Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Faves #5 - Favorite Left-handed Pitchers of My Lifetime

My friend Jason wrote me this week. He had found a list of pitchers that threw left-handed and batted right-handed. As part of this quirky group himself, he liked the list. Furthermore, some of his favorite pitchers of all-time were on this list. He then asked me about my favorite pitchers which spawned today's fave list. But as if I needed more motivation, yesterday I came across this review of a book on left-handedness. It's a sign, I tell ya.

As a baseball researcher and historian, I've developed a level of appreciation for pitchers of the past, especially the Deadball Era. If I don't think about it, I would likely just rattle off Christy Mathewson and Addie Joss as being two of my favorite pitchers. But would that be a reasonable statement to make? Can someone you never actually experienced pitch be a favorite? I can appreciate them and think highly of what I know about them as both players and people but can they really be my favorites? I don't know. Maybe it's just an issue of semantics. Regardless I opted to limit this list to left-handers during my lifetime. Guys who I at least theoretically saw pitch. But even that's shaky. I didn't have cable television until I was 17 so the only American League pitchers I saw pitch were the handful of Orioles games I made it to live. Should that limit consideration of Mark Langston and Frank Tanana? Because if you asked me as a kid who my favorite left-handed pitchers were, those would be the two I would probably name. So take this list with a grain of salt that even though these are my favorites, I really have no idea what I'm talking about because I've overthunk this too much.

And please feel free to link to your own lists or post yours in the comments, for this and other Friday Faves. This isn't a fascist blog.

#1 Dave Righetti. Easy enough choice. I'll add something else, though. I'm hoping with Tony LaRussa retiring that the talk starts picking up for pitching coach Dave Duncan being added to the Hall of Fame. Why? Because then he'll open the door for Righetti.

First, Righetti has been the pitching coach for the Giants for ELEVEN years. Right there you know that he's doing something right. He's coached Tim Lincecum to two Cy Young wins (a mere mortal coach might have tinkered with Lincecum's unorthodox delivery). Matt Cain, pretty universally known as a guy with zero stuff, has been a top notch pitcher for them. He got 1500 innings out of Kirk Rueter (more on him in a minute), for crying out loud! Plus, there's this. Hall of Fame.

#2 Steve Carlton. My oldest son is named after him. He's probably the lefty I saw pitch most growing up. He was called "Lefty" for crying out loud. I don't think I really need to say a lot about Carlton.

#3 Ryan Karp. Yeah, a guy who pitched 17 innings in the major leagues makes this list. I never looked forward to seeing someone pitch as much as I did as Karp in Greensboro in 1993. If he was on the road, I was scrambling to find a newspaper with a boxscore. At home, I was there in the stands.

For Greensboro, Karp made 17 starts, going 13-1 with a 1.81 ERA. The Hornets kept him at Greensboro until he lost a game at which point he got promoted to Prince William. His final stats at Greensboro included 132 strikeouts in 109 innings. I still vividly remember a 12 strikeout performance because it seemed like 27 K's, he was so dominant.

I managed to buy Karp's Prince William jersey at the end of the season which is another blog post of its own someday. All in all, my favorite minor league pitcher of my lifetime.

#4 Kirk Rueter. I loved this guy. I could put him #2 on this list and be fine with it. Has anyone done more with less?

I need to make something clear when I say that. Kirk Rueter was a major league pitcher for a long, long time and while I feel he (and others) benefited from Righetti's tutelage, all those guys have talent. When I say Rueter did a lot with less, I mean he was atypical. He didn't have the zippy fastball. If you give someone in baseball a choice between someone who had Kerry Wood's stuff and someone who had Kirk Rueter's stuff, they would choose Wood every time (quick, name Kerry Wood's pitching coach when he got hurt). But what I liked about Rueter was that he found a way to get it done with all the little things. Let me drop some science on you. I always loved looking at the STATS Major League Handbooks and seeing where Rueter showed up on the goofy leader lists. Beginning with the 2002 season they started looking at pitch type. Let's take a gander:

2002: 2nd slowest fastball in the National League (85.1 avg). Yet threw the fourth highest percentage of fastballs among NL pitchers (70.7%).

2003: He didn't pitch enough innings to have pitch data but at the end of the season, he had the lowest career SB% against percentage of all active major league pitchers and the 8th highest GDP rate.

2004: 2nd slowest fastball again. 6th highest fastball rate.

This was at the end of his career. He's not throwing junk. He's throwing slow balls across the plate. He's about contact. Runners get on, he's getting double plays and making sure they don't steal bases.

He was about contact at the plate, too. In 740 PA, Rueter struck out just 105 times; less than 1/7 of his PA. The only guys in the post-expansion era to have had more plate appearances with such a slow K rate were Livan Hernandez, Rick Rhoden and Fernando Valenzuela - all known for their great hitting.

Rueter wasn't a great hitter. You might think, "Oh, he wasn't striking out but he was hitting into double plays". Just 9. And 86 sac hits. Just like when he was on the mound, he did every little thing right.

He fielded his position well, too. He was in the top 5 in the league in assists four times in his career. He had a better fielding percentage than his peer, eighteen time Gold Glove winner Greg Maddux.

Rueter did nothing great but every single little thing at least pretty well. His was a career that I enjoyed a lot.

#5 Mitch Williams. I have to admit, I appreciated Mitch Williams more at the beginning and end of his career than in the middle. At the start of his career, he seemed dominant. He was a hotshot rookie with the Rangers who used him in over half their games his first two seasons. He then got sent to the Cubs in a lopsided trade for Rafael Palmeiro where Williams made his only All-Star team. That was the beginning.

Then he came to Philly and I got to see him pitch a lot more as their closer and that was a level of excitement no baseball fan needs. Then there was the Joe Carter home run.

I got to see Mitch on the comeback trail pitching for the Richmond Phils (with their dandy young third baseman Scott Rolen) and I loved it. Same Mitch Williams. Throwing as hard as he could. Falling off the mound each time he did it. No idea where the ball was going. Mitch Williams pitched his own way right to the end and he was unlike any pitcher ever to take the mound.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here is a list of every pitcher in major league history to throw more than 500 innings and who walked more than seven batters per nine innings:

Mitch Williams

Or how about a list of every pitcher to throw 500 innings and walk more batters than they gave up hits to:

Mitch Williams

You have to be something special to be allowed to throw that many innings while walking that many people. Mitch Williams was special.

Plus, another memorabilia story. I went to a Cubs-Phillies game in 1990 and Williams was playing for the Cubs. Before the game I asked him for his autograph on a Bowman card which had a facsimile autograph. He looked at it and said, "Whose autograph is that? That's not mine. Let me fix that", and signed the card. Wait a minute. Let me see if I can dig up the card. Yep. here it is:

Honorable mention:
Mark Langston and Frank Tanana - I may have seen each of them pitch but I don't remember so I don't feel like I can include them. I would have loved to see Tanana pitch as an Angel when he could still bring it. It always amazed me that after a lifetime (and five years in the majors) as a power pitcher, he was able to rework himself into a finesse pitcher and threw 3000 innings as a 100 ERA+ guy the rest of his career. That's impressive.

Chuck McElroy - I started a fan club for him and his glasses in high school/college. Even sent out a newsletter for a while. But in an era of pre-internet (when you couldn't follow the minors real easily), when he threw 14 horrible innings in the majors, I hung it up to pursue other things.

Steve Avery - My oldest son is named after him. My wife and I decided that we were going to name our first son after two great left-handed pitchers (I'm a southpaw, too). She ruled out Ford Gomez. So we went with Carlton Avery. Lest you forget, Steve Avery was one of only 12 lefthanders to win 50 games in the majors by age 23 (CC Sabathia became the 13th). He looked like he could be one of the greats. Alas.

John Smiley/Denny Neagle - The appeal of baseball has changed for me over the years. From the age of 7 until the late eighties, I loved baseball for the numbers. All I cared about were baseball statistics. Then from the late eighties into the early nineties, I really grew to appreciate the game itself, the beauty and art of what was going on on the field. I still do but at some point in the nineties (probably about the time I really started developing my research library), I shifted yet again and really began to enjoy the wealth of history on the game.

When I thought of this list, these guys immediately came to mind. I loved watching them pitch. They were traded for each other. They are each on the others' list of top ten similar pitchers ( I feel like they cover all three phases of my appreciation of baseball. Not sure if it makes sense, but it does to me.

Tom Browning - We share the same birthday. I fondly remember him being a terror on the basepaths (FIVE stolen bases!!!). A perfect game. Another guy who always seemed better than he actually was.

I need to stop this post before I end up with 1,742 honorable mentions.

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