .197 with 23 RBI), although he bounced back later.
Meanwhile, Gardner churned out four more good years just like his prior seven (14th all-time in 3B WAR age 32+). And Tillie Walker’s bat improved with age and circumstance: His swing clicked with Shibe Park, producing 98 home runs in the next 5 years (only Ruth hit more), with 73% of those at home. In 1921-22, while Ruth was socking 94 HRs and Walker 60, Boston’s leader totaled 12.
The WAR score on these deals was pretty even in the next 4 years. But that meant Barrow had spent Frazee’s sixty grand for nothing. And he’d dispatched another fan favorite in Gardner, a New Englander, which also made an unforeseen black hole at third: In the next 3 years, 13 BoSox combined for a position average of .243 BA, 17 extra-base hits and 42 RBI.
The next big deal followed the 1918 title: Servicemen Lewis, Shore and Leonard netted Ray Caldwell, a once-good pitcher on a 3-year downswing; defense-first 3B Ossie Vitt; platoon OF Frank Gilhooley; and catcher Roxy Walters, the worst-hitting semi-regular of his time. Barrow hadn’t ceded that much future value; Leonard averaged about 3 WAR the next 3 years, but Shore and Lewis faded quickly. Yet Boston came away with zilch. Caldwell, who’d missed the end of 1918, missed time again and was waived — prematurely, as he joined Cleveland for the last month and went 25-11 through their 1920 title. Vitt’s OPS+ hit a new career low each of his 3 years before getting cut. Gilhooley struggled through 1919, lost his job, and drifted back to the minors. Walters, coming off a .199 BA, backed it up with .193, .198 (as the starter), .201 and .194. These four totaled less than 1 WAR for Boston in the next 3 years.
Carl Mays was next to go. He’d averaged 20-12 in three full seasons, and hurled two 2-1 victories in the ’18 Series. But when his luck and the club’s both went bad in ’19, the cantankerous Mays feuded with all and sundry, and finally jumped the team. Out of the pennant race, Boston sent Mays to New York for a promising younger pitcher, Allen Russell, another body, and of course cash, as Frazee’s finances now were dire. Russell went 10-4, 2.52 the rest of that year, but never made it as a full-time starter. Mays flourished with New York, going 62-23 through 1921, with two more big years later for the Reds.
Only then, after finishing sixth in 1919, was Ruth sold to cover Frazee’s losses. The Red Sox still didn’t hit bottom right away; their 1920-21 records were about the same as Ruth’s last year.
What Might Have Been?
Suppose Speaker stayed put. There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t have won in 1916 and ’18. What about 1917, ’19 and beyond?
In 1917, Boston might have had Speaker’s MVP-caliber season — MLB leader with .386 BA (sabermetric triple crown) and 8.6 WAR/pos — instead of a .239 BA and 1.2 WAR from his combined replacements. That wouldn’t close the whole 9-game gap with Chicago. But more Spoke fannies in the seats might have inspired a better home record, to complement their AL-best road mark. (They were a distant 4th in home attendance, and played 11 games worse there than in Speaker’s last year.) They might have afforded some mid-season reinforcements, or fared better than 10-12 against the ChiSox. A three-peat certainly is plausible.
And if so, would Gardner have been traded? Besides the tendency to stand pat after winning, there’s the fact that landing Strunk for Speaker’s shoes was one reason for the big two-part trade involving Gardner. Let’s say the core stays intact going into 1918.
Without Sad Sam and Bullet Joe in 1918 (from the Speaker deal and the Gardner two-piece), Ruth has to pitch the whole year, probably winning 20 again. The loss of Jones and Bush is more than covered by Speaker and Gardner (4th and 8th in AL WAR), so 1918 makes it four straight with the same core. And Boston likely keeps Leonard and Shore going into 1919.
But could they have won a fifth straight crown? We need to make up 21 games for the pennant. And I can’t make the case. I can argue them within 8 or 10 games by canceling the trades, but no closer.
Speaker and Gardner didn’t have their best years in 1919, with 5.2 and 3.2 WAR. The guys in their places were bad, 2 WAR combined from 3B Ossie Vitt and the third outfield spot. But that’s still just 6 net wins. No other player traded from the 1915-16 clubs was good in 1919. And we lose a couple WAR with a generic catcher in Schang’s place.
In the rotation, Bush and Jones gave little, so whoever takes their place is gravy. Leonard had 2.7 WAR with Detroit, but other gains are hard to find. Shore was hurt and ineffective in New York. Perhaps Mays gets a longer leash, but that midseason trade was a wash for the rest of the year, anyway. Ruth might have pitched more than 15 starts, and Waite Hoyt might have come up before July, but neither was great that year, and even doubling their workload adds just 2 WAR.
That’s maybe 5 more pitching wins, maybe 10 total. They might gain a few more from playing Chicago better than 10-12, and from better fan support. It still leaves them short. They were not destined for five in a row. But a star-laden contender that hadn’t alienated its fans would surely rate better than 5th in attendance (about one-third below the top 3 AL teams). Would Frazee’s theatrical losses still force the Ruth sale?
If not, 1920 is wide open. Yes, Boston was 25 games behind the champion Indians. But Ruth and Speaker were spectacular, Gardner still good, combining for +17 WAR over their Boston counterparts. Mays and Leonard totaled +5 WAR over Jones and Bush. Take Spoke and Gardner off Cleveland (who beat them 16-6), take Ruth from New York (3 games back, beat Boston 13-9), it’s a whole new ballgame. The Red Sox could have won in 1920 … or they might have cleared a path for Chicago, who finished 2 games back, even with eight men put out in the final week. Just imagine that circus!
I’ll leave off speculating, but obviously, keeping Ruth would have made a big difference. Maybe he wouldn’t hit 50 HRs a year with Fenway as his home park. But he did run a 1.211 road OPS through the ’20s, with more home runs away than at home (237-230), and he averaged 42 HRs per 150 Fenway games as a Yankee. It’s likely that he still would have dominated the decade, with the same revolutionary impact.
Gardner had his last good year in 1921, but Harry Hooper stayed good through ’24, and Speaker was excellent through ’26. Pennock found a new gear in 1923 and was 2nd in WAR/pitch for the next 6 years. Dutch Leonard, had he stayed in Boston, might have remained productive past 1921, avoiding the clash with Detroit manager Ty Cobb that led him to bail out after a good season at age 29. Boston would have needed more to win pennants, as would any great team 10 years after they first came together. But they could have had resources to compete in the player market — instead of cheapskating to six straight last-place finishes — if they only hadn’t tried to chisel Speaker for a few thousand per year.
Maybe You Can’t Have Too Much Pitching, But They Had Enough
On the 1915-18 Red Sox, seven pitchers totaled fifteen seasons of 20+ starts, with no ERA+ below 105. Those years averaged an 18-11 record, 258 IP, 129 ERA+ and 4.3 WAR. Just one of those years was below 114 ERA+ or 2.5 WAR.
The 1915 staff was young, averaging 24.5 years, and so deep that the rookie Mays worked long relief, despite leading the International League with 24 wins the year before (besting Ruth). They were:
- The only team ever with five 15-game winners who also earned at least 2.7 WAR.
- The only team ever with four 15-game winners age 25 or younger. (They matched themselves the next year.)
- The only 100-win team without a 20-game winner before 1931.
Weighing their past and future, it was among the deepest staffs of all time:
Nine pitchers started for the ’15 Red Sox. The eight veterans came into the year with combined stats like those of Hall of Famer Eddie Plank, only better:
- Plank: 326-194 (.627) … 2.35 ERA … 122 ERA+ … 4,496 innings … 86.5 WAR … 4.81 WAR per 250 IP
- BoSox: 333-192 (.634) … 2.27 ERA … 134 ERA+ … 4,620 innings … 89.7 WAR … 4.85 WAR per 250 IP
That wouldn’t mean much if the staff as a whole was on the downside. But Ruth and Pennock were just 20 and 21. Mays and Leonard were 23, Shore 24. Wood was still great at 25, although he wouldn’t last.
Seven of those nine reached 20 career WAR. (Just one other team in this study had six, the 1914 A’s.) Each of those seven had a 5-year span ranked in MLB’s top-10 in WAR/pitch:
- Pennock, 2nd for 1923-27 (26.2 WAR)
- Wood, 3rd for 1911-15 (25.8 WAR)
- Leonard, 4th for 1913-17 (27.0)
- Collins, 7th for 1910-14 (23.8)
- Mays, 8th for 1917-21 (25.1)
- Ruth, 8th for 1915-19 (21.0)
- Gregg, 10th for 1911-15 (21.6)
And the “weak links” Foster and Shore both were top-20 in 1915.
The seven who lasted past 1915 averaged 95-65 in the rest of their careers, with a 112 ERA+. Pennock and Mays both cleared 200 wins and 40 WAR after 1915.
Only Pennock made the Hall of Fame as a pitcher. But Mays had better numbers in many respects, including the highest W% of modern 200-game winners who’ve fallen off the Hall ballot (207-126, .622).
Leonard in 1914 set an ERA record that still stands, with an ERA+ topped only by Pedro. His WAR rate is about the same as Andy Messersmith and Jake Peavy, and better than four HOFers with similar WAR totals (Lemon, Hunter, Haines, Marquard).
Joe Wood was a HOF talent before his injury, and still pitched extremely well afterwards when the pain allowed. In three partial years after his 34-5 season, Wood went 36-13, with 10 WAR in 416 IP; only three pitchers had a higher WAR rate with 300 IP in the span. His career 147 ERA+ is tied for 4th among modern starters with 1,000 IP.
And Ruth certainly might have been a HOF pitcher if he’d stayed there. In four years before becoming a regular outfielder, he averaged 20 wins, 132 ERA+, 258 IP and 5.0 WAR, tied for 5th in WAR/pitch over those years. His 20 WAR/pitch through age 23 ranks 12th in modern times, and he tossed a complete-game victory at age 38.
Ruth, by the way, might have been the best clutch pitcher among those with short careers. You know his Series feats: 3-0, 3 runs in 31 innings. Adding his last-month stats from from 1915-18 (each race within 5 games as that month started), we get this clutch mark:
- 24-8 record … 1.48 ERA in 293 IP … 1.00 WHIP … Won 24 of 33 starts … 8.7 IP per start
His career second-half split (without WS) is 48-21, 1.97 ERA — the best ERA and best rate of wins per game of anyone with 50+ starts in the second half since 1914.
Odds & Ends
Boston trailed every team in steals each year from 1915-17. That sounds like “dog bites man” to we who know Fenway as a hitter’s park, but in those days it was quite the opposite. Fenway was next-to-last in runs and HRs for that span; Boston was next-to-last in total homers, below average in slugging and isolated power. They just weren’t a running team. From 1912-14, they averaged 30 fewer steals than the AL norm. But that gap widened, perhaps as Carrigan noticed their league-worst success rate in 1914 (under 50%). From 1915-17 they averaged 55 steals below the AL mark, and had none of the 40 individual 30-SB seasons. They set a new low with just one steal in the 1915 World Series, and matched that feat the next year. (The 1929 A’s were first to win a Series without a single swipe, and the ’37 Yankees were first to win without trying a steal.)
— By winning the World Series in 1915-16 and ’18, Boston extended modern championship droughts that would last 54 years (Dodgers), 79 years (Phillies), and 106 years and counting (Cubs).
— Ruth’s 1915 slugging and OPS (.576, .952) are dead-ball records for a pitcher with 75+ PAs. His OPS+ in his first three full years ranked 5th of all players with 300+ PAs in that time, tied with Shoeless Joe Jackson. But until the next year, his team felt no need to use his bat more often. That’s how talented these Red Sox were.
— Speaker in 1915 was the last to top 7 WAR without a single home run.
— From 1911-17, the average pitcher age in MLB was under 27 each year. Only two other modern seasons fit that bill: 1901-02, when the AL was just getting started.
— Babe Ruth, Smoky Joe Wood and Rube Bressler are the only modern players who (a) pitched at least 100 games, (b) had more career games at other positions, and (c) earned at least 10 WAR/pos. (Add Red Lucas if you count pinch-hitter as a position; Lucas batted for others over 400 times, but played less than 20 games at other field spots.)
— Del Gainer was nicknamed Sheriff. But his platoon mate and fellow West Virginian, Dick Hoblitzell, actually served as county sheriff at the end of his long and varied career. Gainer did serve as a deputy U.S. Marshal for several years.
— St. Mary’s College from 1907-13 featured more than a dozen future major-leaguers, including Red Sox Hooper, Lewis and Leonard, and these three shooting stars:
- Harry Krause at 20 won the 1909 AL ERA title, but spent most of his career in the minors, racking up 281 wins.
- Bill James at 22 went 26-7 for the Miracle Braves and 2-0 in that Series, but wrecked his arm and won just 5 more.
- Duster Mails flunked his first brief trials, but finally earned his self-styled moniker (“The Great Mails”) as a September call-up with the 1920 Indians. He went 7-0, 1.85 that month, with a 3-hit shutout in a first-place face-off with Chicago great Red Faber (snapping their 7-game win streak 4 days before two Black Sox ‘fessed up), then hurled 15.2 scoreless frames in the World Series, including a 1-0 shutout. Mails finished 32-25 in the bigs, but won 226 games in the minors.
— Wood, Foster and Leonard all threw BoSox no-hitters, and Shore combined with Ruth (his teammate on the Orioles, Sawx and Yanks) for the only shared no-hitter in Boston history. Leonard and Cy Young are the only BoSox with two no-hitters. Pennock fell one out short of a no-no against the BoSox on Opening Day, 1915, before joining them on waivers two months later.
— There have been five no-hit relief games of 8+ innings since 1914, three of them by these Red Sox. In 1914, Dutch Leonard worked the last half of a 16-inning game, and scored the winning run. (In 26 relief frames that year, Dutch allowed 5 hits and 2 runs.) In ’17, three months after Shore’s pseudo-perfecto, Herb Pennock relieved Leonard in the 1st inning, and got the last 25 outs with just a walk and a hit batsman, and drew 2 walks himself.
— On July 14, 1916, after three straight doubleheaders with Chicago, the BoSox played St. Louis to a scoreless tie in 17 innings. The Brownies’ Ernie Koob is the only pitcher in the last 100 years to work 17+ innings with no runs and no win. Just two other searchable 0-0 games lasted so long; ditto searchable games with two pitchers going 15+ innings unscathed. (Appearing in Koob’s game was Browns CF Armando Marsáns, the first Cuban regular in MLB, later the first to play both there and in the formal Negro Leagues; I recommend his SABR bio.)
(I shouldn’t end with this tangent, but if you’ve read this far, you might be ready for a change of pace, so … )
Larry Gardner is 10th in WAR by modern third basemen who batted left or both, but he stood 2nd through 1945:
- 62.6, Home Run Baker
- 48.0, Larry Gardner and Stan Hack
- 23.5, Red Rolfe
Of the four positions that “require” a righty thrower, 3B has the lowest rate of lefty or switch-hitters, and 2B by far the highest. Counting those with 3,000 PAs since 1901 and at least half their games at a position, the LHB or BHB shares are:
- 3B, 23% (40 of 175)
- SS, 25% (47 of 189)
- C, 26% (45 of 171)
- 2B, 37% (67 of 181)
(There’s probably a reason why so many more 2Bs hit lefty, but I can’t think of it right now. This might help.)
Gardner’s not a strong Hall of Fame candidate, but he is a prime example of the undervalued two-way player. Both his 88 Rbat and 44 Rfield are top-50 marks at third base, placing him in the 16 HOF-eligible 3Bs with 75+ Rbat and 35+ Rfield.
Of the five enshrined members of that “75-35” club, four were such great hitters that defense hardly mattered to their Hall case (Schmidt, Brett, Boggs, Baker). Six of the club have been rejected for the Hall; they are the top six in WAR among Hall-rejected 3Bs — all at least 56 WAR, no worse than 8th compared to HOF 3Bs. For a sense of the challenge balanced players face with Hall voters, compare those six to the lower half of HOF third basemen, ranked by WAR:
Top 6 WAR of HOF-Rejected 3Bs
Bottom 6 WAR of HOF 3Bs
|Home Run Baker||62.8||255.2||#12||35.0||#60|
Of course, we can’t have total confidence in Rfield numbers of old-time players. The gap between Pie Traynor’s reputation and his rating is especially puzzling. But we do know that modern guys like Nettles, Bell, Ventura and Boyer had darned good gloves, along with bats more potent than some hot-corner inductees. So, to Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre, I wish good luck.
Recapping this blog series: These teams all had six players who (a) were 30 or younger and scored 1+ WAR that year, and (b) amassed 40+ career WAR. Due to the limitations of a bulk search, players appearing with two teams that year did not count towards finding the subject teams. Pitchers’ WAR is counted as the higher of pitching WAR only, or pitching plus offensive WAR.
- Pirates, 1901 (1st, 90-49) and 1902 (1st, 103-36) (No World Series yet) — Part One of series
- Athletics, 1914 (1st, 99-53, lost WS 0-4) — Part One of series
- Red Sox, 1915 (1st, 101-50, won WS 4-1)
- Yankees, 1931 (2nd, 94-59), 1932 (1st, 107-47, swept WS) and 1933 (2nd, 91-59) — Part Two of series
- Cubs, 1935 (1st, 100-54, lost WS 2-4)
- Athletics, 1971 (1st, 101-60, lost ALCS 0-3)
- Indians, 1996 (1st, 99-62, lost ALDS 1-3)
- Yankees, 1998 (1st, 114-48) and 1999 (1st, 98-64) (swept both WS)
The team tables in each post list the six players who met the criteria (seven in one case), and their group totals, followed by other notables. Italics and an asterisk by the name mark a player who was not a regular with that team. If the column headings are unclear, just ask.