Jim Bunning 1931-2017

Hall of Famer Jim Bunning has died at the age of 85. Author of the first NL perfect game of the modern era, Bunning recorded over 3500 IP and 200 wins in a 17 year career, mostly for the Tigers and Phillies. While often overlooked among the pioneers of the modern, high strikeout pitcher, Bunning established standards for consistency and longevity that few pitchers since have been able to match.

More on Bunning after the jump.

Bunning pitched over 1000 innings in the Tiger farm system before finally making the big club to stay at age 25 in 1957. He made the most of that opportunity, leading the AL in IP and Wins as he posted what would be the only 20 win season of his career (he would win 19 four times, and 17 thrice). Thus began a streak of 11 seasons of 200 IP and 175 strikeouts, still the longest in majors history and matched only by Tom Seaver (1968-78). For some perspective, the longest live ball era streak of such seasons before Bunning was only 5 by Dizzy Dean (1932-36), or 6 by Bob Feller (1938-47), excepting seasons that Feller lost, or mostly lost, to military service.

Bunning’s eleven year run featured 10 seasons with WHIP below 1.3, ten with BB/9 under 3.0, ten with 3 WAR or better, nine with 110 ERA+, eight with 17 or more wins. You get the idea; his teams knew what to expect from him each year, and he rarely disappointed. Among all live ball era pitchers aged 25-35, Bunning ranks fourth in IP, third in starts, seventh in shutouts and eighth in strikeouts.

If Bunning had a bad year in his big run, it came in 1963 with a 12-13 record and 3.88 ERA. At age 31 and with more than 1750 IP in just 7 seasons (plus those 1000+ minor league innings), the Tigers probably figured they were being shrewd in parting with Bunning before he really started to break down. How wrong they were; instead, Bunning would turn in the best four year run of his career for the Phillies, topping 30 WAR with 141 ERA+ and averaging almost 300 IP for those seasons. Among live ball era pitchers aged 32-35, Bunning stands first in starts, second in WAR, IP, shutouts and ERA, and third in strikeouts.

For his 1957 to 1967 seasons, Bunning started 399 games, 230 of them won by his team, a .576 winning percentage (93-69). When he didn’t start, that winning percentage dropped to only .509 (82-80).  So, with Bunning on the mound, his teams morphed from also-rans to pennant contenders. Included in these 11 seasons were his perfect game against the Mets in 1964, another no-hitter against Boston in 1958, and a one-hitter against Houston, four weeks before his perfecto. To these, Bunning added 7 two-hitters and 15 three-hitters. Bunning struck out a career high 14 Yankees on Jun 20, 1958, then tied for the Yankee franchise record for most strikeouts in a game.

For the years he was active (1955-71), Bunning ranks 1st in IP, starts, wins and strikeouts, 4th in shutouts and 5th in complete games. Bunning was the first pitcher to record 1800 IP in each league, a feat matched since only by Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord PerryNolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. Bunning is also the oldest (at age 34-35) of seven live ball era pitchers (Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Mickey Lolich and Nolan Ryan are the others) to record 300 IP and 250 strikeouts in consecutive seasons (Jenkins did it four seasons in a row; nobody else more than two).

 

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33 Comments on "Jim Bunning 1931-2017"

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David P
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Bunning came as close to getting into the HOF via the BBWAA vote as you can, without actually getting in. In 1988, his 12th season on the ballot, he received 74.2% of the vote, falling 4 votes short. After that his vote totals dropped 63.3%, 57.9%, and 63.7%. Not hard to see what happened. The 1988 ballot on which he was nearly elected had Willie Stargell and not much else (Stargell was the only person on the ballot to be elected by the BBWAA that year or future years). The 1989 ballot added 4 people who would be elected by… Read more »
oneblankspace
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Nellie Fox missed by 2 votes (74.7%) in his last year on the writers’ ballot in 1985. Some Chicago writers were complaining that since 74.7 would round to 75, they should have let him in.

KalineCountry
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Jim Bunning was my favorite Tigers Pitcher as a kid growing up in Detroit and then moving to Boston. My favorite game in the “Best Tigers game you ever went to” thread was May 18, 1959 when Bunning pitched and batted the Tigers to a 14 – 2 Win over the redsox at Fenway. Bunning Homered and Tripled in the game, and is the only pitcher in ML history to accomplish that per one of you men who write here at HighHeatStats. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS195905180.shtml Bunning was one of the Pitchers who would throw high and tight, up and in along with… Read more »
Richard Chester
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Actually, since 1913, there have been 21 occasions of a pitcher hitting a HR and triple in the same game. But Bunning is the only one to have as many as 5 RBI in the game

Voomo Zanzibar
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A couple things in your memory of Bunning being traded are askew.
First, he was traded with Triandos, not for him.

And Demeter was not a RF.
He was a CF, who the year before had been a super-utility guy for Philly, covering CF-LF-1B-3B

e pluribus munu
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Memories from childhood tend to confuse details. When I saw Doug’s post, my first thought was: “Wait! Bunning’s ’59 Topps card was pink!” Turns out I’d reversed the colors on the ’58 and ’59 cards in my neural circuits, just as KalineCountry reversed Triandos’s role in the trade and recalled Demeter only in Right.

P P
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Don Demeter! Without checking I still recall a Sporting News (?) cover that called him “Baseball’s Mr. Versatile.” I was impressed. Versatile. Couldn’t have been later than ’64 though so I would have been 10 or so.

Paul E
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Demeter, during his time with the Phillies, lived in the Lansdowne/Yeadon area of Delaware County PA. A friend who is about 65 y.o. said that Demeter gave his time generously to the local little league and helped out the fathers with coaching and everything. He remembered him as a real gentleman.

e pluribus munu
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For thirty years, the mitt I used was a Don Demeter model. Nice signature, but it did nothing to convince anyone I was any good. I forgive him, nevertheless.

no statistician but
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I’ve done a little hunting around, and I can only find three top flight players who switched leagues in the 1960s and had roughly comparable success in both leagues. Frank Robinson, Jim Bunning, and, yes, Milt Pappas. The Robinson for Pappas trade was always one-sided, and the fact that Frank had a terrific follow-up year and Milt a middling one only gave it the appearance of being far worse. It was hardly Broglio for Gibson by any reckoning. Pappas put up 22 WAR in Baltimore in nine years, 24.8 in ten years in the NL. At any rate, my point… Read more »
oneblankspace
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Broglio was traded for Brock

no statistician but
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I meant Brock, of course. Don’t be so hard on an old, feeble brain.

Doug
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I can only find three top flight players who switched leagues in the 1960s and had roughly comparable success in both leagues.

Players just didn’t switch leagues very much in that time. The leagues were competing against each other and tried to keep their best talent by instituting restrictions that limited the ability to make trades between leagues. Without Robinson’s “baggage” seems quite unlikely he could have been traded to an AL team.

Looking at players with 20 WAR for the decade, I can find only three others with even 5 WAR in each league: Frank Howard, Clete Boyer and Claude Osteen.

no statistician but
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On another thread I commented that the 1959 Tigers were a strange team, one I thought worthy of comment, and epm (e pluribus menu, for short) asked me what I meant, so I’m answering him here on a thread with an obvious connection to the 1959 Tigers through Bunning’s presence on the team. To start: this team had incredible success playing the Yankees, going 14-8, with Don Mossi garnering 6 wins and Frank Lary 5. Against the rest of the league they were 62-70. The team had the two top batters in the AL, Harvey Kuenn at .353 and Al… Read more »
e pluribus munu
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A very nice analysis, nsb (no statistician bot, for long). Thanks for replying to my query on the other string, and especially for noting the magnificence of Rocky Bridges’ chaw (his other feature comparable to Fox was his baseball smarts). As I wrote on that earlier string, the Tigers of that era were my go-to team for beating the Yankees, and since, between the departure of the Bums from Ebbetts Field after ’57 and the arrival of the Mets at the Polo Grounds in ’62, I had no local option for games but the Stadium that housed the Enemy, I… Read more »
David P
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EPM and NSB – Not sure if either of you read Bill James’ Abstracts, but in one of them he had a long essay about how the Tigers could never seem to put things together, despite having lots of top level talent. He attributed this to them having woefully inadequate third baseman throughout the years, though that seems like a lot of responsibility to pin on just one position.

e pluribus munu
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I read many of his annuals years ago, David, and still consult the Historical volume, but I don’t recall spotting this. I don’t think it would apply to the ’59 Tigers, since Yost was still productive at 3B during his Tigers stint, but it’s certainly true in the mid/late ’60s that 3B was a desert for the Tigers — not to throw shade on Don Wert, but he was what he was. Nevertheless, when the Tigers finally dominated the league in 1968, Wert’s BA at 3B was 65 points higher than Oyler’s at SS — not quite the level of… Read more »
David P
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EPM – If memory serves me correctly, it was under a comment for Tom Brookens, who James once referred to as “the worst player in the league last year”. James went all the way back to the Cobb years in the comment.

e pluribus munu
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[I thought I posted something like this last night, but it’s not showing up. If this is a repeat, I apologize.] James’s statement seems odd to me, David. Brookens, of course, comes from a different era from the one we’ve been discussing, but even so, although he was no world-beater, I don’t recall him being as bad as that, and B-R gives him positive WAR all through his ten-year Tiger tenure. James used to get bees in his bonnet, positive and negative, about certain players, and perhaps Brookens was one – maybe part of James’s campaign to throw shade on… Read more »
David P
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I agree with your points EPM. James obviously did groundbreaking work but he also had a tendency to stake out a position and then look for facts to support it (something we all do). This may be one of those cases. Though to be fair to James we obviously have more sophisticated tools to evaluate than what he was using. Using the tools available to him at the time, these players may have looked a lot worse than they do now. At the same time, it’s not clear what the Tigers should have done. As you noted, it’s not like… Read more »
Doug
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Third base in the 1960s was a desert for most AL teams. It was Brooksie and then everybody else, basically.
AL 3rd Basemen 1960-69

e pluribus munu
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I think that may be oversimplifying a bit, Doug, though your main point’s right: Robinson’s in a class by himself. But McMullen and Boyer were producing WAR at a good clip (and Boyer was matching Brooks in the field): they just spent fewer years in the AL. Bando was ramping up to Robinson-like WAR levels, and in his first ten years as a regular (including 1968-69), he produced 54 WAR, just like Robinson – no way were Rollins and Wert in his class. Nor were they in Charles’s, when he was having a good year: his best four in the… Read more »
Brendan Bingham
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To Doug’s point, remarkably, Wert was on the AL All-Star team (behind Brooks Robinson) in 1968 despite his 0.556 OPS (better in the first half of the season at 0.618). But he doubled against Tom Seaver in his one plate appearance in the game, one that had very few AL batting highlights.

David P
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And now Jimmy Piersall has passed away. Piersall put up 29.2 WAR through age 31, but −0.6 WAR for the rest of his career.

Piersall famously struggled with bipolar disorder, which he wrote about in his book Fear Strikes Out, which was later turned into movie. In the movie Piersall was portrayed by Anthony Perkins, who was still a few years from his most famous role as Norman Bates in Psycho.

e pluribus munu
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Thanks for the heads-up, David. The fact that Piersall achieved such success and remained productive into old age, despite a level of bipolarism that can be disabling for life, is reason for celebration. He was always prone to odd bursts, as his audience learned when he was an announcer, but having had plenty of experience with folks who underwent electroshock therapy for bipolarism and lived with lithium medication, I had great admiration for Piersall’s story. One of his most famous bursts of manic behavior was his running the basepaths “backwards” when he hit his hundredth home run. I remember my… Read more »
David P
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Nice story EPM! Piersall is before my time, so while I’m familiar with the name, I really didn’t know much about him.

no statistician but
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I have to disagree a little, epm. 1) Running the bases backward, as I recall, was a calculated act, and Piersall said so at the time, though I don’t have documentation. Maybe it’s in his SABR bio, I haven’t looked. A few days before the incident Duke Snider, also running out the string for the lowly Mets, had bashed his 400th HR and circled the bases in a modest trot. Piersall thought Duke should have done something to celebrate the event, and when he himself hit number 100, he put on a deliberate show. 2) Piersall, possibly because of his… Read more »
e pluribus munu
Guest
nsb, Piersall did explain later that he knew he was going to run backwards when he hit the home run. Those of us at the park didn’t. Except for the times he went over the line and hurt himself with his behavior, Piersall turned the character of his manic impulses into the asset of an unpredictable and interesting prankster persona, and managed to keep the depressive persona out of public sight. I imagine that many of his edgy actions were premeditated and that the ones that got him in deep trouble were impulsive. If he was like the manic-depressives I… Read more »
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