Dazzy Vance, The Ultimate Outlier

We spend a lot of our time writing about outliers on these pages. Performance outliers, such as Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout on the offensive side, and Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez on the pitching side. We focus on those who took outlier paths to the big leagues, such as Cuban imports like Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes, or even late-career conversions like Jason Lane. As far as outliers go, Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance has them all beat.

I had the privilege of spending this weekend at Saber Seminar in Boston, a superb event undertaken for a exceptional cause, the Jimmy Fund. At the media panel yesterday, which featured our own Dave Cameron among a group of distinguished group of web and print journalists, an interesting common thread was discussed – story-telling. Whether you are a beat writer recapping last night’s game, or a Fangraphs writer discussing the wonders of Andrelton Simmons‘ defense, you had better be able to make it entertaining. Whether you’re Rick Reilly or Tom Tango, or anyone in between, you’ve got to tell a story. Bill James‘ amazing ability to do so is likely the main reason so many of us do what we do. Dazzy Vance makes this one easy for me – the story basically tells itself.

To borrow a phrase from ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries – what if I told you…….that a pitcher once accounted for 8% of an entire league’s strikeouts, possessing more than any other two pitchers combined? That a pitcher who never took a regular turn in a rotation until age 31 would go on to make the Hall of Fame, despite pitching for poor clubs for the vast majority of his career? That a pitcher who won only 197 games made the Hall of Fame – on his 16th time on the ballot, taking longer than any other player ever elected by the BBWAA. That all of these pitchers were the same exact guy – Dazzy Vance. He was an outlier in all of these individual aspects – an outlier among outliers.

Let’s start with the dominance – the extreme, utter dominance. In Vance’s third year as a regular starter with the Brooklyn Robins – at age 33 – he went 28-6, 2.16, for the perennial second-division club, driving them to a 2nd-place 92-62 finish, just 1 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Giants. None of those numbers were the eye-catcher, however – that would be his strikeout total of 262. That may not seem like an overly impressive number at first glance, but consider this:

1924 NL K TBF K %
Dazzy Vance 262 1221 21.46%
Burleigh Grimes 135 1345 10.04%
Dolf Luque 86 924 9.31%
Johnny Morrison 85 981 8.66%
Tony Kaufmann 79 888 8.90%
Vic Keen 75 895 8.38%
Vic Aldridge 74 1051 7.04%
Pete Donahue 72 934 7.71%
Art Nehf 72 710 10.14%
Jimmy Ring 72 964 7.47%
Total NL 3381 46981 7.20%

First of all, no, I have not made up any of these names. Vic Keen, in particular sounds like the moniker of a before-his-time early rock and roll DJ. Let these numbers sink in a bit, though. Dazzy Vance struck out 262 batters, almost twice as many as the next guy, fellow Robin and Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes. They were the only two over 100 strikeouts. Vance struck out not only more than any other two hurlers combined, but if you remove Grimes from the equation, he struck out more than any three other pitchers combined. That’s staggering. The league as a whole had a 7.20% strikeout rate – and Vance virtually tripled it. That’s even more staggering. He recorded nearly 8% of the 1924 National League’s strikeouts all by himself. That’s, well – that’s something. One of the few things that can be compared to is this:

1920 AL HR PA HR %
Babe Ruth 54 616 8.77%
George Sisler 19 692 2.75%
Tillie Walker 17 649 2.62%
Happy Felsch 14 615 2.28%
Joe Jackson 12 649 1.85%
Elmer Smith 12 527 2.28%
Bob Meusel 11 494 2.23%
Wally Pipp 11 687 1.60%
Bobby Veach 11 672 1.64%
Aaron Ward 11 551 2.00%
Total AL 369 47805 0.77%

You might have heard of the guy at the top of that list. Perhaps the second most interesting thing on this is list is the present of Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson, who were part of the Black Sox club that lost/threw the previous season’s World Series – a couple of pretty impressive careers were cut short by the fallout, but not until after the 1920 season. It’s not a stretch to say that Vance’s dominance belongs in the same discussion as Ruth’s.

But back to Vance. Sure, he struck out a ton of batters compared to the norm in 1924, but how does that dominance match up across eras? I measured the number of standard deviations above/below the league average K rate of all ERA qualifiers going back to 1901. Here are the top ten:

Rel K Rate Leaders Yr. Lg + STD
Vance 1924 NL 4.86
Vance 1925 NL 4.39
Martinez, P. 1999 AL 4.26
Vance 1923 NL 4.23
Waddell 1902 AL 4.17
Waddell 1903 AL 4.00
Vance 1926 NL 3.99
Ryan 1978 AL 3.95
Ryan 1987 NL 3.88
Vandermeer 1941 NL 3.82

Obviously, with the explosion of K rates in the modern era, not too many guys have cracked this list recently. Still, it’s quite amazing that Vance takes four of the top seven slots on the all-time list. Only Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez among the pitchers listed are likely to have been seen in the flesh by anyone reading this, unless one of our older readers had the honor of seeing back-to-back no-hitter guy Johnny Vandermeer in his or her younger days. If this list was expanded to 25 slots, two more Ryan seasons would be added, along with one more Pedro – and five, count ’em five, Randy Johnson seasons. Sandy Koufax would round out the list at #25. That’s how historically dominant Dazzy Vance was, in relation to his peers.

Why hasn’t Vance’s name been passed down more prominently throughout the years? Partially due to the relative brevity of his career, but also to his lack of a postseason record. He never pitched in post-season play until a token appearance at age 43 on the 1934 Gashouse Gang Cardinals. How good was Vance compared to the clubs for whom he pitched?

Pedro Martinez 219 100 0.687 0.551 0.136
Randy Johnson 303 166 0.646 0.518 0.128
Roger Clemens 354 184 0.658 0.541 0.117
G.C. Alexander 373 208 0.642 0.535 0.107
Walter Johnson 417 279 0.599 0.501 0.098
Sandy Koufax 165 87 0.655 0.561 0.094
Curt Schilling 216 146 0.597 0.503 0.094
Lefty Grove 300 141 0.680 0.589 0.091
Cy Young 511 316 0.618 0.528 0.090
Tom Seaver 311 205 0.603 0.515 0.088
Dazzy Vance 197 140 0.585 0.499 0.086
Christy Mathewson 373 188 0.665 0.583 0.082
Mike Mussina 270 153 0.638 0.558 0.080
Ron Guidry 170 91 0.651 0.573 0.078
Carl Hubbell 253 154 0.622 0.555 0.067
David Cone 194 126 0.606 0.548 0.058
Greg Maddux 355 227 0.610 0.552 0.058
Tommy Bridges 194 138 0.584 0.533 0.051
Fergie Jenkins 284 226 0.557 0.506 0.051
Rube Waddell 193 143 0.574 0.537 0.037
Steve Carlton 329 244 0.574 0.537 0.037
Jim Bunning 224 184 0.549 0.519 0.030
Don Sutton 324 256 0.559 0.533 0.026
Bert Blyleven 287 250 0.534 0.511 0.023
Nolan Ryan 324 292 0.526 0.504 0.022

This eclectic group of 25 pitchers represents the starters with the most combined standard deviations above the average of their league’s ERA qualifiers in K rate and K/BB ratio for their respective careers. They are ranked by the difference between their career winning percentage and their teams’ cumulative winning percentage over their qualifying seasons. While he ranks in the middle of this illustrious list by this measure, it should be noted that Vance’s clubs are the only ones to have a sub-.500 cumulative record. It’s exceedingly tough to be recognized as an all-time great, given the historical focus upon pitcher wins, when you toiled for mediocre clubs for the vast majority of one’s career, but Vance pulled it off.

And he got to the Hall of Fame. You’ll notice the name of Mike Mussina on the above list. He is considered by many to be, at best, a borderline Hall candidate. You see, his 270 wins and career .638 winning percentage aren’t quite enough, let alone his exceptional peripherals which are suggested by his inclusion on the above list. If Mussina is borderline, how on earth did Dazzy Vance get elected by past generations’ BBWAA voters? He was not a Veterans’ Committee addition. And what’s the deal with that 16th year of eligibility? For most of recent Hall voting history, players received a maximum 15 years of BBWAA consideration, which was shortened to 10 just a couple months back.

First, let’s look at the Hall voting results for 1936, the very first Hall of Fame ballot.

Rk Name Votes %vote
1 Ty Cobb 222 98.2%
2 Honus Wagner 215 95.1%
3 Babe Ruth 215 95.1%
4 Christy Mathewson 205 90.7%
5 Walter Johnson 189 83.6%
6 Nap Lajoie HOF 146 64.6%
7 Tris Speaker HOF 133 58.8%
8 Cy Young HOF 111 49.1%
9 Rogers Hornsby HOF 105 46.5%
10 Mickey Cochrane HOF 80 35.4%
11 George Sisler HOF 77 34.1%
12 Eddie Collins HOF 60 26.5%
13 Jimmy Collins HOF 58 25.7%
14 Pete Alexander HOF 55 24.3%
15 Lou Gehrig HOF 51 22.6%
16 Roger Bresnahan HOF 47 20.8%
17 Willie Keeler HOF 40 17.7%
18 Rube Waddell HOF 33 14.6%
19 Jimmie Foxx HOF 21 9.3%
20 Ed Walsh HOF 20 8.8%
21 Ed Delahanty HOF 17 7.5%
22 Pie Traynor HOF 16 7.1%
23 Frankie Frisch HOF 14 6.2%
24 Lefty Grove HOF 12 5.3%
25 Hal Chase 11 4.9%
26 Ross Youngs HOF 10 4.4%
27 Bill Terry HOF 9 4.0%
28 Johnny Kling 8 3.5%
29 Lou Criger 7 3.1%
30 Johnny Evers HOF 6 2.7%
31 Mordecai Brown HOF 6 2.7%
32 Frank Chance HOF 5 2.2%
33 John McGraw HOF 4 1.8%
34 Ray Schalk HOF 4 1.8%
35 Al Simmons HOF 4 1.8%
36 Chief Bender HOF 2 0.9%
37 Edd Roush HOF 2 0.9%
38 Shoeless Joe Jackson 2 0.9%
39 Sam Crawford HOF 1 0.4%
40 Home Run Baker HOF 1 0.4%
41 Fred Clarke HOF 1 0.4%
42 Bill Bradley 1 0.4%
43 Nap Rucker 1 0.4%
44 Kid Elberfeld 1 0.4%
45 Connie Mack HOF 1 0.4%
46 Rube Marquard HOF 1 0.4%
47 Dazzy Vance HOF 1 0.4%
48 Charlie Gehringer HOF 0.0%
49 Billy Sullivan 0.0%
50 Gabby Hartnett HOF 0.0%

First, you want to talk about a clogged ballot? Here ya go. And yes, they were allowed only 10 votes per ballot, even back then. At least they used them, as the 226 voters listed an average of 9.87 players on their ballots. In this stiff competition, Vance was fortunate to get a single vote. Just getting on this initial ballot, however, was a great sign for his chances, as only eight of the 50 – one of them Joe Jackson – have not yet been inducted.

From this humble beginning, an unprecedentedly long BBWAA HOF journey began. It went something like this:

Yr Vote %
1936 0.4%
1937 5.0%
1938 3.8%
1939 5.5%
1942 15.9%
1945 7.3%
1946 15.3%
1947 31.1%
1948 19.0%
1949 21.6%
1950 31.0%
1951 31.0%
1952 44.9%
1953 56.8%
1954 62.7%
1955 81.7%

You’ll notice that it took a long time for his candidacy to gain a head of steam, and also that a vote was held only every three years for a short period in the early 1940’s, not exactly a way to break the Hall’s first ballot logjam. Interestingly, when Vance finally gained induction in 1955 – six years before his death – there were three other players (catcher Ray Schalk and outfielders Edd Roush and Ross Youngs) in their 16th year on the ballot. In 1956, a rule was changed, increasing the maximum number of years elapsed from a player’s retirement until his last year on the ballot from 25 to 30. One by one, this rule snagged those three, with Roush the last to disappear from the ballot after his 19th try in 1960, when he led the voting at 54.3%, far short of the induction bar. All three eventually were inducted by the Veterans’ Committee, with Roush quickly getting the nod in 1962. Vance remains – and always will remain, barring some unforeseen draconian reversal in voting rule trends – the only player elected to the Hall by the BBWAA after his 15th year of eligibility. He is one of a number of examples – including, most recently, Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven – of players who now will not get a sniff of induction thanks to the recent shortening of maximum ballot tenure from 15 to 10 years.

There hasn’t been a lot written about Dazzy Vance. For more, I recommend the SABR biography page, written by Charles F. Faber. There you’ll see some interesting anecdotes, such as the one about the card game and ensuing elbow surgery during his minor league career that was pivotal in setting the stage for his major league success. We write about the numbers, most often, but behind the numbers there often lie some very intriguing stories. I would have loved to witness Dazzy Vance in his prime – just four years after Babe Ruth began dominating in a way a hitter never had, Vance was doing the same on the mound, albeit for a relatively short period of time. It’s important that we keep his and other seminal but mostly forgotten names alive as we pass this game down to younger generations.

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