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Article:Comparing Baseball Eras is Impossible or What Sabermeticians Can't Do

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by Harold Friend

There is absolutely NO WAY to validly compare players who played in baseball’s early days with today’s players. In 1910, the Philadelphia Athletics beat the Chicago Cubs in a five game World Series. The Athletics’ top pitcher, Jack Coombs, started, completed, and won three games. Chief Bender, the Athletics’ next best pitcher, started and completed two games, winning one and losing one. Bender started games on October 17 and October 22, which gave him four days of rest between starts, but Coombs started Game 2 on October 18, Game 3 on October 20, and Game on October 23 on two days rest -- three complete games in the World Series in six days.

Radical Changes Have Occurred

In 1910, the baseball, the rules governing legal pitches, the ballparks, the bats, the managers' approach, the strike zone, the height of the pitching mound, the size of the players, and the races of the players allowed to participate were different. Let sabermetricians create all the formulas they want. There are too many variables that can never be controlled for us to ever know if Jack Coombs, who was one of the top two or three pitchers in 1910, would be one of the top two or three pitchers if he were to be transported, as he existed in 1910, to the game today.

Coombs started 38 games and completed 35. In 2007, Roy Halladay led the American League with 7 complete games. Coombs pitched 353 innings, won 31 games while losing only 9, and had a 1.30 ERA with a 182 ERA+. The LEAGUE ERA was 2.37. The greatest pitchers in the game today could not come close to matching those statistics because the conditions are radically different. Coombs was 6'0" and weight about 185 pounds. Roy Halladay is 6'6" and weighs about 225 pounds. That is a substantial difference.

Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson

Walter Johnson (1907-1927) and Christy Mathewson (1900-1916) are considered the best pitchers of all time by many. Johnson was a fire baller while Mathewson had his "fadeway," which is a screwball thrown by a right hander. The 6'1", 200 lb. Johnson averaged 19 wins, 273 2/3 innings, and 24 complete games over a 162 game season. Mathewson, who was 6"2" and 195 lbs., averaged 20 wins, 274 innings, and 24 complete games over a 162 season. Fans, the media, and sabermetricians can speculate all they want. Would Johan Santana, Josh Beckett, Roy Halladay, Jake Peavey, Brandon Webb, a young Pedro, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, or John Lackey be able to match those numbers if they played during the dead ball era? How would Johnson and Mathewson fare today?

Starting a World Series Game With "Only" Three Days Rest

When Bob Brenley decided to start Curt Schilling with "only" three days rest in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and Jack McKeon started Josh Beckett with three days rest in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, the "experts" concluded that it was a risky move. But when Philadelphia Athletics' manager Connie Mack started Jack Coombs three times in six days, the decision was not questioned. The newspaper accounts of the game merely stated that Philadelphia's victory "...was a personal victory for Jack Coombs, Connie Mack's man of iron. It was his third performance in six days and what makes it more remarkable is that it was his best game of the three that he worked."

Too Many Variables, Too Few Controls

While it is impossible to validly compare players who played one hundred years apart, the game has changed enough since the 1994 strike that even comparing players from the 1960s with today's players is an exercise in futility. Modern medical advances, physical conditioning, better diets, pitch counts, and the use of "set up" men and "closers" are simply too many variables for statistical treatments to control. All that fans can do is argue and not unquestioningly accept "expert" opinions.


"Athletics Win World Series; Jack Coombs Again Pitches Connie Mack's Team to Victory." New York Times. 24 October 1910, p. 6.


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