Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Best Pitching Season of the 1930s

Gave a lot of thought to Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean's 1934 here, too, and in the end it boiled down to a matter of taste.

Lefty Grove 1931 (9.5 bWAR)

With all due respect to those who believe Sandy Koufax (or Warren Spahn and Randy Johnson, for that matter) is the greatest lefthanded pitcher in baseball history, they are sorely mistaken. While few, if any, were better than Koufax at his peak, Lefty Grove's numbers from his best seasons are just as good and he sustained them for twice as long. Furthermore, Grove's figures look even more impressive considering the context. Grove was essentially the Pedro Martinez of the Great Depression, putting up outstanding numbers in the heart of an era dominated by offense, whereas Koufax clearly benefited from pitching in Dodger Stadium during the second Dead-ball era.

But with offense peaking and the stock market tumbling, Grove was at his very best. In 1931 he won the major league pitching Triple Crown for the second straight year by pacing the bigs with his 31 wins, 175 strikeouts and 2.06 ERA that translated to an ML-best 217 ERA+, the 20th highest mark of all-time. The 31 year-old southpaw completed 27 of his 30 starts (90 percent), most in the majors, as he piled up 288 and two-thirds innings, second only to rotation-mate Rube Walberg. For good measure, he also posted the league's best WHIP, winning percentage, and K/BB ratio.

For helping lead Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's to their third straight American League pennant and a World Series rematch with the St. Louis Cardinals, Grove became the second AL pitcher to receive his league's MVP award ("Big Train" Walter Johnson, a two-time winner, was the first). Grove was recognized as the most valuable player on a team that won 107 games and featured future Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, and Waite Hoyt. Even more impressively, he beat out Lou Gehrig (in the Iron Horse's 184 RBI season, no less) and Babe Ruth, who was worth ten bWAR for the Bronx Bombers. Had there been a Cy Young award that season, Grove would have won it with ease.

Grove continued to excel in October, pitching his Athletics to the brink of a third consecutive World Series title by going the distance in a do-or-die Game 6 in St. Louis. However, Philadelphia went on to drop Game 7 to the Gashouse Gang as Burleigh Grimes outdueled George Earnshaw in a 4-2 nailbiter. It would be 40 years and two relocations before the A's returned to the postseason.

Here are some more fun facts from Grove's great 1931 campaign:

  • Opponents batted just .229/.271/.298 off him. In 1931 the American League hit a collective .279/.344/.396 while averaging 5.14 runs per game
  • In the eight decades since, no hurler has exceeded his 31 wins. Dean came close with 30 three years later, and Denny McLain racked up 31 victories in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher
  • Grove's ERA was 1.92 entering his final start of the season, but the New York Yankees tagged him for five earned runs in three innings on their way to a 13-1 rout
  • His average GameScore was a 65
  • Won 16 consecutive decisions from June 8th through August 19th
  • Despite totaling 27 complete games, Grove collected just four shutouts
  • Surrendered just ten home runs all year long and never yielded more than one in any ballgame
  • The A's went 27-3 in Grove's starts (.900 winning percentage) and 37-4 in his appearances (.902). However, Philly was such a powerhouse that year that it went 80-42 (.656) in games not started by Grove, probably because he was flanked by a pair of 20-game winners in the aforementioned Walberg and Earnshaw
  • Made eleven relief appearances and saved five games
  • Grove's MVP award from this season is the only one not displayed in the Hall of Fame

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