>Random Thursday: 1910 Boston Red Sox and why ERA sucks

>Some Thursdays just be random. Today is one of those days. So The Common Man used Baseball Reference.com’s random function to jump from the 1995 American League standings to 100 years ago, and the pitching stats from the 1910 Boston Red Sox, a terrific example of how baseball has changed and why some of our record books may need to be rewritten.

The Sox, like most teams in 1910, relied heavily on its pitching staff, which featured a young Eddie Cicotte and an even younger Smoky Joe Wood. The team finished fourth in the AL with an 82-71 record, and third with a 2.45 ERA.

That 2.45 ERA is deceptive, however. We’re so used to seeing the incredible pitching lines, and low batting lines, of the early 20th century that we’ve taken to calling it the Deadball Era. And while scoring was certainly down in the first two decades of the 20th century, the low ERAs of the Joe Woods, Walter Johnsons, and Ed Walshes are exceptionally deceptive, because they tended to allow almost half as many unearned runs as earned runs. Indeed, while Walsh has a MLB record 1.82 career ERA, his RA/9 is a much more normal (but still excellent) 2.65. Wood had a sparkling 1.91 ERA in 1912, when he won 34 games, but his RA/9 was 2.72. Christy Mathewson had a 1.28 ERA in 1905, he actually allowed 2.26 runs per game. If we account for all the runs he allowed, Matty’s sparkling 2.13 ERA balloons to 3.04 R/9. Between 1901 and 1914, the Major Leagues averaged 2.34 unearned runs per each game played, 28.6% of all runs scored at the time.

And while some of those runs are surely actually the fault of the fielders behind the pitchers, rather than the pitcher himself, in many, if not all of the cases, the pitcher had a hand in his own demise. He allowed baserunners on in the first place, or allowed a hit to drive them in. The Common Man’s feelings on unearned runs (and earned runs, for that matter) are best described by Joe Posnanski, who wrote about unearned runs being a “shaky concept” back in March, “Pitchers don’t prevent runs by themselves. But, for more than 100 years, we have lived in a statistical world where they do, where pitchers are entirely responsible for runs allowed and shutouts and hits per innings pitched … and they cannot be held responsible if some dumb fielder botches the ball behind them.” Likewise, the dumb fielders who botch those balls aren’t solely responsible for them either.

So when we marvel at the work done by Alexander, Young, and Plank and their brilliant ERAs, we’re actually not seeing a realistic picture of the pitcher. And because the play by play data from that era is unattainable, we never will. To judge a pitcher today by this same standard does that pitcher a tremendous injustice.

The fault lies not in our metric, but in ourselves. Indeed, ERA was flawed when Henry Chadwick devised the statistic in the 19th century, but we have adopted it wholeheartedly and without inquiry. We have internalized its meaning without confirmation of its ability to tell us what we want to know. How good was Christy Mathewson? Sadly, ERA does not get you there. FIP gets closer, and certainly a more robust examination of Big Six’s stats demonstrate that he was, indeed, a truly special pitcher.

So what do we do now? As TCM pointed out, we’ve internalized ERA. It’s not going away any time soon. Stats like FIP and WAR are being perfected, and may eventually make their way into the public consciousness. But in the meantime, ERA will continue to be king. In light of this, TCM wonders whether it’s time to rewrite the record book a little. It’s true that the number of errors per team, and the percentage of unearned runs allowed has declined consistently over time. Consider the following graph:

(click to embiggen, TCM’s raw data is available here)

The decline has mostly been a gradual process, and has gotten to the point where it’s been down under 10% since 1990, including an all time low of 7.53% of unearned runs allowed in 2009. But there are two watershed moments that drastically dropped the percentage of unearned runs scored. The first occurred in the 19th century, when the use of gloves was popularized. There is also a very significant drop in the number of unearned runs beginning in 1921, as webbing in the gloves seems to have become better and more popular. These changes significantly cut down the number of errors in each season, and therefore the percentage of unearned runs scored.

This 1920 break is a good a place to make a clear distinction between modern pitchers and those of the early 20th century. These pitchers are throwing under vastly different conditions, and playing a much crisper and predictable game. If we must have ERA, we must allow it to be meaningful in a historical context, and it seems clear that the ERAs from 1901-1920 are virtually meaningless.

As such, The Common Man proposes that these are your new career ERA leaders for the modern era (among pitchers with more than 2000 innings):

Name ERA
Hoyt Wilhelm 2.52
Whitey Ford 2.75
Sandy Koufax 2.76
Jim Palmer 2.86
Andy Messersmith 2.86
Tom Seaver 2.86
Juan Marichal 2.89
Bob Gibson 2.91
Dean Chance 2.92
Pedro Martinez 2.93

And here are the single season leaders:

Name Year ERA
Bob Gibson 1968 1.12
Dwight Gooden 1985 1.53
Greg Maddux 1994 1.56
Luis Tiant 1968 1.60
Greg Maddux 1995 1.63
Spud Chandler 1943 1.64
Dean Chance 1964 1.65
Carl Hubbell 1933 1.66
Nolan Ryan 1981 1.69
Sandy Koufax 1966 1.73

(brought to you by Baseball Reference.com’s invaluable Play index)