When a young baseball fan first starts to learn about baseball’s all-time records, one of the first things he discovers is the astonishing numbers put up by starting pitchers prior to 1920. The big one is Cy Young‘s 511 wins, but there’s also a plethora of 30-game winners, Walter Johnson‘s 110 shutouts, and so on. It was a different time, of course, and unless conditions change in baseball these records will never be beaten.
A more subtle thing to know about early baseball pitching is that these records were built on a foundation of shredded arms. It may have been easier to “coast”—the currently accepted reason for the high record totals—but even so many talented pitchers were not up to the workload. Consider, for example, Smoky Joe Wood, who pitched very well indeed from the ages of 19 to 22 but injured his arm after pitching 344 innings in 1912. He could still pitch well but was restricted to half that workload, then was injured again and thoroughly washed up by the end of his age-25 season. With a 117-57 record and a 146 ERA+ his performance holds up against the very best pitchers of his era in peak if not in length. There are others in the same boat: Ray Collins, Frank Owen, Johnny Lush, Ed Karger, and a host of other forgotten names. It’s a long and pretty depressing list once you start digging into it.
Arguably the the most interesting of these is Pete Schneider. Hailing from Los Angeles, Schneider was born in 1895 when LA was just a small city of about 70,000 people and all of California had just north of a million. He broke into organized ball at the tender age of 16, with Seattle of the Class-B Northwestern League, where he didn’t pitch well at all1. After a year playing for the Medicine Hat Hatters of D-ball, he was back in Seattle and made good his previous failure, going 12-2 with a 1.42 ERA by June.
That was enough to attract the attention of both the Chicago Whales of the Federal League and the Cincinnati Reds. The Whales had an oral agreement with him first, but he returned his bonus and settled on Cincinnati later the same day. The Reds then brought him straight to the majors. For the rest of the year he lurked at the back end of the rotation and gained some experience as an 18-year old in the National League. He was already capable of pitching above league average, putting up an ERA+ of 105 in his 144 innings; his raw number there was an apparently sparkling 2.81, but since this was the Deadball Era that’s only about equivalent to a 3.96 ERA in 2016. As a harbinger of much of the rest of his career, he also put up a 5-13 record, as the Reds were dire that season at 60-94 and 34.5 games behind in last place. Note that that record of his is a lower winning percentage than his team put up, a problem that would dog him, particularly as teams at the time were hypersensitive to pitcher won/loss records.
The next year the still-teenage Schneider moved to the front of the rotation, sharing the role with the comparatively grizzled Gene Dale. The Reds were a bit better too, at 71-83, and Schneider’s record still reflected that level, at 14-19. The numbers under his control were decent, though: a 2.48 ERA, or a 116 ERA+, about 3.59 in 2016.
After a down year in 1916, Schneider came into his own as a 21-year old in 1917. Under a big workload of 333.2 innings, he produced the best ERA of his career, 2.10 (125 ERA+, 3.33 ERA in 2016), was second in the league in starts, third in innings pitched, and fifth in shutouts. This was his sole 20-win season, and even that was just part of a 20-19 record—meaning that for the previous three seasons he’d been first, second, and fifth in the league in losses. He was, in fact, of pitchers with 100 or more decisions, the one with the lowest winning percentage for the 1910s. Those are facts you can be sure were noticed; the notion that pitcher wins don’t mean much is relatively new, and didn’t even make the radar in 19172. He also led the league in walks for the first time, with 117, at a time when issuing a walk was also a bigger no-no than it is today.
This all added up to a short leash on him when he came up with a “dead arm” in 1918 (that being as far as the diagnosis would go in those days). The Reds did stick with him for a big chunk of the season, and he made 33 starts, but his ERA rocketed to 3.53 (ERA+ 76, 2016 equivalent 5.47). Just as worryingly he led the league in walks again at 117 despite pitching 126.2 innings less than the year before (the NL’s #2 in free passes had thirty fewer, in more innings), and his SO/BB rate dropped from 1.18 to 0.44. Over all his starts he struck out only 51. He then reportedly injured his arm further while pitching winter ball in LA.
That was pretty much it for his career in the major leagues. The Yankees (who were a year away from buying Babe Ruth and becoming the Yankees) traded Ray Fisher to the Reds for him, but he made it into only seven games with similar results to 1918. In mid-August Schneider returned to the West Coast when he was traded to the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League3; part of that deal had Bob Meusel coming back to New York. He washed out as a pitcher for them, but after bouncing down to Beaumont in Texas and then back up again he reinvented himself as an outfielder. A decent-enough hitter in the big leagues4, the move was a successful one: a .342 batting average and a .586 slugging percentage over the next four seasons, including one game with five homers and 14 RBI5. He also served as an emergency pitcher for the team from 1921-22, but was dreadful in the role.
If he was ever offered a chance to come back East at his new position, he didn’t take it. Partway through 1924 he was traded to Sacramento, then he spent 1926 in the low minors. At age 30 now, he then retired from baseball, though he apparently made the roster of an Illinois class B team for a month in 1928 before retiring again. Seven years later he killed a man in a bar fight, supposedly over an insult to his wife, and was convicted of manslaughter. He did manage the San Quentin baseball team while he was in, so there’s that.
Schneider seems to have been lightly regarded when he was in the majors, presumably because of the previously mentioned beliefs about pitcher wins and walks that prevailed at the time. Certainly if a pitcher came up today at the age of 19, immediately started pitching decently, and showed obvious growth for the next three seasons, he’d be talked about the next spring training as a breakout candidate and dark horse for the Cy Young Award. He certainly would not be third in the league in innings pitched at the age of 21. So if instead of running into the abattoir-with-a-mound that was pitcher workloads in his day (or rather, if he had been one of the rare ones who could take such punishment) what would he have been like?
Schneider’s best year happened at age 21, and despite his relatively modest achievements up to that point, his extreme youth produces an impressive list of comparables: Kid Nichols, Walter Johnson, and Bert Blyleven. Even his #4-10 comps are good, if dominated by pre-moderns (Adonis Terry, Mickey Welch, and Scott Stratton, to name just three).
This leads to a bit of a digression. If you’ve been following this blog you’re familiar with the High Cut, but the basic method applies best to hitters. Apart from the Deadball Era, hitting has stayed within fairly tight bounds for the entire history of baseball. Even prior to 1920, the numbers are not completely out of line; no-one would blink if you moved Tony Gwynn‘s or Ichiro‘s career back to the ‘teens. Hitters are roughly comparable, and so it doesn’t matter if the three you pick are spread from 1900 to 2010. But as we discussed at the top of this post, early pitching is weird. Anything prior to 1895 is more so. As a result, I think it’s wise to approach the High Cut slightly differently for pitchers who played prior to 1925—in other words, when the “Babe Ruth Revolution” had spread to all teams—either as the player being discussed or as one of the comps for any player.
Essentially it comes down to asking “Is Kid Nichols really a good comp for Pete Schneider?” He really isn’t: in his age 21 season, a generation earlier, Nichols pitched 425.1 innings. Having done almost exactly the same at age 20 too, he’d pitch over 400 a year for the next three seasons after that and not drop down to below Schneider’s peak for another six6. I think a lot of observers tend to miss how much pitching changed between 1880 and 1920, as the stats at both ends of the period are insane by modern standards. It’s just that the last two decades of the 19th century are much more insane.
Accordingly, when evaluating Schneider’s possibilities (and as I’ll do for any pitcher who played prior to 1925) I removed any top 3 comps whose career ended ten years before his starts. This takes out Nichols, skips over next in line (the aforementioned Welch, also a pre-modern) and replaces him with Schneider’s near-contemporary Chief Bender, with what I judge to be a resulting increase in actual comparability. Note that Blyleven stays in the group, though, as the differences between 1920 and 1970 are not nearly as large as those between 1920 and thirty years before. Running with these three comps gives us:
More wins than Tom Seaver, more innings pitched than Roger Clemens, the second most strikeouts in history (after Walter Johnson) until Bob Gibson passed him in 1974…these are astonishing numbers, to the point that I second-guessed them for a while. I know you’re doubtful about them, and you should be. But apart from the strikeout numbers, which are an artifact of having Johnson and a much later player in Blyleven as comps7, and his projected career ERA being too low what with the spike in offense coming in 1920, I think they hold water.
First, was he just lucky in drawing his comps? Pulling the Big Train from the deck is pretty nice after all, and might not be representative. But, if we advance the clock and take Schneider’s three comps post-age 22 (bearing in mind that this now includes his awful 1918) Blyleven and Bender are still in there but Johnson drops out…to be replaced with Christy Mathewson. If we run them from age 20, his comps are still Blyleven, Bender, and Matty. Nineteen, even? Bender, Dwight Gooden, and Smoky Joe Wood.
Secondly, his age-21 comps are signaling just how hard it would have been to do this: his third best is a guy, Bender, whose career was over by 338. So it’s not like he had three comps that were all well over his head. Chief balances Train, to an extent.
For that matter, his full spread of ten most-comparable players is saying something important in the way they’re spread through time. Seven of them pitched well before his career, and only Blyleven came well after (Bender and Johnson were rough contemporaries, but older). Recall that the further back you go from Schneider’s career the more extreme the numbers get. To find players with numbers like his, you mostly have to go back into that extreme era, which intuitively suggests that an extreme High Cut for him is justified. And even if you arbitrarily knock it down 10%, or 20%, or even a full third, the results still look very good.
There doesn’t seem to be any way around it: for the first four years of his career, Pete Schneider put up raw numbers comparable to several pitchers who went on to become all-time greats. It just goes to show how few pitchers make it to the majors at 18 and can hold their own immediately. If you can do that, your numbers may not look that special, but you have a chance to be special in the long run…if your arm holds out.9
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James. Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Baseball Prodigies: Best Major League Seasons by Players Under 21, Charles F. Faber. McFarland, 2014.
- Though to paraphrase the saying about the dancing bear, the remarkable thing is not how well the 16-year old pitched, it’s that he pitched at all.
- Possibly because radar wasn’t even invented until 1934.
- The Tigers were the PCL’s second team in LA, after the Los Angeles Angels. They played in a community just south of downtown LA that was one of the few in the area that allowed the sale of alcohol in the early 20th century. The team was in financial trouble for the years Schneider was with them after the beginning of Prohibition in 1920. Their other claim to fame was that they were owned by luckless comic actor Fatty Arbuckle at the same time.
- Schneider had a .221/.230/.313 career line in the majors, good for an OPS+ of 65 in that offense-deficient era.
- He hit a double too. The PCL could put Colorado in the shade at times, mind you. The final score was 35-11.
- Nichols pitched 2134.1 innings in his first five seasons. This more than Jon Lester‘s entire career as of this writing, and Lester has been one of the Top 10 in the AL in innings six times.
- Incidentally, isn’t it cool that Walter Johnson and Bert Blyleven had exactly the same number of strikeouts from their age-22 seasons through to the end of their careers?
- Not counting the one inning he pitched at 41 in 1925. He was a coach with the team and it was a publicity stunt.
- And you keep your nose clean. Schneider was accused by Hal Chase of accepting bribes to throw a game in 1918, and in 1920 he was called before a grand jury in LA to testify about corruption in the PCL. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one.