View Full Version : Pitching Assists - A dead issue

10-23-2006, 11:50 AM
All that talk of Kenny Rogers and his black stained cap and what a good fielder he is reminded me of something I was poking around at earlier in the year. Namely what makes a fielding pitcher and what defines it also kind of helps define what state the game is at (High Offense vs Low Offense) what I found is sometimes you can tell what type of offense the game leans on just by looking at defensive stats.

Fielding Assists for pitchers, a somewhat useless statistic, one that you won't find in the Sunday paper or on the back of a baseball card. But nonetheless an interesting stat. Consider this, the amount of assists made by pitchers in 2005 are listed below.

1 Rangers 233
2 Pirates 227
3 Dodgers 223
4 Diamondbacks 221
T5 Cardinals 220
T5 Mets 220
7 Yankees 207
8 White Sox 205
9 Marlins 204
T10 Twins 199
T10 Blue Jays 199
T12 Braves 196
T12 Astros 196
T12 Phillies 196
T15 Cubs 192
T15 Nationals 192
17 Giants 188
18 Rockies 186
19 Padres 179
20 Mariners 177
21 Orioles 176
22 Reds 169
T23 A's 166
T23 Brewers 166
25 Royals 165
26 Red Sox 163
27 Tigers 157
28 Devil Rays 147
29 Indians 141
30 Angels 140

Once the ball leaves the hand of the hurler he is then on defense, today's measure for a fine fielding pitcher is locked into the mystic of the Gold Glove, and for most of us that term Gold Glove Pitcher falls into two categories, Greg Maddux and Jim Kaat, who share 31 between them.

The 2005 leaders were

1 Mark Mulder 52
T2 Jake Westbrook 49
T2 Greg Maddux 49
4 Derek Lowe 48
5 Kenny Rogers 46
T6 Mark Buehrle 45
T6 Livan Hernandez 45
8 Brandon Webb 44
T9 Tom Glavine 43
T9 Horacio Ramirez 43

A good mixture of guys with sinkers and breaking balls and other off speed pitches. For his career Greg Maddux has averaged 1.6 assist per games that he appeared in 1.6 is a healthy ratio of plays completed by a pitcher, especially in this day and age of high strikeouts and hard hitting.

Diving into the history of pitchers assists can take us towards many different directions, it can help us find out what the game was like in small ways that say more than we ever thought they could and you can see player types reappear each generation reaffirming stereotypes and baseball axioms.

Here are the career leaders in pitchers assists

1 Christy Mathewson 1503 281 52 635
2 Grover C Alexander 1419 189 25 696
3 Walter Johnson 1348 278 53 803
4 Burleigh Grimes 1252 225 71 617
5 George Mullin 1244 229 82 488
6 Jack Quinn 1240 139 48 756
7 Ed Walsh 1207 233 56 431
8 Eppa Rixey 1195 131 30 689
9 Carl Mays 1138 174 44 490
10 Hooks Dauss 1128 99 41 538

First thing that leaps out to me is that they all are deadball era players, and a mess of hall of fame players. Guys with legendary breaking pitches like Mathewson, Rixey and Dauss, others had intense sinking fastballs like Alexander and Mays, the thing that stands out the most are the four spitballer's on the list and the one who had the best ratio of assists ever nine innings in his career was Ed Walsh who averaged 3.6 assists for every nine innings he pitched in his career.

Here are the leaders in pitchers assist in a season in modern history

Ed Walsh 1907 227 35
Ed Walsh 1908 190 41
Harry Howell 1905 178 21
Jack Chesbro 1904 166 24
George Mullin 1904 163 28
Ed Walsh 1911 159 27
Frank Smith 1909 154 26
Ed Walsh 1910 154 21
Addie Joss 1907 143 21
Harry Howell 1904 143 26

Compared to today's leader (Mark Mulder with 52) the difference is significant, but why is it so wide? Why do all the leaders sport lines from the deadball era? And what do 90% of them all share?

The pitchers assist record is likely to stay firm for a long time; the last pitcher to top 100 assists in a season was Eddie Rommel and Howard Emhke in 1924 and the last player to sniff 90 was Dizzy Trout in 1944.

Ed Walsh and his impressive totals of assists during his prime from 1906-1912 is a fine example how the way the game is played can lend to odd season totals in certain statistics. These records often fade into the shadows of the game and no one ever thinks to ponder them again unless they touch the realm of the sexy statistics like runs batted in, stolen bases and hits.

Think about it... you're hanging with your friends and you say, "Hey, Joe... who holds the record for assists for pitchers in MLB history?"


When Ed Walsh finished his first two seasons in the major leagues he averaged 2.8 assists per every nine innings. Two years later after learning the spitball from Elmer Strickland, Walsh was a different pitcher; he also was a more accomplished fielder. His 1906 season of 278 innings was more than the prior two seasons combined. That season Walsh averaged 4.8 assists per every nine innings. From 1906-1912 he averaged 3.7 assists per game. Jim Kaat who won 16 Gold Gloves averaged .082 assists per every nine innings pitched.

Ed Walsh wasn't the Ozzie Smith of pitchers, turning into an uber fielder the second the ball left his hand. He was a big man who threw the nastiest pitch in an era that had a deadball and limited scoring opportunities, and this helps enhance the numbers that he created with his glove.

If we look at the top ten seasons in pitching assists in MLB history we'd find that all of them occurred prior to 1914 and six of the teams were Chicago White Sox teams, teams that were anchored by Ed Walsh.

White Sox 1907 588 210 16 128
Browns 1905 562 178 37 84
White Sox 1908 553 217 20 122
Browns 1904 546 178 30 86
White Sox 1910 506 222 30 99
White Sox 1909 503 207 22 83
White Sox 1906 494 197 26 113
Tigers 1913 486 240 31 50
Tigers 1904 485 183 34 96
White Sox 1905 477 190 14 113

Walsh and feloow Sox hurler Frank Smith both threw the spitball, as did everyone on the list below aside from Addie Joss.

Ed Walsh 1907 227
Ed Walsh 1908 190
Harry Howell 1905 178
Jack Chesbro 1904 166
George Mullin 1904 163
Ed Walsh 1911 159
Frank Smith 1909 154
Ed Walsh 1910 154
Addie Joss 1907 143
Harry Howell 1904 143

Another variable in this large number can be seen when we realize that during the deadball era the use of the sacrifice bunt increased from 1 every 34 at bats in 1904 to 1 every 27 at bat in 1908. To understand the consistent nature of that attack in that day and age we'll note that today we see a sacrifice about 1 every 99 at bats, and even in the go-go 70's we only saw 1 every 75 at bats. If we're seeing a sacrifice 4 times to every 1 we'd see in today's game then the pitcher is going to have an increased assist total, but if the pitcher also induces ground balls he's going to have an increased chance to see more balls go by him then say a fly ball pitcher would have back in the heyday of the sacrifice as a weapon. (For a quick look at the A's and White Sox pitching approaches from 1905-1910 just look at the fielding stats and note the outfield put outs versus the infield assist totals)

Of course another wild card in this deck was the ball. With the deadball lacking a cork center (prior to 1911) and not prone to flying like the balls of today's game the action was centered on the diamond, to accent this aspect of the game all the seating at the time was based around the baseline and the outfield bleacher seat was seen as useless since most of the games action occurred in the infield. The era was not only marked by a high in pitchers assists but also in the catchers assists as well.

The 3rd wild card and perhaps the most telling is the aforementioned mentioned spitball pitchers, most teams that boast the heady pitching fielding numbers of Chesbro, Howell or Walsh were fraught with men who employed a tool that induces the batter to pound the ball into the ground, such a tool can create gaudy stats like Harry Howell's 5.3 assist per nine innings in 1905 with the Browns, or the White Sox's team total of 588 in 1907 (only 39 teams have ever had that many assists from their shortstops!!) As the deadball (and spitball) era waned and the Ruthian era dawned a shift could be seen in the game, newer stadiums and remodels now involved seating in the outfield where the mighty drives of Ruth and company flew, and with those drives we can trace the demise of the gaudy pitching assist numbers through the decades. The shadows swallowed that aspect of the game and the mere thought of a pitcher fielding 5 ground balls a game in today's slugging driven game seems remote and ridiculous, but I'd stop short of saying that it's impossible.

After all it is baseball that we are talking about, nothing is set in stone.

Below are the best 5 assist totals for pitchers by decade. Note that as we get away from the spitball era the pitchers who lead the league tend to be junkballers with knuckle balls, sinkers, forkballs, splitters, screwballs and anything else that upsets your timing and causes you to only get a piece of the ball.

1 Ed Walsh 1907 227
2 Ed Walsh 1908 190
3 Harry Howell 1905 178
4 Jack Chesbro 1904 166
5 George Mullin 1904 163

1 Ed Walsh 1911 159
2 Ed Walsh 1910 154
3 Ed Walsh 1912 140
T4 Hooks Dauss 1915 137
T4 Claude Hendrix 1914 137

Carl Mays 1926 117 39
Hooks Dauss 1920 114 38
Eddie Rommel 1923 109 56
Stan Coveleski 1921 108 43
Carl Mays 1920 106 45
Burleigh Grimes 1928 106 48

Bucky Walters 1936 96 40
Curt Davis 1934 95 51
Carl Hubbell 1933 94 45
Hal Schumacher 1935 89 33
Freddie Fitzsimmons 1931 89 35

Dizzy Trout 1944 94 49
Jim Tobin 1942 93 37
Jim Tobin 1944 93 43
Bob Lemon 1948 86 43
Dutch Leonard 1940 72 35

Bob Lemon 1952 79 42
Bob Lemon 1953 74 41
Murry Dickson 1951 70 45
Warren Spahn 1958 67 38
Mel Parnell 1950 67 40

Mel Stottlemyre 1969 88 39
Larry Jackson 1964 85 40
Fred Newman 1965 83 36
Claude Osteen 1965 82 40
Mel Stottlemyre 1965 74 37
Jim Kaat 1962 72 39

Wilbur Wood 1972 82 49
Randy Jones 1976 81 40
John Denny 1978 73 33
Randy Jones 1975 70 37
Bill Lee 1974 69 38

Fernando Valenzuela 1982 64 37
Joaquin Andujar 1983 62 39
Orel Hershiser 1988 60 35
Dave Stieb 1980 58 34
LaMarr Hoyt 1983 56 36

Greg Maddux 1996 71 35
Kenny Rogers 1998 67 34
Greg Maddux 1998 64 34
Greg Maddux 1992 64 35
Kenny Rogers 1999 62 31

Greg Maddux 2000 68 35
Livan Hernandez 2004 60 35
Greg Maddux 2003 58 36
Greg Maddux 2004 55 33
Tim Hudson 2003 54 34
Greg Maddux 2001 54 34

10-23-2006, 12:19 PM
Good post.

Chicken or the egg. Do pitchers work less on fielding their position than they used too or do they see it as time not well spent so more balls get by them?

I may be totally remembering this wrong, but didn't they used to focus on the pitcher landing in a position so he could better field the ball? I doubt they worry too much about that kind of thing now because the payoff isn't as high. Also wondering if you were to work on this kind of thing with a pitcher would it have negative effects? i.e. arm troubles ....teaching a pitcher how to land in a fielding position may not be worth the pain.

I'm totally guessing on this stuff (you prolly knew that).

10-23-2006, 08:22 PM
Really excellent piece, woy, and thanks for posting.

Cooper, I'm guessing here (and this is really nothing more than an educated guess), but I would hypothesize that pitchers in earlier eras, particularly the Dead Ball Era, worked on their fielding a bit more than pitchers of latter eras. Ty Cobb stated that when Walter Johnson first arrived, the weapon of choice to use against him was bunting since they couldn't hit him any other way. Early in Johnson's career, he was shaky getting off the mound and fielding bunts, it within a few seasons the Big Train honed his abilities to leap off the mound, field a bunt and retire the batter.

Here's an interesting excerpt from Christy Mathewson's Pitching in a Pinch

In contrast to him [Otis Crandall] is George Wiltse, who maps out a training course with the idea of adding several pounds, as he is better with all the real weight he can put on. By that I do not mean any fat.

George came whirling and spinning and waltzing and turkey-trotting and pirouetting across the field at Martin Springs, Texas, the Giants' spring training headquarters, one day in the spring of 1911, developing steps that would have ruled him off any cotillion floor in New York in the days of the ban on the grizzly bear and kindred dances. Suddenly he dove down with his left hand and reached as far as he could.

"What's that one, George?" I yelled as he passed me.

"Getting ready to cover first base on a slow hit, Matty," he replied, and was off on another series of hand springs that made him look more like a contortionist rehearsing for an act which he was going to take out for the "big time" than a ballplayer getting ready for the season.

But perhaps some close followers of baseball statistics will recall a game that Wiltse took from the Cubs in 1911 by a wonderful one-hand reaching catch of a low throw to first base. Two Chicago runners were on the bags at the time and the loss of that throw would have meant that they both scored. Wiltse caught the ball, and it made the third out, and the Giants won the game. Thousands of fans applauded the catch, but the play was not the result of the exiegencies of the moment. It was the outcome of forethought used months before.

Spectators at ball games who wonder at the marvelous fielding of Wiltse should watch him getting ready during the spring season at the Marlin. He is a tireless worker, and when he is not pitching he is doing hand springs and other acrobatic acts to limber up all his muscles. It is torture then, but it pays in the end.

It wasn't only pitchers, however, that really had to concentrate on their defense. Third baseman were much more heavily relied upon defensively in earlier eras than they are today. A guy like Scott Rolen at third base 80 years ago would have had poems written about him.

Early in the 20th century, the defensive spectrum looked a bit different than it does now. Today we see a position such as second base as being a bit more important defensively than third base, but during the first few decades of the 20th century, that importance was flipped. As woy pointed out, bunts for hits and sacrifice bunts were much more common in earlier eras, and a top flight defensive third baseman was crucial for fielding all those bunt attempts during a game and season.

Guys like Jimmy Collins, Buck Weaver and Pie Traynor were known not only for their hitting prowess, but especially in the case of Collins and Weaver, for their fielding prowess and ability to field the bunt.