Baseball Archelogy – Fielding Minutia

One of the fun things about the game is the vast areas of history that one can get lost in, the people, places and events wash over the game like a wave, a never ending barrage of events that are so very different and yet so very much the same. Looking through the pictures of the past we can tell the game was less refined than it is now, a harder affair flush with conditions so very different than today.

But what does that tell us about the way the game was played? Imagine you are at a great dig in the Utah desert and you come across a bone that looks like it is from a mammoth, however you aren’t sure what it tells you about that animal and the era that it dwelled in. Baseball statistics are much like that, you can fall into a copy of Total Baseball and reap wonderful amounts of information about the game and its records, history and stars.

This won’t help you much because you can’t see how the game was played, and to do that you need to take those bones and put them together in your head, only then can you start to see that the structure is a lot like the game we watch today, but it isn’t quite the exact match.

Delving into what is different and why it was different is what makes the examination interesting.

The mammoth bone I’m holding in my hands today is one that doesn’t get looked at often, if the skull of a mammoth was found in the dirt it could be seen as the equal to all the batting records in baseball history. The shape and the structure of the massive visage put a face on the beast, as the rate stats and counting stats do to a season and a career.

My bone is a much simpler piece, it’s not often examined, but it’s a major support piece that holds the game up.

Today’s bone is 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 last year 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 assist leaders were as follows:

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 every 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 spitballer Burleigh Grimes 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?”

Hahahahahahahahaha is the likely reply.
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 Stricklett, Walsh was a different pitcher; he also became a more accomplished fielder as the ball was finding itself in his hands more and more. His 1906 season of 278 innings pitched was more than the prior two seasons combined. During that season Walsh averaged 4.8 assists per every nine innings. From 1906-1912 he averaged 3.7 assists per game. Those are more than significant numbers, they are imopressive.

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 back then we were 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 come to him then say a fly ball pitcher would have back in the heyday of the sacrifice as a weapon.

(A quick look at the team fielding stats from that era show that the A’s were flyball centric and the White Sox depended on the ground ball. These ffielding facts can help shape our perception of each teams pitching approaches from 1905-1910.)

Of course another wild card in this deck was the ball. With the game issued ball 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, where play was fast, furious and base by base. To accent this aspect of the game all the seating at the time was based around the baselines and the now ubiquitous 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.

Another wild card and perhaps the most telling is the aforementioned spitball pitchers, most of 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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