An Analysis of Pre-Modern Pitchers

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Jonathan Stilwell looks at the best pitchers of the 19th century.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the SABR Nineteenth Century Committee’s Fall 2010 newsletter.

The National League got its beginning in 1876. Before that there were associations and touring teams, but very little was standardized for any single level of competition. The years that followed were formative years. Rules were in constant flux. The pitching box was 45 feet from home plate when the league began. Pitchers threw sidearm or underhand. The pitching rules changed throughout the era until settling to the current sixty feet six inches in 1893.

The number of games played in a season also changed throughout this period. Early on, teams played fewer games (80 or so) and gradually moved to 120 or more by then of the century.

Pitching staffs also evolved. Teams had a single dominant pitcher in the 1870s. This produced seasons with the lead pitcher starting 60+ games, and occasionally winning over 40 games while pitching 400–600 innings. These numbers seem unreal but they were a product of the developing era. As teams played more games in a season, they added additional pitchers to their staffs. This allowed the pitching load to be shared by more than one dominant pitcher. By the late 1880s, leading win totals and innings pitched for individual pitchers came down.

Most of the careers in this study showed a normal length to be four years or so. Five years was a long time to pitch for one team. If a pitcher was having an off year, they were often traded, sold, or let go.

The most significant stat of the period was total number of wins. Owners put their lead pitchers out there to help the team win games. If they were not winning, the owner would likely find another pitcher. So being a lead pitcher and keeping your job was half the battle for success, and it was the only way to amass large career win totals.

The evaluation of pitchers in this era involved examining statistics not developed as the players performed. Most of the career ERAs of the listed pitchers were rather close to one another (2.40–3.00). There was some variation in ERA+, so I include that in the pitching evaluation.

Strikeout totals varied. There were seasons when pitchers totaled over 400 Ks in a season. The leading career total for the era was Tim Keefe’s 2,564 Ks. Nobody else topped 2000 until Cy Young was already pitching into the modern era. Most of the best pitchers wound up with 1,600–2,000 strikeouts for their career. Pitchers from earlier years often had fewer career Ks.

Because it was so prevalent to amass innings and wins each season, I looked for careers with over 3,000 innings, and to prove some level of dominance, 30 shutouts. I found 13 pitchers whose careers met these requirements and showed excellence in other categories as well.

Usually, I have presented the 10 top pitchers from each era. But these careers showed no natural cut off at the tenth ranking, the last five or so being very close. They all seemed begging for inclusion based on career significance, quality level, and stamina displayed.

13) Charles Buffinton (1882–1892)
(233–152; ERA 2.96; ERA+ 115; 30 SHO; 3404 IP/3344 H; 1700K/856 BB; 1.234 WHIP)

Buffinton was a leading pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters from 1882-1886. He helped lead them to a pennant in ’83, combining with John Whitney for 62 of the team’s 63 wins that year.

His best year followed in ’84 when he pitched 587 innings, winning 48 games and striking out 417 batters. During this season he struck out 17 batters in one game, and won 13 straight games.

After an off year because of arm trouble in ’86, he was moved to the Philadelphia Quakers. He had five more excellent seasons for the Quakers before jumping to the Philadelphia Athletics of the newly formed Player’s League.

The next year he found work with the Boston Reds of the American Association, and won 29 games, the last of seven 20+ win seasons. He retired during the next season, 1892. Buffinton was known for his sinkerball.

12) Tommy Bond (1874–1884)
(234–163; 2.31 ERA; ERA+ 111; 42 SHO; 3628 IP/3765 H; 972 K/193 BB; 1.093 WHIP)

Tommy Bond was the first pitcher to win the Triple Crown in 1877 (best in wins, ERA, and strikeouts). In his career, he pitched 386 complete games out of 408 starts. His 42 shutouts are fourth from the period. He pitched over 400 innings six seasons, and won 40 games or more three times. His career K/BB ratio of 4.44 ranks first among pitchers throughout baseball history.

11) Will White (1877-1886)
(229–166; 2.28 ERA; ERA+ 120; 36 SHO; 3542 IP/3440 H; 1041 K/496 BB; 1.111 WHIP)

White was the first pitching star of the Cincinnati Reds (’78-’80), and the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association (’82–’86).

He was known for being the first player to wear glasses on the field. He holds the record for most games started (75) and most innings pitched (680) in a season. He won 40 games three times. His ERA+ of 120 and 36 career shutouts show a high quality level of pitching when he took the ball.

10) Amos Rusie (1889–1901)
(246–174; 3.07 ERA; ERA+ 129; 30 SHO; 3778 IP/3389 H; 1950 K/1707 BB; 1.350 WHIP)

He was known as the “Hoosier Thunderbolt” because of how hard he threw. Rusie began his career for the Indianapolis team in 1889 and moved to the New York Giants in 1890. He sat out the 1896 season in a contract dispute with Giants owner Andrew Freedman. Midway through the ’98 season Rusie was hit in the side of the head by a line drive. He lost part of his hearing, and sat out from playing the next two years.

Rusie was a blazing star from ’90–’95. Then he seemed to self-destruct. He won 30 games four straight seasons and 20 games eight times.

His hard-throwing ways led to plenty of strikeouts, leading the league for five straight years. His 1,950 Ks were third in baseball until Cy Young came along. Hidden behind (or not so hidden) his strikeouts were his bases on balls. Rusie led the era in walks and is seventh all-time with 1,707 walks, while his 3,778 innings pitched are 52nd. His WHIP of 1.350 is extremely high for a leading pitcher.

9) Tony Mullane (1881-1894)
(284-220; 3.05 ERA; ERA+ 118; 30 SHO; 4531 IP/4195 H; 1803 K/1408 BB; 1.237 WHIP)

In 1882 Mullane signed with the Louisville Eclipse after a brief appearance with the 1881 Detroit National League squad and started 55 of the team’s 80 games, and posted a record of 30-24 with an ERA of 1.88. This was the first of five 30-win seasons in a row for “The Count.” The following year, he pitched for the St. Louis Browns and won 35 games.

Mullane, who occasionally threw with each arm, was a regular club-hopper. He had regular contract disputes with clubs early in this career and was always prepared to go where the contract was highest. This did not endear him to owners. He pitched for St. Louis, Toledo before a suspension cost him the 1885 season. He settled in to Cincinnati for eight seasons starting in 1886.

8) Jim McCormick (1878-1887)
(265-214; 2.43 ERA; ERA+118; 33 SHO; 4275 IP/4092 H; 1704 K/749 BB; 1.13 WHIP)

He played for the Chicago White Stockings, and helped the team to their last two pennants of the 19th century (’85, ’86). He spent the first part of his career with the Cleveland Blues from ’79–’84. He left the Blues partway through the ’84 season. He bounced around with a Cincinnati team from the Union Association and the Providence Grays before landing in Chicago for the ’85 season. His successful sojourn in Chicago ended with a trade to Pittsburgh after the 1886 season. Chicago appeared to be dropping some of the more fun-loving” members of the squad. McCormick had some prodigious years for Cleveland, pitching over 500 innings five times. He won over 25 games six times. He did a nice job keeping runners off base with his 1.13 WHIP.

7) James “Pud” Galvin (1875-1892)
(365-310; 2.85 ERA; ERA+ 107; 57 SHO; 6003 IP/6405 H; 1807 K/745 BB; 1.19 WHIP)

Galvin was baseball’s first 300-game winner. His 6,003 innings and 646 complete games are second only to Cy Young in the all-time pitching annals.

From ’79–’85 Galvin pitched for the Buffalo Bisons of the National League. In ’85 he was having an off year, (after pitching 656 and 636 innings the previous two years), and was sent to Pittsburgh to finish the year.

By ’87 the Alleghenys became a new franchise in the National League. He continued pitching with them until ’90 when he moved to the Player’s League. He finished his career in 1892 with his old Pittsburgh team. Galvin’s longevity is remarkable and unmatched for his era (pre-60 feet rule change). He won over 25 games in seven different seasons. He is also second in shutouts with 57, the only pitcher before Cy Young to break 50.

Galvin also had his detracting factors. He is second in career losses with 310. He gave up 6,405 hits in his career, allowing well more than a hit per inning.

6) Mickey Welch (1880-1892)
(307-210; 2.71 ERA; ERA+ 114; 41 SHO; 4802 IP/4588 H; 1850 K/1297 BB; 1.225 WHIP)

Welch was the third pitcher to 300 wins. He pitched for 13 seasons, first with the Troy Trojans, and after they folded, with the New York Giants. Welch was very good for a long time. From his first year, he had 10 of 11 winning seasons, including nine times winning over 20 games. Welch threw one of the best curveballs in the era, as well as a change of pace and a screwball.

His best year came in ’85 when he went 44-11 with 345 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.50. At one point that season he won 17 consecutive games. Welch was part of the Giants pennant-winning team efforts in ’88 and ’89.

5) Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn (1881-1891)
(309-195; 2.67 ERA; ERA+ 119; 4535 IP/4335 H; 1830 K/875 BB; 1.149 WHIP)

Hoss was the lead pitcher for the Providence Grays from ’81–’85. He pitched for the Boston Beaneaters from ’86-’89 and finished his career pitching both in the Player’s League for the Boston Reds and the Cincinnati Reds the following year.

In 1984 he won 59 of his team’s 84 games. This is an all-time record for games won. He also struck out 441 batters that year. His 678.2 IP in a season are second all-time to Will White’s 680.

After some of the rule changes after ’85, Radbourn was never quite as dominant again. His seasons with the Beaneaters were just filling in the rest of his career. He managed one good season in the Player’s League in ’90 when he went 27-12. His year in Cincinnati (’91) was his last.

Radbourn is known mostly for his dominant peak, and his single outstanding year of ’84, one of the best single seasons of the era.

4) John Clarkson (1884-1894)
(328-178; 2.81 ERA; ERA+ 134; 37 SHO; 4536 IP/4295 BB; 1978 K/1191 BB; 1.209 WHIP)

John was discovered by Cap Anson in Michigan in ’84. He finished the ’84 season going 10-3 for the White Stockings. The next year he was a wonder, going 53-16, and teaming up with Jim McCormick to win the pennant. From ’85–’89 he won 209 games. After the ’87 season, Anson became tired of dealing with Clarkson’s temperamental ways, and the White Stockings sold him to the Boston Beaneaters.

Clarkson was known for being a calculating and scientific pitcher, throwing many types of curveballs. He studied hitters to find their weaknesses. At the time of his retirement, he had the most wins in the National League. He was the fourth pitcher to win the pitching Triple Crown. Clarkson was also known as a good hitter. His 24 home runs are still high on the all-time list for pitchers.

3) Tim Keefe (1880-1893)
(342-225; 2.62 ERA; ERA+ 127; 39 SHO; 5049 IP/4912 H; 2564 K/1233 BB; 1.12 WHIP)

Keefe started his career with the Troy Trojans of the National league in 1880. His first year with Troy, he posted an ERA of 0.86. His ERA+ of 294 is a re cord. The next two seasons pitching alongside Mickey Welch were sub-par for Keefe. He left after the team folded and pitched for the New York Metropolitans of the American Association until ’85 when he joined back up with Welch on the New York Giants.

He won the Triple Crown in ’88, and was the first pitcher to have three seasons with over 300 strikeouts. His 2,564 Ks for his career were a record when he retired. His 342 wins, ERA+ of 127 with over 5,000 innings pitched and a sparkling WHIP of 1.12 all point to his ranking here.

2) Kid Nichols (1890-1906)
(361-208; 2.95 ERA; ERA+ 140; 48 SHO; 5056 IP/4912 H; 1873 K/1268 BB; 1.222 WHIP)

Nichols started for the Boston Beaneaters from his rookie season of 1890 all the way through the 1901 season. He was known for his amazing consistency. He won 26 or more games for nine consecutive seasons to begin his career. He won over 30 games seven times. He was the youngest pitcher to win 300 games at age 32 and he helped his team win five pennants.

Nichols represented the next generation of pitchers who had to deal with the change in distance of the mound to the plate. Nichols handled it with no ill effects, going on to his great career. After the 1901 season, he bought part ownership of a team in Kansas City, a minor league team. He pitched and managed for them ’02-’03. Nichols joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1904 after spending a pair of seasons as the owner and ace of the Kansas City club in the American Association. The old man won 21 games. Nichols win total, ERA+ of 140 spanning 5,000+ innings, and his 48 shutouts all speak to his ranking.

1) Cy Young (1890-1911)
(511–316; 2.63 ERA; ERA+ 138; 76 SHO; 7,356 IP/7,092 H; 2,803 K/1,217 BB; 1.13 WHIP)

Young broke into the major leagues with the expansion Cleveland Spiders in 1890. He quickly established himself as one of the stronger pitchers in the league, leading the league in wins in ’92 and ’95. In ’92 he led his team to the second-half pennant, but lost the Temple Cup to Kid Nichols’ Boston Beaneaters. But in ’95 after winning the pennant again, the Spiders won the Cup.

He experienced some adjustment period to the new rules, see- ing his ERA jump from 1.93 in ’92 to 3.36 after the rules change. Later in his career, he developed and relied on outstanding control rather than the impressive fastball of his youth. Young pitched two years in St. Louis (’99-’00), but jumped to the Boston Americans of the newly formed American league for their inaugural season in 1901. Young stayed with the Boston team, seeing some of his greatest success over the next nine years.

Cy Young holds the record for most career wins (511), most career innings (7,354.2), most games started (815), and most complete games (749). His 76 shutouts are fourth all-time. Young’s roots are in the pre-modern era. He pitched from 55 feet for three years. He deserves credit for his level of performance in the modern era. His ability to adapt and succeed is a testament to his accomplishments.


The pre-modern era deserves its own category for ranking, as the rules and standards were constantly evolving during these years. These pitcher’s careers are gems worth knowing about. The modern baseball fan should understand this era and admire these pitchers, not ignore it and put its stars on a forgotten shelf.

(This article first appeared in the Nineteenth Century Committee’s Fall 2010 newsletter.)