Diz or the Arkansas Hummingbird?

Everybody knows about Dizzy Dean. The Arkansas-born righty was the most celebrated pitcher in baseball for much of the 1930s, but due to injuries, his career flamed out before his 30th birthday. Diz stayed around the game as a broadcaster, though, and on the basis of six great seasons, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953.

Dean’s stats are pretty underwhelming for a Hall of Famer: 150 wins, 1,967 innings, a 3.02 ERA. The other short-career Hall of Fame pitcher, of course, is Sandy Koufax.

             W      L      Pct       IP      ERA     ERA+     WS
Dizzy      150     83     .644     1967     3.02     128     181
Sandy      165     87     .655     2325     2.76     134     194

They’re very similar, as you can see, though Koufax has a slight edge thanks to 358 more innings and a slightly-better ERA+. Maybe it’s because I’m a Dodger fan, but I’ve never had a problem with Koufax’s enshrinement. Dean’s, however, has always puzzled me a bit, and he’s been on my mind lately.

See, not too long ago (last summer, maybe?) I spent a good chunk of time researching a pitcher named Lon Warneke (“The Arkansas Hummingbird”) for the about-to-be-released Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. Bill James wrote an article on Warneke for the book, and I was helping him with it. Here’s a snippet, which should explain the Dean connection:

The two best pitchers ever born in the state of Arkansas, Lon Warneke and Dizzy Dean, were almost the same age, were both originally signed by the Cardinals, both made their major league debuts in 1930, and both emerged as stars in 1932. Both were hard-throwing right-handed hillbillies, and both pitched for the Cardinals and Cubs.

At the beginning, it was Warneke who was the bigger star. He went 22-6 with a 2.37 ERA in 1932, while Dean was 18-15, 3.30. Warneke was also better in ’33, with an ERA over 100 points better than Diz. Dean exploded with 30 wins in 1934, which cemented his status as a megastar, but it was his flamboyant personality as much as his fastball that captured everyone’s imagination. Warneke was just as much of a hillbilly, but he lacked the flash; while the gregarious Dean loved the spotlight, Warneke was laid-back and preferred the family farm.

From 1932-37, Dizzy Dean was one of the best pitchers alive. Thing is, his last full season was at the age of 27, and he was basically done before he was 30. Warneke, on the other hand, was consistently above-average though 1942, when he was 33, and never actually had a bad year — when he quit in 1935, it was to pursue an umpiring career, but the man could still pitch.

At one point in researching Warneke, I realized that, overall, he might actually have been better than Dizzy Dean. Dean pitched 1,728 innings from 1932-37, and just 239 outside of those years. Here are the best pitchers in baseball in those years, rated by ERA+ (minimum 1,200 innings, or 200 per year):

                    ERA+      IP      WS
Carl Hubbell        154     1775     176
Lefty Grove         143     1464     143
Lefty Gomez         142     1495     120
Red Ruffing         131     1499     127
DIZZY DEAN          129     1728     162
Tommy Bridges       129     1523     122
LON WARNEKE         126     1596     137
Hal Schumacher      126     1352     104
Mel Harder          125     1509     127
Larry French        119     1535     110

All things considered, Dean was pretty clearly the second-best pitcher in baseball from 1932-37, after King Carl Hubbell. He’s certainly ahead of Warneke, but not that far ahead. Their ERA+ in that time are almost identical; basically, Dean just pitched more innings. So if Dizzy gets a 9 on a scale of 1-10 for his performance from ’32-’37, Warneke is probably around 7.5. But that’s all there is to Dean’s career, really, and Warneke had five more good seasons left in the tank.

How about another list? Dean’s peak was from ages 22 to 27. Here are the leaders in ERA+ in that age range, after 1920. Since we’re working with a larger pool of players, let’s increase the innings requirement to 1,400.

                    ERA+      IP      WS
Hal Newhouser       148     1671     167
Tom Seaver          144     1641     155
Lefty Gomez         138     1460     111
LON WARNEKE         137     1421     129
Robin Roberts       136     1860     168
Bert Blyleven       134     1657     130
Juan Marichal       132     1414     116
Dave Stieb          131     1524     129
DIZZY DEAN          129     1728     162
Don Drysdale        129     1734     137

Wow … Until I came up with that list, I actually had no idea that Warneke’s ERA+ from 22-27 was better than Dean’s. Granted, Warneke threw 307 fewer innings, but still. We’re targeting Dizzy Dean’s best seasons, weighting everything in his favor, and Warneke still is right there with him. I’m not suggesting that Warneke was as good as Dean at his best, but it’s becoming clear that Warneke was almost that good, just a notch below, and he did last a lot longer.

How do the two Arkansas righties shape up altogether? Here are the career lines for both:

             W      L      Pct       IP      ERA     ERA+     WS
Dean       150     83     .644     1967     3.02     128     181
Warneke    192    121     .613     2781     3.18     119     220

Lee Sinins has a stat called Runs Saved Against Average (RSAA). In Lee’s words, “It’s the amount of runs that a pitcher saved vs. what an average pitcher would have allowed.” By that measure, Dean “saved” 205 more runs than the average pitcher over the course of his career. Warneke saved 203.

What’s the difference between Dean and Warneke? For Dizzy to match Lon’s career line, he’d have to have added a 42-38 record and 39 Win Shares in 814 innings, with an ERA around the league average — basically, four or five average seasons. Would a healthy Dean have done that? Of course… but he wasn’t healthy, and he didn’t do that. Average pitching has a lot of value, and Warneke’s solid post-prime years even out Dean’s edge in peak value.

If Lon Warneke is, on the whole, Dizzy Dean’s equal, does that make Warneke a Hall of Famer? Not in my book, but it probably means Dizzy Dean isn’t particularly Hall-worthy. People often make the argument, “Player X is as good as Player Y, and Player Y is in the Hall of Fame, so Player X should be in there too.” I guess what I’m suggesting is the opposite — Dizzy Dean is not really any better than Lon Warneke, and Warneke is not in the Hall of Fame (and shouldn’t be, by my estimation), so maybe, possibly, Dizzy Dean shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame either.


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One last thing, irrelevant to the Warneke-Dean “Who’s the best Arkansas pitcher” discussion (but somewhat relevant to Dizzy Dean) — Pedro Martinez. The third pitcher in the Dean/Koufax group is Pedro, who has pitched a similar number of innings. Here’s how he stacks up against the two Hall of Famers:

             W      L      Pct       IP      ERA     ERA+     WS
Pedro      170     69     .711     2123     2.61     173     208
Dizzy      150     83     .644     1967     3.02     128     181
Sandy      165     87     .655     2325     2.76     134     194

Pedro has more wins and Win Shares than either pitcher, and he dwarfs them both in ERA+. He’s already a Hall of Famer; the rest is just gravy. Pedro’s brilliance never ceases to amaze me — Dean and Koufax were remarkable pitchers, good enough to be elected to the Hall of Fame despite short careers, and Pedro is head and shoulders above them both.

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