Thursday, June 18, 2009

Comparing Pirates Aces

Only one team remains in my WAR-based analysis of NL Central aces of the last half century: the Pittsburgh Pirates. Once again, I had to do some digging to find my four candidates. Two were obvious: Doug Drabek, whose brilliant 1990 campaign is an early formative baseball memory of mine, and Dock Ellis, charter member of the Shrine of the Eternals and subject of some of the great baseball stories of the '60s and '70s. Once I bolstered my Pirates knowledge with a bit of research, I realized that to round out my final four I need look no further than the Bobs: Bob Friend and Bob Veale. Both were excellent pitchers who get overlooked because, with the exception of Friend's World Champion Pirates of 1960, their teams were mediocre to terrible. But, as I hope to show, they were extremely valuable on the mound during their tenures in Pittsburgh.

Because Friend started pitching before my available WAR data (his rookie year was 1951, but Sean Smith's WAR database begins with 1953), he gets short shrift in this analysis. But, once each pitcher's seasonal WAR is graphed in descending order, it becomes pretty obvious that Friend was still far and away the most valuable Pirates pitcher of the past half century:

Friend easily outpaces the rest of the Pirates pitchers on my short list. His 48.2 Pirates WAR is likely low by 2-3 wins since neither his 1951 nor his 1952 season is accounted for (which, by the way, is why I haven't included a career WAR graph as I have in previous posts), but Veale's 26.8 is the next highest total, and he's not even close. Veale surprised me, actually. I expected him to beat out Drabek, which he did (26.8 to 21.8), but I expected Drabek's peak to be higher. Basically, I figured that Drabek burned a bit brighter but not for long enough, when in fact Veale's Xth best year beat out Drabek's Xth best year every single time. Impressive.

Unfortunately, Ellis surprised me, too. I was really pulling for Dock to make a better showing than the 14.5 WAR he put up as a Pirate. But he just didn't produce like the other three men on my list (though I will say this for Ellis: how many stories do people tell about Bob Friend throwing at every single batter he faced in order to motivate his team?).

Next up: the final "battle royale" between the top pitchers from each team. Gibson! Jenkins! Higuera! Oswalt! Rijo! Friend!

Numbers! Graphs! Unicorns! Exclamation marks!


  1. I also hoped Dock would shine brighter.

    On their current staff the highest WAR for a season is 3.7 by Maholm last year. I realize it's a young staff but this is an organization that has been rebuilding for at least a decade.

  2. "Rebuilding" in the euphemistic sense only; Pittsburgh has essentially been a farm team for the rest of Major League Baseball for a long time, which has to hurt if you're a Pirate fan. There's a good article over at BtB ( that suggests the McLouth deal may actually help right the Pirates' ship (I couldn't resist), but only time will tell.