This season marks 125 years since pitchers first launched their offerings from the current distance of 60½ feet from home plate. That’s 10½ feet or more than 20% further than before the 1893 season, a massive change that launched the 1890s “ultra-live ball” era but also introduced the more lasting change of pitchers who were used fairly frequently in relief roles. More after the jump. This new breed of pitcher was not a relief specialist by any means, but it was a recognizable start to regular employment of some starting pitchers in relief roles. Even after the lively ball of the 1890s and early 1900s gave way to the following dead ball era, use of relievers continued to expand as complete games began their inexorable descent to today’s miniscule levels. But, before we get into that, here are some of the immediate effects resulting from the increased pitching distance.
- Scoring increased from 1892 to 1893 by 1.47 runs to 6.57 per team game, then increased a further 0.81 runs in 1894. The five seasons from 1893 to 1897 remain the five highest scoring seasons in the 125 years since 1893.
- Batting average in 1893 increased by 35 points from the year before, from .245 to .280, and then jumped a further 29 points in 1894 when the league slugged at .435, the second highest rate of the past 125 seasons (though only the 51st highest ISO season, with 2017 topping that list)
- Home runs jumped 26% from 1892 to 1893, and a further 34% from 1893 to 1894.
- League WHIP increased by .246 from 1892 to 1893, and jumped again by .122 in 1894. The four seasons from 1893 to 1896 remain the four highest WHIP seasons of the past 125 years.
- Strikeouts fell by more than one-third from 1892 to 1893, dropping from 3.24 per team game to just 2.13. Walks jumped 16.7% to almost 4 per team game.
- Perhaps surprisingly, stolen bases held steady from 1892 to 1893, but that level (1.75 per team game) was already down sharply from 1887-90 when better than two stolen bases were recorded per team game. Nonetheless, the 1893 to 1897 seasons remain the five highest in stolen bases of the past 125 years.
I think you get the idea. An already high scoring environment (by modern era standards) became hotter still, reaching levels not seen since. Pitchers struggled to adjust to the new pitching distance and batters took advantage.
So, who were the unfortunate moundsmen thrust into the role of lab rat as baseball undertook this radical experiment? These are the 31 pitchers who recorded a qualified season in both 1892 and 1893.
- Of these 31 pitchers, only two (Breitenstein and Kennedy) posted a better ERA in 1893, despite 13 of the 31 recording a better ERA+
- All 31 pitchers recorded a lower strikeout rate in 1893 than in 1892, and 20 of 31 recorded a higher walk rate
- 23 of the 31 pitchers saw their percentage of starts completed fall from 1892 to 1893, while 20 of 31 made more relief appearances in the latter season
- 24 of 31 pitchers saw their innings totals drop from 1892 to 1893, and 21 of 31 recorded a drop in IP per game
Most of these pitchers ultimately adapted to the new pitching distance, with over half (16) recording 1000+ IP from 1893 and only two of those (Karsey, Weyhing) with an ERA+ below 100. Those who struggled to adapt included:
- Kid Gleason actually had a slightly better ERA+ from 1893 than before, but nonetheless switched to second base in 1895.
- HOFer Tim Keefe was released before the end of the 1893 season due to ineffectiveness, but was likely close to the end of his career anyway. Ditto for Tony Mullane, who stuck around for one more forgettable season (155 IP, 6.59 ERA) in 1894, though he continued pitching in the minors until 1902 at age 43.
- George Haddock had recorded 34-11 and 29-13 seasons in 1891 and 1892, but could manage only a 77 ERA+ in 1893-94 at age 26-27 and never pitched professionally again (maybe hitters were no longer intimidated by the cross-eyed stare on display in his B-R page picture).
- Silver King won 30+ games for four straight seasons (1887-90) with 147 ERA+ pitching in the AA and Players League, but was less effective in the NL the next two seasons, a trend which worsened from 1893 with only a 90 ERA+ in 453 IP to the end of his career.
- Scott Stratton saw his pre-1893 ERA+ of 112 slide to 79 in 516 IP to close out his career. Gus Weyhing had a similar ERA+ drop, from 118 to 86, in 1000+ IP on both sides of the 1893 demarcation.
- Don’t know if it had anything to do with the new pitching distance, but Pink Hawley hit 20+ batters for a record eight straight years starting in 1893, with the aforementioned Gus Weyhing in second with six seasons (but four of those were before 1893); Weyhing and Hawley rank 1st and 3rd in career HBP, bracketing Chick Fraser, a rookie teammate of Weyhing’s on the 1896 Colonels.
The above results are reflected in a decline in complete game percentage from 1892 to 1893, from 88% to 82%, as shown below. At the same time, reliever usage, which was already on the rise, increased over 35%, from a pre-1893 high of 0.150 per team game in 1891 to 0.207 in 1894 and 1895.
What piqued my interest, though, was how those extra relief appearances were doled out. The list below shows the pitchers each year with a qualified season that included at least 25% of appearances in relief.
As is evident from the above list, there were virtually no such pitchers before the 1889 season when runs per game jumped by over a run from 1888 levels. However, by the time the Players League and American Association had folded, there was again just one such pitcher in the 1892 NL, similar to the experience before 1889. But, look what happened over the next five years (highlighted) in a 12 team league, with record numbers of such pitchers each year, albeit still at levels below one such pitcher per team.
When runs per game started to moderate in 1898, complete game percentage edged up again and the numbers of these 25% relief pitchers declined. But only briefly; when the season extended to 154 games in 1905, there were 11 such pitchers, climbing to 29 in 1908, 41 in 1913, and 50 in 1916, the last representing more than three such pitchers per team.
Here are those results graphically, with the 1893-97 period circled. The green bars in this period represent 10%-20% of all qualified pitching seasons having 25% or more of appearances in relief, the first sustained period of pitchers having that level of relief responsibility.
You might be wondering whether there were any relief pitchers who were not just starters picking up their teammates. The answer is not really. Bumping up the relief role to 40% of appearances and dropping the workload threshold to 100 IP yields 1908 as the first season with a sizable number, with 16 that year (an average of one per team), compared to the previous MLB high of only four.
The exclusive reliever on a roster really didn’t exist at all; of the 851 seasons from 1876 to 1919 with zero starts, over 97% were of fewer the 20 IP, with a high prior to 1893 of only 23.1 IP, a mark that would stand until 1908. Bumping that up to a 5 start maximum and 50+ IP yields only 126 seasons over that period, just 36 of which came before 1908.
The other aspect of pitcher usage that changed significantly in the 1893-97 period was in the innings workload by the workhorses, those pitchers with seasons of 300+ IP. As shown below, prior to 1893, the smallest percentage of total innings pitched by these workhorses was just below 50%, in 1890 and 1891.
Those workhorse pitchers were under that previous minimum each season from 1893 to 1897 (circled) and not by a little, with all of those seasons below 45% and three below 40%. That trend would escalate rapidly, with workhorse workload dropping below 25% in 1900, and below 10% in 1909.