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Thread: Pitching Assists - A dead issue

  1. #1
    breath westofyou's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2000

    Pitching Assists - A dead issue

    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.
    ASSISTS                          A     
    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
    ASSISTS                          A     
    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
    ASSISTS                          A       PO        E        G     
    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
    ASSISTS                  YEAR      A       PO              
    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.
    ASSISTS                  YEAR      A        G        E       PO     
    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.
    ASSISTS                  YEAR      A        
    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.
    ASSISTS                       YEAR      A     
    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   
    ASSISTS                       YEAR      A     
    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   
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G    
    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   
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G     
    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   
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G      
    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  
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G     
    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  
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G      
    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    
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G       
    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    
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G      
    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   
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G       
    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    
    ASSISTS                  YEAR       A        G         
    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

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  3. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2000
    Richmond, Indiana

    Re: Pitching Assists - A dead issue

    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).

  4. #3
    Playoffs Cyclone792's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2005
    Cincinnati, OH

    Re: Pitching Assists - A dead issue

    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.
    Kevin Gregg and Jason Marquis will bring back memories of the Lost Decade.

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