Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Graphical Tribute to Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux

Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux had their number 31 retired by the Cubs today. Both were obviously great pitchers, and as is my tendency when I read about various baseball-related honors, I dove into the numbers in an attempt to quantify just how great each of these guys really was. All of my data comes from's wonderful pitcher WAR database.

First off, I borrowed a move from the fine folks at Beyond the Boxscore and graphed each pitcher's WAR in descending order from his best season in a Cubs uniform to his worst (partial seasons are included as full seasons for simplicity's sake):

The results shouldn't surprise anyone. Both Jenkins and Maddux essentially started and finished their careers in Chicago (Jenkins pitched a whopping 14.2 innings for the Phillies before coming to Chicago to begin his career in earnest; Maddux pitched two more respectable years for the Dodgers and Padres before hanging up his spikes three years after his Chicago swan song), but Jenkins developed faster and enjoyed his best seasons in a Cubs uniform, whereas Maddux didn't emerge as an ace until his final season in Chicago, after which he was (in)famously allowed to walk, so his prime years were for the Braves. A graph of each pitcher's Cubs career path puts these developmental discrepancies in rather stark perspective:

Maddux's career was on the upswing when he left for Atlanta, while Jenkins had already peaked before he moved on to Texas. If we expand each pitcher's career path to include every stop in his big league career, the advantage shifts to Maddux:

Jenkins peaked earlier, but Maddux sustained his peak (and his career) longer, though mostly as a Brave. Revisiting each pitcher's descending seasonal WAR while taking into account his entire career gives Maddux the edge over Jenkins:

Of course, it's important to remember that Maddux put up most of these numbers in Atlanta rather than Chicago; seven of his top ten seasons (#1 and #'s 3-8) were as a Brave, while Jenkins put up seven of his top ten seasons (#'s 1-2, 4-7, and 10) as a Cub. Breaking up each player's total WAR as a Cub and overall really hammers home this difference:

Jenkins was worth 81.4 WAR over his career, and 53.5 of those wins were with the Cubs. Maddux's career WAR was 96.7, but only 31.4 of those wins were in Cubbie blue. Maddux was the more valuable pitcher; Jenkins was the more valuable Cubs pitcher.

None of this changes the fact that both Jenkins and Maddux are beloved by Cubs fans (and rightly so!). Congratulations to both players for this well-deserved honor. I look forward to watching the number 31 flapping in the breeze at Wrigley for many years to come.

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